There is great division of opinion regarding potential U.S. military action in Syria. However, one group is ecstatic over President Obama’s endorsement of a military attack on Damascus. These are the Neconservatives who dominated the George W. Bush administration, and who still hold tremendous influence in Washington. An attack on Syria would be one step in fulfilling “stage two” of a longstanding neoconservative plan to bring about regime change throughout the Middle East in three stages: Iraq, Syria and finally Iran.
The pattern for this plan has been to wait for an event that can be sold to the world public as justification for military attack, and then to push forward, pressuring the military and government officials to move forward with the next stage of regime change.
President Obama is, perhaps unwittingly, fulfilling this plan, conceived in 1996 by an informal organization, the Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000, headed by Richard Pearle and including well-known neo-conservatives, Douglas Feith, Meyrav Wurmser, David Wurmser, Robert Loewenberg, Charles Fairbanks, Jr. and James Colbert. All are connected with organizations favoring right-wing extremist Israeli policies toward Palestinians and other Middle East nations. The Study Group plan, titled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” was prepared for Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The “clean break” refers to their advice that Israel break from the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
The 1996 plan explicitly calls for attacks on Iraq, Syria and eventually Iran. It states: "Israel can shape its strategic environment . . . 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."
Many of the same figures carried this plan forward two years later under another rubric, The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) founded by William Kristol and Robert Kagan. In a letter to President Clinton and House Speaker Gingrich in 1998, the members of the PNAC, including Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Zoellick called for the removal of Saddam Hussein, carrying out the first stage of the agenda of the “Clean Break” plan.
Once George W. Bush was elected president, many of these figures took up prominent positions within his administration. Following the tragic destruction of the Twin Towers in New York and the attack on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the removal of Saddam Hussein became a policy objective for the United States.
The PNAC wrote a letter to President Bush in 2001 stating: “...even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.”
It was at this time that Iran came more clearly into focus for the neoconservatives. The theory they promulgated was that Iran was the prime mover in all anti-Israeli activity in the region through Iran’s purported support for Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. Syria was seen as complicit in this, and was regularly identified as a “client state” for Iran. However, neither legislators nor the public could be incited by this theory, for which there was, and continues to be, no credible evidence.
In 2003, the neoconservatives, working through right-wing think tanks such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) were able to convince the Bush administration that Iran’s 40 year old nuclear energy program was really a plot to develop nuclear weapons to be used against Israel. This theory eventually became accepted as gospel in Washington, notwithstanding that American and International intelligence agencies asserted there was no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. However, based on this baseless assertion, these same players called for military action against Iran.
Following the “Arab Spring” popular revolts against standing regimes in the Middle East the longstanding tension between the Sunni Muslim majority and the Alawite ruling minority in Syria exploded in resistance against Syrian ruler Bashar Al-Assad. This conflict had been festering for two generations. In 1982, armed resistance from the Sunni population resulted in a massacre in the city of Hama under orders from Hafiz al-Assad, Bashar’s father. Bashar retaliated to the more recent revolt with unprecedented cruelty, and has been accused of using chemical weapons against Syrian rebels. Whatever the United States or other nations might do to remove the Assad regime, the civil war there will continue unabated.
However, neoconservatives have seized on this more recent revolt against the Assad government as justification for military action to carry out regime change there, but not just because the Assad regime is objectionable, but rather because in an attack on Syria they see an opportunity to strike a crippling blow against Iran. As conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks stated on the PBS News Hour on September 6, “this isn’t really about Syria. . . . the real issue is the broader credibility of the President, the international credibility of the United States, especially vis-à-vis Iran. This is really about Iran more than Syria.”
Brooks’ widely held view is a miscalculation. Even if the Assad regime is removed from power, Iran will not be significantly damaged in its foreign, nuclear or economic policy.
A quick examination of all of these efforts—the pretext based on the 9/11 tragedy for ousting Saddam Hussein, weak justification for U.S. involvement in a longstanding and ongoing civil war in Syria, and the claim that Iran is not only directing all anti-Israeli action in the Middle East, but is also a nuclear threat show that the neoconservative agenda is a tissue of fantasy designed to convince the world, episode by episode, to completely reshape the region with U.S. military firepower.
Americans should not be listening to these neoconservative voices. They have been responsible for a debilitating and useless conflict in Iraq already. Their “advice” to President Obama and his administration will only drag the United States into another useless and debilitating conflict in the Middle East that will accomplish nothing, and will exacerbate violence rather than bringing the world closer to peaceful resolution of the tensions in the region.
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William O. Beeman is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and Visiting Professor at Stanford University. He has worked in the Middle East for more than 40 years.