The Dirty War On Syria
4th January 2016 By Dr. Tim Anderson
Although every war makes ample use of lies and deception, the dirty war on Syria has relied on a level of mass disinformation not seen in living memory. The British-Australian journalist Philip Knightley pointed out that war propaganda typically involves ‘a depressingly predictable pattern’ of demonising the enemy leader, then demonising the enemy people through atrocity stories, real or imagined (Knightley 2001). Accordingly, a mild-mannered eye doctor called Bashar al Assad became the new evil in the world and, according to consistent western media reports, the Syrian Army did nothing but kill civilians for more than four years.
To this day, many imagine the Syrian conflict is a ‘civil war’, a ‘popular revolt’ or some sort of internal sectarian conflict. These myths are, in many respects, a substantial achievement for the big powers which have driven a series of ‘regime change’ operations in the Middle East region, all on false pretexts, over the past 15 years.
Washington’s ‘New Middle East’
Since the 1950s, the Saudi monarchy has remained Washington’s key partner in developing organized terrorism as a tool to destabilize and dominate the Middle East.
After the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the destruction of Libya, Syria was to be the next state overthrown. Washington and its regional allies had planned this for some time. After ‘regime change’ in Syrian capital Damascus, Syria’s ally Hezbollah, leader of the Lebanese Resistance to Israel, would be isolated. The Islamic Republic of Iran would remain the only Middle East country without US military bases. After Iran, Washington would control the entire region, excluding possible competitors such as Russia and China. Palestine would be lost.
This was all part of Washington’s plan for a ‘New Middle East’; but it was not to be. Determined and coordinated resistance can never be discounted. Syria’s national army has resisted wave after wave of fanatical Islamist attacks, backed by NATO and the Gulf monarchies, and Russian and Iranian support remained solid. Importantly, Syria has built new forms of cooperation with a weak but emerging Iraq. Washington had worked for decades to divide Iran and Iraq, so the strengthening ties between Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine represent a regional challenge to the new ‘Great Game’ of our times. The Middle East is not just a big power playground.
The US and its close regional collaborators (Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Qatar and Jordan), we now know, have been behind every anti-Syrian extremist group since the beginning of the recent conflict. They have used the worst of reactionary and sectarian forces to pursue their ends. The Axis of Resistance, on the other hand, should not be misunderstood as a sectarian phenomenon. This group – the Islamic Republic of Iran, secular Syria, the Lebanese Resistance led by Hezbollah and the Palestinians – is deeply anti-imperial. Syria, the only remaining ‘secular’ state in the region has long allied itself with the Islamic Republic of Iran, including against Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq. Saddam in turn was used by Washington to degrade Iran, after that country’s 1979 revolution. On the other hand, Iran never backed the sectarian Muslim Brotherhood in any of its insurrections against secular Syria. Iran does support the Shia Muslims of Hezbollah, but it is most demonised for arming Palestine, which has hardly any Shia. This plurality disproves any claims that the Axis of Resistance is sectarian. Promotion of sectarianism in the Middle East mostly comes from Washington’s key allies, Saudi Arabia, the other gulf monarchies, and the ethnic cleansers of Israel. They share the US aim of keeping the region weak and divided.
How did Syria come to be targeted? We can chart the hostility back to Syria’s central role in the Arab-Israeli wars, especially those of 1967 and 1973, a common regional struggle against the expansionist Zionist state. After that, Syria’s support for 1979 Iranian Revolution put it offside with Washington. As far back as 1980, under the Carter administration, Washington was searching for a ‘change of regime’ in Damascus. A cable from the National Security Council to Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski urged a coordinated study, including with their European and Arab monarchy partners, of ‘identifying possible alternative regimes’ to the Government led by Hafez al Assad. They were considering how to ‘reduce the problems of ill-considered reaction [by Syria’s ally, the Soviet Union] to a change of regime in Damascus’. The memorandum also recognised that any withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon (Syria had entered Lebanon to stop the civil war, in 1975; it would stay until 2005) would run a ‘high’ risk of renewed civil war in that country and create ‘high incentives for Israeli military engagement in southern Lebanon’ (NSC 1980).
It was thus no coincidence that the Muslim Brotherhood – always the most organised Syrian opposition group, and whose history of collaboration with outside powers dated back to the 1940s – began a series of bloody sectarian attacks from this point onwards, until their last insurrection was crushed in Hama in 1982. That insurrection had been backed by US allies Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein and Jordan (Seale 1988: 336-337). US intelligence at the time observed that ‘the Syrians are pragmatists who do not want a Muslim Brotherhood government’ (DIA 1982: vii). However US analysts, soon after, used the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood at Hama to demonstrate ‘the true establishment of Syria as a totalitarian state’ (Wikas 2007: vii). This was a useful fiction.
The next strategic shift against Syria came after the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre New York, and the decision of Bush the Second to declare a ‘war on terror’. Although various pretexts were made for the interventions which followed, an overall plan for the Middle East was very rapidly set in train. Former senior US General Wesley Clark said in his memoirs that, two weeks after the September 2001 attacks, he was told by a ‘senior general’ at the Pentagon that the attack on Iraq (which came 18 months later) was already decided. Six weeks later he says that same general told him, ‘It’s worse than that’, before indicating a memo ‘from the Office of the Secretary of Defence … [saying] we’re going to take out seven countries in five years’.
That list began with Iraq and Syria and ended with Iran (Clark 2007). Iraq’s ruler Saddam Hussein had been an enemy of Syria, through his opportunistic backing of the Syria Muslim Brotherhood and for his collaboration with the US in the long and bloody war against Iran. However the Syrian Government, led by Hafez al Assad, had supported the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait in what has been called the First Gulf War (1990-1991). That war, whatever one thought of Kuwait’s monarchy, was a clear breach of the UN doctrine of collective security and, on that basis, attracted a UN Security Council mandate to intervene. However both Syria and Iran opposed the later invasion of Iraq (2003), even though it would depose their mutual enemy Saddam. The invasion of Iraq was clearly illegal and a war of aggression.
It was the unintended consequences of the invasion and occupation of Iraq that led to a shift in US policy, a move which was called a ‘redirection’ (Hersh 2007). Once Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist administration had been deposed, a newly installed government in Damascus began a shift towards friendlier relations with Iran. It was not just that the majority of Iraq were Shia Muslims like, but not to as great an extent as, in Iran. Iraqis had developed a more pluralist culture, and did not want a religious state. However with Iran’s enemy Saddam out of the way, matters of genuine common concern could be discussed in a more normal climate of neighborly relations. Yet the idea of good neighborly relations between Iraq and Iran seriously worried Washington. They had not fueled the Iraq-Iran war, nor invaded Iraq, to help bring about that outcome.
As early as 2005 US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began to speak of spreading ‘creative chaos’ in the region, to advance President Bush’s plan for a New Middle East (Karon 2006). Drawing on the traditions of the great powers, Washington set up a new ‘divide and rule’ strategy. White House insiders called Bush’s new policy ‘the redirection’, involving a more open confrontation with Iran and attempting to drive a ‘sectarian divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims …[Yet] to the distress of the White House, Iran has forged a close relationship with the Shiite dominated government of Prime Minster Nuri al-Malaki’ (Hersh 2007). Rice told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee she saw ‘a new strategic alignment’ in the region, with ‘Sunni states’ [the Gulf monarchies] as the centres of moderation and Iran, Syria and Hezbollah ‘on the other side of that divide’ (Hersh 2007).
The idea was to play on community divisions to create conflict, particularly in Iraq. US Central Command’s ‘Red Team’ exercises began in 2006, with military planning focused on divisions which they characterised as Arabs versus Persians (Iranians), later asking themselves whether ‘Sunni-Shia [might be] a more appropriate framework?’ Their key assumption was that ‘there does not appear to be a scenario where Arabs and Persians will join forces against the US/West’ (Narwani 2011). The cutting edge of the operation would be the creation of al Qaeda in Iraq (IQI), funded by the Saudis and carrying out sectarian attacks on mosques and other community centres, to inflame community tensions. Senior western officials have acknowledged privately that the various billionaires of Saudi Arabia (along with the other Gulf monarchies) constitute ‘the most significant source of funding to Sunni [sic] terrorist groups worldwide’ (Jones 2014).
Although al Qaeda in Iraq, a.k.a. the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), at first claimed to be overwhelmingly Iraqi (Felter and Fishman 2008: 3), Saudi finance and recruiting significantly internationalised it. Records captured by the US military in October 2007 at Sinjar, on the Iraqi-Syrian border underline this. Those records referred to a group of about 500, half of whom were Saudi, then North African (Libyan, Algerian, Tunisian, Moroccan) and then others. Other estimates between 2005 and 2007 suggested greater or lesser degrees of various nationalities, with the largest group (40-55%) being Saudis (Felter and Fishman 2008: 8, 30-31).
A notorious example of the strategy to provoke sectarian conflict was the February 2006 bombing of the al Askari mosque in Samarra, in southern Iraq, which killed over a thousand people. Despite calls for restraint by Shia leaders in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, there were sectarian reprisals. When arrests were made this act was said to have been carried out by an al Qaeda seven-man cell, led by an Iraqi with a Tunisian, four Saudis and two other Iraqis (Ridolfo 2007). Although al Qaeda was implicated from the start, US media and analyst focus shifted to what they called ‘Iraq’s sectarian divide’ (Worth 2006). Yet while Saddam Hussein had backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, he did not allow al Qaeda groups in Iraq. That was a more recent development, and not just an ‘organic’ reaction to the US occupation. Western sources sometimes acknowledge that much of the finance and the fighters for Al Qaeda have come from Saudi Arabia (Bruno 2007). However they also cloud the issue with claims that Iran and Hezbollah have, from time to time, supported al Qaeda (Kaplan 2006). Such claims are quite false.
Israel was deeply embedded with the New Middle East plan and in July-August 2006, after getting the ‘green light’ from Washington (Hersh 2006), seized on a pretext to invade southern Lebanon. The broader aim was to degrade and disarm Hezbollah. However after almost 1200 Lebanese and 165 Israelis had been killed, a UN ceasefire was brokered. Israel had failed in all its objectives. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called this tragedy, at a time when 400 had died and half a million were displaced, simply the ‘birth pangs of a New Middle East’ (Karon 2006). That statement prompted Rami Khouri of Beirut’s Daily Star to write: ‘Washington is engaged almost exclusively with Arab governments [the Gulf monarchies] whose influence with Syria is virtually nonexistent, whose credibility with Arab public opinion is zero, whose own legitimacy at home is increasingly challenged, and whose pro-US policies tend to promote the growth of those [extremist] Islamist movements’ (Khouri 2006).