Airstrikes in Syria: could the Assad regime ultimately be the target?

The air strikes in Syria to date have largely targeted ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. My hunch is that they will ultimately be targeted at the Assad regime, although some dispute this.

Guardian columnist Richard Seymour, for example, in an interview with New Left Project about why the anti-war response in the U.K. hasn’t been stronger, states that:

this isn’t a big war. It’s a limited mission, and the humanitarian consequences are therefore unlikely to be grave, relatively speaking. Some civilians will be killed, and it could escalate and go wrong in all sorts of ways, but this is looking like a limited intervention.

It’s early days yet, but there are already credible reports of the U.S. having committed war crimes, and of their air strikes compounding humanitarian distress (an entirely predictable and predicted outcome). And the U.S. are being open about the fact that the bombing could go on for ‘years’, which i’m not sure is commensurate with describing it as ‘limited’.

I guess Seymour doesn’t believe these things to be ‘grave . . . relatively speaking’. And relative to – say – the Holocaust, they aren’t that grave. But then neither are an awful lot of crimes and atrocities, and I don’t think it helps the anti-war movement for activists to be so seemingly blase about these crimes, or to downplay their extent.

But anyway, in an exchange I had with him on Twitter, he suggested that he doesn’t think the current round of air strikes will expand into a regime change operation against Assad, saying:

Given that Richard Seymour is nobody’s fool, and has spent years reading about, writing about and opposing imperialist interventions, I don’t think anyone should dismiss his take on the situation lightly.

That said, he is by no means infallible, and i’m glad it wasn’t me who, in July 2011, published an article in The Guardian arguing that ‘Gadaffi is stronger than ever’, just three weeks before he was overthrown by NATO and the rebel groups they were backing.

I just want to outline here why my suspicion – and that’s all it is at the moment, rather than something i’m sure of – is that the U.S. et al will ultimately go after Assad.

1. U.S. officials spent nearly three years saying Assad had lost legitimacy and calling for him to leave office

Here are some examples of that:

Barack Obama in August 2011:

The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way . . . For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.

Hilary Clinton in April 2012:

We think Assad must go . . . The sooner the better for everyone concerned.

John Kerry in January 2014:

I believe as we begin to … get into this process, that it will become clear there is no political solution whatsoever if Assad is not discussing a transition and if he thinks he is going to be part of that future. It is not going to happen.

The way I looked at this was that, if the U.S. didn’t ultimately want Assad to go – and weren’t ultimately going to try and force him out – then they wouldn’t keep persistently saying it in public. Noam Chomsky regularly raises the issue of the U.S.’s ‘credibility’ on these matters. If Assad was seen to be successfully defying them, it could lead to other recalcitrant global leaders simply dismissing their threats further down the line.

Notwithstanding that there obviously will have been divisions within the Obama administration over how best to achieve this, and whether it was even desirable from the point of view of U.S. strategic interests, this was the very definite message they were presenting to the public for a long time: Assad Must Go.

To back this reading up, there were reports in the New York Times in July 2012 that:

The Obama administration has for now abandoned efforts for a diplomatic settlement to the conflict in Syria, and instead it is increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad, American officials say.

So they were saying publicly that they wanted Assad to go, and were briefing the New York Times that they were supporting rebel groups within Syria to this end.

While it’s true that press reports are now saying the U.S. are tacitly working with the Assad regime, and in effect strengthening it, this doesn’t mean that it will always be the case.

2. Even now, Barack Obama is hinting that for the conflict in Syria to be resolved, Assad will have to go

Obama was quoted as saying on Sunday 28th September that:

We are not going to stabilize Syria under the rule of Assad

So if the U.S. are saying they don’t believe they’ll be able to ‘stabilize’ Syria with Assad still in power, surely the logical thing for them to do would be to try and force him out?

(This is putting aside questions of whether the U.S. even want stability in Syria, of course, which people have dealt with elsewhere)

3. That this is just the first phase of a long operation, and what will follow is a stepped up campaign to arm and train ‘moderate’ rebels, with the U.S. acting as their air wing when they go after Assad (i.e. Libya on steroids)

Here’s Martin Dempsey, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, talking in a recent press conference about the U.S. plan to train up to 15’000 ‘moderate’ rebels:

Five thousand’s never been the end state. It’s . . .  we’ve had estimates anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 is what we believe they would need to recapture lost territory in eastern Syria.

And I am confident that we can establish their training if we do it right. We — we have to do it right, not fast. They have to have military leaders that bind them together. They have to be — have a political structure into which they can hook, and therefore be responsive to. And that’s gonna take some time.

So Dempsey is clearly saying that ‘we’ are going to train up to 15’000 ‘moderate’ rebels, but that this is going to take time.

And in the same press conference, here’s Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel on what will happen if the Assad regime tries to attack those rebels:

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you said earlier this week that the U.S. would defend militarily the Free Syrian Army. What does that mean? I mean, are you talking about possibly engaging Syrian forces military?

HAGEL: I think the question was asked was that those that we — we begin training…


HAGEL: … if they were attacked would we help them, and I said yes.

Given that it’s highly unlikely that regime forces *won’t* attack these ‘moderate’ rebel groups, it surely follows that the U.S. will indeed have to ‘help’ them – if they are to remain true to their word. And I find it hard to believe that the U.S. aren’t aware of this scenario, and actively planning for it.

If the U.S. are indeed planning on ‘helping’ certain rebel factions down the line, then it wouldn’t make a great deal of sense to not then ‘help’ them achieve their main goal, which is the overthrow of the Assad regime. Otherwise, what exactly would be the point of it?


What we are perhaps seeing now is the first phase of a long term plan for a forcible regime change in Syria. This phase involves weakening ISIS via incessant air strikes on them and the infrastructure that supports them (such as terrorist wheat silos and militant farm workers).

The next phase will involve –  perhaps with ‘regional partners’ – the training of up to 15’000  ‘moderate’ rebels that will, with the help of U.S. air cover, take over and occupy the areas from which ISIS currently operate.

The final phase will involve those said same ‘moderate’ rebels, again with U.S. air cover, ultimately trying to bring down the Assad regime. And with ISIS duly weakened, the ‘moderates’ will be best placed to capitalize should the Assad regime fall.

I would agree that, from the U.S. perspective, this would seem like a massively risky venture that could go badly wrong for them. And a reasonable question might be ‘So why would they even take that risk?’.

But Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya were also massively risky ventures that had the potential to go badly wrong – and indeed did go badly wrong –  but it didn’t stop them from doing it.

(Again, this is putting aside questions of whether chaos and state collapse wasn’t actually the aim in those countries, which some people believe to be the case)

And just as they did with Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the U.S. are probably using some grim risk-reward calculus that’s made them decide it’s at least worth a try.

Of course the biggest risk in all this is for the Syrian people themselves, who now have one of the world’s most persistently murderous states, a perenial purveyor and backer of tyranny and repression and abuse, firmly ensconced within their territory. And once they’re in, there’s no telling what they’ll try to do. Whatever it is, their track record suggests it won’t be pretty, even if it is something short of an outright attempt at regime change.

And it just doesn’t seem at all adequate for anti-war activists to be describing what is happening in Syria right now, and what might happen down the line, as ‘a limited mission’, whose ‘humanitarian consequences are therefore unlikely to be grave’.

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