Anti-Assad protesters burn a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with ‘Corruption’ written across his face. (AP/Kostas Tsironis)
SYRIA — While the nearly seven-year-long sectarian “civil war” in Syria is widely believed to have started in 2011, revelations in recent years have shown that the sectarian war that has sunk Syria into chaos actually precedes the “official” start of the conflict.
In 2010, Wikileaks published hundreds of thousands of classified State Department cables, including a 2006 cable showing that destabilizing the Syrian government was a primary goal of U.S. policy in the Middle East. The ultimate intention was to topple Iran, one of Syria’s closest allies. The cable revealed that the U.S.’ goal at the time was to undermine the Syrian government by any means available.
In addition, retired United States Army General Wesley Clark’s bombshell interview with Democracy Now exposed the existence of plans for regime change in Syria that date as far back as 2001. Now, a newly declassified document from the Central Intelligence Agency has shown that these regime change efforts date back even further to the late 1980s – and potentially even earlier.
The declassified document was written in July, 1986 by the Foreign Subversion and Instability Center, a part of the CIA’sMission Center for Global Issues, and is titled “Syria: Scenarios of Dramatic Political Change.” As the document itself states, its purpose is to analyze – in a “purposely provocative” manner – “a number of possible scenarios that could lead to the ouster of President Assad [Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez] or other dramatic change in Syria.”
The report’s meager distribution list suggest it was considered by top officials in the Reagan administration, specifically because it was distributed to national security chiefs, not entire agencies. It was also distributed to a handful of key players in U.S.-Syria relations, such as former Ambassador to Syria William Eagleton.
Though the document itself officially predates the current Syrian conflict by nearly 25 years, much of its analysis brings to mind recent events in Syria, particularly those that led to the outbreak of war in 2011. Chief among these is the rise of factionalism between Sunni Muslim elements against the ruling Alawi minority (a Shi’ite sect), as well as the potential to counter Russian influence in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. These similarities suggest that U.S. regime change efforts in Syria date back to well over 30 years ago – proof of the persistent imperialist elements that consistently guide U.S. foreign policy.
The Rise of Factionalism and Sectarian Conflict in Syria
A Free Syrian Army fighter from the Al-Faruk brigade steps on a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Sept. 22, 2012 (AP/Hussein Malla)
Of all the named “individuals and groups that might impel or impede takeover attempts” that are recognized by the CIA, Syria’s Sunni population ranks highest among them. The CIA notes that “factionalism plagues the political and military elite” as the ruling Alawi minority “is deeply resented by the Sunni majority it dislodged from power two decades ago.” The document also states that “a renewal of communal violence between Alawis and Sunnis could inspire Sunnis in the military to turn against the regime.”
At the time, the document continues, Sunnis “made up 60 percent of the Syrian officer corps but [were] concentrated in junior officer ranks,” with the majority of enlisted men being primarily Sunni conscripts. Furthermore, the document notes that if the Syrian government were to overreact to “minor outbreaks of Sunni dissidence,” large-scale unrest could be triggered – “setting the stage for civil war.”
The CIA also makes its strong preference for a Sunni-led government in Syria quite clear, stating that “U.S. interests in Syria probably would be best served by a Sunni regime,” particularly one led by Sunni “business-moderates” who would “see a strong need for Western aid and investment.”
This assessment, as the Libertarian Institute has pointed out, is “remarkably consistent” with more recent events, particularly those that have defined Syria’s current conflict, which is often misleadingly described by many media outlets as a “civil war.” For instance, opposition forces who have been fighting to overthrow the Assad regime for the better part of seven years are almost entirely composed of Sunnis.
According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, “the Syrian opposition, especially its armed current, is a Sunni enterprise.” Sunni factionalism, the CTC further notes, is “driving large segments of the opposition to the [Assad] regime.” In 2014, the Guardian noted that the opposition forces were “almost exclusively Sunni.”
Pro-Syrian government demonstrators hold Baath party flags and a picture of President Bashar Assad at a rally at Sabe Bahrat Square to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the foundation of the Ruling Baath Arab Socialist Party in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, April 7, 2012. (AP Photo Bassem Tellawi)
In addition, Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on protests in 2011, particularly initial protests in the city of Daara, are often credited with inspiring opposition supporters to take up arms to “oust loyalist [pro-government] forces from their areas.”According to the BBC, Assad’s crackdown on protests between March and May of 2011 left over 1,000 dead, though “unnamed human rights activists” were often the sources for such figures, suggesting that such statistics may be inaccurate.
The document also notes that factionalism among the Alawis could also be a destabilizing force in the country. It says the Alawi-dominated Syrian military could play a role in Assad’s ouster, stating that the Syrian “military’s strong tradition of coup plotting – dormant since Assad took control in 1970 – could re-assert itself.” Military discontent, the CIA asserts, could arise if Assad were to suffer a major defeat at the hands of Israel, particularly if Assad attempted to reclaim the Syrian Golan Heights.
Syria and Israel have been in a continuous state of conflict since 1967, when Israel first occupied the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War. In addition, the CIA notes the potential for in-fighting among the Alawi elite, particularly over Hafez al-Assad’s brother Rifaat – a controversial figure in Syrian politics.
These conflicts within the Alawite ruling class were mentioned extensively in a 2006 State Department cable, where “some long-standing vulnerabilities and looming issues that may provide opportunities to up the pressure on Bashar and his inner circle” were discussed at length.
Some intra-elite conflicts among the Alawis mentioned in the 1986 document are also explicitly mentioned in the 2006 cable, such as the numerous controversies surrounding Bashar al-Assad’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad. However, despite likely attempts to exploit these vulnerabilities in the current conflict, the rise of Sunni opposition forces has kept the Alawi faction largely united out of necessity – particularly as the Alawis have been forced to face down an old foe, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood and U.S.-Backed Regime Change
Highly ranking Muslim Brotherhood official Abdul-Majeed Zneibat, left, listens as Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, right, talks to reporters in Damascus, Tuesday Jan, 31, 2006 . (AP/Bassm Tellawi).
While the document devotes significant space to discussing the potential for induced sectarian violence, the faction identified as most likely to successfully destabilize the Assad-led Alawi regime is the Muslim Brotherhood. First founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has spread throughout the Middle East, gaining influence in multiple countries.
Several countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, Syria, and the U.A.E., now classify the Brotherhood as a terrorist group. Despite its widespread recognition as such, the CIA’s relationship with the Brotherhood, which dates back to the 1950s, continues into the present………………………………………………..
CIA backed Syrian rebels attend a training session in Maaret Ikhwan near Idlib, Syria.
One of the most overlooked aspects of the report is its mention of nations other than Syria, particularly Russia. In addition, the document’s cover letter, penned by the Director of the Global Issues Mission Center, tells the individuals named in its distribution list that they will “receive similar papers on other countries as they are completed.”
The fact that the CIA has a center dedicated to “foreign subversion and instability” – as well as the CIA’s documentedpenchant for regime change – confirms that the decades-long effort to destabilize Syria parallels the agency’s efforts to destabilize other regimes throughout the world in order to replace them with governments they believe to be more sympathetic to U.S. interests.
These destabilization efforts are often carried out with little, if any, regard to their impact on civilians who are often caught in the crossfire. As the 1986 report and the 2006 cable both note, the Assads brought periods of “unprecedented stability” to Syria.
The CIA and U.S. government have nevertheless chosen to pursue an agenda of destabilization. Nearly seven years later, the death toll in the West’s efforts to oust Assad is set to top half a million and has helped to create the largest refugee crisis since World War II.