A Brief History of US Support for Jihadists in Libya and Syria

By William Van Wagenen

In this essay I will provide a brief overview of US support for Jihadists in both Libya and Syria since 2011. As I have written about here, the US and Saudi Arabia provided billions in funding and weapons to Jihadists in Afghanistan throughout the 1980’s in an effort to fight a proxy war against the Soviet Union. Some of these Jihadists famously went on to found al-Qaeda, and turn their guns against their former US and Saudi sponsors, most famously on 9/11. Despite the terrible consequences of this policy in Afghanistan, US planners have once again chosen to provide weapons and funding to Jihadists, this time in Libya and Syria starting in 2011, in an effort to fight a proxy war against Syria’s two main allies, Russia and Iran.

These US efforts sought to exploit the legitimate protests against both the Syrian and Libyan governments which arose out the Arab Spring, transforming peaceful protest movements into armed insurgencies dominated by groups advocating the ideology of al-Qaeda, with predictably terrible consequences for both Syrian and Libyan civilians as a whole. US action in Syria and Libya conforms to a longstanding pattern of US efforts to de-stabilize Middle Eastern nations, which further allows terrorist groups and organized crime to flourish, while creating waves of desperate refugees seeking to flee the resulting war and violence.

The Proxy War Against Russia Continues

Since the close of the close of the Cold War, the United States has been trying to bring many allies of the former Soviet Union out of the Russian sphere of influence, and integrate them into the West, both economically and militarily.

Although Russia is no longer a communist country, US planners are seeking to isolate and weaken Russian, still viewing it as the greatest threat to US interests in the world today, despite the constant media attention in the West focusing on the issue of terrorism and the Islamic State.

In July 2015, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford stated, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia. . . . If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming,” while listing the Islamic State as just the fourth biggest threat to the US, behind China and North Korea. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reinforced this priority in February 2016, citing Russia as the top threat to US national security, and submitting a proposal to “quadruple military spending in Europe in 2017 to $3.4 billion from $789 million” which “raises questions about whether other immediate threats, like the Islamic State, are getting short shrift,” in the view of the New York Times editorial board.

This is primarily evident in Eastern Europe, where Washington has “been moving into Russia’s backyard and threatening its core strategic interests,” according to University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer. The US has been bringing Russia’s traditional allies in Eastern Europe into the US-sponsored North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), against Russian objections. The loss of Eastern European nations from the Russian orbit dismantles the buffer from Europe the Soviets endeavored to build in response to the German invasion of Russia during World War II, in which some 18 million Russians (soldiers and civilians) were killed.

It is in this context that the US attempted to engineer a coup in Ukraine in 2014 to replace the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 with a pro-Western member of the opposition, must be viewed. The coup threatened Russia’s access to an important naval base in the Ukrainian province of Crimea, which allows Russia to project military power into the Mediterranean Sea. It has long been a goal of Russian foreign policy to maintain access to warm water ports. Russia responded by annexing the Crimea, making it part of Russia once again.

Syria and the Soviet Union were close allies through-out the cold war, and remain so today. Russia has a naval base on the Mediterranean coast of Syria and has been a consistent arms supplier to the Syrian regime. If the Syrian regime were to fall, and be replaced by a regime friendly to the interests of the US and its Gulf allies, Russian access to its Syrian naval base would be jeopardized, as in Ukraine.

Natural gas also plays a large role. Russia is the major supplier of natural gas to Europe (via a pipeline through Ukraine), which gives it considerable leverage if Europe becomes too aggressive toward attacking Russian interests (for example, by supporting US imposed sanctions against Russia).

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Mitchell A. Orenstein and George Romer explain that, “In 2009, Qatar proposed to build a pipeline to send its gas northwest via Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria to Turkey, an investment of billions of dollars up front that would reduce transportation costs over the long term. However, Syrian President Bashar al Assad refused to sign the plan; Russia, which did not want to see its position in European gas markets undermined, put him under intense pressure not to.”

Russia instead backed a 2011 proposal for its close ally Iran to build a natural gas pipeline from Iran, to Syria, via Iraq, which would allow it to maintain ultimate control of the gas supplies to Europe.

Orenstein and Romer note as well that, “The United States, meanwhile, supports the Qatari pipeline as a way to balance Iran and diversify Europe’s gas supplies away from Russia.”

Thus, establishing a pro-US government in Syria that would allow the Qatari pipeline to be built, and could help in weakening Russia economically and strategically. If Qatar could take European market share in the provision of natural gas from Russia, it would reduce Russian gas revenues, as well as eliminate the possibility of a Russian gas boycott that could damage the European economy.

Why US Planners Wish to Weaken Iran

US, Saudi and Israeli planners have for years bemoaned the rise of the “Shiite Crescent,” namely the alliance between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which together form one connected territorial area controlled by Shiite-led governments, and which includes three of the most important Arab capitals; Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus.

Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim country, and home to the holiest sites in Islam. It has competed with Iran for leadership of the Muslim world since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which brought Shiite clerics to power there espousing the revolutionary Islamic ideology of Wilayat al-Faqih. The Saudis see the rise of Iran as a threat to their religious legitimacy and regional dominance.

Israel has considered Iran its primary enemy in the region for years, as Iran does not accept the Israeli occupation of Palestine and has supported Palestinian resistance movements such as Hamas. Iran is also a major supporter of Hezbollah (Party of God), which it helped to create in order help the Lebanese resist the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982. Hezbollah was able to expel the Israeli Army from Lebanese territory by May  2000 and fought Israel to a standstill in their 2006 war.

A State Department memo found in Hillary Clinton’s emails (leaked by Wikileaks) explains why toppling Assad’s regime is crucial for Israel: “It is the strategic relationship between Iran and the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria that makes it possible for Iran to undermine Israel’s security … through its proxies in Lebanon, like Hezbollah, that are sustained, armed and trained by Iran via Syria. The end of the Assad regime would end this dangerous alliance. Israel’s leadership understands well why defeating Assad is now in its interests.”

Any increase in Iranian influence and power in the Middle East, in particular any acquisition of nuclear weapons, is a disaster for US and Israeli planners, not because Iran becomes a true military threat to Israel or the US, both heavily armed with nuclear weapons of their own sufficient to deter an Iranian nuclear attack, but because Iran could itself deter future US and Israeli military action in the region, something the US and Israel currently have a free hand to engage in themselves.

This concern was outlined in a leaked State Department memo to the White House which likely dates from the spring of 2012:

Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s civil war may seem unconnected, but they are. For Israeli leaders, the real threat from a nuclear-armed Iran is not the prospect of an insane Iranian leader launching an unprovoked Iranian nuclear attack on Israel that would lead to the annihilation of both countries. What Israeli military leaders really worry about — but cannot talk about — is losing their nuclear monopoly. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability would not only end that nuclear monopoly but could also prompt other adversaries, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to go nuclear as well. The result would be a precarious nuclear balance in which Israel could not respond to provocations with conventional military strikes on Syria and Lebanon, as it can today.

Currently, there is little to prevent the US, Israel, and more recently Saudi Arabia from invading and bombing other Middle Eastern nations at their discretion, as seen in Iraq in 1998 and 2003 (US), Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and Gaza in 2009 and 2014 (Israel), and Yemen in 2016 (Saudi Arabia).

The memo also cites former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak as arguing that, “the toppling down of Assad will be a major blow to the radical axis, major blow to Iran…. It’s the only kind of outpost of the Iranian influence in the Arab world…and it will weaken dramatically both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.”

To diminish Iranian power then, and to undermine support for Palestinian struggle against Israel’s occupation, the US and its allies have sought to overthrow the Syrian regime, led by Bashar Al Assad from the minority Allawi religious sect.

The US desire to topple the Syrian government reaches back to at least 2001, when prominent neoconservatives in the US government threatened to invade not only Iraq, but also Syria and Iran.

Former US General Wesley Clark discusses a conversation he had with a “senior general” a few weeks after 9/11 at the Pentagon, in which the general purportedly showed Clark a memo from then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office which advocated a strategy to “take out seven countries in five years,” which would start with Iraq and Syria and end with Iran.  That Syria and Iran were at that time potential US targets for regime-change was later confirmed by then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.

US planners were looking for concrete opportunities to destabilize the Syrian government as early as 2005, when the Bush Administration began to markedly increase funding for Syrian opposition groups, including some within Syria, leading to “persistent fears among U.S. diplomats that Syrian state security agents had uncovered the money trail from Washington,” according to the Washington Post.

Further, by 2006, US planners were seeking to exploit the fact that many Jihadists were traveling through Syria to join the fight against US forces in Iraq, and to turn these fighters against the Syrian government. A classified December 2006 cable written by William Roebuck, Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, highlights such opportunities:

We believe Bashar’s [Bashar-al-Assad, Syrian President] weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real, such as . . . . the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists. This cable summarizes our assessment of these vulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements, and the signals that the USG can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising [Emphasis added].

Similarly, in March 2007, Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker that US planners had adopted a new “strategic direction” in an effort to use Sunni militant groups to weaken Iran, as a result of fears that the US invasion of Iraq had strengthened Iran (as pro-Iranian Iraqi politicians had come to dominate the new US-backed Iraqi government). Hersh quoted a Pentagon consultant who described how “the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria.” The plan involved using the former Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar, to provide funds to Islamic “religious fundamentalists” to do the dirty work of US foreign policy that the US could not do directly, as  Bandar had in Afghanistan and Nicaragua in previous decades.

According to the Pentagon consultant, Bandar and other Saudis assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis [Jihadists] to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”

Hersh reported as well that influential Lebanese Druze politician Walid Jumblatt met with then Vice President Dick Cheney in late 2006 to discuss the “possibility of undermining Assad,” and that Jumblatt advised Cheney that the Muslim Brotherhood would be the “ones to talk to” if the United States did try to move against Syria.1 The Muslim Brotherhood would later play a key role in the Syrian opposition starting in 2011.

With the coming of the Arab Spring in 2011, popular anti-government protests broke out in various Arab countries, leading to the downfall of pro-US dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. US planners saw the chance to exploit the nascent protest movement that had also emerged in Syria, in order to move against the Syrian government, and by extension it’s Iranian and Russian allies.

US Supports Jihadists in Libya as a Trial Run

It is in this environment that US planners sought to overthrow the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 (after Arab Spring protests emerged in that country as well) through a combination of arms shipments to Libyan rebels and NATO airstrikes. Though not widely acknowledged in the Western press, some of the Libyan rebels who fought to overthrow Gaddafi were Jihadists, and received support from the US, albeit indirectly.

Western intelligence agencies were directly involved in Libya from early on in the uprising, suggesting the Western motives entailed proactively taking advantage of the growing protests in order to effect regime change, rather than simply responding to Gaddafi’s efforts to suppress the protests, in an alleged effort to protect civilians. The New York Times reported on March 30 that, according to US officials, the CIA had “inserted clandestine operatives into Libya to gather intelligence for military airstrikes and to contact and vet the beleaguered rebels” and that “small groups of C.I.A. operatives have been working in Libya for several weeks as part of a shadow force of Westerners that the Obama administration hopes can help bleed Colonel Qaddafi’s military.”

It soon became clear that some of the Libyan rebels were Jihadists, including some with past ties to al-Qaeda.

On February 20th, just five days after the beginning of the protests, Mahdi Ziu carried out a suicide bombing against the Katiba, the headquarters of Libyan internal security in Benghazi. “He kept saying, ‘Jihad, jihad, this is the time for us all to go out and fight,’ ” his 21-year-old daughter, Zuhour, told the New York Times.

On March 29th, 2011, two leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), Abdul Monem al-Madhouni and Abdullah Mansour, gave an interview to the Irish Times where they declared their support for the rebel uprising, and putting themselves at the service of the Libyan National Council, a Western-backed rebel umbrella group.

The LIFG is an Islamic militant group established in the 1990’s. LIFG militants attempted to assassinate Gaddafi four times between 1994 and 1997. Several of LIFG’s leaders fought with US-backed Jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980’s against Soviet forces. In the LIFG’s first communique, they declared the Libyan government “an apostate regime that has blasphemed against the faith of God Almighty.”

The United Nations added the LIFG to its Al-Qaida Sanctions List in October 2001, for participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, and perpetrating of acts by Al-Qaida, while also confirming that on “3 November 2007, LIFG formally merged with Al-Qaida. The merger was announced via two video clips produced by Al-Qaida’s propaganda arm, Al-Sahab.”

On April 2nd, 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that elements of the Libyan rebels were Jihadists, some of which had experience fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980’s, and in Iraq against US forces after 2003. The WSJ noted that one prominent rebel trainer was “Sufyan Ben Qumu, a Libyan army veteran who worked for Osama bin Laden’s holding company in Sudan and later for an al Qaeda-linked charity in Afghanistan,” and who “is training many of the city’s rebel recruits.” Qumu, a former detainee at the US prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, was active in recruiting fighters from the Libyan city of Derna, which the New York Times reports had been “the world’s most productive recruiting ground for suicide bombers” traveling to fight in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion.

On April 11thin an interview with the Washington Post, Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam discussed an “orchestrated” attempt to convey false news that he had been killed, and that his father had fled to Venezuela. According to Saif, this caused the Libyan police and soldiers to abandon their posts, and allow rebels to easily attack military barracks and weapons depots to acquire weapons. He specifically pointed to Qatar as a foreign instigator of this plot: “It is not in the interests of anybody to see chaos in Libya. But unfortunately Arabic countries like Qatar, they are playing this role.”

Qatar did indeed play a role. Qatari Special Forces were on the ground in Libya leading Libyan rebels in battle. After the war ended, the Guardian quoted The Qatari chief-of-staff, Major-General Hamad bin Ali al-Atiya, as saying: “We were among them and the numbers of Qataris on the ground were hundreds in every region. Training and communications had been in Qatari hands. Qatar … supervised the rebels’ plans because they are civilians and did not have enough military experience. We acted as the link between the rebels and Nato forces,” which were bombing Libya in an effort to oust Gaddafi. The Guardian also pointed to “concern at the emirate’s support for Islamist elements such as the 17 February Martyrs’ Brigade, one of the most influential rebel formations, led by Abdel-Hakim Belhaj.”

The BBC reported that according to a previous arrest warrant issued by the Libyan government, Abdel-Hakim Belhadj was a founder of the LIFG. After fighting the Libyan government for several years in the late 1990’s, Belhadj fled to Afghanistan and was the commander of a training camp for Jihadists there. When the US invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban in 2001, Belhadj fled once again. He was arrested with his pregnant wife by CIA agents in Bangkok in 2004. The CIA then rendered him to Libya, where he was imprisoned and tortured at the notorious Abu Selim prison by Libyan intelligence officials, and also interrogated further by US intelligence officials.

But Qatar did not undertake these efforts alone. The Obama administration had itself enlisted Qatar to deliver arms to Libyan rebel groups, which ended up in the hands of Libyan Jihadists, according to the New York Times. The NYT notes that US planners relied on Qatar because, “Relying on surrogates allows the United States to keep its fingerprints off operations,” and that “Within weeks . . . the White House began receiving reports that [weapons] were going to Islamic militant groups. They were ‘more antidemocratic, more hard-line, closer to an extreme version of Islam’ than the main rebel alliance in Libya.”

The NYT also quoted a private American arms dealer, who was blocked from providing weapons to Libyan rebel groups, as complaining that the Qataris “imposed no controls on who got the weapons. ‘They just handed them out like candy.’”

By September 2011, the NYT reported as well that in Libya, “the most powerful military leader is now Abdel Hakeem Belhaj the former leader of a hard-line group once believed to be aligned with Al Qaeda” and that Belhaj was the effective governor of Libya’s capital, Tripoli. The NYT also noted that “the most influential politician may well be Ali Sallabi,” an Islamic scholar and close colleague of Belhaj, who facilitated cooperation between the Qatari government and the LIFG during the uprising.

CIA collusion with the 17 February Martyrs’ Brigade, led by Belhaj, continued after the war, as the brigade was enlisted to provide security to the US State Department annex in Benghazi, which itself provided cover for CIA agents. When the annex was famously attacked on September 11th, 2012, three members of the brigade present at the annex failed to warn the US of an approaching armed mob. The brigade then failed to show up to help protect US personnel as part of their role as the “quick reaction force,” resulting in the deaths of US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Writing for the Daily Beast, journalist Eli Lake suggests this was a failure to “vet” the 17 February Martyrs’ Brigade, but it is hard to imagine the CIA was not aware of their Jihadist roots due to their close collaboration with Qatar, a close US ally.

But why was it important for US planners to topple Gaddafi? There were certainly economic considerations; however there also are indications that the US toppled Gaddafi in part in order to help effect regime change in Syria. Advisor to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sydney Blumenthal, wrote in an email to Clinton that, “Likely the most important event that could alter the Syrian equation would be the fall of Qaddafi, providing an example of a successful rebellion.”

In the email, Blumenthal quotes Syria scholar David Lesch, who argued that, “If Gadhafi falls within the next few months, there will be another model for regime change: that of limited but targeted military support from the West combined with an identifiable rebellion,” that could be applied to Syria, though perhaps not as easily as in Libya. This thinking may explain Clinton’s strong support for military intervention in both Libya and Syria, whether in the form of a no fly zone, or military aid to Syrian rebels.

Once the Libyan government had successfully been overthrown, and Gaddafi killed, US planners sought to aid Jihadist rebels in Syria as well, in order to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad.

CIA Support for Jihadist Rebels in Syria

When Syrian president Bashar al-Assad brutally suppressed anti-government demonstrations which began as part of the Arab Spring in early 2011, the US and its allies quickly sought to militarize the Syrian revolution, changing it from a non-violent protest movement to a violent rebellion, as in Libya.

Encouraging a violent rebellion seems to have taken two directions. On the one hand, the US began to openly fund and arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA), led by a secular group of former Syrian Army officers, with a base in Turkey. On the other hand, US planners once again turned to Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf allies for help in creating, arming, and funding Jihadist rebel groups in Syria in a replay of its efforts in Afghanistan three decades earlier. Once again, Prince Bandar would play an important role, as Hersh’s reporting foreshadowed in 2007.

In April 2011, just weeks after the protests in Syria against the Assad regime began to get underway, John Hannah, former deputy national security advisor for the Middle East under George W. Bush, wrote that, “Drawing on Saudi resources and prestige, Bandar’s ingenuity and bent for bold action could be put to excellent use across the region in ways that reinforce U.S. policy and interests: through economic and political measures that weaken the Iranian mullahs; undermine the Assad regime,” despite the “danger that, with its back against the wall, the Kingdom might not once again fire up the old Sunni Jihadist network and point it in the general direction of Shiite Iran — leaving the rest of the world to deal with the nasty, unintended consequences of well-financed takfirists run amok.”

Saudi Arabia did in fact mobilize the old Sunni Jihadist network, while the CIA and its Gulf allies facilitated weapons shipments to rebels, both Jihadist and secular, in Syria over the next five years. CIA support for the weapons shipments continued despite that fact that US planners understood by at least August 2012 that secular Syrian rebels had been marginalized and that instead, Jihadist rebel groups had largely taken over the fight against the Syrian regime. A Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) memo from August 2012 acknowledged that, “The Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al-Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”

Prince Bandar’s involvement in aiding Jihadist rebels on the US’ behalf was confirmed in 2013 when the Wall Street Journal reported how CIA officials, “believed that Prince Bandar, a veteran of the diplomatic intrigues of Washington and the Arab world, could deliver what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms, and, as one U.S. diplomat put it, wasta, Arabic for under-the-table clout.”

In the same article, the WSJ noted that some officials “said they couldn’t rule out the possibility some Saudi funds and arms were being funneled to radicals on the side, simply to counter the influence of rival Islamists backed by Qatar. U.S. officials said they couldn’t rule out that mistakes would be made,” alluding to the idea that these weapons would inevitably, if not intentionally, end up in the hands of Jihadist rebels typically considered terrorists, as had happened in Libya previously.

The New York Times reported as well in early 2013 that American officials described how, “[f]rom offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive,” and that a “former American official said David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director until November, had been instrumental in helping to get this aviation network moving and had prodded various countries to work together on it,” noting also that the arms airlift to Syrian rebels that started in January 2012 “has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes.” The NYT cited a former American official who noted that, “People hear the amounts flowing in, and it is huge.” Another DIA memo suggests that weapons were shipped to Syrian rebels from Libya after the fall of the Gaddafi regime there.

Saudi Support for Jihadists in Syria

Saudi support for the Jihadist rebels in Syria appears to be far reaching. A Kuwaiti parliamentarian confirmed the goal of the Saudis, and other Gulf countries, was to quickly overthrow the Assad regime in Syria:

[W]e went to see Crown Prince Salman [bin Abdulaziz al-Saud] in Saudi Arabia. He said very clearly, ‘We are supporting Syria and we should support Syria, because we cannot stand the regime of Bashar. We [have] taken the decision to help the people get rid of him. So we have to do that a) very quickly and b) very strongly.’ The same message, we heard from Qatar . . . . and Bahrain.

Lori Plotkin Boghardt of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy notes that, “Today, Saudi citizens continue to represent a significant funding source for Sunni groups operating in Syria. Arab Gulf donors as a whole — of which Saudis are believed to be the most charitable — have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Syria in recent years, including to ISIS and other groups,” though she denies that this money is coming from the Saudi government itself.

In January of 2014, the New York Times reported how the Saudis “officially prohibit their citizens from going to Syria for jihad, but the ban is not enforced; at least a thousand have gone, according to Interior Ministry officials, including some from prominent families,” while the Financial Times reports that “Western officials say twice that number [from Saudi Arabia] have joined the fight, while Syrian opposition figures opposed to radical extremists within their ranks say there are ‘many more.’”

The New York Times interviewed a Saudi who is “on his eighth trip to fight with rebels in Syria” and who “was pursuing jihad on his holiday breaks.” The NYT describes how these fighters are allowed to go to Syria to fight because, the “only real means of fighting is through military and financial support to the Syrian rebels. And the most effective of those rebels are Islamists whose creed — rooted in the puritanical strain of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia — is often scarcely separable from Al Qaeda’s.”

Open Saudi and US support for Jihadist rebels is illustrated by their relationship with Zahran Alloush, the now deceased leader of a Syrian rebel group known as the Islamic Army (Jaish al-Islam), which Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in creating. Alloush’s father is a prominent Wahhabi cleric. Alloush embraced Wahhabism (the extremist version of Islam advocated by both Saudi Arabia and ISIS), including the concept of takfir, leading him to refer to Shiites as “rejectionists” (rafidha), and “Zoroastrians” (majus) and thus not Muslims, therefore justifying their killing. He stated that his goal was to “cleanse” Syria of all Shiites and Allawites, and to “destroy their skulls” and make them “taste the worst torture in life before God makes [them] taste the worst torture on judgment day.”

Alloush has also declared his hostility to democracy. The pro-Saudi Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar reports that Alloush is “responsible for the disappearance of Ruzan Zeituna,”  a well-known Syrian human rights lawyer, that Alloush is “famous for his attacks on advocates of democracy,” and that he “embraces Salafi-Jihadi ideology and calls for an Islamic State, and is opposed to the democratic and republican systems.”

The Telegraph reported in November 2015 that Jaish al-Islam was using captured Syrian soldiers and kidnapped Alawite civilians as human shields by holding them in cages near public squares in areas under its control.

Syria expert Joshua Landis noted in December 2013 that “Alloush has gone out of his way to keep good relations with Jabhat al-Nusra [the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria]” and that Alloush has said, “his relationship with Nusra is one of brotherhood with only superficial ideological differences that can be settled with shari’a and discussions,” leading Landis to argue that “the ideological differences between the Front and al-Qaida are not deep.”
In November 2013, the Army of Islam joined with other major Syrian Jihadist factions to form the Islamic Front (al-Jabha al-Islamiya) and Alloush became its head military commander. In December 2013, the Washington Post quoted a US intelligence official as saying, “We don’t have a problem with the Islamic Front.”

When Alloush was killed in a Russian airstrike in December 2015, the pro-Saudi Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, surmised that Russia intended to “direct a blow against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the assassination of one of its most prominent trusted persons in the Syrian opposition,” further making Saudi sponsorship for Alloush clear.

Saudi support for Jihadist militants fighting in Syria is coupled with the brutal suppression of similar Jihadist activity within the Saudi Kingdom itself. For example, on January 2, 2016, the Saudis executed 47 people, many of them for “adopting the radical ‘takfiri’ ideology, joining “terrorist organizations” and implementing various ‘criminal plots.’”

So although the Saudis suppress the activities of Jihadist inspired terror groups within its own borders, they encourage such activities abroad as part of the effort to fight the Syrian government, and by extension its Iranian backer.

This conforms to a long standing pattern. Chatham House professor Paul Stevens describes the Saudi policy this way: “For a long time, there was an unwritten agreement … whereby al-Qaida’s presence was tolerated in Saudi Arabia, but don’t piss inside the tent, piss outside.”

Qatari Support for Jihadists in Syria

Qatar has also proven a crucial ally in US efforts to fund Jihadists as part of the effort to overthrow the Syrian regime. Foreign Policy reports that in an effort to help Syrian rebels, Qatar “sent planes to move an estimated 3,500 tons of military equipment in 2012 and 2013, reportedly with the CIA’s backing,” and that working with Qatar is easy given that “‘Their interagency process has about three people in it,’ said one former U.S. official.”

Qatar is the main provider of support to Ahrar Al-Sham, a Jihadist rebel group that calls for Jihad against Shia Muslims and other minorities in Syria, and that has worked closely with the Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria). Notably, the two groups cooperated in 2015 a joint offensive that captured the provincial capital of Idlib in the north of Syria, which then prompted Russian intervention.

Ahrar Al-Sham’s founder, Abu Khalid al-Suri, had long standing links to Al-Qaeda, before he was killed in February 2014. According to reporting from the Long War Journal, the leader of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Ayman al-Zawahiri named al-Suri as his “representative” in Syria. Al-Suri attempted to mediate the dispute between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State at the time the two groups split. Al-Suri was previously a courier for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and Spanish officials allege that he received surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center from the operative who made the videos and delivered them to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan.

In 2013, the US Treasury Department put Qatari academic, Abd Al-Rahman Al-Nuaymi on a terrorist sanction list because he “ordered the transfer of nearly $600,000 to al-Qa’ida via al-Qa’ida’s representative in Syria, Abu-Khalid al-Suri, and intended to transfer nearly $50,000 more,” and this after al-Nuaymi had used Qatar as a base to provide “material support and conveyed communications to al-Qa’ida and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen for more than a decade.”

By November 2014, the Telegraph quoted David Cohen, the US Treasury under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, as saying that al-Nuaymi and another terrorist financier, Khalifa Muhammad Turki al-Subaiy, “are living in Doha, the country’s capital, and are free to go as they please.”

In September 2014, much of the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham was killed in a large explosion. As a result, Hashim al Sheikh (also known as Abu Jaber), was elected as the new leader of the group, which role he filled for one year before stepping down. Abu Jaber had previously been a recruiter for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), helping Jihadists to travel from Syria to Iraq to fight, and then was arrested by the Syrian government and imprisoned from 2005 to 2011. After Ahrar al-Sham was formed, he became the deputy to Abu Khalid Al-Suri (mentioned above) who was then Ahrar’s leader (emir) of the Aleppo area.

Another Ahrar al-Sham commander, Abu Hani al-Masri, fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Chechnya, and was the al-Qaeda commander responsible for defending Kandahar airport with the Taliban in 2001.
Despite Ahrar Al-Sham’s ties to Al-Qaeda, the Obama administration did not list Ahrar al-Sham on its list of terrorist organizations, and the group was allowed to publish an Op-ed in the Washington Post in July 2015, while a sympathetic article about the group was published in the New York Times one month later. These articles seemed to be part of a US campaign to paint the group as “moderate” despite its Jihadist ideology, ties to Al-Qaeda, and praise of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, describing him as the embodiment of “the true meanings of Jihad and sincerity” after his death. The NYT tried to justify Ahrar Al-Sham’s praise of Mullah Omar by citing a cleric close to the group who contends that it “contained only an extremist minority.” A senior figure from Ahrar Al-Sham, Labib Nahhas, was then quietly allowed to visit the United States in May 2016.
Qatar is also a financial supporter of Jund al-Aqsa, a Jihadist group founded in Syria in 2013 by Abu Abdulaziz al-Qatari. Al-Qatari worked with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and also helped found the organization that became Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2003. Al-Qatari later left Iraq and provided support to AQI from Qatar. In 2012, the current leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent al-Qatari to Syria to help form the Nusra Front in 2012. The Nusrah Front and the Islamic State later formally split due to internal disagreements. Al-Qatari then formed Jund al-Aqsa, which cooperated in military operations with the Islamic State before later formally joining the Nusra Front when Nusra changed its name to the Conquest Front (Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham).

In September 2014, when asked to comment about Qatar’s role in supporting Jihadist militant groups in Syria, the State Department made clear that Qatar is “a valuable partner to the United States” and plays “an influential role in the region through a period of great transformation.”

A less formal description of the Qatari (and Saudi) role in Syria was provided by former C.I.A. field officer Robert Baer: “[T]here are just too many groups. The Saudis and the Qataris are doing everything through intermediaries. People are being handed out money and told to ‘go blow shit up.’”

Support for Moderate Opposition is Weak

Also of interest is the question of whether the US was ever serious about supporting the secular rebels in Syria from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Despite Obama’s calls for regime change in Syria starting in 2011, and declarations about funding, training and arming secular rebels to fight against the Syrian regime, US support for such rebel groups has been weak.

For example, in June 2013 the Wall Street Journal optimistically reported that, “The Central Intelligence Agency has begun moving weapons to Jordan from a network of secret warehouses and plans to start arming small groups of vetted Syrian rebels within a month, expanding U.S. support of moderate forces battling President Bashar al-Assad.” However, reporting on the same CIA program 18 months later, in early 2015, the WSJ noted, “It didn’t take long for rebel commanders in Syria who lined up to join a Central Intelligence Agency weapons and training program to start scratching their heads,” because, “Some weapons shipments were so small that commanders had to ration ammunition. One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter. Rebel leaders were told they had to hand over old antitank missile launchers to get new ones—and couldn’t get shells for captured tanks. When they appealed last summer for ammo to battle fighters linked to al Qaeda, the U.S. said no.”

The 2014 Pentagon effort to train Syrian rebels to fight against the Islamic State, rather than the Assad regime, was similarly restrained. Reuters reported that in May 2015 the Pentagon started a program which had “trained only 60 fighters, falling far short of the original goal of 5,400 and so working out at a cost so far of nearly $10 million per trained fighter.” The International Business Times reported in 2015 that a group of US-trained rebels were kidnapped by al-Nusra militants just “days after being deployed in Syria,” suggesting the rather amateur nature of the training they received.

While rebel groups adopting a Jihadist ideology could count on receiving plenty of money and weapons via the Saudi, Qatari and Kuwaiti pipelines, authors Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss tell of a secular rebel commander in Syria who “complained he had to sell everything, from his family mining businesses in Hama to his wife’s jewelry, to keep his small start-up battalion of a few hundred afloat, whereas Jihadist leaders were turning up at safe houses throughout Syria with bags full of cash they were ready to dispense to their comrades to buy guns, bullets, and bombs.”2

What weapons do reach the secular Syrian rebels often end up in the hands of the stronger Jihadist rebel groups, while fighters in the secular rebel groups often defect to fight for the better funded and armed Jihadist groups as well. Foreign Policy reports that, “According to FSA officers, Nusra [Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria] routinely harvests up to half the weapons supplied by the Friends of Syria, a collection of countries opposed to Assad, and has regularly smashed FSA factions that were corrupt and inefficient — or that Nusra thought were getting too strong or too popular.” The Guardian reported in May 2013 that “FSA commanders say that entire units have gone over to al-Nusra while others have lost a quarter or more of their strength to them recently . . . . mainly because of a lack of weapons and ammunition.” The Financial Times cites one rebel commander who worked closely with the CIA as describing how commanders regularly exaggerated the number of fighters under their control to pocket the extra salaries paid by US intelligence, and that some “jacked up” weapons requests to sell on the black market to other rebel groups, including the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. The commander claimed that, “The CIA knew this of course. . . .it was the price of doing business.”

Another FSA commander lamented that, “Fighters feel proud to join al-Nusra because that means power and influence . . . Al-Nusra fighters rarely withdraw for shortage of ammunition or fighters and they leave their target only after liberating it.” In contrast, the Guardian quotes another FSA fighter from Hama who explains that, “Our main problem is that what we get from abroad is like a tap. Sometimes it’s turned on, which means weapons are coming and we are advancing, then, all of a sudden, the tap dries up, and we stop fighting or even pull out of our positions.”

One of the main “moderate” Syrian rebel groups to receive US aid is the Hazm Movement. The profile of the group was raised after the CIA provided it with TOW anti-tank missiles. The Los Angeles Times reported that in fact this support was not decisive, noting that only, “A select few rebel groups examined and ‘vetted’ for U.S. help have received a total of only a few dozen TOW antitank missiles, so few that they can be used only sparingly, resulting in a minimal effect on the battlefield.”

Further, it is not at all clear that these fighters are moderate at all. The Los Angeles Times also quoted several Hazm fighters in September 2014 as explaining that, “Nusra doesn’t fight us, we actually fight alongside them. We like Nusra.”

Also among the “moderate” Syrian rebels that received US aid is the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement which gained notoriety in July 2016 for beading a young Palestinian boy (whom they claimed was fighting for the Syrian government) and recording the act on film.

When US cut off aid to most of the pro-Western rebel groups in Northern Syria in December 2014 (without explanation), McClatchy reported that payments continued to Harakat Hazm and Nur al-din al-Zinki group in East Aleppo.

Eventually a conflict did break out between Nusra and the Hazm Movement in March 2015, after which Hazm decided to simply disband and allow its fighters to join other rebel groups, while Al-Zinki later merged with the Nusra Front in early 2017 as part of a new rebel coalition, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant Committee).

Did the US Intend to Fund Jihadist Rebels?

The strong Saudi, Kuwaiti, Qatari and Turkish support for Jihadist militants in Syria, with CIA blessing, coupled with weak US support for secular Syrian rebels, suggests a few possible conclusions regarding US policy toward Syria.

The public narrative put forward by US officials is that US planners are truly trying to support secular Syrian rebels in the FSA to overthrow Assad, but that their efforts have been undermined by its supposed allies in the Gulf and Turkey who continue to send money and weapons to Jihadist rebels, against US wishes.

Vice President Biden created considerable controversy when suggesting as much at a speech he gave in October 2014 at the Harvard Kennedy School. Biden claimed that “Our biggest problem is our allies” who “poured hundreds of millions dollars, and tens thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against al-Assad, accepted the people who would be in supply for Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and extremist elements of Jihadists coming from other parts of the world.”

Such a view is not credible however, given the extent of CIA involvement in coordinating weapons shipments of its Gulf allies to Syrian rebels, long after US planners knew that the Syrian insurgency was largely driven by Jihadists.

More likely is the possibility that the US wished to arm Jihadist rebels but had to do so from behind-the-scenes due to public relations and legal constraints. Obviously it is problematic to directly provide weapons to rebels that share the ideology of, and actively partner with Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Therefore enlisting the aid of Saudi Arabia and other close allies in the Gulf became the preferred option, “to keep its fingerprints off operations,” just as US planners had done in Afghanistan and Nicaragua decades before, and Libya more recently.

What is clear is that US planners wished Jihadist rebels success in threatening the Assad government. In November 2014, when US planners ordered airstrikes against members of the Nusra Front, they made clear that they were not targeting those elements of the group that were fighting the Assad government, but rather a small faction within Nusra (the Khorasan Group) that was allegedly planning attacks against the West. The US military press release insisted that “These strikes … did not target the Nusrah Front as a whole . . . They were directed at the Khorasan Group whose focus is not on overthrowing the Assad regime or helping the Syrian people.”

When US planners reversed course in November 2016 and began targeting the Nusra Front more broadly, they acknowledged the previous tacit understanding between the US and the Nusra militants they were now bombing. The Washington Post reports that “Officials who supported the shift said the Obama administration could no longer tolerate what one of them described as ‘a deal with the devil,’ whereby the United States largely held its fire against al-Nusra because the group was popular with Syrians in rebel-controlled areas and furthered the U.S. goal of putting military pressure on Assad.”

This shift occurred just as the hope of toppling the Assad was finally fading, due to the success of Russia’s intervention in defense of the Syrian government starting in 2015. Further, once the Syrian government liberated Aleppo from armed opposition groups (including the Nusra Front) in late 2016, pro-opposition Syria analyst Hassan Hassan noted that “[T]here was a tacit understanding that the game was over,” meaning that the US could no longer take the side of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, as the rebels no longer had a chance to overthrow the Assad government.

Conclusion

This essay has shown that, starting in 2011, US planners have willingly supported Jihadist insurgencies against both the Libyan and Syrian governments, in an effort to weaken the Syrian government’s close allies, Iran and Russia. Rather than providing weapons and financial support directly, US planners have relied heavily on their close allies in Qatari and Saudi intelligence to accomplish this goal. Despite assertions in the Western press that these close US allies in the Gulf have acted independently from the US when supporting extremist Islamic rebel groups, in fact the Gulf states have done this in an effort to assist US planners implement their foreign policy, as Saudi intelligence had in previous conflicts, in both Afghanistan and Nicaragua. In Western political discourse, it is widely assumed that US policy promotes stability, human rights, and democracy in the Middle East. The reality is unfortunately, quite the opposite. US policy in the region promotes instability, chaos, violence, terrorism and war, and deliberately so. US planners are willing to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of Syrians and Libyans, ensure the misery of hundreds of thousands more, and allow the growth of Islamic extremism, all in an effort to accomplish their desired foreign policy goals. US planners and politicians are not personally beheading hostages; however their willingness to pursue the policies discussed above is a testament to their barbarity nonetheless.

Notes

1The Muslim Brotherhood later played a large role in US plans to overthrow the Syrian government, forming the majority faction in the US-sponsored Syrian National Council, initially the main Syrian opposition exile group set up after the start of the protests in Syria in 2011.

2Hassan, H. and Weiss, M. ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. New York: Regan Arts, 2015, pg 181.

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