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Weissman writes: "Like so many Americans, Kennedy tells the Syrian story almost wholly from a U.S. perspective."

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaking in Urbana, Illinois, in 2007. (photo: WikiMedia)
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaking in Urbana, Illinois, in 2007. (photo: WikiMedia)

Pipelines or Pipe Dreams: What Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Gets Wrong About Syria

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

09 September 16


ur war against Bashar Assad did not begin with the peaceful civil protests of the Arab Spring in 2011,” writes Robert F. Kennedy Jr. “Instead it began in 2000 when Qatar proposed to construct a $10 billion, 1,500km pipeline through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey.”

RFK Jr., the nephew of President John F. Kennedy, claims to speak here for many unnamed Syrians, as the controversial blogger Clay Claiborne pointed out. Like so many Americans, Kennedy tells the Syrian story almost wholly from a U.S. perspective. He disregards the ongoing conflict between Syria’s Sunni Arabs and the ruling Alawites and their minority allies. He ignores the long years of homegrown struggle against the brutal dictatorship of Bashar’s father, Hafiz al-Assad. He says little of the Turks, who at times backed Bashar and aided the Islamic State, or of the Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian Kurds, who so often pursue very different agendas. And when he mentions the all-important rivalry between Bashar’s supporters in Shi’a Iran and his current opponents in Sunni Qatar and Saudi Arabia, he reduces it largely to a fight over competing natural gas pipeline proposals, which RFK Jr. gives as the primary reason for American intervention.

In 2009, he tells us, the Qataris and Saudi pushed Assad to accept their proposed pipeline, which would pass through Syria to Turkey and then to the European market. Assad refused. Going along with his Russian allies, he favored a proposed “Islamic pipeline” that would go from Iran through Syria to the ports of Lebanon. Assad’s refusal is the lynchpin of Kennedy’s argument.

“Secret cables and reports by the U.S., Saudi and Israeli intelligence agencies indicate that the moment Assad rejected the Qatari pipeline, military and intelligence planners quickly arrived at the consensus that fomenting a Sunni uprising in Syria to overthrow the uncooperative Bashar Assad was a feasible path to achieving the shared objective of completing the Qatar/Turkey gas link,” he says.

“In 2009, according to WikiLeaks,” he adds, “soon after Bashar Assad rejected the Qatar pipeline, the CIA began funding opposition groups in Syria.”

Except for the WikiLeaked documents, Kennedy gives us no way to verify his “secret cables and reports” to see if they explicitly tie the decision to overthrow Assad to his rejecting the proposed pipeline. If they make the connection, Kennedy needs to tell us how they describe it. If they do not, he needs to tell us why not. Either way, ample evidence refutes his argument, since the U.S. was planning regime change in Syria and funding opposition to Assad years before he refused to go along with the Qatari pipeline.

Former NATO commander Wesley Clark happened to be at the Pentagon on September 20, 2001, when one of the generals called him into his office. “They just made the decision to go to war with Iraq,” the general told him. A few weeks later, Clark returned to the Pentagon. His friend had just received a piece of paper from the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.”

This appears to be the first official mention of taking out Syria. Gen. Clark makes no claim that the memo reflected any final decision by President George W. Bush, only that it came either from Rumsfeld or the people around him, which included several high-ranking neocons like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. It showed their thinking at the time, which went worlds beyond any proposed Qatari pipeline or Bashar’s much later refusal to accept it.

American officials increasingly berated Assad for helping insurgents in Iraq, and the State Department began trying to fund a handful of “pro-Democracy” individuals and groups at least as early as 2005. State also began the following year to consider military action against the regime, as Kennedy himself admits.

“WikiLeaks cables from as early as 2006 show the U.S. State Department, at the urging of the Israeli government, proposing to partner with Turkey, Qatar and Egypt to foment Sunni civil war in Syria to weaken Iran,” he writes. “The stated purpose, according to the secret cable, was to incite Assad into a brutal crackdown of Syria's Sunni population.”

With Assad’s rejection of the proposed Qatar-Turkey pipeline, the issue gained some importance, but even then it remained only a small factor. The conflict between the Sunni kingdoms of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran had grown far more geo-strategic, as I tried to explain in “Obama bin Sultan and Bandar ibn Israel.”

RFK Jr. is hardly the first to reduce such complexities to pipelines. During the early days of George W. Bush’s military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, many left-wing activists saw the primary motivation in the desire of Unocal and other U.S. oil companies to build an oil pipeline from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean. They were often would-be Marxists using a knee-jerk economic determinism to “explain” a situation where the facts did not support the argument. But friends repeated it as gospel. Some probably still do.

The wonderfully entertaining writer Pepe Escobar takes the simplification even further – though with tongue in cheek, I suspect ‒ explaining most recent conflicts in the Greater Middle East as part of what he calls “Pipelineistan.” Pipelines may or may not play a role in a specific case. But they are rarely anywhere near the whole story. Lots of pipelines are proposed, touted in intergovernmental agreements, and bandied about in the global game. Many of the proposed pipelines never get built, as people in both the industry and government ministries know.

No question that oil and natural gas play a huge role in determining U.S. policy. But so does promoting a market in both the Pentagon budget and overseas sales for American aircraft, rockets, and other weapons of war. Along with U.S. bases and increasing numbers of military contractors throughout the region and around the world, these are what the military-industrial complex is all about.

Policymakers also factor in their desire to maintain what Zbigniew Brzezinski calls “American global primacy,” including an effort to impede the rise of any rival, whether Russia, China, or some coalition of Islamic or other nations.

One other element helps put all of this in perspective. Policymakers may choose to do the bidding of an influential ally, say Israel, as the Obama administration has at times done in Syria, but chose not to do in pursuing the nuclear deal with Iran. Take the WikiLeaked email from Hillary Clinton in which she says, “The best way to help Israel deal with Iran’s growing nuclear capability is to help the people of Syria overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad.”

“What Israeli military leaders really worry about ‒ but cannot talk about ‒ is losing their nuclear monopoly,” she explained in December 2013. “An Iranian nuclear weapons capability would not only end that nuclear monopoly but could also prompt other adversaries, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to go nuclear as well. The result would be a precarious nuclear balance in which Israel could not respond to provocations with conventional military strikes on Syria and Lebanon, as it can today. If Iran were to reach the threshold of a nuclear weapons state, Tehran would find it much easier to call on its allies in Syria and Hezbollah to strike Israel, knowing that its nuclear weapons would serve as a deterrent to Israel responding against Iran itself.”

Clinton’s email goes a long way to explain the nuances of U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran. But it does not prove, as many have assumed, that Washington intervened in Syria primarily on Israel’s behalf. That is certainly part of the story, just as are Kennedy’s competing pipeline proposals. But, as journalist Patrick Cockburn reminds us, the conflict in Syria and U.S. involvement in it is infinitely complex, much like three-dimensional chess played by nine players and with no rules.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold."

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