WikiLeaks Reveals How the US Aggressively Pursued Regime Change in Syria, Igniting a Bloodbath
Syrian soldiers and children at a checkpoint in the besieged and devastated city of Homs, Syria, March 23, 2014. For both sides of Syria's civil war, Homs, a central Syrian crossroads with a diverse prewar population of 1 million, is crucial to the future. (Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times)
In 2010, WikiLeaks became a household name by releasing 251,287 classified State Department cables. Now, a new book collects in-depth analyses of what these cables tell us about the foreign policy of the United States, from authors including Truthout staff reporter Dahr Jamail and our regular contributors Gareth Porter, Robert Naiman, Phyllis Bennis and Stephen Zunes. "The essays that make up The WikiLeaks Files shed critical light on a once secret history," says Edward Snowden. Click here to order your copy today with a donation to Truthout.
The following is Chapter 10 of The WikiLeaks Files:
On August 31, 2013, US president Barack Obama announced that he intended to launch a military attack on Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack in that country that the US blamed on the Syrian government. Obama assured the US public that this would be a limited action solely intended to punish the Assad government for using chemical weapons; the goal of US military action would not be to overthrow the Assad government, nor to change the balance of forces in Syria's sectarian civil war.
History shows that public understanding of US foreign policy depends crucially on assessing the motivations of US officials. It is likely inevitable as a result that US officials will present themselves to the public as having more noble motivations than they share with each other in private, and therefore that if members of the public had access to the motivations shared in private, they might make different assessments of US policy. This is a key reason why WikiLeaks' publishing of US diplomatic cables was so important.
The cables gave the public a recent window into the strategies and motivations of US officials as they expressed them to each other, not as they usually expressed them to the public. In the case of Syria, the cables show that regime change had been a long-standing goal of US policy; that the US promoted sectarianism in support of its regime-change policy, thus helping lay the foundation for the sectarian civil war and massive bloodshed that we see in Syria today; that key components of the Bush administration's regime-change policy remained in place even as the Obama administration moved publicly toward a policy of engagement; and that the US government was much more interested in the Syrian government's foreign policy, particularly its relationship with Iran, than in human rights inside Syria.
A December 13, 2006 cable, "Influencing the SARG [Syrian government] in the End of 2006,"1 indicates that, as far back as 2006 - five years before "Arab Spring" protests in Syria - destabilizing the Syrian government was a central motivation of US policy. The author of the cable was William Roebuck, at the time chargé d'affaires at the US embassy in Damascus. The cable outlines strategies for destabilizing the Syrian government. In his summary of the cable, Roebuck wrote:
We believe Bashar's weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real, such as the conflict between economic reform steps (however limited) and entrenched, corrupt forces, the Kurdish question, and the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists. This cable summarizes our assessment of these vulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements, and signals that the USG can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising.
This cable suggests that the US goal in December 2006 was to undermine the Syrian government by any available means, and that what mattered was whether US action would help destabilize the government, not what other impacts the action might have. In public the US was in favor of economic reform, but in private the US saw conflict between economic reform and "entrenched, corrupt forces" as an "opportunity." In public, the US was opposed to "Islamist extremists" everywhere; but in private it saw the "potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists" as an "opportunity" that the US should take action to try to increase.
Roebuck lists Syria's relationship with Iran as a "vulnerability" that the US should try to "exploit." His suggested means of doing so are instructive:
PLAY ON SUNNI FEARS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE: There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis. Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business.
Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders) are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue. [Emphasis added.]
Roebuck thus argued that the US should try to destabilize the Syrian government by coordinating more closely with Egypt and Saudi Arabia to fan sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia, including by the promotion of "exaggerated" fears of Shia proselytizing of Sunnis, and of concern about "the spread of Iranian influence" in Syria in the form of mosque construction and business activity.
By 2014, the sectarian Sunni-Shia character of the civil war in Syria was bemoaned in the United States as an unfortunate development. But in December 2006, the man heading the US embassy in Syria advocated in a cable to the secretary of state and the White House that the US government collaborate with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to promote sectarian conflict in Syria between Sunni and Shia as a means of destabilizing the Syrian government. At that time, no one in the US government could credibly have claimed innocence of the possible implications of such a policy. This cable was written at the height of the sectarian Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq, which the US military was unsuccessfully trying to contain. US public disgust with the sectarian civil war in Iraq unleashed by the US invasion had just cost Republicans control of Congress in the November 2006 election. The election result immediately precipitated the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. No one working for the US government on foreign policy at the time could have been unaware of the implications of promoting Sunni-Shia sectarianism.
It was easy to predict then that, while a strategy of promoting sectarian conflict in Syria might indeed help undermine the Syrian government, it could also help destroy Syrian society. But this consideration does not appear in Roebuck's memo at all, as he recommends that the US government cooperate with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to promote sectarian tensions.
Note that, while Roebuck was serving in the George W. Bush administration, he was a career Foreign Service officer, a permanent senior member in good standing of the US government's foreign policy apparatus. He went on to serve in the US embassies in Iraq and Libya - in the latter as chargé d'affaires - in the Obama administration. There is no evidence that anyone in the US foreign policy apparatus found the views expressed by Roebuck in this cable particularly controversial; its publication did not cause scandal in US foreign policy circles.
So, while the sectarian character of the civil war in Syria is now publicly bemoaned in the West, it seems fair to say that in 2006 the US government foreign policy apparatus believed that promoting sectarianism in Syria was a good idea, which would foster "US interests" by destabilizing the Syrian government.
This view of US policy - happy to make common cause with Saudi Arabia in fostering Sunni-Shia sectarianism in Syria, and preoccupied with Syria's relationship with Iran above all else - is buttressed by a March 22, 2009 cable from the US embassy in Saudi Arabia, "Saudi Intelligence Chief Talks Regional Security with Brennan Delegation."2
This cable summarizes a March 15 meeting including then US counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan and US ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ford Fraker with Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the head of Saudi Arabia's external intelligence agency. Ambassador Fraker's summary recounted:
7. (C) PERSIAN MEDDLING: Prince Muqrin described Iran as "all over the place now." The "Shiite crescent is becoming a full moon," encompassing Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait and
Yemen among Iran's targets. In the Kingdom, he said "we have problems in Medina and Eastern Province." When asked if he saw Iran's hand in last month's Medina Riots (reftels), he strongly affirmed his belief that they were "definitely" Iranian supported. (Comment: Muqrin's view was not necessarily supported by post's Saudi Shi'a shia sources.) Muqrin bluntly stated "Iran is becoming a pain in the ..." and he expressed hope the President "can get them straight, or straighten them out." [Emphasis added.]
Ambassador Fraker's comment that "Muqrin's view was not necessarily supported by post's Saudi Shi'a sources" was a severe understatement. Indeed, in a February 24, 2009 cable, "Saudi Shia Clash With Police In Medina,"3
Ambassador Fraker had reported in detail on the February 20 clashes between Saudi security forces and Saudi Shia pilgrims in Medina, without any mention of Iran. Fraker's February 24 cable primarily attributed the clashes to, first, Saudi police having denied the Saudi Shia pilgrims access to the Baqi'a cemetery opposite the Prophet's Mosque, and second, the Saudi Shia community's long-simmering anger over historical grievances.
This indicates that the US government knows perfectly well that the Saudi government blames Iran for things that the Iranian government has nothing to do with, and is unconcerned about this. For the US government's own internal information, the ambassador wanted to make clear that, as far as the US embassy knew, the Medina clashes had nothing to do with Iran. But as the 2006 cable makes clear, the US was happy to make common cause with Saudi Arabia in blaming Iran for things happening in Syria with which Iran had no connection. The next paragraph in the cable is also instructive:
8. (C) WEANING SYRIA FROM IRAN: Brennan asked Muqrin if he believed the Syrians were interested in improving relations with the United States.
"I can't say anything positive or negative," he replied, declining to give an opinion. Muqrin observed that the Syrians would not detach from Iran without "a supplement."
This suggests that, for the US government in March 2009, Syria's interest in "improving relations with the United States" was equivalent to its being "weaned" from Iran. Thus, the thing that the US really cared about in Syria was not, for example, the Syrian government's respect for human rights, but Syria's relationship with Iran.
Another theme that recurred in the 2006 cable focusing on Syria's "vulnerabilities" and how the US should try to exploit them was that the US should take actions to try to destabilize the Syrian government by provoking it to "overreact," both internally and externally. One of the "vulnerabilities" of the Syrian government listed by Roebuck that the US should try to exploit was its "enormous irritation" with former Syrian vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam, leader of the opposition-in-exile National Salvation Front. Roebuck wrote:
THE KHADDAM FACTOR: Khaddam knows where the regime skeletons are hidden, which provokes enormous irritation from Bashar, vastly disproportionate to any support Khaddam has within Syria. Bashar Asad personally, and his regime in general, follow every news item involving Khaddam with tremendous emotional interest. The regime reacts with self-defeating anger whenever another Arab country hosts Khaddam or allows him to make a public statement through any of its media outlets.
Le Club est l'espace de libre expression des abonnés de Mediapart. Ses contenus n'engagent pas la rédaction.