The Real Legacy of Benghazi – How Our Middle East Policy Helped Bring Trump to Power

The Real Legacy of Benghazi – How Our Middle East Policy Helped Bring Trump to Power

Nationalist fear-mongering of refugees and immigration is a consequence of the U.S. turning Middle East nations into failed states. The rise of Donald Trump is a product of the decisions that created today’s global refugee crisis and the spread of ISIS. 

 

 

I had written like 70% of this article months ago. It had been part of a different article I’d written back in October about the war in Syria, but I took it out for a variety of reasons before the election.

I wasn’t always set on publishing it to be honest. But I thought it timely to write now as we are not just reflecting on 2016 this New Years, but the end of eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

When Pew Research Center set out to answer what the “top voting issue” was in the 2016 election, the first was the economy. The second was terrorism.

Gallup found that “terrorism and national security” topped the chart when it came to issues that both Democrats and Republicans cared most about. In fact, over half of Americans (54%) felt that the U.S. should stop accepting refugees altogether because of national security concerns.

Unsurprisingly, a majority of these people voted for Trump…and a lot similar minded people in Britain voted to leave the European Union.

In the last month there have been a number of explanations for how Trump stunned the world (including himself) and won the election. Many have focused on the power of white working class voters, the anti-establishment fervor, or even the FBI and Russia’s interference.

But very little has gone to understand the underlying fear that both Trump and the leaders of Brexit managed to tap into – the fear of terrorism, refugees and the religion of Islam. A fear that continues to this day as more ISIS-inspired attacks occur around the world.

Perhaps we need to step back and ask a more fundamental question as we come to the end of Obama’s 8 year tenure.

What happened during Obama’s presidency to get in a situation where millions of refugees are fleeing out of the Middle East and religious terrorist groups seem more powerful and dangerous than ever?

People gather to protest against the United States' acceptance of Syrian refugees at the Washington State capitol in Olympia

When you clicked on this article you saw a man with a gun standing in front of explosions. That was some dude who decided to strike a pose during the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The terror attack at Benghazi happened over 4 years ago, but its legacy has played a much larger role in this election than most have realized.

Not because the infamous e-mail server scandal emerged from the Benghazi investigation. Nor for the repeated testimonies and largely partisan media scrutiny which hurt Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers going into the race.

When we look back on the Obama era, Benghazi should be remembered for its far more important role in fueling the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS. A reality which has produced today’s global refugee crisis and ultimately fostered the environment of fear which helped bring Trump to power.

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The four nations which became failed states over the last 8 years and now have the largest ISIS presence in the world

I’m not going to re-hash the whole Benghazi controversy here because most people don’t even remember what it was about. But I do want to call attention to one particular aspect of it.

Why were the 4 Americans who died in Benghazi even there to begin with? 

It’s a seemingly simple question after all these years, but I bet most of us don’t know the answer, or even really thought to ask.

Of the four Americans that died in Benghazi, two were security contractors with the CIA and two were employees of the US State Department. One of whom was the ambassador to Libya.

It would be easy enough to assume that they were all in Libya doing diplomatic work of some kind…because that seems like their job. But about a year ago the Department of Defense declassified an intelligence briefing from October 2012, one month after the terror attack, which would explain quite clearly what the U.S. was doing in Benghazi.

“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-sized 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]”

Why were weapons being shipped out of Libya and into Syria between 2011-2012?

Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, smiles at his home in Tripoli
Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens – first sitting ambassador to be killed since 1979

It was during this time that the peaceful demonstrations against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were devolving into an armed resistance.

The Red Cross officially declared the turmoil in Syria a civil war in July 2012. The attack at Benghazi occurred in September 2012.

This is the beginning of the destructive Syrian civil war which has played out in front of our eyes for the last 5 years.

It had been no secret that the U.S. wanted Assad to go. But the much better kept secret was what role we played in the unrest in Syria turning into a civil war to begin with.

That secret began unraveling after the Benghazi attack exposed the presence of an undisclosed CIA annex that came under attack after the U.S. consulate.

During the initial Benghazi hearings Congressman Devin Nunes asked CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper point blank whether the CIA was there to send weapons from Libya into Syria.

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 the CIA folks that were there, were they helping coordinate that, or were they watching it, were they gathering information about it?
Morrell: Sir, the focus of my officers in Benghazi was [REDACTED]
While the redactions make it difficult to clarify who exactly was coordinating the operation and what role the CIA played in it, the highest levels of the US intelligence community were no doubt aware it was happening.

But if it was not just the U.S. overseeing the arms transfer, then who else was involved?

Famed investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an explosive article in the London Review of Books in April 2014 uncovering the much larger story behind Benghazi.

“The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida.

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The “rat line” to transfer weapons from Libya, to Turkey, into Syria

By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities.

Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer.”

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Retired Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were the two CIA contractors killed in Benghazi

One does not need to take Seymour Hersh’s word for exposing the international gun-running operation taking place.

Anyone who has done a preliminary amount of research into the Syrian war would easily discover that for the past 5 years the United States has worked in tandem with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm the Syrian opposition to overthrow Assad.

This partnership has its roots in Benghazi.

On September 6th, 2012, a Libyan-flagged vessel called Al Entisar was received in the Turkish port of Iskenderun, 35 miles from the Syrian border. The ship carried heavy weaponry including surface-to-air missiles known as MANPADs which found their way into the hands of Syrian rebels. These sophisticated weapons were used to shoot down Syrian and Russian helicopters and aircraft.

On the night of the attack on September 11th, 2012 in what became his last public meeting, Ambassador Chris Stevens reportedly met with Turkish Consul General Ali Sait Akin to negotiate the weapons transfers out of Libya and into Syria.

Three days later, another Libyan ship docked in Turkey “carrying the largest consignment of weapons for Syria”. The shipment weighed over 400 tons and included SA-7  anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Libyan official Abdul Basit Haroun would later publicly admit that he was letting weapons leave the port of Benghazi to reach the Syrian rebels. “They know we are sending guns to Syria,” Haroun said. “Everyone knows.” The New York Times would innocuously headline an article “In turnabout, Syria rebels get Libyan weapons

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Libyan ship “Al Ensitar” docking in Turkey with weapons bound for Syria
Lighter shipments of weapons were snuck directly into smaller Syrian ports, as the original DoD intelligence report said, but the much heavier, deadly weaponry was going through a secret command center near the Syrian border jointly run by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

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.

NBC said the shoulder-fired missiles, also known as MANPADs, had been delivered to the rebels via Turkey.

If it were not already bad enough that the U.S. was smuggling weapons out of Libya, a country whose government we had just toppled with NATO’s help, who exactly were the Syrian rebels receiving these weapons?

An internal Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) briefing from August 2012 offered a sobering analysis of what the Syrian opposition we were arming looked like.

The General Situation

A. Internally, events are taking a clear sectarian direction.

B. The Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.

C. The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia, China and Iran support the regime

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Syrian rebel holding surface-to-air missile, known as a MANPAD

It wasn’t just the DIA reporting that extremist militant groups were leading the opposition to Assad. The defense consultancy IHS Jane reported at the time that more than half the rebel fighters in Syria had some hardline Islamist affiliation.

“The insurgency is now dominated by groups which have at least an Islamist viewpoint on the conflict. The idea that it is mostly secular groups leading the opposition is just not borne out.” – Charles Lister, Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute

It’s hard to imagine that at the same time U.S. intelligence was reporting that literal jihadists were leading the opposition to Assad…that we decided to covertly ship weapons to them.

But that is exactly what happened.

With the help of Turkey, the Saudis and the Qataris, the United States helped funnel weapons to a range of jihadi extremist groups to overthrow the Syrian government.

Of course the larger story in the background is the not-so-secret oil and gas pipeline war that has pit the U.S. and its Gulf allies against Russia, Iran and Syria (I have written about that extensively here). But teaming up with extremists to reach geopolitical objectives rarely works out.

As the Syrian civil war entered its second year, a resurgent Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) banded together with a range of other salafist militia groups to declare a “caliphate” in eastern Syria and parts of Iraq.

Thus, ISIS was born.

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Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir during 2015 Syria peace talks

The origin of ISIS as an “anti-Assad” fighting force is never really reckoned with when we talk about the conflict in Syria today. Nor the fact that the Defense Intelligence Agency predicted a “Salafist principality” could be formed between Iraq and Syria as a way to “isolate the Syrian regime” almost 2 years in advance.

In an e-mail to John Podesta, Hillary Clinton rather plainly pointed the finger at Saudi Arabia and Qatar for providing “financial and logistic support to ISIL”. But the U.S. has played perhaps equally as important a role in its rise.

Not only did ISIS ultimately acquire millions of dollars worth of weapons that the U.S. helped funnel into Syria (and that we left behind in Iraq), but ISIS’s senior most military commander himself was in fact a CIA-trained soldier from the eastern European country of Georgia.

Abu Omar al Shishani, previously known as Tarkhan Batirashvili, was extensively trained by the CIA back in 2006 as part of the Georgian special forces sent to fight in Afghanistan.

“He was a perfect soldier from his first days, and everyone knew he was a star,” an unnamed former comrade who is still active in the Georgian military told McClatchy DC. “We were well trained by American special forces units, and he was the star pupil.”

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Former ISIS military commander Tarkhan Batirashvili, known as “Omar the Chechen”

Batirashvili disappeared for a number of years but then reappeared in Syria in 2013 commanding the jihadist Syrian rebel group Jaysh al Muhajireen. The group merged with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to form ISIS and he became its commander of military operations.His military skills were so successful in capturing huge swaths of Iraq and Syria that Michael Cecire, an analyst of extremism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute commented that “Batirashvili’s ability to demonstrate ISIS’ tactical prowess attracted fighters in droves from other factions and tipped the scales in foreign fighter flow and recruitment.”

Though Batirashvili was killed in a drone strike just 5 months ago in July, he is but a part of one of the most destructive chapters in American foreign policy history.

For all the death and destruction that ISIS is spreading now, let us not forget how it really began.

It is impossible to remember the legacy of Barack Obama without remembering that in the heart of his time in office, the United States played a central role in creating two new failed states in the Middle East – Libya and Syria.

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Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and now deceased Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi

It’s worth mentioning that I completely omitted the story of how the United States toppled the Gaddafi regime in Libya under the false pretense that he was about to commit a genocide. (No really, there are audio tapes of how we lied to overthrow the Libyan government). Perhaps I will publish that saga if Libya becomes relevant again.

But what came after Libya fell has been far more devastating than anyone could have imagined.

I doubt many of us were paying close attention to international politics back in September 2012, when most of us were in high school or starting college, but the attack at Benghazi was incredibly significant for what was happening at the time.

Not only did it occur 2 months before Obama’s re-election bid against Mitt Romney and disperse the myth that our Libya intervention had created a stable, successful democracy . It risked publicly exposing an ongoing covert operation to illegally arm rebel groups in Syria…who ended up becoming ISIS a year later.

Perhaps this is why the CIA went to extraordinary lengths to prevent agents from speaking to the media or Congress about their operations in Benghazi, going as far as polygraphing agents multiple times a month.

Perhaps this is why there was a huge clash between the CIA and the State Department in creating the talking points for how to tell the story of what was happening at Benghazi without exposing the operation.

Perhaps this is why the known falsehood of a YouTube video-inspired protest being responsible for the Benghazi attack was trotted out by the most senior levels of the Obama administration.

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President Obama, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Sure, one could remember Benghazi as the partisan witch hunt which ended up proving no evidence of wrong-doing and while creating a base of fanatical Trump supporters with “Killary”signs.

Or one could remember Benghazi as the centerpiece of some of the most dangerous and catastrophic decisions made by the United States to date.

The decision to ship weapons into the hands of extremist rebel fighters in Syria has undeniably helped create this reality:

Today, half a million Syrians lay dead as the Assad government continues to battle armed opposition groups dominated by foreign extremists.

Over 10 million Syrians are displaced or seeking refuge in another country.

Over 32 countries have been victims of ISIS-related terror attacks while ISIS now has fully functional operations in 18 different countries. Both numbers are expected to grow

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Syrian refugees at the Turkish border

It’s not surprising to see how Donald Trump managed to exploit this reality to win over large sections of America.The world is a far more dangerous place now than it was 8 years ago and in no small part because of the decisions made by this administration while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.

Hillary of course did her part to keep the gun-running operation her State Department was helping coordinate a secret. When questioned by Senator Rand Paul and Senator Mike Pompeo at the Benghazi hearings, she twice denied under oath that any weapons were leaving Benghazi and going to arm Syrian rebels.

But she didn’t need the operation to be exposed in order to lose the election.

The entire Middle East is in flames as millions of people in Iraq, Libya and Syria flee in every direction. With our help, jihadist groups are more powerful today than they have ever been.

So powerful that they even declared their own nation. And have developed a sophisticated propaganda network that is radicalizing thousands of individuals around the world.

Let’s not forget, our own Middle East policy of incubating ISIS to help overthrow Assad came home to roost in this election.

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Photo I took outside of Pulse Nightclub in Orlando two weeks after an ISIS-inspired attack killed 49 people

After ISIS-inspired attacks killed 14 people in San Bernardino and 49 people in Orlando many people’s priorities for the next President changed. Their views on immigration, refugees, and religion hardened.

Donald Trump’s ridiculous plan to ban Muslims from coming into America didn’t seem so crazy anymore. In fact, almost half of Americans supported it. Nationalism, xenophobia and Islamophobia became mainstreamed and rationalized.

The blowback seems predictable now, but it does not make it any less unfortunate.

The millions of innocent people abroad who have been most hurt by our years of misguided interventions in the Middle East are also the ones who have the most to lose from a Trump administration.

This is why when we look back at Benghazi it should not be about a YouTube video or whether Hillary Clinton should have done more to protect the 4 Americans who died.

The real legacy of Benghazi is how the destruction that the Obama administration is leaving behind in the Middle East allowed Donald Trump to come to power.

Whatever is in store for us in this new year, my only hope is that the next administration has learned the lesson of Benghazi. A lesson that every American administration since the end of World War II has failed to learn.

Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to get out of the business of overthrowing foreign governments. 

President Obama Meets With President-Elect Donald Trump In The Oval Office Of White House

Unpacking the Global Conflict in Syria – Whose Side Are We Really On?

Unpacking the Global Conflict in Syria – Whose Side Are We Really On?

Article Reviews: Washington Babylon – “University of Georgia Undergrad Knows More About Syria Than Trump or Clinton” 


 

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on in Syria which has killed almost half a million people since 2011 and has created the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. The war in Syria will be the most significant foreign policy challenge that the next US president will face, yet it has barely been discussed in the 2016 Presidential race outside of who to blame for creating ISIS.

In fact, with about a month left before the election and already one presidential debate in, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have actually proposed a serious plan about what they would do to stop the meltdown in Syria. A conflict which has destabilized the entire region and has implications far beyond ISIS…

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The Syrian war is one of the most complex geopolitical conflicts in modern history. It has eluded any diplomatic resolution for 5 years precisely because it’s a war fraught with a multitude of actors, confusing alliances and conflicting motives for those fighting.

The battlefield is largely between Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups trying to overthrow the government. What began as peaceful protests against the Assad government during the “Arab Spring” in early 2011 devolved into a full-blown civil war about a year into the regime’s violent crackdown against the opposition. In the five years since, nations around the world have been funding and arming both the opposition and the regime in whats become a global proxy war for control of Syria.

It’s from this chaos that the terrorist organization Al Qaeda has resurged to power as one of the leading rebel groups against Assad and the Islamic State has emerged as a rival trans-national terror group capable of devastating attacks around the world.

Unfortunately, this war is not ending any time soon….in fact the war in Syria is now entering a new phase entirely. The recent US-Russia negotiated ceasefire was the fourth attempted ceasefire in the war and has already collapsed as factions continue to battle it out for who rules Syria. Millions of besieged citizens continue to flee en-masse to Europe and neighboring states while those who stay are gripped in a horrifying violence which has already claimed an entire generation of Syrians.

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5 year old boy Omran Daqneesh sits in an ambulance after an airstrike in Aleppo

What everyone can agree on at this stage is that the U.S. policy in Syria so far has been an unmitigated disaster. The Syrian war is to a large degree considered the greatest failure of the Obama administration, and they will be leaving the next administration with no good options on how to resolve the conflict.

The cold reality of the 2016 election is that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton don’t really have the power to do most of the things they promise on the campaign trail, something that will be especially true with this Congress. But foreign policy is one of the few things they can control…so we really need to figure out what in the world we’re doing.

There’s no simple way to unpack the Syrian war so I decided to break it up into four sections.

  1. Who is Fighting Who in Syria?
  2. Why Is Each Side Fighting?
  3. Who Controls What in Syria?
  4. What Is Happening Next in Syria?

5. *Ten Questions For the People Running To Be President*


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Syrian president Bashar al-Assad

—Who is Fighting Who in Syria—

The Syrian battlefield is a mess. A quick look at Slate’s Syrian Conflict guide or this CNN diagram will leave your head spinning trying to make sense of who’s fighting who. So I decided to create a binary table to make it simpler – who is fighting to keep Assad in power v.s. who is fighting to topple Assad? 


Pro-Assad Side:                                         Anti-Assad Side:

Russia and China                                        United StatesUK and France

Iran                                                                Saudi ArabiaQatar and Kuwait

Iraq                                                                Turkey

Terror Groups: Hezbollah                          Terror Groups: ISISAl Qaeda

–                                                                     Kurdistan


The war is hardly being fought on a binary scale, however, which is why a few things may have popped out at you from this list –

a) ISIS and Al Qaeda are fighting on the same side as the U.S. against Assad..?

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Rebel fighters for the Al-Nusra Front in Syrian city of Idlib

Yep, not only are ISIS and Al Qaeda both fighting the Assad regime, but Al Qaeda-backed rebels are considered to be the strongest opposition groups against the Syrian government today. From the beginning of the war the jihadist involvement in Syria has been fundamentally anti-Assadwhich has always put them on our side of the war.

For years, the U.S. has been tacitly helping (and meeting with) a variety of Al Qaeda-backed rebel groups in their fight against Assad. A lot of the intelligence, aid and weapons that the U.S., Turkey and our Gulf allies have been funneling to the opposition have in fact directly gone to arm Al Qaeda-backed groups. The most prominent is Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Al Nusra Front (although the group changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham last month). Many of the weapons that went to them, along with other Al Qaeda-linked groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, have now also fallen into the hands of ISIS. 

It is pertaining to this issue that Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is threatening to release Hillary Clinton’s e-mails from her tenure as Secretary of State revealing knowledge of these weapons shipments to jihadist elements in Syria to help overthrow Assad.

Cooperation with Islamic extremist groups is not a new development in American foreign policy. The U.S. not only supported Osama bin Laden and the mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but more recently in 2011 the US ended up illegally arming Al Qaeda-backed rebel groups in Libya to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. Afghanistan has since been controlled by the Taliban and Libya is a failed state, half-controlled by ISIS.

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President Reagan meets with Afghan Mujahideen (later to become Al Qaeda)  in the Oval Office – 1983

It has again become a “necessary evil” to work with jihadists, but this time in Syria to oust Bashar al-Assad.

This reality is also driven by the fact that for the last six years the U.S.-led coalition has tried to build-up the “moderate“, secular Free Syrian Army as a viable opposition to Assad, but has failed miserably. The half a billion dollar U.S. train-and-equip program for the Free Syrian Army, which was supposed to prepare over 5,600 fighters out of a training camp in Jordan, produced exactly four, to five soldiers. Today, the Free Syrian Army has virtually collapsed and is so “moderate” that they’re beheading Syrian children. They also hate the U.S. so much that Free Syrian Army fighters chased away U.S. special forces that came to help.

“[The Free Syrian Army] is something of a myth, with a media presence far outstripping its actual organizational capacity” and amounted to little more than “a diverse array of local defense forces, ideological trends, and self-interested warlords. It exercised little real command and control, and had little ability to formulate or implement a coherent military strategy.” – Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies

While some U.S.-backed “moderate” rebel groups are battling Al Qaeda groups, many have defected to their ranks or are working alongside Al Qaeda fighters in Syria. In the on-going battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo it is the jihadist rebel groups like Al Nusra that have led the way against the Assad government.

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Mohammad al Joulani – Leader of the Al Qaeda-backed Al Nusra Front

This is the key sticking point between Russia, Assad’s staunchest ally, and the U.S., over what is happening in Syria. The U.S. claims Russia is not interested in peace and is committing war crimes by indiscriminately bombing civilian areas. Russia claims it is fighting terrorists in Syria.

The unfortunate reality is that both are true. Russia is ruthlessly killing hundreds of Syrian civilians in their quest to eliminate the challengers to Assad. But because the opposition is overrun with extremists and there is no real “moderate” opposition representing a democratic, secular replacement for Assad, Russia is technically fighting the the war against terrorism in Syria.  Russia has gone as far as to accuse the U.S. of protecting Al Qaeda-linked rebels and backing a rebel terrorist alliance at risk of ending the ceasefire to keep the fight against Assad going.

At this stage, if the Assad regime was toppled through an overt intervention the result would be some form of a more hardline Islamist regime coming to power as opposed to Assad’s mostly secular rule – a repeat of our Libya intervention. Russia (and China’ssupport for Assad is actually in large part out of fear of repeating the disastrous U.S.-NATO invasion of Libya, which toppled the secular Gaddafi regime and allowed ISIS to exploit a power vacuum there.  Russia fears that jihadist groups would now fill the power vacuum in a post-Assad Syria.

But which jihadists would come to power? Most aren’t aware that Al Qaeda and ISIS are actually at war with each other. The birth of ISIS in 2013 would alter the dynamics of the Syrian battlefield substantially.

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Islamic State executes Egyptian prisoners

In late 2013, an internal power struggle within Al Qaeda over who controlled the Al Nusra Front in Syria would lead to ISIS forming and splintering off from Al Qaeda entirely. ISIS has since eclipsed Al Qaeda as the world’s preeminent terror organization and has taken the public’s focus off of the war against Assad entirely through its gruesome beheadings and catastrophic terror attacks around the world.

The history of ISIS did not begin in 2013, but had its roots in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, Al Qaeda opened a branch there creatively named Al Qaeda in Iraq or AQI. AQI played a major role in the sectarian violence that consumed Iraq after Saddam fell, but the group was largely defeated by the time the U.S. left Iraq in 2011.

Right as the U.S. was leaving Iraq, the civil war next door in Syria was beginning. A re-grouping AQI would dispatch some of its operatives into Syria to set up a new jihadist organization to help topple Assad – the Al Nusra Front. Within a year Al Nusra grew into one of the most powerful opposition groups in Syria, in no small part due to the arms and funding they were receiving by outside nations who wanted to oust Assad.

The success of Al Nusra in Syria would lead to tensions between AQI leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi in Iraq and Al Qaeda’s central leadership in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Baghdadi wanted Al Nusra in Syria to merge with AQI in Iraq and he tried to combine the two. Al Qaeda’s senior leader Ayman al-Zawahiri balked at the combination and ordered AQI to operate in Iraq separately from Al Nusra in Syria. Al Nusra’s leader Muhammad al Joulani sided with Al Qaeda’s leadership but AQI leader Baghdadi refused. Baghdadi then split with Al Qaeda and renamed AQI into ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. 

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Al Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri (left) disavows ISIS leader al-Baghdadi (right) – Feb 2014

This was a very confusing time in the jihadi world, many Syrian jihadists left Al Nusra for ISIS and the two began competing for soldiers. ISIS then began to attract a growing number of foreign fighters and recruited senior military leaders who were part of Saddam Hussein’s army that was dissolved after the American invasion. ISIS would then sweep through Iraq and Syria capturing huge swaths of territory and with it massive amounts of American-made weapons and tanks that the U.S. had sold to the Iraqi army previously.

What happened next is something the U.S. intelligence community had predicted two years earlier, yet still continued to transfer heavy arms into Syria during this time. A declassified 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report would confirm everyone’s worse suspicions about the birth of ISIS.

C. If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran). D. The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation and are as follows:
—1 This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters. ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory– August 11th, 2012

On June 29th, 2014, ISIS would revive a political entity the Muslim world had not seen in almost a 100 years – the caliphate. ISIS declared its captured territory between Iraq and Syria as the “Islamic State”, a de facto self-ruled country under sharia law, and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new caliph and “leader for Muslims everywhere.”

Al Qaeda’s leadership, stunned by the unprecedented move,  would formally disavow the group and the two have since been actively fighting each other to be the global leader of Islamic jihad.

That’s right – despite both Al Qaeda and ISIS preaching a virtually identical extremist message and a shared desire to remove Assad to establish Syria as an Islamic nation governed by sharia law, their methods and longer-term vision differ enough that the two are willing to go to war with each other. 

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Parodying jihadi belief of 72 virgins in heaven after death

The ISIS/Al Qaeda divorce has complicated things for the U.S. and the other Syrian rebels on the ground who are fighting Assad. Many of America’s Gulf allies who want to see Assad gone believed ISIS was their best bet to make it happen, and have been actively funding and arming the Islamic State. But after a series of horrifying beheadings, devastating terror attacks around the world and violent persecution of other Muslims, ISIS has made enemies of everyone.

ISIS is so horrifyingly brutal and vicious to anyone that doesn’t submit to their rule that the Al Qaeda-backed rebel groups and whatever’s left of the “moderate” rebels are now fighting a two-front war against both ISIS and the Assad government.

The U.S. and its allies are now faced with the dilemma of eliminating ISIS, which is fighting Assad, or to let ISIS be and go after Assad. The U.S. strategy so far has been some mix of both.  The U.S. has been striking ISIS, but primarily in Iraq not in Syria. In the last two years the U.S. has conducted 11,000 airstrikes against ISIS targets and 9,000 of those have been in Iraq. U.S.-backed forces are preparing in the next weeks to reclaim the city of Mosul in Iraq , but have so far declined to strike ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa, Syria.  The reluctance of the U.S. to target ISIS in Syria was made painfully clear two weeks ago when an “anti-ISIS” airstrike in Syria struck Assad’s military forces instead, allowing ISIS to then gain territory against the regime and triggered the collapse of the latest ceasefire.

The U.S. certainly wants to see ISIS and the other jihadists in Syria and Iraq defeated, but as long as it remains politically and militarily committed to Assad leaving these goals will inevitably come in conflict. Because there is no viable moderate opposition to Assad, US foreign policy in Syria is now essentially a decision about which jihadist group it would rather have control the country – ISIS or Al Qaeda? Former CIA director David Petraeus has actually recommended that the U.S. formally recruit Al Qaeda fighters to fight this two-front war in Syria.

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The absolute chaos amongst the “anti-Assad” factions has all worked to keep the Syrian president in power. I made the chart above to help you visualize it. The significant sub-conflict with the Kurdish forces will be explained in a little. 

The presence of ISIS has been a blessing for the Assad regime because it further divides his enemies who were already fighting with each other. Assad is happy to let the other Syrian rebels fend off ISIS, and to this end Assad has actually been covertly helping ISIS by buying their stolen oil. Assad’s long-term strategy is the elimination of the Syrian rebels, which would force the nations that back those rebels into allying themselves with Assad to finish off ISIS. Ultimately for Assad to look at the world and say, “it’s either me or ISIS, you choose.” 

This is the strategy Russia carried out when it formally entered the Syrian war last year and ultimately swung the tide of the war in Assad’s favor. Russian airstrikes have largely focused on eliminating U.S-backed rebels that’re fighting Assad rather than targeting ISIS.

The situation in Syria is such that Assad and Russia don’t want to eliminate ISIS because they’re fighting Syrian rebel groups, and the U.S. and its allies have somewhat let ISIS exist in Syria as a vehicle to battle Assad. 

Let’s take a look at the landscape of the Syrian rebels that Assad and Russia are trying to get rid of right now.

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Rebels holding Ahrar al-Sham flag (left), FSA flag (center) and Al Nusra flag (right)

“Moderate” Rebels:      Al Qaeda-backed Rebels:       Kurdish Rebels: 

Free Syrian Army                 Al-Nusra (now JFS)          People’s Protection Units (YPG)

A&D Front                                Ahrar al-Sham             Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)

Syrian Turkmen Brigade         Jaysh al-Islam


There are reportedly over over 1,000 armed opposition groups against Assad so this is really capturing a small part of how complicated the battlefield is. These divisions are also not as clean as the table makes them given the overlapping alliances and rivalries that exist between all these groups for funding, weapons and territory.

We know the “moderate” opposition is mostly defunct and Al Qaeda-backed groups are dominating the fight in Syria….what’s the Kurdish opposition?

b) What is Kurdistan? 

You probably didn’t even register this name sitting at the bottom of the “Anti-Assad” table…maybe because Kurdistan is not even a real country.

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The Kurdish people are a marginalized and oppressed ethnic group spread across the Middle East with their own language, culture and national identity. They are in fact the world’s largest ethnicity without their own state – a painful reality as a result of a historic betrayal by the British and French.

In northern Syria there are slightly over a million ethnic Kurds who see the civil war against Assad as a chance to form their own self-ruled country, much like the Kurds in Iraq have done since the 1991 Gulf War. Today the Kurds have essentially seceded from Syria and instituted their own government and military in their territory. Though I have placed the Kurds on the “anti-Assad” side because they have been fighting with the regime, they are undeniably fearful that whoever would come after him could be even worse for the Kurdish struggle for independence.

Because of the Kurd’s proximity to Iraq, they are incredibly important player in the war against ISIS. The US has been heavily supporting and arming the Kurdish military called the YPG and have created a US-Kurdish joint force called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to battle ISIS in key cities.

However, the Kurdish people have a very complex relationship with Turkey, a U.S. and NATO ally. Like I said the Kurds are spread across the Middle East and a majority of them actually live in Turkey, making up close to 25% of Turkey’s population.

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Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kurdish YPG fighters

Turkey considers the Kurds as terrorists. The outlawed Kurdish political party in Turkey, the PKK, has been fighting a decades long insurgency against the Turkish government for political freedom and representation. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan fears that the U.S. empowering the Kurds in Syria could heighten the power of the PKK and their calls for Kurdish secession in Turkey – something Erdogan fears more than ISIS.

As a result, Turkey has been actively subverting the U.S.-Kurdish campaign against ISIS and has allowed ISIS to cross through the Turkish border to fight the Kurds. All of this culminated in Turkey invading Syria this month to drive out Kurdish YPG fighters from Turkey’s southern border

The Turkish government has made it clear that given a choice between defeating Islamic State and forestalling any possibility of an independent Kurdish state along its southern border, it will opt to go to war against the Kurdish YPG and to tolerate the continued existence of the Islamic State. – Joseph V. Micallef, Military historian

Though Turkey is anti-Kurd they are also extremely anti-Assad. President Erdogan wants Assad gone and has been one of the principle financiers to Syrian rebel groups. In fact, almost all U.S. and Gulf support to the Syrian rebels have gone through a Turkish base. Turkey has not been shy about working with extremist rebel groups to help topple Assad, even if it also meant working with ISIS at times.

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Slightly older map from this year, most things have remained same other than where I have circled

**To recap this insane situation**

  1. U.S. wants to oust Assad and eliminate ISIS. The “moderate” rebels that we would like to be leading these efforts don’t really exist. Disorganization, lack of weapons/training and Russia’s bombing campaign have decimated U.S.-backed “moderate” forces and they have now merged with Al Qaeda-backed groups or are explicitly cooperating with them.
  2. The U.S. and Russia can’t come to a political solution to the Syrian war, because the Assad regime and Russia keep bombing civilians in what they describe as a war against terrorism. The problem is that it is a war against terrorism because extremists groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are leading the fight against Assad.
  3. To defeat ISIS, the U.S. has primarily relied on Kurdish forces to push the ground fight along with an international coalition of airstrikes. Turkey does not support our arming of the Kurds and have been helping ISIS in their attacking Kurdish forces and in fighting Assad. Turkey has now invaded Syria in the circled area in the map above to drive the Kurds out of recent cities they’ve captured.

Things look pretty bad for the next U.S. president. They’re left with no good options in the fight against Assad, and a bickering coalition over how to fight ISIS. We’ll re-visit what the next administration’s Syria policy could look like in the last section.

But how did we even get here? We’re dealing with all this now because the world’s great powers staged a global proxy war over the Assad government …what are we even fighting over in the first place? 

–Why Is Each Side Fighting?–

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Barack Obama and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad

There are a multitude of reasons why so many different nations and non-state groups are involved in the Syrian war but for most casual observers the war in Syria is a war about human rights and democracy.

Indeed, Assad is a dictator who brutally cracked down on his own people when they started protesting against his repressive government. After Syria descended into civil war, Assad has not only been indiscriminately bombing civilian areas to drive out rebel groups, he is doing so using barrel bombs, napalm-like thermite bombs and chemical weapons including chlorine and sarin gas.

It’s easy to imagine that the U.S. support for the opposition in Syria is out of desire to promote democratic reform and to stop a ruthless dictator. But why are similarly repressive governments like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey on our side? Are they really trying to oust Assad to uphold any standard of democracy or respect for human rights?

There are four distinct wars happening in Syria right now, the first shouldn’t surprise anyone.

–War #1 – The War for Gas Pipelines in the Middle East– 

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Shocking, a war in the Middle East that’s actually been about oil and gas the whole time.

Right now there are two proposed gas pipelines coming out of the Persian Gulf, both of which must cross through Syria to get to Europe – the Iran-Iraq-Syria Pipeline and the Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Turkey Pipeline. The U.S. is supporting its Gulf allies in pushing for their pipeline and Russia is supporting its allies Iran and Syria for their pipeline – this division is not so coincidentally the two sides of the war in Syria today.

The pipeline war began in 2009 when Qatar proposed to Assad the construction of a joint liquid-natural-gas (LNG) pipeline from the South Pars / North Dome gas field in the Persian Gulf all the way to Europe. Assad said no. Instead, he opted to build an alternate pipeline with his allies Iraq and Iran. On July 25th, 2011, only five months into the Syrian uprising, Bashar al Assad quietly signed a $10 billion gas-pipeline deal with Iran and Iraq to begin construction on their pipeline.

As civil war has consumed Syria since, it should come as no surprise that Iran has been one of the principle backers of the Assad regime and the spurned countries, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been the principle financiers of the Syrian opposition to overthrow Assad. These three nations have poured in far more millions than the U.S. into funding and arming the Syrian rebels to oust Assad and place in a new regime that will approve their pipeline.

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Qatari Emir Al Thani, Turkish President Erdogan, Saudi King Salman

The South Pars / North Dome is the world’s largest gas field shared between Iran and Qatar in the Persian Gulf. The field holds an estimated 1,800 trillion cubic feet of natural gas allowing for an estimated pumping capacity of 100-120 million cubic feet of gas per day. For Turkey, the pipeline is a signature part of its long standing goal to break its dependence on Russian oil and become an energy transit hub at the crossroads of the Middle East and Europe.

“If completed, the project would have had major geopolitical implications. Ankara would have profited from rich transit fees. The project would have also given the Sunni kingdoms of the Persian Gulf decisive domination of world natural gas markets and strengthen Qatar, America’s closest ally in the Arab world” – POLITICO

Vladimir Putin sees the Qatar-Saudi-Turkey pipeline as an existential threat to Russia and this is partly why Russia has intervened the most of any nation both diplomatically and militarily to keep Assad in power.

Russia currently enjoys its status as one of the world’s largest oil & natural gas suppliers because it singlehandedly controls the European energy market. A new pipeline to supply gas to Europe would change the energy game entirely. In Putin’s view, the Qatar pipeline is a NATO plot to change the status quo, deprive Russia of its only foothold in the Middle East, strangle the Russian economy and end Russian leverage in the European energy market.

When Assad announced in 2009 that he would refuse to sign the pipeline deal with Qatar, he even said he did so “to protect the interests of our Russian ally.”

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Bashar al Assad with Vladimir Putin – 2006

Russia and Syria have been close allies for decades, not just as of late. They share a deep economic and military relationship that’s cemented by Russia’s only warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union hosted in the Syrian city of Tartus. If the pipeline by Putin’s allies in Syria and Iran is built, Russia would exert some measure of control over output and pricing decisions and thus maintain its grip over Europe’s energy needs.

“Syria is the only country in the Middle East which follows our advice, this is the country where we can exercise certain tangible influence…the loss of Syria will mean we will have no influence in this region at all,” says Ruslan Pukhov, Defense Analyst at Russian think-tank CAST.

Europe has been desperate to break its reliance on Russian gas and as a result the U.S. and Russia have been in a not-so-secret energy war in Eastern Europe to control the market. Syria sits at the middle of this great power energy war which is why the U.S. has a vested interest in the outcome.

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The U.S. plays a very interesting role in the global energy market because of its relationship with OPEC, the cartel of 12 oil-producing nations around the world (which excludes Russia). Unknown to most, OPEC sells oil and gas on the international market strictly in U.S. dollars.

deal was struck in 1974 between the U.S. and OPEC to denominate all its oil sales in U.S. dollars in exchange for the U.S. providing permanent military security for the Saudi Kingdom. This came to be known as the “petrodollar” system, named for the use of dollars to purchase petroleum on the global oil market. Other countries have no choice but to buy and hold large reserves of U.S. dollars in their central banks because they cannot purchase oil from OPEC without dollars. 

Given the importance of oil and gas in the global economy (and America’s lack of an export economy), the world’s dependency on petrodollars to buy oil fundamentally underwrites the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.

Even more so, any surpluses generated by the OPEC nations selling oil are invested back into the United States by buying US Treasury bonds or as deposits in U.S. banks. This was the second term of the agreement with OPEC and came to be known as “petrodollar recycling“.

The direct foreign investment of surplus oil profits into the U.S. banking system along with the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency is what allows the U.S government to perpetually finance the nation’s massive trade deficit by issuing dollar denominated assets at very low interest rates. It has also allowed the US to finance the world’s largest military and most importantly, it has allowed successive American administrations to spend far more, year-in year-out, than is raised in tax and export revenue.

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If the U.S.-backed Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Turkey pipeline is built, Europe will have to purchase this new gas supply in U.S. dollars and the OPEC petrodollar system will remain intact.  If the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline backed by Russia is successfully built, then billions of barrels of gas will be sold to Europe in alternate currencies to the U.S. dollar.

If nations begin decoupling away from the U.S. dollar to purchase oil and gas it would subsequently erode the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency, collapse the petrodollar and end the last four decades of “dollar hegemony” that the U.S. has enjoyed. This is an outcome Russia would like to see and one that the U.S. has gone to great lengths over the years to avoid.

“Viewed through a geopolitical and economic lens, the conflict in Syria is not a civil war, but the result of larger international players positioning themselves on the geopolitical chessboard in preparation for the opening of the pipeline” – Major Rob Taylor, US Army Command

The relationship between the U.S. dollar, oil and our propensity to stage military interventions in the Middle East is a well observed trend, but it is virtually never brought to light in the news. Most Americans believe we fight wars in the Middle East for oil and they’re not wrong..

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Saddam Hussein (ousted 2003), Muammar Gaddafi (ousted 2011), Bashar al Assad (?)

The 2003 invasion of Iraq under the false pretense (I mean, really false pretense) of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs was an obvious oil grab after Saddam had stopped selling Iraqi oil in dollars (we switched it back to dollars after Saddam fell). The more recent 2011 U.S.-NATO led invasion of Libya ousted Muammar Gaddafi under the false pretense of an imminent genocide after Gaddafi planned to stop selling oil in dollars in favor of a gold-backed dinar currency (Libyan oil was then split up amongst the invading countries).

Those who defended the Iraq invasion never mentioned in public that the invasion was necessary to defend the dollar. To do so would have created a public backlash as well as public scrutiny of why the dollar was so vulnerable. To explain this vulnerability to the public, the explanation would have eventually revealed that we are a nation that cannot pay its debts. The political cost of a crashing economy, lack of funds for our ever-expanding military, and an alarmed public would have been an unbearable political burden for those in power – Bart Gruzalski, professor emeritus of philosophy from Northeastern University

Invariably the countries we have chosen to invade have all posed an acute threat to the petrodollar monetary system, regardless of what justification for intervention is sold to the public. Now that there is again a challenge to the petrodollar system, but in Syria, the world’s great powers have waged another bloody oil war in the name of democracy and human rights.

–War #2 – The War for Islamic Influence in the Middle East– 

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Saudi king Salman (Sunni) and Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini (Shia) lead prayer

The war to control Syria is not just driven by competing gas pipelines, but strikes a deeper chord in a critically important divide in the Middle East.

After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. a dispute over who should succeed him, his father-in-law Abu Bakr or cousin Ali,  would lead to a split in Islam between the Sunni and the Shia. This ancient schism has come to define much of the regional conflict in the Middle East today and plays a prominent role in the Syrian war.

In the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia considers itself the leader of Sunni Islam while Iran is the stronghold for Shia Islam. Saudi Arabia and Iran have an on-going rivalry for regional power in the Middle East that is rooted in the religious antagonism of the Sunni/Shia divide. The two have such a heated rivalry that in January of this year Saudi Arabia and Iran cut off all diplomatic ties with each other after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric.  (A more deeper breakdown of how the Shia and Sunni differ theologically is here)

The distribution of Sunnis and Shias is not as even as you would imagine. Of the world’s more than 1.5 billion Muslims almost 85%-90% are Sunnis while only about 10-15% are Shia. Despite being a clear minority amongst Muslims globally, Shias have a strong presence in the Middle East. The Shiites are concentrated in Iran, southern Iraq and southern Lebanon but there are significant Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

There are three nations in the Middle East with Shia-controlled governments today: Iran, Iraq and Syria. The rest are ruled by Sunnis.

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The Sunni and Shia have actually gotten along for most of history. It’s a common misperception that the sectarian strife we see across the region today has been going on for thousands of years.  There were two events that occurred less than 40 years ago that would shake the foundations of the Muslim world and global politics at large – the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ensuing Grand Mosque seizure in Mecca.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 deposed the pro-Western Shah of Iran and created an Islamic republic where Shia religious clerics were put in charge of the country. It was the first time a country in the modern Middle East was to be ruled under a theocratic constitution where a religious figure led the country – the Ayatollah.

This sent shockwaves through the Sunni-dominated Muslim world and especially amongst the Sunni religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia. They began to feel that Sunni Islam was under threat from the growing power of Shiites in Iran and staged a siege of Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, the Grand Mosque. They accused the ruling House of Saud monarchy as being heretics for its openness with the West and called for them to step down to create an Islamic republic in Saudi Arabia to counter Iran. To end the siege and prevent another religious uprising, the Saudi monarchy would give the religious conservatives, the ulama, significantly more power over the country – resulting in the strict sharia law enforced against women, minorities etc in Saudi Arabia today.

It was in 1979, less than 40 years ago, when religious conservatism would hijack both Iran and Saudi Arabia leading the thousands of years old Sunni/Shia split to see a re-awakening and giving rise to modern day anti-Western extremism.

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Iranian protestors holding up a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini – Tehran, 1979

Over the last generation, the Saudi-Iran rivalry has become part of a larger “cold war” between the two for competing political and geostrategic interests in the region. In order to spread their influence both Iran and Saudi Arabia actively promote Shia and Sunni extremist groups in the Middle East as the two compete for Islamic authority and legitimacy across the region.

Iran played a central role in creating the Shiite-extremist group Hezbollah in 1982 which was/is primarily anti-Israeli but has also fueled sectarian violence with Sunnis in LebanonSaudi Arabia’s hardline Sunni Wahhabi theology served as the religious foundation for birth of Al Qaeda in 1998 and has played  a central role in ISIS’s flavor Islamic extremism which even considers Shiites as illegitimate Muslims.

Because Saudi Arabia and Iran have turned into theocracies in the last 30 years where religious authorities now wield an enormous amount of power in the government, whenever regional conflict breaks out it is incredibly important which governments are controlled by Sunnis and which are controlled by Shias.

Because of America’s animosity with Iran (starting with the Iran hostage crisis, really) along with its alliance with Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf kingdoms, American foreign policy supports Sunni governments and Russian foreign policy supports Shia governments.

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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini (left), Assad (center), Hezbollah commander Hassan Nasrallah (right) at pro-Assad rally

Assad and the ruling Syrian government are Alawites, a sub-sect of Shia Islam. Thus, Russia and the Shia powers in the region like Iran, Iraq and the Shia militant group Hezbollah have been militarily backing Assad. Conversely,  the U.S. and all the Sunni powers, like the Gulf kingdoms and Sunni-led Turkey, are leading the opposition and have propped up Sunni militant rebel groups to oust the Assad Shia regime.

The underlying war for competing gas pipelines in Syria is a manifestation of how the Sunni/Shia conflict is intertwined into the broader geopolitical interests of the region. The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline would make the Shiite powers in the region, not the Sunni kingdoms, the principal suppliers to the European energy market and dramatically increase Tehran’s influence in the Middle East and around the world. This is an unacceptable outcome for the Sunni powers who see their religious authority and legitimacy threatened by a Shiite expansion of power.

But the Sunni/Shia balance is not just a matter of religious or political power, it has become an issue of survival for the citizens. Sunni governments like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain marginalize and persecute Shia groups at home while Shia Iran does the same with Sunnis. Bahrain’s treatment of Shias is actually being considered a modern day apartheid. This is why regime change has such huge consequences in the Middle East.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime, a Shia government came to power under the thumb of Iran which began jailing and killing Sunni leaders and stripping their political power. This in effect brought public support for a Sunni-extremist group like ISIS to take over much of Iraq to battle the new Shia government (although ISIS is now killing Sunnis too so they really have no friends). The religious high-stakes game of survival is playing out now in Syria as well.

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This map above shows the religious demographics of Syria which explains why it has been so easy for Syria to descend into a sectarian religious war. Everything in blue is Sunni while everything in green is Alawite/Shia. As noted earlier, the Assad family is Alawite. The Alawites ethnicity in general controls almost all the political and military power in Syria but only about 11% of the Syrian population are Alawites, while close to 75% of Syrians are Sunni.

This imbalance in political representation is due to the French colonial rule of Syria which empowered the Alawite minority – a trend that continued and expanded when the Assad family came in power. In 1970 Syrian military general Hafez al-Assad led a military coup to overthrow the sitting government and the Assad family has ruled Syria for the 46 years since.

“An Alawi ruling Syria is like an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development shocking to the majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries.” – Daniel Pipes, Middle East Historian

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The Assad Family – Hafez sitting down and Bashar is the tallest son who looks like Michael Cera during his mustache phase

The Assad regime actually had the support of most people in Syria, something that held true even a year into the civil war. This is why the influx of Sunni extremists groups into Syria escalated the war so significantly. The Alawite reign was not something that had sat well with the Sunni fundamentalists in Syria who saw their power as marginalized in the current state.

Because both President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him gave special priority, power, and benefit to Syria’s small Alawite minority while excluding the Sunni majority from resources and power, the nature of the country’s problems—and thus now the war—is infused with religion. It is true that oppositionists went to the street out of political, not theological, differences, but the fact that the political imbalance was drawn along religious lines put these religious identities at the heart of the fight. – Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service

Alawites, or Alawis, consider themselves to be sub-sect within Shia Islam, but that idea itself is subject to intense debate amongst Islamic scholars. Some have said this would be like referring to Christianity as “an offshoot of Judaism.” Alawites hold some majorly unconventional beliefs in both the Sunni and Shia world like the incorporation of the “trinity” from Christianity, celebration of Christmas, consecration of wine, having Christian names etc.

As a result, when Syria descended into civil war Sunni Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia began to issue “fatwas”, or religious rulings, which declared Alawites to be heretics and non-Muslims and called for a “holy war” in Syria to topple the Assad regime and institute Sunni rule. This is why the civil war is now a matter of survival for the Alawite minority – if Assad fell and a radical Sunni regime came to power, they would undeniably be persecuted and killed.

Iran, Assad’s closest ally in the region, is also not a super fan of Alawi’s ruling Syria actually. The first Iranian Ayatollah in 1979 never actually met with the Assads because he did not consider them Muslims. Eventually Iranian clerics incorporated Alawites as part of the Twelver Shia branch, but everyone knows its a religious stretch. This is why the Iran-Syria relationship today isn’t over any real religious solidarity, but geopolitical interests they share in the region.

It is the underlying discrepancy in political power between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria along with the larger sectarian Saudi Arabia/Iran rivalry for regional power which is fueling what has become a religious war in Syria.

–War #3 – The War to Re-Draw National Borders in the Middle East–

isis20flag-isis20propaganda20video_0   File photo of a Kurdish Peshmerga soldier holding a Kurdistan flag during a deployment in the area near the northern Iraqi border with Syria, which lies in an area disputed by Baghdad and the Kurdish region of Ninawa province                 Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh)                              Kurdish soldier

This is the war being waged by the Kurds and the Islamic State. The two are not particularly interested in a pipeline nor have any real stake in the Saudi Arabia/Iran rivalry, rather the two are fighting to fundamentally re-draw what the borders of Syria and its neighbors looks like.

The Islamic State is a counter-state movement that explicitly aims to destroy nation-state boundaries to expand, and thus legitimize, its self-proclaimed caliphate across the Middle East. It’s current self-ruled nation sits between Iraq and Syria but it has broader ambitions to control all the Middle East and parts of Africa, Europe and Asia.

The Kurds want to establish an autonomous Kurdish nation in the Middle East but their population is spread out between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They want the governments in the region to cede parts of their land to form this new state – so far Iraq has, but none of the other three have.  The Syrian Kurds have seceded from Assad’s rule and are fighting to rule autonomously.

Though the Kurds and ISIS are currently fighting with each other in Iraq and Syria as they compete for their respective goals, they are both challenging the same fundamental crisis in the Middle East – the Skyes-Picot agreement of 1916.

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British Mark Skyes (right) and French Francois Georges-Picot (left)

The Skyes-Picot agreement was an agreement reached between Britain and France to partition the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The Ottoman Empire made the unfortunate decision of siding with the losing Central Powers Germany and Austria-Hungary, and after it fell the disastrous borders of the modern Middle East were created.

British diplomat Mark Sykes and French counterpart, François Georges-Picot would divide the Middle East into “spheres of influence” where the British came to rule the area that would become Iraq and France came to control Syria. As the map below shows, the partitioning had no intention of trying to empower self-rule amongst the region’s various ethnicities. These new nation-states were crafted to concentrate the location of oil fields within British and French control.

As a result, different and often unfriendly groups were shoved together and given unequal political power in just-made-up nations. This inevitably lead to one group taking power and oppressing the others causing the perpetual rebellions, coups, and sectarian violence that has come to plague the Middle East today. (So sad for a region that is literally where human civilization emerged from).

Iraq borders

Nowhere is the destruction of the Skyes-Picot partitioning more apparent than in Iraq where the combination of Arab Sunnis, Shia’s and ethnic Kurds has wreaked havoc on all three in recent Iraqi history. Sunni Saddam Hussein infamously used chemical weapons to massacre close to 50,000 Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war of the 80’s (we helped him). The Shiite Maliki government then came to power after Saddam and persecuted Iraqi Sunnis, using Shia militias to jail and kill Sunni political opponents. Now “Sunni” ISIS has run-over a lot of Iraq and is unleashing the medieval times on everyone in their path, with a special fury on Shiites and Kurds.

In Syria, the minority Alawi/Shia government led by Bashar’s father Hafez al Assad brutally massacred Sunnis during an Islamist uprising in the 1980s and the 2011 civil war has set off more sectarian violence against Sunnis and Kurds as the Alawites try and maintain their control over the country.

The Islamic State has actually singled out the Skyes-Picot agreement as the root of many of these modern day antagonisms. At its core ISIS is inciting a religious insurrection to overthrow all the post-World War I Western-made borders and re-instate the Caliphate-style ruling across the Muslim world. Except their caliphate is terrifying and oppressive, unlike many of the earlier Islamic caliphates.

“This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes–Picot conspiracy” – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Leader of the Islamic State

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Map of Syria and Iraq with competing Kurdish and ISIS territory

Right now ISIS is battling with the Kurds as they both struggle to re-define the colonial borders that have already caused so much violence in the region.

However, there has been no greater victim of the Skyes-Picot borders than the Kurdish people. Having been separated into 4 different nations with no real political representation and facing relentless suppression and persecution in all four, the Kurds are desperate to re-make the Middle East. The turmoil in Syria and Iraq has empowered Kurdish separatists movements and these movements are here to stay. While it remains to be seen if the Syrian Kurds can acquire a form of autonomy that the Iraqi Kurds have, things remain bleak for the Turkish and Iranian Kurds.  Turkey has now become the central broker in the future of Skyes-Picot agreement.

Turkey, where a majority of all ethnic Kurds live, is especially fearful of the heightened power of the Syrian Kurds and has now invaded Syria to prevent a unified Kurdish border state forming between Turkey and Syria. They fear that a Kurdish enclave at their southern border will empower the Kurds in Turkey to demand autonomy of their own and this is why Turkey has been low-key helping ISIS fight the Kurds to prevent this. Resharing this quote from earlier in the article – 

The Turkish government has made it clear that given a choice between defeating Islamic State and forestalling any possibility of an independent Kurdish state along its southern border, it will opt to go to war against the Kurdish YPG and to tolerate the continued existence of the Islamic State. – Joseph V. Micallef, Military historian

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Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The Skyes-Picot agreement has hung heavily over the years of U.N. peace initiatives for Syria as diplomats recognize the difficulty of maintaining Syria, Iraq and Turkey’s territorial integrity while trying to grant autonomy to large, now armed, ethnic factions.

“The Skyes-Picot agreement…looms over everything Mr. Kerry and his fellow foreign ministers are doing here….In October, the ministers, who formed the so-called International Syria Support Group, agreed that “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity and secular character are fundamental.” Yet some of the key players in the slow-motion effort to get a transitional Syrian government in place say, when granted anonymity, that they think unity and territorial integrity are simply not possible” – NY Times

Many have said ISIS’s declaration of their caliphate in effect has ended the Skyes-Picot borders of the Middle East, but it remains to be seen if/how the borders of the Middle East may change by the end of the Syrian war as many groups no longer recognize the existing borders.

–War #4  – The War for Democratic Reform and Human Rights in Syria–

It feels wrong to place this as the last war, but unfortunately the conflict in Syria stopped being about democratic reform long ago. Nonetheless, it’s critically important to understand the transformation of Syria’s democratic protests into a sectarian conflict and how it will affect what comes next in Syria.

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The Syrian war had its roots in the “Arab Spring” – a revolutionary wave of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa between 2011-2012. These uprisings were born out of discontent with high unemployment, restrictions on free speech, corruption in the government, poverty, increasing food prices etc.

The uprisings began in Tunisia and once the Tunisian government fell, the revolutionary ferver spread to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The governments in Egypt and Libya would fall in 2011 but there is still lingering turmoil five years later in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.

The Assad government did not take well to the uprisings in Syria and harshly cracked down on the protestors. Assad’s forces began imprisoning hundreds of protestors, outright killing many and even firing on their funeral processions. Three months into the protests in April 2011 72 protestors were shot and killed by Assad’s forces, shocking the world. This marked a turning point in the uprising – what started out as demonstrations for democratic reform in Syria now changed to demanding the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.

If you’re wondering why the Syrian government would start killing its own people because of democratic protests, an important part of understanding the Syrian war is that Bashar al Assad’s violent response to the uprising was not just a random crackdown but a continuation of the Assad’s regime’s policy toward civil uprising that began with his father, Hafez al Assad.

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Bashar al Assad and his father Hafez al Assad have ruled Syria since 1970

In 1976, Hafez al-Assad had Syrian forces intervene in Lebanon’s civil war on behalf of Lebanese Christian groups who were fighting Muslim groups. The Muslim Brotherhood and Syria’s Sunni majority saw this as heresy and launched a six year civil uprising against the Assad government. 

Hafez al-Assad quashed the uprisings in a particularly brutal fashion. In 1982, the Syrian government nearly leveled the city of Hama, where the opposition was strongest, slaughtering thousands of civilians in what is now called the Hama Massacre.  The regime learned from this experience that mass violence was a successful response to popular unrest — a lesson that was applied particularly brutally in 2011. 

“The lesson of Hama must have been at the front of the mind of every member of the Assad regime. Failure to act decisively, Hama had shown, inevitably led to insurrection. Compromise could come only after order was assured. So Bashar followed the lead of his father. He ordered a crackdown.” – William Polk, Professor of History at University of Chicago, and former advisor to JFK

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The brutal crackdowns failed to intimidate or quell the popular unrest. Assad began offering political concessions to the opposition like promising a constitutional referendum, allowing a multi-party system, along with greater press freedom. He also cut taxes and raised state salaries by 1,500 Syrian pounds ($32.60) a month. However, these promises were largely dismissed by the opposition and international community as too little too late following violent crackdowns and were simply vague proposals with no concrete action.

Assad had maintained from the beginning that the Syrian uprising was one instigated by “foreign saboteurs” seeking to undermine the country’s security and stability. Indeed a 2009 WikiLeaks cable would reveal that the U.S. had been covertly funding opposition groups to Assad’s government since 2006. But what happened next would transform a mostly peaceful, secular democratic uprising into the sectarian conflict dominated by jihadi extremists today.

As Assad’s concessions failed to placate the popular unrest in the country, Assad began releasing hundreds of Syrian prisoners from jail. These were not protestors wrongfully jailed from the demonstrations, but known Islamic jihadists that were being held in the infamous Sedanya Prison (think Syria’s Guantanamo).

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Aerial view of Sedanya Prison

Two presidential amnesties were issued in 2011 where approximately 260 prisoners from Sedanya prison were released – all convicted or accused al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists. Their release would activate a terrorist infrastructure in Syria to give rise to Islamist groups like Al Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and eventually ISIS.

Up until this point, the protest movement was non-religious; it was inherently populist and nationalist in its orientation….their release opened the gates for the emergence of an Islamist component within the uprising—specifically, eventually, a militant Islamist component…it was those initial releases that allowed the quite dramatic emergence, and then growth, and then consolidation of Islamist and jihadist militancy, to acquire the kind of prominence that it has had for the last couple of years or so. – Charles Lister, Author of Syrian Jihad (and leading journalist on Syria, follow him on twitter @Charles_Lister

Assad’s decision to release jihadists from prison was intended to tinge the opposition with extremist elements to make it harder for Western powers to support any rebel group against his government. Prominent Syria analyst Charles Lister described it as a “devious attempt by the Assad regime to manipulate its adversary, by unleashing those it could safely label as ‘jihadist’ or ‘extremist’ among its ranks”.
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Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) soldiers in Syria

The move to release jihadists to dissuade foreign involvement ultimately didn’t work. The hijacking of the Syrian reform initially gave the Obama administration pauses about whether or not to arm the opposition, but our Gulf allies held no such reservations about arming hardline Islamists. Eventually the U.S. decided to go ahead and arm the Syrian opposition even when it was clear it had been overrun with extremists who were not fighting for a “democratic” or “secular” Syria.

The tendency of the U.S. to support regime change, even at the risk of empowering extremists, belies one of the most problematic aspects of American foreign policy – does the U.S. actually intervene to uphold democracy and human rights?

One needs look no farther than a similar uprising that happened across the pond in a tiny country called Bahrain. Bahrain’s demographics are almost the direct opposite of Syria’s – 60-70% of the nation is Shia but is suppressed economically and politically by the minority Sunnis who control the government.

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Protests in Bahrain against Al Khalifa monarchy – February 2011

Often called the “Forgotten Revolution” of the Arab Spring, the 2011 uprisings in Bahrain saw hundreds of thousands in the streets demanding the removal of the Al Khalifa monarchy and for more inclusive political and economic reform in the country. Like Assad, Bahrain’s leaders engaged in a brutal crackdown of the protests which included arbitrary imprisonmenttorturing of prisoners, denial of medical care and out right killing of over a hundred protestors by government police.

The U.S. response could not have been more opposite than how it was in Syria.

At the onset of the protests Obama voiced support for a “dialogue initiative” between the monarchy and the opposition and to “return to a process that will result in real, meaningful changes for the people there.” After the government response turned violent, the U.S. would simply ask the Bahrain monarchy to “hold accountable” those responsible for human-rights abuses against unarmed demonstrators. That was the beginning and end of the US’s support for democracy and human rights in Bahrain.

At no point did the US call for the king of Bahrain to step down (certainly not declare the king a “war criminal” like they did for Assad) nor provide any diplomatic, humanitarian or armed support to the opposition. The US in fact went to such great lengths to AVOID looking like it supported the protestors in Bahrain that the State Department blanked a media story where the protestors stated that the United States supported them. The most direct aid the US gave to the protestors in Bahrain was when Ludovic Hood, a US embassy official, reportedly brought a box of doughnuts out to the protesters

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Protestors fleeing Bahraini military crackdowns – May 2011

To many observers, the lackluster response from the U.S. came as no surprise. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s critically important 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf and is one of our critical allies in deterring Iran. Not only that, Bahrain is one of the largest clients of the U.S. defense industry. Since 1993, the US defense industry has sold over $400 million dollars of arms to Bahrain and like Russia’s arms relationship with Assad, this showed no sign of letting up despite a brewing civil war.

“Starting with Bahrain, the administration has moved a few notches toward emphasizing stability over majority rule,” said a U.S. official. “Everybody realized that Bahrain was just too important to fail.”

During the Bahrain’s violent crackdown on the opposition the Obama administration tried to follow through on a $53 million arms deal to the Bahrain monarchy. Congressional Democrats sharply criticized the administration and invoked the Leahy Amendment in demanding that the U.S. halt military aid to Bahrain’s security forces due to human-rights violations.

However, the State Department was able to use a legal loophole to continue to sell the arms to Bahrain during their brutal suppression of the protests without notification to Congress or a public announcement (a small donation to the Clinton Foundation may have helped). The arms sale included a wide variety of weapons systems, ammunition, armored personnel carriers and helicopter gunships along with $70,000 worth of arms sales classified as “toxicological agents.” This began to fuel speculation that Bahrain was in fact killing its protestors using US-manufactured weaponry and with tear-gas supplied by the United States.

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Obama and Clinton with Crown prince of Bahrain Salman al-Khalifa – June 2011

Bahrain’s uprising ended when Saudi Arabia’s military entered Bahrain to forcefully suppress the revolts.  Human rights abuses by the Bahraini monarchy against its people continue to this day and the nation is considered the new Apartheid nation. U.S. approved arm sales continue to go to the Bahraini kingdom and anti-American resentment is sky high in the country.

Understandably Russia accused the US of setting double standards at the UN Security Council, and this was one of the main stumbling blocks to a diplomatic resolution early  in the Syrian conflict. The Russians rejected the U.S. demands that Assad step down and Russia end its military alliance with Syria while the U.S. was covertly arming Assad’s opposition and was supporting Bahrain’s monarchy in its repression of a similar uprising.

“Why is the US determined to sell weapons to Bahrain after the Bahraini authorities, with help from the Saudis, suppressed the Arab Spring in Bahrain? Russia doesn’t see any problems selling weapons to Syria if the CIA and French and British secret services are shipping military hardware via Turkey to the rebels.” – Russian Defense Analyst Ruslan Pukhov

The collapse of the Syrian peace process despite numerous conferences, summits, negotiations, peace initiatives, cease-fires etc etc etc may be the most depressing part of the Syrian war. There is no one nation responsible for the collective failure of the world to let Syria implode over the last six years as international diplomacy has been characterized by relentless finger pointing, broken promises and back stabbing. There’s a chance its actually been our fault all along for not getting an achievable political solution to the Syria crisis back in 2012, but there’s a lot of blame to share really.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov

One thing I enjoy when reading various articles is to read the comments on them because I often come away with different perspectives. I copied this back-and-forth on an article I read about who to blame for the ongoing Syrian turmoil because I thought it presented two good perspectives on Syria today.

Phillip Davis- 

When, as they so often do, a dictatorship degenerates into chaos and civil war, the lion’s share of the blame must be placed on the dictatorial regime and its supporters, both domestic and foreign. When the Assad Regime was faced with peaceful protests, it chose to respond by unleashing goon squads and it’s not so secret police on the protesters and imprisoning protest leaders. When that failed, it unleashed the military. It mattered not one whit whether the protestors were Islamist extremists, advocates of a more open democratic society or merely Syrians fed up with the repression, corruption and poverty. It didn’t matter whether the protesters had outside support or not. All that mattered was that they challenged the Assad Regime’s absolute power to rule the peoples of Syria. So spare us the deflection of blame to Turkey, the US, Europe or anyone else; whatever their responsibility for the condition of Syria today pales in comparison to that of the Assad family, its Regime, the Alawites, Russia and Iran.

Jo Kleeb –

Libya was the pin in the grenade for the African continent exploding over Europe. Syria is also the pin in the grenade that, if left to fail, would explode the entire Middle East.

Yes, there has been much culpability from multiple directions for the situation in Syria. As convenient as it may have been to try and blame Assad for everything, this was just not the case, nor should it be seen that way.

If we are to blame anything, it is the degree to which we endorse violent overthrow of Governments as a means toward change. It is the degree to which neighbours can tolerate seeing the countries next to them developing towards greater democracy, stronger infrastructure, success as a tourist destination, etc, without having to come up with some pre-text to bomb them to bits.

It is the degree to which the biggest boys in the sandpit learn to respect the right of the smaller boys in the sandpit to not always follow their rules and do what they want them to do, but to demand the right to quietly do their own thing without harassment.

Anyway let’s see how everyone’s doing in this conflict right now.

—Who Controls What in Syria?—

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Political Geography Now requires a subscription for their May-August 2016 Syria conflict maps (ugh)

This map is a few months old but the battlefield has largely remained the same other than the two cities in northern Syria where I put in a checkered circle.

As you can see, ISIS has taken over most of the eastern portion of Syria and the Kurds control much of the north. The Assad regime controls most of western Syria (where a majority of Syrians live) and is primarily battling the rebels in the south around the capitol of Damascus, and in the north-west in the nation’s largest city and economic hub, Aleppo.

The battle for the city of Aleppo has gotten especially more attention over the last few months as harrowing photos and videos have emerged of the carnage. The regime and the eclectic mix of Syrian rebels groups are viciously battling over control for the city which could have huge ramifications for any potential political settlement to the civil war.

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The current focus of the Syrian civil war is in the north-west area, both in Aleppo around closer to the Turkish border, where Turkey just invaded two months ago.

Last month, U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG and SDF forces captured the northern city of Manbij from ISIS control. Turkey then freaked out that the Syrian Kurds were becoming too powerful and would form a “Kurdish corridor” on their southern border. The Turks proceeded to invade Syria a few weeks later – overtaking the ISIS-controlled city of Jarablus and then driving the U.S.-armed Kurds out of Manbij, the city the Kurds had just taken from ISIS.

It is believed that Turkey is seeking to create a “safe zone” in northern Syria from where it can draw deeper attacks into the country against against the Assad regime in Aleppo as well as against ISIS and the Kurds.

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Yellow: Kurds, Green: Assad Regime, Red: Syrian Rebels, Black: ISIS

Erdogan is signaling that he favors establishing a 5,000 kilometer “safe zone” in Syria which could be well received by the U.S. and be a possible area of cooperation.

Right now Assad has manpower problems, the rebels are deeply divided, the Kurds have no ability to control a mostly Arab country, and ISIS has managed to make enemies out of virtually every powerful actor in the Middle East. No side is strong enough to crush any other by dint of force, so gains end up being pretty temporary. Given this stalemate, what could happen next in Syria?

 –What’s Happening Next in Syria?–

So there are a range of things that could happen next in Syria, but let me quickly paint the grim picture of the situation the next U.S. president will be walking into.

Diplomacy has collapsed completely. After trading allegations of violating the latest cease-fire, the collapsed truce has seen Russia and the Assad government continue their horrific siege of Aleppo to wipe out the Syrian opposition.

The Syrian rebel groups on the ground represent a variety political and religious ideologies, but extremism and non-secular agendas are rampant amongst many/most of them. The so called “moderate” Free Syrian Army is neither moderate, nor really a coherent army…and they hate the U.S  so we have no real allies on the ground either.

Thousands of Syrian refugees continue to pour into Europe and neighboring states while ISIS continues to stage devastating terror attacks around the world.

There is a growing belief that the time for a diplomatic/political solution to the Syria crisis is over. Diplomats in the State Department are urging the president to begin directly striking the Assad government’s forces rather than funding unreliable proxies. A decision that could possibly lead to a war with Russia.

The next U.S. president will begin their term in the Oval Office having to answer one simple question – am I willing to accept an outcome in the Syrian war in which Bashar al-Assad stays in power? 

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Right now it appears that Hillary Clinton would answer that question saying no, Assad must step down and Donald Trump of all people would say, yes Assad can stay in power.

That’s right, the loathsome TV character that is Donald Trump might actually be the anti-war candidate for Syria. And a lot of that has to do with his relationship with Russia. 

There has been a general cloud suspicion of Russian activity over the 2016 election and at this stage there are some obvious signs that the Trumps, their business, and their inner circle share somewhat close ties to the Russian elite. Trump and Putin themselves have some odd affinity for each other.  Given Russia’s significant political and military commitment to keep Assad in power, they have a vested interested in the next president stopping support to Assad’s opposition.

Trump has so far suggested just that. He has vaguely communicated that the U.S. should devote its efforts in the Middle East to eliminating ISIS rather than continuing to fight Assad.  It’s hard to say whether Trump would actually pursue a policy of restraint in Syria because when it comes to foreign policy he doesn’t really stand for anything nor does he know a whole lot about international affairs. He espouses a very “America first” message but no coherent principles on U.S. use of force. This will make him rely extensively on his foreign policy advisors.

Donald Trump’s foreign policy advisors are a motley crew of conservative think-tank folk that are pretty unconventional in the broader conservative foreign policy establishment. One of his advisors, Carter Page is currently being investigated for his ties to the Kremlin and the Russian gas company Gazprom and has openly criticized the U.S. for a “hypocritical focus on democratization”. Trump’s most prominent foreign policy advisor and possible Defense Secretary is General Mike Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).  Mike Flynn was just at a dinner with Vladimir Putin and has publicly favored closer ties to Russia.

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Former DIA chief and Trump’s favorite general – General Mike Flynn

This is not to say the Clinton don’t have ties to Russia…they have many connections to Russia. But Hillary and Putin actually despise each other. Putin is convinced Hillary tried to have him overthrown as President of Russia in 2011 and Russia’s senior diplomats had a difficult working relationship with her while she was Secretary of State during the infamous “Russian reset”.

“In our administration, Secretary Clinton always had a tougher line toward Putin and the Russians than other senior administration officials,” said Michael A. McFaul, an adviser on Russia who served as United States ambassador to Moscow. “It was Putin’s strong belief that we, with Clinton in the lead, were trying to meddle with his regime.”

Clinton actually spent most of her time as Secretary of State from 2011-2012 feuding with the Russians as she tried to organize international coalitions to oust Assad from power – someone she has called a “war criminal” and has demanded to step down since 2011. This effort ended after an infamous breakdown of a potential Syrian peace plan with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan at the June 2012 Geneva conference.

Clinton’s persistent, strongly anti-Russian rhetoric throughout the campaign and historical animosity for Assad has foreshadowed what could be a massive showdown in Syria between the U.S. and Russia. The Clinton foreign policy team has communicated a much clearer message about what direction they would likely go in Syria – directly striking Assad.

The most prominent Clinton’s foreign policy advisors that have signaled they would support a more aggressive policy against the Assad regime are former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and former CIA director Mike Morell. Flournoy is considered the likely tap to become Clinton’s Defense Secretary and Mike Morell could see himself again in charge of the CIA.

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Michele Flournoy – Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, likely Secretary of Defense in Clinton administration

In an August interview, former CIA director Mike Morell advocated the U.S. start covertly killing Russian and Iranian soldiers that are supporting Assad in Syria. He further proposed that U.S. forces begin bombing Syrian government installations, including government offices, aircraft and presidential guard positions in order to “scare Assad.”

In a June interview, Flournoy said she would “direct U.S. troops to push President Bashar al-Assad’s forces out of southern Syria” and specifically advocated what she called “limited military coercion” that could pressure Syrian Bashar al-Assad to negotiate and give the opposition the leverage they need. She has also supported the push for a “No-Fly Zone” in northern Syria – a territory or an area over which aircraft are not permitted to fly – something that Russia has explicitly warned the U.S. not to pursue.

Hillary Clinton herself has long advocated for the implementation of a No-Fly Zone  as a necessary next step in the Syrian conflict.

“I am advocating the no-fly zone both because I think it would help us on the ground to protect Syrians; I’m also advocating it because I think it gives us some leverage in our conversations with Russia” – Clinton, December 2015

Trump and his closest foreign policy advisor General Mike Flynn have also suggested that they support creating air and ground “safety zones” in Syria resembling a No-Fly Zone

“Well, you know, I’ve always said we need to have a safe zone….we have to have some kind of a safe zone. And we have to get the Gulf states to pay for it.” – Donald Trump told WYFF News 4 in February in the most Donald Trump way possible.

This is a proposal that Obama has directly opposed doing in Syria along with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president’s military advisors.

Former Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said imposing a no-fly zone would require as many as 70,000 American servicemen to dismantle Syria’s sophisticated antiaircraft system and then impose a 24-hour watch over the country. Current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford said during testimony to the Senate that creating a no-fly zone over Syria would require declaring war on Assad and Russia, a “fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make.”

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Hypothetical No-Fly Zone in northern Syria

It seems like the U.S. could be on a path to some form of a No-Fly Zone regardless given the pressure now for the U.S. to make a decision about what to do in Syria.

Based on Trump’s lack of any real foreign policy ideas on Syria and actual praise of Vladimir Putin throughout the campaign,  perhaps Trump would seek not to escalate tensions with Russia by imposing a No-Fly Zone in Syria. Then again it’s really hard to predict what Trump might do. As someone who has supported the torture program, a massive build up of the military and generally being a loose cannon on foreign policy, anything is possible. Trump has also said he would like to see 30,000 U.S. troops on the ground to combat ISIS so he will be escalating U.S. involvement in the Middle East regardless.

It remains to be seen how Clinton would proceed with the Russians in Syria. On her campaign website  her Syria policy right now is “Pursuing a diplomatic strategy aimed at resolving Syria’s civil war”….but given the utter collapse of diplomacy, the internal frustration within the State Department and what looks like a bipartisan foreign policy team that supports a hawkish approach to Assad, the prospects look grim.

It’s important to remember that the Syrian conflict is a global war, not one that hinges on whatever the U.S. chooses to do. So let’s re-visit the first war we discussed.

Predicting the End of the Gas Pipeline War – Turkey and Saudi Arabia Switch Sides and the Dollar’s Collapse Is Near

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Turkish President Erdogan and Vladimir Putin restart their relationship

There is currently a monumental shift in global politics underway and it centers around a longtime U.S. allies in Turkey as well as Saudi Arabia.

At the end of July 2016 there was an attempted coup by the Turkish military to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from power. The coup failed and Erdogan has stayed in power, now purging entire parts of the government who may oppose him. Erdogan and the Turkish public have firmly pointed their finger at the U.S. as secretly being behind the coup and supporting the plotters.

Turkey has accused Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric for masterminding the coup. Gulen resides freely in Pennsylvania under CIA protection and the United States has been dragging its feet over Ankara’s demand for Gulen’s extradition. This has raised anti-American feelings among Turks and the Turkish government to a fever pitch. (To make it that much worse, Gulen’s political allies have donated a lot of money to the Clinton campaign).

There are many layers behind why the U.S. may have wanted Erdogan out but the result has been a re-forged friendship between Turkey and Russia. Erdogan and Putin met for the first time at the beginning of August in a high profile warming of relations since Turkey infamously shot down a Russian warplane in Syria in 2015.

The new Turkey-Russia relationship has some serious questions in that Turkey has long wanted Assad gone, while Russia has been Assad’s strongest backer. But this is why the pipeline war is important.

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Turkey has now pivoted away from backing the Qatar-Saudi Arabia pipeline which drove its quest to remove Assad from power and has since inked a deal with Russia to construct the “Turkish Stream” natural gas pipeline. The Turkish Stream is meant to replace the defunct South Stream pipeline in the Black Sea as an alternate conduit to sell natural gas into Europe.

More so, there is a growing belief that Iran may actually be prepared to strike a deal with Turkey that in exchange for Turkey to stop supporting Assad’s opposition, the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline could actually become the Iran-Iraq-Turkey pipeline en-route to Europe. These are all tentative ideas, but what is clear is that one of the most vital U.S. allies in the Middle East is turning towards our rivals.

Since the rapprochement of Russia and Turkey,  U.S.-Turkey relations have gone straight downward. Things are so hostile that the U.S. had to move out its nuclear weapons hosted at the Turkish Air Base at Incirlik. Turkey proceeded to not alert the U.S. that it would send its army to cross into Syria and has now turned its fire on U.S.-backed Kurdish forces forcing them to withdraw east over the Euphrates River.

To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia, another critical U.S. ally, has started drifting towards Russia as well.

A lot of this is driven by the Saudi’s hating the Iranian nuclear deal that the Obama administration negotiated with them. In the zero-sum cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it was viewed as a historical betrayal by the U.S. to remove the sanctions on Iran and potentially accelerate their path to a nuclear weapon in a decade.

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In fact, it is now widely believed that the Obama administration didn’t make good on its “red line” threat in 2013 to strike Assad if he used chemical weapons, because Iran threatened to back out of the nuclear deal in the early stage of the negotiations.

Rather than it achieving the regional security we hoped, the Saudi’s just signed a contract with Vladimir Putin to build 16 nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia, raising the possibility of a nuclear arms race with Iran if the nuclear deal collapses (which is looking that way). It’s also a sign that Saudi Arabia may be giving up on the Qatar-Saudi-Turkey pipeline that Russia has gone to such lengths to prevent in Syria.

All of this has very bad implications for the U.S. and its petrodollar, which is reliant on U.S. denominated oil sales dominating the oil market. There are reports that the Saudi’s are preparing to dump the petrodollar as OPEC’s currency and are considering giving Russia OPEC membership. Things are not looking good between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and the souring relationship made headlines last week when the U.S. Congress overrode President Obama’s veto on a bill that would allow 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia (I’ve written about the role of Saudi Arabia in financing the 9/11 attacks here).

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The end to the petrodollar could be especially devastating to the U.S. economy now because the U.S. dollar is facing a lot of trouble at home.

For the last 6 years the U.S. Federal Reserve has pursued a policy of “quantitative easing” which has printed $12 trillion dollars in new money to buy up the toxic assets held by the banks in the 2008 Wall Street collapse. The end of the petrodollar would cause trillions of more dollars to flood back into the U.S., skyrocketing inflation and make the U.S. dollar lose its grip as the world’s reserve currency.

If there is another significant crash in the U.S. economy then we may be looking at a re-structuring of the global monetary system and there has already been calls for the end of dollar domination in institutions like the World Bank  and IMF.

Over the last few months there has been a growing consensus amongst economists that the U.S. economy is about the enter another recession – in fact Deutsche Bank has said there’s a 60% chance it’ll happen within the next year.

In recent months, the gap between the three-month and 10-year Treasuries have begun to close rapidly—a signal to some investors that a recession may be on its way. “This relentless flattening of the curve is worrisome,”  said the team of analysts led by Deutsche Bank, referring to the graph that plots bonds of different maturities against their yields. “Given the historical tendency of a very flat or inverted yield curve to precede a U.S. recession, the odds of the next economic downturn are rising.”

Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has called this collapse part of a “coming global re-alignment” where global power will inevitably become decentralized from the United States where many regions of the world will crafting their own agendas which America don’t have the power to control.

Russia and China, the two major global powers other than the United States seem to be preparing to transition to a gold-backed currency to wean off the Western currency system. The two have been voraciously buying gold in the international market and some economists are predicting gold will again come to dominate our monetary system.

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The United States stands at a critical crossroads in its foreign policy beginning with Syria. Whether or not it chooses to escalate the conflict against Assad remains to be seen, but there are larger tectonic plates in global politics shifting based on this decision.

The U.S. has enjoyed the luxury of being the sole great power in the world for the last 30 years, but the war in Syria may be where we look back and realized this was no longer true. The Syrian war has demonstrated that there are many other countries who have the military and economic power to challenge the U.S. dominated international system. It will be interesting to see which of our presidents embraces this reality and which will fight to prevent it from happening.

Will the U.S. continue its great power Cold War with Russia and re-up the war in Syria or will we finally give up on the project of regime change all together and maybe try and work with our rivals instead of constantly going to war with them?

–Ten Questions For the People Running To Be President–

1. Will you accept an end to the Syrian conflict which sees Bashar al-Assad stay in power?

2. If Assad must step down, do you have an idea of who you would like to see replace him?

3. If you decide that diplomacy is no longer a feasible solution in Syria, how would you increase U.S. efforts to counter the Assad regime directly? Would you continue the  the CIA train & equip program for vetted “moderate” rebel groups or would you authorize airstrikes against Assad regime targets?

4. Does the United States recognize the Syrian rebel group Jabhat Fateh-al Sham as distinct from Al Qaeda, or will it become listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and not receive any U.S. support ?

5. If your administration wanted to increase the scope of U.S. involvement in the fight against Assad or ISIS, would it be subject to Congressional approval?

6. What will your administration do about Turkey’s antagonism with U.S.-backed Kurdish forces? Will the U.S. continue relying on the Kurdish military to fight ISIS?

7. Would you support an independent Kurdish initiative with the Kurds retaining autonomous territory in Syria?

8. Would you support the enforcement of a No-Fly Zone over parts of Syria? What would be the penalty for violating the No-Fly Zone and who would enforce it?

9. Would you put U.S. ground troops in Syria to fight ISIS, if so how many?

10. Who would you nominate as your Secretary of State?

Was Saudi Arabia Involved in 9/11? Obama’s Veto and the 28 Pages

Was Saudi Arabia Involved in 9/11? Obama’s Veto and the 28 Pages

I wasn’t sure if I was actually going to write this article because it’s a very sensitive subject for many people. I ultimately decided to write it because I thought it was interesting enough that it may make you think a little deeper about the events happening around you…especially if you found yourself doing a lot of deep thinking yesterday.

I’m not here to say that Bush did 9/11, or that jet fuel can’t melt steel beams, or anything related to the popular conspiracy theories that the 9/11 attack was an elaborate set up by the US government to justify invading the Middle East. What I am here to do is tell you about a bill in Congress that has bipartisan support and has been publicly supported by both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. But as of two days ago this bill will be vetoed by President Barack Obama. We have been well aware for years that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by the terrorist group Al Qaeda. But fifteen years after those attacks, this bill would now allow the victims and their families to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a US ally, for the role it may have played in supporting the hijackers who flew two planes into the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.

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The 19 hijackers in 9/11. 15 were citizens of Saudi Arabia.

I, like most of you, was very young when 9/11 happened. I was 7 years old in 2001. Many of you probably have stories of being pulled out from school, or seeing it happen to your friends, maybe having your teachers tell you, hearing from your siblings, friends, relatives etc. Where were you when you first heard about 9/11?

I don’t remember hearing anything about it while at school, my only recollection was walking home from the bus and seeing my Mom in front of the TV using the VCR to record the news onto a cassette tape. Maybe she couldn’t believe what she was seeing and wanted to record it. (I’m gonna try and find that tape next time I go home)

The September 11 attack on the World Trade Center is one of the most important events not only in American history, but world history. It is certainly the most significant event of our lifetime. How our nation responded to that horrific act of terror, which left 3,000 dead in the heart of New York City, has largely determined the world we live in today. The national security apparatus put in place after these attacks is represented in many of our modern day clashes with the government like dealing with the aftermath of invading Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, NSA surveillance programs even the Apple vs. FBI showdown.

So why after 15 years is Congress re-visiting 9/11 now?

The legacy of 9/11 understandably cast its shadow over the primary election in New York two days ago. Perhaps that’s what made the timing so interesting as the night before the primary both Democratic Presidential candidates came out in support of Congress’s move to pass a bill called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.
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Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) – New York

Chuck Schumer, one of the most powerful Democrats in the United States Senate (and actually Amy Schumer’s cousin), wrote and pushed this bill with Republican majority whip John Cornyn (R) – Texas.

The bill would make it easier for the victims and families of 9/11 to sue official members of a state government if they played a direct role in assisting or abetting the 9/11 hijackers. The bill would remove what’s called “sovereign immunity” – the idea that a state government cannot be held legally responsible for any wrongdoing and is thus protected from civil suits or criminal prosecution.

This bill is coming on the heels of recent calls on the government to declassify the final 28 pages from the 2002 Joint Inquiry findings into the causes of the attack, which were ultimately left out of the 9/11 Commission report.  Published in 2004, the 9/11 Commission was the final report from the congressional investigation into the causes and events leading up to the attack on the World Trade Center. The report is almost 600 pages long but does not include the final 28 pages from the chapter of the Joint Inquiry findings titled “Part 4: Finding, Discussion and Narrative Regarding Certain Sensitive National Security Matters.” The Bush administration sealed the pages and said that their publication would damage American intelligence operations and reveal “sources and methods that would make it harder for us to win the war on terror.”

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Anyone in Congress can actually read the 28 pages, but they must go through a difficult process to get clearance from the House Intelligence Committee to do so. After obtaining permission, they can read the 28 pages inside a highly secure, soundproof facility in the basement of the U.S. Capitol. They are not allowed to bring support staff with them, cannot take any notes, and are observed closely while reading them.

“It’s so secret that I had to get all of my security clearances and go into the bowels of Congress with someone looking over my shoulder.” – Thomas Keane, Chairman of 9/11 commission final report

While in Congress, Bernie Sanders has not read the 28 pages thus far, and actually said he won’t, while Hillary Clinton would not comment when asked if she had read them.

But from those who have read the documents, which has not been many apparently, there has been an ongoing push to declassify these last pages of the 9/11 report for several years. They claim that there is no information in them that would damage national security. Senator Richard Shelby, speaking at the time as ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee, said, “I went back and read those pages thoroughly. My judgment is that 95 percent of that information could be declassified. Walter Jones, a Republican congressman from North Carolina who has read the missing pages also contended, “There’s nothing in it about national security.”

So if there really is nothing damaging to national security in these sealed 28 pages, what is actually in them and why won’t the government release them to the public?

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Saudi Royal Family (King Salman in middle)

According to former Florida Senator Bob Graham and others:

“The 28 pages primarily relate to who financed 9/11 and they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier.”

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D) – Massachusetts, said

“Those twenty-eight pages tell a story that has been completely removed from the 9/11 Report,” Lynch maintains. The evidence of Saudi government support for the 9/11 hijacking is “very disturbing,” and that “the real question is whether it was sanctioned at the royal-family level or beneath that, and whether these leads were followed through.”

Rep. Thomas Massie (R) – Kentucky said in a 2014 press conference

“I had to stop every two or three pages and rearrange my perception of history.”

15 of the 19 hijackers in 9/11 were in fact citizens of Saudi Arabia.

If the final 28 pages are declassified by the Obama administration and made public, then it could be used as evidence in numerous on-going lawsuits filed by the families of 9/11 victims. These suits target Saudi charities, banks, and individuals. The plaintiffs believe that the withheld 28 pages will support their allegation that the 9/11 hijackers received direct assistance from Saudi government officials in the United States. President Obama has twice promised to release the 28 pages, but so far has failed to do so.

In 2005, the government of Saudi Arabia was dismissed from the suits on the grounds of sovereign immunity. But in July 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the Kingdom as a defendant. Now Congress is coming together on a bill to codify dismissing  a “sovereign immunity” defense from these issues entirely.  

Barack Obama landed in Saudi Arabia yesterday for his last official state visit to the kingdom. The meeting was to primarily discuss the nuclear deal with Iran but there was much speculation that the 9/11 bill and 28 pages would be brought up. Apparently it was not.

So despite having the support of virtually all Congressional Democrats, as well as BOTH Democratic Presidential candidates, what is President Obama’s reason for not supporting this bill aiding the lawsuits of 9/11 victims and ultimately not declassifying the final 28 pages of the 9/11 commission report?

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King Salman of Saudi Arabia with President Obama

On Monday April 18th, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest had this to say on the issue:

“Given the long list of concerns I have expressed … it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the president would sign the bill as it’s currently drafted.”

“It could put the United States and our taxpayers and our service members and our diplomats at significant risk if other countries were to adopt a similar law”

“The whole notion of sovereign immunity is at stake.”

For the White House, the primary issue is not even the 28 pages, but the legal implications of signing this bill which would remove sovereign immunity. All those who oppose the bill believe that if the US passes this law then other countries could pass similar laws which would put US government officials at risk of being sued for having ties to terrorist attacks against foreign governments.

This is perhaps an unsurprising concern given that the United States could be considered one of the world’s largest state sponsors of terrorism. In the last 50 years, there is an abundance of documented proof that the US, through the CIA, has directly supported government coups, terrorist groups and paramilitaries in over 35 countries from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. The highest profile of these was the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration which revealed that the US was funding “death squads” in Nicaragua. A much more comprehensive summary and analysis of the CIA’s misadventures around the world can be found here (highly recommend giving the table of contents a skim).  On that note, what exactly is the CIA doing right now in Syria?

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CIA Headquarters – Langley, VA

So understandably, the United States government does not want to open Pandora’s box of litigation and possibly be held accountable in court for its own part in inciting acts of terrorism abroad. Just like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

However, the threat of future lawsuits is not the only deterrent that’s keeping the Obama administration from signing off on the bill. Last week, Saudi Arabia threatened to sell off close to $1 trillion in US assets if the bill was passed and signed into law.

Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir came to Washington himself to personally deliver the message that if the US passed this bill, it would sell off $750 billion worth of US Treasury securities and other assets before they could be frozen by an American court. 

Several economists are skeptical that the Saudis will follow through on that threat, saying that such a sell-off would be difficult to execute and would end up crippling the kingdom’s economy. In the same press conference, White House press secretary Earnest said

“A country with a modern and large economy like Saudi Arabia would not benefit from a destabilized global financial market, and neither would the United States”

But even if the Saudis don’t respond by selling U.S. treasuries, they have other ways to harm the United States. Putting aside their most powerful weapon, the price of oil, Saudi Arabia has largely been paying for America’s efforts to train “moderate” rebels in Syria in their civil war against Bashar al-Assad’s government. They could curtail that support and instead funnel all their money to al-Qaeda backed groups like the Al-Nusra Front, although there are reports that this is already happening. Regardless, without Saudi support the United States has little hope of brokering a political deal that begins to end Syria’s catastrophic five year civil war.

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Secretary of State John Kerry with foreign ministers trying to broker Syrian peace deal

So given all of these seemingly legitimate concerns from the Obama administration about the bill, why have a majority of the Democrats in Congress and both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders bucked Obama’s wishes and pushed for the bill?

Given that this story has only been around for a week, we can only assume that they truly have placed the needs of the 9/11 victims and their families over the US relationship with Saudi Arabia and the risk of potential litigation against the United States. It is again worth noting that Sanders and Clinton came out in support of the bill, the day before the New York primary. But only Sanders has called on Obama to declassify the remaining 28 pages from the 9/11 Commission. We’ll see how opinions change now that Obama has said he will veto it. Currently it doesn’t seem possible to support the bill but not de-classifying the 28 pages or vice versa, the two remain inextricably tied to each other.

So beyond all the politicking happening behind the scenes for who does and doesn’t support the bill/declassifying the pages, what actually is the specific connection between the Saudi Arabian government and the 9/11 hijackers?  

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Prince Bandar bin Sultan – former Saudi Ambassador to the US

Here is what the 9/11 Commission report concluded –

“Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of Al Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization”

However, the following information comes from those who have read the 28 pages as well as FBI agents in the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The fifteen year long secret of how Saudi Arabia was involved in 9/11 goes beyond locking up 28 pages in a vault in the US Capitol basement. Federal investigations were cut short, and co-conspirators were even left off the hook.

The story in the 28 pages picks up with the arrival of two young Saudis in Los Angeles in January 2000 – Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. These two were the first wave of the 9/11 hijackers – neither of them spoke English well or had much money. Given this, the task of learning how to pilot a Boeing jetliner on their own seems…improbable.

Two weeks after their arrival, a man named Omar al-Bayoumi met with the two at a halal restaurant in Culver City. Bayoumi was an employee of the Saudi aviation-services company Dallah Avco.

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                       Bayoumi                               Mihidar                           Hazmi

Before meeting with Hazmi and Mihidhar, Bayoumi spent about an hour meeting with an official from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs at the Saudi Embassy in Los Angeles – Fahad al-Thumairy. In 2003, Thumairy was stripped of his diplomatic visa and deported because of suspected ties to terrorists.

After meeting with Thumairy, Bayoumi met the two hijackers-to-be and invited them to move to San Diego, where he set them up in his same apartment complex. Because the two had no checking account, he paid their security deposit and rent. He also introduced them to other members of the local Arab community, including the imam of a local mosque, Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki later became the most prominent spokesperson for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but was killed in a drone strike in 2011.

Bayoumi was in frequent contact with the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., and with the consulate in Los Angeles. After two months, Bayoumi’s  wife began receiving monthly stipends of around $2,000. By September 11th, 2001, $130,000 was transferred into Bayoumi’s wife’s bank account. With the money, Bayoumi was able to obtain Social Security cards for the two hijackers and arranged flying lessons at flight schools in Florida.

The stipends came in the form of cashier’s checks, purchased from Washington’s Riggs Bank by Princess Haifa bint Faisal. She is the daughter of the late King Faisal and wife of the Saudi Ambassador to the United States – Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

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George H. Bush meets with Bandar in the Oval Office – March 1991

Federal investigators in the 9/11 task force said virtually every road led back to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, as well as the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles. Yet time and time again, they were called off from pursuing leads because of “diplomatic immunity.”

One FBI investigator complained that instead of investigating Bandar, the US government protected him. Literally. He said the State Department assigned a security detail to help guard Bandar not only at the embassy, but also at his mansion in McLean, Virginia.

Former FBI agent John Guandolo, who worked 9/11 and related al Qaeda cases out of the bureau’s Washington field office, says Bandar should have been a key suspect in the 9/11 probe.

“The Saudi ambassador funded two of the 9/11 hijackers through a third party,” Guandolo said. “He should be treated as a terrorist suspect, as should other members of the Saudi elite class who the US government knows are currently funding the global jihad.”

The source added that the task force wanted to jail a number of embassy employees, “but the embassy complained to the US attorney” and their diplomatic visas were revoked as a compromise. “The FBI was thwarted from interviewing the Saudis we wanted to interview by the White House,” said former FBI agent Mark Rossini, who was involved in the investigation of al Qaeda and the hijackers. The White House “let them off the hook.

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George W. Bush meets with Bandar at his Texas Ranch – August 2002

What’s more, Rossini said the bureau was told no subpoenas could be served to produce evidence tying the departing Saudi suspects to the 9/11 attacks. The FBI, in turn, iced local investigations that led back to the Saudis. Bandar ultimately was ousted from his role by the new Saudi King Salman in 2013.

Those who have read the 28 pages believe they contain “incontrovertible evidence” that Prince Bandar, along with other Saudi government officials and members of the Saudi family, were directly linked to funding the hijackers in 9/11. Bandar’s father was Sultan bin Abdulaziz, who became the Crown prince and heir apparent to the Saudi throne in 2005 until his death in 2011.

What information exists in the classified 28 pages which may implicate what knowledge the crown prince or even then King Abdullah himself had of one of their own funneling money to two of the hijackers? Do we really believe that one of the most sophisticated terror attacks in world history was autonomously planned and executed by Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda organization with no help?