Bashar al-Assad

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With One Bombing Run Russia Gets the US to Acknowledge CIA’s “Covert” Regime Change Forces

For some time, a number of us have been tracking the collective forgetfulness about CIA’s acknowledged covert forces on the ground in Syria. I often point back to the day two years ago when Chuck Hagel confirmed our covert efforts in Syria in a congressional hearing, as well as Senate Foreign Relations Committee member frustration with their inability to get details on the acknowledged covert ops (that already numbered in the thousands, according to Tom Udall) there. Jim and I have written a slew of other posts about CIA’s covert forces there (one two three four five six seven are just a small sampling).

More recently, Adam Johnson caught NYT and Vox pretending CIA’s efforts don’t exist at all.

This past week, two pieces—one in the New York Timesdetailing the “finger pointing” over Obama’s “failed” Syria policy, and a Vox“explainer” of the Syrian civil war—did one better: They didn’t just omit the fact that the CIA has been arming, training and funding rebels since 2012, they heavily implied they had never done so.

To be fair, some intelligence reporters have done consistently good reporting on CIA’s covert war in Syria. But the policy people — especially the ones reporting how if Obama had supported “moderate” rebels sooner — usually pretend no one knows that Obama did support Qatar and Saudi-vetted liver-eating rebels sooner and they often turned out to be Islamists.

The selective ignorance about CIA’s covert operations in Syria seems to have been eliminated, however, with one Russian bombing run that targeted them.

Russia launched airstrikes in Syria on Wednesday, catching U.S. and Western officials off guard and drawing new condemnation as evidence suggested Moscow wasn’t targeting extremist group Islamic State, but rather other opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

One of the airstrikes hit an area primarily held by rebels backed by the Central Intelligence Agency and allied spy services, U.S. officials said, catapulting the Syrian crisis to a new level of danger and uncertainty. Moscow’s entry means the world’s most powerful militaries—including the U.S., Britain and France—now are flying uncoordinated combat missions, heightening the risk of conflict in the skies over Syria.

Thus far, of course, US officials are insisting that the anti-Assad troops Russia targeted are wholly distinct from ISIS (even while they remain silent about whether they’re Islamic extremists).

Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and said he raised U.S. concerns about attacks that target regime opponents other than Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. In Syria’s multi-sided war, Mr. Assad’s military—aided by Iran and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah—is fighting both Islamic State and opposition rebel groups, some of which are supported by the U.S. and its allies.


The U.S. and its allies were angry at the Russians on many scores: that they are supporting Mr. Assad; that they aren’t coordinating their actions with the existing, U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition; that they provided terse notice only an hour before their operations; that they demanded the U.S. coalition stay out of Syrian airspace; and that they struck in areas where anti-Assad rebels—not Islamic State—operate.

“It does appear that they were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces, and that is precisely one of the problems with this whole approach,” said Mr. Carter, the U.S. defense chief.

This attempt to distinguish ISIS from the CIA-backed rebels will quickly lead to an awkward place for the Administration and its allies, not least because making any distinction will require providing details on the vetting process used to select these forces, as well as addressing the evidence of cooperation with ISIS or traditional al Qaeda in the past. Plus, the more the US argues these groups that aren’t entirely distinct from al Qaeda are entirely distinct from ISIS, it will make the Administration’s claim that the 2001 AUMF against Al Qaeda authorizes it to fight ISIS (in related news, DOJ just denied USAT’s FOIA request for 3 OLC documents making that case) really wobbly. Any claim Russia makes that these anti-Assad forces are also Islamic extremists (and therefore entirely legitimate targets in the fight against ISIS) will be based on intelligence that is no more shitty than US intelligence that they’re not, especially given that CentCom admits on the record it can’t even trust (much less vet) the communications it is getting from rebels on the ground about their coordination with al Qaeda. It will devolve into a he-said-she-said about whose claims are more suspect, Assad’s or the Saudis’ who’ve been pushing for regime change long before the Arab Spring gave then an opportunity to push it along.

And all the while, any pretense that CIA’s involvement is covert will grow more and more laughable. Reporting like this — which claims Putin has “hijacked” Obama’s war on ISIS when the content only makes sense if Putin has more urgently hijacked Obama’s regime change efforts against Assad — will become more and more laughable.

Whatever Russia’s entry does for the tactical confrontation (I have no hopes it will do anything but make this conflict even bloodier, and possibly expand it into other countries), it has clarified a discussion the US has always tried to obscure. There are plenty of US backed forces on the ground — which may or may not be Islamic extremists (see Pat Lang on this point) — whose priority is toppling Bashar al-Assad, not defeating ISIS. While there will be some interesting fights about who they really are in coming days (and whether CIA has already acknowledged that it inflamed Islamists with its regime change efforts), American priorities will become increasingly clear.

Make no mistake: I am not defending Russia, Syria, our vetted “moderate” rebels, Saudi Arabia, or anyone else. It’s a volatile situation and none of the outside intervention seems to be helping. But one big reason we’ve been failing is because we’ve been lying publicly about the forces on the ground. Those lies just got a lot harder to sustain.

(As always on the Syrian quagmire, see Moon of Alabama’s latest.)

While We’re Investigating Intelligence Failures on Syria…

For the past several weeks, we’ve had a series of stories about how the intelligence on ISIS was cooked — at least within DIA. I had grand plans to write some posts on it — to track DIA’s past recent politicization (which I think should raise some skepticism about these claims, though I find them largely credible), to how the story has developed, and to a number of things that likely aren’t even being considered in whether the intelligence is cooked (such as whether treating ISIS as a terrorist group serves an analytical disservice).

Ah well — the posts that might have been.

But amid that frenzy about politicized Syria intelligence, the Guardian reports that in 2012 Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin offered up Bashar al-Assad as part of a proposed peace deal, purportedly at his government’s direction.

Russia proposed more than three years ago that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, could step down as part of a peace deal, according to a senior negotiator involved in back-channel discussions at the time.

Former Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari said western powers failed to seize on the proposal. Since it was made, in 2012, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions uprooted, causing the world’s gravest refugee crisis since the second world war.

Ahtisaari held talks with envoys from the five permanent members of the UN security council in February 2012. He said that during those discussions, the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, laid out a three-point plan, which included a proposal for Assad to cede power at some point after peace talks had started between the regime and the opposition.

But he said that the US, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator was about to fall, they ignored the proposal.


“The most intriguing was the meeting I had with Vitaly Churkin because I know this guy,” Ahtisaari recalled. “We don’t necessarily agree on many issues but we can talk candidly. I explained what I was doing there and he said: ‘Martti, sit down and I’ll tell you what we should do.’

“He said three things: One – we should not give arms to the opposition. Two – we should get a dialogue going between the opposition and Assad straight away. Three – we should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside.”

I’m not so sure I buy this was a real offer from Russia. Possibly it was a trial balloon designed to prove that on Syria, as on Libya, the western powers were lying about their ultimate goals being regime change (though obviously this was an offer to remove Assad, though not his regime).

China Matters has a lot to say about this disclosure, arguing that it confirms his observation in the wake of a July 17, 2012 terrorist attack on Assad that the US was probably partnering with al Qaeda. Those posts are well worth reading (and the potential roles of David Petraeus and Hillary Clinton in such a scheme — one which Obama temporarily halted in summer 2012, only to reconsider it in 2013 — are equally worth considering).

But here’s the other question that must be raised from this article.

What the fuck kind of intelligence failure in 2012 had everyone in the US government believing that Assad was about to fall? I mean, I get that that was the conventional wisdom at the time (a CW China Matters rightly takes on in his post). But there were plenty of people (CM is one, Moon of Alabama another, Joshua Landis another) who were predicting Assad would be able to withstand that assault. Indeed, CM argues that Assad’s ability to withstand the July 2012 decapitation strike should have been the clue.

What sources were leading both the press and US intelligence to believe Assad was going to fall?

If you buy that the Russians were willing to make a reasonable deal of some sort in 2012, then the mistaken belief Assad was about to fall has been almost as catastrophic as the intelligence failures that got us into the Iraq War in terms of deaths and dislocation. They’ve been far more damaging, at least thus far, than cooked intelligence on ISIS. That bad intelligence likely comes the same vicinity as the intelligence that said we could insert a small group of fighters in al Nusra’s vicinity without the al Qaeda affiliate responding.

Admittedly, it’s likely there has been some internal accountability for this intelligence failure. David Petraeus probably could have withstood sharing code word intelligence with his mistress, after all. And Bandar bin Sultan, who surely was in charge of this effort, lost the Saudi intelligence portfolio.

But it is likely we’re taking advice from the same people as we did then, with the same disastrous consequences. Which go far beyond fluffing US success against ISIS.

Neoliberalism Helped Syrian Banks Evade Sanctions

I’ve written a lot about how neoliberalism has been counterproductive for any soft war we’re waging against ISIS, Russia, or China. We keep forcing allies and client states — including post Arab Spring Egypt and, especially, Ukraine — to adopt neoliberal policies. That creates more instability at precisely the time the new regime (like it or not) is trying to consolidate.

Neoliberalism doesn’t offer much benefit for many of the hearts and minds we’d like to win over.

But it has helped someone.

According to this fascinating WaPo analysis (and underlying study), the reason Syrian elites and their banks have been able to withstand sanctions is because Bashar al-Assad adopted (mixed) neoliberal policies when he assumed control. It created an interconnected elite whose ties with were Assad more inextricably linked than they had previously been, such that people doing business with sanction targets have too much invested in the regime itself to stop doing business with the sanctioned entities.

Bashar aimed to revamp the three decades of populist structure in an ‘authoritarian upgrading’ to pursue neoliberal economic policies, eventuallyshifting public assets to a network of crony capitalists close to the regime. The abandonment of socialist policies in a post-populist era culminated with the establishment of the Damascus Securities Exchange (DSE) in 2009. The number of firms listed on the exchange has since grown, even after 2011, and currently comprises 23 companies spanning sectors such as transport, media, industry, agriculture, banking and insurance.


The newly established Syrian private banking system redistributed the monopolistic market share of public banks with private lenders, while maintaining a degree of protectionism so the state-owned banks preserved their banking services monopoly. This arrangement was part of what Raymond Hinnebusch termed a ‘middle way’ of allowing the expansion of the private sector while ostensibly reforming state owned enterprises.

The booming private banks attracted politically connected businessmen, including many former politicians and senior security officials, natural partners for foreign institutional investors for whom a 49 percent Syrian ownership was required for an operating license until 2010.


Thorough review of disclosures made by publicly listed private banks on the DSE indicate a similar trend, in which prominent Syrian businessmen— some of whom have been sanctioned for their support to the regime— own a substantial number of shares and even sit on the board of directors in multiple banks. As my research shows, there are at least 23 individual investors whose shareholdings exceed 1 million shares. With more than 36 million shares in aggregate, these individuals make up at least 4.5 percent of overall shares of private banks and 11 percent of total retail investors’ stock ownership.

This is symptomatic of the emergence of a new generation of ‘regime businessmen,’ whose relationship with the state transformed from a de facto alliance since Bashar al-Assad came to power to the central backbone of the regime now. Through joint business ventures and inter-family marriages, this alliance translated into the regime businessmen’s dominance of profitable sectors, including energy, banking and finance, construction, and tourism, and has in turn ensured the regime’s economic survival.


Most of these businessmen have substantial investments in the country that outweighed their overseas assets and commercial interests. Their inextricable connections with the ruling political elite have made them highly invested in the survival of the regime.

I suspect the same is true of Russia.

That’s not all that surprising. With the exception of the largest banks, our business elite is pretty committed to the US regime, largely as a result of the cronyist benefits that those ties afford.

Indeed, the analysis raises more general questions about whether neoliberalism makes dangerous regimes more resilient.

But I also note the irony.

Emergency Fundraising Succeeds: World Food Programme Restarts Suspended Aid for Syrian Refugees

A week ago today, I pointed out the moral depravity of a situation in which the US never hesitates to find funding to increase air strikes and the flow of weapons into Syria and other fronts in the battle against ISIS while the UN World Food Programme was forced to suspend emergency food aid to 1.7 million Syrian refugees due to a funding shortfall. There is a rare bit of good news on that front, as the WFP announced today that the emergency appeal for funds has made up for the shortfall and food aid is restarting. In fact, more than $80 million has been raised, so some funding will carry over into January.

It appears that private donations made up only a small part of this influx of funds:

Among individuals contributing online through, the third largest number by nationality were Syrians, after Americans (first) and Canadians (second). The online campaign featured Aloe Blacc’s song “I Need A Dollar” as the soundtrack for the #ADollarALifeline video which launched on social media channels. Almost 14,000 individuals and private sector donors in 158 countries contributed US$1.8 million dollars.

It is indeed heartwarming to see so many individuals step up to do what they can. However, considering how many US amoral contractors are making outrageous amounts of money shipping weapons into the region, I find it repulsive they didn’t make up the funding shortfall entirely on their own. Just their lobbying funds alone could have taken that hit without affecting their other funds. We have not yet gotten the list of countries that stepped up for the bulk of the emergency funds nor how much each gave, but we can only hope that the countries doing the most meddling in the region are also providing the most funding for the residents they have displaced.

Sadly, this stopgap funding is merely the beginning. The New York Times reports this morning that the UN’s budget request for 2015 for all humanitarian assistance will go up 27% over the amount needed in 2014:

The appeal, a barometer of the global impact of wars and disasters, calls for 27 percent more funding in 2015 than the amount requested a year ago for 2014 and is intended to aid more than 57 million people in 22 countries.

The number of people affected by conflict “has reached record levels” for the post-World War II era, Valerie Amos, the United Nations emergency aid chief, told a news conference in Geneva. She said that aid agencies had assessed that 78 million people were in need of assistance, but the appeal targeted only the most vulnerable.

Nearly three-quarters of the funds were designated for just four crises: in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and the protracted but little-reported conflict in Sudan. Other priorities included the Central African Republic, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen.

The number of people displaced by conflict reached the highest level since World War II at the end of 2013 but is still rising “exponentially,” António Guterres, the United Nations refugee chief, told the news conference, climbing to 32,000 a day last year from 14,000 a day in 2011. In 2014, he said, the figure would certainly have increased further.

Given the US role in those countries leading the way in terms of number of refugees, it is fitting that a large portion of the costs of caring for the refugees should fall to us as well. And of course, those first two are problem areas very much because of our meddling. We broke Iraq and have continued to feed its dysfunction ever since. We helped start the unrest in Syria, too. In fact, as the torture report drops today, don’t forget that we relied on Bashar al-Assad as an “ally” for outsourcing of torture early in that program, so getting rid of him is needed to help hide what we did.

However, I still long for the day when the US response to a crisis gets out of the “which group do we fund” approach and instead looks to “how can we help the people” as the approach that will work. As we see from the record numbers of displaced people, our approach now spreads hunger and death. What would happen if instead of sending in weapons, we sent in food, housing construction materials and medical assistance? What if we even actively excluded weapons from these areas?

Of course, that has little chance of happening in our lifetimes. In the meantime, your donations for assistance to Syrian refugees can be made here and the WFP provides updates here.

Did Obama’s Beloved “Moderate” FSA Fighters Flee Aleppo?

The Obama Administration continues to hold onto the fantasy that training and equipping a group of “moderate” rebels in Syria will allow threading the gap between the Bashar al-Assad regime that continues to relentlessly attack its own citizens and the ISIS fighters who behead many of the folks in their path. After all, Obama and his minions seem to want us to to think, the “moderates” only occasionally eat a victim’s heart or behead people after posing for photos with John McCain.

The press in Turkey is reporting that Obama’s centerpiece of the “moderate” rebel movement, the Free Syrian Army, has fled the strategic city of Aleppo where battles have taken place since early in the Syrian civil war. The reports say that within the past two weeks, the new leader of the FSA, Jamal Marouf (previous FSA leader Salem Idris was among those in the famous photo with McCain) fled to Turkey where he is being protected. Iranian news is repeating these reports, with stories in both Fars News and PressTV. Both Iranian stories cite this report from Turkey:

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the recognized armed opposition group against the Bashar al-Assad in Syria, has ceased its resistance in Aleppo, Syria’s second biggest city, withdrawing its 14,000 militia from the city, a ranking Turkish security source told the Hürriyet Daily News on Nov. 17.

“Its leader Jamal Marouf has fled to Turkey,” confirmed the source, who asked not to be named. “He is currently being hosted and protected by the Turkish state.”

The source did not give an exact date of the escape but said it was within the last two weeks, that is, the first half of November. The source declined to give Marouf’s whereabouts in Turkey.

Wow, so not only did the leader apparently leave, but 14,000 fighters abandoned Aleppo, too? That’s huge. The only Western news story I see so far on this is an AFP story carried by Yahoo News in the UK. The story opens by describing how desperate the refugee problem will be in Turkey if Aleppo has indeed fallen:

Turkey fears another two to three million Syrian refugees could cross its borders if the region of Syria’s second city of Aleppo is overrun either by Islamist extremists or regime forces, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday.

Turkey is already hosting at least 1.5 million refugees displaced by the Syrian conflict and has repeatedly warned that its capacities are being strained by the numbers.

It takes another sixteen paragraphs or so before getting to the news about Marouf:

Meanwhile the Turkish online newspaper Radikal reported that the chief of the moderate anti-Assad group the Syrian Revolutionary Front, Jamal Maarouf, had fled to Turkey two weeks ago.

There was no confirmation of the report and no further details were immediately available.

But never fear! The article gives us this rosy news as a conclusion:

Media reports said at the weekend that Turkey and the United States have agreed a plan under which some 2,000 FSA fighters would be trained on Turkish soil.

Let’s see, 14,000 troops fled, and now we’re going to train a whopping 2000 to take their place.


Zbig’s Plotting over Chilean Sea Bass

Earlier this month, President Obama hosted a dinner with past foreign policy luminaries to explain his plan to combat ISIL. He served Chilean sea bass and d’Anjou pear salad as they discussed the future of America’s empire.

Harman described the dinner on Monday as “focused and thoughtful.” Over a dinner of d’anjou pear salad and Chilean sea bass, Obama, Vice President Biden and the outside experts engaged in a deep discussion of the options to combat the Islamic State, those who participated said.

Among the attendees was Zbigniew Brzezinski (see the full list of attendees below), Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor.

I thought it a curious choice, given how much of the Blowback we’re still fighting he birthed. As NSA, after all, Zbig crafted what he thought was a brilliant plan to draw the Soviet Union into a quagmire in Afghanistan. Even after al Qaeda had started attacking the US in Africa, Zbig thought fostering well-trained Islamic terrorists was an acceptable trade-off for having lured the Soviet Union into an embarrassing defeat.

Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?

B: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.

Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?

B: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

B: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Zbig doesn’t acknowledge it here, but another reason he thought this was such a great idea is because the Iranian revolution was already in full swing, and he hoped to counter our loss of footprint there with something to keep the Russians busy next door.

In so many ways that decision has led inexorably to where we are, doing the bidding of dangerous Saudi allies who are actually a cause of the extremism we fight, not its solution.

Even before the Chilean sea bass dinner, I’ve been wondering whether the US would double down on its commitment to the Saudis, in spite of the way they’ve fostered this terrorist threat, or whether we’d use the opportunity to cement the deal with Iran, giving us more space from the Saudis.

I’m embarrassed I even wondered. I should have known from heavy-handed intercept of Russian jets and the increasing sanctions on both Russia and Iran that we intended to gain advantage both against ISIS and against those who question our unlimited hegemony.

But this account of how the Saudis came to join in bombing campaigns against Islamic extremists makes it rather clear.

The Americans knew a lot was riding on a Sept. 11 meeting with the king of Saudi Arabia at his summer palace on the Red Sea.

A year earlier, King Abdullah had fumed when President Barack Obama called off strikes against the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. This time, the U.S. needed the king’s commitment to support a different Syrian mission—against the extremist group Islamic State—knowing there was little hope of assembling an Arab front without it.

At the palace, Secretary of State John Kerry requested assistance up to and including air strikes, according to U.S. and Gulf officials. “We will provide any support you need,” the king said.

That moment, more than any other, set in train the U.S. air campaign in Syria against Islamic State, according to U.S. and Gulf officials. Mr. Obama made clear he would only authorize strikes if regional allies agreed to join the effort.


The process gave the Saudis leverage to extract a fresh U.S. commitment to beef up training for rebels fighting Mr. Assad, whose demise the Saudis still see as a top priority.


After Islamic State made startling gains in Iraq, Saudi officials told Mr. Kerry in June that Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite with close ties to Iran, needed to go, according to U.S officials. Once that happened, Riyadh would step up its role against Islamic State and work to bring other Gulf states onboard. The Obama administration had come to a similar conclusion and started to maneuver Mr. al-Maliki out of office.


Two of the F-15 pilots were members of the Saudi royal family, including Prince Khaled bin Salman, son of the crown prince. In the third wave of the initial attack, half of the attack airplanes in the sky were from Arab countries.

There’s far more at the link: the Saudi agreement to host the training (something I’ll return to), Bandar’s presence — and smiles — at the meeting on September 11,  (Though, if I’m not mistaken, the story had more details about the meeting between Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir and Obama when it was first posted last night, including that they used first names.)

Whether the US means to faithfully execute their half of the bargain or not, and whether the Saudis are dealing with us in good faith, remains a very good question.

But if they really intend to help the Saudis and Qataris take out Assad (not because he’s a brutal dictator, of course, but because he’s not their brutal dictator), certain things must come with that: a means to undercut the momentum our fight against ISIL will necessarily give Iran and Russia. Otherwise, no amount of training of “moderate” rebels will make a difference — or keep the Saudis happy.

Maybe that’s not what we intend. Maybe we’ve still got a plan in place to ditch the Saudis. But if not, expect some kind of Zbig plan that will likely backfire worse than his earlier one. Continue reading

“Let’s Bomb Syria” Version 2 Is Working; Why Did Version 1 Fail?

Polls taken almost exactly one year apart show a remarkable reversal in US opinion regarding the prospect of air strikes on Syria. Last year, in a poll conducted September 6-8, (pdf) there were a number of questions regarding action in Syria. By a margin of 59% to 39%, Americans overwhelmingly said they thought Congress should not pass the then pending resolution authorizing “military action for 60 to 90 days” that also banned use of US troops in a combat role. Further, 55% of those polled stated that even if Congress passed the resolution, they opposed US air strikes in Syria while only 43% favored them. In the hypothetical of no Congressional authorization, opposition to the air strikes rose to 71% with only 27% favoring them. Just one year later, those numbers have reversed. In a poll conducted September 4-7, 65% of Americans now say they support expanding US air strikes against the Sunni insurgents into Syria, while only 28% oppose them. Checking the crosstabs, support for the strikes jumps to 74% for Republicans but still is 60% for Democrats.

So why is this year’s Drum-Up-War week working, when last year’s failed?

Despite the heinous nature of last year’s sarin attack, it seems to me that most Americans did a good job of recognizing that what is underway in Syria is a civil war in which the US has no vital interest other than humanitarian concern for widespread death and displacement of citizens. Having failed to paint Bashar al-Assad as an evil-doer on the level of Saddam Hussein (or perhaps after Americans rejected such an obvious campaign to do so) Obama and his fellow war hawks now consider ISIS “the focus of evil in the modern world“.

The beheading of US journalists in Syria got huge play in the press. And yet, if we drill down a bit, the rate of journalists being killed in Syria is going down from its peak in 2012.

Somehow, Obama’s war gang has managed to convince ordinary Americans that ISIS represents a real threat to the US. That same poll that favors attacks on ISIS in Syria found that a staggering 91% of Americans find ISIS to be a serious threat to the US (59% said “very serious” and 31% said “somewhat serious”). Sadly, there is no reality behind this fear on the part of Americans. Even Time, in doing its best to support the hysteria, winds up undercutting the concept in a story today. In a piece creatively titled “Understanding the ISIS Threat to Americans at Home“, we learn:

On the one hand, Attorney General Eric Holder has said western fighters joining ISIS and returning home radicalized are the national security danger he worries about most. “We are seeing, I would say, an alarming rise in the number of American and European Union nationals who have been going to Syria to help extremist groups,” Holder told TIME last month. “This represents a grave threat to our security,” he said.

But in a thorough presentation on Sept. 3 at the Brookings Institution, outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, presented a less scary picture. ISIS has no cells in the U.S., Olsen said, “full stop.” Further, Olsen said, “we have no credible information” that the group “is planning to attack the U.S.” ISIS, Olsen said “is not al Qaeda pre-9/11.”

At most, the article concludes, quoting Obama in his “exclusive” with Chuck Todd, he needed “to launch air strikes to ensure that towns like Erbil were not overrun, critical infrastructure, like the Mosul Dam was protected, and that we were able to engage in key humanitarian assistance programs that have saved thousands of lives.”

The links Holder is hyping about ISIS and AQAP simply do not exist:

Holder says the danger comes from the combination of westerners joining ISIS and the expert bomb-makers working for the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It is not clear what if any evidence exists of such collaboration yet. On the one hand, AQAP has issued statements in support of ISIS, and both groups are active in Syria and Iraq; on the other, al Qaeda and ISIS split in the last year after a debate over tactics and territory.

Several senior administration officials tell TIME they have seen no evidence of direct contact between individual members of AQAP and ISIS.

In the end, the article concludes, Obama’s war team has deduced that we must attack ISIS because at some point in the future, they will turn their sights on us. Never mind that in this case, attacking ISIS in Syria winds up helping Assad, whom we wanted to attack last year:

Jane Harman, the president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, said that while the Assad government was a major topic of discussion, she and other participants told Mr. Obama that he could order military action in Syria without fear of helping Mr. Assad, since ISIS was occupying ungoverned territory that his forces were unlikely to reconquer.

I guess that Harman and Obama know that Assad won’t be able to reconquer those once ISIS is gone because of the bang-up job we will do training and equipping our famousmoderate” rebels, but hey, what could go wrong on any of this?

In the end, though, the apparent support for this version of strikes on Syria seems to me to have come about because of the shift in focus on the “enemy” from a president oppressing the citizens of his country to an international terror group that we must fear and that represents true evil. As far as the average American is concerned, meddling in another country’s civil war is out of bounds, but when it comes to protecting the homeland against evil-doers, anything goes.

And it doesn’t even need Congressional approval.


ISIS Fearmongering Now Features Undeclared Syrian Toxins Changing Hands

Today’s New York Times wants us to be very afraid because Samantha Power tells us that Syria may have failed to declare some of its chemical weapons (all declared category 1 materials have been destroyed) and those materials just might fall into the hands of the ISIS evil monsters.  This is a very interesting development because now with ISIS as the most evil operator out there, the Syrian WMD’s that we have been fearmongering about now are scarier in the hands of ISIS than they are in the hands of Bashar al-Assad, whom many believe was responsible for the deadly August, 2013 sarin attack in Ghouta.

The long journey of Syrian WMD’s and just who makes them scary is a case study in the process of intelligence and diplomatic sources feeding propaganda to a willing press. Recall that just after the Ghouta attack, Joby Warrick was used,  in a very Judy Miller fashion, to try to develop fear of a probably non-existent Syrian bioweapons capability. Less than a month after that feeble attempt to claim bioweapons in Syria’s arsenal, Warrick was dumbfounded that ricin (see below for a description of this toxin) appeared on the list of materials that Syria declared for destruction (ricin did not appear anywhere in Warrick’s “documentation” of Syria’s bioweapons capability just a month earlier):

The movement of chemicals and equipment in recent days — which initially spurred fears that Syrian officials were trying to hide parts of their stockpile — suggests instead that the weapons are being consolidated ahead of a first visit by inspection teams that arrived in the country last week, administration officials said.

The activity has contributed to a cautious optimism among U.S. officials over the prospects for quickly dismantling the chemical arsenal. Syrian officials a week ago turned over their first inventory of chemical weapons and storage sites, a list that U.S. analysts described as detailed, although incomplete.

The records have helped shed light on a sizable Syrian stockpile that U.S. officials say contains hundreds of tons of precursors for the nerve agents sarin and VX, as well as a surprise: ricin, a highly lethal poison derived from castor beans.

Yesterday, The Intercept finally (the document is marked as having been approved for release just before last Christmas!) liberated a cache of email conversations (pdf) taking place between a number of national security reporters and the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs.  The document is 574 pages long, but I want to focus on only one email to the office and the reply it generated, because it fits perfectly into this overall pattern of intelligence (and diplomatic) operatives catapulting propaganda with the eager cooperation of sychophantic reporters and because it mentions ricin. The email in question comes from Wall Street Journal reporter Siobhan Gorman and appears to be sent to at least two redacted recipients at CIA and mentions ricin in the context of Syria:

Gorman email


Okay. So this email takes place in July of 2012, just over a year before the Ghouta attack that used sarin.

Before we get to more of this story, a bit of background on ricin is in order. Continue reading

Did Eric Arthur Blair Come Back from Catalonia Radicalized?

George_Orwell_press_photoThe UK raised its threat limit to “pee your pants” today, based on the assessment an attack on the country is “highly likely.” This is a response to the 500 or so Britons who have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS.

PM David Cameron said at least 500 people had travelled from the UK “to fight in Syria and potentially Iraq”.

He said Islamic State (IS) extremists – who are attempting to establish a “caliphate”, or Islamic state, in the region – represented a “greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before”.

New legislation would also be brought in to make it easier to take passports away from people travelling abroad to join the conflict, Mr Cameron said.

Which has me thinking — and not for the first time — of the large numbers of people who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

After all, it’s not like wanting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad is an ignoble goal. And while I think most Brits (and Americans) will grow disillusioned by the intolerance and ruthless discipline of ISIS, I can imagine the attraction, from afar, of moral certitude they offer. The 1930s, like today, are a morally confusing time, and those who fought the fascists in Spain ended up being vanguards of a necessary fight, even if they fought for an equally loathsome authoritarian force in the process.

The experience of fighting — and growing disillusioned — in Spain was chronicled by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. After his return, his views were suspect, but he did manage to return to the UK and warn of the dangers of absolutism.

I’m not the first to make this comparison. Boyd Tonkin wrote a piece in the Independent wondering whether those who traveled to Syria to fight Assad will be able to return to the UK without he specter of terrorism ruining their lives. (h/t to Gabe Moshenska who pointed me to it on Twitter)

Tony Blair’s third administration passed the Terrorism Act 2006. Section Five, as presently interpreted by the Crown Prosecution Service, makes it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a “political, ideological, religious or racial motive”. The legislation appears to forbid all training or action in a foreign combat. If so, its provisions would have criminalised every Briton who fought in Spain. It would have turned Lord Byron, whose commitment to Greek independence led him to arm and lead a raggle-taggle regiment prior to his death at Missolonghi in 1824, into an outlaw. As for the 6,500 veterans of Wellington’s armies who went off after Waterloo to fight against Spanish colonial rule in the battles that led to freedom for Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, how could the courts have processed such a lawless throng?

The 2006 legislation currently targets UK citizens deemed to have fought with Syrian rebel groups. Estimates of their number vary wildly but a figure of around 400-500 has gained currency. At least eight have died. The fear of radicalisation, with any link to al-Qa’ida-allied units and above all to Isis treated as a communicable virus, has propelled the hard legal line. In January, 16 Britons were arrested after returning from Syria. Further arrests have followed since.


[T]oday’s security-led prism and its “radicalisation” model, with the automatic penalties in place for any returnee, appears blind to every nuance. One British volunteer in Syria tweeted a poster that read “Keep Calm, Support Isis”: a spoof of the already much-parodied Second World War campaign to beef up morale. What are the chances that the kid who wrote that poster had watched Dad’s Army? Pretty high. If so, he will be many things apart from a bloodthirsty future avenger dedicated to importing holy mayhem on to British streets.

The long-term significance of an overseas adventure for anyone may not be apparent to them, or to others, at the time. But every present or past volunteer in Syria now knows they bear an invisible brand marked “potential murderer”, stamped by the agencies of surveillance. In a BBC radio analysis, one British fighter thought it a “slightly surreal” notion to “go back to the UK and start a jihad there”. For him, at least: “As to the global jihad, I couldn’t tell you if I’m going to be alive tomorrow, let alone future plans.”

Just because you hear someone rashly cry “wolf” does not mean that wolves do not exist. Over the past six weeks, Isis in Iraq has shown to the world a savagery almost beyond belief. Its bloody stunts may have emboldened a few would-be butchers. They will have deterred many secret faint-hearts, already in too deep. However, if the near-certainty of UK criminal sanctions closes down your road to reintegration, why not rise to the fanatics’ bait? What have you then got to lose?

Continue reading

It May Not Have Been ISIS, But McCain Did Pose With Members of a Group That Beheads Opponents

Partial screengrab from the Weasel Zippers post on the McCain photo.

Partial screengrab from the Weasel Zippers post on the McCain photo.

On May 27, 2013, nearly three months before the deadly August, 2013 sarin attack, Josh Rogin was granted an “exclusive” to publish in The Daily Beast that John McCain had secretly slipped into Syria to meet with “moderate” rebels who oppose Bashar al-Assad:

McCain, one of the fiercest critics of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, made the unannounced visit across the Turkey-Syria border with Gen. Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. He stayed in the country for several hours before returning to Turkey. Both in Syria and Turkey, McCain and Idris met with assembled leaders of Free Syrian Army units that traveled from around the country to see the U.S. senator. Inside those meetings, rebel leaders called on the United States to step up its support to the Syrian armed opposition and provide them with heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and airstrikes on the Syrian regime and the forces of Hezbollah, which is increasingly active in Syria.

Rogin continues:

The entire trip was coordinated with the help of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American nonprofit organization that works in support of the Syrian opposition. Two leaders of the group attended all of the McCain-Idris meetings and discussed them with The Daily Beast.

A couple of days later, Politico published a photo from the visit, identifying Mouaz Moustafa of the Syrian Emergency Task Force (he is now listed as their Executive Director).

Just who was present in the meetings with McCain, both in photographs that have appeared and in less public meetings, has been a point of contention since word of the meeting came out. Within a week of the Rogin story, Rand Paul was quoted by CBS:

Wielding a charge that’s been largely refuted, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., over the weekend took a swipe at his fellow Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, for his clandestine meeting last week with Syrian rebels.

“I’m very worried about getting involved in a new war in Syria,” Paul said Saturday night while taking questions at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is “a bad guy – he is,” the Kentucky senator continued, but cited al Qaeda and additional extremist groups “on the other side” as a reason to give the United States pause before engaging militarily.

“They say, ‘there are some pro-Western people, and we’re going to vet them,'” Paul continued. “Well, apparently we had a senator over there who had his picture taken with some kidnappers, so I don’t know how good a job we’re doing vetting those who are going to get the arms.”

Even though CBS noted that Paul’s accusation had already been refuted before they quoted it, Josh Rogin felt it necessary to give more detail debunking Paul. Leaving aside the red herring of Nour and whether he was at the meeting, this part of Rogin’s piece is very interesting: Continue reading

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