How the US got into Syria and now can’t get out

Writing in the February 2019 issue of Harper’s Magazine (possible paywall), Charles Glass reviews how the US got involved in Syria and, with a confusing and contradictory policy, ended up creating the current mess. It is a classic example of how the US starts out by using covert methods to destabilize governments it does not like, proceeds to support dissidents in exile and arm groups in the hope that they will succeed in deposing the government (in Syria it was a group known as the Free Syrian Army of FSA), and when that fails, starts sending it mercenaries and providing air support. Then when that too fails, a military invasion becomes seen as inevitable.

He says that while there were plenty of discussions and debates, there never has been a Syrian strategy on the part of US policymakers during the Obama era. Instead they seemed to be in a reactive mode, lurching from one policy to another as events unfolded, driven by the feeling that they needed to do something as each policy failed, and ended up creating a monster of well-armed groups that were aligned with ISIS. They completely missed the point that Syria was not like any of the other countries whose governments were undermined by the Arab Spring. They did not see that the many different groups in Syria, despite not being supporters of leader Bashar Assad, saw him as providing order and stability and rallied round him fearing that what the US was trying to create by removing him would led to a Libyan-style disaster.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad was the regime. His father, Hafez al-Assad, had come to power in November 1970 as the survivor of nearly annual military putsches in the 1950s and 1960s. At his death in June 2000, he bequeathed his son an edifice that had prevailed over thirty years of failed coup plots, assassination attempts, wars with Israel, and Islamist insurrections. To depose the son, the opposition had to undermine a fortress state to which many Syrians were loyal, or at least acquiescent.

The Assad regime’s strategy for dealing with civil disobedience, popular mobilization, and general strikes may have been ineffective, but the regime knew how to handle armed insurrection. And Salafist fighters terrified many Syrians who, while dismissive of Assad, did not welcome his replacement by religious fanatics with long beards. Hof said, “I’m not just talking about the entourage and members of the [Assad] family, but ordinary Syrians, Syrians I’ve known for decades, who would tell me, ‘Fred, we’re going to stick with the regime.’ ” Hof said they stuck with Assad, despite having “no illusions about the corruption, incompetence, and brutality of the regime.” Others who did not fight against the regime were the minorities—Alawis, Ismailis, Druze, Arab Christians, Armenians, and Yezidis, all of whom the jihadis wanted to eliminate—as well as Sunnis who preferred a secular dictatorship to a theocracy.

The compromise between direct military involvement and staying out was the route taken by many presidents before Obama: a covert operation to raise an insurgent army and train it in nearby countries; provide weapons, sustenance, and communications; and oversee the military campaign. It was high-risk for the locals and casualty-free for the Americans.

A major source of weapons for the Syrian opposition was Libya, which had become a twenty- four hour arms bazaar. It furnished TOW anti-tank missiles and other war matériel with the help of the CIA station at the US consulate compound in Benghazi.

Rebel training became the province of US and British agents, and the Turks allocated weapons. But there was no control over fighters when they infiltrated Syria, where many joined Salafist brigades. A British trainer told me that the program was benefiting religious fanatics more than any moderate, secular oppositionists.

The TOWs from Benghazi shifted the balance on the ground in favor of the rebels, especially the betterarmed and highly motivated jihadis. Assad’s tanks and helicopters were no longer invulnerable.

On the opposition side, jihadis from Chechnya, Afghanistan, Algeria, China, and Europe joined the fight. Together with indigenous fundamentalists, they reduced the FSA to irrelevance. “We didn’t have a great understanding of who was doing what on the ground,” Phil Gordon said, “and couldn’t control it. So, you would be running the risk that, almost the inevitable risk that, in a revolutionary situation, the worst guys were the ones that would take and use the weapons.” The most extreme elements, the Al Qaeda offshoots Jabhat al- Nusra and the Islamic State, not only used the weapons but also advertised them in videos that included beheadings, the hurling of gay men off towers to their deaths, the murder of American journalists and British aid workers, and the rape of Yezidi women.

A state of lunacy was reached when the respective insurgent bands of the CIA’s covert and the Defense Department’s overt programs turned their American weapons on each other. [My emphasis-MS]

US strategists underestimated Russia’s commitment to Assad. Syria was the only one of the twenty-two members of the Arab League in the Russian camp, dating to its first purchases of Soviet arms in the mid-1950s. Assad’s survival was a test of Russian credibility. Russia’s air force and army intervened in September 2015, and by December 2016 they helped drive the rebels out of the eastern half of Aleppo. Many regarded that as the war’s turning point, after which Assad could no longer lose. Syria proved to be Russia’s redemption in the Middle East. Putin became a regional power broker, for the first time selling anti aircraft systems to Turkey, a NATO member; sending military delegations to Iraq; and organizing discussions about Syria among Turkey, Israel, and several Arab states.

The result of US meddling in Syria was failure on all counts. It did not depose Assad, who looks like he is set to hold on to power for years. It did not expel Iran and Russia, whose influence and footprints in Syria expanded. It did not break the Syria–Hezbollah alliance. Nor did it ameliorate civilian suffering, as refugees either stay in exile squalor or return to demolished homes. It had the unintended consequence of turning Turkey from a traditional ally into a regional adversary. Syrian conspiracy theorists claim the US goal was to destroy Syria, as it did Iraq, to protect Israel. Only if that were true could the United States be said to have achieved any objective.

Obama’s foreign policy team had advanced degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown, as well as Rhodes scholarships, and better credentials than most Fortune 500 boards, university faculties, and think tanks. They were “the best and the brightest” of our time, heirs to the wunderkinder John F. Kennedy brought to Washington in 1961.

Kennedy’s “best and brightest” gave the country the mass atrocity that was the Vietnam War, while Obama’s oversaw the devastation of Syria. Like Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Obama’s best and brightest may look with shock at their handiwork and ask, “What have I done?” Colonel Nicholson’s final act, after trying to save the bridge he built for his Japanese captors, was to fall on the detonator and blow it up. Then, he died. In Washington, they go on to think tanks and academe to await the call to serve again.

During the many discussions on Syria, some advisors pressed Obama to take even stronger measures like declaring safe zones or no-fly zones and then enforcing them with US power. To his credit Obama resisted, asking sensibly enough of each suggestion, “Tell me how this ends” and not getting a satisfactory answer. There rarely is a good answer to that question when it comes to getting involved in the internal affairs of other countries. It is always easy to argue that one should do more when a policy fails. But it is not so easy to say that doing more is only going to make things worse and that one should cut one’s losses before causing yet more suffering.

What is really disturbing is to realize that in many other parts of the world, the US is currently in the early stages of similar involvements that could later grow into yet another tragedy. But at the moment, they are below the radar screens of public awareness.


  1. lanir says

    I can’t help but feel like we should offer immigration as a way of standing by any groups we’re trying to promote in this way. It would have a couple of benefits. For one, it adds to credibility in a pretty big way if you stick with it. And it also puts a check on who we support this way because if we don’t want them here and there’s a loud enough outcry about it, why would we want to arm them to overthrow another country?

    I doubt any such meaningful check will ever come to pass on this sort of behavior because I don’t see anyone being able to claim a clear win on it. Maybe if the whole Congress were one party while the president is the other someone will think it’s worth clipping the executive’s wings with something like this.

  2. says

    I think its even more dishonest than you think. Once the new puppet government is identified, that will replace the overthrown regime, they start getting information and encouragement from the CIA. CIA used to then broker access to special forces “operators” for “training” and weaponry. By the time it’s at that stage, there -IS- a US military presence: the country has been “invaded.” Once the special forces come in, they need logistical support, which means contractors and a base and eventually Marines to guard the base. All that happened in Syria under Obama while Obama was blowing lies about “no boots on the ground.” Then, the base needs an airfield and an artillery battery…

    There were probably about 3,000 US troops including artillery and mobile elements with light armor, but no “boots.”

    Note that the US war party has taken over the executive branch and congress’ intelligence oversight -- this was done to bypass annoying attempts to prevent the executive branch from launching military attacks with no controls; they just classify it and say the War Powers Resolution does not apply becuse “what troops?”

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