Strategic prize

The West’s attempt to effect a regime change in Syria using tactics from 60 years ago has not borne fruit, and the majority of the people seem to have rallied behind their government.

Published : Mar 16, 2016 12:30 IST

People chant slogans in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as they greet a group of international journalists in Al-Tall, a town on the northern outskirts of Damascus, on March 3.

People chant slogans in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as they greet a group of international journalists in Al-Tall, a town on the northern outskirts of Damascus, on March 3.

SYRIA, unlike neighbouring Iraq, is not very rich in hydrocarbon resources but its strategic location has for long made it a prized target for destabilisation. Syria is situated in the heart of the Levant and has been following an independent foreign policy since the late 1950s. One of the country’s geostrategic advantages is the access it has to the Mediterranean Sea. Syria has been a strategic prize the West has been seeking since the days of the Cold War. Henry Kissinger once said that there cannot be any war in West Asia without Egypt or any lasting peace without the involvement of Syria. The United States has been trying for a regime change in Syria since the country attained formal independence. The U.S. had a role in ensuring Syria’s independence in 1946, after thwarting France’s move to reclaim its colonies in the region after the Second World War. But relations between Damascus and Washington started deteriorating almost immediately after the Syrian parliament vetoed the passage rights for a proposed Arabian American Oil Company pipeline.

The Americans wanted oil from Saudi Arabia to be transported to the Mediterranean through Syria. Syrian lawmakers were angry with the U.S. for its prompt recognition of the state of Israel. U.S. President Harry Truman immediately retaliated by authorising the staging of a military coup in Syria by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the very first in the region, in March 1949. Syrian President Shukri al-Quwaitli was overthrown by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Husni al-Za’im. Another coup followed in the same year, which resulted in the assassination of Gen. al-Za’im.

Civilian rule was restored in 1955, with al-Quwaitli again heading the government. Syrian nationalists had ensured that the coveted American pipeline did not materialise. Instead, they steered the country to a very close relationship with Egypt. President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt had already emerged as the hero of pan-Arabism by then. The Dwight Eisenhower administration in the U.S. once again got busy plotting against Syria, forming a destabilisation plan code-named “Operation Straggle”. The plan involved the staging of violent activities along the border with Turkey and the arming of tribes to fight alongside right-wing groups opposed to the nationalistic goals espoused by Arab socialists.

The second attempt at regime change also failed as the British, the French and the Israelis, who were supposed to help in the efforts to overthrow the Syrian government, were too preoccupied with the 1957 Suez Canal crisis. However, the most important reason, as President Eisenhower noted in 1958, was the intense suspicion the Syrian public had exhibited towards the U.S. and the West. “The trouble is that we have a campaign of hatred against us, not by the government but by the people,” Eisenhower is quoted as saying in recently unclassified official papers. According to the unclassified reports, there is a “consensus narrative” that is widely held among the Syrian people that “foreign conspiracies have sought to undermine Syria in the past”.

Documents discovered in 2004 revealed a joint CIA-MI6 plan approved by Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to overthrow the Syrian government in 1957. The documents were unearthed by a British academic, Mathew Jones, who teaches international history at the University of London. The details of the plan were found in the private papers of Duncan Sandys, who had served as Defence Secretary under Macmillan. The plan included staging border incidents and the assassination of three key leaders. A coalition government consisting of communists and Baathists had come to power in Damascus overthrowing a pro-Western military dictatorship. The plan had called for the setting up of a “Free Syria Committee” and the “arming of political factions with paramilitary or other actionist capabilities”. The “preferred plan” to overthrow the Syrian government at the time was specific in its details.

“In order to facilitate the action of the liberative forces, reduce the capabilities of the Syrian regime to organise and direct its military actions, to hold losses and destruction to the minimum, and to bring about desired results in the shortest possible time, a special effort should be made to eliminate certain key individuals. Their removal should be accomplished early in the course of the uprising and intervention and in the light of the circumstances existing at the time,” the Sandys papers revealed. The three leaders officially targeted for assassination by the U.S. and the United Kingdom were Abd al-Hamid Sarraj, the head of Syrian military intelligence; Afif al-Bizri, chief of staff of the Syrian army; and Khalid Bakdash, the leader of the Syrian Communist Party.

The “preferred plan” spelt out other covert actions that had to be undertaken to achieve the goal of regime change in Syria. “Once a political decision is taken to proceed with internal disturbances in Syria, CIA is prepared and SIS (MI6) will attempt to mount more sabotage and ‘coup de main’ incidents within Syria working through contacts and individuals”.

The report went on to add that if the coup plotters were successful in carrying out their mission and the necessary degree of chaos and destruction was achieved, then frontier incidents and border skirmishes would be staged with the help of friendly governments such as neighbouring Jordan and Iraq. Syria had to be made to “appear as the sponsor of plots, sabotage and violence directed against neighbouring governments”. The blueprint for action against Syria prepared in the U.S. and the U.K. called on the CIA and the SIS “to use their capabilities in both the psychological and action fields to augment tension”. The document spelt out what this meant in actual terms. The territories of Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq would be used as staging posts to mount “sabotage, national conspiracies and various strong-arm activities” inside Syria.

Interestingly, the plan also called for the formation a “Free Syria Committee” along with the arming of “political factions with paramilitary and other actionable capabilities” within Syria. The CIA and the MI6 would coordinate to instigate internal uprisings, focussing on minorities such as the Druze and the Kurds and stir up the Muslim Brotherhood in the rest of the country. The report conceded that the plan to replace the communist/Baath government would not be welcomed domestically in Syria, and any pro-Western government that would replace it “would probably need to rely first upon repressive measures and arbitrary exercise of power”. It is another matter that the plan hatched in Washington and London could not fructify. The Jordanian and Iraqi governments had refused to come fully on board, fearing domestic repercussions.

In the thick of the plot to overthrow the government in Syria was the CIA operative, Kermit Roosevelt. He was a leading player in the successful move to remove the government led by Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and reinstall the pro-Western Shah. The West feared that a pro-Soviet government in Syria would destabilise the neighbourhood that had regimes with very close relations to the West. The important pipeline that delivered oil from Iraq to Turkey passed only through Syria in the 1950s and the 1960s. It was one of the main arteries controlling the flow of oil in those days.

The current war on Syria was also imposed at a time when a new oil-and-gas pipeline project to transport fuel from Iran was on the verge of being implemented. The plan is to pipe gas from Iran’s South Pars gas field via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon where it will be connected to the European network in Greece.

David Shedd, a former Deputy Director of the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency, has said that the war in Syria may last “multiple years”. That is enough time to scuttle the ambitious pipeline project being envisaged by the countries in the region that are not in the orbit of Washington. The West has tried to implement a blueprint eerily similar to the one attempted 60 years ago in Syria. The Americans set up a front organisation, called the Syrian National Council (SNC), that purports to speak for the Syrian people. Border and terror incidents have been manipulated to put the blame on the Syrian government. American planes have moved in arms, and fighters from neighbouring countries are to be trained in Turkey. The only difference is that they have a differing set of allies openly supporting them.

The government in Turkey has, however, remained true to form, once again standing shoulder to shoulder with its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies in their efforts to effect a regime change in Damascus. The oil-rich Gulf monarchies, which were either absent or were minor players on the political scene in the 1950s and the 1960s, are now financing and supplying the opposition groups and tribal militias. The West had envisaged a short-term scenario for regime change, but as the conflict enters its third year, the military situation on the ground seems, from all available indications, to have turned in favour of the Syrian government.

In the first year of the conflict, the West did successfully implement many of the tactics they had envisaged in the 1957 plan. Many top decision makers in the government, including the Syrian Defence Minister, were assassinated. Tribal militias and the Muslim Brotherhood were strengthened. However, like in the 1950s, the move to impose a regime change has not been a popular one. The majority of the Syrian people, especially now after the carnage they have witnessed, seem to have rallied behind the government. The presence of Al Qaeda and assorted Salafist, Takfiri and Wahhabi groups, which have been doing most of the fighting and have imposed strict Islamic rule in the areas they control, have not enthused the Syrian masses. Besides, as events have shown, Syria has strategic allies that have been willing to come to its aid in its time of need.

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