Noam Chomsky is probably the most influential leftist on the planet right now. So when he argues the US "has shown no indication it wants the rebels to win in Syria", as he did recently in an interview with the Voice of Russia, his opinion carries a lot of weight amongst progressives. But while I consider Chomsky one of the most intelligent analysts of US foreign policy, the facts strongly suggest the US is trying to overthrow the President Bashar al-Assad.
First, the Obama Administration's public statements on the future of the Syrian president are quite clear. "Assad must go - and I believe he will go", Obama stated in March 2013. Six months later US Secretary of State John Kerry reconfirmed "President Obama's policy is that Assad must go." While one should always be wary of taking the public utterances of those in power at face value, it is important to consider the enabling effect these statements of intent have on Syrian rebels and those who support them. Furthermore, US actions broadly match the US Government's wish to see Assad overthrow. The New York Times certainly thinks so, reporting in July 2012 that the Obama administration has "abandoned efforts for a diplomatic settlement to the conflict in Syria, and instead it is increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad".
From the early stages of the war the US has been "acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates", according to the Wall Street Journal. By May 2013 the Financial Times estimated Qatar had provided $3 billion worth of arms to the rebels. Not content to leave the dirty work to its autocratic Gulf allies, the US has been playing a coordinating role in arming the rebels since before May 2012. Reporting on this deadly arms race in March 2013 the New York Times quoted an expert who estimated 3,500 tons of military equipment had been sent to the rebels by Arab Governments and Turkey with assistance from the CIA.
The US role goes beyond coordination. The CIA has been training and arming hundreds of rebels in Jordan and then sending them back to the killing fields in Syria. This is on top of significant amounts of non-lethal assistance the US has given to the rebels - vehicles, communications equipment, combat medical kits and 350,000 military food packets. In recent weeks the US has been increasing its financial assistance to rebels in southern Syria, giving millions of dollars to pay the monthly salaries of tens of thousands of insurgents.
The White House has repeatedly claimed it opposes sending in anti-aircraft missiles in case they got into the hands of extremists. However, last month the Wall Street Journal reported the US is complicit in doing exactly this. "Rebel leaders say they met with U.S. and Saudi intelligence agents, among others, in Jordan on Jan. 30 as the first round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva came to a close", noted the story. "That is when wealthy Gulf States offered the more sophisticated weapons [the anti-aircraft missiles]." The meeting likely took place in the military operations room in Amman which hosts intelligence agencies from 11 countries including the US, Saudi Arabia, France and the UK.
If the US doesn't want to overthrow Assad, as Chomsky claims, why is it making it more likely by arming and training the rebels and giving a wink and a nod to their allies in the region to do the same? A common retort is the US is providing just enough assistance to pressure Assad but not for the rebels to win. If so, this is a very dangerous game to play - and one the US is unlikely to be able to control. Wars are unpredictable and US interference will only increase the conflict's volatility. In addition, the anti-aircraft missiles Saudi Arabia plans to give to rebels with the tacit agreement of the US could tip the balance in the stalemated war in favour of the opposition, according to rebels.
The argument that the US doesn't want to overthrow Assad assumes the US could easily do so if it wanted. But while the US certainly has the military might to quickly depose Assad it is constrained by realpolitik geopolitical considerations and, most importantly for anti-war and peace activists, public opinion. Take the Vietnam War, for example. In 1966 specialists at the Pentagon presented a plan, based on a computer model, to US President Lyndon Johnson to end the war and save lives - by nuking the country. On hearing this Johnson reportedly pointed out the window towards a crowd of protestors and said "I have one more problem for your computer. Will you feed into it how long it will take 500,000 angry Americans to climb the White House wall out there and lynch their President?" In short, while the US has always been able to technically destroy whichever enemy it has been fighting it has always been inhibited by what is politically possible.
On Syria the constraints on the Obama Administration are clear: US public opinion is firmly against military strikes and arming the rebels. This opposition is probably the main reason it is very difficult to get a clear understanding of the US's (often covert) actions in Syria. However, what information that does exist in the public domain clearly points to the US providing substantial support to the rebels fighting to overthrow the Syrian Government.