Obama administration tried to encourage Syrian coup — report

Intelligence officials attempted to identify Syrian officers who could lead regime change against Assad in 2011, but effort failed, according to WSJ

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, DC on December 18, 2015. (Photo by AFP/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)
US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, DC on December 18, 2015. (Photo by AFP/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)

The Obama administration tried to encourage a military coup against the Syrian regime, utilizing a complex network of Syrian dissenters and international intermediaries in an effort to remove embattled President Bashar Assad in the early years of the country’s insurgency, an investigative report by the Wall Street Journal revealed early Thursday.

According to the report, in 2011 as the Assad regime began a violent crackdown on protests in the county, US intelligence officials attempted to identify Syrian officers who would potentially lead regime change from within, on orders from above.

“The White House’s policy in 2011 was to get to the point of a transition in Syria by finding cracks in the regime and offering incentives for people to abandon Assad,” a former senior administration official told the Wall Street Journal.

More than 250,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict broke out in March 2011. About 4 million people have fled Syria during the conflict, which the UN says has killed more than 250,000.

Since August that year, when Obama first publicly called for Assad to step down, the administration has continued to seek regime change, though statements on Assad’s immediate ouster have seemingly faded.

After efforts to foment a coup failed, the administration changed its strategy in summer 2012, focusing efforts on supporting rebel forces as well as encouraging international pressure on Assad.

According to the report however, the administration also pursued back channels close to Syrian regime, continuing to push for Assad to step down.

In some cases, top US officials had direct conversations with their counterparts in the Assad regime. Sources told the Wall Street Journal that on two occasions, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns made a direct phone call to Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem to relay warnings against the use of chemical weapons.

But with the lack of progress, pressure has grown on the White House for a more robust intervention policy.

“The Obama administration has sought to avoid that deeper involvement in the conflict, due to skepticism about what a more robust policy could achieve and concern that the regime’s allies might retaliate against US personnel and interests elsewhere,” said a recent report from the International Crisis Group, an NGO that advocates for conflict resolution.

However, the administration has begun in recent months to shy away from calling for Assad’s immediate ouster, appearing to bring its position more in line with Russia’s.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to soften his stance toward Assad after meeting with Russian officials.

“The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change,” Kerry told reporters in Moscow earlier this month.

However, this week Obama said that Assad “is going to have to leave in order for the country to stop the bloodletting and for all the parties involved to be able to move forward in a non-sectarian way.”

“He has lost legitimacy in the eyes of a large majority of the country,” Obama said.

AP contributed to this report.

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