The Washington foreign policy outrage mob was at it again, this time wringing their hands in angst after President Trump announced that he would begin drawing down the American military presence in northern Syria and then finally ordered a full withdrawal of around 1,000 U.S. troops from the area. The primary complaint this time around from the permanent war cheerleaders was that pulling U.S. troops out of the region would expose the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish group that has fought alongside the Americans, to an attack by invading Turkey, which considers the YPG to be terrorists and condemns their allegiance to the PKK, the Kurdish militia based in Turkey that is considered a terrorist group by both Turkey and the U.S. To people like Lindsey Graham and Meghan McCain, who referred to Trump and Senator Rand Paul as “Chicken heart isolationists”, it is outrageous and immoral to even consider bringing troops home from an undeclared war halfway around the world in which there is no clear mission and no obvious interests for the American people.
The outrage, however, was not limited to the neoconservatives and neoliberals who invariably favor perpetual U.S. intervention. This time, it even expanded to generally less-hawkish Democrats like congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who parrroted the inane neocon argument that the withdrawal would “reward Russia, Iran, and ISIS”. Never mind that Russia and Iran have vigorously fought against ISIS throughout the Syrian conflict. To the supposed patriots who espouse this line, the interests of American troops, American security, and American taxpayers, all of which would greatly benefit from a U.S. disengagement in Syria, are secondary to the interests of the American empire, which seeks to weaken adversaries like Russia and Iran in order to maintain optimal levels of global dominance. Of course, the hawks have been massive failures even on their own terms, as U.S. intervention itself has been a prime factor in empowering Russia, Iran, and ISIS in the region.
The claim that Trump is leaving the Kurds high and dry is certainly not altogether wrong. The Turks have already proceeded to invade northern Syria and the Kurds are no doubt in a serious predicament without the American support they’ve enjoyed throughout most of the Syrian conflict. Trump had many an opportunity to negotiate a more diplomatic U.S. withdrawal by involving the Syrian government to provide the Kurds with protection against Turkey, although there are recent reports that the Kurds have begun negotiating with the Syrian state on their own. So although this U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria is much needed, it is inaccurate to say that Trump has handled the situation well and it’s not even clear that he is truly pursuing a more non-interventionist strategy in the region.
Trump has made many past promises to withdraw American troops from the Middle East, most notably in December 2018 when he suggested that the U.S. would be reducing its troop presence in Syria and Afghanistan, causing Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign in disgust. Yet, we still find that Trump has failed to de-escalate any of the existing conflicts he inherited from Obama and has instead increased American involvement in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen, and ratcheted up tensions with Iran. In fact, just hours after declaring that the U.S. would be drawing down in Syria, Trump announced he would be sending hundreds of troops and more weapons to Saudi Arabia to help them continue their genocide in Yemen.
Unfortunately, those who are outraged over Trump’s Middle East policy are seemingly unconcerned over the various ways in which he has escalated U.S. involvement overseas and instead hyperventilate over the thought of America potentially not policing every corner of the globe. The idea of allowing people in other countries to sort out their own problems without the moral wisdom of America to arm or support one side or the other (or in this case three different sides: the Turks, Kurds, and our “moderate” al-Qaeda rebel friends), is inconceivable to Washington talking heads like McCain or chickenhawk Senators like Lindsey Graham.
Congressman Thomas Massie asked a simple question, wondering, “If having troops in Syria is so important, why hasn’t Congress ever voted to send troops there?” One would think that if Trump removing troops from Syria was such a catastrophic mistake, then surely having them there in the first place would be an issue important enough for the Congress to vote on and authorize. Additionally, the fact that removing a small number of troops could lead to such a disaster is a pretty good indication of just how big a failure America’s Syria intervention has been and how farcical the notion that the U.S. has been fighting to create stability in the country is.
Instead of fulfilling their constitutional duties, Graham and the rest of the bipartisan interventionist foreign policy consensus in Congress would prefer to shirk their responsibility to declare war and simply allow the President and the CIA to operate with impunity, and then throw temper tantrums at the slightest sign of a draw down of the troops that were illegally deployed to begin with.
Here’s congressman Dan Crenshaw deriding the “no more endless wars” camp by claiming that, “Removing our small and cost-effective force from Northern Syria is causing more war, not less,” and, “Our presence there was not meant to engage in endless wars, it was there to deter further warfare.” For Crenshaw, the entire history of American escalation of the conflict since 2011 doesn’t matter because he claims we had good intentions to stop further warfare. Forget Operation Timber Sycamore, the CIA’s five-plus year campaign of arming and training jihadists loyal to al-Qaeda that turned initially minor and mostly nonviolent protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring into a full-fledged war that upended the entire country and killed countless civilians. All we need to do in Crenshaw’s mind is focus on the immediate uptick in violence that occurs from Turkey’s offensive after America withdraws troops and never mind the past policies that he championed that turned Syria into such a disaster.
This is a typical warmonger framing of the issue, where, as Robert Higgs puts it, you “truncate the antecedents” and pretend that history starts at whichever point is most advantageous to the narrative that we can’t leave anywhere ever and anything bad that happens is a result of America not being involved enough. In this case, Crenshaw obfuscates the fact that the Kurds would not be in such a precarious position if not for U.S. intervention in the first place and leads the reader to believe that the only thing putting them in danger of being attacked by Turkey is this one act of U.S. disengagement. In reality, America’s support for the jihadist rebels all along has created the crisis in Syria, and America protecting the Kurds and promising them safety, while at the same time supporting Turkey and their jihadist proxy forces has created a house of cards that is bound to fall.
So you have people from all across the political spectrum who oppose Trump’s withdrawal because it has allowed Turkey to invade northern Syria to attack the Kurds. Turkish President Erdogan is an authoritarian dictator, they claim, who has no problem committing mass murder. But curiously enough, you’d be hard pressed to find any opposition to America’s alliance with Turkey by these very same people until just days ago. All along, Turkey has supported some of the most brutal extremist groups in Syria, yet not a peep could be heard from beltway politicians or the corporate media about the evils of Erdogan and real debate about whether we should maintain our NATO alliance with Turkey was nonexistent. In fact, anyone who questioned America’s relationship with Turkey or suggested in any way that NATO and its entangling alliances are bad for the U.S. was smeared as unpatriotic or an isolationist. The American hawks never had an issue with Erdogan’s policy of arming and funding terrorist groups because that was Obama and CIA Director John Brennan’s policy, too. America supporting dictators, only to turn on them when it helps to spin a narrative that will promote further military intervention is of course nothing new, see Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.
While the Kurds are now more exposed to the danger of Turkish attacks, it is misguided to simply blame Trump’s small scale troop withdrawal and disregard the failed policies of the very people who now say we can never leave that have created this environment of such turmoil and dysfunction in Syria. When you create chaos through constant reckless intervention, as the U.S. government has done throughout the Middle East, there will be consequences when you inevitably have to leave, and the longer you stay, the greater those consequences will be. Blaming U.S. withdrawal for anything bad that happens afterwards is like blaming a hangover on the fact that you stopped drinking and went to bed.
If you pay close attention to the arguments made by the Washington war party, you’ll notice they hardly ever attempt to justify their policies with stories of past successes. Instead, they simply claim how bad things would be if we didn’t listen to their wisdom and that if only they had been allowed to do a little bit more, everything would have turned out great. In this case, the Lindsey Grahams of the world are incapable of providing any real justification for why the U.S. military needs to be fighting in northern Syria, so instead they fear monger and promise that anything bad that happens after we leave will be America’s fault for having left, and therefore we must stay forever.
Rather, the blame should be placed squarely at the feet of those who created this mess in the first place. That means Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Brennan, and the rest of the Obama administration for instigating this war by supporting al-Qaeda and helping spur the rise of ISIS and that means Lindsey Graham and the rest of the hawks in government and in the corporate press whose influence ensures that America can never fully escape this quagmire.
Whistleblower and American hero Edward Snowden is being sued by the Department of Justice over the release of his new book, Permanent Record. The DOJ claims that the contents of the book violate a non-disclosure agreement Snowden allegedly signed when he worked as an NSA contractor and that the government is therefore due all of the proceeds from the sale of the book. Snowden famously revealed in June 2013 that the U.S. government was conducting a mass-surveillance program, indiscriminately collecting phone records, internet search history and metadata from all Americans without a warrant, spying on various allied nations and international corporations, planning cyber attacks against foreign countries like China and hacking into their military systems, and even tapping the phones of various world leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, among various other violations of the privacy and civil liberties of Americans and others around the world. For exposing the vast and widespread criminal activity of the U.S. government and in particular, the NSA, Snowden became one of fewer than 100 people in history to be charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, legislation originally created to go after enemy spies during World War I, and he has lived in exile in an unknown location in Russia ever since.
In this excerpt from the DOJ’s lawsuit against Snowden, the government argues the illegality of the book on the grounds that Snowden did not first seek the approval of the NSA or CIA before publishing. In other words, the agencies responsible for violating the law and basic constitutional rights of all Americans so egregiously that a formerly loyal government worker was willing to give up all his freedoms in order to inform the American people must first be asked nicely before you’re allowed to say anything more about their own criminal behavior. As Snowden states in his tweet thread regarding the lawsuit, “It is hard to think of a greater stamp of authenticity than the US government filing a lawsuit claiming your book is so truthful that it was literally against the law to write.”
Establishment Cover Up and Response to Snowden Leaks
Just three months prior to the Snowden revelations of 2013, then Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before congress, saying that the U.S. does not “wittingly” collect bulk data from American citizens, a statement proven indisputably false by the documents Snowden leaked. For his blatant act of perjury and oversight of a highly illegal spying apparatus that violated the privacy and 4th Amendment rights of all Americans, Clapper’s feet would of course be held to the fire, right? As we’ve learned from the recent Russiagate fiasco, even the most trivial of falsehoods when told to the government can get you into a world of trouble, see Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, George Papadopoulos, etc. Instead, Clapper simply trotted out a token apology, saying, “my response was clearly erroneous—for which I apologize,” before going on to serve out the remainder of President Obama’s term as Director of National Intelligence with not so much as a slap on the wrist and was subsequently hired by CNN as a national security analyst. Meanwhile, the network continues its struggle to discern why the American people no longer trust it and its fellow corporate media outlets.
In fact, Clapper aside, the Snowden leaks resulted in not one bit of noticeable accountability or self-reflection from the U.S. government or the mainstream corporate press whatsoever, as the majority of the focus centered around the persecution of Snowden for revealing classified information, with almost none on the individuals and agencies responsible for committing the crimes that Snowden revealed. Snowden remains in exile and in danger of being prosecuted to the highest degree if found and extradited, while the NSA continues to conduct mass surveillance of the American people in violation of the 4th Amendment, and our basic privacies from Big Brother in Washington continue to diminish in the name of protecting national security.
Rather than making any effort to rein in the exorbitant powers of the state to conduct illegal spying in response to the Snowden revelations, the government has instead attempted to further normalize the idea of mass surveillance by passing legislation like the Freedom Act in 2015, essentially a modified version of the PATRIOT Act of 2001, which gave the state a vast array of powers to conduct warrantless surveillance. Now, the government is coming after Snowden once again for his memoir, perpetuating the Orwellian idea that those who display the immoral actions of criminals to their victims are in fact the true criminals, while the immoral actors themselves are really the victims for having their secrets exposed.
The Dangers of Mass Surveillance
So the government indiscriminately spies on its own citizens, but what’s the big deal? After all, they’re just doing it to keep us safe, right? Even if you assume the best of intentions from our watchful overlords, this willingness to cede so much power to the federal government is naive to say the least. The primary danger is that if the government ever decides in the future that they want to come after you for any reason, they now have the ability to construct a narrative about you through your online and cellular activity. The more data they have, the more easily they can manipulate that data to create a story that portrays you as a criminal. Even if you’re not doing anything that most people would consider to be wrong, the standard for what the government considers criminal often has more to do with what it perceives as being harmful to its own interests rather than some objective standard of immorality, as we have seen through the Snowden case itself that. This means that anyone expressing dissent or opposition to the state in any way is at risk of being considered adversarial to the state’s interests, and therefore an enemy of the state that may need to be dealt with. The state being able to closely monitor those who express such dissent through its mass surveillance program is extremely detrimental to free speech in this country because people fear the consequences of dissenting and will self-censor, knowing the potential ramifications of speaking out against the state.
“If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear,” some will still contend. This argument neglects the fact that there is a major difference between what most people would consider something “to hide” and what the state considers criminal. If I had a plant in my house that the government considers illegal, it’s likely not something I would feel the need to hide, except for my knowledge that if a government official saw it, I could be arrested. As a result, I may hide something from the state, not because I’m doing anything wrong or immoral, but simply because I want to protect myself from government goons arresting me and locking me in a cage for something they have arbitrarily deemed illegal. The “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” line of argument is only valid if you assume that all government laws are handed down by God as irrefutable moral truths.
Additionally, the notion that people should have no objection to having anything in their life exposed to federal bureaucrats and agents unless it’s something they could be arrested for is preposterous and does not hold up to any other normal human standard of privacy. Would you feel comfortable knowing someone snooped through your house every day while you were at work or had a secret camera to watch you in the shower? After all, they didn’t actually take anything or physically hurt you and you aren’t doing or hiding anything illegal, so if you had nothing to hide, you should have nothing to fear. There is a basic level of privacy that we as humans value by nature. The reason we have non-see-through walls to our homes or have passwords on our phones or computers is not solely to protect our security, but also because we value keeping certain things secret and that is in no way an indication that we are hiding something nefarious. As Snowden put it, “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
But we need mass surveillance to keep us safe from terrorists, proponents of the government’s boundless spying apparatus like Clapper or former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden will say. If our guardian angels in Washington don’t know that you called your mom last Tuesday to check up on how her old dog Biscuit is doing, then we might have another 9/11. The idea that mass data collection is in any way necessary or beneficial to the goal of protecting national security is the predominant myth espoused by surveillance state propagandists.
As James Bamford lays out in detail in A Pretext for War, it was the overabundance of communication data collected by the NSA that played a major role in making it so difficult for them to find the actual information that could have helped prevent the 9/11 attacks. Everything the U.S. government could have possibly needed to prevent those planes from flying into the twin towers was there, from the names of key al-Qaeda members to the locations of important al-Qaeda meetings around the world to the immigration of many of the future hijackers into the United States and their activities in the months leading up to the attack. Yet, they were unable to put the pieces together, in large part because there was so much noise surrounding the truly important details. Imagine trying to put together a 100 piece jigsaw puzzle with 1,000,000 extra fake puzzle pieces mixed in with the 100 real ones.
There is a major difference between targeted surveillance, where you have probable cause to investigate a particular person or line of communication, acquire a warrant, and surveil the relevant activities that could help you prevent a crime, and mass surveillance, where you simply collect everything from everybody, hoping that casting a wide enough net will provide valuable intelligence. What Snowden revealed was that the U.S. government has been pursuing the latter strategy of mass surveillance, a method that not only violates the basic privacy rights of American citizens, but proved highly ineffective leading up to 9/11 and has shown little if any evidence of being beneficial to national security and the prevention of terrorism.
Consequences of the Leaks
In addition to the absurdity of the claim that absorbing communication data from all Americans is somehow crucial to protecting our freedoms, there has never been legitimate proof that Snowden’s leaks caused any real harm to the nation’s security or to anyone other than those who were responsible for committing the crimes that Snowden revealed, whose ability to operate in secret was somewhat impaired. Snowden did not reveal specific details regarding individual spies or methods of operation that a foreign adversary could take advantage of and use to put Americans at risk, but instead revealed broad overviews of ways in which the U.S. government was abusing its power. In fact, Snowden left all final decisions regarding which documents to declassify to journalists like Glenn Greenwald whom he trusted to be responsible and take proper precautions, rather than simply dumping them all to the public, giving them to an organization like Wikileaks that could potentially release them all indiscriminately, or giving them to a foreign adversary like Russia or China. According to Greenwald, Snowden even instructed him to give the government the opportunity to plead its case as to why any given document was too sensitive and should not be released before he did so.
Meanwhile, people like Clapper are guilty of violating the privacy of every American citizen and making a mockery of the 4th Amendment and the foundational American principles behind it, that all Americans should be free from unwarranted search and seizure and are not to be treated as criminals or terrorist threats who must be constantly monitored despite no evidence whatsoever of any wrongdoing. However, Clapper is a member of the ruling class and his actions, although harmful to the entire nation, do not explicitly harm the state itself, but to the contrary, empower the state by expanding its reach and control over its subjects. And what do you know, the state decided it was Snowden who must be punished to the fullest extent of the law and continues to pursue retribution against him to this day, while Clapper’s crimes were swept under the rug and barely acknowledged as he continued to loyally serve the ever-expanding secret surveillance state.
The ongoing Snowden persecution reveals a very basic problem with a system that grants such massive and unconditional powers to the central government and, in particular, unelected federal agencies like the NSA and CIA, to conduct policy in secret in the name of national defense. If it is up to the state itself to decide what behavior is criminal and what consequences should be imposed on those it considers to be criminal, then we have no reason to be surprised when the state imposes extreme punishment on those who commit acts that in any way harm the state’s interests, while absolving itself and its own loyal members of any responsibility for their actions, regardless of how much damage they do to their own citizens.
There is a civil war being fought between the Syrian government, led by president Bashar al-Assad, and various rebel groups, whose goal is to overthrow Assad and his regime. The two sides are backed by various groups, both internal and external to the country.
What are the different sides involved in the war and what is America’s role?
One of the underlying causes for many of the conflicts throughout the Middle East is the division between the two main sects of Islam, Sunni and Shi’a. Saudi Arabia is dominated by Sunni Muslims, while Iran is dominated by Shi’ite Muslims (a Shi’ite is one who practices Shi’a Islam). These two countries have the largest oil reserves in the Middle East, which along with other factors makes them important geopolitical pieces in the region. As a result, most conflicts in the Middle East in one form or another have pitted Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other. This is the case in Syria.
Although Assad is a secular ruler, he is an Alawite, which is a smaller branch of Islam that makes up about 11 percent of the country. While Alawites form an independent sect of Islam, they are often associated with Shi’ites. Assad and his regime have long been backed by Iran. The Iraqi government, which was taken over by factions loyal to Iran as a result of the Iraq war in 2003 (more on that later), supports Assad as well. Hezbollah, a prominent Shi’a militia group based in Lebanon, as well as Russia, also side with the Syrian regime. Shi’ites in the country, along with other minorities like the Alawites, Christians, and Druze, overwhelmingly support the Syrian state and its goals in the war. Also, despite the Sunni/Shi’a conflict, a plurality, if not a majority of the Sunnis in the country support the government as well.
On the other side, the rebels are composed of Sunni militia groups and are dominated by al-Qaeda and other jihadist militants. ISIS, which is a break-off of al-Qaeda (explained more later), also fights against the Syrian state. Backing the rebels are the Saudis, as well as majority-Sunni states Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan. Israel also supports the rebels. Israel’s primary enemy in the region is Hezbollah. Hezbollah resides in southern Lebanon, near Israel’s northern border, and have had numerous conflicts with the Israelis over territory near the border throughout the years. Iran is a mortal enemy of Israel, mainly because Iran supports Hezbollah. Syria is also a supporter of Hezbollah, which is the main reason Israel decided to back the rebels against them. Finally, you have the United States. America’s main allies in the region are Israel and Saudi Arabia, both enemies of Iran. The U.S. has worked with the Assad regime in the past, one that has been in power going back to 1971, when Assad’s father first assumed the presidency. Syria supported the U.S. in the first Gulf War in 1991 and was the main participant in America’s “Extraordinary Rendition” program during the George W. Bush years, where the U.S. sent prisoners labeled as “illegal combatants” to Syria to be tortured. America’s role in this war is multi-faceted, but it has stood mainly on the side of the rebels, in opposition to the Syrian regime.
To add another element, you also have the Syrian Kurds, a leftist political group that resides in the north of the country. They’re backed by the U.S. and oppose the Syrian state, although they claim they don’t wish to see Assad overthrown. However, they also fight against the rebels and ISIS, as well as the Turks.
While not all parties involved are affiliated with one of the two major sects of Islam, a very broad way to understand this conflict is that it is a sectarian war where the Syrian government is fighting on the side of Shi’ite Muslims, while the rebels are fighting on the side of Sunni Muslims. In summation, here are the major factions fighting directly or indirectly on each side.
Iraqi Shi’ite militias
Syrian Sunni militia groups
How did it all begin and how did America get involved?
In 2011, a phenomenon referred to as the “Arab Spring” broke out across the Middle East and northern Africa. The Arab Spring refers to a series of revolutions that took place across the region where the people rose up in protest of their oppressive rulers. It began in Tunisia and quickly spread with uprisings taking place in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and eventually Syria.
The protests in Syria began rather peacefully, but Assad was able to maintain power and fend off the more violent part of the resistance. At this point, foreign involvement in the conflict was relatively limited, although there was a major push by much of the American establishment to intervene on the side of the rebellion against Assad, arguing that he was committing genocide against his own people. However, President Obama and his advisors decided to refrain for the time being, claiming the Syrian people needed to decide their future for themselves.
In an interview with CBS in 2012, secretary of state Hillary Clinton, when asked why the U.S. was not doing more to help the rebels in Syria, explained that the rebels were supported by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man and the new leader of al-Qaeda following bin Laden’s death. Essentially, she was saying that support for the uprising would mean supporting and empowering the very group that was responsible for 9/11 and the group that is consistently depicted as the biggest threat to U.S. national security. Despite these claims, by mid-2012 there were reports of CIA activity in Turkey and northern Syria, where they were scoping out possible strategies for supporting the rebels.
In 2013, Assad was accused of using chemical weapons to kill hundreds of his own people. Despite little to no evidence that Assad was behind these attacks, the American neoconservatives, the most hawkish faction of the Republican Party that includes Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, used these allegations to push for further intervention against Assad. Israel and its many foreign policy think tanks in the U.S. were the strongest supporters of American military action to overthrow the regime in Syria. Claims that Assad was behind the attacks have never been proven and there are many holes in the narrative, namely the fact that the major intelligence agencies, including the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, were unwilling to sign off on the report. There were even a number of intelligence analysts who threatened to quit if a report was released in their name claiming Assad was undeniably responsible for the attacks. Instead, the White House simply released a report of its own, in spite of the skepticism of the intelligence community, which blamed Assad. Despite the pleas from the pro-war factions of the American establishment and his insistence that Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks, Obama decided against unilateral intervention and went to the congress, which strongly rejected a regime change operation as a result of overwhelming opposition from the American people.
In late 2013, Assad and his military were making major progress and were on the verge of defeating the main rebel forces. It was apparent that without help, these rebel groups would not survive and the war would likely conclude with Assad remaining in power. This is the point in the war where America really ramped up its involvement. Despite the lack of a direct military strike against Assad in Damascus, the CIA began a program to train and arm the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, a group of so-called “moderate” rebels. However, as Clinton alluded to in the aforementioned interview, the rebel groups were dominated on the ground by forces loyal to al-Qaeda. This fact was less clear at the beginning of the war, although based on Clinton’s statements, the Obama administration had at least an idea that this was true. As the war has progressed, it has become more and more clear and thus more difficult for the U.S. government to dispute that the rebel forces are predominately composed of al-Qaeda and similar jihadist terrorist groups. As a result, many of the weapons distributed by the CIA to these supposedly moderate fighters wound up in the hands of al-Qaeda and its allies.
I thought we were fighting against ISIS in Syria. Who exactly are they and how do they fit into the picture?
ISIS is essentially a break-off of al-Qaeda. In the beginning of the war, ISIS was part of al-Qaeda and they fought together against Assad. Many of the members of al-Qaeda were veterans of the Iraq war. They had fought against the Americans in Iraq during the Bush years and came to Syria to fight in the Syrian civil war. However, in early 2013 there was a split amongst the leadership and many of the Iraqi members of al-Qaeda, led by current ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke off and formed their own group. In 2014, they went back to Iraq and seized Fallujah and then Mosul, a city in northwestern Iraq with a population of around 2 million people. There, they declared themselves an Islamic caliphate, which essentially means a group that rules the entire Muslim community. They named themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or, ISIS. ISIS revoked its claim of loyalty to Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, but still claimed the legacy of Osama bin Laden. The al-Qaeda faction that remained in Syria renamed itself the al-Nusra front and maintained its loyalty to Zawahiri.
ISIS has controlled much of northwestern Iraq since 2014, although they are quickly losing ground and their presence in Mosul is very tenuous, as they are currently being driven out by opposition forces. They also control a sizeable region in eastern Syria, including the city of Raqqa. While many ISIS members went back to Iraq, some remained in Syria to continue fighting in the Syrian civil war. ISIS does to some extent battle the al-Nusra front, their former allies, but mainly they still fight against Syrian government forces.
One thing that is rarely discussed in the mainstream media is how ISIS became so powerful in the first place, seemingly out of nowhere. The implication is often that the rise of ISIS happened as a result of American inaction. What is seldom mentioned is that many of the weapons ISIS used to create their quasi-state were the same weapons originally given to the Free Syrian Army by the CIA. As has been the case all along, the FSA has basically served as the arms procurement branch of al-Qaeda. Many of the groups receiving weapons were direct allies of al-Qaeda and those that weren’t often had their weapons taken forcefully by ruthless al-Qaeda fighters. There are many factors that led to the creation of ISIS, but it is all but impossible to conceive that a group as well-armed and destructive as ISIS could have formed without America’s CIA program that provided training and arms to rebel fighters, many of whom became members of ISIS.
After the rise of ISIS, America continued to back the FSA, but began a new air war to combat ISIS, bombing them heavily in Iraq as well as in their strongholds in eastern Syria.
Who would take over if Assad gets overthrown?
This is maybe the most important question there is regarding this conflict and it’s the one that no one in the American establishment or mainstream media seems to have an answer to. The real answer is, it would likely be al-Qaeda. They are by far the strongest group in the country outside of the Syrian government and the clear leaders of the rebel forces. The problem is not so much that America and its allies have failed to formulate a plan to install a new leader in place of the Assad regime, it’s that there are no other options in the country outside of al-Qaeda. America has never had success attempting to install functional democracy after overthrowing a leader, so the idea that they could accomplish this when the forces doing the overthrowing are made up of radical jihadist terrorists is a bit optimistic. Consider the disaster that ensued in Iraq after America overthrew a secular dictator, Saddam Hussein. Now imagine how much worse it would’ve been if America had done this while Saddam was in the middle of fighting a war against an army of jihadist terrorist groups. That hypothetical is analogous to what is really happening in Syria right now.
The allegiance of many of the Syrian civilians shows strong evidence that they too believe it will be al-Qaeda taking over if Assad is overthrown. The mainstream media portrays this as a war pitting all of the minorities against the Shi’ite, Iranian-backed government, but this is simply not true. At the beginning of the war, many of the minority factions in the country, including the Christians, Druze, and Alawites, did participate in the protests against Assad. However, as the war has gone on, almost all of these minorities have taken sides with the government. Even a large number of the Sunni Muslims in the country have come to support the state’s goals in this war. Although many of these people do not particularly like Assad, they believe if he is overthrown, al-Qaeda will take over and they will be much worse off. This short documentary of three undercover reporters in rebel-held territory in Idlib province shows how thoroughly these areas are controlled by al-Qaeda and the barbarous rule the civilians there live under. Another short documentary shows the experiences of Syrian women, mainly in Damascus, and the obvious concern they have of how a rebel victory would affect their lives in a negative way.
While the American media consistently points out Assad’s human rights abuses and authoritarian behavior, some of which is true, the Syrian people under Assad live relatively free and normal lives. Syria is one of the more liberal countries in the region and compared to life under the rule of ISIS or al-Qaeda, which behead children and enforce strict and brutal Sharia law, there is no question that Syrians are better off living under Assad.
How is Russia involved in the war? CNN and Fox News tell me that this is all Vladimir Putin’s fault.
Russia has long been an ally of Assad, but was not a direct participant in the war until late 2015. In 2013, the war looked like it would come to an end as the rebel forces were losing power, but after America began its CIA program to train and arm the FSA, the war became more and more violent, as al-Qaeda and ISIS gained strength. Still, Assad appeared to be in control until mid-2015 when the al-Nusra front continued to gain territory and began to threaten one of the major highways leading south towards Damascus. At that point, the Russians believed the rebels were enough of a threat to overthrow Assad that they decided to intervene. They began launching airstrikes against al-Nusra and ISIS in late 2015 to try to push them back and prevent them from gaining any more ground.
There is no doubt that Russia’s airstrikes have killed innocent civilians and caused destruction in the rebel-held territories they’ve bombed. However, their actions were a direct response to the advances of the CIA-backed terrorist groups against their ally Assad. Russia, like the Syrian civilians, understands that if Assad falls, it will probably be terrorist groups like al-Nusra that will take over the country. Assad being an ally notwithstanding, the Russians are not particularly keen on the idea of a country that’s basically in their backyard being run by a bunch of al-Qaeda guys. Similarly, if there was a civil war going on in Belize, the U.S. probably wouldn’t be too thrilled if the rebellion was dominated by groups that engaged in suicide bombings, beheadings, and international terrorist attacks, and would likely take action.
What are the positions of Donald Trump and others in the establishment on Syria?
During the campaign, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton did take somewhat different stances on Syria. Clinton’s position was essentially that the U.S. needed to do more to back the rebels and fight against Assad. This is the position held by the majority of the Republican Party, as well as many Democrats. During the debates, one of the main ideas that came up in regards to Syria was to install a “safe zone” or a “no fly zone”. This would mean America sending in troops and air cover, carving out a section of land in Syria, and declaring that no enemy planes would be allowed to fly over. According to its advocates, the intention of this plan would be to deter Russian airstrikes and protect innocent civilians. Clinton, as well as many of the Republican candidates, such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, strongly supported this idea. Clinton’s aggressive foreign policy in Syria as well as most of the other hot spots around the world was the main reason why she gained the support of most of the neoconservatives in Washington.
The problem with this plan, in practice, is that even if we were able to set up a “safe zone”, which would be no easy task and would involve a lot of violence and destruction, what would we do if Russia did fly a plane over it? Would we really be prepared to shoot down a Russian jet and possibly start a catastrophic war with one of the world’s nuclear powers? After all, Russia is an actual ally of Syria, whereas America is an uninvited guest in a sovereign nation. This would be akin to if Canada was fighting a war against a bunch of terrorist groups and Russia came over and invaded, carved out a space in Alberta, called it a “safe zone”, and said they would shoot down any American planes that flew over, despite Canada inviting America to help it defeat the terrorists.
Trump was not in favor of this plan and strongly criticized Clinton and his Republican opponents for their affinity for regime change in Syria as well as in Libya and Iraq. The Trump position was that the U.S. needed to focus all of its energy on “beating the hell out of ISIS.” While Trump’s stances were never particularly clear, his statements implied he supported ramping up airstrikes and potentially putting boots on the ground in order to throw ISIS out of Mosul and Raqqa.
While this may seem like a more consistent and less treasonous approach, to fight against, not for, those who have actually threatened U.S. national security and killed American citizens, there are still many flaws. To start, this isn’t by any means a new approach. America has bombed al-Qaeda and ISIS in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Libya for eight years straight under Obama and terrorist groups have only gotten stronger in all of those countries. The simple explanation for this is that when an American bomb kills someone, everyone related to that person now hates America. The more people hate America, the more likely they are to be radicalized and join a terrorist group. As a result, Obama’s drone wars have been al-Qaeda and ISIS’ most effective recruiting tools.
It is true that if the U.S. really wanted to, it could send in the marines and put thousands of troops on the ground to drive ISIS out of Mosul and Raqqa. It would mean an incredible amount of death and violence, both for American servicemen and innocent civilians, but the U.S. potentially has the capability to do it. But what would this really accomplish? All it would really do is turn ISIS back into an insurgency and in the process create more hatred towards America for all of the destruction it would have caused. On top of that, ISIS doesn’t need to control cities in order to carry out terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, so does it really enhance national security to fight a massive war just to take Mosul and Raqqa?
Despite campaigning on an anti regime change stance, Trump recently launched 59 tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airfield in response to more claims that Assad used chemical weapons against his people. These claims against Assad, like those in 2013, remain un-proven, while the White House and mainstream media push the narrative as if it were undisputable fact. It is unclear whether this is the start of a consistent policy of trying to overthrow the Syrian regime or simply a one-time reaction to the allegations against Assad. Either way, the U.S. continues its policy of using the CIA to arm and train rebels, despite Trump regularly denouncing this policy during the campaign.
The start of Trump’s presidency is very consistent with past presidents who campaigned on a more restrained foreign policy, yet failed to live up to promises of limiting America’s intervention abroad. Obama was the clear peace candidate in 2008 and campaigned on getting the U.S. out of Iraq. He proceeded to become the first president in history to be at war all 8 years of his term, dropped over 26,000 bombs in 2016 alone, involved the U.S. in new wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and continued wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan. George W. Bush campaigned on a “humble” foreign policy and went on to start the disastrous Iraq War, while completely dismissing international law and basic humanity with his use of torture. Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson both won elections in part based on their promises to keep America out of foreign conflict, but shortly after being elected, entered the U.S. into World War I and the Vietnam War, respectively.
Why are America and Israel so hell-bent on getting rid of Assad?
To really understand the motives, you have to go back to the Iraq War of 2003. In a nutshell, America’s goal in the Iraq war was to overthrown Saddam Hussein and end up with a U.S.-friendly government, which would give Israel another ally in the region and give them more power in their conflicts with Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Instead, what happened was that after Saddam was overthrown, the Shi’ite majority in Baghdad simply demanded democratic elections, which the Americans couldn’t refuse because they had sold the war as a way to install democracy in Iraq. The Shi’ites won the election, took over the government, and kicked all the Sunnis out. This drove many Sunnis into the hands of the insurgency, which fought against the U.S. and the Shi’ites and later morphed into al-Qaeda in Iraq, which never existed in the country before Bush’s invasion. This group was essentially ISIS 1.0, as many of these fighters would eventually join the Syrian civil war and then break off to form ISIS.
The result of the Iraq war, along with the creation of violent terrorist groups throughout the northwest of the country, was that the Shi’ites now controlled the capital city and all the land to the south. The government was taken over by the Dawa Party, which is an Iranian-backed Shi’a group that brutalized the remaining Sunni minority. So essentially, the war was a complete failure from America’s own goals in that instead of giving Israel an ally in the region, it empowered Iran even further by giving them a satellite state in Iraq.
At this point, there was a major shift in U.S. policy. Basically, the American national security establishment realized they had screwed up in a big way by empowering Iran and decided to shift back in favor of the Sunnis in order to weaken Iran and its influence in the region. In 2007, Seymour Hersh wrote a piece in the New Yorker called The Redirection that outlined all the steps taken by the U.S. to shift power, as they began to back Sunni groups in Lebanon, Iran, and all across the region.
Syria plays a major role in the so-called “Shi’ite Axis”, which includes Iran and Hezbollah, that America and Israel were intent on weakening after the Iraq war. They are Iran’s main ally in the region and toppling Assad would weaken Iran. This strategy was transparent in an interview President Obama gave in 2012 with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic magazine. “It is our estimation that [Assad’s] days are numbered. It’s a matter not of if, but when. Now, can we accelerate that? We’re working with the world community to try to do that…if that happens, that will be a profound loss for Iran.” This is one of many quotes from Obama in the interview referencing Iran as a strategic piece in the Syrian conflict.
There are many subsidiary reasons why the U.S. has involved itself in this war, as well. The arms and weapons industry is a massive economy by itself and is a constant advocate for more war. As is the case in all areas of government, there is a constant need for those in charge to justify their existence. If America decreases its presence overseas, that makes many jobs in the national security industry unnecessary. As a result, everyone involved has an incentive to keep the U.S. more and more engaged around the world because it secures their jobs and sustains their positions. While the American people do not benefit from more war, there are many people in positions of power who do.
How do the Kurds fit into the war?
If this war wasn’t already complicated enough, let’s add one more element. The Kurds are a periphery group involved in the conflict that doesn’t fit clearly into one side or the other. They reside in southern Turkey and northern Syria, as well as northern Iraq and a few other countries in the region. The Kurds are a leftist group that is very religiously and politically diverse, but majority Islam, both Sunni and Shi’a. The Turkish faction is called the PKK and the Syrian faction is called the YPG and they are very adept and experienced fighters. The PKK and YPG both want autonomy in their respective regions and some members of the PKK seek outright secession from Turkey, which Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sees as a threat to his rule.
Since mid-2015, the PKK and Turkey have been engaged in a violent struggle. Meanwhile, the YPG in Syria has battled ISIS and many of the extremist rebel groups. The Syrian Kurds oppose the Assad government, but have stated that they are not interested in seeing him overthrown. Their main concern is battling Turkey to their north, while at the same time dealing with the rebels that also inhabit northern Syria, as well as ISIS.
So how is America involved with these groups? We know the U.S is a NATO ally of Turkey and that the CIA has backed the anti-Assad rebel groups since 2013. But what about the Syrian Kurds, who fight against both of these sides? They must be America’s enemy, right? Actually, no. The U.S. Department of Defense has supported Syrian Kurdish groups with funding and weapons since the beginning of the war. In fact, since 2016, there have been consistent reports, like this one by the L.A. Times, of violent conflict between these Pentagon-backed Kurds and CIA-backed rebels. Meanwhile, America’s ally Turkey also arms and funds rebel groups that fight the Syrian Kurds, while directly fighting the PKK in the south of their country.
To sum up, the U.S.A is on three different sides in Syria that fight one another, as well as against Assad. The CIA backs the rebel groups that are mostly made up of jihadist fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and fight against the Syrian government. The Pentagon backs the YPG Kurds in the north, who fight against the rebel groups, ISIS, and America’s NATO ally Turkey.
What’s the alternative to engaging in this war? Can we really just do nothing?
The mainstream thought process seems to be that if America does nothing in Syria, then nothing will change and the situation will continue to be horrible for the Syrian people. But the fact is that America has been involved essentially since the beginning of this conflict and has yet to try disengaging, so does it really make sense to think that if America drastically alters its policy, nothing will change? What’s harder to understand is the idea that continuing to do the same thing that we’ve done for six years, or slightly altering the strategy while maintaining an interventionist policy, will yield significantly better results.
Doing nothing does not mean the American people should do nothing; it simply means the U.S. government should not be involved in military or covert operations. However, there is plenty the American people can do in terms of providing humanitarian aid and charitable support to those affected by the war.
There is no easy solution to this situation and if America were to pull out, Syria certainly would not become a western utopia overnight. The struggles the country dealt with after the Arab Spring have been compounded so greatly by the intervention of America and its allies that no matter what the U.S. does from this point forward, the country is in for a tough road ahead. Still, the first step to solving a problem so great as this one should be to stop doing the things that caused the problem in the first place.
While an American disengagement in Syria would certainly alter the landscape of the war in a major way, there’s little reason to think it would cause any significant additional harm to the Syrian people. Pulling forces out of Syria would simply mean no more arms and training support for violent jihadist rebels. Throughout the war, the Syrian government and its allies have shown the ability to fend off the terrorist insurgents, despite the intervention from America and its coalition. If America and its allies ceased their support for the rebels, the war could potentially be ended fairly quickly.
The humanitarian instinct to oppose the Assad regime is understandable, but it’s important to realize that Assad’s actions, as brutal as they may have been at times, were in direct response to the rise of extremist groups in his country who engaged in far worse and more vial acts. There is no clear reason to think that a guy who has been in charge for many years before this civil war started is interested in committing genocide against his own people just for fun. These groups threatened his regime, which was only possible because of the support of America and its CIA, and a post-Assad regime led by the rebels would certainly be far worse for Syrian civilians.
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