Episode 2 show notes – End of CIA’s Syrian ghost war and al-Qaeda’s renaissance

Moderate Rebels episode 2

Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton discuss the billion-dollar CIA program arming and training rebels in Syria, detailing how it strengthened extremist groups including ISIS and al-Qaeda. We use mainstream media reports and government documents to conclusively show how the US knew it and its allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were fueling genocidal Salafi militants.

Blumenthal and Norton also address how the failure of mainstream liberal parties and politicians to challenge this, and to oppose the national security state in general, has led to the growth of extremely dangerous far-right forces, who scapegoat Muslims and refugees for the problems caused by war and empire.

Show Notes

Media on CIA and Syria

That’s not to say that the CIA effort was bootless. Run from secret operations centers in Turkey and Jordan, the program pumped many hundreds of millions of dollars to many dozens of militia groups. One knowledgeable official estimates that the CIA-backed fighters may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years. By the summer of 2015, the rebels were at the gates of Latakia on the northern coast, threatening Assad’s ancestral homeland and Russian bases there. Rebel fighters were also pushing toward Damascus.

History of CIA program in Syria

President Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorizing U.S. support for rebels seeking to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government, sources familiar with the matter said.

Obama’s order, approved earlier this year and known as an intelligence “finding,” broadly permits the CIA and other U.S. agencies to provide support that could help the rebels oust Assad.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are paying salaries to rebel forces fighting in the Syrian revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, an Arab diplomat said on Saturday.

“The payment has been going on for months and the agreement was made on April 2 by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with logistical organization from Turkey where some Free Syrian Army factions are based,’ said the source, who requested anonymity.

“The point of this is to encourage as many factions of the Syrian army to defect and to organize the FSA.”

Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.

The United States is not sending arms directly to the Syrian opposition. Instead, it is providing intelligence and other support for shipments of secondhand light weapons like rifles and grenades into Syria, mainly orchestrated from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The reports indicate that the shipments organized from Qatar, in particular, are largely going to hard-line Islamists.

CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have been secretly training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons since late last year, months before President Obama approved plans to begin directly arming them, according to U.S. officials and rebel commanders.

The covert U.S. training at bases in Jordan and Turkey, along with Obama’s decision this month to supply arms and ammunition to the rebels, has raised hope among the beleaguered Syrian opposition that Washington ultimately will provide heavier weapons as well.

Under the deal, current and former administration officials said, the Saudis contribute both weapons and large sums of money, and the C.I.A takes the lead in training the rebels on AK-47 assault rifles and tank-destroying missiles.

The support for the Syrian rebels is only the latest chapter in the decadeslong relationship between the spy services of Saudi Arabia and the United States, an alliance that has endured through the Iran-contra scandal, support for the mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan and proxy fights in Africa. Sometimes, as in Syria, the two countries have worked in concert. In others, Saudi Arabia has simply written checks underwriting American covert activities. …

From the moment the C.I.A. operation was started, Saudi money supported it. …

American officials have not disclosed the amount of the Saudi contribution, which is by far the largest from another nation to the program to arm the rebels against President Bashar al-Assad’s military. But estimates have put the total cost of the arming and training effort at several billion dollars.

The White House has embraced the covert financing from Saudi Arabia — and from Qatar, Jordan and Turkey — at a time when Mr. Obama has pushed gulf nations to take a greater security role in the region.

Al-Qaeda dominating the Syrian opposition

B. THE SALAFIST [sic], THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, AND AQI ARE THE MAJOR FORCES DRIVING THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA.

C. THE WEST, GULF COUNTRIES, AND TURKEY SUPPORT THE OPPOSITION; WHILE RUSSIA, CHINA AND IRAN SUPPORT THE REGIME. …

3. (C) Al QAEDA – IRAQ (AQI): … B. AQI SUPPORTED THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION FROM THE BEGINNING, BOTH IDEOLOGICALLY AND THROUGH THE MEDIA …

4.D. THERE WAS A REGRESSION OF AQI IN THE WESTERN PROVINCES OF IRAQ DURING THE YEARS OF 2009 AND 2010; HOWEVER, AFTER THE RISE OF THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA, THE RELIGIOUS AND TRIBAL POWERS IN THE REGIONS BEGAN TO SYMPATHIZE WITH THE SECTARIAN UPRISING. THIS (SYMPATHY) APPEARED IN FRIDAY PRAYER SERMONS, WHICH CALLED FOR VOLUNTEERS TO SUPPORT THE SUNNI’S [sic] IN SYRIA. …

7. (C) THE FUTURE ASSUMPTIONS OF THE CRISIS:

A. THE REGIME WILL SURVIVE AND HAVE CONTROL OVER SYRIAN TERRITORY.

B. DEVELOPMENT OF THE CURRENT EVENTS INTO PROXY WAR: … OPPOSITION FORCES ARE TRYING TO CONTROL THE EASTERN AREAS (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), ADJACENT TO THE WESTERN IRAQI PROVINCES (MOSUL AND ANBAR), IN ADDITION TO NEIGHBORING TURKISH BORDERS. WESTERN COUNTRIES, THE GULF STATES AND TURKEY ARE SUPPORTING THESE EFFORTS. THIS HYPOTHESIS IS MOST LIKELY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE DATA FROM RECENT EVENTS, WHICH WILL HELP PREPARE SAFE HAVENS UNDER INTERNATIONAL SHELTERING, SIMILAR TO WHAT TRANSPIRED IN LIBYA WHEN BENGHAZI WAS CHOSEN AS THE COMMAND CENTER OF THE TEMPORARY GOVERNMENT. …

8.C. IF THE SITUATION UNRAVELS THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF ESTABLISHING A DECLARED OR UNDECLARED SALAFIST PRINCIPALITY IN EASTERN SYRIA (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE SUPPORTING POWERS TO THE OPPOSITION WANT, IN ORDER TO ISOLATE THE SYRIAN REGIME, WHICH IS CONSIDERED THE STRATEGIC DEPTH OF THE SHIA EXPANSION (IRAQ AND IRAN)

8.D.1. … ISI COULD ALSO DECLARE AN ISLAMIC STATE THROUGH ITS UNION WITH OTHER TERRORIST ORGANIZATIONS IN IRAQ AND SYRIA, WHICH WILL CREATE GRAVE DANGER IN REGARDS TO UNIFYING IRAQ AND THE PROTECTION OF ITS TERRITORY.

Former CIA director Mike Morell speaking:

The two groups that are in some way affiliated with al Qaeda — al-Nusra and then Ahrar ash-Sham — are the two most effective organizations on the battlefield. And because they’re so good at fighting the Syrians some of the moderate members of the opposition joined forces with them to fight the Syrians.

The end of the civil war in Syria could offer one of two bad outcomes: a stronger more brutal Assad regime or a rebel government influenced by al Qaeda.

A recently leaked 2014 email from Hillary Clinton acknowledges, citing Western intelligence sources, that the U.S.-backed regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported ISIS.

“We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region,” the document states.

This adds to a growing body of evidence that theocratic Gulf monarchies have helped fuel the surge of extremist groups throughout the Middle East.

Another newly released email, from January 2016, includes an excerpt from a private October 2013 speech in which Clinton acknowledged that “the Saudis have exported more extreme ideology than any other place on earth over the course of the last 30 years.”

In that same speech, Clinton noted that she wanted to pursue “a more robust, covert action trying to vet, identify, train and arm cadres of rebels” in Syria, that would have fought both the government of President Bashar al-Assad and “the Al-Qaeda-related jihadist groups that have, unfortunately, been attracted to Syria.”

She added however, “That’s been complicated by the fact that the Saudis and others are shipping large amounts of weapons — and pretty indiscriminately — not at all targeted toward the people that we think would be the more moderate, least likely, to cause problems in the future.”

Former vice president Joe Biden speaking:

Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria…

The Turks were great friends, and I’ve a great relationship with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, … the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war. What did they do?” Biden asked, according to a recording of the speech posted on the White House’s website. “They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra, and al Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world…

President Erdogan told me — he is an old friend — said, ‘You were right; we let too many people through. Now we are trying to seal the border.’

Watch Biden’s remarks here:

Qatar’s former prime minister admitted in an interview that the United States and its Gulf allies supported Islamist extremists in Syria.

In CIA-run training sites located in Jordan and Turkey, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani explained, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Qatar, “all of us, we [were] supporting the same groups,” he said. Among them were extremists, al-Thani noted.

This testimony adds to the growing body of evidence that the U.S. government and its proxies backed hard-line Salafi-jihadists in order to weaken the Syrian government and its allies Iran and Hezbollah.

US regime change attempts in Syria before 2011

This cable suggests that the US goal in December 2006 was to undermine the Syrian government by any available means, and that what mattered was whether US action would help destabilize the government, not what other impacts the action might have. In public the US was in favor of economic reform, but in private the US saw conflict between economic reform and “entrenched, corrupt forces” as an “opportunity.” In public, the US was opposed to “Islamist extremists” everywhere; but in private it saw the “potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists” as an “opportunity” that the US should take action to try to increase. …

Possible action:

PLAY ON SUNNI FEARS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE: There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis. Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business.

Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders) are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue. …

Vulnerability:

THE KHADDAM FACTOR: Khaddam knows where the regime skeletons are hidden, which provokes enormous irritation from Bashar, vastly disproportionate to any support Khaddam has within Syria. Bashar Asad personally, and his regime in general, follow every news item involving Khaddam with tremendous emotional interest. The regime reacts with self-defeating anger whenever another Arab country hosts Khaddam or allows him to make a public statement through any of its media outlets. …

Possible Action:

We should continue to encourage the Saudis and others to allow Khaddam access to their media outlets, providing him with venues for airing the SARG’s dirty laundry. We should anticipate an overreaction by the regime that will add to its isolation and alienation from its Arab neighbors. …

Possible Action:

ENCOURAGE RUMORS AND SIGNALS OF EXTERNAL PLOTTING:

The regime is intensely sensitive to rumors about coup-plotting and restlessness in the security services and military. Regional allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia should be encouraged to meet with figures like Khaddam and Rif’at Asad as a way of sending such signals, with appropriate leaking of the meetings afterwards. This again touches on this insular regime’s paranoia and increases the possibility of a self-defeating over-reaction.

Al-Qaeda taking over Syrian cities

UN and Syria death count

Assad is routinely accused of murdering 250,000 of his own people. The only problem is that there’s no proof he did.

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and Rami Abdulrahman

Rami Abdulrahman and his SOHR have been openly pro-opposition from the beginning.

An FSA flag was at the top of the SOHR website until 2017.

Abdulrahman fled Syria in 2000 and never went back.

The SOHR, which virtually every major news outlet relies on for reports, is based out of Abdulrahman’s home in Coventry, England.

Israel and Syrian rebels

Omar al-Shishani’s US training

Syrian refugees fleeing rebels

Rebel massacre of Syrian Armenians at Kasab

Adam Schiff and Samantha Power

Full video here:

Free Syrian Army (FSA) and media

  • Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East, 2016, page 121

The FSA was still something of a myth, with a media presence far outstripping its actual organizational capacity.

The perennial, deep problem of the Syrian opposition is that it remains fragmented, disorganized, and highly localized. This has not changed. The “Free Syrian Army” remains something of a fiction, a convenient mailbox for a diverse, unorganized collection of local fighting groups. Those groups have been trying to coordinate more effectively, no doubt, but they remain deeply divided. For all their protestations of solidarity, the Syrian National Council and the FSA show few signs of working well together, while repeated splits and conflicts have emerged in the media within the FSA.

Jordan’s police state, mukhabarat, and torture

Human rights groups charge the mukhabarat, portrayed in the new Ridley Scott movie ‘Body of Lies,’ with systematic torture.

Ben Norton on evolution of Syria views

Listen to episode 2 here: