How Ambassador Robert Ford Attempted to Whitewash the CIA’s Dirty War on Syria

by | Mar 31, 2021

How Ambassador Robert Ford Attempted to Whitewash the CIA’s Dirty War on Syria

by | Mar 31, 2021

robert stephen ford us state dept photo


In a recent essay for Newlines Magazine, former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford discussed the ways in which the so-called Syrian revolution went wrong. He does so by recounting his interactions with two prominent Syrian opposition leaders, political activist and lawyer Razan Zeitouneh and Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander Colonel Abd al-Jabbar al-Akaidi.1Newlines Magazine, “Among Syria’s Revolutionaries,” by Robert Ford, October 14, 2020. Accessed on January 2, 2020.

Ambassador Ford argues that the anti-government protestors’ goal of “a liberal, tolerant system of government guided by a democratic process” was never realized, in part because “we didn’t help them much in their cause.” More specifically, Ford argues that U.S. planners refused to provide weapons to the allegedly moderate elements of the armed insurgency fighting to topple the Syrian government. As result, Ford argues, extremists from the Syrian wing of al-Qaeda, known as the Nusra Front, were able to hijack the Syrian revolution from the moderates of the FSA.

Ford writes for example that he warned President Obama’s National Security Council in July 2012 that “if the United States didn’t help arm moderates like Akaidi and Afif, Nusra would eventually capture eastern Syria and link up with its homeboys in western Iraq,” but that the “president did not want to provide arms.” Ford writes further that, “The United States had been concerned that small arms provided to Akaidi’s fighters would fall into extremist hands in the heat of battle and had held back substantial aid for that reason. Yet by denying people like Akaidi significant support, we created a self-fulfilling prophecy. By late 2015, such leaders and their fighters had been overshadowed and eventually eliminated by groups spouting sectarian agendas and dismissing political negotiations out of hand, helped along by Turkey, Qatar, and the Syrian regime itself.”

In making his argument, Ford contends that the FSA brigades led by commanders such as Akaidi were moderate and constituted a separate and distinct wing of the insurgency that competed with the extremists from al-Qaeda. Ford writes that, “Akaidi in Aleppo and Col. Afif Soleiman in Idlib stressed that the Free Syrian Army would protect Alawites in territories they liberated. This was especially important because the Nusra Front, then an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq, was growing so strong in northern Syria that we decided to put it on the U.S. government terrorism list in December 2012 to warn the Free Syrian Army and the political opposition to avoid and even condemn it. Commanders like Akaidi and Soleiman were competing with the Nusra Front in late 2012 and early 2013 for recruits. Our meetings with representatives from coordination committees trying to manage towns in northern Syria abandoned by the Syrian Army indicated that the Nusra Front was gaining advantage over men like Akaidi and Soleiman. Nusra had, they warned, more money and supplies.”

Ford’s claims, that Syria’s protest movement unanimously demanded a liberal democratic government, that FSA groups were moderate, that U.S. officials refused to provide them weapons, and that this refusal led to the rise of al-Qaeda in Syria, are all false, however.

Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the Grave

First, as I have detailed elsewhere, Syria’s early protests included both secular and Salafist elements. Salafist activists played a key role in the early protest movement and sought to mobilize Syria’s Salafist community to attend demonstrations they thought would topple the government. Muslim Brotherhood activists organized many of the early protests via Facebook, while protestors often expressed support for sectarian Salafist preachers Muhammad Sarour Zein al-Abbedine and Adnan Ar’our. Rhetoric at the protests always included demands for freedom, however democracy was not always mentioned. In contrast to secular activists such as Razan Zeitounah who viewed freedom as the right to live in a democracy, Salafist activists helping to organize protests viewed freedom as the right to live under a fundamentalist religious state and to have a Sunni Muslim, rather than an Alawite, as president. For this reason, early protest slogans calling for freedom were at times accompanied by sectarian slogans, including demands for the killing of Alawites and the expulsion of Christians to neighboring Lebanon.2Libertarian Institute, “The Salafist roots of the Syrian uprising,” by William Van Wagenen, April 28, 2020. Accessed on March 21, 2021.

Who Were “Akaidi’s fighters?”

Second, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was not moderate. It was dominated by Salafist militias from the beginning. Salafist militias, including Kata’ib al-Farouq, Liwa al-Islam, Saqour al-Sham, and Liwa al-Tawhid formed the backbone of the FSA.3Al-Hayat, “Syrian Islamic brigades unite with regional support in anticipation of a political solution,” October 6, 2013. Republished by Sama News. Accessed on September 08, 2020. These groups were not fighting for democracy or a secular state. Instead, they sought to use violence to establish a fundamentalist religious state.4Long War Journal, “Free Syrian Army units ally with al Qaeda, reject Syrian National Coalition, and call for sharia,” by Bill Roggio, September 26, 2013. Accessed on December 26, 2020.

Salafist oriented FSA groups were often viewed as moderate by Western observers because these groups had no intention of carrying out attacks against Western targets. However, they were nevertheless not moderate from a Syrian perspective. Given their Salafist orientations, the major FSA groups were hostile both towards religious minorities and to fellow Sunni Muslims who did not share the Salafists’ innovative and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. In other words, these FSA groups were hostile to most of the Syrian population. As Syrian dissident Nidal Nuaiseh has noted, “Salafist calls for the murder of Alawites are not new, but are at the core of the Salafist ideology, and have been at its core for hundreds of years.”5Al-Monitor, “Syrian opposition condemns jihadists targeting Alawite,” by Haytham Mouzahem, August 14, 2013. Accessed on March 07, 2020.

In his essay, Ambassador Ford specifically claims that FSA commander Colonel Akaidi was a moderate. Ford fails to mention, however, that Akaidi was himself a commander in one of these Salafist militias, namely Liwa al-Tawhid, the most prominent FSA group in Aleppo.

While Akaidi is always referred to simply as head of the FSA’s Aleppo Military Council in the Western press, in the Arabic press, he is frequently described as a commander in Liwa al-Tawhid.6Annahar, “Coup! And on whom?” (Arabic) October 2, 2013. Accessed on December 7, 2020. Akaidi spoke as if he was a member of al-Tawhid while making a statement to the media about the fighting in the city of al-Qusayr in 2013.7Al-Quds al-Arabi, “Liwa al-Tawhid threatens to transfer the battle to Lebanon and calls for attacking two Shiite villages in Syria,” (Arabic) May 29, 2013. Accessed on December 7, 2020. Reuters also noted this relationship, reporting that the military “council in Aleppo, led by Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi, includes the powerful Tawheed Brigade and smaller ones.”8Reuters, “Factbox: Syrian rebel groups,” October 24, 2012. Accessed on December 16, 2020.

Opposition activist Ammar Abdulhamid acknowledged the Salafist orientation of Liwa al-Tawhid after interviewing FSA officers and fellow opposition activists in Turkey in August 2012. Abdulhamid wrote that, “As for Al-Tawhid Brigades, their Salafi orientation is known to all,” and that “their funding comes from both the [Muslim Brotherhood] as well as Salafi sympathizers in the Gulf.9Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “The Shredded Tapestry: The State of Syria Today,” by Ammar Abdulhamid, September 25, 2012. Accessed on March 21, 2021.

Al-Jazeera similarly reported that Liwa al-Tawhid was among the most important FSA brigades, and was led by Abd al-Qader al-Saleh and Abd al-Aziz Salameh, both of whom were inclined towards Salafi ideology.10Al-Jazeera, “Salafism and Salafism in Syria: From Reform to Jihad,” (Arabic) by Abd al-Rahman al-Haj, May 20, 2013. Accessed on September 12, 2020.

Al-Tawhid’s objective in fighting the Syrian government was made clear on September 24, 2013, when Tawhid founder Salameh, along with 11 different armed opposition groups, including al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, the Nusra Front, signed a statement calling for an Islamic state. Salameh announced that, “The mujahideen militant factions and forces that have signed this statement . . .  call on all military and civilian organizations to unite under a clear Islamic framework, set forth by the magnanimity of Islam, operating on the basis that Sharia is the arbiter of governance and making it the sole source of legislation.”11Long War Journal, “Free Syrian Army units ally with al Qaeda, reject Syrian National Coalition, and call for sharia,” by Bill Roggio, September 26, 2013. Accessed on December 26, 2020.

Hostility of the Liwa al-Tawhid leadership towards Alawites and Shiites was evident in several cases, which is to be expected given the group’s Salafist orientation. In December 2013, al-Tawhid founder Salameh wrote on Twitter in favor of “eradicating the Nusayris,” or Alawites, before walking back the comments after facing public criticism.12Carnegie Middle East Center, “Fighting in Aleppo, Resisting Geneva: An Interview with the Tawhid Brigade,” by Aron Lund, January 2, 2014. Accessed on March 21, 2013. In May 2013, Akaidi threatened to target Shiite civilians in both Lebanon and Syria in response to the involvement of Lebanese Hezbollah in the fighting against the FSA in al-Qusayr.13Al-Quds al-Arabi, “Liwa al-Tawhid threatens to transfer the battle to Lebanon and calls for attacking two Shiite villages in Syria,” (Arabic) May 29, 2013. Accessed on December 7, 2020.

Despite such threats from Akaidi and Salameh, and despite the Salafist orientation of Akaidi’s fighters, Ford strangely expected Syria’s Christians, Druze, Alawites, Shiites and Yazidis to take Akaidi’s assurances seriously that the FSA would protect them. Ford writes that, “Akaidi in Aleppo and Col. Afif Soleiman in Idlib stressed that the Free Syrian Army would protect Alawites in territories they liberated,” and he takes this as proof of their moderate orientation.

Ford’s faith in the FSA’s promises to protect religious minorities can be contrasted with the observations of Harout Ekmanian, a Syrian journalist from Aleppo, the same city that Akaidi and Liwa al-Tawhid sought to conquer. Ekmanian, himself a Christian, observes that, “[W]e see that there is almost no difference between the group called Free Syrian Army or other jihadist groups and ISIS. For instance, these ‘moderate’ opposition groups burned the churches down, when they entered Kessab. They entered Malula, where there is still an ancient Christian community speaking Aramaic. They destroyed that place too. There are many other examples like these.”14Agos, “’Alevis to the grave, Christians to Beirut’ is still a common slogan,” by Fatih Gökhan Diler, October 17, 2016. Accessed on August 08, 2020.

One Purpose, Many Flags

Third, these FSA groups did not constitute a distinct wing of the Syrian insurgency competing against al-Qaeda during the period when Ambassador Ford wished to provide them with lethal aid (mid-2013). Instead, FSA groups (including Akaidi and his fighters) were cooperating intimately with al-Qaeda during this time, and had been fighting with, and publicly providing moral support to, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing for at least a year prior.

Akaidi himself claimed that Nusra constituted some 10% of the FSA in Aleppo.15YouTube, “US funded FSA kills together with ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra,” October 5, 2014. Posted by Hands Off Syria. Accessed on September 13, 2020. In December 2012, Time journalist Rania Abouzeid acknowledged that jihadi groups were part of the FSA.16Time, “Syria’s Many Militias: Inside the Chaos of the Anti-Assad Rebellion,” by Rania Abouzeid, March 5, 2013. Accessed on December 27, 2020. That same month, leaders of the political opposition abroad acknowledged that Nusra was part of the so-called revolution they claimed to represent.17Al-Monitor, “Noose tightens around Jabhat al-Nusra,” by Abdallah Suleiman Ali, March 18, 2015. Accessed on December 21, 2020. FSA leaders often took public credit for operations actually carried out by Nusra.18An opposition activist in Daraa explained to the National in January 2014 that, “The FSA and al-Nusra join together for operations but they have an agreement to let the FSA lead for public reasons, because they don’t want to frighten Jordan or the West…. Operations that were really carried out by al-Nusra are publicly presented by the FSA as their own.” National, “Islamist militants’ secret role in Syrian rebels’ successes,” by Phil Sands and Suha Maayeh, January 5, 2014. Accessed on January 10, 2020.

Ambassador Ford writes in his essay that, “we decided to put [Nusra] on the U.S. government terrorism list in December 2012 to warn the Free Syrian Army and the political opposition to avoid and even condemn it.” Rather than avoiding or condemning Nusra as Ford apparently wished, FSA commanders and opposition political leaders did the exact opposite. They publicly praised the group, while criticizing the U.S. for putting it on the terror list.19McClatchy, “Head of new U.S.-backed Syrian coalition endorses al Qaida-linked rebel faction,” by David Enders and Hannah Allam, December 12, 2020. Accessed on September 10, 2020.

Pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasl reported that in response to the terror designation, an activist street movement in Aleppo and the Idlib countryside organized demonstrations calling for “Victory to Nusra” (a play on words in Arabic) and that pictures were circulating in recent days of FSA officers in Aleppo raising banners such as “Nusra fights with me in the battlefield. We are not terrorists.”20Zaman al-Wasl, “After America’s terrorism announcement, the street declares ‘victory to Nusra’ and the ‘Free [Army]’ unites with it,” December 11, 2012. Accessed on September 09, 2020.

Abdel Qader al-Saleh, head of the FSA’s Liwa Tawhid and a close friend and colleague of Akaidi, was among those who condemned placing Nusra on the terrorist list. In December 2012, he told al-Jazeera that “there is no terrorism in Syria except the terrorism of Bashar Al-Assad,” and “We participate in the fighting with [Nusra] and may disagree with some political ideas and visions, but we do not accept that they or other fighters be placed on the terrorist list.”21Al-Jazeera, “Liwa Tawhid in Syria: The Nusra Front are our brothers,” December 21, 2012. Accessed on September 12, 2020.

When al-Saleh claimed that “We participate in the fighting” with Nusra, he was referring to the FSA assault on Aleppo six months before, in July 2012. At that time, al-Saleh appeared in a video with a Nusra commander to announce the start of the operation, which they named “Furqan,” or “Volcano.”22Syria Comment, “Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders,” by Joshua Landis, October 1, 2013. Accessed on September 29, 2020. In August 2012, a Nusra commander in Aleppo acknowledged fighting in the ranks of Liwa al-Tawhid directly.23Washington Post, “In Syria, group suspected of al-Qaeda links gaining prominence in war to topple Assad,” by Justin Vela and Liz Sly, August 19, 2012. In the same month, correspondents from the Guardian observed seeing fighters from other parts of the Islamic world fighting in Aleppo, including from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Algeria and Senegal, further pointing to the role of Nusra in the initial invasion of the city alongside al-Tawhid.24Guardian, “Syrian rebels fight on for Aleppo despite local wariness,” by Martin Chulov, August 21, 2012. Accessed on September 17, 2020.

Summarizing the alliance between the FSA factions and Nusra, the Pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi noted that 2012 was a time when, “there was no enmity between Nusra and the FSA. Everyone was fighting for one purpose, even if there were many flags.”25Al-Quds al-Arabi, “Army of Islam executes dozens of youth in Eastern Ghouta,” May 11, 2015. Accessed on December 02, 2019.

This unity of purpose continued into 2013. Martin Chulov of the Guardian reported in January 2013 that in Aleppo, Nusra had “set up a headquarters in plain sight in the centre of the city, alongside the base of a regular Free Syrian Army unit, Liwa al-Tawhid,” further illustrating the close cooperation of the two groups.26Guardian, “Syria crisis: al-Qaida fighters revealing their true colours, rebels say,” by Martin Chulov, January 13, 213. Accessed on December 21, 2012.

This cooperation means that any weapons provided to Akaidi, as advocated by Ambassador Ford, would have gone to fighters from Liwa al-Tawhid, a Salafist militia fighting side by side with al-Qaeda, rather than to moderates with a secular and democratic orientation trying to resist al-Qaeda.

Ford attempts to obscure this in his essay. He vaguely refers to wanting to arm “Akaidi’s fighters,” while assuming his readers will not be aware of who Akaidi’s fighters really are. Ford’s failure to identify specific FSA brigades by name that he deemed as moderate appears to have been State Department policy, necessitated by the fact that such moderate groups simply did not exist. In March 2013, journalist Sharmine Narwani requested that a State Department spokesperson provide the name of just one moderate FSA brigade, however, the spokesperson refused to do so.27Mideast Shuffle, “Please, Ambassador Ford. Name me a ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel,’ by Sharmine Narwani, June 4, 2014. Accessed on December 26, 2020.

A Liberal, Tolerant System of Government

Liwa al-Tawhid also joined with Nusra to create an organization to govern the opposition held sections of Aleppo. In March 2013, Liz Sly of the Washington Post reported that Liwa al-Tawhid had joined with Nusra to create the Hayaa al-Sharia, a civil authority in Aleppo based on fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic Law. Sly wrote that, “Based out of the city’s former Eye Hospital, which was damaged during the fighting and then occupied by Jabhat al-Nusra as its headquarters, the Hayaa is also backed by other rebel units, including the Tawhid Brigade, the city’s biggest fighting force.”28Washington Post, “Islamic law comes to rebel-held areas of Syria,” by Liz Sly, March 19, 2013.

The Aleppo Eye Hospital included a basement prison for the Hayaa, where American journalists Theo Padnos and Matt Schrier, as well as hundreds of Syrians were being held and regularly tortured at the time of Sly’s visit.29“Blindfold: A Memoir of Capture, Torture, and Enlightenment,” by Theo Padnos, Kindle Edition, Scribner, 2021, page 193. American journalist James Foley and British journalist John Cantlie were also later imprisoned at the hospital, in July 2013.30Daily Mail, “Is this the Syrian dungeon where beheaded U.S. and British hostages were caged by ISIS? Pictures show factory basement ‘where half-starved westerners were held in darkness,’” by James Harkin, December 19, 2014. Accessed on March 21, 2021.

The type of governance imposed by the Hayaa in Aleppo was illustrated by several men that were regular visitors to Padnos’ cell. Padnos notes in the book about his two-year captivity that these men videotaped themselves publicly executing a woman. After accusing her of prostitution, they shoot her in the back of the head, and allow her blood to leak across the pavement.31“Blindfold: A Memoir of Capture, Torture, and Enlightenment,” by Theo Padnos, Kindle Edition, Scribner, 2021, page 341.

When Ambassador Ford asked Akaidi for assistance in locating Padnos and Schrier in Aleppo, Ford says he “got nothing.”32The author’s communication with Ambassador Ford on Twitter. In a cruel twist of irony, Ambassador Ford was unknowingly advocating sending weapons to the very group, Liwa al-Tawhid, that was helping hold the American journalists he was trying to free. Padnos and Schrier were later moved to another prison in rural Aleppo. Sometime after Foley and Cantlie arrived at the prison, the New York Times reports that the battalion in the Aleppo hospital pledged allegiance to ISIS, making Foley and Cantlie captives of the organization.33New York Times, “The Horror Before the Beheadings,” by Rukmini Callimachi, October 5, 2014. Accessed on March 23, 2021. ISIS then murdered Foley in August 2014, but only after Ford’s State Department threatened to prosecute his parents to deter them from raising funds for a possible ransom.34ABC News, “’So Little Compassion’: James Foley’s Parents Say Officials Threatened Family Over Ransom,” by Brian Ross, James Gordon Meek, Rhonda Schwartz, September 12, 2014. More than eighter years later, Cantlie is presumably still a captive of ISIS.35Guardian, British Isis hostage John Cantlie still alive, UK government says,” by Patrick Wintour, February 5, 2019. Accessed on March 21, 2021.

Ambassador Ford’s All-Star Team

Akaidi and Liwa al-Tawhid also coordinated with Nusra and later ISIS to lay siege to the Menagh airbase in the Aleppo countryside between December 2012 and August 2013. Ford discussed Menagh in his essay, noting that “Akaidi and his fighters stabilized a fighting line against the Syrian Army in Aleppo and maintained the months-long siege of Menagh airbase near Aleppo.”

Though Ford does not name the specific FSA brigade under Akaidi’s command at Menagh, referring simply to “Akaidi and his fighters,” it is clear that the FSA brigade fighting for Akaidi at Menagh was Liwa al-Tawhid. In December 2012, Zaman al-Wasl reported that FSA groups and Nusra were collaborating closely to lay siege to the Menagh airbase in Aleppo.36Zaman al-Wasl, “After America’s terrorism announcement, the street declares ‘victory to Nusra’ and the ‘Free [Army]’ unites with it,” December 11, 2012. Accessed on September 09, 2020. Specifically, Liwa al-Tawhid was among the FSA factions laying siege to Menagh. Pro-opposition Ennab Baladi notes that Akaidi and Liwa al-Tawhid head al-Saleh fought together at Menagh, while pro-opposition al-Dorar reported in June 2013 that Liwa al-Tawhid fighters had targeted Menagh with missiles, destroying two T-72 tanks.37Ennab Baladi, “Al-Akaidi returns to lead the military in Syria,” October 4, 2017. Accessed on February 6, 2021. Eldorar, “Two tanks were destroyed during the “Tawhid Brigade’s” bombing of the Menagh Military Airport in Aleppo,” June 14, 2013.

ISIS fighters later joined the FSA in laying siege to Menagh. On August 5, 2013, the FSA and ISIS were finally successful in capturing the airbase, where Syrian soldiers had held out for almost a year against the opposition siege. The New York Times reported that weeks of “relentless suicide vehicle bombings on the walls of the base” had turned the tide in the battle.38New York Times, “As Foreign Fighters Flood Syria, Fears of a New Extremist Haven,” by Anne Barnard, August 11, 2013. The NYT reported as well that Akaidi had appeared in a video immediately after the base was captured, thanking and congratulating the ISIS fighters who participated in the campaign. In the video, Akaidi states that, “We’re here to kiss every hand pressed on the trigger,” while standing side by side with ISIS commander Abu Jandal.39New York Times, “As Foreign Fighters Flood Syria, Fears of a New Extremist Haven,” by Anne Barnard, August 11, 2013.

Ambassador Ford himself mentions this video in his essay. He writes that, “One morning in early August [2013], I came to the office at the State Department to see reports that Menagh had finally fallen and pictures of Akaidi standing next to ISIS field commander Abu Jandal al-Masri celebrating the capture of the base.”

Akaidi’s appearance in the video was just one indication of his close relationship with ISIS commanders. In an interview with pro-opposition Orient TV, Akaidi acknowledged that “my relationship with the brothers in ISIS is good” and that “I communicate almost daily with the brothers from ISIS.” Akaidi then claimed that the most ISIS members were not takfiris [extremists who believe in excommunicating and killing other Muslims who do not adhere to their own innovative interpretations of Islam] and that this issue had been exaggerated in the media to wrongly demonize the organization.40YouTube, “US funded FSA kills together with ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra,” October 5, 2014. Posted by Hands Off Syria. Accessed on September 13, 2020.

The emergence of the video of Akaidi and the ISIS commander celebrating, in the words of the New York Times, “like members of a victorious basketball team,” proved embarrassing for Ambassador Ford and the Obama administration, given Ford’s close relationship with Akaidi.41New York Times, “As Foreign Fighters Flood Syria, Fears of a New Extremist Haven,” by Anne Barnard, August 11, 2013. McClatchy notes that Ambassador Ford called Akaidi directly to complain, and that the video had created “a public relations nightmare for the Obama administration, which was trying to show Congress and the American public that it was boosting moderates and isolating extremists on the battlefield,” but, “When the importance of the jihadis became undeniable, Obama administration officials were irate.”42McClatchy, “Warnings of jihadists among Syria’s rebels came early, were ignored,” by Hannah Allam, August 13, 2015. Accessed on September 13, 2020.

Explaining the fallout from the video, Ford claims that, “We were struggling to get a negotiation underway between the opposition and the government. Cooperation between our friends in the Free Syrian Army and al Qaeda and its offshoots would damage those efforts, and the pictures were damning. I got Akaidi on the phone in Aleppo and told him this kind of cooperation would severely harm the reputation of the Free Syrian Army in Washington and elsewhere.”

Note that Ford first met Akaidi in a hotel in Turkey in March 2013, some four months before the capture of Menagh. Ford gives no indication that he complained to Akaidi about his cooperation with Nusra during this meeting, or during the two men’s later meeting in May 2013 on the Turkey-Syria border. Ford only complained about Akaidi’s collaboration with al-Qaeda affiliated militants after the video of Akaidi publicly thanking an ISIS commander proved embarrassing to the Obama administration. By that time, Akaidi and his fighters had been coordinating with Nusra in Aleppo for at least a year, and this was public knowledge to anyone reading the pro-opposition Arabic press, or even the Guardian or Washington Post. Jake Sullivan, Ford’s State Department colleague and advisor to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had privately acknowledged as early as February 2012 that, “al-Qaeda is on our side in Syria,” showing that State Department officials were fully aware that Nusra and the FSA were fighting as part of the same team long before Ford advocated arming Akaidi.43Nation, “For Once, Trump Isn’t Wrong,” by James Carden, December 21, 2018. Accessed on December 26, 2020.

This means that Ford, like other Obama administration officials, was only angry about Akaidi’s collaboration with Nusra and ISIS when the “importance of the jihadis” to the U.S. effort to topple the Syrian government became publicly “undeniable,” as noted by McClatchy above.

In his essay, Ford acknowledges Akaidi’s collaboration with, and public praise for Nusra and ISIS in the video, but bizarrely tries to suggest that “such messaging was [Akaidi’s] attempt to stave off an extremist attack on his forces that were focused on fighting the regime.” In Orwellian fashion, Ford wants us to believe that Akaidi’s year-long collaboration with Nusra in Aleppo, followed by his use of ISIS suicide bombers to capture Menagh, followed by his public celebrations with an ISIS commander, somehow constituted staving “off an extremist attack on his forces.”

Sharing the Spoils

Cooperation between FSA groups and al-Qaeda also included the sharing of weapons. Nusra and ISIS leaders publicly acknowledged purchasing weapons from the FSA’s military councils. Al-Jazeera reported in July 2013 that according to the ISIS commander for Aleppo province at the time, Abu Atheer, “we are buying weapons from the FSA. we bought 200 anti-aircraft missiles and Koncourse anti-tank weapons. We have good relations with our brothers in the FSA. For us, the infidels are those who cooperate with the West to fight Islam.”44Al-Jazeera, “Meeting al-Qaeda in Syria” by Zeina Khodr, July 9, 2013. Accessed on January 10, 2020.

According to reporting by the Los Angeles Times, Koncourse missiles were provided to FSA groups via the CIA’s regional allies, while CIA officers trained FSA fighters in the use of these weapons in Jordan and Turkey starting in November 2012. When asked about the CIA training, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney simply said, “We have stepped up our assistance, but I cannot inventory for you all the elements of that assistance,” and that “We have provided and will continue to provide substantial assistance to the Syrian opposition, as well as the Supreme Military Council.”45Los Angeles Times, “U.S. has secretly provided arms training to Syria rebels since 2012,” by David S. Cloud and Raja Abdulrahman, June 21, 2013. Accessed on January 18, 2021.

In August 2013, one month after the al-Jazeera report, journalist Joanna Paraszczuk noted that video had emerged of Liwa al-Tawhid fighters using Koncourse anti-tank missiles to bombard Syrian army armored vehicles at Menagh airbase.46EA Worldview, “Syria Analysis: Which Insurgents Captured Menagh Airbase — & Who Led Them?” by Joanna Paraszczuk, August 7, 2013. Accessed on January 18, 2021.

This suggests that both Liwa al-Tawhid and ISIS received these missiles from the same source in the FSA’s Supreme Military Council (SMC). Colonel Akaidi was both the Aleppo Military Council head and one of two leaders of the armament committee of the FSA’s Supreme Military Council (SMC) for the northern front.47In a statement issued by the Supreme Military Council Command of Syria to announce its formation, Akaidi is listed as the head of the armament committee for the SMC’s northern front, along with Jamal Marouf. Carnegie Middle East Center, “Statement on the Formation of the Supreme Military Council Command of Syria,” December 15, 2012. Accessed on January 24, 2020. Given Colonel Akaidi’s position in the SMC, and given his close coordination with ISIS, it is likely that Akaidi was responsible for the sale of these weapons to ISIS commanders in Aleppo. Other Salafist militias, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, also managed to acquire the CIA-supplied Koncourse missiles.48In a video posted online, militants fire a Koncourse missile at a Syrian army tank. The narrator states that the militant firing the missile are from Ahrar al-Sham and Saqour al-Sham., “Syrian T-55 Hit by Concourse Missile,” July 8, 2013. Accessed on March 22, 2021. In another video posted online, militants fire a Koncourse missile at a Syrian army checkpoint. The narrator indicates the militants are from Jaish al-Islam. YouTube, “Syria Rebels Deploy Concourse Missiles Against Dictator’s Army Checkpoint,” posted by Syria Today, October 20, 2013. Accessed on March 22, 2021. It should be noted that Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam, another early FSA group, is widely believed to have abducted and murdered Ford’s friend, the human rights lawyer Razen Zeitouneh.49Qantara, “Razan Zeitouneh – the missing face of Syria’s revolution,” by Lewis Sanders & Birgitta Schülke-Gill & Wafaa Al Badry & Julia Bayer, March 19, 2021. Accessed on March 22, 2021.

FSA groups shared weapons not only with ISIS but with Nusra as well. The other supposedly moderate FSA commander Ford mentions in his essay, Idlib Military Council head Afif Suleiman, acknowledged negotiating with Nusra to divide up weapons captured from the Syrian army (considered ghanai’m, or spoils) in a campaign in Idlib known as the “War of the Airports” in February 2013.50Time, “Ground War: Syria’s Rebels Prepare to Take a Province from Assad,” by Rania Abouzeid, February 7, 2013. Accessed on December 26, 2020. In October 2014, the New York Times reported that Shafi al-Ajmi, a Nusra fundraiser, told a Saudi news channel that “When the military councils sell the weapons they receive, guess who buys them? It’s me.”51New York Times, “Qatar’s Support of Islamists Alienates Allies Near and Far,” by David Kirkpatrick, September 7, 2014. Accessed on September 19, 2020.

The transfer of U.S. supplied weapons to al-Qaeda affiliated groups continued for years. Newsweek reported in 2017 that according to a report by UK-based Conflict Armament Research, ISIS obtained much of their “arsenal as a result of former President Barack Obama’s support for rebels in Syria,” and that these weapons “included a powerful anti-tank missile launcher bought from a Bulgarian manufacturer by the U.S. Army and wielded by ISIS only weeks later.”52Newsweek, “How ISIS Got Weapons From the U.S. and Used Them to Take Iraq and Syria,” by Tom O’Connor, December 14, 2017. Accessed on September 26, 2020.

Reflecting on six years of U.S. support for so-called rebels in Syria, Century Foundation contributor Sam Heller wrote that FSA factions “have functioned as battlefield auxiliaries and weapons farms for larger Islamist and jihadist factions, including Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.53The Century Foundation, “America Had Already Lost Its Covert War in Syria—Now It’s Official,”

Quality, Not Quantity

Additionally, large numbers of FSA fighters later joined Nusra and ISIS, helping to provide the manpower needed to grow both groups.54Al-Quds al-Arabi, “Is the Islamic State in Syria an extension of the Syrian revolution’s factions?” (Arabic) by Wael Essam, May 8, 2015 (Arabic). Accessed on October 11, 2020. Because FSA groups largely shared the Salafi ideology advocated by al-Qaeda, they provided a pool of fighters for Nusra and ISIS to pull from. According to Rania Abouzeid, fighters leaving the FSA to fight for Nusra did not undergo a conversion from secular to religious extremist, instead they were simply being promoted to fight for the more disciplined, respected, and well-armed of the Salafist armed groups seeking to topple the Syrian government.55Time, “Syria’s Many Militias: Inside the Chaos of the Anti-Assad Rebellion,” by Rania Abouzeid, March 5, 2013. Accessed on December 27, 2020. In December 2012, Abouzeid wrote that, “Jabhat al-Nusra does not differ ideologically from other Syrian Salafi Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid.” She quotes a Nusra commander as explaining, “We are all Sunni Muslims . . . so there is no difference.” The only distinction between Nusra and other groups, the commander suggested, was in the type of fighter Nusra accepted: “We pay a great deal of attention to the individual fighter, we are concerned with quality, not quantity.”56Time Magazine, “Interview with Official of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Islamist Militia Group,” by Rania Abouzeid, December 25, 2012. Accessed on September 10, 2020.

Journalist Wael Essam noted in al-Quds al-Arabi that “Many of the leaders of ISIS who enabled it to expand in Syria are former leaders of the Free Army and the Revolutionary Military Councils and prominent activists in the movement of the Syrian revolution,” and that “all the armed opposition factions in Syria, regardless of their different flags and their parties were formed from human subjects and the conservative Sunni environment itself, and the rebel fighters with their Islamic affiliations changed their options from one project to another, from the Free Army to the local jihadist organizations to the transnational jihadist organizations.”57Al-Quds al-Arabi, “Is the Islamic State in Syria an extension of the Syrian revolution’s factions?” (Arabic) by Wael Essam, May 8, 2015 (Arabic). Accessed on October 11, 2020.

A Cataract of Weaponry

Fourth, contrary to what Ambassador Ford claims, U.S. planners did provide significant lethal aid to allegedly moderate FSA groups. This is clear from the example of the Koncourse missiles discussed above, as well as from comments made by Ford’s then boss, Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Special Envoy to Syria Michael Ratner. In a meeting with members of the Syrian opposition in 2016, Ratner explained that “The armed groups in Syria get a lot of support, not just from the United States but from other partners,” while Secretary of State John Kerry added in the same meeting, “I think we’ve been putting an extraordinary amount of arms in,” and “Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, a huge amount of weapons [are] coming in. A huge amount of money.”58Youtube, “Leaked audio of John Kerry’s meeting with Syrian revolutionaries/UN,” posted by Angel North, October 4, 2016. Accessed on December 26, 2020.

The New York Times reported of this period that “With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment” which “expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year [2012], the data shows. . . Most of the cargo flights have occurred since November [2012], after the presidential election in the United States.” The NYT quotes Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute who notes the massive amounts of weaponry rebels received. Griffiths explains that “A conservative estimate of the payload of these flights would be 3,500 tons of military equipment. . . The intensity and frequency of these flights. . . are suggestive of a well-planned and coordinated clandestine military logistics operation.” The NYT indicates further that “arms and equipment were being purchased by Saudi Arabia in Croatia and flown to Jordan on Jordanian cargo planes for rebels working in southern Syria” and “formed what one former American official who was briefed on the program called ‘a cataract of weaponry.’” The NYT reports further that “David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director until November, had been instrumental in helping to get this aviation network moving and had prodded various countries to work together on it.”59New York Times, “Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With Aid From C.I.A” by C. J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt, March 24, 2013. Accessed on December 26, 2020. Washington Post journalist David Ignatius similarly reported in November 2012 that “According to opposition activists, FSA commanders were receiving aid both through the official Western backed military councils, and from Gulf sources.”60Washington Post, “Syrian Rebels at Cross Purposes,” by David Ignatius, November 23, 2012. Accessed on March 21, 2021.

Despite a massive CIA-directed arms pipeline that had been in place for months, Ford claims that U.S. planners were refusing to provide lethal aid to FSA groups. In his essay, Ford writes, “I met Akaidi for the first time in March 2013 in the lobby of my hotel in Gaziantep, Turkey. . . . He had come up from Aleppo to get substantial American support for his fighters. When I told him that we would begin providing truckloads of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and medical supplies, Akaidi brushed it aside. Leaning in, he exclaimed that his soldiers could ‘eat the leaves of the trees,’ but they needed ammunition to fight back against the Syrian regime forces. I told him my orders from Washington were clear: no lethal aid of any kind. Better, I advised him, to take the food supplies, and then there would be no need to eat the leaves. He didn’t smile, and instead offered a long complaint about American indifference to Syrian suffering. I had to stick to my policy guidance.”

Ford of course would have known about this CIA pipeline to FSA commanders, including Akaidi, just like any reader of the New York Times. Though the State Department may not have been supplying weapons to commanders like Akaidi, the CIA certainly was, via their regional allies. Despite this, Ford further gives his readers the impression that U.S. planners were still refusing to provide weapons to the FSA. He writes in his essay that “In May [2013], I met Akaidi again on the Turkish-Syrian border, this time with seven container trucks carrying thousands of MREs. Akaidi had the good grace not to express disappointment at the absence of lethal aid.”

Further, there are indications that Ford did provide weapons to Akaidi during their May 2013 meeting. When Ford later claimed he had long encouraged the Syrian opposition to avoid violence and engage in dialogue with the Syrian government to resolve the crisis, opposition activists openly challenged Ford’s claim. As Bernard of Moon of Alabama observed, the Syrian opposition activist S. Rifai reminded Ambassador Ford during an exchange on Twitter that, “Your trip to Hama was about dialogue? Your Malki meetings were about peace? Are you insulting my intelligence? . . . When you knew Manaf Tlass or the Prime Minister was about to defect, did you urge them to dialogue instead? Where is ‘dialogue’ in Obama’s ‘Assad must step aside’? When Farouk Al Sharaa invited the opposition to a meeting in 2011 you advised Nabil Maleh, Michel Kilo, Fayez Sara NOT to dialogue. Do you want the Bulgarian Ambassador to refresh your memory? How about B.R? Or M.T? All were there when you advised the opposition NOT to dialogue. You were giving us lectures on how important it was to tour the EU and lobby for our cause, and to capitalize on EU cutting ties with Assad.”61Moon of Alabama, “An Eyewitness Tells How The U.S. Ambassador Instigated ‘Revolution’ In Syria,” June 20, 2016. Accessed on April 23, 2021.

In regards to Ford’s May 2013 meeting with Akaidi on the border, S. Rifai sarcastically asks Ford, “On another note: why did you provide ‘non-lethal’ aid to rebels? And when you went to the Syrian border with Turkey to meet rebels, were you also urging them to dialogue?”62Moon of Alabama, “An Eyewitness Tells How The U.S. Ambassador Instigated ‘Revolution’ In Syria,” June 20, 2016. Accessed on April 23, 2021.

On May 14, 2013, just six days after Ford’s meeting with Akaidi on the Syrian border, Reuters provided additional details about the CIA role in arming FSA groups, further contradicting Ford’s claims that he and U.S. planners were providing only “non-lethal aid.” Reuters reported that “Rebel fighters in Syria say that in recent months the system for distributing arms has become more centralized, with arms being delivered through opposition National Coalition’s General Command, led by Selim Idriss, a general who defected to the opposition and is a favorite of Washington,” and that according to a Qatari official, “There’s a lot of consultation with the CIA, and they help Qatar with buying and moving the weapons into Syria, but just as consultants.” Reuters notes further that, “Rebel commanders contacted by Reuters said they submit their lists of needs to the General Command led by Idriss, which forwards the requests to Qatar or Saudi Arabia. . . . The weapons are purchased mainly from eastern Europe by arms brokers based in Britain and France, and are flown from Qatar to Ankara and then trucked to Syria, the Qatari source added.”63Reuters, “Qatar, allies tighten coordination of arms flows to Syria,” by Amena Bakr, Mariam Karouny, May 14, 2013.

Years later, in 2017, David Ignatius reported that the CIA program, known as Timber Sycamore, had “pumped many hundreds of millions of dollars to many dozens of militia groups” in Syria. The program was not only expensive, but effective. Ignatius writes further that “one knowledgeable official estimates that the CIA-backed fighters may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years.”64Washington Post, “What the demise of the CIA’s anti-Assad program means,” by David Ignatius, July 20, 2017. Accessed on December 27, 2020.

Further, Obama administration officials were aware that the CIA was providing arms to an insurgency of which al-Qaeda played a prominent role, but moved forward with the program anyway. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor under the Obama administration, himself acknowledged that “there was a slight absurdity in the fact that we were debating options to provide military support to the opposition at the same time that we were deciding to designate al-Nusra, a big chunk of that opposition, as a terrorist organization.”65Intercept, “Confronting the Consequences of Obama’s Foreign Policy,” by Mehdi Hassan, June 22, 2018. Accessed on January 3, 2021.

Because FSA groups shared al-Qaeda’s Salafist ideology, fought side by side with al-Qaeda, provided a pool of fighters for recruitment for al-Qaeda, and sold weapons to al-Qaeda, it is unsurprising that the steady flow of CIA-supplied weapons into Syria helped the Nusra Front and later ISIS become the most powerful factions in the Syrian insurgency. The significant lethal aid provided by U.S. planners (largely via regional allies) to Salafist militias fighting under the FSA banner helped strengthen al-Qaeda affiliated groups, rather than weaken them, as Ford claimed.

For example, U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles sent by U.S. planners to FSA groups in Idlib played a crucial role in helping Nusra conquer the entire province in the spring of 2015. Syria analyst Hassan Hassan observed in Foreign Policy during this period that, “The Syrian rebels are on a roll” and that, “The recent offensives in Idlib have been strikingly swift — thanks in large part to suicide bombers and American anti-tank TOW missiles,” which the FSA and Nusra deployed in tandem.66Foreign Policy, “Syria’s Revitalized Rebels Make Big Gains in Assad’s Heartland,” by Hassan Hassan, April 28, 2015. Accessed on March 26, 2021. It is no surprise then that U.S. official Bret McGurk acknowledged in 2017 that Nusra had become powerful enough to make Syria’s Idlib province, “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.”67New York Times, “In a Syria Refuge, Extremists Exert Greater Control,” by Ben Hubbard, August 13, 2017. Accessed on September 08, 2020.

Claims that U.S. weapons shipments to allegedly moderate FSA factions (who themselves were far from moderate) could be prevented from falling into the hands of extremists from al-Qaeda were never credible. In response to such claims, terrorism analyst Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracy noted in 2013, “The U.S. government believes it can vet the Free Syrian Army and distribute weapons to trusted groups. How the Obama administration believes it can do this when it doesn’t have a significant presence in Syria defies explanation.”68Long War Journal, “Free Syrian Army arming al Qaeda, ISIL commander claims,” by Bill Roggio, July 6, 2013. Accessed on March 21, 2021.

It turns out, U.S. planners had no plan to really control where these weapons ended up, and that appears to have been the point. In 2015, journalist Sharmine Narwani asked U.S. Central Command spokesman Lieutenant Commander Kyle Raines about why Pentagon-vetted fighters’ weapons were showing up in Nusra’s hands. Raines responded: “We don’t ‘command and control’ these forces—we only ‘train and enable’ them. Who they say they’re allying with, that’s their business.” Narwani observed further that, “U.S. arms have been seen in Nusra’s possession for many years now, including highly valued TOW missiles, which were game-changing weapons in the Syrian military theater. When American weapons end up in al-Qaeda hands during the first or second year of a conflict, one assumes simple errors in judgment. When the problem persists after seven years, however, it starts to look like there’s a policy in place to look the other way.”69The American Conservative, “Are Al-Qaeda Affiliates Fighting Alongside U.S. Rebels In Syria’s South?” by Sharmine Narwani, June 25, 2018. Accessed on September 19, 2020.


The vast U.S. and UK-led propaganda campaign to characterize the war in Syria as a popular uprising led by moderate rebels against a dictator has largely been successful. However, cracks in the narrative have emerged with time, as the nature of the armed groups fighting with U.S. assistance against the Syrian government becomes more widely known. More and more observers are coming to realize, as academic Tim Anderson has pointed out, that the war in Syria was not a popular revolution but rather a dirty war against the Syrian government, fought by Salafist militias acting as proxies for the U.S. and its regional allies.70“The Dirty War on Syria: Washington, Regime Change, and Resistance,” by Tim Anderson. Global Research, 2016. It is perhaps because this narrative is losing credibility that Ambassador Ford has once again attempted to whitewash the role of the Obama administration and the CIA in destroying the Syrian state, and thereby deflect blame for the unimaginable suffering and death that Syrians have had to endure as a result.

About William Van Wagenen

William Van Wagenen has a BA in German literature From Brigham Young University and an MA in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. You can read his other writings on Syria for the Libertarian Institute here. Follow him on Twitter @wvanwagenen.

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