“I have been a refugee for 37 years due to my political engagement against the ruling Baath party. I cannot go back to Syria without being punished. But I see what the western countries, Turkey, and the Gulf states are now trying to do to my country. It has nothing to do with human rights or democracy. They want to divide the country and get rid of an opponent to the US´ plans for the region.”- Saliba Mourad
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, President Bashar al-Assad has claimed that Syria was the victim of a plot by Western imperialist powers seeking to effect regime in the country. Such a view has been widely ridiculed by opponents of the Syrian government, who argue that US and allied intelligence agencies played no role in sparking the anti-government protests that erupted in Syria in March 2011 as part of the so-called Arab Spring. Instead, as described by the New York Times, “Syrians, like other peoples across the region, rose up peacefully against their authoritarian government. Mr. Assad cracked down violently. Communities took up arms to defend themselves, then fought back in what became a civil war. Some soldiers joined the rebels, but not enough to win.”
According to this view, those pointing to the role of US and allied intelligence agencies in sparking the protests are conspiracy theorists who deny the agency of Syrians to determine their own fate. For example, pro-opposition activists and authors Robbin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami argue that considering the role of US and allied intelligence agencies in sparking the protests necessarily “leads some ever deeper into conspiracism. For such people, not only the Syrian revolution but the whole Arab Spring was a foreign plot, the English-language slogans at Kafranbel are proof of a CIA presence,” while efforts to blame the conflict on the Western imperialist powers, “remove the agency of the peoples concerned,” casting Syrians, “as innocents pleased to suffer poverty, torture and humiliation until some devilishly clever Westerner whispers in their ears.”
Such a view suggests further that if the Western powers deserve any blame, it is not for manufacturing the conflict in Syria, but for their supposed inaction and refusal to intervene in the war against the Syrian government and on behalf of the Syrian people.
However, as I have shown elsewhere, claims of US inaction in the Syrian conflict that erupted in 2011 are a myth. The CIA did intervene massively in the conflict, by covertly pumping billions of dollars of weapons to Salafist armed groups, both directly and via allied regional intelligence agencies, in what is now acknowledged as the costliest covert program in the agency’s history.
More importantly, there is clear evidence that US planners not only intervened in the Syrian conflict after it erupted, but that they covertly sparked the conflict itself. US planners prepared for years to ignite a sectarian civil war in Syria resembling that in neighboring Iraq, and successfully engineered the anti-government protests that erupted in March 2011 for this purpose. They then used these protests as cover to simultaneously launch an al-Qaeda led insurgency that quickly enveloped the country. It was hoped that this would spark a sectarian civil war that would pave the way for the fall of the Baath-led Syrian government and possibly even direct US military occupation of the country.
Any honest effort to understand the origins of the Syrian conflict must take account of this covert role played by US planners. Suggesting that any discussion of the US role amounts to promoting conspiracy theories, or denies the agency of Syrians, is not meant to shed light on the origins of the conflict but is meant to deliberately obscure them. For this reason, it is unsurprising that Robin Yassin-Kassab has been a vocal advocate of Western-backed regime change not only in Syria, but everywhere the Western powers have sought to intervene in recent years. As author Nu’man Abd al-Wahid observes, “Robin Yassin-Kassab has distinguished himself as one of Britain’s leading regime-change propagandists. Whether it’s Libya, Syria or Venezuela, Mr. Yassin-Kassab can be handsomely relied upon to supply the clever and poetic armoury to push forward narratives to facilitate Western imperialism militarily overhauling a nation-state not to its predisposition. For most of the last decade, Syria was his favoured target for spewing regime-change propaganda.”
Sadly, propaganda of the sort peddled by Yassin-Kassab and others in the service of Western imperialism is to be expected, as such propaganda accompanies every war. As Arthur Ponsonby observed in the wake of World War I, “Falsehood is a recognized and extremely useful weapon in warfare, and every country uses it quite deliberately to deceive its own people, to attract neutrals, and to mislead the enemy. The ignorant and innocent masses in each country are unaware at the time that they are being misled, and when it is all over only here and there are the falsehoods discovered and exposed.”
Almost a decade after the start of the Syria war, the role played by U.S. planners in launching it is still rarely recognized. In the remainder of this essay, I detail the efforts of U.S. planners to engineer the anti-government demonstrations that erupted in Syria in March 2011 as part of the so-called Arab Spring.
Early Experiments in Covert Action
The role of US planners in sparking the conflict in Syria in March 2011 was not immediately apparent to outside observers because it was covert and deliberately hidden. As philosopher and cultural critic Gabriel Rockhill observes, intelligence services such as the CIA “want to remain beneath the radar of history. They do not want to participate in or be identified as the heroes of history. But in a very paradoxical and quite pernicious way, they are often precisely those that are most powerful in the constitution of the visible histories we have and in the legacies that have been left.”
Covert US efforts to destabilize Syria in 2011 should not be surprising, as such efforts stretch back over 70 years. Attorney and international law expert Ernesto Sanchez observed that “During the Cold War’s early years, the United States tried to overthrow the Syrian government in one of the most sustained covert-operations campaigns ever conducted,” while historian Douglas Little explained that “This newly independent Arab republic was an important staging ground for the CIA’s earliest experiments in covert action.”
It is important to emphasize what motivated US planners to intervene in Syria during this early period. Historian William Blum notes that according to declassified National Security Council (NSC) documents, US planners were responding to the “popular leftward trend” in the Syrian government, which was allowing “continuous and increasing Communist activities,” while rejecting US military aid, which would have obligated Syria to support US efforts to “encourage the efforts of other free nations … to foster private initiative and competition [i.e., capitalism].”
As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. details, “The CIA began its active meddling in Syria in 1949—barely a year after the agency’s creation,” in a coup directed against Syria’s democratically elected president, Shukri al-Quwatli, after he “hesitated to approve the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, an American project intended to connect the oil fields of Saudi Arabia to the ports of Lebanon via Syria.”
The coup installed General Husni al-Za’im in power, who US officials viewed as a “Banana Republic dictator type” with a “strong anti-Soviet attitude.” This led a State Department political officer in Damascus, Deane Hinton, to admit that the successful 1949 coup was, “the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in, and that we’ve started a series of these things that will never end.”
The American Project
The roots of the most recent US intervention in Syrian affairs can be traced to the George W. Bush administration. In his 2005 book, “Inheriting Syria,” Flynt Leverett, former senior Middle East analyst at the CIA and senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council explained why US planners wished to effect regime change in Syria during this period. Leverett noted that Syria is a “swing state” in the Middle East, and that since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970, US policy toward Syria has been motivated by an interest in bringing Syria into the pro-US camp and therefore “tipping the regional balance of power against more radical or revisionist actors,” in particular against Iran. Leverett complained that the US has “had to cope with Syrian resistance on a variety of fronts” since 1970, which resistance includes opposition to US support for Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, Syria’s “largely successful campaign to repulse Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon,” and Syria’s “inauguration of a strategic alliance with Iran” which “ran against American moves throughout the 1980’s to bolster [Saddam’s] Iraq as a bulwark against the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary influence.” Leverett noted further that “As the Bush administration launched its military campaign against Saddam’s regime in 2003, Bashar [al-Assad] not only opposed the war but authorized actions that worked against the US pursuit of its objectives in Iraq.” Leverett also discusses Syrian support for Palestinian resistance groups (PFLP-GC, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad) and the fact that Syria “has for many years been the principal conduit for Iranian military supplies going to Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon.” Leverett then wondered whether the best course for “changing problematic Syrian behaviors” should entail US efforts to “ratchet up economic, political, rhetorical pressure on Damascus,” on the one hand, or “coercive regime change” on the other.
In short, as Syria expert David Lesch observed, Syria “did not give in to what, in the region during the Bush years, was often called the ‘American project.’”
Cleaning up the Middle East
Such threats were not new. According to former NATO supreme military commander Wesley Clark, then US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Paul Wolfowitz, told him after the First Gulf War in 1991 that “We didn’t get rid of Saddam Hussein and we should have. . . We’ve only got five or ten years to clean up the middle east. These old soviet surrogate regimes like Syria and Iraq, get rid of them before the next superpower comes along to challenge us.” According to Clark, the efforts of Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives in the Bush administration to aggressively use force to change regimes “appeared full blown after 9-11.”
As Samer Arabi observes, neoconservatives from the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) demanded at this time that “Iran and Syria immediately cease all military, financial, and political support for Hezbollah and its operations.” They threatened that, “Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the [Bush] administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known state sponsors of terrorism,” even though none of these countries played any role in the 9/11 attacks.
In March 2003, US planners launched the illegal US invasion and occupation of Iraq, a country which also played no role in the 9/11 attacks. Wesley Clark famously revealed as well that the Iraq invasion was part of a larger plan developed by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office “to take out seven countries in five years,” including Iran, Libya, and Syria. As academic Piers Robinson notes, Clark’s claims were confirmed by then Secretary of Defense Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson, as well as by documents released by the UK Chilcot Inquiry showing British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George Bush planning a possible attack on Syria in the same context.
Syrian planners understood this threat well. David Lesch notes that “in the fresh glow of the Bush administration’s ‘mission accomplished’ in 2003, several implicit threats were directed at Damascus – threats that Syrian officials took very seriously: Syria could be next on the Bush doctrine’s hit list. [emphasis in the original].”
Not only Syrian planners, but also average Syrians were aware of these threats. Journalist and former US Marine Brad Hoff notes that during a lengthy stay in Damascus in 2005, many of his Syrian acquaintances expressed the view that “A war on Syria is coming. The Americans are coming here – whether in a few years or more, they will target Damascus.”
A Clean Break
The threat of regime change was reinforced in October 2005 by CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour during an interview with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. She warned Assad that US planners were actively seeking to depose him, stating that, “Mr. President, you know the rhetoric of regime change is headed towards you from the United States. They are actively looking for a new Syrian leader. They’re granting visas and visits to Syrian opposition politicians. They’re talking about isolating you diplomatically and, perhaps, a coup d’etat or your regime crumbling. What are you thinking about that?” As Brad Hoff observed, Amanpour was married to former US Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin, who later advised both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Amanpour was therefore not likely speculating, but instead appeared to be delivering a direct threat on behalf of US planners.
In December 2005, the Wall Street Journal reported that within US government circles, the “Pressure for regime change in Damascus is rising,” and that according to prominent neoconservative and architect of the US invasion of Iraq, Richard Perle, “Assad has never been weaker, and we should take advantage of that.” Perle, a member of the US Defense Policy Board, made his comments in the context of a US-sponsored effort to blame the Syrian government for the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Perle’s advocacy for regime change in Syria stretched back at least a decade and was articulated in a 1996 policy document produced by a study group he led. Entitled, “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” the document recommended to then incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel “shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right, as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions [emphasis mine].”
The text of the document was primarily authored by David Wurmser, a colleague of Perle’s at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Wurmser elsewhere argued that the US and Israel should “expedite the demise of Baathism in Syria,” and of secular Arab nationalism generally, to create new states in the region on based instead on “tribal/clan/familial alliances.”
Wurmser’s views were themselves reminiscent of the 1982 “Yinon Plan,” which viewed the break-up of the Baathist-led Syrian and Iraqi governments into weak, sectarian mini-states as beneficial for Israeli interests. In an article titled “A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties,” former Israeli foreign ministry official Oded Yinon wrote that, “The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unique areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target. Syria will fall apart, in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in present day Lebanon, so that there will be a Shi’ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another Sunni state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbor, and the Druzes who will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in northern Jordan. This state of affairs will be the guarantee for peace and security in the area in the long run, and that aim is already within our reach today.”
CIA and NSC official Flynt Leverett notes that because both Perle and Wurmser obtained influential positions in the Bush administration (with Wurmser becoming Middle East advisor to Vice President Cheney’s staff) it was, “thus not surprising that the Office of the Secretary of Defense became the principal agent advocating coercive regime change strategy toward Damascus, supported by the office of the Office of the Vice President.”
Part of the neoconservative effort to impose regime change in Syria was the creation of the Syria Reform Party (SRF), led by Farid Ghadry, shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ghadry had left Syria with his family for Lebanon at a young age before emigrating to the United States. He attended the American University in Washington DC and became a successful businessman. Ghadry enjoyed support from Richard Perle and other neoconservatives centered around then Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. Ghadry viewed Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi’s role in promoting the neoconservative-planned US invasion of Iraq as a positive model. Ghadry told the Wall Street Journal that “Ahmed paved the way in Iraq for what we want to do in Syria.” In an indication of how deeply Ghadry reflected the interests of his neoconservative US sponsors, and how little popularity he would ever enjoy among Syrians, Ghadry became a member of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful Israel lobby in Washington, and wrote a column on his website titled “Why I Admire Israel.”
According to Syrian journalist Salim Abraham, Ghadry claimed to want “regime change by any means,” including a direct US invasion and occupation of the country. Ghadry also hoped to dismantle Syria’s largely socialist economy and replace it with a completely free market system. Abraham reports further that in November 2005, Ghadry met with both Perle and Chalabi in Washington where they discussed “the next steps in Syria” for regime change. Ghadry later described his plan to gather all Syrian opposition groups to create a government in exile, and “Then, take people to [the] streets. Some people get killed. The international community gets further angry at the regime. Then, have NATO forces protect a safe zone in northern Syria,” on the border with Turkey, after which “we will move right away into Syria.” Ghadry explained further that, “There will be some revenge killings, unfortunately. There will be a fight among opposition groups. . . . But the U.S. and France will be like traffic cops, who would organize and ensure” a peaceful transition.
The regime-change desired by Ghadry and his American handlers depended not only on an Iraq-style invasion and occupation, but also on inciting a sectarian civil war of the sort also raging in Iraq at the time. In reviewing an essay written by Ghadry, Syria expert and academic Joshua Landis observed, “Ghadry stipulates that by opening up a sectarian war inside Syria, the regime will fall. He encourages Washington to facilitate this and to — ‘stir trouble amongst the Sunnis of Syria’ — with the goal of causing the collapse of the Asad regime, preferably by a coup.” Landis notes further that Ghadry “takes the neocon policy of ‘creative chaos’ to its logical conclusion, which is to fan the flames of the sectarian war being waged in Iraq to bring down the neighboring regimes and break the Middle East wide open. He presumes that Washington will end up siding with the Sunnis in Iraq against the Shiites and harness Saudi Arabia to this task.”
Ghadry’s strategy to use sectarianism to destabilize the Syrian government likely did not originate with him, but with his American handlers such as Richard Perle. US planners had long viewed inciting sectarian tensions in Syria that would culminate in civil war as beneficial. This strategy was articulated in a 1986 CIA memo entitled, “Syria: Scenarios of Dramatic Political Change,” and is worth quoting at length due to the emphasis the document places on inciting anti-government protests in Syria of the kind seen in 2011. The memo explains that, “We believe that a renewal of communal violence between Alawis and Sunnis could inspire Sunnis in the military to turn against the regime. . . . disgruntlement over price hikes, altercations between citizens and security forces, or anger at privileges accorded to Alawis at the expense of Sunnis could foster small-scale protests. Excessive government force in quelling such disturbances might be seen by Sunnis as evidence of a government vendetta against all Sunnis, precipitating even larger protests by other Sunni groups. . . . Regime efforts to restore order would founder if government violence against protestors inspired broad-based communal violence between Alawis and Sunnis. A general campaign of Alawi violence against Sunnis might push even moderate Sunnis to join the opposition. Remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood, some returning from exile in Iraq, could provide a core of leadership for the movement. Although the regime has the resources to crush such a venture, we believe brutal attacks on Sunni civilians might prompt large numbers of Sunni officers and conscripts to desert or stage mutinies in support of dissidents, and Iraq might supply them with sufficient weapons to launch a civil war.”
Watching the Carnage in Iraq
According to a December 2006 US State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks, US embassy officials in Damascus similarly suggested that the US should use sectarianism to destabilize the Syrian government, in this case by playing “on Sunni fears of Iranian influence.” The cable explains that “There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis. Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business. Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here, (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders), are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue.”
As Robert Naiman observed, “This [December 2006 State Department] cable was written at the height of the sectarian Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq. . . . No one working for the US government on foreign policy at the time could have been unaware of the implications of promoting Sunni-Shia sectarianism.”
US planners realized that the anti-Shia sectarianism of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (who was killed by US forces in June 2006) could be beneficial for US and Israeli interests in neighboring Syria. A leaked email to Hillary Clinton from her advisor Sidney Blumenthal explained that “the fall of the House of Assad could well ignite a sectarian war between the Shiites and the majority Sunnis of the region drawing in Iran, which, in the view of Israeli commanders would not be a bad thing for Israel and its Western allies,” because it “would distract and might obstruct Iran from its nuclear activities for a good deal of time,” and possibly “even prove to be a factor in the eventual fall of the current government of Iran.”
As noted in the State department cable above, US planners sought to coordinate closely with the Saudi government to publicize the alleged threat of Shiite and Iranian influence in Syria. In his book, “The last decade in the history of Syria: the dialectic of stagnation and reform,” Syrian sociologist Muhammad Jamal Barout, notes as a result that during early anti-government demonstrations in Syria in 2011, the slogan, “No to Iran! No to Hezbollah!” became common. Barout writes that, “The merging of hostility for the [Syrian] regime and Hezbollah was the result of the Salafi propaganda campaign originating from the Gulf countries which targeted Shiites generally, and which focused on the concept of the Shiite-Nusayri [Alawite] alliance, as expressed in the writings of Muhammad Sarour Zein al-Abbedine.” Muhammad Sarour was a prominent Syrian Salafi cleric living in exile who was famous for writing a book (under a pseudonym), titled “Then Came the Turn of the Majus,” which inspired al-Zarqawi to call for genocide against Iraq’s Shia population. As I have discussed elsewhere, Sarour and his followers later played a prominent, though often unacknowledged, role in the early protest movement that erupted in Syria in 2011, including in Deraa.
Al-Jazeera, the Qatari-owned satellite news channel, played a key role in promoting the Salafi propaganda campaign originating from the Gulf countries as well, in accordance with US interests. As Iraqi-British author Sami Ramadani notes, Qatar’s rulers “saw in Al Jazeera a vehicle for spreading their political influence,” just as “Qatar became the headquarters of US military operations throughout the Middle East. Al Jazeera remains one of the root sources of constant scares about a supposed sectarian threat from Iranian and ‘Shia’ influence in the region.”
It should further be noted that US planners were not promoting this Salafist propaganda campaign to topple Assad because he was unpopular with Syrians. As Syria analyst Camille Otrakji observed, “Had President Assad been so unpopular with ‘the Sunnis’ … why did America’s embassy need to manufacture Sunni anger?” US planners were aware that although President Assad did not come to power via democratic elections, he was nevertheless extremely popular. Washington Post reporter David Ignatius, who enjoys access to many US military and intelligence sources, wrote in November 2005 for example that, “It’s hard to find a Syrian who doesn’t want Assad to remain at least as a figurehead. He’s a symbol of stability for a country nervously watching the carnage in Iraq. Sami Moubayed, a Syrian analyst, is probably right when he tells me that ‘the president would win in a landslide if there was an election.’” Nevertheless, US planners were willing to spark a sectarian war in the country to depose Assad’s government.
The Brotherhood Option
Farid Ghadry enjoyed good relations not only with neoconservative US planners but also with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and its leader, Ali al-Bayanouni, who was seeking to foster better relations with Bush administration officials himself. The Muslim Brotherhood was seen as crucial to help “stir trouble amongst the Sunnis of Syria.” Although the Brotherhood had only an underground presence in Syria and membership in the group was punishable by death, Salim Abraham notes that nevertheless, “the brotherhood is believed to be able to mobilize the already high religious sentiment in the country.”
Ghadry’s hopes of coming to power in Syria on the back of American tanks floundered, however, when a more useful option to act on behalf of US interests emerged. In December 2005, Syrian vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam shocked observers when he announced his defection from the Syrian government. Khaddam had been a member of the Baath’s Regional Command for 30 years and had controlled the Syrian government’s Lebanon file, which gave him significant influence over Lebanese politics. According to al-Sharq al-Aawsat, the loss of this file in 1998 to Hafez’s son, Bashar, “did not sit well with Khaddam and his allies in Lebanon.” In 2005, Khaddam formally defected and accused the Syrian government of assassinating his friend, Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. Khaddam moved to Paris and began organizing for regime change in the country he left behind. Khaddam then partnered with Brotherhood leader al-Bayanouni, who turned his back on Ghadry, to form a new opposition group in exile, the National Salvation Front (NSF) in March 2006. The group immediately called for anti-government demonstrations within Syria.
The NSF’s status was elevated in October 2006, when several of its members met with Michael Doran of the US National Security Council, who was a close associate of prominent neoconservative and Bush administration official Elliott Abrams. Representatives of the NSF were also given a meeting with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz the same month. The Wall Street Journal reported that Elliott Abrams warmed to the idea of partnering with the Brotherhood after Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah fought Israel to a standstill in the summer of 2006, which caused Washington to become “increasingly concerned about Syria’s military alliance with Iran, and the threat it posed to U.S. interests in the region.”
Though gaining in popularity with US planners, the NSF, and the US-backed Syrian opposition broadly, had little credibility with Syrians themselves. Leading opposition figure Riad al-Seif explained in April 2007, “The image of the U.S. is so bad that if you’re against the regime, you’re an American spy.” According to Seif, Syrians had no desire for regime change, in part because they wished to avoid the societal collapse and sectarian war taking place next door in Iraq courtesy of the 2003 US invasion and occupation.
Joshua Landis notes that when the NSF collapsed in 2009, the group had been so discredited it “caused hardly a murmur among Syrians.” US planners nevertheless continued to work with both the Brotherhood and with Khaddam to effect regime change in Syria.
Neoconservatives Embrace “Non-Violence”
As part of this effort, US planners funded and trained a network of political and media activists to agitate for regime change by organizing protests and producing anti-government propaganda.
The Washington Post reported in April 2011 that “The State Department has secretly financed Syrian political opposition groups and related projects, including a satellite TV channel that beams anti-government programming into the country, according to previously undisclosed diplomatic cables. The London-based satellite channel, Barada TV, began broadcasting in April 2009 but has ramped up operations to cover the mass protests in Syria as part of a long-standing campaign to overthrow the country’s autocratic leader, Bashar al-Assad. Barada TV is closely affiliated with the Movement for Justice and Development [MJD], a London-based network of Syrian exiles. Classified U.S. diplomatic cables show that the State Department has funneled as much as $6 million to the group since 2006 to operate the satellite channel and finance other activities inside Syria.”
The Post explained further that the MJD, “which is banned in Syria, openly advocates for Assad’s removal. U.S. cables describe its leaders as ‘liberal, moderate Islamists’ who are former members of the Muslim Brotherhood.” This suggests the MJD was a Muslim Brotherhood front group created to receive US funding. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2007 for example that, “The U.S. has traditionally avoided contact with the Brotherhood across the Middle East. But now the State Department and National Security Council have begun to hold regular strategy sessions on Syria policy with the NSF and is funding an organization linked to it [emphasis mine].” As noted above the National Salvation Front (NSF) was formed by Abd al-Halim Khaddam and Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Al-Bayanouni.
The founder and director of Barada TV was Ausama Monajed, who was also director of public relations for the MJD. In 2008, Monajed attended a “Syria in Transition” conference in Washington DC, as well as a luncheon with President Bush where he was photographed with Condoleeza Rice. Monajed later partnered with journalist Michael Weiss of the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a neoconservative British think tank, to produce reports advocating US military intervention in Syria. The HJS counts various prominent American neoconservatives among its patrons, including Richard Perle, former CIA director James Woolsey, and Project for a New American Century founders and Iraq war advocates William Kristol and Robert Kagan.
The connection between US financing of “activities inside Syria” and regime change was tacitly acknowledged by US officials themselves. The Washington Post noted further that the leaked cables “show that U.S. Embassy officials in Damascus became worried in 2009 when they learned that Syrian intelligence agents were raising questions about U.S. programs,” and that Syrian authorities “would undoubtedly view any U.S. funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change.”
The Post reports as well that much of the funding for Syrian opposition groups discussed in the cable, including the MJD, was provided via the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a program established by neoconservative members of the Bush administration in 2004, and overseen by Vice President Cheney’s daughter Liz, who held the post of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.
Syrian opposition activists received training specifically from the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). The center was founded by US-funded Serbian activists from a group called Otpor, which helped overthrow Slobadan Milosovic in 2000. At that time, Otpor activists were trained through a State Department program run out of the US embassy in Hungary using philosophies of non-violence adapted from the teachings of academic Gene Sharp.
Otpor co-founder, Srdja Popovic, had close ties with US planners, attending a December 2009 National Security Council (NSC) meeting to discuss events in Iran. Popovic also gathered intelligence for Stratfor, the private intelligence firm that bills itself as a “Shadow CIA,” and provides services to corporate clients including the American Petroleum Institute, Archer Daniels Midland, Dow Chemical, Duke Energy, Northrop Grumman, Intel, and Coca-Cola. A Strator analyst that worked with Popovic described Otpor as “basically go[ing] around the world trying to topple dictators and autocratic governments (ones that U.S. does not like).”
MJD public relations director Ausama Monajed was apparently among those Syrian activists trained by CANVAS. In April 2011, just after the outbreak of protests, al-Jazeera reported that Monajed was “inspired by the writings of University of Massachusetts professor Gene Sharp on non-violent struggle against totalitarian systems, and by the Serbian pro-democracy movement that brought down Slobodan Milosevic. He now runs a team of volunteers in Europe and the US lobbying policy makers to pressure the Syrian regime and publishes a daily digest of news and videos on the protest movement gathered from inside the country.” As will be discussed below, Monajed and his team of volunteers (in other words, Muslim Brotherhood activists) controlled the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page that was crucial in organizing early anti-government protests.
The Sugar Daddy of Overt Operations
Similar training programs were also organized for activists in Egypt, providing a further window into what type of support Syrian opposition activists like Monajed received. The New York Times reports that according to cables leaked by Wikileaks, opposition activists in Egypt received training from organizations funded by both the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and State Department.
The NED has a long history of openly funding opposition groups in countries targeted by Washington for regime change. These overt activities often complement the largely covert activities of the CIA. Washington Post reporter David Ignatius described the NED in 1991 as “The sugar daddy of overt operations,” while quoting NED cofounder Allen Weinstein who explained that “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”
The New York Times notes further that “Some Egyptian youth leaders attended a 2008 technology meeting in New York, where they were taught to use social networking and mobile technologies to promote democracy. Among those sponsoring the meeting were Facebook, Google, MTV, Columbia Law School, and the State Department,” and that, “Affiliating themselves with the American organizations may have tainted leaders within their own groups. According to one diplomatic cable, leaders of the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt told the American Embassy in 2009 that some members of the group had accused Ahmed Maher, a leader of the January uprising, and other leaders of ‘treason’ in a mock trial related to their association with [State Department funded] Freedom House, which more militant members of the movement described as a ‘Zionist organization.’”
The 2008 technology meeting referenced by the New York Times was the Alliance for Youth Movements Summit, organized by State Department staffer Jared Cohen. Cohen had been recruited to the State Department in 2006 and became an aid to then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in part due to his insight that emerging technologies such as Blue Tooth could be used in innovative ways by Iranian activists to bypass government surveillance and communication shutdowns, and that such technology could play a role in political transitions (in other words, regime change). Cohen came to this realization while traveling in Iran as part of a research trip in which he sought to interview Iranian opposition leaders, but ended up spending most of his time hanging out with young, tech savvy Iranians.
The Great Right Hope
When President Obama took office in January 2009, he appointed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Neoconservatives applauded Clinton’s appointment due to her hawkish foreign policy views, calling her the “Great Right Hope” and the conservative’s “Woman in Washington.”
Under Clinton, the State Department remained a bastion of hostility toward Syria within the broader US foreign policy establishment. Lee Smith of the neoconservative The Weekly Standard wrote in 2010 that the Syrian government was “a regime that much of Washington loves to hate” and that “Many of those who are most contemptuous of the Syrian regime are to be found in the State Department.” This included Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who as the Bush administration’s ambassador to Lebanon from 2004-2008 became known as an anti-Iran and anti-Hezbollah hawk. Feltman became a point man for the Obama administration’s relations with Damascus and was viewed as a “hardliner” on Syria.
As journalist Rania Khalek observed, Clinton’s alliance with the neoconservative movement would grow over time and win her its strong support during her 2016 presidential campaign. Clinton’s outspoken neoconservative supporters included Iraq war architect Robert Kagan and former deputy CIA director Mike Morrell, who praised Clinton for her hawkish stance on Syria. CIA support for Clinton is unsurprising, given that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had close ties to the CIA stretching back to at least the 1980’s. As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton was involved in the CIA operation to ship weapons to the agency’s proxy army, the Contras, that sought terrorize Nicaraguan society and topple the socialist Sandinista government.
Jared Cohen was one of the few members of the State Department’s Policy Planning division retained by Secretary Clinton, and he continued to advise on policy in the Middle East. Cohen played a crucial behind the scenes role in helping Iranian opposition activists use emerging social media technology, in particular Twitter, to coordinate protests during the so-called Green Revolution in June 2009. Like the Syrian activists mentioned above, some Iranian opposition activists had also been trained in non-violent tactics for regime change by Otpor in Serbia.
Secretary Clinton bragged about the State Department role in discreetly facilitating the protests in Iran, even though this undermined President Obama’s policy of non-intervention in Iranian affairs at the time. According to Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Soloman, Obama wished to engage Iran in talks for a deal to end Iran’s nuclear energy program and had allegedly even ordered the CIA to sever its contacts with Iran’s Green Movement supporters.
Cables released by Wikileaks later made clear that Obama’s and Clinton’s differing views on intervention within Iran were simply tactical. The New York Times reported that “When Mr. Obama took office, many allies feared that his offers of engagement would make him appear weak to the Iranians. But the cables show how Mr. Obama’s aides quickly countered those worries by rolling out a plan to encircle Iran with economic sanctions and antimissile defenses. In essence, the administration expected its outreach to fail, but believed that it had to make a bona fide attempt in order to build support for tougher measures,” including an “array of sanctions considerably harsher than any before attempted.”
By the time of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Obama administration’s obsession with regime change in Iran was made explicit. David Sanger of the New York Times noted in April 2011 that, “Containing Iran’s power remains their [Obama administration’s] central goal in the Middle East,” and that “Every decision — from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain to Syria — is being examined under the prism” of how to “slow Iran’s nuclear progress, and speed the arrival of opportunities for a successful uprising there.” Promoting regime change in Syria played a key role in such calculations because, “as some in Mr. Obama’s war council have noted, if protesters succeed in Syria, Iran could be next [emphasis mine].” Sanger notes further that the NATO bombing of Libya was undertaken in part to send a threatening message to Iran and to illustrate US military capabilities to Iranian planners.
An Agenda of Regime-Change at Heart
In his book “Surveillance Valley,” journalist Yasha Levine details how US planners facilitated the training of anti-government activists in the Arab world, Iran, and elsewhere during this period in the use of an internet privacy software called Tor. The concept upon which Tor was based was discovered by US Navy researchers and developed into usable software by military contractor and US intelligence agency consultant Roger Dingledine. The Tor project was spun off as a non-profit led by Dingledine, but by 2008 was still operating almost entirely on grants from the US government, including from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Navy, the State Department, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an outgrowth of the CIA’s propaganda arm.
Levine notes that in 2008, a hacker named Jacob Applebaum joined Tor and was tasked with marketing the product to the broader the hacker community and to cyber dissidents from countries viewed as US enemies. For Tor to provide anonymity for elements of the US intelligence services using the software, it was necessary that many unrelated users also employ the software for their own purposes, whether they be hackers, criminals, drug dealers or child pornographers. Ironically, Applebaum’s marketing campaign helped Tor gain credibility as a useful tool to fight US government spying and privacy overreach, despite its US government origins and funding, as did later endorsements by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whose organization relied on the software to receive and disseminate leaked documents.
Applebaum and Assange met in 2005 and became good friends, with Applebaum joining Wikileaks in 2010 as its only member from the United States. Applebaum’s association with Wikileaks allowed him to obscure his activities on behalf of the US government (even portraying himself as a victim of US government surveillance and harassment) and to disassociate Tor in the public mind from its creators and ongoing funders in the US military. Internal Tor email communications obtained by Levine via FOIA request also show that Applebaum and Dingledine passed on information about their relationship with Wikileaks and the “inner workings of Wikileaks’ secure submission system” to their government handlers at the BBG. This information was presumably then passed on further to other government agencies who also had a deep interest in Wikileaks’ activities. As Levine notes, “It’s not clear whether Assange knew that Applebaum’s salary was being paid by the same government he [Assange] was trying to destroy,” and which would in turn later plot to assassinate him.
In December 2009, Applebaum toured several countries in the Middle East to train activists in the use of Tor, including as part of an Arab Bloggers Workshop in Beirut. Applebaum attempted to visit Syria during this time as well, presumably for similar purposes, but was unsuccessful for unknown reasons.
Applebaum also visited US-ally Qatar during the same trip to train employees from the state-owned al-Jazeera satellite channel in the use of the software. The US partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood discussed above naturally extended to partnering with al-Jazeera, which was widely regarded as a Brotherhood mouth-piece due to the Qatari monarchy’s support for the group.
The US partnership with al-Jazeera later became explicitly evident when a 2012 email from Jared Cohen, by that time at Google, to Hillary Clinton was leaked by Wikileaks. Cohen informed Clinton of a tool Google had developed to track defections from the Syrian government, and that Google had partnered with al-Jazeera to broadcast updates from the tool into Syria. Al-Jazeera later took credit for the development of the tool, while acknowledging assistance from Movements.org, the successor to Cohen’s State Department-funded Alliance for Youth Movement (AYM).
Jacob Applebaum’s activities, and the broader promotion of what US planners called “Internet Freedom,” may seem innocuous at first glance, but played a crucial role in promoting US efforts at regime change in Syria. Jillian Yorke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which also promoted Tor and participated in the 2009 Arab Bloggers workshop in Beirut, later admitted that “I do fundamentally believe that the State Department’s ‘Internet freedom agenda’ is at heart an agenda of regime change.”
Such a view was later confirmed by Rolling Stone, which wrote that “By using Tor in place of another browser, protesters and journalists can log on to Twitter or surf dissident chat rooms with far less risk of being tracked by a government that might imprison them or worse. . . . .During the Arab Spring, Tor helped facilitate protests throughout the Middle East.” Rolling Stone cited Mauritanian activist and Tor proponent Nasser Weddady, as explaining, “There would be no access to Twitter or Facebook in some of these places if you didn’t have Tor. . . . All of the sudden, you had all these dissidents exploding under their noses, and then down the road you had a revolution.”
Google’s Director of Regime Change
In June 2010, State Department planners Jared Cohen and Alec Ross led a delegation of tech executives on a trip to Syria. Under the pretext of promoting business investment in Syria, Cohen sought to convince Syrian officials to allow increased penetration of the social media tools that would later be needed to topple the Syrian state. The New York Times reported that, “Their delegation, which included representatives from Microsoft, Dell, Cisco Systems, and other companies, met with Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and other senior officials, as well as younger entrepreneurs who are bucking their country’s tight control of the Internet. The delegation told Mr. Assad that companies would invest more in Syria if it stopped blocking social media Web sites like Facebook and YouTube, and did a better job of protecting intellectual property [emphasis mine].”
Alec Ross made the real purpose of his and Cohen’s trip explicit four months later. In a September 2010 internal State Department email Ross wrote that, “When Jared and I went to Syria, it was because we knew that Syrian society was growing increasingly young (population will double in 17 years) and digital and that this was going to create disruptions in society that we could potentially harness for our purposes. In what is the 1st of what I predict will be many interesting cases in the future, this past week a campaign went viral on Facebook in Syria (even though Facebook is outlawed in Syria it is widely accessed through proxies) showing teachers in Syria abusing their pupils. Thousands of Syrians made public their support on Facebook (the fact that people made their identities known is notable) for the campaign to remove these teachers, and the Ministry of Education intervened and fired the teachers. This is the first known case of a successful social media campaign in Syria. More will come [emphasis mine].
Shortly after Cohen’s and Ross’ trip to Syria, Fortune magazine noted that Cohen “advocates for the use of technology for social upheaval in the Middle East and elsewhere.”
In September 2010, Cohen left the State Department to join Google, not to transition away from promoting regime change, but “because he wanted a different avenue of attack” in the words of Greenwich Magazine. In a fawning profile of Cohen, Greenwich described Cohen’s Google division, known as Google Ideas and later Jigsaw, as “as a sort of free-floating state department with private sector efficacy,” and that “Cohen quite suddenly sits at a great nexus of technology and power and influence.”
Julian Assange later observed that Cohen’s activities at Google in triggering anti-government protests in Egypt in January 2011 amounted to “active corporate intervention in foreign affairs at a level that is normally reserved for states,” and that “Jared Cohen could be wryly named Google’s ‘director of regime change.’”
Promoting Human Rights, or Propaganda?
Prior to 2011, the US government funded not only Muslim Brotherhood and cyber dissident activists, but also organizations that claimed to be neutral Syrian human rights observers. Instead, these groups functioned as organs to disseminate US government propaganda under a seemingly credible guise. One such group was the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS). DCHRS was not based in Damascus as one might presume, but in Washington DC, while the group’s founder, Radwan Ziadeh, held fellowships with various US and UK think thanks and universities. In 2010, shortly before the outbreak of war in Syria, he was a fellow with the CIA cut-out National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Ziadeh later became director of foreign relations for the Syrian National Council (SNC), which represented the US, British, and Gulf-backed political opposition abroad. In February 2012, Ziadeh joined prominent neoconservatives including Max Boot, Liz Cheney and John Hanna to sign a letter to President Obama advocating Western military intervention in Syria.
Another allegedly independent and neutral Syrian human rights activist was Razen Zeitouneh, who was based in Damascus and enjoyed close ties with the US embassy there. When the Washington Post reported on US government funding of opposition groups in Syria, it said it “was withholding certain names and program details at the request of the State Department, which said disclosure could endanger the recipients’ personal safety.” However, the leaked State Department cables note that Zeitouneh was providing reports to US embassy personnel and had secretly met with US officials, including State Department Foreign Affairs Officer Joseph Barghout, as early as 2009.
Zeitouneh was also in contact with Robert Ford, who became US Ambassador to Syria in 2010. Zeitouneh secretly met with Ford in person shortly after the crisis erupted, in May 2011. According to Deutsche Welle, Zeitouneh was using a computer provided by a State Department-funded program at the time of her 2013 abduction by Saudi-sponsored militants from Jaish al-Islam. Presumably, this laptop would have allowed her to communicate with US officials in a secure manner.
It is also clear that Zeitouneh was among the activists receiving US funding as part of the broader regime change effort long before 2011. Zeitouneh partnered with another well-known opposition activist, Mazen Darwish, to form the Local Coordination Councils of Syria (LCC). These were established in advance of the Syrian crisis, rather than in response to it. Darwish told fellow opposition activist Zaina Erhaim that the LCC were first established in 2009, at the time of the so-called Green Revolution in Iran, and that the LCC intensified its activities after anti-government protests toppled the Tunisian government in January 2011. Darwish explained that “We were hiding behind the others’ movements, supporting them, knowing that Syria was next. . . In February 2011, we organized a meeting with Razan and some Kurdish parties to discuss the possibility of using the occasion of Nowruz (the Kurdish New Year) as the spark for the Syrian revolution.”
Erhaim herself notes the US funding the group received, explaining that “During its active years, the LCC got its funding from the French and U.S. governments.” The LCC a was a spin off from an earlier group, the Syrian Center for Media and Free Expression (SCM), which was also founded by Darwish, in this case in France in 2004, and which received funding from the NED and George Soros’ Open Society Foundation (OSF). The OSF was a donor to the Democratic party and known for its prominent role in promoting the so-called Color Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine on behalf of the US government.
Zeitouneh also formed the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), which started as an LCC project but became an organization of its own after the Syrian crisis began and became a source of information for Western journalists regarding the conflict.
The case of Razan Zeitouneh is a reminder that, as Syria commentator Camille Otrakji has observed, “The United States finds it normal that it should influence, organize, promote, or brainwash local activists” in Syria.
Wissam Tarif, the executive director of a group called Insan (or “human” in Arabic), was another allegedly neutral human rights campaigner that received US funding to disseminate anti-Syrian government propaganda. When interviewed by Western media outlets, Tarif, who is Lebanese, was typically presented as Syrian, and Insan as a Syrian rather than foreign human rights organization. For example, in an appearance on CNN with Anderson Cooper on March 23, 2011 (5 days after the first protests in Deraa) Cooper vaguely described Tarif as a “human rights activist in Syria” while Tarif spoke as if he had lived in Syria his whole life, stating “We have been living in this country for 50 years under emergency law. This element of fear has to be broken.”
Tarif was wrongly identified as Syrian in the early weeks of the conflict by the New York Times (April 13, 2011), the Christian Science Monitor (May 3, 2011), Die Welt (June 24, 2011), and the Guardian (March 2, 2012), while the Washington Post and New York Times wrongly described Insan as a Syrian human rights group (April 23, 2011 and May 10, 2011). Atlantic journalist Uri Friedman was virtually alone in identifying Tarif as Lebanese, and in pointing out that Insan was based in Spain rather than in Syria.
Journalist Vanessa Beeley reports that, like Mazen Darwish’s SCM, Insan also received funding from George Soro’s Open Society Foundation (OSF), an indication he was working on behalf of US interests. That these outlets falsely described Tarif and his OSF-funded organization as Syrian, when it was easy to determine they were not, suggests the deliberate spreading of disinformation. These outlets wished to give Tarif’s reports, and by extension their own reporting, more credibility, and to promote the narrative preferred by US planners.
Tarif claims he moved to Syria in 2002 to establish an institute to teach computer science and languages. The institute was renamed Insan in 2007 and supposedly become an advocacy group. Tarif was then deported by the Syrian government a few months later for the activities of his organization. There is no indication Wissam returned to Syria until March 2011. Wissam claims he entered Syria twice, in March and again in April 2011, without the knowledge of the authorities and that he visited both Deraa and Douma.
Uri Friedman noted the ubiquitous presence of both Tarif and Zeitouneh in Western coverage of the early protests in Syria. Friedman wrote on April 23, 2011 that all the reports from major media outlets “cite a human rights activist named Wissam Tarif when discussing the death toll and how the clashes between protesters and security forces transpired. Given media restrictions in Syria, activists like Tarif and human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh are becoming critical conduits of information for foreign journalists reporting on the increasingly bloody uprising in the country.”
The fact that so many Western media outlets relied on the same two people, Tarif and Zeitouneh, as their chief sources of information, suggests coordination with the intelligence services to platform only those voices that would reliably promote the preferred US narrative.
Just a few weeks after protests erupted in Syria, Tarif was working directly for another OSF-funded advocacy group, Avaaz. According to Avaaz’s website, the organization was founded by and modeled on MoveOn.org, an internet-based advocacy group established to campaign for the Democratic party. MoveOn.org is in turn funded by Soros’ OSF.
Writing for the New Republic, journalist Simon van Zuylen-Wood reports that Avaaz is a New York-based advocacy group founded in 2007 that “distributed proxy servers to dissidents during Iran’s Green Revolution,” and “was one of the first NGOs to react to murmurs of rebellion in [Syria].” According to Avaaz co-founder Ricken Patel, “Everyone told us that Syria wasn’t going to blow up. We didn’t buy that.”
According to Wissam Tarif, in April 2011, “Avaaz got in touch with me, and asked about what was needed—cameras, satellite phones, SAT modems, DSL phones. Avaaz ran a fundraiser and sent the stuff into Syria.” According to a Western analyst quoted by NPR, Avaaz “flooded the place with [satellite] phones and computers, and they have their own contacts with the Western media and connect the two.” Tarif then “oversaw the training of ordinary Syrians who subsequently re-entered their country to report on what was going on. As Syria became increasingly dangerous and difficult to penetrate, Western journalists came to rely ever more on Avaaz’s daily e-mail briefings, which compiled information from 200 such Syrian ‘citizen journalists.’ (About 600 reporters receive Avaaz’s briefings).”
In other words, so-called human rights groups such as Insan and Avaaz, led by Wissam Tarif, the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) and Violations Documentation Center (VDC) led by Razan Zeitouneh, and the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS) led by Radwan Ziadeh, were not independent human rights groups seeking to objectively document human rights violations. Instead, these groups were founded to promote anti-Syrian government propaganda in concert with US objectives. By portraying US-funded activists as neutral human rights campaigners and promoting them in the Western press, US planners were able to control the narrative surrounding the early events in Syria.
As the Syrian conflict progressed, two additional ostensibly independent human rights groups, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) and Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), were created and became prominent sources for the Western press for news about events in Syria. Both are similarly based in, and funded by, states that are belligerents in the conflict, namely Qatar and the UK, respectively. As journalist Max Blumenthal observes, these groups have been a major source of information (or disinformation) pertaining to the war for virtually every Western media outlet and human rights group, including the New York Times, the Guardian, and Amnesty International, among many others. The SNHR has been the source of the most egregiously false accusations against the Syrian government and has openly and aggressively campaigned for Western military intervention.
God Forbid the Baath Falls
When anti-government protests erupted in several Arab countries, collectively known as the “Arab Spring,” starting in December 2010, the necessary infrastructure was therefore in place for US planners to manufacture a crisis in Syria. US planners were able to draw on a variety of resources; secular and Muslim Brotherhood activists using social media technologies, sham human rights monitors, and sectarian Salafist preachers. As I have detailed elsewhere, US planners also had at their disposal a network of armed Salafist militants managed by regional US allies, including Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Abd al-Halim Khaddam, and Saad Hariri, which would be tasked with attacking Syrian police and security forces under the cover of the anti-government demonstrations.
These actors all variously worked to “stir trouble” among at least a segment of Syria’s Sunnis, namely the Salafist community, and thereby open a sectarian war meant to lead to regime change, in accordance with US objectives.
For many Syrians, it was easy to perceive the looming danger. This fear was particularly acute within Syria’s Christian community, who had some foreknowledge that the US effort to provoke sectarian war was near implementation. Journalist Brad Hoff, who lived in Syria off and on between 2004 and 2010, explains that he received “confirmation from a handful of Syrian Christian individuals that in 2010 into early 2011 (just before the conflict started in Syria), U.S. intelligence officers were contacting them and very aggressively seeking their assistance – trying to make them assets. . . . . Suffice it to say that some Syrian Christians had been essentially tipped off by U.S. intelligence operatives that something big was coming for Syria, again, significantly prior to the actual start of the war (basically there were some ‘work for us’ or we won’t be able to protect you kind of arrangements being pitched…or rather ‘threats’ perhaps). In one glaring instance, an official from the then existent U.S. Embassy in Damascus (it closed in February 2012) tried to convince a well-liked local Syrian Christian man who had spent a career working for major American news outlets in the Middle East (thus he had a lot of high-level media contacts across the globe) to become part of the U.S.-recognized ‘political opposition’ in Syria. Keep in mind this was before such an ‘opposition’ body was even brought into existence [emphasis in the original].”
Hoff notes that the ramifications of a possible regime change war in Syria were also clear to the Christian community, who had seen during the height of the Iraq War that “Christians are being slaughtered in Iraq and the West does not lift a finger to protect them,” in the words of Antiochian Orthodox Church’s Bishop of Baghdad and Kuwait, Ghattas Hazim.
Time journalist Rania Abouzeid similarly noted on March 6, 2011, and less than two weeks before the first major anti-government protest, that, “Syrians don’t have to look far to see what wholesale regime change looks like. It isn’t pretty.” She quoted one Syrian as warning, “God forbid, God forbid the Baath falls here. We will wish we were as unstable as Iraq . . . Iraq will look like a paradise.”
Sadly, the cogs of Washington’s regime change machine had already long been set in motion. As Guardian journalist Charlie Skelton later observed, “This has been brewing for a time. The sheer energy and meticulous planning that’s gone into this change of regime – it’s breathtaking.” The first step, as described by Farid Ghadry, was to “take people to [the] streets,” so that “some people get killed.”
Taking People to the Streets
Large scale anti-government protests erupted in Tunisia on December 18, 2010, and in Egypt on January 25, 2011. Seeking the same outcome, opposition activists in Syria used Facebook to call for demonstrations as part of a “Day of Rage” demanding the “fall of the regime” on February 4, 2011. The BBC reported that “The organizers behind the [Syria Revolution Facebook] page claimed they were not from any political group but were simply activists and rights campaigners from Syria and Europe.”
However, as Syria expert Joshua Landis reports, the Syria Revolution Facebook page was controlled by Muslim Brotherhood activists. The administrator of the site was a Brotherhood member based in Sweden. AFP also noted the connection between the Syria Revolution Facebook page and the Brotherhood, via Ausama Monajed, the public relations director of the Brotherhood front group, the US-funded Movement for Justice and Development (MJD). AFP reported that Monajed was “one of the most prominent coordinators of the ‘Syrian Revolution’ pages on Facebook.’” Monajed explained to AFP that he was responsible for coordinating with the international media, including al-Jazeera and Saudi-owned al-Arabia, and to help them contact sources inside Syria. As noted above, Monajed had close ties with US planners. He met President Bush directly in 2008 and attended non-violence trainings from the State Department-funded Serbian activist group, Otpor.
As a result of Brotherhood control of the Syria Revolution Facebook page, calls to protest on February 4, 2011 did not appeal to Syrians’ desires for democracy, as many outside observers imagined, but rather to desires for revenge against the Syrian government for defeating the Muslim Brotherhood’s armed insurgency, which culminated in the 1982 battle for Hama. Syria analyst Camille Otrakji observed that “Syria’s Islamists talk about ‘justice’ (politically correct way to express their lust for revenge). The original date set by the organizers of the Syrian revolution coincided with the 29th anniversary of the events of Hama,” and the content of those comments on the Syria Revolution page calling for protests on February 4, “was easily 90%+ sectarian and revenge driven.”
Otrakji further observed that, “If you read the older posts on the Syrian Revolution Facebook page (before they got a facelift and professional PR help), you wouldn’t believe how much religious language you find, and also how much deception there is. They were trying to whip up sectarian hysteria, to radicalize Syria’s Sunnis so as to bring down the regime. This is not what most Syrians want, but they have enough Syrians they can potentially influence.”
Ribal al-Assad, a cousin of President Assad, but also an opposition figure and head of the London-based Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria similarly observed that, “The campaign was a bit outrageous. First, they’ve chosen a date that reminds people of the uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood. People don’t want to be reminded of the past. They want change, but they want it peacefully. And the picture they used on Facebook, a clenched fist and red color like blood behind. It was like people calling for civil war and who in his right mind wants that?” The use of the clenched fist logo was another indication of the foreign origin of the protest movement, as this was the logo used by US-funded Otpor activists in Serbia who had trained Ausama Monajed other anti-government activists abroad.
Refusing the Call
According to BBC Arabic, calls for protest on February 4 “did not succeed,” however. This was not only due to the sectarian messaging visible on Facebook, which appealed only to a small segment of Syrian society, including only a small segment of Syrian Sunnis, but also due to the popularity of President Assad himself. Rania Abouzeid observed a month later that Assad “has outlasted U.S. neocon threats of regime change,” and that “Even critics concede that Assad is popular,” in part because “Assad has a hostile foreign policy toward Israel and stridently supports the Palestinians and the militant groups Hamas and Hizballah.” In other words, Assad was popular for the very reasons US planners wished to topple his government. Abouzeid further quoted opposition activist Ammar Qurabi as acknowledging that, rather than Iraq-style regime change, the “majority want and request that the President undertake reform within the party, the government and the security agencies. That is important.’”
What Will They Do to Me?
The failed call for protests on February 4 was followed by additional efforts bring the so-called Arab Spring to Syria. Rania Abouzeid writes that, “On Feb. 19, the son of a store owner in Hariqa, near Souq Al-Hamidiyah in Damascus, was insulted and allegedly beaten by a traffic cop. Nothing unusual so far. But then hundreds, and by some accounts more than 1,000 people quickly massed into an angry crowd, chanting ‘the people will not be humiliated.’ Within half an hour of the incident, the country’s powerful interior minister was on the scene, apologizing and promising that the alleged culprit would be reprimanded.”
Activists organized another protest in Damascus on February 23, 2011 in which they confronted both regular and riot police in front of the Libyan embassy. In this case, they were demonstrating in support of anti-government protests in Libya. When the protestors ignored police warnings not to move closer to the embassy, they were confronted by riot police that hit and verbally abused them. Fourteen were arrested and taken to the political security division of the Interior Ministry. Abouzeid writes that according to one of the detainees, “I was thinking if this is the beating I get outside, in the open, what will they do to me once they get me inside?” Abouzeid notes however that once they reached the ministry, the detained protestor “was surprised. The group was offered water, the use of the bathroom and the chance to wash up before being addressed by an officer who seemed to be in charge. ‘He didn’t introduce himself to us, but he said, “We are all the sons of this country, we don’t doubt your nationalism or your love for your country, but we would prefer that this episode not be repeated.”’”
Activists again used Facebook to call for anti-government protests to take place on March 15, 2011, but according to Muhammad Jamal Barout “the call was not answered” once again. Barout writes that, “On March 15, a demonstration began in Damascus, with a gathering of five people in front of the Umayyad Mosque. The protestors then marched in the Hamidiya market, and when they approached the Hariqa neighborhood, dozens of other demonstrators joined and were dispersed by security forces, who arrested six of them.” The following day, Razen Zeitouneh and Mazen Darwish organized a small sit-in at the Ministry of Interior in Damascus, and Darwish was arrested days later. Well-known opposition activist Zuher al-Atassi, who comes from a prominent family from Homs, was arrested at the demonstration.
The decision to protest in March was made in part to encourage Syria’s Kurdish population to revolt, as this is the month when Syria’s Kurds hold annual commemorations of the Iraqi government’s 1988 gassing of Kurds in Halabja, the 2005 Kurdish revolt against the Syrian government in Qamishli, and the Newroz holiday. Barout notes however that the, “Kurds responded negatively to these activist requests.” Like most Syrians, “They wanted to achieve their goals through methods of understanding, and not by methods of pressure on the regime.” Saleh Muslim, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), later explained that what the Kurds wanted was a “secular Syria” and that is why “we chose a third way; we are opposed to the regime; but we refused to join a revolution that starts from mosques.”
Though calls for regime change and anti-government demonstrations on February 4, 19, 23 and March 15, 2011 had virtually no popular support, including among Syria’s Sunnis, this was not necessarily an obstacle for US-funded activists seeking regime change. All that was needed was a spark. As Barout observed, what was important about the March 15 demonstration in Damascus “was not the modest number of demonstrators, which did not exceed dozens, but its slogans. This is the logic of the growth of the ‘snowball’ or ‘fireball,’ which creates a self-motivating dynamic that goes beyond the question of modest numbers, to point to the core of the new process of social change. A fire can be started under favorable conditions with a match.”
Creating the Snowball
As Jared Cohen of the US State Department and later Google observed, “revolutionary triggers can be very superficial,” and can be manufactured through creating “grievances that weren’t there to begin with.” Speaking at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in May 2012, Cohen explained that “in the future it’s going to be very easy to generate a lot of noise, but as I mentioned it is still going to be relatively hard to orchestrate a real and meaningful and successful revolution. And a dictator in the future is going to have the tough task of distinguishing between what’s superficial noise, meaning a lot of online activity that looks like a revolution that really has no physical legs, and a real revolution that is sort of hidden beneath that. And where they actually get this wrong or overreact or underreact is where they’ll actually make a mistake that turns something that might otherwise just be noise into a real revolution. . . . So what you see is in the future, revolutionary triggers can be very superficial, and seem very benign. But revolutionary triggers also will be much easier to find. Regimes that can’t manage this turbulence, regimes that can’t manage all their citizens plus their virtual entourages are the ones that are going to make mistakes, and the ones that create grievances that weren’t there to begin with. Now when we look at all these dictatorships around the world, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there’s a formula, lots of angry unhappy people plus technology equals revolution and democratic change. And it’s not quite that simple.” While referring to this dynamic as the ”Dictator’s Dilemma,” Cohen went on to cite an example from Singapore, which is governed under a multi-party parliamentary system. Cohen noted that a dispute between two residents about which days they were allowed to cook curry quickly erupted into street protests over broader questions of immigration, after government overreaction to the initial dispute.
Cohen’s observation illustrates that Facebook was not a way for facilitating a popular revolution for democratic change, but rather to spread rumors and false news that can be used to incite division among different groups that could cause governments to overreact in response.
Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive who wrote algorithms based on the idea of the “attention economy,” explained in 2017 that “I used to think that the algorithms which operate, which I actually was part of teams building such tools, were democratic because it’s based on engagement. If you like it, more people are going to see it. If you don’t like it, less people are going to see it. But I grew into thinking that these are actually mobocratic algorithms, from mobocracy or the rule of the mobs. . . we are very emotional creatures and when the tools are all about agreeing, so the more you are polarizing, the more you are sensational, the more you are against the other. . . . then the algorithms are going to give you all the distribution you want. What are you going to do next? You are going to be more polarizing because that’s how it works.”
Ghonim had himself created the “We are all Khalid Said” Facebook page, which he used to help organize the first major anti-government protest in Egypt on January 25, 2011 in coordination with his fellow Google colleague, Jared Cohen. Ghonim viewed it as his “role to create the snowball” that would lead to the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Wael Ghonim’s coordination with fellow Google executive and former State Department planner Jared Cohen is illustrated by Ghonim’s detention by Egyptian authorities two days after the January 25, 2011 protest that triggered events in Egypt. According to Ghonim, his interrogators “were 100% convinced that foreigners are behind us, that someone manipulates and finances us.” Ghonim denied this, claiming he had tricked Google into giving him a leave of absence for personal problems to leave his offices in Dubai to return to Egypt as the revolution erupted.
It was clear, however, that Ghonim and his fellow protest organizers from the April 6 Movement were being directed and funded by US planners. Egyptian authorities were able to locate Ghonim because he had met with Cohen, who had entered the country a day before and was being tracked by Egyptian security services. Ghonim claimed that Cohen’s visit to Egypt was simply a coincidence and had nothing to the with the outbreak of protests.
Such a coincidence is impossible given that Cohen’s entire career at the State Department and Google had focused on promoting just such an event, and that the April 6 Youth Movement, which had also played a crucial role in organizing the January 25 protests on Facebook, was part of Cohen’s Alliance for Youth Movement and had been coordinating directly with the State Department since 2008.
Cohen’s role behind the protests in Egypt was also made clear in leaked emails from Fred Burton of the private intelligence firm Stratfor (Burton was himself a former State Department security official) in which he observed that “Google is getting WH [White House] and State Dept support and air cover,” while noting what he viewed as “Google’s covert role in foaming up-risings.”
The Writing on the Wall
It is widely assumed that the spark that started the Syrian uprising came from several young boys who, in a brave act of political defiance, painted anti-government graffiti on the walls of their school in the southern Syrian town of Deraa in February 2011. The graffiti stated, “It’s your turn, doctor,” suggesting that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, trained as an ophthalmologist before coming to power, would be the next dictator to fall as a result of the Arab Spring protests. According to this narrative, the boys were then detained for several weeks and tortured by Syrian intelligence, including by having their fingernails pulled out. When the boys’ family members met with Syrian intelligence officers to appeal for their release, one officer humiliated the families further by alluding to raping the boys’ mothers. The first major protest in Syria then took place on March 18, 2011 in Deraa as family members and other residents protested to demand the release of the boys and ask that other local grievances be addressed.
The story as described above, has some basis in fact but has been distorted and exaggerated in several important ways. To begin, the boys did not write anti-government graffiti as an act of willful and spontaneous protest. Instead, opposition activists had previously started a campaign to paint anti-government graffiti on buildings in a variety of Syrian cities. As part of this campaign, opposition activists in Deraa manipulated several younger teenage boys into writing political slogans on the school wall that the boys themselves did not understand. Further, there is an indication the activists knew the boys would be arrested and mistreated and sought to use such an incident to spark anti-government protests in Deraa in the same way the deaths of Khalid Saeed and Muhammad Bouazizi were used to spark demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia.
Azmi Bishara, a well-known al-Jazeera analyst and the general director of the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, investigated this issue in his book, “Syria – A Way of Suffering to Freedom.” Bishara explains that after Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt led to the fall of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on January 14, 2011 and February 11, 2011 respectively, hope spread in Syrian activist circles that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad could be deposed as well. As a result, these activists undertook to write slogans on walls in public spaces such as “It’s your turn, doctor” and “God, Syria, Freedom, that’s all” and the “People want the downfall of the regime.” Bishara notes that according to opposition activist Ra’id Abu Zeid, activists from the Syrian National Party, the Socialist Union Party, and the Communist Action Party, graffitied these slogans on walls in multiple Syrian cities, including in Damascus proper, in the town of Tel in the Damascus countryside, and in Deraa. Bishara notes as well that writing political slogans on walls was not a new tradition in Syria, and that similar campaigns had been undertaken during the period of conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and Syrian government in the early 1980’s and after Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, as president of Syria in 2000. At that time, slogans appeared on walls of mosques such as “The country was ruined when it was taken over by a boy.”
Bishara notes that according to interviews his research team carried out with relatives of the boys, no information confirmed that any of the children had written slogans on the walls. Rather, most of the testimonies his team collected suggested this was instead done by what Bishara called “party activists.” An uncle of one of the detained children indicated that their detention was based on a political security report submitted by a policeman in the Deraa al-Balad neighborhood, after the children had been throwing rocks at the policeman during his shift manning a checkpoint there. This policeman then complained to political security that the children were throwing Molotov cocktails at him, and this was the direct reason for their detention. According to one narrative, the boys were then wrongly accused of writing on the school wall during their detention. Other reports indicated that the children were accused of this because the names of some of them were found written on the wall under the slogan, “The people want the downfall of the regime.”
The New York Times similarly reports that one of the boys detained for allegedly writing the graffiti, aged 15, described how his cousin had set fire to a police kiosk on the same day the graffiti was written. That some of the teenagers were attacking police kiosks suggests as well that they were political activists in their late teens rather than young, non-political boys.
We now know, however, that while several teenagers were detained for throwing Molotov cocktails at the police, several did paint anti-government slogans on their school wall and were detained as a result. The boys did not paint the graffiti as an act of political defiance, however, as is commonly claimed. Instead, opposition activists told them what to write, and pressured them to do so.
This is evident through reporting by Mark MacKinnon for the Globe and Mail, who managed to locate one of the young boys years later and interview him. Mackinnon writes that “Naief Abazid had no inkling that he was about to launch a revolution, or anything else that has followed. He was just doing what the bigger kids told him to. Trying to make them laugh. ‘It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad,’ he painted, just under the window of the principal’s office of the all-boys al-Banin school in his hometown of Daraa. The date was Feb. 16, 2011. . . . . ‘I was the youngest one in the crowd. They told me what to write,’ Naief recalled [my emphasis].”
Naief was quickly arrested. Mackinnon reports that Naief was detained when a Syrian intelligence officer pulled him out of class the next day. It was apparently easy to identify Naief and several other boys because their names were also painted on the school wall. As mentioned above, Bishara indicated that “some of the people of Deraa mention that the accusation [of writing anti-government slogans] was directed at the children because the names of some of them were found written under the slogan ‘The people want the downfall of the regime.’” Naief later confirmed this to Mackinnon, who explained that a security officer “said he wanted to talk to Naief about some graffiti on the school wall, and told the boy to follow him outside. (Naief later realized that he had written his name a year earlier on another part of the school property; that sample of his handwriting was all the evidence the security forces would need).”
Mackinnon writes further that, “At the mukhabarat office, Naief was hung by his wrists from the ceiling, his feet dangling several inches off the ground. Then, the security men started to whip the wispy 14-year-old with thick cables. Through his pain, the boy counted 40 strokes. After being arrested and tortured, Naief Abazid was taken from Daraa to a security office in Suwayda, and then to the feared Palestine Branch’s headquarters in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Next, his body was folded into the inside of a tire – a particularly cruel piece of torture already made infamous by the Assad regime’s interrogators – and rolled forcefully down a hallway until the tire slammed into a concrete wall with Naief inside. For the next 10 days, he was kept in an isolation cell that he remembers as a metre and a half long and just a half-metre wide. Every hour or half-hour, he was subjected to another session in the tire, or another round of lashes. . . . Eventually, [Naief] gave his torturers the names of five boys who had been in the crowd that urged him to write the graffiti. Those five would in turn be arrested and tortured into giving up the names of others who had been at the school that night, as well as some who weren’t, until there were 23 boys in custody.”
Activists Leading the Crowd
Mackinnon also managed to locate and interview one of the opposition activists, known as Abu Fuad, who pressured Naief into writing the anti-government slogans on the school wall. Mackinnon writes that “Abu Fuad also isn’t a real name. It’s a nomme de guerre adopted by a now 23-year-old man [or 18 years old in 2011] who, even living in faraway Germany, is still tormented by the al-Assad regime. Wiry, bearded, he pulses with an angry revolutionary vibe that neither Naief nor Jamal possess. . . He is also still a wanted man in Daraa. He was jailed once, in October 2011, after his spray-paint smuggling operation was discovered by soldiers. The police later found that he had a Jordanian mobile phone and, more incriminating still, a memory card full of videos he’d taken during the early protests against the regime.” In other words, Abu Fuad was an opposition activist who took part in the broader anti-government graffiti campaign.
Mackinnon reports further that, “After 12 days of being hung from his wrists, Abu Fuad admitted to having painted anti-regime graffiti, and to having helped organize demonstrations. . . . The whole family fled immediately to Jordan, except for Abu Fuad, who stayed to do what he could to help the revolution. He says that he never fired a weapon, but instead used his motorcycle to help transport Free Syrian Army fighters who were wounded in battle. . . . Naief says it was Abu Fuad who led the crowd that encouraged him to write ‘It’s your turn, Doctor al-Assad’ on the wall of al-Banin school. Abu Fuad agrees that it was Naief who wrote those words, and that someone else put them in his head. But he swears he wasn’t at the school that day.”
This indicates that either Abu Fuad, or another opposition activist leading the crowd, pressured Naief, a younger, non-political schoolboy into writing the anti-government slogans on the wall, including telling him what to write, as part of a broader opposition graffiti campaign.
Amplifying and Promoting Rumors
Rumors soon spread about the torture several of the boys were subjected to, some real (if we take Naief’s above description of his torture to Mckinnon at face value), and some certainly exaggerated. Bishara writes that, “There are many accounts and rumors that have emerged about the torture of the children, mentioning that the detained children were exposed to burning, and hot irons, and ripping out their fingernails. And these accounts are all exaggerations and incorrect it appears (as we can see from the identical testimonies of [opposition activists] Ra’id Abu Zaid and Wa’el Rashidaat and Nizar al-Hiraki). It is correct that the children were exposed to torture in the security branch in Suwayda, but what was said about burning and pulling out their fingernails were rumors that were not confirmed by any source. And they were later exploited for tactical political purposes, for example, the incident was used politically against the Syrian regime to provide a symbol and provide moral significance to the boys’ detention resembling that of Muhammad Bouazizi in Tunisia and Khalid Saeed in Egypt. And this makes clear the influence of the Arab Spring, including amplifying an event and promoting it in a way that motivates people to protest.”
Bishara’s view about the exaggerated reports of the torture of the boys in Deraa is confirmed by Rania Abouzeid, who reported from within Syria for several years during the war. Writing for Time, Abouzaid concluded, “The ‘Daraa children,’ as they were dubbed in the media, weren’t children, and many had nothing to do with the writing on the walls, but tales of their harsh treatment in custody (real and embellished) sparked protests for their release, demonstrations that ignited the Syrian revolution in mid-March and christened Daraa as its birthplace.” An opposition activist from Deraa, Abd al-Qader al-Dhoun, similarly claimed that he had seen reports in the French media and in al-Jazeera about the boys, but that “there was some exaggeration in them.”
In response to the boys’ detention, a delegation of local elders and religious clerics met with the head of the political security branch in Deraa, Atef Najib, who is a cousin of President Assad, to request the release of the boys. Opposition sources reported that one security official responded to this request by humiliating the members of the delegation by saying “Forget your children. If you really want your children, you should make more children. If you don’t know how to make more children, we’ll show you how to do it.”
The threat to rape the mothers of the detained boys was also an exaggeration. Of this meeting, Bishara writes that “rumors spread like fire” that the delegation of elders and clerics “heard words that stabbed the honor of their women, and that they responded to this humiliation with great anger,” however, “the truth is that we were not able confirm the truth of these anecdotal rumors. But it is clear that the delegation was exposed to humiliation, and which caused a dynamic of protest, according to a formula of traditional solidarity representing local and tribal pride against humiliation.”
That several pro-opposition sources point to exaggerations regarding the boys’ torture leads us to wonder if they were tortured at all. When Naief Abazid gave his account to MacKinnon for the Globe and Mail about writing graffiti on the school wall, several years had passed and the narrative of the boys being tortured had long become accepted wisdom in opposition circles. It would be difficult for Naief to go against this narrative while telling his story publicly. Further, if the intelligence services were torturing even young boys in such terrible ways, it is unlikely that opposition activists would have to fabricate so many false claims of government atrocities during this early period (discussed in more detail below). True stories of torture and massacres would have been enough to encourage wide-scale protests.
These events of course require us to ask, why did opposition activists pressure several non-political teenage boys into writing anti-government slogans on the wall of their school? Why were boys pressured to write graffiti who had already graffitied their own names on the school walls previously? Presumably, these activists would know that the boys were likely to get caught and would face severe punishment, and if the stories are true, even torture. It is understandable if the activists themselves wished to express anti-government views using graffiti or any other method. But why would they seek to include unwitting young boys who had no idea what they were writing? Further, why would activists spread false rumors that the boys had had their fingernails ripped out? Why would opposition activists spread false rumors that security officials threatened to rape the boys’ mothers?
As mentioned above, opposition activists had used Facebook to call for demonstrations as part of a “Day of Rage” demanding the “fall of the regime” already on February 4, 2011 some two weeks before the boys were pressured to write on the school walls, and that these calls to protest “did not succeed.”
Opposition activists therefore needed to manufacture an incident resembling the horrendous deaths of Muhammad Bouazizi and Khaled Saeed, to create sufficient anger against the government to encourage people in Deraa and elsewhere to protest, as Bishara points out. The hope was to portray the government as waging a war on Sunnis, to convince at least a segment of the country’s Salafist community to transition from a quietist to activist stance and take to the streets to demand the fall of the secular state. The nature of the torture of the young boys in Deraa was therefore exaggerated to stoke this anger further and was exploited to encourage people to protest out of solidarity for fellow tribal members, as noted by Bishara above.
Opposition activists may have also strategically chosen which boys to pressure into writing on the walls. According to the opposition activist from Deraa mentioned above, Abd al-Qader al-Dhoun, “the children who had been arrested for drawing slogans against the president were from several families or clans, Aba Zeid, Mahamid, and Masri. But the majority were from the Aba Zeid family, which is famous because it has always had bad relations with the government. Basically, half the family belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood and the other half is Communist.” By ensuring that boys from the Abu Zeid clan were detained (including Naief Abazid, discussed above), the activists were able to amplify any pre-existing hostility between the clan’s members and the government.
But why did Najib detain, allegedly torture, and then refuse to release the boys? Najib’s motivation was apparently to obtain information about the activists behind the graffiti campaign and broader calls for the overthrow of the government. The interrogation of the boys yielded the names of several of these activists. Najib apparently feared that Deraa would be used as a base for overthrowing the government in the same way Benghazi had been used to overthrow the Libyan government led by Moammar al-Qaddafi. Benghazi fell to US-backed opposition control on February 21, 2011, just five days after the boys graffitied the school wall and while they were still in detention. The fall of Benghazi led to later efforts by Syrian authorities to prevent protestors from establishing a headquarters in the Omari Mosque in Deraa.
For Najib, the graffiti campaign and calls on Facebook for the overthrow of the government in February represented the early stages of such a conspiracy. Phil Sands of the UAE-owned National explains that according to one Syrian security official, Najib “is a hero. He really was the first one to discover the conspiracy against Syria, he saw it before the rest of us.” Najib’s paranoia regarding the efforts of outside powers to carry out regime change in Syria eventually proved to be justified. Ironically, his cruel torture (real or not) and lengthy detention of the boys in Deraa played a role turning many Deraa residents against the government and opened the doors for the very intervention of foreign powers Najib apparently thought he was preventing. In other words, Najib faced the dilemma US planners such Jaren Cohen wished for him to encounter, and Najib overreacted in a way that helped cause events in Syria to snowball out of control.
March 18, 2011
The strategy of Syrian opposition activists ultimately proved successful. Political security chief Atef Najib’s actions, combined with anti-Alawite and anti-Shiite sectarian messaging on social media from opposition activists created sufficient anger among some of Deraa’s residents to set the stage for the first significant anti-government protest in the country on Friday March 18, 2011.
Reuters claims that three men, Wissam Ayyash, Mahmoud al-Jawabra, and Ayhem al-Hariri “were killed when security forces opened fire on Friday [March 18] on civilians at a peaceful protest demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption in Syria.” This established the narrative that continues to frame outside perceptions of the Syria over a decade later.
These claims were reinforced by video released by opposition activists the day after Deraa’s first protest. Rania Abouzeid reports that “a Facebook page entitled ‘The Syrian Revolution 2011’ which has more than 56,000 fans, appears to be emerging as a key virtual rallying point for pro-democracy supporters. On Saturday [March 19] it posted a 39-second video purportedly shot in Dara’a of a group of men gathered around a bloodied youth in a black t-shirt who appeared to be dead. A volley of gunshots is heard, scattering the crowd. There was no date on the video, nor any way to verify where the footage had been obtained.”
While few questioned the veracity or credibility of such unverifiable videos at the time, as the Syrian conflict progressed, it became clear that, as journalist Patrick Cockburn observed, many of the videos of this sort published on Facebook and You Tube amounted to “black propaganda” from the opposition. These easily manipulated videos were passed on by the Western and Gulf press in a manner resembling the simple spreading of rumors. Cockburn notes that, “Of course, people who run newspapers and radio and television stations are not fools. They know the dubious nature of much of the information they are conveying.”
A closer look at events on March 18, 2011, provides a much different picture. According to the Deraa activist Abd al-Qader al-Dhoun, protests began in the southern Syrian city that Friday when a small group of young men gathered in front of the Hamza bin al-Abbas mosque and began chanting “God is Great” and “Freedom.” Within a half hour, the mayor came to speak with the protestors, after which the governor of the province came as well. The young men presented their demands to the governor, including demanding the release of political prisoners, including Islamists, and restoring to their teaching positions the female employees of the education ministry who chose to wear the niqab (they had been forced to leave their teaching posts and work in other ministries, alongside male employees). The young men soon became angry and began chanting against the governor, and throwing rocks at him, forcing him to flee. Many of the young men were religious students of Sheikh Ahmed Siyasna, the imam of the nearby al-Omari mosque. After the governor fled, the protestors went to the al-Omari mosque for the Friday sermon, and started a new protest there with a larger group of some 1,500 people.
Muhammad Jamal Barout provided further details of the protest in Deraa on March 18, 2011 based on his interview with al-Jazeera’s then Damascus bureau chief, Abdul Hamid Tawfiq. Barout writes that “protestors, with the families of the children at the front, headed towards the al-Omari mosque. They chanted ‘Where are you, oh people of al-Faz’a’ and ‘God, Syria, freedom, that’s all’ and ‘There is no fear after today,’ and they also chanted against the head of the political security branch, Atef al-Najib and against the governor Faisal Kalthum, and against business tycoon Rami Makhlouf. . . . Then they headed to the political security branch building to burn it down [emphasis mine].
Muhammad Jamal Barout notes further that “The security force collapsed in front of the overwhelming and angry human torrent [of protestors]. After about two hours, at approximately 3:30 pm, four helicopters called by the head of the Political Security Branch, carrying soldiers specialized in combating terrorism and wearing black uniforms, landed, which the demonstrators thought were from Hezbollah [emphasis mine].”
Sheik Siyasna, imam of the al-Omari mosque, confirmed protestors efforts to burn public buildings, telling the government-run Tishreen newspaper that, “There were elements from outside Dara’a determined to burn and destroy public property . . . .These unknown assailants want to harm the reputation of the sons of Hauran. . . . The people of Dara’a affirm that recent events are not part of their tradition or custom.” It is unclear if Siyasna really believed that unknown elements from outside Deraa were leading the rioting, or whether he was simply trying to shield his supporters from blame. Either way, he does not deny that violent rioting occurred.
According to Sheikh Youssef Abu Roumieh, a representative from Deraa in the Syrian People’s Assembly, the first protestors were shot when the anti-terrorism units arrived by helicopter. Abu Roumieh claimed that these special units were called in by Political Security chief Atef Najib, and that “they immediately went down to shoot the civilians in Daraa,” and were “preventing ambulances transporting the wounded to the hospital. So they took the Omari Mosque as a hospital for the wounded.”
The Israel National News also pointed to rioting in Deraa in subsequent days, claiming that “On Friday [March 18, 2011] police opened fire on armed protesters killing four and injuring as many as 100 others. According to one witness, who spoke to the press on condition of anonymity, ‘They used live ammunition immediately — no tear gas or anything else.’ At the funerals of two of those killed opposition leaders handed authorities a list of demands, which included the release of political prisoners. In an uncharacteristic gesture intended to ease tensions the government offered to release the detained students, but seven police officers were killed, and the Baath Party Headquarters and courthouse were torched, in renewed violence on Sunday.”
Like Abu Roumieh, the Israeli news site assigns blame to Syrian security forces for killing four protestors, but adds an important detail, that police opened fire on armed protestors and that seven policemen were also killed at some point between Friday and Sunday. As academic Michel Chossudovsky observes, “From the initial casualty figures (Israel News), there were more policemen than demonstrators who were killed: 7 policemen killed versus 4 demonstrators. This is significant because it suggests that the police force might have been initially outnumbered by a well organized armed gang. According to Syrian media sources, there were also snipers on rooftops which were shooting at both the police and the protesters. What is clear from these initial reports is that many of the demonstrators were not demonstrators but terrorists involved in premeditated acts of killing and arson. The title of the Israeli news report summarizes what happened: Syria: Seven Police Killed, Buildings Torched in Protests.”
This calls into question whether the four demonstrators who were killed were peaceful civilian demonstrators. It is possible they were instead armed militants killed in clashes with the anti-terror forces but portrayed by opposition sources as unarmed civilians. Such a scenario occurred three months later in the town of Jisr al-Shagour. According to journalist Rania Abouzeid, an armed militant named Basil al-Masry was killed while attacking a government check point. Masry’s death angered many residents of the town, who believed rumors that Masry had been unarmed when he was killed, rather than carrying out an armed operation. As a result, his funeral doubled as an anti-government demonstration on June 5. As protestors approached the local post office, several hundred Islamist militants emerged from among the protestors and opened fire on government snipers stationed atop the post office roof. The militants then threw incendiary devices inside the post office doors, lighting the building on fire and burning eight people to death, before turning to attack the nearby military security building, where state security and political security personnel were holed up inside. When the Syrian authorities sent a convoy of soldiers to come to their assistance, the Islamist militants ambushed their convoy, killing some 120 of the soldiers.
A Soldier’s Story
Independent journalist Gail Malone interviewed a Syrian soldier who was present in Deraa on Friday March 18, 2011, who provided a similar account of events that day, including that protestors were armed and opening fire on Syrian security forces.
Soldier: So, we go that Friday 1.00pm after they finished the prayers. We were surprised that they didn’t come from the Mosque only, they came from other neighbourhoods and they were surrounding us. They took over the house rooves, any street entrance, everything. And they started shouting Allah Akbar! So, they surrounded us and they started throwing molotov cocktails and rocks on us from every corner, we were surprised. We only had the Fire Engine, the hose water, and the Civil Police formed the first line having riot shields and batons. We were surprised to hear the sound of machine guns not just Kalashnikovs, AKs or something like this, but things that shoot a lot of bullets and all my friends were falling around me. Lots of people were injured and ambulances were not enough to take them to the hospitals, they ran out of ambulances to take them to the hospital.
Malone: Did you see who … where the bullets were coming from?
Soldier: It was coming … because Dara’a town there is, part of it is a bit higher than others. We were in he lower part, the shooting was coming from up. Plus some of the demonstrators were holding guns and they were using their pistols. The numbers started to grow bigger and bigger and the shooting started becoming more and more and it wasn’t possible for us to locate the snipers because of what they were throwing at us, so we had to run. And all this happened and we didn’t have a clash, a face to face clash. All of this. There wasn’t a face to face clash.
Malone: How did you feel at the moment?
Soldier: Unbelievable, I didn’t expect to go through this. We had a permission contrary to what happened, we didn’t expect, we didn’t know they would be shooting at us, killing our friends, it was unbelievable.
Malone: They were more organised than expected?
Soldier: Yes, they were organised like, each group do this work and this work. So, they knew what they were doing.
Malone: Were there foreigners in that early time?
Soldier: I don’t know, we didn’t see them face to face. My best friend was shot, so I felt anger and sadness. I felt anger because we were ambushed in this way and all we had was batons, we couldn’t defend ourselves. We had to run, they were shooting us like birds. And the demonstrators blocked all the entrances leading to us, so no ambulances was able to reach us whatsoever, at that point. I carried my best friend and what matters for us now is to protect him and protect ourselves until we get to safety. While we were running, we were seeing our friends the civil police, how they were being killed in front of us, or shot at.
Malone: What number were the demonstrators?
Soldier: Thousands, you cannot count them. They just shouted for help in all the neighbourhoods of Dara’a and everybody came. So, we needed to retreat because it’s our first time of being attacked like this and we don’t know the city, we don’t know where to go. We were surrounded by everyone by then, we didn’t know what was happening. We didn’t know the streets, we didn’t know anything. We start running and because the heavy shooting there were still soldiers being shot. At that point we were running for our lives. Run for your lives! And on our way running in the street, they started throwing at us pieces of concrete and planters, hot water, anything they can throw at us, they were throwing everything at us. Women and men. Somehow we found our way to our headquarters, we reached it. And we were surprised that when we reached there they came and surrounded us at the headquarters. They were shouting Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar and freedom, freedom and stuff like that. They told us to form a line of defence inside the headquarters so not anyone can jump on over the walls. At the headquarters we had a big flag, about 4 metres, they wanted to burn it down. That flag was on a big iron stand, so the demonstrators bought ropes and tied it up to the big iron pole, brought in a big truck and pulled it down and burned it. And they started throwing molotov cocktails and we weren’t given orders to … to, just a line of defence.
Malone: Were there weapons at headquarters available?
Soldier: When this all happened, President’s orders; all Police Stations were to lock or take out all the Kalashnikovs that the personnel have, take it out, just batons. Now, I’m convinced that the leadership knew of what was being planned for the country, they knew and that’s why they did that. At the beginning we hated that but now I’m convinced they knew. So after all what happened, after the attack and them destroying us, the leadership kept telling us, just have patience, just have patience.
Malone: OK, just go back to the police station, you’re surrounded, no weapons …
Soldier: The demonstrators were shouting at us, ‘if you are brave men, come out … come out’. We were not allowed to go out, we stayed inside the headquarters. We stayed surrounded for a couple of hours and then they went out to their houses. Then we sat there feeling very sad and very shocked … what happened? What just happened today?
That Syrian security forces were initially unarmed, and were shot at by armed demonstrators, is likely difficult to accept for many observers, because it runs so counter to the accepted narrative about the Syria conflict. However, there is video of just such an incident in the city of Homs in subsequent weeks. A member of the Syrian security forces, Muhamad Yusuf Ateeq, was shot and killed by snipers while armed only with a baton and plastic shield for riot control.
Additionally, the soldier’s claim that the security forces were using a fire hose from a fire engine rather than weapons to control the riots was confirmed by opposition sources. The Muslim Brotherhood website Ikhwan Online.com itself published an article from AFP noting that video emerged of the authorities in Deraa using “water cannons belonging to fire engines” to disperse the demonstrators.
Finally, it should be remembered that young men in Deraa had been attacking Syrian police with Molotov cocktails already in February. As discussed above, this was confirmed by the New York Times and Azmi Bishara during their investigations of the detention of the young boys who had graffitied the school wall. This means it is plausible that protestors were also attacking the security forces in a similar way on March 18, as described by the soldier.
The Motorcycle Men
Another possibility is that the four protestors were killed not by the anti-terror units, but by Salafist militants as part of a false flag attack.
Amidst the chaos in Deraa that day, the Syrian government attempted to diffuse the situation by sending a top government official from Damascus to negotiate with a group of prominent Deraa elders representing the protesters, led by Sheikh Siyasna. Barout writes that at the same time the counter terror forces arrived by helicopter, “a high-level political delegation arrived, led by Hisham Ikhtiyar, head of the office of National Security, who was known for dealing with crises and putting out fires. The central security committee, led by Ikhtiyar, agreed with the elders of Deraa on 13 points, foremost among them the resignation of the political security head [Atef al-Najib] and the governor of Deraa [Faisal Kalthum]. . . . . Ikhtiyar further informed the elders of Deraa that the president [Bashar al-Assad] had agreed to these demands, and the people now awaited them being carried out.” Barout notes as well that Ikhtiyar and Sheikh Siyasna, “came to an understanding, including to release the boys who had written on the walls, as they had not been released yet.”
Crucially for our purposes, Barout then reports that according to Abd al-Hamid Tawfiq, the Damascus bureau chief of al-Jazeera, “a few hours after the agreement between Ikhtiyar and Siyasna, a group of masked militants riding motorcycles opened fire on the demonstrators, killing four people between the hours of six and eight in the evening, including Ahmad al-Jawabra, who was considered the first martyr.”
According to Barout and Tawfiq then, the first protestors were killed not as an immediate response to the first protest early in the day Friday, but late in the day after several hours of violent riots had overwhelmed the security forces and necessitated sending both counter-terrorism units by helicopter and a high-level political delegation from Damascus to negotiate an end to the violence. Further, the first four protestors were not killed by men identifiable as from the counter terror units, but by masked militants riding motorcycles.
And who were the masked militants? Barout takes for granted they were from the government side. However, as I have detailed elsewhere, it is likely that any masked men on motorcycles carrying out such an attack would have been “saboteurs” or “infiltrators” from a third party. Subsequent events in Syria show that armed Salafist militants commonly used motorbikes to conduct hit and run attacks against the security forces and army. Further, there is evidence that foreign militants from al-Qaeda affiliated groups were infiltrating the early protests, using them as cover to attack the police and soldiers. This raises the possibility that the killers of the first protestors on March 18 were saboteurs from a third party of this sort.
It’s A Sabotage
But why would saboteurs from a third party want to kill protestors during the first major day of anti-government demonstrations? As discussed above, opposition activists demanding the fall of the Syrian government needed a spark, or several sparks, resembling the deaths of Khalid Saeed in Egypt and Muhammad Bouazizi in Tunisia to unleash public anger against the government and encourage people to protest. Opposition activists pressured the young boys into writing anti-government graffiti on their school wall for this purpose. If protestors were killed during a demonstration, and the deaths could be attributed to the security forces, this would help turn locals in Deraa, traditionally considered a Ba’athist stronghold, against the government. Due to the concept of Faz’a’, tribal leaders would be obligated to stand against the government and with the families of the dead from their own tribe. As discussed above, US-sponsored opposition politician Farid Ghadry had expressed the need for protestors to take to the streets, and for people to be killed, to create the spark needed to unleash a sectarian civil war that could topple the government.
Killing protestors right at this critical juncture and blaming it on the government would also sabotage Sheikh Siyasna’s efforts to win concessions from the government through negotiations, in exchange for putting an end to the protests and rioting. As noted above, Abd al-Hamid Tawfiq of al-Jazeera reported that the first protesters were killed “a few hours after the agreement between Ikhtiyar and Siyasna,” the perfect time to ensure any agreement between the two sides would fall apart. The father of one of the boys detained for writing graffiti on the school wall one month before indicated that the conflict could have been resolved peacefully, but that as the deaths of protestors mounted, “People became uncontrollable.”
An end to the protests in exchange for government efforts to answer local grievances and demands for reform was a disaster scenario for hardline elements of the opposition, who demanded the “fall of the regime” and wanted “revolution” from the start. This attitude was evidenced when local supporters of the exiled Salafist preacher Muhamad Sarour later accused Sheikh Siyasna of treason for his willingness to negotiate with the government and call for calm, and pressured Siyasna to radicalize his position, which he refused to do.
Whether the first dead in Deraa on March 18, 2011 were peaceful protestors murdered by the counter terror forces, militants killed in armed clashes, or victims of a false flag attack by Salafist militants from the opposition, the US-funded activists seeking regime change in Syria got the outcome they both wanted and needed.
Looking for the Leader
External meddling in Deraa is also apparent in that the protest on March 18, 2011 was organized in coordination with the Muslim Brotherhood activists controlling the Syrian Revolution Facebook page in Europe. AFP reported that after Friday prayers, Deraa residents responded to calls for protest by the Syrian Revolution Facebook page, which declared a “Syrian Day of Rage,” calling for “Revolution until freedom.” As noted above, one of the Brotherhood activists controlling the page was Ausama Monajed, who attended a luncheon at the White House with President Bush and received training by the State Department funded activist group, Otpor, in Serbia.
Additionally, activists within Sheikh Ahmed Siyasna’s circle were in touch with Jacob Applebaum during this period. As noted above, it was supporters of Siyasna that started the first protest in Deraa and began throwing rocks at the governor who was trying to listen to the protestor’s demands. Sheikh Siyasna then became the symbolic head of the protest movement in Deraa and the point person for negotiating with the government and conveying the protestors’ demands.
Recall as well that Applebaum had toured through the Middle East in 2009 to promote the use of the Tor privacy software among activists in the region on behalf of the US government, and that Tor played a crucial role in allowing activists to avoid government surveillance while using social media to plan protests and disseminate propaganda in the so-called Arab Spring countries.
Applebaum tweeted just 5 days after the first protests in Deraa that, “If media is looking for the leader of the Syrian revolution in Dara – I’ll pass contact information for Ahmad Sayasnah – DM me.” The fact that Applebaum was in touch with activists in Deraa within Siyasna’s circle is a further indication that the first protest in Deraa was organized at least in part by activists who had received previous training and funding from US agencies, and that they were coordinating with US planners via intermediaries such as Applebaum.
It should be noted here that although Siyasna was the most prominent early leader of the so-called Syrian revolution, and took a more moderate stance than the supporters of Muhammad Sarour, he was not an activist demanding democracy. In a May 2012 speech to a conference of the fundamentalist religious group Hizb al-Tahrir in Lebanon, Siyasna spoke of the protest movement as a “revolution of believers” to defend Islam against the secular and allegedly atheist Syrian government and its Shia allies, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Mahdi Army. The conference was organized to promote the goal of establishing an Islamic state in Syria. Despite the religious, and in most cases Salafist orientation, of the early protestors, the Western press would nevertheless portray the so-called Syrian revolution as a movement for democracy.
Siyasna’s relationship with Hizb al-Tahrir also raises additional questions about the role of Western intelligence agencies in the early period of the Syrian conflict. As journalist Nafeez Ahmed details, Hizb al-Tahrir was long been penetrated by the UK intelligence services.
The Men in Black
Opposition activists used the killings of the first protesters on March 18, 2011 in Deraa to further incite sectarian tensions and to try to turn the Sunni community against the government. They did this by spreading rumors that militants from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite resistance group, had participated in suppressing the protests. Azmi Bishara writes for example that, according to opposition activists Abu Anas al-Shami and Bilal Turkiya, “After hours from the protests in Deraa on March 18, 2011, the regime called in the Rapid Intervention forces and the counter-terrorism forces from Damascus, to take the sports stadium in Deraa al-Balad as a base for its operations. And it is worth mentioning that these teams are not familiar to Syrian citizens, as they had only been formed in 2005, but they did not appear internally in the country until 2010, and the regime rarely used them in security raids and prosecuting smugglers in late 2010. Members of these forces were wearing military uniforms that were black in color, which differs from the clothes that the army and security forces and police wear in Syria. And the people of Deraa were surprised by these forces and many people thought that elements of Hezbollah were invited by the regime to suppress the demonstrations, and this is what led to the appearance of the slogan ‘No to Iran, no to Hezbollah’ and for some of the activists of Deraa to make the accusation that Hezbollah was participating in the suppression of the demonstrations in the beginning of the revolution.”
It is of course odd that the average person in Deraa would mistake the rapid intervention or counter-terror forces for Hezbollah militants solely from the color of their uniforms, as Bishara suggests. More likely, opposition activists were actively spreading the rumor that Hezbollah, a Shiite organization, was suppressing the protest on Friday March 18, 2011 to discredit the Syrian government, incite sectarian tensions, and thereby bring more Sunnis into the streets to protest.
Evidence for this comes from that fact that opposition activists did attempt to spread false rumors about a supposed Hezbollah massacre in Damascus on the same day, March 18. Muhammad Jamal Barout notes that on March 20, 2011, while speaking to Saudi-owned al-Arabiya satellite channel, opposition supporter Mahmoud al-Homsi claimed that thousands of Hezbollah members entered the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus on Friday, March 18, and assaulted, killed, and injured tens of people with knives. Barout notes that this was a complete fabrication and that al-Homsi was attempting to exploit the fact that most of the protestors were Sunni.
As mentioned above, there was indeed a small protest on March 18, 2011 outside the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, following calls for protest on Facebook. According to AFP, the protest was dispersed when plain clothes members of the security forces beat protestors emerging from the mosque after Friday prayers and detained two protestors. This once again illustrates the at times harsh tactics of the security forces in responding to protests, but no one was killed, and Hezbollah was of course not involved, contrary to what al-Homsi claimed.
Al-Homsi later gained notoriety for his anti-Alawite hate speech, threatening in December 2011 that “From this day on, you despicable Alawites, either you renounce [Syrian president] al-Assad, or we will turn Syria into your graveyard. . . I swear that if you do not renounce that gang and those killings, we will teach you a lesson that you will never forget. We will wipe you out from the land of Syria.”
The confusion about who was killing who was compounded for Syrians due to claims of fake massacres and killings spread by US-trained opposition activists using social media and encryption tools. The dissemination of propaganda of this sort began in coordinated fashion just as the protests erupted in Deraa. On April 2, 2011, Newsweek journalist Mike Giglio published an interview with an activist using the pseudonym Malath Aumran, who had been organizing online against the Syrian government for three years (in other words since the time that the US State Department had partnered with the large tech firms to fund and train Syrian, Egyptian and Iranian cyber dissidents). Newsweek writes of Aumran that, “The photo he uses for public consumption evokes an eerie sense of familiarity, but isn’t real. A computer-generated amalgam of many men, it is everyone and no one at all. Even his virtual presence is a specter, concealed behind encryption. . . . For Aumran, who has spent the last three years trying to organize other activists online, social-media tools can be useful, although few Syrian activists use their real names. . . When demonstrations broke out in Daraa recently, phony activists on Twitter blasted out videos of massacres, which were duly picked up by dissidents including Aumran. The videos turned out to be fakes, discrediting the type of social-media elite who were crucial news sources in countries like Egypt and Tunisia.”
Though Gigli blames the fake massacre videos on the government, more likely the spread of such videos was done by the opposition to turn public opinion against the government. It was certainly not in the government’s interest to spread fake videos suggesting its own security forces were carrying out massacres. The usefulness of spreading such propaganda is precisely why US planners had spent years promoting the use of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tor among activists.
Days after Gigli’s Newsweek article, Aumran was identified by the Syrian government as Rami Nakhle, a Syrian activist who had fled the country in January 2011. Nakhle had been interrogated multiple times by the security services, who were, “suspicious of him due to his travels abroad and contacts with the activist and media communities.” By his own account, Nakhle worked for years with US clients Razen Zeitouneh and Mazen Darwish to establish the LCCs before the outbreak of protests in 2011.
During the first months of the so-called Revolution, Nakhle carried out his cyber activism from Beirut, and in August 2011 was spirited out of Lebanon by UN officials. Nakhle was brought to Washington DC where he began working for the US government-funded US Institute for Peace on a project known as the “Day After,” led by academic and Syria specialist Steven Heydemann. Nakhle then went on to become a member of the US, Gulf, and Turkish-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC).
The role of US and Saudi planners to topple the Syrian government was also evident during the early weeks of the crisis in the coastal town of Banias, where the government also deployed tanks, not to suppress protests but to respond to opposition attacks on Syrian soldiers and to prevent a sectarian war erupting between Alawite and Sunni residents. In this case, the agent working on behalf of US and Saudi interests was former Syrian Prime Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam. As discussed above, he defected from the Syrian government in 2005, and began working toward regime change at that time with both the Muslim Brotherhood and neoconservatives from the Bush administration.
According to researcher Sabr Darwish of the EU-funded and pro-opposition Syria Untold, protests in Banias began on March 18, 2011 as well, and were organized and led by Anas Ayrout, a local Sunni cleric and Imam of the al-Rahman mosque, with activist Anas al-Shaghri also playing a prominent role. Ayrout later became a member of the Western-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) and in 2013 called for killing Alawite civilians to create a “balance of terror” to compel them to abandon support for the government.
The demands of the protesters in Banias were largely of a conservative Islamic nature, rather than for democracy. According to opposition activist Bissam Walid, these demands included the release of a detainee, Ahmed Hudhayfa, who had been arrested in Damascus, returning female teachers who wear the niqab to their teaching positions, lowering electricity prices, and the end of mixed gender education for children.
During the first protest, demonstrators attacked an Alawite truck driver before Sheikh Anas Ayrout intervened to stop them. According to Sabr Darwish, protests in Banias were otherwise peaceful and allowed to go forward unsuppressed by government officials over the following three weeks, while government officials were also responsive to protestors demands. During protests on April 1, 2011 demonstrators chanted slogans against Iran and Hezbollah, criticizing their alleged intervention in Syria. The next week, demonstrators began a sit-in in the center square of the city.
Events in Banias became violent on Saturday April 9, 2011 when 9 Syrian soldiers were killed while traveling by military bus in Banias. Regarding the attack, the Guardian reported that, “Syrian soldiers have been shot by security forces after refusing to fire on protesters, witnesses said, as a crackdown on anti-government demonstrations intensified. Witnesses told al-Jazeera and the BBC that some soldiers had refused to shoot after the army moved into Banias in the wake of intense protests on Friday.”
The Guardian also quoted Wissam Tarif of Avaaz to support their account. Tarif claimed a conscript from Madaya village named Mourad Hejjo was one of those shot by security snipers and that “His family and town are saying he refused to shoot at his people.” The Guardian also linked to footage on YouTube that it claimed, “shows an injured soldier saying he was shot in the back by security forces.”
Prominent Syria expert and academic Joshua Landis quickly showed claims made by the Guardian and Wissam Tarif to be false and deliberately distorted. Landis showed that the soldiers were instead killed by opposition militants using sniper rifles from a distance as the soldiers’ bus was entering the town and that the injured soldier did not say he was shot in the back by security forces, nor was he instructed to fire on protestors.
Azmi Bishara later confirmed that opposition militants killed the soldiers as well. Bishara cites a political activist from the “Together” movement in Banias as explaining that opposition militants fired on the soldiers from an observation bridge on the international highway opposite the city which links Latakia and Damascus.
Making the Decision
The attack on the soldiers on April 9, 2011 was the first effort to launch an armed insurrection to take control of Banias. Pro-opposition activist Sabr Darwish acknowledges that Ayrout’s supporters sought a violent takeover of the city. Darwish tries to portray it as defensive in nature, despite the killing of the 9 Syrian soldiers. Darwish writes that, “There is no real consensus about the exact day the decision was made to liberate the revolutionary neighborhoods. However, according to many testimonies, it is agreed that Sheikh Anas Ayrout played a crucial role in every aspect of the events. Following Ayrout’s recommendation to self-defense and the subsequent blockades created by the youth, entire neighborhoods fell to the control of the residents.” Darwish claims that Anas Ayrout ordered his supporters to arm themselves, set up roadblocks, and to take control of several neighborhoods amidst rumors that Syrian security forces would invade the city and after cuts in the electricity and phone lines. Darwish writes that, “Although there was no clear sign that the regime was about to storm the city, with no increase in security presence in the streets or military reinforcements surrounding the city, the people were still worried. Rather than use his clout to ask about the power and communications, Ayrout called for the residents to practice self-defense, and made things worse. The citizens mobilized, carrying their arms, and the youth erected checkpoints and roadblocks, cutting off access to public roads with garbage. The atmosphere of the city was charged with anticipation and concern.”
Muhammad Jamal Barout characterizes events on Saturday April 9, 2011 somewhat differently, writing that an “angry demonstration took place, where several of the demonstrators were wearing shrouds, as symbolic evidence of their willingness to be martyred, which the speaker made as the ultimate goal of achieving freedom. And in the evening of the same day, an armed group took control of the city and called for jihad, and provoked the neighborhoods with a majority Alawite and Christian population by chanting sectarian slogans.”
The Syria Revolution Facebook page controlled Ausama Monajed and the Brotherhood once again played a role. Barout cites al-Jazeera as reporting that the “’Syrian Revolution 2011’ movement had broadcast on its Facebook page a videotape of a demonstration in the city in which dozens participated, some of whom wore white shrouds,” and that “preachers of mosques in the city had urged citizens in Friday sermons to exercise their right to demonstrate.”
On Sunday April 10, the day following the attack on the soldiers and after Ayrout’s followers took over several neighborhoods, sectarian tensions erupted. Pro-opposition lawyer Haitham al-Maleh reports that, “a group barricaded themselves in the Abu Bakr al Siddiq mosque. It was shortly after dawn, the dawn prayer. Armed with sticks, they mounted the defense around the shrine to face the security forces.”
Plain clothes security forces in speeding cars coming from Alawite neighborhoods then opened fire on Sunni men guarding both the Rahman and Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosques, injuring 12 according to opposition sources. Reuters reports that one of the injured, Osama al-Sheikha, died from his wounds a week later.
Sabr Darwish reports further armed sectarian clashes between Alawite and Sunni young men on the same day. He reported that, “amidst the atmosphere of fear and anticipation, sounds of heavy fire were heard from the bridge. Later, people learned that a group of youth from the Alawite villages surrounding Baniyas had clashed with some of the activists stationed at the entrance of the city.” Darwish reports further that, “The intruders fled following the clashes, leaving behind a young Alawite man. The activists decided to detain this man, and videos emerged of them beating him. On the way to hand him to Sheikh Ayrout, the man was stabbed multiple times with sharp knives which lead to his death several hours later.”
The man stabbed to death by Ayrout’s supporters was Nidal Janoud, an Alawite vegetable seller. Janoud’s murderers filmed the killing and uploaded the video to the internet. The shocking footage was later shown on Syrian state television, and which led to the arrest of two of the killers as well as widespread public outrage.
We Are Happy It’s the Army
To avert further sectarian violence, government authorities struck a deal with local notables to withdraw the security forces from Banias and replace them with units from the army to maintain order. After Syrian army units entered Banias on Monday April 11, 2011, one resident told the Associated Press that, “schools and shops were closed because people feared more clashes,” and that “the army’s arrival was met mostly with relief.” The resident explained further that, “We are happy it’s the army and not security forces who are like regime-hired gangs.”
Reuters reported that “The deal, struck in Damascus between a Baath Party official and imams and prominent figures from Banias, was intended to help calm the city,” while citing Rami Abdul Rahman of SOHR as explaining that “Banias residents arrested over the past several weeks are already being released,” and that, “The army will go in but there is also a pledge to pull out the secret police … and improve living conditions.” Al-Jazeera reported further that, “the army’s entry into the city was preceded by the release of 200 people on Wednesday and 150 Thursday who were arrested in connection with the events witnessed in the city in the past weeks. Those found to have carried a weapon and were involved in violence remained in detention.”
Sectarian tensions remained high, however. On April 14, 2011 Syrian state media claimed that “a group of armed snipers shot today a number of army members while they patrolled the city of Banias… One was martyred and another wounded.” After additional anti-government protests in Banias on Friday April 15, 2011, Muhammad Jamal Barout noted that “the culture of this period took on a changed character, with religious slogans and speeches, blessing the victims and expressing readiness for martyrdom, and some protestors wore shrouds, which symbolized the readiness to militarize the conflict and mobilize for jihad. And protestors wore shrouds in at least two areas, Banias and Sanamein.”
One of the most prominent early cases of opposition activists falsely blaming a massacre on the government was in the city of Homs, which was one of the early epicenters of anti-government demonstrations, quickly becoming known as the first “capital of the revolution.” According to Muhammad Jamal Barout, secular middle-class activists such as Najati Tayyara made Homs an early protest hotspot. These activists created Facebook pages in the name of a young woman named Tel al-Malouhi and encouraged residents to protest her detention. According to Azmi Bishara, al-Malouhi was detained in 2009 after criticizing the Syrian government on her blog. Syrian authorities accused of her spying on behalf of the US government due to her relationship with an Austrian officer working for UN forces in the occupied Golan Heights. The officer was accused of having sexual relations with al-Malouhi and weaponizing her for the benefit of the US embassy in Cairo. Al-Malouhi’s unjust detention became a symbol for the opposition in Homs to rally around.
Bedouin tribes also played a significant role in the early protest movement in Homs due to their anger against the government after a wave of detentions in late 2010. The detentions came as part of a government effort to crack down on fuel smuggling. Significant profit could be made smuggling cheap, government-subsidized fuel across the nearby border to sell at higher market rates in Lebanon. Many Bedouin tribes in Homs had come to rely on income from fuel smuggling, after declines in the livestock sector. As a result of their smuggling activities, many of the tribes in Homs were already armed prior to 2011. Fuel smuggling was of concern to the government, which had struggled to maintain fuel subsidies in recent years due to the drain on the budget these subsidies had caused (some $9 billion as of 2008).
We Dont’ Want to See Alawites
On March 18, 2011, the first day of the so-called Syrian Revolution, a small demonstration of some 200 people was organized in front of the Khalid bin al-Walid mosque in Homs.
More protests followed on Friday March 25, dubbed the “Friday of Glory,” by opposition activists. According to Azmi Bishara, security forces surrounded the Khalid bin al-Walid mosque to prevent protesters from gathering there. Instead, protestors gathered at several different sites, including the Nur mosque in the Khaliddiya neighborhood, and mosques in al-Bayadha and Deir al-Ba’lba. The protesters then converged on the square of the old clock tower in the center of Homs, while some also went to the nearby Officers Club. Bishara notes that “Security forces were disciplined and didn’t disperse demonstrations with force in Homs on March 25. Officers talked with protesters to get them to end the demonstration peacefully, in which they ripped up a picture of [Hafez] al-Assad. Officers wanted to disperse the demonstration peacefully to avoid sectarian clashes in the city which would entail a new dynamic.”
According to AFP, “Satellite channels and websites broadcast several clips of demonstrations in the streets or mosques in several Syrian cities. One of them shows how the demonstrators attacked the headquarters of the Homs Officers Club and tore a picture of former President Hafez al-Assad. The Syrian official confirmed that ‘an employee of the officers’ club died as a result of an attack by the demonstrators.’” On the same day, President Assad’s advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, claimed she was personally present when Assad gave orders not to shoot at protestors, but that “this does not cancel out that there may be some mistakes.”
Bishara claims that after the protests on March 25, sectarian polarization intensified, with Alawite gangs attacking the Khalidiyya mosque, and Sunni protestors responding with chants of, “We want to say the obvious, we don’t want to see Alawites (biddna nahki ala’ al-makshouf, al-alawia ma biddna inshuuf)!”
The sectarian tensions of this period were accompanied by tit for tat kidnappings between the city’s Sunni and Alawite communities. According to a resident of a religiously mixed neighborhood in Homs who later became an opposition fighter, “Within days of the start of the protests in the southern city of Daraa, Alawis in Karm al-Zeitoun began kidnapping Sunnis for money, and vice versa.” According to the resident, “Everyone used to live mixed, but it became like war in the streets.”
On Friday April 1, 2011, which activists dubbed the “Friday of the Martyrs,” a 23-year-old woman named Tahani al-Khalidi was shot and killed by the security forces. She was apparently killed on a balcony while filming a demonstration originating at the Khalid bin al-Walid mosque. Bishara notes that Syrian authorities, on orders from the governor Iyad Gazal, tried to calm the situation by establishing a mourning tent for al-Khalidi and offering payment of money to the family of the girl, but the heads of the Biyadha neighborhood, who were of Bedouin origin, rejected this.
First Signs of Militarization
The opposition movement in Homs became militarized on April 17, 2011, in the wake of the death of a tribal leader in Homs named Sheikh Badr Abu Musa. Reuters cited an unnamed “human rights defender” as explaining that “that protests against the rule of the Baath Party intensified in Homs after the authorities handed over the body of Sheikh Badr Abu Musa of the Al-Fawara tribe to his family for burial on Saturday [April 16]. A 12-year-old boy was killed at Abu Musa’s funeral, which turned into a demonstration on the same day. Abu Musa was arrested a week ago in front of a mosque after he participated in a pro-democracy demonstration.” Reuters’ unnamed source in Homs explained further that on Sunday April 17, “Syrian forces killed eight protesters during the night in Homs in clashes after the killing of” Abu Musa.
This narrative, that security forces killed peaceful protestors demonstrating in response to Abu Musa’s death, provides a distorted view of events. Muhammad Jamal Barout and Azmi Bishara both point to the clashes between Abu Musa’s supporters and the security forces on that day as armed confrontations, rather than peaceful demonstrations attacked by security forces.
Bishara describes these clashes as the first “signs of popular militarization,” in the Baba Amr neighborhood, which became the epicenter of fighting between opposition militants and the Syrian army in Homs in late 2011. Bishara writes that “security forces delivered the body of Sheikh Bader Abu Musa, one of the leaders of the Fawa’ara tribe who was killed under torture after his detention. And this resulted in military confrontations between youths from Abu Musa’s group and security forces in which 14 people were killed and 50 others were wounded.”
Barout writes that “The death of the revered Sheikh in this context led to the eruption of heavy clashes,” in which 14 people were killed, and more than 50 injured.
Opposition elements retaliated further for the killing of sheikh Abu Musa by killing several Syrian army officers in brutal fashion during this time. As journalist Sharmine Narwani reports, Syrian Brigadier General Abdo al-Tallawi was assassinated on Sunday April 17, alongside his two sons and a nephew, Ahmad al-Tallawi, Khader al-Tallawi and Ali al-Tallawi. Large crowds attended the funeral procession of the four victims the following day, with attendees chanting pro-government slogans. Syrian state media claimed the bodies had also been mutilated.
It should be noted here that it is not likely that Abu Musa was a democracy activist or arrested at a pro-democracy protest as reported by Reuters. As we have already seen in Deraa and Banias, the protestors demonstrating at mosques were not demanding democracy. Rather they were making Salafist demands, such as segregating male and female education, and demanding that female teachers wearing the niqab be allowed to return to their teaching positions. Further, Abu Musa’s death comes in the context of tit for tat Alawite and Sunni kidnappings, and the smuggling of both weapons and fighters into Homs from nearby Lebanon making it possible that he was involved in these activities and detained as a result.
But did Syrian authorities torture Abu Musa to death, as opposition and Western sources claim? Some government supporters would deny that the security services committed any crimes of this sort during its response to the unrest, but if this were the case, Bouthaina Shaaban likely would not have acknowledged that “mistakes” had indeed been made during this early period and Abu Musa’s armed supporters would likely not have clashed with local security forces the day after his body was returned. It is therefore plausible that Abu Musa was tortured to death as claimed. If so, Abu Musa’s death illustrates one of the missteps committed by the government that helped stoke anger against the government and the kind of sectarian hatred in Homs that US planners were counting on.
The Clock Tower Fabrication
Reports of events on the following day, Monday April 18, were once again distorted by local opposition activists, and uncritically passed on by the Western press. Funerals for the supporters of Sheikh Abu Musa who were killed on Sunday April 17 were held on Monday April 18 and turned into protests. Activists then took the decision to march to the New Clock Tower Square, located in the center of Homs, and to establish a sit-in there to resemble that established in Egypt’s Tahrir Square previously. The sit-in would set the stage for another alleged massacre that was used to suggest the Syrian government was using appalling levels of violence to suppress peaceful dissent.
Human Rights Watch obtained testimony from an alleged defected intelligence officer claiming that “We were there with Air Force security, army, and shabeeha. At around 3:30 a.m. [early Tuesday morning, April 19], we got an order from Colonel Abdel Hamid Ibrahim from Air Force security to shoot at the protesters. We were shooting for more than half an hour. There were dozens and dozens of people killed and wounded. Thirty minutes later, earth diggers and fire trucks arrived. The diggers lifted the bodies and put them in a truck. I don’t know where they took them. The wounded ended up at the military hospital in Homs.”
Al-Jazeera similarly reported that “the early hours of dawn on Tuesday [April 19] saw an intervention by security forces to break up the sit-in of thousands of protesters, who spoke of a ‘real massacre.’ Omar Adlabi, a human rights activist, spoke to al-Jazeera about heavy gunfire at the demonstrators and said there was a ‘massacre,’ while an eyewitness from Homs named Abu Essam said, ‘that shooting was being carried out directly on the demonstrators.’”
It turns out that there was no massacre, however, and that such claims were propaganda disseminated by opposition activists to demonize the Syrian government. Time journalist Rania Abouzeid reported the alleged clock tower massacre, “was a turning point in the struggle for Homs, although years later some of the men present that night would admit that claims of a massacre were exaggerated, even fabricated, by rebel activists to garner sympathy.”
Instead, the violence at New Clock Tower Square likely involved armed clashes between opposition militants and Syrian security forces under the cover of the protests and sit-in, as was the case in the wake of the death of Sheik Abu Musa two days previous.
Such a view is consistent with the observations made by Father Frans Van der Lugt, a Dutch priest who lived in Homs for nearly fifty years. Van der Lugt explained that “From the start, the protest movements were not purely peaceful. From the start I saw armed demonstrators marching along in the protests, who began to shoot at the police first. Very often the violence of the security forces has been a reaction to the brutal violence of the armed rebels.” He notes further that, “from the outset there has been the problem of armed groups, which are also part of the opposition, . . And that opposition is armed and often proceeds cruelly and violently and then blames the government. Many government people have been tortured and shot by them [emphasis mine]. Van der Lugt’s testimony is valuable because he is an objective, on the ground source. Van der Lugt refused to leave Homs despite the violence of the subsequent years and was respected by both government and opposition supporters at the time of his assassination by an unknown gunman in 2014.
As mentioned above, a member of the Syrian security forces, Muhamad Yusuf Ateeq, was shot and killed in Homs in the first weeks of the protests by opposition snipers while armed only with a baton and plastic shield for riot control, providing further confirming Van de Lugt’s observations.
The reports of fake massacres to be blamed on the government of the kind seen in Homs were not simply the result of the fog of war, which inevitably makes distinguishing fact from fiction difficult. Instead, they were the result of years of advance preparation by US planners to control the narrative of the conflict once it began. In addition to Razan Zeitouneh and Wissam Tarif, so-called citizen-journalists provided a major source of this disinformation. As Bernard of Moon of Alabama (MOA) notes, citizen-journalists supported by Avaaz became notorious for creating fake videos to blame violence on the government. A notable example includes British citizen of Syrian descent, Danny Abdul Dayem, whose reports were regularly featured on CNN by journalist Anderson Cooper, and on al-Jazeera.
MOA cites Lebanese leftist academic Asad Abu Khalil as observing that some videos created by Abdul Dayem that were later leaked to the Syrian government “show the correspondent or witness (for CNN or from Aljazeera) before he is on the air: and the demeanor is drastically different from the demeanor on the air and they even show contrived sounds of explosions timed for broadcast time. I have to say that Aljazeera and the affiliated Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] media win the award for the largest volume of lies in this crisis. Their lies have been rather helpful to the Syrian regime which now fills its airtime with exposing the lies and exaggerations of the Ikhwan-led Syrian opposition.” Khalil notes that one video in particular, “shows the footage prior to Aljazeera reports: they show fake bandages applied on a child and then a person is ordered to carry a camera in his hand to make it look like a mobile footage. It shows a child being fed what to say on Aljazeera.” Syrian journalist Rafiq Lutf and British journalist Vanessa Beeley also documented fabricated media reports of government violence from Abdul Dayem, including an alleged attack on an oil pipeline in Homs. In that case, CNN journalist Arwa Damon, who was on the ground in Homs, participated in faking reports of the attack.
As mentioned above, journalist Patrick Cockburn noted the spread of “black propaganda” on the part of the opposition, which was made easier due to new media technologies, in particular YouTube. Cockburn writes that “Sadly, al-Jazeera . . . has become the uncritical propaganda arm of the Libyan and Syrian rebels.” Not only al-Jazeera, but the international press broadly, substituted traditional reporting with disseminating what they understood to be easily manipulated and unverifiable YouTube videos, and that “The purpose of manipulating the media coverage” in this way “is to persuade the West and its Arab allies that conditions in Syria are approaching the point when they can repeat their success in Libya. Hence the fog of disinformation pumped out through the internet.”
Fabricated reporting of this kind later led pro-opposition journalist Lina Shaikhouni of BBC Monitoring to explain that, “Right now, more Syrians watch government-controlled TV than any opposition channel because of the lack of trust. . . . There are people who are producing ‘fake news’ [on the rebel side] who are hurting the credibility of the revolution. My anger goes to them because you have people who are so-called supporters of the revolution filming themselves saying polarising rhetoric. If Syrians themselves don’t trust them, how can those outside?”
The private security and intelligence firm Statfor came to a similar conclusion. As Sharmine Narwani reports, Stratfor concluded in December 2011 that pro-opposition groups were spreading propaganda in the hope of, “Convincing external stakeholders, such as the United States, Turkey and France, that the regime is splitting and is prepared to commit massacres to put down the unrest, along the lines of what the regime carried out in 1982 in Hama.” This was of course meant to pave the way for US military intervention in Syria, as had by that time just occurred in Libya under the same pretext. Stratfor concludes further that, “most of the opposition’s more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue, thereby revealing more about the opposition’s weaknesses than the level of instability inside the Syrian regime.”
It should be noted that US planners were the originators of such false atrocity claims, via opposition activists and citizen-journalists they themselves were funding, rather than targets in need of convincing to intervene. US planners had long desired to topple the Syrian government, including via possible military intervention. This means that fabricated stories about Syrian government atrocities were instead meant to influence Western public opinion, which otherwise stood in the way of direct US military intervention anywhere in the Middle East due to the unpopularity of President Bush’s criminal 2003 invasion of Iraq.
More Fog than Light
Despite the largely Salafist nature of the protests in Banias, Deraa and elsewhere, Razan Zeitouneh claimed on April 16, 2011 to the Guardian that the crisis in Syria was erupting because Assad had “ignored the main demands of the people: freedom and democracy.” While claiming that the entire protest movement was advocating for democracy in public, Zeitouneh privately acknowledged the role played by Islamists in the opposition who had differeny agenda. Then US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford claims that in a private meeting with Zeitouneh in May 2011, “Razan added that once the Assad government was finally gone, the liberals would have to fight the Islamists for control of the government. She didn’t mention the Muslim Brotherhood by name but underlined that Islamists were almost as big a problem for the liberals she claimed to represent as the Assad government.”
Zeitouneh was in position to know this because Islamists not only controlled the Syria 2011 Facebook page, but were also deeply embedded within Zeithouneh’s own organization, the Local Coordinating Committees (LCC). The LCC was run by anonymous activists in various parts of the country, each having their own page dedicated to a specific city or region. LCC activist Zeina Erhaim notes that ideological differences between the various regional committees eventually emerged into the open. She notes that the representative of the LCC in the Aleppo suburb of Bza’a later joined ISIS, while another LCC representative “joined the FSA in a Damascus suburb and ended up carrying out a suicide attack on a regime barricade near his hometown of Domair.”
Islamist involvement in the LCC was also evident in the group’s various Facebook pages, which regularly posted content in support of the Salafist armed groups fighting the government under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) once the armed aspects of the so-called revolution began to be publicized. The International Crisis Group (ICG) writes for example that, “A posting on the leading pro-revolution Facebook page contains a Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham video alongside a caption reading ‘God protect our dear Free Army’ . . . The leading activist Facebook page dedicated to the Damascus suburb of Douma, a key opposition stronghold, regularly posts material released by Liwa al-Islam and actively encourages users to follow the group’s online material. . . . Similarly, material released by Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham regularly is posted by Idlib and Tartous-based activist groups; Liwa Saqour as-Sham’s propaganda appears on the pages of Idlib- and Aleppo-based groups; and Katibat al-Ansar’s material is posted on a range of Homs activist pages.”
It is unsurprising that Zeitouneh was working closely with Islamist members of the LCC, given that Zeitouneh had spent much of her career as a lawyer advocating for the release of Salafist political prisoners. When Zeitouneh sought to avoid detention by Syrian authorities in 2013, she took refuge in Douma, then under the control of the Saudi-backed Salafist militia, Jaish al-Islam. In a tragic but also ironic twist, Jaish al-Islam is widely viewed as responsible for her later disappearance and killing, as mentioned above.
The razor thin line between the allegedly secular media activists supplying the Western press with news and the Salafist armed groups was illustrated by the experience of American freelance journalist Theo Padnos, who was initially impressed with the idea of the activist-journalist that was so widely praised in the Western press up until that point in the war. Padnos met two opposition media activists in the Turkish border town of Antakya, who agreed to take Padnos inside Syria to begin his reporting. After crossing the border, the two promptly kidnapped Padnos, holding him in a safe house near the town of Binnish. After a failed escape attempt, the Salafist militia fighting under the FSA banner, Saqour al-Sham, then turned Padnos over to local fighters from the Syrian al-Qaeda franchise, the Nusra Front, who held him captive and intermittently tortured him for the next two years.
Upon his release, Padnos was able to locate the Facebook page of one his initial captors. One photo of the young man showed him playing the part of a secular citizen journalist in a T-shirt and jeans, donning a camera, while in another photo he portrayed himself as a jihadi, dressed in military fatigues, his face covered with a black mask, while holding an AK-47 in one hand, and a Quran in the other. It was only after Padnos was abducted that he realized that this so-called activist-journalist viewed wielding a camera as an integral part of establishing a so-called Caliphate in Syria. Padnos writes, “Somehow in Antakya my feeling was that activist-journalists only advanced the revolution through peaceful means. . . . I know now that in an Islamic state, kidnapping, killing, activism, and journalism are one. The most loved, most widely celebrated citizens do all of these things well. The activist-citizen makes the dream of a Caliphate real by rallying the faithful. The journalist builds it by sending out photographs of victories, family happiness in the streets, and the togetherness of the men at prayer. When he puts the video of a killing on Facebook, he shows the world that here, on this stretch of Syrian ground, while the black flag waves, the enemies of God are coming to grief.”
The case of prominent opposition media activist Rayan Meshaal provides perhaps the most prominent example of this phenomenon. Meshaal started a Facebook page to share news in the first months of the conflict in 2011 called the “Great Aleppo Revolution,” and attended media trainings in Turkey and received funding and equipment from foreign NGOs. He then became a journalist for the pro-opposition Halab News Network (HNN) which was formed by the Revolutionary Coordination Committees in Aleppo. Meshaal covered anti-government protests and the Liwa al-Tawhid and Nusra invasion of Aleppo. Meshaal was an open Nusra Front supporter and left HNN with seven of his colleagues to form the Amaq Agency, ISIS’ official news outlet, in 2014.
Both the secular opposition and Western journalists were aware of the Salafist orientation of the many of the early opposition activists but sought to obscure it and portray them as pro-democracy activists for public relations reasons instead. Even the ICG, itself pro-opposition and US-funded, acknowledged that, “From day one, the question of Salafism within opposition ranks has been more of a political football than a subject of serious conversation.” While claiming that “Assad backers played it up,” ICG nevertheless acknowledges that “Regime detractors played it down, intent on preserving the image of a pristine uprising; people sympathetic to their cause, whether in the media or elsewhere, likewise were reluctant to delve too deeply into the issue, anxious about playing into regime hands. The net result has been more fog than light.”
Of course, many Syrians did exercise their agency in 2011 by peacefully protesting to demand the government address their legitimate grievances, including corruption, abuses of the security services, lack of freedom of speech, unemployment, and poverty. Most demonstrators were, however, unaware that these protests were planned and orchestrated largely from abroad by US planners and their agents on the ground, not for the sake of achieving these demands, or of bringing democracy to Syria, but to fracture the country along sectarian lines and unleash a civil war. Many of the early protestors were also unaware that US planners wished to use these demonstrations as cover for launching a Salafist-led insurgency, which included foreign elements from al-Qaeda.
Conversely, Western observers were largely unaware that many of the early protestors were not secularists demanding liberal democracy, but rather were Salafists who had a very different conception of freedom than often imagined. Demands for “freedom” in many street demonstrations included reactionary calls for the establishment of a fundamentalist religious state resembling that in Saudi Arabia. Such a state would of course introduce sectarian discrimination against Syria’s religious minorities and remove basic social freedoms for women of all faiths in the country. Many in Syria’s Salafist community were not content to merely protest to achieve this project, but also took up arms to impose their preferred vision of society by violence, with massive assistance from foreign intelligence agencies. It was Salafists, not orthodox or Sufi Sunnis, that constituted the backbone of the US, Gulf, Israeli, and Turkish supported anti-government insurgency that erupted along with the protests.
If we recognize the agency of anti-government protestors in Syria in the first months of 2011, we should also recognize the agency of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who correctly perceived the threat of imperialist intervention and participated in pro-government demonstrations during the same period. The voices of these Syrians have largely been silenced, both figuratively and literally. Their perspective is rarely acknowledged in the Western and Gulf press, while others have been targets of opposition violence. One such example of this is Palestinian-Syrian actor Mohammed Rafea, who was kidnapped and murdered by opposition militants for his outspoken and early public support of the government.
Perhaps most importantly, we should recognize the agency exercised by the many soldiers in the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) as well as the National Defense Forces (NDF) who fought for a decade to resist the US-sponsored Salafist dirty war, and who died in large numbers as a result. Contrary to the mainstream view, the majority of casualties in the Syrian conflict have not been among civilians, but rather among combatants, both from the Syrian army and allied pro-government militias on the one hand, and the Salafist and allied foreign jihadist armed groups on the other. Even pro-opposition sources suggest some 110,000 members of the Syrian security forces had been killed by late 2014, some 35% of all deaths in the conflict up until that point. This represents a huge sacrifice made by a generation of young Syrian men.
We should therefore remember that it was US planners, with help from their regional allies, that first “pulled the trigger” in what became a ten-year imperialist dirty war on Syria that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, destroyed large segments of the country, created millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, and led to untold human suffering. It is therefore accurate to say that Syria, both the government and its people, is indeed the victim of US imperialism and that it that resisted, as best it could, the efforts of US planners to take the theory of “creative chaos” to its logical conclusion.