Obama’s Contras: The Syrian ‘Rebels’

A Note to My Readers
September 18, 2013

I apologize to my readers for the absence of a column today: I’m a bit under the weather. Indeed, that’s all I have the strength to give by way of an explanation. See you on Friday!

Anyone who thinks the US regime change operation in Syria is finished hasn’t been keeping up with the news.

Yes, the President and his interventionist advisors – notably Secretary of State John Kerry and US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power – have been rebuked by Congress and the American people: there will be no "shock and awe" over Damascus any time soon. The US military, for its part, has also signaled its displeasure at being asked to fight yet another futile Middle East war. Yet that hardly means the War Party has given up: far from it.

US-Saudi covert action in the Syrian civil war picked up just as Obama balked in the face of public outrage and just before the announcement that an agreement had been reached to dismantle Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal. On September 11, the Washington Post reported:

"The CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria, ending months of delay in lethal aid that had been promised by the Obama administration, according to U.S. officials and Syrian figures. The shipments began streaming into the country over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear – a flow of material that marks a major escalation of the US role in Syria’s civil war."

Track one – direct US military intervention – has been effectively derailed, at least for the moment; however, this just means track two – a years-long effort to build up Syrian opposition forces – has been accelerated. The much-vaunted "moderate" rebel forces are getting $250 million in aid, including "light" weapons and ammunition, as well as "management" training in local governance. The idea is to focus on communities where al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is strong, so as to buttress supposedly "emerging moderate leaders."

That’s the theory: the practice, however, is quite another matter.

US aid is handled by the Syrian Support Group, a nonprofit organization which has the official Syrian rebel franchise: in short, SSG is the Daddy Warbucks of the rebel movement. According to Mother Jones reporter Dana Liebelson, Daddy is very laid back in his accounting and auditing methods. As her revealing piece informs us, the so-called vetting process is left largely up to local commanders, who may or may not be "extremists" themselves.

There is no governmental body in charge of oversight: all US aid is sent "directly to Syria’s Supreme Military Council," which in theory commands the loosely-organized "Free Syrian Army." SSG simply ships supplies, now including weapons, to US-Saudi-run warehouses, based in Turkey and Jordan, where the Supreme Council hands them out.

Dan Layman, the SSG’s official lobbyist, explains how the system is supposed to work:

“’A commander from a particular area will authorize a group of soldiers to go to a Supreme Military Council warehouse, and then write a detailed receipt saying this unit picked up three crates of MRE rations from the warehouse,’ Layman explains. The receipts are signed by the commander of the unit picking up the supplies and the local warehouse director, who is also under the command of the Supreme Military Council. Layman notes that his organization confers with senior commanders daily and has a staffer in Syria (a former Pentagon employee) who is responsible for oversight."

We are assured by the Syrian National Coalition – yet another component of the rebels’ labyrinthine organizational chart – that "every FSA brigade must meet certain conditions, including abiding by the FSA’s constitution, not having children or foreigners in their units, and accepting regular audits by the Supreme Military Council and countries providing aid."

In short: some guys show up at the SSG warehouse and hand the spooks in charge a note from a local commander requesting certain items: the warehouse supervisors hand the Syrian supplicants the supplies – say, materials for making a car bomb of the sort that enabled a suicide attack which blew up the headquarters of Syrian intelligence last year – along with a receipt. The local commander then writes up a report saying what has been received and by whom.

The problem is that the alleged division between "moderates" and "extremists" exists only in the minds of the SSG and their backers in the US Congress, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. On the battlefield these groups intermingle and are essentially indistinguishable in the chaos of combat.

One example: the recent siege of Maaloula, where both the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra, along with other radical Islamist militias, united to "liberate" one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East. "Convert [to Islam] or you will be beheaded," the rebel fighters told the inhabitants – who subsequently fled en masse as the rebels desecrated ancient monuments and terrorized nuns holed up at the St. Taklas monastery.

Those rebels shown in a New York Times video executing Syrian soldiers after torturing them – those were FSA "moderates." And remember the Syrian rebel cannibal who filmed himself eating the heart – or was it a liver? – of a captive soldier? "With the guy who was eating a heart, he was part of a moderate faction," says Layman, but "we work with [Supreme Military Council head Gen. Salim] Idris and let him know that he needs to prevent these things."

Good luck with that!

The "vetting process" much touted by the administration, as well as Senators McCain and Graham, is basically an act of faith – a de facto mirage, which is further clouded by the heavy involvement of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others less interested in the ideological-theological correctness of the rebel fighters than they are in quickly and effectively deposing the Assad regime.

While we are told the FSA "moderates" are numerically stronger, the reality on the ground is that the radical Islamists are hardened veterans of many conflicts, from Libya to Chechnya to Iraq (where they fought and killed US soldiers under the tutelage of Al Qaeda-in-Iraq). The US has set up a secret training camp in Jordan, with the cooperation of the Saudis and Qataris, but so far only 300 "vetted" fighters have been sent onto the battlefield. It may be too much to expect the rebels to deny US-supplied weapons and other materials to their best fighters.

Qatar is a major funding source for the radicals, and they are going all out in giving not only political support – via Al Jazeera, which is owned by the Qatari Emir – but also arming groups that don’t meet Western or even Saudi standards. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

"In Jordan, officials said they couldn’t yet tell whether the joint operation has reaped success in sifting moderate Syrian rebels from the extremists. Some said they couldn’t rule out the possibility some Saudi funds and arms were being funneled to radicals on the side, simply to counter the influence of rival Islamists backed by Qatar. US officials said they couldn’t rule out that mistakes would be made."

The last time we made a "mistake" of that magnitude US aid to the Afghan mujahideen gave birth to Al Qaeda. In Libya, too, Benghazi was yet another lesson in the consequences of "blowback." Yet we refuse to learn the lesson of these "mistakes" – which leads one to believe that either these people are really quite thick, or that these aren’t "mistakes" at all but rather a grotesque experiment in the tradition of Dr. Frankenstein.

Slithering around under this particular rock is the peripatetic Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, former Saudi ambassador to the US and now chief of Saudi intelligence. Bandar is the legendary "fixer" whose close relationship with the Bush family and access to almost unlimited oil money greased the skids for the expanding influence of the Saudi lobby in Washington. The Prince, you’ll recall, played a similar role in funneling cash and weaponry to the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s – an operation that tried to end-run Congress and wound up tarring the Reagan administration in a major scandal. Bandar was also the key link in the scheme to arm the Afghan mujahideen – a project that culminated in the birth of Al Qaeda.

The American people rose and said: No war in Syria! They stopped the War Party dead in its tracks – but track two, the covert operation, is still very much in the works. Yet the people have an option in this case, too: they can demand their representatives in Congress put an end to this dangerous and illegal operation. The House, which is strongly opposed to a US strike on Syria, has the power to defund this nonsense once and for all.

So what’s stopping them? Only public ignorance of what’s being done behind the backs of the American people. Yet when the "blowback" blows up in our faces, you can be sure of one thing: no one in government will be held accountable.


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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).

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].