Exclusive: As pressure again builds on President Obama to attack Syria and press a new Cold War with Russia, the extraordinary events of three years ago after a sarin attack near Damascus are worth revisiting, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.
Three years ago, when a reluctant President Barack Obama was about to launch an attack on Syria, supposedly in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad crossing a "red line” against using chemical weapons, Obama smelled a rat – or rather he sensed a mousetrap.
Advised by some of his intelligence advisers that the evidence blaming the Syrian government for the lethal sarin attack was weak, Obama disappointed many of Washington’s neocons and liberal war hawks, including those in his own administration, by deferring action. He tossed the issue to Congress, thus guaranteeing a delay.
During the crisis over Syria, President Vladimir Putin of Russia welcomed President Barack Obama to the G20 Summit at Konstantinovsky Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Sept. 5, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Precisely at that key juncture, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the pressure off Obama by persuading the Syrian government to destroy its chemical weapons, which Assad did – while still denying any role in the attack at Ghouta, just outside Damascus, on Aug. 21, 2013.
Washington’s hardliners were left aching for their lost opportunity to attack Syria by citing the Ghouta attack as a casus belli. But the evidence suggested, instead, a well-orchestrated Syrian rebel false-flag operation aimed at fabricating a pretext for direct U.S. intervention in the war on Syria.
With Putin’s assistance in getting Assad to surrender the chemical weapons, Obama was able to extricate himself from the corner that he had rather clumsily painted himself into with his earlier bravado talk about a "red line.”
But Washington’s irate neocons and many of their liberal-interventionist chums felt cheated out of their almost-war. After all, Syria had been on the neocon "regime change” list as long as Iraq and was supposed to follow the 2003 Iraq invasion if that neocon-driven adventure had not turned out so disastrously.
Still, the neocons would make Putin pay for his interference six months later by promoting an anti-Russian putsch in Ukraine, followed by U.S. and European Union sanctions to punish Russia for its "aggression.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s "What Neocons Want from Ukraine Crisis."]
According to Jeffrey Goldberg who conducted a series of interviews with Obama for a lengthy article in The Atlantic, the President boasted about his decision on Aug. 30, 2013, to resist pressure for military action from many of his advisers and instead step outside what he called "the Washington playbook.”
Goldberg described the day as Obama’s "liberation day.” For Secretary of State John Kerry, however, Aug. 30 ended in disappointment after earlier that day he had shaken the rafters at the State Department bellowing for a U.S. attack on Syria.
Goldberg explained that having already caved in under hardline pressure to double down on sending more troops to Afghanistan for a feckless "counterinsurgency” operation in 2009, Obama was not in the mood for "seeking new dragons to slay” merely to preserve his "credibility.”
According to Goldberg, within the White House, Obama would argue that "dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.”
Nevertheless, Washington’s neocons and liberal hawks – along with the Saudis, Israelis and French – argued strenuously that Obama was obliged to "retaliate” for Syria’s alleged violation of the "red line” he had set a year earlier against Syria’s using – or merely moving – chemical weapons.
Goldberg wrote that Kerry told Obama that he was expecting the President to give the final order for a military strike on Syria on Aug. 31 – the day after Kerry’s afternoon cri de guerre and Obama’s evening volte-face.
Obama: Sensing a Trap
It took uncharacteristic grit for Obama to face down his advisers and virtually Washington’s entire foreign policy establishment by calling off the planned attack on Syria at the last minute.
Goldberg wrote that Obama had "come to believe that he was walking into a trap — one laid both by allies and by adversaries, and by conventional expectations of what an American president is supposed to do.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Aug. 30, 2013, claims to have proof that the Syrian government was responsible for a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, but that evidence failed to materialize or was later discredited. [State Department photo]
Shortly after Kerry delivered his Aug. 30 philippic at the State Department, in which he blamed the Syrian government no fewer than 35 times for the chemical attack at Ghouta, Obama chose to spend an hour with his Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, on the South Lawn of the White House.
Goldberg noted: "Obama did not choose McDonough randomly: He is the Obama aide most averse to U.S. military intervention, and someone who, in the words of one of his colleagues, ‘thinks in terms of traps.’”
It was an important conversation. In my view, Obama’s willingness to listen and then assert himself can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the kind of leadership that was required to hammer out a deal on the nuclear issue with Iran. The President ended up putting a tighter rein on Kerry and ordered him to avail himself of Moscow’s help in negotiating last year’s landmark deal restraining Iran’s ability to acquire a nuclear weapon.
In that venue also, Putin and Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proved helpful, and both Obama and Kerry have expressed appreciation for Russia’s assistance in closing that major deal.
Still, in late September 2013, after the dust had settled regarding the Syrian mousetrap – with the Putin-brokered agreement on track to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons on a U.S. ship specially configured for that purpose – it must have become crystal clear to Obama that he had come within inches of letting himself be tricked into starting yet another unnecessary war.
The first step into that trap had come a year earlier, when he was persuaded to set down a red line against Syria’s using or even moving its chemical weapons.
At the end of an impromptu press conference on Aug. 20, 2012, NBC’s Chuck Todd primed the mousetrap with some cheese by asking what seemed like an expected question that Obama appeared ready to answer. Todd asked a two-part question (one part was about Mitt Romney’s taxes and the other about Syria’s chemical weapons). Obama eventually wound around to the Syrian part of Todd’s question:
"I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement … But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. … We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
It is a safe bet that this answer was pushed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her neocon advisers who had made no secret of their determination to topple Bashar al-Assad, one way or another. The Washington Post account of the press conference suggests that White House staffers had been blindsided and were trying to put the best face on it.
Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Jeffrey Goldberg, "I didn’t know it [the red line] was coming.” Goldberg added that Vice President Joe Biden had repeatedly warned Obama against drawing a red line on chemical weapons, fearing that it would one day have to be enforced.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Nov. 21, 2012. [State Department photo]
Ten days before Obama’s impromptu press conference, Clinton met with her Turkish counterpart in Istanbul and emphasized the need to jointly plan ways to assist the rebels fighting to topple Assad – including possibly implementing a no-fly zone. Clinton announced the establishment of a working group in Turkey to respond to the Syrian crisis, according to The Associated Press. The group would increase the Syrian involvement of the intelligence services and militaries of both the U.S. and Turkey.
"We have been closely coordinating over the course of this conflict, but now we need to get into the real details of such operational planning. It needs to be across both of our governments,” Clinton said.
The urgent tone reflected the reality that in early 2012, Syrian government forces were beginning to prevail in key parts of the country. Middle Eastern history and politics Professor Jeremy Salt of Bilkent University, Ankara, noted that the Syrian opposition had little hope of being effective without help from the West.
Professor Salt pointed out that Damascus had mostly been cleared of rebels and Aleppo was on its way to being cleared, with the rebels very much "on the back foot. … that’s why Hillary Clinton is in Istanbul. To ask the basic question, ‘What’s next?’”
Foreign affairs analyst Richard Heydarian put it this way: "What the Clinton administration [sic] is trying to do right now is try to coordinate some sort of military approach with Turkey and possibly also with the help of Israel and Arab countries because they feel the opposition has a chance to retain its stronghold in Aleppo.”
These were signs of the times. Washington’s hawks felt something needed to be done to stanch rebel losses, and Turkey was eager to help – so much so that it appears likely that Turkey played a key role in enabling and coordinating the sarin false-flag attack in Ghouta a year later. [Also, see "A Call for Proof on Syria Sarin Attack.”]
Evidence reported by Seymour Hersh in April 2014 in the London Review of Books implicates Turkish intelligence and extremist Syrian rebels, NOT the "Syrian regime.” Hersh does his customarily thorough job of picking apart the story approved by the Establishment.
A Convenient Sarin Attack
So, sure enough, a sarin gas attack took place in Ghouta on Aug. 21, 2013, a year and a day after Obama set his red line. The Washington establishment and its surrogate media stenographers immediately blamed the attack on Bashar al-Assad – a pantomime villain whom Western media shoehorn into the same category as its other favorite bête noire, Vladimir Putin.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Of course, you would not have learned this history from reading the "mainstream media,” which operated with the same sort of "group think” that is demonstrated before the disastrous invasion of Iraq, but evidence was available at the time and accumulating evidence since then has put the finger on jihadist rebels as the most likely sarin culprits. Intelligence reporting showed that they were getting sarin precursors from Europe via Turkey and making "homemade sarin.”
Though the behind-the-scenes story was ignored by the major U.S. news media, Hersh reported that British intelligence officials promptly acquired a sarin sample from the debris of the Aug. 21 attack, ran it through their laboratory, and determined it NOT to be the kind of sarin in Syrian army stocks.
(Hersh holds the uncommon twin-distinction of being the quintessential investigative, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter during an earlier era of more independent American journalism and now being blacklisted from today’s U.S. "mainstream media” which shuns such independence in favor of government "access” and lucrative careers. This is why he must go to the London Review of Books to get published.)
In late 2013, Hersh reported that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with Al Qaeda had mastered the mechanics of making sarin and should have been an obvious suspect. But U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. (and a top proponent of "humanitarian” wars) Samantha Power told the media the opposite. After all, blaming the sarin attack on Assad was just what Power and the other hawks needed to push Obama into a major retaliatory strike on Syria.
Hersh noted that intelligence analysts became so upset with "the administration cherry-picking intelligence” to "justify” a strike on Assad that the analysts were "throwing their hands in the air and saying, ‘How can we help this guy [Obama] when he and his cronies in the White House make up the intelligence as they go along?’”
Writing in December 2013, Hersh asked if "we have the whole story of Obama’s willingness to walk away from his ‘red line’ threat to bomb Syria. … It appears possible that at some point he was directly confronted with contradictory information: evidence strong enough to persuade him to cancel his attack plan, and take the criticism sure to come from Republicans.”
We Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) tried to warn Obama shortly after the sarin attack. But we have little reason to believe that our Memoranda to the President are high on his reading list.
More likely, Obama was brought up short when, a few days before Aug. 30, 2013, he was paid a visit by James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. According to Goldberg’s account, Clapper interrupted the President’s morning intelligence briefing "to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a ‘slam dunk.’
"He chose the term carefully. Clapper, the chief of an intelligence community traumatized by its failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, was not going to overpromise, in the manner of the onetime CIA director George Tenet, who famously guaranteed George W. Bush a ‘slam dunk’” regarding all those non-existent WMD in Iraq.
Or, who knows? We should allow for the chance that the President was told the truth by someone else in his entourage.
Pay-Back for Putin
For his part, Russian President Putin had the gall to think that Moscow’s help on Syria might bring a more cooperative spirit in Washington and a chance to cultivate healthy bilateral relations based on mutual interest and respect. He even suggested that Washington might consider abandoning the notion that the U.S. is more equal, so to speak, than other nations.
Perhaps a bit deluded in the immediate afterglow of having helped Obama steer away from an unnecessary war in Syria, Putin published a highly unusual op-ed in the New York Times on Sept. 11, 2013. Putin reportedly drafted the final paragraph himself. It is worth citing in full:
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria "Toria” Nuland, addresses Russian President Vladimir Putin in a meeting room at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, at the outset of a bilateral meeting on July 14, 2016. [State Department Photo]
"My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is ‘what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.’ It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
So, if you are still wondering why the neocons and their complicit mainstream media have made Putin into the devil incarnate, think about his sin of pulling Obama’s chestnuts out of the fire in September 2013 when war with Syria was so tantalizingly close. The neocons would make Putin pay for that by moving into high gear plans for a coup d’etat in Ukraine six months later (Feb. 22, 2014), as Putin’s attention was focused on the Winter Olympics in Sochi and the fear that it would be disrupted by a terrorist attack.
In more than a half century watching U.S. presidential administrations develop foreign policy, I have not seen a more bizarre sequence of events.
[I provide more detail on the play-by-play during the fall 2013 imbroglio on Syria in a 30-minute video.]