By Stephen Gowans
Indications of a new phase in Washington’s longstanding policy of regime change in Syria are emerging in US planning to expand its campaign against ISIS. The Pentagon envisions a multi-year campaign of air strikes inside Syria and assistance to anti-Assad fighters to destroy the Islamic State. But given US policy to topple the government in Damascus, it seems unlikely that the planned campaign will restrict itself to ISIS targets alone. What’s more, Washington has recently accused Syria of hiding chemical weapons, possibly signalling its intention to use concealed WMD—and the threat of chemical weapons falling into the hands of ISIS—as a pretext to expand its target list from ISIS to Syrian forces.
For weeks, Western leaders have delivered two messages about ISIS, one loudly, and the other, not so loudly. The louder message is that ISIS is an unprecedented threat. US defense secretary Chuck Hagel called the Islamist group “an imminent threat to every interest we have” and “beyond anything that we’ve seen.”  Quietly, however, US officials have said the very opposite. On August 22, the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, admitted that ISIS does not have “the capability right now to conduct a major attack on the U.S. homeland.”  The same day, the FBI and Homeland Security Department announced that there are “no specific or credible terror threats to the U.S. homeland from the Islamic State militant group.”  Similar assurances were provided recently by US president Barack Obama, who acknowledged that “he hasn’t seen any ‘immediate intelligence’ to suggest Islamic State could carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.”  Still, the mass media have emphasized statements that draw attention to ISIS as a medieval menace (Obama) worse than al-Qaeda (Hagel) that must be destroyed (US secretary of state John Kerry). 
Washington insists that destroying the Islamic State means US air strikes against ISIS-strongholds in Syria—and violation of Syrian borders. Obama, and the United States’ top soldier, Martin Dempsey, have warned that ISIS cannot be defeated without military action against Islamic State targets in Syria.  For weeks, US surveillance aircraft have been searching for ISIS leaders inside Syria, “developing intelligence on the group’s strongholds” and “collecting intelligence on Islamic State operations inside Syria that could be potential targets.” 
Now, it appears that Washington is on the cusp of pressing ahead with its planned campaign of military action. The New York Times has reported that “Pentagon planners envision a military campaign” to destroy ISIS “in its sanctuary inside Syria” that could last “at least 36 months.”  According to The Wall Street Journal, airstrikes would support anti-Assad fighters unaligned with ISIS, who would be bankrolled by $500 million in US funding, and backed by a global coalition, including the UK and Australia, that would “provide a range of assistance, including humanitarian aid and weapons.” These countries could also join the United States in an air-war over Syria. 
There are reasons to suspect that a US-led military intervention in Syria would not stop at ISIS targets.
First, regime change in Damascus is a long-standing US policy, antedating the Arab Spring. Cables released by Wikileaks showed that US funding to the Syrian opposition began flowing under the Bush administration in 2005, if not before, long before uprisings erupted against the Assad government.  Largely forgotten is that the Bush administration dubbed Syria a member of a “junior varsity axis of evil,” and toyed with the idea of making Assad’s Syria the next target of a US military intervention after Iraq.  The idea that Washington seeks Assad’s ouster as part of a program of democracy-promotion cannot be seriously accepted, especially not in light of unwavering US support for crowned dictatorships in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia which brutally suppressed Arab Spring uprisings there. Washington’s steadfast support of Egypt’s military dictatorship, which crushed peaceful protests against a military coup that ousted the elected president, also reveals that Washington’s publicly stated reason for seeking regime change in Syria—that Assad is a dictator who violently suppressed peaceful protestors and who must therefore be removed in an act of solidarity with the plural-democracy-loving Syrian people—is a complete sham.
Second, the provision of $500 million in funding to “Syrian boots on the ground” would likely amount to increased support for one group of Islamists seeking the overthrow of secular society in Syria by another. Fighters strengthened by an infusion of US aid would not stop after destroying ISIS, if indeed, they didn’t simply ally with them, or more likely, if ISIS members simply transferred allegiance to the US-backed Islamist militant groups.
Third, in recent days, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has begun making noise about the Assad government allegedly “harboring undeclared chemical weapons.” Playing on ISIS-related fear-mongering, Power pointed to the risk that “there are chemical weapons left in Syria,” and that “we can only imagine what [ISIS] would do if in possession of such a weapon.”  Little may develop from this, but it is suspiciously close to the pretext used by Washington to invade Iraq in 2003.
The real danger posed by ISIS is to Arab states, not to the US, a point conceded by Obama. “The dangers that are posed by (ISIS) are more directed at them (the Arab states) right now than they are at us,” he said.  To be sure, ISIS has posed a threat to the Syrian Arab Republic, one Washington was prepared to overlook, if not nurture. But now that the Islamic State threatens Iraq and possibly Saudi Arabia, Washington, along with its British and French allies, are beating the drums of war—and quite possibly, using the opportunity presented by the Islamic State to escalate their campaign of aggression against Syria.
1. Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, “U.S. isn’t sure just how much to fear ISIS,” The New York Times, August 22, 2014.
2. Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, “US isn’t sure how much to fear ISIS,” The New York Times, August 22, 2014.
3. Eileen Sullivan, “FBI: No credible threats to US from Islamic State,” The Associated Press, August 22, 2014.
4. Patrick O’Conner, Dion Nissenbaum and Carol E. Lee, “Obama to spell out strategy to defeat Islamic state,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2014. Glen Greenwald (Americans now fear ISIS sleeper cells are living in the U.S., overwhelmingly support military action,” The Intercept, September 8, 2014) unpacks the reasoning of US officials to show that they cannot possibly regard ISIS as a threat to the vital interests of the United States. US officials say that ISIS cannot be destroyed by airstrikes alone, but at the same time, they say they’re not prepared to commit US ground forces to a military campaign to destroy the Islamist group. If they’re not prepared to undertake action that, by their own analysis, is necessary to eclipse the threat, then it must be that they understand the threat to be less compelling than they’ve led the public to believe it is. Indeed, Washington’s official pronouncements that ISIS does not constitute a threat to the US homeland corroborate the conclusion.
5. Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S. considers attacks on ISIS in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2014.
6. Felicia Schwartz and Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S. eyes wider action on Islamic state,” The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2014; Carol E. Lee, Dion Nissenbaum and Jay Solomon, “U.S. sets goal to ‘destroy’ Islamic militants,” The Wall Street Journal, September 5, 2014.
7. Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S. considers attacks on ISIS in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2014.
8. Eric Schimitt, Michael R. Gordon and Helene Cooper, “Destroying ISIS may take years, U.S. officials say,” The New York Times, September 7, 2014.
9. Patrick O’Conner, Dion Nissenbaum and Carol E. Lee, “Obama to spell out strategy to defeat Islamic state,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2014.
10. Craig Whitlock, “U.S. secretly backed Syrian opposition groups, cables released by Wikileaks show”, The Washington Post, April 17, 2011.
11. Moshe Ma’oz, “Damscus vs. Washington: Between the ‘Axis of Evil’ and ‘Pax Americana’”, in Bruce Cumings, Evarand Abrahamian and Moshi Ma’oz. Investing the Axis of Evil: The Truth about North Korea, Iran and Syria. The New Press. 2004.
12. Rick Gladstone, “Syria may have hidden chemical arms, U.S. says”, The New York Times, September 4, 2014.
13. Jay Solomon, “Arab states skeptical of U.S. plan to combat Islamic state militants,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2014.