Cross-posted from Consortium News
Official Washington's ever-influential neoconservatives and their "liberal interventionist" allies see President Barack Obama's decision to extend U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State terrorists into Syria as a new chance to achieve the long-treasured neocon goal of "regime change" in Damascus.
On the surface, Obama's extraordinary plan to ignore Syrian sovereignty and attack across the border has been viewed as a unilateral U.S. action to strike at the terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but it could easily evolve into a renewed effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad's government, ironically one of ISIS's principal goals.
Changing its name to ISIS, the group shifted to Syria where it joined with U.S.-backed rebels seeking to overthrow Assad's regime which was dominated by Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam. Then, this summer, ISIS returned to Iraq where it routed Iraqi government forces in a series of battles and conducted public executions, including beheading two U.S. journalists.
In his national address Wednesday, Obama said he will order U.S. air attacks across Syria's border without any coordination with the Syrian government, a proposition that Damascus has denounced as a violation of its sovereignty. Thus, the argument will surely soon be heard in Washington that Assad's government must be removed as a military prerequisite so the attacks on ISIS can proceed. Otherwise, there could be a threat to U.S. aircraft from Syria's air defenses.
That would get the neocons back on their original track of forcing "regime change" in countries seen as hostile to Israel. The first target was Iraq with Syria and Iran to follow. The goal was to deprive Israel's close-in enemies, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Palestine's Hamas, of crucial support. The neocon vision got knocked off track when Bush's Iraq War derailed and the American people balked at the idea of extending the conflict to Syria and Iran.
But the neocons never gave up on their vision. They simply kept at it, clinging to key positions inside Official Washington and recruiting "liberal interventionists" to the "regime change" cause. The neocons remained focused on Syria and Iran with hopes of getting U.S. bombing campaigns going against both countries. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Dangerous Neocon-R2P Alliance."]
The neocons' new hope has now arrived with the public outrage over ISIS's atrocities. Yet, while pushing to get this new war going, the neocons have downplayed their "regime change" agenda, getting Obama to agree only to extend his anti-ISIS bombing campaign from Iraq into Syria. But "regime change" in Damascus has remained a top neocon priority.
In a New York Times op-ed on Aug. 29, neocon Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham avoided the "r-c" phrase couching their words about Syria's civil war in the vague language of resolving the conflict, but clearly meaning that Assad must go.
The hawkish pair wrote that thwarting ISIS "requires an end to the [civil] conflict in Syria, and a political transition there, because the regime of President Bashar al-Assad will never be a reliable partner against ISIS; in fact, it has abetted the rise of ISIS, just as it facilitated the terrorism of ISIS' predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq."
Though the McCain-Graham depiction of Assad's relationship to ISIS and al-Qaeda is a distortion at best -- in fact, Assad's army has been the most effective force in pushing back against the Sunni terrorist groups that have come to dominate the Western-backed rebel movement -- the op-ed's underlying point is obvious: an initial step in the U.S. military operation against ISIS must be "regime change" in Damascus.
The neocons are also back to their old sleight-of-hand conflating the terrorists fighting the Assad government with the Assad government. In the op-ed, McCain and Graham cite Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson supposedly calling "Syria 'a matter of homeland security'" -- when he actually said in the linked speech from last February:
"We are very focused on foreign fighters heading to Syria. Based on our work and the work of our international partners, we know individuals from the U.S., Canada and Europe are traveling to Syria to fight in the conflict. At the same time, extremists are actively trying to recruit Westerners, indoctrinate them, and see them return to their home countries with an extremist mission."
In other words, "Syria" was not the problem cited by Johnson but rather the "foreign fighters heading to Syria" and the possibility that they might "return to their home countries with an extremist mission." The distinction is important, but McCain and Graham want to blur the threat to confuse Americans into seeing "Syria" as the problem, not the extremists.
A similar approach was taken by Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, one of the Obama administration's top liberal war hawks. On Sept. 4, she sought to conflate recent allegations that Assad may not have surrendered all his chemical weapons with the possibility that any remaining weapons might fall into the hands of ISIS terrorists.
"Certainly if there are chemical weapons left in Syria, there will be a risk" that they could end up in the hands of ISIS, Power said. "And we can only imagine what a group like that would do if in possession of such a weapon."