Robert Baer spent decades working in the Middle East as a CIA case officer. He's a regular contributor on intelligence for Time.com 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."