When historians look back on the American path to war in Syria, two comments by President Obama will stand out. The first was his statement—repeated as a sort of sideline cheer for the Arab Spring—that “Assad must go.” This was a diplomatic error that could not be walked back: it compelled the US to make Assad’s removal not just a desired effect but a precondition for any negotiated settlement of the conflict. The president also said on August 20, 2012 that any reliable report of chemical weapons would “change my calculus”; and on April 30, 2013, he elaborated: chemical weapons would be “a game changer.” On June 13, the White House announced that a new assessment raised to “high certainty” the intelligence community’s belief that chemical weapons had been used by the Assad government and that the US would therefore begin shipping arms to rebels. Even so, several papers reported that the decision had been reached many weeks earlier. It was tied to the chemical findings for reasons of propaganda and mainly for domestic consumption.
The American statement came a week after the announcement of a similar discovery by the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius. There were, said Fabius, traces of Sarin in samples analyzed by a laboratory in France; the evidence, according to L’Express, “issued from Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, where two special correspondents of the French paper Le Monde were witnesses in mid-April to the use of poison gas, and brought specimens to French authorities, and from Saraqeb in the northwest, where an attack was noticed at the end of April.” And yet, said the same story, there could be no assurance about who had used the gas. Fabius for his part, however, seemed to deny any uncertainty: “There is no doubt that it’s the regime and its accomplices.” The total number killed by Sarin—or perhaps a “cocktail” of chemicals with Sarin as an ingredient—is estimated between 100 and 150 in a war where deaths are now reckoned above 90,000. Both sides in the larger war have inflicted death and committed atrocities to the limit of their ability (as UN reports have made clear); the government has killed more people because it has the power to do so.
Well-informed doubts about the origin of the Sarin and the conclusions to be drawn from the samples emerged soon enough in the American press. A story by Mark Mazzetti in The New York Times reported on June 13 that the specimens analyzed by the CIA and driving the new certainty came from two Syrian rebels. A Washington Post story by Column Lynch and Joby Warrick quoted the Belgian forensic authority and chemical weapons expert Jean Pascal Zanders on the results of a comparison between descriptions of the Syria victims and photographs of victims of a 1998 attack in Halabja, in Iraq, who had certainly died from Sarin. The latter showed “blue lips and fingertips and a pink hue brought on by excessive sweating and suffocation,” and Zanders was skeptical because of the absence of any such details in press descriptions of the victims in Syria. “We don’t have the barest of information,” he said. “There is not even a fact sheet documenting the samples.” Nor was such skepticism confined to Europe.
David Kay led the Iraq Survey Group after the US invasion, and discovered the country to be empty of the weapons of mass destruction that were the named cause of that war. About the recent French assertions on Syria, Kay said: “You can try your best to control the analysis, but analysis at a distance is always uncertain.” And again: “You’d be an idiot if you didn’t approach this thing with a bit of caution.” As these observations imply, Obama’s misjudged comment about a “game changer” gave the strongest imaginable incentive for a false-flag operation to drag the US into war. Logically enough, the White House has kept secret all details of the intelligence findings it cites as the cause of its momentous change of policy. It is getting to be a consistent pattern in the Obama administration that, in matters largely affecting the American public, an existing state of secrecy is given as a sufficient reason for further secrecy.
A steady flow of arms is already available to Syrian insurgents thanks to another intervention: the regime change effected by NATO in Libya. A New York Times story on June 22 described how Libyan agents route the weapons to their new home: “Many of the same people who chased [Muammar Qaddafi] to his grave are busy shuttling his former arms stockpiles to rebels in Syria.” This makes for “an unregistered arms pipeline that is difficult to monitor or control.” The pipeline is managed by the Qataris; and the same story noted that Qatari relations with the Libyan militias go as far back as 2011. It is with those militias that arrangements are made, and not the insubstantial Libyan government installed by NATO.
A train of commitments by two administrations has led to the US intervention in Syria, an involvement that started well before the revised intelligence estimate climbed to “high certainty.” Only two days after the June 13 statement, the US announced the deployment of Patriot missiles and F-16s on the Jordanian border. Again, The Los Angeles Times, in a story on June 21, documented the secret training of rebels instructed by American forces in the use of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons: a two-week course that began to be offered in November 2012 at a US military base in the Jordanian desert. This story, at least to one reader, was reminiscent of a similar report from April 17, 2011, by Craig Whitlock in The Washington Post, which uncovered the US subsidy for ideological work by Syrian dissidents. The recipient of the aid, in that case, was a station called Barada TV, which had been broadcasting since April 2009; Barada, set up by George W. Bush in 2005, was linked to a London organization, the Movement for Justice and Development: a group that urged the overthrow of Assad. Whitlock’s story drew profitably on an April 2009 diplomatic cable from the Wikileaks trove, which laid out the rationale for “behavior reform” as opposed to “regime change” in Syria.
Throughout the peculiar history of preparing the ground in Syria, there are distinct reminders of Iraq. As with Iraq, the US is looking to enter a scene of sectarian hostilities that it hopes to control by the right tactics once regime change has been accomplished. As with Iraq, refusal of inspections by the existing government has been taken to indicate the possession and use of forbidden weapons. As with Iraq, we are being encouraged by Sunni regional partners who are willing to sponsor jihadists from an overwhelming desire to weaken and overthrow the government of Iran.
Reporters working in Syria—most recently Robert Worth in an article in The New York Times Magazine—have converged on a single unhappy perception: far and away the largest and most capable groups of rebels are jihadists. That is a central fact of this uprising. But the fall of the town of Qusair to Hezbollah forces, in the first week of June, and the realization that Aleppo is also in jeopardy have turned the war so heavily in Assad’s favor that an all-out campaign for French, British, and American intervention has now been launched. The French “new philosopher” and journalist Bernard-Henri Levy did much to persuade Nicholas Sarkozy of the propriety of organizing a NATO war to overthrow Qaddafi; in a characteristic recent column for The Daily Beast, Levy nicknames Assad “the Syrian killer” and speaks of the danger that now threatens the morale and substance of the West:
The surrender of Aleppo to the death squads of Hezbollah would be a fresh eruption of carnage whose victims would be heaped atop the hundred thousand already claimed by this atrocious war against a civilian population.
He affirms that “Aleppo belongs not to Syria but to the world”—a stirring phrase of ambiguous import—and he numbers the recent crimes against civilization by Serbs and Islamists: “those past crimes haunt our collective conscience.” The failures of the West have all been failures to wage the necessary humanitarian wars against Slavic or Islamist fanatics.
It must be admitted that American policy has fallen short of demands like these. We sided with Islamist rebels in Afghanistan, under the name of Mujahideen fighters, and against the same rebels under the names of Taliban and al-Qaeda; we fought against them in Iraq during the 2004 insurgency, and stood at their side as paymasters and allies when they became the “Sunni Awakening” in 2007; we were against them in Mali, Somalia, and Yemen, but allied with them as the courageous militias in Libya; and now in Syria, we are both for them and against them—allies insofar as they agree with us in attacking the government, but opponents because they want to dominate or kill the moderate rebels to whom we intend to ship arms. We will wage war against them after they help us to win the war against Assad.
Still, the force of an impassioned and moralistic appeal for Western involvement in religious wars should not be underrated. The view a man like Levy espouses is just one remove from a policy-maker like Susan Rice, the president’s new national security adviser; and the liberal interventionists since 1999 have formed a section of the policy elite very proficient at linking war with conscience. They combine the adjective humanitarian and the noun war as glibly as the Communists a generation ago matched the word people’s with republic. In a proxy war like Syria—with France, Britain, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the US supporting the insurgents, and Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran (along with Iraqi and other foreign Shia militias) supporting the Syrian government—a policy of humanitarian war promises to double or triple the toll of human lives. Obama’s bad decision will only intensify the flow of arms from the puppet-masters. The external powers may snap their fingers at the idea of a regional conflict, but such a conflict is in progress, and the only question is whether it will be stopped early at the conference table, or late by a remnant of survivors picking among the rubble. The slide into this war by the US has been gradual, treacherous, and avoidable. It will be a long climb getting back out, and it will need the assistance of countries we prefer not to call friends. But after all Aleppo belongs to the people who live there and not the people we pay to die.