Like a badly written series of romance novels, the plot template remains fixed while just the names of the characters and places rotate through the template. The story of Syria that Americans and Canadians ingest from the mainstream media is the same simplistic narrative of good and evil told by Washington about each new enemy. Every action committed by the Syrian government is evil and every reaction by Washington is good. Guilt can be assumed and assigned to Syria without investigation because the antagonist in the story is always guilty and can always be blamed. America is always the innocent observer who is shocked by Syrian brutality and feels compelled to respond to protect the innocent victims and defend the world.
But the story of Syria in not so simple, and history shows that the assignation of guilt should be much more judiciously distributed.
Democracy Versus Dictatorship: It Might Have Been a Democracy
Accounts of Syria’s history always include the 1970 coup because it fits the desired narrative. Air force general Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father, led a military coup that overthrew the civilian Ba’ath party dictator, Salah Jadid.
But, though that was to be the last coup in Syria’s history up to now, it was by no means the first. The first coup in modern Syrian history took place eleven years earlier. But the narrative was very different.
Syrians under French colonial rule had long longed for democracy. The Sykes-Picot Agreement had given Syria to France in 1916. But, prior to implementation of Sykes-Picot, Syrians had had a brief taste of democracy. The taste was over, though, by 1920 when Syria was officially given to France in the Treaty of Sevres.
President De Gaulle resisted Syrian demands for independence and democracy,
but, by 1943, he yielded to the pressure of the Syrians and the British and
permitted Syrian elections. Syrians overwhelmingly elected Shukri al-Quwatli
and the National Bloc with their message of independence. Three years later,
after an anti-demonstration massacre, the French were out of Syria.
With France out and a democratically elected leader in, the U.S. could have nurtured democracy in Syria. Instead, they took it out. American agents Stephen Meade and Miles Copeland assisted the Syrian military in a coup that would take out al-Quwatli and install the pro-American Colonel Adib Shishakli. But for that US coup, Syria may have grown into a democracy instead of the dictatorship it is today.
That coup led to a confusing series of coups in which the US frequently changed sides. In 1956, as Syria moved closer to Egyptian President Nasser and his vision of a United Arab Republic that would be neutral in the cold war than America could bear, Eisenhower initiated Project Wakeful, an unsuccessful covert action for another regime change in Syria. It was followed a year later by Operation Wappen in 1957. America feared that Syria’s government was leaning to the left. So, in order to "assure a pro-Western orientation on the part of future Syrian government," in the words of a State Department internal document, Operation Wappen was initiated. It was intended to return the former right wing dictator Adib Shishakly to power. It was a humiliating failure. The CIA’s Rocky Stone took over as the Damascus station chief and initiated the plan for a coup. Syrian officers with whom Stone was working went to Syrian intelligence and turned in the CIA officers whose side they were supposedly on. The CIA agents were caught in the act, revealed and thrown out of Syria.
In 1963, the Ba’ath party would seize power in another coup. Another coup would follow in 1966 to be followed by the 1970 coup that brought the Assad dynasty to power.
Syria strove to be a democracy. But rather than midwifing the birth of democracy in Syria, America aborted it. That US coup took out the democracy and set in motion a series of coups that led, by a convoluted route, to the dictatorship that America wants to take out of Syria today.
Syria’s Dictator: Ally or Enemy?
Even after the Assad dictatorship was entrenched in Syria, history could have proceeded differently. Relations between Hafez al-Assad and the west could have been different. As early as 1994, Assad had met with President Clinton for encouraging talks on a Syrian-Israeli peace. Five years later, in December of 1999, Assad let it be known that he was willing to sign a peace treaty with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
In a remarkable story told by Patrick Tyler in his book, A World of Trouble, Assad sent his foreign minister to Washington to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton. But when Barak’s plane opened its doors, Barak would not come out: he panicked and told assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, "I can’t do it." Indyk was stunned that Barak was backing out at the last second before the meeting. Barak had changed his mind, and Assad’s attempt at a peace fell incomplete on the tarmac. The Syria dictator had been willing to attempt a thawing of relations with the west: history might have seen him become an ally, but it took the path of enemy instead.
Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, says that, when Bashar al-Assad followed his father as Syrian dictator, he asked for a resumption of talks with Israel. It was the Americans and Israelis who turned him down.
Two years later, in 2005, Syria and Israel began to actually draft a peace treaty. When the Israeli-Lebanese war ended, Israel felt the Americans out about continuing down that path. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush said no. Once again, it was the west that blocked Assad from coming over as an ally.
Bashar al-Assad kept trying to initiate cooperation with the States. Zunes says that, because he was anxious to receive international legitimacy, Assad was willing to give security guarantees and full diplomatic relations to Israel in exchange for a peace agreement. In his 2009 article entitled "Syria Calling," Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh says that then Senator John Kerry, who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and who had just met with Assad, said 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." Hersh says that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, told him that "Syria is eager to engage with the West".
Hersh says that Israel and Syria had at other times engaged in talks. He even says that they had reached "agreements in principle on the normalization of diplomatic relations." He says that Assad continued informal talks with Washington into the Obama administration. Zunes said in a personal correspondence that blame for the failure of those talks lays not with Assad but with ""[t]he new hard-right Israeli government that consolidated power in 2009". Nothing could happen, Zunes said, "without the return of the Golan, which Netanyahu refuses to do".
Syria tried to engage with the west and change its relationship with both America and Israel, but the west repeatedly pushed the Assads back into the position of enemy.
Gas Attacks: War Crime or False Flag?
The latest call for regime change in Syria comes as a result of the Trump administration’s judgment that Assad crossed a red line by using chemical weapons on his own people. But, once again in the American constructed narrative, it is possible that guilt has be assumed and assigned to Syria without investigation because the antagonist in the story is always guilty and can always be blamed.
There are several reasons to be skeptical over the guilty verdict handed down to Bashar al-Assad.
The first is that for the first time, in a reversal of policy, the Trump administration had just announced that it was no longer insisting upon the removal of Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of State Tillerson said that the "status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people." Also for the first time in the war, Assad’s forces are finally winning. Crossing the one clear US red line by using chemical weapons is the one way Assad could force the US to turn the tides of the war and recommit to removing him from power. Former British ambassador to Syria Peter Ford says that "Assad may be cruel, brutal but he’s not mad. It defies belief that he would bring this all on his head for no military advantage." If Assad used chemical weapons right after finally being taken off the American hit list, then Ford is wrong, and Assad is mad.
The second reason is that, despite American and Israeli claims to the contrary, the available evidence says that Syria fulfilled its promise to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile in 2013.
The third is that the US case against Assad is that, though the extremist Syrian rebels do have chemical weapons, they couldn’t have used these chemical weapons because they were dropped from the sky and only the regime forces have airplanes. However, Theodore Postol, MIT professor emeritus of science, technology and national security, a leading analyst on military technology and former scientific advisor at the Department of Defense, says that his analysis of the evidence shows that the chemical weapon was not dropped from an airplane but exploded on the ground. Postol concludes that ". . . there is absolutely no evidence that the crater was created by munitions designed to disperse sarin after it is dropped from an aircraft. . . . The data cited by the White House is more consistent with the possibility that the munition was placed on the ground rather than dropped from a plane. . . . Analysis of the debris as shown in the photograph cited by the White House clearly indicates that the munition was almost certainly placed on the ground. . . ."
The fourth is that Postol has shown that the crater identified by the US as being the one where the sarin gas hit the ground after being dropped from a plane couldn’t be the source of the sarin gas that killed the victims of the gas attack. He says his analysis of photographs of the crater site, the cite where the victims are located and wind and weather data reveal that the location of the victims is inconsistent with the crater cite offered up by the White House. His conclusion is that the version of the gas attack described by the White House that points to Syrian regime culpability – sarin gas dropped from a plane, landing on the ground and making a crater, and killing civilians in a nearby hamlet – never occurred. It had to have occurred in a different way. Supporting evidence comes from a photograph taken only four hours after the sarin gas release that shows a person standing by the crater that is alleged to be the dispersal cite without any protective clothing. If the poisoning happened the way the White House says it happened, the cite would, at this time, be highly toxic, and the person, Postol says, "would be subjected to the severe and possibly fatal effects of sarin poisoning." The conclusion again is that "the nerve agent attack described in the WHR [White House report] did not occur as claimed." It had to have happened in a way different from the way that points accusingly at Assad.
What is that different way? According to former US intelligence analysts (Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity), in agreement with the Russian and Syrian version of the story, "Our US Army contacts in the area have told us this is not what happened. There was no Syrian "chemical weapons attack." Instead, a Syrian aircraft bombed an al-Qaeda-in-Syria ammunition depot that turned out to be full of noxious chemicals and a strong wind blew the chemical-laden cloud over a nearby village where many consequently died." Former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, says that most of his sources – including members of the team that monitors global chemical weapons and people in the U.S. intelligence community – are also telling him that that is what probably happened.
Former CIA and Army Intelligence Officer Philip Giraldi reports that "US monitors, who had been warned by the Russians that an attack was coming, believe they saw from satellite images something close to the Russian account of events, with a bomb hitting the targeted warehouse, which then produced a cloud of gas." Investigative journalist Gareth Porter reports that a former US official knowledgeable about the chemical weapons event said that Russia informed the US that Syria planned to strike the warehouse 24 hours before the strike. The source, according to Porter, "is in direct contact with a US military intelligence officer with access to information about the US-Russian communications." Russia also informed the US that the Syrian military thought the warehouse housed chemicals. Furthermore, Porter reveals that "an internal administration paper circulating in Washington . . . clearly refers to ‘a regime airstrike on a terrorist ammunition dump in the eastern suburbs of Khan Sheikhoun.’”
And finally, a white paper written by the White House’s National Security Council – interestingly, it was not written by the US intelligence community but by the White House (investigative journalist Robert Parry reports that a source told him that CIA Director Mike Pompeo personally told Trump that the CIA believed that Assad was likely not responsible for the chemical attack) – claims "that the chemical agent was delivered by regime SU-22 fixed-wing aircraft." However, reporting on the weapons dropped over Syria from the SU-22 aircraft, former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter says that "it is physically impossible for a chemical weapon to produce the impact IR signatures detected by the US and linked to the Khan Shaykhun attack." Amazingly, Ritter points out that the very evidence used by the White House to prove Syria dropped chemical weapons from a plane, proves instead the Syrian/Russian version of the story that Syria dropped conventional weapons from a plane.
So, the Syrian story is not the simple narrative of good and evil offered up by Washington and the mainstream media. There is another side to the story. But for American meddling, Syria might have been a democracy instead of the dictatorship it is today. But for American indifference and neglect, today’s Syrian dictator could have been an ally. And if intelligence and investigation preceded the assumption and assignation of guilt to the current antagonist of the story, Assad may be found to be not guilty of the chemical attack for which he was recently bombed.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.