FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Real US Strategic Blunder in Syria

Photo by snow mentality | CC BY 2.0

Photo by snow mentality | CC BY 2.0

President Barack Obama has long been under fire from the US national security elite and the media for failing to intervene aggressively against the Assad regime.

But the real strategic blunder was not that Barack Obama didn’t launch yet another war in Syria, but that he decided to go along with the ambitions of America’s Sunni allies to create and arm a Syrian opposition army to overthrow the regime in the first place.

Now a former Obama administration official who is knowledgeable on the internal discussions on Syria policy, speaking to this writer on condition of anonymity, has shed new light on how and why that fateful decision was made.

The former official revealed that when Obama made the first move toward supporting the arming of Syrian opposition forces, the president failed to foresee the risk of a direct Iranian or Russian intervention on behalf of the Syrian regime in response to an externally armed opposition – because his advisors had failed to take this likelihood into account themselves.

The story of this policy failure begins after military resistance to the Assad regime began in spring and summer 2011.

In August 2011, national security officials began urging Obama to call on Assad to step down, according to the former official.

Obama did make a statement suggesting that Assad should step aside, but he made it clear privately that he had no intention of doing anything about it. “He viewed it as simply a suggestion, not a hard policy,” the ex-official said.

But soon after that, a bigger issue arose for the administration’s policy: how to respond to pressure from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar for a US commitment to help overthrow Assad.

In September 2011, the Saudis and Turks not only wanted the US to provide arms to the opposition. “They wanted the US to provide anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles,” recalled the ex-official.

Turkey even offered to send troops into Syria to overthrow Assad, but only if US and NATO agreed to create a “no-fly zone” to protect them.

But Obama refused to provide US arms to the Syrian rebels and also opposed the Sunni foes of Assad providing such heavy weapons. “He wasn’t willing to go along with anything except small arms,” said the former official.

Apparently to assuage the dissatisfaction of the Sunni allies, then-director of the CIA David Petraeus devised a plan, which Obama approved, to help move the small arms from Libyan government stocks in Benghazi to Turkey.

Confirming the 2014 story by Seymour Hersh, the ex- official, recalled, “It was highly secret but officials involved in the Middle East learned of the programme by word of mouth.”

The combination of those two policy decisions committed Obama – albeit half-heartedly- to the armed overthrow of the Assad regime.

The former administration official confirmed the recollections of both former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former Pentagon official Derek Chollet that Obama’s advisers believed Assad’s fall was inevitable.

Some of those advisers believed Assad lacked the “cunning and fortitude” to remain in power, as Chollet put it.

Underestimating Iran and Russia

More importantly, when Obama was making crucial Syria policy decisions in September 2011, no one on his national security team warned him that Iran had a very major national security interest in keeping the Assad regime in power that could draw the Iranians into the war, according to the former official.

Obama’s advisers assumed instead that neither Iran nor Russia would do more than offer token assistance to keep Assad in power, so there was no risk of an endless, bloody sectarian war.

“Both Hezbollah and Iran had made noises that they were displeased with Assad’s handling of the crisis, and [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah even said publicly he should take a softer approach,” the ex-official recalled, “so it was believed Iran would not intervene militarily to save him.”

In fact, however, Iran regarded Syria as crucial to its ability to resupply Hezbollah, whose large arsenal of missiles was in turn a necessary element in Iran’s deterrent to an Israeli attack. “Syria had been Iran’s and Hezbollah’s security in depth,” the ex-official said, but Obama’s advisers “didn’t have a clue” about Iran’s overriding national security interest in preventing Assad’s overthrow by the overwhelmingly Sunni opposition backed by a Sunni international coalition with US support.

That major error of omission become obvious as the war unfolded. After the city of Qusayr near the Lebanese border was taken over by the Free Syrian Army in July 2012, opposition forces in southern Syria were able to get military supplies from across the border in Lebanon.  It became clear in the months that followed that al-Nusra Front forces were heavily involved in that front of the war.

Hezbollah strikes back

In May 2013, Hezbollah troops from the Bekaa Valley intervened in support of a regime counteroffensive to retake the city – obviously at Iranian urging.

That Iranian-Hezbollah intervention resulted in the biggest defeat of rebel forces of the war up to that time.

But instead of questioning the soundness of the original decision to cooperate with the Sunni coalition’s regime change strategy, Obama’s national security team doubled down on its bet.

Secretary of State John Kerry put strong pressure on Obama to use military force against the Assad regime.

That resulted in a public commitment by the Obama administration in June 2013 to provide military support to the opposition for the first time. The deepening commitment nearly led to a new US war against the Assad regime in September, after the chemical attack on the Damascus suburbs in August 2013.

The Obama administration even agreed to the Sunni states’ provision of anti-tank weapons to an armed opposition now openly dominated by al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front.

Escalating involvement

That culminated in a Nusra Front-led command’s conquest of Idlib province and the subsequent Russian intervention, which the administration’s national security team obviously had not anticipated either.

Obama and his advisers blundered on Syria in thinking that they were not getting into a high-risk war situation.

But there is a deeper level of explanation for the willingness of Obama and his advisers to go along with the inherent risk of another regime change policy – even if Obama was half-hearted about it at best and limited direct US involvement in it.

The administration was unwilling to be at cross-purposes with its Sunni allies, the former official recalled, because of the direct US military interests at stake in its alliances with those three states: the Saudis effectively controlled US access to the naval base in Bahrain, Turkey controlled the airbase at Incirlik, and Qatar controlled land and air bases that had become central to US military operations in the region.

What was a disastrous blunder in terms of the consequences for the Syrian people, therefore, was the only choice acceptable to the powerful national security institutions that constitute what has become the US permanent war state.

Their first concern was to ensure that existing military and intelligence arrangements and relationships were not jeopardised.

And Obama was not prepared to override that concern, despite his well-known skepticism about any arming of anti-Assad rebels in light of the blowback from America’s support for the Afghan Mujahidin in the 1980s.

This article originally appeared on Middle East Eye.

More articles by:

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

July 13, 2020
Gerald Sussman
The Russiagate Spectacle: Season 2?
Ishmael Reed
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Perry Mason Moment
Jack Rasmus
Why the 3rd Quarter US Economic ‘Rebound’ Will Falter
W. T. Whitney
Oil Comes First in Peru, Not Coronavirus Danger, Not Indigenous Rights
Ralph Nader
The Enduring Case for Demanding Trump’s Resignation
Raghav Kaushik – Arun Gupta
On Coronavirus and the Anti-Police-Brutality Uprising
Deborah James
Digital Trade Rules: a Disastrous New Constitution for the Global Economy Written by and for Big Tech
Howard Lisnoff
Remembering the Nuclear Freeze Movement and Its Futility
Sam Pizzigati
Will the Biden-Sanders Economic Task Force Rattle the Rich?
Allen Baker
Trump’s Stance on Foreign College Students Digs US Economic Hole Even Deeper
Binoy Kampmark
The Coronavirus Seal: Victoria’s Borders Close
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Power, Knowledge and Virtue
Weekend Edition
July 10, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Lynnette Grey Bull
Trump’s Postcard to America From the Shrine of Hypocrisy
Anthony DiMaggio
Free Speech Fantasies: the Harper’s Letter and the Myth of American Liberalism
David Yearsley
Morricone: Maestro of Music and Image
Jeffrey St. Clair
“I Could Live With That”: How the CIA Made Afghanistan Safe for the Opium Trade
Rob Urie
Democracy and the Illusion of Choice
Paul Street
Imperial Blind Spots and a Question for Obama
Vijay Prashad
The U.S. and UK are a Wrecking Ball Crew Against the Pillars of Internationalism
Melvin Goodman
The Washington Post and Its Cold War Drums
Richard C. Gross
Trump: Reopen Schools (or Else)
Chris Krupp
Public Lands Under Widespread Attack During Pandemic 
Alda Facio
What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Inequality, Discrimination and the Importance of Caring
Eve Ottenberg
Bounty Tales
Andrew Levine
Silver Linings Ahead?
John Kendall Hawkins
FrankenBob: The Self-Made Dylan
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Deutsche Bank Fined $150 Million for Enabling Jeffrey Epstein; Where’s the Fine Against JPMorgan Chase?
David Rosen
Inequality and the End of the American Dream
Louis Proyect
Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic
Thom Hartmann
How Billionaires Get Away With Their Big Con
REZA FIYOUZAT
Your 19th COVID Breakdown
Danny Sjursen
Undercover Patriots: Trump, Tulsa, and the Rise of Military Dissent
Charles McKelvey
The Limitations of the New Antiracist Movement
Binoy Kampmark
Netanyahu’s Annexation Drive
Joseph G. Ramsey
An Empire in Points
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
COVID-19 Denialism is Rooted in the Settler Colonial Mindset
Ramzy Baroud
On Israel’s Bizarre Definitions: The West Bank is Already Annexed
Judith Deutsch
Handling Emergency: A Tale of Two Males
Michael Welton
Getting Back to Socialist Principles: Honneth’s Recipe
Dean Baker
Combating the Political Power of the Rich: Wealth Taxes and Seattle Election Vouchers
Jonah Raskin
Edward Sanders: Poetic Pacifist Up Next
Manuel García, Jr.
Carbon Dioxide Uptake by Vegetation After Emissions Shutoff “Now”
Heidi Peltier
The Camo Economy: How Military Contracting Hides Human Costs and Increases Inequality
Ron Jacobs
Strike!, Fifty Years and Counting
Ellen Taylor
The Dark Side of Science: Shooting Barred Owls as Scapegoats for the Ravages of Big Timber
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail