Now that President Barack Obama has begun airstrikes inside Syria against the terrorist Islamic State – with the tacit but not explicit approval of Syria’s government — Official Washington’s ever-influential neoconservatives hope they can pressure Obama into a major “mission creep,” to also attack and destroy the Syrian air force.
Like the proverbial camel with its nose into the tent, the neocons are trying to push beyond the U.S.-led attacks on the Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups operating in Syria into a broader “regime change” operation against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, who has been a longtime target of the neocons.
For instance, Jackson Diehl, the deputy editorial-page editor of the neocon Washington Post, called the failure to attack Assad’s military “the hole in Obama’s strategy” and urged that Assad’s air defenses and air power be taken out by the U.S. military as a crucial step toward Assad’s ouster, even though Assad’s military has been the principal bulwark against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s affiliate, al-Nusra Front.
Diehl wrote on Monday: “The problem is that ignoring Assad is likely to lead to even worse consequences. Already, the regime and its spokesmen are exulting in the U.S. bombing raids and doing their best to portray the United States as a de facto ally, while Syrians in rebel-held areas are demonstrating against the U.S. strikes because they are seen to be weakening the resistance to Assad.
“Meanwhile, the regime appears to be stepping up its own bombing raids against the non-extremist opposition. A failure of the United States to respond could destroy U.S. relations not only with its only on-the-ground allies in Syria but also with the Sunni nations that have joined the campaign against the Islamic State. …
“Create a no-fly zone for Syrian aircraft over areas held by the rebels. With U.S. planes already operating in the area, this would be far simpler than it would have been before.”
Of course, much of what Diehl says is untrue. The idea that a viable “moderate” rebel force exists is a fiction. A year ago, many of these “moderate” rebels – trained, funded and armed by the CIA and U.S. Arab allies – repudiated the Syrian political front that the Obama administration had cobbled together and instead embraced al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front.
Obama himself – just last month in an interview with the New York Times – dismissed the notion of relying on “moderate” rebels as a “fantasy” that was “never in the cards” as a workable strategy.
But it is a fantasy that the neocons and their “liberal interventionist” allies have long found useful, portraying the civil war in Syria as a black-and-white conflict between the evil Assad and the saintly “pro-democracy” rebels.
Only in the past year or so as the extremism of the rebel movement became undeniable did the neocons shift their narrative to argue that this radicalization should be blamed on Obama for not having done more to arm the rebels and achieve “regime change” in Syria earlier.
What Happened in Libya?
Though that self-serving neocon narrative has become conventional wisdom in Official Washington, the more likely scenario would have been that the violent overthrow of the secular Assad regime would have led to the formation of a radical Sunni state in the heart of the Middle East.
From nearly the beginning of the conflict in 2011, the toughest anti-Assad fighters were always the Islamist militants who received lucrative backing from wealthy princes in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Persian Gulf oil states.
Also, the neocons’ Syria storyline was tried out — in Libya, where the Obama administration did organize a bombing campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s military supposedly to protect innocent Libyan protesters seeking “democracy.” But the destruction of Gaddafi’s secular regime simply opened the door for Islamist militants to take over, with the chaos now so severe that the United States and other nations have abandoned their embassies in Tripoli.
The likelihood would have been that a parallel intervention in Syria would have resulted in a similar catastrophe, although arguably worse given Syria’s central location in the region. Al-Qaeda’s flag might very well be flying over Damascus.
However, given the neocon-dominated “group think” of Washington, all the “smart” people endlessly repeat the meme that if only Obama had escalated U.S. military support for the “moderate” Syrian rebels earlier, everything would have worked out just great.
And in the wake of Obama’s decision to use air power against the Islamic State terrorists who are operating across the Syrian-Iraqi border, Diehl and other neocons are dusting off the old narrative. The neocons see Obama’s decision as something that can be stretched from attacking non-state actors into attacking the state of Syria.
Responding to this political pressure last Friday, senior U.S. military officials said such an expansion of the bombing campaign had not been ruled out. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested U.S. openness to a Turkish plan for a no-fly zone over Syria.
“We’ve discussed all these possibilities and will continue to talk about what the Turks believe they will require,” said Hagel. Dempsey added that “a buffer zone might at some point become a possibility,” though he said it was not imminent.
But this mission creep would represent a major escalation of the U.S. involvement and represent a clear case of international aggression. President Obama is on thin enough ice with his rationalization for bombing terrorist targets inside Syria without the government’s explicit permission (although Damascus has raised no formal objections).
If Obama were to order U.S. bombing attacks against Syria’s military, he would have to concoct a new excuse, presumably citing the “responsibility to protect” doctrine which has no standing in international law unless approved by the United Nations Security Council.
The “R2P” claim also would be a poor fit for shielding a rebel army that is engaged in warfare against the established government of a country. In effect, the United States would be intervening in a civil war on the side of rebels whom the U.S. government had recruited, trained, armed and funded. Plus, the likely result of such a direct intervention – as with Libya – would be a victory not by these “moderates” but by extremist militias.
By destroying the Syrian air force, Obama also would be further discrediting his rationale for bombing terrorist sites inside Syria. The U.S. argument is that the attacks are justified to protect Iraq from cross-border raids that the Assad government has been unable to stop.
There is already plenty of chutzpah in Obama’s legal argument, since the U.S. and its Sunni allies have been fueling the insurrection inside Syria. It’s almost the classic case of children killing their parents and then demanding sympathy as orphans.
Obama, the Saudis, the Qataris and others have sponsored this civil war and now they cite it as an excuse to violate Syria’s sovereignty. But the neocons want Obama to stretch the hypocrisy even further by destroying Syria’s air force to make it impossible for the government to reclaim control of its territory.
The alternative to this destructive downward spiral would have been to seek a practical resolution of the civil war even it required Assad remaining in office for the near future. Based on the results of last June’s election, it is clear that Assad retains the support of a substantial number of Syrians, particularly the Alawite, Shiite and Christian minorities who fear the extremism of the Sunni Islamists.
But Obama and the U.S. State Department have remained firmly in the saddle of their high horse in demanding that “Assad must go.”
It hasn’t helped that the neocon-dominated mainstream U.S. media has slanted its reporting consistently on the Syrian crisis, including a rush to judgment blaming Assad’s regime for a mysterious Sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Fixing Intel Around Syria Policy” and “Was Turkey Behind Syria-Sarin Attack?’]
In his Monday column, Diehl cited the Assad regime’s guilt in that chemical weapons attack as flat fact, much as he and his boss, editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, stated as flat fact that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in 2002-03.
However, since Hiatt, Diehl and pretty much every other Washington neocon survived getting the Iraq-WMD story completely wrong, they are still around a decade later to make arrogant assertions about how the U.S. military must escalate the war in Syria. They are the camel whose long neck has followed its nose deeply into the Syrian tent.