What follows is a response to a July 26 article published at the Washington Post entitled “Why is the Trump Administration Empowering al-Qaeda in Syria?” penned by columnist Marc Thiessen. The article—while its headline sounds like something many non-interventionists would endorse—is so filled with errors, inaccuracies and omissions that it only seemed appropriate to address it paragraph-by-paragraph.
The article begins like this:
“Imagine that the president’s national security team walked into the Oval Office and proposed the following U.S. policy in Syria: Let’s create an al-Qaeda haven in southern Syria, by working with Russia to establish a cease-fire area where the terrorist network behind 9/11 is free to operate without fear of U.S. attack.”
In case the author hasn’t been paying attention, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the latest iteration of AQ in Syria, is primarily active in the north, around Idlib, not in the south.
With the exception of a portion of Southeast Syria that’s controlled by American-backed fighters, only a small pocket in the southwest is controlled by other rebels (some of which, such as the Knights of Golan, are friendly with the Israelis, and perhaps to the US also). Otherwise, excluding ISIS, the main jihadi rebel factions now hold power in the north. See here for a map that sketches the basic territorial holdings of the major factions fighting in the war.
Assad and his militia allies control large portions of the south (much to the chagrin of the US, which has bombed Assad-allied forces in the south numerous times in recent weeks), and they certainly have no interest in letting AQ have a safe haven there.
America, however, does, or at least did, have an interest in seeing the rise of Islamist groups in Syria. See the declassified 2012 DIA memo calling for the creation of a “Salafist principality” in order to “isolate” the Assad regime. Also acknowledged in that memo is the radical nature of the Sunni opposition. The US and its allies have willingly supported AQ and AQ-like groups in Syria all along.
By the way, when and where has the US actually gone after AQ in Syria? Almost never. It doesn’t happen, precisely for the reasons spelled out in the 2012 memo. For some time under the Obama administration, the US wanted AQ and its allies to succeed, because AQ’s goal was similar to the administration’s: isolate and/or remove Assad.
In a leaked recording of discussions between former Secretary of State John Kerry and a group of Syrian rebels, moreover, Kerry suggests that the administration thought it could “manage” the Islamic State and use it to threaten Assad, further supporting the idea that the US wanted to use jihadis, directly or indirectly, as proxies to carry out US policy.
“Then let’s have the Pentagon tell most pro-American Sunnis who want to fight with us that we will arm and train them only if they sign a pledge promising not to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has massacred their families with mortars and poison gas — likely driving most of the fighters into the waiting arms of al-Qaeda (which promises to help them against Assad). Then let’s cancel the covert CIA program under which we did allow a small number of rebels to fight Assad, and put out word that we are doing so as a concession to Moscow.”
What “pro-American Sunnis?” In an August 2014 New York Times interview with Thomas Friedman, even President Obama expressed doubts about the idea of arming a moderate Sunni opposition.
(Quote from the interview: “Even now, the president said, the administration has difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: ‘There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.'”) [Emphasis added]
If that were true in 2014, how much truer is it today? The whole point of the CIA and Pentagon’s arm/train programs was to find precisely these mythical moderate Sunnis, and they failed miserably.
The idea that not encouraging rebels to fight Assad will somehow empower AQ is ridiculous on its face. We can hurt AQ by attacking AQ’s most capable adversary? This is like Scott Horton’s joke about the US Civil War, that if we want to defeat the Confederate South, first we have to defeat the Union North, its enemy. This makes absolutely no sense, yet it’s a perfect analogy to what the author is arguing.
Thiessen also smuggled in a throwaway remark about poison gas, but investigative reporter Sy Hersh threw cold water on the most recent claim regarding Assad and chemical weapons (CW) in a report published late last month, citing military and intelligence sources who directly challenged the Trump administration’s narrative on the April 4 incident in Khan Sheikhoun.
The above corroborates what retired Army intelligence and CIA officer Phil Giraldi told radio host Scott Horton in an April 6 interview, just hours before Trump launched a missile strike in retaliation for the alleged chemical attack.
After another CW incident in 2013, Hersh also debunked assertions of the Assad regime’s guilt in two explosive reports at the London Review of Books, bolstered further by the work of MIT professor emeritus Theodore Postol, who concluded the 2013 attack most likely could not have been carried out by the regime.
“Instead of Sunni fighters, we’ll team up with the Kurdish Marxist “People’s Defense Force” (YPG), a terrorist organization at odds with NATO ally Turkey.”
Notice how the author provides not a single shred of evidence to back up the notion that the YPG is a terrorist organization. Maybe this can be said of the PKK, but the YPG is a distinct group, and even then the claim is closer to Turkish state propaganda than it is an accurate assessment of the PKK.
Turkey, for its part, has maintained plenty of shady ties with radical Sunni factions, likely including ISIS. They’re not exactly an ally the US should bend over backwards to appease.
“We’ll use the YPG to attack just the Islamic State, leaving al-Qaeda unscathed and thus helping it reassert its supremacy over its rival for leadership of the global jihad.”
It’s ironic how during the liberation of Aleppo the Imperial Press complained to no end that Russia wasn’t targeting ISIS, instead focusing on other jihadi rebel factions occupying the city. Now the press, or at least this WaPo opinion writer and a few hawkish think tanks, are pissing and moaning that America is only going after ISIS, not other jihadi factions. These goalposts sure do seem to move around a lot.
“Let’s also have Defense Secretary Jim Mattis say publicly that we shouldn’t do anything to push back on the unprecedented expansion of Iranian military force in Syria, and even suggest that Iran can help with the fight against the Islamic State — totally undercutting the president’s stated aim of being tough on Iran.”
First of all, this is a good thing. Toughness toward Iran isn’t and hasn’t been a good strategy, often harming average Iranian citizens and driving them closer to the regime.
One of Obama’s very few good moves in his two terms was the JCPOA nuclear deal, which is coming along well. There have been no major issues to date (except, perhaps, on Trump’s end), and Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program is now subject to the tightest inspections regime to ever exist. Notice how years of hostility produced virtually nothing, yet the slightest nudge toward diplomacy had immediate success.
Assuming the US has to be involved in the Middle East (it does not), it makes sense to work with regional powers to handle a regional problem. In addition to his bluster about Iran, the president also pledged to fight “radical Islam,” a term that best applies to ISIS and its ideological cousins (and financial benefactors) in the Saudi royal family. Joining Iran in its fight with the Islamic State would stay true to that pledge.
Though surprising, the less aggressive attitude toward Iran and its militia proxies fighting in Syria recently expressed by the usually-Iranophobic Mattis is nonetheless a welcomed development.
Picking a fight with Iran, effectively starting an entirely new conflict before we sort out the 7 or so already ongoing, is an incredibly dangerous, shortsighted, stupid idea. Iran, with over twice the population, twice the GDP and nearly four times the land area of Iraq, won’t be the “cakewalk” American neoconservatives and other hawks foolishly thought Iraq would be.
“Then we’ll have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson state that ‘Russia has the same . . . interest that we do’ in Syria so we can help al-Qaeda recruit more Sunnis to its cause by telling them that the United States is allied with Russia, Iran, Shiites, Alawites and Kurds in a campaign to annihilate them — a message against which we will have no effective response because it will be true.”
Does the United States have to make rest of the planet into enemies in order to combat al-Qaeda, or what? As of now, it’s very clear to anyone who cares to look that the US is not an ally of Russia, Iran or Assad, despite the author’s suggestions to the contrary. Yet somehow, all this time groups like AQ and ISIS have nonetheless found a way to recruit Sunnis into their organizations.
Russia, Iran and Assad are and have been fighting AQ in Syria; if the US truly has a desire to beat back the terror group, it seems it would behoove the administration to work with those already involved in the fight (it should really just quit and leave, but that isn’t happening any time soon).
“‘Current US strategy empowers al-Qaeda, which has an army in Syria, is preparing to replace ISIS . . . [and] is more dangerous than ISIS,’ says a recent report from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project (CTP).”
Oh boy, know-nothing neocon think tankers have an opinion on something. Sounds reliable.
There really is no shame with these people, no self-awareness. You’d think a solid decade and a half of demonstrably terrible foreign policy advice would be enough to discredit those who offered it, but you’d be wrong. Switch the acronym from PNAC to ISW and the idiots are again experts.
“Our approach, the report declares, ‘is inadvertently fueling the global Salafi-jihadi insurgency’ because Sunnis see the United States as working with their mortal enemies.”
Who are we supposed to work with, then? The author tasks the United States with grand, globe-spanning projects, but insists it makes enemies out of anybody who might share some of its (ostensible) goals.
America has certainly bolstered AQ through its foreign policies, but that largely began with the invasion of Iraq—which the geniuses at ISW and AEI supported to the hilt—and then again when Obama doubled down and backed the Syrian opposition, which the hawkish think tankers again supported, and indeed still support.
If any single nation has “fueled the global Salafi-jihadi insurgency,” the United States is it.
“Al-Qaeda is taking advantage of this perception to build support among Sunni tribes, portraying itself as the defender of Sunni Arabs against a U.S.-Russo-Iranian axis intent on subjugating and destroying them.”
That train left the station a decade ago. AQ has been around for the entire duration of the Syrian war, yet the author speaks as if the group is just now coming into existence. His argument is, however, an extremely convenient way to blame Russia, Assad and Iran for the strength of AQ and skirt all American responsibility.
“Alienating the Sunni population is not the way to win the war against Islamist radicalism. Right now, al-Qaeda has established itself as the tip of the spear in the fight against the Assad regime, so many Sunnis who do not share al-Qaeda’s ideology are flocking to al-Qaeda because it is the only game in town for fighting Assad.”
Where were all those guys when the Pentagon and CIA were looking to give weapons to Sunni moderates (at least ostensibly)? The fact that the author still believes the US can come up with a militarily capable, non-Islamist, pro-democracy faction of Sunnis this far into the war attests to his complete lack of wisdom, foresight—or hell, even hindsight! There is serious magical thinking on display here.
Really, even assuming the US intended to back Sunni moderates and actually found some to arm, this could have only helped the strongest elements within the opposition, the jihadists. If all factions of the opposition share the goal of toppling Assad, if that goal is ever accomplished, which factions would reap the spoils of war? Certainly not the weak handful of moderates. Like the rest of Syria’s population, they’d have to accept theocratic domination or die fighting it.
“Al-Qaeda’s goal is to take charge of the anti-Assad uprising and slowly transform it into a global jihad against Iran, Russia and the United States.”
Doesn’t this sound a bit like the policy the author favors? Take out Assad and put Iran and Russia in the crosshairs? Maybe he ought to pledge Bay’ah to Ayman al-Zawahiri and join up, he’d fit right in.
“Instead of undermining these efforts, we are helping them, by focusing almost exclusively on the Islamic State and driving the Sunni population to ally itself with al-Qaeda.”
The US, as suggested by the DIA memo cited above, never had a serious interest in beating back AQ in Syria, and I suspect the US’s primary interest in fighting ISIS is simply to have a reason to keep a military presence in the country. Remember, American politicians and media complained when Russia and Assad attacked non-ISIS jihadi groups. Those are our moderate al-Qaeda guys, they howled.
“This is insane. We should be working to strip Sunni tribes away from al-Qaeda. And the United States has a proven record to draw on. During the 2007 surge in Iraq, we successfully rallied the Sunni tribes that had been fighting alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq and got them to turn on the terrorists and help us drive them out.”
True, we drove out all the Sunni radicals from Iraq…other than that trivial little ISIS thing.
“The result was both a military and ideological defeat for the Salafi-jihadist cause. Not only were the terrorists driven from their havens, but also they suffered a humiliating popular rejection by the very Sunni masses of whom they claimed to be the vanguard.”
The Salafi-jihadist cause defeated in Iraq, never to return again. Mission accomplished.
“We need a similar military and ideological victory in Syria. So why are we not working to repeat this success?”
With victories like that, who ever needs to lose?
“We need to restore the CIA’s covert train-and-equip program and lift the Defense Department’s restrictions preventing Sunnis who join us from fighting the Assad regime.”
To undercut al-Qaeda, we just have to arm al-Qaeda and its rebel allies and encourage them to attack al-Qaeda’s most powerful foe, Assad. Brilliant. Somebody pay this man.
“We must then facilitate the emergence of a Sunni Arab partner force in southern Syria that will fight alongside U.S. forces to expel not just the Islamic State but al-Qaeda as well, while helping stop Iran from imposing Persian-backed domination by the Alawite minority against the Sunni majority.”
That’s quite a tall order, Marc, don’t you think? While they’re at it, this wondrous, magical, secular, moderate, well-mannered and -groomed, democratic Sunni opposition will also find a cure for cancer and eliminate air pollution. In Thiessen’s world, the Sunnis are a perfect deus ex machina.
Finally, thankfully, the column concludes:
“As the ISW-CTP report puts it, ‘We must stop attacking the Sunni Arab community from the outside through proxies, and instead embed ourselves within that population as its defenders.’
The Trump administration needs to understand a fundamental truth: We cannot defeat the Islamic State or al-Qaeda or the global jihadist movement on our own. We cannot do it with Kurdish or Iranian proxies.
We need Sunnis to do it.”
Again, I ask what Sunnis? Where are they? Even when the Obama administration paid lip service to the idea of backing moderates, it couldn’t come up with more than a handful. The ones who were trained and armed were either willingly absorbed into stronger jihadi factions, or were conquered by them and stripped of their American weapons. Either way, the arms bolstered the radicals.
One struggles to find a single true or even plausible assertion in this entire column. It is an exquisite, almost artistic example of how years of spin and misinformation can pile up into a narrative that is largely detached from reality and, at times, logically incoherent (defeat X by attacking X’s enemy).
Thiessen, a Bush Jr. speechwriter and a consistent advocate of the warfare and surveillance states, has truly outdone himself this time. While the article does provide a look into the Beltway delusions that are behind every defunct scheme for war or regime change, it’s a shame it passes for informed commentary at one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country.
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