Perennial US Rush to War: Syrian Chem issue was too Foggy to Justify Bombing

(By William R. Polk)

Nearly five months have passed since the United States nearly went to war with Syria. The issue has cooled down but has not been resolved. Resolving it is not simply a matter of getting history right but is crucial to what happens next, perhaps in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, or even the Central African Republic. Thus, we all have a major stake in learning the facts and, above all, in understanding the process that came so close to putting us into another war.

Put simply, we do not yet know the most important of the facts. We do know that on August 21 a number – varying according to the source from roughly 300 by the British and French intelligence services and Médecins Sans Frontières to 1,429 by the US government (organization unspecified) – of people were killed by chemical weapons in the outskirts of Damascus. No matter what the precise figure is, the use of chemical weapons was, as Secretary of State Kerry said, “obscene.” Although, at the worst, they amounted to only about one percent of the total casualties, they were a “trigger.”

The trigger nearly fired American action. That is, as the Chief of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey wrote to the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the planned aerial assault would have been “no less than an act of war…[and] the costs would be in the billions.”

Nevertheless, President Obama pressed ahead. Tensions were high, but little was done to discover and reveal to the Congress, the media or the public who did what to whom. In this situation, doubts began to be raised. Americans bombarded their representatives with pleas to keep out of another war, the English Parliament voted down its government’s support for the attack and the German government said that it would not participate. Only the French readied their fighter-bombers for the raid. At the eleventh hour, President Putin offered a way out, getting President Assad to agree to destroy the Syrian governments store of chemical weapons. And on August 31 in an abrupt about-face President Obama called off the attack.

People all over the world were shocked: President Hollande was humiliated; the people of Damascus were profoundly relieved; the English public appeared delighted; the Saudi Arabians and the Israelis were furious; and the American public was incredulous. After all, President Obama had implemented almost the same tactic in his attack on the government and armed forces of the Libyan government and in various ways the US had been trying to “regime change” Syria for years. Why the change?

Again, we simply do not know. But one new fact has come to light as a result of investigations by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Health Organization and by an independent study made by the MIT Global Security Group. The UN organizations produced the weapons and the MIT group analyzed them. The conclusion is that the rockets that carried the poison gas could not have been fired from where the US government claimed they had been fired. They simply did not have the range. Secretary of State Kerry was simply wrong when he said that “Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack, and…We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas…”

Separately, Seymour Hersh and I have been raising doubts about the US government charge for months. The facts simply did not add up. The identified motivations are inconsistent. But more important, it was imperative that two things were done before any action was taken. The first was for the government to take a careful look at what could be known. We have a long-proven mechanism for doing this: the CIA’s National Intelligence Council usually produces on demand a National Intelligence Estimate based on everything the 16 American intelligence agencies have found out. That was not done. The second was to share with Congress, the media and the American people this considered view. What we got were opinions from political advisers and public relations officials.

The lesson in all this is that an emotional reaction is a very poor way to go to war. As we now are seeing in other crises, we need and deserve intelligence not shooting from the hip. The crisis in Syria is still a long way from being over and new crises beckon. We need to understand this crisis so we can avoid repeating it elsewhere.

William R. Polk is the author of over a dozen books on the Middle East, and most recently a novel, Blind Man’s Bluff , set in nineteenth century Afghanistan at the time of the intrigue and espionage of the British and Russian Empires against one another known to historians as “The Great Game” for Central Asia.

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23 Responses

  1. I am wondering if now Mr Cole is backpedalling from his prior certainty on the issue. Those amongst the readership who raised legitimate concerns about the Obama administration’s narrative were labeled “crackpot conspiracy theorists” or some such.

    • as a fellow crackpot,
      what I notice most is that Dr. Cole sometimes allows posts that disagree completely with him.
      You don’t find that at his competitors’ sites,
      sites like “Long War Journal” and “Best Defense.”

    • I suspect its bait.

      I encourage anyone who feels moved to express their opinion that the rebels conducted the gas attack to use this opportunity to stand up and be counted.

      • Joe
        Read the article again and the implications that the rockets were likely to have been fired from non-regime controlled areas and that – once again – in justification to declaring war on a Mideast nation the Secretary of State has made false statements.

      • Count me as well. One more false flag operation. Remember the Maine? It has been going on since the 1800s, at least. The relevant question is Qui prodest?

  2. “At the eleventh hour, President Putin offered a way out, getting President Assad to agree to destroy the Syrian governments store of chemical weapons.”

    Gee, why would he do that?

    “And on August 31 in an abrupt about-face President Obama called off the attack.”

    If I stop shoveling my driveway when all the snow is gone, have I performed am abrupt about-face? Why is it so baffling that the Obama administration would cease its operations after achieving success beyond their most optimistic hopes?

    “in various ways the US had been trying to “regime change” Syria for years. Why the change?”

    A couple of points here: The United States ceased trying to “regime change” Syria in January 2009, when Obama came to office, and started pursuing a peace deal with Assad. This policy only came to an end after they were compelled to react to the Arab Spring protests. After that, they began pursing “regime change” by supporting the Arab Spring protesters-turned-rebels.

    Second, the US continues that policy, even after the chemical weapons deal. The Russian/Syrian capitulation on chemical weapons didn’t end American support for the FSA faction of the rebellion, any more than it ended Russian support for the Assad regime The chemical war crime, and the civil war itself, were treated as two separate issues.

    • Joe,
      in order to gin up a Mercenary army in 2010, using Eric Prince to conduct recruiting and training among Salafist Jihadis from outside Syria,
      the Obama Administration prob’ly had to at least be considering this covert means of overthrowing al-Assad in 2009.
      Give him some credit for his warmongering soul.

      • Eric Prince left the United States almost a decade ago, after being banned from doing any work for the government, and took up with the Gulf states.

        The world has changed. The Gulf states are pursuing their own course. They aren’t like Soviet-era puppet states anymore.

        The Cold War mindset is decades out of date. We live in a multipolar world. Simply invoking the name Eric Prince doesn’t get you where you so clearly hope to go.

  3. Many people, outside the Administration of course, have a different view of the pitch that Obama planned the current outcome of the bombing-to-validate-the-universal-horror-of-chemical-warfare operation that so very nearly got triggered, something other than a “Russian/Syrian capitulation on chemical weapons”/Great Victory for Our President:

    link to americanthinker.com

    link to nydailynews.com and lots more of the same.

    Glad to know the Administration continues “support” for the “FSA faction of the rebellion.” I’m sure that is helping reach Peace In Our Time. Like putting “support” into THIS mix:

    link to theguardian.com

    • Nobody, inside or out of the administration, thinks that the Obama administration planned the outcome.

      It demonstrates a certain mindset to think that everything is part of a grand plan, as opposed to a set of actors responding and managing as events evolve.

      • Not what I said, of course. My remark was directed to the claim that what happened was, in your words, a “Russian/Syrian capitulation on chemical weapons.” As I recall, you were all ready to start throwing Tomahawks at “Syria” not so long ago to avenge the breach, by you were just sure it was Assad, of that universal prohibition on chemical weapons use that the US has actually been pretty invested and involved in at various recent points (e.g., Iraq vs. Iran), and then worked hard to frame it that Obama was actually so smart that his posturing and near-WAR caused the current state of affairs. Are you acknowledging you are inside the Administration, or claiming that you can read the minds of “everybody” inside and out?

        Waiting for the responsive and indirect spin, and your next condescending, belittling and occasionally subtle ad hominem…

  4. ” President Putin offered a way out, getting President Assad to agree to destroy the Syrian governments store of chemical weapons.”

    Putin’s and the Russians’ plan was presented after Obama called off the immediate attack and, in an about face, pronounced he was taking the plan to lob cruise missiles to Congress for an up-or-down vote. It was only after Obama called off the attack that the Russians presented their plan. It was Obama’s dithering that gave the Russians their opening to take the lead.

    • “Putin’s and the Russians’ plan was presented after Obama called off the immediate attack”

      Presented publicly. As we all now realize, the diplomatic track that resulted in the Russian offer to destroy their client state’s arsenal was being discussed at both the Foreign Minister and Presidential throughout the crisis, including at the G8 summit.

      • “Presented publicly. As we all now realize, the diplomatic track that resulted in the Russian offer to destroy their client state’s arsenal was being discussed at both the Foreign Minister and Presidential throughout the crisis, including at the G8 summit.”

        Notwsithstanding any talks, President Obama’s amateurish “volte face” to call off the strikes and take it to Congress demonstrated a naive approach and was what gave the Russians their opening. Nothing can put a smooth face on that amateur piece of “policy,” if it can be called that.

        • And, in fact, in terms of the sequence of events, the Russian plan was presented after Obama called off the attack in order to take it to Congress for a vote. I guarantee you that calling the attack off to take it to Congress was not part of the “diplomatic track,” and it had nothing to do with “public” vs. “private” talks with the Russians. That is simply naive.

        • It’s clear that this is the frame you wish to push.

          It’s less clear why anyone would believe it, given the facts.

          Yes, indeed, going to Congress and slow-walking the lead-up to the strikes was necessary to allow the diplomatic solution to succeed. Why anyone would believe that pursuing such a direction was “naive,” given the outcome and the existence of the talks, is not entirely clear.

          “Notwithstanding” the fact that the administration was pursuing exactly this diplomatic solution, it was naive to handle the crisis in a manner that allowed that solution to succeed?

          That really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I hope Obama gives as many countries as he can as many “openings” to give up what we want without our needing to fire a shot as he possibly can before his term is over.

        • ““Notwithstanding” the fact that the administration was pursuing exactly this diplomatic solution, it was naive to handle the crisis in a manner that allowed that solution to succeed?”

          Bismarck is purported to have remarked that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”

          It certainly applies in the Syrian chemical weapons case. The situation resolved itself successfully (thanks to Russia stepping in) in spite of Obama’s amateurish, feckless about-face to take it to Congress, not because of it.

        • Oh, please. Lawmakers went home for Labor Day and were deluged with complaints from their constituencies who did not support the Syrian bombing. Obama was smart. He responded by sending the issue to Congress and making them decide, too. People now support the negotiations with Iran by 2 to one. “..but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.”

    • link to ndtv.com

      “Moscow: US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin discussed the idea of placing Syrian chemical weapons under international control at last week’s G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, MR Putin’s spokesman said today.”

  5. More likely, Iran and Russia made a warning to Obama. Attacking Damascus would have brought missiles on T.A. and Qatar, and then who knows what. Not really worth it, right?

  6. I wonder if “the US” is wise and non-suicidal enough not to take any military “response” or launch overt or covert attacks that might lead to the kind of outcome that occurred in the last big War Game to simulate how our clumsy, massive, un-agile, doctrine-ridden military structure “manages conflict.” link to fabiusmaximus.com By the same author, here’s another speculation on why our enormous and grotesque and massively expensive war machine, with its crappy Return on Investment by “wars won” or “national interests served,” should not be turned loose again (barring a major and unlikely doctrinal change and a whole new way of operating) half way around the planet or even closer to home:

    link to fabiusmaximus.com

    As I recall, the Joint Chiefs did not think attacking the Assad thing by blowing up random stuff in Damascus was a wise move, or likely to conserve their huge war machine.

    I don’t know about you folks, but language like this gives me the old “duck and cover” willies:

    The world’s richest, most powerful nation remains locked in fear about tiny numbers of insurgents fighting in the poorest regions of the world. We spend on our military many times the sum of all likely enemy nations combined. We spend on counter-terrorism a fantastic multiple (probably thousands) more than spent by every terrorist group on the planet. Something is wrong with this picture.

    This madness suggests the time has come for change. The wheel of history has rolled to a new era in which the US can and should return to its non-interventionist roots, a defensive strategy.

    1. We can help allies with money, aid, advice, and other forms of support. Strong governments almost always defeat insurgents (see section 6 below).
    2. We can promise State attackers that they will receive devastating retaliatory strikes. Game theory suggests that “tit for tat” is one of the most effective tactics. Assured Destruction, extended over the full range of war, nuclear to conventional, probably will prove to be the winning tactic in the 21st century (as it was in the 20th after WW2).
    3. Terrorists without clear State sponsorship — such as the fearsome anarchists, the less effective but still deadly leftists groups of the 1960s and 1970s, and today’s jihadists — provide few targets for retaliation, but can be dealt with by police and security agencies. As all of these groups learned to their sorrow (including the real al Qaeda, not the nationalist insurgencies using that brand name).

    Particularly #2. For the armchair militarists and Serious Players, there’s a whole bibliography of Really Smart Speculation And Advice on How To Win. Right here: link to fabiusmaximus.com

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