On the Effort to Exonerate Team USA for the Rise of ISIS: Guest Analysis by David Mizner

Photo: An Islamic State fighter using the US-made BGM-71 TOW in Damascus countryside in 2014. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies funded “Long War Journal” has confirmed many instances of AQ and ISIS use of the TOW. 

David Mizner is a novelist and freelance journalist who writes about US foreign policy, with a focus on the Middle East. This article was first published at his blog, Rogue Nation, and is reproduced here with permission of the author. His writings can be found at Jacobin, Salon, The Nation, and other publications.

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ASSAD IS PRIMARILY RESPONSIBLE for the rise of ISIS. No one else is even close, with the possible exceptions of former Iraqi presidents Maliki and Hussein. That’s the predictable message of the State Department and its proxy reporters at outlets like Vox and Buzzfeed. The propaganda can be crude to the point of absurd. In Mad Max’s world, Iran bears more blame than the United States for ISIS, and George W. Bush would surely take comfort in analysis like this.

But on the question of Assad’s responsibility and the corresponding responsibility of his imperial opponents, there’s apparently a real debate to be had among thinking humans. In Jacobin and Salvage, leftists go a long way toward siding with State and the BuzzVoxxers.

While more or less holding the United States to account for its ISIS-creating actions in Iraq pre-2011, they exonerate the US and its regional allies for ISIS’s emergence as a force in Syria, which they attribute solely to Assad. In so doing they erase the war on Syria, which honest analysts would acknowledge even if they believe Assad to be a monster of Hitlerian proportions.

Both Jacobin and Salvage claim that Assad’s releasing jihadists from prison in 2011 contributed mightily to the rise of ISIS. Salvage, the magazine founded by Richard Seymour and his comrades, says Syria’s ex-prisoners are one of the three primary forces within IS, along with Iraqi Baathists and foreign fighters. It didn’t deign to provide any evidence, so I went looking for some.

This post by Kyle Orton says that, “In May and June 2011, the regime turned loose from its prisons violent jihadists.” But he links to two articles covering the Syrian’s government granting of general amnesty, which the press depicted at the time as an attempt to placate the opposition. The opposition itself received it as such. “Too little too late,” said one member of the opposition.

Nonetheless, Orton goes on to say that in 2011 the Syrian government released future jihadist leaders Abu Musab, Hassan Abboud, Zahran Alloush, and Ahmed Abu Issa. I suppose I’ll take his word for it, but these bad men didn’t join ISIS. They joined Al Qaeda, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Sham, and Suquor a-Sham, respectively. These groups are indeed brutal and reactionary—and they are proxy forces of US client states trying to overthrow the Syrian government.

This article at Huffington Post — “There Would Be No ISIS Without Assad” — likewise promises to establish a connection between Syria’s ex-prisoners and ISIS but manages only, via a link to a Politico piece, to connect them to Al Qaeda.

I’m not saying ISIS contains no people released from prison by the Syrian government, but if they made up a significant part of its leadership or rank-and-file — if they represented, as Salvage alleges, one leg of the stool supporting ISIS — evidence would surely be easier to come by. Aron Lund, who seems to be one of the more independent-minded of the popular Syria analysts, has this to say:

We know, by contrast, that all 12 of the judges who preside over ISIS’s court system in Raqqa are Saudi. They’re perhaps some of the hundreds of extremists Saudi Arabia has allowed to fly to Syria out of the Riyadh airport. (The Kingdom also reportedly sent more than a 1,000 death row inmates to go fight in Syria in exchange for commutations.) ISIS also includes many fighters from the Caucasus, Afghanistan, North Africa, and Europe, and that many, if not most, of these have entered Syria through Turkey.

Yet the ISIS-creation stories from Jacobin and Salvage include none of this. Not only do these leftist outlets pass along imperialist propaganda about Assad’s “giving” ISIS hundreds of fighters by opening his prisons; they ignore the role of US allies in funneling ISIS-bound fighters into Syria.

In fact, the words “Turkey” and “Saudi Arabia” appear nowhere in the Salvage piece. In Jacobin, Adam Hanieh, who elsewhere has written solid stuff, doesn’t mention Turkey’s role and dismisses the idea that “ISIS is a tool of the Gulf States,” because “there is little convincing evidence that ISIS is directly funded, or armed, by Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf state.” Leaving aside the fact that if Saudi Arabia directly supported ISIS, it would do so covertly (“ISIS, in fact, may have been a major part of Bandar’s covert-ops strategy in Syria,” writes Steve Clemons), there are other steps Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have taken with the encouragement of the United States to strengthen ISIS.

There is, in fact, a fairly impressive compilation of evidence pointing to the role of Turkey in the rise of ISIS. It includes video and audio evidence of a meeting of an ISIS affiliate in Istanbul and allegations from an array of sources—opposition politicians in Turkey, intelligence services of other countries, and Kurdish officials in Syria—who claim that Turkey has allowed ISIS militants and weapons to go back and forth across the border and even directly armed and trained ISIS fighters. The case is circumstantial in places, to be sure, but compared to the case against Assad, it’s a smoking gun.

And it’s a fact that, on top of the aforementioned funneling of militants into Syria, US client states allowed wealthy individuals to fund ISIS. Did the governments themselves finance ISIS? In 2014, once ISIS had become a force, General Dempsey, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that, yes, US allies had directly funded ISIS — as assessment that Lindsay Graham seconded. In any case, the funding was no secret — Kuwait was a hub for ISIS financing — and US allies didn’t little to nothing to crack down on it.

These governments also sent in weapons that ended up the hands of ISIS. Was the arming direct? Regardless, to send weapons to the opposition was to arm ISIS, both because ISIS routed groups and took their weapons and because early on opposition groups collaborated with ISIS.

Aping US government officials, who barely mentioned ISIS until mid-2014, US press accounts of the group’s rise in Syria tend to ignore its formative months (although they flashback to 2011 for the purpose of indicting Assad.) They pick up the narrative when the groups officially backed by the United States and its allies were fighting ISIS. To read the BuzzVoxxers, or some socialist outlets, you’d have no idea that ISIS ascended in Syria partly due to the collaboration and conciliation of other opposition groups. Joshua Landis’ analysis site Syria Comment details these alliances and calls them the “real” reason for ISIS’s rise in Syria:

The most prominent case-in-point is Colonel Oqaidi, who used to head the Aleppo FSA military council. Oqaidi constantly downplayed the idea that ISIS constituted a threat, describing his relations with ISIS as “excellent”…The other rebel groups that assisted ISIS in the wider conflict here included Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar ash-Sham, Suqur ash-Sham, and FSA-banner groups such as Liwa al-Hamza, Ibn Taymiyya (both Tel Abyad area) and Liwa Ahrar al-Jazira al-Thawri…Contrary to what ISIS members and supporters claim, there was no pre-planned ‘sahwa’ against ISIS. Till the very end of 2013, IF and its constituent groups tried to resolve problems with ISIS peacefully.

The FSA, remember, was the official American proxy so the United States was arming a group that it knew was collaborating with ISIS. In 2013, ISIS leader Abu Atheer told Al Jazeera that his group had cordial relations with the FSA and bought weapons from them.

Yet in popular ISIS creation narratives the myth of American innocence persists. The more intrepid western reporters will touch on the role of US client states yet exonerate the United States, as if Saudi Arabia and co. act wholly independently of the world’s most powerful country. And even if you believe that clients states have the desire and capacity to go rogue, there’s no evidence suggesting that US government officials tried to deter their ISIS-empowering actions during the group’s all-important early months in Syria. Biden’s tepid yet much-discussed criticism of allies for supporting ISIS came late in 2014 when ISIS was replacing the government as the primary, official rationale for US military action in Syria. As Biden was traveling around to apologize for his remarks, engaging in client management, no reporter thought to ask why no US official had said or done anything about their empowering of ISIS in the months and years prior.

The media complicity persisted despite last year’s declassification of a 2012 military intelligence memo showing that the United States had determined both that its allies sought to create a “Salafist principality in eastern Syria” and that sectarian reactionaries — “The Salafist, The Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI” — were the “driving forces” in the opposition. Apologists responded predictably to the document: they challenged the most expansive interpretations and ignored the smaller yet still-damning ones.

It’s not so much the memo itself that exposes US culpability but the memo combined with the subsequent actions (and inactions) of the United States vis a vis its allies and the Syrian opposition. More confirmation than revelation, the memo shows what was already clear: 1) that the United States was content for its allies to try to destroy Syria by fueling the most extreme elements of the opposition, including ISIS, 2) that because extreme elements dominated the opposition, to support it was to empower these elements, including ISIS, and 3) that the United States, no bystander to this effort, contributed to it.

It’s not hard to understand why the BuzzBeasters exonerate the United States, even if doing so means ignoring reports in their own publications. The motive of socialists is a little harder to discern. Or perhaps not. Their purpose, it seems, is to pin all the blame on Assad, not just for ISIS but for all of it: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, the millions of refugees, the staggering suffering. The true story of the rise of ISIS, in context, exposes the degree of aggression against Syria, and once that comes to light, it’s hard to cling to the view that this war is, at its core, a battle between a tyrant and a progressive revolution.

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Endless Predictions of the Syrian Regime’s Collapse, but Why Hasn’t it Happened? An Interview with Kamal Alam of the UK based Institute for Statecraft

https://i0.wp.com/www.thisfabtrek.com/journey/asia/syria/20091120-palmyra/assad-father-son-4.jpgManfred Schweda/thisfabtrek.com. Image used with permission.

KAMAL ALAM IS THE SYRIA FELLOW at The Institute for Statecraft, and advises the British Army on Syrian Affairs. He has served as advisor on Syrian affairs to the UK’s Chief of Defence Staff and to the European Union, and is a visiting lecturer at several military staff colleges across the Middle East and UK. His articles can be found in Nikkei Asian Review, ForeignPolicy.com, Middle East Eye, and other publications.

Kamal Alam

ONE YEAR AGO, Alam published a controversial yet prescient article in openDemocracy.net entitled, Pax Syriana: neither vanquished, nor all-conquering—wherein he explained why the Syrian Army had not and would not easily fragment, leading to the collapse of the Syrian state, as predicted by a chorus of analysts going back to 2011.

HIS NOVEMBER 2014 EXPERT TESTIMONY before the UK Parliament’s Defence Committee covering ISIS and national security can be viewed here.

WITH NEW REBEL VICTORIES in Spring of 2015, commentators and reporters declaring the regime’s imminent collapse grew louder, but it hasn’t happened. Kamal Alam agreed to the following exclusive interview with Levant Report—we wanted to know why the same old voices keep getting Syria so wrong…


 

Levant Report: At various times over the past few years there have been many failed predictions by prominent commentators declaring “the imminent demise” of the Syrian government. With the fall of Idlib and Palmyra and increased pressures, the prevailing wisdom in Western press is now once again that the government will soon collapse. Do you agree with this current popular assessment?

Kamal Alam: I do not believe the commonly stated prediction about ‘the fall of Assad and the Syrian regime.’ The coming fall of the Assad regime has begun to sound like the boy who cried wolf. Yet there is no wolf to be seen. However the fall of Idlib and Palmyra have significantly weakened the strategic posture of the Syrian Arab Army. The Syrian Arab Army is fighting the hardest battle in the Middle East against terrorists. Although one cannot deny that the Syrian protests started as a peaceful demand for reform they (protests) were quickly hijacked by the worst kind of extremists. No one from the initial days of the uprising wanted regime change. This was an external agenda which quickly spiraled out of control. And whilst the Syrian regime made mistakes to begin with as any State makes in times of tension, the uprising has turned into a blood letting sponsored by external states.

LR: Why do such commentators and analysts consistently fail in their predictions on Syria?

KA: The so-called experts and analysts fail in their predictions because they think Syria was the same as Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and even Egypt. They failed to realize the ground realities of Syria and most experts have not even been to Syria. For instance the same experts were defence advisers in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Libya. They often begin their arguments by saying, ‘In Bosnia we did so and so.’ ‘In Afghanistan we did the surge in the South.’ Really? if Afghanistan or Iraq are barometers for success then one must look really hard in the mirror. Most strategic analysts are opportunists linked with media and defence companies who have vested interests and are definitely not bi partisan.  Without naming names, one of the key ‘experts’ was a DoD official who become the spokesperson for the Syrian National Council. How can an American defence official all of a sudden be a Syrian expert and spokesperson for the SNC? The only credible voices on Syria have been the late Patrick Seale, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Joshua Landis. Even the ex-Israeli PM Ehud Barak said Assad would fall in two months, and this was in 2011.

LR: Damascus and other government-held centers are increasingly resource starved, and yet any modern army requires constant flow of energy and other resources. How has resource disruption impacted the operational effectiveness of the Syrian Army? How has the general strain impacted morale among the troops?

KA: The morale of the Syrian Army is still high. It is the only pluralistic fighting force on the ground which draws from the Sunni, Christian, Druze and Allawi sections of the society. The resources are severely depleted but time and again they have fought back from several setbacks over the last five years to regain their lost ground. No Army can fight a war without the support of its people and lands it operates in. For the Syrian Arab Army to operate for as long as it has, it has relied on its own people no matter how many foreign advisers there might be, there can be no substitute to your own people’s backing. The main problem is the supply line, and the international allies are helping the Army keep their supply lines well fed. At the same time people forget that Syria has always been the bread basket for the region. The Syrian Army is very resourceful given its experience in the Lebanese Civil War and de facto involvement in the war in Iraq since 2003. Lebanon was stabilized thanks to the Syrian Army in the 1970s and 1980s. People have a short memory and forget the Arab League and the United Nations mandated Syria to end the fighting in Lebanon. Now it is the time for the Lebanese to repay the favour to their Syrian brothers. The greatest factor in the cohesion of the Syrian Army is its multi-faith background.

LR: Former deputy director of the CIA Michael Morell recently publicly acknowledged Israeli-Nusra cooperation along the Golan. Concerning this and Israel’s documented direct attacks during the Syrian conflict, what do you see is Israel’s strategic interest in Syria?

KA: Kissinger famously said that without Syria there can be no peace in the Middle East. Israel has always clung to this statement, by knocking out the Syrian Army, they once and for all diminish any regional threat to their hegemony. Israel’s strategy in Syria has been clear: to divide the Syrians and create a buffer zone to further annexe land along the Golan Heights. They have tried hard to split the Druze and Allawi in particular saying they will protect them; however, so far they have failed in these attempts. In fact, as we saw a few days ago the Israeli Druze attacked an Israeli  military ambulance. So if anything Israel’s attempts have backfired and angered its own Druze community.

LR: In 2014 we heard many reports of local ceasefires and potential “freeze zones” that might lead to a long term stall in fighting [discussed here for example]. To your knowledge, did any locally negotiated ceasefires endure to a local peace? What are the prospects for peace in Syria? What would have to happen?

KA: There have been many successful local ceasefires most notably in Western Ghouta, Muaadamiet Esham, Qudssaya, Barzeh and the old city of Homs. The example of Maloula is also a useful one, where after the takeover of Islamic extremists, they were forced out by a coalition of armed locals and the Syrian Arab Army. Western Ghouta and Reef Dimashq has been a particular example with particular truces holding out in Ain Alfijeh and Wadi Barada. The key for a durable peace has to be a political understanding between agreeable sides. Both the Geneva talks failed because the rebels failed to come with an open mind. Moaz al Khatib, the most credible rebel leader to date resigned citing that the Syrian opposition is run by non-Syrians. The Turks and GCC begged him to stay on—yet he walked away knowing there is no credible opposition which he could lead. The examples of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt are before us in terms of the rigidity of Islamic democrats who feign the process of pluralism to grab power. Damascus has seen historical truces between Maronites and Druze of Lebanon, Sunnis and the Druze of Southern Syria. However for this to happen foreign interference must cease. The European states in particular need to hold their Muslim communities to account, Britain in particular has allowed so-called moderate Islamists to destabilize Egypt, Libya and Syria. This policy must be put to an immediate end. Any one who uses religion to seek power is by definition not a moderate—Syria gave birth to Christianity and a Christian priest foretold the coming of a Prophet in Arabia. Gulf Bedouins with little understanding of tolerance cannot dictate peace to the oldest civilization in the world.

This interview is also available at Medium.com.