If you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on in Syria which has killed almost half a million people since 2011 and has created the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. The war in Syria will be the most significant foreign policy challenge that the next US president will face, yet it has barely been discussed in the 2016 Presidential race outside of who to blame for creating ISIS.

In fact, with about a month left before the election and already one presidential debate in, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have actually proposed a serious plan about what they would do to stop the meltdown in Syria which has destabilized the entire region and has implications far beyond ISIS.

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The Syrian war is one of the most complex geopolitical conflicts in modern history. It has alluded any diplomatic resolution for 5 years precisely because it’s a war fraught with a multitude of actors, confusing alliances and conflicting motives for those fighting.

The battlefield is largely between Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups trying to overthrow the government. What began as peaceful protests against the Assad government during the “Arab Spring” in early 2011 devolved into a full-blown civil war about a year into the regime’s violent crackdown against the opposition. In the five years since, nations around the world have been funding and arming both the opposition and the regime in whats become a global proxy war for control of Syria.

It’s from this chaos that the terrorist organization Al Qaeda has resurged to power as one of the leading rebel groups against Assad and the Islamic State has emerged as a rival trans-national terror group capable of devastating attacks around the world.

Unfortunately, this war is not ending any time soon….in fact the war in Syria is now entering a new phase entirely. The recent US-Russia negotiated ceasefire was the fourth attempted ceasefire in the war and has already collapsed as factions continue to battle it out for who rules Syria. Millions of besieged citizens continue to flee en-masse to Europe and neighboring states while those who stay are gripped in a horrifying violence which has already claimed an entire generation of Syrians.

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5 year old boy Omran Daqneesh sits in an ambulance after an airstrike in Aleppo

What everyone can agree on at this stage is that the U.S. policy in Syria so far has been an unmitigated disaster, in fact the U.S. Department of State internally revolted three months ago when 51 American diplomats signed a memo being sharply critical of the administration’s policy. The conflict is to a large degree considered the greatest failure of the Obama administration, and it will soon become his successor’s greatest headache.

The cold reality of this election is that U.S. presidents don’t really have the power to do most of the things they promise on the campaign trail, something that will be especially true with this Congress. But foreign policy is one of the few things they can control…so we really need to figure out what in the world we’re doing.

There’s no simple way to unpack the Syrian war so I decided to break it up into four sections.

  1. Who is Fighting Who in Syria?
  2. Why Is Each Side Fighting?
  3. Who Controls What in Syria?
  4. What Is Happening Next in Syria?

5. *Ten Questions For the People Running To Be President*


 

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Syrian president Bashar al-Assad

—Who is Fighting Who in Syria—

The Syrian battlefield is a mess. A quick look at Slate’s Syrian Conflict guide or this CNN diagram will leave your head spinning trying to make sense of who’s fighting who. So I decided to create a binary table to make it simpler – who is fighting to keep Assad in power v.s. who is fighting to topple Assad? 


Pro-Assad Side:                                         Anti-Assad Side:

Russia and China                                        United StatesUK and France

Iran                                                                Saudi ArabiaQatar and Kuwait

Iraq                                                                Turkey

Terror Groups: Hezbollah                          Terror Groups: ISISAl Qaeda

–                                                                     Kurdistan


The war is hardly being fought on a binary scale, however, which is why a few things may have popped out at you from this list –

a) ISIS and Al Qaeda are fighting on the same side as the U.S. against Assad..?

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Rebel fighters for the Al-Nusra Front in Syrian city of Idlib

Yep, not only are ISIS and Al Qaeda both fighting the Assad regime, but Al Qaeda-backed rebels are considered to be the strongest opposition groups against the Syrian government today. From the beginning of the war the jihadist involvement in Syria has been fundamentally anti-Assadwhich has always put them on our side of the war.

For years, the U.S. has been tacitly helping (and meeting with) a variety of Al Qaeda-backed rebel groups in their fight against Assad. A lot of the intelligence, aid and weapons that the U.S., Turkey and our Gulf allies have been funneling to the opposition have in fact directly gone to arm Al Qaeda-backed groups. The most prominent is Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Al Nusra Front (although the group changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham last month). Many of the weapons that went to them, along with other Al Qaeda-linked groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, have now also fallen into the hands of ISIS. 

It is pertaining to this issue that Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is threatening to release Hillary Clinton’s e-mails from her tenure as Secretary of State revealing knowledge of these weapons shipments to jihadist elements in Syria to help overthrow Assad.

Cooperation with Islamic extremist groups is not a new development in American foreign policy. The U.S. not only supported Osama bin Laden and the mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but more recently in 2011 the US ended up illegally arming Al Qaeda-backed rebel groups in Libya to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. Afghanistan has since been controlled by the Taliban and Libya is a failed state, half-controlled by ISIS.

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President Reagan meets with Afghan Mujahideen (later to become Al Qaeda)  in the Oval Office – 1983

It has again become a “necessary evil” to work with jihadists, but this time in Syria to oust Bashar al-Assad.

However, this reality is largely driven by the fact that for the last six years the U.S.-led coalition has tried to build-up the “moderate“, secular Free Syrian Army as a viable opposition to Assad, but has failed miserably. The half a billion dollar U.S. train-and-equip program for the Free Syrian Army, which was supposed to prepare over 5,600 fighters out of a training camp in Jordan, produced exactly four, to five soldiers. Today, the Free Syrian Army has virtually collapsed and is so “moderate” that they’re beheading Syrian children. They also hate the U.S. so much that Free Syrian Army fighters chased away U.S. special forces that came to help.

“[The Free Syrian Army] is something of a myth, with a media presence far outstripping its actual organizational capacity” and amounted to little more than “a diverse array of local defense forces, ideological trends, and self-interested warlords. It exercised little real command and control, and had little ability to formulate or implement a coherent military strategy.” – Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies

While some U.S.-backed “moderate” rebel groups are battling Al Qaeda groups, many have defected to their ranks or are working alongside Al Qaeda fighters in Syria. In the on-going battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo it is the jihadist rebel groups like Al Nusra that have led the way against the Assad government.

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Mohammad al Joulani – Leader of the Al Qaeda-backed Al Nusra Front

This is the key sticking point between Russia, Assad’s staunchest ally, and the U.S., over what is happening in Syria. The U.S. claims Russia is not interested in peace and is committing war crimes by indiscriminately bombing civilian areas. Russia claims it is fighting terrorists in Syria.

The unfortunate reality is that both are true. Russia is ruthlessly killing hundreds of Syrian civilians in their quest to eliminate the challengers to Assad. But because the opposition is overrun with extremists and there is no real “moderate” opposition representing a democratic, secular replacement for Assad, Russia is technically fighting the the war against terrorism in Syria.  Russia has gone as far as to accuse the U.S. of protecting Al Qaeda-linked rebels and backing a rebel terrorist alliance at risk of ending the ceasefire to keep the fight against Assad going.

At this stage, if the Assad regime was toppled through an overt intervention the result would be some form of a more hardline Islamist regime coming to power as opposed to Assad’s mostly secular rule – a repeat of our Libya intervention. Russia (and China’ssupport for Assad is actually in large part out of fear of repeating the disastrous U.S.-NATO invasion of Libya, which toppled the secular Gaddafi regime and allowed ISIS to exploit a power vacuum there.  Russia fears that jihadist groups would now fill the power vacuum in a post-Assad Syria.

But which jihadists would come to power? Most aren’t aware that Al Qaeda and ISIS are actually at war with each other. The birth of ISIS in 2013 would alter the dynamics of the Syrian battlefield substantially.

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Islamic State executes Egyptian prisoners

In late 2013, an internal power struggle within Al Qaeda over who controlled the Al Nusra Front in Syria would lead to ISIS forming and splintering off from Al Qaeda entirely. ISIS has since eclipsed Al Qaeda as the world’s preeminent terror organization and has taken the public’s focus off of the war against Assad entirely through its gruesome beheadings and catastrophic terror attacks around the world.

The history of ISIS did not begin in 2013, but had its roots in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, Al Qaeda opened a branch there creatively named Al Qaeda in Iraq or AQI. AQI played a major role in the sectarian violence that consumed Iraq after Saddam fell, but the group was largely defeated by the time the U.S. left Iraq in 2011.

Right as the U.S. was leaving Iraq, the civil war next door in Syria was beginning. A re-grouping AQI would dispatch some of its operatives into Syria to set up a new jihadist organization to help topple Assad – the Al Nusra Front. Within a year Al Nusra grew into one of the most powerful opposition groups in Syria, in no small part due to the arms and funding they were receiving by outside nations who wanted to oust Assad.

The success of Al Nusra in Syria would lead to tensions between AQI leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi in Iraq and Al Qaeda’s central leadership in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Baghdadi wanted Al Nusra in Syria to merge with AQI in Iraq and he tried to combine the two. Al Qaeda’s senior leader Ayman al-Zawahiri balked at the combination and ordered AQI to operate in Iraq separately from Al Nusra in Syria. Al Nusra’s leader Muhammad al Joulani sided with Al Qaeda’s leadership but AQI leader Baghdadi refused. Baghdadi then split with Al Qaeda and renamed AQI into ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. 

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Al Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri (left) disavows ISIS leader al-Baghdadi (right) – Feb 2014

This was a very confusing time in the jihadi world, many Syrian jihadists left Al Nusra for ISIS and the two began competing for soldiers. ISIS then began to attract a growing number of foreign fighters and recruited senior military leaders who were part of Saddam Hussein’s army that was dissolved after the American invasion. ISIS would then sweep through Iraq and Syria capturing huge swaths of territory and with it massive amounts of American-made weapons and tanks that the U.S. had sold to the Iraqi army previously.

What happened next is something the U.S. intelligence community had predicted two years earlier, yet still continued to transfer heavy arm into Syria during this time. A declassified 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report would confirm everyone’s worse suspicions about the birth of ISIS.

C. If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran). D. The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation and are as follows:
—1 This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters. ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory

On June 29th, 2014, ISIS would revive a political entity the Muslim world had not seen in almost a 100 years – the caliphate. ISIS declared its captured territory between Iraq and Syria as the “Islamic State”, a de facto self-ruled country under sharia law, and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new caliph and “leader for Muslims everywhere.”

Al Qaeda’s leadership, stunned by the unprecedented move,  would formally disavow the group and the two have since been actively fighting each other to be the global leader of Islamic jihad.

That’s right – despite both Al Qaeda and ISIS preaching a virtually identical extremist message and a shared desire to remove Assad to establish Syria as an Islamic nation governed by sharia law, their methods and longer-term vision differ enough that the two are willing to go to war with each other. 

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Parodying jihadi belief of 72 virgins in heaven after death

The ISIS/Al Qaeda divorce has complicated things for the U.S. and the other Syrian rebels on the ground who are fighting Assad. Many of America’s Gulf allies who want to see Assad gone believed ISIS was their best bet to make it happen, and have been actively funding and arming the Islamic State. But after a series of horrifying beheadings, devastating terror attacks around the world and violent persecution of other Muslims, ISIS has made enemies of everyone.

ISIS is so horrifyingly brutal and vicious to anyone that doesn’t submit to their rule that the Al Qaeda-backed rebel groups and whatever’s left of the “moderate” rebels are now fighting a two-front war against both ISIS and the Assad government.

The U.S. and its allies are now faced with the dilemma of eliminating ISIS, which is fighting Assad, or to let ISIS be and go after Assad. The U.S. strategy so far has been some mix of both.  The U.S. has been striking ISIS, but primarily in Iraq not in Syria. In the last two years the U.S. has conducted 11,000 airstrikes against ISIS targets and 9,000 of those have been in Iraq. U.S.-backed forces are preparing in the next weeks to reclaim the city of Mosul in Iraq , but have so far declined to strike ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa.  The reluctance of the U.S. to target ISIS in Syria was made painfully clear two weeks ago when an “anti-ISIS” airstrike in Syria struck Assad’s military forces instead, allowing ISIS to then gain territory against the regime and triggered the collapse of the latest ceasefire.

The U.S. certainly wants to see ISIS and the other jihadists in Syria and Iraq defeated, but as long as it remains politically and militarily committed to Assad leaving these goals will inevitably come in conflict. Because there is no viable moderate opposition to Assad, US foreign policy in Syria is now essentially a decision about which jihadist group it would rather have control the country – ISIS or Al Qaeda? Former CIA director David Petraeus has actually recommended that the U.S. formally recruit Al Qaeda fighters to fight this two-front war in Syria.

 

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The absolute chaos amongst the “anti-Assad” factions has all worked to keep the Syrian president in power. I made the chart above to help you visualize it. The significant sub-conflict with the Kurdish forces will be explained in a little. 

The presence of ISIS has been a blessing for the Assad regime because it further divides his enemies who were already fighting with each other. Assad is happy to let the other Syrian rebels fend off ISIS, and to this end Assad has actually been covertly helping ISIS by buying their stolen oil. Assad’s long-term strategy is the elimination of the Syrian rebels, which would force the nations that back those rebels into allying themselves with Assad to finish off ISIS. Ultimately for Assad to look at the world and say, “it’s either me or ISIS, you choose.” 

This is the strategy Russia carried out when it formally entered the Syrian war last year and ultimately swung the tide of the war in Assad’s favor. Russian airstrikes have largely focused on eliminating U.S-backed rebels that’re fighting Assad rather than targeting ISIS.

The situation in Syria is such that Assad and Russia don’t want to eliminate ISIS because they’re fighting Syrian rebel groups, and the U.S. and its allies have somewhat let ISIS exist in Syria as a vehicle to battle Assad. 

Let’s take a look at the landscape of the Syrian rebels that Assad and Russia are trying to get rid of right now.

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Rebels holding Ahrar al-Sham flag (left), FSA flag (center) and Al Nusra flag (right)

“Moderate” Rebels:      Al Qaeda-backed Rebels:       Kurdish Rebels: 

Free Syrian Army                 Al-Nusra (now JFS)          People’s Protection Units (YPG)

A&D Front                                Ahrar al-Sham             Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)

Syrian Turkmen Brigade         Jaysh al-Islam


There are reportedly over over 1,000 armed opposition groups against Assad so this is really capturing a small part of how complicated the battlefield is. These divisions are also not as clean as the table makes them given the overlapping alliances and rivalries that exist between all these groups for funding, weapons and territory.

We know the “moderate” opposition is mostly defunct and Al Qaeda-backed groups are dominating the fight in Syria….what’s the Kurdish opposition?

b) What is Kurdistan? 

You probably didn’t even register this name sitting at the bottom of the “Anti-Assad” table…maybe because Kurdistan is not even a real country.

kurdish map

The Kurdish people are a marginalized and oppressed ethnic group spread across the Middle East with their own language, culture and national identity. They are in fact the world’s largest ethnicity without their own state – a painful reality as a result of a historic betrayal by the British and French.

In northern Syria there are slightly over a million ethnic Kurds who see the civil war against Assad as a chance to form their own self-ruled country, much like the Kurds in Iraq have done since the 1991 Gulf War. Today the Kurds have essentially seceded from Syria and instituted their own government and military in their territory. Though I have placed the Kurds on the “anti-Assad” side because they have been fighting with the regime, they are undeniably fearful that whoever would come after him could be even worse for the Kurdish struggle for independence.

Because of the Kurd’s proximity to Iraq, they are incredibly important player in the war against ISIS. The US has been heavily supporting and arming the Kurdish military called the YPG and have created a US-Kurdish joint force called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to battle ISIS in key cities.

However, the Kurdish people have a very complex relationship with Turkey, a U.S. and NATO ally. Like I said the Kurds are spread across the Middle East and a majority of them actually live in Turkey, making up close to 25% of Turkey’s population.

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Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kurdish YPG fighters

Turkey considers the Kurds as terrorists. The outlawed Kurdish political party in Turkey, the PKK, has been fighting a decades long insurgency against the Turkish government for political freedom and representation. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan fears that the U.S. empowering the Kurds in Syria could heighten the power of the PKK and their calls for Kurdish secession in Turkey – something Erdogan fears more than ISIS.

As a result, Turkey has been actively subverting the U.S.-Kurdish campaign against ISIS and has allowed ISIS to cross through the Turkish border to fight the Kurds. All of this culminated in Turkey invading Syria this month to drive out Kurdish YPG fighters from Turkey’s southern border

The Turkish government has made it clear that given a choice between defeating Islamic State and forestalling any possibility of an independent Kurdish state along its southern border, it will opt to go to war against the Kurdish YPG and to tolerate the continued existence of the Islamic State. – Joseph V. Micallef, Military historian

Though Turkey is anti-Kurd they are also extremely anti-Assad. President Erdogan wants Assad gone and has been one of the principle financiers to Syrian rebel groups. In fact, almost all U.S. and Gulf support to the Syrian rebels have gone through a Turkish base. Turkey has not been shy about working with extremist rebel groups to help topple Assad, even if it also meant working with ISIS at times.

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Slightly older map from this year, most things have remained same other than where I have circled

**To recap this insane situation**

  1. U.S. wants to oust Assad and eliminate ISIS. The “moderate” rebels that we would like to be leading these efforts don’t really exist. Disorganization, lack of weapons/training and Russia’s bombing campaign have decimated U.S.-backed “moderate” forces and they have now merged with Al Qaeda-backed groups or are explicitly cooperating with them.
  2. The U.S. and Russia can’t come to a political solution to the Syrian war, because the Assad regime and Russia keep bombing civilians in what they describe as a war against terrorism. The problem is that it is a war against terrorism because extremists groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are leading the fight against Assad.
  3. To defeat ISIS, the U.S. has primarily relied on Kurdish forces to push the ground fight along with an international coalition of airstrikes. Turkey does not support our arming of the Kurds and have been helping ISIS in their attacking Kurdish forces and in fighting Assad. Turkey has now invaded Syria in the circled area in the map above to drive the Kurds out of recent cities they’ve captured.

Things look pretty bad for the next U.S. president. They’re left with no good options in the fight against Assad, and a bickering coalition over how to fight ISIS. We’ll re-visit what the next administration’s Syria policy could look like in the last section.

But how did we even get here? We’re dealing with all this now because the world’s great powers staged a global proxy war over the Assad government …what are we even fighting over in the first place? 

–Why Is Each Side Fighting?–

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Barack Obama and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad

There are a multitude of reasons why so many different nations and non-state groups are involved in the Syrian war but for most casual observers the war in Syria is a war about human rights and democracy.

Indeed, Assad is a dictator who brutally cracked down on his own people when they started protesting against his repressive government. After Syria descended into civil war, Assad has not only been indiscriminately bombing civilian areas to drive out rebel groups, he is doing so using barrel bombs, napalm-like thermite bombs and chemical weapons including chlorine and sarin gas.

It’s easy to imagine that the U.S. support for the opposition in Syria is out of desire to promote democratic reform and to stop a ruthless dictator. But why are similarly repressive governments like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey on our side? Are they really trying to oust Assad to uphold any standard of democracy or respect for human rights?

There are four distinct wars happening in Syria right now, the first shouldn’t surprise anyone.

–War #1 – The War for Gas Pipelines in the Middle East– 

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Shocking, a war in the Middle East that’s actually been about oil and gas the whole time.

Right now there are two proposed gas pipelines coming out of the Persian Gulf, both of which must cross through Syria to get to Europe – the Iran-Iraq-Syria Pipeline and the Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Turkey Pipeline. The U.S. is supporting its Gulf allies in pushing for their pipeline and Russia is supporting its allies Iran and Syria for their pipeline – this division is not so coincidentally the two sides of the war in Syria today.

The pipeline war began in 2009 when Qatar proposed to Assad the construction of a joint liquid-natural-gas (LNG) pipeline from the South Pars / North Dome gas field in the Persian Gulf all the way to Europe. Assad said no. Instead, he opted to build an alternate pipeline with his allies Iraq and Iran. On July 25th, 2011, only five months into the Syrian uprising, Bashar al Assad quietly signed a $10 billion gas-pipeline deal with Iran and Iraq to begin construction on their pipeline.

As civil war has consumed Syria since, it should come as no surprise that Iran has been one of the principle backers of the Assad regime and the spurned countries, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been the principle financiers of the Syrian opposition to overthrow Assad. These three nations have poured in far more millions than the U.S. into funding and arming the Syrian rebels to oust Assad and place in a new regime that will approve their pipeline.

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Qatari Emir Al Thani, Turkish President Erdogan, Saudi King Salman

The South Pars / North Dome is the world’s largest gas field shared between Iran and Qatar in the Persian Gulf. The field holds an estimated 1,800 trillion cubic feet of natural gas allowing for an estimated pumping capacity of 100-120 million cubic feet of gas per day. For Turkey, the pipeline is a signature part of its long standing goal to break its dependence on Russian oil and become an energy transit hub at the crossroads of the Middle East and Europe.

“If completed, the project would have had major geopolitical implications. Ankara would have profited from rich transit fees. The project would have also given the Sunni kingdoms of the Persian Gulf decisive domination of world natural gas markets and strengthen Qatar, America’s closest ally in the Arab world” – POLITICO

Vladimir Putin sees the Qatar-Saudi-Turkey pipeline as an existential threat to Russia and this is partly why Russia has intervened the most of any nation both diplomatically and militarily to keep Assad in power.

Russia currently enjoys its status as one of the world’s largest oil & natural gas suppliers because it singlehandedly controls the European energy market. A new pipeline to supply gas to Europe would change the energy game entirely. In Putin’s view, the Qatar pipeline is a NATO plot to change the status quo, deprive Russia of its only foothold in the Middle East, strangle the Russian economy and end Russian leverage in the European energy market.

When Assad announced in 2009 that he would refuse to sign the pipeline deal with Qatar, he even said he did so “to protect the interests of our Russian ally.”

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Bashar al Assad with Vladimir Putin – 2006

Russia and Syria have been close allies for decades, not just as of late. They share a deep economic and military relationship that’s cemented by Russia’s only warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union hosted in the Syrian city of Tartus. If the pipeline by Putin’s allies in Syria and Iran is built, Russia would exert some measure of control over output and pricing decisions and thus maintain its grip over Europe’s energy needs.

“Syria is the only country in the Middle East which follows our advice, this is the country where we can exercise certain tangible influence…the loss of Syria will mean we will have no influence in this region at all,” says Ruslan Pukhov, Defense Analyst at Russian think-tank CAST.

Europe has been desperate to break its reliance on Russian gas and as a result the U.S. and Russia have been in a not-so-secret energy war in Eastern Europe to control the market. Syria sits at the middle of this great power energy war which is why the U.S. has a vested interest in the outcome.

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The U.S. plays a very interesting role in the global energy market because of its relationship with OPEC, the cartel of 12 oil-producing nations around the world (which excludes Russia). Unknown to most, OPEC sells oil and gas on the international market strictly in U.S. dollars.

deal was struck in 1974 between the U.S. and OPEC to denominate all its oil sales in U.S. dollars in exchange for the U.S. providing permanent military security for the Saudi Kingdom. This came to be known as the “petrodollar” system, named for the use of dollars to purchase petroleum on the global oil market. Other countries have no choice but to buy and hold large reserves of U.S. dollars in their central banks because they cannot purchase oil from OPEC without dollars. 

Given the importance of oil and gas in the global economy (and America’s lack of an export economy), the world’s dependency on petrodollars to buy oil fundamentally underwrites the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.

Even more so, any surpluses generated by the OPEC nations selling oil are invested back into the United States by buying US Treasury bonds or as deposits in U.S. banks. This was the second term of the agreement with OPEC and came to known as “petrodollar recycling“.

The direct foreign investment of surplus oil profits into the U.S. banking system along with the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency is what allows the U.S government. to perpetually finance the nation’s massive trade deficit by issuing dollar denominated assets at very low interest rates and has allowed the US to finance the world’s largest military. Most importantly, it has allowed successive American administrations to spend far more, year-in year-out, than is raised in tax and export revenue.

 

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If the U.S.-backed Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Turkey pipeline is built, Europe will have to purchase this new gas supply in U.S. dollars and the OPEC petrodollar system will remain intact.  If the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline backed by Russia is successfully built, then billions of barrels of gas will be sold to Europe in alternate currencies to the U.S. dollar.

If nations begin decoupling away from the U.S. dollar to purchase oil and gas it would subsequently erode the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency, collapse the petrodollar and end the last four decades of “dollar hegemony” that the U.S. has enjoyed. This is an outcome Russia would like to see and one that the U.S. has gone to great lengths over the years to avoid.

“Viewed through a geopolitical and economic lens, the conflict in Syria is not a civil war, but the result of larger international players positioning themselves on the geopolitical chessboard in preparation for the opening of the pipeline” – Major Rob Taylor, US Army Command

The relationship between the U.S. dollar, oil and our propensity to stage military interventions in the Middle East is a well observed trend, but it is virtually never brought to light in the news. Most Americans believe we fight wars in the Middle East for oil and they’re not wrong..

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Saddam Hussein (ousted 2003), Muammar Gaddafi (ousted 2011), Bashar al Assad (?)

The 2003 invasion of Iraq under the false pretense (I mean, really false pretense) of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs was an obvious oil grab after Saddam had stopped selling Iraqi oil in dollars (we switched it back to dollars after Saddam fell). The more recent 2011 U.S.-NATO led invasion of Libya ousted Muammar Gaddafi under the false pretense of an imminent genocide after Gaddafi planned to stop selling oil in dollars in favor of a gold-backed dinar currency (Libyan oil was then split up amongst the invading countries).

Those who defended the Iraq invasion never mentioned in public that the invasion was necessary to defend the dollar. To do so would have created a public backlash as well as public scrutiny of why the dollar was so vulnerable. To explain this vulnerability to the public, the explanation would have eventually revealed that we are a nation that cannot pay its debts. The political cost of a crashing economy, lack of funds for our ever-expanding military, and an alarmed public would have been an unbearable political burden for those in power – Bart Gruzalski, professor emeritus of philosophy from Northeastern University

Invariably the countries we have chosen to invade have all posed an acute threat to the petrodollar monetary system, regardless of what justification for intervention is sold to the public. Now that there is again a challenge to the petrodollar system, but in Syria, the world’s great powers have waged another bloody oil war in the name of democracy and human rights.

–War #2 – The War for Islamic Influence in the Middle East– 

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Saudi king Salman (Sunni) and Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini (Shia) lead prayer

The war to control Syria is not just driven by competing gas pipelines, but strikes a deeper chord in a critically important divide in the Middle East.

After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. a dispute over who should succeed him, his father-in-law Abu Bakr or cousin Ali,  would lead to a split in Islam between the Sunni and the Shia. This ancient schism has come to define much of the regional conflict in the Middle East today and plays a prominent role in the Syrian war.

In the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia considers itself the leader of Sunni Islam while Iran is the stronghold for Shia Islam. Saudi Arabia and Iran have an on-going rivalry for regional power in the Middle East that is rooted in the religious antagonism of the Sunni/Shia divide. The two have such a heated rivalry that in January of this year Saudi Arabia and Iran cut off all diplomatic ties with each other after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric.  (A more deeper breakdown of how the Shia and Sunni differ theologically is here)

The distribution of Sunnis and Shias is not as even as you would imagine. Of the world’s more than 1.5 billion Muslims almost 85%-90% are Sunnis while only about 10-15% are Shia. Despite being a clear minority amongst Muslims globally, Shias have a strong presence in the Middle East. The Shiites are concentrated in Iran, southern Iraq and southern Lebanon but there are significant Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

There are three nations in the Middle East with Shia-controlled governments today: Iran, Iraq and Syria. The rest are ruled by Sunnis.

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The Sunni and Shia have actually gotten along for most of history. It’s a common misperception that the sectarian strife we see across the region today has been going on for thousands of years.  There were two events that occurred less than 40 years ago that would shake the foundations of the Muslim world and global politics at large – the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ensuing Grand Mosque seizure in Mecca.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 deposed the pro-Western Shah of Iran and created an Islamic republic where Shia religious clerics were put in charge of the country. It was the first time a country in the modern Middle East was to be ruled under a theocratic constitution where a Supreme Leader led the country – the Ayatollah.

This sent shockwaves through the Sunni-dominated Muslim world and especially amongst the Sunni religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia. They began to feel that Sunni Islam was under threat from the growing power of Shiites in Iran and staged a siege of Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, the Grand Mosque. They accused the ruling House of Saud monarchy as being heretics for its openness with the West and called for them to step down to create an Islamic republic in Saudi Arabia to counter Iran. To end the siege and prevent another religious uprising, the Saudi monarchy would give the religious conservatives, the ulama, significantly more power over the country – resulting in the strict sharia law enforced against women, minorities etc in Saudi Arabia today.

It was in 1979, less than 30 years ago, when religious conservatism would hijack both Iran and Saudi Arabia leading the Sunni/Shia conflict to see a re-awakening and giving rise to modern day anti-Western extremism.

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Iranian protestors holding up a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini – Tehran, 1979

Over the last generation, the Saudi-Iran rivalry has become part of a larger “cold war” between the two for competing political and geostrategic interests in the region. In order to spread their influence both Iran and Saudi Arabia actively promote Shia and Sunni extremist groups in the Middle East as the two compete for Islamic authority and legitimacy across the region.

Iran played a central role in creating the Shiite-extremist group Hezbollah in 1982 which was/is primarily anti-Israeli but has also fueled sectarian violence with Sunnis in LebanonSaudi Arabia’s hardline Sunni Wahhabi theology served as the religious foundation for birth of Al Qaeda in 1998 and has played  a central role in ISIS’s flavor Islamic extremism which even considers Shiites as illegitimate Muslims.

Because Saudi Arabia and Iran have turned into theocracies in the last 30 years where religious authorities now wield an enormous amount of power in the government, whenever regional conflict breaks out it is incredibly important which governments are controlled by Sunnis and which are controlled by Shias.

Because of America’s animosity with Iran (starting with the Iran hostage crisis, really) along with its alliance with Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf kingdoms, American foreign policy supports Sunni governments and Russian foreign policy supports Shia governments.

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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini (left), Assad (center), Hezbollah commander Hassan Nasrallah (right) at pro-Assad rally

Assad and the ruling Syrian government are Alawites, a sub-sect of Shia Islam. Thus, Russia and the Shia powers in the region like Iran, Iraq and the Shia militant group Hezbollah have been militarily backing Assad. Conversely,  the U.S. and all the Sunni powers, like the Gulf kingdoms and Sunni-led Turkey, are leading the opposition and have propped up Sunni militant rebel groups to oust the Assad Shia regime.

The underlying war for competing gas pipelines in Syria is a manifestation of how the Sunni/Shia conflict is intertwined into the broader geopolitical interests of the region. The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline would make the Shiite powers in the region, not the Sunni kingdoms, the principal suppliers to the European energy market and dramatically increase Tehran’s influence in the Middle East and around the world. This is an unacceptable outcome for the Sunni powers who see their religious authority and legitimacy threatened by a Shiite expansion of power.

But the Sunni/Shia balance is not just a matter of religious or political power, it has become an issue of survival for the citizens. Sunni governments like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain marginalize and persecute Shia groups at home while Shia Iran does the same with Sunnis. Bahrain’s treatment of Shias is actually being considered a modern day apartheid. This is why regime change has such huge consequences in the Middle East.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime, a Shia government came to power under the thumb of Iran which began jailing and killing Sunni leaders and stripping their political power. This in effect brought public support for a Sunni-extremist group like ISIS to take over much of Iraq to battle the new Shia government (although ISIS is now killing Sunnis too so they really have no friends). The religious high-stakes game of survival is playing out now in Syria as well.

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This map above shows the religious demographics of Syria which explains why it has been so easy for Syria to descend into a sectarian religious war. Everything in blue is Sunni while everything in green is Alawite/Shia. As noted earlier, the Assad family is Alawite. The Alawites ethnicity in general controls almost all the political and military power in Syria but only about 11% of the Syrian population are Alawites, while close to 75% of Syrians are Sunni.

This imbalance in political representation is due to the French colonial rule of Syria which empowered the Alawite minority – a trend that continued and expanded when the Assad family came in power. In 1970 Syrian military general Hafez al-Assad led a military coup to overthrow the sitting government and the Assad family has ruled Syria for the 46 years since.

“An Alawi ruling Syria is like an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development shocking to the majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries.” – Daniel Pipes, Middle East Historian

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The Assad Family – Hafez sitting down and Bashar is the tallest son who looks like Michael Cera during his mustache phase

The Assad regime actually had the support of most people in Syria, something that held true even a year into the civil war. This is why the influx of Sunni extremists groups into Syria escalated the war so significantly. The Alawite reign was not something that had sat well with the Sunni fundamentalists in Syria who saw their power as marginalized in the current state.

Because both President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him gave special priority, power, and benefit to Syria’s small Alawite minority while excluding the Sunni majority from resources and power, the nature of the country’s problems—and thus now the war—is infused with religion. It is true that oppositionists went to the street out of political, not theological, differences, but the fact that the political imbalance was drawn along religious lines put these religious identities at the heart of the fight. – Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service

Alawites, or Alawis, consider themselves to be sub-sect within Shia Islam, but that idea itself is subject to intense debate amongst Islamic scholars. Some have said this would be like referring to Christianity as “an offshoot of Judaism.” Alawites hold some majorly unconventional beliefs in both the Sunni and Shia world like the incorporation of the “trinity” from Christianity, celebration of Christmas, consecration of wine, having Christian names etc.

As a result, when Syria descended into civil war Sunni Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia began to issue “fatwas”, or religious rulings, which declared Alawites to be heretics and non-Muslims and called for a “holy war” in Syria to topple the Assad regime and institute Sunni rule. This is why the civil war is now a matter of survival for the Alawite minority – if Assad fell and a radical Sunni regime came to power, they would undeniably be persecuted and killed.

Iran, Assad’s closest ally in the region, is also not a super fan of Alawi’s ruling Syria actually. The first Iranian Ayatollah in 1979 never actually met with the Assads because he did not consider them Muslims. Eventually Iranian clerics incorporated Alawites as part of the Twelver Shia branch, but everyone knows its a religious stretch. This is why the Iran-Syria relationship today isn’t over any real religious solidarity, but geopolitical interests they share in the region.

It is the underlying discrepancy in political power between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria along with the larger sectarian Saudi Arabia/Iran rivalry for regional power which is fueling what has become a religious war in Syria.

–War #3 – The War to Re-Draw National Borders in the Middle East–

isis20flag-isis20propaganda20video_0   File photo of a Kurdish Peshmerga soldier holding a Kurdistan flag during a deployment in the area near the northern Iraqi border with Syria, which lies in an area disputed by Baghdad and the Kurdish region of Ninawa province                 Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh)                              Kurdish soldier

This is the war being waged by the Kurds and the Islamic State. The two are not particularly interested in a pipeline nor have any real stake in the Saudi Arabia/Iran rivalry, rather the two are fighting to fundamentally re-draw what the borders of Syria and its neighbors looks like.

The Islamic State is a counter-state movement that explicitly aims to destroy nation-state boundaries to expand, and thus legitimize, its self-proclaimed caliphate across the Middle East. It’s current self-ruled nation sits between Iraq and Syria but it has broader ambitions to control all the Middle East and parts of Africa, Europe and Asia.

The Kurds want to establish an autonomous Kurdish nation in the Middle East but their population is spread out between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They want the governments in the region to cede parts of their land to form this new state – so far Iraq has, but none of the other three have.  The Syrian Kurds have seceded from Assad’s rule and are fighting to rule autonomously.

Though the Kurds and ISIS are currently fighting with each other in Iraq and Syria as they compete for their respective goals, they are both challenging the same fundamental crisis in the Middle East – the Skyes-Picot agreement of 1916.

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British Mark Skyes (right) and French Francois Georges-Picot (left)

The Skyes-Picot agreement was an agreement reached between Britain and France to partition the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The Ottoman Empire made the unfortunate decision of siding with the losing Central Powers Germany and Austria-Hungary, and after it fell the disastrous borders of the modern Middle East were created.

British diplomat Mark Sykes and French counterpart, François Georges-Picot would divide the Middle East into “spheres of influence” where the British came to rule the area that would become Iraq and France came to control Syria. As the map below shows, the partitioning had no intention of trying to empower self-rule amongst the region’s various ethnicities. These new nation-states were crafted to concentrate the location of oil fields within British and French control.

As a result, different and often unfriendly groups were shoved together and given unequal political power in just-made-up nations. This inevitably lead to one group taking power and oppressing the others causing the perpetual rebellions, coups, and sectarian violence that has come to plague the Middle East today. (So sad for a region that is literally where human civilization emerged from).

Iraq borders

Nowhere is the destruction of the Skyes-Picot partitioning more apparent than in Iraq where the combination of Arab Sunnis, Shia’s and ethnic Kurds has wreaked havoc on all three in recent Iraqi history. Sunni Saddam Hussein infamously used chemical weapons to massacre close to 50,000 Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war of the 80’s (we helped him). The Shiite Maliki government then came to power after Saddam and persecuted Iraqi Sunnis, using Shia militias to jail and kill Sunni political opponents. Now “Sunni” ISIS has run-over a lot of Iraq and is unleashing the medieval times on everyone in their path, with a special fury on Shiites and Kurds.

In Syria, the minority Alawi/Shia government led by Bashar’s father Hafez al Assad brutally massacred Sunnis during an Islamist uprising in the 1980s and the 2011 civil war has set off more sectarian violence against Sunnis and Kurds as the Alawites try and maintain their control over the country.

The Islamic State has actually singled out the Skyes-Picot agreement as the root of many of these modern day antagonisms. At its core ISIS is inciting a religious insurrection to overthrow all the post-World War I Western-made borders and re-instate the Caliphate-style ruling across the Muslim world. Except their caliphate is terrifying and oppressive, unlike many of the earlier Islamic caliphates.

“This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes–Picot conspiracy” – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Leader of the Islamic State

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Map of Syria and Iraq with competing Kurdish and ISIS territory

Right now ISIS is battling with the Kurds as they both struggle to re-define the colonial borders that have already caused so much violence in the region.

However, there has been no greater victim of the Skyes-Picot borders than the Kurdish people. Having been separated into 4 different nations with no real political representation and facing relentless suppression and persecution in all four, the Kurds are desperate to re-make the Middle East. The turmoil in Syria and Iraq has empowered Kurdish separatists movements and these movements are here to stay. While it remains to be seen if the Syrian Kurds can acquire a form of autonomy that the Iraqi Kurds have, things remain bleak for the Turkish and Iranian Kurds.  Turkey has now become the central broker in the future of Skyes-Picot agreement.

Turkey, where a majority of all ethnic Kurds live, is especially fearful of the heightened power of the Syrian Kurds and has now invaded Syria to prevent a unified Kurdish border state forming between Turkey and Syria. They fear that a Kurdish enclave at their southern border will empower the Kurds in Turkey to demand autonomy of their own and this is why Turkey has been low-key helping ISIS fight the Kurds to prevent this. Resharing this quote from earlier in the article – 

The Turkish government has made it clear that given a choice between defeating Islamic State and forestalling any possibility of an independent Kurdish state along its southern border, it will opt to go to war against the Kurdish YPG and to tolerate the continued existence of the Islamic State. – Joseph V. Micallef, Military historian

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Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The Skyes-Picot agreement has hung heavily over the years of U.N. peace initiatives for Syria as diplomats recognize the difficulty of maintaining Syria, Iraq and Turkey’s territorial integrity while trying to grant autonomy to large, now armed, ethnic factions.

“The Skyes-Picot agreement…looms over everything Mr. Kerry and his fellow foreign ministers are doing here….In October, the ministers, who formed the so-called International Syria Support Group, agreed that “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity and secular character are fundamental.” Yet some of the key players in the slow-motion effort to get a transitional Syrian government in place say, when granted anonymity, that they think unity and territorial integrity are simply not possible” – NY Times

Many have said ISIS’s declaration of their caliphate in effect has ended the Skyes-Picot borders of the Middle East, but it remains to be seen if/how the borders of the Middle East may change by the end of the Syrian war as many groups no longer recognize the existing borders.

–War #4  – The War for Democratic Reform and Human Rights in Syria–

It feels wrong to place this as the last war, but unfortunately the conflict in Syria stopped being about democratic reform long ago. Nonetheless, it’s critically important to understand the transformation of Syria’s democratic protests into a sectarian conflict and how it will affect what comes next in Syria.

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The Syrian war had its roots in the “Arab Spring” – a revolutionary wave of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa between 2011-2012. These uprisings were born out of discontent with high unemployment, restrictions on free speech, corruption in the government, poverty, increasing food prices etc.

The uprisings began in Tunisia and once the Tunisian government fell, the revolutionary ferver spread to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The governments in Egypt and Libya would fall in 2011 but there is still lingering turmoil five years later in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.

The Assad government did not take well to the uprisings in Syria and harshly cracked down on the protestors. Assad’s forces began imprisoning hundreds of protestors, outright killing many and even firing on their funeral processions. Three months into the protests in April 2011 72 protestors were shot and killed by Assad’s forces, shocking the world. This marked a turning point in the uprising – what started out as demonstrations for democratic reform in Syria now changed to demanding the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.

If you’re wondering why the Syrian government would start killing its own people because of democratic protests, an important part of understanding the Syrian war is that Bashar al Assad’s violent response to the uprising was not just a random crackdown but a continuation of the Assad’s regime’s policy toward civil uprising that began with his father, Hafez al Assad.

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Bashar al Assad and his father Hafez al Assad have ruled Syria since 1970

In 1976, Hafez al-Assad had Syrian forces intervene in Lebanon’s civil war on behalf of Lebanese Christian groups who were fighting Muslim groups. The Muslim Brotherhood and Syria’s Sunni majority saw this as heresy and launched a six year civil uprising against the Assad government. 

Hafez al-Assad quashed the uprisings in a particularly brutal fashion. In 1982, the Syrian government nearly leveled the city of Hama, where the opposition was strongest, slaughtering thousands of civilians in what is now called the Hama Massacre.  The regime learned from this experience that mass violence was a successful response to popular unrest — a lesson that was applied particularly brutally in 2011. 

“The lesson of Hama must have been at the front of the mind of every member of the Assad regime. Failure to act decisively, Hama had shown, inevitably led to insurrection. Compromise could come only after order was assured. So Bashar followed the lead of his father. He ordered a crackdown.” – William Polk, Professor of History at University of Chicago, and former advisor to JFK

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The brutal crackdowns failed to intimidate or quell the popular unrest. Assad began offering political concessions to the opposition like promising a constitutional referendum, allowing a multi-party system, along with greater press freedom. He also cut taxes and raised state salaries by 1,500 Syrian pounds ($32.60) a month. However, these promises were largely dismissed by the opposition and international community as too little too late following violent crackdowns and were simply vague proposals with no concrete action.

Assad had maintained from the beginning that the Syrian uprising was one instigated by “foreign saboteurs” seeking to undermine the country’s security and stability. Indeed a 2009 WikiLeaks cable would reveal that the U.S. had been covertly funding opposition groups to Assad’s government since 2006. But what happened next would transform a mostly peaceful, secular democratic uprising into the sectarian conflict dominated by jihadi extremists today.

As Assad’s concessions failed to placate the popular unrest in the country, Assad began releasing hundreds of Syrian prisoners from jail. These were not protestors wrongfully jailed from the demonstrations, but known Islamic jihadists that were being held in the infamous Sedanya Prison (think Syria’s Guantanamo).

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Aerial view of Sedanya Prison

Two presidential amnesties were issued in 2011 where approximately 260 prisoners from Sedanya prison were released – all convicted or accused al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists. Their release would activate a terrorist infrastructure in Syria to give rise to Islamist groups like Al Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and eventually ISIS.

Up until this point, the protest movement was non-religious; it was inherently populist and nationalist in its orientation….their release opened the gates for the emergence of an Islamist component within the uprising—specifically, eventually, a militant Islamist component…it was those initial releases that allowed the quite dramatic emergence, and then growth, and then consolidation of Islamist and jihadist militancy, to acquire the kind of prominence that it has had for the last couple of years or so. – Charles Lister, Author of Syrian Jihad

Assad’s decision to release jihadists from prison was intended to tinge the opposition with extremist elements to make it harder for Western powers to support any rebel group against his government. Prominent Syria analyst Charles Lister described it as a “devious attempt by the Assad regime to manipulate its adversary, by unleashing those it could safely label as ‘jihadist’ or ‘extremist’ among its ranks”.
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Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) soldiers in Syria

The move to release jihadists to dissuade foreign involvement ultimately didn’t work. The hijacking of the Syrian reform initially gave the Obama administration pauses about whether or not to arm the opposition, but our Gulf allies held no such reservations about arming hardline Islamists. Eventually the U.S. decided to go ahead and arm the Syrian opposition even when it was clear it had been overrun with extremists who were not fighting for a “democratic” or “secular” Syria.

The tendency of the U.S. to support regime change, even at the risk of empowering extremists, belies one of the most problematic aspects of American foreign policy – does the U.S. actually intervene to uphold democracy and human rights?

One needs look no farther than a similar uprising that happened across the pond in a tiny country called Bahrain. Bahrain’s demographics are almost the direct opposite of Syria’s – 60-70% of the nation is Shia but is suppressed economically and politically by the minority Sunnis who control the government.

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Protests in Bahrain against Al Khalifa monarchy – February 2011

Often called the “Forgotten Revolution” of the Arab Spring, the 2011 uprisings in Bahrain saw hundreds of thousands in the streets demanding the removal of the Al Khalifa monarchy and for more inclusive political and economic reform in the country. Like Assad, Bahrain’s leaders engaged in a brutal crackdown of the protests which included arbitrary imprisonmenttorturing of prisoners, denial of medical care and out right killing of over a hundred protestors by government police.

The U.S. response could not have been more opposite than how it was in Syria.

At the onset of the protests Obama voiced support for a “dialogue initiative” between the monarchy and the opposition and to “return to a process that will result in real, meaningful changes for the people there.” After the government response turned violent, the U.S. would simply ask the Bahrain monarchy to “hold accountable” those responsible for human-rights abuses against unarmed demonstrators. That was the beginning and end of the US’s support for democracy and human rights in Bahrain.

At no point did the US call for the king of Bahrain to step down (certainly not declare the king a “war criminal” like they did for Assad) nor provide any diplomatic, humanitarian or armed support to the opposition. The US in fact went to such great lengths to AVOID looking like it supported the protestors in Bahrain that the State Department blanked a media story where the protestors stated that the United States supported them. The most direct aid the US gave to the protestors in Bahrain was when Ludovic Hood, a US embassy official, reportedly brought a box of doughnuts out to the protesters

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Protestors fleeing Bahraini military crackdowns – May 2011

To many observers, the lackluster response from the U.S. came as no surprise. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s critically important 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf and is one of our critical allies in deterring Iran. Not only that, Bahrain is one of the largest clients of the U.S. defense industry. Since 1993, the US defense industry has sold over $400 million dollars of arms to Bahrain and like Russia’s arms relationship with Assad, this showed no sign of letting up despite a brewing civil war.

“Starting with Bahrain, the administration has moved a few notches toward emphasizing stability over majority rule,” said a U.S. official. “Everybody realized that Bahrain was just too important to fail.”

During the Bahrain’s violent crackdown on the opposition the Obama administration tried to follow through on a $53 million arms deal to the Bahrain monarchy. Congressional Democrats sharply criticized the administration and invoked the Leahy Amendment in demanding that the U.S. halt military aid to Bahrain’s security forces due to human-rights violations.

However, the State Department was able to use a legal loophole to continue to sell the arms to Bahrain during their brutal suppression of the protests without notification to Congress or a public announcement (a small donation to the Clinton Foundation may have helped). The arms sale included a wide variety of weapons systems, ammunition, armored personnel carriers and helicopter gunships along with $70,000 worth of arms sales classified as “toxicological agents.” This began to fuel speculation that Bahrain was in fact killing its protestors using US-manufactured weaponry and with tear-gas supplied by the United States.

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Obama and Clinton with Crown prince of Bahrain Salman al-Khalifa – June 2011

Bahrain’s uprising ended when Saudi Arabia’s military entered Bahrain to forcefully suppress the revolts.  Human rights abuses by the Bahraini monarchy against its people continue to this day and the nation is considered the new Apartheid nation. U.S. approved arm sales continue to go to the Bahraini kingdom and anti-American resentment is sky high in the country.

Understandably Russia accused the US of setting double standards at the UN Security Council, and this was one of the main stumbling blocks to a diplomatic resolution early  in the Syrian conflict. The Russians rejected the U.S. demands that Assad step down and Russia end its military alliance with Syria while the U.S. was covertly arming Assad’s opposition and was supporting Bahrain’s monarchy in its repression of a similar uprising.

“Why is the US determined to sell weapons to Bahrain after the Bahraini authorities, with help from the Saudis, suppressed the Arab Spring in Bahrain? Russia doesn’t see any problems selling weapons to Syria if the CIA and French and British secret services are shipping military hardware via Turkey to the rebels.” – Russian Defense Analyst Ruslan Pukhov

The collapse of the Syrian peace process despite numerous conferences, summits, negotiations, peace initiatives, cease-fires etc etc etc may be the most depressing part of the Syrian war. There is no one nation responsible for the collective failure of the world to let Syria implode over the last six years as international diplomacy has been characterized by relentless finger pointing, broken promises and back stabbing. There’s a chance its actually been our fault all along for not getting an achievable political solution to the Syria crisis back in 2012, but there’s a lot of blame to share really.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov

One thing I enjoy when reading various articles is to read the comments on them because I often come away with different perspectives. I copied this back-and-forth on an article I read about who to blame for the ongoing Syrian turmoil because I thought it presented two good perspectives on Syria today.

Phillip Davis- 

When, as they so often do, a dictatorship degenerates into chaos and civil war, the lion’s share of the blame must be placed on the dictatorial regime and its supporters, both domestic and foreign. When the Assad Regime was faced with peaceful protests, it chose to respond by unleashing goon squads and it’s not so secret police on the protesters and imprisoning protest leaders. When that failed, it unleashed the military. It mattered not one whit whether the protestors were Islamist extremists, advocates of a more open democratic society or merely Syrians fed up with the repression, corruption and poverty. It didn’t matter whether the protesters had outside support or not. All that mattered was that they challenged the Assad Regime’s absolute power to rule the peoples of Syria. So spare us the deflection of blame to Turkey, the US, Europe or anyone else; whatever their responsibility for the condition of Syria today pales in comparison to that of the Assad family, its Regime, the Alawites, Russia and Iran.

Jo Kleeb –

Libya was the pin in the grenade for the African continent exploding over Europe. Syria is also the pin in the grenade that, if left to fail, would explode the entire Middle East.

Yes, there has been much culpability from multiple directions for the situation in Syria. As convenient as it may have been to try and blame Assad for everything, this was just not the case, nor should it be seen that way.

If we are to blame anything, it is the degree to which we endorse violent overthrow of Governments as a means toward change. It is the degree to which neighbours can tolerate seeing the countries next to them developing towards greater democracy, stronger infrastructure, success as a tourist destination, etc, without having to come up with some pre-text to bomb them to bits.

It is the degree to which the biggest boys in the sandpit learn to respect the right of the smaller boys in the sandpit to not always follow their rules and do what they want them to do, but to demand the right to quietly do their own thing without harassment.

Anyway let’s see how everyone’s doing in this conflict right now.

 

—Who Controls What in Syria?—

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Political Geography Now requires a subscription for their May-August 2016 Syria conflict maps (ugh)

This map is a few months old but the battlefield has largely remained the same other than the two cities in northern Syria where I put in a checkered circle.

As you can see, ISIS has taken over most of the eastern portion of Syria and the Kurds control much of the north. The Assad regime controls most of western Syria (where a majority of Syrians live) and is primarily battling the rebels in the south around the capitol of Damascus, and in the north-west in the nation’s largest city and economic hub, Aleppo.

The battle for the city of Aleppo has gotten especially more attention over the last few months as harrowing photos and videos have emerged of the carnage. The regime and the eclectic mix of Syrian rebels groups are viciously battling over control for the city which could have huge ramifications for any potential political settlement to the civil war.

aleppo-city-map

The current focus of the Syrian civil war is in the north-west area, both in Aleppo around closer to the Turkish border, where Turkey just invaded two months ago.

Last month, U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG and SDF forces captured the northern city of Manbij from ISIS control. Turkey then freaked out that the Syrian Kurds were becoming too powerful and would form a “Kurdish corridor” on their southern border. The Turks proceeded to invade Syria a few weeks later – overtaking the ISIS-controlled city of Jarablus and then driving the U.S.-armed Kurds out of Manbij, the city the Kurds had just taken from ISIS.

It is believed that Turkey is seeking to create a “safe zone” in northern Syria from where it can draw deeper attacks into the country against against the Assad regime in Aleppo as well as against ISIS and the Kurds.

safe-zone-map
Yellow: Kurds, Green: Assad Regime, Red: Syrian Rebels, Black: ISIS

Erdogan is signaling that he favors establishing a 5,000 kilometer “safe zone” in Syria which could be well received by the U.S. and be a possible area of cooperation.

Right now Assad has manpower problems, the rebels are deeply divided, the Kurds have no ability to control a mostly Arab country, and ISIS has managed to make enemies out of virtually every powerful actor in the Middle East. No side is strong enough to crush any other by dint of force, so gains end up being pretty temporary. Given this stalemate, what could happen next in Syria?

 

 –What’s Happening Next in Syria?–

So there are a range of things that could happen next in Syria, but let me quickly paint the grim picture of the situation the next U.S. president will be walking into.

Diplomacy has collapsed completely. After trading allegations of violating the latest cease-fire, the collapsed truce has seen Russia and the Assad government continue their horrific siege of Aleppo to wipe out the Syrian opposition.

The Syrian rebel groups on the ground represent a variety political and religious ideologies, but extremism and non-secular agendas are rampant amongst many/most of them. The so called “moderate” Free Syrian Army is neither moderate, nor really a coherent army…and they hate the U.S  so we have no real allies on the ground either.

Thousands of Syrian refugees continue to pour into Europe and neighboring states while ISIS continues to stage devastating terror attacks around the world.

There is a growing belief that the time for a diplomatic/political solution to the Syria crisis is over. Diplomats in the State Department are urging the president to begin directly striking the Assad government’s forces rather than funding unreliable proxies. A decision that could possibly lead to a war with Russia.

The next U.S. president will begin their term in the Oval Office having to answer one simple question – am I willing to accept an outcome in the Syrian war in which Bashar al-Assad stays in power? 

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Right now it appears that Hillary Clinton would answer that question saying no, Assad must step down and Donald Trump of all people would say, yes Assad can stay in power.

That’s right, the loathsome TV character that is Donald Trump might actually be the anti-war candidate for Syria. And a lot of that has to do with his relationship with Russia. 

There has been a general cloud suspicion of Russian activity over the 2016 election and at this stage there are some obvious signs that the Trumps, their business, and their inner circle share somewhat close ties to the Russian elite. Trump and Putin themselves have some odd affinity for each other.  Given Russia’s significant political and military commitment to keep Assad in power, they have a vested interested in the next president stopping support to Assad’s opposition.

Trump has so far suggested just that. He has vaguely communicated that the U.S. should devote its efforts in the Middle East to eliminating ISIS rather than continuing to fight Assad.  It’s hard to say whether Trump would actually pursue a policy of restraint in Syria because when it comes to foreign policy he doesn’t really stand for anything nor does he know a whole lot about international affairs. He espouses a very “America first” message but no coherent principles on U.S. use of force. This will make him rely extensively on his foreign policy advisors.

Donald Trump’s foreign policy advisors are a motley crew of conservative think-tank folk that are pretty unconventional in the broader conservative foreign policy establishment. One of his advisors, Carter Page is currently being investigated for his ties to the Kremlin and the Russian gas company Gazprom and has openly criticized the U.S. for a “hypocritical focus on democratization”. Trump’s most prominent foreign policy advisor and possible Defense Secretary is General Mike Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).  Mike Flynn was just at a dinner with Vladimir Putin and has publicly favored closer ties to Russia.

US Army Lt General Flynn testifies before House Intelligence Committee in Washington
Former DIA chief and Trump’s favorite general – General Mike Flynn

This is not to say the Clinton don’t have ties to Russia…they have many connections to Russia. But Hillary and Putin actually despise each other. Putin is convinced Hillary tried to have him overthrown as President of Russia in 2011 and Russia’s senior diplomats had a difficult working relationship with her while she was Secretary of State during the infamous “Russian reset”.

“In our administration, Secretary Clinton always had a tougher line toward Putin and the Russians than other senior administration officials,” said Michael A. McFaul, an adviser on Russia who served as United States ambassador to Moscow. “It was Putin’s strong belief that we, with Clinton in the lead, were trying to meddle with his regime.”

Clinton actually spent most of her time as Secretary of State from 2011-2012 feuding with the Russians as she tried to organize international coalitions to oust Assad from power – someone she has called a “war criminal” and has demanded to step down since 2011. This effort ended after an infamous breakdown of a potential Syrian peace plan with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan at the June 2012 Geneva conference.

Clinton’s persistent, strongly anti-Russian rhetoric throughout the campaign and historical animosity for Assad has foreshadowed what could be a massive showdown in Syria between the U.S. and Russia. The Clinton foreign policy team has communicated a much clearer message about what direction they would likely go in Syria – directly striking Assad.

The most prominent Clinton’s foreign policy advisors that have signaled they would support a more aggressive policy against the Assad regime are former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and former CIA director Mike Morell. Flournoy is considered the likely tap to become Clinton’s Defense Secretary and Mike Morell could see himself again in charge of the CIA.

Gen. Patraeus Testifies At Senate Armed Services Hearing On Afghan War
Michele Flournoy – Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, likely Secretary of Defense in Clinton administration

In an August interview, former CIA director Mike Morell advocated the U.S. start covertly killing Russian and Iranian soldiers that are supporting Assad in Syria. He further proposed that U.S. forces begin bombing Syrian government installations, including government offices, aircraft and presidential guard positions in order to “scare Assad.”

In a June interview, Flournoy said she would “direct U.S. troops to push President Bashar al-Assad’s forces out of southern Syria” and specifically advocated what she called “limited military coercion” that could pressure Syrian Bashar al-Assad to negotiate and give the opposition the leverage they need. She has also supported the push for a “No-Fly Zone” in northern Syria – a territory or an area over which aircraft are not permitted to fly – something that Russia has explicitly warned the U.S. not to pursue.

Hillary Clinton herself has long advocated for the implementation of a No-Fly Zone  as a necessary next step in the Syrian conflict.

“I am advocating the no-fly zone both because I think it would help us on the ground to protect Syrians; I’m also advocating it because I think it gives us some leverage in our conversations with Russia” – Clinton, December 2015

Trump and his closest foreign policy advisor General Mike Flynn have also suggested that they support creating air and ground “safety zones” in Syria resembling a No-Fly Zone

“Well, you know, I’ve always said we need to have a safe zone….we have to have some kind of a safe zone. And we have to get the Gulf states to pay for it.” – Donald Trump told WYFF News 4 in February in the most Donald Trump way possible.

This is a proposal that Obama has directly opposed doing in Syria along with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president’s military advisors.

Former Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said imposing a no-fly zone would require as many as 70,000 American servicemen to dismantle Syria’s sophisticated antiaircraft system and then impose a 24-hour watch over the country. Current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford said during testimony to the Senate that creating a no-fly zone over Syria would require declaring war on Assad and Russia, a “fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make.”

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Hypothetical No-Fly Zone in northern Syria

It seems like the U.S. could be on a path to some form of a No-Fly Zone regardless given the pressure now for the U.S. to make a decision about what to do in Syria.

Based on Trump’s lack of any real foreign policy ideas on Syria and actual praise of Vladimir Putin throughout the campaign,  perhaps Trump would seek not to escalate tensions with Russia by imposing a No-Fly Zone in Syria. Then again it’s really hard to predict what Trump might do. As someone who has supported the torture program, a massive build up of the military and generally being a loose cannon on foreign policy, anything is possible. Trump has also said he would like to see 30,000 U.S. troops on the ground to combat ISIS so he will be escalating U.S. involvement in the Middle East regardless.

It remains to be seen how Clinton would proceed with the Russians in Syria. On her campaign website  her Syria policy right now is “Pursuing a diplomatic strategy aimed at resolving Syria’s civil war”….but given the utter collapse of diplomacy, the internal frustration within the State Department and what looks like a bipartisan foreign policy team that supports a hawkish approach to Assad, the prospects look grim.

It’s important to remember that the Syrian conflict is a global war, not one that hinges on whatever the U.S. chooses to do. So let’s re-visit the first war we discussed.

Predicting the End of the Gas Pipeline War – Turkey and Saudi Arabia Switch Sides and the Dollar’s Collapse Is Near

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Turkish President Erdogan and Vladimir Putin restart their relationship

There is currently a monumental shift in global politics underway and it centers around a longtime U.S. allies in Turkey as well as Saudi Arabia.

At the end of July 2016 there was an attempted coup by the Turkish military to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from power. The coup failed and Erdogan has stayed in power, now purging entire parts of the government who may oppose him. Erdogan and the Turkish public have firmly pointed their finger at the U.S. as secretly being behind the coup and supporting the plotters.

Turkey has accused Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric for masterminding the coup. Gulen resides freely in Pennsylvania under CIA protection and the United States has been dragging its feet over Ankara’s demand for Gulen’s extradition. This has raised anti-American feelings among Turks and the Turkish government to a fever pitch. (To make it that much worse, Gulen’s political allies have donated a lot of money to the Clinton campaign).

There are many layers behind why the U.S. may have wanted Erdogan out but the result has been a re-forged friendship between Turkey and Russia. Erdogan and Putin met for the first time at the beginning of August in a high profile warming of relations since Turkey infamously shot down a Russian warplane in Syria in 2015.

The new Turkey-Russia relationship has some serious questions in that Turkey has long wanted Assad gone, while Russia has been Assad’s strongest backer. But this is why the pipeline war is important.

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Turkey has now pivoted away from backing the Qatar-Saudi Arabia pipeline which drove its quest to remove Assad from power and has since inked a deal with Russia to construct the “Turkish Stream” natural gas pipeline. The Turkish Stream is meant to replace the defunct South Stream pipeline in the Black Sea as an alternate conduit to sell natural gas into Europe.

More so, there is a growing belief that Iran may actually be prepared to strike a deal with Turkey that in exchange for Turkey to stop supporting Assad’s opposition, the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline could actually become the Iran-Iraq-Turkey pipeline en-route to Europe. These are all tentative ideas, but what is clear is that one of the most vital U.S. allies in the Middle East is turning towards our rivals.

Since the rapprochement of Russia and Turkey,  U.S.-Turkey relations have gone straight downward. Things are so hostile that the U.S. had to move out its nuclear weapons hosted at the Turkish Air Base at Incirlik. Turkey proceeded to not alert the U.S. that it would send its army to cross into Syria and has now turned its fire on U.S.-backed Kurdish forces forcing them to withdraw east over the Euphrates River.

To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia, another critical U.S. ally, has started drifting towards Russia as well.

A lot of this is driven by the Saudi’s hating the Iranian nuclear deal that the Obama administration negotiated with them. In the zero-sum cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it was viewed as a historical betrayal by the U.S. to remove the sanctions on Iran and potentially accelerate their path to a nuclear weapon in a decade.

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In fact, it is now widely believed that the Obama administration didn’t make good on its “red line” threat in 2013 to strike Assad if he used chemical weapons, because Iran threatened to back out of the nuclear deal in the early stage of the negotiations.

Rather than it achieving the regional security we hoped, the Saudi’s just signed a contract with Vladimir Putin to build 16 nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia, raising the possibility of a nuclear arms race with Iran if the nuclear deal collapses (which is looking that way). It’s also a sign that Saudi Arabia may be giving up on the Qatar-Saudi-Turkey pipeline that Russia has gone to such lengths to prevent in Syria.

All of this has very bad implications for the U.S. and its petrodollar, which is reliant on U.S. denominated oil sales dominating the oil market. There are reports that the Saudi’s are preparing to dump the petrodollar as OPEC’s currency and are considering giving Russia OPEC membership. Things are not looking good between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and the souring relationship made headlines last week when the U.S. Congress overrode President Obama’s veto on a bill that would allow 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia.

dollarprint_2338984b

The end to the petrodollar could be especially devastating to the U.S. economy now because the U.S. dollar is facing a lot of trouble at home.

For the last 6 years the U.S. Federal Reserve has pursued a policy of “quantitative easing” which has printed $12 trillion dollars in new money to buy up the toxic assets held by the banks in the 2008 Wall Street collapse. The end of the petrodollar would cause trillions of more dollars to flood back into the U.S., skyrocketing inflation and make the U.S. dollar lose its grip as the world’s reserve currency.

If there is another significant crash in the U.S. economy then we may be looking at a re-structuring of the global monetary system and there has already been calls for the end of dollar domination in institutions like the World Bank  and IMF.

Over the last few months there has been a growing consensus amongst economists that the U.S. economy is about the enter another recession – in fact Deutsche Bank has said there’s a 60% chance it’ll happen within the next year.

In recent months, the gap between the three-month and 10-year Treasuries have begun to close rapidly—a signal to some investors that a recession may be on its way. “This relentless flattening of the curve is worrisome,”  said the team of analysts led by Deutsche Bank, referring to the graph that plots bonds of different maturities against their yields. “Given the historical tendency of a very flat or inverted yield curve to precede a U.S. recession, the odds of the next economic downturn are rising.”

Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has called this collapse part of a “coming global re-alignment” where global power will inevitably become decentralized from the United States where many regions of the world will crafting their own agendas which America don’t have the power to control.

Russia and China, the two major global powers other than the United States seem to be preparing to transition to a gold-backed currency to wean off the Western currency system. The two have been voraciously buying gold in the international market and some economists are predicting gold will again come to dominate our monetary system.

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The United States stands at a critical crossroads in its foreign policy beginning with Syria. Whether or not it chooses to escalate the conflict against Assad remains to be seen, but there are larger tectonic plates in global politics shifting based on this decision.

The U.S. has enjoyed the luxury of being the sole great power in the world for the last 30 years, but the war in Syria may be where we look back and realized this was no longer true. The Syrian war has demonstrated that there are many other countries who have the military and economic power to challenge the U.S. dominated international system. It will be interesting to see which of our presidents embraces this reality and which will fight to prevent it from happening.

Will the U.S. continue its great power Cold War with Russia and re-up the war in Syria or will we finally give up on the project of regime change all together and maybe try and work with our rivals instead of constantly going to war with them?

 

 

–Ten Questions For the People Running To Be President–

1. Will you accept an end to the Syrian conflict which sees Bashar al-Assad stay in power?

2. If Assad must step down, do you have an idea of who you would like to see replace him?

3. If you decide that diplomacy is no longer a feasible solution in Syria, how would you increase U.S. efforts to counter the Assad regime directly? Would you continue the  the CIA train & equip program for vetted “moderate” rebel groups or would you authorize airstrikes against Assad regime targets?

4. Does the United States recognize the Syrian rebel group Jabhat Fateh-al Sham as distinct from Al Qaeda, or will it become listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and not receive any U.S. support ?

5. If your administration wanted to increase the scope of U.S. involvement in the fight against Assad or ISIS, would it be subject to Congressional approval?

6. What will your administration do about Turkey’s antagonism with U.S.-backed Kurdish forces? Will the U.S. continue relying on the Kurdish military to fight ISIS?

7. Would you support an independent Kurdish initiative with the Kurds retaining autonomous territory in Syria?

8. Would you support the enforcement of a No-Fly Zone over parts of Syria? What would be the penalty for violating the No-Fly Zone and who would enforce it?

9. Would you put U.S. ground troops in Syria to fight ISIS, if so how many?

10. Who would you nominate as your Secretary of State?

 

 

 

 

So let’s say when everything’s all said and done, Assad stays in power, the U.S. basically loses the war

Right now the U.S. dollar is living in uncharted territory. The U.S. Federal Reserve has pursued a policy of “quantitative easing” or QE over the last 93 months which has printed $12 trillion dollars in new money. This money has been used over the last 6 years to buy up toxic assets in the  U.S. banking system and supposedly to motivate banks to lend to consumers (that’s not happening, the banks are just keeping the money).

 

The merits of QE, and especially a QE program that has gone on this long, is the subject of intense debate amongst academic economists and financial experts. The unprecedented amount of money printed by the Fed has raised alarm bells about the risks of inflation and the eventual strength of the dollar. There’s an excellent public debate here on the merits of QE, but one thing the gargantuan amount of printing has done is forced interest rates to stay low.

When interest rates are low it’s to motivate consumers to borrow and spend money rather than save it. Given how much money has been printed the Fed needs people to keep borrowing or else inflation will consumer the dollar.

The effect of prolonged low interest rates combined with the global decline in oil prices has had a profound effect on the petrodollar. Oil producing nations are now trading in a currency that has lost much of its value and can’t be invested with good return. They are also making significantly less in profits because of low oil prices so there’s not as much petrodollar recycling happening either.

has collapsed the petrodollar.

 

 

 

Lowest oil prices in decades

 

One of the weakest parts of the U.S. economy right now is the inability of the U.S. Federal Reserve to regulate the value of the dollar

 

 

 

(2) The War for Middle East Primacy – Iran’s Nuclear Deal Tilts the Balance 

 

The opposite dynamic is taking place in Yemen, another place a violent civil war has been carrying on since 2011. The Sunni-controlled government is being backed by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. and the the opposition Shiite Houthi rebels are being supported by Iran and Russia.

 

(3) The War to Re-Draw Borders – The Coming Fall of the Caliphate and the Betrayal of the Kurds
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One of the main threats both countries, as well as Syria, face is the prospect of the emergence of an independent Kurdish state, despite the differences among the Kurds, who are spread over the territories of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The Kurdish challenge in Iran may not be identical to that in Turkey, but the danger of a domino effect in the region is so strong that no party wants to take any chances. In this equation, Russia also has a role to play in thwarting any attempt to carve out an independent Kurdish state in Syria.

The shared interest in preventing the emergence of a Kurdish state puts Iran and Turkey on the same page when it comes to exerting all possible efforts to keep Syria united and under centralized rule.

Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/08/iran-zarif-turkey-visit-erdogan-syria-coup-attempt.html#ixzz4M2IZMFf0

(4) War for Democratic Reform in Syria – What’s After Assad? 
Because of Syria’s diverse demographics which includes Kurds, Christians, Druze etc, Assad has been positioning himself as the protector of secular rule as opposed to the jihadist extremists that want to overthrow him.

 

A lot of the weapons the U.S. sells goes into the arms black market in the Middle East where they invariably end up in the hands of Al Qaeda or ISIS.

 

The most powerful opposition group in Syria now is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS). This is the group that was formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra and was explicitly Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. The name change is part of JFS’s attempt to distance itself from Al Qaeda to receive more explicit international backing, although most people still

Assad continues to use chemical weapons against his citizens

 

“The belief that Islam should govern the affairs of the Muslims isn’t exclusive to any group,” says Mahamed. “This is the core belief… What you have to understand is that Muslims, when given the opportunity, when given the freedom, they will always choose to be governed by their faith. It’s that simple.

 

He’s protecting Christians

Assad is going to stay in power.

Turkey opting for Stream with Russia

US betraying the Kurds

US increasing defense sales to Qatar

According to Thomas Pierret the Army of Conquest is the only group that could credibly claim it can break the siege of Aleppo

Prevailing thought is that Obama should’ve done more earlier on to build up the the “moderate” opposition

It is only as of the ceasefire last week that the US has agreed for the first time to work with Russia to target Al Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria, something the administration has been reluctant to do so far in the war.

In fact there are so many events happening on the news that implicate the Syrian conflict that you may not even realize it. For example, the recent failed-coup attempt in Turkey along with Turkish President Erdogan’s

Should the United States try to break the Aleppo siege using its own military, and thereby risk open conflict with nuclear-armed Russia? Should it provide deadly weapons to the opposition, knowing that those weapons might make their way to civilian-killing jihadists or simply prolong the conflict? Or should it stay out, and risk hundreds of thousands of people being gassed and starved?

 

(3)

Is muqtada al sadr good for Iraq

Shia militias targetting Sunnis

War for Democratic Reform in Syria

Framing the battle as a decision between his secular rule versus Islamic extremism

 

 

 

 

Oil prices dropping to take Iran out of the market

Whether Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration were motivated by the same fears of a gold Dinar is just speculation at this point, I could not find any evidence that specifically tied the administration to this justification for intervention.

(4) The Petrodollar Crisis

Low Interest Rates Kill Petro Dollar

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Ben Bernanke – Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve
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German woman buying bread with a basket full of currency – Berlin, 1922

(5) What Should Be the Next Chapter of American Foreign Policy? 

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living_us_presidents_2009
Who’s coming next?

Importance of the petrodollar

Scientifically go to war for oil

When petrodollars run out

Saudi threats to get nukes

For a nation that ranks 15th in education, 44th in healthcare and 1st in incarceration – America has two real strengths – its military and having the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. 

After extensive reading, analyzing, contemplating, sleeping and crying I’ve come to this conclusion:

Hillary Clinton wants a US-led world order while Donald Trump wants a multipolar world order. 

Borderless world

Anne Marie Slaughter – The Real New World Order

While Clinton excelled at “soft” power—selling America’s message abroad—one emerging criticism of her four-year tenure at State was that she consistently avoided getting her hands dirty with direct mediation. Clinton agreed to leave key negotiations in crisis spots—in particular the Mideast and south-central Asia—to special envoys such as George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke, and she rarely stepped in as each of them failed. Veteran reporter David Rohde, in an assessment as Clinton was leaving office in January, suggested that Clinton wanted to avoid embarrassment or failure ahead of a 2016 presidential run; he quoted one State Department official as saying that he was “really happy to have someone in the job who does not retain political ambitions.”

Remember, these the core tenets of neo-conservatism:

“[What we require is] a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; 

a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; 

and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities.

Bernie and Trump will keep Assad

Hillary Clinton Wants A US-led World Order

Kagan and neocons want Clinton

Defense Industry wants Clintonn

The Hillary Doctrine

Hillary Doctrine 2

Fast and Furious foreign policy

Unipolar Stability theory

Why national security republicans are supporting Clinton

Bill Clinton ties to influential Saudis

Donald Trump Wants A Multipolar World Order

Good analysis of Trump’s world view

Donald trump vs realism

Donald vs Machine

Should individual countries be allowed to determine their own security?

there is no way to impose a Pax Americana on today’s multipolar world.

Criticizing the United Nations which just took Saudi Arabia off the child death list

Stop buying oil from Saudi Arabia

Needs to stop attacking Assad

Japan and South Korea should get nukes / generally not be strong on non-proliferation

Unipolarity is nah

The Nexus To Stability in the Middle East: US-Turkey Relationship

erdogan_clinton

Turkey killing and raping prisoners post coup

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Future Prediction # 1 – War with Iran in Syria

Next Iranian revolution

Failure of nuclear agreement.

Iran nuclear deal challenges the petro dollar

Obama gambling on improved US-Iran relation/possible petrodollar continuation

Iran Deal la

Iran dumps the US dollar after nuclear agreeme

Wants to be paid in dollars not euros

 

Follow Laura Rozen (@lrozen) and Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister)

 

 



Table of Contents

**Introduction/Summary of Conflict**

(2011): The Arab Spring and the Start of the Syrian Revolution

(2011-2012): Armed Opposition Groups Form and Syria Descends Into Civil War

(2011-2012): How the United Nations and International Diplomacy Failed To Prevent the Syrian Bloodbath

(1945-Present): What Is At Stake for World Powers in Syria – Another War for Oil

(2012): Operation Zero Footprint: Regime Change in Libya, Benghazi and the Covert Arming of Syria’s Rebels

(2013): Whose Sarin Gas? Chemical Warfare and the Story Behind Obama’s Failed Red Line

(2013-2014): A Rebel Group Goes Rouge – The Birth of ISIS and Jihad’s Global Divorce

(2014-2015): Another Failure at Geneva and Russian Intervention – How America Lost the War in Syria

(2016-Present): ISIS Terror Spreads, the Siege of Aleppo and the Turkish Invasion of Syria

**2016 Election – Hillary Clinton v.s. Donald Trump on Syria** 



 

 

 

 

 

 

So how did the Syrian war even start?

Let’s turn back the clock to my junior year of high school – February 2011.


(2011) – The Arab Spring and the Start of the Syrian Revolution


 

While I was busy watching the Packers beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, the first demonstrations against Syrian government were being held.

These demonstrations demanding political reform were part of a series of uprisings happening across the region at the time – most notably in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. These uprisings were largely born out of discontent with high unemployment, restrictions on free speech corruption in the government, poverty and increasing food prices. This revolutionary wave across the Middle East and North Africa between 2011-2012 was dubbed the “Arab Spring“.

 

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Anti-Assad protestors in Syria

The causes for revolution in Syria vary. The most popular belief has been that the uprisings were inspired by the political revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia in fighting against deep rooted corruption in the Syrian government along with a lack of political freedoms. But one far less talked about factor, and perhaps the largest force behind the uprising, was that the country was in the midst of an economic devastation as a result of a severe drought from 2006-2010. In what would be reminiscent of America’s 1930s “Dust Bowl”,  Syria’s agriculture industry collapsed, skyrocketing food prices and put millions in poverty. These factors combined to create pockets of protests against the Assad government in late February 2011. 

The Assad family has ruled Syria for 46 years. Beginning in 1970, Syrian military general Hafez al-Assad led a military coup to overthrow the sitting government and became the sole ruler of Syria with a single-party government, the Ba’ath Party.

Hafez al-Assad’s oldest son Bassel al-Assad was expected to succeed him until his death in a car accident in 1994. As a result, after Hafez’s death in 2000 the torch was passed to his second son with no political experience and who was training to be an ophthalmologist in London at the time – Bashar al-Assad. In Bashar’s 11th year as President, the Arab Spring came to Syria.

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The Assad Family – Hafez sitting down, Bashar is the tallest son who looks like Michael Cera during his mustache phase

These protests for reform first escalated in the city of Daraa, a suburb of the capitol, Damascus.

On March 6th, 2011 fifteen teenagers were arrested for writing “the people want the regime to fall” on walls across the city. Their arrest and alleged torture by the Syrian military police led to demonstrations and protests around Daara. However, these peaceful demonstrations were met with violent crackdowns from Assad’s government – which feared for its survival as the governments of Tunisia and Egypt had just been toppled.

On March 18th, 2011 government security forces opened fire for the first time on protestors in Daara killing six people. And then shit hit the fan.

“They used live ammunition immediately, no tear gas or anything else,” said the witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

After the deaths in Daara, large scale protests broke out across other major Syrian cities. Clashes between protestors and military police escalated violently with deaths on both sides. Alleging that the violence was instigated by protestors,

Assad’s forces began imprisoning hundreds of protestors, outright killing many and even firing on their funeral processions. At a rally in April 2011, 72 protestors were shot and killed by Assad’s forces, shocking many around the world. This marked a turning point in the war –  what started out as demonstrations for democratic reform in Syria now changed to demanding the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.  

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How the Assad government chose to respond to at this crucial point in April-May 2011 would set the stage for why the current situation in Syria looks the way it does. Before the unrest escalated into the five year civil war that Syria has become, Assad tried to do the following things:

Assad avoids sanctions through Panama Papers shell companies

1 – Double-down on brutally suppressing protests to stomp out the opposition 

The Assad government has maintained from the beginning that the Syrian uprising was one instigated by “foreign saboteurs” seeking to undermine the country’s security and stability. It would later characterize the opposition as  “foreign-backed armed gangs” and “terrorist groups” and will continue to violently suppress them until “security and order are restored.” As a result, the brutal crackdowns continued and by the end of May 2011 over 1,000 Syrian protestors had been killed. 

“The Syrian authorities, in order to preserve the security of the country, citizens and the governmental and services establishments, will confront these people and those behind them according to the law, which specifies the conditions for using weapons.” – Syrian Ministry of Interior, April 8th, 2011

If you’re wondering why the Syrian government would start massacring its own people because of protests, an important part of understanding the Syrian war is that Bashar al Assad’s violent response to the uprising was not just a random crackdown but a continuation of the Assad’s regime’s policy toward civil uprising that began with his father, Hafez al Assad.

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Bashar al Assad and his father Hafez al Assad

In 1976, Hafez al-Assad had Syrian forces intervene in Lebanon’s civil war, on behalf of Lebanese Christian groups who were fighting Muslim groups. The Muslim Brotherhood, a political party, and many other Syrian Sunnis saw this as heresy and launched a six year civil uprising against the Assad government. 

Hafez al-Assad quashed the uprisings in a particularly brutal fashion. In 1982, the Syrian government nearly leveled the city of Hama, where the opposition was strongest, slaughtering thousands of civilians in an indiscriminate barrage in what is now called the Hama Massacre.  The regime learned from this experience that mass violence was a successful response to popular unrest — a lesson that was applied particularly brutally in 2011, but this time with less success. 

 

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The lesson of Hama must have been at the front of the mind of every member of the Assad regime. Failure to act decisively, Hama had shown, inevitably led to insurrection. Compromise could come only after order was assured. So Bashar followed the lead of his father. He ordered a crackdown.

2 – Make concessions to the opposition (while still suppressing protests). 

As the crackdowns failed to intimidate or quell the popular unrest, Assad began to slowly making concessions to the opposition. Assad promised a constitutional referendum allowing a multi-party system along with other proposed democratic reforms like greater press freedom. The government issued a decree to cut taxes and raise state salaries by 1,500 Syrian pounds ($32.60) a month. However, these promises were largely dismissed by the opposition and international community as they were criticized as too little too late following violent crackdowns and were simply vague proposals with no concrete action.

 

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3 – Release political prisoners…..and terrorists. 

At the end of May 2011

How Syria’s uprising became sectarian

AQI moves into Syria in August 2011

Assad began releasing prisoners as a sign of good will in loosening his grip on the crackdowns. But in reality, the prisoners he was releasing were not those taken in from the demonstrations, but known Islamic jihadists that were being held in the infamous Sedanya Prison (think Syria’s Guantanamo).

Assad’s decision to release jihadists from prison was intended to tinge the opposition with extremist elements to make it harder for Western powers to support any rebel group against his government. If the opposition to Assad became a regime of radical terrorists then he would seem like the least bad option of all those fighting in Syria. Some of these released prisoners would go on to help form ISIS as well as Ahrar ash-Sham, two of the most prominent jihadist rebel forces on the ground in Syria. As we will see, emboldening the extremist element of the opposition is a tactic Assad will use throughout the five year civil war.

In early February 2012, the Syrian government released Mustafa bin abdel Qadir sitt Mariam nassar, also known as abu Musab al-suri.

 

Some critics of the regime now claim that by releasing the jihadists from prison, Assad’s intention was to quickly radicalize the opposition, discrediting it in the process.

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Palestinian protestors cross the Syria-Israel border – May 2011

4 – Try and stoke an Israeli-Palestinian conflict to distract the international community from Syria’s own internal turmoil. 

According to this May 2011 email between Clinton Foundation employee Sidney Blumenthal and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Assad began allowing/busing Palestinian protestors to Syria’s southern border and march into disputed territory in Israel on “Nakba Day” in May 2011. This caused the Israeli military (IDF) to fire upon, and kill 13 Palestinian protestors. As a result, simultaneous protests broke out along Israel’s Syria, Lebanon and Gaza borders resulting in severe crackdowns from the IDF.

This was allegedly an attempt on Assad’s part to fracture the fragile Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process and prod Israel into a conflict in the contested Golan Heights – thus moving the international community’s spotlight away from Assad’s own internal turmoil in Syria.

Unfortunately none of these tactics ultimately worked. As the opposition to Assad began to grow violent, Syria seemed headed for out civil war.

(2011-2012) – Armed Opposition Groups Form and Syria Descends Into Civil War

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Air Force Col. Riad al-Assad – announcing his defection on YouTube to form the Free Syrian Army

Turn to guns

In July 2011, two months after 70+ protesters were killed in Daara, a group of officers led by a colonel in the Syrian Air Force named Riad al-Assad (not related to Bashar) defected from the national Syrian army. They created the first organized rebel group against the government – the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

In a YouTube video announcing their defection, they declared the primary aim of the FSA was to protect unarmed protesters and to “bring down the regime.” They seek to replace Assad’s government with a secular, free democracy. Following Riad and his group’s defection, thousands of Syrian military officers began deserting President Assad’s army and joining the rebellion.  By December 2011, it was reported that close to 10,000 officers defected to the FSA. 

Jake Sullivan email – Contact said they had a chance to spend some time with a RIA-Novosti reporter in Damascus who is an Arabist and has been there for a dozen years. This reporter noted that Assad is widely despised across Syria, though support in Damascus is fairly strong and there is a lot of fear of Syria descending into a hellish civil war along sectarian lines. Ria reporter compared situation there with Russia, saying many want change, many hate their leader (Syrians hate Assad, Russians despise Putin), but few want revolutionary change; they want reform.

However, the Free Syrian Army was not the only resistance group that emerged to remove Bashar al-Assad from power – enter Al QaedaThe infamous Islamic terror group, which was previously led by Osama bin-Laden and was responsible for the 9/11 terror attack, saw the chaos in Syria as an opportunity to gain powerAl Qaeda created a branch in Syria called Jabhat al-Nusra or the al-Nusra Front. 

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Al Qaeda’s al-Nusra fighters

Syria is composed of a majority Sunni Muslims, but the Assad’s are Alawaites,

The land that makes up Syria has been fought over by foreign empires for centuries – from the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Macedonian Greeks, Romans and Mongols to the more modern history of control by the Turks, British, and French. The Umayyad Caliphate in the 7th and 8th centuries left Syria with its Islamic heritage with a majority of its population today practicing Sunni Islam (~74%). However, the “leftovers” of all of these invasions also left Syria with a sizable minority of Christians, Catholics, Jews, Kurds, Druze and assorted sects of Shia Islam like Ismailis and Alawites.

The important point is this – Syria is a nation with many different religious sects, a majority of which are Sunni Muslims, but the group which controls the Syrian government and the military are a minority group who only make up 12% of the population – the Alawites. 

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Alawites consider themselves to be sub-sect within Shia Islam, but that idea itself is subject to intense debate amongst Islamic scholars because of some unconventional beliefs Alawites hold (notably the incorporation of the “trinity” from Christianity, celebration of Christmas, consecration of wine etc). Many Sunni Islamic scholars have in fact issued “fatwas”, or religious rulings, which declare Alawites to be heretics, non-Muslims and have even urged violence against them.

Understandably you have a predicament where the religion of the ruling party is considered to be invalid by the religious authorities of the majority population. While the Syrian government

It is this fundamental religious tension in Syria that has been driving a five-year bloody civil war in Syria more so than any real political differences.

Because both President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him gave special priority, power, and benefit to Syria’s small Alawite minority while excluding the Sunni majority from resources and power, the nature of the country’s problems—and thus now the war—is infused with religion. It is true that oppositionists went to the street out of political, not theological, differences, but the fact that the political imbalance was drawn along religious lines put these religious identities at the heart of the fight.

Unfortunately I wish I could just claim that these are the only two rebel groups fighting Assad’s government, but they were just the first.

As of December 2011, one respected source claimed that shabiha members were reportedly being paid 50,000 Syrian pounds ($800) per month in cash that came from Iran via Hizb Allah in neighboring Lebanon.[19] If true, Iranian meddling in Syria illustrates yet another difficulty facing any post-Assad government. The possible role played by the shabiha gangs after the inevitable demise of the al-Assad regime is difficult to quantify and chart. If regional supporters Hizb Allah and Iran provide them with financial backing, however, then they will be a destructive force during the reorganization of the Syrian state. With outside backing, the shabiha could mount a counterinsurgency, possibly resulting in a long-term civil conflict.

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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini (left), Assad (center), Hezbollah commander Nasrallah Hussein (right)

Hezbollah fighting in Lebanon border

Assad funding jihadists Remains true to this day

Kurdish Supreme Committee – July 2012

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Syrian War as fo 2012

 

 


(2011 – 2012) – How the International Community Failed To Prevent the Syrian Bloodbath


 

Starting from the modest protests against Assad to the violent uprising and formation of armed opposition groups, world powers have kept a close eye on the events unfolding in Syria. But I think it is clear to everyone now in 2016 that a diplomatic solution was not achieved in the early stages which has allowed one of the greatest human disasters in history to spread through the Middle East and now spill into Europe.

Understanding why international diplomacy did not work in Syria may actually be the most important lesson in this article because it illuminates what the international objectives in the Middle East are and the constraints the US faces in shaping the world order the way it deems necessary. Perhaps more importantly is seeing who was involved in why diplomacy failed because most of these people still hold their positions and will shape international politics in the future.

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United Nations News Centre – San Francisco, CA

Before I look at how diplomacy unfolded, there are two overarching themes that defined the international negotiations to get a peace deal in Syria.

First, the United States is not an ally of Bashar al-Assad. We have historically had a very strained relationship with Syria with regards to combating terrorism, human rights and Israel. This included a complete severing of diplomatic ties in 1957 after the CIA attempted to oust Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli.

Russia on the other hand is one of Assad’s historically strongest allies. Syria is largely considered a “client-state” of Russia due to a decades long economic and military alliance worth billions which is cemented by Russia’s only warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union hosted in the Syrian city of Tartus. This Cold War rivalry between the US and Russia will play a central role in the Syrian conflict.

Second, the international community was just coming off the fall of three other governments in the region: Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia, and the U.N.-led fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. It was a crazy time to say the least.

Both Libya and Syria’s revolutions started at the same time in February 2011, inspired by those in Egypt and Tunisia. In Libya however, the United States, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pushed the United Nations to impose a No Fly Zone after Gaddafi refused to step down (what a No Fly Zone is). After the UN approved a No Fly Zone in March 2011 they proceeded to green-light a NATO-led military intervention which ousted / killed the Libyan dictator by October 2011. Though starting at the same time, Libya’s revolution was all said and done in 8 months while Syria’s war has dragged on for 5 years. The UN’s method of action in dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Libya as well as the state of the country post-Gaddafi would cast a long shadow over the negotiations with Syria.

Alright now let’s dive in.

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Obama and Clinton announce the NATO mission against Libya – March 2011

While NATO was accelerating its airstrikes against Gaddafi in June-July of 2011, the protests against Assad in Syria began to grow seriously violent leading up to the Free Syrian Army being formed. A month later in August 2011, the US and it’s allies officially made their position clear  – Bashar al-Assad must go. But the implementation of that declaration is what has marred Obama’s legacy as having one of the most ineffectual foreign policy decisions.

By October 2011, 2700 people had died in Syria and there was no sign Assad intended to step down from power. Meanwhile, the NATO mission against Gaddafi was entering its final stage as they had just captured the city of Tripoli. The United Nations Security Council convened for the first time in October 2011 to come to a solution in Syria. It was there that Russia and China vetoed the first of three UN Security Council resolutions between 2011-2012 to respond to the Syrian conflict.

For those who don’t know how the United Nations takes action, on any resolution there has to be unanimous consent amongst the five permanent members of the Security Council called the P5. The P5 include the US, Russia, Britain, France and China. If even one member vetoes a resolution then nothing goes in effect.

When the UN Security Council voted to impose a No Fly Zone in Libya back in March 2011, Russia and China abstained from the vote thus allowing it to pass. Seven months later in October 2011, Russia and China would use their veto power to prevent the UN from taking action in Syria. The October veto would even lead Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, to walk out in protest.

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Russia and China veto UN Security Council resolutions on Syria – October 2011

UN Security Council Resolution 612 was largely a condemnation of Assad and simply demanded an end to all violence and accountability for human rights abuses. It was a fairly bland resolution, but it did included this stipulation:

11. Expresses its intention to review Syria’s implementation of this resolution within 30 days and to consider its options, including measures under Article 41 of the Charter of the United Nations;

The resolution carried the threat of Article 41’s arms embargo and economic sanctions on Assad if he did not abide by the terms in the resolution. Although this language in the resolution was carefully negotiated to avoid a veto by saying the UN would only “consider” sanctions against Assad, Russia and the other so-called BRICS nations didn’t buy it.

According to the New York Times,  Russia along with Brazil, India, China and South Africa objected to even the idea of sanctions against Assad because the UN Security Council’s resolution on Libya, which only authorized “humanitarian assistance“, had been twisted to encompass a NATO war to overthrow the Libyan government. Russia and other major powers were determined not to repeat that by supporting any UN resolution that could leave the door open to a military intervention. They insisted that any regime change be led by the Syrian people themselves and that approving a possible Syrian intervention after Libya would cement a precedent that would approve the violation of state sovereignty from outside powers; a dangerous position for an international organization built on the cooperation of autonomous states.

Analysts observed that other countries were so afraid of a repeat of NATO’s war against Gaddafi that Russia and China’s veto was more of a rebuke to the UN’s actions in Libya rather than truly opposing reform in Syria. For the countries afraid of what a military intervention to oust Assad would look like, it certainly did not help that Muammar Gaddafi suffered a gruesome death at the hands of a bayonet just two weeks after the UN Security Council met to discuss Syria. Or as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously put it, “We came, we saw, he died.

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Gaddafi stabbed to death by Libyan rebels we think?

But likely, geopolitics played the primary role in Russia’s veto.  Russia was primarily concerned that if President Assad goes, its influence in the Middle East will disappear with him.

“Syria is the only country in the Middle East which follows our advice, this is the country where we can exercise certain tangible influence,” says Ruslan Pukhov, Defense Analyst at CAST .

“Of course, the loss of Syria will mean we will have no influence in this region at all. It has some symbolic value for the Russian authorities and the foreign policy establishment as a sign of Russia as a great power.”

Following the veto of the October 2011 UN resolution, it was time for the Americans to re-calculate their approach. There were two defining events in 2012 where world powers could have compromised on a solution to Syria: the February 2012 UN Security Council meeting and the June 2012 Geneva Conference.

Leading up to the February 2012 United Nations meeting, the Arab League  a coalition of 22 Arab states led primarily by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, proposed the first political solution to the Syrian conflict. The Arab League proposed a plan to negotiate an end to the violent crackdowns and for Assad to open a dialogue with the opposition for political reforms. Assad actually twice agreed to the Arab League peace plan but continued to kill protestors in the violent crackdowns and Syria was kicked out of the Arab League. Saudi Arabia removed its peace plan monitors from Syria in January 2012 and called on the international community for “all possible pressure” on Syria to adhere to the Arab peace plan.

World powers met again at the United Nations one month later in February 2012 with significantly more pressure arrive at a solution to Syria’s escalating crisis. The diplomatic battle was waged on the international stage primarily by two individuals: on the Russian side was foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and on the American side was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a joint press conference

On one end, Russia wanted to retain Bashar al-Assad in power not only because he was their ally and last foothold in the Middle East, but they started to view the escalation of the Syrian conflict as one increasingly instigated by the protestors, and was taking on strongly sectarian Islamist elements with the emergence of the al-Nusra Front in Syria. According to Steve Rosenberg of BBC, Russia expected only one of two outcomes to take place in the Syrian civil war: either Assad stays in power, ensuring their stronghold influence in the Middle East region, or, radical Islamists take over, creating a terror threat for Russia.

On the other side, the United States saw Assad as a brutal dictator who had lost his legitimacy to rule after killing hundreds of his own people and committing “widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms“. Clinton had in fact already branded Assad as a “war criminal”. As for what came after Assad, diplomats involved in the negotiations commented, “At the time, the west was fixated on Assad leaving. As if that was the beginning and the end of the strategy and then all else would fall into place.

Hillary Clinton speaking at the UN Security Council on January 31st, 2012 quickly  rejected these comparisons to Libya at the UN Security Council meeting.

“I know that some members here are concerned that we are headed toward another Libya. That is a false analogy. Syria is a unique situation that requires its own approach, tailored to the specific circumstances occurring there. And that is exactly what the Arab League has proposed — a path for a political transition that would preserve Syria’s unity and institutions.”

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Hillary Clinton speaks at UN Security Council – February 2012

Amazingly, the American diplomats learned few lessons from the October veto and proposed this UN Security Council resolution with the following passages.

UNSC Resolution 77 – February 2012

10. Stresses the need for all to provide all necessary assistance to the mission in accordance with the League of Arab States’ Protocol of 19 December 2011 and its decision of 22 January 2012;

15. Decides to review implementation of this resolution within 21 days and, in the event of non-compliance, to consider further measures.

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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov at United Nations

The Russians and Chinese balked at the language of the proposed resolution. For them the language was virtually a repeat of

 

This belief  “all necessary assistance” with the threat of unspecified “further measures” sounded eerily familiar to UN Security Council Resolution 1973 in March 2011.

4. Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council;

 

Recalling paragraph 26 of resolution 1970 (2011) in which the Council expressed its readiness to consider taking additional appropriate measures, as necessary, to facilitate and support the return of humanitarian agencies and make available humanitarian and related assistance in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,

The “all necessary measures” phrase was invoked under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to justify the NATO invasion of Libya to topple Muammar Gaddafi.

 

it would open the door to a possible U.N. or NATO led invasion to topple Assad.

The draft “is missing the most important thing: a clear clause ruling out the possibility that the resolution could be used to justify military intervention in Syrian affairs from outside. For this reason I see no chance this draft could be adopted” – Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s envoy to the European Union, February 2012

 

On February 4th, 2012, Russia and China again vetoed the UN Security Council resolution to take enforceable action against Assad to halt the violence in Syria.

 

“The Libyan case was the final straw for the Russians, hence their October veto of the first Syrian resolution,” said George Lopez, a professor at Notre Dame University, “The second veto on Saturday was more of the same.”

China publicly defended their veto saying, “The United Nations can stop aggression, but it cannot force a country to replace its regime.” Russia and China both sought to maintain their long-standing principle of non-interference in foreign countries (probably because they don’t want to encourage intervening in countries that commit human rights abuses *cough*).

China is indifferent to whether al-Assad survives or leaves power, but rather it is concerned about granting the West the green light to do whatever it likes with regards to deciding the fates of regimes and countries that while not directly important to Chinese interests, may have an impact on more important Chinese interests in Asia.

The vetoes by Russia and China on the Syrian resolution shocked the world. Many criticized the UN for failing to protect the people of Syria and letting the bloodshed continue. I myself remember feeling disgusted back in 2012, especially when the vetoes came the day after Assad had just killed 200 people in the city of Homs.

But incredibly, US diplomats may have actually passed up a workable solution with Russia at the February 2012 meeting rather than propose another resolution that would get vetoed.

According to former Finnish president and Nobel Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, who was involved in the February UN Security Council discussions,  Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin proposed a three-point plan which not only claimed to bring the Syrian government and opposition to the negotiating table but result in a political transition that saw Assad stepping down from power. 

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Vitaly Churkin – Russian ambassador to the UN

Vitaly Churkin “said three things,” according to Ahtisaari, “One — we should not give arms to the opposition. Two — we should get a dialogue going between the opposition and Assad straight away. Three — we should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside.”

While publicly supporting Assad and even continuing to sell arms to the Assad regime during the uprisings, Russian officials privately appeared to be suggesting that Moscow wasn’t committed to Assad remaining in charge but still insisted on the regime spearheading the process of internal dialogue and reconciliation.  “We in Russia have no illusion about this regime,” says Russian MP Andrei Klimov, “The only thing we’d like to have is a peaceful exit. We don’t want to prolong this regime for decades or centuries. Our task is to find a peaceful solution as soon as possible.”

However, the US, Britain and France ignored the proposal during the negotiations.

“Nothing happened because I think [the Western diplomats], and many others, were convinced that Assad would be thrown out of office in a few weeks so there was no need to do anything”, Ahtisaari said.

“He [Obama] thought Assad would go the way Mubarak went,” said Dennis Ross a former Middle East adviser to Obama, referring to the quick departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. Indeed US officials had been saying Assad’s departure was imminent and inevitable for months – either by assassination, an internal coup or stepping down from military defeat.

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Nobel Prize peace prize laureate – Martti Ahtisaari

Other have refuted the claim that

This may explain one of the most confounding questions of the early diplomatic efforts by the United States – why would Hillary Clinton and the US diplomats push another UN resolution that they knew would almost certainly be vetoed by Russia under the same pretenses of their October veto? There wasn’t a clause that explicitly ruled out military intervention and the language clearly gave Russia and China a reason to be worried this could be a repeat of Libya, why didn’t we propose something more negotiable? 

The Americans thought all the cards were in their hands, thinking that Assad’s fall was inevitable regardless of what they did. This is why the US never proposed a ceasefire of any kind, rather they continued to push demands that Assad immediately leave as a precondition to any peace deal. The argument being – any diplomatic proposal for peace that could result in Assad staying in power was less preferable than letting the violence in Syria continue if it meant Assad would get deposed.  

“Some influential members of the international community, unfortunately including those sitting around this table, from the very beginning of the Syrian process have been undermining the opportunity for a political settlement” – Vitaly Churkin, February 2012

I did a quick Freedom of Information search on the State Department’s site for Secretary Clinton’s communications leading up to, and after the February 2012 Security Council meeting to get a better idea of what the American strategy during the negotiations really was. Unsurprisingly, almost all the e-mails relating to Syria during this time have been heavily redacted (1/221/271/312/8). But one of those e-mails in fact makes an explicit reference to a discussion of a “weak res vs. veto” four days before the February 4th vote. Though the e-mail is almost entirely redacted, it means Clinton and her team were considering a softer UN resolution that could get approved, but ultimately chose to push a resolution that they knew would get vetoed.

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Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice at U.N. Middle East meeting

The calculation behind pushing for a stronger resolution that risked getting veto seems to be that: the Russians and Chinese would either accept the American terms for U.N. intervention in Syria (which would not explicitly rule out external military intervention), or nothing would happen and Russia and China would take the blame for the continuing violence in Syria while Assad was likely fall anyway.

The problem was that Clinton and the US badly miscalculated the situation in Syria. Assad would neither relinquish power nor was he successfully deposed by his people. Indeed Assad’s resiliency surprised Russia too. .

Though Russia may have never supported any resolution that could see them losing Assad, they certainly viewed the proposed UN resolutions as another attempt at forcible regime change rather than encouraging a political dialogue between Assad and the opposition. The global anger from the second veto by Russia and China would help create momentum for initiatives outside the United Nations to support and arm the Syrian opposition

In fact, Russia publicly suggested at the UN Security Council that covert efforts for Syrian regime change were already underway – accusing Libya of training rebels to send to Syria and accusing the US of shipping arms to Syrian rebels through Turkey. Since Libya’s revolution, Russia has accused the United States and its European allies of using a mandate to protect civilians as a cover to illegally provide military support to the Libyan rebels and forcibly oust Gaddafi and that they were now trying to do the same with Assad in Syria.

What certainly did not make things better was the American outrage over Russia continuing to support and sell arms to Assad. While obviously repugnant to the rest of the world, the Russians saw this as an incredible hypocrisy on the part of the American diplomats to demand that Russia’s ally go, but did more than turn a blind eye to a different humanitarian crisis happening at the same time in Bahrain.

 

 

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Protests in Bahrain against Al Khalifa monarchy – February 2011

Often called the “Forgotten Revolution” of the Arab Spring, the 2011 uprisings in Bahrain saw hundreds of thousands in the streets demanding the removal of the Al Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain. The protests in Bahrain occurred concurrently with those in Syria and Libya in February 2011, both inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Like Assad, Bahrain’s leaders engaged in a brutal crackdown of the protests which included arbitrary imprisonmenttorturing of prisoners, denial of medical care and out right killing of over a hundred protestors by government police.

At the onset of the protests Obama voiced support for a “dialogue initiative” between the monarchy and the opposition, but as the government response turned violent, the US spoke out against the crackdown. When the crown prince of Bahrain Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa visited Washington DC in June 2011, Obama and Clinton publicly asked the Bahrain monarchy to “hold accountable” those responsible for human-rights abuses against unarmed demonstrators. Clinton urged a “return to a process that will result in real, meaningful changes for the people there.”

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Protestors fleeing Bahraini military crackdowns

That was largely the beginning and end of the US’s support for Bahrain’s uprising for political reform. At no point did the US call for the king of Bahrain to step down because of the brutal crackdowns and killing of peaceful protestors (certainly not declaring the king a “war criminal”) nor provide any diplomatic, humanitarian or armed support to the opposition. The most direct aid the US gave to the protestors in Bahrain was when Ludovic Hood, a US embassy official, reportedly brought a box of doughnuts out to the protesters.

The US in fact went to such great lengths to AVOID looking like it supported the protestors in Bahrain that the State Department blanked a media story where the protestors stated that the United States supported them. This March 2011 e-mail exchange is from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffery Feltman.

Hillary Clinton: [REDACTED] just told my husband that the oppo [opposition] in Bahrain posted on their website that they met w the #2 in our embassy who told them that the US supported them and their demands which was very upsetting to everyone. What’s the story?

Jeffery Feltman: A breakaway part of the opposition did a sit-in outside the embassy and presented a petition. A political officer (not #2) received the petition, as is customary, and urged the opposition to begin the dialogue. The petitioners then gave a false story about what our person said. The Embassy immediately went out on twitter, Facebook, the Embassy website, and via an Embassy press release and corrected the record. The petitioners later apologized on Bahraini TV. [REDACTED] Certainly in Bahrain, the Embassy blanked the media with the correct story.

But to many observers, this came as no surprise – Bahrain is one of the America’s most vital allies in the Middle East. It is home to the U.S. Navy’s critically important 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf meant to deter Iran.  After Obama publicly berated King Khalifa for cracking down on the protestors, envoys for the king and his Arab allies came to the White House with a carefully coordinated message – if the Obama administration did not stand squarely behind the monarchy, they warned Bahrain’s government could fall, costing America a critical ally and potentially moving the country toward Iran’s orbit.

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US Navy Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf

“Starting with Bahrain, the administration has moved a few notches toward emphasizing stability over majority rule,” said a U.S. official. “Everybody realized that Bahrain was just too important to fail.”

As the US slowly started an about-face on Bahrain, the uprisings against the monarchy soon turned into resentment against America, as they saw the US turn its back on them while supporting the Syrian uprising and others in the region. This was further enflamed as one of the key lynchpins in the US-Bahrain relationship continued.

Since 1993, the US defense industry has sold over $400 million dollars of arms to Bahrain; including a wide variety of weapons systems, ammunition, American tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopter gunships. And like Russia’s arms relationship with Syria, this showed no sign of letting up. In February 2011, the Obama administration tried to follow through on a $53 million arms deal to the Bahrain monarchy during the government’s crackdown of protestors. Congressional Democrats sharply criticized the administration and invoked the Leahy Amendment in demanding that the administration halt military aid to various units of Bahrain’s security forces due to human-rights violations.

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Hillary Clinton with crown prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa – June 2011

However, the State Department was able to use a legal loophole to continue to sell the arms to Bahrain during their brutal suppression of the protests without notification to Congress or a public announcement.  The release of Secretary Clinton’s e-mails through Freedom of Information Act requests has revealed that Bahrani Prince Salman al Khalifa had donated $32 million to the Clinton Foundation before Clinton’s State Department exploited the loophole to sell upwards of $630 million worth of direct commercial arms sales to the Bahraini – including $70,000 worth of arms sales classified as “toxicological agents.”  The arm sales to Bahrain from the years 2010-2012 marked a 187 percent increase from 2006-2008, increasing the speculation that Bahrain was in fact killing its protestors using US-manufactured weaponry and with tear-gas supplied by the United States.

Bahrain’s uprising ended when Saudi Arabia’s military entered Bahrain to forcefully suppress the revolts. Human rights abuses by the Bahraini monarchy against its people continue to this day as do US-approved arm sales to their military.

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Bahraini protesters fleeing government police tear gas – 2011

Understandably Russia accused the US of setting double standards at the UN Security Council. Especially when the report that the US State Department was using loopholes to sell arms to Bahrain was released just two weeks before February 2012 meeting on Syria.  They rejected Clinton and Obama demanding Assad step down and that Russia end its military alliance with Syria while the Americans covertly armed Assad’s opposition and were supporting and arming Bahrain’s monarchy in its repression of protestors –  thus questioning the entire premise of why the United States was claiming to topple Assad for the sake of “democracy” and “human rights”.

“Why is the US determined to sell weapons to Bahrain after the Bahraini authorities, with help from the Saudis, suppressed the Arab Spring in Bahrain? Russia doesn’t see any problems selling weapons to Syria if the CIA and French and British secret services are shipping military hardware via Turkey to the rebels.” – Russian Defense Analyst Ruslan Pukhov, head of the arms trade think tank CAST.

Bashar Assad, Vladimir Putin     ymz_0181 Bashar al-Assad with Vladimir Putin                  Obama w/ Bahraini prince Hamad al-Khalifa

That is not to say Russia didn’t see Assad as a brutal dictator. “We in Russia have no illusion about this regime,” says Russian MP Andrei Klimov, “The only thing we’d like to have is a peaceful exit. We don’t want to prolong this regime for decades or centuries. Our task is to find a peaceful solution as soon as possible.” But if Moscow began to feel that it has more to lose than to gain from backing President Assad, the Syrian leader might find himself coming under pressure from the East as well as the West.

Indeed, with the mounting death toll in Syria Russian negotiators began saying they were not insisting that Assad must remain in power at all costs, but that any decision on whether or not he should step down should come from the Syrian people, many of whom actually supported Assad in the middle/upper classes of Syria, not from outside pressure or military intervention as happened last year in Libya. Whether or not that fairly reasonable stance was simply posturing, I’d have to ask Churkin and Lavrov myself, but Russia understandably did not want to encourage a precedent of international military intervention in countries with poor democracy and human rights records

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Putin (left), Churkin (center), Lavrov (right) at United Nations

Amazingly despite all the double speak and hypocrisy from both the United States and Russia, there would be one last chance for peace – the June 2012 Geneva Conference. At this point, almost 10,000 people lay dead in Syria with Assad’s brutal attacks in the city of Homs being called genocidal. Following Russia and China’s February 2012 veto, two important events concurrently happened leading up to the June Geneva Conference.

First, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton formed the “Friends of Syria” Group immediately after the February veto to coordinate international assistance to the Syrian opposition. Blasting Russia and China for engaging in a Cold War rivalry rather than helping the Syrian people, Hillary Clinton said, “Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people’s right to have a better future.” Russia and China refused to be part of the Friends of Syria group

Second, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was appointed by the Arab League as the official envoy to Syria in March 2012 to craft a peace deal.

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Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan meets with Assad – March 2012

In the two months before the June 2012 Geneva conference, Kofi Annan proceeded to meet with Vladimir Putin in Moscow and with Assad in Damascus where he secured both Russia and Syria’s approval for a Six Point peace plan. Amongst other things, Annan’s plan would lead to a “cessation of armed violence in all its forms” the release of a “arbitrarily detained persons” and the Syrian government would “pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres”. However, the plan did not impose any deadline for Assad, nor call for him to leave power.

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Secretary Clinton at Friends of Syria Conference – April 2012

The Clinton-Sarkozy led initiative not only officially recognized the Syrian National Council (SNC) who’s military wing was the Free Syrian Army as a legitimate governing alternative to Bashar al Assad, but also agreed to provide “all possible assistance” in helping them. This promise for assistance to the opposition will be incredibly significant just five months later when an infamous terrorist attack occurs at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. 

These two countering diplomatic tracks, Kofi Annan’s Six Point plan and the Friends of Syria initiative, would meet at the June 2012 Geneva conference.

At the Geneva Conference, world powers ultimately agreed to adopt Kofi Annan’s Six Point Plan as the next step forward in the Syrian peace process despite reports that Assad was already violating the terms it agreed to. On June 30th, 2012 the “Action Group for Syria” published a Final Communiqué from the Geneva talks outlining the implementation of Annan’s plan. The sticking point from the talks would be that in order to “secure full implementation of the six-point plan”, they required “agreed on guidelines and principles for a political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”

The “political transition” was Annan’s proposal for a “transitional unity government” outlined in this passage of the Communique –

The establishment of a transitional governing body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place. That means that the transitional governing body would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.

World leaders agreed to push the Syrian government and opposition forces to begin negotiations toward a transitional government, which even Russia agreed to do, but the Geneva Communique failed to specify whether President Bashar al-Assad would be explicitly excluded from this transitional body. Instead, participants a vowed to “apply joint and sustained pressure on the parties in Syria,” including “members of the present government and the opposition and other groups,” to designate representatives for the talks.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, had somewhat different interpretations of that mandate.

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Sergey Lavrov and Hillary Clinton – June 2012 Geneva Conference

Lavrov noted that the group’s final communique includes no demand for Assad to step down, saying that a call to exclude anyone from the unity talks would undermine negotiations or a new government and would twist the intent of the Six Point peace plan agreed upon by Russia and Assad’s government.

Clinton acknowledged what she called “minor textual changes” in Annan’s proposal but said they did not affect the substance of what was decided at the meeting. “We read the results to be the same,” Clinton said. “Assad will still have to go.” “We and our partners made absolutely clear to Russia and China that it is now incumbent upon them to show Assad the writing on the wall.”

According to National Journal and Politico news editor Jeffery Hirsh – “what happened next was that the Geneva communique disappeared onto a dusty shelf.”

This disagreement between Lavrov and Clinton over their interpretations of what the Geneva Communique

The UN high commissioner said she was now calling the situation in Syria “a non-international internal armed conflict,” the legal term for a civil war.

personal fate of Assad in this new transitional unity government would mark the beginning of the end for Kofi Annan’s fledging peace plan, and with it the last workable plan to resolve the Syrian conflict that would present itself for the next four years to present day.

The following four paragraphs come directly from Hirsh’s article, “The Syria Deal That Could Have Been” (bolding is mine).

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Kofi Annan resigns as Syria Envoy – August 2012

After the Final Communique was published, Kofi Annan flew from Geneva to Moscow and gained what he believed to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s consent to begin to quietly push Assad out. But suddenly both the U.S. and Britain issued public calls for Assad’s ouster, and Annan felt blindsided. Immediately afterward, against his advice, then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice offered up a “Chapter 7” resolution opening the door to force against Assad, which Annan felt was premature. Annan resigned as the official envoy to Syria a month later.

At the time, the soft-spoken Ghanaian diplomat was cagey about his reasons, appearing to blame all sides. “I did not receive all the support that the cause deserved,” Annan told reporters in Geneva. He also criticized what he called “finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council.” But former senior aides and U.N. officials say in private that Annan blamed the Obama administration in large part. “The U.S. couldn’t even stand by an agreement that the secretary of State had signed in Geneva,” said one former close Annan aide who would discuss the talks only on condition of anonymity. “He quit in frustration. I think it was clear that the White House was very worried about seeming to do a deal with the Russians and being soft on Putin during the campaign.” (This was highlighted by an embarrassing live mic moment where Obama admitted to his Russian counterpart that he would have more flexibility for negotiation after his re-election).

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2012 re-election campaign – Obama vs Romney

A current senior State Department official concedes that one of the problems with making the Annan communique work may have been Clinton’s distaste for getting involved in extended direct mediation, in dramatic contrast to her successor John Kerry, who has opened up negotiations on several fronts at once—with Syria and the Russians, with Iran, and between the Palestinians and Israelis. “We’ve made more trips to the Mideast in the last nine months than she made in four years,” says this official.

While Clinton excelled at “soft” power—selling America’s message abroad—one emerging criticism of her four-year tenure at State was that she consistently avoided getting her hands dirty with direct mediation. Clinton agreed to leave key negotiations in crisis spots—in particular the Mideast and south-central Asia—to special envoys such as George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke, and she rarely stepped in as each of them failed. Veteran reporter David Rohde, in an assessment as Clinton was leaving office in January 2013, suggested that Clinton wanted to avoid embarrassment or failure ahead of a 2016 presidential run; he quoted one State Department official as saying that he was “really happy to have someone in the job who does not retain political ambitions.” (end quote of Hirsh’s article)

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February 2016 Democratic primary debate

All of this caused Clinton’s remarks at a February 2016 debate between her and Bernie Sanders to raise some eyebrows.

“But I would add this. You know, the Security Council finally got around to adopting a resolution. At the core of that resolution is an agreement I negotiated in June of 2012 in Geneva, which set forth a cease-fire and moving toward a political resolution, trying to bring the parties at stake in Syria together”

If you were involved in the June 2012 negotiations at Geneva then you would know that there was no cease-fire negotiated precisely because Clinton and the US would not accept any outcome from the agreed upon Geneva Communique that did not see Bashar al Assad stepping down from power.

Her taking credit for an eventual ceasefire negotiated by John Kerry even Jeffery Sachs, a Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to say“This is the kind of compulsive misrepresentation that makes Clinton unfit to be President. Clinton’s role in Syria has been to help instigate and prolong the Syrian bloodbath, not to bring it to a close.” 

The failure of Geneva would result in billions of dollars of weapons and munitions flowing to the Syrian rebels through the Clinton-Sarkozy created “Friends of Syria” Group , including half a billion from the United States alone.

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Secretary Clinton speaks at the June 2012 Geneva Conference

It’s easy to criticize Hillary Clinton for her short-comings in diplomatic engagements to bring peace to Syria, but there is a lot of blame to share. Ultimately it was Russian and Chinese refusal to accept any U.N. resolution that truly led to the escalating violence with over half a million dead in Syria we see today.

But it’s important to remember that their refusal to agree to every proposal for international action other than Kofi Annan’s Six Point Plan were largely for these fairly legitimate reasons:

(1) A fear that the language in the proposed Security Council resolutions would result in a U.N.-authorized military intervention to oust Assad rather than a political transition led by the Syrian people, like had happened in Libya last year

(2) A fear that their economic and military ally in Assad would be replaced by a radical Islamist regime, like was already happening in Libya, thus creating a terror threat for Russia. 

(3) Rejecting what they saw as American hypocrisy in attempting to force Assad to step down while supporting and arming Bahrain’s government in its violent repression of protestors seeking democratic reform.

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Lavrov and Medvedev meet with Obama and Clinton

It should have been the responsibility of President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and the American diplomats to work with these concerns and create a solution that was palatable to all and saved lives in Syria. That clearly did not happen even when there were avenues to do so.

The result of this diplomatic bungling was that not only did Bashar al Assad stay in power, but he continued his bloody war against the Syrian rebels eventually leading to the formation of ISIS and the worst refugee crisis the world has seen since World War II.

An even equally damaging result of all this was that the US-Russia relationship which had just been “reset” had now badly soured again. Russia’s Sergey Lavrov certainly has no love lost for the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton who he said intentionally foiled the Russian “reset”. Leading one to wonder whether relations with Russia will be much better under a new Clinton administration.

But one interesting perspective left out of all the squabbling between the world’s superpowers was what the Assad government was saying the whole time.

The Assad government has long maintained that the uprising had nothing to do with demands for political change, but was rather a foreign plot by the enemies of Syria to pay radical jihadis to destabilize the country. Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, accused Gulf Arab nations of harboring the religious sheiks who issued the religious writs, or fatwas, sanctioning the fight in Syria as a sacred duty.

Bashar Jaafari: Damascus Ready to Find Solution to Syria Crisis

“We need to see these Qataris, the Saudis, the Turkish governments, as well as some other nations, stopping their incitement to violence, their sponsorship of the armed rebellion,” he said.

It’s easy the simplify the war in Syria as one where the US and Russia are fighting for democracy vs autocratic dictatorships. I mean when I think about why  America and its European allies want to get rid of Assad I felt like a I came to a pretty basic conclusion – he’s a dictator killing his own people protesting against his repressive government. As the protector of democracy and human rights in the world, the United States sees its role to step in where those ideals are not being upheld.

But why are other Arab nations clamoring for the toppling of Assad? Given that many of these other countries have even less democratic forms of governments and have their own histories of human rights abuses, why would they want to encourage international intervention in Syria?

That’s why before I proceed into the next phase of the Syrian conflict after the failure of diplomacy, I want to step back and look more critically at the central question of the Syrian war – why are we trying so hard to get rid of Bashar al Assad again?

 

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Russia and Iran vs Turkey and Saudi Arabia

(1945 – Present) What Is At Stake for World Powers in Syria


 

Here is the table at the beginning which showed who’s fighting on which side.

I’ve crossed out all the non-state actors like Hezbollah, Kurdistan, ISIS and Al Qaeda, they are revolutionary causes and organizations, but do not function completely as nation-states.


Pro-Assad Side:                                         Anti-Assad Side:

Russia and China                                        United StatesUK and France

Iran                                                                 Saudi ArabiaQatar and Kuwait

Iraq                                                                 Turkey

Terror Groups: Hezbollah                          Terror Groups: ISISAl Qaeda

–                                                                      Kurdistan


At the top you have a repeat of the Cold War divide between the US and its European allies against Russia. Amongst the Middle Eastern countries that are fighting each other, it looks fairly divided along Sunni/Shiite lines and Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, a subsect of Shia Islam. Iran and Iraq are a majority Shiite population while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations are a majority Sunni population.

But historical religious rivalries aside, these are largely two reasons global powers can claim to be to fighting to depose Bashar al-Assad as President of Syria, and one of them is far less talked about than the other. 

1) Crimes against humanity  – brutal crackdown of political dissent, alleged torture, bombing of civilian homes, chemical weapons use

2) The natural gas pipeline wars

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While it’d be nice to think that everyone really has spent the last 5 years angry about the human rights violations Assad has committed (which most other Middle East countries have done as well), here’s a map that should make it abundantly clear what the real war is being fought over.

Right now there are two proposed gas pipelines coming out of the Persian Gulf both of which must cross through Syria to get to Europe – the Iran-Iraq-Syria Pipeline and the Qatar-Saudi-Turkey Pipeline. Unsurprisingly, these countries respectively represent the two sides of the war in Syria.

The prize: selling oil and gas into a European market that desperately wants to break its dependence on Russian oil. 

On July 25th, 2011, only five months into the Syrian uprising, Bashar al Assad quietly signed a $10 billion gas-pipeline deal to start building the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline – thus officially rejecting Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey’s oil and gas plans into Europe.

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Shared oil & gas fields in the Persian gulf between Qatar and Iran

The South Pars / North Dome field is a natural gas condensate field located in the Persian GulfIt is the world’s largest gas field, shared between Iran and Qatar. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the field holds an estimated 1,800 trillion cubic feet of in-situ natural gas and some 50 billion barrels of natural gas condensates otherwise known as liquified-natural-gas (LNG).

Iran has maritime rights over the South Pars region while Qatar has maritime rights to drill in the North Dome. Both nations have a competing desire to developing these oil and gas fields, construct a pipeline through the Middle East and sell gas in the European market, which, again, Russia currently dominates. 

The pipeline saga began in 2009 when Qatar proposed to Assad the construction of a joint pipeline from the Persian Gulf through Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey to sell LNG to Europe. Assad said no. Instead, he opted to build an alternate 3,480 mile “Islamic pipeline” with his fellow Shiite partners in the Middle East – Iraq and Iran.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Kham
Bashar al-Assad with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Kohmeini

In July 2012, the three nations would sign a “Memorandum of Understanding” to begin construction

 

Russia supports this pipeline between Iran, Iraq and Syria even if it would let Europe diversify away from Russian gas. In this scenario the gas is flowing through Russia’s allies, as opposed to US-backed Saudi Arabia and Qatar and NATO member Turkey, thus Russia could better influence output, pricing decisions etc.  When Assad announced that he would refuse to sign the agreement with Qatar, he even said he did so “to protect the interests of our Russian ally.”

Since Assad’s rejection of the Qatari proposed pipeline in 2009 and the Arab Spring uprisings in Syria two years later, it should not come as a surprise that the spurned countries – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – have each poured billions into funding and arming the Syrian rebels seeking to oust Assad and place a regime that will approve their pipeline. 

“If completed, the project would have had major geopolitical implications. Ankara would have profited from rich transit fees. The project would have also given the Sunni kingdoms of the Persian Gulf decisive domination of world natural gas markets and strengthen Qatar, America’s closest ally in the Arab world” – POLITICO

For Turkey, the pipeline is a signature part of its long-standing goal to become an energy transit hub at the crossroads of the Middle East and Europe. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already vowed to break Turkey’s dependence on Russian oil and gas.

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi King Salman shake hands during a ceremony in Ankara, Turkey
Turkey’s Erdogan gently strokes Saudi King Salman’s hand

But the larger question now is, why is the United States becoming so invested in the Syrian conflict? What would we stand to gain by a Qatar-Saudi-Turkey pipeline? While they are obviously our allies, this seems like their war to fight.

As is clear from America’s lack of enthusiasm for the Arab Spring in Bahrain, a desire for democracy and human rights is not (and has never been) our motivating interest in the Middle East. The answer to these question lies in the foundation for all US action in the Middle East – the petrodollar.

You will probably never hear a mention of the petrodollar on the news, but it could be considered the most important political and economic scheme in the entire global economy. It’s origin, development and use will be more intricately fleshed out in Part 4 of this series when I examine the history of US intervention in the Middle East, but as a preview here is the central premise of the petrodollar system:

In exchange for the US providing indefinite military protection and security for Saudi Arabia and the ruling Saud family, OPEC will price and sell its oil to other countries only in US dollars. The value of the US dollar and its role as the world’s reserve currency hinges largely on foreign nations needing to use US dollars to buy oil from OPEC – thus the name “petrodollar”. 

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The reason for this “oil for dollars” monetary system requires a deeper analysis of the creation of the global reserve currency system after World War II and the circumstances that led to this political-economic marriage between the US, Saudi Arabia and OPEC in 1974. The critical takeaway is that the US needs to continue having oil sold in dollars in order for the US-led global monetary system to stay afloat.

If the US-backed Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Turkey pipeline is built, oil will continue to flow through the world in US dollars and the petrodollar system will remain intact. If the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline backed by Russia is successfully built, then trillions of barrels of oil will be sold to Europe in alternate currencies to the US dollar. Massive amounts of non-dollar trading will ultimately collapse the petrodollar and subsequently erode the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.

This reality is certainly not lost on US policymakers. I’ll be writing a separate post which takes a deeper look at the pattern of recent US intervention in the Middle East be it the 2003 invasion of Iraq or 2011 invasion of Libya. Invariably these countries have all posed an acute threat to the petrodollar monetary system, regardless of what justification is sold to the public to rationalize war to oust their regimes (i.e. WMDs and human rights concerns). Now that there is again a challenge to the petrodollar system but this time in Syria, the world’s great powers have waged another bloody oil war in the name of democracy and human rights.

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CIA Director John Foster Dulles and President Eisenhower – 1952

US efforts to oust the Syrian government due to oil interests in the region did not begin in 2011, however. In late 1945, the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) announced plans to construct the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line (TAPLINE) from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean. With U.S. help, ARAMCO secured rights-of-way from Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Syrian government, however, refused to grant passage to the pipeline. In response, the newly created CIA orchestrated a coup to oust Syrian President al-Quwatli in 1949. But instead of an alternate regime that would green-light Saudi Arabia’s pipeline, the CIA planned coup set in motion a catastrophic series of revolutions in Syria that would eventually put the Assad family in power and would permanently push Syria to become one of the Soviet Union’s closest allies.

Opposition to the Syrian government would not end with the CIA-led coup of the Syrian government in 1949.

2009 WikiLeaks cable would reveal that under the auspices of an initiative called “Supporting Democratic Reform” the US has been covertly funding opposition to Assad’s government since 2006 – including giving up to $6 million to the Movement for Justice Development to help finance the anti-government satellite channel Barada TV, as well as other opposition activities in Syria. The 2009 cable sent from the US embassy in Damascus even expresses concern that some of the projects being funded by the US (to the tune of $12 million), if discovered by the Syrian government, would be perceived as “an attempt to undermine the Assad regime”.

It should also come as no surprise that not just the Syrian government, but the Syrian people absolutely despise the United States today and see their current intervention in Syria as more of the same “war for oil”.

Saudi Arabia’s pipeline plans into Europe, which were foiled in the 1940’s, have been put on hold until the Arab Spring in 2011 when Assad’s regime in Syria became vulnerable. This time again, the United States would use the CIA to attempt to overthrow the Syrian government. 

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Obama and Clinton in the Rose Garden to speak on Benghazi attack – September 12th, 2012

(2012) – Operation Zero Footprint: Regime Change in Libya, Benghazi and the Covert Arming of Syria’s Rebels 

It is July 2012 now. The Kofi Annan Peace Plan, which had secured both Russia’s and Assad’s approval, collapsed after the June 2012 Geneva convention where Clinton and Lavrov could not agree on the personal fate of Assad. It has been one year since Obama and Clinton publicly declared that Assad must step down from power, but now had failed a year-long diplomatic attempt to achieve this goal.

The Syrian rebels led by the Free Syrian Army have just been driven out of  the capital Damascus in a bloody regime counter-attack that concluded in one of the first indiscriminate massacres in the suburb city of Daarya – over 300 men, women and children shot dead in cold blood. With no peace deal with the Russians and Assad regime on the table to end the violence, President Obama would step into the Syrian conflict for the first time.

On August 1st, 2012 Obama would sign a secret order authorizing covert assistance to the rebels seeking to depose the Syrian government.  Now marks the beginning of what is considered to be the greatest failure the Obama presidency – his Syria intervention policy. 

Reuters would report of the covert authorization order –

Obama’s order, approved earlier this year and known as an intelligence “finding,” broadly permits the CIA and other U.S. agencies to provide support that could help the rebels oust Assad….

A U.S. government source acknowledged that under provisions of the presidential finding, the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies…

Last week, Reuters reported that, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey had established a secret base near the Syrian border to help direct vital military and communications support to Assad’s opponents…

This “nerve center” is in Adana, a city in southern Turkey about 60 miles from the Syrian border, which is also home to Incirlik, a U.S. air base where U.S. military and intelligence agencies maintain a substantial presence….

The efforts to oust Assad took on a coordinated commitment at the “Friends of Syria” conferences organized throughout 2012 where the nations in attendance “committed to render all possible assistance” to the Syrian opposition. As is clear from the reports that a secret command center in Turkey was coordinating the assistance, the lynchpin of this promise for help amongst the “Friends of Syria” would lie in the relationship between the United States and Turkey.

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Clinton shakes hands with Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davytoglu at Friends of Syria Conference – February 2012

This part of the war has remained largely under wraps in the United States because there has been no formal declaration of war against the Syrian government by Congress (or any other country) nor had the United Nations sanctioned any humanitarian or military intervention into the Syrian conflict at the time.

As a result, in order to avoid Congressional authorization the United States government, led by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the US State Department, commissioned a covert operation to transfer weapons from Libya to Turkey, where they would then be sent into Syria to aid opposition groups. This two year covert operation was called Operation Zero Footprint.

Operation Zero Footprint had two distinct phases:

2011: The arming of Libyan rebels to topple Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.

2012: The buy-back of heavy weaponry from Gaddafi’s arsenal and those sold to Libyan rebels to then transfer to Syrian rebels to topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

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The “Rat Line” – weapons flow from Benghazi, Libya to Turkey then to Syria

As the name suggests, Operation Zero Footprint was supposed to be just that – a mission that was to leave no visible footprint of the US’s activities in the area. In order to avoid Congressional oversight and debates over funding, the clandestine operation was financed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar with logistical and transportation support coming from Qatar and Turkey.

The so-called “Rat Line” to covertly arm Syria’s rebels was Phase 2 of the operation and went as followed: the weapons from Libya were shipped out of the port of Benghazi, Libya where they were received at the US Incirlik Air Base in Adana, Turkey (the “nerve center”) and then moved through Turkey’s southern border into the hands of Syrian rebels.

This entire scheme unraveled on September 11th, 2012 when a terrorist attack killed 4 Americans at the departure point of these weapons, the US consulate in Benghazi. 

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Unknown armed man poses at Benghazi consulate – September 2012

Both phases of Operation Zero Footprint produced uniquely disastrous results in Libya and Syria. The illegal funneling of weapons into the region to arm opposition groups not only increased the scope and scale of the bloody conflicts in the Middle East but resulted arming jihadist groups in both countries and effectively blocked any diplomatic solutions to resolve the conflict as adversaries felt emboldened to arm their side of the war because we were.

In order to fully understand the scope of the operation in Syria, it’s important to understand how the first phase was carried out in Libya as it would have significant implications for how the Syria phase would take place and why certain decisions were made the way they were.

Let’s take a few steps back to understand how the Obama administration felt it needed to respond to the uprisings in Libya in March 2011.

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Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi

Phase 1 – the arming of Libya’s rebels to topple Muammar Gaddafi’s regime (2011)

The first phase of Operation Zero Footprint was significant in that it was blatantly illegal under international law to be arming any side of the Libyan conflict since the U.N. had imposed an arms embargo on the country. Given its illegality, one of the emerging revelations of the Obama administration was how the conflict in Libya marked the beginning of Obama’s severely fractured relationship with the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Pentagon.

When the Arab Spring uprisings were turning violent in Libya in February 2011, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen were staunchly opposed to US intervention. Gates both opposed a No Fly Zone over Libya as well as arming Libyan rebels, believing it would draw the US into another protracted conflict in the Middle East.  Along with Mike Mullen, the two testified in front of Congress saying it was “unlikely” that the US would arm the rebels and that  “other countries”, not the US, should be responsible for supporting them. Their primary fear was that they simply had no idea who the Libyan rebels were that would succeed Gaddafi and whoever they decided to help could be extremist groups linked to Al Qaeda.

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Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen testify before Congress about Libya – February 2011

However, a a bitter debate amongst Obama’s cabinet broke out over how to respond to the crisis in Libya and whether or not to more overtly intervene. The push to arm Libyan rebels to help oust Gaddafi along with efforts to impose a No-Fly-Zone over Libya were led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She believed the US needed to take a more active role in toppling Gaddafi’s regime to prevent human rights abuses and a potential genocide against Libyan civilians. Knowing the risk of extremist rebels in Libya, Clinton felt that if the US did not act quickly and decisively to remove Gaddafi then they risked a massive humanitarian crisis.

Mrs. Clinton understood the hazards, but also weighed the costs of not acting, aides said. They described her as comfortable with feeling her way through a problem without being certain of the outcome.

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British PM David Cameron looks on as Clinton speaks at London conference on Libya – March 2011

Gates recounted that the debate in the Oval Office over what to do in Libya was split “51-49”

Gates along with Joint Chief’s Chairman Mike Mullen, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and counterterrorism chief, now CIA Director, John Brennan argued against US intervention. Secretary of State Clinton along with UN Ambassador Susan Rice and foreign policy advisor Samantha Power pushed Obama for stronger US intervention in Libya.

The trio of women led by Hillary Clinton ultimately convinced President Obama to intervene in Libya.

“I’ve always thought that Hillary’s support for the broader mission in Libya put the president on the 51 side of the line for a more aggressive approach.” – Defense Secretary Robert Gates

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Obama and Clinton give press conference on Libya

On March 17th, 2011 UN Ambassador Susan Rice would go to the United Nations and join hands with the UK and France to invoke the principles of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine to secure the approval of a No-Fly Zone over Libya to protect Libya’s citizens from the Gaddafi regime.

The decision did not come with an international consensus. Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia would notably abstain from the vote citing concerns for the need for peaceful resolution of the conflict and warned against unintended consequences of a possible armed intervention. The abstentions would allow Resolution 1973 to pass in the UN Security Council.

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United Nations votes to approve No-Fly Zone over Libya – March 17th, 2011

 

On March 30th, 2011 Obama would validate the fears of the nations that abstained from the vote by authorizing the covert operation to arm Libya’s rebels. As Reuters reported –  “President Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorizing covert U.S. government support for rebel forces seeking to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi”

This marked the beginning of Operation Zero Footprint.

The covert operation would be run entirely through the CIA and State Department with financing from Qatar and the UAE and essentially without the approval of the senior generals in the Defense Department and Pentagon nor from Congress.

In order for the weapons to enter Libya in violation of the U.N arms embargo, the State Department had to secure the approval of NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis, who later was vetted as a potential Clinton VP pick, to ship and import the weapons into the country.

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Qatari weapons shipment to rebels intercepted by Gaddafi government – October 2011

Unfortunately for the US (and the Libyan people), Robert Gates ended up being right. Most of the heavy weapons that flowed from the US and Qatar into Libya did in fact fall into the hands of Al Qaeda.

After the outbreak of violence in Libya, hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters around the world poured into the country. Al Qaeda’s leadership issued a call to arms for their followers to go to Libya to fight Gaddafi – a leader they had been seeking to topple sine the 1990s.

“This rebellion is the fresh breeze they’ve been waiting years for. They realize that if they don’t use this opportunity, it could be the end of their chances to turn Libya toward a real Islamic state, as Afghanistan once was.” – Senior Al Qaeda official in Afghanistan

As a result, one the most prominent rebel group in Libya outside of the National Liberation Army was the Al Qaeda-backed Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) – a group designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department since 2004.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) was the secular opposition replacement to Gaddafi which the US publicly supported and who’s leadership Hillary Clinton personally met with before urging Obama to act in Libya. Unfortunately one of the NTC’s primary fighting forces ended up being the Al Qaeda composed Islamic Fighting Group.

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Members of the Al Qaeda formed Islamic Fighting Group in Libya – April 2011

As the US ramped up its operations through the summer of 2011 in Libya to oust Gaddafi, advanced weaponry that was being green stamped by the State Department was invariably falling into dangerous hands.

“Humvees, counterbattery radar, TOW missiles was the highest end we talked about,” one State Department official recalled. “We were definitely giving them lethal assistance. We’d crossed that line.”

While the US blamed Qatar and prosecuted arms deals like Marc Turi for distributing weapons inside the country indiscriminately, in reality there was no real way to vet who the weapons were going to. The commanders of Libya’s NTC forces admitted that there were Al Qaeda members within their ranks. Arming the Libyan rebels meant putting weapons into the hands of terrorists – a reality that even NATO Commander Stavridis, who was allowing the weapons to go into the country, admitted to be true.

It also isn’t saying much when the “secular” National Transitional Council and its military wing the National Liberation Army the US wanted to exclusively support was a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood – a designated terrorist organization by many countries, but not by the US.

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Clinton poses with Libyan rebels in Tripoli – October 2011

As US intelligence began to realize that the covert operation was arming jihadist elements in Libya, the Pentagon, in an unprecedented move, began to open their own secret diplomatic conversations with the Gaddafi regime – going around Hillary Clinton and the State Department.

In recovered tape recordings, a U.S. intelligence liaison working for the Pentagon told a Gaddafi aide that Obama privately informed members of Congress that Libya “is all Secretary Clinton’s matter” and that the nation’s highest-ranking generals were concerned that the president was being misinformed because the State Department was controlling what intelligence would be reported. 

Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr, fifth Commander of US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and a top aide to Adm. Mullen, said that he “does not trust the reports that are coming out of the State Department and CIA, but there’s nothing he can do about it.”

 “I can tell you that the president is not getting accurate information, so at some point someone has to get accurate information to him. I can think about a way through Secretary Gates or maybe to Admiral Mullen to get him information.”

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Defense Sec Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen and Secretary Clinton

The reality was, the basis on which Clinton had persuaded Obama to intervene in Libya was coming apart. There was no evidence that the Gaddafi regime was going to commit mass genocide or engage in other human rights abuses. In fact the opposite was true. The Libyan rebels that the US was covertly arming were committing human rights abuses against civilians as well as against Gaddafi’s troops. A fact that the State Department was reluctant to admit.

“You should see these internal State Department reports that are produced in the State Department that go out to the Congress. They’re just full of stupid, stupid facts,” an American intermediary from the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Gadafi regime in July 2011.

“Neither the intervention decision nor the regime change decision was an intelligence-heavy decision” said one senior intelligence official

Instead of relying on the Defense Department or the intelligence community for analysis, senior officials believed Clinton was relying heavily on the assurances of the Libyan rebels whom she had met with and her own memory of Rwanda, where U.S. inaction in 1993 may have led to the genocide of at least 500,000 people.

“Susan Rice was involved in the Rwanda crisis in 1994, Samantha Power wrote very moving books about what happened in Rwanda, and Hillary Clinton was also in the background of that crisis as well,” said Allen Lynch, a professor of international relations at the University of Virginia. “I think they have all carried this with them as a kind of guilt complex.”

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Secretary of State Clinton, National Security Council Advisor Samantha Power and UN Ambassador Susan Rice led the charge for US intervention in Libya

Regardless of any benevolent intentions that Clinton and her team of advisors may have had in preventing mass genocide like in Rwanda, Gaddafi’s son and heir apparent, Seif Gaddafi, told Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) in a May 2011 phone call that he was worried Secretary Clinton was using false pretenses to justify unseating his father.

Comparing it to George Bush’s de-bunked claim of WMD’s in Iraq to convince Congress to unseat Saddam Hussein, Seif Gaddafi insisted that the regime had no intention of harming a mass of civilians and risking world outrage.

“It was like the WMDs in Iraq. It was based on a false report. Libyan airplanes bombing demonstrators, Libyan airplanes bombing districts in Tripoli, Libyan army killed thousands, etc., etc., and now the whole world found there is no single evidence that such things happened in Libya.” – Seif Gaddafi, May 2011

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, speaks during a news conference in Tripoli
Seif Gaddafi – Muammar Gaddafi’s son and heir, now sentenced to death

Seif Gadhafi also warned that many of the U.S.-supported armed rebels were “not freedom fighters” but rather jihadists whom he described as “gangsters and terrorists.” Muammar Gaddafi himself had warned at the beginning of the uprisings that if he fell Libya would be overrun by Al Qaeda — a reality that quickly becoming true.

“And now you have NATO supporting them with ships, with airplanes, helicopters, arms, training, communication. We ask the American government send a fact-finding mission to Libya. I want you to see everything with your own eyes.” – Seif Gaddafi

Unfortunately all these claims fell on deaf ears. Clinton ordered a general within the Pentagon to refuse to take a call with Gadhafi’s son Seif and other high-level members within the regime to help negotiate a resolution, even after the regime had called for a cease-fire to stop the violence.

“Everything I am getting from the State Department is that they do not care about being part of this. Secretary Clinton does not want to negotiate at all” – the Pentagon intelligence asset told Seif Gadhafi and his adviser on the recordings.

The winds of regime change in Libya were fast underway. The United States, France and UK coalesced 19 other nations to enforce the No-Fly-Zone, institute a naval blockade and provide military logistical assistance to the rebels in Libya.

 

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International coalition against Libya – 2011

 

As the Obama administration covertly poured in over $1 billion through Operation Zero Footprint to arm the rag-tag group of unknown Libyan rebels along with providing NATO air support to destroy key Gaddafi strong holds, the rebels had accelerated their offensive against the regime and had captured the country’s capitol, Tripoli, by August 2011.

Russia and China grew outraged over what they saw as the US and its NATO allies vastly overstepping mandate of the UN resolution whose sole purpose was “to ensure the protection of the civilian population” rather than carry out regime change in Libya.

“We believe that the coalition’s intervention in the civil war has not, essentially, been sanctioned by the UN Security Council resolution” – Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov

“The implementation of the Security Council resolution is meant to offer humanitarian protection, rather than engender a greater humanitarian disaster….there has been an abuse of force by coalition members” – Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu

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Leon Panetta – CIA Director from 2009-2011 during Libya operation

It was these exact sentiments that would lead foreign leaders to veto diplomatic action in Syria over fears that a similar abuse of military force would be exercised against the Assad regime. And to their credit, CIA Director Leon Panetta, who was overseeing Operation Zero Footprint in 2011, would validate Russia and China’s true suspicions of the US mission in Libya in his 2014 book “Worthy Fights”.

“In Afghanistan I misstated our position on how fast we’d be bringing troops home, and I said what everyone in Washington knew, but we couldn’t officially acknowledge: That our goal in Libya was regime change.” – Leon Panetta, “Worthy Fights”

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Gaddafi stabbed to death by Libyan rebels – October 2011

Two months after the rebels capture Tripoli, the US and its NATO allies achieved the regime change in Libya they had hoped for. In October 2011, Libyan rebels would capture Muammar Gaddafi and horrifically murder him using bayonets and knives, including sodomizing him with weapons. Hillary Clinton would later remark about Gaddafi’s death (in rather weirdly happy terms), “We came, we saw, he died.”

It was perhaps under these circumstances, with the growing presence of Al Qaeda in Libya and the ensuing toppling of the Libyan government that Secretary Robert Gates would leave the Obama administration in anger in the Fall of 2011. In his place, Leon Panetta moved from CIA Director to Secretary of Defense.

This placed the second phase of Operation Zero Footprint after Gaddafi’s fall – the redirection of Libyan weapons into Syria – squarely in the hands of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the new CIA director David Petraeus.

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Secretary of State Clinton and CIA Director David Petreaus

Phase 2 – the transfer of heavy weapons from Libya to Syria to help oust Bashar al-Assad’s regime (2012)

The violence in Libya did not end with the fall of the Gaddafi regime and his ultimate death in October 2011. Armed with advanced US weaponry, Libya descended into a longer, bloodier civil war between warring rebel groups who could not unify the country. That war is still continuing today and Libya is now considered to be a failed state with ISIS controlling large parts of the country. A result that was perhaps unsurprising when it was revealed by Secretary Gates that Clinton’s plan for Libya after Gaddafi was to “play it by ear”.

But before Libya slid again into bloody sectarian war, the Obama administration tried to re-secure the dangerous weapons they had supplied to the Libyan rebels, along with other heavy weapons in Gaddafi’s arsenal to prevent the flood of Al Qaeda soldiers from being able to use them against Western targets.

In December 2011, two months after the death of Gaddafi,  Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro arranged a purchase program with Libya’s new defense minister . The program was intended purchase shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles from militia members and others who gathered them up during the war — especially the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

 

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Andrew J. Shapiro – Head of State Dept’s Bureau of Political & Military Affairs

As reported by the NY Times

Known as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADs, the missiles are a class of weapon that includes the well-known Stinger. The version loose in large quantities in Libya, the SA-7, is an earlier Eastern bloc generation.

Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro raised the American desire to arrange a purchase program in a meeting this month with Libya’s new defense minister, according to American officials familiar with the proposal.

The United States has committed $40 million to secure Libya’s arms stockpiles, much of it to prevent the spread of Manpads. No budget has been designed for a purchase program, and the price to be paid for each missile and its components has not been determined, the official said.

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Libyan rebel holds SA-7 surface-to-air MANPAD

While the US certainly supplied Libyan rebels with dangerous heavy weaponry, as per its own admission, it’s not possible to know whether MANPADs were among those given to them. The US maintains that the “buyback” program was not purchasing MANPADs it sold the rebels to overthrow Gaddafi, but ones his regime had accumulated over the years from the former Soviet Union.

In Libya, the program would not technically be a buyback, as these weapons were not provided by the West, American officials said. They were purchased from Eastern bloc suppliers during Colonel Qaddafi’s long period of arms acquisition.

In public statements Andrew Shapiro made as well as when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified in front of Congress, the stated goal of the MANPAD buy-back program was to curb the risk of heavy weapons proliferation and prevent opening a “Pandora’s Box” of dangerous weapons into the wrong hands. The initiative  was called “the most extensive effort to combat the proliferation of MANPADS in U.S. history.”

But where were the MANPADs actually going after they were recovered?

 

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US Ambassador to Libya – Chris Stevens

In March 2011 State Department diplomat Chris Stevens, who was #2 at the US embassy in Libya, became the official US liaison to the Libyan opposition against Gaddafi. Working directly with the Libyan opposition resulted in working directly with Abdelhakim Belhadj, the commander of the Tripoli Military Council which led the National Liberation Army’s fight to capture the country’s capital. Belhadj, however, was a prominent jihadist himself.  Known in the jihadi world as Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq, he had served time in Libya’s prisons after being captured in a CIA rendition, only to be released in 2010 to become the emir of the  al-Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group as well as Ansar al Sharia. 

In November 2011, one month after the fall of Gaddafi, The Telegraph reported that Abdelhakim Belhadj, acting as head of the Tripoli Military Council, “met with Free Syrian Army [FSA] leaders in Istanbul and on the border with Turkey” in an effort by the new Libyan government to provide money and weapons to the growing insurgency in Syria.

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Abdelhakim Belhadj – commander of Tripoli Military Council and known jihadist

Whatever relationship existed between Chris Stevens, Belhadj and the Free Syrian Army existed then started to escalate in June 2012 when the CIA began overseeing arms supplied to Syrian rebels through a “shadowy network of intermediaries” through Turkey. This heightened even when it was officially announced in August 2012 that Obama was authorizing a program to covertly arm Syria’s rebels after the collapse of the Geneva peace talks in June.

Obama’s order, approved earlier this year and known as an intelligence “finding,” broadly permits the CIA and other U.S. agencies to provide support that could help the rebels oust Assad…

A U.S. government source acknowledged that under provisions of the presidential finding, the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.

On Tuesday, NBC News reported that the Free Syrian Army had obtained nearly two dozen surface-to-air missiles, weapons that could be used against Assad’s helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Syrian government armed forces have employed such air power more extensively in recent days…

NBC said the shoulder-fired missiles, also known as MANPADs, had been delivered to the rebels via Turkey…

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Syrian rebel holding MANPAD surface-to-air missile

Fascinating how at the same time the US was publicly carrying out a $40 million program to buy up Libya’s surface-to-air missiles, that dozens of Libyan MANPADs would end up in the hands of rebels battling against a different Middle East dictator the US was trying to bring down??

As would be revealed by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in his 2014 article “The Red Line and the Rat Line“, the movement of heavy weapons from Libya to Turkey to Syria was part secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdoğan administrations to arm the opposition to help overthrow Assad. This pledge was codified that summer at the Clinton-organized “Friends of Syria” conference which committed to render all possible assistance” to the Syrian opposition and was pushed by Clinton and Petreaus in the White House.

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Mrs. Clinton joined forces with Mr. Petraeus to push for the administration to embrace a proposal for delivering arms. Advocates said doing so would provide the U.S. with opportunities to shape events on the ground and build alliances.

By the terms of their agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The CIA, with the support of MI6 (UK’s CIA-equivalent), was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. The weapons would move through the Benghazi consulate who’s only only mission “was to provide cover for the moving of arms.”

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Turkish President Erdogan and Obama speak at the United Nations

The dots are easy enough to connect as to where the Syrian rebels suddenly got shipments of surface-to-air missile launchers from after the September 2012 terrorist attack on the Benghazi consulate. 

The most important revelation of the Benghazi attack was not that there was absolutely zero security for a diplomatic outpost in the most dangerous part of the world at the time, but that there was a previously unknown CIA annex 1.2 miles away from the outpost which also came under attack.

The top-secret presence and location of the CIA outpost was first acknowledged by Charlene Lamb, a top official in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, during Congressional testimony in October 2012 after the Benghazi attack, where she revealed the purpose of the CIA post.

The post had been a base for, among other things, collecting information on the proliferation of weaponry looted from Libyan government arsenals, including surface-to-air missiles. 

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Two CIA contractors killed in the September 2012 Benghazi attack

In his public statements at the Stimson Center back in February 2012, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro revealed how the US would go about achieving the goal of securing Libyan MANPADs at the CIA annex in Benghazi

The initial primary objective was to reach an agreement with the TNC to set up a MANPADS control and destruction program that would enable us to set up what we call our Phase I efforts. Phase I entailed an effort to rapidly survey, secure, and disable loose MANPADS across the country. To accomplish this, we immediately deployed our Quick Reaction Force, which are teams made up of civilian technical specialists.

Of the 4 Americans who died in Benghazi, we now understand two of them – Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods – were among the “civilian technical specialists” who were CIA weapons specialists at the heart of Operation Zero Footprint. They were not disabling MANPADs as Shaprio claimed, but were assisting in covertly transferring the weapons from Libya into Syria to help overthrow Bashar al-Assad.

Less than one month after the report of Obama authorizing covert aide to the Syrian rebels, two separate shipping vessels departing from Benghazi, Libya docked at Turkish ports stocked full with heavy weaponry that found their way into the hands of Syrian rebels.

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Al Ensitar ship docks at Turkey leaving from Benghazi – Sept 6th, 2012

On September 6th, 2012 five days before the Benghazi attack, a Libyan-flagged vessel called Al Entisar  was received in the Turkish port of Iskenderun,  35 miles from the Syrian border. The ship carried 400 tons of heavy weaponry including surface-to-air MANPADs which were received by Syrian rebels. A Libyan official who declined to be identified, said he had allowed weapons to leave the port of Benghazi for Syria.

On September 14th, 2012, just three days after the terrorist attack at the Benghazi consulate, another Libyan ship that left from the port of Benghazi was “carrying the largest consignment of weapons for Syria … has docked in Turkey.” The shipment also weighed around 400 tons and included SA-7 surface-to-air anti-craft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

On the night of the attack on September 11th, in what became his last public meeting Ambassador Chris Stevens reportedly met with the Turkish Consul General Ali Sait Akin, and escorted him out of the consulate front gate one hour before the assault began at approximately 9:35 p.m. local time. According to one source this meeting was to negotiate the weapons transfers an to get SA-7 surface to air missiles out of Libya into Turkey. When asked to comment, a State Department spokeswoman dismissed the idea, saying Stevens was there for diplomatic meetings, and to attend the opening of a cultural center.

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US Ambassador Chris Stevens (deceased) being taken to hospital- Benghazi, Libya

The controversy surrounding the alleged “stand-down” order issued by the State Department to the CIA personnel in responding to the Benghazi attack circles around the issue of whether or not senior State Department officials wanted to expose the presence of the covert CIA operation taking place there. This is why there was a huge clash between the CIA and State Department as to how to tell the story of what was happening at Benghazi without exposing Operation Zero Footprint.

Unfortunately, the whole Benghazi terrorist attack has become so politicized that even saying the word ‘Benghazi’ has become a running joke. Many believe this whole controversy is much ado about nothing and is simply a right-wing conspiracy while the real story of the activities going on in Benghazi and its broader implication about illegal covert activity for regime change goes untouched.

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Clinton testifies at the Benghazi hearing – 2013

After endless inquiries and investigations about the non-substantive issues regarding Benghazi, these two conclusions remain undoubtedly true.

1) The Obama administration tried to mislead the American public about the cause of the attack (probably because they didn’t want to admit a terrorist attack happened two months before Obama’s re-election against Mitt Romney.) 

2) The State Department failed to provide adequate security for the consulate in Benghazi and even rejected hundreds of requests to do so –  a decision made to not draw attention to the CIA weapons transfer program taking place there.

Due to the release of Hillary’s e-mails through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits the following information has come to light. On the night of the attack Hillary Clinton e-mailed her daughter Chelsea Clinton and the next day called the Egyptian prime minister. In these communications Clinton states both that the attack was carried out by an ‘al Qaeda like group’ and even said “We know the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack — not a protest”. This intelligence became known to the US within two hours of the attack.

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Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice on CBS Face the Nation – September 16th, 2012

Two days after the attack Clinton met with UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Rice was then specifically briefed on the Benghazi attack by the White House on the same day. After these briefings, Rice appeared on five Sunday morning talk-shows where she made the now thoroughly discredited claim that the Benghazi attack was not an act of terrorism but was borne out of a protest to an anti-Muslim YouTube video. Further release of emails have revealed that the administration originally tried to pin the blame on the “Pastor Jon” video before officially blaming the “Innocence of Muslims” video.

The decision to originally deflect blame of the Benghazi attack as a protest to a YouTube video was a purely political move as Obama was in the heat of his re-election campaign against Mitt Romney (2 months before the election) and had made the defeat of Al Qaeda and “successful Libya intervention” a cornerstone of his foreign policy, while in reality the opposite was unfolding.

The true motives for the Benghazi attack are much simpler. The first being that the US was engaged in a clandestine operation that was actively taking away heavy weaponry from Al Qaeda-linked rebel groups in Libya and from Gaddafi’s arsenal and give them to Syrian rebels. The terrorists understood this plot and attacked the locations where the MANPADs were being collected and sent away so that they could keep them for themselves. 

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CIA Director Petraeus with biographer/mistress Paula Broadwell

The second motive was accidentally revealed by Paula Broadwell, a former military intelligence officer and later to be revealed mistress to then CIA director David Petreaus. Petreaus was overseeing  Operation Zero Footprint as CIA director at the time.

“Now I don’t know if a lot of you heard this, but the CIA annex [to the consulate] had actually—had taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner and they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to try to get these prisoners back,”  – Paula Broadwell

Perhaps it’s less surprising that a year after Broadwell’s explosive statements which contradicted the administration’s story of the attack being motivated by an anti-Muslim video that the FBI launched an investigation into Petreaus and he was was indicted on federal charges for mishandling classified information by giving notebooks filled with classified information to his mistress.

The true motives aside, whether or not Clinton lied to the family members of the victims is still a matter of debate as two family members have claimed Clinton did blame a YouTube video for the attack while four family members have claimed she did not.

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Obama and Clinton walk to Rose Garden for Benghazi news conference – September 12, 2012

But more importantly, as a result of the numerous Congressional investigations and State Department reviews into the Benghazi attacks, it’s estimated that there were approximately 600 “requests and concerns” for security upgrades from U.S. officials in Benghazi before the attack. The State Department has admitted to rejecting these requests including an 18-person special forces security team for the consulate which was approved by the DoD but the State Department said no to. Congress has accused Clinton and the State Department of rejecting these requests due to being more interested in presenting a picture of an improving situation in Libya rather than ensuring the safety of its staff there.

While that was likely true, the more important driver in rejecting security was that the State Department did not want to draw attention to the covert operation taking place there.

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The desire to keep the arms transfer operation low profile was made clearer by an even more intriguing revelation made by two senior military officials who said Ambassador Chris Stevens in fact twice refused additional security for the consulate offered by Army Gen. Carter Ham, then the head of the U.S. Africa Command. “He didn’t say why. He just turned it down,” a defense official present at the meeting said. “The embassy was told through back channels to not make direct requests for security,” an official familiar with the case said. What is clear is that the State Department wanted to give no reason for anyone to believe something significant was still going on Libya a year after Gaddafi’s fall.

When all the information regarding the CIA annex, the ships of weapons leaving from port of Benghazi and the presence of MANPADs and heavy weaponry delivered to Syrian rebels through Turkey was revealed, Senator Rand Paul questioned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the existence of the covert operation in the first Congressional Benghazi hearing in 2013.  Senator Mike Pompeo questioned Clinton again on the issue at the October 2015 Benghazi hearing.

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Hillary Clinton questioned by Sen. Rand Paul at Benghazi hearing – 2013

Sen. Rand Paul: “My question is, is the US involved in any procuring of weapons, transfer of weapons, buying, selling anyhow transferring weapons to Turkey out of Libya?”

Hillary Clinton: “To Turkey? I’ll have to take that question for the record. That’s, nobody’s ever raised that with me.”

Sen. Rand Paul: “It’s been in news reports that ships have been leaving from Libya and that they may have weapons. And what I’d like to know is, that annex that was close by, were they involved with procuring, buying, selling, obtaining weapons and were any of these weapons being transferred to other countries? Any countries, Turkey included?”

Hillary Clinton: “Well, Senator you’ll have to direct that question to the agency that ran the annex. And, I will see what information was available.”

Sen. Rand Paul: “You’re saying you don’t know?”

Hillary Clinton: “I do not know. I don’t have any information on that.”

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Pompeo grills Clinton during the October 2015 Benghazi testimony

Rep. Mike Pompeo: “Were you aware, or are you aware of any efforts by the U.S. government in Libya to provide any weapons, either directly or indirectly, or through a cutout to any militias or opposition to [former Libyan President Muammar] Gadhafi’s forces?”

Hillary Clinton: “That was a very long question, and I think the answer is no.”

Rep. Mike Pompeo:  “Were you aware or are you aware of any U.S. efforts by the U.S. government in Libya to provide any weapons, directly or indirectly, or through a cutout, to any Syrian rebels or militias or opposition to Syrian forces?”

Hillary Clinton: “No.”

Rep. Mike Pompeo: “Were you aware or are you aware of any efforts by the U.S. government in Libya to facilitate or support the provision of weapons to any opposition of Gadhafi’s forces, Libyan rebels or militias through a third party or country?”

Hillary Clinton: “No.”

Suffice it to say, Sen. Rand Paul was skeptical that Clinton truly did not know about the weapons transfer operation and has accused her of lying about it under oath.  Senator Pompeo also accused her of lying under oath to Congress about her knowledge of the covert mission and is considering pursuing perjury charges against Clinton. The perjury charges are now facing a renewed interest as Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is threatening to release more of Clinton’s emails which purportedly show her knowledge of this covert operation to arm Syrian rebels.

Benghazi (!) antics aside, it’s important to note that after the September 2012 attacks, Obama abruptly ended the CIA’s role in the transfer of arms from Libya through the US-Turkey “Rat Line”.

This move went against the advice of the CIA, State Department and Pentagon who were all pushing for a stronger US intervention into Syria. In Congressional testimony in early 2013, it would be revealed by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the new Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey that Obama vetoed a proposal by CIA director Petraeus and Secretary Clinton and supported by Dempsey and Panetta to continue to provide such arms to the Syrian rebels.

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Sec of Defense Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey testify before Congress about Syria – February 2013

There’s a popularly held belief that largely goes along this line – “if Obama had only armed the Syrian rebels earlier then they would have been able to avert a jihadist takeover!”

People in the intelligence community said the time to arm the rebels was 2012. The opposition was turning into a military force and hadn’t yet been overrun by al-Qaeda-linked fighters and militants.

The White House stalled the proposal because of lingering questions about which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference in the campaign to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and whether the weapons would add to the suffering, the U.S. officials said

This would be the indecisiveness that would come to plague the Obama administration’s response to the Syrian war. After covertly sending MANPADs to Syrian rebels for months, Obama began to second guess his policy because he didn’t know if he could trust who the weapons were going to — a lesson perhaps learned too late based on the outcome in Libya (and maybe something to have figured out before illegally shipping off anti-aircraft weapons??)

This indecision would come at a critical time during the war as well as 2012 would prove to be a pivotal year in shaping the Syrian conflict. But Obama’s flip-flop on arming the Syrian rebels raises a legitimate point – who were these weapons going to in Syria? 

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Fighters for the Free Syrian Army

In the second chapter of this article, “(2011-2012): Armed Opposition Groups Form and Syria Descends Into Civil War”, I outlined the three components of the rebel opposition: Moderate, Jihadist and Kurdish. 

Moderate forces would like to establish a free, secular government (we hope). Jihadist groups want to create an Islamist state governed by Sharia law. Kurdish forces just want a new government that is pro-Kurdish independence (remember the Kurds are an ethnic group that wants its own country, they are fighting for this slice of Syria where a majority of them live)

These were the most prominent groups at the time in 2012 in an overly simplified table of the rebel landscape.


“Moderate” Opposition:       Jihadist Opposition       Kurdish Opposition: 

Free Syrian Army                      Jabhat al-Nusra          People’s Protection Units (YPG)

                                                        Ahrar ash-Sham        


A more realistic table would feature the hundreds of sub-groups within the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and within the jihadist opposition where the lines were increasingly becoming blurred as the two divisons began working together in several key battles against the Assad regime.

“We talk of an army,” admits an FSA man. “But no one really controls the groups on the ground. There are too many of them. The culture of martyrdom means that some no longer know what they are fighting for.”

 

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Rebels holding Ahrar al-Sham flag (left), FSA flag (center) and al Nusra flag (right)

 

 

 

When Obama announced the covert operation to provide assistance to the Syrian opposition on August 1st, 2012, more than a year into the Syrian uprising, there had already been concern at the time about the growing presence of jihadists among the rebel factions

Recent news reports from the region have suggested that the influence and numbers of Islamist militants, some of them connected to al Qaeda or its affiliates, have been growing among Assad’s opponents.

U.S. and European officials say that, so far, intelligence agencies do not believe the militants’ role in the anti-Assad opposition is dominant. – REUTERS

 

However, US intelligence agencies did not in fact think jihadist militants played only a minor role amongst the Syrian rebel groups. 

As a result of a Freedom of Information suit in 2015, conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch secured the release of this Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analysis of the Syrian conflict from August, 12th 2012  – only 11 days after Obama announced the program to covertly assist the rebels.

THE GENERAL SITUATION

A. INTERNALLY, EVENTS ARE TAKING A CLEAR SECTARIAN DIRECTION

B. THE SALAFIST, THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, AND AQI ARE THE MAJOR FORCES DRIVING THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA

C. THE WEST, GULF COUNTRIES, AND TURKEY SUPPORT THE OPPOSITION; WHILE RUSSIA, CHINA AND IRAN SUPPORT THE REGIME

 

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Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) soldiers in Syria

 

By its own admission, US intelligence was in fact saying that extremist ideologies were the principle driving forces behind the Syrian opposition, not secular democratic reformers like the administration wanted to believe. A reality that was supported by developments on the ground as the better trained and equipped Jabhat al-Nusra was actually succeeding on the battlefield against the Assad regime rather than the Free Syrian Army.

“The Salafist“, known in Western-lingo as Wahhabis, represent an Islamic school of thought which has a fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam that principally fuels jihadi movements around the world. There are several Salafist-rooted Syrian rebel groups in addition to Jabhat al-Nusra like Ahrar al-Sham, Fatah al-Islam and Abdullah Azzam.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a Sunni political party that was banished from Syria because it incited Islamic uprisings in the 1980s (which were brutally suppressed by the Assad regime) and is today being debated in Congress whether to be marked as a terrorist organization.  The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is believed to control one-fourth to one-third of the disparate armed rebel brigades which collectively make up the Free Syrian Army, though there were reports of in-fighting between Muslim Brotherhood factions and other FSA-affiliated groups over who would get the weapons the US was shipping from Libya. 

AQI is Al Qaeda in Iraq, who’s leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi created Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and would later go on to form the Islamic State (ISIS). Their presence was increasingly escalating in Syria as differences between al Nusra and AQI began to emerge over control of territory and leadership.

These were the principle factions that US intelligence was privately reporting were driving the Syrian rebel movement at the time, yet the US still decided to ship surface to air anti-aircraft missiles into Syria.

The administration’s Syria policy now had become the same as its Libya policy, an outcome the Obama administration was determined not to repeat at the onset.

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A spectrum of prominent Syrian rebel groups from Elizabeth O’Bagy’s 2012 “Jihad in Syria

This reality of a Syrian opposition that was becoming dominated by jihadists was likely behind the ending of Operation Zero Footprint followed by the political fallout of the Benghazi attack in exposing the CIA annex.

However, 2012 would prove to be one of the most decisive years in shaping the present-day Syrian conflict and there is a prevailing thought amongst many that Obama’s failure to ramp up efforts to arm rebels during this time, despite the risks, is what truly allowed the moderate opposition to collapse and for jihadists to take over — making his fears essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even though there was a strong jihadist presence in Syria, the fall of 2012 (when Obama would end the covert transfer of weapons) would ironically be the same time the moderate opposition would begin to get its bearings.

On November 11th, 2012 the Syrian National Coalition was formed in Doha, Qatar as an umbrella organization for the Syrian opposition to negotiate – they had the backing of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, France, Libya, Turkey and Britain . They even appointed an Alawite, Munzer Makhous, to head the council as a sign of its minority-friendly inclusiveness.  The Free Syrian Army was gunning towards the capitol Damascus and was scoring several decisive victories around Aleppo (Syria’s largest city) and Homs (central transportation hub to all other major Syrian cities). The rebels were virtually on Assad’s doorstep by the end of November 2012.

A few weeks later on December 11th, 2012 – two months after the Benghazi attack- Obama officially recognized the Syrian opposition coalition, including the Free Syrian Army,  as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

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“We’ve made a decision that the Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime,” Obama told ABC’s Barbara Walters at the White House.

However, Obama would maintain that he was not ready to start supplying heavy weapons to the Free Syrian Army  because of fears that these heavy weapons would fall into jihadist hands. The rebel groups heading down to Damascus stopped being just the Free Syrian as they  were joined by the al Nusra front who were critical in the fight against Assad.

“Not everybody who’s participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people who we are comfortable with,” Obama said. “There are some who, I think, have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-U.S. agenda, and we are going to make clear to distinguish between those elements.” – President Obama with Barbara Walters, December 2012

The Syrian rebels on the ground were outraged just as they were beginning to turn the tide of the war.

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“Obviously these are all just excuses for the fact that they don’t want to be on the side of the Syrians,” he said. “If the United States wanted Assad to be gone, he would be gone by now.”……“There was protecting minorities. Then there was the lack of unity in the political opposition,” he said. “Now we have unity, so they use extremism. And the fact that they talk about extremism brings about extremism. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” – Abdul Razzaq Tlass, Commander of Farouk Brigade

After officially recognizing the Free Syrian Army, Obama simultaneously black-listed Jabhat al-Nusra, the only explicitly Al Qaeda-backed opposition group, as a designated terrorist organization.

This made it so they would receive no US support and would make it illegal for Americans to have financial dealings with the group and the US Treasury could freeze any assets that would go to support them. The hope was to remove one of the biggest obstacles to increasing Western support for the rebellion: the fear that money and arms could flow to a jihadi group that could further destabilize Syria and harm Western interests.

The result was disastrous. 

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Syrian protest in favor of Jabhat al-Nusra – 2012

A total of 29 opposition groups, including fighting “brigades” and civilian committees, signed a petition calling for mass demonstrations in support of Jabhat al-Nusra. The petition is promoted the slogan “No to American intervention, for we are all Jabhat al-Nusra” and urgesd supporters to “raise the Jabhat al-Nusra flag” as a “thank you”.

“These are the men for the people of Syria, these are the heroes who belong to us in religion, in blood and in revolution” – Syrian opposition petition

Jabhat al-Nusra turned to winning the hearts in minds in Syria as they understood that an effective insurgency needed the support of the people in order to govern the country not just military victories. They began de-facto governing the cities they overtook –  distributing fresh vegetables, bread, cooking oil, water and blankets to Syrians in rebel-held areas where the international community was providing no relief from the Assad regime’s brutal bombing campaigns

 “It’s a way for them to win hearts and minds even if people don’t agree with their ideology,” said Aaron Y Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  “They are essentially trying to build a constituency and build support within society.”

At a meeting in Damascus in 2012, Abu Hussein al-Afghani, a veteran of insurgencies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, addressed frustrated young rebels. They lacked money, weapons and training, so they listened attentively.

He told them he was a leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, now working with a Qaeda branch in Syria, and by joining him, they could make their mark. One fighter recalled his resonant question: “Who is hearing your voice today?”

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Al Nusra fighter gives Syrian children candy

The success of al Nusra and the other Syrian rebel groups would even lead the Russian government to admit by the end of 2012 that Assad was losing the war. This made the move by Obama to black-list Jabhat al Nusra as an attempt by the US to hijack the Syrian rebel movement to decide for themselves what a post-Assad Syria could look like.

“The people are not going to accept intervention by the West now. You were watching us die, and now that we are close to victory you want to intervene? You are not welcome.” – Ous al-Arabi, spokesman of the Deir al-Zour Revolutionary council.

After officially recognizing the Free Syrian Army as an opposition group but cutting off their supply of heavy weapons, US policy in Syria now turned to marginalize the only group which was achieving consistent success against the Assad regime on the battlefield, had growing support amongst the Syrian people and provided a justification for Assad to indiscriminately attack civilian locations.

“It is terrible timing on the part of the United States,” said Mulham Jundi, who works with the opposition charity Watan Syria. “By calling Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists, the US is legitimising the Syrian regime’s bombardment of cities like Aleppo. Now government can say it is attacking terrorists.”

The Obama administration’s Syria policy was quickly collapsing on all fronts. Though its hard to say where it originally went off the rails.

President Barack Obama

– The US emphasized a political solution to the Syrian conflict for a year after demanding that Assad step down (August 2011-August 2012) which ended with Secretary Clinton foiling the Kofi Annan Peace Plan at the June 2012 Geneva Conference, effectively ending any political solution to the war.

– The US then began covertly shipping surface-to-air missiles from Libya to Turkey hoping to bolster the Free Syrian Army, but by this point various jihadist groups had already moved into Syria and were now controlling the momentum on the ground

– The US then backtracked and ended the weapons transfer program and blacklisted the strongest rebel group in Syria as a terror group causing severe blowback amongst the moderate opposition for not helping them OR the group(s) they were working with and were actually achieving success against Assad.

Ammar al-Wawi, another early FSA official who commands a battalion in Aleppo, said that the United States shoulders much of the blame for rebel disunity. America was like a “sorcerer,” he said, holding other nations under its powerful spell to keep them from supporting the rebels. “All the other countries can’t take a firm stance without the United States doing something. So their lack of action is their action,” he said.

There really were no good options for the US, which is why maybe Obama and Clinton should have never demanded Assad step down to begin with or try and funnel weapons at time the negotiations for a peace deal were happening. It would even be reported later that Obama rejected a 2012 CIA covert operation to assassinate Bashar al-Assad.

Fed up with an undecipherable US policy on Syria – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey started overtaking the direction of the Syrian opposition.

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Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Al-Jubeir (right), Qatari Foreign Minister Al-Attiyah (center) and Turkish minister Feridun Sinirloglu (left) meets with Syrian National Coalition

Streams of funding and weapons started coming from the increasingly frustrated governments of Saudi Arabia Qatar and Turkey, as well as independent Salafist donors spread throughout the Gulf who were itching for Assad to be gone.

This ultimately served to further bolster extremism amongst the Syrian rebels. 

Some rebels, hoping to attract the support of wealthy Salafist patrons, hewed to a harder Islamist line, while others have admitted to playing up their religious airs in order to drum up funds. And rebel leaders admit that the number of extremists in their ranks, including foreign jihadis, continues to rise, something they routinely blame on the lack of support for more moderate fighters.

In September and October, the Saudis approached Croatia to procure more Soviet-era weapons.

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The US now had absolutely no idea what was going to the Syrian rebels who were increasingly espousing a jihadist message to get money and weapons from shady Gulf donors. But with over 20,000 people having died in Syria now under indiscriminate bombing campaigns by Assad and the even more insidious use of barrel bombs, the Obama administration was under increasing pressure to intervene in Syria.

By the fall of 2012 President Obama would issue his infamous “red line” that if the Assad regime decided to use chemical weapons in the war, then the US would militarily intervene.

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus,” Obama said. “That would change my equation. . . .We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.” – President Obama, August 2012

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(2013) – Whose Sarin Gas? Chemical Warfare and the Story Behind Obama’s Failed Red Line


In the early morning of August 21st, 2013 around 2:30 am, several rockets containing the chemical nerve agent sarin were fired into a half-dozen densely populated neighborhoods in the rebel-controlled areas of Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus.  The residents were jolted awake by a series of explosions, followed by an oozing blanket of suffocating gas.

Within hours, more than 1,400 civilians dropped dead.

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Victims of Ghouta chemical attack – August 2013

A flood of Tweets and uploaded YouTube videos from witnesses and first responders would reveal the harrowing scenes of men, women and children convulsing on the ground, foaming at the mouth and vomiting. It was the deadliest chemical attack against civilians since Saddam Hussein’s troops killed thousands of Kurds with sarin gas during the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 (with help from the CIA *cough*).

It would be hours before officials in Washington woke up on Wednesday to learn the extent of the massacre. President Obama had just returned from a week away on Martha’s Vineyard when he learned of the attack during his intelligence briefing that morning.

The president and his new 2nd term national security team were now grappling with the urgency and enormity of the event – if the Syrian government was responsible, had Assad officially crossed Obama’s red line? Was America prepared to follow through on its threat and strike the Assad regime?

An American president who has tried desperately to keep the United States out of another war in the Middle East is now weighing a military attack on Syria — cornered by his own statement that a large-scale chemical weapons strike would be a “red line” forcing Washington to respond. – WaPo

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2nd Term Cast – Defense Secretary Hagel, Secretary of State Kerry, CIA Director Brennan

Susan Rice assembled the national security team in the Situation Room for a three-hour meeting of cabinet officials while Obama left for a pre-scheduled speaking trip to New York. There were a slew of new faces who were now to make some of the most pivotal decisions in the course of the Syrian war – namely the new Secretary of State John Kerry succeeding Hillary Clinton, new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel succeeding Leon Panetta, and new CIA director John Brennan succeeding David Petraeus who resigned amidst his affair scandal. Military officials from United States Central Command joined the meeting by video.

As the NY Times would report – One question that puzzled intelligence officials was exactly what kind of chemicals were used in the attack. American spy agencies conferred with allied intelligence services in Europe, Israel and Arab countries to get a clearer picture of what happened. In Israel, three Israeli officials briefed on the attack said they believed the rockets carried a “cocktail” of sarin gas mixed with several other components. Syria’s government is believed to have large quantities of sarin, mustard gas and VX.

American intelligence about the attack was still sketchy, which is why at the conclusion of the meeting  White House spokesman Josh Earnest would issue a cautious public statement shortly before noon urging the Assad government to allow United Nations investigators to visit the site and put the emphasis on gathering more information before assigning blame.

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Syrian doctors helping victim of sarin attack

While Earnest declined to speculate about who was culpable for the attack, there was a high degree of confidence within the administration that the Assad regime was responsible. After the meeting Secretary of State John Kerry would start making phone calls to foreign ministers from Europe and the Arab world, hoping to build international support for a potential military strike against Assad.

The Assad regime would vehemently deny responsibility.

Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said the allegations were “illogical and fabricated” and said it was the Syrian rebels who were responsible for the attack.  Russia backed up Syrian government denials by saying it looked like the rebels staged a “provocation” to push foreign powers to attack Assad. The regime would point to a U.N. investigation in May of that year which had determined that Syria’s rebels had in fact used sarin gas in a different, smaller scale chemical attack near Aleppo, as proof that they have previously used sarin.

However, the Assad regime would drag its feet in allowing United Nations chemical inspectors from accessing the site of the attack – furthering suspicions that it was behind it.

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Syrian Foreign Minister  – Walid al-Moallem

In an unprecedented conversation between the US and Syrian government which had no direct contact in two years, Kerry called Syria’s foreign minister Walid al-Moallem the next day to complain that the Assad government had not allowed United Nations inspectors to quickly visit the sites of the suspected attack. The attack occurred on Wednesday (8/21) but as Thursday (8/22) wore into Friday (8/23) it became clear that the Assad government was still thwarting the members of the United Nations team — who had arrived in Damascus days earlier to inspect other possible chemical weapons sites — from visiting the scenes of Wednesday’s attack.

The optics certainly did not look good for the Assad government, which claimed that sustained fighting in the area was preventing them from granting access for inspections. But the presence of U.N. inspectors already in Damascus before Wednesday’s chemical attack even took place would be the cornerstone of the regime’s defense. Assad was not the only one to raise the question of the odd timing for it to have conducted an attack as even CBS’s Scott Pelley would muse

“Why would you launch the biggest chemical massacre in decades when you’ve got chemical weapons inspectors sitting in your capital city? Doesn’t seem to make sense.  – Scott Pelley, CBS anchor

Many military analysts would also question the motivation for Assad to engage in this type of attack at this time. Even some of those advocating a military response expressed puzzlement over why Assad would take one of the few actions that could push a reluctant American government to respond, and that too at a time he was already winning the war against the rebels and with U.N. chemical weapons inspectors already in town.  Assad would challenge foreign powers to produce “the slightest proof” that the Syrian government was behind the attacks.

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Others found Assad having used the chemical weapons plausible.

Military analysts noted that Syria was not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) at the time, so it was not legally constrained to ban production, stockpiling, or use of chemical weapons. The CIA reported in 2001 that the Assad regime had stockpiles of sarin gas.

Analysts conjectured that Assad had ample reasons that made sense to him to use sarin: further terrorizing rebel supporters, projecting confidence by defying the international community, or simply wanting to raise the military pressure on some of the most stubborn and strategic pockets of rebel fighters and their backers.

“What makes military and strategic sense to Assad may not make military and strategic sense to us,” said Emile Hokayem, a military analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Assad is fighting his own fight on his terms and on the timing of his choosing. He may have made a mistake this time — perhaps he didn’t mean to kill that many, or assumed the international community had become less sensitive — but it doesn’t mean that it didn’t make sense from his perspective.”

For the Obama administration, the Assad regime’s hesitation to let in U.N. inspectors as proof it was trying to cover its tracks.

“The UN security council had called for immediate access for UN investigators on the ground in Damascus. The fact that President Assad had failed to co-operate with the UN was being seen as suggesting that the regime has something to hide.”

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On Saturday August 24th, Obama convened a high profile meeting with a full assembly of the National Security Council to see what options were on the table. By now the focus had shifted from not whether the US would respond, but how it would respond.

The debate was robust, officials said. Some officials argued forcefully for military action, while others raised potential dangers about American missile strikes, including fears that they would destabilize the region and set off a vast new refugee flow into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

By the end of the meeting, Obama would approve a re-alignment of American warships in the Mediterranean to prepare for cruise-missile strikes against the Assad regime in Syria. Obama would then call British Prime Minister David Cameron where in a 40-minute phone call the two leaders are understood to have concluded that the Assad regime was almost certainly responsible for the assault and that time was running out for Assad to allow UN weapons inspectors into the areas where the attack took place

Scientists who specialize in neurotoxins, such as sarin, say its potency quickly dissipates about 30 minutes after exposure. Sarin is increasingly difficult to detect up until around one week after exposure, after which sampling is considered unviable. It had now been four days after the attack.

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The next day on Sunday August 25th, Syria reached an agreement with the UN negotiate a cease-fire and allow a team of experts to come investigate the site.

But the Obama administration said the offer of access was too little too late.

“At this juncture, the belated decision by the regime to grant access to the U.N. team is too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted,” a US intelligence official said.

Before the U.N. inspectors would even make it into the site, French president François Hollande would come out and say there was “a stack of evidence” suggesting there had been an “attack of a chemical nature” in Syria and that that “everything leads us to think” the Syrian regime is responsible.

Hours after United Nations inspectors were finally allowed access to one of the attack sites Secretary Kerry could come out and issue the most aggressive language used yet by the administration.

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Obama with Secretary of State John Kerry discussing options for Syria strike

On Monday August 26th, Secretary Kerry for the first time would lambast the Syrian government for its delay in letting U.N. inspectors access the site of the attacks and said “the regime’s belated decision to allow access is too late and is too late to be credible”

Kerry would say that “while investigators are gathering additional evidence on the ground, our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense” and that the information US intelligence at acquired about the attack “is being compiled and reviewed together with our partners, and we will provide that information in the days ahead.”

As of August 26th, 5 days after the attack, the US’s case for the missile strike largely rested on what they saw as suspicious behavior on the part of the Assad regime, not any direct evidence linking them to the attack

I spoke on Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister Muallem, and I made it very clear to him that if the regime, as he argued, had nothing to hide, then their response should be immediate: immediate transparency, immediate access, not shelling. Their response needed to be unrestricted and immediate access. Failure to permit that, I told him, would tell its own story.

Instead, for five days the Syrian regime refused to allow the U.N. investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence. That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide. That is not the action of a regime eager to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons. In fact, the regime’s belated decision to allow access is too late and is too late to be credible – John Kerry, August 26th, 2013

Without providing any specific intelligence tying the regime to the attack, promising it to come in the forthcoming days, Kerry argued that the Assad regime’s failure to provide timely access to the U.N. “would tell its own story”. Anything the UN would find now having just gained access to the weapons sites was no longer credible in the eyes of the US.

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United Nations chemical inspectors visit one site of the attack – August 27th, 2013

That would be enough for the Obama administration. The next day on Tuesday August 27th, Obama would officially draw up the plans for a military strike against the Assad government.

The administration said the proposed the military action under consideration would be “limited,” perhaps lasting no more than one or two days. It was primarily intended to “deter and degrade” President Bashar al-Assad’s government’s ability to launch chemical weapons, not aimed at ousting Mr. Assad from power.

Interestingly, the Joint Chiefs would originally present Obama with a target list of 35 locations to strike, but it was rejected for being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime. The original targets included only military sites and nothing by way of civilian infrastructure. But under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved to include two wings of B-52 bombers and scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles to be launched from American destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

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USS Shiloh launches Tomahawk cruise missile at Iraqi target – 1996

The new target list was meant to “completely eradicate” any military capabilities Assad had. The core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.

Britain and France were also to play a part. British PM David Cameron had ordered six RAF Typhoon fighter jets to be deployed to Cyprus and François Hollande had ordered several Rafale fighter-bombers to join the American assault. Their targets were reported to be in western Syria.

The goal of the operation is “not about regime change,” a State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said Tuesday (8/27)

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British PM David Cameron, Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande

The US, Britain and France would begin re-aligning naval destroyers towards Syria and readying their militaries for an all-out assault on the Assad government.

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would say the next day on Wednesday August 28th that the US military was “ready to go” if ordered to strike, perhaps even by the next day. The president had given the Joint Chiefs a fixed deadline for the launch – “H hour was to begin no later than Monday morning, September 2nd”

“We are ready to go, like that,” Hagel told the BBC,  “the options are there, the United States Department of Defense is ready to carry out those options.”

In an interview on PBS NewsHour that night, Obama would say he still had not made a decision on what to do, but emphasized that when countries “break international norms” by using chemical weapons they must be held accountable.

The momentum to strike Syria would be dealt a severe blow the next day.

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Labour Party’s  Ed Miliband leads “No” vote coalition in UK House of Commons

On Thursday August 29th, the British parliament rejected David Cameron’s request for military strikes over Syria.

In a narrow vote of 285 to 272, the House of Commons shocked the world by rejecting military intervention in Syria. The rejection came in large part because of skepticism among British politicians about the evidence that Mr. Cameron said showed the Assad regime used chemical weapons – comparing it to the faulty intelligence about WMDs in Iraq to invade in 2003.

Mr. Cameron said it is clear that the British Parliament, reflecting the view of the British people, doesn’t want to see the U.K. get involved in military action and “the government will act accordingly.” Britain was out. 

Following the rejection by the UK parliament, the US Congress ratcheted up the pressure on Obama to consult with Congress before authorizing a strike on Syria. A letter was sent to Obama signed by 111 House lawmakers – 94 Republicans and 17 Democrats – demanding Congressional oversight on any such decision.

“Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution. If you deem that military action in Syria is necessary, Congress can reconvene at your request. We stand ready to come back into session, consider the facts before us, and share the burden of decisions made regarding U.S. involvement in the quickly escalating Syrian conflict.” – Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va

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The White House presented its case for military action to Congressional leaders on Thursday evening in a 90-minute conference conference call with senior Democratic and Republican leadership in an attempt to head off growing pressure seek Congressional approval for any action.

The White House’s legal justification for a strike was saying the large-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria did present a national security threat to the United States that required a response – namely that its allies in Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia could now be subject to chemical weapons attacks. The White House would also say the US was justified in attacking Syria to reinforce “international norms,” or standards, against the use of chemical weapons.

After the 90-minute conference call, some senior lawmakers were still not persuaded Obama had made a forceful case to persuade both Congress and a “war weary” country to launch attacks on Syria.

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The next day on Friday August 30th, following Britain backing out of the mission, the US government would officially release its intelligence assessment of the chemical attack. Secretary of State John Kerry would speak from the Treaty Room of the White House to lay out of the administration’s case for military strikes against the Assad regime.

Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack, and I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment. Accordingly, we have taken unprecedented steps to declassify and make facts available to people who can judge for themselves. But still, in order to protect sources and methods, some of what we know will only be released to members of Congress, the representatives of the American people. That means that some things we do know we can’t talk about publicly.

So what do we really know that we can talk about? Well, we know that the Assad regime has the largest chemical weapons program in the entire Middle East. We know that the regime has used those weapons multiple times this year and has used them on a smaller scale, but still it has used them against its own people, including not very far from where last Wednesday’s attack happened. We know that the regime was specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition, and it was frustrated that it hadn’t succeeded in doing so.

We know that for three days before the attack the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area making preparations. And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons. We know that these were specific instructions. We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.

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United Nations inspector takes picture of rocket shell at attack site

The administration’s intelligence assessment tying Assad to the chemical attack rested on a few key points –

  1. Assad has a large stockpile of chemical weapons, including sarin gas, and he had been trying for months to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition rebel groups.
  2. US intelligence had collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence which indicated the regime was preparing in advance for the chemical attack
  3. The rockets were launched from regime-controlled areas into opposition-controlled areas

Going into the Labor Day weekend, the administration had presented its evidence and was seemingly undeterred by Britain backing out of the mission and the lack of enthusiasm from Congress and the public in an American military strike against Assad. Indeed, Pentagon officials said that the Navy had now moved a fifth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean Sea in readying for a unilateral strike that would bypass Congress.

Although administration officials cautioned that Mr. Obama had not made a final decision all indications pointed to a strike occurring soon after United Nations investigators left the country. They were scheduled to depart Damascus the next day, Saturday August 31st.

That night, Obama would take a historic walk through the White House South Lawn with his Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to talk through the options in Syria.

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Obama walks with his Chief of Staff Denis McDonough

On Saturday afternoon August 31st, President Obama would address the nation from the Rose Garden about the next step forward in Syria’s chemical attack.

Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.  This would not be an open-ended intervention.  We would not put boots on the ground.  Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.  But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.

Our military has positioned assets in the region.  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose.  Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.  And I’m prepared to give that order.

But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.  I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  And that’s why I’ve made a second decision:  I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.  – President Obama, August 31st, 2013

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In a shocking turn of events, Obama announced that he would now defer to a skeptical, reluctant Congress over whether to strike Syria.

It was a dramatic turnaround by the White House, which had earlier in the week indicated it was on the verge of launching strikes against Syria without the approval of Congress. Just the day before, secretary of state John Kerry had delivered a passionate case for taking action against Assad which included comparisons between Assad and Hitler.

Senator Joe Lieberman would say he “never saw anything like” President Obama’s surprise announcement Saturday in his 24 years in Congress. One thing that made the deferment unique was that authorization requests are typically reserved for boots on the ground, which the administration had made clear this was not.

The move was a huge political gamble for Obama who’s international credibility was now on the line for making good on his “red line” to take action in Syria. There was no guarantee that Congress would approve military action and Obama did not say whether he would order air strikes if Congress failed to give its backing.

Congress was not due to return from the August recess until 9 September, but would return early to let the Syria debate begin.

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Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey testify before Congress to push for Syria strike

Secretary of State Kerry, Defense Secretary Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey would go before Congress on September 4th, three days after the president’s deferment, and make an impassioned plea for Congress to take action – saying that “the world is watching”.

“This debate is about the world’s red line, it’s about humanity’s red line. And it’s a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw,” he said. “This debate is also about Congress’s own red line. You, the United States Congress, agreed to the chemical weapons convention.” – John Kerry, September 4th, 2013

However, the American public wanted no part of another war in the Middle East. A Pew Research poll found by a 48% to 29% margin, more Americans opposed than supported conducting military airstrikes against Syria. One poll would even show that intervention in Syria was less popular than Congress itself – with 9% favoring Syrian intervention to Congress’s 15% approval rating. The public response had little to do with believing US intelligence about the attack – a CNN/ORC International poll would show that 8 in 10 Americans believe that Bashar al-Assad’s regime gassed its own people, but more than 7 in 10 still said a strike would not achieve America’s goals and it was not in the national interest for the country to get involved in Syria’s civil war.

It became clear that there was a tough road ahead to get Congress on board

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Protest against Syria strikes outside Congress – September 7th, 2013

an off hand comment by John Kerry would suddenly change the discussion over Syria entirely.

On September 9th, Kerry was visiting London for a meeting with British foreign minister William Hague over the situation in Syria.  When asked by a reporter whether there was anything Assad’s government could do or offer to stop a military strike, Kerry answered:

“Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting of it, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done” – Kerry, September 9th, 2013

The State Department would later say that Kerry had been making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility of Assad turning over chemical weapons, but the cat had been let out of the bag. The Russians immediately seized upon Kerry’s comments and said it was prepared to broker a deal to accomplish just that.

“If the establishment of international control of chemical weapons in the country will help avoid military strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus”  – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, September 10th, 2013

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John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov

The Assad government immediately agreed to the plan. Assad would say he was happy to discard of the country’s “obsolete” chemical weapons in exchange for being “spared” from an American military strike.

Vladimir Putin would pen a famous op-ed in the New York Times the next day titled “A Plea for Caution From Russia” in which he would lambast an oft-interventionist American foreign policy and urged the US to work with Russia to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons instead.

It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.” ….

A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action.

Within three days the US and Russia agreed to a framework to destroy Assad’s chemical stockpiles under the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). A week later the the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted its first binding resolution on Syria, calling for the total dismantlement and destruction of the regime’s chemical weapons program – there would be no veto from Russia or China this time.

Congress would never hold a vote on whether to authorize a military strike against Syria.

Presidents of Russia and United States meet in New York

The story of Obama’s so-called “red line” in Syria is one of the most important moments in Obama’s presidency and certainly in the course of the Syrian war.

 

 

 

 

PBS has even dedicated a short documentary video called “The President Blinked“, interviewing those involved in Obama’s sudden decision to change course on the Syria strike.

For some it was the death kneel of Obama’s foreign policy and his critics would relentlessly use it to point to a collapse of US credibility amongst its allies. In Syria, it would cement Assad’s position in power by removing the looming threat of direct U.S. military intervention.

For others it marked the success of now called “coercive diplomacy” in resolving international conflicts rather than brute military force – many saying the deal with the Russians was only possible because of a credible threat of military violence. Although its difficult to say how successful the deal was given that Assad is today using chlorine attacks against his people in a blatant violation of the deal. 

What remains clear, however, is that despite what the Obama administration considered to be an iron-clad case that Assad had used chemical weapons, passionate speeches calling for action, and an ensuing massive military build up in the Mediterranean Sea on the cusp of launching a strike – at the 11th hour Obama would suddenly agree to take the issue to a divided Congress he knew was shaky about approving action. It would be the first time in history a US president sought authorization from Congress for a limited military mission. Within days Obama would accept Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical weapons and withdraw any possibility of military action entirely. 

Did Obama just feel that strongly that Congress should decide what to do about Syria, even when he bypassed Congress entirely to intervene in Libya?

“…The administration says consistently that he doesn’t have to come to Congress to take military action. Secretary Kerry on Friday in a brilliant, convincing, moving statement essentially indicts Bashar al Assad as a mass murderer. And then the president says yesterday, let’s wait.” – Senator Joe Lieberman, September 2nd, 2013

Do we have the whole story of Obama’s willingness to walk away from his ‘red line’ threat to bomb Syria?

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Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the months after the disarmament deal with the Russians and Assad, Pulitzer prize winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh would publish two of articles in the London Review of Books making a series of explosive claim: 

It was in fact the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra that had conducted the sarin attack, but with the help of Turkey in an attempt to force Obama to make good on his red line threat.  

These truly were shocking claims, and they set off a furious debate amongst political writers and analysts online – unbeknownst to most of us likely in part because mainstream news outlets like The New Yorker and The Washington Post refused to publish Hersh’s work.

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In order to unpack Hersh’s claims, many of which have been pointedly denied by the US and Turkish government, let’s re-wind a little to when Obama would first announce his red line in the Fall of 2012.  At the time Obama issued his red line he would say “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus”

This warning would reportedly come as a result of a US military secret sensor system implanted near all known chemical warfare sites in Syria. The sensor system is monitored by satellites operated by National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and is designed to provide early warning of any change in status of the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal – an intelligence network operated closely with Israel which has always been on the alert for changes in the Syrian chemical arsenal.

That December the sensor system picked up signs of what seemed to be the movement of sarin chemicals at a chemical weapons depot. It was not immediately clear whether the Syrian army was preparing to use sarin or simulating sarin production as part of an exercise, but it was enough for Obama to issue his red line warning to Assad.

What would be revealed years later is that the “whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around” was not the Assad regime preparing for a chemical attack, but actually Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist militants having overrun Syrian Army Base Regiment 111 and carting off close to 15 containers of chlorine and sarin gas precursors. 

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Video footage of jihadists looting chemical weapons stockpile from Syrian Army base Regiment 111 – December 2012

It had only been a few months earlier that Obama would end Operation Zero Footprint after the Benghazi attack due to fears of the weapons falling into the wrong hands.

This decision highly upset the Turks who were bent on seeing Assad removed (in order for their Qatar-Saudi-Turkey pipeline to be built). By the end of 2012, it was believed throughout the American intelligence community that the rebels were losing the war. “Erdoğan was pissed,” a former intelligence official told Hersh, “and felt he was left hanging on the vine. It was his money and the cut-off was seen as a betrayal. Erdoğan knew that if he stopped his support of the jihadists it would be all over.”

In the spring of 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government was working directly with Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies. Through elements of the MIT, the Turkish national intelligence agency (like our CIA) Turkey would not only provide aid and weapons to the jihadists, but also allegedly provided military logistics and on-the-scene advice and training for chemical warfare

Al Nusra’s theft of sarin precursors and possible technical assistance from Turkey would culminate in the Khan al-Assal chemical attack outside of Aleppo on March 19th, 2013. It was the first use of sarin gas in the Syrian war, 5 months before the August attacks in Ghouta.

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Victims of Khan al-Assal chemical attack – March 19th, 2013

At 7 am on March 19th, a home-made improvised rocket would land in a village area 300 meters away from a Syrian Army position, and released sarin gas on its impact.  Witness reported seeing people scratching their bodies, were unconscious, some had convulsions and foamed from the mouth. 26 people were killed including 16 government soldiers and 10 civilians along with 124 other injured.

The Syrian rebels and the government quickly accused each other of firing chemical weapons, but all the fingers were pointing to the jihadist rebels operating around that area. The attack occurred in a government controlled neighborhood, fired close to a Syrian Army Base and resulted in mostly government soldiers dying. The rebels would say that the attack was the result of a misfired Scud missile by the regime that missed its target and landed in a government controlled area instead.

The Syrian regime immediately requested an investigation by United Nations. Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi blasted Turkey and Qatar, both of which support Syria’s uprising, saying they bore “legal, moral and political responsibility” for the attack. Erdogan strongly denied any links to the alleged use of chemical weapons saying “Turkey has never used chemical weapons and we do not have chemical weapons in our inventory. This is an activity that befits Syria only.”

The United States said it had no evidence to substantiate charges that the rebels had used chemical weapons and Obama would say he was “deeply skeptical of any claim that it was the opposition that used chemical weapons.” He would also re-iterate his commitment to his declared redline, “We know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical attacks…once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer””

In May 2013, two months after the attack, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan would make an official state visit to the White House.

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Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Chief of Turkish Intelligence (MIT) Hakan Fidan

Erdoğan had sought the meeting to demonstrate to Obama that the red line had been crossed, and had brought Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, and Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT to state his case.

 

 

Obama was accompanied by Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

The six sat down for a working dinner during the visit. The following account comes from a US intelligence official, one of Hersh’s sources, who was in contact with Tom Donilon and a senior Turkish diplomat.

The meal was dominated by the Turks’ insistence that Syria had crossed the red line and their complaints that Obama was reluctant to do anything about it. Asked whether he thought Syria had crossed the red line, Obama acknowledged that there was evidence such weapons had been used, but added, “it is important for us to make sure that we’re able to get more specific information about what exactly is happening there.”

Exasperated Erdoğan wagged his finger at the president, “But your red line has been crossed!”

Obama then pointed at Fidan and said: “We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria”

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Erdoğan would not come away empty handed however

After previous allegations of chemical weapons use by Assad, Congress approved a new package of CIA assistance to the Syrian opposition in July 2013

 

“Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas. It did not come out in public because no one wanted to know.”

A February 2014 report from the UN Human Rights Council would state that the chemical agents used in the Khan-Al-Assal attack bore the “same unique hallmarks” as those used in the 2013 Ghouta attacks

We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors’ – who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas – ‘were there.

 

No slam dunk on intelligence

 

The Porton Down report caused the joint chiefs to go to the president with a more serious worry: that the attack sought by the White House would be an unjustified act of aggression.

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he US Government’s Interpretation of the Technical Intelligence It Gathered Prior to and After the August 21 Attack CANNOT POSSIBLY BE CORRECT

‘I honestly have no idea what happened . . . My view when I started this process was that it couldn’t be anything but the Syrian government behind the attack. But now I’m not sure of anything’.

“We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive,” it says, “who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on Aug. 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.

Evidence that Assad Conducted the Attack

  1. Rockets fired from regime territory 
  2. Missile parts found on scene contained Cyrillic and an engraved “179”, proof that the munitions were Russian supplied that only the Assad regime would have
    1. Of the five impact sites investigated by the UN, only two were able to provide the “likely trajectories” of the rockets.Evidence recovered from the first site called Moadamiyah showed that the munitions used “matches one of the variants of the [Soviet] M14 artillery rocket”. The UN noted that the warhead (not seen at the impact site) could have been “original or improvised.”
    2. Criticism of Hersh’s claim
    3. Rebuttal of Hersh
    4. Eliot Higgins Blog (1, 2)

 

  1. Intercepted communications from senior regime officials saying they conducted the attack
    1. Picked up chatter

The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.’ Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts

Supporters of Hersh

Aaron Stein’s article in Arms Control Wonk would state Turkey and Qatar are deeply moved by the humanitarian crisis in Syria

“Turkey partnered with Qatar because the leadership in both countries were deeply disturbed at the images of human suffering in Syria and have become wedded to a policy removing Bashar al Assad… Erdogan, for example, often cries when speaking about the subject of Syria during television broadcasts ”

UN report states – In no incident was the commission’s evidentiary threshold met with regard to the perpetrator’. It does also say that ‘the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military’

Postol and Lloyd

Subrata Goshroy

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According to German intelligence, Turkey has been funding the Islamist Groups according to German intelligence  and the 2014 NIO scandal in Turkey, it became abundantly clear that Turkey was the primarily supplier of arms to the jihadist rebel groups in Syria.

 

 

development as revealed by two Turkish MPs (Members of Pariliament) Eren Erdem and Ali Şeker in in indictment file that was blocked by Erdogan.

“The MKE [Turkish Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation] is also an actor that is mentioned in the investigation file. Here is the indictment. All the details about how sarin was procured in Turkey and delivered to the terrorists, along with audio recordings, are inside the file” – Eren Erdem, October 2015

 

 

 

How Obama’s Syria Policy Fell Apart

Virtually everyone in the US, including Obama, wanted to support the opposition in Syria. But the question was whether the US should send Stinger missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, or offer moral support and humanitarian aid and stay out of the conflict.

 

Saudi Arabia tried to convince US after sarin attack

 

Hersh’s hugely criticized work on the Bin Laden raid

 

christian-village-of-al-duvair

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saudi Arabia sending inmates to fight in Syria

Allies are funding ISIS

Uighers fighting in Syria for al Nusra

 

To keep it as simple as possible, I put all the rebel groups against Assad’s government under three umbrella categories: Moderate, Jihadist or Kurdish. 

 


“Moderate” Opposition:       Jihadist Opposition       Kurdish Opposition: 

Free Syrian Army                       Jabhat al-Nusra          People’s Protection Units (YPG)

A&D Front                                  Ahrar ash-Sham         Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)

Syrian Turkmen Brigade          Jaysh al-Islam          

 

All three groups want to impose a different vision of a post-Assad Syria. Moderate forces would like to establish a free, secular government (we hope). Jihadist groups want to create an Islamist state governed by Sharia law. Kurdish forces just want a new government that is pro-Kurdish independence (remember the Kurds are an ethnic group that wants its own country, they are fighting for this slice of Syria as part of their new country.)

Though all the groups are in opposition to Assad, they are now brutally fighting amongst each other for territory  across Syria. Even groups with the same ideology are fighting internally with each other, creating more factions and rivalries. Personally, I’m amazed that these groups disagree enough that they’re losing sight of their larger shared goal which is to remove Assad from power. But from personal experience I know brown people have insane drama, so maybe I should be less surprised.

There are now reportedly over 1,000 armed opposition groups against Assad – commanding over 100,000 men and women. But a lot of them have formed rivalries against each other over controlling territory and weapons. Combine that with multiple alliances, brigades, factions and sub-factions that are constantly merging and disbanding and you have a battle field that’s a complete mess of confusion as to who is actually fighting who and with whom.

Before the rebel situation became such a clusterfuck, for the lack of a better word, let’s step back and look at what the situation on the ground looked like in 2012 while the Obama administration was deciding that arming Syrian rebels was the right decision to make.

Two of the authoritative works in understanding the jihadist insurgency amongst the Syrian rebels is Elizabeth O’Bagy’s 2012 “Jihad in Syria” and Charles Lister’s 2015 The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency

 

The Dutch delegation asked this 59-country parliament which of the specific “banner men” under the FSA they are funding. They refused to answer that question in this published report in Danish (Google will translate to English).

 

Although the armed opposition coalition of the Free Syrian army (FSa) generally promotes a secular agenda, some of its component battalions adhere to an islamist ideology and are well-known islamist brigades. One example of an islamist group within the syrian opposition is suquor al- sham in Jebel al-zawiyah.

 

There have been many efforts to try and organize the hundreds armed opposition groups, especially by BBC, the Carnegie Endowment for Peace  and the Institute for the Study of War. However, I felt that too often they lost the forest for the trees and I came away more confused than I did enlightened. After hours of trying to piece together all the different rebel groups and their overlapping allegiances and rivalries, here is my attempt to organize the chaos in Syria.

Though all the groups are in opposition to Assad, they are now brutally fighting amongst each other for territory  across Syria. Even groups with the same ideology are fighting internally with each other, creating more factions and rivalries. Personally, I’m amazed that these groups disagree enough that they’re losing sight of their larger shared goal which is to remove Assad from power. But from personal experience I know brown people have insane drama, so maybe I should be less surprised.

Joint operations rooms have blurred the lines between Moderate, Jihadist and Kurdish opposition groups. 

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Meeting of the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council (SRCC)

The battlefield in Syria is characterized by dozens of joint operations groups that have attempted to organize like-minded rebel factions together,  but all too often they include rebel groups ascribing to different religious and political ideologies. Many of the joint operations are united more by geography in trying to control a particular area or city of Syria, rather than their political end-goals. All of this has huge ramifications when foreign powers get involved in the war.

For example, the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council (SRCC) is probably the largest of these joint operations umbrellas consisting of an alliance between 72 different rebel groups. The SRCC features prominent moderate forces like the Free Syrian Army and the A&D Front but also includes groups with known jihadist leadership like Ahrar ash-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam. However, the SRCC doesn’t include two of Syria’s largest rebel factions – Al Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front nor any group from the Kurdish opposition.

Conversely you have the Army of Conquest, a joint operations room which coordinates with jihadist rebel groups exclusively – combining the ones part of the SRCC as well as the al-Nusra Front. But even the extremists have disagreements – jihadist rebel group Jund al-Asqa recently left the Army of Conquest because its other members did not support ISIS.

All of this is super confusing and there’s no easy way to simplify it because there is no one umbrella group that has all the rebels in Syria fighting under one banner. But the rifts within these joint operations highlight the second problem with the table above.

It should not surprise anyone that Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership “The founders of the movement are all former political prisoners who were detained in the infamous Sednaya prison near Damascus,” the source said.

 

 

Assad funding jihad

or maybe not

Syria’s christian’s are being targetted

(2) Islamist Opposition – Kuwait (Umma Party), Qatar, Saudi Arabia

b) Pro-Assad Strategy: Stymie international diplomacy to remove Assad and arm now brokering cease-fire between rebels and government.  

Jaysh al-Islam is in the peace talks and used chemical weapons

Cease fire is falling apart

The Assad government has a well-practiced negotiating apparatus. It has relied on more or less the same individuals in every negotiation, including a core group made up of Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad, the veteran diplomat Ahmed Arnous, and a few others. They operate under the direct oversight of Assad himself and while the government cannot be accused of flexibility or creative diplomacy, it enjoys the great diplomatic benefit of being disciplined and on-message.

The same cannot be said of the opposition, which is a mess of fractious factions. It has never managed to produce a team of negotiators that represent even a thin sliver of the insurgency on the ground. When the last round of negotiations was held in January and February 2014, the so-called Geneva II talks, the opposition delegation had extremely limited support from armed rebels on the ground and none of them were on the negotiating team. Whenever the opposition in exile meets, foreign diplomats can be seen stalking the hotel lobbies, desperately trying to shepherd all of their Syrian clients in the same direction.

Iran sending Afghan refugees to fight in Syria

The businessman cites Raqqa’s mobile phone service as an example of how there is commerce between the regime, Syrian businesses, and ISIS. The country’s two main mobile phone operators still work in Raqqa. “Both operators send engineers to ISIS-controlled areas to repair damages at the towers,” he says. In addition, there are regular shipments of food to Raqqa. “ISIS charges a small tax for all trucks bringing food into Raqqa [including the businessman’s trucks], and they give receipts stamped with the ISIS logo. It is all very well organized.”

 

 


(2013-2014) –  A Syrian Rebel Group Goes Rouge, The Birth of ISIS


 

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Islamic State executes Egyptian prisoners

 

introduction of the Islamic State into the Syrian conflict in the summer of 2014, three years after Syria’s civil war was underway, really threw a wrench into this whole fiasco.

I’m going to explore ISIS in greater depth in Part 2 of this series, but ISIS was essentially born out of a dispute between Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, then called the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

In February 2014, ISI claimed that Al Qaeda’s newly formed al-Nusra Front in Syria was part of ISI and tried to combine the two. al-Nusra and Al Qaeda’s senior leadership balked at the combination and ordered ISI to focus on Iraq and for al-Nusra to operate separately in Syria. ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi refused and split with Al Qaeda. He then transformed ISI into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and has since blazed a bloodthirsty trail across Iraq into Syria.

After ISIS boldly declared a caliphate across its seized territory in June 2014 and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the “leader for Muslims everywhere”,  Al Qaeda disavowed the group and the two are now viciously battling for who leads the Islamic jihad movement.  Despite both Al Qaeda and ISIS preaching a similar message of global jihad and fighting to remove Bashar al-Assad from power, their methods and vision differ enough that the two are willing to go to war with each other. 

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However, the introduction of ISIS substantially changed the power dynamics of the Syrian conflict. ISIS is so horrifyingly brutal and vicious to anyone that doesn’t submit to their rule t

And it has all worked in favor of keeping Bashar al-Assad in power. Every major rebel group in Syria has rejected ISIS and their repressive rule and are now fighting a two-front war against Assad in the west and against ISIS in the east.

hat everyone in these joint operating rooms fighting Assad suddenly had a decision to to make – do we join ISIS and fight Assad or do we fight both ISIS and Assad? 

This is the quagmire in Syria that the world finds itself in. 

ISIS beheads US journalist James Foley and Steven Sotloff

sotloff2
American journalist Steven Sotloff beheaded by ISIS fighter

Iran believes ISIS is American plot

Declassified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report from August, 12th 2012 

C. If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).
D. The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation and are as follows:
—1 This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters. ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory. 
—2 REDACTED
—3 The renewing facilitation of terrorist elements from all over the Arab world entering into Iraqi arena.

As with any US strategy against an enemy, the first step is to be a part of creating the enemy in the first place. Have you ever heard someone say “oh you know the US like trains terrorists right?” and it’s just too strong of a statement on face for you to be on board with.

Well other than Ramzei Yousef and Osama bin Laden here’s the latest CIA trained operative who ended up becoming the military commander of the Islamic State – Abu Omar al Shishani previously known as Tarkhan Batirashvili.

umar-al-shishani
ISIS military commander Abu al Shishani

Batirashvili was born near Chechnya, a contested area between Russia and Georgia in Eastern Europe.  He had been a part of the Muslim Chechen separatist forces fighting for independence against Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the Second Chechen War . At age 20, Batirashvili joined the Georgian military in 2006 where he quickly became part of Georgia’s U.S.-trained special forces and was extensively trained by the CIA ahead of the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict.

“He was a perfect soldier from his first days, and everyone knew he was a star,” an unnamed former comrade who is still active in the Georgian military told McClatchy DC. “We were well trained by American special forces units, and he was the star pupil.”

At the end of the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, Batirashivili left the Georgian military but was arrested in 2010 for weapons possession, spending 16 months in prison. After his release, he disappeared in 2012 telling his father he was leaving for Istanbul, Turkey. He reappeared in Syria in 2013 commanding the jihadist Syrian rebel group Jaysh al Muhajireen, before he swore allegiance to ISIS.

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Batirashvili’s key battlefield success was orchestrating the capture of Syria’s Menagh Air Base in a joint operation with the US-supported Free Syrian Army. Batirashvili’s tactics to help capture the air base after two years of failed attempts, “helped to legitimize ISIS in militant circles, including in the North Caucasus,” said Michael Cecire, an analyst of extremism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Batirashvili’s ability to demonstrate ISIS’ tactical prowess attracted fighters in droves from other factions and tipped the scales in foreign fighter flow and recruitment.” Ethnic Chechens, who are a majority Muslim, aren ow  thought to be one of the largest groups of foreign fighters in the Islamic State.

One of my old debate friends at Wake Forest, Bennett Clifford, has written extensively about the factors involved in foreign fighters leaving from Georgia and the Caucuses to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Batirashvili was reportedly killed on March 14th, 2016 in a US airstrike. But this is also the 5th time the US has reported him dead. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims he is still alive.

 

 

FSA working with ISIS

We are collaborating with the Islamic State and the Nusra Front by attacking the Syrian Army’s gatherings in… Qalamoun,” said Bassel Idriss, the commander of an FSA-aligned rebel brigade.

“We have reached a point where we have to collaborate with anyone against unfairness and injustice,” confirmed Abu Khaled, another FSA commander who lives in Arsal.

“Let’s face it: The Nusra Front is the biggest power present right now in Qalamoun and we as FSA would collaborate on any mission they launch as long as it coincides with our values,” he added.

(2015) – Russia Enters the War and the Collapse of Syria’s Rebels

Russia Putin's Syria Show

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Obama allowing Assad to win to preserve nuclear deal

 

(2016) – How America Lost Its Allies and the War Against Assad

 

Assad is aware his enemies are caught in between and has so far been tacitly helping ISIS defeat the other rebel groups. This includes regime air support for ISIS over Aleppo, buying their stolen oil, even maintaining their cell phone service. Assad’s calculation is that if his army and ISIS can eliminate the Syrian rebels, then it would force the international community that backs the rebels into now allying themselves with Assad to finish off ISIS. Assad and ISIS are “frenemies” right now until the Syrian rebels are defeated.

That’s why the options for the US look so bad right now. Moderate rebels groups are being pummeled on three fronts – Assad, ISIS and Al Qaeda jihadist rebel groups. And I haven’t even brought up the fourth front which was the six months of airstrikes starting in September 2015 carried out by Russia against Syrian rebel groups, both jihadist and moderate. So if the moderate rebels collapse, which it appears to be, which of these three do you want to assume control of Syria: Assad, ISIS or Al Qaeda? 

For Al Qaeda’s jihadist rebel groups in Syria, their primary goal is to defeat the moderate rebels and the Assad regime, not ISIS. “Once they … get rid of all the other groups, the al-Nusra Front can finally duke it out between them and ISIS for who’s the worst,” said Ali Soufan, the CEO of strategic-security firm The Soufan Group.

Let’s see how everyone’s doing right now.

syrian-civil-war-map-of-islamic-state-rebel-control_2016-03-31

As we see, ISIS crossed over Iraq and has captured virtually the entire Eastern half of the Syria. The Kurdish opposition has secured much of the north and is battling with ISIS to keep it that way. The primary campaigns between Assad and the rebels are being waged in the western and southern half of Syria in Aleppo, Idlib and Homs. As ISIS continues to move westward across Syria, the rebel groups committed to opposing ISIS will have a difficult decision to make.

Assad even held an election three years later in 2014, where he ended up overwhelmingly winning re-election. The election was not recognized by the United States and the international community largely because many areas under rebel control did not even vote. However, an international delegation determined that the election was “free, fair and transparent”…weird.

These failed attempts at reform and reconciliation are why many believed there was no viable path forward in Syria without the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power.

CIA and Pentagon bicker as Russia kilsl rebels

As the conflict continues, increasing amounts of Syrians are displaced from their homes. As of October 2015, the United Nations estimates there are more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees, most going to Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan.

Another formerly glorious nation, Damascus was the highlight of cosmopolitan culture in the Middle East, lay in ruin.

50 killed in hospital strike during ceasefire


**2016 Election – Hillary Clinton v.s. Donald Trump on Syria**


 

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My recommendation: It’s clear that the United States cannot win the war to remove Bashar al-Assad’s government without supporting an extremist faction in the fight.

Daniel Byman six bad options for Syria

Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have really outlined a plan for how to deal with Syria. Not surprising given how complicated this issue is.

1. Will you support military efforts to oust Bashar al-Assad from power? 

Hillary Clinton – Yes

Donald Trump – No

This is perhaps the single most important difference between the two candidates

Clinton’s Side: 

No Fly Zone is bad

Supported Syria strikes

Nothing left of Syrian regime’s institutions

Clinton schedules show lot of time spent meeting with CIA

Clinton’s insane no fly zone, she gets advice from same consulting firm that advised Rubio and Cruz

syria-no-fly-zone

Goldberg: So follow this through. January, 2017, let’s say she becomes president. What could change in U.S. Syria policy?

Landler: Well I think that she’s wanted, from the very start, to do something to change the equation on the ground. And President Obama, I think, concluded you couldn’t do enough to change the equation without a major military intervention. I think she will at least explore the possibility of a no-fly zone and creating humanitarian corridors. And I think that she would be willing to substantially expand the level of aid we’re giving to rebel groups [for instance with] MANPADS, and things like that…..she calls it an intensification and acceleration of Obama’s strategy, but that can take only so many forms.

2. Will you put American boots on the ground to fight ISIS?  

Hillary Clinton – Yes

Donald Trump – Yes

Here both candidates agree for the need of a massive ground force

Putin asked Assad to step down in 2015

Turkey will stage false-flag attack to invade northern Syria

US and Russia reach ceasefire over Aleppo

Hillary is the Candidate of the War Machine

Saudi-Russia alliance, different geopolitical world, Saudi invests 10 billion in russian projects

 

Trump’s Side: 

Al Nusra is a larger threat than ISIS

Inevitable jihadist war against Assad

Bahrain commiting ground troops to Syria

Hillary Clinton regime changer

walidpharesthecrisisinlebanonandsyria41113
Walid Phares – Donald Trump foreign policy advisor

Walid Phares on fact finding mission for regim change

“By proclaiming itself specifically as a revolutionary movement fundamentally opposed to the Assad regime, Al Qaeda has sealed its future in part to that of Bashar al-Assad. Should one remain, the other will invariably survive also,” he said.

Yet other joint coalitions like the Euphrates Volcano consist of Free Syrian Army factions and Kurdish YPG units who are both fighting together, mostly against ISIS

The emergence of indigenous Salafi-jihadist groups such as Jabhat Nusra is far more dangerous to the long-term stability of the Syrian state than foreign jihadist groups because it represents a metamorphosis of a Salafi-jihadist ideology into a domestic platform that is able to achieve popular resonance.

One of the most important things I learned in the process of reading and researching about the Syrian war in general was that one’s opinion of it swung wildly based on where you were from.

One of the things I enjoy doing the most is reading the comments on articles I read because I feel like I come away with a different perspective many times. I don’t even remember which article I found these comments on but I copied them into the article because I felt like they provided a really refreshing take on both sides of the Syrian conflict. I don’t know who either of these people are at all. 

Phillip Davis on Facebook:

When, as they so often do, a dictatorship degenerates into chaos and civil war, the lion’s share of the blame must be placed on the dictatorial regime and its supporters, both domestic and foreign. When the Assad Regime was faced with peaceful protests, it chose to respond by unleashing goon squads and it’s not so secret police on the protesters and imprisoning protest leaders. When that failed, it unleashed the military. It mattered not one whit whether the protestors were Islamist extremists, advocates of a more open democratic society or merely Syrians fed up with the repression, corruption and poverty. It didn’t matter whether the protesters had outside support or not. All that mattered was that they challenged the Assad Regime’s absolute power to rule the peoples of Syria. So spare us the deflection of blame to Turkey, the US, Europe or anyone else; whatever their responsibility for the condition of Syria today pales in comparison to that of the Assad family, its Regime, the Alawites, Russia and Iran.

Jo Kleeb

Libya was the pin in the grenade for the African continent exploding over Europe. Syria is also the pin in the granade that, if left to fail, would explode the entire Middle East.

Yes, there has been much culpability from multiple directions for the situation in Syria. As convenient as it may have been to try and blame Assad for everything, this was just not the case, nor should it be seen that way.

If we are to blame anything, it is the degree to which we endorse violent overthrow of Governments as a means toward change. It is the degree to which neighbours can tolerate seeing the countries next to them developing towards greater democracy, stronger infrastructure, success as a tourist destination, etc, without having to come up with some pre-text to bomb them to bits.

It is the degree to which the biggest boys in the sandpit learn to respect the right of the smaller boys in the sandpit to not always follow their rules and do what they want them to do, but to demand the right to quietly do their own thing without harassment.

Protect religious minorities like Arab Christians 

The Islamist rebel groups have united under the umbrella group called the Army of Conquest. Al Qaeda is moving its senior most leaders from Pakistan to Syria now.

Fighting ISIS means removing Assad

Hillary Clinton supports the Kurds

Donald Trump infamously mixed up the “Quds” and “Kurds”, although to anyone who read the transcript of the exchange

Rand Paul defended Trump 

The Free Syrian Army remains today the principle rebel group fighting Assad and his loyalists

Reasons to Topple Assad:

(1) Chemical Weapons Use

Also used by Jaysh al-Islam 

Wash post summary

timeline

guide to syria

syria explained

FSA is led today by Salman Idris

Assad’s supporters

Kurds – FSA relations

Turkey-Syria Relations

Reasons to Topple Assad:

a. Humanitarian crises need to be addressed

  1. Dropping chemical weapons
    1.  Turkey did chem weapons
    2. Turkey
  2. Starvation tactics in Maddaya
  3. Refugee crisis

b. A new government would ideally be Democratic and peaceful

c. Retain dollar hegemony in the Middle East

Efforts by the International Community

Geneva I

Questions to Ask 2016 Presidential Candidates: 

1 – Will you continue to push for Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power?

2 – Will you continue to arm Syrian rebels like the Free Syrian Army? Would you stop helping the FSA if they form an alliance with Islamist rebel forces like the Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar ah-Sham or Jaysh-al Islam? 

////War #2 – The War to Re-Draw National Borders in the Middle East////

This war is the reason the conflict in Syria really has no end in sight. Let’s move past the debate over who specifically should govern Syria because the question that needs to be answered now is – should we fundamentally change the national borders of countries in the Middle East? 

There are two groups that say we should – a terrorist organization, ISIS, and an ethnic group, the Kurds. Most of the rest of the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey)…don’t want this to happen. I’ll let you know now, if the United States is serious about solving the endless recurring conflicts in the Middle East then it must push for the formation of a new, independent nation of Kurdistan. 

Why wasn’t there already a Kurdish state in the Middle East? Well let’s go back to how the the nations of the Middle East were created in the first place…because that will explain why the region has been fraught with ethnic tension and unrest for the past 100 years.

Quora

(1) European Powers Draw The Middle East After The Fall Of The Ottoman Empire in World War I

The Ottoman Empire ended up choosing Germany’s side in World War I which ended up being the losing side.

SYKES MARK
Sir Mark Skyes (left) and Francois Georges-Picot (right)

Skyes-Picot Agreement – literally the most ridiculous map you’ve ever seen

sykespicot

legacy of skyes picot

effect on lebanon

Skyes picot lingers over syria agreement

When borders are drawn this way, two bad things happen:

1) Single ethnic or religious groups are split apart into separate countries

2) Different and often unfriendly groups are shoved together and told to share resources, get along, and bond together over national pride for a just-made-up nation. This inevitably leads to one group taking power and oppressing the others – resulting in bloody rebellions, coups, and sectarian violence.

Iraq borders

For any of you readers considering creating a new, tense nation of ethnic and religious groups who don’t like each other, I’ve been researching this shit all month and I have advice for you:

Your new nation is like a bubbling soup inside a pressure cooker and it’s gonna spew itself all over the kitchen unless you have one critical thing that can keep things in order: a tight lid.

The nation version of a tight lid can be either a strong western occupying power or an iron fist dictator with a scary military machine at his whim—without one of these, your nation will fall apart.

Four largest ethnicities in the Middle East: Arab, Persian, Turk, Kurdish

(2) Kurdistan – The Forgotten Ethnicity of the Middle East

vw0aoa5

Here is a map of the distribution of the Kurds across the Middle East. From the map you would see that this is how the Kurds are distributed:

50% are living in Turkey,
22% are living in Iraq
22% are living in Iran
5% are living in Syria

Kurdish is an official language only in IraqI mention language because you can only declare independence if you have an identity and a common language. This is why the Syrian, Turkish and Iranian regime have been denying the Kurds their language in order to destroy their identity.

Independent Kurdistan

Kurds now have declared independence but they are battlign with a new player on the scene for control of land – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Limits to Kurds against ISIS

Syria supporting PKK bc Turkey trying to topple Assad

What is US strategy for Kurdish independence? 

Shouldn’t support (12)

Should support (1)

Kurdish National Council doesn’t want independence, just decentralization

Kurds were left out of Geneva talks

(3) The Fall of Saddam Hussein and the Rise of the Islamic State (ISIS)

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In 2012, however, AQI — which renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) after Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. strike in 2006 — began to bounce back. One of the factors that led to this resurgence was the Syrian uprising. In late summer 2011, ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dispatched operatives to Syria to set up a new jihadist organization. Among them was Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of what would become JN, which officially announced itself in late January 2012. By November 2012, Jawlani had built JN into one of the opposition’s best fighting forces, and locals viewed its members as fair arbiters when dealing with corruption and social services.

Due to these successes, Baghdadi changed the name of his group from ISI to ISIS in April 2013. He likely believed that it was acceptable to publicly announce what was already known: that JN and ISI were one and the same. Yet this did not sit well with Jawlani — he rebuffed the change and reaffirmed his allegiance to AQC chief Zawahiri, who later tried (and failed) to nullify Baghdadi’s power play. Amid the confusion, many Syrian jihadists left JN for ISIS, while Baghdadi himself moved from Iraq and established a base in Syria, according to the State Department. ISIS also began to attract a growing number of foreign fighters.

Col. Dempsey – I know Arab allies funding ISIS

ISIS explained

When and how did ISIS form

How the US created ISIS

Euphrates Volcano

US conspiracy theory

Baghdadi was in US-run prison

Baghdadi’s first appearance, dispute over whether it is actually him

America/Persian gulf created ISIS

ISIS purging its ranks of spies

“But the declaration issued by the Islamic State is void under sharia and has dangerous consequences for the Sunnis in Iraq and for the revolt in Syria,” he added.

He said the declaration, and the nomination of al-Baghdadi as caliph, by a group “known for its atrocities and radical views” fail to meet strict conditions dictated by sharia law.

As with any US strategy against an enemy, the first step is to be a part of creating the enemy in the first place. Have you ever heard someone say “oh you know the US like trains terrorists right?” and it’s just too strong of a statement on face for you to be on board with.

Well other than Ramzei Yousef and Osama bin Laden here’s the latest CIA trained operative who ended up becoming the military commander of the Islamic State – Abu Omar al Shishani previously known as Tarkhan Batirashvili.

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ISIS military commander Abu al Shishani

Batirashvili was born near Chechnya, a contested area between Russia and Georgia in Eastern Europe.  He had been a part of the Muslim Chechen separatist forces fighting for independence against Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the Second Chechen War . At age 20, Batirashvili joined the Georgian military in 2006 where he quickly became part of Georgia’s U.S.-trained special forces and was extensively trained by the CIA ahead of the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict.

“He was a perfect soldier from his first days, and everyone knew he was a star,” an unnamed former comrade who is still active in the Georgian military told McClatchy DC. “We were well trained by American special forces units, and he was the star pupil.”

At the end of the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, Batirashivili left the Georgian military but was arrested in 2010 for weapons possession, spending 16 months in prison. After his release, he disappeared in 2012 telling his father he was leaving for Istanbul, Turkey. He reappeared in Syria in 2013 commanding the jihadist Syrian rebel group Jaysh al Muhajireen, before he swore allegiance to ISIS.

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Batirashvili’s key battlefield success was orchestrating the capture of Syria’s Menagh Air Base in a joint operation with the US-supported Free Syrian Army. Batirashvili’s tactics to help capture the air base after two years of failed attempts, “helped to legitimize ISIS in militant circles, including in the North Caucasus,” said Michael Cecire, an analyst of extremism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Batirashvili’s ability to demonstrate ISIS’ tactical prowess attracted fighters in droves from other factions and tipped the scales in foreign fighter flow and recruitment.” Ethnic Chechens, who are a majority Muslim, aren ow  thought to be one of the largest groups of foreign fighters in the Islamic State.

One of my old debate friends at Wake Forest, Bennett Clifford, has written extensively about the factors involved in foreign fighters leaving from Georgia and the Caucuses to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Batirashvili was reportedly killed on March 14th, 2016 in a US airstrike. But this is also the 5th time the US has reported him dead. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims he is still alive.

(4) What to Do Next

Actual US Strategy Against ISIS

Obama strategy vs ISIS in Iraq

US won’t bomb oil fields

Russia claims to be beating ISIS

iraq split up

ISIS has roots in Saudi Wahhabism

Kills prisoners with nitric acid 

What Should America Do Next?

America has re-invaded Iraq

NATO invasion of Syria

Watch out for  Muqtada al-Sadr

Muqtada al Sadr’s Revolution

Reasons for his return

Abadi needs to put up to make reforms

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Muqtada al-Sadr- Iraqi Shiite cleric

One year deadline 

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////War #3 – The War for Islamic Influence in the Middle East////

1) The Great Islamic Schism – Sunni vs Shi’ite

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The difference between Arab and Persian – they are united by the same religion but are vastly different culturally.

Modern day Iran, which was formerly Persia, used to practice Zoroastrianism. This is actually one of the world’s oldest religions, formed 3500 years ago. Many of popular religious themes like a “messiah”, “heaven” and “hell” originated here and went on to influence Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The Onion even parodied western religions borrowing the “messiah” theme from Zoroastrianism

Muslim clerics have been partners in power in Saudi Arabia since the 18th century, when the king’s ancestor, Mohammed Ibn Saud, made a deal with Mohammed ibn-Abd al-Wahhab, a charismatic Muslim who led a fundamentalist religious revival in Arabia. From that moment to the present day, the House of Saud has ruled Arabia (as it has for most of the past 250 years) in concert with the leaders of the Wahhabi religious establishment.

Shiites feel discriminated across the Middle East because they’re a minority across Gulf Nations

This divide has existed for

Last three decades there’s been a politicization and militarlization of these religious issues. Three factors

  1. Failure of fair distribution of power and wealth in Middle East, any disequilibrium creates animosity
  2. Decline of ideological politicalism, Arab Nationalism and Marxism in the 60s, this gave rise to political Islam
  3. Islamic Revolution of 1979. Islamization of culture and politics

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Muslim conquest of Persia

Safavid conversion of Iran to Shia Islam

Islam in Iran

Shia Crescent

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Although there are myriad Shia subsects, modern Shia Islam has been divided into three main groupings: TwelversIsmailis and Zaidis, with Twelver Shia being the largest and most influential group among Shia

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Persian rugs

Wiki – Shia Sunni Relationship

Iran Strategy in Syria

Persia vs. Arab

Squo is sunni-shia war

Islamism

Syria = Saudia Arabia vs Iran

Saudi Arabia cuts aid to Lebanon?

Saudi is bad US ally in ME

Turkey is becoming Salafi now

Saudi Funding ISIS

What does Al Qaeda want?

3) Salafism/Wahhabism and the Modern Saudi Arabian State 

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How Britain married Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia

Evolution of terrorism

2) Sunni-Shite “Arc of Crisis” –  Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mosque Seizure and the Iranian Revolution of 1979

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How American and England orchestrated the coup of the Shah and implementation of the Ayatollah Khomeini

American involvement in Grand Mosque

Rex Cinema fire

Carter and Brezinski removed the Shah

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“I did not know it then—perhaps I did not want to know—but it is clear to me now that the Americans wanted me out. Clearly this is what the human rights advocates in the State Department wanted … What was I to make of the Administration’s sudden decision to call former Under Secretary of State George Ball to the White House as an adviser on Iran? … Ball was among those Americans who wanted to abandon me and ultimately my country” – Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi

Secret Oil Deal that sunk the shah

How the US put Khomeini in power

US overthrew the shah

US started islamic revolution

How Carter and Brezinski played the Islamic card

Muslims vs Muslims

Myth of Sunno-Shiite War

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Global Research: Anglo-American strategy in the region thus developed and changed at this time, as “There was this idea that the Islamic forces could be used against the Soviet Union. The theory was, there was an arc of crisis, and so an arc of Islam could be mobilized to contain the Soviets. It was a Brzezinski concept.”[37] Bilderberg member, Bernard Lewis, presented a British-American strategy to the Bilderberg Group during the 1979 meeting, which, “endorsed the radical Muslim Brotherhood movement behind Khomeini, in order to promote balkanization of the entire Muslim Near East along tribal and religious lines. Lewis argued that the West should encourage autonomous groups such as the Kurds, Armenians, Lebanese Maronites, Ethiopian Copts, Azerbaijani Turks, and so forth. The chaos would spread in what he termed an ‘Arc of Crisis,’ which would spill over into the Muslim regions of the Soviet Union.”[38] Since the Soviet Union was viewed as a secular and atheist regime, having oppressed religion within its sphere of influence, the rise of radical Islamic influence and governments in the Middle East and Central Asia would ensure that Soviet influence would not enter into the region, as radical Muslims would view the Soviets with more distrust than the Americans. The Anglo-Americans positioned themselves as the lesser of two evils.

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Jimmy Carter (left), Brezinski (center) and Vance (right)

“Arc of Crisis”

According to Indian author and political activist Sheel Bhadra Yajee in his 1985 book “CIA Operations Against the Third World”, he alleges a series of linkages between the CIA and Sikh extremists who assassinated India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi. This alleged plot from the CIA to prevent Indira Gandhi from escalating India’s conflicts with US-supported Pakistan continues to be the subject of debate amongst intelligence analysts.

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Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis plan for the Middle East

After Mosul fell to ISIS in 2014, the late Prince Saud al-Faisal who also served as the country’s foreign minister protested with US Secretary of State John Kerry, claiming that “Daesh [ISIS] is our [Sunni] response to your support for the Da’wa,” which stands as the Shia Islamist ruling party of Iraq, which is aligned with Iran.

This embarrassing report from Jeff Stein at the New York Times where senior members of the intelligence community, FBI and House Select Intelligence Committee did not the difference between Sunni’s and Shiite’s and which one nations like Iran

Understandably worry many Americans

As for what is happening among Iran’s Shi’ites, many — as seen in their failed uprising of 2009 — do not support their present terrorist government. It appears that a large number of Iranians would like nothing better than to have the Iranian regime replaced by one that could get along with the outside world. What Iranians say they most want is an end to their misery under this regime and an end of their country being thought of as a pariah state.

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George H. W. Bush – Director of CIA, 1976

Another effect noted by political scientist Gilles Kepel, is that the initial attraction of the Islamic Revolution to Sunnis as well as Shia, and Khomeini’s desire to export his revolution motivated the Saudi establishment to shore up its “religious legitimacy” with more strictness in religion (and with jihad in Afghanistan) to compete with Iran’s revolutionary ideology.[85] But doing so in Saudi meant a more anti-Shia policies because Saudi’s own native Sunni school of Islam is Wahhabism, which includes the prohibition of Shia Islam itself, as strict Wahhabis do not consider Shia to be Islamic. This new strictness was spread not only among Saudis in the kingdom but thousands of students and Saudi funded schools and international Islamist volunteers who came to training camps in Peshawar Pakistan in the 1980s to learn to fight jihad in Afghanistan and went home in the 1990s to fight jihad.

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Iranian hostage crisis, 1979

At first, the people of Iran did not accept Khomeini’s radical interpretation of Islam and Islamic theocracy. Millions of Iranians resisted, but thousands were executed without trials as a message to the rest of the society. The event that cemented Khomeini’s unjust rule over Iran was the Iranian-American hostage crisis, which Mansoor says was cunningly triggered by intelligence officials in Khomeini’s camp and Bush Sr.’s camp.

Symbolically, the hostage crisis was very powerful. It radicalized the Iranian people, immortalized Khomeini, made President Carter look weak, made President Reagan look strong, and made the American people hate Iran.

Reagan had nothing to do with hostage crisis 

“I don’t think they were scared into the release,” Houghton said. “In all likelihood, they released the hostages because they needed the sanctions we’d placed on them lifted so they could finance their war with Iraq.”

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US supported Iraq in Iran-Iraq war, from NY Times

This has been described as unity of traditionalists in the face of the twin threats of “secularism and colonialism.”

The Suni-Shiite divisions being sown today is a contemporary iteration of medieval era wars between the Sunni Ottoman empire and the Shia Safavid empire for control over Arab territories. With present-day Turkey joining hands with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan to fuel the Sunni insurgency against Assad, there is a lingering symbolism of the bloody past that pitted Muslim against Muslim.

4) The Cold War Comes to Afghanistan and the Creation of Al Qaeda

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This is rise of radical Islam was really fueled when the United States inserted itself into a rivalry that went back to the 19th century battle between British Empire and Russian Empire for control of Central Asia. These imperial wars for control of Afghanistan, Persia and various Central Asian states has been called “The Great Game“.

US action in Afghanistan is now called Great Game II

The New Jackal book alleges US funded through Mercy International charity , supported by this army report

“The Shia’s are just as much our enemies as the Americans are”

America is just the newest in a long series of enemies of radical Islam.

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Al Qaeda emerged out of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. As the Soviets prepared to withdraw, Osama Bin Laden and a few of his close associates—high on their perceived victory over the mighty Soviet Union—decided to capitalize on the network they had built to take jihad global. Bin Laden’s vision was to create a vanguard of elite fighters who could lead the global jihad project and bring together the hundreds of small jihadist groups struggling, often feebly, against their own regimes under a single umbrella. By the mid-1990s, he wanted to reorient the movement as a whole, focusing it on what he saw as the bigger enemy underwriting all these corrupt local regimes: the United States. For local jihadists, pledging allegiance to Bin Laden and adopting the Al Qaeda brand meant obtaining access to a wide range of assets: money, weapons, logistical support, expertise, and, of course, training—Al Qaeda training camps were the Ivy Leagues of jihadist education.

While many Muslims adapted to the fast-paced changes common to Western industrialization and modernization, some Muslims rejected them. Instead, they created a rigid ideology imbedded in the traditional values and laws of the Koran. This is the phenomenon known today as Islamic fundamentalism, or Islamism.

Islamism came to be seen as a struggle to return to the glorious days when Islam reigned supreme. It represents a yearning for the “pure” Islam as practiced by the prophet. Not unlike the American Amish, the movement rejects much that is innovative. Islamists, however, take the rejection of modernity a step further. They perceive those who have introduced these innovations (the West) as its enemy.

a bitter hatred for Western ideas, including capitalism, individualism, and consumerism. It rejects the West and much that it has to offer (with the exception of weapons, medicines, and other useful technologies

“Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are aware of the enemies’ conspiracies. We decided to take measures to confront such plots. Hopefully, this will strengthen Muslim countries against oppressive pressure by the imperialist front.” – Ahmadinajad

How Bush + Saudi created Al Qaeda through Pakistan

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Ronald Reagan meets with Afghan Mujahideen Commanders – 1985

America created Osama Bin Laden

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Osama bin Laden with CNN Producer Peter Bergen – 1997

Bill Clinton passed on killing Bin Laden

7 times Clinton could have gotten bin Laden

1979 Grand Mosque seizure + CIA involvement

Being anti-women

Pakistan helpd created the Taliban

Appeal of Sharia Law

ISIS’s roots in Islam

ISIS vs Al Qaeda

Moderate Muslims respond

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CIA funding terrorism through Mercy International charity

4) Sectarian Flames Reawaken- America’s War on Terror Comes to Iraq

Iraq After the Fall of Saddam Hussein

The sectarian fire lit by the US invasion and occupation of Iraq has not only not subsided there, but also taken a more advanced and destructive avatar in Syria

“The fall of the House of Assad could well ignite a sectarian war between the Shiites and the majority Sunnis of the region drawing in Iran, which, in the view of Israeli commanders would not be a bad thing for Israel and its Western allies” Sidney Blumental wrote in a 2012 email to Hillary Clinton.

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Vocabulary of Sectarianism in Syria

Syria is arc of crisis

“There is neither a Shiite nor a Sunni crescent. We have an Islamic moon. We, Muslims, are in a world where we must be united,” the Iranian president said. “Does the destruction of Syria help strengthen Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or other countries? Is anyone pleased by Syria’s destruction, apart from Israel?”

4) The Crisis of Political Islam – Turkey, ISIS etc 

Crisis of Political Islam

5) America’s War with Islam, I mean, Terror

More liberal Islamists are willing to accept the principle that governments should be elected in free competitive elections and that a degree of political pluralism is desirable, but they insist that a true separation of state and religion is unacceptable, and that laws made by elected parliaments cannot contradict Islamic law. Even Arab intellectuals who personally embrace Western values caution about trying to impose Western models on Arab societies.

Muslim clerics debate about legality of wife beating

The case against integrating Islamic law into western law

Women’s rights under sharia

On September 16, 2001, George W. Bush referred to the war in Afghanistan as a Crusade: “This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while. And the American people must be patient. I’m going to be patient.” [48]

In Britain, chrisitians joined iraq war to kill muslims

NSA Snowden, FBI-Apple encryption

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I had a long compromise with myself about which picture from the Abu Ghraib torture files I would show in this article. There were so many horrifyingly graphic photos of what was done by American soldiers

so many things I had not even conceived of that I cou

Christian war

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Edward Snowden – NSA whistleblower
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Apple vs. FBI legal battle over encryption

Forthcoming Books for people really serious about understanding Islam, Islamic terrorism and the Middle East

Even Google is helping the US government for Syrian regime change

“Whether it is being just a company or ‘more than just a company,’ Google’s geopolitical aspirations are firmly enmeshed within the foreign-policy agenda of the world’s largest superpower.” – Julian Assange

One thing I found myself asking when I was younger was…what does Al Qaeda even want? 

America has basically been war with Al Qaeda my entire life – I was 7 years old when 9/11 happened in 2001. And throughout

According to al-Banna, contemporary Islam had lost its social dominance, because most Muslims had been corrupted by Western influences. Sharia law based on the Qur’an and theSunnah were seen as laws passed down by God that should be applied to all parts of life, including the organization of the government and the handling of everyday problems.[58]

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A rather ironic stance given the stashes of pornography found in Osama bin Laden’s compound.

According to Fouad Hussein, a Jordanian journalist and author who has spent time in prison with Al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda’s strategy plan consists of 7 phases and is similar to the plan described in Al Qaeda’s Strategy to the year 2020. These findings are from a book Hussein wrote in 2005, so read everything knowing that this is what Al Qaeda has said what its plan is for the past decade.

1) The Awakening. This phase was supposed to last from 2001 to 2003. The goal of the phase is to provoke the United States to attack a Muslim country by executing an attack on US soil that kills many civilians.

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Al Qaeda attacks the World Trade Center – 2001

2) Opening Eyes This phase was supposed to last from 2003 to 2006. The goal of this phase was to recruit young men to the cause and to transform the al-Qaeda group into a movement. Iraq was supposed to become the center of all operations with financial and military support for bases in other states.

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US Soldiers topple statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq – 2003

3) Arising and Standing up, was supposed to last from 2007 to 2010. In this phase, al-Qaeda wanted to execute additional attacks and focus their attention on Syria. Hussein believed that other countries in the Arabian Peninsula were also in danger.

4) In the fourth phase, al-Qaeda expected a steady growth among their ranks and territories due to the declining power of the regimes in the Arabian Peninsula. The main focus of attack in this phase was supposed to be on oil suppliers and Cyberterrorism, targeting the US economy and military infrastructure.

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Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen – 2011

5) The fifth phase is the declaration of an Islamic Caliphate, which was projected between 2013 and 2016. In this phase, al-Qaeda expected the resistance from Israel to be heavily reduced.

6) The sixth phase is described as the declaration of an “Islamic Army” and a “fight between believers and non-believers”, also called “total confrontation”.

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ISIS declares an Islamic caliphate – June 2014

7) Definitive Victory, the seventh and last phase is projected to be completed by 2020. The US economy will finally collapse by the year 2020, under the strain of multiple engagements in numerous places, making the worldwide economic system, which is dependent on the U.S., also collapse. This will lead to global political instability, which in turn leads to a global jihad led by al-Qaeda. A Wahhabi Caliphate will then be installed across the world, following the collapse of the U.S. and the rest of the Western world countries. The world will be “beaten down” by the Islamic Army. According to the 7 phase strategy, the war isn’t projected to last longer than 2 years.

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Wall Street Exchange trading floor – 2008

May 10th, 2016 – Blind Spot: America’s Response to Radicalism in the Middle East

June 7th, 2016 – Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World

////War #4 – The War for American Influence in the Middle East////

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know” – Harry Truman

I debated with myself about getting into the history, but in order to really understand what the United States is doing in Syria we need to understand the history of America’s relationship with the Middle East. While it may take a second to the present day, I think you’ll notice….patterns of behavior along the way. There are three countries in particular we need to look at before we get to Syria: Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Libya.

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Petrodollar Warfare: Oil, Iraq and the Future of the Dollar

By William R. Clark

So how did the United States first get involved in the Middle East?

The year was 1971…

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Richard Nixon and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia

(1) America’s Connection to Saudi Arabia – The Formation of the “Petrodollar”

In the heat of Vietnam War protests, the opening of Disney World and the release of Led Zeppelin IV another significant event was happening in 1971 – Richard Nixon re-wrote the global financial system by ending the convertibility of dollars to gold.

Up till 1971, any central bank with dollar bills could go to the US Treasury and exchange $35 in cash for an ounce of gold. This was the system agreed upon by world powers at the Bretton-Woods conference at the end of World War II.

In 1944 seeing that the victory of the Allied forces was inevitable, forty-four countries met in Bretton-Woods, New Hampshire to devise a scheme to regulate the international financial order after the war would end. By the end of the war the American economy was virtually the only one left standing – most of Europe and Asia lay in ruin.

As a result the Americans were largely able to dictate the terms of what the post-war world would look like. To promote the ease of international trade and to help fund postwar reconstruction, they decided that the American dollar would serve as the world’s reserve currency. 

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What is a reserve currency? This is the currency that international commodities are priced in and the currency used by countries to settle debts with each other.

For example, if Mexico wanted to buy a car from Japan then it would pay for it in dollars rather than exchanging their money from pesos to yen to buy Japanese goods. You may be thinking – well don’t they still have to exchange pesos to dollars to make the purchase? Yes they would, but this is why foreign countries try and hold large amounts of dollars in reserve so they always have cash on hand to make international purchases. Precisely why it’s called the “reserve currency”.

After placing the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, the nations at Bretton-Woods agreed to tie the dollar’s value to a set amount of gold at a fixed exchanged rate – $35 for an ounce of gold. This created a stable platform for the global economy because now the exchange rates for all currencies had a fixed value in terms of gold. The US Treasury had close to 2/3rds of the world’s gold supply at the time so this was an easy promise for the US to keep if someone wanted to cash in dollars for gold.

The Bretton-Woods conference also created the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) both of which are now under the umbrella of the World Bank Group.

If you’re wondering where Russia was during all of this given that they were also one of the Allied powers (and a major reason we even won World War II), they were actually in attendance at Bretton-Woods. But they declined to ratify the final agreements, charging that the institutions created were “branches of Wall Street”. 

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–Quick  (but important) aside —

The dollar being the international reserve currency is an incredibly important part of our global financial system and deserves an entirely separate article written about it. But one fundamental aspect of it is that its created a conflict-of-interest for the United States which has been termed the Triffin dilemma. (Good video on it here)

The US has an incentive to run massive trade deficits with other countries because they are always demanding more US dollars to hold in reserve – it’s the only way they can buy major goods internationally. Thus America is forced to spend more dollars than it takes in, in order to keep more dollars in circulation (if you’ve hear