Saturday, August 31, 2013

CIA Vet Bob Baer Talks About Syria (And How We're Probably Doomed)

Robert Baer spent decades working in the Middle East as a CIA case officer. He's a regular contributor on intelligence for and co-author of a book with his wife about their life in the Agency called The Company We Keep. Baer is also one of the foremost experts on the region. Today, just before President Obama announced he would seek congressional authorization for a strike on Syria, we spoke about the situation there. Here's what he thinks:

This is not a replay of Iraq.  "I think it's a night and day difference between this and Iraq," he says. "Number one: Look at the actors. You have Cheney, who believes it's okay to lie for a higher cause. Then you have Obama, who doesn't believe in anything. And he just acts when he has to." Baer believes people in the administration don't want a war; They "know it's unsustainable."

He doesn't think anyone on the Obama team is on a "messianic mission to go in and get the bad guy." They're being driven to action by events.

The Syrian regime definitely launched a chemical attack, but there's a possibility it was out of Asaad's control in some way.
The sheer amount of area hit in the August 21st attack puts it beyond the reach of a rebel group, Baer says. However there's a real question of who ordered it, and some details might indicate that Asaad is losing control of the military. Page 4 of the US intelligence report about the attack mentions an "intercepted communication" of a "senior official intimately familiar with the offensive" who was concerned that UN inspectors would obtain evidence of the attack. Foreign Policy magazine may have been reporting on the same communication and gave additional details that seemed to indicate a lack of coordination within the regime:

Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. 

"The question is, 'Is the military disintegrating?'" Baer asks. Basher al-Asaad is an ophthalmologist by training, not a military man like his father. According to Baer, the Syrians may have diminished confidence in him, and his generals might be "somewhat out of control." Baer's been speaking to his Syrian contacts about this, and he thinks it's a distinct possibility.

"Would you follow your ophthalmologist into war?"

This is not just an attempt to clear key areas. It's revenge.  Although the US intelligence report says the regime is using chemical weapons to seize strategically important territory, Baer thinks it's more primal than that. Asaad is reacting to the massacres of Alawite civilians by salafists in the Latakia region. The Alawites are part of the minority Shia sect that the Asaad family belongs to, and the salafists are Sunni extremists.

Asaad, he believes, is showing his enemies he can keep up with their brutality in a "typical nasty sectarian war."

If the US does nothing, Jordan might turn into a nightmare.  If we allow the Asaad regime to continue using chemical weapons with no repercussions, civilians throughout the country are going to flee in even greater numbers than they're already doing. Millions more will cross the border into Jordan, forming a kind of "pincer movement" with the Palestinian refugees from Israel. They will be miserable, and miserable people turn to radical religion. They'll destabilize a key ally.

If the US attacks, Jordan might turn into a nightmare.  The other possibility is we launch cruise missiles into Syria and maybe hit them too hard. We kill someone close to Asaad, and he launches an attack into... you guessed it. "There's no good option," Baer says. "We just have to be very careful."

The administration has bungled this. Which is par for the course.  Baer says the incompetence of Ambassador Susan Rice is "amazing." We should never have put statements on the record threatening the Syrian regime with red lines before we made certain we had support from Britain and other key countries. But there's a deeper American incompetence at work here.

"We just do not know how to properly channel violence in the Middle East," he says, adding that our long-term goal needs to be disengagement. The conflict that's happening has a massive size and historical scope:

"We're looking at the final breakup of the Ottoman Empire."


  1. America should send in our forces to act as a Red Cross/Peace Corps to give aid and comfort to the VICTIMS in refugee camps. Build sanitary living conditions and community kitchens, deliver food and other social needs and facilitate ad hoc schools and social activities.
    We do not need to escalate the violence. Palli Holubar

  2. "You have Cheney, who believes it's okay to lie for a higher cause. Then you have Obama, who doesn't believe in anything. And he just acts when he has to."

    Unfortunately, this attitude is all too prevalent in the intelligence community. There's an acknowledgement that lies create problems... but, then there's also a deep respect for that "belief", whether it's "the company" or "the country" or whatever "higher cause" points your compass to true North. And it all ends up being ideological rubbish, leading us to folly in the name of someone's often very misguided zombie exceptionalism.

    So while the analysis of this former CIA officer may be valuable from a point of experience, it's clearly underpinned with an almost fundamentalist version of American patriarchal institutionalism. A bit of pragmatism and understanding of where the American public -- and the world at large -- are with these foreign misadventures is actually a good thing. It isn't that Obama doesn't believe in anything, it's that Obama doesn't believe in any of the things that Bob Baer holds dear.

    1. Couldn't have said it better myself, well done.

  3. Silly boy! "The Syrian regime definitely launched a chemical attack" because ... the group WINNING the conflict would do the one thing they KNOW would bring the neocons in to remove them from office?!? That makes no sense and is NOT supported with proof. Did you also find WMDs in Iraq?

    Facts come first, not opinion. Let's stay in the reality zone.

    1. I disagree with your assumption that the attack would bring in the neocons for a regime change mission. Is that actually happening?

      Also, there's a great deal of evidence that the attack occurred. The US and UK intelligence reports seem to build a pretty strong case that it was the regime - and many of their factual claims have been heavily reported in different media outlets.

  4. “We just do not know how to properly channel violence in the Middle East,”

    This says it all, really, no matter what administration is at the helm, nor regardless of what any ‘expert(s)’ may present as an assessment or solution. However, this article is a good one for me because I became more aware of something I had not thought of, but wondered about, i.e., why the urgency for the US to act on this, of which the answer is: “Millions more will cross the border into Jordan, forming a kind of "pincer movement" with the Palestinian refugees from Israel. They will be miserable, and miserable people turn to radical religion. They'll destabilize a key ally.” So, I suppose you have to always read between the lines when the White House (the President) stands behind the podium to make a statement. They only speak of “our interests” without any explanation. So this is a tough, tough situation. Where’s Jesus when you need Him, i.e., the Second Coming ushering in the new Millennium era of peace! ;-)

  5. I think we should learn from past intervention hawks

    “Me and my associates thought we were acting in accordance with the principles of our great nation. But we were wrong, and we owe it to future generations to explain why, so that we can draw the lessons and avoid making the same mistakes. We saw Vietnam as a war of principle, ideology and values. A clear war of aggression from the Communists against the people of Vietnam. But we were wrong, it was a civil war, and we failed to understand that. We didn't know the Vietnamese well enough to empathize with them, and there was total misunderstanding as a result. We saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War, not what they saw it as: A CIVIL WAR.” -Robert McNamara

  6. The spin from former CIA operative Bob Baer that renegade Syrian army officials launched chemical warfare against civilians is presented WITHOUT ANY DEFINITE PROOF other than so called intercepted cables. It makes no sense since the Syrian army is winning the war on the ground against the Jihadis of the Osama Ben Laden variety. And why in the world would Obama and the neocons want to provide military air power for insurgents labeled terrorists by the US? Have some of us forgotten the World Trade Towers? Baer pushes the same line as Obama: (1) It's not a replay of Iraq and (2) The Syrian regime definitely launched a chemical attack. What's new in this missile show according to Baer, Assad did it for revenge (When he's winning the civil war, invited the UN inspection team, and we are suppose to believe Assad would choose this time to launched a chemical attack no less for revenge). And as if it's something new, Jordan will become a nightmare, when in fact it's already a nightmare which is why Jordan opposes the war on Syria. Why doesn't Baer talk about OIL and the US geopolitical agenda to dominate the oil reserves in the Middle East hence the push for wars against Syria and Iran. No thank you sir, I am not drinking you Kool-Aid!!

  7. Read Baer's Dealing With The New Iranian Superpower "The Devil We Know" Search epilogue ..detente #9


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