Syrian Secrets and Iranian Irony


The stories of Syria and Iran dominate the news. But both narratives—if they are two separate narratives—share the common feature that to be either palatable or convincing they need to be selective. They work as narratives by editing out bits of history, both recent and not so recent. But a narrative that includes only the convenient facts and edits out the inconvenient facts is a fiction.

The current narrative urges “a Syrian-led political transition” from a dictatorship “to a democratic, plural political system”. But the narrative did not always read that way. Syria had a brief tryst with democracy in the early years of its independence, but the U.S. helped put an end to that. In 1949, before there even was a CIA, two U.S. secret agents, Stephen Meade and Miles Copeland—both later CIA agents—helped the Syrian military pull off a coup. That coup triggered a series of coups and countercoups, with the U.S. frequently changing sides. Then in 1956, with Syria moving closer to Egypt and Nasser, with his ideas of neutralism and a pan-Arab United Arab Republic that cold war America hated so much, Eisenhower initiated Project Wakeful, an unsuccessful covert action for regime change in Syria, to be followed by Operation Wappen in 1957, which failed just as badly: the CIA agents were caught in the act and thrown out of Syria. That little historical secret makes the Syria narrative read a little differently.

And if the reason America wants Assad out now is his current repressive actions against the rising of his own people, then why did they want him out before? According to Israeli newspapers, President Bush pushed Israel to expand her push into Syria during the Lebanese war. That doesn’t make the accepted narrative either. That push precedes these repressions, so the repression can’t be the only reason.

Another detail that doesn’t make it into the official narrative is that for the past dozen years, Syria has been anxious to do what the West wants her to do in order to move closer to both America and Israel. According to Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, in 2000, Israel and Syria came very close to a peace agreement. Upon succeeding his father, Bashar al-Assad requested that those talks resume, but the Israelis and Americans closed the door on him. Later, in 2005, the Israelis and Syrians actually began drafting a peace treaty. Two years later, after the Israeli-Lebanese war, Israel asked America about resuming those talks only for America to say no. According to Zunes, as late as 2007, the Bush administration continued to block Israel from resuming peace negotiations with Syria. Syria, Zunes says, eager for international legitimacy, was willing to give security guarantees and full diplomatic relations to Israel in exchange for a peace agreement. Bush, he says, was more interested in regime change in Syria than in dealing with the regime in Syria.

The official narrative doesn’t include Syria’s prolonged and consistent efforts to change her policy and her ways and come over to the West’s side: efforts that the U.S. spurned. And it didn’t stop in 2007.

According to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, prior to the war in Gaza, with the help of Turkey, Syria and Israel “had been engaged for almost a year in negotiations”. He says that many matters had been resolved and the two enemies had reached “agreements in principle on the normalization of diplomatic relations”. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, told Hersh that “Syria is eager to engage with the West”. Hersh quotes John Kerry, who met with Assad on several occasions, as saying that Assad “wants to engage with the West . . . . Assad is willing to do the things he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States.” Unlike Bush before him, Obama was willing to pursue this proposal. According to Hersh, informal exchanges between Washington and Syria did take place under the Obama administration. But the talks, as is now apparent, failed. When I asked Stephen Zunes in a recent correspondence why they failed, he placed the blame on “[t]he new hard-right Israeli government that consolidated power in 2009”. Nothing could happen “without the return of the Golan, which Netanyahu refuses to do”.

So why are we now pushing for military intervention and regime change for a regime who was knocking on our door and courting us, in the words of the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, with the promise “to do the things he needs to do in order to change his relationship” with us? Why is this push happening now?

Assad is a brutal dictator, as was his father for thirty years before him. But he’s no worse than the brutal dictators in Saudi Arabia or the brutal dictatorship of Hosni Mubarek. Assad is brutally repressing his people. But peaceful protestors in Bahrain were crushed by mass arrests, beatings and murder. And in that country, the U.S. has continued to support the regime and allowed the Saudis to move in and suppress the protest. So why now?

One can’t help but wonder how much about Syria is really about Iran: how much the two narratives are really one narrative. Hersh reports that “Many Israelis and Americans involved in the process believe that a deal on the Golan Heights could be a way to isolate Iran, one of Syria’s closest allies”. Seducing Syria onto the side of Israel and the United States would collapse the common ground and place an uncrossable chasm between Iran and Syrian. Zunes told me that Obama was eager to explore this option. But the option failed. Is the reason for the current push for regime change in Syria that, having failed to isolate Iran by separating her from Assad, we’re now taking out Assad to isolate Iran from Syria?

And there is one more secret about Syria that is edited from the official narrative. The official narrative is of a brutal government crackdown on a peaceful civilian protest. And this narrative is no doubt part true. But there is another thread to the narrative that may or may not be reliable, but is never even considered in the conversation. When the League of Arab States sent an observer mission to Syria, it was widely derided and dismissed as a toothless mission. Its impotence was what was news. But no one ever asked, and the news never reported, what the Arab observers observed. They ridiculingly reported the observing, but they never reported the observations. Perhaps they ridiculed it to preempt the need to report it. Because the observers report something quite different than the reporters report. According to the Report of the Head of the League of Arab States Observer Mission to Syria for the Period from 24 December 2011 to 18 January 2012, “Some media outlets have published unfounded statements, which they attributed to the Head of the Mission. They have also grossly exaggerated events, thereby distorting the truth” (section 68). Though the observers “witnessed acts of violence perpetrated by government forces” (section 25), they also observed that “armed entities attacked Syrian security forces and citizens” probably “in response to excessive government force before the Mission arrived, causing the government to respond with more violence” (section 71). That Syrian repression may be, in part, a response to armed opponents, as in Libya, has been left out of the official narrative. The Governor of Homs, site of so much of the government brutality, told the Mission that “there has been an escalation of violence perpetrated by armed groups in the city. There has been instances of kidnapping and sabotage of government and civilian facilities (section 13)”. “In Homs and Dera’a the Mission observed armed groups committing acts of violence against government forces, resulting in death and injury among their ranks” (section 26). “In Homs, Idlib and Hama, the Observer Mission witnessed acts of violence being committed against government forces and civilians that resulted in several deaths and injuries” (section 27). The Mission also observed that the “Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition groups have carried out bombings of buildings, trains and the police” (section 75).

Is the report reliable or is it providing aid for Assad? According to a report in Asia Times, the Arab League’s Ministerial Committee approved the report by a vote of four to one, with Algeria, Egypt, Sudan and Oman voting for and Qatar voting against. Stephen Zunes told me that “Most human rights observers and the nonviolent opposition were very disappointed in the report”. It is hard to know what the truth is. Every report of government violence in the news is sourced to unverified video or cell phone. Seymour Hersh told me in a correspondence last week that “it's very
unclear just what is going on, given the unreliability of much of the
information coming out of Syria now…via social networking.” So is the report of the observer mission a reliable correction or a confounding cover? Who knows. But it is another piece of the narrative that is kept secret and expunged from the official narrative.

And along with the Syrian secrets, there are Iranian ironies. Aside from the biggest irony that the Iranian regime that the Americans want to take out is only in power as a response to the American coup that replaced the democracy of Mohammad Mosaddeq with the brutal dictatorship of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, there are a number of smaller ironies that also never make it into the official narrative.

The first is that the West built Iran’s nuclear reactors. It was the German company Siemens that was building the Bushehr nuclear reactor. It was initially halted when the new Islamic government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took over because he deemed nuclear power to be “un-Islamic”. So it was the American supported secular dictator that started Iran’s nuclear program and the American opposed Islamic regime that wanted it stopped. How’s that for ironic?

It’s also ironic that it used to be just fine with the US if Iran had enriched uranium. The States has claimed that Iran’s drive for enriched uranium for nuclear energy has to be cloaking a sinister drive for nuclear weapons because such an oil rich country has no need of alternative energy. Kissinger himself called an oil rich country like Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy “a wasteful use of resources”. An interesting claim for the guy who, as US secretary of state during the reign of the Shah, praised Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy at that time as providing “for the growing needs of Iran’s economy and free[ing] remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals”. At the time, the US made her universities available for the training of Iranian nuclear engineers.

The second irony is the current concern and complaint, widely reported, that Iran is doubling it defense budget. According to Glenn Greenwald, that would bring Iran’s defense spending to between 15.8 and 27.2 billion dollars. Unacceptable. But by 1976, the Shah, America’s ally in Iran, was spending 18.07 billion dollars on the military, according to the U.S. State Department. That means that over a quarter of a century ago, Iran was already spending more or less the same amount, not even taking inflation into account. Taking inflation into account, under the Shah, Iran was spending two and a half times more than she is spending under the current regime. And in 1976, the Americans not only found that budget understandable, but the weapons it was purchasing were American and Israeli weapons.

The final related irony is even more incredible. In 1977, fearing the rising hostile power in Iraq, Iran went on the pursuit of missiles and found a receptive partner in Israel. The Israelis and Iranians began modifying an Israeli missile so that Iran could have a missile with the longer range of two hundred miles. There were only two incredible things about this missile. The first is that Israelis and the Iranians kept their work on this new Iranian weapon a secret from their American partner. The second, and this is the most remarkable irony of all given the current Israeli concern over Iran’s developing nuclear weapons and the long range missiles to deliver them, is that these weapons were capable of being fitted with nuclear war heads. According to Iranian expert Trita Parsi, though the two countries did not exploit this possibility at the time, Iran read Israel’s signals “as indications that this possibility could be explored down the road”. According to General Hassan Toufanian, then in charge of Iran’s military procurement, secret Israeli documents left “no doubt about it”. Ironic.

So the two narratives of Syria and Iran that dominate the news may be only one narrative, and a much more nuanced narrative, when certain historical facts—both modern and less modern—are edited back into the official narrative. But the nuanced narrative is not the narrative officials wish to be told.

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