US Military Document Reveals How the West Opposed a Democratic Syria
US military documents from 2011 and 2016 reveal that although officials wanted a Syrian regime change in theory, they thought it was highly unlikely to actually happen — and hoped that if President Bashar al-Assad was overthrown, he would not be replaced by an opposition-led Syrian democracy but, rather, the same Alawite-Baathist ruling structure would continue. The end result was to be the decimation of the democratic opposition, the consolidation of Islamist forces and regime preservation.
‘The US has given up on the overthrow of Assad in Syria’, wrote Robert Fisk this summer. Indeed, as the Russian-backed Syrian army prepared to execute its final offensive on Idlib, western governments appeared to signal their acceptance of a bloody victory for Assad, despite the ritual denunciations.
But at the last minute, Russia and Turkey agreed a truce to ward off a Russian-led attack for at least a month, and establish a buffer zone to protect 3 million civilians. The deal will involve hashing out how to remove extremist rebels from the buffer zone, and Turkey has announced it will send more troops into Idlib.
As the Idlib offensive loomed, the West, curiously, did little of substance in any particular direction. According to two newly uncovered US military documents, western reticence might be because the US was never really committed to overthrowing Assad, due to a self-serving strategy that has been wildly misunderstood.
The documents suggest that both early on and toward the later phase of the conflict, senior US military officials had not given any credence to the democratic aspirations of Syrian protestors, but had merely sought to use them as a tool to sideline expanding Iranian influence. Toppling the regime was dismissed as a highly improbable scenario, with officials indicating they believed the survival of an authoritarian Baathist governing structure — with or without Assad — was inevitable.
Predicting opposition failure
According to a US secret draft military document obtained via the Wikileaks archive, as far back as August 2011 (six months after the Syrian uprising began) US military officials were highly ambivalent about ‘regime change’ in Syria, on the grounds that opposition forces would never win. Supporting the rebels, the officials hoped, might encourage forces within Assad’s regime to remove him while maintaining the Alawite-dominated authoritarian power structure. But military intervention was not on the cards.
The document, reported here for the first time, is the draft of an internal US Marine Corps’ (USMC) Intelligence Department forecasting paper, produced jointly by analysts at the private intelligence firm Stratfor and senior USMC officials (1).
‘The Syrian Alawite-Baathist regime led by President Bashar al Assad will weaken significantly over the next three years, but its break point is unlikely to be imminent’, it states. ‘Fractured opposition forces in Syria are unlikely to overcome the logistical constraints preventing them from cohering into a meaningful threat against the regime within this time frame.’
The document was meant to be an internal USMC intelligence assessment and was never formally released to the public by the agency. It saw regime change as desirable in theory, but unattainable in practice, warning that Syria would experience ‘a violent, protracted civil conflict, one that will enflame sectarian unrest... The potential for the regime to collapse cannot be ruled out, but the road to regime change will be a long and bloody one.’
While the document does not strictly rule out regime change, it marshals abundant evidence to argue that a regime change effort would be futile. In particular, the document concludes that opposition forces would be unable to overthrow Assad: ‘... the opposition in Syria does not yet have the numbers, organization or capabilities overall to overwhelm the regime forces. Syria’s opposition is extremely fractured and is operating under enormous constraints inside the country.’
Hoping the Alawite elite steps in
Instead, the USMC report states: ‘The more probable threat the regime will be facing will come from within’ — in the form of ‘an attempt by high-ranking military and business elite of the regime to mount a coup’ against Assad, prompted by fears of his weakness.
The document puts into context previously reported leaked Stratfor emails dated from December 2011 (four months after the USMC draft document), referring to a write-up of a meeting with US military intelligence officials. The write-up ruled out a major air campaign and noted the role of special operations teams on the ground in Syria ‘training opposition forces’ to ‘try to break the back of the Alawite forces, elicit collapse from within’.
Taken in context with the USMC Intelligence Department’s draft forecasting document from August 2011, it is clear that senior US defence strategists did not envisage a democratic victory for the opposition, but hoped to create sufficient pressure to usher in a collapse of the ‘Alawite forces ... from within’, by triggering an Alawite coup against Assad. In other words, the opposition was seen as a temporary tool, to be discarded once the goal of ensuring a more ‘friendly’ autocratic Baathist structure was in place.
The draft USMC intelligence document notes that despite a growing appetite among US allies for an alternative to Assad, no one wanted to actually get their hands dirty trying to topple him.
Conceding that ‘external support for a Syrian alternative to the al-Assad regime will grow with time,’ the document observes that ‘none of the major stakeholders in the region, including Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States, appear interested in dealing with the destabilising effects of regime change in Syria in the region.’
Prepared in August 2011 as part of a series of USMC intelligence briefs drafted with Stratfor’s support, the document was buried amidst the massive corpus of Stratfor emails that were originally leaked and published by Wikileaks from 2012 to 2014.
Within the 5 million strong Stratfor corpus is a body of email correspondence in 2011 between Stratfor analysts and senior US Marine Corps officers. The emails show that the USMC Intelligence Department had commissioned Stratfor to work with USMC officials in drafting this intelligence forecasting paper, along with several other briefs. The USMC officials who established the Stratfor partnership included USMC chief of intelligence assessments Lieutenant Colonel Drew Cukor, Major William Osborne of USMC’s Future Assessments Branch, and USMC Director of Intelligence, Brigadier General Vincent Stewart.
Some caveats: the document is only a draft and we cannot tell what the final polished version looks like, although the USMC-Stratfor drafting process can actually be traced through the leaked correspondence — and this document looks to be a near final version. Also, the document is obviously not a direct reflection of US government policy, but rather gives us an insight into the internal assessment of senior US military intelligence officers. In that sense, while the document’s import should not be automatically conflated with White House policy, we ought not to dismiss its significance in granting insight into how US military planners appear to have viewed the conflict from early on.
While the document does not explicitly make direct policy recommendations, it sets out available options, preferences and scenarios. The USMC Intelligence Department, for which the forecasting assessment was drafted, is a highly influential agency which directly feeds into the execution of special operations. According to its mission statement: ‘The Intelligence Department is responsible for policy, plans, programming, budgets, and staff supervision of Intelligence and supporting activities within the Unites States Marine Corps. The Department supports the Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC) in his role as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), represents the service in Joint and Intelligence Community matters, and exercises supervision over the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity (MCIA).’
This makes it all the more significant that the draft USMC intelligence assessment concluded that it was highly improbable that the regime would collapse.
Support for Sunni Islamists to undermine Shia Iran
US military officials’ biggest fear was the prospect of Iran expanding its geopolitical influence. The document advocated that the US work with its regional allies in supporting Islamist groups to counter this: ‘... Turkey, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others have a common interest in trying to severely undermine Iran’s foothold in the Levant and dial back Hezbollah’s political and military influence in Lebanon. Turkey, in particular, is the country with the most leverage over Syria in the long term, and has an interest in seeing this territory return to Sunni rule.’
Despite acknowledging that opposition groups would probably fail to overthrow Assad, the document still assesses that they could be mobilised to counter Iranian encroachment. It was accepted that this would empower Islamist forces among the Syrian opposition, rather than democratic and secular forces: ‘Turkey does not have good options nor the capability to effect change in Syria any time soon, but it will gradually attempt to build up linkages with groups inside Syria, focusing in particular on the Islamist remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood in trying to fashion a viable Islamist political force in Syria that would operate under Ankara’s umbrella. This will take time to develop, but the geopolitical dynamic of the region points to a gradually [sic] weakening of the Alawite hold on power in Syria.’
The anti-democratic nature of the strategy was clear. Regardless of the democratic aspirations driving the Syrian uprising, US military officials were content with the idea of encouraging foreign powers to nurture Islamist forces in Syria who would operate under the ‘umbrella’ of those foreign powers: all to try and weaken Iran’s foothold.
The document also indicates that the US did not plan a military intervention for regime change at this time. The overall verdict was ‘better the devil you know’. ‘We do not anticipate the USMC militarily intervening in either Syria or Lebanon with a mission to stabilize the situation’, the document says: ‘The sectarian dynamics are far too complex for the United States to afford becoming embroiled in. Instead, this will be a regional crisis for Turkey to manage. Since Turkey is still early in its regional rise, it will need considerable backing and support from its allies, but even then, is unlikely to be able to effectively deal with such a crisis within the next three years.’
Breaking up Syria
The draft USMC assessment is largely corroborated by a little-known Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) study published five years later, unreported until now, which similarly provides a window into the thinking of US defence planners.
By 2016, the conflict had seemingly reached a grinding stalemate. The previous year, then Pentagon intelligence chief Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart expected Syria to eventually split into ‘two or three parts’. UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, similarly observed that Syria was experiencing a de facto partition that might need to be formally accepted by the international community. Russia and Iran were moving along the same lines. An international consensus had emerged that Assad would remain in power in an Alawite-run mini-state, leaving the rest of Syria in the hands of ISIS, other Islamist rebels, and the Kurds.
The JSOU study, titled The Collapse of Iraq and Syria: The End of the Colonial Construct in the Greater Levant, was authored by Dr Roby Barrett — a senior fellow at the JSOU where he has instructed US military officers in applied intelligence and advises the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community. The JSOU is US Special Operations Command’s designated agency to educate and advise Special Operations officers, based at MacDill Air Force base in Florida.
Barrett’s basic message confirms: ‘The solution to the chaos cannot be found in regime change in Syria (although that might help)... The old colonial paradigm of artificial states has been replaced by a new structure that reflects a time that predates the Ottoman’s imperial control. Iraq and Syria no longer exist.’
This meant that US Special Forces (SOF) would need to accommodate a ‘new reality’: a shrunken Alawite regime in Syria, surrounded by a patchwork of opposition groups dominated by Islamist forces. While Barrett’s assessment cannot be taken as automatically reflective of US government policy, it appears broadly consistent with actual policy decisions at the time.
The document suggests that two years ago, US defence strategists were privately content to accept a status quo partition of Syria along ethnic and sectarian lines, with a continued role for both Assad and various Islamist forces: ‘There is already a de facto partition of the Greater Levant into a minority enclave still controlled by the Assad regime in Syria, the increasingly independent Kurdish regions, the emergence of a Sunnistan now dominated by ISIS [Islamic State or IS], and a Shi’a rump state from Baghdad to Basra.’
All this confirms that western goals in Syria were never about supporting the democratic uprising. The key reason the West avoided an all-out regime change strategy was fear of being unable to determine its consequences: ‘In short, the West and its allies wanted the Assads gone, but not the remaining government structure including the Alawite-dominated Syrian army and the security services.’
And Russia’s involvement has ‘at the absolute least assured the survival of an Alawite-rump state in the north and potentially from Damascus to Latakia’ — an observation that clearly underestimated the extent of Assad’s eventual victory.
Ruling out democracy
Barrett explains that the West’s strategy is to continue supporting undemocratic Islamist forces among the Syrian opposition, dismissing any chance of an opposition-based democracy: ‘A secular state run by a group devoted to democracy and western civil society is not going to emerge in Sunnistan. Policy needs to start discarding labels and decide which Islamist Salafi group or groups that it is going to back... to preserve US and Western interests it is going to be a search for the lesser evils.’
His comments reveal how distant US policy planners were from the aspirations of the original grassroots Syrian revolutionaries — exemplified in the Local Coordination Committees (LLCs). The LLCs are a trans-sectarian Syrian youth network which campaigned vigorously for highly participatory forms of direct democracy. But as noted by the Netherlands-based development group, Hivos, the LLCs had been ‘considerably weakened due to repression from both the regime and jihadi groups.’
Rather than support the LLCs, US policy appears to have wavered between weakening and tolerating Assad while largely supporting Islamist groups among the opposition — a strategy whose outcome was to escalate sectarian violence while extinguishing the democratic potential of the 2011 uprising.
To discuss the documents, I met with Professor Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies; and Danny Postel, Assistant Director of Northwestern University’s Middle East and North African Studies Program.
‘With hundreds of agencies in the US government, we should of course be careful about interpreting any internal documents and how they reflect actual US government policy,’ Hashemi told me. ‘But these documents are completely consistent with the real track record of US policy not only in Syria but in the wider region, which has always held a deep and abiding anxiety about any form of democratisation, seeking instead to work with autocratic and authoritarian partners.’
According to Postel, this ambivalence meant that US strategy in Syria was never engaged in a serious effort to remove Assad: ‘If you look closely at what actual US policy in Syria consists of, you can clearly see that the US government has not only consistently avoided regime change, but has in effect pursued a policy of regime preservation.’
The documents confirm that the weakening of the LLCs was a direct consequence of a self-serving US strategy. The idea was to manipulate the opposition to achieve a new authoritarian status quo that would suit western interests, whether dominated by Baathists or Islamists.
Anand Gopal, who has reported from inside Syria, has previously argued that while the US hoped Assad would exit the scene, his continued rule was considered preferable to a democratic revolution. ‘Since the beginning, the US has sought to control the Syrian revolution and civil war to ensure that there would be no outcome directly opposed to American interests’, he said. ‘A successful revolution in Syria — especially one outside of American control — would have profound effects across the region, including in American client states. So although the US doesn’t like Assad and would like to see him step down, it prefers the continuation of Assad’s regime to any potential revolutionary alternative from below. It would like, in other words, a Yemen-type solution to the Syrian crisis.’
So the West’s current policy in Syria is no surprise. Trump’s decision to keep US troops in Syria until Iranian forces depart is consistent with the motivations that drove military officials under the previous Obama administration in Syria. That narrow-thinking led officials to greenlight Turkey’s support to Sunni Islamist groups back in 2011, regardless of the impact on the democratic core of Syria’s opposition; and the same narrow-thinking explains the decision to accommodate a fragmented, Assad-dominated Syria today, while still exerting pressure to sideline Iran’s influence.
No wonder, then, that as the Syrian army amassed its forces in preparation for the Idlib offensive, the West pretty much abandoned the opposition — Islamists, jihadists, beleaguered democrats and Syrian civilians — leaving Turkey to decide how it would clean up the mess.
(1) The paper was attached to an internal Straftor email communication (dated 21 September 2011) within the Wikileaks archive.
[Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is an award-winning investigative journalist and complex systems theorist. He is founding editor of the crowdfunded media platform INSURGE intelligence, and writes for VICE’s Motherboard on global system transformation. He has written for many publications including The Guardian,Foreign Policy, New Statesman and has twice been featured in the Evening Standard’s list of the top 1,000 most influential Londoners.]
Reprinted with permission.