Although its doors have been closed since 2012, the U.S. embassy in Damascus has recently sent out a round of pugnacious tweets charging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with giving Islamic State fighters a free pass while bombing U.S.-aligned Free Syrian Army (FSA) units holed up in the city of Aleppo.
By bombing one side in an intra-rebel war and not the other, the embassy says, Damascus is making its preference clear, i.e., in favor of the hyper-brutal Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “Reports indicate,” declared an embassy tweet on June 1, “that the regime is making air-strikes in support of ISIL’s advance on Aleppo, aiding extremists against Syrian population.”
“We have long seen that the Assad regime avoids ISIL lines,” said another, “in complete contradiction to the regime’s claims to be fighting ISIL.” Added a third: “Assad is not only avoiding ISIL lines, but actively seeking to bolster their position.”
But this picture is complicated by the fact that the FSA also faults the U.S. for not bombing ISIS and that Shi‘ite forces across the border in Iraq actually accuse America of providing ISIS with military aid. The Islamic State is America’s “creation,” declared Akram al-Kabi, leader of the powerful Nujabaa Brigade, while Iraqi forces recently fired on a U.S. helicopter that they believed was ferrying aid to the other side.
“We have a continuous problem in effectively countering the narrative,” observes Brigadier General Kurt Crytzer, deputy commander for Special Operations Command Central. The story that the U.S. is secretly supporting ISIS is “easily believed by many … not just the poor and uneducated.”
For The New York Times’ Anne Barnard, this swirl of charges and counter-charges demonstrates “the complexity of the battlefield in Syria’s multifaceted war and the challenges it poses for United States policy.” But Barnard is wrong in her analysis. It’s not the Syrian battlefield that’s complex, but the predicament that the U.S. finds itself in.
What has caused Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states to ratchet up their support for radical Islamists fighting in Syria and Iraq is the impending nuclear accord with Iran, which has infuriated Sunni states and Israel and is leading the U.S. to assure its allies that it will redouble its efforts to roll back Iranian influence in other countries.
This means a stepped-up effort to topple the Iranian-backed government in Syria and to oppose pro-Iranian forces in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and inside Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration wants to have a peaceful agreement with Iran over nuclear issues but the price is to double down on a proxy war against Iranian (and Shi’ite) interests across the Middle East.
The upshot is a policy that has everyone in the Middle East shaking their head in confusion, which is why charges of back-stabbing and double-dealing are proliferating. A vastly overextended U.S. has no alternative but to scale back. But the more it does, the more nervous its partners grow and the more promises it makes that it can’t possibly keep.
The charge that the Assad regime is secretly aiding ISIS is hardly a new one (albeit one lacking any real evidence or logic). It is a tune that neocons and their accomplices have been singing for years. Abu Dhabi, for example, has accused Damascus of springing thousands of ISIS operatives from jail in 2011 in the hopes that they would join the opposition and thereby help discredit the anti-Assad movement.
Ezra Klein’s Vox Media has accused Assad of making use of “ISIS’s extremism … [to] convince Alawites that defecting to the rebels means the destruction of their homes and communities.” Quoting an unnamed Syrian businessman, Time says that Assad sees ISIS jihadis as “frenemies” because “they make America nervous, and the Americans in turn see the regime as a kind of bulwark against ISIS.”
According to this speculation (or propaganda), Assad is thus nurturing ISIS on the sly in order to undermine the FSA, neutralize opposition among Christians and Alawites, and persuade naïve Americans to do his bidding. But none of it is supported by evidence, nor does it makes any sense.
ISIS is the most formidable military force to emerge in the Middle East in decades. The idea that Assad would purposely nurture such a force while at the same time wrestling with an insurgency that was out of control to begin with is absurd. The same goes for releasing thousands of ISIS militants as part of some Machiavellian maneuver to discredit the anti-Assad forces.
By chanting “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the coffin,” within weeks of taking to the streets in March 2011,” the anti-Assad forces were doing more than enough to discredit themselves. As for Christians and Alawites, the idea that the Damascus government needed the Islamic State to scare them into submission is ridiculous. In a nation torn by sectarian violence since the late 1970s, Syria’s minorities did not need the government to invent such fears. With Sunni mobs baying for blood, they were real enough on their own.
Christians understood that it was “going to be very dangerous for them, to put it very mildly,” if the anti-Assad forces were victorious, a Syrian church official said just a few months into the uprising.
“They wanted to kill us because we were Christians,” recounted an 18-year-old girl fleeing Homs a year later. “They were calling us kaffirs [infidels], even little children saying these things. Those who were our neighbors turned against us.”
The U.S. embassy’s latest claims are equally far-fetched. If the Syrian military is indeed not bombing ISIS, then the likeliest reason is that the FSA, holed up in Aleppo, is nearer at hand and hence the more immediate threat. It’s the problem that Syria’s overstretched military forces must deal with first. Yet the U.S. cheers on the FSA whenever it makes the slightest advance and then denounces the Syrian government when it tries to stop it. Assad is guilty of war crimes when he bombs, according to Washington, and guilty of fostering terrorism when he doesn’t.
Moreover, it’s particularly strange to see Anne Barnard trumpeting such charges on the front page of The New York Times when, two weeks earlier, she reported that U.S. policy was not to bomb Islamic State forces when they were in combat with Syrian government troops.
Explaining why the Islamic State was able to overwhelm government defenses in Palmyra, she wrote: “In Syria, a new awkwardness arises. Any airstrikes against Islamic State militants in and around Palmyra would probably benefit the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. So far, United States-led airstrikes in Syria have largely focused on areas far outside government control, to avoid the perception of aiding a leader whose ouster President Obama has called for.”
So the U.S. has decided to leave ISIS alone as long as it engages Syrian government forces in battle – which, among other things, suggests that the fall of Palmyra was in accord with U.S. strategic goals. But while failing to bomb ISIS when it was overrunning Palmyra, the Obama administration assails Assad when he fails to bomb ISIS when it approaches FSA lines in Aleppo. It’s the kind of contorted logic that only America’s mainstream media would find acceptable.
Who’s to Blame?
In fact, what people like Anne Barnard cannot bring themselves to admit is that the real responsibility lies not with Assad, but with the U.S. and allies for fomenting Syria’s sectarian warfare in the first place. Assad’s Baathists are hardly blameless. To the contrary, the Assad dictatorship has been running on empty for years as the economy declined, drought ravished the countryside, and inequality zoomed.
But while the Assad family is guilty of many things, sectarianism is not one of them. As nationalists, the Baathists have sought to elevate a concept of Syrian or Arab identity above religion, which is why Christians and Alawites have given them their support and why certain die-hard Sunni elements, bitter over their loss of status, have vowed revenge.
A radical journalist who visited Damascus and Aleppo prior to the uprising found cities that were “bustling and beautiful” and historic neighborhoods and mosques that were “well-maintained and accessible to tourists.” But the few women in the streets were heavily covered, images of Bashar al-Assad were everywhere, while shopkeepers were too nervous to talk politics. It was a portrait of a society deeply split between a fervent Sunni majority and an increasingly isolated regime still committed so some semblance of supra-religious national unity.
It was a bad situation and one that the U.S. and its allies did everything in their power to make even worse. In mid-2012, The Times reported that CIA agents in southern Turkey were working with Syria’s ferociously anti-Alawite Muslim Brotherhood to funnel Turkish, Saudi and Qatari arms to rebels considered acceptable. Two months later, the Defense Intelligence Agency issued a report finding that:
— Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and assorted Salafists were “the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”
– Despite Al-Qaeda’s growing role, the Western powers, Arab gulf states, and Turkey were solidly behind the uprising.
– The jihadis would likely establish “a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria” and that “this is exactly what the supporting powers want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”
– Al-Qaeda was seeking to unite all Sunnis in a general anti-Shi‘ite jihad.
“We are at war against Al-Qaeda,” Obama had declared in January 2010. Yet, two years later, the U.S. found itself drawn into an Al-Qaeda-driven religious crusade.
“The next genocide in the world will likely be against the Alawites in Syria,” former U.S. ambassador to Croatia Peter W. Galbraith warned in November 2012 at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Yet he was ignored.
In October 2014, Vice President Joe Biden told an audience at Harvard’s Kennedy School that “the Saudis, the emirates, etc. … were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except the people who were being supplied were Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” [Quote starts at 53:20].
A proxy Sunni-Shia war is a recipe for turning Syria into a communal slaughterhouse, yet the U.S. went along. The following April, U.S.-made TOW missiles – most likely supplied by the Saudis – enabled a military coalition headed by Al-Nusra to conquer a slice of territory in Syria’s Idlib Province.
But while admitting that the White House is “not blind to the fact that it is to some extent inevitable” that U.S. weapons will wind up in terrorist hands, the most a “senior administration official” could tell The Washington Post is that “it’s not something we would refrain from raising with our partners.” The Obama administration might object to high-tech U.S. weaponry finding its way into Al-Qaeda hands. But then again, it might not.
Thus, the negotiations with Iran have resulted in a curious dynamic. Most Americans hope that the talks will help defuse conflict in the Middle East. But they are in fact doing the opposite. America’s allies in that region turn out to be some of the most sectarian nations on earth, not just Saudi Arabia and the Arab gulf states but Israel as well.
Spooked by the impending peace agreement, they are now demanding no-holds-barred religious warfare against a region-wide Shi‘ite “conspiracy” supposedly originating in Tehran – and the U.S., struggling to hold the alliance together, is unable to say no.
As a consequence, Washington has agreed to a Saudi war against the Shi‘ite Houthis in Yemen, to a Saudi-led crackdown on Shi‘ite democratic protesters in Bahrain, and to a stepped-up Saudi-Turkish-Qatari effort to overthrow Assad in Syria, a campaign that has already claimed an estimated 220,000 lives and will undoubtedly claim many more.
To cap it off, the U.S. is now blaming Assad for stirring things up in the first place. It’s a big lie worthy of Goebbels, yet the only people falling for it are America’s lapdog press.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).