An Urgently Necessary Briefing on Syria

Photo by Patrick Feller | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Patrick Feller | CC BY 2.0


1. Syria is country about the size of Washington state, with an extraordinarily long, well-documented and glorious history, and central role in the emergence of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Before the current war, it had a population of around 22 millions. It has never threatened and poses no threat to the United States.

It is a secular, constitutional republic recognized diplomatically by the United Nations and has diplomatic and usually cordial relations with Russia, Iran, China, India, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, the Philippines, Argentina, Tanzania, Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Oman, etc. It has historically been a battleground of Arab, Iranian and Turkish peoples, at different times a part of the Persian Empire, the Arab-led Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, or the Ottoman Empire. It fell under French colonial administration after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire (centered on what is now Turkey) in the course of World War I. It was briefly declared a kingdom under the Arab Emir Feisal until the French drove him out of Damascus in 1920.

Thereafter the League of Nations awarded France a  “mandate” to govern Syria (including Lebanon, which the French made a separate state). This colonial administration continued to 1946. After independence from France, political parties representing merchants and intellectuals from Damascus or Aleppo vied for power while the Communist Party was (to Washington’s alarm) tolerated. The secularist Ba’ath Party founded by Christians, Sunnis and Alawites in 1947 began to organize.

2. The U.S. has a long history of pressing for “regime change” in Syria. After Syria became independent, the U.S. routinely intervened in the country in pursuing its Cold War political agendas. It is widely suspected that the military coup in Syria in 1949 was abetted by the U.S., which saw the previous regime as soft on communism. And the CIA openly acknowledges responsibility for the failed coup attempts designed to install a suitable anti-communist regime called “Operation Straggle” in 1956 and “Operation Wappen” directed by Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. in 1957. The latter included failed bribery efforts which, when exposed, embarrassed the U.S.  (After the Syrian government foiled the plot, Washington began accusing Syria of being a “Soviet client.”)

Syria and Egypt briefly united as the United Arab Republic, perceived by the U.S. as pro-Soviet, in 1958; after it collapsed following another coup in 1961, the Baathists rose to power. Following the Baathist coup in neighboring Iraq in February 1963, their comrades in Syria took power. But the Syrian partisans split into factions, and relations between the two countries’ parties soured. Still, they constituted the ruling status quo in both Syria and Iraq from this time to 2003 when the U.S. Occupation dissolved the Baath Party of Iraq. (It then numbered some 400,000 members).

3. Up to the 1967 War, Washington saw the Baathists as the preferred option in the Middle East—a middle force between Islamism and Communism. Promoting secularism, pan-Arabism, and economic nationalism they seemed relatively non-hostile to the U.S.  Although during the early years of the Cold War in particular, the U.S. vilified “neutral” parties in general, the Baathists could be partnered with for common purposes.  (Saddam Hussein—as you surely know?—after the 1963 coup in Iraq worked with the CIA to round up, torture and execute Iraqi communists in the Qasr al-Nehayat, the Palace of the End.  A former senior State Department official who was there told UPI: “We were frankly glad to be rid of them. You ask that they get a fair trial? You have to get kidding. This was serious business.”)

But after Israel’s 1967 victories Washington decided to rethink its Middle East relationships and to defer more and more deeply to the Israel Lobby—-which saw the Baathists as anti-Zionist (hence “anti-Semitic”) pan-Arab nationalists who were dangerously sophisticated (precisely because they were secular, anti-Islamist, and appeal to religious minorities), who provided political and material support to Palestinian and Lebanese groups resisting Israeli occupation, and who demanded the return of the occupied Golan Heights that the entire world agrees is Syrian land—by listing Syria and Iraq as “terror-sponsoring” nations.  Meanwhile Syria intervened in Lebanon repeatedly from 1976, ostensibly in response to appeals from different parties in a widening civil conflict involving Palestinians and Israeli invaders after 1982.

4. Still, while looking at Syria through an Israeli lens, and considering it “terrorist,” U.S. policy makers have generally maintained diplomatic relations with Syria (last broken off in 2011) and even sought its cooperation on occasion. Syria, then ruled by the current president’s father Hafez al-Assad, participated in the international coalition organized by George W. Bush against Iraq in 1991 (yes, despite the fact that wings of the Baath Party ruled both Syria and Iraq at the time). A decade later, after 9/11, the U.S. sought Syrian cooperation in another war; it—how do you say it?—rendered covert service to the extraordinary renditions program following cordial talks with Colin Powell and other officials.

5. So far in this century, U.S. officials have been divided between those more or less eager to use U.S. power to bring down the regime, and cooler heads fearing the consequences. The neoconservatives dominating the first George W. Bush administrations had clearly articulated in 1996 (to the Israeli government, which they advised as Israeli-U.S. dual-nationals) their vision of  U.S.-triggered regime-change from Iran to Iraq to Syria to make the region more hospitable to Israel.

9/11 allowed the neoconservative regime-changers and their allies to move quickly. Exploiting fear and ignorance, they immediately set about preparing for war on Iraq, even though Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. We know from Gen. Wesley Clark’s often-quoted words, after talking with a Pentagon general shortly after 9/11, that there was a plan already in place to “take out seven countries in 5 years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” There were loud voices in the Bush administration (most notably undersecretary of state John Bolton, who Trump has said is one of the foreign policy experts he most respects) calling for strikes on Syria (as “low-hanging fruit”) and echoing baseless Israeli allegations that the WMDs not found in Iraq must have been sent across the border to Syria. And of course everyone applauded in Sept. 2007 when the Israel Air Force bombed an alleged nuclear reactor in Syria.

In 2005 the Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut. The U.S. blamed Syria and forced Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. Yet it maintained relations with Damascus. When Bashar succeeded his father as president in 2000, he had been welcomed as a reformer; Hillary Clinton had still referred to him as such as of 2010. But leaked diplomatic messages indicate that the Damascus U.S. embassy was actively pursuing the overthrow of the president even before 2011.

6. The “Arab Spring” of 2011 ended the discussion about regime change. The neocon faction at the State Department kicked into gear. Hillary Clinton and soon Barack Obama commanded Bashar al-Assad to step down, after some fatal encounters between demonstrators and police afforded them the opportunity to deploy a pre-determined accusation: “He has attacked his own people!” The U.S. closed its Damascus embassy, planning to return after the moderate opposition was in power as planned. The then-Secretary of State is known to have advocated overt military aid to the rebels, although Obama was reluctant. In fact, the U.S. covertly trained 53 Syrian militants in Turkey who as soon as they entered Syria in September 2015 were captured or defected, handing over their weapons. Efforts to turn Syria’s “Arab Spring” into a quick pro-U.S. regime change exercise have failed dismally while resulting in mass slaughter.

7. At the same time, the al-Qaeda forces gathered, quickly becoming the backbone of the anti-Assad armed movement.  ISIL (Islamic State in the Levant) appeared in 2013, latest incarnation of the al-Qaeda franchise established in Iraq by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi  (after the U.S. occupation on 2003 had for the first time made the country an al-Qaeda breeding ground). It carved out a niche of territory in northeast Syria headquartered in Raqqa (pop. 220,000), captured in March 2013. Meanwhile al-Nusra, emerging from a group of jihadis more connected to Al-Qaeda Central in Pakistan, assumed leadership of the armed opposition around the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo. The two groups held unity talks but Al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri rejected a merger and the two have been antagonistic ever since.

Al-Nusra has been the indispensable partner of the so-called “Free Syrian Army” since its inception, and has received massive amounts of aid from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

8. In September 2013, as the Syrian state forces made advances against the armed opposition and many analysts concluded that the tide had turned in the conflict, someone released sarin gas in a Damascus suburb. Some blamed it on the Assad regime. John Kerry, Hillary Clinton’s successor as secretary of state, was eager to attack Syria. A year earlier, Obama had indicated that the U.S. would attack if it saw “a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Obama was on the verge of ordering an attack when careful Russian diplomacy stayed his hand. Moscow challenged the U.S. attribution of the attack to the regime, pointing instead to the opposition, and in any case facilitated the Assad regime’s resignation of its chemical weapons stockpiles to the UN. This was an important triumph for Russian diplomacy and setback for neocon regime change plans in Syria.

9. The lightning victories of ISIL in early 2014, as it returned to Iraq conquering Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul, were a PR nightmare for the U.S. They were clear testimony that the U.S. destruction of the secular, modern Iraqi state had paved the way for child-beheading, woman-enslaving, monument-destroying crazies. The U.S. had to bomb ISIL, both in Iraq (with permission from the government) and in Syria (where U.S. warplanes, unlike Russian warplanes, operate illegally). From Sept. 2014, the U.S. and its “coalition” have bombed ISIL (although not al-Nusra, which is so entwined with groups the U.S. considers “moderate” that it’s been generally spared attack)  while simultaneously maintaining that the main problem—somehow giving rise to this problem of these people who burn people in cages, and bury people alive, and force conversions—is the Baathist regime.

It has been difficult to argue this because it does not make any sense. There is no rational perception of historical causality here. Even if the Syrian example of Baathism constitutes an authoritarian, even in some respects fascistic system (although in its corruption, inefficiency and religious tolerance it seems quite un-fascistic), it did not give rise to al-Qaeda or any of its spin-offs. The U.S did that, by supporting the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan during the 1980s (in league with Osama bin Laden), by destroying the secular state of Iraq, and by targeting the secular state of Syria for regime change. ISIL arose because the U.S. drove Abu Musad al-Zarqawi out of Afghanistan in 2001; alienated the Sunnis of Iraq by the destruction of Iraq’s institutions, producing a base for Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda recruitment; and destabilized Syria, producing more opportunities for caliphate expansion.

To suggest that Assad is responsible for the presence of ISIL in his country (due to his refusal to heed the U.S. diktat, and step down paving the way for the U.S.’s alternative) is just stupid. That it should be so widely repeated by pundits in the mainstream press should be the cause for mass alarm if not despair. Such State Department talking points are the drumbeats of war. As it is, from 2014 there have been many press reports of frustration in both the State Department and Defense Department about the unclarity of the Syrian mission: is it to get ride of Assad (the “main problem”), or to “destroy” (as Obama put it) the child-torturers conjured up by the criminal Iraq invasion? The preponderance of opinion in the State Department seems to have drifted to near-term regime change.

In August 2015 it was widely reported that Gen. David Petraeus, then CIA director, was advocating “using so-called moderate members of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front to fight  ISIS in Syria.” Yes that’s right—ally with al-Qaeda, against an even worse al-Qaeda spin-off, the better to topple Assad who stubbornly clings to power defying Washington’s orders.

10. Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict, beginning in September 2015 (precisely one year after the U.S. began bombing ISIL targets in the country), intended to shore up the Syrian state against an opposition interwoven with what the U.S. deems the “moderate opposition,” has been a game-changer. Occurring at the request of the Syrian government (which, to repeat, is the government of a secular, constitutional republic recognized diplomatically by the United Nations and has cordial relations with Russia, Iran, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, the Philippines, Argentina, Tanzania, Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Oman and many other countries despite Washington’s efforts to isolate and overthrow it), this intervention is legal, while the U.S.’s is not.

The U.S. press has virtually ignored Russian successes in aiding the Syrian army in recapturing Palmyra from the horrific ISIL, which had destroyed the Temple of Bel, and destroying oil convoys heading from terrorist-controlled territory to Turkey for illegal sale. Instead it has, echoing the State Department, merely accused Moscow of supporting the internationally recognized government against rebels whom the U.S. wants to win.

11. Russian actions, by further strengthening the regime’s position and weakening those officially regarded by both Washington and Moscow as terrorists, forced the U.S. to respond positively to Russian appeals for joint action against the latter groups. On Sept. 9 Kerry and Lavrov agreed on a plan for a one-week ceasefire (to which the Syrian government agreed) between state forces and the “legitimate” (U.S.-backed) opposition. During this period, the latter would separate themselves from al-Nusra to avoid being bombed themselves.

These measures were to be followed by coordinated U.S.-Russian action against the terrorists while peace talks resumed in Geneva. Unfortunately the U.S. was unable or unwilling to persuade its many proxies in the conflict to split with al-Nusra. (That’s what really doomed the deal; the U.S.’s failure to hold up its end.) Some clients angrily refused and turned on their U.S. advisors. On Sept. 16 (supposedly by mistake) the U.S. and several of its allies bombed a Syrian army base killing 62 soldiers engaged in combat with ISIL. Enraged, Syria resumed the bombing of East Aleppo, which is controlled by al-Nusra (Fateh al-Sham). The U.S. blamed the still-unexplained bombing of a UN aid convoy, killing 20 three days later, on Syria or Russia and suspended negotiations with Russia, period, over Syria.

In other words, having temporarily conceded the need to cooperate with Syria’s ally Russia to resolve a conflict that the U.S. had deliberately exacerbated, with horrific results, the U.S. sabotaged the talks. And after doing so, suddenly slipped into a mode of unprecedented vitriol; witness UN ambassador Samantha Power’s performance at the UN Sept. 18 where she angrily dismissed the death of the Syrian soldiers as a minor detail in a war, and berated the Russian ambassador for calling a Security Council meeting to discuss Syria a “stunt.” (She obviously wearies of Russia’s stubborn refusal to concede to the “exceptional nation” the future of its ally.)

12. Meanwhile Hillary Clinton as recently as Oct. 9 reiterated in the “debate” with Trump that she (still) supports a no-fly zone. Even though the brass has told her that that would mean the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops in a war with Syria and Russia. She is buoyed by that highly unusual dissent memo signed by 51 current State Department officials last June opposing the current focus on ISIL and demanding immediate regime change in Syria. She knows that the State Department is more hawkish than the Pentagon, but that the Pentagon is also leery about any cooperation with Russia, anywhere, such as Lavrov has repeatedly proposed. She knows the news media in this country has entire bought the line that Russia through its support for a brutal dictator is responsible for genocide in East Aleppo—while the U.S. sits back and does nothing!

She is eager to appoint Michele Flournoy (formerly the third-ranking civilian in the Pentagon under Obama) as her Secretary of Defense. Flournoy has also called for a “no-fly zone” over Syria and “limited military coercion” to drive Assad from power. She has actually proposed the deployment of U.S. ground troops against the Syrian Arab Army.

On Oct. 8 France proposed a UNSC resolution prohibiting Syrian or Russian bombing of al-Nusra controlled East Aleppo, while saying nothing about the illegal bombing of Syria conducted by the U.S and its allies. It was a preposterous joke, opposed by China and Russia, immediately vetoed. It was intended to further vilify the Syrian government and Russia.
Is it not obvious? Public opinion is being prepared for another regime-change war. The most high-stakes one to date, because this one could lead to World War III.

And it’s hardly even a topic of conversation in this rigged election, which seems designed to not only to inaugurate a war-monger, but to exploit crude Russophobia to the max in the process. The point is for Hillary not only to ascend to power—whatever that might require—but to prepare the people for more Afghanistans, Iraqs and Libyas in the process. The point is to lull the people into historical amnesia, blind them to Hillary’s record of Goldwater-type reckless militarism, exploit the Cold War mentality lingering among the most backward and ignorant, and insure that the electorate that, while generally deploring the result of the rigged election in November, will soon afterwards rally behind corrupt Hillary as soon as she seizes on some pretext for war.

Very, very dangerous.

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: