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Syria and the Brinkmanship Presidency – 2 – The Mayaguez Phenomenon

April 14, 2018

Protesters shout slogans as they wave Iraqi and Syrian flags during a protest against the U.S.-led missile attack on Syria, in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, on Sunday, April, 15, 2018. (Hadi Mizban/AP)

Jeffrey Sachs on Syria: “…I think we have to step back and not put this in partisan terms. This is a U.S. mistake that started seven years ago. And I remember the day on your show, when President Obama said, ‘Assad must go,’ and I looked at you and Joe and I said, ‘Huh. How’s he going to do that? Where’s the policy for that?’ And we know they sent in the CIA to overthrow Assad, the CIA and Saudi Arabia, together in covert operations tried to overthrow Assad, it was a disaster, eventually it brought in both ISIS as a splinter group to the jihadists that went in, it also brought in Russia. So we have been digging deeper and deeper and deeper. What we should do now is get out. And not continue to throw missiles, not have a confrontation with Russia. Seven years has been a disaster, under Obama, continuing under Trump. This is what I would call the permanent state, this is the CIA, this is the Pentagon, wanting to keep Iran and Russia out of Syria. But [there’s] no way to do that. And so we have made a proxy war in Syria, it’s killed 500,000 people, displaced ten million, and I’ll say: predictably so, because I predicted it seven years ago, that there was no way to do this, and that it would make a complete chaos, so what I would plead to President Trump, is: get out. Like his instinct told him…”

The Mayaguez Phenomenon

Several days after the United States, UK and France struck Syria with 103 missiles fired both from the air and ships in the Mediterranean, as the dust settles, a clearer picture of the event itself and what it was about has come into focus. It was an event of no strategic importance whatsoever in that it changed nothing on the ground. Even the Bloomsberg business magazine website admitted as much:

While the attack by the U.S., Britain and France destroyed military positions and research facilities linked to chemical weapons, it did little to degrade Assad’s capacity to wage war, or target the fighters from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah supporting him.

A military strike at this point against Syria is more an act of frustration than anything that changes the basic facts on the ground: the balance of power resulting from the defeat of ISIS/al Nusra, etc. has shifted. There is a new, emerging constellation of social forces coming into being to which Washington cannot dictate. Calling all the regional shots is no longer a Washington privilege. Power has somewhat shifted away from the U.S. Israel and Saudi Arabia. It will not be restored, if ever. Bombing Syria with 130 missiles didn’t change this one iota.

The only short-term advantage the U.S. got out of the bombing is that it destroyed the evidence of the alleged chemical attack. Washington was nervous that the UN inspectors would contradict their claims that the Assad government was responsible. Other than that, nothing was gained.

One could argue that even Washington knew the futility of these strikes beforehand. But they (the high level leadership in Washington) felt they had to “do something” and these days, “something” virtually always means a military strike rich in symbolism but with no political or strategic value whatsoever, a “show of force” to suggest that the United States is still a world power, that it matters. As American economic and diplomatic influence wanes, increasing Washington relies on raw military power, or its threat as the main instrument of foreign policy. It also gives confidence to regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of which hesitate to use military action unless Washington its lesser minions (France, UK) are involved.

The missile attack against Syria fits a pattern that I refer to as the “Mayaguez Phenomenon.” For those unfamiliar with the Mayaguez incident, here is a brief summary.

A major airlifted military operation was executed to release a U.S. cargo ship and its crew that had been seized off the coast of Cambodia two weeks after the fall of Vietnam. As a Wikipedia description of the incident accurately put the issue:

The members of the NSC (National Security Council) were determined to end the [Mayaguez]crisis decisively, believing that the fall of South Vietnam less than two weeks before and the forced withdrawal of the United States from Cambodia (Operation Eagle Pull) and South Vietnam (Operation Frequent Wind) had severely damaged the U.S.’s reputation.

In late April, early May of 1975 the United States had effectively lost the war in VietnamIt had been defeated, nothing less as thirty years of non-stop war, 35 if the Japanese Occupation is counted in, Vietnam was free from foreign domination. Furthermore, unlike today when its reputation goes from one fiasco to another, the United States had been defeated at the height of its power and global influence. Despite its claims to the contrary, it was a humiliating defeat. The United States was bested by what was essentially a country of peasants in which the United States had thrown in more than half a million military personnel, used its most sophisticated technology and weaponry, killed more than three million Vietnamese (figures never mentioned along with the 57,000 or so Americans who lost their lives).

The Vietnam defeat produced a many-sided great fear within U.S. ruling circles at the time, the fear being that other Third World national liberation movements would take courage from the Vietnamese example and intensify their armed struggle from colonial, or neo-colonial bondage. That is precisely what resulted in Nicaragua, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique among other places.

To discourage others from following the Vietnamese example, to (unsuccessfully) remind the world that the United States still had unprecedented fire power, not incidentally to give the American people a sense that Washington was still in the business of the wanton killing of possible opponents in the Third World, a major military operation far out of proportion with the incident, was launched. It was successful and the photo ops after U.S. personnel had been released shows the president, Gerald Ford and his closest advisers congratulating themselves on a successful military outcome… ie, after the largest single military defeat in U.S. history. This would be the beginning of a long string of movies and books essentially rewriting the history of the war, trying to convince the public that the U.S. had not lost the Vietnam war but had won it, saving the dignity of the U.S. military and U.S. global power in general by reinventing the narrative.

Syria and the Mayaguez Phenomenon

Although it might seem as a stretch to compare the Mayaguez incident with the recent joint US, UK, French bombing of Syria a few days ago (on the night of April 13, 2018) the two events share certain undeniable parallelsOnce again the United States (along with its regional allies – Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc) had essentially lost the seven-year war they were fighting through proxies to overthrow the Assad Government and partition the country, either de jure or de facto  as Washington had done both in the cases of Iraq and Libya. As a result, the balance of forces in the Middle East region had shifted somewhat against the interest of the United States. The defeat in Vietnam, was impossible to hide – the whole world saw the last U.S. marines being airlifted out of the American embassy in Saigon.

The Syrian defeat was more muted due to the fact that it was fought on the ground by proxies (ISIS, al Nusra), themselves funded, armed, trained by U.S. allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel and others) providing Washington with a political cover and what is referred to as plausible deniability. Regardless, Syria was Washington’s war and like in Vietnam in 1975, in Syria in 2018, the United States had lost another war. It (or its proxies) had been completely defeated on the battle field, the last two operations being the late 2016 liberation of Aleppo and the more recent defeat of ISIS and like forces concentrated in the complex tunnel system of East Gouta, near Damascus (from which ISIS and company was preparing to launch a last-ditch desperate offensive to march on Damascus – not possible without US, Israeli air cover – to seize Damascus, overthrow Assad and implement the Doha Protocols. That the fighting both in Aleppo and East Gouta was fierce – with many innocent people caught in the crossfire is true enough, one of the unfortunate consequences of modern warfare. The fact of the matter was it was ISIS’s (and Washington’s) last stand and it failed.

No getting around it, plausible deniability aside: as in Vietnam, the United States was militarily defeated in Syria, even if how the scenario played out was different, adjusted to the times where the United States can no longer afford large casualty numbers so it conducted the war through proxies. Regardless of what spin either the Trump Administration or the media put on it, the U.S. lost the war. Period. Although they all know this, very few American politicians were willing to admit this publicly. Too embarrassing. There never was, militarily speaking anyway, a “moderate Syrian opposition.” These were overwhelmingly foreign recruits working through Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood networks funded by Arab oil sheiks, Turkish and Israeli militarists, directed and coordinated from Washington. Syria had survived, battered, with many hard issues left to deal with, but still standing.

Curiously there was an American diplomat, well – thug-posing-as-diplomat – anyhow who was surprisingly frank about the American defeat in Syria, one Robert Ford, Denver born and raised. It is worth fleshing out Ford’s political biography a bit.

The former U.S. Ambassador to Algeria and Syria, fluent in German, Turkish, French and Arabic was one of the key State Dept. types who spent time setting up sleeper and assassination cells in Syria in preparation for the revolt against Assad that was unleashed in the early days of the Arab Spring.

Ford cut his teeth on international dirty tricks under the tutelage of John Negreponte. The latter represented the United States, among other things, setting up right-wing assassination squads in El Salvador (and elsewhere in Latin America). (1) Robert Ford is no stranger to some of the more covert and nefarious aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Ford had been part of John Negroponte’s team at the US Embassy in Baghdad (2004-2005) where he helped engineer “the Salvador Option” for Iraq. The latter consisted in supporting Iraqi death squads and paramilitary forces modeled on the experience of Central America.

The same Robert Ford was tasked with coordinating the efforts of so-called Syrian rebel groups (ie. foreign paid, trained mercenaries) in Syria. He represented that part of the U.S. foreign policy elite determined to violently overthrow the Assad Government, and no doubt did everything in his power to achieve that nefarious goal. But he failed, as did the U.S. government and was eventually removed from the scene.

Ford was forthright about the U.S. defeat in Syria.

In the summer of 2017, when the handwriting of the defeat was unmistakably on the wall he told the media in response to questions posed:

Yes. The war is winding down little by little. Assad has won and he will stay [in power]. He may never be held accountable, and Iran will be in Syria to stay. This is the new reality that we have to accept, and there isn’t much we can do about it…It’s an acknowledgment that the military situation is strongly in favour of Assad, Russia and the Iranians, and that it is impossible to roll it back.”

Much of the rest of Washington power circles are far less forthright. What must be added here, is having lost the war in Syria, the Trump Administration’s ability to dictate the terms of peace have been correspondingly reduced. There have been a number of major conferences of late concerning Syria’s future to which the Trump Administration has not even been invited. Maybe that is yet another reason that Trump unleashed the missiles; he’s pouting at having been excluded from the diplomatic party, uses the bombs to remind the world if the U.S. is politically excluded from the negotiations that Washington still can and will do damage. Thus we see the level to which U.S. Middle East policy has descended.


(1) Ibrahim Kazerooni and Rob Prince. “Syria, the United States and the Salvador Option.” Foreign Policy in Focus. July 9, 2012

In January, 2011, just as the Arab Spring was expanding region-wide from its Tunisian birthplace, one Robert Stephen Ford was appointed the new US Ambassador to Syria. Ford is no ordinary diplomat. He was U.S. representative in January 2004 to the Shiite city of Najaf in Iraq. Najaf was the stronghold of the Mahdi army. A few months later he was appointed “Number Two Man” (Minister Counsellor for Political Affairs), at the US embassy in Baghdad at the outset of John Negroponte’s tenure as US Ambassador to Iraq (June 2004- April 2005). Robert S. Ford’s mandate as “Number Two” (Minister Counsellor for Political Affairs) under the helm of Ambassador John Negroponte was to coordinate out of the US embassy, the covert support to death squads and paramilitary groups in Iraq with a view to fomenting sectarian violence and weakening the resistance movement. Ford subsequently served under Negroponte’s successor Zalmay Khalilzad prior to his appointment as Ambassador to Algeria in 2006, another highly sensitive political appointment.



Syria and the Brinkmanship Presidency – 1

Syria and the Brinkmanship Presidency – 3


7 Comments leave one →
  1. Wil Van Natta permalink
    April 16, 2018 11:31 am

    Thank you for this.

    On Apr 16, 2018 7:34 AM, “View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince’s Blog” wrote:

    > Rob Prince posted: ” The Mayaguez Phenomenon Several days after the United > States, UK and France struck Syria with 103 missiles fired both from the > air and ships in the Mediterranean, as the dust settles, a clearer picture > of the event itself and what it was about has ” >

  2. Bill Conklin permalink
    April 16, 2018 8:03 pm

    Hi Rob:

    Thanks for your article today. I always enjoy reading them. Israel apparently bombed Syria recently but it appears to me based on the changing balance of power in the Middle East, that Israel might have to be more careful. Is that a reasonable analysis?

    • April 16, 2018 8:47 pm

      A couple of observations Bill
      – Several weeks prior to this U.S. led missile attack, Israel, in a separate incident, bombed Syria. It was a dress rehearsal for the big noe
      – That said, Israel DOES have to be more careful. Until now it has flown over, bombed Syria and Lebanon with impunity. They will have to be more careful now. They seem to be doing a lot of consulting lately with the Russians and don’t want to piss them off.

      • Bill Conklin permalink
        April 17, 2018 8:06 am

        Thanks Rob, I just read an editorial in Haaretz by a fellow who is strongly supporting Israel taking action against Iran’s alleged buildup on its border. Maybe he doesn’t realize that the Middle East is going to be more difficult for Israel to manipulate.

        • April 17, 2018 9:15 am

          it is…and Israel cannot strike Iran without major U.S. support (from where I am sitting)…Saudis in the same position. Not so simple for the strike Iran. Of course the U.S. has the means of really hurting Iran…but Iran is a much stronger country than Iraq in 2003 or Syria in 2011-12. It has the means of shutting off the Persian Gulf, and of hitting Saudi oil fields…even after a harsh U.S. strike. I’m not saying that it cannot happen – it could – especially given wackos like Pompeo and Bolton in positions of power… But still, even these bozos have to grudgingly take realities on the ground into consideration. If you seriously study these Cruise Missile attacks on Syria one can see that frankly the U.S. was quite nervous about a possible Russian response and was in constant contact with Moscow, promising not to hit any installations where Russians were. In the end, NOTHING of strategic or even tactical importance was destroyed (from what I can tell). All that was done is that any embarrassing (to Washington) evidence of the so-called gas attack – which was about to be investigated by the UN was destroyed. 131 missiles sent to Syria to avoid the world finding out what must people suspected – that the gas attack was yet another false flag operation that failed. Cheers. So both Israel and the United States have to take the new realities on the ground into consideration.


  1. Syria and the Brinkmanship Presidency – 1 | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog
  2. Syria and the Brinkmanship Presidency – 3 – 131 Missiles to Destroy the Evidence | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog

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