In Ukraine, Biden Reaps What He Sowed

In Ukraine, Biden Reaps What He Sowed

Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell is given credit for popularizing the “Pottery Barn” rule of foreign policy. Though he denies using that exact phrase, in arguing against what became the disastrous 2003 U.S. attack on Iraq Powell made the point that, as in Pottery Barn, “if you break it, you own it.”

Bush and his neocons—ironically with the help of Colin Powell himself—did indeed break Iraq and the American people as a result “owned” Iraq for the subsequent 22 years (and counting). It was an idiotic war and, as the late former NSA chief Gen. Bill Odom predicted, turned out to be “the greatest strategic disaster in American history.”

Attacking and destroying Iraq—and executing its leader—not only had no value in any conceivable manner to the United States, it had negative value. In taking responsibility for Iraq’s future, the U.S. government obligated the American people to pick up the tab for a million ransacked Pottery Barns.

There was no way out. Only constant maneuvering and manipulation to desperately demonstrate the impossible—that the move had any value or even made any sense.

So it is with Ukraine. In 2014 the Obama/Biden Administration managed to finish what Bush’s neocons started a decade before. With the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Ukrainian government that year, the U.S. came to “own” what no one in their right mind would ever seek: an economic basket case of a country with a political/business class whose corruption is the stuff of legend.

Rather than admit what a colossal blunder the whole thing had been, the U.S. foreign policy establishment doubled down.

“Oh, this might be a neat tool to overthrow our own election: let’s pretend Trump is Putin’s agent!”

In fact Trump was impeached because a certain Col. Alexander Vindman—himself of Ukrainian origin and doing the bidding of a Ukrainian government installed by Washington—solemnly testified to Adam Schiff and his Democrat colleagues in charge of the House that Trump was clearly Putin’s puppet because his lack of enthusiasm for continuing to “own” Ukraine went against “the Inter-Agency Consensus.”

We “own” Ukraine and there is no way back—at least if the U.S. foreign policy establishment has its way.

That is why our hapless State Department today continues to peddle the fiction that Russia is about to invade – and thus “own”—Ukraine. U.S. foreign policy is one of projection: accuse your rivals of doing what you yourself are doing. No sane country would want to “own” Ukraine. Except the Beltway Think Tank class, thoroughly infused with military-industrial complex money.

That is why the U.S. government, though its Embassy in Kiev, is bragging about the arrival of $200 million in lethal aid, all pointed directly at Russia.

That is why the U.S. State Department is maintaining the fiction that Russia is about to launch a ground war to occupy Ukraine by dramatically announcing an “evacuation” of all “non-essential personnel” from its Embassy in Kiev.

It’s just too bad that we don’t share the opinion of who are really “non-essential” State Department personnel in Kiev: the last person out could be asked to turn off the lights.

By overthrowing an elected government in Kiev in 2014, the U.S. government disenfranchised millions of voters in eastern Ukraine who voted for the overthrown president. Those voters unsurprisingly came to view the U.S.-installed regime as illegitimate and sought self-rule under the concept of self-determination. As ethnic Russians, many of these successfully sought Russian passports.

Russia has been clear for a long time about Ukraine: it will not allow an armed invasion of eastern Ukraine that would result in the deaths of thousands of Russian citizens. Were the shoe on the other foot, the U.S.—and any country—could be expected to react the same way.

The U.S. is nearly the last country on earth that still holds to the WWII-era concept of war for territorial gain. Russia wants to “own” Ukraine like most people want to “own” a 2003 Saturn. That is why despite neocon/neo-liberal hype, magnified by the lock-step U.S. media, Russia is not about to invade Ukraine.

This fantasy is being pushed by those who desperately need to continue to gin up enthusiasm for a thoroughly idiotic and counterproductive imperial enterprise.

Biden while vice president sowed the regime change winds in Ukraine. Now his inept Administration will reap the whirlwind of that continuing train wreck and eventual dissolution of the country. No matter what Antony Blinken peddles to the contrary.

Even the comedian Zelensky knows this is a really bad joke.

This article was originally featured at the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity and is republished with permission.

Cold War Served Hot

Cold War Served Hot

The hawks are openly discussing killing Russians again. The last time this happened Donald Trump was running for President against a largely despised, pantsuit sporting war criminal. Confronted with these two alternatives, assuming he was the lesser of two evils, the American people elected the wild card Trump. Although, by early 2018, the Donald was bombing Russian mercenaries in Syria and Americans hardly blinked an eye.

Almost four years later, the Biden administration, members of the Senate in both parties, the CIA, NATO’s Secretary General, at least two former NATO supreme allied commanders, and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense are now, in various ways, advocating that Washington begin killing Russians.

Senate Democrats—led by Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the jingoist chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—introduced a bill that contains measures which if implemented would virtually commence total economic war with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The bill would further impose sanctions to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and increase military aid to Ukraine by a whopping $500 million. The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act has already authorized $300 million in military aid to Kiev.

The Democrats’ military-industrial complex wish list includes “anti-armor weapon systems, mortars, crew-served weapons and ammunition, grenade launchers and ammunition, anti-tank weapons systems, anti-ship weapons systems, anti-aircraft weapons systems, and small arms and ammunition.”

The bill states that these policies can be triggered if President Joe Biden simply determines Moscow is “knowingly supporting” a “significant escalation” in “hostile action in or against Ukraine prior to December 1, 2021.”

Lacking evidence, the corporate press has already put out a story about the Russians planning a false flag to manufacture a justification to invade Ukraine, the claims have been repeated by the White House and the Pentagon. This is practically an invitation to anti-Russian forces and covert operators, including those backed by the U.S., to attack or start trouble that can be deemed “Russian aggression” and lead to war.

On Fox News, Republican Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) boasted about potential “military action” such as putting U.S. troops on the ground in Ukraine and always keeping “first use nuclear action” on the table. Additionally, he proposes having ships “stand off” in the Black Sea to “rain destruction on Russian military capability.”

With talks ongoing between the U.S. and Russia at the highest levels, there are reasons for both sides to deescalate and make concessions. There is reportedly an opportunity to restore the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, limit the scope of NATO as well as Russian military drills in Europe, limit the NATO troop presence on Russia’s borders, and prevent accidents occurring in the air and sea.

The Russians withdrew at least 10,000 troops away from the border with Ukraine. Moscow arrested and seized the assets of supposed members of a Russian ransomware group accused of being behind the Colonial pipeline hack. In a phone call with Putin, Biden quietly promised not to place offensive strike weapons in Ukraine. Biden also recently suggested that if Putin undertakes a small invasion, the U.S. might not react. The latter was framed, by the right, as the worst kind of weakness and appeasement.

Reflecting D.C. politics’ pro war bias, the White House immediately walked back the President’s statement. The Commander in Chief’s handlers clarified, “President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies.”

Alongside some fellow GOP senators from the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, Wicker recently insisted that it’s time, with enhanced U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine, to ensure “Vladimir Putin will get a bloody nose.

Multi-millionaire Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), was recently part of a delegation, including Wicker, visiting Kiev. Blumenthal pledged the U.S. would “impose crippling economic sanctions, but more importantly, we will give the people of Ukraine the arms, lethal arms they need to defend their lives and livelihoods.”

GOP war hawks in the Senate want to send more anti-tanks missiles to Kiev. As Fox News reported, the “United Kingdom delivered short-range anti-tank missiles to Ukraine Tuesday—a move GOP lawmakers applauded and called on the Biden administration to increasingly emulate.”

Since 2014, the U.S. has supplied the Ukrainians with over $2.5 billion in military aid. American Special Forces have been training Kiev’s forces in the country for several years now and there are U.S. National Guard troops in Ukraine as well.

Reportedly, at a secret base in the southern U.S., the CIA is training Ukrainian paramilitaries to “kill Russians” and—in the event of Putin’s allegedly imminent invasion—even launch an “insurgency.”

According to a de facto Langley press release in the form of a Yahoo News report, the spooks have not only been overseeing this training program under our noses but also deployed ground unit advisors to Ukraine.

Since the Obama administration’s final years, the CIA has sent paramilitary elements to the Donbas region’s front where Kiev has been at war with Russian-backed separatists. This U.S.-supported war against Ukraine’s restive eastern provinces has seen neo Nazi militias, as well as the Islamic State’s “brothers,” unleash brutal violence against Kiev’s enemies. The neo-Nazis have proven quite useful to American-backed government in Ukraine. They were instrumental during America’s 2014 street putsch coup in Kiev. Some Nazi groups have since been incorporated into their National Guard.

The American people should now realize the foreign policy establishment and the Biden administration are warning Moscow that if they go through with their supposed plans to invade Ukraine, which Russia has denied all along, the killing of Russian forces will begin. One former supreme allied commander of NATO could hardly contain his blood lust.

As reported in the New York Times,

“If Putin invades Ukraine with a major military force, U.S. and NATO military assistance—intelligence, cyber, anti-armor and anti-air weapons, offensive naval missiles—would ratchet up significantly,” said James Stavridis, a retired four-star Navy admiral who was the supreme allied commander at NATO. “And if it turned into a Ukrainian insurgency, Putin should realize that after fighting insurgencies ourselves for two decades, we know how to arm, train and energize them.”

He pointed to American support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion there in the late 1970s and 1980s, before the rise of the Taliban. “The level of military support” for a Ukrainian insurgence, Admiral Stavridis said, “would make our efforts in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union look puny by comparison.”

Both Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have warned their Russian counterparts in recent telephone calls that any swift Russian victory in Ukraine would probably be followed by a bloody insurgency similar to the one that drove the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. In discussions with allies, senior Biden officials have also made clear that the C.I.A. (covertly) and the Pentagon (overtly) would both seek to help any Ukrainian insurgency.

For a point of reference, it is estimated that at a million people were killed during “Operation Cyclone,” the CIA’s dirty war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Keeping with the Cyclone theme, Wesley Clark, former General and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, recently signed a letter encouraging the U.S. to arm Kiev with stinger missiles.

Reportedly, the U.S. has just green lit the NATO Baltic states’ transfer of weapons to Ukraine, including stinger anti-aircraft missiles. While Secretary of State Antony Blinken was visiting Kiev, the U.S. announced another $200 million in military aid to Ukraine.

On the eve of the recent U.S.-Russia talks in Geneva, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia of “severe costs.” He told the Financial Times that if negotiations failed, NATO was prepared for “a new armed conflict in Europe.” Russia sent security proposals to Washington that precipitated bilateral talks with the U.S. and multilateral talks with NATO as well. The proposals include, perhaps most prominently, a demand that NATO officially rescind its promises of future alliance membership received by both Ukraine and Georgia at the 2008 Bucharest summit. Before the ink dries, brining either country into NATO would start a war that could end in planetary devastation and nuclear winter. NATO and the Americans flatly rejected the request.

Evelyn Farkas, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia in the Obama administration, said in an interview that this time “the gloves should come off.” She warns of a time when “must use our military to roll back Russians—even at risk of direct combat.”

Such spokespeople for the merchants of death always claim to hold the moral high ground. But when reporters at Newsweek asked Farkas about the Nazi problem in Kiev’s security forces her response was shocking. “They have right now existential issues to deal with, and the far-right groups are helping defend Ukraine,” she explained. “So at this moment in time, the Ukrainian government needs all the help it can get from its citizens, regardless of their ideology.”

Farkas ominously declares the U.S. ”must not only condemn Russia’s illegal occupations of Ukraine and Georgia, but we must demand a withdrawal from both countries by a certain date and organize coalition forces willing to take action to enforce it.”

With this kind of rhetoric, Farkas will surely be there on the front lines, sword in hand, with a Braveheart speech prepared to rally the “coalition forces.”

This unhinged agitation for war is very much in the spirit of ultra-hawk Dick Cheney who as Vice President, during the brief August 2008 war in Georgia, wished to drop bombs on Russians.

Then Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili indisputably provoked that conflict by attacking Russian peacekeepers protecting the autonomy of the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Russian forces were there because of a European Union brokered deal.

As Scott Horton, Director of the Libertarian Institute, has explained, Saakashvili was “incentivized” by “vague security assurances the Bush government had given his government that spring.”

Andrew Cockburn elaborates, “[Saakashvili’s] confidence may have been buoyed by back-channel assurances from minions of Vice-President Richard Cheney that the U.S. would in the end come to his aid.”

It was only a few months earlier that NATO promised Tbilisi and Kiev their future alliance membership.

The Americans also installed Saakashvili in power during the 2003 “Rose Revolution” and had provided Georgia with military aid for years.

Saakashvili was keenly aware of how U.S.-styled democracy works. As Cockburn has written,

To bolster his standing in the American capital, Saakashvili hired Randy Scheunemann, a Republican lobbyist and the executive director of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a neocon group formed in 2002 under the chairmanship of none other than Bruce Jackson, a senior Lockheed executive and president of the Committee to Expand NATO.

Scheunemann was a “close advisor” to the mega hawk Republican Senator John McCain who supported the Ukraine coup as well as inducting Tbilisi and Kiev into NATO. Then-presidential candidate McCain announced he told Saakashvili—after he had already started the war in 2008—“…today, we are all Georgians.”

The authors of the recently published, and previously mentioned, New York Times article describe this “conversation” as having “revived the specter of a new Cold War and suddenly made real the prospect of the beginnings of a so-called great power conflict.”

But after the Red flag came down, the American sore winners’ economic “shock therapy” devastated Russia, lowered the life expectancy of the population by double digits, allowed gangsters and oligarchs to loot entire industries and liquidate everything. As Horton has said, “…it was an economic war against Russia. Larry Summers and the Harvard Boys, what they did was as bad as dropping a couple of nukes on them.”

Despite repeated Western promises to the precise contrary, NATO’s eastward expansion has been ongoing since the 1990s and the anachronistic time bomb itself has nearly doubled in size. The U.S. has launched a plethora of color-coded revolutions in Russia’s near abroad including overthrowing the Kiev government twice in ten years, installing a Nazi infested regime on Russia’s very border, and keeping the door open to its full NATO membership. NATO has been constantly deploying warships and bombers to the Black Sea. The warships are often participating in massive military war games. The U.S. has ships in the Baltic Sea carrying medium range missiles. Of course, myriad sanctions have been levied against Moscow. Critical arms treaties such as Open Skies, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the INF Treaty have been unilaterally killed by successive GOP presidents. In Poland and Romania, the U.S. has so-called anti-ballistic missile sites with MK-41 launchers able to fit hydrogen bomb-tipped Tomahawks. The two previous presidents created a severe crisis by conducting massive expulsions of Russian diplomats and the neocons’ vast political and media influence has criminalized any notion of détente. The very concept may as well be treasonous.

Maybe what flies most flagrantly in the face of the claim that we are witnessing the “the beginnings of a so-called great power conflict” is the 2018 National Security Strategy which plainly states the War Department’s policy is “great power competition” or put differently, conflict, with Moscow and Beijing.

To illustrate, the U.S. just held massive military exercises with Japan and an American aircraft carrier strike group just drilled for war in the South China Sea. Last year, Biden sailed air craft carrier strike groups in the South China Sea ten times, nearly doubling Trump’s 2020 numbers. In 2021, American warplanes and spy planes flew more than 2,000 sorties around China, including 94 in November, more than doubling Trump’s deployments during the previous year. These flights take place in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea. U.S. warships sail through the Taiwan Strait nearly every month. And the U.S. continues to further nuclearize the so called the Indo Pacific region.

As CNN just reported,

One of the most powerful weapons in the US Navy’s arsenal made a rare port call in Guam…

The USS Nevada, an Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarine carrying 20 Trident ballistic missiles and dozens of nuclear warheads, pulled into the Navy base in the U.S. Pacific Island territory on Saturday. It’s the first visit of a ballistic missile submarine—sometimes called a “boomer”—to Guam since 2016 and only the second announced visit since the 1980s.

Since the end of the previous Cold War, Washington has rigidly adhered to a neoconservative ideology bent on world domination and endless wars. To this end, the U.S. maintains more than 800 military bases globally and has been morally and financially bankrupted. Across multiple continents, this century’s American mass murder campaigns have killed and displaced millions of people. In Iraq alone, more than a million people were killed. Yet the U.S. public has not held the ruling class war criminals to account, there has never been a reckoning.

Months after the withdrawal, Afghanistan’s children are deliberately being starved. Biden’s current policy, freezing billions of dollars in the Afghan government’s assets and maintaining sanctions on the Taliban, amounts to a macabre economic war. As with the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran, humanitarian exemptions mean nothing since few if any international banks, businesses, medical companies, or aid groups will risk the U.S. Treasury Department’s wrath. This lays bare 20 years of cynical humanitarian interventionist propaganda supporting a multi trillion dollar war which killed an estimated 241,000 people. Those same women and girls we used to hear so much about are being starved to death at the hands of the sore loser American hegemon.

In December, Dave DeCamp, news editor at, reported,

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, Afghanistan is facing a dire humanitarian crisis, which is being exacerbated by U.S. economic pressure. Citing the UN’s World Food Program, The New York Times reported that about 22.8 million Afghans—more than half of the country’s population—are expected to face life-threatening hunger this winter, and 8.7 million Afghans are “nearing famine.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. wants to benefit the Afghan people without benefiting the Taliban. But whether the U.S. likes it or not, the Taliban is now the government of Afghanistan. And history shows that U.S. sanctions and economic pressure do little to change the targeted government and always hurt the civilian population.

Taliban leaders are still under U.S. and UN sanctions, which discourage international businesses and banks from doing business with the new Afghan government, something Psaki explained.

The U.S. military still occupies nearly a third of Syria. The CIA’s six-year dirty war—this time backing the al Qaeda led “insurgency”killed roughly half a million people. One of the more infamous byproducts of this policy was the Islamic State caliphate. The Pentagon controls Syria’s oil fields, Israel bombs the country nearly every week, and more than 60% of the population is close to starvation. About 80% of the country lives in poverty. Rebuilding the country will cost an estimated $250-400 billion. Blinken, America’s top diplomat, has asserted that the U.S. is absolutely committed “to oppose the reconstruction of Syria.” The American people have repeatedly expressed an opposition to this war, yet they remain criminally indifferent enough to permit its indefinite duration.

Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, continues to be terror bombed and blockaded in a genocidal war ceaselessly waged by the American Empire and its Gulf dictatorship satellites. The U.N. conservatively estimates 377,000 people, mostly children, have been killed in this almost seven-year war. Trump vetoed war powers resolutions to end the war, Biden said he would stop it and has not. Less than a year into Biden’s term, investigative reporter Alan Macleod after studying the Pentagon’s sales records wrote “the Biden administration has already approved 20 separate weapons contracts, worth just shy of $1.2 billion, to Saudi Arabia alone.”

By the Deep State’s self-fulfilling prophecy, Russia and China must remain our perpetual enemies. Designedly, the American people have readily accepted this premise. Our fellow citizens seem to either despise China or Russia. While you are free to take your pick, the most obedient citizens are hawkish on both the Russians and the Chinese.

Those covered in Yemeni, Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi, Somali, and Libyan blood are merely feigning concern for the democracy, human rights and sovereignty of Ukrainians and the Taiwanese. It helps them sell weapons, increase the Pentagon budget, and boost their own power. If the military, Washington, NATO, and the DC foreign policy Blob cared at all about national sovereignty and human rights, our troops would no longer occupy Iraq in defiance of the parliament’s two year old unanimous demands for a complete withdrawal. If those crocodile tears over the unproven claims of a Uighur “genocide” in Xingang province were rooted in any concern for the plight of Muslims, the globally notorious Israeli apartheid regime would not be America’s top military aid recipient. Those are American weapons and warplanes being used to bomb Palestinian civilians confined in the Gaza concentration camp.

With the American public evidently bored with brutalizing Muslim countries, though unfortunately not bored enough to stop, we seamlessly move on to the next enemies, the next build ups, the next wars. Trillions of dollars are continually diverted from peaceful and productive use and poured into what former CIA analyst Ray McGovern refers to as MICIMATT (the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Academia-Think-Tank complex). This money funds the consensus that Washington’s sphere of influence extends the world over. Moscow and Beijing’s red lines be damned. It is common now to hear discussion of an impending war with China over Taiwan. Likewise, agreeing not to bring Kiev into NATO is viewed as “appeasement.”

On Memorial Day 2021, the U.S. flew nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over all 30 NATO member states. This past Thanksgiving, the U.S. sailed a guided missile destroyer into the Black Sea. Just months into Biden’s presidency, throughout Eastern Europe including on Russia’s borders, the “dangerous dinosaur,” NATO held the largest military exercises since the previous Cold War era.

Americans will have to soon give up their favorite drugs of apathy, partisanship, and blissful ignorance. The fights and wars our ruling elite are now picking threaten to kill us too. Last November, the U.S. brazenly simulated a nuclear attack on Russia, flying strategic bombers less than 13 miles off its borders. Voting will not suffice, we must recognize this global hostage situation for what it is, and make difficult decisions about how to finally end the American Empire.

1/21/22 Richard Hanania on American Power, Public Choice Theory and the Rise of China

Scott interviews Richard Hanania of Defense Priorities. They discuss the reality of how the American military’s presence impacts global events. Hanania argues that, if it were true that the U.S. was out there defending its allies, you’d expect those countries to want U.S. troops present more than the U.S. wants to have troops stationed there. But in reality, we often find the opposite. Hanania also gives the reasons he thinks China is all but certain to become the dominant power in East Asia but that right-wing fears over a global Chinese takeover are overblown. 

Discussed on the show:

Richard Hanania is a research fellow at Defense Priorities and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. His work focuses on political psychology, the causes of civil war, and the effects of interest groups on U.S. foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @RichardHanania

This episode of the Scott Horton Show is sponsored by: The War State and Why The Vietnam War?, by Mike Swanson; Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom;; EasyShip; Free Range Feeder; Thc Hemp Spot; Green Mill Supercritical; Bug-A-Salt and Listen and Think Audio.

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1/20/22 Clint Ehrlich on Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan

Scott is joined by Clint Ehrlich who recently went viral after his appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show struck the nerve of a handful of foreign policy “experts.” So Scott invited him on the show to dive deeper into his arguments. They discuss why Ehrlich is nervous about the situation in Eastern Europe and how it came to this. He also gives his take on what happened in Kazakhstan.

Discussed on the show:

Clint Ehrlich is a foreign-policy analyst, lawyer and former visiting researcher at MGIMO University. Follow him on Twitter @ClintEhrlich.

This episode of the Scott Horton Show is sponsored by: The War State and Why The Vietnam War?, by Mike Swanson; Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom;; EasyShip; Free Range Feeder; Thc Hemp Spot; Green Mill Supercritical; Bug-A-Salt and Listen and Think Audio.

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COI #219: Biden’s Gaffes Highlight a Year of Foreign Policy Missteps

COI #219: Biden’s Gaffes Highlight a Year of Foreign Policy Missteps

On COI #219, Kyle Anzalone is joined by Dave DeCamp – News Editor at – to review Biden’s first year as president. 

Dave breaks down Biden’s Ukraine policy. At a recent press conference, Biden suggested, if there is a small Russian invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. may not react. The White House immediately reversed the President’s statement. This confusion in policy comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to meet with his Russian counterpart. 

Dave and Kyle discuss Biden’s Iran policy. Dave explains how Biden missed his opportunity to negotiate a more favorable deal with a moderate Iranian government. Now, Biden has set a deadline on the deal. But with a more hardline Iranian government in power, Tehran is demanding Biden live up to the commitments made by Obama. 

Dave explains how Biden has failed to successfully hold Saudi Arabia accountable and end the war in Yemen. The US-aided Saudi slaughter of Yemen increased through 2021, despite Biden’s pledge to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah state and end offensive weapon sales.  

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COI #218: Biden Team Blames Trump for Iran Nuclear Deal Failure

COI #218: Biden Team Blames Trump for Iran Nuclear Deal Failure

On COI #218, Kyle Anzalone and Connor Freeman update the Iran talks, the new Cold War with China, and the genocidal war in Yemen.

Connor discusses the ongoing indirect negotiations in Vienna to restore the JCPOA. There are troubling signs that the Biden administration may be preparing for the talks to fail. House Republicans are demanding President Biden’s team immediately end the talks. Whatever happens, a decision is coming soon, and Biden’s team plans to continue scapegoating Trump. Although there are still positive statements coming from the EU foreign policy chief, the Chinese, and the Iranians themselves.

Connor covers China’s growing Middle East influence. Beijing and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are working toward building a free trade area and a strategic partnership. China is the GCC’s top trading partner and the region forms a centerpiece in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China recently invited Syria to join the BRI as well. Additionally, last year’s Tehran-Beijing comprehensive cooperation agreement is now entering its implementation stage.

Kyle and Connor talk about the U.S. military carrying out massive military exercises with Japan. Tokyo also sailed warships near Chinese-controlled islands twice in the last ten months. The U.S. just wrapped up war drills in the South China Sea including with an aircraft carrier strike group. Washington sent an Ohio class nuclear submarine to Guam, it carries dozens of nuclear warheads and 20 Trident ballistic missiles.

Kyle reports on the war in Yemen where the Saudis announced they will be increasing the bombings of the long battered country. Massive strikes, killing civilians, are being carried out including in the capital city. The Houthis have retaliated, they conducted a high-profile drone attack on Abu Dhabi that destroyed three oil tankers and killed three people. The UAE wants the U.S. to redeclare the Houthis a terrorist group. Such a move would make it even more difficult for aid to enter the blockaded and starving country. Most of Yemen’s civilians live in the northern territory held by the Houthis, the threat of U.S. sanctions would designedly deter most any humanitarian assistance.

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1/13/22 Trita Parsi on the American Public’s Influence on US Foreign Policy

Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute recently wrote a piece in a German publication arguing that the noninterventionist sentiment of the Trump years was not an arbitration. So Scott brought him on to talk about it. They discuss Parsi’s expectations for the future of Europe’s security structure. They then get into whether or not public opinion has any impact on American foreign policy. Next, they discuss how global perceptions of Biden’s political situation are affecting the Iran deal negotiations. Lastly, they touch on the continuing war in Yemen. 

Discussed on the show:

Trita Parsi is the Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy. Parsi is the recipient of the 2010 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. Follow him on Twitter @tparsi.

This episode of the Scott Horton Show is sponsored by: The War State and Why The Vietnam War?, by Mike Swanson; Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom;; EasyShip; Free Range Feeder; Thc Hemp Spot; Green Mill Supercritical; Bug-A-Salt and Listen and Think Audio.

Shop Libertarian Institute merch or donate to the show through Patreon, PayPal or Bitcoin: 1DZBZNJrxUhQhEzgDh7k8JXHXRjYu5tZiG.

How to Eliminate the Threat of Nuclear War: A Strategy of Non-Intervention

How to Eliminate the Threat of Nuclear War: A Strategy of Non-Intervention

Around this time last year, nuclear weapons became illegal. Well, sort of.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, an international agreement adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2017 after a majority of countries voted in its favor, entered into force on January 22, 2021 as Honduras became the 50th country to ratify the treaty. Overnight, the testing, development, production, possession and transfer of nuclear weapons was banned.

But here comes the rub. The treaty is only binding on those nations that joined. Unsurprisingly, the countries that actually possess or host nuclear weapons, as well as all NATO members, have boycotted the initiative, thereby rendering it powerless. The treaty is thus a bleak reminder of the Realpolitik considerations that inhibit powerful nuclear nations from relinquishing their weapons of mass destruction.

Yet, we must also not forget that ever since the height of the Cold War, both the number of and threat from nuclear weapons have been successfully reduced. However, big steps forward have come only when the West recognized its rivals as equals. Most importantly, this was the case in the period roughly between the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the end of the 20th century, when the realization of mutual assured destruction resulted in the adoption of a number of arms control treaties that slowed down the arms race and, in time, reduced the global nuclear stockpile.

Before and after this era, however, the United States and its allies were undeterred from projecting dominance and pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy, even if that dominance was based on dangerous illusions. At the same time, both in the early days of the Cold War and today, the blame for the nuclear threat is placed largely on others, be they the former Soviet Union or the 21st-century “Axis of Evil.” Because the rest of the world sees through this hypocrisy, most non-proliferation efforts spearheaded by Western countries are counterproductive. Instead, they actually incentivize nations at odds with the West to invest into nuclear weapons as a defense mechanism.

Eliminating the threat of nuclear war can therefore only be achieved if the West starts to lead by example and adopts a policy of non-interventionism. A brief revisionist history illustrates this argument.

As is well known, the first atom bomb was developed by the United States during the Second World War in the context of an arms race between Nazi Germany and the Allies. Less known, however, is that the mere idea of “strategic’ bombing,” which targets an enemy’s civilian rather than military population and infrastructure, in and of itself is a product of twentieth-century total war. Militaries started to experiment with strategic bombing during the First World War and the Spanish Civil War, but the casualties remained relatively limited. Demoralizing the enemy through massive terror bombing became only normalized on a massive scale during the Second World War. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of civilians perished in the Axis and Allied bombing of urban centers in the course of that cataclysmic event.

The tragic peak, of course, was the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Together with conventional firebombing in the months leading up to the nuclear assault, dozens of Japanese cities were razed to the ground and at least half a million Japanese civilians were killed. In the decades after the war, the horrific atomic bombings were justified on the basis that they had saved the lives of an equal number of American soldiers from the counterfactual scenario of a U.S. invasion of Japan.

In recent years, however, this myth has been blown out of the water. Samuel Walker, historian at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has written that “the hoary claim that the bomb prevented one-half million American combat deaths is unsupportable.” Rather, he pointed out in a 1990 review article that “the consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an [American] invasion of Japan and to end the war in a relative short time.” Since then, historians on both sides of the Pacific have argued that the Soviet entry into the war, which occurred in between the two atom bombs, had more to do with Japan’s surrender; and that geopolitical considerations about the post-war settlement were more decisive than military strategy in Harry Truman’s decision to pull the nuclear trigger.

In short, from the very beginning the atom bomb served much broader political purposes beyond military deterrence. For the West Europeans, in particular, the American atomic umbrella gave a sense of security and an easy excuse not to invest too much in their own defense. Behind the scenes, West European officials were adamant supporters of the so-called “first use” doctrine, which granted NATO the right to start a nuclear war in the face of a conventional—i.e., non-nuclear—threat. The Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations in turn interpreted that policy quite liberally and contemplated a nuclear first strike on multiple occasions, including during the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the Berlin crises of both 1948 and 1961.

Sooner or later, however, the period of American nuclear dominance was bound to come to an end. But long before it did, phony fears about Soviet superiority stoked the arms race further. On the basis of an alleged imminent “missile gap” in intercontinental ballistic missiles, John F. Kennedy launched the largest and fastest military build-up in peacetime history in the beginning of the 1960s. But this effort proved to be misguided, because American spy satellites soon confirmed that the ICBM gap was in fact 10 to 1 in favor of the United States.

The cost of the paranoia amplified by the missile gap myth was higher than the wasted dollars that flowed into the coffers of the military-industrial complex, however. NATO’s first use policy, together with the encircling of the Soviet Union with medium range nuclear missiles in Europe and Asia, convinced Nikita Khrushchev to return the favor and attempt to install nuclear missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the result.

A scenario similar to the twin events of the missile gap panic and Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded in the 1970s and 1980s. From Moscow’s point of view, the goal of détente was the nullification of American nuclear superiority and the achievement of strategic parity. Because the USSR kept lagging behind technologically, it sought to catch up in numbers. In Washington, however, the temporary military build-up that this goal necessitated was perceived as an attempt to gain nuclear superiority. Moreover, hawks inside and outside government claimed that the Soviets were bent on initiating—and winning—a nuclear war.

Like the missile gap, this assertion, too, was exploded as a myth after the Cold War. Interviews with former Soviet officials and archival research of Warsaw Pact military manuals demonstrated in the 1990s that unlike the U.S., the USSR never considered a first use option. In fact, the Soviets were paranoid of a Western first strike and repeatedly offered a mutual “no first use” commitment. NATO dismissed such proposals as propaganda, however, and stoked a new arms race in technologically advanced nuclear technology, which had always been Moscow’s weak spot.

Thus, when NATO deployed technologically advanced Pershing II and Tomahawk cruise missiles in Western Europe in the fall of 1983, which coincidentally coincided with yearly nuclear war drills, the paranoia in Moscow reached fever pitch. The Pershing II could reach Moscow in a record time of six to eight minutes, thus compromising the Soviets’ “launch on warning” system. The cruise missiles, for their part, were difficult to intercept because of their automated flying technology. On the basis of intelligence coming out of the then biggest military intelligence program in history, several party members and military officials were convinced that NATO was conniving a first strike. The Soviets readied their nuclear forces, but in the end, cooler heads prevailed when NATO did not respond in kind. The 1983 war scare is often considered the closest the superpowers came to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the long term, however, important steps were taken to regulate, and eventually roll back, the arms race. After the recognition of mutual assured destruction in the 1960s, several arms control agreements, such as the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty were signed in the context of relaxing relations between East and West. Although the 1979 SALT II Treaty was never ratified by the American Congress due to a last uptick in the Cold War, the arms control regime regained the upper hand after the 1983 war scare. Indeed, according to historian Beth Fisher, the war scare had a profound personal impact on Ronald Reagan, causing the president to reconsider his previous hawkish positions.

Combined with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR, Reagan’s change of heart paved the way for the 1987 INF and 1991 START Treaties, which for the first time went beyond mitigating the arms race and actually reduced the number of warheads. The INF Treaty even led to the elimination of a whole category of nuclear weapons, namely ground-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles, which included the above-mentioned Pershing II and Tomahawk cruise missiles. Under subsequent treaties, but also unilaterally, both superpowers continued to reduce their stockpiles drastically. As of 2021, the global nuclear stockpile is 19% of what it was during its Cold War peak.

Yet today nine nuclear weapon possessing countries still collectively sit on top of an arsenal of roughly 13,000 warheads, 91% of which are owned by Russia and the United States. Of these, more than 3,500 are operationalized on missiles and bomber bases, still enough to drag civilization into a catastrophic war. Worse, this militarized stockpile has actually started to increase again, whereas the pace of reduction of the overall global nuclear arsenal has slowed down. Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, the concept of limited nuclear warfare with low-yield warheads, controversial even during the Cold War, has seen a resurgence in American military doctrine.

The new millennium marked the turning point in this alarming trend. When George W. Bush entered the White House, he brought with him a litany of neoconservatives who wanted to capitalize on Washington’s “unipolar moment” to reassert American global dominance and remake the world in their image. The disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are infamous testimonies of this interventionist ideology. But the Bush administration’s unipolar tendencies had reverberations that extended into nuclear weapons policy, too. In December 2001, in spite of Vladimir Putin offering early cooperation in the war in Afghanistan, Bush pulled out of the 1972 ABM Treaty.

This withdrawal has paved the way for the step-by-step construction of a NATO anti-ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe, a move that has often been harshly criticized by Moscow but has received very little attention in the Western press. Last summer, for instance, Putin drew a direct comparison with the Cuban Missile Crisis, arguing that the launching systems in Romania and Poland could carry offensive in addition to defensive missiles. If so, the flight time to Moscow is 15 minutes, roughly the same amount of time Soviet missiles would have needed to reach American shores if Khrushchev’s plan had succeeded in 1962. Furthermore, if Ukraine were to join NATO and host similar missile launchers, which the Russian president has recently confirmed to be an absolute red line, that flight time would drop to 7-10 minutes, almost the same as the Pershing IIs from the 1980s.

Unlike Bush, Barack Obama did not leave any of the Cold War-era arms control treaties. Better yet, he made the elimination of nuclear weapons a centerpiece of his early foreign policy agenda. To that end, New START, a treaty signed in 2010, reduced the Russian and American stockpiles of deployed nuclear weapon launchers further to nearly two-thirds of the original START Treaty. Yet, to placate critics of the agreement, Obama also pushed through a $1 trillion nuclear modernization program and in his second term backtracked on adopting a no first use policy. Finally, he continued the rolling out of NATO’s ABM system in Europe.

It is in reaction to these developments that Putin decided to respond. In March 2018, more than a decade and a half after Bush pulled out of the ABM Treaty and against the backdrop of new Cold War-like tensions, the Russian president announced the development of a number of nuclear-capable missiles that seek to circumvent NATO’s ABM system—either by flying over the South Pole, or with the help of innovative technologies that allow for hypersonic speed and automated “cruise” flying. All this talk about fanciful hypersonic and missile-intercepting weapons, the technological feasibility of which has always been questionable, has spurred a new arms race between the American and Russian military-industrial complexes.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump added even more oil to the fire. In spite of all the “Russiagate” accusations, the Trump administration pulled out of not one but two arms control treaties, while it almost let a third die. First, in late 2018 the U.S. announced that it would leave the 1987 INF Treaty. It did so on the basis that Russia had violated its “spirit and intent” by deploying a new ground-based cruise missile, ignoring warnings from both Moscow and independent scientists that the missile launchers in Poland and Romania might have violated the treaty as well. Instead of negotiating a solution, however, Trump simply pulled out.

The boldness of this move can perhaps be explained by the fact that the treaty had tied Washington’s hands in its strategic competition against China, which was not a party to the agreement. Indeed, it was reported that the fact that the treaty “constrained” Washington’s efforts to counter China was a contributing motive in the withdrawal decision, even though that country’s nuclear arsenal is just a fraction of those of the U.S. or Russia.

The second treaty the Trump administration left is the Open Skies Treaty, an important confidence building agreement between 36 nations that allows for unarmed air inspection. Finally, it also let Obama’s New START Treaty expire, rebuffing Russian proposals for extension. Fortunately, a year later Joe Biden reentered that treaty, which is now the only Russian-American agreement left to restrain the Cold War enemies from descending into a new nuclear arms race.

In short, there is a case to be made that throughout the old and new Cold War, America has been the main driving force behind the subsequent waves of the nuclear arms race. This does not mean that Russia is to be accused from any of the blame, of course. It does mean, however, that if Washington reverses its current course and returns to phasing out its nuclear arsenal, Moscow will likely follow suit. In time, this process would bring the American and Russian stockpiles more in line with those of the other nuclear weapon possessing countries.

In such a climate, the era of strategic parity would return in a multilateral form. Without any threatening hegemon, the nuclear bomb would remain in place only as an existential instrument of deterrence. A number of measures, such as the adoption of no first use policies, the liquidation of forward-based tactical warheads and the banning of limited nuclear warfare from military doctrines, could in this context contribute to more relaxed relations between the nine nuclear states.

In the long run, then, the leaders of these nations might come to understand the increasing irrelevance of nuclear weapons. After all, the UN General Assembly is not the only authority exerting pressure on the nuclear states. A growing number of former high-level U.S. officials, too, have argued that nuclear weapons are obsolete for the purposes of military defense.

Unfortunately, current American leaders have taken few steps in this direction. Worse, in the post-9/11 era they have given rival nations more—not less—reason to cling onto or even create new nuclear deterrents. This message can be most evidently illustrated by reviewing American foreign policy towards the three countries that Bush Jr. haphazardly lumped together in the so-called “Axis of Evil”: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. These countries were all signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2002, but that did not stop the US from accusing them from seeking weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and pushing for regime change in Baghdad, Tehran, and Pyongyang.

In the Middle East, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq was in large part legitimized on the basis of the false pretext that Saddam Hussein secretly possessed WMDs, in spite of the fact that the contemporary information from intelligence agencies and UN weapons inspectors justified no such claims. Regarding Iran, too, the CIA and Mossad have on occasion agreed with the repeated confirmations of the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program. Yet, ever since the 1980s subsequent American administrations have claimed the contrary, even after both supreme religious leaders of the Islamic Republic have basically forbidden the procurement of WMDs on a religious basis.

In the last few years, Iran has actually shown how an effective conventional deterrent can be realized by arming regional allies with non-nuclear missiles and drones. The so-called “axis of resistance”—which is led by Iran and includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria’s Assad regime—is now firmly established as a balance against Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly and at least partially deters American and Israeli military action. In truth, Iran only ever enriched uranium beyond levels necessary for nuclear energy as a negotiating tactic to get sanctions relief and bring the U.S. to the negotiating table. This “enrichment diplomacy” was Tehran’s answer to Obama’s “maximum pressure” campaign in the lead-up to the 2015 nuclear deal, and it looks like the Iranians have resorted to the same strategy after Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2018.

The blowback has been worst in North Korea, however. The DPRK became the first country to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty in January 2003, a year after Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech. True, the North Koreans’ commitment to the NPT was already in question before that, but Bush’s rhetoric might have pushed them over the edge. Since 2006, the DPRK has carried out six nuclear tests with increasing levels of expertise. Although the details are obscure, there is little reason to doubt that the North Korean regime today possesses a nuclear deterrent that can do significant damage and initiate a devastating nuclear war.

Unsettling as it might be, this means that Western leaders will have to learn how to treat Kim Jong-Un with a modicum of respect. Fortunately, there is a precedent: the world also survived other nuclear-armed dictators, such as Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. The problem is that the U.S. has long considered such leaders as uniquely irrational and continues to operate from the illusion that it can play the role of global policeman indefinitely.

Indeed, when Trump’s national security advisor and vice president made off-handed remarks about employing the “Libya model” in the lead-up to a historic meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-Un in 2018, they did not realize that they were actually reminding the North Koreans why it is wise to cling onto their nuclear deterrent. Indeed, when Muammar Qadhafi gave up his WMD program in 2003 in exchange for sanctions relief, he lost a deterrent that might have prevented the NATO-sponsored regime change war in 2011 that led to his downfall and brutal murder.

This brings us to the heart of the problem: America’s interventionist foreign policy does not prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, it enhances it.

Throughout much of the nuclear era, the U.S. has been the dominant global nuclear power—or has at least operated on the premise that it was. To maintain that position, the U.S. government has spearheaded several waves of nuclear arms races, maintained a vast global military empire, and intervened into the domestic affairs of other countries on a routine basis. In doing so, it has stimulated rival nations to obtain nuclear deterrents.

To believe that America’s foes are the main drivers of nuclear tensions instead, one has to believe in the benevolent merits of U.S. empire. But most of the world does not. International polls demonstrate that America is seen as the biggest threat to world peace, leaving other contenders far behind.

Further movement towards the elimination of the threat of nuclear war is therefore only possible if the U.S. government moves towards a non-interventionist strategy—in nuclear and other foreign policy matters alike. The good news is that a majority of Americans actually favors a less interventionist foreign policy that prioritizes domestic issues instead.

In time, a world without nuclear weapons is achievable. The nuclear bomb would not be the first class of weapons to be consigned to the dustbin of history. A number of nasty bombs, from landmines to chemical weapons, have been marginalized as a result of international prohibition agreements. From this perspective, the UN’s ban on nuclear weapons is a step in the good direction. It can be of service as a pressure tool to move the nuclear weapon possessing countries and their allies in the right direction.

Bas Spliet is a historian and PhD candidate at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. He writes about a variety of topics from a historical angle, all of which can be found on his Substack, (Re)writing history. You can follow him on Twitter.

Salafis Throwing Bombs: How American and British Planners Partnered With Al-Qaeda Affiliated Groups At the Start of the Syrian Civil War

Salafis Throwing Bombs: How American and British Planners Partnered With Al-Qaeda Affiliated Groups At the Start of the Syrian Civil War


In the mainstream view, al-Qaeda did not play a role in the Syria conflict until Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dispatched his deputy, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, to Syria in August 2011 to establish a wing of the group there, called Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front. Additionally, al-Qaeda allegedly did not carry out any military operations until December 2011 and did not announce its establishment until January 2012.

However, there is evidence that al-Qaeda affiliated militants were involved in the Syrian conflict much earlier. Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam, and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri all played key roles in dispatching al-Qaeda affiliated militants to Syria in the early stages of the conflict. They did so at the direction of U.S. and UK planners, who hoped to spark a sectarian civil war that would lead to regime change in Damascus.

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) were dispatched to Syria from neighboring Iraq starting in late 2010. Starting in March 2011, they began attacking Syrian security forces, police, and soldiers under the cover of anti-government protests. Militants from Fatah al-Islam were dispatched from Lebanon to Syria for the same purpose as early as April 2011. Militants from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) began fighting in Syria in October 2011, after successfully toppling the Libyan government under the cover of NATO airpower. Additionally, there is evidence that the first protestors killed in Deraa on March 18, 2011 were killed by Salafist militants as part of a false flag attack, rather than by Syrian government security forces, as is commonly assumed.

In this essay, I review U.S. and UK efforts to partner with al-Qaeda affiliated groups to topple the Syrian government, and the role played by such militants in the first weeks and months of the 2011 Syrian conflict.

Regime Change Coming Your Way

U.S. planners have long sought to topple the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. U.S. General Wesley Clark famously revealed that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was part of a larger plan developed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office “to take out seven countries in five years,” including Iran, Libya, and Syria.

In December 2005, the Wall Street Journal reported that within U.S. government circles, the “Pressure for regime change in Damascus is rising,” and that according to prominent neoconservative and architect of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Richard Perle, “Assad has never been weaker, and we should take advantage of that.” Perle, a member of the U.S. Defense Policy Board, made his comments in the context of a U.S.-sponsored effort to blame the Syrian government for the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

In March 2006, former Syrian vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam partnered with Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali al-Bayanouni to form a new opposition group in exile, the National Salvation Front (NSF). In October 2006, several NSF members met with Michael Doran of the U.S. National Security Council, who was a close associate of prominent neoconservative and Bush administration official Elliott Abrams to discuss the possibility of regime change in Syria. Representatives of the NSF were also given a meeting with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz the same month.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Elliott Abrams warmed to the idea of partnering with the Brotherhood after Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah fought Israel to a standstill in the summer of 2006, which caused Washington to become “increasingly concerned about Syria’s military alliance with Iran, and the threat it posed to U.S. interests in the region.”

Hezbollah’s surprisingly strong performance during the 2006 war, coupled with the rise of Iranian influence in U.S.-occupied Iraq, prompted what journalist Seymour Hersh described as a “redirection” in U.S. policy in the Middle East. This massive shift in policy was led by then Vice President Dick Cheney, Abrams, and Saudi national security advisor and former ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

The redirection involved working with Washington’s Sunni regional client states “to counteract Shiite ascendance in the region.” As part of this effort, the “Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir [sic] Assad, of Syria.” Hersh notes further, “There is evidence that the Administration’s redirection strategy has already benefitted the Brotherhood,” and that according to a former high-ranking CIA officer, Abd al-Halim Khaddam and the NSF were receiving both financial and diplomatic support from the Americans and Saudis. Hersh notes further that Vice President Dick Cheney had been advised by Lebanese politician, Walid Jumblatt, that “if the United States does try to move against Syria, members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would be ‘the ones to talk to.’”

Salafis Throwing Bombs

Hersh details further that the U.S. effort to topple the Syrian government would involve not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but also Salafist militant groups controlled by Saudi intelligence. According to a U.S. government consultant, “Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that ‘they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”

In December 2006, the Charge d’Affaires of the U.S. embassy in Damascus, William Roebuck, had already acknowledged the possibility of exploiting Salafist militants to promote regime change in Syria. Roebuck wrote that, “We believe Bashar’s weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real,” including “the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists. This cable summarizes our assessment of these vulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements, and signals that the USG can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising. These proposals will need to be fleshed out and converted into real actions and we need to be ready to move quickly to take advantage of such opportunities. [emphasis mine].”

We Have a Liberal Attitude

One reservoir of al-Qaeda-affiliated militants to be leveraged by U.S. planners was in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Seymour Hersh notes that according to a 2005 International Crisis Group (ICG) report, pro-Saudi Lebanese politician, Saad Hariri (son of the assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri) had helped release four Salafist militants from prison who had previously trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and were arrested in Lebanon while trying to establish an Islamic state in the north of the country. Hariri also used his influence in parliament to obtain amnesty for another 29 Salafist militants, including seven suspected of bombing foreign embassies in Beirut a year prior. Hersh notes as well that according to a senior official in the Lebanese government, “We have a liberal attitude that allows Al Qaeda types to have a presence here.”

Charles Harb of the American University of Beirut similarly observed in May 2007 that Saad Hariri was giving “political cover” to “radical Sunni movements.” Harb explains that to attract Sunni voters in the 2005 national parliamentary elections, Hariri had “pardoned jailed Sunni militants involved in violence in December 2000.” Harb also warned that “Courting radical Sunni sentiment is a dangerous game. Fear of Shia influence in Arab affairs has prompted many Sunni leaders to warn of a ‘Shia crescent’ stretching from Iran, through Iraq, to south Lebanon.” Harb also noted the involvement of Saudi intelligence in cultivating these groups. He explained that “Several reports have highlighted efforts by Saudi officials to strengthen Sunni groups, including radical ones, to face the Shia renaissance across the region. But building up radical Sunni groups to face the Shia challenge can easily backfire.”

Harb was writing in response to the eruption of violence in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp on May 19, 2007. The camp, located in northern Lebanon, had been occupied by militants from the al-Qaeda-affiliated group, Fatah al-Islam. Fighting had erupted between the militants and members of the Lebanese security forces, allegedly after an attempted bank robbery. The fighting left the camp almost entirely flattened and its Palestinian refugee population homeless.

Two months before the outbreak of violence in Nahr al-Bared, the New York Times had interviewed Fatah al-Islam’s leader, Shakir al-Abssi, a former associate of notorious al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The NYT reports that, “Despite being on terrorism watch lists around the world, he has set himself up in a Palestinian refugee camp where, because of Lebanese politics, he is largely shielded from the government.” Major General Achraf Rifi, general director of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces told the NYT that to enter the camp and detain al-Abssi, “We would need an agreement from other Arab countries.” In other words, al-Abssi was being shielded by Saad Hariri and Saudi intelligence.

America’s Jihadi University

Another reservoir of Salafist militancy from which U.S. and Saudi planners could draw was in Iraq, which had become the epicenter of the transnational jihadi movement after foreign militants flooded into the country to fight against U.S. occupation forces following the 2003 U.S. invasion. In 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s insurgent group, al-Tawhid w al-Jihad, became the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq. Starting in 2007, Sunni tribes and insurgent groups that had once fought alongside al-Qaeda against U.S. occupation forces became disillusioned by the terror group’s indiscriminate violence. Recognizing al-Qaeda as a bigger threat, they partnered with their former enemies in the U.S. military as part of the Awakening movement to fight the group. This led supporters of al-Qaeda to lament that the “people of Iraq completely betrayed the mujahids.”

Without a Sunni support base in Anbar, the majority of al-Qaeda militants were quickly killed or imprisoned. By 2009, al-Qaeda in Iraq (by that time known as the Islamic State of Iraq) had been all but defeated. Islam scholar and former State Department advisor William McCants observed that during this time al-Qaeda was on “life support,” and that fellow jihadists were mocking the group, describing it as a “paper state” because it lacked control of any territory.”

Though al-Qaeda was weak and in disarray on the battlefield, it was at the same time thriving within U.S. prisons, most notably in Camp Bucca, a U.S.-run detention facility in the south of the country, which held some 26,000 detainees at its height in 2007. According to Lt. Col. Kenneth Plowman, a spokesman for Task Force 134 which ran the prison, al-Qaeda members were effectively functioning as a gang within the camp’s walls, including operating “jail house sharia courts…despite the presence of U.S guards, to enforce an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. They were then used to convict moderate inmates, who were then tortured or killed.”

In 2008, Marine Major General Douglas Stone was tasked with running the facility. He concluded that Bucca had become a “jihadi university,” giving the al-Qaeda leadership the opportunity to recruit, organize and plan within the prison. General Stone conducted extensive screening to identify which prisoners did not pose a security threat and could be released, and which were extremists or “takfiris” that should be isolated from the broader prison population. He estimated that one third, roughly 8,000, constituted “genuinely continuing and imperative security risks.” The Independent reported in 2014 that according to the terrorism analyst firm the Soufan Group, “nine members of the Islamic State’s top command did time at Bucca.” Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the future leader of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, was among those al-Qaeda leaders held in Camp Bucca. He was detained in 2006 and released by US officials in 2008.

An Islamic state member later told the Guardian, “We had so much time to sit and plan…It was the perfect environment. We all agreed to get together when we got out. The way to reconnect was easy. We wrote each other’s details on the elastic of our boxer shorts. When we got out, we called. Everyone who was important to me was written on white elastic. I had their phone numbers, their villages. By 2009, many of us were back doing what we did before we were caught. But this time we were doing it better.”

The Great Prison Release

Islamic State of Iraq militants were by this time “doing it better” because of what Craig Whiteside of the U.S. Naval War College dubbed, “the Great Prison Release of 2009.” 5,700 detainees were released from Bucca that year and Whiteside writes that, “An unknown number of these men were destined to return to ISI [Islamic State of Iraq], to execute operations as part of cells assembled during their time in Bucca.” Whiteside, himself a former US army infantry officer and Iraq war veteran, was puzzled by the release plan, which did not meet the usual preconditions for the early release of prisoners after a conflict, including that the “population must support the release.” He notes that support for the release of these militants was likely low, even among Iraq’s Sunnis, given that “the Awakening movement had conducted a skillful campaign to rally tribal allies and pacify militant members of their own tribes in order to dramatically reduce the violence in tribal areas, and the release of thousands of highly organized and committed ISI recruits from prison had a predictable impact on the Awakening groups’ ability to control Sunni areas beyond 2010.” Whiteside notes further that, “The United States is often unjustly blamed for many things that are wrong in this world, but the revitalization of ISIL [ISIS] and its incubation in our own Camp Bucca is something that Americans truly own…The Iraqi government has many enemies, and the United States helped put many of them out on the street in 2009. Why?”

The danger of such a policy was immediately apparent to Iraqi officials and was quickly reported by then Washington Post journalist Anthony Shadid. In March 2009, Shadid visited the town of Garma (al-Karma), some 16 kilometers from Falluja, a former al-Qaeda stronghold in Anbar province. Shadid asked the local police chief about the nature of the released detainees, who replied, “These men weren’t planting flowers in a garden. They weren’t strolling down the street,” when they were detained. The police chief admitted to being overwhelmed by the return of hundreds of former Bucca inmates to the area while estimating that 90% would return to the fight. The deputy police chief in Garma noted that the one-time driver of al-Zarqawi was among those who had been released and had already carried out a car bomb attack that had killed 15. An Iraqi ministry of interior official further told Shadid that “Al-Qaeda is preparing itself for the departure of the Americans. And they want to stage a revolution.”

Al-Qaeda Resurrected

Few understood at the time that this so-called revolution would be directed first at Syria instead of Iraq. CIA director John Brennan later acknowledged that al-Qaeda had been defeated in Iraq but was soon able to reconstitute itself under the shadow of the U.S. withdrawal by turning its attention toward Syria. Brennan noted in 2015 that the Islamic State “had its roots in al-Qaida in Iraq. It was, you know, pretty much decimated when U.S. forces were there in Iraq. It had maybe 700-or-so adherents left. And then it grew quite a bit in the last several years, when it split then from al-Qaida in Syria, and set up its own organization.”

With the dramatic rise of the Islamic State in Syria in 2014, the U.S. press acknowledged the U.S. role in incubating the group’s leadership in its own prisons, but claimed this was inadvertent, an accident resulting from ignorance. For example, the New York Times acknowledged in 2015 that Islamic State leader Baghdadi had indeed been held at Bucca in 2004, but that the United States had only “unintentionally create[d] the conditions ripe for training a new generation of insurgents [emphasis mine].”

There are several reasons to doubt that the prison release that led to the resurrection of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2009 was unintentional, however. When asked by journalist Mehdi Hassan about U.S.-coordinated arms transfers to al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria in 2012, lieutenant general and former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) head Michael Flynn responded “I will tell you, it goes before 2012. I mean, when we were, when we were in Iraq and we still had decisions to be made before there was a decision to pull out of Iraq in 2011. I mean, it was very clear what we were, what we were going to face [emphasis mine].”

As mentioned above, Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan had assured his U.S. counterparts that he controlled Salafist militant groups in the region (“We’ve created this movement, and we can control it”), and that these groups could be re-directed against what U.S. planners viewed as their now more significant foes, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. For Bandar to reconstitute a decimated al-Qaeda organization and unleash it in the direction of Syria as requested by U.S. planners, a large-scale release of U.S.-held prisoners of the sort seen in 2009 would have been needed.

The “redirection” embraced by U.S. planners in 2007 was therefore simply an adoption of previous Saudi policy, adopted by U.S. planners once they realized their strategic mistake of empowering Iran via their own invasion of Iraq.

Piss Outside the Tent, Not Inside the Tent

It may seem conspiratorial to suggest that al-Qaeda in Iraq and its later iterations were controlled by Prince Bandar, but Saudi support for the organization throughout the terror group’s evolution is no longer in question. As Iraq expert Joel Wing notes, Saudi support for al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Iraq by 2007 (the time of Hersh’s reporting) was already well documented. Wing notes that the Saudis were providing cash to al-Qaeda groups, and that some 40% of foreign fighters in Iraq were Saudis, as were 40% of the foreigners detained in US prisons such as Camp Bucca.

The U.S. military therefore found itself fighting an enemy in Iraq supported by its own close ally. This mirrored the situation in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military was fighting the Taliban, which was supported by the intelligence services of close U.S.-ally Pakistan.

U.S. officials were aware of the crucial Saudi role in stoking the Iraqi insurgency, and allegedly raised concerns about it with their Saudi counterparts in private, but chose to publicly focus blame on Syria and Iran instead. Wing notes that, “In April 2008 President Bush sent General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker to Saudi Arabia to try to get them to support Iraq. The two U.S. emissaries were also supposed to discuss the Saudis’ role with the insurgency. Back in August 2007 the U.S. had a similar mission when Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates went to the kingdom to discuss the same topics. Earlier in that year the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalizad had accused the Saudis of destabilizing Iraq with their backing of the insurgency. Both times the U.S. administration was rebuffed. Saudi officials admitted that their young people were going to Iraq, and said they were doing what they could to stop them but denied any role in fund raising for the insurgents. In 2006 the Iraq Study Group also mentioned the Saudi role, saying that the government was either passive about it or didn’t care.”

A leaked State Department cable from 2009 further reinforced the view that Saudi Arabia continued to be “a critical source of terrorist funding,” including for al-Qaeda. The cable stated that “While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”

Joel Wing observes further that “The Saudis have four reasons for their policy. First, the Saudi kingdom opposed the U.S. invasion, and warned the Bush administration against it. Second, the Saudi elite rejected having a Shiite led government in Iraq. There are some ultra-religious Sunnis who do not believe that Shiites are real Muslims. Third, the Saudis felt that the combination of the American-led war and the ascendancy of Iraq’s Shiites would open the door to Iran, the Saudis main rival in the region.”

Saudi control over al-Qaeda likely extended at this time beyond the group’s franchise in Iraq, and to Osama bin Laden, himself. Seymour Hersh reports that “bin Laden had been a prisoner of the ISI [Pakistani intelligence] at the Abbottabad compound since 2006” and that Saudi Arabia “had been financing bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis” until his killing by U.S. special forces in May 2011. This gave both the Saudis and Pakistanis leverage over the group’s albeit greatly diminished activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Though Saudi support for al-Qaeda is often blamed on private businessmen or religious charities, it is implausible that these private efforts would be possible without the knowledge, assistance, and approval of Saudi intelligence.

Writing for Vanity Fair, Anthony Summers and Robyn Swann detail the extensive evidence of Saudi state support for al-Qaeda stretching back decades. They cite former CIA officer John Kiriakou as explaining in 2002 that, “We had known for years…that Saudi royals—I should say elements of the royal family—were funding al-Qaeda.” The authors further quote former deputy homeland-security adviser to President Bush, Richard Falkenrath, as explaining that al-Qaeda was “led and financed largely by Saudis, with extensive support from Pakistani intelligence.”

Bin Laden’s British Connection

Britain provided another reservoir of al-Qaeda linked fighters that could be deployed to effect regime change in Syria on behalf of U.S. planners, courtesy of their counterparts in British intelligence.

It is often forgotten that Britain has long served as a haven for al-Qaeda affiliated groups. As journalist Mark Curtis observed in his book Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, “London had by [1998] become, along with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan which housed bin Laden, the principal administrative centre for global jihad, where authorities were, at the very least, turning a blind eye to terrorist activities launched from their soil.”

The Guardian reports that, “Bin Laden’s British connection dates back to the early 1990s, when he founded a London-based group, the Advisory and Reform Committee, that distributed literature against the Saudi regime.” Academic Christopher M. Davidson notes in his book Shadow Wars: the Secret Struggle for the Middle East that bin Laden visited the UK personally and considered applying for asylum there, while his London office “was designed both to publicize the statements of Osama bin Laden and to provide a cover for activity in support of al-Qaeda’s ‘military activities,’ including the recruitment of military trainees, the disbursement of funds and the procurement of necessary equipment including satellite telephones and necessary services,” per New York federal court documents indicting bin Laden for carrying out 9/11.

Several prominent jihadist theoreticians lived in London for extensive periods in the 1990’s, including Abu Musab al-Suri, viewed by many as the “architect of global jihad,” Abu Qatada, known as “al-Qaeda’s spiritual ambassador to Europe,” and long suspected of having links with British intelligence, and Abu Abdallah Sadiq.

Abu Abdallah Sadiq, better known as Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, was the founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Mark Curtis explains that the LIFG was formed in 1990 in Afghanistan by 500 Libyan jihadists then fighting the Soviet-backed Afghan government that then went on to fight with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) against the Algerian government. According to the British Home Office, the LIFG’s “aim had been to overthrow the Qadafi regime and replace it with an Islamic State,” while the U.S. government described the LIFG as an “al-Qaeda affiliate known for engaging in terrorist activity in Libya and cooperating with al-Qaeda worldwide.” Curtis reports that in 1996, British intelligence partnered with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) to carry out a failed assassination attempt against Libyan president, Colonel Muamar Qaddafi, and that prominent members of the group were allowed to establish a base for logistical support and fundraising on British soil. Curtis notes that the group’s communiques calling for the overthrow of the Libyan government were issued from London, where several prominent LIFG members were living after having received political asylum.

Another prominent Salafist theoretician living in London during this period was the Syrian preacher, Muhammad Sarour Zein al-Abedine. According to Raffaello Pantucci of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Muhammad Sarour was “One of the more under-reported but highly important figures to have emerged from the United Kingdom…A British passport holder, Surur was based in the United Kingdom for almost two decades after moving there in the 1980s…A former Muslim Brotherhood activist, Surur was an innovator in Salafist thinking and established with his followers the Center for Islamic Studies in Birmingham, from where he published magazines and later ran the website.” Sarour was known for his anti-Shia sectarianism, and under a pseudonym wrote the book “Then Came the Turn of the Majus,” which inspired al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to advocate genocide against the Shia in Iraq before his killing by US occupation forces in 2006.

Sarour’s role in the early days and weeks of the 2011 Syrian conflict will be discussed below. It should be noted here that according to Pantucci, Sarour would later establish “himself as one of the key conduits for Qatari money to the anti-Assad rebels.”

Convoys of Murder

As detailed by Mark Curtis, U.S. and UK intelligence relied on young men from Britain’s Salafist community to fight in the war in Bosnia in the early 1990’s. This was later acknowledged even in the mainstream UK press. Labour MP Michael Meacher wrote in 2005 in the Guardian that, “During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the U.S. funded large numbers of jihadists through Pakistan’s secret intelligence service, the ISI. Later the U.S. wanted to raise another jihadi corps, again using proxies, to help Bosnian Muslims fight to weaken the Serb government’s hold on Yugoslavia. Those they turned to included Pakistanis in Britain.”

British jihadi recruits and weapons were smuggled into Bosnia under the pretext of humanitarian aid efforts, specifically through “Convoys of Mercy.” In one notable case, British-Pakistani and London School of Economics graduate Omar Saeed Sheikh joined an aid convoy to Bosnia, which he acknowledged in his journal was for “organising clandestine support for the Muslim fighters.” Upon reaching the Croatian port town of Split, near the Bosnian border, Sheikh joined a jihadist group called the Harakut-ul- Mujaheddin (HUM) and was sent to Pakistan for training. Sheikh was later convicted of kidnapping Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Pearl was beheaded and his death captured on video. As noted by the Guardian, Sheikh also wired $100,000 to 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta, at the behest of Pakistan’s intelligence service.

In the late 1990’s, British intelligence also dispatched British-Pakistani Jihadis to Kosovo under the cover of humanitarian convoys to continue the war against Serbia. Labour MP Meacher writes further that, “For nearly a decade the U.S. helped Islamist insurgents linked to Chechnya, Iran and Saudi Arabia destabilise the former Yugoslavia. The insurgents were also allowed to move further east to Kosovo,” and that “the former US federal prosecutor John Loftus reported that British intelligence had used the al-Muhajiroun group in London to recruit Islamist militants with British passports for the war against the Serbs in Kosovo.”

The al-Muhajiroun group was established in 1996 in Britain by Syrian cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed, who, as journalist Nafeez Ahmed details, was a long-time informant for British intelligence, meeting regularly with MI5 agents throughout the 1990’s. Bakri himself acknowledged his role in training jihadists to be dispatched abroad. He explained to the Guardian in May 2000 that al-Muhaijiroun has a network of centers around the world, divided into two wings: “There is the Da’wah (propagation) network, and there is the Jihad Network.” The Guardian notes that Bakri “admitted that there is a global network of agents with connections to the military camps, some of whom work from Britain.”

Al-Muhajiroun founder al-Bakri left Britain for Lebanon one month after the 7/7 attacks in July 2005, in which suicide bombers targeted the London transit system, killing 52.  Although former al-Muhajiroun members participated in the attack, British officials did not prevent Bakri from leaving Britain. By 2009, Lebanese security forces were accusing Bakri of training al-Qaeda members, while Bakri himself boasted, “Today, angry Lebanese Sunnis ask me to organize their jihad against the Shi’ites…Al-Qaeda in Lebanon…are the only ones who can defeat Hezbollah.”

Seek and Destroy

In 2009, the same year in which U.S. planners were helping to resurrect al-Qaeda in Iraq, French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas was told by top British officials that “they were preparing something in Syria…Britain was organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria. They even asked me, although I was no longer minister for foreign affairs, if I would like to participate.” When asked why the British would undertake such a plan, Dumas responded, “it’s important to understand, that the Syrian regime makes anti-Israeli talk,” and that he had previously been told by an Israeli prime minister that the Israelis would “seek to ‘destroy’ any country that did not ‘get along’ with it in the region.”

It is doubtful that UK planners would undertake such a project without guidance from their U.S. counterparts. This suggests that UK efforts to organize “an invasion of rebels into Syria” was part of the broader U.S. effort to promote regime change in the country. Dumas did not indicate, or perhaps did not know, who exactly would constitute the so-called rebels that would invade Syria. It appears however that British officials speaking to Dumas were referring to militants from both the LIFG and al-Muhajiroun, given the groups’ long histories of cooperation with British intelligence.

The rebel army referred to by Dumas was first dispatched not to Syria, but to Libya, at the start of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011.

LIFG activities had been harshly curbed in 2004 after the “Deal in the Desert” between then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Qaddafi led to rapprochement between the two countries. The British government then placed the LIFG on its terror list in 2005 and assisted in the rendition of two senior LIFG leaders, Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi, to Libya. The British security services allowed other LIFG members to remain in the UK but placed them under surveillance, house arrest, or detention.

However, British foreign policy regarding Libya pivoted against Qaddafi once again in 2011. Middle East Eye (MEE) reports that according to Ziad Hashem, an LIFG member granted asylum in Britain, “When the revolution started, things changed in Britain.” MEE reports further that “The British government operated an ‘open door’ policy that allowed Libyan exiles and British-Libyan citizens to join the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi.” LIFG members under counter-terrorism control orders in Britain were allowed to travel to Libya with “no questions asked,” and many had their passports returned to them for this purpose. One British-Libyan speaking with MEE explained that “These were old school LIFG guys, they [the British authorities] knew what they were doing..The whole Libyan diaspora were out there fighting alongside the rebel groups.” Another “described how he had carried out ‘PR work’ for the rebels in the months before Gaddafi was overthrown and eventually killed in October 2011. He said he was employed to edit videos showing Libyan rebels being trained by former British SAS and Irish special forces mercenaries in Benghazi, the eastern city from where the uprising against Gaddafi was launched.”

LIFG leader Belhaj had himself been released from prison by Libyan authorities in 2010 as part of a reconciliation deal arranged by Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam. With the start of the UK-backed Islamist insurgency in 2011, Belhaj commanded the Tripoli Brigade, which played a key role in toppling the Libyan government on behalf of NATO, spearheading the ground assault on the Libyan capital.

The Tripoli Brigade was itself formed by Mahdi al-Herati, who lived for 20 years in exile in Ireland, and had fought against U.S. occupation forces in Iraq in 2003. Herati  returned to Libya at the outset of anti-government protests in February 2011 and partnered with his Irish-born brother-in-law, Husan al-Najar and other Libyan exiles to organize the Tripoli brigade. According to fellow anti-government fighters, Herati’s group received assistance from French, Qatari, and CIA intelligence officers. Both Herati and al-Najar would go on to fight in Syria in 2011, as discussed further below.

Once the NATO-backed campaign to topple Qaddafi in 2011 was successful, Herati, al-Najar and other Libyan LIFG exiles were dispatched to fight in Syria, as will be discussed below.

Pockets and Bases on Both Sides

In the lead up to the so-called Arab Spring, the interests of U.S. planners were aligned with those of the al-Qaeda groups in Iraq under Saudi control, making cooperation against the Syrian government beneficial for both parties.

A 2012 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document noted for example that “AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning, both ideologically and through the media. AQI declared its opposition of Assad’s government because it considered it a sectarian regime targeting Sunnis [Emphasis mine].” The document notes further that AQI spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani “declared the Syrian regime as the spearhead of what he is naming Jibha al Ruwafidh (Forefront of the Shiites) because of its (the Syrian regime) declaration of war on the Sunnis.”

A more common translation of Jibha al-Ruwafidh is the “Rejectionist Front,” with “rejectionist” being a derogatory reference to Shiites. The “Rejectionist Front” concept identified by al-Adnani parallels the “Shiite Crescent” feared by U.S. and Saudi planners, and which spurred the 2007 “redirection” of US policy as reported by Seymour Hersh.

The DIA document notes further that “AQI had major pockets and bases on both sides of the [Iraq-Syria] border to facilitate the flow of materiel and recruits. There was a regression of AQI in the western provinces of Iraq during the years 2009 and 2010; However, after the rise of the insurgency in Syria, the religious and tribal powers in the regions began to sympathize with the sectarian uprising. This (sympathy) appeared in Friday prayer sermons, which called for volunteers to support the Sunnis in Syria.”

In other words, the infrastructure was in place (pockets and bases on both sides of the border) before the eruption of protests in March 2011 for al-Qaeda in Iraq, under Saudi instruction, to launch the anti-government insurgency.

Leaders of the Jihad

American journalist Theo Padnos, who was a captive of the Nusra Front for two years, including after Nusra split from the Islamic State and the two groups became rivals, pointed to al-Qaeda’s early involvement in the Syria conflict. Padnos explained that the “ISIS [Islamic State] commanders and foot soldiers with whom I was sometimes imprisoned believed that their leaders, directing matters from planning rooms in Anbar Province in Iraq, dispatched fighters into Syria in late 2010, long before any child in Deraa scrawled his graffiti on a schoolyard wall.”

Padnos explained further that, “in probably late 2010, before all the demonstrations in Deraa, at the very beginning of things, before the beginning of things, they made this point to me often, they came into Syria in order to destroy the country…They wanted to basically topple the government. And at the same time there was a wave of demonstrations sweeping the country. These al-Qaeda people from Iraq infiltrated as many demonstrations as they could. And with the weapons they brought into Syria from Iraq they started shooting at the police and they started murdering the police officers and surrounding the police stations and throwing smoke bombs and waiting until the police guys come out and then shooting the policemen and then capturing the weapons and going off to the next police station. They told me about this from the beginning, they are very proud of this. They do not believe that the Syrian revolution really began with demonstrations. For them, it began because they made it begin by killing the police officers. They were the ones who launched the whole thing. It’s important for them to feel it’s a jihad and they are leaders of the jihad.”

Syria’s First al-Qaeda Franchise

The early military involvement of al-Qaeda affiliated fighters in the so-called revolution is further confirmed by the fact that the first declared armed group to begin fighting the Syrian government was a Salafist militia known as the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant, or Ahrar al-Sham. Rania Abouzeid of Time Magazine reported that according to one fighter from Ahrar al-Sham, the group “started working on forming brigades ‘after the Egyptian revolution…well before March 15, 2011, when the Syrian revolution kicked off with protests in the southern agricultural city of Dara’a.”

Writing in Al-Monitor, Syrian journalist Abdullah Suleiman Ali also indicates that Ahrar al-Sham was active in the early months of the uprising. He reports that according to his source within the group, a number of foreign fighters, “including Saudis, were in Syria as the Ahrar al-Sham movement was emerging, i.e., since May 2011.”  Suleiman notes that these Saudi fighters joined Ahrar al-Sham based  on recommendations from senior al-Qaeda figures, and that long time al-Qaeda operative and former Fighting Vanguard member Abu Khalid al-Suri played an important role in establishing the group.  Opposition activist and later McClatchy journalist Mousab al-Hamadee explained that “One of my friends who is now a rebel leader told me that the moment the group announced itself in 2011 it got a big bag of money sent directly from Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaida.” As noted above, Saudis constituted the largest contingent of foreign militants fighting for al-Qaeda in Iraq, and were among the prisoners released by US forces from the prison at Camp Bucca in 2009.

Elements From Outside

The first major protests in Syria as part of the so-called Arab Spring erupted on March 18, 2011. After Friday prayers in the southern Syrian town of Deraa, a crowd of protestors marched from the al-Omari Mosque to the Political Security office of Atef Najib. Reuters claims that three men, Wissam Ayyash, Mahmoud al-Jawabra, and Ayhem al-Hariri “were killed when security forces opened fire on Friday on civilians at a peaceful protest demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption in Syria.” BBC Arabic similarly claimed that according to sources in Daraa, “four demonstrators were killed by security forces during a peaceful demonstration demanding political freedom and an end to corruption.” Pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasl claimed as well that the Syrian “regime did not tolerate protests opposing its rule and opened live fire directly on the protestors” killing Mahmoud al-Jawabra and three of his relatives.”

A closer look at events in Deraa suggests that the above descriptions provide a distorted view of what happened that day. Syrian security forces did not simply open fire on peaceful protestors to crush dissent as suggested above. Instead, they were responding to a chaotic situation that included mixture of peaceful protests and violent rioting. Further, there is evidence that al-Qaeda militants may have played a role in the killing of the first protestors on March 18 as part of a false flag operation.

In contrast to Western and opposition media reporting of events in Deraa on March 18, 2011, Syrian state media claimed that “During a gathering of citizens in Daraa province near the Omari Mosque on Friday afternoon, some infiltrators took advantage of this situation and caused chaos and riots,” while claiming that infiltrators had “inflicted damage on public and private property, and destroyed and burned a number of cars and public shops, which necessitated the intervention of policemen to ensure the safety of citizens and property. The rioters assaulted the police before being dispersed.”

The government version of events is of course likely to be biased. However, Muhammad Jamal Barout, associate researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar, provides a rather detailed account of the protest on March 18 that broadly supports the account provided by Syrian state media. Based on his interview with al-Jazeera’s then Damascus bureau chief, Abdul Hamid Tawfiq. Barout writes that “protestors, with the families of the children [who were detained for writing anti-regime graffiti on a school wall] at the front, headed towards the al-Omari mosque. They chanted ‘Where are you, oh people of al-Faz’a’ and ‘God, Syria, freedom, that’s all’ and ‘There is no fear after today,’ and they also chanted against the head of the political security branch, Atef al-Najib and against the governor Faisal Kalthum, and against business tycoon Rami Makhlouf…Then they headed to the political security branch building to burn it down. After about two hours, at about three thirty in the afternoon, four helicopters arrived that had been called in by the head of the security branch, and they were carrying counter-terrorism soldiers dressed in all black [my emphasis].”

Sheik Ahmed Siyasna, imam of the al-Omari mosque, gave credibility to the state media version of events, telling the government-run Tishreen newspaper that, “There were elements from outside Dara’a determined to burn and destroy public property…These unknown assailants want to harm the reputation of the sons of Hauran…The people of Dara’a affirm that recent events are not part of their tradition or custom.” It is possible that supporters of Siyasna instigated the rioting, and that Siyasna was simply blaming the violence on unknown, outside elements to shield his own supporters from blame, but he does not deny that violent rioting occurred.

The violence, whether by local or outside elements, continued in subsequent days. The Israel National News reported just two days later that over the weekend not only four protestors but also “seven police officers were killed, and the Baath Party Headquarters and courthouse were torched, in renewed violence on Sunday.”

It is not surprising that Syrian security forces would intervene to prevent public buildings from being burned down, both to prevent the destruction of public property generally and to safeguard the lives anyone inside.

Subsequent protests illustrate the dangers involved in situations of this sort, where events can quickly spin out of control. Three are worth highlighting here. During an anti-government protest on June 4, 2011, armed protestors threw an incendiary device inside the front doors of the post office in the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shagour, setting it on fire and burning 8 people to death inside. Two days later, on June 6, 2011, protestors in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the Damascus suburbs attempted to burn down the headquarters of a pro-Syrian government Palestinian political party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command (PFLP-GC). In the process, one PFLP-GC official was stabbed to death by protestors and a PFLP-GC guard was burned to death inside the building, while PFLP-GC guards shot and killed two protestors. On February 18, 2011, during the first days of anti-governments protests in Libya, protestors in the eastern city of Derna burned to death several government supporters after locking them in holding cells in the local police station, and then setting it on fire.

Responding to Protestors’ Demands

Amidst the chaos in Deraa on Friday March 18, 2011 the Syrian government attempted to diffuse the situation by sending a top government official from Damascus to negotiate with a group of prominent Deraa elders representing the protesters, led by Sheikh Siyasna. Barout writes further that, “At the same time, a high-level political delegation arrived, led by Hisham Ikhtiyar, head of the office of National Security, who was known for dealing with crises and putting out fires. The central security committee, led by Ikhtiyar, agreed with the elders of Deraa on 13 points, foremost among them the resignation of the political security head [Atef al-Najib] and the governor of Deraa [Faisal Kalthum]. Ikhtiyar also agreed to expel the companies of Rami Makhlouf from Deraa, apologize to the local people, and allow a meeting between Deraa’s elders and president Bashar al-Assad, and also to political reform, and more freedoms, and the return of teachers who wear the niqab to their teaching posts, and to repeal unjust laws regarding the buying and selling of land, such as law 48 and law 26, and to lower the prices of fuel, and to some other local demands. Ikhtiyar further informed the elders of Deraa that the president [Bashar al-Assad] had agreed to these demands, and the people now awaited them being carried out.”

The Motorcycle Men

The efforts of Ikhtiyar and Siyasna to calm the situation were soon sabotaged, however. Barout reports that according to Abd al-Hamid Tawfiq, the Damascus bureau chief of al-Jazeera, “a few hours after the agreement between Ikhtiyar and Siyasna, a group of masked militants riding motorcycles opened fire on the demonstrators, killing four people between the hours of six and eight in the evening, including Ahmad al-Jawabra, who was considered the first martyr.”

And who were the masked militants riding motorcycles? Barout takes for granted they were from the government side. It is far from clear this is the case, however. Even if the government wished to suppress the protests with violence, it is likely it would have used either the counter terror forces that had arrived earlier that day from Damascus or local plain clothes security men (known by opposition supporters as shabiha) to confront and disperse the protestors. For example, plain clothes security men beat protestors to disperse a small demonstration outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus on the same day. It is unclear why the government would instead resort to using masked men on motorbikes in Deraa.

One possibility is that the masked men on motorcycles were “saboteurs” or “infiltrators” from a third party. Subsequent events also show that armed Salafist militants commonly used motorbikes to conduct hit and run attacks against the Syrian security forces and army, which raises the possibility that the killers of the first protestors on March 18 were saboteurs from a third party of this sort.

Evidence of Salafist militants using motorbikes to carry out attacks in this way comes not only from pro-government, but also independent, and opposition sources. For example, on April 19, 2011 al-Jazeera reported that “The Syrian Interior Ministry issued a circular in Homs governorate to prevent the entry of motorbikes into the city, ‘because some armed groups in the province implement their criminal plans using motorbikes.’” On the same day, the pro-government Akhbariya news channel claimed that “masked men” riding in “GMC vehicles and on motorcycles” opened fire on a funeral tent, shooting at both civilians and the security forces and police, injuring 11 policemen.

On May 5, 2011, the Christian Post reported that International Christian Concern, a Christian advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “says that protesters are being led by hardline Islamists and that Christians have come under pressure to either join in protests demanding the resignation of President Bashir Assad, or else leave the country,’” and that “Eyewitnesses report seeing around 20 masked men on motorcycles open fire on a home in a Christian village outside Dara’a, in southern Syria.”

Muhammad Jamal Barout himself notes that on June 3, 2011 tens of masked young men from the area of Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib province arrived in the town of Jisr al-Shagour on motorcycles with weapons they had purchased on the black market or had captured from government caches. These men were among those that attacked the Popular Army headquarters in the town to capture additional weapons. Two days later, on June 5, opposition militants attacked the local post office and military security headquarters, leading to a 36-hour gun battle. Opposition militants then ambushed a Syrian army convoy coming to Jisr al-Shagour as reinforcements, killing some 120 soldiers.

Human Rights Watch, which has links to the U.S. government and is supportive of the Syrian opposition, reported that an opposition activist witnessed a protest in Homs city on July 8, 2011 in which “several defectors showed up on motorcycles and killed 14 or 15 members of the security forces using Kalashnikovs and pump-action shotguns.”

Unknown Assailants

Opposition sources also acknowledged the possibility of saboteurs and infiltrators playing a role in early events of the uprising. As mentioned above, Sheikh Siyasna also acknowledged there were “unknown assailants” present at the protest on March 18 in Deraa who were “determined to burn and destroy public property.” Journalist Alix Van Buren of Italy’s la Repubblika newspaper reported on April 13, 2011 that “several Syrian dissidents believe in the presence and the role of ‘infiltrators.’ Michel Kilo [prominent opposition intellectual], though he accepts that possibility, cautioned that the issue of ‘infiltrators and conspiracies’ should not be exploited as an obstacle in the quick transition towards democracy.”

Additionally, the claim that the first protestors were killed in Deraa by militants on motorcycles, rather than by Syrian security forces or riot police comes from an against interest source, namely an al-Jazeera journalist. The Qatari-owned channel had a clear agenda to demonize the Syrian government, in cooperation with U.S. planners. Because of the editorial line of his employer, Abd al-Hamid Tawfiq was incentivized to relay a story that blamed the government for the first killings, but instead made a claim, at least privately, that would appear to exonerate the Syrian government and suggest the possibility of false flag killings.

Interestingly, Tawfiq resigned from his post in May 2011, citing only vague “pressures,” which many assumed to be coming from the Syrian government side. However, this period would see several prominent al-Jazeera journalists resign from the channel to protest what they viewed as coverage that was biased against the Syrian government and in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. On April 24, 2011 Ghassan Bin Jeddo, the head of al-Jazeera’s Beirut office resigned because of the channel’s “alleged abandonment of professional and objective reporting, as it became ‘an operation room for incitement and mobilization.’” Al-Jazeera journalist Ali Hashem resigned in 2012, citing the channel’s censorship of his Syria reporting during this early period, which revealed armed groups crossing from Lebanon into Syria in late April 2011 (discussed in detail below). Beirut bureau chief Hassan Shaaban resigned shortly after Hashem.

It’s A Sabotage

But why would saboteurs from a third party want to kill protestors during the first major day of anti-government protests, in Deraa on March 18? If protestors were killed during a demonstration, and the deaths could be attributed to the security forces, this would help turn locals in Deraa, traditionally considered a Ba’athist stronghold, against the government.

Killing protestors right at this critical juncture and blaming it on the government would also sabotage Sheikh Siyasna’s efforts to win concessions from the government through negotiations, in exchange for putting an end to the protests and rioting. As noted above, Abd al-Hamid Tawfiq of al-Jazeera reported the first protesters were killed “a few hours after the agreement between Ikhtiyar and Siyasna,” the perfect time to ensure any agreement between the two sides would fall apart. The father of one of the boys detained and tortured for writing the graffiti on the school wall in Deraa one month before indicated that the conflict could have been resolved peacefully, but that as the deaths of protestors mounted, “People became uncontrollable.”

An end to the protests in exchange for government efforts to answer local grievances and demands for reform was a disaster scenario for hardline elements of the opposition, who demanded the “fall of the regime” and wanted “revolution” from the start. This attitude was evidenced when local supporters of the exiled Salafist preacher Muhamad Sarour later accused Sheikh Siyasna of treason for his willingness to negotiate with the government and call for calm, and pressured Siyasna to radicalize his position, which he refused to do. Sheikh Anas Sweid, a pro-opposition Sunni cleric from Homs, similarly stated a few weeks later that any clerics who stood against “the street” by cooperating with the government to end protests would be attacked, and therefore they had no ability to calm the protestors, as government officials had demanded of them.

Hidden Parties

There are several possibilities then, to account for the deaths of the first four protestors of the uprising on March 18, 2011. One possibility is that, as the opposition claims, the protestors were killed in an unprovoked manner by Syrian security forces during a completely peaceful protest. Another is that, as the government claims, they were killed by infiltrators or saboteurs from Salafist armed groups (including foreign al-Qaeda militants) who wished to sabotage any agreement to end the crisis, and to turn Deraa’s residents against the government. A final possibility is that the first protestors were killed in the chaos that resulted when protestors were rioting and tried to burn down the political security branch building, which Syrian security forces were trying to prevent.

If the first protestors were indeed killed by Syrian security forces, this played into the hands of opposition activists, who needed people to get killed to bring people into the streets against the government. If instead the security forces had orders not to open fire and did not kill the protesters as the government claims, Salafist militants on motorcycles made sure people were killed anyway to falsely blame the government and to provide the spark needed for further protest.

That four police officers were killed on the third day of protests and riots (Sunday March 20) is particularly significant, given claims by Islamic State members to Theo Padnos that the group was infiltrating protests and killing police officers during this early period.

It should be noted here that there was significant confusion, even among locals in Deraa, whether pro-opposition or pro-government, about who was killing who during this early period. Just being present in Deraa at the time, including at a protest where killings took place, does not necessarily mean one could determine the source of the violence. Additionally, first impressions can change once more evidence emerges.

For example, in 2014 Sharmine Narwani interviewed a “member of the large Hariri family in Daraa, who was there in March and April 2011, [who] says people are confused and that many ‘loyalties have changed two or three times from March 2011 till now. They were originally all with the government. Then suddenly changed against the government—but now I think maybe 50% or more came back to the Syrian regime’…The province was largely pro-government before things kicked off. According to the UAE paper The National, ‘Daraa had long had a reputation as being solidly pro-Assad, with many regime figures recruited from the area.’ But as Hariri explains it, ‘there were two opinions’ in Daraa. ‘One was that the regime is shooting more people to stop them and warn them to finish their protests and stop gathering. The other opinion was that hidden militias want this to continue, because if there are no funerals, there is no reason for people to gather.’ ‘At the beginning 99.9 percent of them were saying all shooting is by the government. But slowly, slowly this idea began to change in their mind – there are some hidden parties, but they don’t know what,” says Hariri, whose parents remain in Daraa.”

Mysterious Attacks

Summarizing the situation in Syria as of one month after the beginning of anti-government protests, Muhammad Jamal Barout writes, “There were signs of an initial and simple armament process for some groups of young men, ‘mysterious’ attacks on some army and police units, and the emergence of some Salafi players abroad, especially the ‘Sarourists,’ who have bases of influence among the youth of Houran, to develop the protest movement into an overall revolution against the regime.”

But who were the “hidden militias” carrying out these “mysterious attacks,” including potentially the killing of the four protestors on March 18? Barout’s observation that supporters of Muhummad Sarour wished to “develop the protest movement into an overall revolution” suggest his supporters may have been among the early armed elements in Deraa. As noted above, Sarour, who spent 20 years in Britain, emerged as “one of the key conduits for Qatari money to the anti-Assad rebels.”

This may explain the attack on Syrian security forces in the town of Nawa, near Deraa, on April 22, 2011. Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirmed that seven members of the security forces were shot to death under the cover of protests that day. The witness cited by HRW tries to emphasize the peaceful nature of the protestors, claiming they approached the local political security building holding olive branches to demand the release of two detainees. He nevertheless acknowledges that some of the protestors were at least lightly armed, and that once the protestors succeeded in storming the building, “they saw seven members of the security who had apparently been shot and killed by the protesters during the confrontation.”  That more presumably heavily armed political security men (seven) died in the confrontation than protestors (four) suggests that well-armed militants had infiltrated the protest to attack the security forces, and that the four dead protestors may instead have been armed militants. This would align with claims made by al-Qaeda militants to Theo Padnos, and such a scenario was repeated several times in subsequent weeks elsewhere in Syria as I discuss below.

Additionally, there evidence pointing not only to the possibility of local Salafist militants carrying out such attacks, but also to foreign terrorist elements affiliated with al-Qaeda. We have evidence of an al-Qaeda attack near Deraa, just four weeks after the eruption of protests there. This comes from the Indian ambassador to Syria, V.P. Haran, who noted that on April 18, 2011 Syrian media reported that between 6 and 8 Syrian soldiers were killed when an armed group raided two security posts on the road between Damascus and the Jordanian border. After visiting the area two days later and speaking with locals, Haran had the impression that something even more serious had taken place. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and the Iraqi Ambassador to Syria both expressed their view in private conversations to Haran that the Syrian security forces had not only been killed, but beheaded, and that al-Qaeda in Iraq was responsible for the killings.

According to Haran, al-Qaeda had carried out attacks even earlier as well, on March 25 in Latakia. Syrian government sources claimed that twelve people were killed in Latakia that weekend, including security personnel, after unidentified gunmen shot at crowds from rooftops.

Firing Up the Old Sunni Network

The al-Qaeda leadership was not acting independently in preparing for a so-called revolution in Syria. As mentioned above, Seymour Hersh reported in 2007 that Prince Bandar bin Sultan had planned to deploy Salafist militants to undermine the Syrian government as part of the broader U.S. redirection in policy to “counteract Shiite ascendance,” and that Saudi officials had assured US planners that, “We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.”

Former Bush Administration official and neoconservative John Hannah also alluded to Bandar’s control of a Salafist militant network being directed at Syria just days after the al-Qaeda attack noted by V.P. Haran and encouraged his successors in the Obama administration to partner with Bandar to achieve U.S. goals in Syria. Hannah wrote in Foreign Policy on April 22, 2011 that “no one can discount the danger that, with its back against the wall, the [Saudi] Kingdom might once again fire up the old Sunni network and point it in the general direction of Shiite Iran,” and that “Bandar working without reference to U.S. interests is clearly cause for concern. But Bandar working as a partner with Washington against a common Iranian enemy is a major strategic asset. Drawing on Saudi resources and prestige, Bandar’s ingenuity and bent for bold action could be put to excellent use across the region in ways that reinforce U.S. policy and interests: through economic and political measures that weaken the Iranian mullahs; undermine the Assad regime.”

Using Tanks Against Protestors?

Because Salafist militants, including militants from al-Qaeda, were infiltrating protests and attacking Syrian soldiers and police, the opposition and Western press were able to falsely conflate the government’s military operations against these militants with efforts to respond to peaceful protests.

For example, Anthony Shadid of the New York Times reported on April 25, 2011 that “A handful of videos posted on the Internet, along with residents’ accounts, gave a picture of a city under broad military assault, in what appeared to mark a new phase in the government crackdown. Tanks had not previously been used against protesters, and the force of the assault suggested that the military planned some sort of occupation of the town [emphasis mine].”  Shadid quoted a Deraa resident as claiming, ‘It’s an attempt to occupy Dara’a,” and that “soldiers had taken three mosques, but had yet to capture the Omari Mosque, where he said thousands had sought refuge. Since the beginning of the uprising last month, it has served as a headquarters of sorts for demonstrators. He quoted people there as shouting, ‘We swear you will not enter but over our dead bodies.’”

Opposition sources confirmed however, that armed clashes between the Syrian army and unknown militants were taking place, meaning the tanks were sent against armed militants, rather than protestors as Shadid suggested. Al-Jazeera quoted a Deraa resident on April 27, 2011 as noting that, “The army is fighting with some armed groups because there was heavy shooting from two sides…I cannot say who the other side is, but I can say now that it is so hard for civilians.”

Opposition activists Sally Masalmeh and Malek al-Jawabra also confirmed to Wall Street Journal reporter Sam Dagher that during the Syrian army’s assault on the al-Omari mosque in April 2011, opposition militants had barricaded themselves inside the mosque and were stockpiling weapons there. Masalmeh and Jawabra resorted to conspiracy theories to explain the presence of weapons in the mosque, however, suggesting that “there were people among the protestors working secretly with the Mukhabarat [Syrian intelligence] and that it was they who facilitated the procurement of weapons and urged confrontation with the army.”

These claims of conspiracy are not credible however, given additional admissions from other pro-opposition sources. For example, the activist from Deraa, Abd al-Qader al-Dhoun, was proud to acknowledge that two of his cousins fought and died in clashes with Syrian security forces at the al-Omari mosque during this period. He stressed to the interviewer that claims they were “terrorists” were false, but that they were indeed armed militants using Kalashnikovs and pump action shotguns.

To Arm a Resistance

Anwar al-Eshki, a former Saudi general, alluded to his government’s arming of militants in Deraa during this early period. In an interview with the BBC, al-Eshki explained that he had been in contact with opposition militants in Deraa, and that they were stockpiling weapons in the al-Omari mosque, apparently against the wishes of the mosque’s imam, Sheikh Siyasna. Al-Eshki then described the Saudi rationale for providing weapons to the militants, explaining that “To arm a ‘resistance’ doesn’t necessarily mean to give them tanks of heavy weapons like what happened in Libya. However, you give them weapons, so they can defend themselves and exhaust the army. The goal is to drive the government forces outside the cities to the villages.”

Foreign efforts to covertly spark an insurrection from Daraa, as described by al-Eskhi, are unsurprising, given the city’s location near the Jordanian border. CIA plans to spark an insurrection in Syria all the way back in 1957 recommended the same strategy. Historian Mathew Jones writes that the ”creation of an incident along the Syrian–Jordanian border was seen as the most promising scenario to spark outside military intervention. King Hussein’s [of Jordan] cooperation and influence could be enlisted to induce one or two of the Bedouin tribes residing in southern Syria to stage a rising of sufficient scale to provoke a Syrian army counter-attack…In addition, SIS [British intelligence] and CIA should gather Syrian opposition groups together in Jordan under the aegis of a ‘Free Syria Committee,’ while ‘Syrian political factions with paramilitary or other actionist capabilities should be prepared for execution of specific tasks suited to their talents.’”

Other pro-opposition sources detailed efforts to smuggle weapons to opposition militants inside the country during March 2011, which also contradicts conspiracy theories that the militants fighting in Deraa were secretly receiving weapons from the Syrian government to corrupt an otherwise peaceful protest movement.

Prominent opposition and human rights activist Haitham Manna’ provided evidence that elements close to pro-Saudi Lebanese politician Saad Hariri were funneling weapons to militants into Syria, including in Deraa. Muhammad Jamal Barout notes that Manna’ publicly disclosed in an interview on al-Jazeera on March 31, 2011, that “he had received offers to arm movements from Raqqa to Daraa three times by parties he did not identify in the interview.” Barout additionally writes that, according to Manna’, there were secret communications between some Syrian businessmen abroad who found themselves in a battle of revenge with the Syrian regime because their interests had been harmed by the network of the pro-regime businessman Rami Makhlouf, and that these groups were willing to fund and arm opposition movements throughout the country. Barout notes that these businessmen apparently had relations with professional networks capable of delivering weapons to any location in Syria and that some members of the Future Movement (a prominent political party in Lebanon led by Saad Hariri and known to have strong Saudi support) were among those arranging these weapons shipments.

Manna’ confirmed further details to journalist Alix Van Buren of Italy’s la Repubblica newspaper, speaking “about three groups having contacted him to provide money and weapons to the rebels in Syria. First, a Syrian businessman (the story reported by Al Jazeera); secondly, he was contacted by ‘several pro-American Syrian opposers’ to put it in his words. (he referred to more than one individual); thirdly, he mentioned approaches of the same kind by ‘Syrians in Lebanon who are loyal to a Lebanese party which is against Syria,’” presumably referring to the Future Movement in Lebanon as well.

Further confirmation of Hariri’s involvement in arming Salafist militants fighting the Syrian government later emerged from reporting by Lebanese journalist Radwan Murtada. In December 2012, Murtada reported that his newspaper, al-Akhbar, had obtained audio recordings of Future Movement parliament member Okab Sakr organizing weapons transfers to the armed Syrian opposition groups at the behest of Saad Hariri. Murtada’s reporting indicated further that Sakr was directing attacks against the Syrian army from operations rooms in both Lebanon and Turkey, and that he enjoyed close relations with intelligence officials from Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.


The early involvement of al-Qaeda was also evident in Latakia. On March 25 and 26, 2011 protests and violence also erupted in the northern coastal town, home to both Sunnis and Alawites. As elsewhere, conflicting reports emerged about the source of the violence. Human Rights Watch reported that “Anti-government demonstrators in Latakia who spoke to television outlets accused the security forces of opening fire on them, while officials and pro-government protesters accused the anti-government protesters of having guns and shooting at police.” Government sources claimed 12 were killed, including civilians, members of the security forces, and two unknown gunmen that allegedly opened fire from rooftops, and that the army was dispatched to the city in response to the violence.

On March 27, 2011 Al-Quds al-Arabi reported that an organized effort was in place to spread rumors that Alawites would be murdered by Sunnis, and Sunnis murdered by Alawites, and that the security services had arrested several foreigners, most likely Jordanians. The paper also reported that gunmen had been roaming through Latakia in cars, some carrying fake plates, while firing shots at homes and in the streets, leading to three deaths. This resulted in locals forming self-defense committees to prevent strangers from entering their neighborhoods.

The general government version of events was supported by the Indian ambassador, V.P. Haran, who as noted above, claimed that al-Qaeda militants had carried out attacks in Latakia on March 25.

On March 29, 2011 the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir detailed unconfirmed reports from an Arab diplomatic source claiming that Syrian authorities had confiscated seven boats loaded with weapons coming from the northern Lebanese coast, and that Syrian and Lebanese militants had entered Syrian territory through the Bekaa valley and some points in northern Lebanon. Further, these militants had allegedly carried out military operations, including sniping and shooting using night vision equipment and sniper rifles.

Time Magazine journalist Rania Abouzeid similarly reported al-Qaeda affiliate militants were active in Latakia province early in the crisis. She reports that a Salafist militant “enlisted a small group of Salafi friends from Latakia who, along with a few local men he’d armed, overran half a dozen small police stations in villages dotted around the city. The first raid was in mid-April…Mohammad said he netted nine Kalashinikovs and ammunition. It wasn’t hard.” Muhammad had previously recruited fighters to go to Iraq to fight with al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2003 and went on to become a commander in al-Qaeda’s official Syrian wing, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front.


The role of U/S. and Saudi planners to topple the Syrian government was also evident during the early weeks of the crisis in the coastal town of Banias, where the government also deployed tanks, not to suppress protests but to respond to opposition attacks on Syrian soldiers and to prevent a sectarian war erupting between Alawite and Sunni residents. In this case, the agent working on behalf of U.S. and Saudi interests was former Syrian Prime Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam. As discussed above, he defected from the Syrian government in 2005, and began working toward regime change at that time with both the Muslim Brotherhood and neoconservatives from the Bush administration.

According to researcher Sabr Darwish of the EU-funded and pro-opposition Syria Untold, protests in Banias began on March 18, 2011 as well, and were organized and led by Anas Ayrout, a local Sunni cleric and Imam of the al-Rahman mosque, with activist Anas al-Shaghri also playing a prominent role. Ayrout later became a member of the Western-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) and in 2013 called for killing Alawite civilians to create a “balance of terror” to compel them to abandon support for the government.

The demands of the protesters in Banias included some of a conservative Islamic nature, rather than for democracy. According to opposition activist Bissam Walid, these demands included the release of a detainee, Ahmed Hudhayfa, who had been arrested in Damascus, returning veil wearing female teachers who had been transferred to jobs in other ministries to their teaching positions, the lowering of electricity prices, and the separation of boys and girls in schools.

During the first protest, demonstrators attacked an Alawite truck driver before Anas Ayrout intervened to stop them. According to Sabr Darwish, protests in Banias were otherwise peaceful and allowed to go forward unsuppressed by government officials over the following three weeks, while government officials were responsive to protestors demands. During protests on April 1, 2011 demonstrators chanted slogans against Iran and Hezbollah, criticizing their alleged intervention in Syria. The next week, demonstrators began a sit-in in the center square of the city.

If They Shoot At You

Events in Banias became violent on Saturday April 9, 2011 when 9 Syrian soldiers were killed while traveling by military bus in Banias. Regarding the attack, the Guardian reported that, “Syrian soldiers have been shot by security forces after refusing to fire on protesters, witnesses said, as a crackdown on anti-government demonstrations intensified. Witnesses told al-Jazeera and the BBC that some soldiers had refused to shoot after the army moved into Banias in the wake of intense protests on Friday.” The Guardian also linked to footage on YouTube that it claimed, “shows an injured soldier saying he was shot in the back by security forces.”

Prominent Syria expert and academic Joshua Landis quickly showed claims made by the Guardian and Wissam Tarif to be false. Landis showed that the soldiers were instead killed by opposition militants using sniper rifles from a distance as the soldiers’ bus was entering the town. Landis writes that, “Video of one soldier purportedly confessing to being shot in the back by security forces and linked to by the Guardian has been completely misconstrued. The Guardian irresponsibly repeats a false interpretation of the video provided by an informant…The video does not ‘support’ the story that the Guardian says it does. The soldier denies that he was ordered to fire on people. Instead, he says he was on his way to Banyas to enforce security. He does not say that he was shot at by government agents or soldiers. In fact, he denies it. The interviewer tries to put words in his mouth, but the soldier clearly denies the story that the interviewer is trying to make him confess to.  In the video, the wounded soldier is surrounded by people who are trying to get him to say that he was shot by a military officer. The soldier says clearly, ‘They [our superiors] told us, “Shoot at them IF they shoot at you.”’”

Landis notes further that the “interviewer tried to get the wounded soldier to say that he had refused orders to shoot at the people when he asked : ‘When you did not shoot at us what happened?’ But the soldier doesn’t understand the question because he has just said that he was not given orders to shoot at the people. The soldier replies, ‘Nothing, the shooting started from all directions.’  The interviewer repeats his question in another way by asking, ‘Why were you shooting at us, we are Muslims?’ The soldier answers him, ‘I am Muslim too.’  The interviewer asks, ‘So why were you going to shoot at us?’ The soldier replies, ‘We did not shoot at people. They shot at us at the bridge.’”

Azmi Bishara, a well-known al-Jazeera analyst and the general director of the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, later confirmed that opposition militants killed the soldiers as well. Bishara cites a political activist from the “Together” movement in Banias as explaining that opposition militants fired on the soldiers from an observation bridge on the international highway opposite the city which links Latakia and Damascus. Bishara links the attack on the military convoy to “the ongoing arms smuggling operation across the Lebanese border,” which was used to smuggle weapons into both Homs and Banias. Bishara writes that “Muhammad Ali al-Biyassi, (one of the people working with [former Syrian Vice President] Abd al-Halim Khaddam) requested arming the people which went out in protests in the beginning of April 2011. And this person led the operation to send weapons to Banias. And the operations to smuggle weapons led to military confrontations with the Syrian army and security forces.” Bishara cites as his source “a person from the family of al-Biyassi who witnessed these operations and who soon was among those who carried weapons and told the witness the details of the operations.”

The Decision

The attack on the soldiers on April 9, 2011 was the first effort to launch an armed insurrection to take control of Banias. Pro-opposition activist Sabr Darwish acknowledges that Ayrout’s supporters sought a violent takeover of the city. Darwish tries to portray it as defensive in nature, despite the killing of the 9 Syrian soldiers and weapons smuggling that preceded it. Darwish writes that, “There is no real consensus about the exact day the decision was made to liberate the revolutionary neighborhoods. However, according to many testimonies, it is agreed that Sheikh Anas Ayrout played a crucial role in every aspect of the events. Following Ayrout’s recommendation to self-defense and the subsequent blockades created by the youth, entire neighborhoods fell to the control of the residents.” Darwish claims that Anas Ayrout ordered his supporters to arm themselves, set up roadblocks, and to take control of several neighborhoods amidst rumors that Syrian security forces would invade the city and after cuts in the electricity and phone lines. Darwish writes that, “Although there was no clear sign that the regime was about to storm the city, with no increase in security presence in the streets or military reinforcements surrounding the city, the people were still worried. Rather than use his clout to ask about the power and communications, Ayrout called for the residents to practice self-defense, and made things worse. The citizens mobilized, carrying their arms, and the youth erected checkpoints and roadblocks, cutting off access to public roads with garbage. The atmosphere of the city was charged with anticipation and concern.”

Muhammad Jamal Barout characterizes events on Saturday April 9, 2011 somewhat differently, writing that an “angry demonstration took place, where several of the demonstrators were wearing shrouds, as symbolic evidence of their willingness to be martyred, which the speaker made as the ultimate goal of achieving freedom. And in the evening of the same day, an armed group took control of the city and called for jihad and provoked the neighborhoods with a majority Alawite and Christian population by chanting sectarian slogans.” Regarding the protestors wearing shrouds, Barout cites al-Jazeera as reporting that the “’Syrian Revolution 2011’ movement had broadcast on its Facebook page a videotape of a demonstration in the city in which dozens participated, some of whom wore white shrouds,” and that “preachers of mosques in the city had urged citizens in Friday sermons to exercise their right to demonstrate.”

On Sunday April 10, the day following the attack on the soldiers and after Ayrout’s followers took over several neighborhoods, sectarian tensions erupted. Pro-opposition lawyer Haitham al-Maleh reports that, “a group barricaded themselves in the Abu Bakr al Siddiq mosque. It was shortly after dawn, the dawn prayer. Armed with sticks, they mounted the defense around the shrine to face the security forces.” As described above, Ayrout’s supporters had more than sticks, however.

Plain clothes security forces in speeding cars coming from Alawite neighborhoods then opened fire on Sunni men guarding both the Rahman and Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosques, injuring 12 according to opposition sources.  Reuters reports that one of the injured, Osama al-Sheikha, died from his wounds a week later.

Sabr Darwish reports further armed sectarian clashes between Alawite and Sunni young men on the same day. He reported that, “amidst the atmosphere of fear and anticipation, sounds of heavy fire were heard from the bridge. Later, people learned that a group of youth from the Alawite villages surrounding Baniyas had clashed with some of the activists stationed at the entrance of the city.” Darwish reports further that, “The intruders fled following the clashes, leaving behind a young Alawite man. The activists decided to detain this man, and videos emerged of them beating him. On the way to hand him to Sheikh Ayrout, the man was stabbed multiple times with sharp knives which lead to his death several hours later.”

The man stabbed to death by Ayrout’s supporters was Nidal Janoud, an Alawite vegetable seller. Janoud’s murderers filmed the killing and uploaded the video to the internet. The shocking footage was later shown on Syrian state television, and which led to the arrest of two of the killers as well as widespread outrage among government supporters.

We Are Happy It’s the Army

To avert further sectarian violence, government authorities struck a deal with local notables to withdraw the security forces from Banias and replace them with units from the army to maintain order. After Syrian army units entered Banias on Monday April 11, 2011, one resident told the Associated Press that, “schools and shops were closed because people feared more clashes,” and that “the army’s arrival was met mostly with relief.” The resident explained further that, “We are happy it’s the army and not security forces who are like regime-hired gangs.”

Reuters reported that “The deal, struck in Damascus between a Baath Party official and imams and prominent figures from Banias, was intended to help calm the city,” while citing Rami Abdul Rahman of SOHR as explaining that “Banias residents arrested over the past several weeks are already being released,” and that, “The army will go in but there is also a pledge to pull out the secret police…and improve living conditions.” Al-Jazeera reported further that, “the army’s entry into the city was preceded by the release of 200 people on Wednesday and 150 Thursday who were arrested in connection with the events witnessed in the city in the past weeks. Those found to have carried a weapon and were involved in violence remained in detention.”

Sectarian tensions remained high, however. On April 14, 2011 Syrian state media claimed that “a group of armed snipers shot today a number of army members while they patrolled the city of Banias…One was martyred and another wounded.” After additional anti-government protests in Banias on Friday April 15, 2011, Muhammad Jamal Barout noted that “the culture of this period took on a changed character, with religious slogans and speeches, blessing the victims and expressing readiness for martyrdom, and some protestors wore shrouds, which symbolized the readiness to militarize the conflict and mobilize for jihad. And protestors wore shrouds in at least two areas, Banias and Sanamein.”

Meddling With the Blood of Innocents

It soon became clear that former Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam, who had been working for years with U.S. planners and the Muslim Brotherhood to topple the Syrian state, was behind the attacks that killed 9 the Syrian soldiers on April 9, 2011 and the subsequent armed insurrection that threatened to spark a sectarian war in Banias.

As mentioned above, Azmi Bishara reported that the person responsible for smuggling weapons into Banias, Muhammad Ali al-Biyassi, was an associate of Khaddam.

Additionally, when asked about events in Banias by la Repubblica journalist Alix Van Buren, prominent opposition figure and lawyer Haythem al-Maleh blamed the government for sectarian violence, but also acknowledged the “elements that want to poison the relationship between the people and the regime: those who shoot demonstrators and soldiers to sow terror.” When asked further whether he gave credibility to rumors of “infiltrators,” al-Maleh stated that “How can you not, given the ambushes against the army?” Al-Maleh directed blame at Khaddam, saying that, “His fiefdom is Banias. Today two of his men were arrested for having stirred up protests and criminal gangs.”

Van Buren notes that another opposition source had pointed to Khaddam’s role in arming militants in Banias, writing that, “The veteran blogger Ahmed Abu ElKheir, unfortunately now in prison for the second time in less than a month, and not yet released, has links to Banyas. The first, peaceful demonstration of Saturday morning was also sparked by the request for his release. In his Facebook profile, before being arrested, he too lashed out against Khaddam. Several commentators from that area agreed with him, cursing Khaddam for meddling ‘with the blood of the innocents.’”


Another place where al-Qaeda affiliated militants were deployed by Washington’s regional partners was in Homs, Syria’s third largest city. Homs lies near the Lebanese border and its residents enjoy close ties to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. The city was populated by Sunnis, Christians, and Alawites. Homs was one of the early epicenters of anti-government demonstrations and later became known as the first “capital of the revolution.”

The opposition movement in Homs became militarized on April 17, 2011, in the wake of the death of a local tribal leader named Sheikh Badr Abu Musa. Reuters cited an unnamed “human rights defender” as explaining that “that protests against the rule of the Baath Party intensified in Homs after the authorities handed over the body of Sheikh Badr Abu Musa of the Al-Fawara tribe to his family for burial on Saturday [April 16]. A 12-year-old boy was killed at Abu Musa’s funeral, which turned into a demonstration on the same day. Abu Musa was arrested a week ago in front of a mosque after he participated in a pro-democracy demonstration.” Reuters’ unnamed source in Homs explained further that on Sunday April 17, “Syrian forces killed eight protesters during the night in Homs in clashes after the killing of” Abu Musa.

This narrative, that security forces killed peaceful protestors demonstrating in response to Abu Musa’s death, provides a distorted view of events. Muhammad Jamal Barout and Azmi Bishara both point to the clashes between Abu Musa’s supporters and the security forces on that day as armed confrontations, rather than peaceful demonstrations attacked by security forces. Bishara describes these clashes as the first “signs of popular militarization,” in the Baba Amr neighborhood, which became the epicenter of fighting between opposition militants and the Syrian army in Homs in late 2011.

Bishara writes that “security forces delivered the body of Sheikh Bader Abu Musa, one of the leaders of the Fawa’ara tribe who was killed under torture after his detention. And this resulted in military confrontations between youths from Abu Musa’s group and security forces in which 14 people were killed and 50 others were wounded.” Barout writes that “The death of the revered Sheikh in this context led to the eruption of heavy clashes,” in which 14 people were killed, and more than 50 injured.

Further evidence of armed opposition activity comes from the killing of several Syrian army officers during this time. As journalist Sharmine Narwani reports, Syrian Brigadier General Abdo al-Tallawi was assassinated on Sunday April 17, alongside his two sons and a nephew, Ahmad al-Tallawi, Khader al-Tallawi and Ali al-Tallawi. Large crowds attended the funeral procession of the four victims the following day, with attendees chanting pro-government slogans. Syrian state media claimed the bodies had also been mutilated.

The Clock Tower Fabrication

Reports of events on the following day, Monday April 18, were once again distorted by local opposition activists, and uncritically passed on by the Western press. Funerals for the supporters of Sheikh Abu Musa who were killed on Sunday April 17 were held on Monday April 18 and turned into protests. Activists then took the decision to march to the New Clock Tower Square, located in the center of Homs, and to establish a sit-in there to resemble that established in Egypt’s Tahrir Square previously. The sit-in would set the stage for another alleged massacre that was used to suggest the Syrian government was using appalling levels of violence to suppress peaceful dissent.

Human Rights Watch obtained testimony from an alleged defected intelligence officer claiming that “We were there with Air Force security, army, and shabeeha. At around 3:30 a.m. [early Tuesday morning, April 19], we got an order from Colonel Abdel Hamid Ibrahim from Air Force security to shoot at the protesters. We were shooting for more than half an hour. There were dozens and dozens of people killed and wounded. Thirty minutes later, earth diggers and fire trucks arrived. The diggers lifted the bodies and put them in a truck. I don’t know where they took them. The wounded ended up at the military hospital in Homs.”

Al-Jazeera similarly reported that “the early hours of dawn on Tuesday [April 19] saw an intervention by security forces to break up the sit-in of thousands of protesters, who spoke of a ‘real massacre.’ Omar Adlabi, a human rights activist, spoke to al-Jazeera about heavy gunfire at the demonstrators and said there was a ‘massacre,’ while an eyewitness from Homs named Abu Essam said, ‘that shooting was being carried out directly on the demonstrators.’”

It turns out that there was no massacre, however, and that such claims were propaganda disseminated by opposition activists to demonize the Syrian government. Time journalist Rania Abouzeid reported the alleged clock tower massacre, “was a turning point in the struggle for Homs, although years later some of the men present that night would admit that claims of a massacre were exaggerated, even fabricated, by rebel activists to garner sympathy.”

Instead, the violence at New Clock Tower Square likely involved armed clashes between opposition militants and Syrian security forces under the cover of the protests and sit-in, as was the case in the wake of the death of Sheik Abu Musa two days previous.

Such a view is consistent with the observations made by Father Frans Van der Lugt, a Dutch priest who lived in Homs for nearly fifty years. Van der Lugt explained that “From the start, the protest movements were not purely peaceful. From the start I saw armed demonstrators marching along in the protests, who began to shoot at the police first. Very often the violence of the security forces has been a reaction to the brutal violence of the armed rebels.” He notes further that, “from the outset there has been the problem of armed groups, which are also part of the opposition…And that opposition is armed and often proceeds cruelly and violently and then blames the government. Many government people have been tortured and shot by them. Van der Lugt’s testimony is valuable because he is an objective, on the ground source. Van der Lugt refused to leave Homs despite the violence of the subsequent years and was respected by both government and opposition supporters at the time of his assassination by an unknown gunman in 2014.

Islamist Style

Instead of a massacre of demonstrators in Homs, opposition militants were once again carrying out attacks on Syrian police and security forces. Al-Jazeera’s report from April 19 also quoted an eyewitness who reported “heavy shooting near the police command center in the city and said that the shooting was like ‘rain showers.’” The eyewitness also indicated that calls for jihad and to support the protesters were launched through loudspeakers from mosques near the Clock Tower Square and the Bab Seba’ neighborhood. In the wake of these armed clashes and assassinations, the Syrian Interior Ministry issued a circular in Homs governorate to prevent the entry of motorbikes into the city, “because some armed groups in the province implement their criminal plans using motorbikes.”

In addition to the gun battle at the police station, Major Iyad Harfoush, an off-duty Commander in the Syrian army, was killed by opposition militants on Monday April 18. Sharmine Narwani reports that according to his wife, “someone started shooting in the mostly pro-regime al Zahra neighborhood of Homs—Harfoush went out to investigate the incident and was killed.” Another Syrian officer, Colonel Mu’een Mahalla was assassinated in Zahra the same day. According to Barout, both Mahalla and Harfoush were Alawite, and their killings led to further sectarian tensions in the mixed-sect neighborhoods of al-Humaydia and al-Wa’er, and also the neighborhoods of al-Khaliddiya and al-Zahra.

The calls for jihad, attack on the police station, and assassination of the three Syrian officers on April 17 and April 18 coincided with the formation of a Salafist militia known as the Farouq Brigade, which went on to become an early and prominent faction of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA). French journalist Jonathon Littell visited Homs in 2012 and met an Islamist commander who claims the FSA began organizing in Homs in April 2011. Littell writes, “Abu Ahmad, who commands the north zone of al-Qusayr. An officer who deserted, a mulazim. Thick beard, moustache shaved, Islamist style. He had quit the army before the uprising, because of a personal conflict, and joined the FSA at its start. In April already, they were trying to organize themselves militarily, but there weren’t yet any confrontations.”

Opposition activist Walid al-Faris notes that the Farouq Brigades were founded by a young student of Islamic law with a Salafi orientation, Amjad Bitar, who had begun supporting various armed groups, most notably in the neighborhoods of al-Khalidiya and Baba Amr, which were the two most important gathering points for opposition fighters in Homs. Among the fighters were some who had fought in Iraq previously. Training camps for the fighters and bomb-making factories were set up in orchards on the outskirts of the city. These orchards provided cover for the fighters and facilitated their movements.

The Salafist militias forming in Homs under the Farouq banner soon received additional support from fighters from nearby Lebanon. Al-Jazeera journalist Ali Hashem witnessed heavily armed fighters crossing into Syria in late April 2011 from the Wadi Khaled area. Hashem explained that, “we saw armed men just crossing the river, the great northern river, which is the only, you know, natural barrier between Lebanon and Syria. They were just crossing that barrier and going into Syria, and then clashing with the Syrian Army. That was in May. And even something similar happened in April, but it wasn’t on camera. But in May it was on camera and we had the footage, and, you know, no one wanted to have them on air…I’m not sourcing or quoting; I just saw with my eyes, and it was in the beginning of the revolution, it was just, like, one month and a half from the revolution…I was seeing a lot of weapons, people with RPGs, people with Kalashnikovs, you know, just crossing from the borders. And they were not one or two; they were a big number; they were just dominating the whole village that we were on the borders with. So, you know, the militarization of the revolution started early.”

Hashem later resigned from al-Jazeera to protest the channel’s refusal to broadcast his reports of armed militants crossing into Syria. He speculated that al-Jazeera’s editors were attempting obscure the violent nature of the uprising, as there were those who “wanted to say that al-Assad is facing the peaceful crackdown with weapons, while the others on the revolution side are kind of peaceful people, are not holding weapons.” This is unsurprising, given that al-Jazeera had been coordinating its news coverage with U.S. planners since at least 2010. Lebanese academic Asad Abu Khalil noted for example that “the head of al-Jazeera told me in 2010 that the US embassy in Doha Qatar sends a weekly report in which they provide a critique of every program that appears on al-Jazeera in order to have them change their tunes, to change it towards America.”

Hariri’s Holy War

Reporting from Der Spiegel suggests that the fighters witnessed crossing into Syria by Ali Hashem were Salafist militants from the Lebanese city of Tripoli. The German magazine reported that Sheikh Masen al-Mohammad, a prominent Salafist cleric in Tripoli, was sending fighters into Syria as early as summer 2011 because, in his view, “Assad is an infidel” and “There is a holy war in Syria and the young men there are conducting jihad. For blood, for honor, for freedom, for dignity.” According to one of the fighters interviewed by Der Spiegel, around 60 percent of the Lebanese fighters crossing the border from Tripoli to Homs had already fought in Iraq.”

These Salafist fighters included militants from an al-Qaeda affiliated group known as Fatah al-Islam. Dr. Haytham Mouzahem, director of the Beirut Center for Middle East Studies explained that, “When the uprising in Syria began in 2011, many of the remaining Fatah al-Islam members crossed the border and joined groups in the Free Syrian Army.”

Just as in Banias, the flow of arms and Salafist fighters into Homs was facilitated by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a close ally of both US and Saudi intelligence. Azmi Bishara noted that, “The circles close to the people who took up arms confirm that arms smuggling from Lebanon began in late April 2011” and that “The weapons were initially used for individual kidnappings or assassinations (in one day in the city of Homs in July, about 30 people were kidnapped and killed) while the public appearance of weapons in the streets began in August 2011. The armed battalions were formed in October 2011. Saad Hariri appears to have funded the smuggling of arms from Lebanon, as evidenced by the naming of some battalions by his name or by his father’s name.”

As discussed above, Hariri had partnered with Saudi intelligence to cultivate Salafist groups in Tripoli starting in 2005, including providing protection for militants from Fatah al-Islam in 2007. This was part of the “redirection” in U.S. policy in the region. U.S. planners had been battling Salafist militants in Iraq, including militants from al-Qaeda in Iraq, but pivoted to supporting such groups in response to growing fears about a so-called Shia Crescent.

Jisr al-Shagour

The above-mentioned al-Qaeda tactic of infiltrating demonstrations and attacking police stations was also evident in June 2011, in the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shagour.

As noted above, on June 3, 2011 tens of masked young men from the area of Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib province arrived in Jisr al-Shagour on motorcycles with weapons they had purchased on the black market or had captured from government caches. These men were among those that attacked the pro-government Popular Army headquarters to capture additional weapons. Two days later, on June 5, Islamist militants attacked the local post office and military security headquarters, leading to a 36-hour gun battle.

According to journalist Rania Abouzeid, the violence began when an armed militant named Basil al-Masry was killed while attacking a government check point. Masry’s death angered many residents of the town, who believed rumors that Masry had been unarmed when he was killed, rather than carrying out an armed operation. As a result, his funeral doubled as an anti-government demonstration. As protestors approached the local post office, several hundred Islamist militants emerged from among the protestors and opened fire on government snipers stationed atop the post office roof. The militants then threw incendiary devices inside the post office doors, lighting the building on fire and burning eight people to death, before turning to attack the nearby military security building, where state security and political security personnel were holed up inside. When the Syrian authorities sent a convoy of soldiers to come to their assistance, the Islamist militants ambushed their convoy, killing some 120 of the soldiers.

Mass Graves, but Whose?

Opposition activists spread the false claim that the slain soldiers were defectors killed by their own Alawite superiors in the army, despite evidence to the contrary provided by Syria expert Joshua Landis, showing the soldiers had been killed by opposition gunmen. As Rania Abouzeid reported, it was only years later that activists involved in the incident acknowledged that the story of the soldiers defecting was fabricated. Abouzeid had herself reported on the incident at the time, and unwittingly passed on the false claims suggesting the dead soldiers had first defected. Abouzeid later reversed her reporting and provided full details of the event after interviewing an Islamist militant who had participated in the attack, as well as other civilians that were present in the initial protest outside the post office. The militant acknowledged to Abouzeid that he and his men had filmed the bodies of some of the security forces they killed and presented the videos as if they showed “mass grave’s full of the regime’s victims.” The fabricated claim about defecting soldiers was used to conceal the fact that the soldiers were killed by Islamist militants, and thereby allow the uprising to continue to be viewed as peaceful.

The militant quoted by Abouzeid, named Muhammad, had helped Islamist militants travel to Iraq to fight with al-Qaeda after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Muhammad’s brother had himself fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Falluja. Starting in 2009, Muhammad spent close to two years, off and on, in prison in Syria due to suspicions of his Salafist leanings, and was released without charge on January 11, 2011, shortly before the crisis erupted in March. He was detained again briefly for ten days on March 13, 2011 but released after signing a pledged to refrain from participating in anti-government activities. As discussed above, Mohammad quickly “enlisted a small group of Salafi friends from Latakia who, along with a few local men he’d armed, overran half a dozen small police stations in villages dotted around the city. The first raid was in mid-April, the same time as Jisr al-Shagour’s first protest.” After the attacks on Syrian security forces in Jisr al-Shagour in June 2011, Muhammad went on to become a commander in al-Qaeda’s official Syrian wing, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front.

Tending to the Necessary Details

Another Salafist militant who participated in the June 2011 ambush in Jisr al-Shagour, Hassan Aboud, had previous links to al-Qaeda as well.  Aboud had traveled to Iraq to fight against U.S. occupation forces in 2004 in Falluja and was seen in a video with al-Zarqawi. After returning to Syria in 2005, Aboud led an apparently unremarkable life as a mason and laborer, though locals from his hometown of Sarmin in Idlib province speculated he was sent back to Syria as part of an al-Qaeda sleeper cell.

Aboud participated in anti-government protests starting in March 2011, and then founded an armed group called Liwa Daoud as the opposition movement quickly became militarized. His brigade had expertise in using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and Aboud later became a double amputee after an improvised rocket accidentally exploded near him.

C.J. Chivers of the New York Times writes that, “In June 2011, while Syrian protesters appealed for international support, Mr. Aboud participated in the ambush of an army convoy near Jisr al-Shoughour, four associates said.” Aboud’s friend, Daoud al-Sheikh, was killed in the fighting, leading Aboud to establish Liwa Daoud, or the Daoud Brigade, in his honor. “His brigade started small. But it set up a guerrilla base among olive groves and caves, where it trained, manufactured weapons, and extended its fight. By late 2011, it joined Suqour al-Sham, or Sham Falcons brigade…Many early rebel groups lacked experience, money, training, and cohesion. The Dawood Brigade was different, Mr. Aboud’s townspeople said. It tended to details necessary to become a fighting force.”

Saqour al-Sham, the FSA group of which Liwa Daoud became a part, was a Salafist militia and the strongest armed opposition group in Idlib for the first years of the conflict. Aboud became one of the most important military commanders in Saqour al-Sham after participating in several key battles against the Syrian army, including at the Taftanaz military airport, the Shabiba military base, the Air Defense College and the Madajin checkpoint Aleppo, the Jadida checkpoint in Hama, the Hamishu checkpoint in Idlib.

In 2014, Aboud defected with his fighters to ISIS, bringing with them weapons and a convoy of armored vehicles and tanks. Aboud became a prominent ISIS commander and led the ISIS assault on the Aleppo countryside in August 2014. He was known for threatening in songs to kill his former FSA counterparts. Aboud helped lead the attack to capture the ancient town and heritage site of Palmyra, after which ISIS publicly murdered Khalid al-Asaad, the retired director of antiquities for the site. Hassan Aboud was killed in March 2016 when his convoy struck a roadside bomb.

Six days after Salafist militants killed the 120 Syrian soldiers in Jisr al-Shagour in June 2011, Hala Jaber of the Sunday Times reported a similar incident, where Islamist gunmen used the cover of a demonstration to attack Syrian security forces, this time in the nearby town of Ma’arat al-Nu’man, also in Idlib province. According to tribal elders from the town, men armed with rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers joined some 5,000 protestors demonstrating outside a military barracks in the middle of the town. The armed men attacked the barracks, where roughly 100 police were barricaded inside, causing a military helicopter to come to the aid of the police. Four policemen and 12 of the armed men were killed, while 20 policemen were wounded. The barracks was ransacked by a mob and set on fire, as was the local courthouse and police station.

Founding Of the FSA

In a rare admission of the armed nature of the fledgling anti-government uprising, Anthony Shadid of the New York Times reported on May 8, 2011 that, “American officials acknowledge that some protesters have been armed,” and that “Syrian television is suffused with images of soldiers’ burials.” By this time, at least 81 soldiers and police had been killed.

However, after the killing of the 120 Syrian soldiers in Jisr al-Shaqour in June 2011, cracks in the narrative of a peaceful uprising being crushed by a ruthless dictator were beginning to emerge. To reinforce the narrative that these soldiers were killed by their own officers after defecting, interviews were quickly arranged for journalists in the Western and Gulf press with Colonel Hussain Harmoush, who claimed to have defected from the Syrian army with thirty of his soldiers to protect civilians in Jisr al-Shagour after the alleged mutiny. These same outlets began airing YouTube videos of other alleged Syrian officers defecting to the opposition, including of colonel engineer Riad al-Asad, and Abd al-Razzaq Tlass, whose defection was deemed important because he is a relative of Manaf Tlass, the then-Brigadier General and childhood friend of Bashar al-Assad, and of Manaf’s father, Mustafa Tlass, the former Syrian Defense Minister and close advisor to Hafez al-Assad.

The publicity given to Harmoush, Tlass, al-Asad and other defectors paved the way for the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on July 29, 2011. The establishment of the FSA provided cover public relations cover for a nascent Salafist-led insurgency that had already been active for months. The myth of a secular rebel army comprised of defected officers fighting to establish democracy and protect civilians was officially born.

Clear Sectarian Overtones

By August 2011, Homs had emerged as the epicenter of the conflict. The Salafist militants fighting in the city formally announced the founding of the Farouq Brigades, which began fighting under the FSA banner. One of the founders of Farouq, a lawyer named Abu Sayyeh, explained to journalist Rania Abouzeid that the group chose a name with “clear sectarian overtones tied to Assad’s alliance with Shiite Iran. The Farouq Battalions were named for Farouq Omar bin al-Khatab, a sahaba or companion of the prophet Muhammad, political architect of the caliphate and the second caliph who conquered the Sassanid Persian empire, among other territories. ‘We wanted to be called Farouq as an indication of our desire to confront Persian ambitions in our Arab lands,’ the lawyer Abu Sayyeh said.”

Walid al-Faris also notes the dominant role played by Salafists generally in the establishment of Farouq. He writes that “the biggest part of the financial support came from religious students of the Salafi methodology in Homs and outside it. This was confirmed by the announcement of the actual leadership of the brigade, which originally belonged to the Salafi methodology, and this was not apparent initially.” As mentioned above, the most important founder of the Farouq Brigades was a Salafi preacher named Amjad Bitar, who was able to fund the group via donations from Salafi networks in the Gulf states.

The Salafist orientation of the Farouq Brigade fighting in Homs was not apparent initially because the group was publicly led by a defected Syrian army officer, Abd al-Razzaq Tlass, who had defected from the Syrian army in June 2011 as mentioned above. Farouq also adopted the FSA brand, which gave it a secular veneer and allowed it to be presented as moderate in the Western press.

Al-Faris notes however that while Tlass handled military responsibilities, it was Bitar who was the actual leader of the group. After a trip to Syria in August 2012, opposition activist Ammar Abd al-Hamid similarly confirmed that although Farouq was apparently “run by a charismatic young defector, Captain Abdurrazzaq Tlas, it was guided from behind the scenes by a Salafi scholar by the name of Amjad Bitar.”

It was also commonly claimed that Farouq consisted primarily of army defectors who had refused to fire on peaceful civilian protestors. However, Farouq fighters consisted primarily of civilians from the Salafi community in Homs and/or militants from Fatah al-Islam who joined the group after crossing the border from Lebanon. Rania Abouzeid reports for example that “Opposition media activists pushed the idea that Farouq and the broader Free Syrian Army were largely comprised of defectors, but they were mainly armed civilians.” She quotes a Farouq commander named Abu Azzam as explaining that, “We are a civilian revolution, not a revolution of defected soldiers.”

McClatchy journalist David Enders spent time with a unit of Farouq fighters in April 2012. He notes that the group’s commander refused to say how many of his fighters were defectors, suggesting there were few, if any. Enders notes however that several fighters eagerly acknowledged to him that they had fought in Iraq against U.S. occupation forces, including in 2004 in Falluja, after Enders indicated he himself had reported from Fallujah at the time. Similarly, al-Jazeera journalist James Bays observed that the Farouq Brigades unit he was embedded with in al-Qusayr in May 2012, “includes many more civilian volunteers. Many don’t wear uniform, and some cover their faces with the keffiyeh, or arabic scarf. We were told some of these fighters had fought in Iraq.”

Despite the Salafist and explicitly sectarian orientation of Farouq, and its connections to al-Qaeda affiliated groups in both Lebanon and Iraq, Foreign Policy magazine would later describe the group as “at one point, the lynchpin of the West’s effort to build a ‘moderate’ opposition” in Syria.

Jolani Returns to Syria

In August 2011, after al-Qaeda elements had been already active in Syria for five months, Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dispatched his deputy Abu Muhammad al-Jolani from Iraq to formally extend the group’s franchise into Syria, which became known as the Nusra Front.

The Associate Press published a report providing an outline of Jolani’s life based on information from Iraqi and Jordanian intelligence and from a prominent Jordanian Salafi leader. The report explains that Jolani “was once a teacher of Arabic before moving to Iraq, where he turned to militancy and eventually became a close associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of the militant group al-Qaeda in Iraq. After al-Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006, al-Golani left Iraq, briefly staying in Lebanon, where he offered logistical support for the Jund al-Sham militant group, which follows al-Qaeda’s extremist ideology, the officials said. He returned to Iraq to continue fighting but was arrested by the U.S. military and held at Camp Bucca, a sprawling prison on Iraq’s southern border with Kuwait. At that camp, where the U.S. military held tens of thousands of suspected militants, he taught classical Arabic to other prisoners, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were revealing information from secret files. After his release from prison in 2008, al-Golani resumed his militant work, this time alongside Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq—also known as the Islamic State of Iraq. He was soon appointed head of al-Qaeda operations in Mosul province. Shortly after the Syrian uprising began, al-Golani moved into Syrian territory and, fully supported by al-Baghdadi, formed the Nusra Front, which was first announced in January 2012.”

These same details of Jolani’s life were confirmed by al-Jazeera in July 2015, and noted that al-Jolani returned to Syria from Mosul specifically in August 2011. Al-Jazeera is in a good position to know the outline of Jolani’s past, given that Jolani granted two major interviews to the network, one in December 2013 (Jolani’s first), and the other in 2015. These reports from the Associated Press and al-Jazeera contradict pro-opposition propaganda claiming that Jolani was held by the Syrian government in the prison at Sednaya, and deliberately released early in conflict to Islamize and militarize an otherwise peaceful and secular uprising.

Jolani’s presence in Syria remained secret, as did the role of foreign jihadists working with FSA groups during this period. For example, Aaron Zelin, an expert on Tunisian Jihadism, observed that, “In 2011, before jihadist groups officially announced their presence in Syria, foreign fighters began mobilizing to Syria with the non-jihadist Free Syrian Army…As for the announcement of foreign fighter martyrs, this began in February 2012, with the posting of the first recorded martyrdom notice on the jihadist forum Shamukh al-Islam. This announcement was long delayed, with the fighter in question, a Kuwaiti named Hussam al-Mutayri, having died August 29, 2011, while fighting with the FSA in Damascus.”

The announcement of the deaths of these foreign jihadists supporting the FSA was delayed until early 2012 because al-Qaeda had not yet formally announced its existence in Syria, though of course it had existed since the beginning of the conflict.

A Daily Diet of Suicide Bombings

Al-Qaeda first made its presence in the Syria conflict apparent with a suicide bombing in Damascus on December 23, 2011. Suicide car bombers targeted General Security Directorate and another branch of the security services, killing 44 including civilians and security personnel. Opposition activists claimed this was a false flag attack carried out by the government to discredit the armed opposition. However, Syria expert Joshua Landis cast doubt on this view, noting, “I am only surprised that we haven’t seen the use of suicide bombing sooner.” With the continued break down of law and order, radical groups would be able to spread and “the chances are that the daily diet of suicide bombings that have become a part of political life in Iraq, will also become common in Syria.”

As Landis expected, more such bombings quickly followed. According to Syrian state TV, a suicide bomber detonated explosives near a bus, killing some 26, including both civilians and security personnel in the Maidan district of Damascus on January 6, 2011. Opposition activists once again tried to claim the attack was a false flag carried out by the government.

Three weeks later, al-Qaeda made its role in the conflict public and explicit. On January 24, 2012, al-Jazeera reported that al-Jolani issued a “statement announcing the formation of the ‘Support Front for the People of the Levant’ whom he called ‘the Mujahideen of al-Sham,’ and took his homeland, ‘al-Shuhail’ as a starting point for the work of this front. In his statement, he also called on the Syrians to wage jihad and take up arms to bring down the Syrian regime.”

To the embarrassment of the U.S. and Gulf-backed political opposition, AFP reported that Nusra soon claimed responsibility for the Maidan attack, as well as another mass casualty suicide bombing in Aleppo that killed 28 on February 10, 2011, and that U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested that the attacks bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda in Iraq and that militants from the group had infiltrated into Syria to join the fight against the government.

Clapper’s acknowledgement of al-Qaeda’s operations in Syria coincided with warnings from Iraqi security official Adnan al-Assadi that “a number of Iraqi jihadists went to Syria,” and that “weapons smuggling is still ongoing.” Al-Assadi explained that the prices of weapons in Mosul (the province’s capital) are higher now because they are being sent to the opposition in Syria,” including through a border crossing near Abu Kamal,” a town in Syria’s Deir al-Zour province on the Euphrates river and opposite the Iraqi town of al-Qaim.

Cradle of the War

Assadi’s statements point to the early importance of Deir al-Zour province, which quickly became the epicenter of al-Qaeda’s activities in Syria. Guardian journalist Leith Abdul-Ahad was one of the few journalists to visit the province, and in July 2012 he noted that “Al-Qaida has existed in this parched region of eastern Syria, where the desert and the tribes straddle the border with Iraq, for almost a decade. During the years of American occupation of Iraq, Deir el-Zour became the gateway through which thousands of foreign jihadis flooded to fight the holy war. Many senior insurgents took refuge from American and Iraqi government raids in the villages and deserts of Deir el-Zour…[The regime had] for years played a double game, allowing jihadis to filter across the borders to fight the Americans while at the same time keeping them tightly under control at home.” Abdul-Ahad writes that, “In the pre-revolutionary days when the regime was strong it would take a year to recruit someone to the secret cause of jihad,” but according to a Nusra fighter, who had himself fought in Iraq as a young man after 2003 and participated in early demonstrations against the Syrian government in 2011, “Now, thanks to God, we are working in the open and many people are joining in.”

Abu Muhammad al-Jolani’s hometown of al-Shuhail played a particularly important role, as noted in the announcement of the Nusra Front’s establishment. Abdul-Ahad also visited al-Shuhail and noted that the town “has become the de facto capital of al-Qaida in Deir el-Zour. More than 20 of its young men were killed in Iraq. In Shahail the al-Qaida fighters drive around in white SUVs with al-Qaida flags fluttering.”

As mentioned above, American journalist Theo Padnos, a fluent Arabic speaker who was held captive by Nusra for two years, including for ten months in al-Shuhail, also pointed to the importance of Deir al-Zour in the anti-government insurgency that erupted in 2011. According to the fighters, fellow prisoners, and civilians with which he managed to speak, the Syrian revolution was not about democracy or human rights, but about waging war against the Alawites from the Syrian government and establishing an Islamic state. Padnos writes that, “I suspect now that the true cradle of the war in Syria wasn’t Deraa, where the famous graffiti ‘The People Want the Fall of the Regime’ first appeared on a schoolyard wall, but rather the Euphrates River Valley, especially the eastern portions of it, downstream from Raqqa, where Syria’s oil and gas fields lie,” and that “I suspect I quizzed dozens if not hundreds of Deiris, as people from this region are known (after the provincial capital, Deir Ezzor)…As it happened, I did not encounter a single person in the eastern half of Syria who believed that peaceful demonstrators in Deraa—or mosque goers in the restive suburb of Duma or citizens anywhere else in the west—were the true fomenters of a rebellion in Syria. The true fomenters, in the opinion of my prison interviewees, were the men of the jihad.”

The full name of the group established by Jolani suggests that Nusra (which means “support”) was meant to provide aid and assistance the existing Salafist armed groups already fighting under the Free Syrian Army brand. Ghaith Abdul Ahed quoted a Nusra commander in the town of Muhassan in Deir al-Zour named Abu Khuder who explained that “his men are working closely with the military council that commands the Free Syrian Army brigades in the region. ‘We meet almost every day,’ he said. ‘We have clear instructions from our [al-Qaida] leadership that if the FSA need our help we should give it. We help them with IEDs and car bombs. Our main talent is in the bombing operations.”

An Open Secret

In early 2012, FSA groups were not only receiving assistance from al-Qaeda in the east of the country in Deir al-Zour, but also in the northwest, near the border with Turkey. The assistance came in the form of al-Qaeda affiliated militants from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) as well as shipments of Libyan weapons facilitated by the CIA and British intelligence.

Seymour Hersh reports that the CIA was running a “rat line” to ship weapons from Libya (from government stockpiles captured after the fall of Qaddafi in September 2011) to opposition militants in northern Syria. Hersh reports that, “The rat line, authorized in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syria border to the opposition. Many of those who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of the affiliated with al-Qaida.” Hersh notes that according to a classified annex to the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012, an “agreement was reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdogan administrations. It pertained to the rat line. By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA with support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by [CIA director] David Petraeus.”

Though Hersh reports the CIA and MI6 weapons shipments began in early 2012, they likely began earlier, in at least November 2011, when “volunteer” fighters from the NATO-backed interim Libyan government began traveling to Syria to fight with FSA groups. On November 29, 2011 al-Bawaba reported that “600 rebel fighters have already gone from Libya to Syria in order to support the Syrian opposition” and “that the Libyan rebels entered Syria through Turkey, to join ‘the free Syrian army’” and “that the door is still open to more volunteers in Libya in case they wish to fight.”

The most prominent Libyan commander to travel to Syria was Mehdi al-Herati, a Quran teacher with Irish citizenship who had previously fought against U.S. occupation forces in Iraq in 2003. Al-Herati traveled from Ireland to Libya in February 2011 to form the Tripoli Brigade along with LIFG founder Abd al-Hakim Belhaj. The Tripoli Brigade spearheaded the invasion of the Libyan capital in August 2011 under the cover of NATO bombs.

Belhaj and other former LIFG militants were in turn partnering with British intelligence during the conflict. Middle East Eye (MEE) reported that Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt acknowledged that the British government was in communication with Libyan insurgents during this period, and it was “likely that this included former members of Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.” MEE reports further that according to Salafist activist and former Guantanamo detainee Moaezzem Begg, the “British government’s use of and support for former members of the LIFG during the Libyan uprising was a ‘pretty open secret.’”

Mahdi al-Herati then traveled to Syria in October 2011, just two months after the fall of Qaddafi, under the pretext of providing humanitarian aid. After crossing the border from Turkey, Herati went to the Jabal a-Zawiya region of Idlib province and met with leaders from an al-Qaeda affiliated Salafist militia, Ahrar al-Sham. According to Herati, he was welcomed “as a brother.”

Herati founded his own brigade, Liwa al-Ummah, in April 2012. Foreign Policy (FP) notes that the Facebook page for Liwa al-Ummah promoted a “video clip of the late Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian religious scholar who provided the theological underpinning for the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, outlining when jihad becomes fard ayn, meaning an individual duty. A message bylined by Harati contains an invitation to ‘join the jihad in the land of al-Sham.’” FP noted further that Herati’s men were well armed, with 12.5 mm and 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and rifles including PKCs and M16s at their disposal. Herati was able to recruit fellow Irish nationals to fight in Syria due to his standing in Ireland’s Salafist community. One young Irish fighter admitted that his plan to come fight in Syria initially worried his family, but that “They respect and trust Sheikh Mahdi, so when they learned I was coming to join him here, they felt a little better.”

Herati claimed that the brigade was almost entirely Syrian but that he and fellow Libyans were providing “training and organization,” as well as “playing a combat role and providing our Syrian brothers with our experience of the Libyan revolution.

In 2013, Ibrahim al-Mazwagi, a Brit of Libyan descent, allegedly became the first British jihadist to die in the Syrian conflict. The Independent reported that “According to the Facebook page set up in his honour, the north Londoner had fought in Libya in 2011 before heading to fight alongside his ‘brothers in Syria last August,” and that “He took part of [sic] a major operation against the Assad regime forces yesterday and passed in the ensuing battles.” According to journalist Tam Hussein, Mazwagi had fought in Libya for Herati’s and Belhaj’s Tripoli Brigade.

In Syria, Mazwagi fought as part of a group known as Katibat al-Muhajireen, or the Emigrants Brigade which consisted of foreign fighters from various countries, including Abu Omar al-Shishani, a red-bearded ethnic Chechen who went on to become one of the most noted military commanders of the Islamic State. As a former member of the Georgian military, al-Shishani received training from U.S. special forces.

Muhammad Emzawi, another Londoner who later became a prominent member of the Islamic State, also fought for Katibat al-Muhajiroun after traveling to Syria in 2012. Known in the British press as “Jihadi John,” Emzawi gained notoriety after beheading journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid workers David Haines, Alan Henning, and Peter Kassig, as well as 22 Syrian soldiers.

Shades of Bosnia

Emzawi and Mazwagi’s cases illustrate the role played by British intelligence in the pipeline that was established to facilitate the travel of British Jihadis to Syria. Journalist Nafeez Ahmed reports that according to former British counterterrorism intelligence officer Charles Shoebridge, the UK authorities “turned a blind eye to the travelling of its own jihadists to Syria, notwithstanding ample video etc. evidence of their crimes there,” because it “suited the US and UK’s anti-Assad foreign policy.” Ahmed notes this “terror-funnel is what enabled people like Emwazi to travel to Syria and join up with [the Islamic State] – despite being on an MI5 terror watch-list. He had been blocked by the security services from traveling to Kuwait in 2010: why not Syria?”

UK planners were once again relying on the jihadist networks they had built in London starting in the 1990’s. As Raffaello Pantucci of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point observed, “The most striking aspect about the Syria-UK connection is its similarity to past events. Not only are there shades of Bosnia in the ease with which Britons can join the war in Syria, but there are also similarities in the structures that have nurtured the conflict.”

As discussed above, al-Muhajiroun founder and British intelligence asset Omar Bakri Muhammad had facilitated the flow of British jihadists to Kosovo in the 1990’s. Bakri then left Britain for Lebanon in 2005 in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, and by 2009 was wanted by Lebanese security forces for training al-Qaeda militants. Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported on November 12, 2010 that Bakri was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor, but a retrial was ordered and Bakri was released on bail. Bakri continued training jihadists and in November 2012 gave an interview to the British Sun newspaper describing the training camp he had established on the Lebanon-Syria border. Bakri claimed to have trained fighters from various European countries, including Britain, and that “After their training they will do their duty of jihad (holy war) in Syria and maybe Palestine.”

The “shades of Bosnia” included the ostensibly humanitarian “convoys of mercy” that served as a cover for the flow of fighters from Britain to Syria. Raphael Pantucci himself observed several of these convoys organized by British charities, and described how “Using a blend of videos, magazines, flyers, stalls in city centers, charity boxes inside and outside mosques, and sponsored events, these charities turn the money they raise into goods which they then drive—in convoys usually with donated ambulances—to refugee camps in Turkey.”

One Salafist activist traveling from Britain to Syria as part of an aid convoy in mid-2012 was former Guantanamo detainee Moaezzam Begg. According to Foreign Policy, one of Begg’s close colleagues acknowledged Begg had provided basic physical training to foreign fighters from Katibat al-Muhajireen in Aleppo. The group later dissolved, with some fighters, such as Emzawi, joining the Islamic state, while others joined the Islamic Front, a Salafist umbrella group that collaborated closely with the Nusra Front. As noted above, Katibat al-Muhajiroun was led by Abu Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen jihadist who later became a prominent Islamic State commander.

Begg was arrested by British police in 2014 on terrorism charges for his activities in Syria, but the case against him was dropped after British intelligence intervened, illustrating to the prosecutors that Begg’s support of jihadist fighters had been in accordance with UK foreign policy objectives at the time. The Guardian reported that Begg was freed after MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence service, “belatedly gave police and prosecutors a series of documents that detailed the agency’s extensive contacts with him before and after his trips to Syria,” and which showed that MI5 told Begg he could continue his work for the so-called opposition in Syria “unhindered.”

The fact that Begg had been released from Guantanamo years before, specifically at the request of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and had been in close contact with British intelligence in regards to his activities in Syria, led author Nu’man Ab al-Wahid to ask whether “British intelligence was funneling jihadis through Mr. Begg on an individual basis and/or through the aid convoy he was travelling with,” and whether Muhammad Emzawi, the Islamic State militant responsible for some the most shocking atrocities in the Syria conflict, was among those Katibat al-Muhajireen foreign fighters trained by Begg.

The UK government role in sending LIFG members to Libya and later Syria became a scandal after Salmen Abedi, the British born son of an LIFG fighter, carried out the Manchester Arena attack in 2017, killing 22 and injuring hundreds more during an Ariane Grande concert. Abedi had himself fought in Libya in 2011 alongside his father. This led the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point to note “there have been networks of British-Libyan Islamists in Manchester and Libya, some of whom had connections to global jihadi groups, over two generations.” Abedi was encouraged to carry out the attack by his friend, Abd al-Raouf Abdallah, an ISIS recruiter in Manchester. Abdallah was also of Libyan descent and had traveled to Libya in 2011 to fight with the LIFG-affiliated 17 February Martyrs Brigade. He was shot in the spine and became a paraplegic before returning home. In 2014, Abdallah used his family home in Manchester as a hub to facilitate the travel of British citizens to join the Islamic State in Syria.

United States Backed ISIS

U.S., UK, Turkish, and Gulf support for the Islamic State in Syria continued for years, including after the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013, after the schism between the Nusra Front and its parent organization, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) had made the two organizations fierce competitors.

The direct support provided to ISIS by the Gulf states was acknowledged by Hillary Clinton in an August 2014 leaked email. The email, which came at a time when ISIS was quickly capturing huge amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria, noted that the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia were “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL [ISIS] and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey acknowledged the same in a Senate hearing in September 2014. Dempsey explained to Senator Lindsey Graham that he knew of Arab countries closely allied to the U.S. that funded ISIS. Graham then argued that this was justified because these allies were using ISIS to fight the Syrian government. Then Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged the same in a speech at Harvard University in October 2014. Rather than express shock and concern over such a revelation, the Washington Post sought to downplay Biden’s remarks, describing them as a “gaffe.”

Given the Saudi support both for al-Qaeda in Iraq (as discussed above) and its later iteration, ISIS, it would be appropriate to refer to the terror group as “Saudi-backed ISIS,” or as journalist Leith Marouf has suggested, “Wahhabi Contras.” Ironically, though the phrase “Saudi-backed ISIS” has never entered the lexicon of the Western press, Iranian sponsored militias in Iraq and Syria, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, are invariably described as “Iranian-backed.”

Neither has the term “U.S.-backed ISIS” ever been used in the mainstream Western press or in respectable foreign policy circles. Such a label would be justified as well, however, given that the Saudis were simply acting as proxies for U.S. planners. As described above, Prince Bandar started partnering closely with U.S. planners in 2007 to eventually unleash al-Qaeda militants in the direction of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, as reported by Seymour Hersh.

In January 2014, just as ISIS was taking full control of Raqqa to establish its first capital, U.S. Senator John McCain famously quipped, “Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar,” illustrating that Bandar had indeed been successful in advancing U.S. interests in Syria.

This partnership is not surprising, given that Bandar has long been an asset of the U.S. intelligence services, upon whom U.S. planners relied to execute off-the-books operations on their behalf. Slate reports that Prince Bandar held accounts at Riggs Bank, long known to have ties to the CIA, and that in the 1980’s Bandar had funded the Contras, allowing them to execute the Reagan administration’s dirty war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and that Bandar had supported Islamic fundamentalists known as the mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviets during the same period.

Bandar’s usefulness to his partners in U.S. intelligence and his closeness with the Bush family later shielded him from scrutiny after it was discovered his wife had likely provided indirect funding to two of the 9/11 hijackers. As Vanity Fair reports, “In spite of the fact that it had almost immediately become known that 15 of those implicated in the attacks had been Saudis, President George W. Bush did not hold Saudi Arabia’s official representative in Washington at arm’s length. As early as the evening of September 13, he kept a scheduled appointment to receive Prince Bandar at the White House. The two men had known each other for years. They reportedly greeted each other with a friendly embrace, smoked cigars on the Truman Balcony, and conversed with Vice President Dick Cheney and National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.”

As Hersh reports further, the CIA and Obama administration policy of backing the al-Qaeda-led Syrian insurgency via their regional allies caused dissension in the ranks of the Pentagon and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). DIA head Michael Flynn’s “constant stream of classified warnings” about the dangers of US support for the jihadist-led Syrian insurgency, and Turkish support for it, were met by “enormous pushback” from the Obama administration. This led General Dempsey to begin the indirect sharing of intelligence with the Syrian army starting in the summer of 2013 to help it counter ISIS and Nusra. This is another indication of U.S. support for ISIS in many, though not all, US foreign policy circles, further justifying the “U.S.-backed ISIS” label be applied to the group.

While U.S. planners later turned against ISIS, their support for the other al-Qaeda wing in Syria, the Nusra Front, persisted. Obama administration officials themselves acknowledged in November 2016 to the Washington Post that they had struck “a deal with the devil,” years before, “whereby the United States largely held its fire against al-Nusra because the group was popular with Syrians in rebel-controlled areas and furthered the U.S. goal of putting military pressure on Assad.”


In the mainstream view, al-Qaeda only entered the Syria conflict in January 2012, as part of a plan to hijack and Islamize a supposedly secular and democratic armed revolution led by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, as I have illustrated above, the insurgency that exploded in 2011 against the Syrian government was initiated and led by al-Qaeda affiliated groups from the Islamic State of Iraq, Fatah al-Islam, and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) long before the formal entry of the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, led by Abu Muhammad al-Jolani. Further, the al-Qaeda-led insurgency was sparked as a result of the efforts of U.S. planners, who worked with their British, Saudi and Lebanese allies to unleash these groups in Syria. They did so in the hope of triggering a sectarian civil war that would topple the Syrian government, destroy Syria’s delicate religious co-existence, and open the way for U.S. military intervention in the country. Tragically, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died, and millions become refugees or displaced during the more than 10-year conflict their actions sparked.

For One Day, Protestors Stopped the War Machine

For One Day, Protestors Stopped the War Machine

I’ve attended most of the major antiwar protests in Washington since 9/11. At a 2005 protest, a cop tried to whack me on the head with a wooden pole. At a 2007 protest, I snapped a picture showing George W. Bush hanging next to the U.S. Capitol. But my favorite protest was a potent little ruckus that I almost missed.

On a sunny late summer day in 2013, I ambled to downtown Washington to hike with a bunch of folks who enjoyed bantering as much as I did. The route for the jaunt started on the National Mall, passing by the Smithsonian, heading toward the World War II Memorial and points beyond.

But my luck ran out early that day. The hike leader, a vivacious Italian American lady, announced that she had a special treat for us: a “licensed tourist guide” would provide us with fascinating insights along the way. The tour guide was a short, pudgy fellow puffed up as if he possessed the Secrets of the Temple.

The hike leader announced, “Let’s go,” and then turned the show over to her special guest. “Let me tell you about the Smithsonian Institution,” the licensed guide began, blustering as if he were addressing an audience that had just awarded him an honorary doctorate. He then bludgeoned us with every possible detail about the history, architecture, and restroom renovations of the Smithsonian Castle. He followed that up with a Wikipedia-on-amphetamines rendition on the National Museum of Natural History on the other side of the Mall. Before a Vaudeville hook could yank him off stage, he started rattling at high speed about the National Museum of American History, with the Washington Monument dragged onto his verbal launch pad. All the hike attendees lived in the DC area but he was prattling on as if we’d just arrived on a spaceship from Mars.

And that was when I was summoned by a cheap cigar. That dude’s twaddle was another reminder on the perils of any government licensing program and gave me more sympathy than ever before for Washington tourists.

I exited stage left and headed toward the White House. Admittedly, I didn’t have an invitation for a late morning tea in the Oval Office. But I heard there might be some mayhem nearby that day.

President Obama was saber rattling toward Syria after a chemical weapons attack had recently killed hundreds of civilians near Damascus. It was unclear who perpetrated the atrocity. Syrian rebels prevented United Nations inspectors from surveying the site to verify the details of the attack. That proved the Assad regime did it, according to the Obama administration. The CIA was financing terrorist groups in Syria to overthrow the Assad regime—part of Obama’s attempt to turn the Middle East into a paradise of democracy. Those terrorist groups had also used chemical weapons against civilians, but atrocities by U.S. allies never show up on the radar screen inside the Beltway.

The antiwar movement had been comatose for five years, ever since Obama had ascended into the White House. All subsequent U.S. bombings and drone assassinations became presumptively progressive and thus not worth denouncing. But the potential of a new war in Syria was a defibrillator shock for moribund activists.

With my Nikon camera flopping around my neck, I turned the corner from Fifteenth Street onto Pennsylvania Avenue, behind the White House. That stretch of the avenue had long been closed, with concrete barriers to prevent truck bombs and ice cream vendors from zipping down the way. In the distance, I saw a smattering of demonstrators.

As I got closer, I saw a somber young guy with a crew cut, sunglasses, and an “Iraq Veterans Against the War” T-shirt waving a sign denouncing “Obama the Warmonger.” Some of his buddies were wearing Young Americans for Liberty T-shirts or Murray Rothbard T-shirts and described themselves as “paleo-conservatives.” Their right-wing, antiwar fervor was one of the few positive legacies of the Bush administration. They were proudly hoisting handmade signs that were legible at a distance of twelve feet or less. They meant well, but I hoped that none of them were ever put in charge of the highway department’s sign program.

Standing near those guys was a thirtyish woman with the hairiest underarms I ever saw. She was wearing a Veterans for Peace T-shirt—the same group that invited me to the Mall years before for “the best speech I never gave.” She told me she had recently “relocated for love,” moving to Washington from Long Island. But her affection was not carrying over to the DC area, which she already despised. At least she was a fast learner. She took pains to assure me that she was not one of those leftist pinko types just because she opposed war.

Speaking of leftist pinkos, Code Pink—a feminist antiwar group—was on the scene. Their activists brought a cardboard full-size replica of a grinning Obama below a sign proclaiming “I have all the evidence I need (just not the facts).” Many activists feared Obama was on the verge of repeating the Bush administration’s rush to war in Iraq based on ludicrous claims that could not pass a laugh test.

There were a few dozen Syrians on the scene, divided into two groups who passionately hated each other. Most of the Syrians but a gaggle of folks gung-ho on the U.S. government toppling the Assad regime hotly opposed bombing their country. A couple shoving matches broke out between those demonstrators.

The protest was little more than the distant buzzing of a gnat, barely perceptible on the other side of the high metal fence surrounding the White House.

And then the U.S. Cavalry arrived for the antiwar activists. Okay, it wasn’t the U.S. Cavalry—it was a bunch of communists from Baltimore. Okay, maybe they weren’t communists, but they were the type of hard-core leftists that made many Democrats queasy. A busload of sixty protestors arrived and poured into the streets carrying superb signs and brilliant banners identifying them as supporters of ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). They quickly deployed a glorious bold-red NO WAR ON SYRIA! banner, and I photographed four of them hoisting it with the White House in the background. Those protestors marched in an oval, chanting, “Hands off Syria.” That group knew how to make itself heard raising hell.

The Park Police and Secret Service had mostly ignored the protestors as long as they were a scattered rabble. But the Baltimore team changed the game and officialdom began its intimidation efforts. An overfed Park Police officer waddled into the middle of the street and began ostentatiously videotaping all the protestors. From his vapid visage, I guessed he was named either Wilbur or Clarence. Would the images he captured fatten up secret federal dossiers on the activists? Every few years, another scandal erupts over law enforcement agencies illegally surveilling peaceful demonstrators. Political appointees promise it will never happen again and then the abuse resumes after the spotlight shifts away.

Word circulated among the protestors that Obama would be making a major statement on Syria at 1:15 p.m.—less than an hour later. Pundits expected that Obama would announce that he had launched a cruise missile attack on Syria. The leader of the ANSWER protestors implored her cadre: “CNN says the antiwar rally is being heard inside the White House—keep chanting, and louder!”

As I loitered in the street, taking photos and chewing on a cheap cigar, I spoke with conservative military veterans who were far better informed on foreign policy than most Washingtonians. I also palavered with a couple ANSWER zealots about a legendary Baltimore German brewery that had recently gone belly-up.

And then the other U.S. Cavalry arrived—a squadron of mounted Park Police wearing bright blue helmets who practically charged into the peaceful crowd. Some of the Park Police had attached black strips to their badges to hide their identification numbers. I thought that was brazenly illegal but maybe not because they were The Law. Covering badge numbers would make it far more difficult for demonstrators to identify specific officers who abused them.

As the horses began to scatter demonstrators, a large truck backed up to the scene and a newly arrived pack of Park Police began unloading segments of metal fences which they carried forward. Police initially connected the metal fences around the outskirts of the demonstrators on the street and on the sidewalk next to the White House fence. Then, a few minutes later, cops began moving the fence lines towards each other. Politico reported later that day: “About 100 peace activists were fenced into a protest zone on the sidewalk in front of the White House…Police officers blocked other protestors—and a reporter—from entering the protest zone, saying the one opening was an exit only.”

The Obama administration was reviving an odious Bush administration legacy—free speech zones. After the 9/11 attacks, preventing lèse majesté—any affront to the dignity of the supreme ruler—trumped the First Amendment. When Bush traveled around the nation to speak, the Secret Service would browbeat police into setting up “free speech zones” where dissidents could be quarantined far from the media and public view. I wrote one of the first exposés of this censorship charade in late 2003. Anyone who quietly held up a the “No War for Oil” sign outside the “free speech zone” could be jailed. The feds lost several court battles but the abusive practice continued because few protest groups could afford to fight the world’s largest law firm, the US Justice Department.

I was standing in the middle of the area being cordoned off, watching free speech being eradicated yard by yard in real time. As the fence line came closer to me, I felt like I was watching G-men hammer nails into the coffin of the First Amendment. Judges had deferred so many times that police could do as they please, confident that no federal official would be jailed regardless of how many constitutional rights they trampled.

As the “free speech zone” narrowed, police began menacing anyone who refused to leave the street. After I was repeatedly threatened with arrest, I foot dragged toward Lafayette Park, moving just fast enough to avoid getting handcuffed. A dozen years into the federal supremacy era after the 9/11 attacks, anyone who did not instantly obey arbitrary commands was now guilty of “disturbing the peace.”

At 1:15 p.m., Obama stepped up to the microphone in the Rose Garden in what the New York Times called a “hurriedly organized appearance…as American destroyers armed with Tomahawk missiles waited in the Mediterranean Sea.” As antiwar chants could be heard in the background, Obama stunned the media by announcing that, though he had decided to attack Syria, he would seek congressional authorization before launching the missiles. Obama declared, “I’m confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors.”

That protest and Obama’s declaration spurred me to write an article that the USA Today headlined “We Can’t Trust White House Syria Claims.” The editors added a subheadline that made me burst out laughing: “The administration needs to learn from the past and tell the whole truth.” Ya, I was sitting on the edge of my chair waiting for the whole truth from the feds. My piece, published the week after the protest, concluded, “America cannot afford another ‘trust me’ war based on secret evidence…Citizens are left clueless about perils until it is too late for the nation to pull back.”

Happily, American public sentiment strongly opposed plunging into another Middle East quagmire and Congress never greenlighted Obama’s attack on the Assad regime. Obama promised sixteen times that he would never put U.S. “boots on the ground” in the Syrian civil war. He quietly abandoned that pledge and, starting in 2014, launched more than five thousand airstrikes that dropped more than fifteen thousand bombs on terrorist groups in Syria. But the U.S. government might have intervened far more aggressively without the courage and caterwauling of White House protestors along with many other Americans who pushed back against the warmongers.

This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.

12/22/21 Gareth Porter on Iran and Afghanistan

Scott celebrates eleven years on the radio by interviewing Gareth Porter about Biden’s first year in office. They discuss the negotiations between the Administration and Iran over a return to the JCPOA. Despite many crossovers with the team that reached an agreement with Iran back in the Obama years, Biden’s people appear set on squeezing more concessions out of the Iranians. But Porter points out that, as he had predicted, the U.S. reluctance to return to the deal led to hardliner victories in Iran’s last elections. But even with a more anti-American regime, Porter sees no evidence they’d actually produce a nuclear bomb. Scott and Porter also talk about Afghanistan and the humanitarian crisis the so-called champions of Afghan freedom seem completely uninterested in helping to relieve.

Discussed on the show:

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist on the national security state. He is the author of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare and, with John Kiriakou, The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis. Follow him on Twitter @GarethPorter and listen to Gareth’s previous appearances on the Scott Horton Show.

This episode of the Scott Horton Show is sponsored by: The War State and Why The Vietnam War?, by Mike Swanson; Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom;; EasyShip; Free Range Feeder; Thc Hemp Spot; Green Mill Supercritical; Bug-A-Salt; Lorenzotti Coffee and Listen and Think Audio.

COI #202: Biden Tries to Divide the World

COI #202: Biden Tries to Divide the World

On COI #202, Kyle Anzalone discusses how President Joe Biden’s effort to create a ‘Democratic’ bloc of countries is dividing the world into camps. The camps are not “democracy” versus “autocracy” as Biden claims. Rather, the divide is between the current American-led order and countries seeking an independent foreign policy.

Kyle breaks down the latest tensions between the US and Russia. Biden appears to have slightly stepped down from the height of tensions, though he still refuses to recognize Russia’s sphere of influence. 

Kyle updates the investigation into the August Kabul drone strike that left ten civilians dead. The Pentagon announced that no soldiers would be disciplined for the strike. The victims of the strike could have easily been identified as civilians. The Department of Defense’s refusal to hold anyone accountable likely guarantees it will happen again.

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