A week ago [Mon 30th July] the Guardian newspaper published a report entitled “Al-Qaida turns tide for rebels in battle for eastern Syria”. The strapline read:
In his latest exclusive dispatch from Deir el-Zour province, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad meets fighters who have left the Free Syrian Army for the discipline and ideology of global jihad
The article begins:
As they stood outside the commandeered government building in the town of Mohassen, it was hard to distinguish Abu Khuder’s men from any other brigade in the Syrian civil war, in their combat fatigues, T-shirts and beards.
But these were not average members of the Free Syrian Army. Abu Khuder and his men fight for al-Qaida.
They try to hide their presence. “Some people are worried about carrying the [black] flags,” said Abu Khuder. “They fear America will come and fight us. So we fight in secret. Why give Bashar and the west a pretext?” But their existence is common knowledge in Mohassen. Even passers-by joke with the men about car bombs and IEDs.
According to Abu Khuder, his men are working closely with the military council that commands the Free Syrian Army brigades in the region. “We meet almost every day,” he said. “We have clear instructions from our [al-Qaida] leadership that if the FSA need our help we should give it. We help them with IEDs and car bombs. Our main talent is in the bombing operations.” Abu Khuder’s men had a lot of experience in bomb-making from Iraq and elsewhere, he added.
And it turns out, at least to judge from Abdul-Ahad’s report, that the alliance with al-Qaeda was just what the opposition was needing. Here for example is the opinion of Osama, introduced to us as “a young jihadi from Abu Khuder’s unit with a kind smile”:
“They were committed,” said Osama. “They obeyed their leader and never argued. In the FSA, if you have 10 people they usually split and form three groups.” The jihadis, by contrast, used their time “in useful things, even the chores are divided equally”.
Osama joined the group. “He [the Saudi commander] is a very good man, he spends his days teaching us. You ask him anything and he will answer you with verses from the Qur’an, you want to read the Qur’an you can read. You want to study bomb-making he will teach you.”
The conflict in Syria, the media constantly remind us, is complicated, which is undoubtedly true, although this situation is totally compounded by the media’s overall lack of responsible coverage – and here I strongly recommend reading Charlie Skelton’s investigative report into the political connections behind some of the main Syrian opposition sources. To begin, however, and since it often helps in understanding complex problems to ask some simple questions (as any scientist will confirm), let’s ask the most obvious and immediate one: just why are America still actively supporting an armed uprising that is increasingly under the control of their arch-enemy al-Qaeda?
Here’s an answer of sorts offered by Abdul-Ahad as a meditative endpoint to his report, courtesy of the words, not of Osama, but “a young doctor working for the revolution”:
“They are stealing the revolution from us and they are working for the day that comes after.”1
Overall, Abdul-Ahad’s article leaves one under the distinct impression that perhaps the Western powers aren’t fully aware of the level of al-Qaeda infiltration amongst the Syrian rebels, and yet as Hillary Clinton had revealed in an interview with the BBC‘s Kim Ghattas as long ago as February:
“We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region: al-Qaeda, Hamas, and those who are on our terrorist list to be sure, supporting – claiming to support – the opposition.” [20 seconds from start]
Click here to watch the full interview.
And if ignorance were the reason then surely articles like Abdul-Ahad’s might raise some fresh security concerns. Seeing that the Syrian uprising is in the process of being hijacked, the Western powers would surely be less than unreserved in their continuing support for the opposition forces. Well, here’s what Barack Obama did on Thursday [August 2nd]:
Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorising US support for Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow the Assad government, sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters.
Obama’s order, approved earlier this year and known as an intelligence finding broadly permits the CIA and other US agencies to provide support that could help the rebels oust President Bashar al-Assad.2
The article continues:
The White House is for now apparently stopping short of arming the rebels directly, even though some US allies are.
But US and European officials have said that there have been noticeable improvements in the coherence and effectiveness of Syrian rebel groups in the past few weeks. That represents a significant change in assessments of the rebels by western officials, who previously characterised Assad’s opponents as a disorganised, chaotic, rabble.
It is an assessment that chimes very much with that of Osama, the young jihadi with the kind smile.
Not that Obama made his commitment on Thursday apparently:
Precisely when Obama signed the secret intelligence authorisation, an action not previously reported, could not be determined.
The full extent of support that agencies like the CIA might be providing also is unclear.
Yes, everything is unclear – one might even say complicated.
Meanwhile, speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Friday, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague said:
“I do not ever comment on intelligence matters but I can say that we are helping elements of the Syrian opposition, but in a practical and non-lethal way,” he said.
“We have helped them with communications and matters of that kind, and we will help them more.”
Hague leads us implicitly to believe that the British government would only knowingly support the good rebels and that the West would never intentionally give support to insurgent terrorist gangs, least of all those associated with al-Qaeda. But this is errant nonsense, of course, as former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook had famously pointed out in a Guardian article written in the immediate aftermath of the London Bombings in July 2005:
Bin Laden was [though] a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida, literally “the database”, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. Inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden’s organisation would turn its attention to the west.3
Click here to read the full article by Robin Cook.
It seems then, that America are back in the business of supporting al-Qaeda. This is not as unusual as it may sound. If you wind back only as far as the Libyan intervention you’ll find that al-Qaeda was leading much of the opposition there too. Indeed, you may recall that back in November, the black flag of al-Qaeda was actually raised over the courthouse in Benghazi – the place where the Libyan revolution had first ignited:
The flag, complete with Arabic script reading “there is no God but Allah” and full moon underneath, was seen flying above the Benghazi courthouse building, considered to be the seat of the revolution, according to the news website Vice.com.
The flag was said to be flying over the building alongside the Libyan national flag but the National Transitional Council has denied that it was responsible.4
Whilst a report from CNN at the end of last year revealed that:
Al Qaeda’s leadership has sent experienced jihadists to Libya in an effort to build a fighting force there, according to a Libyan source briefed by Western counter-terrorism officials.
The jihadists include one veteran fighter who had been detained in Britain on suspicion of terrorism. The source describes him as committed to al Qaeda’s global cause and to attacking U.S. interests.5
Inevitably, the repercussions for many of the Libyan people have been terrible. Last month’s report released by Amnesty International entitled “Libya: Rule of Law or Rule of Militias?” putting the situation into a humanitarian context:
The militias initially took up arms to overthrow Colonel al-Gaddafi or to fill the security vacuum left after his state collapsed. They quickly accumulated their own caches of weapons and consolidated control over entire neighbourhoods and areas. Many refuse to disarm or join the army or police, and do not answer to the central authorities.
The National Transitional Council (NTC) and the government it appointed have appeared unable or unwilling to confront the militias. Officials frequently cite security concerns and the widespread availability of weapons to justify their approach of negotiating with the militias rather than confronting them, and to explain delays.
As for human rights since the fall of Gaddafi, the AI report continues:
Since March 2011, Amnesty International has visited over 30 places of detention in Libya, including official, semi-official and unrecognized ones. Follow-up visits in 2012 to several facilities confirmed that while treatment generally improves for longer term detainees, new arrivals continue to suffer abuse. In May and June 2012, Amnesty International found evidence of recent abuses, including torture, in 12 of 15 detention facilities where it was allowed to interview detainees in private.
Precisely what “semi-official and unrecognized” places of detention actually means is left unclear, although if Libya were now a country governed by the rule of law then all such detention centres would surely be deemed “illegal”. Inside these black holes torture is regularly meted out. I will not detail the kinds of torture, the methods being all-too familiar in any case, but will return to Amnesty International‘s question regarding what has happened to the rule of law in Libya:
Despite releases and the referral of some suspects to relevant civilian or military prosecution offices, progress in charging detainees with recognizably criminal offences has been extremely slow. Some detainees have been held without charge for a year. […]
The Ministry of Justice told Amnesty International that by June 2012, 164 people had been convicted in common law cases since the end of the conflict. To Amnesty International’s knowledge, by early June, only three trials have begun in civilian courts in relation to crimes committed in the context of the conflict, leaving thousands of people detained without trial.
Click here to read the full Amnesty International report.
Since Gaddafi was ousted the factional fighting between well-armed tribal militias – many linked to al-Qaeda – is continuing. The country appears to be falling apart. Meanwhile, there has, of course, been no direct ‘Nato-led’ military intervention in Syria, which is often given as the reason for the escalating violence. And it’s the Russians and the Chinese who are frequently singled out for dragging their heels at the UN, even in spite of the fact that the Russians, unlike the Western powers, have been consistent in their support of Kofi Annan’s diplomatic UN mission to find a peaceful settlement in Syria.
After Kofi Annan resigned last Thursday, Democracy Now! spoke to Charles Glass, former ABC News Chief Middle East Correspondent, and author of the soon to be reissued book on Syria, “Tribes with Flags”. Glass said:
The French, like the British and The United States and Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have never supported a negotiated settlement. They demanded a regime change through violence from the very beginning. So, if Annan has been undermined, he’s been undermined by those parties themselves. So, it is not surprising that they accept his resignation with such equanimity, and the logical conclusion being that the Syrian conflict will be resolved by force of arms. And they, along with other Western and Arab powers and the Turks, are supplying those arms to one side, while Russia supplies arms to the other side. In the long run, all of Syria will suffer as a result.
And regarding the British government’s role in the uprising, Glass says:
Prime Minister Cameron, like the Russians and like U.S., has been pushing for a violent solution all along. He had not done anything to encourage Kofi Annan’s mission nor had he done anything to promote dialogue between the opponents regime, which Britain and others are supporting, and the regime itself. The whole impetus of this conflict since it began in March of last year, from the outside and many inside, has been to militarize it and to leave no possibility of a diplomatic solution. It’s not surprising that he’s saying it’s failed, but he is one of those who helped it to fail.
So is the conflict in Syria really as complicated as it is still being presented? With the Western powers “demanding regime change from the very beginning”, and with “Western and Arab powers… supplying those arms to one side, while Russia supplies arms to the other side”.
Surely it’s time for the rest of the media to catch up. To admit that what’s really happening in Syria has nothing to do with humanitarianism, the ‘civil war’ being but the latest proxy war in a Cold War that never actually ended. The superpowers Russia and America locking horns in yet another fight to secure their own geostrategic interests. Certainly this accounts for why Washington is more or less openly supporting al-Qaeda again.
Here is Charles Glass’s assessment:
Well, I think that the opposition groups in The Free Syrian Army and the others who are fighting the war are pleased to have American support, want more American support, and would ultimately like American intervention. Whether in the form of a no-fly zone or an invasion, there are disagreements amongst them.
But for the other opposition, the people who actually started this, people who had done time in prison over the years, who were prisoners of the Assad regime who wanted popular demonstrations, who wanted civil disobedience, who wanted negotiations with the regime, to have a transition — a peaceful transition, in which there would ultimately be free elections in which the regime could win or lose — those people’s voices are being drowned out in the cacophony of artillery and rifle fire all around Syria at this time.
These people, I think they are disenchanted with the United States and see that The United States, or believe that The United States, has a different agenda from theirs. Their agenda is to bring democracy to Syria. They feel the United States agenda is to eliminate a regime which is too friendly to Iran, particularly at a time when Israel and the U.S. are contemplating a potential attack on Iran. It would be better for them to either weaken Syria or eliminate the regime that’s been allied to Iran before any attack took place, and those people in the peaceful opposition do not want to become pawns in a superpower game.
Click here to read a full transcript or watch the interview on the Democracy Now! website.
As violence in Syria continues to grow, the rhetoric for a more widespread war is being ramped up again. Tragically, the people in the peaceful Syrian opposition have always been the “pawns in a superpower game”, from Washington’s point of view, Syria being little more than a stepping stone in a longer term strategy of waging war on Iran.
Click here to read an excellent overview and analysis of the Syrian crisis entitled “Regime change in Syria by civil war”, written by Sami Ramadani and posted on the Stop the War Coalition website.
Posted on August 6th on the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) website:
The Syrian rebels would be immeasurably weaker today without al-Qaeda in their ranks. By and large, Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalions are tired, divided, chaotic, and ineffective. Feeling abandoned by the West, rebel forces are increasingly demoralized as they square off with the Assad regime’s superior weaponry and professional army. Al-Qaeda fighters, however, may help improve morale. The influx of jihadis brings discipline, religious fervor, battle experience from Iraq, funding from Sunni sympathizers in the Gulf, and most importantly, deadly results. In short, the FSA needs al-Qaeda now.
This is the opening paragraph of an article entitled “Al-Qaeda’s specter in Syria”, written by Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations, Ed Husain.
On October 30th, the Australian channel SBS discussion show Insight featured a “passionate and at times volatile” debate between those on different sides of the conflict:
Click here to read further details about the show on the SBS website.
1 From an article entitled “Al-Qaida turns tide for rebels in battle for eastern Syria – In his latest exclusive dispatch from Deir el-Zour province, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad meets fighters who have left the Free Syrian Army for the discipline and ideology of global jihad”, published by the Guardian on July 30, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/30/al-qaida-rebels-battle-syria
2 From an article entitled “Obama signs order supporting Syria’s rebels, reports say – US government source acknowledges that US is collaborating with a secret ‘nerve centre’ operated by Turkey and its allies” from Reuters published in the Guardian on August 2, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/02/obama-order-supporting-syria-rebels?newsfeed=true
3 From an article entitled “The struggle against terrorism cannot be won by military means: The G8 must seize the opportunity to address the wider issues at the root of such atrocities”, written by Robin Cook, published in the Guardian on July 8, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2005/jul/08/july7.development
4 From an article entitled “Libya: Al Qaeda flag flown above Benghazi courthouse: The black flag of Al Qaeda has been spotted flying over a public building in Libya, raising concerns that the country could lurch towards Muslim extremism”, published by The Telegraph on November 1, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/libya/8861608/Libya-Al-Qaeda-flag-flown-above-Benghazi-courthouse.html
5 From an article entitled “Al Qaeda sends fighters to Libya”, written by Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank, published by CNN on December 30, 2011. http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/30/al-qaeda-sends-fighters-to-libya/