When large-scale demonstrations broke out against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in early 2011, Barack Obama’s administration promptly exploited the situation and began to back anti-regime factions. As those demonstrations evolved into an armed insurgency later that year, Washington cooperated closely with outside sponsors of the rebellion, especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to channel financial and logistical assistance to the insurgents. By September 2013, Washington was openly sending arms and money of its own to the rebels.
In addition to interfering in Syria’s internal affairs by aiding an insurgency, U.S. leaders have repeatedly misled the American people about the nature of the factions Washington supports. Speaking in September 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the armed opposition to Assad "has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its adherence to . . . democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution." But Reuters correspondents Mark Hosenball and Phil Stewart noted that Kerry’s optimistic assessment about the "moderate" political composition of rebel forces was at direct odds even with the conclusions of US intelligence agencies. Chatham House and Queen Mary University of London scholar Christopher Phillips also disputed the notion that Islamists were not significant players during the early years of Syria’s civil war. He concluded that "there was an Islamist presence from the start." Moreover, the influence and power of that presence "grew substantially as the conflict progressed."
Nevertheless, Washington provided material support for several highly questionable groups. The administration even flirted with supporting Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. As noted below, some of the factions that Washington explicitly aided closely cooperated with Al-Nusra and engaged in similar odious behavior. Some US foreign policy heavyweights even were willing to embrace Al-Nusra-style jihadists. Not long after leaving his post as Obama’s CIA director, David Petraeus argued that at least some jihadists could be "peeled" away and become useful allies to fight both ISIS and the Assad regime. However, ISIS and Nusra simply disagreed about which organization was the legitimate vessel for the Islamist cause; they did not have significant differences over the nature of that cause or the kind of future regime they wanted to govern Syria.
Kerry and other US officials concealed adverse information about the rebels from the American people whenever possible. US leaders and their enablers in the American news media converted an incredibly complex Syrian power struggle (with the Sunni-Shia religious rivalry playing a major role) into a convenient melodrama pitting the utterly evil Assad against noble, freedom-seeking rebels. The administration and its media allies ignored, downplayed, or misrepresented numerous war crimes that the insurgents committed.
Human Rights Watch documented a major episode of rebel atrocities already in the autumn of 2013. A coalition of Islamist forces, including Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and ISIS, launched an offensive into a region near the Mediterranean coast heavily inhabited by Assad’s Alawite religious brethren. Human Rights Watch reported that some 190 civilians had been killed, including at least 67 who were summarily executed, and although the militant groups all denied responsibility, ample evidence confirmed that they were the perpetrators. The credibility of their perfunctory denials eroded badly when al-Nusra publicly executed a prominent Alawite Sheik who had been captured by another Islamist faction, Harakat Sham al-Islam.
Other supposedly moderate insurgent groups that Washington has explicitly supported also turned out to be horrifyingly bad. One such militia, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki, received US arms and other assistance before American officials concluded that the group might be too extreme. That certainly proved to be the case. In July 2016, a video became public showing group members beheading an opponent. Apparently the gap between Syrian "moderates" and ISIS was not all that large.
US leaders and their media allies also distorted what was happening with respect to the Syrian government’s siege of the rebel-held city of Aleppo. Obama administration officials portrayed Aleppo as a liberated zone throughout the nearly three year period before Assad’s forces (together with their Russian allies) eventually regained control of the city in late 2016. But the Boston Globe’s Stephen Kinzer noted that "for three years, violent militias have run Aleppo. Their rule began with a wave of repression. They posted notices warning residents: ‘Don’t send your children to school. If you do, we will get the backpack and you will get the coffin.’" US officials noticeably failed to mention such incidents when portraying the rebels in Aleppo as heroic moderates resisting the brutal Assad regime.
Washington’s myth about Syrian "moderates: became a major issue in mid and late 2016 when Russian planes bombed rebel targets. The Russians claimed that they were striking terrorists, but the US contended that many of the targets were in fact moderate, pro-Western insurgents, or as Secretary Kerry termed them, "legitimate opposition groups." His implicit definition of legitimate or moderate, though, was as vague as ever. Moreover, Kerry’s contention that such groups were separate from ISIS and the Nusra front, both organizationally and physically, had very little supporting evidence. Longtime investigative journalist Gareth Porter wrote that the reality in at least two key provinces, "is that there is no such separation." Indeed, "information from a wide range of sources, including some of the groups that the United States has been explicitly supporting, makes it clear that every armed anti-Assad organization unit in those provinces is engaged in a military system controlled by Nusra. All of them fight alongside the Nusra Front and coordinate their military activities with it."
In late July 2017, the Trump administration announced that it was ending the CIA’s covert program of support for "moderate" Syrian rebel forces. But there was little evidence of meaningful, substantive change. Rebel factions continued to receive US arms, if not directly from the United States, then through Washington’s Saudi and Turkish allies. The Syrian civil war continued to grind on, although government forces made slow progress in displacing the insurgents from areas they held. Even the Trump administration made it clear, though, that Assad’s regime would not be allowed to achieve a definitive victory. Washington continued to supply and assist Kurdish separatist forces in northeast Syria, and a small contingent of US troops remained to guard the oil fields there. Trump also repeatedly warned Damascus not to launch a final offensive against Idlib, the last major stronghold that non-Kurdish rebel forces – including many of the Sunni jihadists mentioned above – still held.
There is no indication that US policy will change for the better under the Biden administration. Indeed, barely weeks after taking office, Biden ordered air strikes on Iranian militias in Syria, key allies of the Assad regime. That move indicated a willingness to escalate, not diminish, US meddling in Syria. Equally ominous, several high-level Biden administration appointees were staunch advocates of Washington’s regime-change war against Assad from the outset. Those cheerleaders include Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. It is highly unlikely that such individuals will disown their Syrian clients. Washington’s love affair with war criminals looks set to continue.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.