US Arms Shiite Iraqi Gov’t to Kill Sunni Rebels, Arms Syrian Sunni Rebels to overthrow Shiite Gov’t

(By Juan Cole)

It can only be called an Escherian Mobius Strip foreign policy.

The Obama administration is sending hellfire missiles and surveillance drones to the Shiite Islamic Mission Party-dominated government of Iraq to help in the latter’s struggle against radical Sunni rebels who have increased their bombings and attacks this year. If the helicopter gunships and missiles really could take out the radicals that would be all to the good, but one suspects that the al-Maliki government can only prevail against them if it reaches out politically to the Sunni Arab community (it hasn’t).

Ironically, the Sunni radicals in Iraq are much the same as those in Syria. Indeed, there is a united Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that operates both in Falluja and Aleppo. Some of the Iraqi radicals’ new momentum comes from the money and aid they have received for their Syrian operations from wealthy Gulf residents in places like Kuwait.

But in the case of Syria, the US is supporting the rebellion against the Baath government of Bashar al-Assad, which is dominated at the upper echelons by members of the Shiite Alawite sect.

Although the US is not backing the radical Sunni fighters of northern Syria in specific, the latter increasingly predominate among the rebels and hold the majority of liberated territory. US military support for the rebels, allegedly already being supplied covertly, inevitably leaks to the radicals.

Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Bob Casey (D-NJ) and others close to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee introduced a bill in May formally to arm the Syrian opposition. In Iraq, what we found was that weapons given to the Iraqi government troops often ended up being sold to insurgents because of corruption.

President Obama should just exercise a veto and tell Menendez and AIPAC “no.”

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is close to Iran and to the Baath government of Bashar al-Assad, and it is alleged that 70% of the materiel imported to Damascus is coming from Iraq.

So the US is supporting the Shiite government of Iraq, which supports Iran and Syria, against Sunni extremists. But it is backing Sunni rebels in Syria against the Alawite Shiite government in Damascus

The Baath government in Damascus is now peopled with war criminals and the world must sanction it. But al-Qaeda affiliates such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Jabhat al-Nusra (Succor Front) are extremely dangerous and Menendez and others are bonkers to risk allowing medium and heavy arms to fall into their hands.

(Likewise, Saudi Arabia, which has broken with the US over its negotiations with Iran, its support for al-Maliki, and its refusal to intervene directly in Syria to overthrow al-Assad, is crazy to risk having those al-Qaeda types take over Damascus; how long would it be before they were in Riyadh blowing things up?)

Ever since Ronald Reagan supported the raising of a private jihadi army in Afghanistan to fight Communism in the 1980s, the US has constantly been tempted to ally with such groups.

It is time for Obama to resist that temptation.

As for Iraq, the price tag for the hellfires should include al-Maliki’s agreement to stop excluding the Iraqi Sunnis politically.

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45 Responses

  1. Since the US arrogantly took a bad situation in Iraq and made it worse, I guess it is morally and legally responsible for trying to right the disaster we created. Unfortunately, the American people need help at this point too, but will not get it.

    • Seems to me that this is not a China shop with signs that say “You break it, you bought it.” Moral and legal obligation to do WHAT? There are no tools, no doctrines, no tactics in our Great Game toybox that bear a snowball’s chance of
      making anything “better” — it’s all about who we arm, who McCain buddies with, who our sneaky-petes figure they can manipulate so the real Players get what THEY want — a profitable instability, with continued extraction of carbon “wealth” and lots of “chat rooms” wherein to conduct the manifold corrupt ions that seem to be so horribly cynically inevitable. Behind a thin screen of sonorous sound bites, over a flood of BS.

      our rulers have neither the incentive or the intelligence to simply “go no harm,” and because there is no “morality” in the Game, there’s zero pressure to let any daylight or comity into the Playing. The killings will continue until the cows come home, in large part because “geopolitics” profits from a steady diet of conflict. Arming for present idiocy is an investment in the future of the Game…

  2. billmon

    We’ve gone Oceania 1 better: We’re at war with Eastasia & Eurasia at the same time, while denying we’re at war with either of them.

  3. Not at all surprising. When the stock market is doing bad stockbrokers are all to willing to help paniced investors sell their stocks and when the stock market is doing well stock brokers are all to willing to help hopeful investors buy stocks.
    Ditto with real estate agents and rental property. Though the real estate agents to work much harder.

  4. “As for Iraq, the price tag for the hellfires should include al-Maliki’s agreement to stop excluding the Iraqi Sunnis politically.”

    Even more important, the price tag should ensure that al-Maliki cease acting in Iran’s interests and begin respecting U.S. interests in the region. No more overflights as a bridge to Syria. No more conduit of Iranian arms and fighters to Syria. And no more support for Iran when that support would conflict with U.S. interests.

    Perhaps al-Maliki would consider such terms too hard to swallow. Fine. No one is forcing him to take the Hellfires and surveillance drones. He is now facing the consequences of denying the U.S. a continued presence when he refused to agree to the Status of Forces Agreement. Personally I’m glad to see us completely out of Iraq. But there is a certain satisfaction in noting that al-Maliki is now suffering the consequences of his impetuous, short-sighted denial of an agreement that would have made his government more secure against radical Jihadists.

    • These observations are togue-in-cheek, right? The whole imperial arrogance and Exceptional Superiority schtick? Since you speak for the Traditional Narrative, I guess maybe not? “You, Maliki, should do what we told you to do”? And that would have “made his government more secure”? Your version of democracy, or more honestly those special “national interests”?

      • Not “Imperial Arrogance” at all. Al-Maliki rejected the Status of Forces Agreement, and we departed Iraq. But now that al-Maliki comes to us as a mendicant requesting security assistance, surely we have a right to place conditions on that assistance.

  5. The title is a cute way of putting it, but only really reflects the fact that the majority of the population in Iraq is Shiite and the majority of the population in Syria is Sunni.

  6. But in the case of Syria, the US is supporting the rebellion against the Baath government of Bashar al-Assad,

    Really? How so? With words? In fact American imperialism has been not provided any weapons to the FSA as the NY Times has reported, let alone the jihadists who might be targeted with drones as the LA Times reported.

      • But only to “moderate rebels,” and of the Warriors of Anomie end up with them, that’s just “leakage.” From what I read…

      • Reuters, Sept. 10:
        One U.S. government source said it was “unlikely” that any U.S.-supplied arms were on the ground in the hands of Syrian rebels at this time, while not dismissing the possibility that such aid was in the works.

        Meanwhile, even as lethal aid never materialized, non-lethal aid as well was terminated after the warehouse in the north was overrun. Maybe Juan meant to write “Obama admin has admitted promising covert aid to rebels” as in “Obama admin has promised that the economy will be fully recovered”.

        • The New York Times article by its investigative staff had indicated that the Central Intelligence Agency had brokered arms sales to the rebels and cited an example of an arms purchase from Croatia. The “supply line” consists of Turkish and Arab nation’s cargo planes delivering the weapons to Turkey for eventual distribution. Who actually pays for the arms themselves may not be the U.S. government, but the U.S. , per a Chicago Tribune article, has been supervising the actual distribution of weapons via CIA personnel neat the Turkish border with Syria.

          The U.S. State Department has been giving “non-lethal” aid funding to the Free Syrian Army via the Syrian Support Group, which is chaired by Chicago attorney and is the “implementing agency” for State Department funding to the Free Syrian Army. Non-lethal aid consists not only of food and medical supplies, but can include military hardware such as radios and military jackets.

          The danger in not supplying the Free Syrian Army is that rebels from that group may defect over to the Islamic Front or other umbrella organizations that may be less amenable to U.S. interests – and there are reports that this already has been happening.

          The Syrian Support Group has verified delivery of shipments of supplies to rebel leaders by creating a videotape record of the actual deliveries to satisfy the State Department that the items are being received by the appropriate groups.

        • Of course there is this report from the WP, and a whole lot more sources if you look:

          “The CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria, ending months of delay in lethal aid that had been promised by the Obama administration, according to U.S. officials and Syrian figures. The shipments began streaming into the country over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear — a flow of material that marks a major escalation of the U.S. role in Syria’s civil war.

          The arms shipments, which are limited to light weapons and other munitions that can be tracked, began arriving in Syria at a moment of heightened tensions over threats by President Obama to order missile strikes to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons in a deadly attack near Damascus last month.”

          link to

          And then there’s this, from Admiral Dempsey, a useful caution from the dude who would have to “manage” the blowback:

          link to

  7. What this legal positioning is doing is making middlemen richer. If the rebels don’t get subsidized arms from the West, they’ll just have to pay a broker more.

    If I wasn’t such a cynic, I would think American arms manufacturers would PREFER the AIPAC plan failing.

  8. President Obama doesn’t have to issue a veto against Menendez’s bill. Such a bill will never pass Congress. Neither Harry Reid nor John Boehner will even let it come up for a vote.

    And you’re quite right that the weaponry being sold to Iraq isn’t appropriate for the security challenge posed by the radical Sunni terrorists. Those items are straight-up military wish-list items, intended to bolster Iraq’s conventional military capability against conventional enemies like foreign militaries.

    • Hellfires launched from light aircraft with CIA targeting “assistance” are for fighting conventional enemies? Really? Which ones with what capabilities and plans? Or is it just the idiot MIC pitch that you need all the “capability” and attendant fraud, corruption and incentive to idiot mischief your national wealth can pay for?

      • I didn’t think my last sentence was particularly opaque. What part of “conventional enemies like foreign militaries” are you having trouble with?

        You have a bad habit of not understanding things, realizing you don’t understand them, and deciding you’re against them anyway.

  9. ” Oh why can’t the Sunnis and the Shiites just be friends, oh why can’t the Sunnies and the Shiites just be friends —–just like that song in Oklahoma–

  10. The only solution at this time are strong dictatorships whether secular or religious no matter—the only way to keep the peace and we should keep out of the way

  11. Several years ago a so-called titan of Wall Street said in a television interview that morality does not play a role in business decisions. Similarly, religion does not play a role in foreign policy decision-making in Washington. Only perceived interests do. Even if there is good reason to believe in the likelihood of blowback.

    • That RT piece is interesting mainly for the insight it provides into Russian thinking. The claim that al Qaeda is in a position, or close to a position, to establish a state in Iraq is absurd, but illustrative of the Russians’ fear (genuine or ginned up) of Sunni jihadis. Note the discipline with which Mr. Colmain repeats the Assad regime’s terminology, like “so-called insurgency” or “so-called opposition,” “terrorists” as the generic term for the rebels, and his use of that wonderful phrase “it’s very clear that” before he tells a big whopper.

    • Looks like the map of Greater Syria advocated by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

  12. When the U.S. arms opposite sides of a conflict – and U.S. imperialism basically sees both the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts as one big Mideast blowup that Bush instigated in 2003 – its goal is to simply prolong the fighting. This serves the two basic goals of imperialism, which are destabilization and injury, which overall weaken opposition to hegemony. We already know who later usually gets to pick up the pieces it most wants.

    • “When the U.S. arms opposite sides of a conflict – and U.S. imperialism basically sees both the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts as one big Mideast blowup that Bush instigated in 2003 – its goal is to simply prolong the fighting.”

      Supplying Iran and Iraq at the same time was one precedent.

  13. The areas colored white on the map – as well as the black and red parts – represent the Greater Syria (‘Natural Syria’) claimed by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, founded in 1932 by Antun Saadeh, a Syrian nationalist of Greek Orthodox background and fascist inclinations.

    The version of the Greater Syria map that Juan posted here may not have been designed with his point in mind, but it covers the countries he is talking about and works as an illustration (with the exception of the fringes colored white, the parts of Saadeh’s ‘Natural Syria’ that extend beyond modern state boundaries). It happens to be available without copyright restrictions on Wikipedia, which is probably why he chose to use it.

  14. Is there any evidence that Sunni extremists in Iraq are getting aid from Saudi Arabia or other moderate Sunni-leaning governments? Also, are some of the arms going to Syria from Iraq leaking back to the Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq?

  15. If only these people were nomadic, Maliki could swap Sunni Iraq with Assad’s Syria and eliminate both problems. But years ago in an unguarded moment I half-humorously emailed the US ambassador from Turkey a seven-swap suggestion involving Turkey (and the Kurds), Greece, Cyprus, Israel (which wound up on Cyprus), Palestine, Iraq and others, which I thought really sorted out the Mideast very happily. I even refrained from giving Jerusalem to Walt Disney. But a few days later malware tried to connect my computer with something in Turkey, so I guess that the answer was “No thanks.”

    • John, thanks for that little vignette, from an apparent insider. Glimpses like this, taken with the stuff that Wikileaks let us mopes get peeks into the world of “serious Players,” might get people to think a little more clearly about the kinds of people who “manage the planet” and “set policy” and set up the pungi pits and deadfalls and minefields of Future and Forever Conflict. I guess a sense of the ridiculous and a sense of humor might be helpful to retaining personal (if not “national interest”) sanity out there in the Great Game of Risk! ™.

      • Alas, if I were an insider I would solve far too many problems, but by massive foreign aid and domestic reform rather than warmongering. But if the refugee problem gets much worse there, I will propose approving the merger of Blackwater remnants and UHaul under UN control.

        • Just so you know, John, some of can recognize and even appreciate a joke when we see it.

          Loved the “refrained from giving Jerusalem to Walt Disney” line. Lol.

    • Sect is an English equivalent of “firqah.” Calling them al-firqah al-`Alawiyyah would be common in Arabic. There is even a hadith that the Muslim community will become 72 sects.

      What word would you use?

  16. When Iraq and Iran were at war in the 80s Henry Kissinger said: It’s a pity they can’t both lose. Arming Iraq and Syria against each other now is a continuing expression of the same desire.

  17. “So the US is supporting the Shiite government of Iraq, which supports Iran and Syria, against Sunni extremists. But it is backing Sunni rebels in Syria against the Alawite Shiite government in Damascus.” — Right, Juan, and this squarely bolsters what we can properly call the U.S. perpetual war, the perpetual war needed to sustain its war-based economy.

  18. American actions only appear to involve supporting “both sides” if you view the Syria and Iraq conflicts the way the jihadists do – as a fight between Sunnis and Shiites.

    But American policymakers don’t view things that way. Their approach to the region is perpendicular to that axis, and based on a different axis: liberal(ish)/democratic(ish)/pro-western(ish) vs. anti-western, illiberal, and anti-democratic.

    Kindly note that one need not accept that this framing is correct in order to understand that it is the framing being used by the United States.

  19. Shiite versus Sunni is Deep State policy, Juan. Hellfires aren’t going to stop the bombs in Iraq. Only US pressure on Saudi Arabia will do that.

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