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.
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.
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.
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]”
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.
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.”
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”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Syria will be one of the most significant foreign policy challenges that the next US president will face, yet it has barely been discussed in the 2016 Presidential race. 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 increased the frequency of terror attacks in America, Europe and around the world.
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 reality of the 2016 election is that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, like presidential candidates before them, don’t really have the power to do most of the things they promise on the campaign trail. But foreign policy is one of the few powers that the Executive branch has a lot of control over. So here’s a comprehensive guide that I encourage both of the candidates to read from because there are a lot of lives at stake.
Who is Fighting Who in Syria?
Why Is Each Side Fighting?
Who Controls What in Syria?
What Is Happening Next in Syria?
Take Away: Ten Questions For the People Running To Be President
—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?
Again, not everyone in the conflict is specifically fighting with or against the Assad government’s forces. That has manifested in the most complex reality of the Syrian war – ISIS and Al Qaeda are fighting on the same side as the U.S. against Assad.
I do want to caution any surprise by noting that US cooperation with Islamic extremist groups is not a new development in American foreign policy. It’s a tradition that began with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
In 2011, the same tactics rear their head and it has again become a “necessary evil” to work with jihadist groups for geopolitical goals. In Libya, the US spent $1 billion in illegal arms support for opposition groups to overthrew Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. An analysis found that most of this went to arming Al Qaeda-backed rebel groups, who are now controlling entire parts of Libya along with ISIS.
In Syria the same story unfolds as far as the US aligning itself with questionable militant groups. But unlike in Afghanistan or Libya, the United States DID attempt an ill-planned program in Syria to create a “moderate” fighting force.
“[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
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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?
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.
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
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.
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?–
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.
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–
“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
“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.
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.
“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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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.
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–
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
“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
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
“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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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”.
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?
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 Departmentblanked 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
“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.”
“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.
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.
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?—
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
I was very young when 9/11 happened. I was 7 years old in 2001. Many of my friends have stories of being pulled out from school, having their teachers tell them, hearing from siblings, friends, relatives etc. Where were you when you first heard about 9/11?
I don’t remember hearing anything about 9/11 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 breaking 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.
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.”
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?
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.”
“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.”
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?
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?
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.
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?
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”
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.
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.
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.”
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 Abdullahhimself 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?