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Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent political analyst and a recipient of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism. He is the founding editor of Foreign Policy Journal and the author of Ron Paul vs. Paul Krugman: Austrian vs. Keynesian economics in the financial crisis and The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination: The Struggle for Palestine and the Roots of the Israeli-Arab Conflict. His forthcoming book is Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. This article first appeared at his blog JeremyRHammond.com and is used with permission of the author.
THE NEW YORK TIMES HAS HABITUALLY DOWNPLAYED the early role of the CIA in coordinating the flow of arms to armed rebels in Syria in furtherance of the US policy of overthrowing the regime of Bashar al-Assad. By doing so, the Times hence also whitewashes the US role in the rise of the Islamic State (or ISIS).
The Media’s Longstanding Propaganda Narrative
I have written repeatedly about how the Times‘ reporting serves as propaganda, manufacturing consent for a US interventionist policy in Syria, as the Times has repeatedly advocated.
For instance, in “NYT’s Bill Keller’s Propaganda Case for War with Syria” (May 2013), I wrote:
I find myself commenting again and again and again and again and again on how the U.S. media (following the lead of America’s “newspaper of record”) is being willfully dishonest with the public and attempting to whitewash the actual U.S. role in the Syrian conflict by tossing relevant facts down the memory hole; namely, the facts that (1) the CIA has already been coordinating the flow of arms to the rebels, and (2) most of those arms have indeed ended up in the hands of Islamic extremists.
My post “NYT Continues to Downplay How CIA-Funneled Arms to Syrian Rebels Helped Strengthen Jihadists” (October 2013) began:
As usual, the New York Times is spinning information to willfully obfuscate the role of the U.S. in arming Syrian rebels whose ranks include al-Qaeda-affiliated and other Islamic extremist groups, with most of the arms falling into the hands of the jihadists.
In “NYT Whitewashes US Support for Syrian Armed Rebels (Again)” (February 2014), I explained:
The reason the Times does not disclose this to readers is because it would undermine the obligatory propaganda narrative designed to manufacture consent for U.S. interventionist foreign policy. According to this narrative, the mess that Syria has become is a consequence of a lack of U.S. intervention. This is nonsense, of course. Precisely the opposite is true.
Still At It…
The Times‘ recent report, “U.S. Relies Heavily on Saudi Money to Support Syrian Rebels” pretty much follows the same script. While in some respects, this is great journalism, offering heretofore unknown details about US policy (such as the name of the CIA’s operation there: Timber Sycamore), it also maintains the obligatory propaganda narrative.
The article opens by reminding us what we already knew: that “President Obama secretly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to begin arming Syria’s embattled rebels in 2013”.
Further down the page, the Times adds (emphasis added):
When Mr. Obama signed off on arming the rebels in the spring of 2013, it was partly to try to gain control of the apparent free-for-all in the region. The Qataris and the Saudis had been funneling weapons into Syria for more than a year.
A little further on, the Times does acknowledge:
The C.I.A. helped arrange some of the arms purchases for the Saudis, including a large deal in Croatia in 2012.
Yet it continues:
By the summer of 2012, a freewheeling feel had taken hold along Turkey’s border with Syria as the gulf nations funneled cash and weapons to rebel groups — even some that American officials were concerned had ties to radical groups like Al Qaeda.
The C.I.A. was mostly on the sidelines during this period, authorized by the White House under the Timber Sycamore training program to deliver nonlethal aid to the rebels but not weapons. In late 2012, according to two former senior American officials, David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, delivered a stern lecture to intelligence officials of several gulf nations at a meeting near the Dead Sea in Jordan. He chastised them for sending arms into Syria without coordinating with one another or with C.I.A. officers in Jordan and Turkey.
So there you have it. Early on, throughout 2012, the CIA, apart from helping arrange arms purchases and delivering nonlethal aid, was just sitting “on the sidelines” as US Gulf allies — predominantly Saudi Arabia and Qatar — funneled weapons to the Syrian rebels despite the risk of the arms falling into the hands of extremist groups. It wasn’t until “Months later” that “Mr. Obama gave his approval for the C.I.A. to begin directly arming and training the rebels from a base in Jordan, amending the Timber Sycamore program to allow lethal assistance” (emphasis added).
Which brings us to what’s wrong with this report. The key word in that last quote is “directly”. As is so often the case, the real story is in what the Times leaves out.
How the CIA Armed Extremist Groups in Syria
So what is it that the Times is leaving out? Well, as the Washington Post reported in May 2012 (emphasis added):
Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.
A senior State Department official told the Post, “we continue to coordinate our efforts with friends and allies in the region and beyond in order to have the biggest impact on what we are collectively doing”.
We learned that “Opposition figures said they have been in direct contact with State Department officials to designate worthy rebel recipients of arms and pinpoint locations for stockpiles” — and that “the United States and others are moving forward toward increased coordination of intelligence and arming for the rebel forces.”
The following month, in June 2012, the Wall Street Journal filled in more of the story, enlightening that the CIA and State Department had begun stepping up their coordination with the Free Syrian Army in March 2012 in furtherance of the US goal of regime change. The Journal reported:
As part of the efforts, the Central Intelligence Agency and State Department—working with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other allies—are helping the opposition Free Syrian Army develop logistical routes for moving supplies into Syria and providing communications training….
The U.S. in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, say U.S. and Arab officials….
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing the funds for arms….
So, again, the CIA was helping to coordinate the flow of arms to the rebels despite concerns about “some rebels’ suspected ties to hard-line Islamists, including elements of al Qaeda.”
Little more than a week later, the New York Times itself reported:
A small number of C.I.A. officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, according to American officials and Arab intelligence officers.
The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said.
The C.I.A. officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior American official said.
So there you have it from the Times itself: the CIA was coordinating the flow of arms from the US’s Gulf allies to the Syrian rebels, ostensibly in part to prevent them from falling into the hands of extremist groups.
In July, Reuters revealed that the “nerve center” of the arms-funneling operation was Adana, Turkey — a city that is “also home to Incirlik, a U.S. air base where U.S. military and intelligence agencies maintain a substantial presence.”
Among the arms allegedly supplied to the rebels were shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, or MANPADS.
So what was the result of the US’s intervention in Syria, ostensibly in part to prevent these arms from falling into the wrong hands?
The Rise of ISIS
As first reported in May 2015 by Brad Hoff of The Levant Report, on August 12, 2012, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) warned in a memo that
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….
Not to be unclear, the DIA specifically noted that “the supporting powers to the opposition” included “The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey”.
And, indeed, as we learned in October 2012 from no less impeccable source than, again, the New York Times itself:
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….
That report even noted that the US had been helping to organize the flow of arms.
And yet despite that acknowledgment, the article seeded the propaganda narrative that the problem in Syria is too little US intervention:
American officials have been trying to understand why hard-line Islamists have received the lion’s share of the arms shipped to the Syrian opposition through the shadowy pipeline with roots in Qatar, and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia. The officials, voicing frustration, say there is no central clearinghouse for the shipments, and no effective way of vetting the groups that ultimately receive them.
Those problems were central concerns for the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, David H. Petraeus, when he traveled secretly to Turkey last month, officials said.
This despite officials from countries in the region telling the Times that Petraeus himself had been “deeply involved in trying to steer the supply effort”.
One Middle Eastern diplomat who has dealt extensively with the C.I.A. on the issue said that Mr. Petraeus’s goal was to oversee the process of “vetting, and then shaping, an opposition that the U.S. thinks it can work with.”
It wasn’t long before the narrative that the chaos in Syria was in no small part due to the Obama administration’s unwillingness to intervene came to dominate the media.
The head of the DIA at the time of its warning foreshadowing the rise of the Islamic State, Michael Flynn, later said that the Obama administration did not “turn a blind eye”, but rather made “a willful decision” to coordinate the flow of arms to Syrian rebels with full knowledge that the weapons were ending up in the hands of extremist groups.
Seymour M. Hersh followed up, and in the London Review of Books wrote:
Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the DIA between 2012 and 2014, confirmed that his agency had sent a constant stream of classified warnings to the civilian leadership about the dire consequences of toppling Assad. The jihadists, he said, were in control of the opposition. Turkey wasn’t doing enough to stop the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons across the border. ‘If the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic,’ Flynn told me. ‘We understood Isis’s long-term strategy and its campaign plans, and we also discussed the fact that Turkey was looking the other way when it came to the growth of the Islamic State inside Syria.’ The DIA’s reporting, he said, ‘got enormous pushback’ from the Obama administration. ‘I felt that they did not want to hear the truth.’
Half a year after Brad Hoff broke the story of the DIA memo, the New York Times finally got around to reporting on it:
Who are they? What do they want? Were signals missed that could have stopped the Islamic State before it became so deadly?
And there were, in fact, more than hints of the group’s plans and potential. A 2012 report by the United States Defense Intelligence Agency was direct: The growing chaos in Syria’s civil war was giving Islamic militants there and in Iraq the space to spread and flourish. The group, it said, could “declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria.”
“This particular report, this was one of those nobody wanted to see,” said Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who ran the defense agency at the time.
“It was disregarded by the White House,” he said. “It was disregarded by other elements in the intelligence community as a one-off report. Frankly, at the White House, it didn’t meet the narrative.”
Likewise, while inconvenient facts occasionally manage to slip through the cracks, the New York Times, as in its recent report on the US-Saudi alliance against the Assad regime, routinely whitewashes the US role, and, namely, the fact that the US had a policy dating to early 2012 of coordinating the flow of arms to Syrian rebels with full knowledge that the arms were winding up in the hands of extremist groups and despite warnings from the intelligence community that this would fuel the rise of the movement we know today as ISIS.
Such truths are tossed down the memory hole because, at the New York Times, it just doesn’t meet the narrative.