Exclusive: For the past three years, Official Washington has viewed the Syrian civil war as “white-hatted” rebels against “black-hatted” President Assad, but finally some of the “gray-hatted” reality is breaking through, though perhaps too late, Robert Parry reports.
By Robert Parry
In late summer 2013, Official Washington was rushing to the judgment that the “evil” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had launched a barrage of missiles tipped with Sarin gas to slaughter hundreds of civilians in rebel-held neighborhoods near Damascus.
It was inconceivable to virtually every person who “mattered” in Washington that there was any other interpretation of the events on Aug. 21, 2013. Washington Post national security columnist David Ignatius even explained the “big picture” reason why President Barack Obama needed to launch punitive bomb strikes against Assad’s government for crossing Obama’s “red line” against using chemical weapons.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
“What does the world look like when people begin to doubt the credibility of U.S. power?” Ignatius wrote a week after the Sarin incident. “Unfortunately, we’re finding that out in Syria and other nations where leaders have concluded they can defy a war-weary United States without paying a price.
“Using military power to maintain a nation’s credibility may sound like an antiquated idea, but it’s all too relevant in the real world we inhabit. It has become obvious in recent weeks that President Obama … needs to demonstrate that there are consequences for crossing a U.S. ‘red line.’ Otherwise, the coherence of the global system begins to dissolve.”
At the time, there were only a few of us raising questions about Official Washington’s Sarin-attack “group think,” partly because it made no sense for Assad to have invited United Nations inspectors into Syria to examine chemical weapons attacks that he was blaming on the opposition and then to launch a major Sarin attack just miles from where the inspectors were unpacking at their hotel.
I also was hearing from inside U.S. intelligence that some CIA analysts shared those doubts, suspecting that the supposedly high number of Sarin-laden rockets (which represented the strongest evidence against Assad’s forces) was wildly overstated and that public panic might have exaggerated the scope of the attack.
But perhaps the strongest reason to doubt Official Washington’s hasty conclusion blaming Assad was what had been occurring inside the Syrian rebel movement over the prior two years, i.e., its radicalization into a hyper-violent Sunni jihadist force that was prepared to inflict any brutality on civilians to achieve its goal of ousting the secular Assad and establishing an Islamist state in Damascus.
Blinded by Propaganda
Most Washington’s pols and pundits had not noticed this change because of a geopolitical blindness inflicted by neoconservative propaganda, which insisted that the only acceptable way to view the Syrian civil war was to see Assad as the “bad guy” and the rebels as the “good guys.”
After all, “regime change” in Syria had long been near the top of the neocon agenda as it was for Israel, which wanted Assad out because he was allied with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Early in the civil war, Assad’s harsh response to what he termed rebel “terrorism” had also rallied the Obama administration’s “liberal interventionists” to the side of “regime change.”
Thus, the notion that some vicious Syrian rebel group might willfully kill innocent civilians as a provocation to get the U.S. military to attack Assad’s defenses – and thus pave the way for a rebel victory – was outside Official Washington’s accepted frame of reference. In August 2013, the rebels were wearing the white hats, as far as U.S. mainstream opinion was concerned.
Over the past year, however, reality has reasserted itself, at least somewhat. The Sarin case against Assad has largely crumbled with a UN report finding Sarin on only one rocket and independent scientists concluding that the one Sarin-laden rocket had a maximum range of only about two kilometers, meaning it could not have come from the suspected Syrian base about nine kilometers away.
Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh also learned from his well-placed sources that inside the U.S. intelligence community suspicion had shifted toward rebel extremists working with hardliners in Turkish intelligence. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Was Turkey Behind Syria-Sarin Attack?”]
But most “important people” in U.S. officialdom, including New York Times and Washington Post editors, still insisted that Assad must have done the Sarin attack. They even report it as flat fact. They are, after all, not the sort of folks who easily admit error.
A Shift in the Paradigm
However, over the past year, the paradigm for understanding the Syrian conflict has begun shifting. In September 2013, many Syrian rebel forces repudiated the political opposition that the Obama administration had organized and instead embraced al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front, an aggressive jihadist force which had emerged as the most effective fighters against Assad.
Then, in February 2014, al-Qaeda’s leadership disavowed an even more brutal jihadist force known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The Islamic State promoted a strategy of unspeakable brutality as a way of intimidating its rivals and driving Westerners from the Middle East.
ISIS got its start after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 when Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi organized “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” a hyper-violent Sunni militia that targeted Iraq’s Shiites and destroyed their mosques, touching off a vicious sectarian war across Iraq.
After Zarqawi’s death in 2006 – and the alienation of less-extreme Iraqi Sunnis – al-Qaeda in Iraq faded from view before reemerging in Syria’s civil war, refashioned as the Islamic State and crossing back into Iraq with a major offensive last summer.
Amid reports of the Islamic State massacring captives and beheading American and British hostages, it no longer seemed so far-fetched that some Syrian rebel group would be ruthless enough to obtain Sarin and launch an attack near Damascus, killing innocents and hoping that the Assad regime would be blamed.
Even the Post’s Ignatius is looking more skeptically at the Syrian rebel movement and the various U.S.-allied intelligence agencies that have been supplying money, weapons and training – even to fighters associated with the most extreme militias.
Opening the Door
In a column on Friday, Ignatius faulted not only Syria’s squabbling “moderate opposition” but “the foreign nations — such as the United States, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — that have been funding the chaotic melange of fighters inside Syria. These foreign machinations helped open the door for the terrorist Islamic State group to threaten the region.”
Ignatius acknowledged that the earlier depiction of the Syrian opposition as simply an indigenous movement of idealistic reformers was misleading. He wrote: “From the beginning of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, Syria has been the scene of a proxy war involving regional powers: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar all wanted to topple Assad, but they competed with each other as regional rivals, too.
“At various points, all three nations provided Sunni rebel groups with money and weapons that ended up in the hands of extremists. … The United States, Saudi Arabia and Jordan joined forces in 2013 to train and arm moderate rebels at a CIA-backed camp in Jordan. But this program was never strong enough to unify the nearly 1,000 brigades scattered across the country. The resulting disorganization helped discredit the rebel alliance known as the Free Syrian Army.
“Syrian rebel commanders deserve some blame for this ragged structure. But the chaos was worsened by foreign powers that treated Syria as a playground for their intelligence services. This cynical intervention recalled similar meddling that helped ravage Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Libya during their civil wars. …
“The story of how Syria became a cockpit for rival intelligence services was explained to me by sources here [in Istanbul] and in Reyhanli, a rebel staging area on the Turkey-Syria border. Outside efforts to arm and train the Syrian rebels began more than two years ago in Istanbul, where a ‘military operations center’ was created, first in a hotel near the airport.
“A leading figure was a Qatari operative who had helped arm the Libyan rebels who deposed Moammar Gaddafi. Working with the Qataris were senior figures representing Turkish and Saudi intelligence. But unity within the Istanbul operations room frayed when the Turks and Qataris began to support Islamist fighters they thought would be more aggressive.
“These jihadists did emerge as braver, bolder fighters — and their success was a magnet for more support. The Turks and Qataris insist they didn’t intentionally support the extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State. But weapons and money sent to more moderate Islamist brigades made their way to these terrorist groups, and the Turks and Qataris turned a blind eye.”
Regarding the rise of these radicals, Ignatius quoted one Arab intelligence source who claimed to have “warned a Qatari officer, who answered: ‘I will send weapons to al-Qaeda if it will help’ topple Assad. This determination to remove Assad by any means necessary proved dangerous. ‘The Islamist groups got bigger and stronger, and the FSA day by day got weaker,’ recalls the Arab intelligence source.”
Selling the Sarin Story
Based on such information, the idea of anti-Assad extremists securing Sarin – possibly with the help of Turkish intelligence, as Hersh reported – and launching a provocative attack with the goal of getting the U.S. military to devastate Assad’s army and clear a path for a rebel victory begins to make sense.
After all, back in Washington, the propaganda strategy of blaming Assad could count on the ever-influential neocons who in August 2013 did start pushing the rush-to-war bandwagon and shoved aside any doubters of the Assad-did-it conventional wisdom.
Israel took a similar position on Syria, favoring even the victory of al-Qaeda extremists if necessary to oust Assad and hurt his Iranian allies.
In September 2013, then-Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told the Jerusalem Post in an interview that “The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc. … We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” He said this was the case even if the other “bad guys” were affiliated with al-Qaeda.
So, the danger from the Sunni extremists was played down and the focus remained on ousting Assad. No wonder there was such “surprise” among Official Washington’s “group thinkers” when the Islamic State opened a new front inside Iraq and routed the U.S.-trained Iraqi army. Once again, the neocons had made sure that American eyes stayed wide shut to an inconvenient truth.
But the neocons are not through with the Syrian fiasco that they helped create. They are now busy reshaping the narrative – accusing Obama of waiting too long to arm the Syrian rebels and insisting that he switch from bombing Islamic State targets inside Syria to destroying the Syrian air force and creating a no-fly zone so the rebels can march on Damascus.
The recklessness of that strategy should now be obvious. Indeed, if Obama had succumbed to the interventionist demands in summer 2013 and devastated Assad’s military, we could now be seeing either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in control of Damascus. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons’ Noses into the Syrian Tent.”]
Obama might be wiser to take this opportunity to declassify the U.S. intelligence on the Sarin gas attack of Aug. 21, 2013, including the dissents from CIA analysts who doubted Assad’s responsibility. That information might shed substantial new light on how Turkish and Arab intelligence services — with the help of the neocons — enabled the rise of the Islamic State.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here