Both phases of Operation Zero Footprint produced uniquely disastrous results in Libya and Syria.

Most people tune into politics at a certain period of time when it is prevalent in social media or news, rather than seeing things as a continuum of events. This is one of my principle gripes with the media in that they very often tell you that something happened but not very much why it happened, what happened before and after it and how the political reality communicated to us is really just one series of sequential events that television and media portray to us through the Internet, TV and radio.
So let’s go back to 2012. This may be the most consequential year in Obama’s term and for the entire Middle East at large.
So I’m just going to narrate a series of sequential events before and after the terrorist attack in Benghazi which is so infamously marked in our brains now.
Here’s some context.
The attack in Benghazi occurred on September 11th, 2012. (Yep, one of the classic factoids of Benghazi is that it occurred on the 11th anniversary of 9/11). But there are a few dates that came before and after which are almost equally important.
First, October 21st, 2011: This was the day Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi was
that a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict came and disappeared
more important fact about the date is that it was 2 months before the 2012 election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
August 1st, 2012: Obama officially authorizes covert support for the Syrian rebels
September 11th, 2012: A diplomatic outpost
Second, November 8th, 2012: Today was Election Day for Barack Obama’s re-election race against Mitt Romney. I got to vote for the first time in my life and my homeboy Obama got his second term.

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 back up.

During those short two years, when most of us were in high school or starting college, one of the most important events in world history was happening – the Arab Spring.
This was a wave of popular uprisings broke out across the Middle East and north Africa that was borne out of discontent with a lack of political freedoms, high unemployment, corruption and poverty.  Within a year the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen had been overthrown while several more faced continued unrest and crackdowns. It was the most significant political re-organization of the region since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
In Libya, the United States played a central role in the removal of president Muammar Gaddafi. That’s a separate story at the very bottom of this article if you care, but after the fall of Libya
across the pond in Syria the peaceful protests were beginning to turn into violent clashes as the government began suppressing dissent.
Having just broken its own arms embargo by arming Libyan rebel groups,

Hillary Clinton herself admitted that the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar who have respectfully given  are “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region” would give tens of millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation, far more than to any other charitable group in the world.

Benghazi was a driving force for so many of the reasons Trump won the election. Partially because of the effect that it had in damaging Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But perhaps more so because it exposed the

For those people I mentioned who may be wondering where they were between 2011 and 2012, if
As we wind down Barack Obama’s presidency over these next few weeks, everyone will be
Many will remember the passing of Obamacare
What will Obama’s foreign policy legacy be?
To answer that question, i
Embattled leaders during the Arab Spring (left to right): Tunisian president Ben Ali, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Yemeni president Ali Saleh
So what exactly happened in Libya in 2011?
Despite how little Libya was brought up during the election it may have been the most important foreign policy event of Obama’s presidency. Not just because of its effect on the turmoil in the Middle East today, but because of the polarizing scandal it left in its wake – Benghazi.
To half the country, it will always be remembered as a partisan witch hunt against Hillary Clinton. While for another half the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens
But this is because much of the Congressional investigation into the security failure which saw Ambassador Chris Stevens, pictured below, and 3 other Americans were die in the US consulate in Benghazi
Operation Zero Footprint is the not-so-secret story of the covert mission coordinated between the U.S., U.K., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE to overthrow Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad
One thing that consistently amazed me in watching this year’s election coverage is how little anyone seemed to care about what American foreign policy is. Our election, and people’s interest in politics, is so often centered around fundamental culture conflicts
What is America’s role in the world?
I find often that
How many of you can say you really understood

2. During the immediate aftermath, of, and following the uncertainty caused by, the downfall of the ((Qaddafi)) regime in October 2011 and up until early September of 2012, weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya were shipped from the port of Benghazi, Libya to the ports of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria. The Syrian ports were chosen due to the small amount of cargo traffic transiting these two ports. The ships used to transport the weapons were medium-sixed and able to hold 10 or less shipping containers of cargo.

3. The weapons shipped from Libya to Syria during late-August 2012 were Sniper rifles, RPG’s, and 125mm and 15mm howitzers missiles. The numbers for each weapon were estimated to be: 500 sniper rifles, 100 RPG launchers with 300 total rounds, and approximately 400 howitzers missiles [200 ea – 125mm and 200ea -155mm]

November 2012 closed session in Congress
Congressman Devin Nunes asking former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper
Nunes: Are we aware of any arms that are leaving that area and going into Syria?
Morell: Yes, sir.
Clapper: Yes.
Nunes: And who is coordinating that?
Morell: I believe largely the [REDACTED] are coordinating that.
Nunes: They are leaving Benghazi ports are going to Syria?
Morell: I don’t know how they are getting the weapons from Libya to Syria. But there are weapons going from Libya to Syria. And there are probably a number of actors involved in that. One of the biggest are the [REDACTED]
Nunes: And were the CIA folks that were there, were they helping
Congressman Lynn Westmoreland asks about Benghazi protests on page 90
Westmoreland: Okay. Did you see anybody chanting?
Kennedy: The first–the chanting and the chanting and an explosion and gunfire and the rush on the gate were I won’t say simultaneous, but very, in a very,very compressed time frame.
Westmoreland: Okay. Wouldn’t that be conclusive evidence that there wasn’t a demonstration outside?
Kennedy: [Redacted]
Westmoreland: No, I got you.
Morell: It is conclusive, sir. Absolutely.
Westmoreland: It is conclusive. So that is done. There is not anymore. Because I thought Mr. Clapper, General Clapper had said there was still some questions rolling around. I may have misunderstood you, sir.
Morell: There are a lot of questions rolling around. That is not one of them.
Westmoreland: I don’t want to get Director Clapper upset right now. So there is definite evidence that there was no protest.
Morell: Yes, sir.
Clapper: There was no protests within eyeshot or earshot of the Annex.
frame-grab-of-a-man-purpo-007Muammar Gaddafi stabbed to death by Libyan rebels – October 2011

There are some illuminating and useful details in the report. One important focus of the panel’s probe was the CIA, which initially escaped public scrutiny because its presence in Benghazi was supposed to be a secret. The report broadly chastised the Defense Department, the CIA and the State Department for failing to understand the serious security risks in Benghazi and for maintaining facilities there that they could not protect.

The administration obviously needs to do better to protect American diplomats but Congress has to approve sufficient funds to underwrite the effort.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Qatar libya arms
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.

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.

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.”

gates mullen hillary
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and Secretary of State Hillary 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.”

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.

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

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”

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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…

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.


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.”

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. 

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.

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.

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.

Hillary Rodham Clinton
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.

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. 

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, October 26th, 2012

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.

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.


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.



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.”




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.

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? 

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.”

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.





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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 4.47.19 PM
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.


“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.


“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. 

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?”

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.

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.


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.


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