Protecting al-Qaeda: Guest Analysis by Steven Chovanec

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Steven Chovanec is a student of International Studies and Sociology at Roosevelt University and conducts independent, open-source research into geopolitics and social issues.  His writings can be found at undergroundreports.blogspot.comfind him on Twitter @stevechovanec.

by Steven Chovanec

Please Don’t Attack Al-Qaeda

In the weeks leading up to the agreed upon cessation-of-hostilities (CoH) agreement between the US and Russia, it was John Kerry’s diplomacy that was instrumental in “downgrading” the truce from a more forceful and legally binding ‘ceasefire’ agreement to the less intensive ‘cessation-of-hostilities’ now taking effect.

As described by Kerry: “So, a ceasefire has a great many legal prerogatives and requirements. A cessation of hostilities does not.  A ceasefire in the minds of many of the participants in this particular moment connotes something far more permanent and far more reflective of sort of an end of conflict, if you will.  And it is distinctly not that.  This is a pause dependent on the process going forward.”

So why the insistence on non-permanence?  Especially if, as Kerry says, the ultimate objective is to “obtain a durable, long-term ceasefire” at some point in time?

According to the 29-year career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service, India’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey M. K. Bhadrakumar, it is plainly because “the Russian military operations have met with devastating success lately in strengthening the Syrian regime and scattering the Syrian rebel groups,” leading “the US and its regional allies” to “stare at defeat.”  Therefore, they “forthwith need an end to the Russian operations so that they can think up a Plan B. The Geneva talks will not have the desired outcome of President Bashar Al-Assad’s ouster unless the tide of war is reversed.” Therefore, “a cessation of hostilities in Syria is urgently needed.”(1)

Judging by the fact that top US officials began announcing that Russia would break the deal immediately after it was agreed upon while calling for further measures to “inflict real pain on the Russians”, Bhadrakumar’s assessment that a pause, and not a permanent halt, was sought in order to regroup and eventually reverse the tide of war seems to be quite apt.  As well there has been an almost ubiquitous media campaign in the US to prime the public for accusations of a Russian infraction, from which a breakdown of the deal would follow; the narrative portrayed is filled with “doubts” and “worries” and “statements from US officials” about how Russia isn’t serious and will likely break the agreement.

Furthermore, outwardly Russia is much more optimistic and invested in the deal, President Putin hopefully promoting it while engaging in a blitz of diplomacy to support it, while on the other hand the US has been less vocal and much quicker to doubt its outcomes.

However, this downgrading from a ‘ceasefire’ to a ‘cessation of hostilities’ actually violates past agreements.

In UN Security Council Resolution 2254, in which it was articulated that member states be committed to the “sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic,” while calling on them to suppress ISIS, al-Nusra, and “all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL”, it was also agreed upon that the Security Council  “expresses its support for a nationwide ceasefire in Syria.” (emphasis added)

Given the about-face, Lavrov was visibly agitated, stating that “Resolution 2254 talks about the ceasefire only. This term is not liked by some members of the International Syria Support Group. What I’m referring to is how something that has been agreed upon should be implemented rather than try to remake the consensus that has been achieved in order to get some unilateral advantages.”

The “unilateral advantages” likely are in reference to the pause-and-regroup strategy Bhadrakumar previously articulated.

Despite this Russia agreed to the downgraded CoH, however, in the week leading up to the agreement there was a major hurdle to overcome, namely whether al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, would be protected as a party to the truce.

Long has there been a tenant of US propaganda which claims that a sort of “third force” of “moderate opposition fighters” exists, separate and distinct from the extremists and al-Qaeda affiliates.  Yet when push came to shove the main stumbling-block in the way of the CoH was the oppositions demand that any truce be “conditional on the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front no longer being targeted.”  Sources close to the talks would tell Reuters that this insistence was the main “elephant in the room” preventing a settlement.

Even more telling is the fact that this opposition demand only came after the US had insisted upon it.  Indeed, while relentlessly pushing the “moderate rebel” narrative it was official US policy to push for the protection of al-Qaeda.

According to The Washington Post: “Russia was said to have rejected a U.S. proposal to leave Jabhat al-Nusra off-limits to bombing as part of a cease-fire, at least temporarily, until the groups can be sorted out.” (emphasis added)

Nusra is the Rebels

Responding to arguments posited that al-Nusra should be included in the truce, given that they operate in areas where other rebels are and thus Russia can use this as an excuse to bomb them, Max Abrahms, Professor at Northeastern University and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, explains that these recent developments show that Nusra and the other rebels are one in the same.

If you’re pro-rebel in Syria, you’re pro-al Qaeda in Syria,” Abrahms writes.  “The rebels are now begging for Russia to stop bombing their al-Qaeda partner.”

Indeed, it was the “moderate” US-backed FSA factions that were the biggest advocates of their al-Qaeda partners being included in the truce.

Major Ammar al-Wawi, Secretary General of the Free Syrian Army and head of the FSA’s al-Ababil Brigade in Aleppo, said that al-Nusra was the FSA’s “partner”, and that al-Qaeda was an ally of most of the groups brought together by Saudi Arabia underneath the Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC) banner.

“Nusra has fighters on the ground with rebel brigades in most of Syria and is a partner in the fighting with most of the brigades that attended the Riyadh conference.”

And therefore, while the ceasefire is good in principle, it is not good if it does not include al-Nusra, because “if the ceasefire excludes Jabhat a-Nusra, then this means that the killing of civilians will continue since Nusra’s forces are among civilians.”  Al-Wawi seems to forget that the reason Nusra is a terrorist organization is specifically because of its indiscriminate attacks and disregard for civilian lives.

According to the spokesman for Alwiyat al-Furqan, one of the largest FSA factions operating under the Southern Front umbrella, the FSA “will not accept a truce that excludes Jabhat al-Nusra.”  The spokesman later goes on to call Nusra “honorable”, along with the equally honorable Salafi-Jihadists groups Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam.

Ahrar, it should be noted, only presents itself as being different from al-Qaeda, in actuality it is not, it is a Salafi-Jihadi group which espouses a reactionary and apocalyptic Islamist ideology that has been complicit in sectarian mass murders of Alawites throughout Syria.  On the other hand, Jaish al-Islam, in the words of their former leader, regards al-Nusra as their “brothers” whom they “praise” and “fight alongside.”  Jaish al-Islam as well is infamous for parading caged civilians throughout warzones, using them as human shields.  The current leader of the group, Mohammed Alloush, was named as the chief negotiator to represent the rebel opposition in talks with the UN.

Yet, according to the FSA, “If today we agreed to exclude Jabhat a-Nusra, then tomorrow we would agree to exclude Ahrar a-Sham, then Jaish al-Islam and so on for every honorable faction.  We will not allow the threat of being classified as a terrorist organization to compromise the fundamentals of the revolution for which the Syrian people rose up and for which we have sacrificed and bled.”

One wonders, if the exclusion of al-Qaeda from the ceasefire is tantamount to “compromising the revolution”, what would choosing al-Qaeda as partners be called?

Muhammad a-Sheikh, spokesman for an FSA faction in Latakia, as well thanked Nusra for its “role in trying to lessen the pain inflicted on the Syrian people”, of all things.(2)

Yet all of this gets recycled within the US media as al-Nusra merely being “intermingled with moderate rebel groups”, as the Washington Post puts it.  While the narrative purports that the FSA consists of “moderates” reluctantly forced to endure an al-Qaeda alliance for military expediency, in reality much of FSA conduct throughout the war has not been much different from that of the recognized extremists.

In the case of Aleppo, while one man describes how al-Nusra beheaded one of his brother-in-laws, ripped the other to pieces between an electricity poll and a moving car, and kidnapped the other, another man describes how “Free Syrian Army fighters burned down their house – leaving one daughter with terrible burns” after the man refused to join them.  He said they attempted to abduct one of his daughters, but were unsuccessful as neighbors intervened.

Another Aleppo resident writes that “Turkish-Saudi backed ‘moderate rebels’ showered the residential neighborhoods of Aleppo with unguided rockets and gas jars.”

Indeed, FSA groups were so brutal at times that these “moderates” were feared even more than other recognized extremists.

“Pilloried in the West for their sectarian ferocity… jihadists were often welcomed by local people for restoring law and order after the looting and banditry of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army,” writes Patrick Cockburn, the leading Western journalist in the region.(3)

For people paying close attention this is unfortunately not that surprising.

According to a recent poll conducted by ORB, it was found that most Syrians more or less hold both ISIS and the FSA in equal disdain, 9% saying the FSA represents the Syrian people while 4% saying that ISIS does.  The similarity in opinion is reflective of the similarity in conduct.

Jihadi ‘Wal-Mart’

The not-so-popular FSA groups are routinely described as a separate and distinct entity apart from al-Nusra and ISIS, yet in actuality the lines between the groups have always been extremely porous.

“Due to porous links between some Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, other Islamist groups like al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, and ISIS, there have been prolific weapons transfers from ‘moderate’ to Islamist militant groups,” writes Nafeez Ahmed, Britain’s leading international security scholar.

These links were so extreme that “German journalist Jurgen Todenhofer, who spent 10 days inside the Islamic State, reported last year that ISIS is being “indirectly” armed by the west: “They buy the weapons that we give to the Free Syrian Army, so they get western weapons – they get French weapons… I saw German weapons, I saw American weapons.”

Recently the BBC’s Peter Oborne conducted an investigation into these claims and came across evidence that the “moderate” FSA were in essence being utilized as a conduit through which Western supplies were funneled to extremists.

Oborne spoke to a lawyer who represents Bherlin Gildo, a Swedish national who went to join the rebel ranks in 2012 and was subsequently arrested for terrorist offenses.  Based on her clients own first-hand observations while embedded with the rebels, trucks referred to as NATO trucks were observed coming in from Turkey, which would then be unloaded by the FSA and the arms then distributed quite generally without any specificity of the exact recipient.  The weapons would be distributed “to whoever was involved in particular battles.”

Similarly, in 2014 US-backed Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) commander Jamal Maarouf admitted that his US-handlers had instructed him to send weapons to al-Qaeda.  “If the people who support us tell us to send weapons to another group, we send them. They asked us a month ago to send weapons to [Islamist fighters in] Yabroud so we sent a lot of weapons there.”

Battlefield necessity was dictating the weapons recipients, not humanitarian concern for victims of terrorism.

Eventually charges brought against Mr. Gildo were dropped.   The reason was because he planned to argue that he had fought on the same side the UK government was supporting  As it was explained before the court, if it is the case that the government “was actively involved in supporting armed resistance to the Assad regime at a time when the defendant was present in Syria and himself participating in such resistance it would be unconscionable”, indeed an “affront to justice”, “to allow the prosecution to continue.”

In a similar case a man named Moazzam Begg was arrested in the UK under terrorism charges after meeting with Ahrar al-Sham.  However, his case too was dropped, the courts understanding that if he was guilty of supporting terrorism than so was the British state.  “I was very disappointed that the trail didn’t go through,” Begg said.  “I believe I would have won… what I was doing… was completely in line with British policy at the time.”

Career MI6 agent and former British diplomat Alastair Crooke extrapolates further on this phenomena of the West’s principle allies playing such a crucial role in arming the jihadis.

“The West does not actually hand the weapons to al-Qaeda, let alone ISIS,” he said, “but the system that they have constructed leads precisely to that end.  The weapons conduit that the West directly has been giving to groups such as the Syrian Free Army (FSA), have been understood to be a sort of ‘Wal Mart’ from which the more radical groups would be able to take their weapons and pursue the jihad.”  This constitutes a sort of ‘supermarket’ where rebels can go and receive weapons, the weapons always migrating “along the line to the more radical elements.”  The idea was to “use jihadists to weaken the government in Damascus and to drive it to its knees to the negotiating table.”  Exactly the same kind of policy used in Afghanistan during the 1980s, when conduits such as the Pakistani ISI were used to funnel weapons to the mujahedeen.

Yet these Western weapons were not just going to al-Qaeda and Ahrar al-Sham, ISIS too was shopping at the “moderate” “supermarket.”

In his book “The Rise of Islamic State”, Patrick Cockburn writes, “An intelligence officer from a Middle Eastern country neighboring Syria told me that ISIS members “say they are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups of any kind, because they can always get the arms off them by threats of force or cash payments.”(4) (emphasis added)

The result of all of this was a deep alliance between the US-backed “moderates” and al-Qaeda, as well as a rebel opposition dominated by ISIS and al-Nusra.

Nusra’s FSA

Recently a leader of the Nusra group appeared in a video presenting an FSA commander with a gift while saying that there is no difference between the FSA, Ahrar al-Sham, and al-Qaeda.  “They are all one,” he explains.  The Nusra field commander goes on to thank the FSA for supplying Nusra with US-made TOW anti-tank missiles, which were given to the FSA directly, of course, from the CIA.

A month prior to these revelations reports started to surface about the unfolding situation in “rebel-held” Idlib.  Despite the repressive dress codes and savage Islamist laws it became apparent that the FSA was only operating under the authority of the more powerful al-Qaeda rebels.

Jenan Moussa, a journalist for the UAE based Al Aan TV channel who recently had visited the area, reported that Nusra allows the FSA to operate in Hama and Idlib because the FSA groups there get TOW missiles from the West.  The reason they are allowed to operate is that the “FSA uses these TOW in support of Nusra.”

Investigating the situation further, veteran journalist Gareth Porter concludes from a range of sources that in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo every rebel organization is in fact part of a military structure controlled and dominated by al-Nusra.

“All of these rebel groups fight alongside the Nusra Front and coordinate their military activities with it,” Porter writes.

In the case of the rebel capture of Idlib, “Although some U.S.-supported groups participated in the campaign in March and April 2015, the “operations room” planning the campaign was run by Al Qaeda and its close ally Ahrar al Sham.”  As well, before the Idlib campaign, “Nusra had forced another U.S.-supported group, Harakat Hazm, to disband and took all of its TOW anti-tank missiles.”

Clearly al-Nusra was subordinating the “moderates.”

The reality began to emerge in December of 2014 when US-backed rebels, supplied with TOW missiles, teamed up with Nusra and fought under their command in order to capture the Wadi al-Deif base.  Al Qaeda was “exploiting the Obama administration’s desire to have its own Syrian Army as an instrument for influencing the course of the war.”

Andrew Cockburn reports that “A few months before the Idlib offensive, a member of one CIA-backed group had explained the true nature of its relationship to the Al Qaeda franchise. Nusra, he told the New York Times, allowed militias vetted by the United States to appear independent, so that they would continue to receive American supplies.”

“In other words,” Porter writes, “Nusra was playing Washington,” while Washington was “evidently a willing dupe.”

This all comes down to the fact that the savage and brutal al-Qaeda fighters were proving to be militarily effective, leaving a trail of torture and atrocities, and battlefield successes, in their wake.

Explaining the mindset, Ed Husain, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that the influx of Al-Qaeda and various jihadis “brings discipline, religious fervor, battle experience from Iraq, funding from Sunni sympathizers in the Gulf, and most importantly, deadly results.”

Because of this, Porter explains, “instead of breaking with the deception that the CIA’s hand-picked clients were independent of Nusra, the Obama administration continued to cling to it.”  The United States basing its policy on the “moderates” was “necessary to provide a political fig leaf for the covert and indirect U.S. reliance on Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise’s military success.”

Ever since the Russian intervention began, the US has continued to embrace this deceptive narrative, claiming that Russia is targeting the “moderate” opposition.  This narrative, and the publics belief in its validity, “had become a necessary shield for the United States to continue playing a political-diplomatic game in Syria.”

Yet, as Patrick Cockburn has reported for quite some time, “The armed opposition to President Assad is dominated by Isis, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the ideologically similar Ahrar al-Sham.”  Of the smaller groups the CIA openly supports, they “only operate under license from the extreme jihadists.”

Several rebel groups, 5 of which belong to the FSA, have recently united under the leadership of the former emir of the al-Qaeda-linked Ahrar al-Sham.  A longtime al-Qaeda member who sits on al-Nusra’s elite council explained that “The Free Syrian Army groups said they were ready for anything according to the Islamic sharia and that we are delegated to apply the rulings of the sharia on them”, essentially meaning that the FSA had subordinated themselves to al-Qaeda.

It has been further revealed that all of the Syrian groups operative in Aleppo had recently declared Ba’yaa (loyalty) to the Ahrar al-Sham emir Abu Jaber.

Ba’yaa, it should be noted, means total loyalty and submission, much like what follows from pledging loyalty to ISIS.

Official Policy

At least by as far back as August of 2012, the best US intelligence assessments were reporting that the jihadists and extremists were controlling and steering the course of the opposition.  Then head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Michael T. Flynn, would confirm the credibility of these reports, saying that “the intelligence was very clear” and that it wasn’t the case that the administration was just turning a blind eye to these events but instead that the policies were the result of a “willful decision.”

Despite all of this, US officials still continue to maintain that “Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria, launched last fall, has infuriated the CIA in particular because the strikes have aggressively targeted relatively moderate rebels it has backed with military supplies, including antitank missiles.”

However, according to the CIA and the intelligence communities own data, this is false.

Back in October of 2012, according to classified US intelligence assessments, “Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar”, which were organized by the CIA, were
“going to hard-line Islamic jihadists.”

A year earlier, immediately after the fall of Gaddafi in October of 2011, the CIA began organizing a “rat line” from Libya to Syria.  Weapons from the former Libyan stockpiles were shipped from Benghazi to Syria and into the hands of the Syrian rebels.  According to information obtained by Seymour Hersh, “Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida.”

In a highly classified 2013 assessment put together by the DIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), an “all-source” appraisal which draws on information from signals, satellite, and human intelligence, it was concluded that the US program to arm the rebels quickly turned into a logistical operation for the entire opposition, including al-Nusra and ISIS.  The so-called moderates had evaporated, “there was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad,” and “the US was arming extremists.”

DIA chief Michael Flynn confirmed that his agency had sent a constant stream of warnings to the civilian administration between 2012 and 2014 saying that the jihadists were in control of the opposition.

“If the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic,” Flynn said.

Yet, as Flynn stated previously, it was a “willful decision” for the administration “to do what they’re doing.”

By summer of 2013, Seymour Hersh reported that “although many in the American intelligence community were aware that the Syrian opposition was dominated by extremists,” still “the CIA-sponsored weapons kept coming.”

According to a JCS advisor, despite heavy Pentagon objections there was simply “no way to stop the arms shipments that had been authorised by the president.”

“I felt that they did not want to hear the truth,” Flynn said.

So what Russia is bombing in actuality is an al-Qaeda, extremist dominated opposition embedded with CIA-backed rebels operating under their control.  The not-so-moderates only operate under license from, and in support of, the Salafi jihadists, openly expressing their solidarity with them, labelling them as “brothers”, and begging the UN to protect them.  Concurrently the US and its allies continue to support the terrorist-dominated insurgency, US officials openly planning to expand their support to al-Qaeda-laced rebels in order to “inflict pain on the Russians”, all while Turkey and Saudi Arabia openly support al-Qaeda.  All of this occurring because of the United States reliance upon “Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise’s military successes” and their “deadly results”, in order to further the policy of using “jihadists to weaken the government in Damascus” and to “drive it to its knees at the negotiating table.”

The function of the “moderates” in essence being the logistical and public relations front for the “not-so-moderate” al-Qaeda units winning the battles.

Speaking at Harvard University, Vice President Biden infamously and candidly summarized what had been going on, saying that it was our allies who were “so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war,” that 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.”

When asked why the United States was powerless to stop nations like Qatar from engaging in this kind of behavior, “a former adviser to one of the Gulf States replied softly: “They didn’t want to.”

So it should be no wonder why the US tried to push through a provision including al-Nusra in the current ceasefire agreement, nor why they would seek to protect their most viable ally in pursuance of their Syria policy.

It should be no wonder that it has been, and continues to be, official US policy to protect al-Qaeda.

Notes:

1) For further analysis, see Moon of Alabama, February 20, 2016, “U.S. Ignores Own UNSC Resolution – Tells Russia “Stop Bombing Al-Qaeda!” http://www.moonofalabama.org/2016/02/us-ignores-own-unsc-resolution-tells-russia-stop-bombing-al-qaeda.html.

2) Syria Direct, “Five rebel spokesmen, commanders react to ‘cessation of hostilities’ to take effect Saturday.”  February 25, 2016. http://syriadirect.org/news/five-rebel-spokesmen-commanders-react-to-cessation-of-hostilities-to-take-effect-Saturday/#.Vs-kDMO3y9U.twitter.

3) Cockburn, Patrick. “Jihadists Hijack the Syria Uprising.” The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (Brooklyn, NY, 2015), pg. 84-5. Print.

4) Cockburn, Patrick, “The Rise of ISIS”, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (Brooklyn, NY, 2015), pg. 3. Print.

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On Syria Analysts and “Experts” Who Have Never Stepped Foot Inside the Country

https://levantreport.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/phot0001.jpg?w=837&h=628Not an “expert” or “analyst”: Me (left) with my buddy on one of many visits to Maaloula.

Would you be surprised to learn the think-tank and media “expert” community is often dominated by people who have never stepped foot in the countries of their expertise?

I’VE BECOME INCREASINGLY ALARMED at the number of “experts” and professional analysts occupying influential positions in the public sphere, who supposedly help interpret Syria for us, but who have little actual experience (if any at all) in Syria. Add to that the fact that many of these very “experts” don’t speak Arabic (which should be the minimal requirement for being considered a Middle East expert or professional analyst), which for most respectable postgraduate Middle East studies programs is an absolute minimal qualification.

I myself would never claim to be an expert, but I do have something which I’m constantly surprised to learn that many of the foremost pundits and public experts lack: a significant amount of time spent in country.

A couple of years ago my colleagues and I began writing about Syria not necessarily because we were enthused to do so or had a lot of time on our hands (we all have busy teaching schedules), but because the narrative which dominated major media and other public forums was so atrocious, so full of very simple errors, that audible laughs would often result upon us hearing the reporter on the TV screen (whether this was a FOX, CNN, NBC reporter, etc…) offer up utter falsehoods alongside whatever think tank panelist happened to be there giving the lies “credibility” and air of authenticity (ex: “the Syrian regime is Shia” is something heard a lot back then.)

We would see deeply flawed “news” about events on this or that street inside this or that village in Syria and felt compelled to at least vent our frustration through writing articles which few might ever see. Our “expertise” was not bookish or necessarily based on formal credentials, but we simply tried to “write what we know” from having stood on “this or that street” many times or having lived in “this or that village” at some point a few summers prior.

For example, my colleague Dr. Tim Heckenlively one day saw one of Anne Barnard’s (Beirut bureau chief for the NY Times) standard propaganda pieces in “the paper of record” on the Battle of Maaloula and knew it to be false based simply on having physically stood in the town. At first we waited and figured that surely somebody working for a major newsroom who had been to Maaloula, and knew the topography there, would point out Barnard’s glaring errors concerning the source of the shelling and destruction of churches. Surely somebody out there personally knew Mother Pelagia Sayyaf (who had been held at gunpoint by rebels, and forced to make a propaganda video) and understood she was being paraded in front of the camera under duress (Barnard and others would promote the narrative that the FSA/Nusra forces were “liberating” the ancient Christian town).

But a much needed corrective never appeared outside of independent media. Tim knew Maaloula and Mother Pelagia quite well and was easily able to deconstruct Barnard’s false report (which she wrote far from Maaloula in Beirut). While Tim’s article never made it into papers or onto big news sites, it was promoted and appreciated by some true experts who’ve actually been to Maaloula (and ironically, the article was “favorited” by Barnard herself; it should further be noted that, as As’ad AbuKhalil routinely points out, Barnard doesn’t know Arabic). This case of Maaloula is but an old example of something I’ve seen play out many times since then.

Stephen Kinzer made waves recently for his article “The Media are Misleading the Public on Syria” published in The Boston Globe. Its brilliance lies in articulating how the media and experts keep getting Syria so wrong from a “media culture” perspective (for lack of a better term). Kinzer breaks down the corporate media “machinery” and its process which continues to ensure that bad analysis makes it to the top:

Under intense financial pressure, most American newspapers, magazines, and broadcast networks have drastically reduced their corps of foreign correspondents. Much important news about the world now comes from reporters based in Washington. In that environment, access and credibility depend on acceptance of official paradigms. Reporters who cover Syria check with the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House, and think tank “experts.” After a spin on that soiled carousel, they feel they have covered all sides of the story. This form of stenography produces the pabulum that passes for news about Syria.

Yes, this means you too can be considered a Middle East “expert” so long as you get the right internship in the right DC beltway or NYC newsroom or think-tank. Forget about the days of getting your start trekking around the region of your expertise, getting to know the people, language, and customs…you can even become a media darling from the comfort of your own couch without ever having to apply for a passport!

Kinzer’s article has struck a deep chord (esp. as it was published in a visible, major paper) with biting lines like these:

Americans are said to be ignorant of the world. We are, but so are people in other countries. If people in Bhutan or Bolivia misunderstand Syria, however, that has no real effect. Our ignorance is more dangerous, because we act on it.

Kinzer is shining a spotlight on this whole sham enterprise from the perspective of a veteran foreign correspondent who has spent decades inside the media establishment (he himself is not claiming to be an expert on Syria, but he is an expert on the ills of newsroom culture). The whole process whereby a certain orthodox view of a foreign conflict gets entrenched, and from that point on must remain unquestioned, is indeed dangerous. As I wrote before: “American assumptions never line up with Eastern realities, yet our power combined with ignorance continues to sow disaster.”

Ironically, Kinzer’s point about reporters/analysts “not being over there” and the ignorance that results was given confirmation in the example of the very first person to attempt a point-by-point critical attack of Kinzer’s article. UK-based Kyle Orton wrote his “Assad and the Academics: Disinformation in the Modern Era” as a direct response to Kinzer.

Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprising), Orton has been published and quoted widely in multiple international and mainstream outlets. He recently had a New York Times op-ed piece called “How Saddam Hussein Gave Us ISIS” (which also ran in the print edition), wherein he argues that U.S. intervention and occupation in Iraq had little if anything to do with the rise of ISIS (elsewhere he’s argued the “Assad behind ISIS” conspiracy theory, long ago debunked by real experts).

Orton’s NYT bio is nice and official sounding: “Kyle W. Orton, a Middle East analyst, is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign policy think tank.”  But a rebuttal of Orton’s NYT piece written in Foreign Policy has it right when it leaves him simply as “blogger Kyle W. Orton.” The FP article authors Samuel Helfont and Michael Brill used their knowledge of…ya know…Arabic to analyze Iraqi archives and quickly proved Orton’s claims to be baseless:

These depictions are inaccurate and dangerously misleading, as documents in the Iraqi archives and at Hoover Institution’s Ba’ath Party records make clear. Our rigorous study of those records has found no evidence that Saddam or his Baathist regime in Iraq displayed any sympathy for Islamism, Salafism, or Wahhabism.

I too was at first under the impression that Orton must have some level of serious training or knowledge of Syria or Iraq until I realized he’s stepped foot in neither country (which he in so many words admitted to me directly).

Orton’s own bio on his blog includes the following: “After a misbegotten degree in zoology (biology), I completed a social science Masters in Humanitarian Studies at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine…”. Little more needs to be said, other than the good news for anyone with aspirations of being published in the New York Times: at present they must be desperate for contributors, or at least writers that can tow the line. Again, one need not leave their couch.

I admit that finding in Orton a prime example of Stephen Kinzer’s fundamental point is perhaps going after “low hanging fruit” but I’ve encountered this too many times in Syria discussions (though the most absurd case confirming Kinzer’s article is “Rocket Man” Elliot Higgins…and yes the following are real sentences about him written in The New Yorker, not The Onion: “Although Higgins has never been to Syria, and until recently had no connection to the country, he has become perhaps the foremost expert on the munitions used in the war… When he doesn’t recognize a weapon, he researches it, soliciting information from his many followers on Facebook and Twitter.”).

I’ll leave off with the below exchange I had with Orton, wherein I realized that he was making simple mistakes for lack of direct experience that would be impossible to make for even the casual backpackers who used to fill up the youth hostels of Damascus back in better days. Anyone who has spent even as little as a week in Syria anytime in the past decade (or more) knows of a certain long-standing custom of the Syrian presidency on all major religious holidays like Christmas and Easter.

When I realized Orton’s confusion came from never having stepped foot in Syria, I said: “[You] Would know this if you had experienced Syria”…Orton of course changed the subject. And nothing more needs to be said.

 

 

Newly Translated WikiLeaks Saudi Cable: Overthrow the Syrian Regime, but Play Nice with Russia

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1f/Bashar_al-Assad_in_Russia_(2015-10-21)_06.jpg(Image Source: Wiki Commons)

IT IS NO SECRET that Saudi Arabia, along with its Gulf and Western allies, has played a direct role in fueling the fires of grinding sectarian conflict that has kept Syria burning for the past five years. It is also no secret that Russian intervention has radically altered the kingdom’s “regime change” calculus in effect since at least 2011. But an internal Saudi government cable sheds new light on the kingdom’s current threats of military escalation in Syria.

Overthrow the Regime “by all means available”

A WikiLeaks cable released as part of “The Saudi Cables” in the summer of 2015, now fully translated here for the first time, reveals what the Saudis feared most in the early years of the war: Russian military intervention and Syrian retaliation. These fears were such that the kingdom directed its media “not to oppose Russian figures and to avoid insulting them” at the time.

Saudi Arabia had further miscalculated that the “Russian position” of preserving the Assad government “will not persist in force.” In Saudi thinking, reflected in the leaked memo, Assad’s violent ouster (“by all means available”) could be pursued so long as Russia stayed on the sidelines. The following section is categorical in its emphasis on regime change at all costs, even should the U.S. vacillate for “lack of desire”:

The fact must be stressed that in the case where the Syrian regime is able to pass through its current crisis in any shape or form, the primary goal that it will pursue is taking revenge on the countries that stood against it, with the Kingdom and some of the countries of the Gulf coming at the top of the list. If we take into account the extent of this regime’s brutality and viciousness and its lack of hesitancy to resort to any means to realize its aims, then the situation will reach a high degree of danger for the Kingdom, which must seek by all means available and all possible ways to overthrow the current regime in Syria. As regards the international position, it is clear that there is a lack of “desire” and not a lack of “capability” on the part of Western countries, chief among them the United States, to take firm steps…

Amman-based Albawaba News—one of the largest online news providers in the Middle East—was the first to call attention to the WikiLeaks memo, which “reveals Saudi officials saying President Bashar al-Assad must be taken down before he exacts revenge on Saudi Arabia.” Albawaba offered a brief partial translation of the cable, which though undated, was likely produced in early 2012 (based on my best speculation using event references in the text; Russia began proposing informal Syrian peace talks in January 2012).

Russian Hardware, a Saudi Nightmare

Over the past weeks Saudi Arabia has ratcheted up its rhetoric on Syria, threatening direct military escalation and the insertion of special forces on the ground, ostensibly for humanitarian and stabilizing purposes as a willing partner in the “war on terror.” As many pundits are now observing, in reality the kingdom’s saber rattling stems not from confidence, but utter desperation as its proxy anti-Assad fighters face defeat by overwhelming Russian air power and Syrian ground forces, and as the Saudi military itself is increasingly bogged down in Yemen.

Even as the Saudi regime dresses its bellicose rhetoric in humanitarian terms, it ultimately desires to protect the flow of foreign fighters into Northern Syria, which is its still hoped-for “available means” of toppling the Syrian government (or at least, at this point, permanent sectarian partition of Syria).

The U.S. State Department’s own 2014 Country Report on Terrorism confirms that the rate of foreign terrorist entry into Syria over the past few years is unprecedented among any conflict in history: “The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years.”

According to Cinan Siddi, Director of the Institute for Turkish Studies at Georgetown’s prestigious School of Foreign Service, Russian military presence in Syria was born of genuine geopolitical interests. In a public lecture recently given at Baylor University, Siddi said that Russia is fundamentally trying to disrupt the “jihadi corridor” facilitated by Turkey and its allies in Northern Syria.

The below leaked document gives us a glimpse into Saudi motives and fears long before Russian hardware entered the equation, and the degree to which the kingdom utterly failed in assessing Russian red lines.

For the first time, here’s a full translation of the text

THE BELOW original translation is courtesy of my co-author, a published scholar of Arabic and Middle East History, who wishes to remain unnamed. Note: the cable as published in the SaudiLeaks trove appears to be incomplete.


 

[…] shared interest, and believes that the current Russian position only represents a movement to put pressure on him, its goals being evident, and that this position will not persist in force, given Russia’s ties to interests with Western countries and the countries of the Gulf.
If it pleases Your Highness, I support the idea of entering into a profound dialogue with Russia regarding its position towards Syria*, holding the Second Strategic Conference in Moscow, working to focus the discussion during it on the issue of Syria, and exerting whatever pressure is possible to dissuade it from its current position. I likewise see an opportunity to invite the head of the Committee for International Relations in the Duma to visit the Kingdom. Since it is better to remain in communication with Russia and to direct the media not to oppose Russian figures and to avoid insulting them, so that no harm may come to the interests of the Kingdom, it is possible that the new Russian president will change Russian policy toward Arab countries for the better. However, our position currently in practice, which is to criticize Russian policy toward Syria and its positions that are contrary to our declared principles, remains. It is also advantageous to increase pressure on the Russians by encouraging the Organization of Islamic States to exert some form of pressure by strongly brandishing Islamic public opinion, since Russia fears the Islamic dimension more than the Arab dimension.
In what pertains to the Syrian crisis, the Kingdom is resolute in its position and there is no longer any room to back down. The fact must be stressed that in the case where the Syrian regime is able to pass through its current crisis in any shape or form, the primary goal that it will pursue is taking revenge on the countries that stood against it, with the Kingdom and some of the countries of the Gulf coming at the top of the list. If we take into account the extent of this regime’s brutality and viciousness and its lack of hesitancy to resort to any means to realize its aims, then the situation will reach a high degree of danger for the Kingdom, which must seek by all means available and all possible ways to overthrow the current regime in Syria.
As regards the international position, it is clear that there is a lack of “desire” and not a lack of “capability” on the part of Western countries, chief among them the United States, to take firm steps […]

*[in the Arabic text: Russia, but this is a typo]

https://www.wikileaks.org/saudi-cables/pics/f93dc529-7eff-43ea-87f3-7ec121b906fc.jpg

Examining the Syria War Chessboard

The above interview with Dr. Vijay Prashad draws our attention to the parallel conflicts of Libya and Syria, as well as the way the two wars directly intersected in 2011-2012 (weapons shipments from Libya to Syria, now fully documented via USG declassified reports).

One of the more interesting points comes when Dr. Prashad speaks about ISIS presence in Sirte, Libya. He claims that just as many former Ba’ath officers in Iraq, after having been sidelined by U.S. intervention, joined ISIS, so are former Gaddafi loyalists joining Libyan ISIS in Sirte.

While it’s unclear whether or not there is actual evidence for this it is a worrisome and fascinating theory. Prashad is the only analyst I’ve heard propose this.

I would highly recommend his book Arab Spring, Libyan Winter. The above interview is a must-see.

Congresswoman Gabbard: CIA Must Stop Criminal and Counterproductive War to Overthrow Assad

“I don’t want the U.S. government to provide weapons to Al-Qaeda…it’s a very simple concept in my mind.”

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is a rare voice of sanity in the public arena. Her perspective on U.S. policy in Syria is not one you’ll often find on CNN but is one I encounter frequently among veterans and even the few intelligence analysts that I know. She boldly states that in the attempt to overthrow the Assad government of Syria, the U.S. and CIA armed and supported our enemies.

She is an Iraq war veteran and is fully aware that Al-Qaeda in Iraq, at the point it crossed into Syria and joined the fight against Assad, was used of the CIA and State Department to wage proxy war as a U.S. strategic asset against the Syrian Arab Republic.

ISIS would not be the massive terror army it is today without such U.S. covert support to the rebels in Syria.

Is Congresswoman Gabbard correct?

The below video provides airtight proof of the truthfulness of her statements. The primary raw footage was confirmed by the New York Times in 2013. The video montage and translation was authenticated by the top academic Syria expert in the United States, Joshua Landis.

The video is accompanied by an article I wrote which originally appeared in Foreign Policy Journal and was featured on AntiWar.com. I offer it as a tribute to my fellow veterans as well as active service members struggling to come to grips with the facts of our nation’s criminal actions in Syria…

“Iraq, ISIS, and The Myth of Sisyphus”

 

 “The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

Albert Camus, THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS

As the world reacts to President Obama’s announcement of a multi-front air and ground proxy war—on the one hand, bombing ISIS inside Iraq and Syria, and on the other, ramping up arms and training for the vaguely defined Syrian “opposition”—we as a nation should reflect upon the Myth of Sisyphus.

Let’s Roll…

I joined the Marine Corps as an idealistic eighteen-year-old in 2000, with a firm resolve, as I enthusiastically told my recruiter shortly before leaving for boot camp, to “fight evil in the world”—a resolve rooted more deeply in my veins after the 9/11 attacks. Slogans such as “let’s roll!” echoed in my ears, and my fervor for “the mission” influenced others to follow my path of military service. While stationed in Quantico providing post-9/11 “first responder” security to headquarters assets in the area, I became close friends with a young local college student, also just out of high school, and I encouraged him to join up.

My friend embarked on multiple tours of duty within a short two years as a Marine infantryman, and was killed by an IED in Iraq on his third tour prior to his twenty-first birthday. He understood little about the place of his eventual death, as had been clear during our brief visits together as we reconnected between his deployments. We were never encouraged to learn about the history of Iraq or the Arab world, or to ask too many questions for that matter. “Let’s roll” was enough for us as we set out to “win hearts and minds.”

Uncovering Absurd Contradictions

As the power of such simple platitudes faded, I began to investigate for myself the history of U.S. involvement in the region: this search began in the library of Marine Corps University at MCB Quantico and led to my traveling to Syria upon completion of active service.

Few Americans know of the absurd contradictions of our foreign policy in Iraq and other places over the past few decades, yet I found that many Iraqis and Syrians knew the history well. The United States, through covert support of the Iraqi Ba’ath in the 1960’s and 1970’s, sponsored Saddam’s rise to power as a way to combat perceived communist influence and populist national movements in the Middle East. Throughout that time, the CIA-supported Ba’ath engaged in “cleansing campaigns” which involved door-to-door death squads offing Washington’s enemies based on questionable lists provided through covert liaisons.

Upon Saddam’s rising to the presidency in 1979, and while the Iranian Revolution drove forward just across the border, the United States encouraged Saddam to invade Iran, kick-starting the most devastating war in the region’s history. Most Americans still haven’t seen the easily accessible archive footage of Reagan’s then special envoy to the Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld, shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983, in what was clearly a warm and cordial visit.

Saddam would go on, during the course of a war that took over a million lives (1980-1988), to frequently employ chemical nerve agents against Iranian troop movements; later into the war this occurred with the assistance of the CIA and DIA. By the time of the 1988 gas attack against the Kurds of Halabja, U.S. covert assistance to Iraq’s military was established and routine.

And yet, Saddam soon became the new super-villain of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the very image of evil incarnate in the world—though his dictatorial and brutal rule had undergone no change from when he was the CIA’s man in Baghdad—only American perceptions of him did. The United States had helped to create the monster that in 2003 it was telling young men and women to travel across the world to destroy. Ironically, one of the main moral justifications for going after “the evil tyrant” was his gassing of the Kurds of Halabja.

Uncovering such an absurd contradiction of recent history made me feel like Sisyphus in Albert Camus’ famous essay. Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to his fate of pushing his boulder up the hill, must ever repeat the same process after it inevitably rolls back down the hill; he eventually becomes conscious of the futility of his action. We can imagine such tragic Sisyphean moments of realization in the minds of hundreds of thousands of veterans as they watched ISIS tear through places like Fallujah and Northern Iraq over the course of this past half year.

The Rock is Still Rolling

And yet, ISIS too, is a monster the United States helped to create.

Instead of two decades for the contradictions to come full circle, as was the case with the creation and destruction of Saddam Hussein, ISIS has gone from friend to monster within only two years. The U.S. armed forces, told by the White House of a minimal three-year long campaign to destroy ISIS, have barely recovered from the now seemingly futile burden of wars in post-Saddam Iraq and forgotten, ongoing Afghanistan.

As if the absurdity of the task of a renewed Iraq campaign mandated by the “gods” in Washington weren’t enough, we will now bomb ISIS locations in Syria while increasing the training and equipping of Syrian rebels. If there are military members and veterans out there, still not conscious that “there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor,” then I suggest watching the above video. The video gives insight into the Sisyphean task ahead of us as a nation: a never-ending cycle, old-yet-new, already set up for futility and failure.

Amazingly, the video, titled, “US Key Man in Syria Worked Closely with ISIL and Jabhat al Nusra,” has not yet had widespread distribution, even though it has been authenticated by the top Syria expert in the U.S., Joshua Landis, of the University of Oklahoma, and author of the hugely influential Syria Comment. Using his Twitter account, Dr. Landis commented (8/27): “in 2013 WINEP advocated sending all US military aid thru him [Col. Okaidi]. Underscores US problem w moderates.”

The video, documenting (now former) U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford’s visit to FSA Col. Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi in Northern Syria, also shows the same Col. Okaidi celebrating with and praising a well-known ISIS commander, Emir Abu Jandal, after conducting a joint operation. In an interview, the U.S. “key man” at that time (2013), through which U.S. assistance flowed, also praises ISIS and Al-Qaeda as the FSA’s “brothers.” The video further shows Okaidi proudly declaring that al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria) makes up ten percent of the FSA.

I can think of no greater absurd foreign policy path to follow than to continue arming one wing of Syria’s rebels (only until very recently directly allied with the new “enemy”), while at the same time bombing another, and all the while declaring the necessity of continued “war on terror.”

Albert Camus concludes the myth thus, “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again.”

Former DIA Chief Flynn Again Speaks of “Accuracy” of 2012 DIA ‘Salafist Principality’ Memo to International Audience

Declassified DIA Report discussed starting at 16:10

Former Defense Intelligence Agency Chief Michael Flynn was once again asked specifically about the 2012 DIA memo which foretold the rise of ‘Islamic State’ at the end of a lengthy RT News interview.

Flynn responded that, “the assessments…I believe were very accurate,” but dodged the quick follow up question, “did America allow the rise of ISIL here?”

In July Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan grilled retired Lt. Gen. Flynn over the August 2012 report produced while he served as director of the DIA. Flynn confirmed the report’s high level importance, saying that he had personally seen it during his tenure and had used it to argue Syria policy with the White House.

More interesting about this latest RT International interview is that Flynn calls for American cooperation with Russia in the fight against ISIL. Flynn assesses that Russia’s “unstated red lines were crossed” and says that Russia’s intervention is reasonable based on real interests in combating the extremists in its own backyard (Flynn specifically mentions the large Chechen presence in ISIL’s ranks).

While this is an amazing interview for the fact that a former top U.S. defense official is essentially giving validity to Russia’s actions, the RT anchor should have done a better job pursuing questions on the DIA memo (I’m surprised to be in full agreement with Flynn on Russia’s role: listen to my Russia analysis recently given to a Vancouver based public radio show).

ISIS Leader Omar al-Shishani Fought Under U.S. Umbrella as Late as 2013

ISIS Commander Abu Omar al-Shishani celebrates after his joint FSA/ISIS operation at Menagh Airbase in the summer of 2013. (Photo circulated in jihadi social media)

Abu Omar al-Shishani, the red-bearded face of ISIS terror lately described in such headlines as ‘Star pupil’: Pied piper of ISIS recruits was trained by U.S. for the fact that he received American military training as part of an elite Georgian army unit in 2006 and after, did not stop playing for “team America” once he left his home country in the Caucuses. He actually enjoyed U.S. backing and American taxpayer largesse as late as 2013, soon after entering Syria with his band of Chechen jihadists.

A new book about ISIS chronicles the terror group’s earliest successes when it first made a name for itself on the Syrian battlefield by tipping the scales in favor of rebels in Northern Aleppo who had spent nearly a total of two years attempting to conquer the Syrian government’s seemingly impenetrable Menagh Airbase.

Benjamin Hall, journalist and author of Inside ISIS: The Brutal Rise of a Terrorist Army, was embedded in Northern Syria during part of the 2012-2013 siege of Menagh, even staying in FSA camps outside the base as attacks were underway.

At that time the Revolutionary Military Council of Aleppo was the US/UK officially sanctioned command structure in the region headed by FSA Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, described in international press at the time as “a main recipient” of Western aid.

Hall, who throughout his book expresses sympathy and occasional outright support for the insurgent groups within which he was embedded, describes the pathetic state of a rebel movement in disarray and lacking morale. He identifies a singular turning point which renewed both the tide of rebel military momentum and morale in Northern Syria:

That day in Minnah [or alternately Menagh], I was reminded that nothing happens on time in the Middle East. It took ten months for the rebels to finally capture that base, but it only fell when the FSA were joined by the ISIS leader Abu Omar Shishani and his brutal gang of Chechens. When we had been there, it had been under the sole control of badly funded, badly armed rebels with little knowledge of tactical warfare–but when Shishani arrived, he took control of the operation, and the base fell soon after. [1]

Hall further relates that Omar Shishani’s (or Omar “the Chechen”) presence evoked a certain level of mystique and awe among his FSA associates as he “systematically obliterated Menagh defenses by sacrificing as many men as it took” and rightly concludes that, “it is no exaggeration to say that Shishani and other battle hardened members of ISIS are the ones who brought the early military success.” [2]

The final collapse of government forces at Menagh on August 6 due to Shishani’s sustained suicide bombing raids, sending his men in makeshift armored vehicles to crash the base’s heavy fortifications, resulted in an outpouring of battle wearied emotion and celebration among all rebel groups represented.

Regional media, including Al Jazeera, was there to record the victory and congratulatory speeches that followed, and the fighters weren’t shy about giving interviews. These interviews reveal America’s true battlefield alliances at this key point in the lengthy rebel advance in Aleppo Province at a time long prior to ISIS becoming the “household terror brand” that it is today. The New York Times reported the following:

After the battle, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, the head of the United States-backed opposition’s Aleppo military council, appeared in a video alongside Abu Jandal, a leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In camouflage, Colonel Okaidi offered thanks to “our brothers al-Muhajireen wal Ansar and others,” adding: “We’re here to kiss every hand pressed on the trigger.” He then ceded the floor to Abu Jandal and a mix of jihadist and Free Syrian Army leaders, who stood together, each praising his men, like members of a victorious basketball team.

The group singled out for praise in the video, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, was precisely Omar Shishani’s own brutal Chechen group (“Army of Emigrants and Helpers”) which turned the tide of the battle. Most significant about FSA Col. Okaidi himself, clearly the operational head of this jihadi “basketball team,” was that he had been paid a personal visit by his State Department patron, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, just months prior to the final victory at Menagh.

A translated video montage of footage covering events at Menagh, authenticated by Middle East expert Joshua Landis, shows a clip of Robert Ford’s prior visit to Col. Okaidi inside Syria, with the two standing side by side in an image meant to seal official U.S. support for Okaidi as its top brass on the ground.

Okaidi’s subsequent victory speech at Menagh proves that Okaidi, while on the U.S. government’s Syria support payroll, fought alongside and publicly praised ISIS fighters (calling them “heroes”), and presumably exercised some degree of operational command over them. There is no mistaking the documented facts of the Menagh campaign: in the summer of 2013 the rising Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and the FSA fought as one, with a unified command structure, which happened to have direct U.S. backing.

Thanks to Abu Omar’s willingness to speak to Al Jazeera, we also have video confirmation of his emerging star status within rebel ranks and relationship of direct cooperation with the U.S backed FSA commander. Omar Shishani’s interview was archived online by Al Jazeera Arabic. While offering a simple statement about conquering all of the Syria from “the kuffar,” Abu Omar is surrounded by some of the same men, including emir Abu Jandal (identified above by the New York Times)—the same Abu Jandal that is presented as second in rank under Robert Ford’s friend Col. Okaidi in the latter’s victory huddle.

In another video where he stands proudly amidst a mix of fighters, Omar addresses the camera in Russian and recognizes the FSA’s valiant efforts in its eight months long siege of the government airbase. In a later statement given to the Russian-language pro-jihad site Beladusham, Shishani explained his pragmatic view toward working with U.S. backed FSA forces even while pledging loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: “We aren’t in a position of conflict with the whole FSA right now, but just against those groups who oppose our aims of an Islamic State.”

Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has since admitted that the rebels funded by the State Department included ISIS and other Al-Qaeda fighters in their ranks. He recently told McClatchy reporter Hannah Allam that he had called Okaidi to tell him that his public cooperation with Abu Omar Shishani and associates was “extremely unhelpful, extra unhelpful”:

Ford was referring to Col. Abdel-Jabbar al Oqaidi [or alternately Okaidi], then-commander of the Aleppo branch of the Free Syrian Army. The problem was that the American-backed colonel had been filmed celebrating his men’s joint victory with al Qaida-affiliated fighters, creating a public relations nightmare for the Obama administration, which was trying to show Congress and the American public that it was boosting moderates and isolating extremists on the battlefield.

Amazingly, Okaidi’s courtship with the West didn’t end in 2013, even after such top U.S. officials confirmed that the rebel leader had been in a position of operational command over ISIS terrorists, some of which now fill out the top tiers of Islamic State’s ranks.

As recently as last July 2015, CNN gave Okaidi lengthy and virtually uninterrupted air time in a Christiane Amanpour interview to make a public appeal for a U.S. imposed no-fly “buffer zone” over Syria in support of “moderate” rebels—this on what the network bills as its “flagship global affairs program.”

In a recent and much talked about poll conducted inside Syria by ORB International, an affiliate of WIN/Gallup International, it was revealed that “82% of Syrians Blame U.S. for ISIS.” While the increased prominence of this view has perplexed many pundits who dare not admit anything counter to the official prevailing wisdom, it could simply be that Syrians pay closer attention and are able to process what U.S. clients like Okaidi utter in plain Arabic and without apology.

[1] Hall, Benjamin. Inside ISIS: The Brutal Rise of a Terrorist Army (New York: Center Street, 2015) p. 74.

[2] Hall 76.