In announcing its latest round of sanctions on Iran, Washington once again declared Yemen’s Houthi movement a “proxy” of the Islamic Republic, but recent statements from US officials – including Trump’s top Iran envoy – finally put the lie to that worn out talking point. Targeting a major shipping network as well as Tehran’s largest private airline on Wednesday, the US Treasury Department maintained the new sanctions would disrupt Iran’s support for “proxy militias” in Yemen and elsewhere, singling out the Houthis by name.
While such assertions have become boilerplate within the DC foreign policy blob, the consensus on the Houthis’ proxy status appears to be crumbling – and for good reason. At a press briefing last week, Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook told reporters that “Iran clearly does not speak for the Houthis,” downplaying the long hyped links between the two groups. “We should recall that the Houthis proposed a cessation of missile and air attacks with Saudi Arabia just days after the Iranians struck Saudi oil installations on Sept. 14,” Hook added – ignoring that the Houthis themselves took credit for the strike in question, but nonetheless attempting to make a distinction. Hook’s partial about-face is especially strange in light of previous statements, penning an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in September arguing that the rebels launched their coup with the “patronage” of Tehran. While, to the contrary, Iranian officials explicitly discouraged the Houthis from marching on Sana’a in 2014, Hook’s latest comments appear to break with his prior stance. Denise Natali, Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations, made a similar point at another recent presser, stating that “Not all Houthis support Iran.” Despite years of near-unanimous agreement among hawkish US officials and the corporate press – who mindlessly copy/paste “Iran-backed Houthis” into all Yemen coverage – little evidence has ever been adduced to prove the Houthis are but a cats-paw of the Iranians. “The Houthis are not Hezbollah and, despite their publicly expressed sympathies for the Islamic Republic, have not developed a similarly tight relationship with Tehran,” Joost Hiltermann, program director for the International Crisis Group, wrote in a 2017 piece in Foreign Policy. Though Hiltermann acknowledged some ideological affinity between the two groups, he was forced to conclude that “Apart from Tehran’s strong pro-Houthi rhetoric, very little hard evidence has turned up of Iranian support to the Houthis.”
Washington’s former opposition quislings in Syria have been cast in the role of villainous thugs in the corporate press as they take part in Turkey’s cross-border incursion against Kurdish fighters, despite years of fanfare from the Beltway Blob, which hailed the rebels as heroic “moderates.” Meet the new rebels, same as the old rebels Initially a crusade to oust President Bashar al-Assad, the American mission in Syria has seen a number of radical revisions over the years, shifting between regime change, defeating the Islamic State, protecting Israel, stopping Iranian arms shipments to Lebanon and now – the pundits say in unison – protecting Kurdish proxies from a Turkish onslaught. Ankara’s “Operation Peace Spring,” launched October 9 to clear US-backed Kurdish groups from the Syrian-Turkish border, appears to have triggered a partial reshuffling on the battlefield, forcing Washington to vacate Kurdish areas in the northeast which long served as a bastion for US forces and, in some towns, allow the Syrian Arab Army to take its place. However, Turkey’s army is not executing the mission on the ground, instead outsourcing the job to mercenaries. While rebranded from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to the Syrian National Army (SNA) in late 2017, the Turkish-backed force now condemned for its brutal assault on the Kurds is the very same “moderate” Sunni Arab opposition supported and armed by the Obama administration earlier in the conflict. Indeed, the SNA fights under the same “revolutionary flag” flown by the FSA when it served at the pleasure of the United States.
The SNA raises a giant Syrian revolutionary flag on the flagpole in the center of Tal Abyad.
The flag hasn't flown in Tal Abyad in at least 5 years, since ISIS captured the city from the Free Syrian Army in 2014.pic.twitter.com/hEOqLQC8R0
To the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars – much of that provided by the Saudis – Obama’s CIA carried out operation “Timber Sycamore,” training up rebel fighters and flooding the battlefield with weapons and gear. Turkey, Jordan, the UAE, Qatar, France and the UK also had a hand in the project, transforming the conflict from an internal civil war to a multinational proxy bonanza. The CIA mission was conducted despite clear signs that the Syrian opposition was lacking in democracy-loving moderates, and lousy with radicals and head-chopping war criminals. A 2012 memo produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) sternly warned that a “Salafist principality” – a term synonymous with “Islamic state” – could emerge from the jihadist-dominated opposition in Eastern Syria. Astonishingly, the document deemed that a desirable outcome in terms of the Obama administration’s policy goals, as it might help to “isolate” the Syrian government.
The United States watched as the rebels plunged deeper into insurgency, stoking a conflict in which hundreds of thousands of civilians and combatants were killed on all sides, yet the weapons kept flowing. The most radical factions – including the DIA’s “Salafist Principality,” the Islamic State – were soon awash in American arms, too, as FSA units defected and joined their ranks, or sold their weapons on the black market. Writing on the wall Though some analysts in the DIA, not to mention in the alternative media, could see that extremist elements dominated the Syrian opposition from early in the conflict, with the benefit of hindsight that fact is even clearer now to anyone who cares to look. In the spring of 2013, a video surfaced online underscoring the “moderate” essence of the US-backed opposition. In the clip, rebel commander Abu Sakkar, then with a FSA break-off faction, the al-Farouq Brigades, is seen consuming the heart of a dead Syrian soldier. He then calls on his cohorts to follow his example to strike fear into the apostate Alawites. Farouq, like many of the FSA’s subgroupings, later merged with even more radical factions, and for a time fought alongside the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra). The FSA-linked Nour ad-Din al-Zenki Movement also received weapons in the US train-and-equip program, including TOW missiles. The aid stopped in 2016, however, after a video appeared online showing members gleefully decapitating a young boy they claimed was a pro-government militia fighter. One year later, Zenki would also join forces with the al-Qaeda affiliate. In 2013, the late Senator John McCain traveled to Syria to meet with the Northern Storm Brigade, an FSA unit implicated in smuggling and kidnappings. In a well-circulated photo taken after the meeting, McCain is seen chumming it up with the militants, including accused kidnappers Abu Youseff and Muhammad Nour. While the men in the photo are often misidentified online as members of ISIS, McCain’s friends in Northern Storm may have provided the infamous terror group the location of American journalist Steven Sotloff, who was kidnapped and later beheaded for an ISIS propaganda video.
In the center of photo: Mohammad Nour, a spokesman for the Northern Storm Brigade (of the Al-Nosra Front, that is to say, al-Qaeda in Syria), kidnapped and held 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in Azaz. McCain claimed he didn't know the guy.https://t.co/c5w7C154mJpic.twitter.com/sRqcVsdxNN
The most recent evidence, perhaps, came in late October, after terrorist militia commander and so-called “Caliph” of the Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest as US forces assaulted his hideout in the Idlib province, killing himself and two of his own children. Amid the celebrations and “we got him”s, however, one man had quite a different reaction. Mourning the loss, a senior commander in what’s left of the FSA, Mustafa al-Sejari, took to Twitter to announce “Death to America and Life to Baghdadi, Commander of the Faithful,” who, he said, “died a great hero and a brave man.” The “moderate” Sejari met with US officials in Washington last year as part of a rebel delegation.
This man is “a senior official in Syria's mainstream rebel group” and has met with US members of Congress in DC to lobby them against the Syrian government. https://t.co/QsvnC9lnXM
He’s PRAISING Baghdadi, bin Laden and Zarqawi as inspirational figures, plus “death to America” https://t.co/KRxwyPYCzy
War Party in panic mode As America’s previous clients advance on its more recent ones, it’s unlikely many in the establishment will come to terms with the pro-opposition agenda they once supported with such gusto, even as they predict genocide for the Kurds at the hands of their formerly favorite moderate jihadists. By ignoring the legacy of the failed effort to arm and train the FSA, refusing to consider the rivers of blood and piles of bodies created by their preferred policies, the pundits and pols have again learned nothing, sure to replicate the same disastrous blunders again. The War Party is scrambling to keep the game going, clinging to oil fields in Syria’s north and a base in the south, but the US occupation project is suffering convulsions and the conflict is entering an increasingly post-Washington phase. The Syrian government has reclaimed long-lost territory in the northeast with the aid of Moscow, and faces only one remaining pocket of insurgents in Idlib. It is only a matter of time before they, too, are defeated. While it remains to be seen whether a Russian-brokered agreement with Turkey will resolve the spat over the Kurdish border areas and halt the much-decried Turkish offensive, it becomes clearer by the day that the United States cannot remain in Syria forever, and now simply has no productive role to play there. It never did.
As US relations with Iran plumb new depths in the wake of Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA, it’s easy to lose track of the seemingly endless series of new sanctions, troop deployments and explosions in and around the Persian Gulf in recent months. In an effort to keep it all straight, here’s a timeline of the major escalations between Washington and Tehran over the last year and a half, with some other related events. May 8, 2018 – President Trump abrogates Washington’s end of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). May 21, 2018 – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives “12 points” ultimatum speech at the Heritage Foundation, laying the groundwork for the “maximum pressure campaign.” September 25, 2018 – Pompeo addresses United Against Nuclear Iran summit, painting Iran as an “outlaw regime” and calling on the international community to join US efforts against its “malign activity.”
November 5, 2018 – US restores all pre-nuclear deal sanctions on Iran. April 8, 2019 – US designates Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization. April 15, 2019 – Then-National Security Advisor John Bolton meets with his Israeli counterpart – National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat – in Washington, who tells Bolton of an impending Iranian attack plot. April 22, 2019 – US ends most waivers on oil trade with Iran, threatening sanctions on any other countries or entities that continue doing business with the Islamic Republic. May 4, 2019 – US sanctions Iran’s ability to export excess enriched uranium, making it far more difficult to comply with the JCPOA’s 300kg cap. May 5, 2019 – US moves Carrier Strike Group (USS Abraham Lincoln) and Bomber Task Force into / near Persian Gulf, citing “escalatory indications” from Iran. May 7, 2019 – US deploys four B52 Stratofortresses to al-Udeid Air Base near Doha, Qatar over alleged “attack plot.” May 12, 2019 – Four ships – two Saudi tankers, a Norweigan tanker, and an Emirati vessel – damaged in apparent attack at the Port of Fujairah, Saudi Arabia. May 14, 2019 – First Houthi attack on Saudi oil infrastructure (two pumping stations west of Riyadh). May 20, 2019 – Iran announces it will quadruple uranium enrichment, despite inability to get rid of its excess stockpile, in first step of non-compliance with the JCPOA. May 24, 2019 – US deploys 900 troops, a Patriot missile battalion, combat and reconnaissance aircraft and intelligence assets to Middle East in response to May 12 tanker attack. June 7, 2019 – US sanctions Iran’s petrochemical industry, citing ties to the IRGC. June 13, 2019 – Two tankers – Panama-flagged / Japanese-operated tanker Kokuka Courageous, and Marshall Islands-flagged / Norweigan-operated Front Altair – damaged in apparent limpet mine attack in the Gulf of Oman. Shipping company disputes “mine” story, insists “flying objects” hit vessel. June 17, 2019 – US deploys 1,000 soldiers to Middle East in response to June 13 tanker attacks. June 20, 2019 – Iran shoots down $130 million US Global Hawk Drone. Trump calls off retaliation strikes several days later. June 24, 2019 – US sanctions Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top officials. July 4, 2019 – British Royal Marines seize Iranian tanker Grace 1 in Gibraltar, arguing it was on its way to sell oil to Syria, in violation of EU sanctions. Iran slams the move as “piracy.” July 7, 2019 – Iran announces it will enrich uranium beyond the 3.67% level allowed under the JCPOA, in second step of non-compliance with the deal. July 19, 2019 – Iran seizes British-flagged tanker Stena Impero in response to July 4 Grace 1 incident. July 24, 2019 – Iran tests medium-range Shahab-3 ballistic missiles. July 31, 2019 – US sanctions Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. August 16, 2019 – Girbraltar frees Iranian tanker Grace 1, over American objections. August 17, 2019 – Second Houthi attack on Saudi oil infrastructure, used 10 drones (Shaybah oil field). September 3, 2019 – US sanctions Iranian Space Agency and related entities, claiming they’re involved in missile work. September 7, 2019 – Iran announces it has begun using advanced centrifuges prohibited under the nuclear accord, in third stage of non-compliance. September 14, 2019 – Third Houthi attack on Saudi oil infrastructure, major strikes using drones and missiles (processing facility in Abqaiq and oil field in Kurais). US and Saudi Arabia blame Iran. September 20, 2019 – US sanctions Iran’s central bank and National Development Fund, claiming they fund Hezbollah and the IRGC. September 26, 2019 – US sends 200 soldiers, a Patriot battery and four Sentinel radars to Saudi Arabia, citing September 14 Houthi attack. September 27, 2019 – Iran frees UK-flagged tanker Stena Impero. September 30, 2019 – Eight EU states join France, Germany and the UK in sanctions-circumventing trade vehicle INSTEX, with two more likely to follow, putting the total at 13 nations. October 11, 2019 – US sends 1,800 troops – adding to another 1,000 sent earlier in October – two squadrons of fighter jets, an air expeditionary wing, two Patriot batteries and one THAAD unit to Saudi Arabia, citing Iranian threat. 11,000 soldiers have been deployed to the region since May.
American economic sanctions may have killed up to 40,000 people in Venezuela between 2017 and 2018, according to a new study. The finding only underscores the lethal realities of “soft power,” all too often presented as a humane alternative to open armed conflict.
“There was a 31 percent increase in general mortality from 2017 to 2018,” noted the study, conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a left-of-center think tank based in Washington.
“This would imply an increase of more than 40,000 deaths,“ the study said, adding it was “virtually certain” the sanctions made a “substantial contribution” to the figure. The authors said that amounted to “collective punishment,” and violated international humanitarian law.
In addition to the surge in the mortality rate, the study also found that the sanctions have helped to reduce the average Venezuelan’s caloric intake, and driven millions to flee the country in search of employment.
The researchers acknowledged the difficulty in precisely quantifying the role of the sanctions in Venezuela’s dismal economy, but it’s clear they are among the main factors preventing a recovery.
Though Venezuela’s troubles are surely caused in no small part by the government’s socialist economic policies – as well as the dramatic devaluation of the Bolivar – the humanitarian crisis is only worsened by US sanctions. The Obama administration maintained a limited sanctions regime on the country, but President Trump has expanded it tenfold since taking office – part of another so-called “maximum pressure campaign.”
As of April, more than 150 Venezuelan entities have been penalized, many linked to the country’s industrial and financial sectors. Washington in the summer of 2017 cut off Venezuela’s access to American lenders, and more recently sanctioned its central bank.
The U.S. has sanctioned the Venezuelan Central Bank (BCV) & Director Iliana Josefa Ruzza. This action will hinder former Maduro regime’s use of BCV to move money in & out of #Venezuela via the U.S., stopping further theft of assets & destruction of the economy. #EstamosUnidosVEpic.twitter.com/ly4jYDu9WV
Deprived of foreign creditors and the ability to finance capital maintenance, Venezuelan oil production has collapsed, with output expected to fall by some 67 percent by the end of this year, according to the CEPR study. Production capacity currently sits at one third of what it was the year Hugo Chávez took power in 1999.
Venezuela’s oil sector is a vital source of state revenue, and was hit with several rounds of sanctions this year. In January, Washington blocked American firms from purchasing Venezuelan oil, which alone tanked petrol exports by 40 percent; the US was its largest market. Additional oil sanctions were applied in April, looking to disrupt shipments to Cuba.
The sanctions are set to continue to inflict pain on Venezuela’s civilian population, who face one of the worst economies in the country’s history.
Despite constant hysteria from American pols about creeping Russian influence, the sanctions have also pushed the Maduro government further into Moscow’s orbit.
Russia’s state oil firm, Rosneft, continues to do business with Venezuela, while Rosneft’s Venezuelan counterpart, the PdVSA, has moved its European offices into Russia in a bid to protect its assets from a rapacious US administration.
The Russian government has, with the permission of Caracas, also established a direct presence in the country, in both a military and civil capacity.
Road to Regime Change
American hawks paint a different picture of Venezuela, where sanctions play no role in the population’s suffering.
In a keynote address to the Atlantic Council this week, US Special Representative to Venezuela Elliot Abrams did precisely that, putting all blame on Maduro.
“What is stopping the beginning of rebuilding and reconciliation? Some questions are hard; that one is easy. The short answer is: Nicolas Maduro,” Abrams told the Council.
Abrams called for Maduro’s ouster, offering a bribe of billions in foreign investment if Venezuelans would go along.
“In the future, billions of dollars will be invested in Venezuela to rebuild the agricultural and industrial sectors,” Abrams said, but added the process “can only start when there is a fully inclusive government that represents all Venezuelans.”
The US and dozens of its allies back the Venezuelan opposition, endorsing oppo leader Juan Guaidó when he decreed himself “interim president” in January. Emboldened by the support, Guadió told the press he would consider US military intervention in Venezuela to remove Maduro.
The Special Rep also slammed Maduro for not allowing US humanitarian aid into the country, but given Abrams’ history of approving weapons shipments to rebels in Latin America under the guise of aid, Maduro’s fears in that area may not be as paranoid as they first appear.
In an attempt to relieve international pressure, however, Maduro in April reached an agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross to allow some of the aid shipments through.
A Bridge Too Far
Naturally, the push for regime change in any country must be accompanied by a propaganda campaign designed to vilify and demonize the enemy, an effort the mainstream press is all too willing to assist.
Major media outlets have played a sizable role in helping to galvanize opposition to the Maduro government. In February, for example, reports emerged alleging the government ordered the burning of aid trucks waiting to enter the country on the Santander bridge, which connects Venezuela to Colombia. The accusation sparked outrage and indignation, but it was false.
The fire, in fact, was lit by a Molotov cocktail thrown by an opposition activist, as was indicated in video footage that surfaced soon after the incident. Most outlets took weeks to acknowledge the video, after hyping up a false, inflammatory claim to millions of viewers and readers without evidence.
Everyone from @marcorubio to @senfeinstein to Colombian President @IvanDuque claimed without evidence that Venezuelan national guard burned US aid on the Santander bridge.
The CBC in February was forced to issue an apology for another widelyreportedstory that claimed Caracas had ordered the closure of a different bridge between Venezuela and Columbia, for the purpose of stemming the flow of humanitarian aid.
The Venezuelan people desperately need humanitarian aid. The U.S. & other countries are trying to help, but #Venezuela’s military under Maduro's orders is blocking aid with trucks and shipping tankers. The Maduro regime must LET THE AID REACH THE STARVING PEOPLE. #EstamosUnidosVEpic.twitter.com/L4ysYJaM6H
What the press and some US officials failed to note, however, is the fact the bridge in question had never been open to traffic since its construction was completed in 2016. Caracas and Bogotá reached an impasse and never agreed to open it.
Few, if any, other outlets issued a similar correction.
Lift the Sanctions
Though a growing coalition of states is upping the pressure on Venezuela, a number of powers in addition to Russia, including China and Turkey, have aired support for the Maduro government. It remains to be seen whether Maduro will cave under the international pressure, but a majority of Venezuelans, regardless of how they feel about the president, are opposed to foreign efforts to topple him.
Washington would do well to listen to the people it claims to be standing up for.
US sanctions on Venezuela, or indeed any country, amount to economic warfare on a civilian population, and regime change efforts are morelikelytodestroy than revitalize nations – the record on that clarifies by the day.
Venezuelans deserve their freedom and autonomy, but not imposed by American bayonet, bomb or blockade.
Reporter, plagiarist and preeminent British Russiagate nut Luke Harding on Tuesday took to the Guardian with a story reporting that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort met with Julian Assange three times in London before the 2016 presidential election.
The latest smear attempt comes at a precarious time for Assange, who has maintained asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012. In mid-November an inadvertent court disclosure revealed the existence of a sealed indictment targeting Assange and apparent preparations to extradite him to the United States for criminal charges.
Harding and co-author Dan Collyns desperately want to tell a story about a “non-state hostile intelligence service” colluding with a repressive foreign government and a corrupt American real estate baron, but their preferred narrative is all too often put before the facts.
Glenn Greenwald was critical of the Guardian report, pointing out that the embassy is extremely heavily surveilled. Had Manafort visited on three occasions, there should be some record of it beyond anonymous sources (none of Harding’s sources are named), whether in the form of video footage or sign-in documents.
The next day the Washington Times ran a piece throwing more cold water on the Guardian report. According to the Times, Manafort’s passports don’t indicate that he traveled to London any of the times the British newspaper claimed he did.
Wikileaks issued a harsh denial of the claims made in the Guardian story, tweeting “Remember this day when the Guardian permitted a serial fabricator to totally destroy the paper’s reputation. WikiLeaks is willing to bet the Guardian a million dollars and its editor’s head that Manafort never met Assange.”
Manafort also released a statement denying the report, and both Manafort and Assange have alluded to potential libel suits against the Guardian for its false reporting.
Then came Politico, which decided to publish whatever thisis on November 28: a speculative article which posits that if the Guardian report is false—a safe bet—perhaps it was secretly planted there by Russia! Not a shred of evidence is adduced to support the idea, but, much like Harding’s work, the argument plays neatly into the Russophobic hysteria that’s dominated much of mainstream news media since the 2016 US election.
And lest it be forgotten: The author of the Politico piece? An “ex”-CIA spook with a fake name.
Try as one might, the scenario is almost impossible to parody.
Why do attacks on the US media—calling it “Fake News”—resonate so widely? Because of utterly fabricated and reckless articles like this one from politico, by a former CIA officer allowed to write under a “pen name”. The whole thing is a fraud.
The only point of the article is to invent out of whole cloth a wild conspiracy theory: that perhaps Russia-controlled operatives caused the Guardian to publish a false story—its viral Assange/Manafort story—in order to discredit Luke Harding for his Russia reporting.
The whole conspiracy theory is made up with no evidence. Worse, it relies on blatant fabrications, such as the one highlighted here. Everyone knows I didn’t work with [Wikileaks] to report the Snowden story. It’s a lie. But US media outlets are willing to lie if the targets are right.
POLITICO also allowed this ex-CIA agent’s to falsely claim that the only people raising doubts about the Guardian’s story are people who are part of “Russia’s disinformation network.” [Emphasis in original]
Having unilaterally stepped out of the Iran nuclear deal in May, the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic earlier this week, part of another so-called “maximum pressure” campaign. The new sanctions will target Iran’s purchases of U.S. dollars, precious metals trading, industrial software, Iran’s coal industry and its automotive sector. Sanctions on Iran’s oil industry are also set to begin in November. All of the above is sure to inflict pain on Iran’s civilian population. Indeed, that is a common intended effect of sanctions: to impose suffering on civilians in hopes they will pressure their own government to comply with American demands. Not only does such an economic offensive amount to an act of war, the idea that sanctions will spur citizens to action is not borne out in practice, especially in Iran. The more likely result is to inspire a siege mentality in the populace—who instead view their leaders as their protectors—while also reinforcing hatred for the West. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi put it well in a recent press conference: “[S]anctions destroy societies and do not weaken regimes.” Speaking of Iraq, consider the sanctions imposed on that country under the Clinton administration. Though they were “worth it” in the well-known words of an American diplomat, they also killed hundreds of thousands of people. Those sanctions didn’t just fail to provoke Iraqis to overthrow Saddam Hussein, they inspired hatred for the United States the world over (including in the mind of Osama bin Laden, who used this stain on America’s record as a propaganda device). Using sanctions to bully Iran’s citizenry, then, is not a viable strategy. The new round of sanctions is also unlikely to accomplish the administration’s more immediate goal: bringing Iran back to the negotiation table. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA can only be taken by Iranian leadership as the deepest insult, the greatest sign of bad faith. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, long a major backer of the deal, has drawn a hard line in the sand, stating that Iran will not negotiate as long as the US continues to violate the terms of the deal reached in 2015. Resistance from Abroad A handful of world powers, among them US allies, are chafing against the renewed sanctions. With the obvious exception of the US, the P5+1 states (France, UK, China, Russia, plus Germany) insist they’re sticking to the nuclear deal. Compliance with American sanctions in this case would amount to a violation of the deal on the behalf of the other signatories, as the normalization of trade relations is one of the JCPOA’s terms. China, Iran’s biggest oil customer, recently reaffirmed its position that it would not go along with the sanctions, a major damper on Washington’s aims. Because there’s not a huge amount of US-Iranian business to cut off in the first place, to achieve the intended effect the US must pressure other countries into halting trade. The EU is pushing back, too. In May, soon after Trump pulled out of the JCPOA, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Britain and Iran were already working on what they called a “nine-point plan” to keep Iran in from the cold. EU officials are also working to update a statute known as the “Blocking Regulation,” which was initially drawn up in 1996 to prohibit institutions under EU jurisdiction from complying with American secondary sanctions related to Cuba. Primary sanctions include the freezing of assets, restrictions on US citizens from doing business with the sanctioned entity, or outright trade embargoes. Secondary sanctions, on the other hand, involve pressuring allies to stop doing business with the country in question. Companies that fail to go along are cut off from the American financial system. For European businesses, that threat could prove more compelling than the Blocking Regulation itself. Companies may simply avoid the regulation and comply with the sanctions for the sake of staying in the good graces of US finance. Earlier this week President Trump promised worldwide secondary sanctions for anybody who continued dealings with Iran, which puts European companies between a rock and a hard place. Several large European firms have already announced they’d be getting out of Iran due to the sanctions: A French shipping company (CMA CGM), two French car manufacturers (PSA and Renault), and a French oil company (Total) have ceased operations and investments in Iran. The same goes for a large Danish shipping firm (Maersk) and a German auto company (Daimler). SWIFT Of particular importance for Iranian trade relations is the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, an institution that facilitates financial transactions across borders between several different countries. SWIFT is based in Belgium and resides under the jurisdiction of the EU. Going forward, it’s crucial that the EU keeps that organization from complying with American demands, which would cripple Iran’s ability to do business internationally. There is a possibility that the Trump administration could impose sanctions on SWIFT itself, but the costs of interfering with such a significant institution may be prohibitively high. Given the staunch resistance offered by the P5+1 nations, as well as a few unlikely dissidents, it remains to be seen what kind of teeth the new round of sanctions will have. Beyond dispute, however, are very real tensions growing between the US and its imperial satellites in Europe, a welcomed silver lining in an otherwise dismal situation.
In recent months a string of school shootings in the United States has rekindled the debate over gun violence, its causes and what can be done to stop it. But amid endless talk of school shootings and AR-15s, a large piece of the puzzle has been left conspicuously absent from the debate.
Contrary to the notion that mass murderers are at the heart of America’s gun violence problem, data from recent years reveals that the majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted.
In 2015, suicides accounted for over 60 percent of gun deaths in the U.S., while homicides made up around 36 percent of that year’s total. Guns are consistently the most common method by which people take their own lives.
While the causes of America’s suicide-driven gun epidemic are complex and myriad, it’s clear that one group contributes to the statistics above all others: military veterans.
Beyond the Physical
According to a 2016 study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs, on average some 20 veterans commit suicide every single day, making them among the most prone to take their own lives compared to people working in other professions. Though they comprise under 9 percent of the American population, veterans accounted for 18 percent of suicides in the U.S. in 2014.
When veterans return home from chaotic war zones, resuming normal civilian life can present major difficulties. The stresses of wartime create a long-term, sustained “fight-or-flight” response, not only producing physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking or a racing heart rate, but inflicting a mental and moral toll as well. Read the rest at consortiumnews.com.
At least one of the alleged chemical weapons facilities targeted in the April 14 joint American, British and French strike on Syria was inspected and cleared by an international watchdog last year, according to official documents.
In a report issued Mar. 23, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) indicates the Barzah facility, characterized by US officials as at the “heart” of the Syrian chemical weapons program, had been inspected twice in 2017. The most recent inspection was carried out last November.
“The analysis of samples taken during the inspections did not indicate the presence of scheduled chemicals in the samples, and the inspection team did not observe any activities inconsistent with obligations under the [Chemical Weapons] Convention,” the report said.
That conclusion is directly at odds with Trump administration claims regarding the nature of the facility.
The Barzah complex, located in a northern district of metropolitan Damascus, is part of the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Center. In addition to Barzah, the April 14 strikes also hit two buildings associated with the Him Shinshar compound west of Homs City. The strikes were carried out in response to an alleged April 7 chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held city of Douma. Despite the fact that no investigation had been carried out before the strikes, American, British and French officials blamed the Assad regime for the attack.
In a prior report, dated Mar. 13, the OPCW said that the last two of Syria’s original 27 chemical weapons facilities are slated for demolition in the coming months. The two remaining facilities, described generically as “Chemical Weapons Production Facilities” (CWPFs), are not named in the report.
In the summer of 2014, Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles were destroyed under the supervision of the OPCW and the United Nations in a deal brokered by Russia and the US. In the time since, the country’s chemical weapons-related facilities have been systematically destroyed or decommissioned, according to OPCW documents, leaving only two standing today.
In light of the military action taken on April 14, these facts raise questions about the status of the Syrian chemical weapons program—which, by all indications, has been dismantled with cooperation from the Syrian state—as well as the nature of the buildings hit in the strikes.
The OPCW declined to confirm whether Barzah or the Him Shinshar compound were either of the two facilities said to be slated for demolition in the Mar. 13 report. The OPCW also declined to provide the name of either facility.
Seventy-six missiles were fired at the Barzah facility in the April 14 strikes, according to Pentagon officials. The Syrian government claims to have intercepted two-thirds of the total 105 American, British and French missiles launched at Syrian targets, but the Pentagon insists the missiles met no “material interference.”
In Afghanistan, the world’s most powerful military is threatened by a small, pink flower.
Despite an escalation of the Afghan conflict under the Trump administration, a record opium crop, coupled with steady Taliban gains, foretell bitter fighting in the coming months for American forces and the Afghans stationed alongside them.
“Record-high opium production is but one indication of how badly U.S. efforts have failed and are continuing to fail,” said Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University and author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East. “It is both a major source of Taliban funding and an indication of how little control the Afghan government is able to exert.”
The Taliban and the Opium Trade
In November, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime released its annual Afghanistan Opium Survey. According to the report, 2017’s opium crop, estimated at 9,000 tons, marks an 87 percent increase from the previous year.
The record crop has left the Taliban flush with cash it will use to finance military operations, the wages of fighters, as well as arms purchases.
As the area under cultivation in Taliban territory grows, “we can conclude that more funds flow to the Taliban,” said Gretchen Peters, former ABC News foreign correspondent and an expert on the Afghan opium trade.
While many have enjoyed the plant’s small dark seeds on their bagels, at maturity poppies produce seed pods which contain opium, a sticky sap that is drained from the pods and dried. Opium’s alkaloids can be extracted and altered to produce a wide range of opioid narcotics, including morphine and heroin.
Over the last decade Afghanistan has been the world’s top producer and exporter of raw opium and heroin, in some years supplying much of the entire global heroin market.
The opium trade has long played a vital role in the Afghan economy and political landscape. The plant not only supplies farmers with a highly profitable cash crop and creates employment opportunities in rural areas, but proceeds from the opium trade also bolster local warlords and militant groups such as the Taliban.
Nobody knows how many are dying in Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign, rights groups say
Faced with war, starvation and disease, the people of Yemen are suffering the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth. After over two years of active conflict, war monitors and human rights groups say the true impact of Saudi airstrikes on civilians may be impossible to determine.
“Tallying casualties has been an incredibly difficult task for government officials, the UN and NGOs alike,” said William Picard, the executive director of the Yemen Peace Project. “Everyone knows the commonly-used figures are way low, but since accurate numbers can’t be confirmed, UN agencies don’t like to speculate.”
Because of the difficulties in verifying overall casualty numbers, many rights groups instead focus on documenting individual violations of international humanitarian law. While such work is valuable and gives some insight into Yemen’s situation, the bigger picture remains unclear.
The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimates 13,893 civilian casualties (5,144 dead, 8,749 wounded) in Yemen since the Saudi bombing campaign began in March of 2015, but that figure has not been updated in over three months.
With bombs falling on Yemen daily, that number is now likely far out of date.
“It’s not particularly regular in terms of what’s publicly put out,” said Kristine Beckerle, a researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, referring to the frequency with which the OHCHR updates its figures. “But even they say that those numbers are likely far lower than the actual numbers.”
Indeed, the OHCHR disclaims that its own figure is conservative and only represents cases that could be reliably documented, but it nonetheless raises the possibility that large numbers of non-combatant casualties are simply being overlooked in the chaos of the war.
The OHCHR did not respond to an interview request for this article.
A 2014 study conducted by the Oxford Research Group, “The UN and Casualty Counting,” found that the United Nations is typically ill-equipped to undertake comprehensive accounting of civilian casualties in conflict zones:
“The UN does not systematically record casualties except in very few cases. As such, casualty recording is not a well-defined or widespread practice within the UN, nor is it recognized as an essential activity by the UN.”
The study concluded that “in order for effective civilian casualty recording to be routinely implemented, it must be more widely understood and supported within the UN as a priority activity in the protection of civilians.”
According to Nasser Arrabyee, a reporter based in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a, coalition air strikes have caused some 70,000 civilian casualties in the war, a figure over five times greater than the OHCHR’s estimate.
The United Nations relies on various medical facilities in Yemen for its data on the killed and injured, Arrabyee said, but because so many casualties occur in rural areas, beyond the reach of such facilities, they go uncounted in official tallies.
In July, the New York Timesreported that the war had destroyed or damaged 65 percent of Yemen’s health facilities, which has not only left more than 14 million people without access to medical services, but has put new obstacles in front of monitors who attempt to count casualties.
While his highest-end estimate remains uncorroborated by international bodies, Arrabyee said he arrived at the figure with the help of local Yemeni civil society groups, who collect their own statistics.
In addition to the destruction of relevant facilities and infrastructure hindering the casualty count, the Saudi-led coalition itself has also made every attempt to stymie investigations into human rights violations and war crimes.
“The coalition has continuously impeded or made it more difficult for human rights organizations to get to Yemen over the course of the conflict,” Beckerle said.
From Crisis to Catastrophe
Even taking the OHCHR’s conservative estimate on its face, the number of people directly killed in the conduct of hostilities barely begins to reflect the full toll the war has had on Yemen’s population.
“It really doesn’t capture the net effect on civilians, because so much of Yemen’s war at this point involves restricting humanitarian access, or restricting the way aid can get places,” Beckerle said. “Those are the silent numbers that aren’t often reflected in the press.”
Due to a combination of factors all related to the war, nearly four-fifths of Yemen’s population of 28 million require some type of urgent humanitarian assistance, including 11 million children. Hundreds of thousands will die in the coming months if they don’t receive desperately needed relief—and here fears for the worst may be justified.
With American complicity, a coalition blockade of Yemen’s major commercial ports has stopped virtually all food, fuel and medicine from entering the country, worsening the crisis by orders of magnitude.
Throughout the war the United States has aided the Saudi-led coalition with vehicle maintenance, mid-air refueling, logistics and targeting assistance, weapons and munitions sales as well as diplomatic cover before the United Nations Security Council. While many of these policies began under the Obama administration, president Trump has not made any attempt to change them.
Because of the widespread destruction of roads and other infrastructure, coupled with skyrocketing gasoline prices, moreover, civilians all over Yemen are finding it increasingly difficult to commute to hospitals, putting any medical aid that’s still available woefully out of reach.
“There’s no fuel; there are no hospitals,” said Mohammed Alwazir, 28, an international student from Yemen who now lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Several of Alwazir’s immediate family members still live in war-torn Sana’a, a frequent target for coalition airstrikes.
“[Before the war] maybe the hospital closest to you was two hours away, but then it gets bombed and now you have to drive ten hours,” Alwazir said. “Where are you going to get the money to travel that far—for the fuel, for the car? And now there are roadblocks, so that ten hour drive turns into a twenty hour drive.”
For similar reasons, the country also faces an imminent food crisis, with some 15 million people threatened by hunger or starvation.
In a report published in late November, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) warned that a recent clampdown of the blockade risked sending Yemen from a food “crisis” to an outright “famine,” the most severe classification of the FEWS NET’s five-point system.
Yemen relies on imports for nearly 90 percent of its staple foods, leaving the country uniquely vulnerable to the coalition’s closure of ports.
Farms and other agricultural facilities have also been deliberately targeted by the coalition in what human rights groups have described as indiscriminate attacks.
As if the situation couldn’t possibly get worse, a major Cholera outbreak has enveloped Yemen since October of 2016. The World Health Organization currently estimates 900,000 cases of the illness, but expects the figure to exceed 1 million by the end of the year.
“It seems like it’s not that hard to treat, it’s just, where are you going to get the clean water when Saudi Arabia has destroyed all of the infrastructure?” Alwazir asked.
Cholera is typically an easily treatable illness, but the lack of access to clean water, saline and other medicine has propelled the outbreak to epidemic proportions. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that 2.5 million people in Yemen are without access to clean water, setting the stage for a drastic escalation of the epidemic.
“They use it as an additional weapon,” Arrabyee said of the coalition’s restriction and targeting of water resources, another tactic at odds with humanitarian law.
International law demands that combatants clearly distinguish between military and civilian objects, which human rights groups say the coalition has failed to do time and again. Farms, schools, factories, hospitals, funerals and wedding parties have all been frequent targets in the coalition’s air war.
While the conflict has roots in decades of internal strife, the current war began in the summer of 2014, when Houthi rebels stormed Sana’a and forced the resignation of the then-president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
Saudi Arabia launched its bombing campaign on the rebels to reimpose Hadi’s presidency in March of 2015, and the humanitarian situation has deteriorated rapidly since.
Both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis have been accused of violations of international law and war crimes by human rights groups over the course of the conflict.
With a recent dramatic shift of internal political alliances, Yemen’s future is as uncertain as ever, but beyond dispute are the country’s masses of suffering civilians, diseased and starving as desperately needed aid sits idle at port.
If the war continues on its present course, Yemen’s silent numbers may never be heard.
As part of what many are calling a “New Cold War,” the mainstream media and establishment politicians have for months insisted the 2016 presidential election was skewed by Russian interference, some broadening the allegation to claim the president colluded with a foreign intelligence service. Two recent developments, however, may have finally laid the case to rest.
Late last month the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) organization issued a blockbuster memo directly challenging the findings of a key January Intelligence Community assessment that concluded the Russians interfered in the 2016 election. The memo cited an independent investigation which found evidence inconsistent with Russian culpability, instead suggesting an insider leak.
“Forensic studies of ‘Russian hacking’ into Democratic National Committee computers last year reveal that on July 5, 2016, data was leaked (not hacked) by a person with physical access to DNC computers, and then doctored to incriminate Russia,” the memo said in its executive summary [emphasis in original].
Most important among the investigation’s findings is the fact that DNC files were first copied to a system with Eastern timezone settings in effect, raising the likelihood that the transfer took place within the United States, somewhere near the East Coast, not remotely from overseas. Moreover, the high speed of the file transfer from the DNC system suggests the transfer had to be done by somebody with either physical access to the system, or access to a LAN network tied to it.
“The DNC data was copied onto a storage device at a speed that far exceeds an internet capability for a remote hack,” the VIPS memo said, which is the only plausible avenue by which a Russian hacker could obtain the data [emphasis in original]. The conclusions of the independent investigation are supported by several former intelligence agents and cyber experts, including Skip Folden, a retired IBM Program Manager for Information Technology US and NSA Technical Director-turned-whistleblower Bill Binney.
Finally, the independent investigation cited by the VIPS memo concludes there were two separate file transfers from the DNC systems: the first likely an insider making illicit access, but the second—which would eventually find its way into the hands of “Gufficer 2.0,” the actor with alleged ties to Russia who claimed to have hacked the DNC—was copied to an external storage device and fabricated “telltale signs” of Russian involvement were artificially inserted into the data.
Earlier this month, however, a new piece of the puzzle emerged which corroborates what was previously maligned as a conspiracy theory: according to award-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, the murdered 27-year-old DNC data programmer Seth Rich was indeed the man behind the DNC leak.
In leaked audio of a phone conversation between Hersh and Ed Butowsky, a high-profile political donor and GOP functionary who took interest in the Seth Rich story, Hersh, citing a FBI report, states categorically that Rich leaked the DNC material to Wikileaks.
“[Rich] had submitted a series of documents—of emails—some juicy emails from the DNC […] All I know is that he offered a sample, an extensive sample, you know, I’m sure dozens of emails and said ‘I want money,’” Hersh said. “Then later Wikileaks did get the password—[Rich] had a Dropbox, a protected Dropbox, which isn’t hard to do, I mean you don’t have to be a wizard IT, you know, he was certainly not a dumb kid.”
Hersh said he didn’t actually see the FBI report in question with his own eyes, but had a trusted source relay its contents.
“I have somebody on the inside, you know I’ve been around a long time, and I write a lot of stuff,” Hersh told Butowsky. “I have somebody on the inside who will go and read a file for me. This person is unbelievably accurate and careful, he’s a very high-level guy and he’ll do a favor. You’re just going to have to trust me.”
The veteran reporter, however, does not believe Rich was murdered for his involvement in the leak, stating the staffer lived in a “rough neighborhood” and on a street where several similar violent crimes had been carried out in the past.
Murdered for what he knew or not, perhaps the strangest aspect of the story is what happened soon after the Hersh-Butowsky audio was leaked. Despite the existence of an audio transcript of the conversation which very clearly captures what was said, Hersh bizarrely denies having made any of the above claims about Rich.
When the GOP donor emailed Hersh to plead with him to publicly come forward with what he knew, the journalist denied up and down, accusing Butowsky of having a bad memory:
EB: I am curious why you haven’t approached the house committee telling them what you were read by your FBI friend related to Seth Rich that you in turn read to me. Based on all your work, it appears that you care about the truth. Even though, as you said you couldn’t get a second, shouldn’t you tell them so they could use their powers to determine the truth?
SH: Ed–you have a lousy memory…I was not read anything by my FBI friend..I have no firsthand information and I really wish you would stop telling others information that you think I have…please stop relaying information that you do not have right…and that I have no reason to believe is accurate…
EB: I know it isn’t first hand knowledge but you clearly said, my memory is perfect, that you had a friend at the FBI who read / told you what was in the file on Seth Rich and I wonder why you aren’t helping your country and sharing that information on who it was?
One possible explanation behind Hersh’s denial is that he may be working on a story pertaining to the Rich case and doesn’t want to publicize anything before it’s finished, which could potentially spook sensitive sources and compromise the story.
Regardless, what Hersh said cannot be taken back or simply waved away. Not only does it confirm long-held suspicions that the staffer had something to do with the leak (WikiLeaks even offered a $20,000 reward for information that would lead to the conviction of Rich’s killer), it is very consistent with the conclusions of the VIPS memo published last month.
Further corroboration comes from retired British diplomat and whistleblower Craig Murray, who claims to have personally made contact with the leaker, or a go-between, on behalf of WikiLeaks in a wooded area near American University in Washington D.C. While he not have met the leaker himself, Murray insists the source of the leaks was a disgruntled DNC employee, not a hacker.
The retired diplomat’s claim initially emerged in a Daily Mail story published in December 2016, but Murray told radio host Scott Horton the newspaper misquoted him, making it look like Murray played a bigger part in the leak than he really did.
“The material, I think, was already safely with WikiLeaks before I got there in September,” Murray said. “I had a small role to play.”
While the Russian hacking narrative has run into several roadblocks and inconvenient facts in recent months, the pieces of an alternative explanation appear to be falling neatly into place.
A working theory: A DNC staffer angry over the underhanded treatment afforded Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders took it upon himself to access DNC servers and attempt to obtain any information that could hurt the Clinton campaign.
When the DNC discovered what had happened, unknown actors quickly worked to preempt the insider leak with one of their own, except this leak would be laced with fake Russian “fingerprints,” implicating our nuclear-armed rival in election interference and stoking a months-long witch hunt. The doctored data would be relayed through a foreign intermediary, the infamous Guccifer 2.0, creating a gap of plausible deniability between the DNC and the alleged Russian hacker.
Further, the DNC would hire a cyber security firm, CrowdStrike, to “investigate” and rubber-stamp the Russia accusation—mind you, a cyber security firm with a track record of shoddy work (particularly in blaming Russia for cyber attacks) and a Russian ex-pat co-founder who also happens to be a senior fellow at a Russophobic establishment think tank that’s given long-standing support to not only Democrats, but Hillary Clinton specifically.
The DNC then prevented the FBI from accessing the DNC servers directly, forcing all subsequent intelligence assessments to rely on CrowdStrike’s untrustworthy analysis fingering Russia.
What began as a disparate set of data points is slowly adding up into a coherent alternative account; one that has nothing to do with foreign hacking, but instead an irate American fed up with the Big Corruption ubiquitous within his country’s major political parties. The staffer’s act of conscience would be parlayed by less benevolent forces into a scare story used to bludgeon a president who, during his campaign, consistently spoke of improving relations with Russia.
Indeed, what has been termed the New Cold War is equally sensational and dishonest as the first, and is accompanied by what Antiwar.com’s Justin Raimondo calls a “New McCarthyism.”
“[T]he new McCarthyism underscores the cynicism, opportunism, and downright viciousness of our political class, and especially the media, which has done nothing to question and everything to bolster the Russophobic propaganda put out there by self-serving lobbyists and politicians,” Raimondo observed. “It truly is a sickening sight, made all the more so by the self-professed ‘liberalism’ of those who are in the vanguard of this revolting trend.”
The same trend is behind the attempt to paint Russia as an aggressor and smear the president as an agent of the Kremlin. Powerful interests both within and outside government—from sore losers looking for an excuse for their electoral loss, to regional rivals who wish to harm Russian interests, to defense contractors looking to gin up business—have lined up to make detente impossible.
What follows is a response to a July 26 article published at the Washington Post entitled “Why is the Trump Administration Empowering al-Qaeda in Syria?” penned by columnist Marc Thiessen. The article—while its headline sounds like something many non-interventionists would endorse—is so filled with errors, inaccuracies and omissions that it only seemed appropriate to address it paragraph-by-paragraph. The article begins like this: “Imagine that the president’s national security team walked into the Oval Office and proposed the following U.S. policy in Syria: Let’s create an al-Qaeda haven in southern Syria, by working with Russia to establish a cease-fire area where the terrorist network behind 9/11 is free to operate without fear of U.S. attack.” In case the author hasn’t been paying attention, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the latest iteration of AQ in Syria, is primarily active in the north, around Idlib, not in the south. With the exception of a portion of Southeast Syria that’s controlled by American-backed fighters, only a small pocket in the southwest is controlled by other rebels (some of which, such as the Knights of Golan, are friendly with the Israelis, and perhaps to the US also). Otherwise, excluding ISIS, the main jihadi rebel factions now hold power in the north. See here for a map that sketches the basic territorial holdings of the major factions fighting in the war. Assad and his militia allies control large portions of the south (much to the chagrin of the US, which has bombed Assad-allied forces in the south numerous times in recent weeks), and they certainly have no interest in letting AQ have a safe haven there. America, however, does, or at least did, have an interest in seeing the rise of Islamist groups in Syria. See the declassified 2012 DIA memo calling for the creation of a “Salafist principality” in order to “isolate” the Assad regime. Also acknowledged in that memo is the radical nature of the Sunni opposition. The US and its allies have willingly supported AQ and AQ-like groups in Syria all along. By the way, when and where has the US actually gone after AQ in Syria? Almost never. It doesn’t happen, precisely for the reasons spelled out in the 2012 memo. For some time under the Obama administration, the US wanted AQ and its allies to succeed, because AQ’s goal was similar to the administration’s: isolate and/or remove Assad. In a leaked recording of discussions between former Secretary of State John Kerry and a group of Syrian rebels, moreover, Kerry suggests that the administration thought it could “manage” the Islamic State and use it to threaten Assad, further supporting the idea that the US wanted to use jihadis, directly or indirectly, as proxies to carry out US policy. _______ “Then let’s have the Pentagon tell most pro-American Sunnis who want to fight with us that we will arm and train them only if they sign a pledge promising not to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has massacred their families with mortars and poison gas — likely driving most of the fighters into the waiting arms of al-Qaeda (which promises to help them against Assad). Then let’s cancel the covert CIA program under which we did allow a small number of rebels to fight Assad, and put out word that we are doing so as a concession to Moscow.” What “pro-American Sunnis?” In an August 2014 New York Timesinterview with Thomas Friedman, even President Obama expressed doubts about the idea of arming a moderate Sunni opposition. (Quote from the interview: “Even now, the president said, the administration has difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: ‘There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.'”) [Emphasis added] If that were true in 2014, how much truer is it today? The whole point of the CIA and Pentagon’s arm/train programs was to find precisely these mythical moderate Sunnis, and they failed miserably. The idea that not encouraging rebels to fight Assad will somehow empower AQ is ridiculous on its face. We can help AQ by attacking AQ’s most capable adversary? This is like Scott Horton’s joke about the US Civil War, that if we want to defeat the Confederate South, first we have to defeat the Union North, its enemy. This makes absolutely no sense, yet it’s a perfect analogy to what the author is arguing. Thiessen also smuggled in a throwaway remark about poison gas, but investigative reporter Sy Hersh threw cold water on the most recent claim regarding Assad and chemical weapons (CW) in a report published late last month, citing military and intelligence sources who directly challenged the Trump administration’s narrative on the April 4 incident in Khan Sheikhoun. The above corroborates what retired Army intelligence and CIA officer Phil Giraldi told radio host Scott Horton in an April 6 interview, just hours before Trump launched a missile strike in retaliation for the alleged chemical attack. After another CW incident in 2013, Hersh also debunked assertions of the Assad regime’s guilt in two explosive reportsat the London Review of Books, bolstered further by the work of MIT professor emeritus Theodore Postol, who concluded the 2013 attack most likely could not have been carried out by the regime. _______ “Instead of Sunni fighters, we’ll team up with the Kurdish Marxist “People’s Defense Force” (YPG), a terrorist organization at odds with NATO ally Turkey.” Notice how the author provides not a single shred of evidence to back up the notion that the YPG is a terrorist organization. Maybe this can be said of the PKK, but the YPG is a distinct group, and even then the claim is closer to Turkish state propaganda than it is an accurate assessment of the PKK. Turkey, for its part, has maintained plenty of shady ties with radical Sunni factions, likely including ISIS. They’re not exactly an ally the US should bend over backwards to appease. _______ “We’ll use the YPG to attack just the Islamic State, leaving al-Qaeda unscathed and thus helping it reassert its supremacy over its rival for leadership of the global jihad.” It’s ironic how during the liberation of Aleppo the Imperial Press complained to no end that Russia wasn’t targeting ISIS, instead focusing on other jihadi rebel factions occupying the city. Now the press, or at least this WaPo opinion writer and a few hawkish think tanks, are pissing and moaning that America is only going after ISIS, not other jihadi factions. These goalposts sure do seem to move around a lot. _______ “Let’s also have Defense Secretary Jim Mattis say publicly that we shouldn’t do anything to push back on the unprecedented expansion of Iranian military force in Syria, and even suggest that Iran can help with the fight against the Islamic State — totally undercutting the president’s stated aim of being tough on Iran.” First of all, this is a good thing. Toughness toward Iran isn’t and hasn’t been a good strategy, often harming average Iranian citizens and driving them closer to the regime.
One of Obama’s very few good moves in his two terms was the JCPOA nuclear deal, which is coming along well. There have been no major issues to date (except, perhaps, on Trump’s end), and Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program is now subject to the tightest inspections regime to ever exist. Notice how years of hostility produced virtually nothing, yet the slightest nudge toward diplomacy had immediate success. Assuming the US has to be involved in the Middle East (it does not), it makes sense to work with regional powers to handle a regional problem. In addition to his bluster about Iran, the president also pledged to fight “radical Islam,” a term that best applies to ISIS and its ideological cousins (and financial benefactors) in the Saudi royal family. Joining Iran in its fight with the Islamic State would stay true to that pledge. Though surprising, the less aggressive attitude toward Iran and its militia proxies fighting in Syria recently expressed by the usually-Iranophobic Mattis is nonetheless a welcomed development. Picking a fight with Iran, effectively starting an entirely new conflict before we sort out the 7 or so already ongoing, is an incredibly dangerous, shortsighted, stupid idea. Iran, with over twice the population, twice the GDP and nearly four times the land area of Iraq, won’t be the “cakewalk” American neoconservatives and other hawks foolishly thought Iraq would be. _______ “Then we’ll have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson state that ‘Russia has the same . . . interest that we do’ in Syria so we can help al-Qaeda recruit more Sunnis to its cause by telling them that the United States is allied with Russia, Iran, Shiites, Alawites and Kurds in a campaign to annihilate them — a message against which we will have no effective response because it will be true.” Does the United States have to make rest of the planet into enemies in order to combat al-Qaeda, or what? As of now, it’s very clear to anyone who cares to look that the US is not an ally of Russia, Iran or Assad, despite the author’s suggestions to the contrary. Yet somehow, all this time groups like AQ and ISIS have nonetheless found a way to recruit Sunnis into their organizations. Russia, Iran and Assad are and have been fighting AQ in Syria; if the US truly has a desire to beat back the terror group, it seems it would behoove the administration to work with those already involved in the fight (it should really just quit and leave, but that isn’t happening any time soon). _______ “‘Current US strategy empowers al-Qaeda, which has an army in Syria, is preparing to replace ISIS . . . [and] is more dangerous than ISIS,’ says a recent report from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project (CTP).” Oh boy, know-nothing neocon think tankers have an opinion on something. Sounds reliable.
There really is no shame with these people, no self-awareness. You’d think a solid decade and a half of demonstrably terrible foreign policy advice would be enough to discredit those who offered it, but you’d be wrong. Switch the acronym from PNAC to ISW and the idiots are again experts. _______ “Our approach, the report declares, ‘is inadvertently fueling the global Salafi-jihadi insurgency’ because Sunnis see the United States as working with their mortal enemies.” Who are we supposed to work with, then? The author tasks the United States with grand, globe-spanning projects, but insists it makes enemies out of anybody who might share some of its (ostensible) goals. America has certainly bolstered AQ through its foreign policies, but that largely began with the invasion of Iraq—which the geniuses at ISW and AEI supported to the hilt—and then again when Obama doubled down and backed the Syrian opposition, which the hawkish think tankers again supported, and indeed still support. If any single nation has “fueled the global Salafi-jihadi insurgency,” the United States is it. _______ “Al-Qaeda is taking advantage of this perception to build support among Sunni tribes, portraying itself as the defender of Sunni Arabs against a U.S.-Russo-Iranian axis intent on subjugating and destroying them.” That train left the station a decade ago. AQ has been around for the entire duration of the Syrian war, yet the author speaks as if the group is just now coming into existence. His argument is, however, an extremely convenient way to blame Russia, Assad and Iran for the strength of AQ and skirt all American responsibility. _______ “Alienating the Sunni population is not the way to win the war against Islamist radicalism. Right now, al-Qaeda has established itself as the tip of the spear in the fight against the Assad regime, so many Sunnis who do not share al-Qaeda’s ideology are flocking to al-Qaeda because it is the only game in town for fighting Assad.” Where were all those guys when the Pentagon and CIA were looking to give weapons to Sunni moderates (at least ostensibly)? The fact that the author still believes the US can come up with a militarily capable, non-Islamist, pro-democracy faction of Sunnis this far into the war attests to his complete lack of wisdom, foresight—or hell, even hindsight! There is serious magical thinking on display here.
Really, even assuming the US intended to back Sunni moderates and actually found some to arm, this could have only helped the strongest elements within the opposition, the jihadists. If all factions of the opposition share the goal of toppling Assad, if that goal is ever accomplished, which factions would reap the spoils of war? Certainly not the weak handful of moderates. Like the rest of Syria’s population, they’d have to accept theocratic domination or die fighting it. _______ “Al-Qaeda’s goal is to take charge of the anti-Assad uprising and slowly transform it into a global jihad against Iran, Russia and the United States.” Doesn’t this sound a bit like the policy the author favors? Take out Assad and put Iran and Russia in the crosshairs? Maybe he ought to pledge Bay’ah to Ayman al-Zawahiri and join up, he’d fit right in. _______ “Instead of undermining these efforts, we are helping them, by focusing almost exclusively on the Islamic State and driving the Sunni population to ally itself with al-Qaeda.” The US, as suggested by the DIA memo cited above, never had a serious interest in beating back AQ in Syria, and I suspect the US’s primary interest in fighting ISIS is simply to have a reason to keep a military presence in the country. Remember, American politicians and media complained when Russia and Assad attacked non-ISIS jihadi groups. Those are our moderate al-Qaeda guys, they howled. _______ “This is insane. We should be working to strip Sunni tribes away from al-Qaeda. And the United States has a proven record to draw on. During the 2007 surge in Iraq, we successfully rallied the Sunni tribes that had been fighting alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq and got them to turn on the terrorists and help us drive them out.” True, we drove out all the Sunni radicals from Iraq…other than that trivial little ISIS thing. _______ “The result was both a military and ideological defeat for the Salafi-jihadist cause. Not only were the terrorists driven from their havens, but also they suffered a humiliating popular rejection by the very Sunni masses of whom they claimed to be the vanguard.” The Salafi-jihadist cause defeated in Iraq, never to return again. Mission accomplished. _______ “We need a similar military and ideological victory in Syria. So why are we not working to repeat this success?” With victories like that, who ever needs to lose? _______ “We need to restore the CIA’s covert train-and-equip program and lift the Defense Department’s restrictions preventing Sunnis who join us from fighting the Assad regime.” To undercut al-Qaeda, we just have to arm al-Qaeda and its rebel allies and encourage them to attack al-Qaeda’s most powerful foe, Assad. Brilliant. Somebody pay this man. _______ “We must then facilitate the emergence of a Sunni Arab partner force in southern Syria that will fight alongside U.S. forces to expel not just the Islamic State but al-Qaeda as well, while helping stop Iran from imposing Persian-backed domination by the Alawite minority against the Sunni majority.” That’s quite a tall order, Marc, don’t you think? While they’re at it, this wondrous, magical, secular, moderate, well-mannered and -groomed, democratic Sunni opposition will also find a cure for cancer and eliminate air pollution. In Thiessen’s world, the Sunnis are a perfect deus ex machina. _______ Finally, thankfully, the column concludes: “As the ISW-CTP report puts it, ‘We must stop attacking the Sunni Arab community from the outside through proxies, and instead embed ourselves within that population as its defenders.’ The Trump administration needs to understand a fundamental truth: We cannot defeat the Islamic State or al-Qaeda or the global jihadist movement on our own. We cannot do it with Kurdish or Iranian proxies. We need Sunnis to do it.” Again, I ask what Sunnis? Where are they? Even when the Obama administration paid lip service to the idea of backing moderates, it couldn’t come up with more than a handful. The ones who were trained and armed were either willingly absorbed into stronger jihadi factions, or were conquered by them and stripped of their American weapons. Either way, the arms bolstered the radicals.
One struggles to find a single true or even plausible assertion in this entire column. It is an exquisite, almost artistic example of how years of spin and misinformation can pile up into a narrative that is largely detached from reality and, at times, logically incoherent (defeat X by attacking X’s enemy). Thiessen, a Bush Jr. speechwriter and a consistent advocate of the warfare and surveillance states, has truly outdone himself this time. While the article does provide a look into the Beltway delusions that are behind every defunct scheme for war or regime change, it’s a shame it passes for informed commentary at one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country.
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