10 facts the government doesn’t want you to know about Syria

By Ian Sinclair | (Open Democracy) | – –

Following the Paris terrorist attacks on 13 November 2015, the British government has got its wish to join the air campaign against Islamic State (IS or ISIS) in Syria, winning the parliamentary vote on 2 December 2015.

With many of the government’s dubious assertions often either repeated or not examined by the media, in addition to the government choosing not to relay inconvenient information, here is a list of ten key facts that are essential to understanding the West’s involvement in Syria.

Fact 1: The West has been involved in the Syrian conflict since 2012

The dominant narrative, repeatedly pushed by the liberal media, is that the West has declined to get involved in the Syrian conflict, its inaction leading to the conflict escalating out of control.

In the real world the US started helping to arm the Syrian rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian government from summer 2012 onwards. By March 2013 the New York Times was quoting experts who said these arms shipments totalled 3,500 tons of military equipment. Citing Jordanian security sources, in the same month the Guardian reported that US, UK and French personnel were training Syrian rebels in Jordan. Later that year the New York Times noted that US and UK intelligence services were secretly working with Saudi Arabia to deliver weapons to the rebels. The US and UK cooperation with Saudi Arabia was covert, the report explained, because “American and British intelligence and Arab governments… do not want their support publicly known”. By June 2015 US officials told the Washington Post that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had trained and equipped 10,000 Syrian rebels at a cost of $1bn.

Fact 2: The West has known that extremists were prominent in the Syrian insurgency, and that the arms they sent into Syria have often ended up in the hands of extremists, since 2012

After “extensive interviews with Syria policymakers from the Obama Administration” McClatchy’s Hannah Allam recently noted the Obama Administration “was warned early on [in 2012] that al Qaida-linked fighters were gaining prominence within the anti-Assad struggle.”

Despite this, from 2012 the US has given a wink and a nod to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to support the Syrian rebels. This use of proxies has continued despite it being clear since at least October 2012 that arms provided by Qatar and Saudi Arabia were going to hardline Islamic jihadists – a  front page New York Times headline stating ‘Rebel Arms Flow is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria’.

What is essential to understand here is that the US already knew Qatar had a predilection for arming extremists, following the December 2012 New York Times online headline: ‘US-Approved Arms for Libya Rebels Fell Into Jihadis’ Hands’. Quoting US officials and foreign diplomats, the report summarises: “The Obama administration secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar last year, but American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants”. US officials were aware of this “Within weeks of endorsing Qatar’s plan to send weapons there in spring 2011”, the New York Times notes.

Fact 3: The US has encouraged ‘moderate’ rebel groups to work with the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and has probably knowingly supported jihadis itself

In May 2015, Charles Lister, a leading expert on the Syrian insurgency, wrote about the US-led operations room in southern Turkey which co-ordinates the lethal support given to opposition groups in Syria, noting the US-led operations room “specifically encouraged a closer co-operation with Islamists commanding frontline operations,” including the Nusra Front. Furthermore, in July 2015 the New York Times reported that although the US-trained Division 30 Syrian rebels were attacked by the Nusra Front when they entered Syria after their training, US officials said “they expected the Nusra Front to welcome Division 30 as an ally in its fight against the Islamic State.”

In addition, a formerly classified US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) report from 2012 noted that “the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI (al-Qaida in Iraq) are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” The next sentence of the report is as follows: “The West, Gulf countries and Turkey support the opposition”. US support for “the crazies” in Syria was confirmed by General Michael T Flynn, the Director of the DIA from 2012-14, in an interview with journalist Mehdi Hasan on Al-Jazeera in July 2015.

Fact 4: The West has prolonged the fighting and blocked a peaceful solution to the conflict

According to the prime minister’s official response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on UK military action in Syria ,“since the start of the crisis the UK has worked for a political solution in Syria”.

In reality, by arming and training the Syrian opposition the West has helped to intensify and prolong the conflict. In May 2013 Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations warned the “Western arming of rebels is ill-advised given its… encouragement of escalation and maximalism”. In the same month Dr Christopher Phillips, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, noted that arming the rebels “will likely exacerbate and prolong the civil war”. More than two years later in October 2015 the New York Times noted that increased levels of US support to the rebels (and Russian support to the Syrian government) “have raised morale on both sides of the conflict, broadening war aims and hardening political positions, making a diplomatic settlement all the more unlikely.”

In addition, Avi Shlaim, Professor Emeritus at Oxford University, recently explained that Western insistence that Syrian president Bashar Assad must step down sabotaged Kofi Annan’s UN efforts to set up a peace deal and forced Kofi Annan to resign. Hugh Roberts, the former Director of the North Africa Project at the International Crisis Group, echoes this analysis: “The Western powers… sabotaged the efforts of the UN special envoys, Kofi Annan and then Lakhdar Brahimi, to broker a political compromise that would have ended the fighting”, he wrote in the London Review of Books. Roberts concludes that “Western policy has been a disgrace and Britain’s contribution to it should be a matter of national shame.”

Fact 5: The West has helped to create the conditions in Syria and Iraq that have allowed IS to grow and prosper

The role of the US-UK invasion and occupation of Iraq in the rise of IS is relatively well known. But very few people make the connection between Western intervention in Syria and the growth of IS. In August 2014, the Independent’s veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn, argued that the “US government as a whole – and foreign powers steer away from one very crucial aspect of the rise of ISIS, which is that in Syria, the West backed the uprising against President Assad, and still does, and this enabled ISIS to develop, gain military experience and then use it back in Iraq.”

This is because, as two former NATO Secretary-Generals, Javier Solana and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, warned in June 2013: “Rather than secure humanitarian space and empower a political transition, Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality gaining strength across the country.” [my emphasis added] The Executive Director of the women’s human rights organisation MADRE, Yifat Susskind, agrees, noting in May 2013 that: “Funnelling more arms to the [Syrian] opposition would fuel their brutal battle tactics, intensify the war, and further diminish chances of a democratic outcome for Syria.”

Fact 6: The West’s allies in the region have been supporting extremists in Syria, including IS

As mentioned above, the West, as well as working closely with its allies in the region – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – to arm the rebels, has also allowed them to support the more extreme Syrian rebel groups. US Vice-President Joe Biden said in October 2014: “Our allies in the region were our largest problem”. Referring to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Biden explained “They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war. What did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad; except that the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world”.

According to an August 2014 article in the Washington Post, Turkey “rolled out the red carpet” to Islamic State and other jihadists fighting the Syrian Government. Wounded jihadists from IS and the Nusra Front were treated at Turkish hospitals while Turkish border towns became way stations for moving foreign fighters and arms into Syria. IS “were able to grow in power partly by using the border region of a NATO member – Turkey – as a strategically vital supply route and entry point to wage their war”, the Washington Post notes. Similarly, the Guardian’s Martin Chulov reported in November 2015 that “over the past two years several senior ISIS members have told the Guardian that Turkey preferred to stay out of their way and rarely tackled them directly.”

Fact 7: Western airstrikes in Syria and Iraq have killed hundreds of civilians

Speaking to the House of Commons, the prime minister said there has been “no reports of civilian casualties” from the more than 300 UK airstrikes in Iraq on IS. The government’s claim was helpfully repeated by Labour MP Dan Jarvis and the media, with Iain Dale arguing the French airstrikes immediately after the attacks in Paris “targeted the training camps. So they are not targeting civilians. If you look at the number of civilian deaths from American and French airstrikes they are very, very small.”

Contrast Jarvis’s and Dale’s wishful thinking with the recent Mirror report that noted “Anti-ISIS activists in Syria claim a stadium, a museum, medical clinics and a political building have been hit after France launched airstrikes in retaliation for the Paris terror attack”. More broadly, in August 2015 Air Wars, an organisation run by a team of independent journalists, estimated that the 5,700 airstrikes against IS in Syria and Iraq has killed more than 450 civilians, including more than 100 children.

Fact 8: Western bombing of IS is counterproductive and has likely boosted recruitment to the group

In his official response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on UK military action in Syria, the prime minister stated: “I believe that we should now take the decision to extend British airstrikes against ISIL into Syria, as an integral part of our comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIL and reduce the threat it poses to us.”

The problem with this argument is that Western bombing, as Professor of Peace Studies Paul Rogers explains, plays into IS’s narrative that it is the guardian of Islam under attack from “crusader” forces. Jurgen Todenhofer, a German author who spent ten days with IS in 2014, argues that Western airstrikes “will fill ISIS fighters with joy”, with the inevitable civilian casualties that come from bombing drawing in fresh recruits for their cause. James Comey, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), concurs, telling Congress in September 2014 that US bombing of IS in Iraq had increased support for the group.

This helps to explain why although “the US-led bombing campaign has killed an estimated 20,000 Islamic State fighters”, according to senior US military official quoted in an October 2015 USA Today report, IS’s “overall force… remains about where it was when the bombing started: 20,000 to 30,000 fighters.” 

Fact 9: Western airstrikes will likely contribute to the refugee crisis

In his official response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on UK military action in Syria, the prime minister expressed concern that “Half the population of Syria have been forced to flee their homes” with “over 4 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries” and “a further 6.5 million people are displaced inside the country”.

However, in November 2015 a group of Middle East specialists from the University of Oxford and the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) urged the government to reflect on whether the UK joining the air campaign in Syria will “impact on the refugee crisis.” Neil Quilliam, the acting head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, was blunter in his warning, noting that “there is a significant risk that, by increasing the violence through airstrikes, the UK will further contribute to the flow of refugees from Syria”. As was Melanie Ward, the Associate Director at the International Rescue Committee, who said an upsurge in air strikes in Syria “inevitably risks” an increase in people fleeing the conflict.

Fact 10: The Government’s claim that there are 70,000 moderate Syrian rebels willing to work with the West is completely bogus

According to the prime minister’s official response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on UK military action in Syria “there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.”

The Guardian reported that this claim “prompted an awkward stand-off” in the Commons Defence Committee, with the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff refusing to provide a breakdown of which groups made up the 70,000 figure. Pressed by committee chair Julian Lewis MP to identify the groups, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP replied feebly: “We will certainly reflect on that.” With pressure mounting The Times revealed the Ministry of Defence had warned the prime minister against claiming there were 70,000 moderate rebels ready to fight IS, fearing it would echo Tony Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’.

After travelling to Cairo, Amman and Beirut as a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi argued that the government figure of 70,000 “must be treated with caution.” According to the military experts she met while on the official trip, there would be a struggle to find 20,000, she said.

Cockburn believes the existence of 70,000 moderate Syrian rebels willing to work with the West in fighting IS “is very debatable”. David Wearing, a Lecturer and Researcher on the Middle East at SOAS agrees, calling it “a completely nonsense number”. Professor Joshua Landis, the Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, is also dismissive, as is Aymenn al-Tamimi, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum and specialist on the Syrian insurgency. Tamimi, according to Cockburn, warns that rebel groups “commonly exaggerate their numbers, are very fragmented and have failed to unite, despite years of war.” Furthermore he notes that the rebel groups often pretend to the outside world to be more moderate than they actually are.

Via Open Democracy


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Vice News: “British War Veterans Demonstrate Against Syria Airstrikes: VICE News Quick Hit”

Posted in Syria | 13 Responses | Print |

13 Responses

  1. These points have bee obvious for quite a while–but Western media have propagandized their publics for years, disseminating misinformation and various delusions to bolster the logic of removing Assad.

    I guess the contradictions with this can no longer be sustained.

  2. Overall, this is a good article that quotes the eminent authorities in the field of the Syria situation, including Professor Landis of Syria Comment.

    Additional points:

    (1) there is a general fear in the West that if adequate intervention is not effectuated that the flag of ISIS or the al-Nusra Front will eventually fly over Damascus and cause a grave threat to U.S. foreign policy interests in the region;

    (2) Russian military intervention has been inevitable as the Assad regime nears financial collapse – its monetary reserves during the civil war have dwindled from $30 billion to $1 billion;

    (3) Russia’s diplomatic assistance is needed to persuade Assad to transfer limited power to opposition representatives as part of a transition government – currently Assad and his extended family members enjoy effective dictatorial control over the areas of Syria controlled by government forces;

    (4) coordinated airstrikes worked against the Taliban in Afghanistan and can be used against Islamic extremists in Syria with equal success – “collateral damage” is always a by-product of such air power as is adverse reaction from civilians in the areas targeted for air strikes;

    (5) ISIS has become a major player in the international opium trade from poppies grown in Afghanistan – this an additional reason the U.S. has an interest in targeting ISIS;

    (6) the Geneva II conference mediated by Lakhdar Brahimi was a failure due to the Assad regime’s failure to negotiate in good faith – it came on the heels of key Baathist government victories against rebel forces that ensured the viability of the Damascus-to-Latakia supply corridor;

    (7) There is a command center headquartered near Amman, Jordan of Western intelligence services from the U.S., Israel, and other friendly nations that are attempting to coordinate and support the rebel opposition to the Baathist government in Damascus;

    (8) international financial sanctions against Syria have been devastating and have caused Syria to utilize Russian and Qatari financial institutions – who have also been investigated for possible sanctions, with one Russian bank being sanctioned;

    (9) the “Islamic Front”, heavily financed by Saudi and Qatari interests to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, have fought ISIS and are not traditional “jihadists” in the mold of al-Qaeda – the Islamic Front could play a key role in advancing Western interests;

    (10) various Kurdish forces (YPG, and limited numbers of Peshmerga from Iraq) within Syria have fought ISIS and have been generally friendly to Western interests – including a support role in Operation Inherent Resolve;

    (11) Robert Ford, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria in Damascus during the Obama administrations, became a critic of the U.S. State Department’s handling of the Syria situation and emphasized that arming moderate rebels in Syria posed a danger that those arms could likely wind up in the hands of Islamic extremist forces;

    (12) the Baathist government in Damascus has sponsored 27 “convenient” torture centers throughout Syria that kill an average of four Syrians per day – primarily political prisoners – the Baathist military and police forces regularly target civilians and are responsible for 76% of the total civilian deaths that have occurred as a result of the civil war.

    • How do you conclude that the Islamic Front “are not traditional “jihadists” in the mold of al-Qaeda” and “could play a key role in advancing Western interests”? We invaded Afghanistan to deny them a home; giving them one in Syria has been criminal lunacy. The following facts have been pretty well publicised:

      “The Islamic Front’s charter rejects the concepts of representative democracy and secularism, instead seeking to establish an Islamic state ruled by a Majlis-ash-Shura and implementing sharia.”

      “Islamic Front leader Zahran Alloush gave a speech on the merits of Hajj in 2013 and praised Usama bin Laden”

      “Alloush gave a speech during Ramadan of 2013 attacking Shia whom he called “Rafidis” (الرافضة) and Alawites, whom he called “Nusayris” and the “Majus” (المجوس)(Zoroastrians), addressing them as “filthy” (الأنجاس) and saying that “the Mujahideen of Shaam will cleanse Shaam of the Filth of Rafidis & Rafidism, they will cleanse it for ever in sha Allah, till they will cleanse the land of Shaam of the filth of the Majoos (Fireworshippers) who fought the Religion of Allah the Almighty”,”the Shia are still despicable & pitiful though history”, “And I give you the news, oh Filthy Rafidis: Just as Banu Umayya crushed your heads in the Past, the people of Ghouta & Shaam will crush them soon, They will make you taste a painful torment in this world, before Allah makes you taste it in the Hereafter, Oh you unclean Rafidis! You will collide into what you’ve never expected of Power from the Mujahideen of Islam”

      • Several points:

        (1) the genesis of the Islamic Front (IF) was the rejection of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as the representative of the Syrian people as a government-of-exile – they formerly fought alongside the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army who owed their allegiance to the SNC;

        (2) the Islamic Front is an umbrella group of dozens of constituent brigades whose primary purpose is to coordinate military action and facilitate distribution of arms – Alloush whom you quote is merely a leader of a subgroup (Jaysh al-Sham) within the IF, however the political office of IF is controlled by Ahrar-al-Sham, who was wooed for support by Western diplomats at the Ankara Conference – but rejected such proposed support – neither the IF nor Ahrar al-Sham has been designated as a foreign terror organization (FTO) by the U.S. State Department and has been described as subscribing to “Revisionist Jihadism” – a “softer” version of Islamic fundamentalism by at least one observer:

        link to warontherocks.com

        (3) agreed that the IF membership does not generally embrace democratic principles, but rather adherence to Muslim fundamentalist forms of governance – but they have eschewed the violent suicide attacks that have been the hallmark of the al-Nusra Front and ISIS;

        (4) the Free Syrian Army have generally been allied with the IF, and the Islamic Front has clashed extensively with ISIS on the battlefield – the IF has been a key restraining force against ISIS within Syria.

  3. The guy is hardly a minor figure in the movement. He preaches the torture and murder of other sects. The charter of the movement opposes democracy. He is allied to a movement we’re still supposedly at war with. Your opposition to Assad has blinded you to the obvious: the west has no rationale for backing this movement that could possibly withstand public scrutiny.

    Now if our leader’s true objectives are far more brutal, it’s a different story. Yes, reducing yet another regional rival of Israel to bloody chaos can be achieved. Yes, preventing the consolidation of a pro-Iranian bloc can be achieved, at the expense of any prospect of civilization in Syria for god knows how long. Yes, the Saudis and Neo-Ottomans can pursue their own concept of caliphate. But there is no way to square all this with the professed western aims, which include peace. Clearly, religious minorities have no choice but to fight the Islamic Front; would you expect any Alawi who seems them coming to think “Let’s not panic, these soldiers might not be part of the sub group that has sworn to torture and kill us.”?

    • “The guy (Alloush) is hardly a minor figure in the movement.”

      He is chief of military operations for the Islamic Front.

      “He is allied to a movement we are supposedly at war with.”

      America is not “at war” with the Islamic Front, who declined several invitations from U.S. diplomats to join the Geneva II conference and who further declined U.S. aid during the Ankara Conference – preferring to keep its distance from America and rely upon donations from Persian Gulf states.

      “………the west has no rationale for backing this movement that could possibly withstand public scrutiny.”

      Some U.S. officials view the Islamic Front as a “swing vote” that could tip the balance of anti-Assad forces away from the jihadist extremism of the al-Nusra Front and ISIS.

      Some relevant links on these issues:

      link to washingtoninstitute.org

      link to carnegieendowment.org

      link to carnegieendowment.org

      link to carnegieendowment.org

      link to carnegieendowment.org

      • “He is chief of military operations for the Islamic Front.” Yes. That makes him important.

        “He is allied to a movement we are supposedly at war with.”
        I meant Al Qaeda. To quote Alloush once more: “The summary of this issue is that we in Jaish Al-Islam praise our brothers of the Nusrah Front and we don’t consider them Khawarij as is propagated against us, We fight alongside them and they fight alongside us”. Remember Al Qaeda? They were a big deal until some cynics in the US government quietly decided otherwise. I even referred to group above: “We invaded Afghanistan to deny them a home; giving them one in Syria has been criminal lunacy.”

        Any US official who thinks the Islamic Front is a “swing vote” and some kind of acceptable jihadist group should be taken down to Ground Zero to have their face pushed into the rubble, much the same way you’d house train a dumb animal. You read Alloush’s quotes; no parsing or pretense can hide the inhumanity they express.

  4. So what’s the end game for the Obama administration? Why stoke the flames of civil war? The collapse of the Assad regime is probably the worst outcome, besides an ISIS flag in Damascus. Is it to weaken to Assad to a stalemate and the only option is a diplomatic solution?

  5. Just wanted to add to ‘Fact 4: The West has prolonged the fighting and blocked a peaceful solution to the conflict’:

    link to theguardian.com

    I find this particularly appalling since any deal we are going to negotiate will look eerily similar to the above.

  6. The Vatican Radio reported a direct plea from a Roman Catholic Bishop in Aleppo for the “world powers’ to stop funding terrorism – highlighting, as a view from the ground too, all that this article pointedly raises:

    link to en.radiovaticana.va

  7. A kind of obvious question here. The West is not the only player here. Most obvious is the criminal Assad regime, as I shouldn’t have to explain in a venue like this. Russia has been backing it and the Islamic Republic of Iran has done likewise. The only mention here excuses Putin’s intervention on Assad’s behalf as “inevitable” given Western mischief. The sectarian Iraqi government has to take a great deal of responsibility for setting up this crisis. And the undisciplined behavior of the sectarian militias when they seized land in the Iraqi Sunni heartland has stoked fears of massacre there should they eventually get the upper hand.

    I’m not objecting to the facts and arguments in this piece. But surely a more well-rounded picture is necessary!

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