US Strategy in Syria: Prolong Conflict, Like Iran-Iraq War

Extreme neoconservative activist Daniel Pipes wrote in the right-wing Washington Times in 2013 that the US strategy in Syria should be “helping whichever side is losing, so as to prolong their conflict” — just as the US did in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

For two years, I have argued that this has been the US policy in Syria — that the Obama administration decided it did not want to directly overthrow Assad, thereby leaving a vacuum in which Islamist militants would inevitably rise to the top, much as what happened in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Rather, the US decided it would be better to weaken the Syrian government  (and its allies Iran and Hezbollah) by protracting the fighting.

None other than Noam Chomsky has argued the same. In a 2014 interview with Russian state media, the renowned anti-imperialist intellectual insisted, “Israel has shown no indication that it wants the rebels to win in Syria—nor incidentally does the United States … because there’s no interest in having the Assad government fall, as far as Israel is concerned. It’s pretty happy just to see Syrians kill each other.”

Some anti-imperialists, nevertheless, have insisted that the US strategy in Syria is simply another attempt at blatant regime change — as the US pursued, at the cost of great disaster and bloodshed, in Libya, Iraq, and so many more countries. This framing is a bit too simplistic; it ignores a few pieces of evidence — such as the fact that Syrian rebels have constantly complained that they lack the arms and ammunition they would need to topple the Syrian government, or that the US never provided rebels with the anti-aircraft weapons they requested (the feudal Wahhabi Saudi absolute monarchy instead obliged).

The hesitancy in providing heavier weapons for the rebels is doubtless because the US is more aware than anyone that the Syrian opposition is and has for years been dominated by Islamists, particularly by extreme Salafi militants backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, many of whom have openly collaborated with Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. Seeing the US strategy as a more traditional act of regime change, therefore, underestimates the complexity of the conflict — and fails to explain why Obama didn’t just bomb in the first place in 2013, as he had previously planned.

Daniel Pipes — a die-hard supporter of Israel and virulent anti-Muslim bigot who told non-Muslim women they should not marry Muslim men, or they will get beaten — openly proposed in 2013 that, in Syria, the US should pursue the strategy it used during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the longest post-WWII conventional war in the 20th century, in which over one million people were killed.

In the Iran-Iraq War, the US supported both sides. President Reagan openly backed Saddam Hussein, while simultaneously covertly arming Iran (as the Iran-Contra Scandal infamously evinced). Henry Kissinger famously remarked, in reference to the Iran-Iraq War, “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.” Israel called it the “Blessed War,” and confessed it wanted the fighting to “go on for a hundred years.”

In 2015, Pipes wrote an addendum to his article. He observed “Again, the Obama administration unwittingly sounds like me, preferring a balance to one side winning outright.” That is to say, Pipes sees the Obama administration’s policy as the exact one he proposed: Never allow one side to win the conflict, so you can prolong the violence and weaken the Syrian regime without ever overthrowing it.

Pipes argued in his 2013 article that the Syrian “rebel forces resemble Iran [in the Iran-Iraq War] — the initial victim getting stronger over time and posing an increasing Islamist danger.” “Both sides engage in war crimes and pose a danger to Western interests,” he insisted, but “continued fighting does less damage to Western interests than their taking power.” Pipes maintained that “there are worse prospects than Sunni and Shi’ite Islamists mixing it up, than Hamas jihadis killing Hizbullah jihadis, and vice-versa. Better that neither side wins.”

Despite (or rather because of) his extreme Islamophobic and right-wing views, Pipes has correctly foreshadowed US policy before. In a 1987 article in the New York Times, in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War, Pipes wrote,

In 1980, when Iraq threatened Iran, our interests lay at least partly with Iran. But Iraq has been on the defensive since the summer of 1982, and Washington now belongs firmly on its side. … Looking to the future, should Iraq once again take the offensive, an unlikely but not impossible change, the United States should switch again and consider giving assistance to Iran.

As the war in Syria drags on, approaching its fifth year — with over half of the entire population displaced, more than four million external refugees; with over a quarter of a million people dead; with large swaths of the country completely destroyed, reduced to rubble; with the rise of brutally violent ISIS, the Middle East equivalent of early 20th-century European fascism — the signs suggest more and more that the Realpolitik strategy proposed by neocons like Pipes et al. has precisely been the one the US government adopted.

In the meantime, millions upon millions of innocent people’s lives have been destroyed.