Obama’s Fateful Syrian Choice
President Obama faces a choice that could define his
legacy and the future of the American Republic: He can either work
with Russia’s President Putin to stabilize Syria or he can opt for a
confrontation that could lead to an open-ended war with grave risks
of escalation, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
September 18, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "Consortiumnews"
- There is an obvious course that
President Barack Obama could follow if he wants to lessen the crises
stemming from the Syrian war and other U.S. “regime change”
strategies of the past several decades, but it would require him to
admit that recent interventions (including his own) have represented
a strategic disaster.
Obama also would have to alter some longstanding
alliances – including those with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel –
and correct some of the false narratives that have been established
during his administration, such as storylines accusing the Syrian
government of using sarin gas on Aug. 21, 2013, and blaming the
Russians for everything that’s gone wrong in Ukraine.
In retracting false allegations and releasing
current U.S. intelligence assessments on those issues, the President
would have to repudiate
the trendy concept of “strategic communications,” an
approach that mixes psychological operations, propaganda and P.R.
into a “soft power” concoction to use against countries identified
as U.S. foes.
“Stratcom” also serves to manage the perceptions
of the American people, an assault on the fundamental democratic
precept of an informed electorate. Instead of honestly informing the
citizenry, the government systematically manipulates us. Obama would
have to learn to trust the people with the truth.
Whether Obama recognizes how imperative it is that
he make these course corrections, whether he has the political
courage to take on entrenched foreign-policy lobbies (especially
after the bruising battle over the Iran nuclear agreement), and
whether he can overcome his own elitism toward the public are the
big questions – and there are plenty of reasons to doubt that Obama
will do what’s necessary. But his failure to act decisively could
have devastating consequences for the United States and the world.
In a way, this late-in-his-presidency course
correction should be obvious (or at least it would be if there
weren’t so many layers of “strategic communications” to peel away).
It would include embracing Russia’s willingness to help stabilize
the political-military situation in Syria, rather than the Obama
fuming about it and trying to obstruct it.
For instance, Obama could join with Russia in
stabilizing Syria by making it clear to putative U.S. “allies” in
the Mideast that they will face American wrath if they don’t do all
that’s possible to cut off the terrorists of the Islamic State and
Al Qaeda from money, weapons and recruits. That would mean facing
down Turkey over its covert support for the Sunni extremists as well
as confronting Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Persian Gulf sheikdoms
over secret funding and arming of these jihadists.
If Obama made it clear that the United States
would take stern action – such as inflicting severe financial
punishments – against any country caught helping these terrorist
groups, he could begin shutting down the jihadists’ support
pipelines. He could also coordinate with the Russians and Iranians
in cracking down on the Islamic State and Al Qaeda strongholds
On the political front, Obama could inform Syria’s
Sunni “moderates” who have been living off American largesse that
they must sit down with President Bashar al-Assad’s representatives
and work out a power-sharing arrangement and make plans for
democratic elections after a reasonable level of stability has been
restored. Obama would have to ditch his mantra: “Assad must go!”
Given the severity of the crisis – as the refugee
chaos now spreads into Europe – Obama doesn’t have the luxury
anymore of pandering to the neocons and liberal interventionists.
Instead of talking tough, he needs to act realistically.
In a sense, Russian President Vladimir Putin has
clarified the situation for President Obama. With Russia stepping up
its military support for Assad’s regime with the goal of defeating
the Islamic State’s head-choppers and Al Qaeda’s terrorism plotters,
Obama’s options have narrowed. He can either cooperate with the
Russians in a joint campaign against the terrorists or he can risk
World War III by taking direct action against Russian forces in
pursuit of “regime change” in Damascus.
Though some of Official Washington’s neocons and
liberal war hawks are eager for the latter – insisting that Putin
must be taught a lesson about Russia’s subservience to American
power – Obama’s sense of caution would be inclined toward the
The underlying problem, however, is that Official
Washington’s foreign policy “elite” has lost any sense of reality.
Almost across the board, these “important people” lined up behind
President George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, arguably
the worst blunder in the history of U.S. foreign policy.
But virtually no one was held accountable. Indeed,
the neocons and their liberal interventionist sidekicks strengthened
their grip on the major think tanks, the op-ed pages and the
political parties. Instead of dialing back on the “regime change”
model, they dialed up more “regime change” schemes.
Although historically the U.S. government – like
many other imperial powers – has engaged in coups and other meddling
to oust troublesome foreign leaders, the current chapter on “regime
change” strategies can be dated back to the late 1970s and early
1980s with what most American pundits rate a success: the
destruction of a secular regime in Afghanistan that was allied with
the Soviet Union.
Starting modestly with President Jimmy Carter’s
administration and expanding rapidly under President Ronald Reagan,
the CIA mounted its most ambitious “covert” operation ever –
funding, recruiting and arming Islamic extremists to wage a brutal,
even barbaric, war in Afghanistan.
Ultimately, the operation “succeeded” by forcing a
humiliating withdrawal of Soviet troops and driving the
Moscow-backed leader Najibullah from power, but the cost turned out
to be extraordinary, creating conditions that gave rise to both the
Taliban and Al Qaeda.
In 1996, the Taliban took Kabul, captured
Najibullah (whose tortured and castrated body was hung from a light
pole), and imposed a fundamentalist form of Islam that denied basic
rights to women. The Taliban also gave refuge to Saudi extremist
Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda band enabling them to plot terror
attacks against the West, including the 9/11 assaults on New York
In response, President George W. Bush ordered an
invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in late 2001 followed by
another invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 (though Iraq had
nothing to do with 9/11). Those “regime changes” began a cascade of
chaos that reached into the Obama administration and to the present.
As Iraq came under the control of its Shiite
majority allied with Shiite-ruled Iran, disenfranchised Sunnis
organized into increasingly vicious rebel movements, such as “Al
Qaeda in Iraq.” To avert a U.S. military defeat, Bush undertook a
scheme of buying off Sunni leaders with vast sums of cash to get
them to stop killing U.S. soldiers – called the “Sunni Awakening” –
while Bush negotiated a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The payoffs succeeded in buying Bush a “decent
interval” for a U.S. pullout that would not look like an outright
American defeat, but the huge payments also created a war chest for
some of these Sunni leaders to reorganize militarily after the
Shiite-led regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to make
significant economic and political concessions.
Obama had opposed the Iraq War, but he made the
fateful choice after winning the 2008 election to retain many of
Bush’s national security advisers, such as Defense Secretary Robert
Gates and General David Petraeus, and to hire hawkish Democrats,
such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security
Council aide Samantha Power.
Obama’s pro-war advisers guided him into a
pointless “surge” in Afghanistan in 2009 and a “regime change” war
in Libya in 2011 as well as a propaganda campaign to justify another
“regime change” in Syria, where U.S. Sunni-led regional “allies” –
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf sheikdoms – took the lead in a
war to oust President Assad, an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite
Islam. Syria was allied with Iran and Russia.
At the same time, the Sunni rebel group, “Al Qaeda
in Iraq,” expanded its operations into Syria and rebranded itself
the Islamic State before splitting off from Al Qaeda’s central
command. Al Qaeda turned to a mix of foreign and Syrian jihadists
called Nusra Front, which along with the Islamic State became the
most powerful terrorist organization fighting to oust Assad.
When Assad’s military struck back against the
rebels, the West – especially its mainstream media and “humanitarian
war” advocates – took the side of the rebels who were deemed
Islamic extremists dominated almost from the start.
Though Obama joined in the chorus “Assad must go,”
the President recognized that the notion of recruiting, training and
arming a “moderate” rebel force was what he
called a “fantasy,” but he played along with the demands from
the hawks, including Secretary of State Clinton, to “do something.”
That clamor rose to a fever pitch in late August
2013 after a mysterious sarin gas attack killed hundreds of Syrian
civilians in a Damascus suburb. The State Department, then led by
Secretary of State John Kerry, rushed to a judgment blaming the
atrocity on Assad’s forces and threatening U.S. military retaliation
for crossing Obama’s “red line” against using chemical weapons.
the U.S. intelligence community had doubts about the
actual perpetrators with significant evidence pointing to a “false
flag” provocation carried out by Islamic extremists. At the last
minute, President Obama called off the planned airstrikes and worked
out a deal with President Putin to get Assad to surrender Syria’s
chemical weapons arsenal even as Assad continued to deny a role in
the sarin attack.
Still, the U.S. conventional wisdom held fast that
Assad had crossed Obama’s “red line” and – amid more bellicose talk
in Washington – Obama authorized more schemes for training
“moderate” rebels. These sporadic efforts by the CIA to create a
“moderate” rebel force failed miserably, with some of the early
trainees sharing their weapons and skills with Nusra and the Islamic
State, which in 2014 carried its fight back into Iraq, seizing major
cities, such as Mosul and Ramadi, and threatening Baghdad.
As the Islamic State racked up stunning victories
in Iraq and Syria – along with releasing shocking videos showing the
decapitation of civilian hostages – the neocons and liberal war
hawks put on another push for a U.S. military intervention to
achieve “regime change” in Syria. But Obama agreed to only attack
Islamic State terrorists and to spend $500 million to train another
force of “moderate” Syrian rebels.
Like previous efforts, the new training mission
proved an embarrassing failure, producing only about 50 fighters who
then were quickly killed or captured by Al Qaeda’s Nusra and other
jihadist groups, leaving only “four or five” trainees from the
program, according to Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, head of the U.S.
Central Command which has responsibility for the Middle East.
The Current Crisis
The failure of the training program – combined
with the destabilizing flow of Mideast refugees into Europe from
Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other countries affected by the
regional chaos due to “regime changes” – has brought new calls
across Official Washington for, you guessed it, a U.S.-imposed
“regime change” in Syria. The argument goes that “Assad must go”
before a solution can be found.
But the greater likelihood is that if the U.S. and
its NATO allies join in destroying Assad’s military, the result
would be Sunni jihadist forces filling the vacuum with the black
flag of terrorism fluttering over the ancient city of Damascus.
That could mean the Islamic State chopping off the
heads of Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other “heretics” while Al
Qaeda has a new headquarters for plotting terror strikes on the
West. Millions of Syrians, now protected by Assad’s government,
would join the exodus to Europe.
Then, the option for Obama or his successor would
be to mount a major invasion and occupation of Syria, a costly and
bloody enterprise that would mean the final transformation of the
American Republic into an imperial state of permanent war.
Instead, Obama now has the option to cooperate
with Putin to stabilize the Syrian regime and pressure erstwhile
U.S. “allies” to cut off Al Qaeda and the Islamic State from money,
guns and recruits. Though that might seem like clearly the best of
the bad remaining options, it faces extraordinary obstacles from
Already there are howls of protests from the
neocons and liberal interventionists who won’t give up their agenda
of more “regime change” and their belief that American military
power can dictate the outcome of every foreign conflict.
So, whether Obama can muster the courage to face
down these bellicose voices and start leveling with the American
people about the nuanced realities of the world is the big question
reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The
Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest
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