Getting US intervention in Syria wrong: a response to Jamie Allinson’s ‘Disaster Islamism’
In February 2017 Dr Jamie Allinson, a Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East at the University of Edinburgh, published an article titled ‘Disaster Islamism’ in the revolutionary leftist Salvage magazine.
Allinson spends the first section of the article slaying a number of what he sees as leftist myths about the on-going Syrian conflict.
For example, he refers to “the myth of ISIS as US creation”. After reading his article I tweeted Allinson asking “which credible commentators, analysts or writers subscribe to this myth?” Allinson replied, noting Noam Chomsky and the former Guardian columnist Seamus Milne make the argument and that it’s “a pervasive belief on Stop the War and/ pro-Palestine marches I’ve been on, and very common on FB [Facebook] etc.” I checked Allinson’s sources, and found in the Milne article Allinson pointed me to that Milne clearly states “That doesn’t mean the US created ISIS, of course”. The Chomsky interview Allinson refers to has Chomsky quoting an ex-CIA Officer arguing ISIS grew out of US occupation of Iraq — an argument Allinson describes as “true” (though “inadequate”) in his article. Allinson’s smearing of Milne and Chomsky and citing the views of unnamed protesters is a textbook example of building a straw man to knock down, allowing Allinson to ignore more credible and sophisticated arguments and voices about Western intervention in Syria. When I pointed this out to Allinson he dismissively replied “Glad to hear it. Look forward to your disabusing people of that belief on StW marches. See you later.”
Unfortunately for Allinson the rest of the section of his article looking at Western involvement in the Syria war is littered with inaccuracies. As the article is 1) published in the influential and respected (amongst the Left, at least) Salvage 2) many of his arguments are repeated by others on the left including respected academic Professor Gilbert Achcar and Salvage Co-Founder Richard Seymour 3) Allinson criticises others for having a “dogged resistance… to empirical evidence” and 4) Allinson teaches the Middle East at one of the UK’s top universities, it is worth considering his assertions in detail.
I apologise for the length and repetitiveness of my rebuttal in advance — I thought it was important to present as much of the evidence as clearly as possible.
Has the US been pursuing regime change in Syria?
Allison believes it is a myth that “the US has pursued a policy of regime change to topple the Ba’athist Assad regime”. “There is not, and never has been, An American imperial policy to overthrow the Ba’athist regime in Damascus”, he repeats emphatically later in the piece.
How should one assess whether the US has pursued regime change in Syria? First, one could consider the statements of the US government itself. “Assad must go — and I believe he will go”, President Obama stated in March 2013. In May 2013 White House Press Secretary confirmed “We have been making clear as a matter of United States policy that we believe that Assad must not continue to rule Syria”. In September 2013 US Secretary of State John Kerry reconfirmed “President Obama’s policy is that Assad must go.” While one should always be wary of taking the public utterances of established power at face value, it is important to consider the enabling effect these statements of intent will have had on Syrian rebels and those who support them.
Many mainstream news outlets agree the US has been pursuing regime change in Syria. On 23 July 2012 the International Herald Tribune included the front page headline ‘US focuses on efforts to topple Assad government’, with the accompanying story noting the Obama Administration “is increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down” the Syrian government. The same month the Wall Street Journal reported “The US has been mounting a secret but limited effort to speed the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, without using force, scrambling spies and diplomats to block arms and oil shipments from Iran and passing intelligence to frontline allies.” In October 2015 the Washington Post’s Liz Sly referred in passing to one of “the Obama administration’s goals in Syria — Assad’s negotiated exist from power.” Writing in July 2016, Dr Austin Carson, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and Dr Michael Poznansky, an Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Intelligence Studies in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, noted the US is trying to achieve regime change in Syria.
US actions have broadly followed their public statements saying they wanted Assad removed from power. Since early 2012 the US has increasingly intervened in Syria, from making public statements about the Syrian government’s future, to sanctioning members of the Syrian government and sending non-lethal aid to the rebels who are trying to violently overthrow Assad. In 2013 Obama authorised the CIA to set up a programme, codenamed Timber Sycamore, to train and equip Syrian rebels. Citing US officials, in June 2015 the Washington Post estimated the programme — “one of the agency’s largest covert operations” — was spending $1bn a year and had trained and equipped 10,000 rebels.
Though conveniently ignored by Allinson, it is impossible to assess whether the US has been pursuing regime change in Syria without considering the US’s relationship with its allies in the region — specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. With all three countries keen to overthrow Assad, one would presume that if, as Allinson claims, the US wasn’t pursuing regime change in Syria, the US would have nothing to do with the attempts by its allies to topple the Assad government. In reality, the evidence clearly shows that US policy has been to use (and work closely with) Saudi Arabia and Qatar to try to overthrow the Syrian government.
Citing US and Arab officials, in June 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that “The US in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates”. In November 2012 the New York Times pondered whether the US should directly arm the rebels “rather than only continuing to use other countries, especially Qatar, to do so.” As “Assad has shown no signs of leaving — the United States has slowly stepped up its assistance to include non-lethal military support, while acknowledging and tacitly welcoming arms that are being supplied by both Saudi Arabia and Qatar”, noted the Washington Post in April 2013. And in June 2013 the Los Angeles Times noted that arms shipments from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to Syrian rebels were “provided with assent from the US.”
Dr Christopher Phillips, an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, provides some background to the US’s use of its regional proxies in his 2016 book The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the Middle East:
…they [the West, circa 2011–12] endorsed the regional powers’ support for the rebels. Western intelligence knew of regional arms transfers and financial support and, while they urged coordination, there were few efforts to stop them. Indeed, [US Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton effectively gave the green light, admitting in her memoirs that at a meeting in Riyadh in March 2012 she acknowledged what was already happening: ‘certain countries would increase their efforts to funnel arms, while others [i.e. the US] would focus on humanitarian needs.’ Yet far from standing by, the CIA and other western intelligence services allegedly facilitated many of these operations. (p. 143)
Dr Christopher Davidson, a Reader in Middle East politics at Durham University, seems to broadly agree, noting in his book Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East — in a section titled ‘Syria — Enter the Proxies’ — that the Gulf monarchies “were encouraged” by the West “to enmesh themselves in the politics and financing of the Syrian opposition.” Davidson cites an article in Foreign Policy by journalist Elizabeth Dickinson: “Qatar had such freedom to run its network for the last three years because Washington was looking the other way. In fact, in 2011, the United States gave Doha de facto free rein to do what it wasn’t willing to in the Middle East: intervene.” By May 2013 a Financial Times article co-authored by Roula Khalaf was citing people close to the Qatar government saying that Qatar had contributed as much as $3bn to the Syrian rebels.
As Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden explained in 2012, the US has been working “hand in glove” with Saudi Arabia and its other allies in the region. “Officials in the Central Intelligence Agency knew that Saudi Arabia was serious about toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when the Saudi King named Prince Bander bin Sultan al-Saud to lead the effort”, reported the Wall Street Journal in August 2013. “They believed that Prince Bander… could deliver what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms”. Having worked together since the 1980s, according to a January 2016 New York Times report Saudi Arabia was a “willing partner” in the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme to support rebels fighting to overthrow Assad. “From the moment the CIA operation was started, Saudi money supported it.”
A couple of interim conclusions. First, it is concerning that the establishment corporate media seems to have a more sceptical and sharper analysis of US foreign policy in the Middle East than an academic whose expertise is the Middle East and is writing for a revolutionary leftist publication.
Second, despite Allinson’s denial, there is substantial evidence the US has been pursing regime change in Syria — confirmed by its own public statements, Obama authorising the CIA to set up a multi-billion dollar programme to support the armed opposition trying to overthrow the Assad government, and the US giving the green light to — and then working closely with — its regional allies working to topple Assad.
Of course, it’s important to remember, as Allinson argues in an article he wrote for New Left Project in 2012, that the Syrian conflict is “extremely complicated and difficult for even those within the country to grasp, let alone those outside of it.” US policy has not been static on Syria. Like any state’s foreign policy towards a long-term, multi-dimensional conflict, US policy on Syria has evolved over time. There is evidence that suggests the US actively pursued regime change in the earlier stages of the conflict, and then perhaps reduced its expectations from around 2014 onwards — looking to create the conditions on the battlefield (a stalemate) that would produce a the political settlement and the eventual exit of Assad, as Sly notes above (though this still sounds a lot like regime change to me). It’s also clear that senior Obama Administration officials and arms of the US state have had different positions and aims when it came to Syria. The discussions and divisions within Obama’s national security team have been extensively reported, as has the differing aims and methods of the Pentagon and CIA in country.
Has the US only armed Syrian rebels with the precondition the arms would only be used against ISIS?
Discussing the US funding and arming anti-Assad militias, Allinson asserts “the amount of weaponry and ammunition actually supplied by the US has been highly limited and the precondition of its supply was that it be used against ISIS rather than Assad”.
It’s an astonishing claim — refuted by a cursory glance at mainstream news reporting. While the US has spent significant funds trying to support rebels groups fighting ISIS, the US has also played a central — and much bigger — role in supporting the rebels trying to overthrow the Assad government. As the New York Times explained in January 2016 (an article Allinson cites in his own article):
The CIA training program is separate from another program to arm Syrian rebels, one the Pentagon ran that has since ended. That program was designed to train rebels to combat Islamic State fighters in Syria, unlike the CIA’s program, which focuses on rebel groups fighting the Syrian military.
Has the US been interested in increasing weapons supplies to the Syrian rebels fighting Assad?
“Where the US has the most influence over weaponry supplies we see less or no fighting against Assad”, argues Allinson. “The evidence is conclusive; and incompatible with the claim that the US has armed the FSA to overthrow the Ba’athist regime.” Moreover, Allinson continues, “the aim of the [US’s covert operations] was not to increase the supply of weapons… but to ‘try to gain control of it.’”
Considering the evidence I’ve already presented above (available to anyone who bothers to look at the US mainstream press coverage of Syria) this is another astonishing claim by Allinson, though one repeated elsewhere.
In the real world countless media reports clearly show the US has been involved in increasing the amount of weapons going to the Syrian rebels which, unsurprisingly, has led to gains for the rebels on the battlefield — that is, more fighting with Syrian government forces, not less, as Allinson bizarrely claims.
In March 2013 the New York Times noted “With the help of the CIA, Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months.” The report goes on to summarise a former American official as saying “the size of the shipments and the degree of distributions” the CIA were helping to send to the rebels “are voluminous.” No less than the US Secretary of State told Syrian activists in 2016 that the US had “been putting an extraordinary amount of arms” into Syria. In his book Phillips refers to “vast sums [of arms] provided” (p. 145) to the Syrian rebels.
Compare Allinson’s claim that US influence over arms deliveries reduces fighting against the Assad government with the following reports. Washington Post, May 2012: “Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States… The new supplies reversed months of setbacks for the rebels”. New York Times, March 2013: Qatari flights supplying arms to the rebels (“with help from the CIA”) “aligned with the tide-turning military campaign by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib” which “began driving Mr. Assad’s military and supporting militias from parts of the countryside.” New York Times, October 2015: “Insurgent commanders say that… they are receiving for the first time bountiful supplies of powerful American-made antitank missiles… making a diplomatic settlement all the more unlikely.” These missiles “began arriving in the region in 2013, through a covert program run by the United States, Saudi Arabia and other allies”. Washington Post, October 2015: “So successful have they [US-made antitank missiles] been in driving rebel gains in northwestern Syria that rebels call the missile the ‘Assad Tamer’… in recent days they have been used with great success to slow the Russian-backed offensive”. In July 2016, two former members of the US National Security Council argued that those who support more US intervention in Syria “fail to recognize that the United States in fact has effectively weakened President Bashar al-Assad already. In 2015, the administration’s aggressive covert action program facilitated significant gains for the opposition in northern Syria”.
If the US has been pursuing regime change in Syria, why hasn’t it succeeded?
If the CIA “were heavily arming and supporting the Syrian opposition to overthrow the regime, we would have seen very different results”, argues Allinson. He later repeats this point, writing “If this is an attempt to overthrow the regime, it is a rather poor show.”
It’s an attractive argument but one that seems a little simplistic to me. While it is the world’s sole superpower, the US is not an all-powerful God but a state with competing priorities, domestic political pressures and finite budgets. Recent history — Iraq and Afghanistan — suggests the US does not always get want it wants. In Vietnam the US had the military power to ‘win’ the war but was unable to deploy this fully due to US public opinion.
Something similar seems to have happened with Syria. With the US preparing to conduct airstrikes on the Syrian government after its alleged use of chemical weapons in August 2013, New York Times/CBS News and Gallup polling both showed relatively low public support for military action — “among the lowest for any intervention Gallup has asked about in the last 20 years.” Kerry highlighted the government’s concern with public opinion and the American political landscape in his 2016 discussion with Syrian activists about US intervention in Syria: “How many wars have we been fighting? We’ve been fighting in Afghanistan, we’ve been fighting in Iraq, we’ve been fighting in the region for, you know, 14 years. A lot of Americans don’t believe we should be fighting and sending young Americans over to die in another country. That’s the problem. Congress won’t vote to do it.”
The rebel forces the US and its regional allies have been supporting have been riven by disunity and infighting. The US’s allies themselves have pursued their own national interests, according to Phillips (p. 145), which “helped produce a rebel marketplace that saw militia compete for resources rather than unite.” According to Professor Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, “America failed not because it didn’t try, but because its moderates were incompetent and unpopular. As soon as they began taking money and orders from America, they were tarred by radicals as CIA agents, who were corrupt and traitors to the revolution. America was toxic, and everything it touched turned to sand in its hands.”
Moreover, the Russian and Iranian support for Assad, in particular the direct Russian intervention in September 2015 — something Clinton didn’t think would happen when discussing overthrowing Assad in 2012 — is arguably the key factor why US attempts to overthrow Assad have failed. Phillips: “For every rebel gain, the regime received greater support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.” (p. 144) And here is the kicker: “As long as the regime retained its own foreign supporters, who appeared far more committed to Assad’s survival than western states were to his removal, it is unlikely that a limited number of western arms would force any compromise.” (p. 144–5) In short, Russia was able to overtly and decisively wade knee deep in the Syrian slaughter and not pay the price domestically (and perhaps internationally) that the US would likely have done for a similar level of intervention.
While Allinson admonishes others for their “dogged resistance… to empirical evidence”, it is clear Allinson himself ignores and therefore refuses to engage with the voluminous evidence that contradicts many of his central assertions about US intervention in Syria.
In turning his back on inconvenient facts, Allinson repeats a number of falsehoods about the US in Syria, significantly underplaying the level of the US interference in the conflict. As I have shown, the US is deeply involved in the Syrian war, helping to escalate and prolong the violence. There is considerable evidence to suggest the US (and the UK) has also played a key role in blocking a peaceful solution to the conflict. Therefore the US, along with Russia, Iran and other external actors such as the UK, is partly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of dead, the massive refugee flows and the wider destruction of Syria as a political, economic and cultural entity.
This uncomfortable reality is likely one reason why the US has chosen to make its largest and most effective intervention in the war (the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme) a covert operation. This secrecy, even when it has been compromised by widespread media reports, serves a number of purposes. First, the covert nature of the intervention allows the US government to minimise public discussion and scrutiny. Second, as Carson and Poznansky argue, “any escalatory incidents or clashes can be obscured from the ‘audience’ (i.e. domestic publics and third party states), which preserves face-saving ways to de-escalate”. Finally, regime change is illegal under international law, which means “the very nature of what the United States is trying to achieve in Syria — regime change — renders such concerns particularly salient”, according to Carson and Poznansky. The US’s covert action thus allows for what is known as “plausible deniability”.
“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions”, Professor Noam Chomsky wrote in his 1969 book American Power and the New Mandarins. Rather than expose the nefarious actions of the US government in Syria, by downplaying the level of US intervention in the face of overwhelming evidence Allinson is helping the US government continue to deceive Western publics.