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Obama's Syria Strategy at a Crossroads

By       Message Robert Parry     Permalink
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Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been particularly open in his criticism of Netanyahu for alienating the Obama administration. Recently, Olmert accused Netanyahu of "losing his head," "declaring war on the United States" and trying to incite the Congress against Obama. But Olmert is far from alone in his opinions. Several ex-Mossad officials have challenged Netanyahu's obsessive and belligerent approach toward Iran, too.

But it seems unlikely that Netanyahu will back down from this fight. He has yoked up his defenders in the U.S. news media and Congress and gotten them to pull together with hopes of toppling Obama's diplomatic initiatives. Members of Congress, in thrall to the Israel lobby, are pushing for new economic sanctions against Iran which the Iranians warn will destroy the interim nuclear accord.

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Neocons Fight Back

Official Washington's still-influential neocons also haven't abandoned their long-range strategy -- dating back to their work on Netanyahu's 1996 campaign -- to make a "clean break" with frustrating diplomacy and replacing it with an aggressive "regime change" approach across the region.

The plan to dump negotiations in favor of dumping adversarial leaders was outlined in a 1996 policy paper, entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm" and prepared by prominent neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, for Netanyahu's campaign for prime minister.

In the document, the neocons wrote: "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." [See's "The Mysterious Why of the Iraq War."]

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The overriding point of this neocon strategy, as it has evolved over nearly two decades, is that by imposing "regime change" in Muslim nations that are deemed hostile to Israel, new friendly governments could be put in place, thus leaving Israel's close-in enemies -- Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon -- without outside sponsors. Starved of money, these troublesome enemies would be forced to accept Israel's terms. "The Realm" would be secured.

But that strategy always required a U.S. president who was either onboard or could be steered in the desired direction. Bill Clinton could only be pushed so far toward invading Iraq, but George W. Bush -- eager to prove his mettle as a post-9/11 "war president" -- went all in on the neocon strategy, starting by ousting Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Syria and Iran were always the neocons' next targets, but the Iraq War went badly, leaving phase two and phase three on the drawing boards, not implemented but not forgotten.

When Barack Obama was elected president, Prime Minister Netanyahu chose to play hardball with the newcomer and achieved some success in pushing Obama around during the first term. But Netanyahu knew that Obama was a reluctant ally when it came to finishing the neocon plan. Obama resisted war with Iran and dragged his heels on intervening in Syria.

So, Netanyahu publicly threw his support behind Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who made it clear that he would align U.S. foreign policy with whatever Netanyahu wanted to do. However, Romney lost to Obama and Netanyahu had to revert to his old tactics of browbeating Obama and edging him toward the conflicts.

A major turning point came last summer when Obama was nearly stampeded into a military assault on Syria over a murky chemical weapons incident outside Damascus on Aug. 21. The Israelis, the neocons and many liberal interventionists (including some of Obama's top aides) jumped to the conclusion that Assad's regime was to blame for the attack. Obama weighed the possibility of a limited military reprisal.

But some U.S. intelligence analysts had serious doubts about who caused the deaths from sarin gas and they refused to sign onto an intelligence estimate that rushed to the Assad-did-it judgment. At the last minute, even as many White House aides expected U.S. missiles to start flying, Obama abruptly reversed course and began looking for a diplomatic way out. He was helped by the Russians who persuaded Assad to destroy his chemical arsenal even as he continued denying blame for the Aug. 21 attack.

That turnaround on attacking Syria was followed by an interim agreement with Iran to constrain its nuclear program -- and now a plan for Syrian peace talks. Suddenly, it seemed like cooler heads might prevail. But Saudi Arabia, particularly its energetic intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and Israel, at least as personified by Prime Minister Netanyahu, won't give up on their determination to shatter the Shiite Crescent.

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Yet, it is becoming harder and harder to sell the American people on why they should spend billions and billions of dollars more and send more of their young men and women off to kill and be killed because of some Islamic sectarian struggle that dates back 1,400 years -- or because some Israeli leaders want to continue a violent strategy of "regime change."

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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