Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Creative Chaos: How U.S. Planners Sparked the Anti-Government Protests of the So-Called Arab Spring in Syria | The Libertarian Institute

Posted by M. C. on February 1, 2022

We should therefore remember that it was US planners, with help from their regional allies, that first “pulled the trigger” in what became a ten-year imperialist dirty war on Syria that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, destroyed large segments of the country, created millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, and led to untold human suffering.

by William Van Wagenen


“I have been a refugee for 37 years due to my political engagement against the ruling Baath party. I cannot go back to Syria without being punished. But I see what the western countries, Turkey, and the Gulf states are now trying to do to my country. It has nothing to do with human rights or democracy. They want to divide the country and get rid of an opponent to the US´ plans for the region.”- Saliba Mourad


Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, President Bashar al-Assad has claimed that Syria was the victim of a plot by Western imperialist powers seeking to effect regime in the country. Such a view has been widely ridiculed by opponents of the Syrian government, who argue that US and allied intelligence agencies played no role in sparking the anti-government protests that erupted in Syria in March 2011 as part of the so-called Arab Spring. Instead, as described by the New York Times, “Syrians, like other peoples across the region, rose up peacefully against their authoritarian government. Mr. Assad cracked down violently. Communities took up arms to defend themselves, then fought back in what became a civil war. Some soldiers joined the rebels, but not enough to win.”

According to this view, those pointing to the role of US and allied intelligence agencies in sparking the protests are conspiracy theorists who deny the agency of Syrians to determine their own fate. For example, pro-opposition activists and authors Robbin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami argue that considering the role of US and allied intelligence agencies in sparking the protests necessarily “leads some ever deeper into conspiracism. For such people, not only the Syrian revolution but the whole Arab Spring was a foreign plot, the English-language slogans at Kafranbel are proof of a CIA presence,” while efforts to blame the conflict on the Western imperialist powers, “remove the agency of the peoples concerned,” casting Syrians, “as innocents pleased to suffer poverty, torture and humiliation until some devilishly clever Westerner whispers in their ears.”

Such a view suggests further that if the Western powers deserve any blame, it is not for manufacturing the conflict in Syria, but for their supposed inaction and refusal to intervene in the war against the Syrian government and on behalf of the Syrian people.

However, as I have shown elsewhere, claims of US inaction in the Syrian conflict that erupted in 2011 are a myth. The CIA did intervene massively in the conflict, by covertly pumping billions of dollars of weapons to Salafist armed groups, both directly and via allied regional intelligence agencies, in what is now acknowledged as the costliest covert program in the agency’s history.

More importantly, there is clear evidence that US planners not only intervened in the Syrian conflict after it erupted, but that they covertly sparked the conflict itself. US planners prepared for years to ignite a sectarian civil war in Syria resembling that in neighboring Iraq, and successfully engineered the anti-government protests that erupted in March 2011 for this purpose. They then used these protests as cover to simultaneously launch an al-Qaeda led insurgency that quickly enveloped the country. It was hoped that this would spark a sectarian civil war that would pave the way for the fall of the Baath-led Syrian government and possibly even direct US military occupation of the country.

Any honest effort to understand the origins of the Syrian conflict must take account of this covert role played by US planners. Suggesting that any discussion of the US role amounts to promoting conspiracy theories, or denies the agency of Syrians, is not meant to shed light on the origins of the conflict but is meant to deliberately obscure them.  For this reason, it is unsurprising that Robin Yassin-Kassab has been a vocal advocate of Western-backed regime change not only in Syria, but everywhere the Western powers have sought to intervene in recent years. As author Nu’man Abd al-Wahid observes, “Robin Yassin-Kassab has distinguished himself as one of Britain’s leading regime-change propagandists. Whether it’s Libya, Syria or Venezuela, Mr. Yassin-Kassab can be handsomely relied upon to supply the clever and poetic armoury to push forward narratives to facilitate Western imperialism militarily overhauling a nation-state not to its predisposition. For most of the last decade, Syria was his favoured target for spewing regime-change propaganda.”

Sadly, propaganda of the sort peddled by Yassin-Kassab and others in the service of Western imperialism is to be expected, as such propaganda accompanies every war. As Arthur Ponsonby observed in the wake of World War I, “Falsehood is a recognized and extremely useful weapon in warfare, and every country uses it quite deliberately to deceive its own people, to attract neutrals, and to mislead the enemy. The ignorant and innocent masses in each country are unaware at the time that they are being misled, and when it is all over only here and there are the falsehoods discovered and exposed.”

Almost a decade after the start of the Syria war, the role played by U.S. planners in launching it is still rarely recognized. In the remainder of this essay, I detail the efforts of U.S. planners to engineer the anti-government demonstrations that erupted in Syria in March 2011 as part of the so-called Arab Spring.

Early Experiments in Covert Action

The role of US planners in sparking the conflict in Syria in March 2011 was not immediately apparent to outside observers because it was covert and deliberately hidden. As philosopher and cultural critic Gabriel Rockhill observes, intelligence services such as the CIA “want to remain beneath the radar of history. They do not want to participate in or be identified as the heroes of history. But in a very paradoxical and quite pernicious way, they are often precisely those that are most powerful in the constitution of the visible histories we have and in the legacies that have been left.”

Covert US efforts to destabilize Syria in 2011 should not be surprising, as such efforts stretch back over 70 years. Attorney and international law expert Ernesto Sanchez observed that “During the Cold War’s early years, the United States tried to overthrow the Syrian government in one of the most sustained covert-operations campaigns ever conducted,” while historian Douglas Little explained that “This newly independent Arab republic was an important staging ground for the CIA’s earliest experiments in covert action.”

It is important to emphasize what motivated US planners to intervene in Syria during this early period. Historian William Blum notes that according to declassified National Security Council (NSC) documents, US planners were responding to the “popular leftward trend” in the Syrian government, which was allowing “continuous and increasing Communist activities,” while rejecting US military aid, which would have obligated Syria to support US efforts to “encourage the efforts of other free nations … to foster private initiative and competition [i.e., capitalism].”

As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. details, “The CIA began its active meddling in Syria in 1949—barely a year after the agency’s creation,” in a coup directed against Syria’s democratically elected president, Shukri al-Quwatli, after he “hesitated to approve the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, an American project intended to connect the oil fields of Saudi Arabia to the ports of Lebanon via Syria.”

The coup installed General Husni al-Za’im in power, who US officials viewed as a “Banana Republic dictator type” with a “strong anti-Soviet attitude.” This led a State Department political officer in Damascus, Deane Hinton, to admit that the successful 1949 coup was, “the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in, and that we’ve started a series of these things that will never end.”

The American Project

The roots of the most recent US intervention in Syrian affairs can be traced to the George W. Bush administration. In his 2005 book, “Inheriting Syria,” Flynt Leverett, former senior Middle East analyst at the CIA and senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council explained why US planners wished to effect regime change in Syria during this period. Leverett noted that Syria is a “swing state” in the Middle East, and that since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970, US policy toward Syria has been motivated by an interest in bringing Syria into the pro-US camp and therefore “tipping the regional balance of power against more radical or revisionist actors,” in particular against Iran. Leverett complained that the US has “had to cope with Syrian resistance on a variety of fronts” since 1970, which resistance includes opposition to US support for Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, Syria’s “largely successful campaign to repulse Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon,” and Syria’s “inauguration of a strategic alliance with Iran” which “ran against American moves throughout the 1980’s to bolster [Saddam’s] Iraq as a bulwark against the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary influence.” Leverett noted further that “As the Bush administration launched its military campaign against Saddam’s regime in 2003, Bashar [al-Assad] not only opposed the war but authorized actions that worked against the US pursuit of its objectives in Iraq.” Leverett also discusses Syrian support for Palestinian resistance groups (PFLP-GC, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad) and the fact that Syria “has for many years been the principal conduit for Iranian military supplies going to Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon.” Leverett then wondered whether the best course for “changing problematic Syrian behaviors” should entail US efforts to “ratchet up economic, political, rhetorical pressure on Damascus,” on the one hand, or “coercive regime change” on the other.

In short, as Syria expert David Lesch observed, Syria “did not give in to what, in the region during the Bush years, was often called the ‘American project.’”

Cleaning up the Middle East

Such threats were not new. According to former NATO supreme military commander Wesley Clark, then US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Paul Wolfowitz, told him after the First Gulf War in 1991 that “We didn’t get rid of Saddam Hussein and we should have. . . We’ve only got five or ten years to clean up the middle east. These old soviet surrogate regimes like Syria and Iraq, get rid of them before the next superpower comes along to challenge us.” According to Clark, the efforts of Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives in the Bush administration to aggressively use force to change regimes “appeared full blown after 9-11.”

As Samer Arabi observes, neoconservatives from the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) demanded at this time that “Iran and Syria immediately cease all military, financial, and political support for Hezbollah and its operations.” They threatened that, “Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the [Bush] administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known state sponsors of terrorism,” even though none of these countries played any role in the 9/11 attacks.

In March 2003, US planners launched the illegal US invasion and occupation of Iraq, a country which also played no role in the 9/11 attacks. Wesley Clark famously revealed as well that the Iraq invasion was part of a larger plan developed by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office “to take out seven countries in five years,” including Iran, Libya, and Syria. As academic Piers Robinson notes, Clark’s claims were confirmed by then Secretary of Defense Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson, as well as by documents released by the UK Chilcot Inquiry showing British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George Bush planning a possible attack on Syria in the same context.

Syrian planners understood this threat well. David Lesch notes that “in the fresh glow of the Bush administration’s ‘mission accomplished’ in 2003, several implicit threats were directed at Damascus – threats that Syrian officials took very seriously: Syria could be next on the Bush doctrine’s hit list. [emphasis in the original].”

Not only Syrian planners, but also average Syrians were aware of these threats. Journalist and former US Marine Brad Hoff notes that during a lengthy stay in Damascus in 2005, many of his Syrian acquaintances expressed the view that “A war on Syria is coming. The Americans are coming here – whether in a few years or more, they will target Damascus.”

A Clean Break

The threat of regime change was reinforced in October 2005 by CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour during an interview with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. She warned Assad that US planners were actively seeking to depose him, stating that, “Mr. President, you know the rhetoric of regime change is headed towards you from the United States. They are actively looking for a new Syrian leader. They’re granting visas and visits to Syrian opposition politicians. They’re talking about isolating you diplomatically and, perhaps, a coup d’etat or your regime crumbling. What are you thinking about that?” As Brad Hoff observed, Amanpour was married to former US Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin, who later advised both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Amanpour was therefore not likely speculating, but instead appeared to be delivering a direct threat on behalf of US planners.

In December 2005, the Wall Street Journal reported that within US government circles, the “Pressure for regime change in Damascus is rising,” and that according to prominent neoconservative and architect of the US invasion of Iraq, Richard Perle, “Assad has never been weaker, and we should take advantage of that.” Perle, a member of the US Defense Policy Board, made his comments in the context of a US-sponsored effort to blame the Syrian government for the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Perle’s advocacy for regime change in Syria stretched back at least a decade and was articulated in a 1996 policy document produced by a study group he led.  Entitled, “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” the document recommended to then incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel “shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right, as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions [emphasis mine].”

The text of the document was primarily authored by David Wurmser, a colleague of Perle’s at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Wurmser elsewhere argued that the US and Israel should “expedite the demise of Baathism in Syria,” and of secular Arab nationalism generally, to create new states in the region on based instead on “tribal/clan/familial alliances.”

Wurmser’s views were themselves reminiscent of the 1982 “Yinon Plan,” which viewed the break-up of the Baathist-led Syrian and Iraqi governments into weak, sectarian mini-states as beneficial for Israeli interests. In an article titled “A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties,” former Israeli foreign ministry official Oded Yinon wrote that, “The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unique areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target. Syria will fall apart, in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in present day Lebanon, so that there will be a Shi’ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another Sunni state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbor, and the Druzes who will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in northern Jordan. This state of affairs will be the guarantee for peace and security in the area in the long run, and that aim is already within our reach today.”

CIA and NSC official Flynt Leverett notes that because both Perle and Wurmser obtained influential positions in the Bush administration (with Wurmser becoming Middle East advisor to Vice President Cheney’s staff) it was, “thus not surprising that the Office of the Secretary of Defense became the principal agent advocating coercive regime change strategy toward Damascus, supported by the office of the Office of the Vice President.”

Creative Chaos

Part of the neoconservative effort to impose regime change in Syria was the creation of the Syria Reform Party (SRF), led by Farid Ghadry, shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ghadry had left Syria with his family for Lebanon at a young age before emigrating to the United States. He attended the American University in Washington DC and became a successful businessman. Ghadry enjoyed support from Richard Perle and other neoconservatives centered around then Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. Ghadry viewed Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi’s role in promoting the neoconservative-planned US invasion of Iraq as a positive model. Ghadry told the Wall Street Journal that “Ahmed paved the way in Iraq for what we want to do in Syria.” In an indication of how deeply Ghadry reflected the interests of his neoconservative US sponsors, and how little popularity he would ever enjoy among Syrians, Ghadry became a member of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful Israel lobby in Washington, and wrote a column on his website titled “Why I Admire Israel.”

According to Syrian journalist Salim Abraham, Ghadry claimed to want “regime change by any means,” including a direct US invasion and occupation of the country. Ghadry also hoped to dismantle Syria’s largely socialist economy and replace it with a completely free market system. Abraham reports further that in November 2005, Ghadry met with both Perle and Chalabi in Washington where they discussed “the next steps in Syria” for regime change. Ghadry later described his plan to gather all Syrian opposition groups to create a government in exile, and “Then, take people to [the] streets. Some people get killed. The international community gets further angry at the regime. Then, have NATO forces protect a safe zone in northern Syria,” on the border with Turkey, after which “we will move right away into Syria.” Ghadry explained further that, “There will be some revenge killings, unfortunately. There will be a fight among opposition groups. . . . But the U.S. and France will be like traffic cops, who would organize and ensure” a peaceful transition.

The regime-change desired by Ghadry and his American handlers depended not only on an Iraq-style invasion and occupation, but also on inciting a sectarian civil war of the sort also raging in Iraq at the time. In reviewing an essay written by Ghadry, Syria expert and academic Joshua Landis observed, “Ghadry stipulates that by opening up a sectarian war inside Syria, the regime will fall. He encourages Washington to facilitate this and to — ‘stir trouble amongst the Sunnis of Syria’ — with the goal of causing the collapse of the Asad regime, preferably by a coup.” Landis notes further that Ghadry “takes the neocon policy of ‘creative chaos’ to its logical conclusion, which is to fan the flames of the sectarian war being waged in Iraq to bring down the neighboring regimes and break the Middle East wide open. He presumes that Washington will end up siding with the Sunnis in Iraq against the Shiites and harness Saudi Arabia to this task.”

Ghadry’s strategy to use sectarianism to destabilize the Syrian government likely did not originate with him, but with his American handlers such as Richard Perle. US planners had long viewed inciting sectarian tensions in Syria that would culminate in civil war as beneficial. This strategy was articulated in a 1986 CIA memo entitled, “Syria: Scenarios of Dramatic Political Change,” and is worth quoting at length due to the emphasis the document places on inciting anti-government protests in Syria of the kind seen in 2011. The memo explains that, “We believe that a renewal of communal violence between Alawis and Sunnis could inspire Sunnis in the military to turn against the regime. . . . disgruntlement over price hikes, altercations between citizens and security forces, or anger at privileges accorded to Alawis at the expense of Sunnis could foster small-scale protests. Excessive government force in quelling such disturbances might be seen by Sunnis as evidence of a government vendetta against all Sunnis, precipitating even larger protests by other Sunni groups. . . . Regime efforts to restore order would founder if government violence against protestors inspired broad-based communal violence between Alawis and Sunnis. A general campaign of Alawi violence against Sunnis might push even moderate Sunnis to join the opposition. Remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood, some returning from exile in Iraq, could provide a core of leadership for the movement. Although the regime has the resources to crush such a venture, we believe brutal attacks on Sunni civilians might prompt large numbers of Sunni officers and conscripts to desert or stage mutinies in support of dissidents, and Iraq might supply them with sufficient weapons to launch a civil war.”

Watching the Carnage in Iraq

According to a December 2006 US State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks, US embassy officials in Damascus similarly suggested that the US should use sectarianism to destabilize the Syrian government, in this case by playing “on Sunni fears of Iranian influence.” The cable explains that “There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis.  Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business. Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here, (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders), are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue.”

As Robert Naiman observed, “This [December 2006 State Department] cable was written at the height of the sectarian Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq. . . . No one working for the US government on foreign policy at the time could have been unaware of the implications of promoting Sunni-Shia sectarianism.”

US planners realized that the anti-Shia sectarianism of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (who was killed by US forces in June 2006) could be beneficial for US and Israeli interests in neighboring Syria. A leaked email to Hillary Clinton from her advisor Sidney Blumenthal explained that “the fall of the House of Assad could well ignite a sectarian war between the Shiites and the majority Sunnis of the region drawing in Iran, which, in the view of Israeli commanders would not be a bad thing for Israel and its Western allies,” because it “would distract and might obstruct Iran from its nuclear activities for a good deal of time,” and possibly “even prove to be a factor in the eventual fall of the current government of Iran.”

As noted in the State department cable above, US planners sought to coordinate closely with the Saudi government to publicize the alleged threat of Shiite and Iranian influence in Syria. In his book, “The last decade in the history of Syria: the dialectic of stagnation and reform,” Syrian sociologist Muhammad Jamal Barout, notes as a result that during early anti-government demonstrations in Syria in 2011, the slogan, “No to Iran! No to Hezbollah!” became common. Barout writes that, “The merging of hostility for the [Syrian] regime and Hezbollah was the result of the Salafi propaganda campaign originating from the Gulf countries which targeted Shiites generally, and which focused on the concept of the Shiite-Nusayri [Alawite] alliance, as expressed in the writings of Muhammad Sarour Zein al-Abbedine.” Muhammad Sarour was a prominent Syrian Salafi cleric living in exile who was famous for writing a book (under a pseudonym), titled “Then Came the Turn of the Majus,” which inspired al-Zarqawi to call for genocide against Iraq’s Shia population.  As I have discussed elsewhere, Sarour and his followers later played a prominent, though often unacknowledged, role in the early protest movement that erupted in Syria in 2011, including in Deraa.

Al-Jazeera, the Qatari-owned satellite news channel, played a key role in promoting the Salafi propaganda campaign originating from the Gulf countries as well, in accordance with US interests. As Iraqi-British author Sami Ramadani notes, Qatar’s rulers “saw in Al Jazeera a vehicle for spreading their political influence,” just as “Qatar became the headquarters of US military operations throughout the Middle East. Al Jazeera remains one of the root sources of constant scares about a supposed sectarian threat from Iranian and ‘Shia’ influence in the region.”

It should further be noted that US planners were not promoting this Salafist propaganda campaign to topple Assad because he was unpopular with Syrians. As Syria analyst Camille Otrakji observed, “Had President Assad been so unpopular with ‘the Sunnis’ … why did America’s embassy need to manufacture Sunni anger?” US planners were aware that although President Assad did not come to power via democratic elections, he was nevertheless extremely popular. Washington Post reporter David Ignatius, who enjoys access to many US military and intelligence sources, wrote in November 2005 for example that, “It’s hard to find a Syrian who doesn’t want Assad to remain at least as a figurehead. He’s a symbol of stability for a country nervously watching the carnage in Iraq. Sami Moubayed, a Syrian analyst, is probably right when he tells me that ‘the president would win in a landslide if there was an election.’” Nevertheless, US planners were willing to spark a sectarian war in the country to depose Assad’s government.

The Brotherhood Option

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