US Realists, Neocons and the War in Syria

By Ramzy Baroud

In US political circles, the Syria conflict is increasingly being presented as a discussion pertaining to Israeli interests. This attitude is not substantially different from the way US politicians and media weighed in on the Egyptian January 25 revolution and its aftermath. Egypt mostly matters because of the US-brokered Camp David treaty of 1979, which benefited Israel beyond all expectations. The treaty had ushered in a false period of peace; it turned Egypt into an American ally, largely alienating it from its Arab political context.

When it comes to US foreign policy in the Middle East, Israel represents a point of departure for many in the US political establishment. Neoconservative groups have long defined US foreign policy in the region. Their most crucial and unifying concern is Israel’s security and any threat, real or imagined, to Israel’s regional domination.

The neocons clustered through various organizations and think tanks. Most visible among them was the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which included very influential foreign policy individuals. PNAC’s ‘vision’ was seen as the roadmap that guided George W. Bush in his war against Iraq, the sanctions against Iran, and the overall hostile relationship that defined (and continues to define) US foreign policy in the Middle East. Tainted by the disastrous foreign policy, PNAC folded, only to be reinvented two years ago with the advent of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI).

The neocons are duly challenged. Their critics in the establishments are the ‘realists’ (as described by former Secretary of State James Baker in a recent interview with Foreign Policy). The so-called realists are far less organized than the neocons. They were simply empowered by the latter’s mammoth failures. Now the neocons are making a comeback, thanks to the golden opportunities presented by ongoing conflicts throughout the Middle East.

“Our biggest threat today isn’t Syria, or even Iran, or Russia or China,” Baker told Foreign Policy. “Our biggest threat today is our own economy, and we cannot continue to be strong diplomatically, politically, and militarily and be weak economically” (August 9). Baker, of course, hasn’t completely abandoned Israel. The problem is that the pro-Israel camp is asking for a military intervention in Syria and an escalation against Iran, both of which come with a high political and financial price tag — one that the US cannot afford.

Another ‘realist’ is Aaron David Miller, a former US adviser on the Middle East (to six Secretaries of State) and a member of the US Advisory Council of Israel Policy Forum. Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 6, in an article entitled ‘Syria: Let’s Stay out of It’, Miller stated, “Syria today is a mess — but it’s a Syrian mess. Afghanistan and Iraq should teach us that America can’t control the world. It’s time for the United States to focus on fixing its own broken house instead of chasing the illusion that it can always help repair somebody else’s.”

However, this ‘realist’ estimation by Miller was further discussed in his article in Foreign Policy two days later. In ‘Winners and Losers of Syria’s Civil War,’ Miller argued that Israel was a possible winner in case of Bashar Al Assad’s fall.

“The good news for the Israelis is that Iran and Hezbollah will be weakened by Al Assad’s fall. The bad news is that like so much of the Arab Spring/ Winter, the impending transition brings with it enormous uncertainty.”

US intervention in Libya was a much easier decision for both neocons and realists. A letter was organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative and signed by 40 policy analysts, calling on President Barack Obama’s administration to arm Libyan rebels and to “immediately’ prepare for military action to bring down the Libyan regime under Muammar Gaddafi. The neocons’ calls at the time were hardly rejected as ‘unrealistic’. According to Jim Lobe, they were “a distinct echo of the tactics they pursued to encourage US intervention in the Balkans and Iraq.” Of course, they got what they asked for in Libya. Now, the neocons are pushing for another intervention in Syria.

“Washington must stop subcontracting Syria policy to the Turks, Saudis and Qataris. They are clearly part of the anti-Al Assad effort, but the United States cannot tolerate Syria becoming a proxy state for yet another regional power,” wrote Danielle Pletka, a leading neocon and vice-president of Foreign and Defence Policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (Washington Post, July 20).

Despite immense hesitation from the Obama administration, the neocons are now trying to weasel in their version of an endgame in Syria. Their efforts are extremely focused and well-coordinated, making impressive use of their direct ties with the Israeli lobby, major US media and Syrian leaders in exile. Writing in CNN online, Elise Labott reported on a recent neoconservative push to upgrade American involvement in Syria, urging “the Obama administration to increase its support of the armed opposition” (CNN, August 1).

The ‘experts’ included Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), another pro-Israel conduit in Washington, established in 1985 as a research department for the influential Israeli lobby group, AIPAC. Obama obliged under pressure from the ‘experts’. According to CNN, he signed a secret order “referred to as an intelligence ‘finding,’ allow[ing] for clandestine support by the CIA and other agencies.”

More, On July 31, AIPAC urged all members of Congress to sign on a bill introduced by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Howard Berman. Entitled ‘The Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act (H.R.1905)’, the bill, if passed, “will establish virtual state of war with Iran,” according to the Council for the National Interest. The old neoconservative wisdom arguing for an unavoidable link between Syria, Iran and their allies in the region is now being exploited to the maximum. Their hope is to settle all scores left unsettled by the Bush administration.

US foreign policy in Syria is likely to become clearer once the signs of an endgame become easier to read. Until then, the neocons will continue to push for another campaign of intervention. For them, influencing the endgame in favor of Israel is much more beneficial than dealing with a divided country, which is ‘subcontracted’ to other regional powers, per Pletka’s unrelenting wisdom.

– Ramzy Baroud ( is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story – Pluto Press, London. (This article was first published in Gulf News)

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