Don’t Take Your Eye Off Regime Change

Recent revelations about Iraq have exposed a pattern that may be just as revelatory about Syria. When the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons recently won the Nobel Peace prize, its former director general, José Bustani, decided to finally discuss the circumstances behind his firing eleven years ago.

Bustani says that the Bush administration forced his firing because it feared that if his chemical weapons inspectors went to Iraq, they would reveal to the world that Saddam Hussein had no chemical weapons and foil Bush’s plans to invade Iraq and remove Hussein.

In late 2001, Iraq announced its intention to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, as Syria just did. As for Syria, that entailed Iraq providing a list of its chemical weapons, agreeing to inspections and committing to the destruction of its stockpile. But instead of being a welcome development, Bustani received a phone call from John Bolton, then an undersecretary of state, informing him that he "had 24 hours to resign. And if [he] didn’t [he] would have to face the consequences".

The threatened inspections "caused an uproar in Washington," because Bustani’s experts knew that Iraq’s chemical weapons had been destroyed in the 1990’s. "Everybody knew there weren’t any," Bustani said. "An inspection would make it obvious there were no weapons to destroy. This would completely nullify the decision to invade". The New York Times says that "[s]everal officials involved in the events, some speaking publicly for the first time, confirmed his account".

Having failed to get the nonconfidence vote they sought from the organization’s executive council, the U.S. leaned on the organization financially and forced Bustani’s ouster.

So, over a decade ago, the US blocked a United Nation’s backed organization from carrying out a chemical weapons inspection so that it would not impede America’s plans for regime change. And now, over a decade later, the US has tried it again. Investigative historian Gareth Porter has revealed that the Obama administration tried to pressure the United Nations to cancel its inspection of the site of the Syrian chemical weapons attack. Secretary of State John Kerry first dismissed Syria’s granting of unlimited access to sites said to have been hit by chemical weapons as "too late to be credible," even though the Syrians agreed to the U.N. request for unlimited access the very day after they received it. A State Department spokesperson has confirmed that Kerry then intervened and pressured UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to call off the UN investigation.

Kerry’s efforts failed this time, but the pattern suggests that the US didn’t really want to find Syria’s chemical weapons. Since the Americans tried to prevent the inspectors from finding the weapons, finding the weapons couldn’t be America’s goal. And the last time the US tried to prevent inspectors from looking for weapons, it led to a regime change in Iraq. The historical pattern suggests that the States wanted to prevent the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons because the willing removal of the chemical weapons would mean the removal of the justification for regime change. The goal has never been chemical weapon disarmament: it has always been regime change.

Providing further evidence that chemical weapons were never the red line that, if crossed, led to intervention and regime change is the troublesome chronological fact that the US sought regime change in Syria prior to the chemical weapons attacks. On July 30, 2006, the Jerusalem Post reported that, during the Israeli-Lebanese war, "Defense officials told the Post . . . that they were receiving indications from the US that America would be interested in seeing Israel attack Syria". As early as May 23, Robert Parry says, Bush "urged Israel to attack Syria". Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, says that the American push to extend the war beyond Lebanon into Syria was no secret. "In support of the Israeli offensive, the office of the White House Press Secretary released a list of talking points that included reference to a Los Angeles Times op-ed . . . . The article . . . urges an Israeli attack against Syria". "Israel needs to hit the Assad regime. Hard," the op-ed argues. The strategy was to accomplish regime change in Syria. According to Zunes, Israeli and Syrian desires for peace negotiations in 2007 were blocked by the US because the Bush administration was more interested in changing the regime in Syria than negotiating with the regime in Syria. And as far back as August of 2011, two years before the chemical weapons strikes, Obama had publicly declared that "the time has come for President Assad to step aside" as the only solution to the Syrian crisis.

The goal, then, has always been regime change in Syria, not the elimination of her stockpile of chemical weapons. The chemical weapons were supposed to provide the excuse for the regime change. Syria’s agreeing to destroy her stockpile forced a change to the means, but not a change to the end. The proof of that came recently when, despite Syria’s agreeing to the demand to destroy its chemical weapons, John Kerry announced that, "There has to be a transition government, there has to be a new governing entity in Syria in order to permit the possibility of peace." Kerry added, apparently as an explanation, that President Assad "has lost the legitimacy to be able to be a cohesive force that could bring people together".

The red line for US intervention and regime change in Syria was supposed to be the government’s use of chemical weapons. Though the August 21 UN report that confirmed that sarin gas was used in Syria never made any conclusions about the authorship of those attacks, because that was outside of its mandate, the government of Bashar al-Assad agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons. The American response, three days later, indicating again that regime change, and not destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, was the goal, was to waive the law prohibiting the supply of lethal aid to terrorist groups in order to assure the flow of US military aid to the Syrian opposition: 40-45% of which are jihadists with about 10% being directly loyal to Al-Qa’ida.

Assad was not bluffing. And despite the hostile US response, Syria, making it in under the very tight seven day deadline, submitted a list of its chemical stockpiles to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons. And, to the surprise of the Americans, the list was even more complete than they had expected. And now, following through on her commitment, Syria has begun the destruction of its chemical weapons.

Despite all of these Syrian diplomatic concessions, though, John Kerry, America’s head diplomat, said, "There has to be a transition government, there has to be a new governing entity in Syria . . .".

America sought regime change in Syria long before the use of chemical weapons. It tried to block international weapons inspectors from entering Syria because it was regime change, and not the removal of chemical weapons, that they sought. And they responded to Syrian chemical disarmament by increasing fatal aid to the opposition and declaring the continued need for "a new government entity in Syria". The goal was not chemical disarmament but regime change. The use of sarin gas provided the means to the goal. Assad’s surprise agreement to destroy the weapons destroyed the means to the goal. That forced a change in the means, but not a change in the goal. The pattern suggests that Assad is still in America’s sights and that regime change is still America’s goal.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.