The problem I have with Seymour Hersh’s latest thinly and anonymously sourced conspiracy theory about Syria is not that I find it implausible that the U.S. government would conspire to preserve the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad — by, in part, passing it intelligence on “jihadists” through a third party — but that we already know this is the case and need not rely on the word of a chatty “former adviser” to the Pentagon who happens to be friends with a famous journalist.
The real problem for Hersh and others like him these days is that ever since the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011 they have cast in terms of conspiracy, abandoning class analysis to suggest it was, from the start, or damn near close it, a U.S-Israeli plot to effect regime change, not the predictable and indeed predicted result of authoritarian neoliberalism, poverty and the closing off of any means for Syrians to achieve meaningful reform through politics or pacifism.
Reality has not been kind to this narrative. When the U.S. began bombing Syria in September 2014, it came not for the Assad regime but for the Islamic State, al-Nusra and even a couple factions associated with the Free Syrian Army. “Before the international coalition struck a couple of military targets of Daesh inside Syrian territory, Secretary [of State John] Kerry asked me to deliver a message to the Syrians,” recalls Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Jafari. “I agreed to deliver this message to Syrians.”
After the bombing began, the Council on Foreign Relations’ president emeritus, Leslie Gelb, while advocating an open alliance with the Syrian dictator, noted that “Assad seems to be turning off his air-defense system when U.S. aircraft attack his territory.” Of course he was: He was informed of the strikes ahead of time and those strikes were targeting those who weren’t him, furthering his long-stated desire to be part of a U.S.-led war on terror, again.
The Obama administration’s train-and-equip program for rebels was explicitly directed at the Islamic State. “You should not shoot a bullet against the regime,” one commander recalls being told. When the program inevitably failed, rebels unwilling to serve the United States’ ISIS-only policy, the Obama administration redirected its money to Syria’s Kurdish militias, who enjoy an uneasy truce with the Assad regime.
Rather than concede that President Obama was more swayed by Washington’s stability-minded “realists” than the neoconservatives of George W. Bush’s first term, Hersh — who claimed the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks were “false flags” designed to spur intervention — is required to embrace conspiracy, while the more sophisticated embrace dull revisionism. If the U.S. isn’t set on regime change now, it goes, that’s only because it recognizes what the Islamophobic left and right have been saying for the last four years: that every Syrian outside the Assad regime and its base is a jihadist, or a potential one.
In fact, according to Hersh, this belated realization only came after patriots at the Pentagon bravely decided to undermine the policy of the elected president of the United States and to funnel intelligence to the Assad regime, staving off its collapse. That such a subversion of democracy is now welcome, from a journalist of the left, speaks to the strange times in which we now live.
Thankfully, I suppose, no such subversion was ever required. Contra the dumbed down regime change narrative, the U.S. would have much preferred a stable Assad remaining in power for many years to come when the uprising against him broke out nearly five years ago. “There’s a different leader in Syria now,” said former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in May 2011, after hundreds of Syrians had been killed in the previous weeks by that leader’s security forces. “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”
In August 2012, after the death toll had reached the thousands, President Obama was forced to lay out his famous “red line” — which, in fact, was a message to the Syrian government that conventional slaughter was fine, but don’t make it any harder for the imperialist, humanitarian West to look the other way than it already is.
Here’s something: When the Assad regime tested that red line and in fact crossed it, Obama, unlike as in Libya, went to Congress for authorization to carry out strikes he clearly did not want to carry out — and then eagerly agreed with Russia to accept a deal proposed by Israel to save the Assad regime from even the threat of a few bombings instead.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not publicly claim credit for that deal, a former adviser told The New York Times, for fear “somebody will say it’s an Israeli idea, Israeli conspiracy, maybe it’s a reason to stop it.”
Neither Hersh nor any Assadist “anti-imperialists” have been interested in noting this Israeli conspiracy, not-so-oddly enough: It undermines the narrative they’ve sunk too many years into defending. The realization one has been defending an Israeli-preferred fascist responsible for the deaths of over 200,000 people… but from the left? Yikes.
U.S. officials may, if pressed — and not wrongly — see Assad the man as a liability when it comes to preserving that U.S./Israeli-friendy “stability,” but their actions have, for years, belied whatever humanitarian rhetoric they still shamelessly mutter. Their actions, in fact, show their agreement with what the RAND Institute found to be the Washington consensus back in 2013: Collapse of the Assad regime is “perceived to be the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests.”
There’s no need for the Pentagon to go around a president who pursues the same “stability”-focused, jihadist-obsessed policy they desire (and which much of the left has now embraced). And you don’t need a convoluted conspiracy theory to explain U.S. policy in Syria, but as it dawns on discredited journalists and pro-war “antiwar” idiots on the world’s social media that their views, in fact, are shared by every major imperialist power, expect a good deal more of it. Admitting error is far too much to ask from those who long ago doubled down on apologism for mass murder.