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America’s Syria Obsession Explains Its Rendezvous With Al Qaeda

By Taj Hashmi

20 August, 2012

“The implication is that Saudi backing for the Syrian rebels is part of a strategy to replace the Assad regime with a Sunni-dominated governance which might include Salafist elements. The presence of al-Qaida-linked paramilitaries in Syria may help to further the Saudi plan. Iran's efforts to prop up its Syrian ally reinforce the Riyadh-Tehran antagonism, as well as making the US even more determined to curb Iran's influence. Washington's strong support for its Saudi partner casts further doubt on the argument that its encouragement of the Syrian opposition has much to do with democracy.”

-- Paul Rogers, “Syria, the Proxy War”, 14th June 2012

It is unbelievable but true that America, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, al Qaeda and other Western, Arab and Islamist allies have been sponsoring and arming the “Free Syrian Army” and other militants with a view to staging another regime-change in Syria. This time, very similar to what it did in Libya, America is not going to directly invade Syria in the manner it invaded Iraq to topple the Saddam Hussein regime. Thanks to the influence of the Israel Lobby, America has had a problematic relationship with Syria since the 1940s. America first intervened into Syria in March 1949 by toppling the democratically elected President Shukri al-Quwatly who had been elected for a five-year-term in 1943. The CIA-sponsored coup d’état installed Colonel Husni al-Zaim, the “America’s Boy” to power. Unlike nationalist Quwatly, who did not toe the American line, al-Zaim was too compliant to fulfill American desire. He legitimized Israel by signing an armistice with it and allowed ARAMCO (Arabian-American Oil Company) to pipe Saudi oil through Syria to the Mediterranean coast. Between 1949 and 1955, America staged five military coups in Syria to complete the de-democratization process in the country.

Newly discovered documents reveal a joint Anglo-American ploy to overthrow the anti-Western Syrian regime in 1957. Interestingly, very similar to what America and its allies have been doing since 2011 to overthrow the Assad-regime through the “Free Syrian Army”, President Eisenhower and Prime Minsiter Macmillan wanted a “regime change” in Syria in the name of the “Free Syria Committee”. The CIA and SIS (MI6) planned to stage fake border incidents between Syria and its pro-Western neighbors (Turkey and Jordan) as an excuse for an invasion by its neighbors. The plan was not only to topple the pro-Russian regime but also to eliminate some key figures in the Syrian government. Afterwards, with a brief union with Egypt as part of the United Arab Republic (1958-1961), Syria gradually distanced itself from the West and came under the avowedly anti-Western / anti-Israeli Arab Socialist Baath Party rule. America adopted a more hostile policy towards Syria after 9/11, and there were speculations about America-led regime-change in Syria after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Bashar Assad’s opposition to the US invasion of Iraq and his harbouring Iraqi fugitives and opening Syrian border to encourage armed Syrian / Arab fighters to infiltrate into Iraq to fight Americans angered the Bush administration.

In February 2012, American- and Israeli-armed and Saudi financed Arab League mercenaries infiltrated into Syria in the guise of Free Syrian Army. Interestingly, they were fighting along with al Qaeda fighters against the Assad regime in Syria. Secretary Hillary Clinton later admitted that anti-Assad rebels and al Qaeda had fought together against Syrian army. By March 2012, the American and Arab-League sponsored rebellion backfired. The UN, America and the Arab League agreed to a ceasefire and a negotiated peace in Syria under the mediation of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. However, because of American interest in breaking the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah nexus – and to diminish the growing Iranian influence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bahrain – a US-backed war against Syria is very much on the cards. As a former director of Mossad (Israeli intelligence agency) has written, the West needs to evict Iran from Syria to “cut off Iran’s access to its proxies (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza)…. and Israel and the West must prevent this at all costs”.

An understanding of the Syrian crisis requires an understanding of the “Arab Spring”. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain witnessed mass uprisings for democracy. However, as the Tunisian revolution was different from the Libyan, Egyptian or Yemeni uprisings; so was the Syrian unrest very different from uprisings elsewhere in the Arab World. Unlike the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Assad regime in Syria is neither at peace with Israel nor is friendly towards America. Syria also has a mutual defense pact with Iran and allows a Russian base on its territory. The “Israel Lobby” in America is trying to isolate and neutralize Syria, first through UN-sponsored sanctions, and then through open invasion of the country to overthrow Bashar Assad a la Qaddafi. Syria, an adversary of Israel and a close ally of Iran and Hezbollah with 300,000 regular troops and 200,000 reservists, is an impediment to the Israeli design in Iran. Israel seems to believe that the road to Iran goes through Damascus.

America, Israel and Saudi Arabia know it well that Syria must fall before they neutralize Iran. It is interesting that while America has turned a blind eye to Israeli threats to attack Iran to neutralize the latter’s alleged nuclear program, on 12th January 2012 President Obama wrote a letter to the Iranian leadership. In the letter, he spelled out the position of the United States, which Iranian officials read as a sign of American weakness. “The U.S. cannot afford to wage a war against Iran”, they surmised. However, the reality is quite different. “What Washington is doing is exerting psychological pressure on Iran as a means of distancing it from Syria, so that the United States and its cohorts can go for the kill,” observed one analyst. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia stated in 2011that “nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria.” The so-called “Friends of Syria” that includes America, Turkey and Saudi Arabia decided in Istanbul on 1 April 2012 to arm Syrian rebels. Arab nations pledged $100 million to pay the rebels. As one analyst elaborates: “[T]heir [the GCC member states’] interest is clearly in bringing down an ally of their arch-enemy Iran and not humanitarian….The stakes are too high to make, and repeat big mistakes with terrible consequences…. More weapons in civilian hands would lead Syria to a mix of Lebanon in the 1970s, Algeria in the 1980s and Iraq since 2003.”

In February 2012 a Saudi TV station broadcast a Salafist religious leader giving his blessing for spilling the blood of foreign observers. Most people do not know that al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a video recording – “Onwards, Lions of Syria” – appealed to Syrians and Muslims in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to help those who were fighting to topple “the butcher, son of the butcher Bashar bin Hafiz”. One wonders, if the Salafists, al Qaeda, America and its allies have discovered common friends and enemies in Syria. In the case of Libya, the American “Oil Lobby” achieved what they had wanted since long – to control the oil fields in Benghazi – through UN-sponsored sanctions against Libya to justify a full-fledged invasion of the country to topple the not-so-compliant Qaddafi regime. Nevertheless, as our experience tells us, America is not going to let Syria go its way. Not only the overpowering Israel Lobby is determined to overthrow the Assad regime, but to paraphrase Michael Ledeen, “every ten years or so” America also needs to invade “some crappy little country”. However, as the regime-changes in the Arab World have so far strengthened the Islamists, Syria would not be an exception in this regard.

One analyst has succinctly explained the Western design to weaken the “axis of resistance” between Iran, Syria and Hizbullah, eventually to attack Iran:

The strategy was simple, clear, tried and tested. It had been used successfully not only against Libya, but also Kosovo (in 1999), and was rapidly underway in Syria. It was to run as follows: train proxies to launch armed provocations; label the state's response to these provocations as genocide; intimidate the UN Security Council into agreeing that "something must be done"; incinerate the army and any other resistance with fragmentation bombs and Hellfire missiles; and finally install a weak, compliant government to sign off new contracts and alliances drawn up in London, Paris and Washington, whilst the country tore itself apart.

According to Samir Amin: “The Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the opportunity to appear as the ‘opposition’. Thus, a coherent plan crystallized under the leadership of imperialism and its allies that sought not to ‘rid the Syrian people of a dictator’, but to destroy the Syrian state, modeled on the United States’ work in Iraq and Libya.” He also believes that: “Contemporary imperialism’s strategy for the region (the ‘greater Middle East’) does not aim at all at establishing some form of ‘democracy’. It aims at destroying the countries and societies through the support of so-called Islamic regimes, which guarantee the continuation of a ‘lumpen development’ (to use the words of my late friend AG Frank), i.e. a process of continuous pauperization.” He has aptly raised the question about autocratic Saudi Arabian and Qatari governments’ support for democracy in Syria: “Isn’t it a curiosity that we see now the emir of Qatar and the king of Saudi Arabia among the most vocal advocates of ‘democracy’? What a farce!”

America’s sincere efforts to settle the Syrian-Israeli conflict could have enhanced America’s position in the Middle East by cleaning up its “tarnished image as a neo-imperialistic crusader power” and stabilized US-Syria relationship. Instead, George W. Bush during 2006 and 2007 exerted pressure on Syria to agree for a “peace talk” with Israel. The Israel Lobby was instrumental in America’s adopting a confrontational policy toward Syria, although the country was not a serious military threat to nuclear-armed Israel. Then again, although Syria is not in a position to withstand an Israeli pressure, it can create problems for the latter through Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. However, American belligerence toward Syria is unwarranted and counterproductive. Conversely, America should have remembered that Syria fought against Saddam Hussein along with America in the First Gulf War of 1991. Israeli unwillingness to return the Golan Heights to Syria has complicated the situation. Syria by default has come closer to Iran by distancing from America and Israel. Interestingly, Israel and Syria had some sort of understanding during the Clinton administration, which the Bush administration thwarted after the 9/11 attacks. Since “the road to Tehran goes through Damascus”, an analyst has observed: “It appears that Syria has become a crucial fulcrum for the White House [to overthrow the Iranian regime], with the option of overt military intervention, on one side, and a continuation of diplomacy and covert action on the other”.

Syria has all the potential to turn itself into another fractured country polarized on sectarian and ideological lines. Since early 2012 America and Arab League sponsored mercenaries (that include al Qaeda terrorists) and Assad loyalists are engaged in a bloody conflict. One may impute the indiscriminate killing of Syrians to government troops, foreign fighters and Syrian rebels. However, not only has the regime substantial domestic support and powerful allies in Russia and China, it has also the support from neighboring Iraq, Jordan, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and last but not least, from Iran, another bête noir to the Western-Saudi-Israeli triumvirate. Interestingly, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki of Iraq, who is very close to the Iranian President, does not want the removal of the Assad regime, and allows Iranian convoys through Iraqi territories into Syria. As Fawaz Gerges reveals, of late the Tehran-Baghdad highway has virtually become the “life-line” for Syria. Thus it appears that the Assad regime is not that vulnerable to Syrian rebels and foreign mercenaries.

Meanwhile, during and after the Houla Massacre in Syria in May-June 2012, which led to hundreds of civilian casualties, we heard contradictory statements as to who had been responsible for the killing. The Syrian government media and its counterpart circulated totally opposite stories about the massacre. We may consider the following BBC report a credible account on the killing: “They [presence of Syrian troops not far from Houla] do not prove conclusively that the Syrian regime was responsible for the deaths on 25-26 May.” The same report describes the anti-Assad Shabiha militia, which was also around, “as armed paramilitary thugs.…widely blamed for committing the bulk of the killings at Houla”. In sum, to a large extent, Syria is the battlefield for two proxy wars between the US and Russia and between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US-Israel lobby is also interested in breaking Syria into pieces. They are using Kurdish separatists and other anti-Assad elements, including al Qaeda and Wahhabis, against the Syrian regime.

It is time that America and its allies understand what Kofi Annan emphatically stated after the failure of the UN-sponsored peace plan in Syria: “'Syria is not Libya, it will not implode; it will explode beyond its borders.” Contrary to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s stand on Syria – who one analyst believes “frequently reflects Washington’s interests” – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the CIA have been mainly responsible for the Syrian crisis. Judy Bello’s criticism of America for what she thinks is “pouring gas on the fire in Syria” – in view of her fact finding report on Syria – seems quite pertinent. She singles out America as “incorrigible in its determination to control the wealth and peoples of the earth”. She also blames the US and Israel for their six decade-long intervention in Syria and Palestine, for turning people into refugees and destitute even in their own countries – Palestinians and Kurds, for example – and she has raised the question if Egyptians and Jordanians are better off than Syrians under Assad. She has also raised issues like American, Israeli, Saudi Arabian and Islamist over-enthusiasm about the prospect of overthrowing the Assad regime, through violence or through the UN-sponsored invasion of Syria. She pointed out that Syria under Assad was not a Shiite Alawite minority rule but a joint Shiite-Sunni-Christian-Kurdish rule. The summary of her findings is as follows:

Many of the “facts” presented in media about the situation in Syria are undocumented and the truth is difficult to ascertain; a “continual stream of reports of atrocities in Syria has over time been shown to be untrue or distorted”. “The London Observatory, a significant source of information on the Syrian crisis from day 1, has no one on the ground in Syria, and has rather shady credentials”;

“However, even a year ago, about 1/3 of the casualties were members of the police and military, though this fact was not reported in western news outlets. Suicide bombings of government buildings have killed scores and injured hundreds in Damascus and Aleppo. The question as to who perpetrated the recent massacres in Hula and Hama remains unanswered. Investigations have not been completed”;

“The Free Syrian Army is not a single organization, but rather an assortment of militias composed of conscripts who have defected from the Syrian Army, Islamic fighters from within Syria and Islamic fighters from neighboring states along with members of al Qaeda and militiamen from other Middle East wars in Libya, Lebanon and Iraq looking for a new war”;

“Muslim Brotherhood fighters have assassinated Christian, Alawite and Druze, and leaders of these communities”;

“US Ambassador Robert Ford was meeting with and advising members of the Syrian Opposition from the day he set foot on the ground in Syria, which was only shortly before protests began there. The US has been demanding that the Syrian President step down from day one of the protests. The US has been training and arming a military insurgency in Syria that initially took cover behind peaceful protesters, and now has driven them from the streets. The US admits to having CIA agents on the ground in Turkey assisting Syrian militants”.

As Paul Rogers puts it, Syria [very much like post-Cold War Afghanistan] since the open rebellion against Bashar Assad in 2011 has become a battlefield of a long-drawn proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between the US-Israeli duumvirate and Iran. The old Cold War adversaries, Russia and America have had their interests in Syria as well, both vying for compliant regimes in the country. The upshot has been the Syrian civil war. In view of the presence of hardcore Islamist fighters in the anti-Assad coalition, I think Rogers has aptly explained the Syrian conundrum:

The implication is that Saudi backing for the Syrian rebels is part of a strategy to replace the Assad regime with Sunni-dominated governance, which might include Salafist elements. The presence of al-Qaida-linked paramilitaries in Syria may help to further the Saudi plan. Iran's efforts to prop up its Syrian ally reinforce the Riyadh-Tehran antagonism, as well as making the US even more determined to curb Iran's influence. Washington's strong support for its Saudi partner casts further doubt on the argument that its encouragement of the Syrian opposition has much to do with democracy.

Post-Assad Syria under America- and Arab League-backed regime would not be a stable country. Russia and China – along with Iran and Hezbollah – are not going to give up their interests in Syria. They have different interests in Syria. Russia is not going to accept a pro-Western regime in Syria. It has more than 100,000 “advisers” in Syria. As discussed above, Russians would go to any extent to defend its strategic interests in Syria. America’s apparent benefits would back fire as hardcore Islamists would call the shots in Suria, which would go through a violent civil war that could kill as many as four million people out of its twenty million population. Turkey would not gain anything either. Tukey is not likely to intervene further as it depends on Russia, more than eighty per cent of its natural gas comes from Russia. Israel is likely to be a “major loser”, as any pro-American post-Assad regimes would not have any control over Hezbollah. And Islamists would not be that friendly towards Israel in the long run. As the Economist has put it: “Those who wish Syrian well now need to focus not just on how to bring about Mr Assad’s swift fall from power, but also on how to spare the post-Assad Syria from murder and chaos and how to prevent violence from spreading across a combustible region.” America is least likely to pay heed to its analysts who believe that Syria has all the potential to become “another Iraq”, to the detriment of America:

Washington should stay focused on four key objectives: preventing outside groups from benefiting from the power vacuum; denying weapons to extremists; providing humanitarian aid to those in need; and supporting efforts to build opposition unity. Through material, technical, communications and other nonlethal assistance, the United States should work with allies and neighboring countries to ensure that those who are organizing the courageous internal resistance against the regime and leading the revolution will have a key role in the transition to a new Syria.

In sum, the Syrian crisis is not about the fate of the Assad regime but about the overall security situation that transcends the boundaries of the Middle East. America should pay heed to the following and refrain from intensifying the Syrian crisis just to punish Iran: a) the Red Cross considered the Syrian conflict a civil war between pro- and anti-Assad groups, not a genocide initiated by the Syrian government; and b) a Syria-based anti-Assad opposition group, “Building the Syrian State”, led by Louay Hussein blamed both the Government and opposition for their cynical zero-sum games in Syria: while the Assad regime wanted “either the authority or anarchy” and the opposition demanded “Burn the Country Until Assad Falls”.

The post-Assad Syria is not going to be a stable country. It could become a fractured country of rival sects, religions and ethnic communities, or even worse five different political entities run by five major sects/ethnic groups. “For most of the past 5,000 years, Syria was not a sovereign state”. In the event of Assad’s forced exit, Syria is likely to disintegrate into at least five warring states: Alawites in the mountains by the sea, the Druze in the southern mountains, Maronite Christians in the Mount Lebanon, Kurds in the north, and Sunni majority, 60 percent of the population elsewhere in the country. It can be a replica of post-Saddam Iraq and even worse, a failed state. Alawites constitute twelve percent of the population. The conflict is likely to overflow into Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq among Kurds and others. Syrian Kurds might also strive for autonomy. The spillover effect of the Syrian sectarian conflicts would further destabilize Iraq. Since Hezbollah in Lebanon depends on Syrian support, a Sunni Islamist regime could be lukewarm to hostile to the Shiite militia. One is not sure if the post-Assad Syria could be still friends with Iran and Hezbollah. However, Iran is likely to control Iraq for decades, and through Iraq is likely to keep an eye on Syria and influence Syrians.

Meanwhile, thanks to American and Arab League sponsorship, al Qaeda and militant supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are likely to go for an Islamist takeover in Syria. An Islamist Syrian regime would be anything but pro-US and friendly to Israel. The departure of Assad – who maintains the balance by restraining / controlling the Hezbollah – would be a headache for Israel. Syrian chemical and biological weapons could also threaten Israel, as Hezbollah’s 30/40,000 missiles are capable of carrying chemical weapons to Israel. Al Qaeda operative and Osama bin Laden’s Libyan accomplice Abdelhakim Belhadj, who fought against Qaddafi along with pro-US / pro-NATO fighters, has hundreds of Islamist mercenaries in Syria fighting against Assad. Things in neighboring Iraq are far from normal. Terrorist bomb attacks are killing Iraqi civilians and soldiers on a regular basis. Secular political parties are giving way to Islamists and pro-Iranian al Maliki government.

Taj Hashmi teaches at Austin Peay State University Clarksville, Tennesse



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