Switching Sides in Syria? Unbelievable, but Not Unprecedented

The perfectly timed release of photographic evidence of torture and killing on the part of the Syrian government on the very eve of the Geneva II peace talks may or may not be authentic. There have been atrocities on both sides, and these pictures could be evidence of government atrocities. But one cannot forget the defining photographs of the Bosnian war that showed emaciated men imprisoned in barbed wire. The photographs were, like the current photographs, instantly compared to Nazi death camps, and used as evidence of Serbian war crimes. But they were also not true. The location was not a concentration camp, but a refuge center, and the barbed wire was not surrounding the thin refugees, but the cameramen and journalists. The timely release of the photographs suggest that the pressure will be on the Assad government in Geneva.

Like the photographs, the clumsy uninvite issued the Iranian delegation to the talks also suggests that the pressure will be on Assad. The Iranians were uninvited, at least in part, because they wouldn’t agree in advance to regime change. While Iran is no stranger to question begging talks whose conclusions are assumed before the talks begin, the assumption again shows that the pressure is on Assad.

But despite these appearances of pressure and recent tough talk by John Kerry, there are also signs that America is ready to switch sides in Syria and, at least temporarily, support Assad’s side’s inclusion in a transitional government.

Though inconceivable a short time ago, and still unbelievable now, such a switch is not unprecedented in the annals of American intervention in other countries. In Somalia, Sheikh Sharif, the head of the Islamic Courts Union, had his government overthrown by the Americans and Ethiopians only to later be backed by the US as Somalia’s president, as Jeremy Scahill recounts.

Less recently, but even more analogously, was the disastrous 1958 attempt at regime change in Indonesia. The US was supporting rebels in a coup against Achmed Sukarno. As early as April 1958, as the rebels seemed to be losing the fight, Foster Dulles suggested that the US should perhaps switch sides and back Sukarno, according to CIA expert John Prados. The next month, as the CIA realized that it had lost, Allen Dulles sent cables ordering the coup support to end. In his history of the CIA, Tim Weiner describes the Orwellian US decision that "it was time for the United States to switch sides." On May 21, the CIA now informed the White House that the Indonesian army was, in fact, suppressing communism and that, in fact, it was Sukarno who was on our side and the rebels who threatened US interests.

So such a switch is unbelievable, but not impossible.

America’s original desire to expel Assad by force dissipated in a cloud of Syrian cooperation in September of last year when, following up on a plan worked out by Syria, Russia and, ironically, Iran, Syria announced its willingness to acknowledge its chemical weapons stockpiles, sign the international convention against chemical weapons, place its arsenal under international control and swear off any future development of chemical weapons. Shortly after, on September 14, the United States and Russia finalized an agreement on the removal or destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by the middle of 2014.

The failure of the first plan left America settling for a second: backing the rebels against the government in a civil war. But that road is often bumpy. When America ventures into regime change, she always becomes entangled, not in a two way, but in a three way relationship: there’s America and the regime she’s replacing, but there’s also the new regime she’s replacing it with. Sometimes this third force already exists, sometimes, it needs to be created by covert political action, and sometimes a combination of the two is required. But America does not always know this third force well enough, and the third force does not always fit American interests as neatly as America hoped it would. The garbage heap of CIA failures is deep in such mistakes. And the beginning of the possible pivot to Assad began with just such a mistake.

American and European intelligence sources confirm that Islamic extremists continue to be by far the best, and best organized, fighters amongst the rebels. A report by the defense analysts HIS Jane exposes the familiar mistake. The report says that, overall, the strength of the rebel force is 100,000 fighters. The 100,000 is divided amongst 1,000 different factions. The faction that is directly loyal to al-Qaeda numbers a massive 10,000. Another 30,000 to 35,000 fighters are jihadists from factions sympathetic to al-Qaeda, though not directly controlled by it: that’s 40%-45% of the rebel forces that are extremists. 30,000 more are more moderate Islamic factions.

So less than a third of the rebel force is secular. Almost half is composed of jihadists and extremists. But these numbers are not even the full story, because the report goes on to say that al-Qaeda run factions, like Jabhat al-Nusra are the best armed and most formidable fighters. Along with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is also linked to al-Qaeda. Just days ago, Abu Khaled al Suri, a high ranking official of Ahrar al Sham, one of the leading rebel groups and an important member of the Islamic Front, declared that he is a member of al-Qaeda. And, recently, the Free Syrian Army has found itself fighting increasingly, not with Assad’s forces, but with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Ahrar al-Sham, forces that are growing ever stronger.

America’s third party support, then, is support for the enemy, al-Qaeda, against an Assad regime that has historically been trying to be on our side and against al-Qaeda. Since succeeding his father, Bashar al-Assad has persistently tried to negotiate peace with Israel. In 2005, Assad actually began drafting a peace treaty with Israel, and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh says that prior to the war in Gaza, Assad was once again engaged in talks with Israel and that many issues had been resolved. Hersh quotes then Senator John Kerry as saying that Assad "wants to engage with the West . . . . Assad is willing to do the things he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States." The things he needed to do apparently included working with America in their extraordinary rendition program. Syria was one of America’s favorite places for rendering suspects to be tortured for enhanced interogations.

And, as the rebels grow increasingly undesirable, the government grows increasingly undesirably desirable. Assad not only signed the September agreement promising to eliminate its chemical weapons, he has been true to his word, according to The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And the evidence is also mounting that Assad may have agreed to eliminate his chemical weapons even though it may not even have been he who fired them. And, if it was not he, but the US backed rebels that fired them, that again makes Assad look more desirable and the rebels less desirable, leading to a possible pivot.

Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi had said that “much of the U.S. intelligence community is troubled by the quality of the information being used to justify a new war.” Indeed, investigative historian Gareth Porter has shown that the US government’s claims about regime responsibility for the Syrian chemical weapons attack of August 21 did not even represent an intelligence community assessment. The report was a White House document that was generated by cherry picking the intelligence that suited the policy and omitting the intelligence that didn’t. Porter points out that, though such an assessment would normally come from the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), DNI James Clapper would neither put his name on this report nor endorse it.

Robert Fisk has reported that Russian information on the dates of exports of the specific rockets used in the attacks and the countries to which they were sold, reveal that Russia did not provide these rockets to Syria. They were, however, sold to Libya, and Assad has long claimed that Soviet-made weaponry was leaking out of Libya and across Syrian borders into rebel hands. Seymour Hersh has also discredited the argument from rocket ownership. Pictures of the rockets used in the attack have been used to identify the rockets as being Syrian army rockets. But Hersh says that, "Theodore Postol, a professor of technology and national security at MIT, reviewed the UN photos with a group of his colleagues and concluded that the large caliber rocket was an improvised munition that was very likely manufactured locally. He told me that it was ‘something you could produce in a modestly capable machine shop’. The rocket in the photos, he added, fails to match the specifications of a similar but smaller rocket known to be in the Syrian arsenal."

Hersh has revealed that, despite the White House’s disingenuous claims, the US was aware that, not only the Syrian army, but the Syrian rebels too had access to sarin. Hersh says that "In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaeda, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity." And it was not just one rebel faction that could have fired the sarin. Hersh says that the CIA told the White House that "al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), also understood the science of producing sarin." He adds that a top secret summary provided to the Defense Intelligence Agency confirmed that al-Nusra "had the ability to acquire and use sarin." The Joint Chiefs of Staff also undertook an "all-source analysis." Hersh reports that the analysis concluded that "rebel forces were capable of attacking an American force with sarin because they were able to produce the lethal gas."

So the intelligence doesn’t prove it was the government, the rockets don’t prove it was the government, and tracing the sarin back to possible sources doesn’t prove it was the government. And, according to Robert Parry, the clincher used by Washington doesn’t prove it either. A "vector analysis" reported prominently in the New York Times claimed to establish that the reverse flight paths of two missiles intersected right at a Syrian military base. Case closed. But a report by Postol and Richard Lloyd, an analyst from Tesla Laboratories, found that because one of the rockets had clipped a building, a precise calculation of its flight path was impossible. More importantly, Postol and Lloyd say that there was a consensus among missile experts that the rockets analyzed would have had a maximum range of only about three kilometers. The problem is, the launch site arrived at by the Times is about 9.5 kilometers from where the sarin bearing missiles struck. Though the Times still tries to lay responsibility on the Syrian army, it now admits its proof of culpability was wrong.

And there is one more suggestive line of evidence that the rebels not only could use sarin gas but wanted to use sarin gas. Recently two chemical arms storage sites were attacked by rebel forces, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, who were apparently seeking some of the chemical weapons components the government is in the process of eliminating.

So Assad is looking increasingly good, and the rebels are looking increasingly bad. So could the US pull a switch like they did in Indonesia, change sides and back Assad against the rebels?

Recently, speaking at a conference, former CIA Director, General Michael Hayden told the crowd that of three possible outcomes for Syria – civil war between Shiite and Sunni factions, dissolution of Syria, or "the survival of Assad and the victory of the Syrian military over the insurgents" – a Syrian government victory may be the "best option." And he’s not the only one hinting at that outcome. Reuters is reporting that Syrian opposition forces are saying that "Western nations have indicated to the Syrian opposition that peace talks next month may not lead to the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and that his Alawite minority will remain key in any transitional administration." Reuters reports a senior member of the Coalition as saying that “Our Western friends made it clear in London that Assad cannot be allowed to go now because they think chaos and an Islamist militant takeover would ensue," and of speaking of the possibility of Assad holding an election when his current term is up. A second opposition member explained that the States and Russia are working together on a transition that would allow Assad’s Alawites to continue to dominate in the military and security communities in part to assure the ability to fight against rebel al-Qaeda factions.

And it is not just the west suggesting or requesting that Assad stay on at least for now. Syria seems to be answering the call. Free Syrian Army commander General Salim Idris has now said that "he and his associates were dropping the precondition that Bashar al-Assad must leave power before the Geneva meeting takes place. Instead they would be satisfied if his departure were to take place ‘at the end of the negotiation process’ when General Idris will join forces with the remainder of the regime to mount an offensive against the Islamists."

And all of this is occurring against the backdrop of a suspension of direct US aid to Syrian rebels.

So, as unbelievable as it may seem, the signs point to the possibility that, at least temporarily, America may be switching sides in Syria and backing the government against the increasingly al-Qaeda linked rebels.

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