Syria: Where the Obama Doctrine of covert war spectacularly backfired

The U.S. policy of arming proxies in Syria is a formula for unlimited escalation and mass destruction

Barack Obama’s rise to power in 2008 raised fundamental questions about the duty of a newly-elected government in a country that has been engaged in war crimes, from aggression against other countries to systematic violations of the Geneva Conventions and human rights laws.

As Obama took office, an Eminent Jurists Panel convened by the International Commission of Jurists and headed by former Irish President Mary Robinson published a report on America’s so-called “war on terror”. It found that the U.S. government was applying war rules to people who were not involved in armed conflict and was distorting, selectively applying or simply ignoring binding human rights laws. It concluded that U.S. violations of international law were neither an appropriate nor an effective response to terrorism and that U.S. leaders had confused the public by framing their counterterrorism campaign within a “war paradigm.” The jurists insisted that established principles of international law “were intended to withstand crises, and they provide a robust and effective framework from which to tackle terrorism.”

People of conscience the world over hoped desperately for an American recommitment to peace and to the rule of law. But we have been sorely disappointed. Instead, the Obama administration has maintained the largest military budget since 1945 and expanded many of the most dangerous and troubling aspects of the criminal policies it inherited.

Perhaps the defining feature of Obama’s war policy has been the expansion of secret CIA and Special Forces operations, from assassinations by drones, air strikes and JSOC night raids to Special Forces training missions and joint exercises in up to 120 countries each year, double the number when Obama took office. The Washington Post reported in June 2010 that JSOC had 13,000 troops deployed overseas, including 4,000 in countries where the U.S. was not officially at war. Special Forces deployments have since increased from 75 to 120 countries, so the number of JSOC troops deployed has likely increased since then too. For more background on JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), please read my article, “America’s death squads,” in Z Magazine.

As the Washington Post pointed out, “One advantage of using ‘secret’ forces for such missions is that they rarely discuss their operations in public. For a Democratic president such as Obama, who is criticized from either side of the political spectrum for too much or too little aggression, the unacknowledged CIA drone attacks in Pakistan, along with unilateral U.S. raids in Somalia and joint operations in Yemen, provide politically useful tools.”

Senior military officers told the Post that Obama was allowing “things that the previous administration did not,” and, “They are talking publicly much less but they are acting more. They are willing to get aggressive much more quickly.”

This shift from invasions and occupations to shadowy covert and proxy wars fits the historical pattern that U.S. leaders followed after previous American military disasters in Korea and Vietnam. The attraction of “war on the cheap” or “leading from behind” is perennially irresistible to American leaders determined to keep projecting U.S. military power while avoiding a political backlash from a war-weary public. So Obama has followed in the footsteps of Eisenhower, Carter and Reagan, who launched politically attractive covert operations in Iran, Afghanistan and Latin America that left legacies of misery for millions of people, sowing the seeds of future conflicts and blowback.

The fundamental flaw of “proxy wars” is that proxies are never just proxies. Like the anti-Soviet jihadis in Afghanistan in the 1980s who eventually formed the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the diverse forces that the United States is counting on to achieve its goals each have interests and goals of their own. In Syria, the desire to overthrow the government may be the only thing the U.S. and its “allies” have in common.

Qatar has reportedly spent $3 billion to recruit and arm combatants in Syria, including “signing bonuses” of $50,000 each to Syrian soldiers who defect—although few have taken up the offer. The CIA has coordinated the delivery of at least 70 planeloads of weapons from Qatar to Turkey, Saudi-funded shipments of European arms from Croatia to Jordan and shipments of fighters and weapons from Libya to Turkey in unmarked NATO planes. Wealthy Gulf Arab paymasters fund hundreds of hardened mercenaries from Croatia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia who reportedly earn up to $2,000 per day fighting in Syria. Many of these operations began in 2011, even as a Qatari-funded YouGov poll in December 2011 found that most Syrians still supported the government, not the rebels, upsetting the foreign narrative of a popular mass uprising.

Saudi and Qatari money and weapons have been systematically funneled to Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq and now the strongest rebel force in Syria, thanks to their generous funding, a core of experienced fighters from Iraq and Libya and the training given to recruits by American, British and French Special Forces in Turkey and Jordan. The CIA has tried to steer new recruits and weapons to more secular groups, but without much success. Once fighters are inside Syria, they gravitate to the more effective units led by al-Nusra.

Foreign efforts to form a government-in-exile have likewise been hijacked by the Saudis and Qataris. Moaz al-Khatib recently resigned as president of the Syrian National Coalition, protesting that it was controlled by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Khatib had offered to meet President Assad in January and seemed to be serious about a political resolution of the crisis. His resignation is a loss that leaves the coalition even more committed to violence.

U.S. reliance on puppets and proxies around the world has always been problematic. As Gabriel Kolko wrote in 1988, “The notion of an honest puppet is a contradiction Washington has failed to resolve anywhere in the world since 1945.” But the end of the Mubarak regime in Egypt left a dangerous power vacuum in the Middle East that the U.S, U.K., France, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are each scrambling to fill to their own advantage.

This opportunistic alliance of strategic competitors brought down, raped and murdered Gaddafi in a war that probably killed at least 25,000 people and left Libya in chaos, with Islamist fighters and weapons now overflowing its borders to destabilize the region. NATO conducted 7,700 air strikes in six months, while British, French and Qatari special forces led Libya’s NATO rebels on a mad march from Benghazi to Tripoli replete with racist violence, torture and ethnic cleansing. Most of the developing world now understands that this was never about protecting civilians as the U.S., U.K. and France pretended to win the blessing of the UN Security Council.

Though all the “Friends of Syria” understood from the outset that regime change in Syria would be more complicated and far bloodier than in Libya, Syria was a prize than none of them could resist, a critical strategic country in the heart of the Middle East. Whoever could claim the loyalty of Syria’s new leaders would be in a much stronger position in the region. Would France regain the position of influence it lost after its mandate over Syria and Lebanon ended in 1943? Would the U.K. find the foothold it failed to regain in Iraq? Would Turkey recover its lost destiny as the dominant regional power? Could the Emir of Qatar further expand the disproportionate power of his tiny political, military and media kingdom? Or would fundamentalist Saudi Arabia be confirmed as the divinely appointed leader of the Muslim world? And what of the outside power that has dominated the region for decades—the United States? The conflicting interests of Syria’s “friends” may explain why their “humanitarian intervention” looks more like a competitive bloodbath.

But as the Syrian government has regained ground against the rebels, the fabricated narrative of its imminent demise has started to crumble. Western reliance on “information warfare” to trigger the government’s collapse has run its course and must now face the reality that the government still controls 13 of 14 provincial capitals and the main roads between them. As veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn recently reported, ” . . . I was able to travel the ninety miles between Damascus and Homs, Syria’s third largest city, without any guards and with ordinary heavy traffic on the road. Friends back in Beirut would shake their heads in disbelief when I spoke about this and politely suggest that I’d been hoodwinked by the regime.”

But of course it was Cockburn’s friends in Beirut and Western TV audiences who were hoodwinked, and not by the Syrian regime but by the CIA and the Pentagon’s “information warfare” operations and the complicity of the Western media. This should be a dreadful reminder to us all that these propaganda operations are far from victimless crimes. By torpedoing Kofi Annan’s peace efforts in 2012 and counting instead on violence and propaganda to bring down the government, the U.S. fueled a war that has killed nearly 100,000 people and shattered Syrian society.

The “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” in London recently produced the most detailed figures yet on the casualties of the West’s proxy war. This Western-based, pro-rebel source now acknowledges that more than 40% of those killed have been Syrian soldiers and loyalist militiamen, totaling 41,600. It also counts 35,500 civilians killed and 16,700 rebels, including 2,100 foreigners, while 145 Hezbollah members from Lebanon have died fighting for the government.

Current calls for the U.S. government to further escalate the conflict with heavier weapons or a “no-fly zone” bombing campaign studiously ignore the CIA and the State Department’s role in casting the people of Syria into this crisis in the first place. But the CIA’s coordination of shipments of weapons and recruits from Libya, Qatar, Croatia and elsewhere since 2011 makes a mockery of Washington’s hand-wringing over the death and destruction it has caused. The State Department deliberately undermined Kofi Annan’s peace plan by organizing the “Friends of Syria” conferences with President Sarkozy in 2012, where the U.S. and its allies pledged more funds, weapons and unconditional support to their proxy forces instead of pressuring them to accept a ceasefire that the government had agreed to. With “friends” like these, Syria needs no enemies.

The new Secretary of State John Kerry seemed ready to reset the diplomatic clock back to the one brief moment of agreement in Geneva on June 30th 2012. When the U.S., U.K. and France dropped their insistence that President Assad must resign as the first condition of any peace deal, an international consensus was quickly reached on the Annan plan. But they had second thoughts on their way back to the UN Security Council and promptly killed the deal. Now, once again, after another brief moment of hope, Geneva II seems to have been indefinitely postponed in favor of escalation.

For two years, the U.S. and its allies have refused negotiations with the Syrian government because they thought they could achieve their goals by violence. Now that they are losing ground, they are rejecting a political solution in favor of escalation, not wanting to negotiate from a position of weakness. Their answer is always greater violence, whether it’s to press their advantage when they’re winning or to “level the playing-field” when they’re losing. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is a formula for unlimited escalation and mass destruction.

The crisis in Syria is the climax of 15 years of American war crimes that have plunged one country after another into chaos and inflicted death, horror and misery on millions of people. This has undermined whatever fragile authority the United States possessed to impose its will and its interests in the Middle East or anywhere else.

Obama’s tragic choice to try to salvage and repackage the “war on terror” behind the mask of his iconic image as a “peace candidate” and a Nobel Peace Prize winner has spawned a creeping militarism that is slowly but surely enveloping the world in its bloody tentacles. The doubling of the U.S. military budget during the Bush years was not matched by potential military competitors, but now China, Russia and others understand that America’s resurgent militarism is a bi-partisan affair that they have no choice but to confront. And America’s new partners in war crime, the Kings of the Persian Gulf, have signed the biggest arms deals in history to further militarize the most explosive region on Earth.

The Bush Doctrine of Preemptive War crashed headlong into reality in Iraq, broken by the staggering sacrifices of a successful popular resistance movement. The Obama Doctrine of Covert War has filled graveyards in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and several other countries. But in Syria, Obama’s dirty doctrine has also dug its own graveyard. The covert nature of the U.S. role has become a double-edged sword, enabling it to dodge much of the blame for the horrors it has unleashed, but at the same time handing control on the ground to its proxies, leaving it impotent to either defeat the government or contain the violence. Obama’s impotence in the face of this crisis of his own making exposes the double danger of his aggressive militarism and of the secrecy and deception that shield it from public scrutiny.

This in turn highlights the failure of a generation of American leaders to formulate a rational foreign policy with goals that the public can support which does not need to be hidden behind a tapestry of secrets and lies. We deserve so much better of our leaders. It is never too late to make peace.

“Information warfare” may empower the U.S. to whitewash its crimes, demonize its enemies and foment incredible violence. But who really believes that that is a prescription for a better world? The aggressive use of military force does not bring “security” or “stability” as America’s leaders claim. It brings death, terrible injuries, devastation, chaos and misery, and covert war can be as deadly and destabilizing as naked aggression. Secret war is not a secret to its victims, only to the brainwashed public back home.

The only moral way forward in Syria now is for Secretary Kerry to marshal whatever authority and influence his office has left to bring America’s proxies in Syria to the table, to sign a cease-fire and plan a peaceful political transition led by legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, not by foreign puppets or proxies. This could include members of the National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change, who launched peaceful protests in Syria in 2011 and who have remained committed to non-violence, non-sectarianism and non-intervention as their revolution has been hijacked and their country destroyed.

First published by AlterNet.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He wrote the chapter on “Obama At War” for the just released book, Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.

One Response to Syria: Where the Obama Doctrine of covert war spectacularly backfired

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