As the Obama administration closes out its last year, it has sought to spin its role in the now obvious Syrian chaos and human catastrophe as an attempt to stay out of a civil war, that perhaps, it should not have stayed out of. It is an admirable narrative of a President and his foreign policy team that sought to do good, by refusing to involve itself in another war in the Middle East, only to discover the tragedy that the region was nastier than it had imagined. It is a sad tale of good men who did nothing, or certainly not enough, and it has only the singular problem of being altogether false.
The White House has been deeply involved in the Syrian uprising from the beginning, while simultaneously attempting to hide its own involvement, but you wouldn't know it from the recent press.
The collective memory of the media on this issue has been, as to be expected, amnesiac. A recent New York Times Magazine feature story on Ben Rhodes, the White House foreign policy speechwriter and "Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama's Foreign Policy Guru," glowingly portrays Rhodes as one of the strongest proponents and most powerful voices inside the "Oval Office debate over Syria policy in 2012 -- resulting in a decision not to support the uprising against Assad in any meaningful way." The Magazine goes on to explain how Obama "kept the United States out of a civil war in Syria..." due to "Obama's particular revulsion against a certain kind of global power politics." When asked about the 450,000 deaths in Syria, Ben Rhodes, Obama's "guru" replies. ""Yeah, I admit very much to that reality," he says. "There's a numbing element to Syria in particular. But I will tell you this," he continues. "I profoundly do not believe that the United States could make things better in Syria by being there. And we have an evidentiary record of what happens when we're there -- nearly a decade in Iraq."
"Ben Rhodes wanted to do right," writes the NY Times Magazine, "and maybe, when the arc of history lands, it will turn out that he did. At least, he tried. Something scared him, and made him feel as if the grown-ups in Washington didn't know what they were talking about, and it's hard to argue that he was wrong."
The narrative is as straightforward as it is compelling - the White House and its young idealists are now becoming more aware of, but still struggling with, the tragedy of the world, and under attack for having been too hands-off in Syria: perhaps the perfect set up for Hillary's "more muscular" foreign policy outlook to take shape in. Too bad it's all a lie.
In 2011, The Washington Post itself reported the Obama administrations covert and influential instigation of the Syrian uprising. "The State Department has secretly financed Syrian political opposition groups and related projects, including a satellite TV channel that beams anti-government programming into the country, according to previously undisclosed diplomatic cables" explained The Post. "Classified U.S. diplomatic cables show that the State Department has funneled as much as $6 million...since 2006 to operate the satellite channel and finance other activities inside Syria...The U.S. money for Syrian opposition figures began flowing under President George W. Bush in 2005," wrote the Post, and that "The financial backing has continued under President Obama."
The Post report was based on cables released by Wikileaks. "the cables... show that U.S. Embassy officials in Damascus became worried in 2009 when they learned that Syrian intelligence agents were raising questions about U.S. programs," wrote the Post. "Syrian authorities "would undoubtedly view any U.S. funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change," read an April 2009 cable signed by the top-ranking U.S. diplomat in Damascus at the time."
The money was originally intended to go to anti-Assad forces within Syria, but none could be found who would take foreign money for such a project. So instead, it went to a group of openly-anti Assad Syrian ex-patriots in London, under the name "the Movement for Justice and Development. The group, which is banned in Syria, openly advocates for Assad's removal. U.S. cables describe its leaders as "liberal, moderate Islamists" who are former members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Several U.S. diplomatic cables from the embassy in Damascus reveal that the Syrian exiles received money from a State Department program called the Middle East Partnership Initiative. "According to the cables, the State Department funneled money to the exile group via the Democracy Council, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit." Even the conservative mainstream Post couldn't help but comment on the irony of the effort. "According to its Web site," wrote the Post "the council sponsors projects in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America to promote the "fundamental elements of stable societies."
When forced to comment, the State Department at the time pinned the number at $6.3 million, but at least one Wikileaks cable has the amount of State Department funding at $12 million, and that is just between 2005 and 2010.
The raison d'etre of the cables was indeed that the White House considered this support to be top secret and feared any press over the matter, both because it would prove false the administration's claims of non-involvement and it would of course delegitimize the armed opposition movement in local eyes if it were outed to be a foreign-backed insurrection. "A June 2009 cable" wrote The Post, "listed the concerns under the heading "MJD: A Leaky Boat?" It reported that the group was "seeking to expand its base in Syria" but had been "initially lax in its security, often speaking about highly sensitive material on open lines." The cable cited evidence that the Syrian intelligence service was aware of the connection between the London exile group and the Democracy Council in Los Angeles. As a result, embassy officials fretted that the entire Syria assistance program had been compromised."
Of course, the White House instigation of the Syrian civil war, and assistance to the Syrian rebels did not end with these programs. We need not even begin to peel away at the many layers of financial, military and organizational support that the US has lent to the Syrian civil war rebels through its allies Israel, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who had been arming the rebels from the very beginning. The figure of $6 or $12 million dollars from the State Department was only the very tip of the iceberg. By 2015, in classified debates inside the House Intelligence Committee, The Washington Post later reported that lawmakers were debating how much to continue funding "a secret CIA operation to train and arm rebels in Syria... that U.S. officials said has become one the agency's largest covert operations, with a budget approaching $1 billion a year."
Was this money going towards a television station? Of course not. The Post makes clear that "much of the CIA's money goes toward running secret training camps in Jordan, gathering intelligence to help guide the operations of agency-backed militias and managing a sprawling logistics network used to move fighters, ammunition and weapons into the country."
In fact, from the very first moment of the war, this was no popular uprising that failed to generate Western support, but a foreign-backed assault on a stabile society. Much was done to weaken Assad in the years leading up to it, but the war can be said to have begun, in earnest, in March of 2011, when clashes in the street turned violent (and eerily took the exact same form as that the 1983 CIA backed unsuccessful Homs rebellion in Syria) in which rebel snipers on rooftops shot police and then cried massacre when the police shot back.
Here is the version according to "CNN Fast Facts" on the history of the conflict. "March 2011: Violence flares in Daraa after a group of teens and children are arrested for writing political graffiti. Dozens of people are killed when security forces crack down on demonstrations." Much of the rest of the mainstream media portrays the situation in the same tone - a popular demonstration against Assad was met with brutal force from a maniacal dictator.
Yet here is the version from onlookers themselves. ""I have seen from the beginning armed protesters in those demonstrations ... they were the first to fire on the police. Very often the violence of the security forces comes in response to the brutal violence of the armed insurgents." - Jesuit priest Father Frans Van der Lugt, January 2012, Homs Syria
As Professor Tim Anderson, author of the new book "The Dirty War on Syria" writes: "A double story began on the Syrian conflict, at the very beginning of the armed violence in 2011, in the southern border town of Daraa. The first story comes from independent witnesses in Syria, such as the late Father Frans Van der Lugt in Homs. They say that armed men infiltrated the early political reform demonstrations to shoot at both police and civilians. This violence came from sectarian Islamists. The second comes from the Islamist groups ('rebels') and their western backers, including the Washington-based Human Rights Watch. They claim there was 'indiscriminate' violence from Syrian security forces to repress political rallies and that the 'rebels' grew out of a secular political reform movement."
"In 2011, we saw armed Islamists using rooftop sniping against police and government officials, drawing in the armed forces, only to cry 'civilian massacre' when they and their collaborators came under attack from the Army," writes Anderson. "Careful study of the independent evidence, however, shows that the Washington-backed 'rebel' story, while widespread, was part of a strategy to delegitimize the Syrian Government, with the aim of fomenting 'regime change'."
Indeed, the "sectarian Islamists" who instigated the violence whom Anderson refers to are the Muslim Brotherhood, former members of whom the many secret millions of dollars in US Government funding had been going to.
According to Anderson, "In February 2011 there was popular agitation in Syria, to some extent influenced by the events in Egypt and Tunisia. There were anti-government and pro-government demonstrations, and a genuine political reform movement that for several years had agitated against corruption and the Ba'ath Party monopoly. However only one section of that opposition was linked to the violence that erupted in Daraa. Large anti-government demonstrations began, to be met with huge pro-government demonstrations. In early March, some teenagers in Daraa were arrested for graffiti that had been copied from North Africa 'the people want to overthrow the regime'. It was reported that they were abused by local police, President Bashar al Assad intervened, the local governor was sacked and the teenagers were released."
"Yet the Islamist insurrection was underway, taking cover under the street demonstrations. On 11 March, several days before the violence broke out in Daraa, there were reports that Syrian forces had seized 'a large shipment of weapons and explosives and night-vision goggles ... in a truck coming from Iraq'."
A truck of arms coming to Syrian rebels from Iraq? Who would be sending these? Certainly not the Iranians, not the Russians and certainly not the Iraqi government. Who does that leave left? The US and it's allies, of course.
"The western media consensus was that protestors burned and trashed government offices, and then 'provincial security forces opened fire on marchers, killing several' (Abouzeid 2011). Yet a close study of the media turns this on its head. "While its headline blamed security forces for killing 'protesters'," writes Anderson, "the British Daily Mail (2011) showed pictures of guns, AK47 rifles and hand grenades that security forces had recovered after storming the al-Omari mosque. The paper noted reports that 'an armed gang' had opened fire on an ambulance, killing 'a doctor, a paramedic and a policeman'. Media channels in neighbouring countries did report on the killing of Syrian police, on 17-18 March. On 21 March a Lebanese news report observed that 'Seven policemen were killed during clashes between the security forces and protesters in Syria' (YaLibnan 2011), while an Israel National News report said 'Seven police officers and at least four demonstrators in Syria have been killed ... and the Baath party headquarters and courthouse were torched' (Queenan 2011). These police had been targeted by rooftop snipers."
From there the war was taken North, in an assassination campaign that killed Syrian soldiers and commanders and led to the eventual battles and balkanization of Syria into tinier and more fractured pieces that were either were successfully still under Syrian government control or had been seized by the rebels as "free."
Much of the news on this issue, aside from cables discovered by Wikileaks, has come from the US backed Qatari news channel Al Jazeera, of course - an operation financed by the US, and owned by its close ally, the Royal family of Qatar, who are avowedly anti-Assad. Indeed, as Anderson points out, Al Jazeera "blacked out these attacks, as also the reinforcement provided by armed foreigners. Former Al Jazeera journalist Ali Hashem was one of many who resigned from the Qatar-owned station (RT 2012), complaining of deep bias over their presentation of the violence in Syria. Hashem had footage of armed men arriving from Lebanon, but this was censored by his Qatari managers. 'In a resignation letter I was telling the executive ... it was like nothing was happening in Syria.'"
Anderson goes on, "After months of media manipulations, disguising the Islamist insurrection, Syrians such as Samer al Akhras, a young man from a Sunni family, who used to watch Al Jazeera because he preferred it to state TV, became convinced to back the Syrian government. He saw first-hand the fabrication of reports on Al Jazeera and wrote, in late June 2011:
'I am a Syrian citizen and I am a human. After 4 months of your fake freedom ... You say peaceful demonstration and you shoot our citizen. From today ... I am [now] a Sergeant in the Reserve Army. If I catch anyone ... in any terrorist organization working on the field in Syria I am gonna shoot you as you are shooting us. This is our land not yours, the slaves of American fake freedom' (al Akhras 2011)."
Of course, such laments aren't too commonly portrayed in the American press. Rhodes does do us the service of at least partly explaining why. "All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus," he said. "Now they don't. They call us to explain to them what's happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That's a sea change. They literally know nothing."
Oh the beauty of the circular logic of the media reporting on the administration today, where even the past doesn't exist, except as explained by the White House. How strange must it be at the center of it, where everybody seeks "to do right," through "his own sense of the urgency of radically reorienting American policy in the Middle East in order to make the prospect of American involvement in the region's future wars a lot less likely" and in which the "tragedy" of the deaths of 450,000 Syrians is to be grappled with, but nothing more, and certainly not accepted with any moral, intellectual or political responsibility.
Now that the 450,000 deaths and millions of global refugees that have resulted from the instigation and backing of our Syrian rebels has resulted politically for the US in not much more than a stronger hand by Assad, and deeper, successful involvement in the region by Iran, Hezbollah and the Russians (though the Israelis have successfully used the war as cover and pretext to physically seize the remainder of the Golan Heights), the foreign policy establishment appears quite set that to displace Assad or at the least minimize his control, they they will have to further increase US involvement in the war. Perhaps that is why the administration is attempting to portray the devastation and chaos of the Syrian situation as a popular uprising it needed to have backed more forcefully against the evils of Assad. To do so, it has to wipe clean the nation's memory of the White House's recent past with this new fiction and inspire the country to believe in itself "as a moral actor" (NYT Magazine) again.
It's a good thing there is a novelist in the White House. And, thankfully too, the media will assuredly remind us again soon, Hillary Clinton has a plan.
Michael is a former Middle East Analyst for the State Department. He resigned in protest when he was offered to have his budget doubled to over two million dollars if he focussed his research efforts on how best to distract the public of the Middle East from the tragedy of the Iraq war and "reaffirm common American values." He is now a freelance writer and screenwriter.