I recommend Gareth Porter’s June 22 article on The American Conservative, How America Armed Terrorists in Syria. It tells a story that I already knew (at a high level) – supported by a wealth of details that I didn’t.
In the rest of this post, I’ll share my notes on that and some other articles, re-telling the story with many fewer details. But it will still be a long post. First, a couple of things to keep in mind:
- The Sunni – Shia divide, in the Muslim world.
- The fact that “al Qaeda” is just a name borne by certain Sunni irregular / rebel / terrorist fighters at a certain moment. The name doesn’t matter. All such fighters have an Islamist ideology and if they’re Sunni, they’re basically the new flavor of al Qaeda.
After 9-11, the Bush administration set an official policy of wiping out al Qaeda and its affiliates. President Obama broke from that policy. He decided that we had to overthrow the Shia-dominated government of President Assad in Syria. And to do it, we would go along with the Sunni fighters (again, similar to al Qaeda) in Syria that were backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.
In 2011, Obama suggested that Assad step down. He also agreed to provide small arms from Libyan government stocks, plus logistical support, to the Syria jihadi-rebels. That’s what was happening in Benghazi; the movement of arms to Turkey and Syria.
The Benghazi arms channel ended abruptly in late 2012, as we know. But by then, other channels had been established to move arms from factories in former Soviet republics to Turkey and the Syria jihadi-rebels; all with CIA help.
Obama and his advisors thought that Assad would fall quickly. They were wrong. Russia and Iran came to Assad’s aid.
First, Iran. Another of Gareth Porter’s articles details the Obama administration’s blindness in failing to see that Iran would intervene.
Iran regarded Syria as crucial to its ability to resupply Hezbollah, whose large arsenal of missiles was in turn a necessary element in Iran’s deterrent to an Israeli attack.
In 2012, the well-armed Syria rebels/terrorists had some victories. But in 2013, Hezbollah, supported by Iran, struck back on Assad’s behalf, with success.
The Obama administration then doubled-down on eliminating Assad. They made noises in 2013 about the U.S. doing a major attack on Syria (kicking off my coverage of Syria).
But such plans were opposed from within the Pentagon, in part because the justification was shaky. That link is an article by Seymour M. Hersh, discussing the Syrian rebels’ making of sarin gas (with Turkey’s help) and using it in false-flag chemical attacks meant to blame Assad. All that had been exposed to world intelligence agencies. In other words, the Pentagon felt that they could not definitively blame Assad for any recent chemical incidents and therefore, they couldn’t build the necessary moral-political support for an attack on Assad.
Assad further stymied the potential U.S. attack, by voluntarily turning all (or most) of his chemical weapons over to U.S. control in 2013. Obama then decided that we could at least supply the Syria jihadi-rebels with more and heavier weapons than we had before, like anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.
The Saudis also continued to supply arms, money and fighters to the Syria rebels. They were determined to build a large presence in Syria. Remember how, during these years, migrating to Syria to join the rebels and/or ISIS became a thing. ISIS and the Syria jihadi-rebels are adjacent – both geographically and ideologically. Would-be terrorists would go to the region without really caring which one they joined, or would move between them.
This led Vice President Biden to criticize Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar in October 2014 – in a way that admitted the problem:
In impromptu remarks at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, Biden complained that “our biggest problem is our allies.” The forces they had supplied with arms, he said, were “al Nusra and al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
Biden quickly disavowed his own remarks, but the confession was confirmed by others. Our allies funneled vast quantities of weapons, with U.S. support (willing or no), into the hands of Syria-ISIS jihadi-rebels. The CIA made some effort to send stuff to “relatively moderate” Syria groups; but those groups would promptly merge with (or get conquered by) full-on radical groups, who would then show off their wonderful new weapons.
All of this mess triggered greater Russian involvement, on behalf of Assad. And so Assad is still with us.
Why did Obama go down this road (or let it happen)? As Porter states politely:
The administration was unwilling to be at cross-purposes with its Sunni allies, [a source] recalled, because of the direct US military interests at stake in its alliances with those three states: the Saudis effectively controlled US access to the naval base in Bahrain, Turkey controlled the airbase at Incirlik, and Qatar controlled land and air bases that had become central to US military operations in the region.
A rude cynic might just say, “Saudi Arabia has hacked our democracy.” Porter does go on to talk about the interests of the Deep State:
What was a disastrous blunder in terms of the consequences for the Syrian people, therefore, was the only choice acceptable to the powerful national security institutions that constitute what has become the US permanent war state.
Their first concern was to ensure that existing military and intelligence arrangements and relationships were not jeopardised.
So much for Gareth Porter’s excellent articles.
The story adds color to the 2016 presidential election. A large swathe of the U.S. Deep State would like us to take over in Syria, confronting Russia and Iran and kicking them out, putting fear of the U.S. into friend and foe alike, so that all of the Near East nations from Turkey down to Yemen remain locked in a network of U.S. military bases. These people backed Hillary. Candidate Trump was an enemy, as he was prone to question new wars and to criticize Saudi Arabia and U.S. policy in Syria, Ron Paul-style.
Where are we today? It’s difficult to say.
- Turkey is mightily pissed off at us. Partly from our failure to overthrow Assad, as promised. Partly because Turkey depends on Iranian oil and gas (another wrinkle). And partly due to to the bad role that the U.S. played in the 2016 coup attempt against Turkey’s President Erdoğan. Though still a NATO member, Turkey now flirts (at the least) with Russia.
- Trump seems bent on destroying ISIS – and with them, whether he admits it or not, the Syria jihadi-rebels.
- That thwarts Saudi Arabia. However, Trump seems to have made a kind of peace with Saudi Arabia – after his recent successful visit there and giant arms deal.
- And Qatar, ???? Saudi Arabia and Qatar have recently become enemies, as Qatar re-aligns toward Iran for cooperation on exploiting the giant natural gas fields that they share.
In view of all this, it does make sense that Trump would want to dial back the Syria conflict. But U.S. Deep State, or parts of it, probably feel betrayed. They didn’t want a cease-fire in Syria. They wanted a U.S. invasion.