By Brandon Turbeville | Activist Post | April 28, 2016
As Saudi war crimes and crimes against humanity continue apace in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is now apparently attempting to gain public support and better reception from the viewing audience by painting itself as an enemy of al-Qaeda and ISIS, despite the fact that the feudal monarchy’s reputation for supporting these very same terror organizations has been documented time and again. From Syria and Libya to Yemen, Saudi Arabia has proven itself repeatedly as a funder, organizer, and supporter of ISIS and al-Qaeda while, at home, it has demonstrated that its own government and ISIS are more alike than they are different.
Still, Saudi Arabia is attempting to show that it is, in fact, the enemy of al-Qaeda by issuing claims that the Saudi “coalition” in Yemen has recently fought a large scale battle against the terror organization and that it was able to capture the city of Mukalla after killing around 800 terrorists.
As AFP reports,
Yemeni troops backed by Arab coalition air strikes killed more than 800 members of al-Qaida in an attack on a southeastern provincial capital held by the group for the past year, the coalition said Monday.
Pro-government forces recaptured an oil terminal as well as the city of Mukalla, which was considered a jihadist stronghold, military sources said.
“The operation resulted… in the death of more than 800 al-Qaida members and some of their leaders, while some others fled,” Arab coalition commanders said in a statement published by SPA, the official Saudi news agency.
AFP notes, however, that the death toll cannot be independently verified and pointed out that no civilian deaths were reported. This latter detail is most questionable to say the least.
What is interesting is that the alleged operation is part of another alleged operation “aimed at securing parts of the country captured by jihadist militants who have exploited a 13-month war between Gulf-backed loyalists and rebels supported by Iran.” The operation itself takes place alongside the UN-brokered ceasefire was enacted on April 11 where jihadist groups are excluded.
What is even more interesting, however, is the description provided by “military officer” sources quoted by the AFP as to the nature of the battle for Mukalla.
As AFP reports,
“We entered the city centre (of Mukalla) and were met by no resistance from Al-Qaeda militants who withdrew west” towards the vast desert in Hadramawt and Shabwa provinces, a military officer told AFP by phone from the city the jihadists seized last April.”
The officer, who requested anonymity, said residents of Mukalla, home to an estimated 200,000 people, had appealed to the jihadists to spare the city the destruction of fighting and to withdraw. Yemeni military sources said Emirati military vehicles were used in the operation and that troops from the Gulf country, a key member of the Saudi-led coalition, were among the forces that entered Mukalla.
AFP could not immediately confirm these reports from officials in the United Arab Emirates.
While it was reported that the coalition members had conducted airstrikes against “AQAP positions” in Yemen, it is important to note that coalition forces admittedly met no resistance when entering Mukalla. Putting aside the fact that the Yemeni people would scarcely be able to tell the difference between AQAP and Saudi Arabian control of their country to begin with, at what point did the Saudis kill 800 AQAP members? Was it in the alleged and unconfirmed airstrikes which apparently kill only terrorists but no civilians?
Is it not extremely convenient that Saudi forces would bomb Yemen back into the Stone Age, allow AQAP to gain vast amounts of territory against Houthi, rebel, and government forces in the process and then retake it from them “without any resistance” shortly after a ceasefire agreement is made that does not include AQAP?
Was the Saudi bombing merely an act of death squad herding or was the Saudi bombing never aimed at AQAP at all? Were the casualties actually civilians simply labeled as terrorists for propaganda purposes? Was there actually a bombing campaign?
What kind of military operation kills 800 militants while, at the same time, faces no resistance from those militants?
All of these questions are relevant and must be asked of any reports suggesting Saudi military action against AQAP in Yemen. While it is impossible to draw concrete conclusions based on the reports currently circulating throughout Western media, considering the nature of the Saudi involvement and their history of supporting terrorism across the world, one must question their motives as well as any claims made by the Saudi government.
Al-Mukalla is a strategic city in the Abyan Governate, a very important territorial gain since it provides access to the coast.
Forces loyal to Saudi-backed ex-president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and Emirati troops have reportedly overrun Mukalla after al-Qaeda militants left the seaport in southeast Yemen.
Reuters quoted residents as saying that local clerics and tribesmen negotiated with al-Qaeda to exit quietly and that militants withdrew Sunday westward to neighboring Shabwa province.
They said there was no fighting after Saudi-backed units mobilized their forces at Mukalla’s suburbs. However, the official Saudi news agency SPA claimed on Monday that more than 800 al-Qaeda members had been killed.
Around 2,000 pro-Hadi and Emirati troops reportedly advanced into Mukalla, home to an estimated 200,000 people, taking control of its maritime port and airport and setting up checkpoints.
Mukalla has been the center of a rich mini-state that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) built up over the past year. The group took control of an almost 600-km (370-mile) band of Arabian Sea coastline.
Once faded into irrelevance, AQAP has gone from strength to strength in Yemen since Saudi Arabia began its ferocious military campaign against the impoverished neighbor.
Al-Qaeda and other Takfiri groups such as Daesh have become stronger as Houthis – their arch enemy in Yemen – have come under the heaviest Saudi attacks for more than a year.
The Rai al-Youm newspaper on Monday pointed out that Saudi Arabia had supplied weapons to al-Qaeda militants in the Abyan and Hadhramaut to confront Houthi fighters.
The paper, edited by prominent Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan, wrote that Saudi Arabia had decided to retake Mukalla from al-Qaeda in the face of rising criticism in the West of the fallout of the invasion.
The decision was also linked to a US congressional motion to hold the Saudi ruling family accountable for potential roles in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, it added.
Pro-Saudi forces, however, retreated from Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province in south Yemen, after they entered it on Saturday night.
A bomb-laden vehicle exploded Sunday killing seven pro-Hadi militants who had launched an offensive with the help of Saudi air power.
“The withdrawal was decided following information that al-Qaeda was preparing other car-bomb attacks against our troops,” AFP quoted a pro-Hadi officer as saying.
The alleged recapture of Mukalla coincided with UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait after a ceasefire entered into effect on April 11, but from which Takfiri groups are excluded.
There was no immediate official reaction to the reports from Houthis and their allies who are to hold their fifth day of peace talks on Monday in a bid to end 13 months of war.
More than 9,400 people have been killed and at least 16,000 others injured since Saudi Arabia launched its airstrikes against Yemen last March.
The Syrian ceasefire is hanging in the balance, former Republican congressman Ron Paul and political analyst Daniel McAdams note in their Liberty Report; however, Washington continues to push ahead with its military program aimed at training and arming the so-called Syrian rebels.
To complicate matters further, there is enough evidence that the moderates have repeatedly teamed up with al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front on the ground, calling it a “marriage of necessity.”
Even State Department spokesman Mark Toner has recognized that “there is some co-mingling” of al-Qaeda militants and the US-backed Syrian rebels.
Commenting on the issue, Daniel McAdams, the Executive Director of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, referred to the Wall Street Journal article that shed some light on Washington’s plans to send various types of anti-aircraft weapons to Syrian rebels.
“Throughout this ceasefire the US is taking the opportunity to provide a lot of arms to the so-called moderates — three thousand tons by one estimate. But the logic is insane: [these arms] only will be available if the ceasefire fails. That is like telling a kid: ‘You only get a cookie if you don’t eat your broccoli’,” McAdams noted.
But what looks even more suspicious is that the CIA has been supplying advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems to the Syrian rebels. There is no doubt that these types of weapons are primarily aimed against Bashar al-Assad’s tanks and aircraft, not at Daesh’s Toyota trucks.
“The CIA agenda is definitely not anti-ISIS [Daesh], it’s primarily anti-Assad. And I think that is evident by the kinds of weapons they provided. They provided TOW missiles which are only effective against the Syrian government’s tanks. The Manpads, the shoulder fired missiles, which shot down two Syrian Air Force planes over the past couple of weeks. And even the Soviet-era “Grad” rockets, which are used to fight against the Syrian [Arab] Army. So, the types of weapons, I think, tell us a lot about what the CIA is focused on,” McAdams remarked.
Therefore, the CIA is turning a blind eye to the fact that the Syrian rebels and al-Nusra Front’s terrorists are “co-mingled.”
There is yet another issue that prompts concern: it seems that the CIA and the Pentagon have two different agendas regarding Syria.
To add to the confusion, the CIA is supporting one faction of the Syrian rebels, while the Pentagon is backing another group of fighters.
It turns out that in February, 2016 the CIA-armed group Knights of Righteousness was attacked by the Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria.
“One hand of our government does not even know what the other hand is doing,” Dr. Ron Paul noted.
The former US congressman expressed his concerns regarding Washington’s unstoppable militarism in the region.
“What if what we are doing is making things worse — worse for us, worse for the people, worse for the cause of peace?” Paul asked.
However, this question remains largely neglected by the US policymakers. The lessons of the past remain unlearnt and what Washington is doing right now in Syria and Iraq is “the reactivation of the militarism,” he stressed.
The former Republican congressman emphasized that while pursuing the idea of regime change overseas, the US establishment is not bothered by the fact that the nations’ current governments may be better than anything Washington is going to suggest.
“We are sending more weapons in [Syria] because the foreign policy remains the same: it is a militant foreign policy of intervention, it’s based on the assumption that we are responsible for the world at large, that we are policemen of the world, and chaos would break out if we weren’t there to bring about order. And all you have to do is look at history and look at the Middle East, chaos, you know, follows our interventions,” Paul underscored.
A transport solicitation found on a federal website reveals the US government keeps shipping weapons to Al-Qaeda and other belligerent groups in Syria.
According to the British military information agency Jane’s, two transport solicitations were found on a US government website FedBizGov.org (Federal Business Opportunities), that looked for shipping companies to transport explosive material from Constanta, Romania, to the port of Aqaba in Jordan on behalf of the US Navy’s Military Sealift Command.
“The cargo listed in the document included AK-47 rifles, PKM general-purpose machine guns, DShK heavy machine guns, RPG-7 rocket launchers, and 9K111M Faktoria anti-tank guided weapon (ATGW) systems,” says Jane’s.
The solicitation was released in November, 2015. One ship with nearly one thousand tons of weapons and ammo left Constanta in Romania on December. It sailed to Agalar in Turkey which is a military pier and then to Aqaba in Jordan. Another ship with more than two-thousand tons of weapons and ammo left in late March, followed the same route and was last recorded on its way to Aqaba on April 4.
According to Zero Hedge, such cargo weight equals millions of rifles, machine-guns and mortar shots, as well as thousands of new light and heavy weapons and hundreds of new anti-tank missiles.
Neither Turkey nor Jordan use such weapons designed in the USSR. This hints these weapons are going to Syria where, as has been reported for years by multiple independent sources, half of them go directly to al-Qaeda which operates in Syria under the alias Jabhat al-Nusra.
Al-Qaeda has made major financial gains as a result of the war in Yemen, running its own mini-state and pocketing $100 million in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s largest port, a Reuters investigation has revealed.
The group’s deep pockets and increased power are down to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which has reportedly helped it become stronger than at any time since its emergence almost 20 years ago.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has a major presence in Mukalla, a city of 500,000 people, where it runs the third largest port in Yemen. As part of its port “management,” the group operates speedboats manned by armed fighters who impose fees on ship traffic.
Yemeni government officials and local traders estimate that the group earns up to US$2 million every day in taxes on goods and fuel coming into the port. In addition, it is believed the group has managed to extort $1.4 million from the national oil company.
The group also looted Mukalla’s central bank branch, gaining an estimated $100 million, according to two senior Yemeni security officials.
The economic empire of Mukalla was described to Reuters in detail by more than a dozen diplomats, Yemeni security officials, tribal leaders, and residents.
AQAP has abolished taxes for local residents in Mukalla, and group members have integrated themselves with southern Yemenis who have felt marginalized by their northern counterparts for years. The group has also made propaganda videos in which they have boasted about paving local roads and stocking hospitals.
In doing so, the group has managed to win over many locals.
“I prefer that Al-Qaeda stay here, not for Al Mukalla to be liberated,” said one 47-year-old resident. “The situation is stable, more than any ‘free’ part of Yemen. The alternative to Al-Qaeda is much worse.”
AQAP has managed to expand its territory by using many of the tactics used by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL). It boasts 1,000 fighters in Mukalla alone, and controls 600km (373 miles) of coastline. The group also claimed responsibility for the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, which left 12 people dead at the satirical magazine’s Paris office.
‘Easier to expand’
According to a senior Yemeni government official, AQAP’s expansion is due to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which is supported by the US.
The coalition, which has been bombing Houthi rebels since March 2015, sides with the exiled President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, while the Houthis are aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who resigned in 2012 following a popular uprising against his rule.
The official told Reuters that the war has “provided a suitable environment for the… expansion of Al-Qaeda.”
He said the withdrawal of government army units from their bases in the south allowed AQAP to acquire “very large quantities of sophisticated and advanced weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles and armed vehicles.”
In addition, the coalition’s pre-occupation with fighting the Houthis “made it easier for Al-Qaeda elements to expand in more than one area,” the official said. “And this is why Al-Qaeda has today become stronger and more dangerous.”
But despite claims that the intervention has made it easier for AQAP to expand, a recent statement from the Saudi embassy in Washington stated that the campaign had “denied terrorists a safe haven in Yemen.”
Still, AQAP continues to grow and prosper amid a civil war which has so far led to the deaths of 6,000 people. Among the death toll are 3,218 civilians, according to the UN Human Rights Office. An additional 5,778 civilians have been injured in the violence.
Several weeks ago, I received a phone call from legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh who had seen one of my recent stories about Syria and wanted to commiserate over the state of modern journalism. Hersh’s primary question regarding reporters and editors at major news outlets these days was: “Do they care what the facts are?”
Hersh noted that in the past – in the 1970s when he worked at The New York Times – even executive editor Abe Rosenthal, who was a hard-line cold warrior with strong ideological biases, still wanted to know what was really going on.
My experience was similar at The Associated Press. Among the older editors, there was still a pride in getting the facts right – and not getting misled by some politician or spun by some government flack.
That journalistic code, however, no longer exists – at least not on foreign policy and national security issues. The major newspapers and TV networks are staffed largely by careerists who uncritically accept what they are fed by U.S. government officials or what they get from think-tank experts who are essentially in the pay of special interests.
For a variety of reasons – from the draconian staff cuts among foreign correspondents to the career fear of challenging some widely held “group think” – many journalists have simply become stenographers, taking down what the Important People say is true, not necessarily what is true.
It’s especially easy to go with the flow when writing about some demonized foreign leader. Then, no editor apparently expects anything approaching balance or objectivity, supposedly key principles of journalism. Indeed, if a reporter gave one of these hated figures a fair shake, there might be grumblings about whether the reporter was a “fill-in-the-blank apologist.” The safe play is to pile on.
This dishonesty – or lack of any commitment to the truth – is even worse among editorialists and columnists. Having discovered that there was virtually no cost for being catastrophically wrong about the facts leading into the Iraq invasion in 2003, these writers must feel so immune from accountability that they can safely ignore reality.
But – for some of us old-timers – it’s still unnerving to read the work of these “highly respected” journalists who simply don’t care what the facts are.
For instance, the establishment media has been striking back ferociously against President Barack Obama’s apostasy in a series of interviews published in The Atlantic, in which he defends his decision not to bomb the Syrian government in reaction to a mysterious sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013.
Though The Atlantic article was posted a month ago, the media fury is still resonating and reverberating around Official Washington, with Washington Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt penning the latest condemnation of Obama’s supposed fecklessness for not enforcing his “red line” on chemical-weapon use in Syria by bombing the Syrian military.
Remember that in 2002-03, Hiatt penned Post editorials that reported, as “flat fact,” that Iraq possessed hidden stockpiles of WMD – and he suffered not a whit for being horribly wrong. More than a dozen years later, Hiatt is still the Post’s editorial-page editor – one of the most influential jobs in American journalism.
On Thursday, Hiatt reported as flat fact that Syria’s “dictator, Bashar al-Assad, killed 1,400 or more people in a chemical gas attack,” a reference to the 2013 sarin atrocity. Hiatt then lashed out at President Obama for not punishing Assad and – even worse – for showing satisfaction over that restraint.
Citing The Atlantic interviews, Hiatt wrote that Obama “said he had been criticized because he refused to follow the ‘playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment,’ which would have counseled greater U.S. intervention.” Hiatt was clearly disgusted with Obama’s pusillanimous choice.
The No ‘Slam Dunk’ Warning
But what Hiatt and other neocon columnists consistently ignore from The Atlantic article is the disclosure that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper informed Obama that U.S. intelligence analysts doubted that Assad was responsible for the sarin attack.
Clapper even used the phrase “slam dunk,” which is associated with the infamous 2002 pledge from then-CIA Director George Tenet to President George W. Bush about how “slam dunk” easy it would be to make the case that Iraq was hiding WMD. More than a decade later, brandishing that disgraced phrase, Clapper told Obama that it was not a “slam dunk” that Assad was responsible for the sarin attack.
In other words, Obama’s decision not to bomb Assad’s military was driven, in part, by the intelligence community’s advice that he might end up bombing the wrong people. Since then, evidence has built up that radical jihadists opposed to Assad staged the sarin attack as a provocation to trick the U.S. military into entering the war on their side.
But those facts clearly are not convenient to Hiatt’s neocon goal – i.e., how to get the United States into another Mideast “regime change” war – so he simply expunges the “slam dunk” exchange between Clapper and Obama and inserts instead a made-up “fact,” the flat-fact certainty of Assad’s guilt.
Hiatt’s assertion of the death toll – as “1,400 or more people” – is also dubious. Doctors on the ground in Damascus placed the number of dead at several hundred. The 1,400 figure was essentially manufactured by the U.S. government using a dubious methodology of counting bodies shown on “social media,” failing to take into account the question of whether the victims died as a result of the Aug. 21, 2013 incident.
Relying on “social media” for evidence is a notoriously unreliable practice, since pretty much anyone can post anything on the Internet. And, in the case of Syria, there are plenty of interest groups that have a motive to misidentify or even fabricate images for the purpose of influencing public opinion and policy. There is also the Internet’s vulnerability as a devil’s playground for professional intelligence services.
But Hiatt is far from alone in lambasting Obama for failing to do what All the Smart People of Washington knew he should do: bomb, bomb, bomb Assad’s forces in Syria – even if that might have led to the collapse of the army and the takeover of Damascus by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and/or the Islamic State.
Nationally syndicated columnist Richard Cohen, another Iraq War cheerleader who suffered not at all for that catastrophe, accused Obama of “hubris” for taking pride in his decision not to bomb Syria in 2013 and then supposedly basing his foreign policy on that inaction.
“In an odd way, Obama’s failure to intervene in Syria or to enforce his stated ‘red line’ there has become the rationale for an entire foreign policy doctrine – one based more on hubris than success,” wrote Cohen in a column on Tuesday.
Note how Cohen – like Hiatt – fails to mention the relevant fact that DNI Clapper warned the President that the intelligence community was unsure who had unleashed the sarin attack or whether Assad had, in fact, crossed the “red line.”
Cohen also embraces the conventional wisdom that Obama was mistaken not to have intervened in Syria, ignoring the fact that Obama did, in violation of international law, authorize arming and training of thousands of Syrian rebels to violently overthrow the Syrian government, with many of those weapons (and recruits) falling into the hands of terror groups, such as Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Climbing into Bed with Al Qaeda.”]
So, it appears that these well-regarded geniuses don’t appreciate the idea of ascertaining the facts before charging off to war. And there’s a reason for that: many are neocon ideologues who reached their conclusion about what needs to be done in the Middle East – eliminate governments that are troublesome to Israel – and thus they view information as just something to be manipulated to manipulate the public.
This thinking stems from the 1990s when neocons combined their recognition of America’s unmatched military capabilities – as displayed in the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91 and made even more unchallengeable with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991– with Israel’s annoyance over inconclusive negotiations with the Palestinians and security concerns over Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.
The new solution to Israel’s political and security problems would be “regime change” in countries seen as aiding and abetting Israel’s enemies. The strategy came together among prominent U.S. neocons working on Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1996 campaign for Israeli prime minister.
Rather than continuing those annoying negotiations with the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s neocon advisers — including Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser and Mevray Wurmser — advocated a new approach, called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.”
The “clean break” sought “regime change” in countries supporting Israel’s close-in enemies, whether Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Syria under the Assad dynasty or Iran, a leading benefactor of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Two years later, in 1998, the neocon Project for the New American Century called for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. PNAC was founded by neocon luminaries William Kristol and Robert Kagan. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Mysterious Why of the Iraq War.”]
After George W. Bush became president and the 9/11 attacks left the American people lusting for revenge, the pathway was cleared for implementing the “regime change” agenda, with Iraq still at the top of the list although it had nothing to do with 9/11. Again, the last thing the neocons wanted was to inform the American people of the real facts about Iraq because that might have sunk the plans for this war of choice.
Thus, the American public was consistently misled by both the Bush administration and the neocon-dominated mainstream media. The Post’s Hiatt, for instance, was out there regularly reporting Iraq’s WMD threat as “flat fact.”
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and months of fruitless searching for the promised WMD caches, Hiatt finally acknowledged that the Post should have been more circumspect in its confident claims about the WMD. “If you look at the editorials we write running up [to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Saddam Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction,” Hiatt said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. “If that’s not true, it would have been better not to say it.” [CJR, March/April 2004]
Yet, Hiatt’s supposed remorse didn’t stop him and the Post editorial page from continuing its single-minded support for the Iraq War — and heaping abuse on war critics, such as former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson who challenged President Bush’s claims about Iraq seeking yellowcake uranium from Niger.
The degree to which the neocons continue to dominate the major news outlets, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, is demonstrated by the lack of virtually any accountability on the journalists who misinformed their readers about an issue as consequential as the war in Iraq.
And, despite the disaster in Iraq, the neocons never cast aside their “clean break” playbook. After Iraq, the “regime change” strategy listed Syria next and then Iran. Although the neocons suffered a setback in 2008 with the election of Iraq War opponent Barack Obama, they never gave up their dreams.
The neocons worked through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Iraq War supporters who managed to survive and even move up through the government ranks despite Obama’s distaste for their military solutions.
While in office, Clinton sabotaged chances to get Iran to surrender much of its nuclear material – all the better to keep the “regime change” option in play – and she lobbied for a covert military intervention to oust Syria’s Assad. (She also tipped the balance in favor of another “regime change” war in Libya that has created one more failed state in the volatile region.)
But the most disturbing fact is that these war promoters – both in politics and the press – continue to be rewarded for their warmongering. Hiatt retains his gilded perch as the Post’s editorial-page editor (setting Official Washington’s agenda); Cohen remains one of America’s leading national columnists; and Hillary Clinton is favored to become the next President.
So, the answer to Sy Hersh’s question – “Do they care what the facts are?” – is, it appears, no. There is just too much money and power involved in influencing and controlling Washington and – through those levers of finance, diplomacy and war – controlling the world. When that’s at stake, real facts can become troublesome things. For the people who wield this influence and control, it is better for them to manufacture their own.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
On Tuesday, Islamist rebels shot down a Syrian plane, the second such incident in less than a month, and captured the pilots. Inquiries are being made at the highest level as to how the al-Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, has come into possession of advanced Western surface-to-air missiles.
Loud & Clear’s Brian Becker sat down with Institute of Islamic Thought director Zafar Bangash on Thursday to discuss the developing situation in Syria and whether access to this weaponry will undermine Syrian air superiority.
Where are al-Qaeda affiliates getting these advanced weapons?
“According to the information that has emerged, it was al-Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda in Syria,” explained Bangash. He speculated that the missiles were sold to the extremist group by Turkey and paid for by Saudi Arabia, in a continuing effort to overthrow the Assad regime. He suggested that the Americans have a hand in it as well, saying, “the United States has always been involved in providing these weapons, even if not directly.”
The plane shot down on Tuesday was over Aleppo, an al-Nusra and Daesh stronghold. Why is that significant?
“Aleppo is the only major city that has been under the control of al-Nusra or Daesh,” explained Bangash. “The Syrian Army was making progress along with Hezbollah fighters and Iran’s revolutionary guards backed by the Russian Air Force and have been inching towards Aleppo.”
Bangash elaborated that the capture of Aleppo by rebel forces is significant, due to it being the largest city in Syria, and formerly the country’s financial hub. “It is even larger than Damascus, so obviously the terrorist groups and their backers will put up a tough fight not to lose it,” said Bangash.
Does terrorist access to anti-aircraft technology deprive the Syrian army of air supremacy?
“Not completely. I don’t think it will prove a game-changer because Russia is still there,” said Bangash. “These terrorists can cause some damage and some threat to the Syrian air force, and I am sure that the Syrian air force will change their tactics.”
Nonetheless, Russia’s continued presence in the fight against extremist militants will continue to keep rebel groups on their heels as allied forces march towards Aleppo. “Russian air force planes carried out a number of operations last week,” said Bangash. “Further, per the ceasefire agreement between Russia and the US, the terrorist groups were specifically excluded from the ceasefire, so Russia has no obligation whatsoever to avoid attacking these groups.”
Has the US presence in Syria benefitted the extremist organizations?
“Yes,” said Bangash who explained that, since 2005, the Americans along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey have had their eyes on ousting Assad from controlling Syria. “If the Syrian people don’t want Assad, that is for the Syrian people to decide, it isn’t for the United States or any other country to decide.”
He said that he “thinks it is very clear that the US wants to bring down the government of Bashar al-Assad, and that is why the Americans are talking about increasing their special forces in Syria.” Bangash said that the US presence has never been welcomed by the Syrian government. “They have not been given permission by the Syrian government and that is in violation of international law and the UN Charter.”
In contrast, Bangash says that the Russian government came in to maintain the stability of the current Syrian regime, and prevent the country from becoming a failed state, similar to Libya following the ouster of Muammar Gadhafi. “Russia went there with permission of the legitimate government, but the US is there illegally,” he stressed.
In the first of a four-part series, Dan Glazebrook and Sukant Chandan look at the recent spate of revelations about the involvement of British security services in facilitating the flow of fighters into Syria.
Over 13 years ago, in March 2003, Britain and the US led an illegal and unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq, a fellow UN member state. Such a war is deemed to be, in the judgment of the Nuremberg trials that followed World War Two, “not only an international crime” but “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
The mainstream narrative surrounding this war, and the endless catastrophes it bequeathed to Iraq, is that it was the result of a series of unfortunate ‘intelligence failures’: the British government had been led to believe that Iraq posed what Tony Blair called a “clear and present danger” to international security by intelligence that subsequently turned out to be false.
Blair told us that the Iraqi government had an active nuclear weapons program, had acquired uranium from Niger, had mobile chemical weapons factories that could evade UN weapons inspectors, and had stocks of chemical weapons able to hit British troops in Cyprus within 45 minutes.
All of these claims were false, and all were blamed on ‘intelligence failings’, creating an image of an intelligence service totally incapable of distinguishing between credible information and the deluding ravings of crackpots and fantasists, such as the notorious Curveball, the source of many of the various made-up claims later repeated in such grave and reverent tones by the likes of Tony Blair and Colin Powell.
In fact, we now know that sources such as Curveball had already been written off as delusional, compulsive liars by multiple intelligence agencies long before Blair and co got their hands on their outpourings – and the British government was fully aware of this.
The truth is, there were no intelligence failings over the Iraq war. In fact, the intelligence services had been carrying out their job perfectly: on the one hand, making correct assessments of unreliable information, and on the other, providing the government with everything necessary to facilitate its war of aggression. The Iraq war, then, represented a supreme example not of intelligence failure, but intelligence success.
Fast forward to today, and we are again hearing talk of ‘intelligence failings’ and the supposed incompetence of the security services to explain a debilitating Western-sponsored war in the Middle East: this time in Syria.
Earlier this year, British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond admitted that 800 British citizens had gone to join the anti-government terrorist movement in Syria, with at least 50 known to have been killed fighting for Al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL). The British security and intelligence community, we are to believe, were simply unable to stop them.
Opportunist political opponents blame such shocking statistics on incompetence, while the government and its supporters increasingly weave them into an argument for greater powers and resources for the security services. Both are wrong; and a closer look at some of these so-called ‘intelligence failings’ makes this very clear.
In December 2013, it emerged that MI5 had tried to recruit Michael Adebolajo, one of the killers of Fusilier Lee Rigby, just a few weeks before Rigby’s murder. Adebalajo had been on the radar of both MI5 and MI6 for over 10 years. He had been under surveillance in no less than five separate MI5 investigations, including one set up specifically to watch him. He was known to have been in contact with the senior leadership of Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, based in Yemen, and he had been arrested in Kenya on a speedboat on the way to Somalia with five other youths, where he was suspected of hoping to join Al Shabaab.
The Kenyans were furious when they handed him over to the Brits only for him to be turned loose, presumably to continue with his recruitment activities.
The following month, 17-year-old Aseel Muthana left his family home in Cardiff to join rebel fighters in Syria. His brother Nasser had left three months earlier, and his family were worried that Aseel would try to join him. So they confiscated his passport, and informed the police of their concerns. The police kept the family under close scrutiny. They even arrived at his house at 5pm the day he left for Syria, to be told he hadn’t been seen since the night before. He boarded a flight at 8.35pm that night, using alternative travel documents issued by the Foreign Office. His family were horrified that he had been allowed to travel, without a passport, despite all their warnings.
A similar case occurred in June 2015, when three sisters from Bradford traveled to Syria – it is thought to join IS – taking their nine young children with them. Again, the family had been under intense scrutiny from the police ever since their brother went to join IS in Syria earlier that year. And far from being unaware of the risk of their being recruited, counter-terrorist police were, it appears, deeply complicit in their recruitment.
A letter from the family’s lawyers said they were “alarmed” by the police allegedly having been actively promoting and encouraging contact with the brother believed to be fighting in Syria: “It would appear that there has been a reckless disregard as to the consequences of any such contact [with] the families of those whom we represent,” the lawyers said, and continued: “Plainly, by the NECTU [North East Counter Terrorism Unit] allowing this contact they have been complicit in the grooming and radicalizing of the women.”
October 2014 saw the trial of Moazzam Begg, for various terrorism-related offences. Begg had admitted to training British recruits in Syria – but in his defense, he made the incendiary claim that MI5 had explicitly given him the green light for his frequent visits in a meeting they had arranged with him. MI5 admitted it was true, and the trial collapsed.
Six months later, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an interview with Aimen Dean, a founding member of Al-Qaeda who was subsequently recruited by MI6 as a spy. Part of his work for MI6, he said, involved encouraging young impressionable Muslims to go and join the ranks of Al-Qaeda.
Then in June 2015, Abu Muntasir, known as the godfather of British jihadists, thought to have recruited “thousands” of British Muslims to fight in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Burma, Bosnia and Chechnya, gave an interview to the Guardian, repenting his actions. He explained that he came back from fighting in Afghanistan to “create the link and clear the paths. I came back [from war] and opened the door and the trickle turned to a flood. I inspired and recruited, I raised funds and bought weapons, not just a one-off but for 15 to 20 years. Why I have never been arrested I don’t know.”
That same month, a second trial collapsed, for much the same reasons as Begg’s. Bherlin Gildo was arrested in October 2014 on his way from Copenhagen to Manila. He was accused of attending a terrorist training camp and receiving weapons training as well as possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist. The Guardian reported that the prosecution “collapsed at the Old Bailey after it became clear Britain’s security and intelligence agencies would have been deeply embarrassed had a trial gone ahead.”
In January 2016, it was revealed that Siddhartha Dhar traveled to Syria in September 2014 while on police bail for terrorism offences – the sixth time he had been arrested for terror-related offences, and not long after MI5 had reportedly tried to recruit him. Police had demanded he hand in his passport, but did not follow it up; this was despite the fact that he had revealed – live on BBC morning television no less – that he would “love to live in the Islamic State.” He later posted pictures of himself posing with guns in Raqqa, and is suspected of being the so-called ‘new Jihadi John’, appearing in an IS video executing suspected spies. The original ‘Jihadi John’ – British-Kuwaiti Mohammed Emwazi – had also been well known to the British security services, having – just as Adebolajo and Dhar – apparently been offered a job by MI5.
Is this all just a ‘catalogue of blunders’, more ‘intelligence failings’ on a massive scale?
These cases demonstrate a couple of irrefutable points. Firstly, the claim that the security services would have needed more power and resources to have prevented the absconding is clearly not true.
Since 1995, the Home Office has operated what it calls a ‘Warnings Index’: a list of people ‘of interest’ to any branch of government, who will then be ‘flagged up’ should they attempt to leave the country. Given that every single one of these cases was well known to the authorities, the Home Office had, for whatever reason, decided either not to put them on the Warnings Index, or to ignore their attempts to leave the country when they were duly flagged up. That is, the government decided not to use the powers already at its disposal to prevent those at the most extreme risk of joining the Syrian insurgency from doing so.
Secondly, these cases show that British intelligence and security clearly prioritize recruitment of violent so-called Islamists over disruption of their activities. The question is – what exactly are they recruiting them for?
At his trial, Bherlin Gildo’s lawyers provided detailed evidence that the British government itself had been arming and training the very groups that Gildo was being prosecuted for supporting. Indeed, Britain has been one of the most active and vocal supporters of the anti-government insurgency in Syria since its inception, support which continued undiminished even after the sectarian leadership and direction of the insurgency was privately admitted by Western intelligence agencies in 2012. Even today, with IS clearly the main beneficiaries of the country’s destabilization, and Al-Qaeda increasingly hegemonic over the other anti-government forces, David Cameron continues to openly ally himself with the insurgency.
Is it really such a far-fetched idea that the British state, openly supporting a sectarian war against the Ba’athist government in Syria, might also be willfully facilitating the flow of British fighters to join this war? Britain’s history of collusion with sectarian paramilitaries as a tool of foreign policy certainly suggests this may be so. This history, in Ireland, Afghanistan and the Arab peninsula, and its role in shaping British policy today, will be the subject of the articles to follow.
Dan Glazebrook is a freelance political writer who has written for RT, Counterpunch, Z magazine, the Morning Star, the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Independent and Middle East Eye, amongst others. His first book “Divide and Ruin: The West’s Imperial Strategy in an Age of Crisis” was published by Liberation Media in October 2013. It featured a collection of articles written from 2009 onwards examining the links between economic collapse, the rise of the BRICS, war on Libya and Syria and ‘austerity’. He is currently researching a book on US-British use of sectarian death squads against independent states and movements from Northern Ireland and Central America in the 1970s and 80s to the Middle East and Africa today.
Why are Islamic militants wreaking havoc from Brussels to Lahore? The best way to answer this question is by taking a close look at how The New York Times covered this weekend’s liberation of Palmyra from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State.
The article, entitled “Syrian Troops Said to Recapture Historic Palmyra From ISIS,” began on a snide note. While the victory may have netted Bashar al-Assad “a strategic prize,” reporters Hwaida Saad and Kareem Fahim wrote that it also provided the Syrian president with “something more rare: a measure of international praise.”
The article noted that “Mr. Assad’s contention that his government is a bulwark against the transnational extremist group” has been bolstered, but added that “his foes and some allies argue that he must leave power as part of a political settlement to end the war in Syria” – without, of course, specifying who those allies might be.
Then it offered a bit of background: “Lost in the celebrations was a discussion of how Palmyra had fallen in the first place. When the Islamic State captured the city in May , the militants faced little resistance from Syrian troops. At the time, residents said officers and militiamen had fled into orchards outside the city, leaving conscripted soldiers and residents to face the militants alone.”
Since the Times claims to have “several hundred” surreptitious contacts inside Syria, the charge that Assad’s troops fled without a fight may conceivably be correct. But it’s hard to square with reports that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh) had to battle for seven or eight days before entering the city and then had to deal with a counter-offensive on the city’s outskirts. But even if true, it’s only part of the story and a small one at that.
The real story began two months earlier when Syrian rebels launched a major offensive in Syria’s northern Idlib province with heavy backing from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Led by Al Nusra, the local Al Qaeda affiliate, but with the full participation of U.S.-backed rebel forces, the assault proved highly successful because of the large numbers of U.S.-made optically guided TOW missiles supplied by the Saudis. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Climbing into Bed with Al-Qaeda.”]
The missiles gave the rebels the edge they needed to destroy dozens of government tanks and other vehicles according to videos posted on social media websites. Indeed, one pro-U.S. commander told The Wall Street Journal that the TOWs completely “flipped the balance of power,” enabling the rebels to dislodge the Syrian army’s heavily dug-in forces and drive them out of town. Although the government soon counter-attacked, Al Nusra and its allies continued to advance to the point where they posed a direct threat to the Damascus regime’s stronghold in Latakia province 50 or 60 miles to the west.
Official Washington was jubilant. “The trend lines for Assad are bad and getting worse,” a senior official crowed a month after the offensive began. The Times happily observed that “[t]he Syrian Army has suffered a string of defeats from re-energized insurgents … [which] raise newly urgent questions about the durability of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.”
Assad was on the ropes, or so everyone said. Indeed, ISIS thought so as well, according to the Associated Press, which is why it decided that the opportunity was ripe to launch an offensive of its own 200 miles or so to the southeast. Worn-out and depleted after four years of civil war, the Syrian Arab Army retreated before the onslaught.
But considering the billions of dollars that the U.S. and Saudis were pouring into the rebel forces, blaming Damascus for not putting up a stiffer fight is a little like beating up a 12-year-old girl and then blaming her for not having a better right hook.
So the U.S. and its allies helped Islamic State by tying down Assad’s forces in the north so that it could punch through in the center. But that’s not all the U.S. did. It also helped by suspending bombing as the Islamic State neared Palmyra.
As the Times put it at the time: “Any airstrikes against Islamic State militants in and around Palmyra would probably benefit the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. So far, United States-led airstrikes in Syria have largely focused on areas far outside government control, to avoid the perception of aiding a leader whose ouster President Obama has called for.”
The upshot was a clear message to ISIS to the effect that it had nothing to worry about from U.S. jet bombers as long as it engaged Assad’s troops in close combat. The U.S. thus incentivized ISIS to press forward with the assault. Although residents later wondered why the U.S. had not bombed ISIS forces “while they were traversing miles of open desert roads,” the answer, simply, is that Washington had other things on its mind. Rather than defeating ISIS, it preferred to use it to accomplish its primary goal, which was driving out Assad.
But what does this have to do with Brussels and Lahore? Simply that America’s fundamental ambivalence toward ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar groups — its policy of battling them on one hand and seeking to make use of them on the other — is what allows Sunni terrorism to fester and grow.
The administration is shocked, SHOCKED, when Islamists kill innocent people in Belgium but not when they kill innocent people in Syria. This is why the White House long regarded ISIS as a lesser threat: because it thought its violence would remain safely contained.
“Where Al Qaeda’s principal ambition is to launch attacks against the West and U.S. homeland,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes explained in August 2014, “ISIL’s primary focus is consolidating territory in the Middle East region to establish their own Islamic State.”
Since the only people in harm’s way were Syrians, there was no cause for alarm. The rest of the world could relax.
Hence the confusion when ISIS did the unexpected by striking out at Western targets after all. As the Times observed in a major takeout this week on Islamic State’s Western operations, officials were slow to connect the dots because Euro-terrorism was not supposed to be ISIS’s thing: “Even as the group began aggressively recruiting foreigners, especially Europeans, policymakers in the United States and Europe continued to see it as a lower-profile branch of Al Qaeda that was mostly interested in gaining and governing territory.”
Turkish officials made essentially the same point last week in response to widespread complaints that they have done little to prevent Sunni terrorists from making their way to Syria. Not so, they countered. When they tried to return the jihadis from whence they came, they found that members of the European Union were none too eager to have them.
“We were suspicious that the reason they want these people to come is because they don’t want them in their own countries,” a senior Turkish security official told the London Guardian. Instead, they preferred to see them continue on their way. And why not? At home, they would only cause trouble, whereas in Syria they would advance Western interests by waging war against Assad’s Baathist government.
Thus, Brussels was unresponsive when Turkish officials informed it that they had detained a Belgian citizen named Ibrahim el-Bakraoui in the border town of Gaziantep on suspicion of traveling to Syria to join the jihad. The Turks deported him anyway, but the Belgians remained unconcerned until El-Bakraoui turned up among the suicide bombers at Zaventem airport.
The same thing happened when the Turks intercepted a Syria-bound French national named Omar Ismail Mostefai. Paris was also unresponsive until Mostefai wound up among the ISIS militants who stormed the Bataclan concert hall last November, at which point its attitude turned distinctly less blasé.
In June 2014, Turkish security officers in Istanbul intercepted a Norwegian citizen traveling to Syria with a camouflage outfit, a first-aid kit, knives, a gun magazine and parts of an AK-47, all of which E.U. customs officials had somehow overlooked.
Two months later, they intercepted a German citizen with a suitcase containing a bulletproof vest, military camouflage and binoculars that customs had also failed to notice. When they apprehended a Danish-Turkish dual citizen on his way to Syria, they sent him back to Copenhagen. But the Danes gave him another passport regardless so he could continue on his way. Everyone figured that what happens in Syria stays in Syria, so why worry?
Now, of course, everyone is worried big time. With the AP reporting that Islamic State has armed and trained 400 to 600 fighters for its European operations, talk of ISIS sleeper cells is ubiquitous. Referring to the Brussels district where the March 22 bombing plot was hatched, Patrick Kanner, the French social-democratic minister of youth, warned ominously: “There are today, as is well known, hundreds of neighborhoods in France that present potential similarities to what happened in Molenbeek.”
The implication was that the state of emergency should not only continue but deepen. As hundreds of neo-Nazis descended on Brussels chanting anti-immigrant slogans, paranoia took a giant leap forward as did its handmaidens racism and Islamophobia.
But as much everyone would like to blame it all on Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and others of that ilk, none of this is really their fault. To the contrary, the West’s disastrous Syria policy is entirely the creation of nice-guy liberals like Barack Obama. Desperate to appease both Israel and the Sunni oil sheiks, all of whom for various reasons wanted Assad to go, he signed on to a massive Sunni jihad that has turned Syria into a charnel house.
With death estimates now running as high as 470,000, which is to say one person in nine, the idea that massive violence like this could remain confined to a single country was absurd to begin with. Yet Obama went along regardless.
Indeed, the administration is still unwilling to back down despite all that has happened since. When a reporter asked point-blank at a State Department press briefing, “Do you want to see the [Damascus] regime retake Palmyra or would you prefer that it stays in Daesh’s hands,” spokesman Mark Toner hemmed and hawed before finally admitting that a takeover was preferable because “we think Daesh is probably the greater evil in this case.” (Exchange starts at 1:05.)
But the next day he walked back even that mealy-mouthed statement. Refusing to endorse Palmyra’s fall at all, he declared: “I’m not going to laud it because it’s important to remember that one of the reasons Daesh is in Syria is because Assad’s brutal crackdown on his own people created the kind of vacuum, if you will, that has allowed a group like ISIL or Daesh to flourish. Just because he’s now, given the cessation of hostilities, willing and-or able to divert his forces to take on Daesh doesn’t exonerate him or his regime from the gross abuses that they’ve carried out against the Syrian people.”
Since Assad is the only one to blame, the U.S. doesn’t have to ponder its own contribution to the problem. Instead, it gives itself a clean bill of health and moves on. Rather, it would like to move on if only ISIS would let it.
But the more aid the U.S. and its allies funnel into the hands of Sunni terrorists, the more groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda will grow and the farther their reach will extend. The upshot will be more bombings and shootings in Paris, Brussels, and who knows where else. Racism and Islamophobia will continue to surge regardless of what bien-pensant liberals do to talk it down.
The liberal center is engineering its own demise.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).
It’s a complete hoax – a phony pretext for waging endless imperial wars, wanting whole continents carved up for profit and dominance.
Fictitious enemies are created. Premeditated wars of aggression follow. Rules of engagement are changed from rule of law observance to anything goes.
America declared war on humanity, the greatest threat to life on earth, using terrorist groups to do much of its dirty work.
Their names don’t matter. Earlier US supported anti-Soviet Afghan mujahadeen forces became opposition Taliban fighters.
ISIS, Al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and likeminded groups are similar. Names and faces change, not methods of operation other than access to more modern weapons and new funding sources.
Obama’s vow to degrade and destroy ISIS (and by implication likeminded terrorist groups) is a complete fabrication, the public willfully deceived to believe otherwise.
Washington backs the scourge it claims to oppose – along with rogue allies providing ISIS and other terrorist groups with arms, munitions, training, funding, direction and other material support. They couldn’t exist without it.
Media scoundrels front for power and privilege, perpetuating the Big Lie about America combating terrorism instead of explaining what news consumers need to know – The New York Times as willfully deceptive as Fox News.
Its editors say “America needs frank talk on ISIS,” never explaining it created and supports the group.
They lied, claiming “Obama authorized…airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in 2014 to curb the rise of the Islamic State.”
Syrian intervention was and continues to be flagrantly illegal without Security Council or Damascus authorization. Baghdad was pressured to let Washington to maintain the fiction of combatting ISIS.
In both countries, infrastructure and government sites are struck, ISIS and other terrorists aided. Thousands of US combat forces are in Iraq, likely more coming, limited numbers in Syria.
Russia alone along with Syrian ground forces achieved significant victories against ISIS and likeminded groups.
The Obama administration lied, claiming US warplanes cut ISIS revenues by striking its oil trucks and other targets. It says “intensif(ied) airstrikes and raids” are coming.
America’s air campaign in Iraq and Syria have been ongoing for over 18 months. ISIS advanced steadily until Russia intervened in Syria.
Instead of exposing Obama’s phony war on terror, his lawless aggression, using ISIS and other terrorist groups as imperial foot soldiers, The Times perpetuates the myth of combating a scourge America supports.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His new book as editor and contributor is titled “Flashpoint in Ukraine: US Drive for Hegemony Risks WW III.”
A crucial problem in news media coverage of the Syrian civil war has been how to characterize the relationship between the so-called “moderate” opposition forces armed by the CIA, on one hand, and the Al Qaeda franchise Al Nusra Front (and its close ally Ahrar al Sham), on the other.
But it is a politically sensitive issue for U.S. policy, which seeks to overthrow Syria’s government without seeming to make common cause with the movement responsible for 9/11, and the system of news production has worked effectively to prevent the news media from reporting it fully and accurately.
The Obama administration has long portrayed the opposition groups it has been arming with anti-tank weapons as independent of Nusra Front. In reality, the administration has been relying on the close cooperation of these “moderate” groups with Nusra Front to put pressure on the Syrian government.
The United States and its allies – especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey – want the civil war to end with the dissolution of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by U.S. rivals like Russia and Iran.
Reflecting the fact that Nusra Front was created by Al Qaeda and has confirmed its loyalty to it, the administration designated Nusra as a terrorist organization in 2013. But the U.S. has carried out very few airstrikes against it since then, in contrast to the other offspring of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State or ISIS (Daesh), which has been the subject of intense air attacks from the U.S. and its European allies.
The U.S. has remained silent about Nusra Front’s leading role in the military effort against Assad, concealing the fact that Nusra’s success in northwest Syria has been a key element in Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic strategy for Syria.
When Russian intervention in support of the Syrian government began last September, targeting not only ISIS but also the Nusra Front and U.S.-supported groups allied with them against the Assad regime, the Obama administration immediately argued that Russian airstrikes were targeting “moderate” groups rather than ISIS, and insisted that those strikes had to stop.
The willingness of the news media to go beyond the official line and report the truth on the ground in Syria was thus put to the test. It had been well-documented that those “moderate” groups had been thoroughly integrated into the military campaigns directed by Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham in the main battlefront of the war in northwestern Syria’s Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
For example, a dispatch from Aleppo last May in Al Araby Al-Jadeed (The New Arab), a daily newspaper financed by the Qatari royal family, revealed that every one of at least ten “moderate” factions in the province supported by the CIA had joined the Nusra-run province command Fateh Halab (Conquest of Aleppo). Formally the command was run by Ahrar al Sham, and Nusra Front was excluded from it.
But as Al Araby’s reporter explained, that exclusion “means that the operation has a better chance of receiving regional and international support.” That was an indirect way of saying that Nusra’s supposed exclusion was a device aimed at facilitating the Obama administration’s approval of sending more TOW missiles to the “moderates” in the province, because the White House could not support groups working directly with a terrorist organization.
A further implication was that Nusra Front was allowing “moderate” groups to obtain those weapons from the United States and its Saudi and Turkish allies, because those groups were viewed as too weak to operate independently of the Salafist-jihadist forces — and because some of those arms would be shared with Nusra Front and Ahrar.
After Nusra Front was formally identified as a terrorist organization for the purposes of a Syrian ceasefire and negotiations, it virtually went underground in areas close to the Turkish border.
A journalist who lives in northern Aleppo province told Al Monitor that Nusra Front had stopped flying its own flag and was concealing its troops under those of Ahrar al Sham, which had been accepted by the United States as a participant in the talks. That maneuver was aimed at supporting the argument that “moderate” groups and not Al Qaeda were being targeted by Russian airstrikes.
But a review of the coverage of the targeting of Russian airstrikes and the role of U.S.-supported armed groups in the war during the first few weeks in the three most influential U.S. newspapers with the most resources for reporting accurately on the issue—the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal – reveals a pattern of stories that tilted strongly in the direction desired by the Obama administration, either ignoring the subordination of the “moderate” groups to Nusra Front entirely or giving it only the slightest mention.
In an Oct. 1, 2015 article, Washington Post Beirut correspondent Liz Sly wrote that the Russian airstrikes were being “conducted against one of the few areas in the country where moderate rebels still have a foothold and from which the Islamic State was ejected more than a year and a half ago.”
To her credit, Sly did report, “Some of the towns struck are strongholds of recently formed coalition Jaish al Fateh,” which she said included Nusra Front and “an assortment of Islamist and moderate factions.” What was missing, however, was the fact that Jaish al Fateh was not merely a “coalition” but a military command structure, meaning that a much tighter relationship existed between the U.S.-supported “moderates” and the Al Qaeda franchise.
Sly referred specifically to one strike that hit a training camp in the outskirts of a town in Idlib province belonging to Suquor al-Jabal, which had been armed by the CIA.
But readers could not evaluate that statement without the crucial fact, reported in the regional press, that Suquor al-Jabal was one of the many CIA-supported organizations that had joined the Fateh Halab (“Conquest of Aleppo”), the military command center in Aleppo ostensibly run by Ahrar al Sham, Nusra Front’s closest ally, but in fact under firm Nusra control. The report thus conveyed the false impression that the CIA-supported rebel group was still independent of Nusra Front.
An article by New York Times Beirut correspondent Anne Barnard (co-authored by the Times stringer in Syria Karam Shoumali — Oct. 13, 2015) appeared to veer off in the direction of treating the U.S.-supported opposition groups as part of a new U.S./Russian proxy war, thus drawing attention away from the issue of whether the Obama administration support for “moderate” groups was actually contributing to the political-military power of Al Qaeda in Syria.
Under the headline “US Weaponry Is Turning Syria Into Proxy War With Russia,” it reported that armed opposition groups had just received large shipments of TOW anti-tank missiles that had to be approved by the United States. Quoting the confident statements of rebel commanders about the effectiveness of the missiles and the high morale of rebel troops, the story suggested that arming the “moderates” was a way for the United States to make them the primary force on one side of a war pitting the United States against Russia in Syria.
Near the end of the story, however, Barnard effectively undermined that “proxy war” theme by citing the admission by commanders of U.S.-supported brigades of their “uncomfortable marriage of necessity” with the Al Qaeda franchise, “because they cannot operate without the consent of the larger and stronger Nusra Front.”
Referring to the capture of Idlib the previous spring by the opposition coalition, Barnard recalled that the TOW missiles had “played a major role in the insurgent advances that eventually endangered Mr. Assad’s rule.” But, she added:
“While that would seem like a welcome development for United States policy makers, in practice it presented another quandary, given that the Nusra Front was among the groups benefiting from the enhanced firepower.”
Unfortunately, Barnard’s point that U.S.-supported groups were deeply embedded in an Al Qaeda-controlled military structure was buried at the end of a long piece, and thus easily missed. The headline and lead ensured that, for the vast majority of readers, that point would be lost in the larger thrust of the article.
The Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous approached the problem from a different angle but with the same result. He wrote a story on Oct. 5 reflecting what he said was anger on the part of U.S. officials that the Russians were deliberately targeting opposition groups that the CIA had supported.
Entous reported that U.S. officials believed the Syrian government wanted those groups targeted because of their possession of TOW missiles, which had been the key factor in the opposition’s capture of Idlib earlier in the year. But nowhere in the article was the role of CIA-supported groups within military command structures dominated by Nusra Front even acknowledged.
Still another angle on the problem was adopted in an Oct. 12 article by Journal Beirut correspondent Raja Abdulrahim, who described the Russian air offensive as having spurred U.S.-backed rebels and the Nusra Front to form a “more united front against the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.” Adbulrahim thus acknowledged the close military collaboration with Nusra Front, but blamed it all on the Russian offensive.
And the story ignored the fact that those same opposition groups had already joined military command arrangements in Idlib and Aleppo earlier in 2015, in anticipation of victories across northeast Syria.
The image in the media of the U.S.-supported armed opposition as operating independently from Nusra Front, and as victims of Russian attacks, persisted into early 2016. But in February, the first cracks in that image appeared in the Washington Post and New York Times.
Reporting on the negotiations between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on a partial ceasefire that began on Feb. 12, Washington Post associate editor and senior national security correspondent Karen DeYoung wrote on Feb. 19 that an unresolved problem was how to decide which organizations were to be considered “terrorist groups” in the ceasefire agreement.
In that context, DeYoung wrote, “Jabhat al-Nusra, whose forces are intermingled with moderate rebel groups in the northwest near the Turkish border, is particularly problematic.”
It was the first time any major news outlet had reported that U.S.-supported armed opposition and Nusra Front front troops were “intermingled” on the ground. And in the very next sentence DeYoung dropped what should have been a political bombshell: She reported that Kerry had proposed in the Munich negotiations to “leave Jabhat al Nusra off limits to bombing, as part of a ceasefire, at least temporarily, until the groups can be sorted out.”
At the same time, Kerry was publicly demanding in a speech at the Munich conference that Russia halt its attacks on “legitimate opposition groups” as a condition for a ceasefire. Kerry’s negotiating position reflected the fact that CIA groups were certain to be hit in strikes on areas controlled by Nusra Front, as well as the reality that Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham were central to the success of the U.S.-backed military effort against Assad.
In the end, however, Lavrov rejected the proposal to protect Nusra Front targets from Russian airstrikes, and Kerry dropped that demand, allowing the joint U.S./Russian announcement of the partial ceasefire on Feb. 22.
Up to that point, maps of the Syrian war in the Post and Times had identified zones of control only for “rebels” without showing where Nusra Front forces were in control. But on the same day as the announcement, the New York Times published an “updated” map, accompanied by text stating that Nusra Front “is embedded in the area of Aleppo and northwest toward the Turkish border.”
At the State Department briefing the next day, reporters grilled spokesman Mark Toner on whether U.S.-supported rebel forces were “commingled” with Nusra Front forces in Aleppo and northward. After a very long exchange on the subject, Toner said, “Yes, I believe there is some commingling of these groups.” And he went on to say, speaking on behalf of the International Syria Support Group, which comprises all the countries involved in the Syrian peace negotiations, including the U.S. and Russia:
“We, the ISSG, have been very clear in saying that Al Nusra and Daesh [ISIS] are not part of any kind of cease-fire or any kind of negotiated cessation of hostilities. So if you hang out with the wrong folks, then you make that decision. … You choose who hang out with, and that sends a signal.”
Although I pointed out the significance of the statement (Truthout, Feb. 24, 2016), no major news outlet saw fit to report that remarkable acknowledgement by the State Department spokesperson. Nevertheless, the State Department had clearly alerted the Washington Post and the New York Times to the fact that the relationships between the CIA-supported groups and Nusra Front were much closer than it had ever admitted in the past.
Kerry evidently calculated that the pretense that the “moderate” armed groups were independent of Al Nusra front would open him to a political attack from Republicans and the media if they were hit by Russian airstrikes. So it was no longer useful politically to try to obscure that reality from the media.
In fact, the State Department now seemed interested in inducing as many of those armed groups as possible to separate themselves more clearly from the Nusra Front.
The twists and turns in the three major newspapers’ coverage of the issue of relations between U.S.-supported opposition groups and Al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria thus show how major news sources slighted or steered clear of the fact that U.S.-client armed groups were closely intertwined with a branch of Al Qaeda — until they were prompted by signals from U.S. officials to revise their line and provide a more honest portrayal of Syria’s armed opposition.
Gareth Porter, an independent investigative journalist and historian on US national security policy, is the winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book is Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, published in 2014.