Hillary Clinton and CIA director David Petraeus had a brilliant idea: they would fund, arm, and train a proxy army in Syria, overthrow the regime of strongman Bashar al-Assad, and jump on the rapidly moving train of the “Arab Spring” to extend US influence in the region. What could go wrong?
The “Free Syrian Army” created by Washington is, today, fighting alongside al-Qaeda and its Salafist allies, filling the vacuum left behind by the “Islamic State”/ISIS as it contracts under fire from Russian war planes and the Syrian army. As Middle East specialist Juan Cole points out:
“[E]ven as Daesh has been set back, al-Qaeda has recovered some of the territory lost to the SAA earlier this year southwest of Aleppo.
“Al-Qaeda is allied with the Freemen of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham) and the Jerusalem Army among other hard line Salafi Jihadis. These groups are in turn allied with remnants of the old Free Syrian Army (mostly Muslim Brotherhood) that are supported by the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. That is, the US-backed groups are battlefield allies of the allies of al-Qaeda. US and Gulf-supplied weaponry routinely makes its way to al-Qaeda.”
Those geniuses in Washington thought they could take advantage of the jihadist siege of Syria to create the conditions for a three-sided civil war in which Assad would be overthrown, the Islamic State would be decimated, and their “vetted” sock puppets would wind up in the saddle. Indeed, it was the same strategy the neoconservatives envisioned in Iraq, where the Shi’ite majority and the Sunni minority would supposedly be sidelined by Ahmed Chalabi and his “vetted” Iraqi National Congress – except, for some reason, things didn’t turn out that way.
What happened instead is that Chalabi – a marginal figure, who had no support inside Iraq, and was an Iranian agent from the get-go – defected, the Shi’ite majority took state power and the Sunnis rose up, embroiling the country in a vicious civil war that eventually generated ISIS.
A parallel process is unfolding in Syria: the US-created “Free Syrian Army” had no real support on the ground in Syria and was soon marginalized and absorbed by battle-hardened jihadists. Succored by the Turks, the Qataris, and the Saudis, this third force wasn’t the result of US manipulations, but the consequence of a split in the jihadist ranks, pitting ISIS against the old-line followers of Osama bin Laden in al-Qaeda. So that, today, we see US-supported Syrian rebels fighting on the same side as those who took down the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
Not that this obscenity wasn’t anticipated by Washington. Indeed, Gen. Petraeus has long been an advocate of openly allying with “moderate” fighters within al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the al-Nusra Front. This strategy is an extension of his “surge” operation in Iraq, where the US military allied with Sunni tribes in what was deemed the “Arab Awakening” – the very tribesmen who later morphed into ISIS and crossed the border to wreak havoc in Syria.
I have to laugh when I hear Donald Trump declare that we shouldn’t become involved in the Syrian civil war by arming the rebels because “we don’t know who they are.” We know precisely who they are – and that is the great crime at the heart of our policy.
The Obama administration has taken the same course set out by the neoconservatives who were at the helm during the Bush years: instead of going after the Sunni jihadists who are the core of al-Qaeda and ISIS, they have been intent on eradicating the last remnants of the old secular despots like Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Assad, empowering the Sunnis, and working to whittle down the “Shia crescent” in preparation for a final assault on Tehran. And if they have to ally with the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to do it, well then so be it.
Standing behind this Orwellian turn in US policy are our allies in the region: the Saudis, the Gulf emirates, and the Israelis. The motives of the first two are ideological: Riyadh and Doha are engaged in a holy war against what they see as the rising influence of Shi’ite Iran, and are determined to stop Tehran by any means necessary. That’s why they have been funding, arming, and directing the jihadist armies currently decimating what is left of Syria.
The Israelis, who have long schemed to overthrow their old enemy in Damascus, are motivated by strategic concerns: they much prefer to see Syria in chaos rather than under Assad’s control. Their target is, as always, their principal enemy, Iran, which is aiding Hezbollah in Lebanon and sending fighters to prop up Assad. In the religious war that is tearing the Muslim world apart, they have clearly taken the side of the Sunnis: in covert alliance with the Saudis, their American lobby has been agitating for US intervention in Syria for years.
And now the Sunnis have opened up another front in their war on Tehran: in Yemen, where Saudi forces are carpet-bombing civilian areas in support of a “government” that has lost all legitimacy. The Houthi rebellion – which I wrote about here – is caricatured as Iranian-sponsored “aggression,” when the reality is that it is the invading Saudis who are the real aggressors. Their war – with full US backing – has killed many thousands, with civilians caught in the middle of a vicious conflict that is now deadlocked. And it has had another deadly consequence, as Reuters reports:
“Once driven to near irrelevance by the rise of Islamic State abroad and security crackdowns at home, al Qaeda in Yemen now openly rules a mini-state with a war chest swollen by an estimated $100 million in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s third largest port.
“If Islamic State’s capital is the Syrian city of Raqqa, then al Qaeda’s is Mukalla, a southeastern Yemeni port city of 500,000 people. Al Qaeda fighters there have abolished taxes for local residents, operate speedboats manned by RPG-wielding fighters who impose fees on ship traffic, and make propaganda videos in which they boast about paving local roads and stocking hospitals.
“The economic empire was described by more than a dozen diplomats, Yemeni security officials, tribal leaders and residents of Mukalla. Its emergence is the most striking unintended consequence of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The campaign, backed by the United States, has helped Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to become stronger than at any time since it first emerged almost 20 years ago.”
One has to wonder how “unintended” is this consequence. The Saudis have been exporting their austere Wahabist ideology for decades, creating and expanding al-Qaeda’s mass base in the Arab world. And if the censored 28 pages of the Senate-House report on the 9/11 terrorist attacks are ever declassified – which reportedly details their role in funding and enabling it – the true extent of Riyadh’s role in empowering al-Qaeda will blow the US-Saudi alliance to kingdom come.
The truth about our Middle Eastern policy is that we are now allied with our most deadly enemies – in Syria, in Yemen, and in Saudi Arabia itself. The money and influence wielded by the Saudis and the obscenely rich mini-states of the Gulf has corrupted Washington to the point where our own government has become complicit in the terrorist threat that looms over us at every turn – a threat that is used by the Beltway politicians as a pretext for their endless wars.
What we need is a foreign policy that puts America first: stop defending the Saudis, stop intervening on the side of our enemies, and leave the snake-pit of the Middle East to stew in its own poisonous juices. Before we can do that, however, our bought-and-paid-for political class has to be swept away in a tide of populist anger of the very sort that we are now seeing arising all over the country.
The main enemy isn’t overseas: they’re living the good life here in the USA, right on the banks of the Potomac. The warmongers who control both political parties, the foreign lobbyists, and their shills in the media – these are the enemies within who must be exposed and expunged from public life.
What we are seeing today is the first stirrings of such a movement – and it’s only going to get more intense. That’s something I look forward to every day, because as Bob Dylan said on the cusp of another great era of tumult in this country: the times they are a changing!
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.