Hagel’s Syria Memo

In his recent memo to President Obama, portions of which were leaked to the press, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed concern that the administration’s policies in Syria are “in danger of unraveling” and that there is “no end game” to the targeted bombing policy.

One can understand Hagel’s anxiety. The task, assigned to multiple un-nuanced American minds, is so complicated. In Syria, the “U.S. Defense Department” (read: U.S. War Ministry) is charged with the following:

(1) The mission to “degrade and destroy” ISIL (ISIS, Islamic State) forces, who have this year (for some reason people in Washington can’t seem to understand, andwith stunning, unexpected rapidity) come to control a region straddling Syria and Iraq larger than the island of Britain.

Obama plainly sees this as the priority task. If ISIL takes Baghdad, it will mean the undoing of all U.S. achievements in Iraq since 2003, demonstrating that no matter how much “shock and awe” they can inflict on a helpless country, U.S. officials can’t build a stable state and keep it under their control. The collapse of the current regime in Baghdad and/or massive Iranian intervention would be an embarrassment and nightmare, not just for George W. Bush and Barack Obama but for the U.S. imperialist system as a whole.

(Obama depending on political circumstances dissociates himself from the criminal war, although the strongest term he’s used to criticize it is “strategic blunder.” Or he validates it by praising the war veterans as “heroes” who “served their country” and “protected our freedoms” etc. The standard, mandatory patriotic cant. There is no basic ideological divide between warmonger Bush and his successor on the morality of the Iraq War.)

Just as there is no debate within the ruling class about the need to prevent ISIL from deposing the regime the U.S. installed in power in Iraq after toppling (former U.S. ally) Saddam Hussein.

(2) The mission to weaken the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate at odds with ISIL and once considered the strongest force within the opposition.

This campaign against al-Nusra is a tricky business, since the forces of the “Free Syrian Army”–a small, fragmented, Turkey-based operation whose scattered units are now reportedly coordinated by CIA officers–insist for their part (while remaining on the U.S. payroll) on maintaining an alliance with al-Nusra.

The so-called “Khorasan Group” in northern Syria attacked by 47 U.S. Navy Tomahawk missiles on September 22 is really al-Nusra. (It has been suggested that the Pentagon conjured up that name in order to avoid offending the FSA–by openly targeting its ally–and thus jeopardizing its ties with that weak rag-tag group.)

(3) The mission to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad, using the FSA and any other “moderate” (meaning, not too anti-U.S. Islamist) forces and installing a more or less pro-U.S. regime in its place.

This regime-change project has of course been a longstanding goal. The U.S. actually had diplomatic relations with Damascus up to 2005, when it dubiously accused Syria of responsibility for the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafic Hariri. Damascus in fact expressed sorrow at the death of a diplomatic and business partner. (Some fingers pointed to Israel–which does do such things, you know!—and eleven years later the case isn’t settled.).

But even before that 2005 assassination–that excuse for breaking ties and amplifying the anti-Assad vilification level–top State Department official and (notorious neocon spewer of disinformation) John Bolton was pressing for the U.S. to bomb Syria. (You may recall that Bolton was so exposed as a lying asshole–making up nonsense about biological weapons in Cuba, nukes in Syria etc.–that he only obtained his UN ambassador post in 2005-6 after George W. Bush appointed him after repeated Congressional rejections as a “recess appointment.”)

In 2007 longtime George W. Bush speechwriter and fanatic evangelical Christian (who as a member of the “White House Iraq Group”, established to frighten the nation into war through Nazi-like propaganda, authored the famous “smoking gun turns into a mushroom cloud” metaphor used by Bush, Cheney and Rice in public pronouncements) wrote that the Defense Department considered Syria among other nations “low-hanging fruit” fresh for the plucking. He advocated regime-change action. But apparently Israel, asked to suggest a better alternative to Assad—could think of no alterative candidate more amenable to itself and urged the U.S. to first attack Iran instead.

(Israel is universally hated in Syria for seizing the Golan Heights during the1967 war, which as you know Israel initiated as a “pre-emptive war–and illegally holding and settling this region of 695 square miles–five times the size of the Gaza strip–ever since.)

In any case, Syria has been on the State Department’s “terror” list forever (even during a brief period of cordiality in 1990-91 when Assad’s father contributed to the U.S.-led coalition that drove Saddam out of Kuwait). This was due to Syria’s support for anti-Israel armed groups which Israel and the U.S. State Department automatically characterize as “terrorist.”

Syria’s long been targeted for “regime change.” So in 2011, after western countries had been shocked by the sudden fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes in the face of massive, unprecedented rebellions and concluded that “Arab Spring” uprisings would inevitably bring down not just their erstwhile friends but also their foes, when they concluded that the moment was right to embrace mass movements in Libya and Syria, the better to co-opt them, Obama responded to demonstrations in Syria by announcing that Assad had “lost legitimacy.” He commanded Assad to step down.

Assad laughed in face of this wannabe World Ruler, and stood his ground with domestic, Iranian, Russian, and Lebanese Shiite support. Meanwhile the initial Syrian protest leaders expressed their desire for peaceful dialogue, as the Sunni Islamist jihadis—who hate Assad for his Alawite Shiite faith, for his promotion of secularism and religious pluralism and tolerance–moved in to challenge his rule by terrorism, Kalashnikovs and rockets. The U.S. embraced the armed rebellion, brazenly claiming it was only supporting the democracy-minded “moderates” within it.

The problem was (and is), the U.S. nowadays has a hard time finding folks–in the Muslim world, which it has injured and insulted so much, willing to work with it. It’s just too tainted by its record of savagery, torture, racism, stupidity, and arrogance.

(There’s no better evidence of this than the manifold instances in which puppet troops trained by the Pentagon’s finest, at the cost of billions of dollars, turn on their masters in “green on blue” incidents in Afghanistan. Or when U.S.-trained troops in Iraq bolt and run at encounters with fellow Muslims, causing their imperial trainers to scratch their heads wondering Why? Why don’t they stand and fight for all that we gave them?)

And those that are willing to work with the U.S. have this embarrassing tendency to turn over huge caches of expensive weapons they receive from the Pentagon (paid for by U.S. tax-payers) to their non-moderate brethren. Why is this happening? the puzzled Pentagon generals wonder.

Another problem: the U.S. can’t find competent indigenous leadership for their anti-Assad campaign. In September, Gen. Abdul-Ilah al Bashir, the FSA’s chief of staff (who defected from the Syrian Army in 2012 to join the rebels), told the press that the FSA now consists of over 70 groups all of whose commanders now report to the CIA. “The leadership of the FSA is American,” he admitted openly.

(He’s no doubt on the payroll too, although having once used him to lend legitimacy to the FSA U.S. officials now dismiss his title of Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army as a mere “business card.” http://www.stripes.com/news/middle-east/us-leaves-free-syrian-army-leaders-out-of-military-planning-1.300997 You see how deeply the U.S. respects its own mercenary puppets.)

Disappointed with its initial efforts to bring down Assad (it’s been over three years after all, while Assad’s military position is improving and his core supporters including Christians and bazaar merchants are more apt than ever to rally around him in resistance to the jihadi crazies), Washington has announced plans to, as it were, start from scratch. It will now train 5000 Syrian volunteers in Saudi Arabia (and maybe Turkey) over the next year to take on the 200,000-strong Russian- and Iranian-armed Syrian Army. (Good luck with that project, Chuck.)


So the question is, how to reconcile these several assignments?

Isn’t it obvious it’s impossible? If Hagel wasn’t a creature of the system—and of course, that’s unimaginable—he’d send another memo to Obama, thinking out of the box, and suggesting an alliance with the Syrian government. He’d note that the Iraqi government facing the barbarians at its gates (a government it originally created and endorses) has expressed consternation that the U.S. excluded Syria and Iran from the international conference in Paris to address the ISIL threat in September. He’d draw attention to that irrationality. Why exclude the only forces seriously fighting ISIL?

He could argue as follows: However brutal and corrupt the Assad regime is, it has presided for decades over a secular, religiously diverse society, with a greater respect for women’s rights than exists in many countries allied to the U.S. It’s a society in which women need not comply with an Islamic dress code, in which western culture is appreciated, fine beer brewed and sold. It’s a society threatened by the darkness of a new caliphate rooted in eighth century values and laws. There is already cooperation between the Damascus regime and Washington; German intelligence passes on U.S. satellite intelligence to the Syrian military to aid it in efforts against ISIL. And Syrian officials have quietly welcomed U.S. bombing of ISIL-held sites. Why not make it all official?

And if Hagel was reasoning clearly, allowed to think out of the box, not intimidated by the Lobby, he’d recommend an alliance with Iran against ISIL. He would respect the fact that the Iraqi government, while rooted in the criminal U.S. occupation of 2003-2011, has very friendly relations with its Shiite neighbor. He might note that Iran has not invaded any country in several centuries and has no ambitions for territorial expansion, but its forces might be useful in defending Baghdad and the Shiite holy places if the ISIL forces swell.
(And he might add parenthetically that—as he and Obama and the U.S. intelligence community know—Iran has no nuclear weapons program and that the whole Israel-driven hysteria should be debunked as soon as possible to allow for potential cooperation between the U.S. and Iran on the question of Iraqi security.)

He might note that Russia, which has cordial relations with Syria (and maintains naval facilities at Latakia) as well as Iran, and which has a far greater concern about internal Islamist terrorism (in Chechnya and Dagestan especially) than the U.S. does could also be enlisted in an alliance versus the caliphate.

Hagel, who was ferociously opposed by the Israel Lobby when proposed as Secretary of Defense, largely because he was thought to be “soft on Iran,” might frankly note in his (follow-up, imaginary) memo that U.S. policy towards Syria and Iran (as well as Iraq) has been appallingly, tragically shaped by that lobby representing a state based on institutionalized hostility to the Arab world and Palestinian identity and whose leaders are given to fear-mongering and promotion of mass paranoia among a population that, public opinion polls clearly show, is among the most egregiously racist on earth.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been saying since 1992 that Iran is on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons and will, immediately after their development, subject Jerusalem to a “nuclear holocaust.” He is more than a “Chickenshit” (as some unnamed top official suggested to “journalist” Jeffery Goldberg). He’s a Chicken Little who keeps clucking, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”

He’s a calculating liar who reasons that his personality cult among Christian fundamentalists in the U.S., whose naïveté actually amuses him–is one reason they contribute massively to the Lobby and back the most slavishly pro-Israel candidates for office.

He knows the U.S. Zionists (Christian Zionists in high office chief among them) will back any Israeli violence in the Middle East, since the Bible says the Jews are God’s Chosen People, miraculously restored to their Promised Land (as prophesized). He knows that their conviction that this is all in preparation for Jesus’s Second Coming will help him gather the support he needs among his admirers in the U.S. Congress (whom three years ago gave him 29 standing ovations when he appeared before them, in a surreal display of enthusiasm, not so much for him, but for their political war chest donors) to sabotage any nuclear deal with Iran.
But, since we’re just imagining…

Hagel might then, in this imaginary memo, go ahead and advise a “clean break” with Israel, and a Wolfowitz-Feith type concerted mass propaganda campaign (only one based on truth) drawing the people’s attention to the sheer horror of Israel’s Gaza blitzkriegs, the sadistic apartheid applied to Palestinians on the West Bank, and the massive damage done to the U.S. reputation in the world due to its knee-jerk support of the Jewish settler state.

He might say that, as we proceed to re-align ourselves with Iran and Syria in what will inevitably become a multi-polar world that no one country can control, nor one powerful lobby steer, we’ll have to finally expose the U.S.-Israel connection for what it’s been: a veritable engine for the creation of al-Qaedas, al-Nusras, and ISILs.

But no! In the real world, Hagel could never do that, even if he wanted to.

Just like Obama and John Kerry, even if they seriously try, can’t get the Israelis to stop their relentless drive to colonize the West Bank.

Just like Congress will never vote to cut aid to Israel. Working for change on such matters within this system (which as some Princeton professors have documented recently, is not a democracy but an oligarchy in which public opinion has zero impact on policy) is hopeless.


(What follows is not a suggestion for a memo from Hagel to Obama. It’s my ownpersonal memo to the reader.)

Did someone mention, in connection with this conflict with ISIL, a “Thirty Years War”?

Yes, both Obama’s former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in his book Worthy Fights and in interviews, Dr. Richard N. Haass, current president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a recent piece did so. http://www.cfr.org/middle-east-and-north-africa/new-thirty-years-war/p33267 (Haass served in both the George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations.)

Panetta predicts a thirty years war in Iraq and Syria, versus ISIL (as a good, necessary thing). But perhaps with this prophesy in mind, Haass makes some comparisons to the Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-1648), noting that this was the most devastating conflict in European history before the first and second world wars of the twentieth century. (And while Haass in my view is a neocon reactionary scumbag, who endorsed the wars on Iraq based on lies—both the 1991 one and the 2003 one—he actually now warns against unending war and states that the U.S. should engage the government of Assad in Syria.)

Haass’s comparisons are superficial, but apt enough; he describes both early seventeenth century Europe and the contemporary Middle East as regions “wracked by religious struggle between competing traditions of the faith.” Writing in the historical present, he adds: “But the conflict is also between militants and moderates, fueled by neighboring rulers seeking to defend their interests and increase their influence. Conflicts take place within and between states; civil wars and proxy wars become impossible to distinguish. Governments often forfeit control to smaller groups – militias and the like –operating within and across borders. The loss of life is devastating, and millions are rendered homeless.”

He might have added that some historians estimate eight million were killed in that thirty year conflict in Europe.

I myself have done some study of the Thirty Years War in Europe, party out of family history interest. My ancestors (the Leupps) lived in a small town in northern Switzerland that was invaded by Spanish Catholic forces in 1633. The town was burned down including the Protestant church, and baptismal records were lost. The accompanying rapine may explain why, while my genealogical investigations verify the family tradition of Swiss-German, Scandinavian, and British, I have a significant Iberian component in my DNA.

While the Leupps had probably been there a long time already, the first record of a Leupp in the town (of just twelve extended families) dates to a baptismal record of 1644. I have learned that while most Leupps embraced what became the Swiss Reformed Church, inaugurated by Ulrich Zwingli, some became Anabaptists in this era of ongoing war and fled religious persecution, settling in southern Germany.

(Oddly enough, my ancestor who arrived in the U.S. in 1862 spent the rest of his life employed as a Lutheran minister. But in those times distinctions between denominations such as Zwinglians, Calvinists and Lutherans had become less important than cultural similitude; he was a German speaker preaching to Germans and Swiss and details of theological difference, which could get you killed in the 1630s, had faded into insignificance, especially in the United States. This shows the impact of Europe’s eighteenth century Enlightenment )

Today’s Middle East has never had a Reformation or Enlightenment; it is more like the religiously obsessed and intolerant Europe the early seventeenth century. For Anabaptists substitute Yezidis; for Catholics and Protestants substitute Sunnis and Shiites. For the carnage and rapine, the destruction of others’ holy places, the intolerance and sadistic executions for public display—well, there’s no need to substitute anything. They are near-exact historical equivalents.

Studying that horrific Thirty Years War, you realize how volatile religion can be, and how small incidents can set off huge confrontations between religious communities. In 1618 Protestant nobles in Prague (in Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic) rejected the imposition of a Catholic king and rose in rebellion. The embattled king called on King Philip IV of Spain for assistance while Protestant monarchs entered the fray and Protestant rebellions broke out in Austria. Meanwhile the (Muslim) Ottoman Empire supported Protestant rebels in Hungary. All hell broke loose.

Protestant rebellions broke out in Catholic France. England went to war with France from 1627 to 1629, ostensibly on their behalf while Denmark invaded Saxony in support of more Protestant rebels. Lutheran Sweden invaded the German states of the Holy Roman Empire and France, while Roman Catholic, forged an alliance with the heretics to advance French against German interests. (So, no, it wasn’t only about religion; it was also about amoral Machiavellian politics.)

The region of Württemberg in southern Germany may have lost 40% of its population before the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648. (Landless Swiss including some of my ancestors migrated north into the depopulated landscape, promised religious freedom by the Elector of the Palatinate.) A huge witch-hunt accompanied the war; hundreds if thousands were put to the torch for practicing black magic. Typhus and bubonic plague took the lives of untold soldiers and civilians.


The players in the contemporary Middle East include Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Kurds, Israelis. There are a multitude of conflicting and overlapping religious and political interests. Yes, there is the basis for a repeat of Europe’s hellish seventeenth century conflict.

So when Leon Panetta tells us “I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war,” and asks us to “brace for it;” when he bemoans Obama’s supposed “frustrating reticence to engage his opponents;” when he decries the pullout of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 attributing it to Obama’s lack of “active advocacy” (as though he could’ve forced the Iraqis to accept the continued presence of the hated troops on the basis of continued legal impunity); and–yikes!—when he declares his admiration for the bloodthirsty Hillary Clinton, I say:

Let’s look at what happened four centuries ago and ask if we want to go back there.

Let’s look at the recent past (in which the U.S. broke the Middle East, and by destroying the vehicles of Sunni power in Iraq, the secular institutions of the Army and Baath Party–provoked the current sectarian civil war) and ask if there is any possible defense for what the U.S. did to that tortured country.

Let’s look at the present situation (in which those who sowed the wind are reaping the whirlwind, a dust-devil sweeping across the region the imperialists had foolishly imagined was theirs for the taking). And let’s note again that the U.S. secretary of defense himself is complaining that there is no end game.

Then let’s stare into the future and imagine, not a world in flames fanned by ongoing imperialist interventions—a world of numbed, cowed people too frightened to dissent, anxious about Stasi-like surveillance, inured to the necessity of war; a world in which we send our children off to fight people they don’t understand (supposedly) on behalf of other people they don’t understand.

Let’s imagine a world in which the military-industrial complex controlled by the 1%, so mired in dishonesty and responsible for so much suffering, is decisively overthrown. It shouldn’t take thirty years to topple it.

Sometimes (as rulers in Russia, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in recent times have learned), things can happen very quickly. Who thought in 1989 that the government of the great USSR would fall within three years? Another world is possible.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu