This is part 2 of a 5-part report which attempts to detail a history of the rise of ISIS and to explain its true relations to the actors involved in the war theatre. It attempts to show how and why ISIS has been exploited while attempting to answer the question: what has been the groups’ ultimate purpose in relation to the dominant powers manipulating the proxy conflict. Then, given what is known historically, it hopes to shed light on what the motivations are behind the current actions against the group and what purpose they serve.
The “Moderate” Jihad in Syria
Syria was externally targeted because the US and its allies saw it as strategically beneficial to organize and foster an armed insurgency which could eventually become capable of overturning the government. The most prominent aspect of this being the attempt to create a “Free Syrian Army” of opposition fighters which could be displayed as the respectable and indigenous face of the insurgency and help sell the intervention to the Western public.
Helping to hide the foreign hand behind the militants, the rebel arming program was only officially announced in 2013, yet in reality began almost two years prior, at least as early as October 2011 after the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, but likely even much earlier.1 Also dispelling the illusion that these FSA groups were solely a native development, it was revealed in late 2011 that US Special Operations Forces were on the ground and privately discussing to themselves how “there isn’t much of a Free Syrian Army to train right now”, the groups only later gaining prominence as a result of the foreign interference.2
Indeed, by this time knowledgeable academics such as Columbia University’s Joseph Massad were writing that the “[Arab] League and imperial powers have taken over the Syrian uprising in order to remove the al-Assad regime”, while the West’s best journalists would later characterize the program by saying “the impression one gets is of a movement wholly controlled by Arab and Western intelligence agencies.”3 Corroborating much of this, a former rebel explained to the Wall Street Journal how the insurgency was largely being directed from abroad, saying that “decisions weren’t always being made at the local level.” Instead, it was “the Salafists from Gulf nations… and the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey” who would “send money to certain groups and then orchestrate attacks from afar.”4
Concurrently, great efforts were made to portray the FSA as an entirely independent outfit and to separate Western involvement from the extremist groups that were beginning to form. However, apart from whatever the rebels would tell the Western press, the reality on the ground was that there was never any division between the FSA and groups like al-Qaeda, the Islamists having been welcomed from the very start.5 For instance, the founder of the FSA, Syrian army defector Riad el-Asaad, described al-Qaeda as “our brothers in Islam”, while another rebel commander, a main recipients of US aid, admitted that his organizations was very much alike al-Qaeda and that the two groups fought alongside each other. Al-Qaeda did not, he said, “exhibit any abnormal behavior, which is different from that of the FSA.”6 So while US officials maintained that they only supported “moderates”, journalist Patrick Cockburn gets much closer to the truth, explaining that “it is here that there was a real intention to deceive”, because “in reality, there is no dividing wall between them [ISIS and al-Qaeda] and America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies.”7
Also troubling for the oppositions’ image, the “moderate” nature of the US vetted groups soon began to unravel, the FSA consistently being described as even worse than the groups who are commonly associated with extremism. While Department of Defense officials were aware that the “vast majority of moderate Free Syrian Army rebels were in fact, Islamist militants”, counterterrorism specialists explained that the “undisciplined and brutal behavior of the FSA stood in contrast to the much more disciplined Jabhat Al-Nusra.” Indeed, the British press described this brutal behavior in terms of their “looting and banditry”, explaining that “the FSA has now become a largely criminal enterprise” as they have been primarily focused on “profiteering, gun-running, and the extracting of tolls from road checkpoints.”8
Also quite troubling, being enmeshed with the other fighters the FSA had soon assumed the de-facto function of serving as a weapons conduit to the extremists. While it was later confirmed that at least half of all supplies given to the “moderates” were duly handed over to al-Qaeda,9 multiple court cases earlier revealed that arms shipments received by the FSA would be unloaded and distributed quite indiscriminately to whoever was fighting nearby. Helping to explain this, former MI6 agent Alastair Crooke pointed out that “the West does not actually hand the weapons to al-Qaeda, let alone ISIS… but the system that they have constructed leads precisely to that end.” This is because the weapons shipments given to the FSA “have been understood to be a sort of ‘Wal Mart’ from which the more radical groups would be able to take their weapons and pursue the jihad”, as weapons always migrated “along the line to the more radical elements.”10
This wasn’t something that the Western backers of the opposition just turned a blind eye to, instead such cooperation with jihadists was explicitly ordered by them on multiple occasions, usually when the extremists were needed to win battlefield victories. In 2014, for example, a CIA-backed commander explained that “if the people who support us [the US and its allies] tell us to send weapons to another group, we send them. They asked us a month ago to send weapons to [hard-line Islamists] in Yabroud so we sent a lot of weapons there.”
On a separate occasion, US-led operations rooms “specifically encouraged a closer cooperation with Islamists commanding frontline operations” during the conquest of Idlib, the supervision given by US military intelligence operatives being “instrumental in facilitating their [Islamists’] involvement.”11
Enter the Proxies
Having successfully kept most of this hidden from view, focus on the FSA program helped to distract from the wider reality that the US and its allies were supporting the entire opposition indiscriminately.
It has long been known that states like Qatar had been supporting both al-Qaeda and ISIS,12 their own deputy foreign minister openly stating “I am very much against excluding anyone at this stage, or bracketing them as terrorists, or bracketing them as al-Qaeda given Qatar’s perceived necessity of removing al-Assad at all costs.” As well, al-Qaeda’s Syria franchise themselves admitted that they “get money from the Gulf” with their “great name.”13
Also widely known is that Saudi Arabia and Turkey both had intimate ties with al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the rest of the other radical jihadists. Far from trying to hide these connections, both countries had in fact openly supported a rebel coalition that was dominated by al-Qaeda.14 Yet in reality this was all undertaken in cooperation with the United States or with their implicit blessing.
Getting to the heart of the matter, an extensive investigation by Foreign Policy’s Elizabeth Dickenson uncovered that not only had Qatar gotten “such freedom to run its network for the last three years because Washington was looking the other way,” but that “in fact, in 2011, the US gave Doha de facto free rein to do what it wasn’t willing to do.”15 White House officials explained that “Syria is [Qatar’s] backyard”, while academics similarly concluded “there is no chance that Qatar is doing this alone.”16
Indeed, the weapons shipments coming from Qatar had been conducted in conjunction with the CIA, who US officials confirm acted in a “consultant role.”17 In the case of Saudi Arabia, whose former foreign minister himself admitted that it was the Saudi monarchy who created ISIS, stating “Daesh [ISIS] is our [Sunni] response to your support for the Da’wa [Iran-aligned Shia ruling party of Iraq]”,18 their involvement was also conducted jointly with the US. The terms of this arrangement, revealed by The New York Times, was that the Saudis would provide large sums of money and weapons and in exchange would be granted a seat at the table and have a say as to which groups would be supported, while the CIA would coordinate such shipments and help train the fighters.19 Seemingly finding no objections from their US partners, we now know that they and other Gulf allies were the ones “who fund [ISIS]”, as was revealed by then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in congressional testimony.20 Similarly, while it was revealed that Turkey’s intimate coordination with ISIS was “undeniable”,21 in fact evidence suggests the country’s weapons shipments were largely conducted in cooperation with CIA officers and US officials,22 cooperation which continued even as it was revealed that Turkey was collaborating with ISIS and allowing substantial tracts of its territory to remain open to the group.23
Honest reporters therefore correctly categorized the US’ involvement by explaining that “the U.S. in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates”, while Turkey was “taking the lead as U.S. proxy.”24 Western officials however began to publicly distance themselves from this involvement, claiming the “US had growing concerns that, just as in Libya, the Qataris are equipping some of the wrong militants.” This was worrying because “this has the potential to go badly wrong… [because of] the risk that weapons will end up in the hands of violent anti-Western Islamists.”25 Yet as Christopher Davison explains, whom the Economist describes as “one of the most knowledgeable academics writing about the region”, this was all an attempt to “establish some distance” between the US and its allies in the Gulf, “so as to insulate themselves from any possible fallout from such risky moves.”26
Describing the true relationship, a former advisor to one of the Gulf states explained that the reason the US did not try to stop nations like Qatar from delivering weapons to extremists was simply because “they didn’t want to.”27
The reason the Western powers were supporting such virulent elements was actually quite simple. Besides having a well-documented history of supporting jihadist networks against their enemies,28 the most radical groups taking part in the Syria conflict were as well the best and most effective fighters. Joshua Landis, a US academic and specialist on Syria, explained that the “radicals got money because they were successful. They fought better, had better strategic vision and were more popular.”29 Helping to explain the thought process further, prominent think-tank analysts actually recommended supporting al-Qaeda under the basis that they bring “discipline, religious fervor, battle experience from Iraq, funding from Sunni sympathizers in the Gulf,” and most importantly, “deadly results.”30
Therefore, as former British diplomat Alastair Crooke explains, the operative idea was to “use jihadists to weaken the government in Damascus and to drive it to its knees to the negotiating table.”31
1.) Julian E. Barnes and Adam Entous, “U.S. to Give Some Syria Rebels Ability to Call Airstrikes,” Wall Street Journal, 17 February 2015.; Judicial Watch, “Defense, State Department Documents Reveal Obama Administration Knew that al Qaeda Terrorists Had Planned Benghazi Attack 10 Days in Advance,” 18 May 2015.; Seymour M. Hersh, “The Red Line and the Rat Line,” London Review of Books,” 17 April 2014.
2.) The Free Syrian Army never had a central command structure, it always referred to a myriad of disparate groups using the label as a brand name, but the FSA has also become a euphemism for describing any CIA supported and/or vetted groups. WikiLeaks, “INSIGHT - military intervention in Syria, post withdrawal status of forces”, cable released on 6 March 2012.; Aron Lund speculates that when the FSA was created in July 2011 it could have been the product of a Turkish intelligence operation. Aron Lund, “The Free Syrian Army Doesn’t Exist,” Syria Comment, March 16, 2013.
3.) Christopher Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 320. Citing Joseph Massad, “The struggle for Syria,” Al Jazeera, 15 November 2011.; Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, p. 86.
4.) Raja Abdulrahim, “Former Syrian Rebel Mourns Uprising’s Failure,” Wall Street Journal, 26 January 2016.
5.) “Some rebel units around Damascus, which had earlier given themselves Islamic-sounding names to attract Saudi and Gulf financing, opportunistically switched to more secular-sounding titles in a bid to attract American support”, Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of Islamic State, p. 26.; Christopher Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 335, 336.
6.) Bill Roggio, “Free Syrian Army commander praises al Nusrah Front as ‘brothers’,” Long War Journal, 30 March 2013.; Joshua Landis, “US Key Man in Syria Worked Closely with ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra,” https://twitter.com/joshua_landis/status/504610185952784384.
7.) Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of Islamic State, p. 3.
8.) Christopher Davidson, Shadow Wars, pp. 334-336. Citing Nafeez Ahmed, “Islamic State is the cancer of modern capitalism,” Middle East Eye, 27 March 2015, and counterterrorism expert A. Hashim, “The Islamic state: from Al-Qaeda affiliate to caliphate”, Middle East Policy, Vol. 21, No. 4, 2014, p. 7, and Ruth Sherlock, “Syria dispatch: from band of brothers to princes of war,” Daily Telegraph, 30 November 2013.
9.) Thanassis Cambanis, “The Syrian Revolution Against al Qaeda,” Foreign Policy, 29 March 2016.
10.) Comments made by Alastair Crooke, “Al Qaeda in Syria,” BBC, 17 December 2015.; Richard Norton-Taylor, “Terror trial collapses after fears of deep embarrassment to security services,” Guardian, 1 June 2015.
11.) Isabel Hunter, “'I am not fighting against al-Qa’ida… it’s not our problem', says West’s last hope in Syria,” The Independent, 2 April 2015. No longer available, archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20140406105449/http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/i-am-not-fighting-againstalqaida-itsnot-our-problem-says-wests-last-hope-in-syria-9233424.html.; Charles Lister, “Why Assad is losing,” Brookings, 5 May 2015.; Nafeez Ahmed, “Endless enemies – how the US is supporting the Islamic State by fighting it,” Middle East Eye, 17 July 2015.
12.) Christopher Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 322, 456. Citing US Navy admiral and former NATO supreme commander James Stavridis, “the biggest share of the individual donations supporting the Islamic State and the most radical groups comes from Qatar,” NBC News, “Who’s Funding ISIS? Wealthy Gulf Angel Investors, Officials Say”, 21 September 2014.
13.) Ibid., p. 322. Citing Elizabeth Dickenson, “The Case Against Qatar,” Foreign Policy, 30 September 2014, and Weiss, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, p. 100.
14.) Desmond Butler, “Turkey Officials Confirm Pact With Saudi Arabia to Help Rebels Fighting Syria’s Assad,” Huffington Post, 7 May 2015. No longer available, archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20150508173130/http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/07/turkey-saudi-arabia-syria-rebels-pact_n_7232750.html.; For further information on Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s support, see Christopher Davidson, Shadow Wars, pp. 324-26, 453-67.
15.) Christopher Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 321. Citing Elizabeth Dickenson, “The Case Against Qatar,” Foreign Policy, 30 September 2014.
16.) Ibid., pp. 321-22. Citing Mark Mazzetti, C. J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt, “Taking Outsize Role in Syria, Qatar Funnels Arms to Rebels,” New York Times, 29 June 2013, and David Roberts of King’s College London, , “Is Qatar bringing the Nusra Front in from the cold?”, BBC Online, 6 March 2015.
17.) Ibid., p.324. Citing Mark Mazzetti, et al., “Taking Outsize Role in Syria, Qatar Funnels Arms to Rebels,” New York Times, 29 June 2013.
18.) Financial Times, “Mutual suspicion frays historic US-Saudi ties,” 20 April 2016.
19.) Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo, “U.S. Relies Heavily on Saudi Money to Support Syrian Rebels,” New York Times, 23 January 2016.
20.) C-SPAN, “General Dempsey acknowledges U.S. Arab allies funding ISIS”, 16 September 2014.
21.) Martin Chulov, “Turkey sends in jets as Syria’s agony spills over every border,” Guardian, 26 July 2015.; Nafeez Ahmed, “NATO is harbouring the Islamic State,” Insurge Intelligence, 19 November 2015.; For further corroboration of Turkish complicity, see Christopher Davidson, Shadow Wars, pp. 461-67.
22.) Christopher Davidson, Shadow Wars, pp. 466-67. Citing Eric Schmitt, “CIA Said to Aid in Steering Arms to Syria Opposition,” New York Times, 21 June 2012.; Fehim Tastekin, “Turkish military says MIT shipped weapons to al-Qaeda,” Al-Monitor, 15 January 2015.; “Syria-bound trucks put spotlight on Turkey,” Al-Monitor, 21 January 2014.; Ruth Sherlock, “Fears that US weapons will fall into al-Qaeda’s hands as Syrian rebels defect,” Daily Telegraph, 11 November 2014.
23.) Ibid., p. 461-62.
24.) Jay Solomon and Nour Malas, “U.S. Bolsters Ties to Fighters in Syria,” Wall Street Journal, 13 June 2012.; Philip Giraldi, “NATO vs. Syria,” American Conservative, 19 December 2011.
25.) Christopher Davidson, Shadow Wars, pp. 324-25. Citing James Risen, et al., “US-Approved Arms for Libya Rebels Fell into Jihadis’ Hands,” New York Times, 5 December 2012.; Adam Entous, et al., “A Veteran Saudi Power Player Works to Build Support to Topple Assad,” Wall Street Journal, 25 August 2013.
26.) Ibid., p. 325.
27.) Andrew Cockburn, “A Special Relationship,” Harpers, January 2016.
28.) Christopher Davidson, Shadow Wars, pp. 85-176.; Nafeez Ahmed, “Islamic State is the cancer of modern capitalism,” Middle East Eye, 27 March 2015.
29.) John Judis, “America’s Failure – and Russia and Iran’s Success – in Syria’s Cataclysmic Civil War,” TPM, 10 January 2017.
30.) Ed Husain, “Al-Qaeda’s Specter in Syria,” Council on Foreign Relations, 6 August 2012.
31.) Comments made by Alastair Crooke, “Al Qaeda in Syria,” BBC, 17 December 2015.