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America’s Syrian Jihad: An Old War in New Clothes

What began on 15, March 2011, with public demonstrations which rapidly accelerated into a national uprising, has now become an armed insurgency complete with suicide bombings – provoked by Assad’s ruthless efforts to stamp out peaceful protests.

The situation in Syria continues to spiral out of control. Bashar al-Assad’s forces, including tanks and helicopter gunships, supported by Russia and Iran, are currently amassed around the city of Aleppo, where Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels have fought an eleven-day offensive leading 200,000 civilians to flee their homes – with both sides claiming they are winning the battle.

What began on 15, March 2011, with public demonstrations which rapidly accelerated into a national uprising, has now become an armed insurgency complete with suicide bombings – provoked by Assad’s ruthless efforts to stamp out peaceful protests. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that over 19,000 have been killed so far, while between one and 1.5 million people have been internally displaced.

While the White House has ruled out a direct military intervention, a presidential “finding” – a highly classified, secret directive authorizing greater covert assistance for the rebels – came to light late last week as Obama administration officials spoke openly about a post-Assad Syria. “We are in the early stages of contemplating an Assad aftermath,” said one senior US official. The New York Times reported that the US is “increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down” Assad’s regime. The US administration is “in talks with officials in Turkey and Israel over how to manage a Syrian government collapse,” including “regular talks with the Israelis about how Israel might move to destroy Syrian weapons facilities.” US diplomats are also meeting “various Syrian opposition groups outside the country to help map out a possible post-Assad government.”

The US has already supported the rebels indirectly through its regional client-regimes – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Turkey and even Libya. “Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States,” reported The Washington Post – which also noted that the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was playing a major role in financing arms supplies.

In fact, US covert intervention began much earlier. A leaked confidential email authored by Reva Bhalla, director of analysis at the private US intelligence firm Stratfor, referred to his 6, December 2011, Pentagon meeting with the US Air Force Strategic Studies Group. “After a couple hours of talking,” wrote Bhalla, “they said without saying that SOF [Special Operations Forces] teams (presumably from US, UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground focused on recce [reconnaissance] missions and training opposition forces.” Their mission is to “commit guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns, try to break the back of [Assad’s] Alawite forces, elicit collapse from within.”

The seeds of this strategy go back further still to over five years ago, when the New Yorker reported that the Bush administration has “cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations” intended to weaken the Shiite Hizbullah in Lebanon. “The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria,” a byproduct of which is “the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups” hostile to the US and “sympathetic to al-Qaeda.” He also noted that, “the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashar Assad, of Syria.” One faction receiving covert US “political and financial support” through the Saudis was the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Such intrigues continued post-Bush. According to Alastair Crooke, former MI6 officer and Middle East adviser to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana: “US officials speculated as to what might be done to block this vital corridor [from Iran to Syria], but it was Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia who surprised them by saying that the solution was to harness Islamic forces. The Americans were intrigued, but could not deal with such people. Leave that to me, Bandar retorted.” This regionwide strategy involves the sponsorship of Islamist extremists in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq “to disrupt and emasculate the awakenings that threaten absolute monarchism.”

No wonder that John Hannah, former national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, remarked early last year, “Bandar working as a partner with Washington against a common Iranian enemy is a major strategic asset.” Mobilizing Salafi extremists “across the region” under “Saudi resources and prestige” can “reinforce US policy and interests” – they can “weaken the Iranian mullahs; undermine the Assad regime; support a successful transition in Egypt; facilitate Qaddafi’s departure; reintegrate Iraq into the Arab fold; and encourage a negotiated solution in Yemen.” Indeed, Osama bin Laden had thanked Prince Bandar bin Sultan personally for galvanizing US support for his mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets. The same logic, it seems, still applies.

The wave of suicide bombings in Syria thus underscores the infiltration of al-Qaeda jihadist ideology into the FSA, including an influx of fighters from neighboring Iraq, Jordan and elsewhere. “To them,” reported The Global and Mail, “the real target is Shi’ism and Iran and the crescent of Shia forces from Tehran to Beirut.”

Thus, while Assad’s intensifying brutality is undeniable, US-backed rebel forces are also implicated in terrible atrocities. One of the most appalling was the Houla massacre of 25 May, where at least 108 people were killed, including 49 children and 34 women, responsibility for which is still hotly disputed.

Though the conventional wisdom lays the blame on Assad’s security forces, a series of reports in the German national press have attributed responsibility largely to the rebels. Citing eyewitnesses and opposition members who visited the area, Frankfurter Allgemaine Zeitung (FAZ), reported that the episode began with Sunni FSA rebels attacking three Syrian Army checkpoints “designed to protect the Alawite villages around the mostly Sunni Houla.” The Syrian Army sent reinforcements, with fighting continuing for 90 minutes according to FAZ’s Middle East correspondent Rainer Hermann, during which the three villages of Houla were blocked off from the outside world, allowing the rebels to attack the villages.

The victims included “… families of the Alawite and Shia minorities of Houla, the population of which is made up of 90 percent Sunnis. Several dozen members of a family that had converted in recent years from the Sunni faith to Shia Islam were slaughtered. Also among the dead were members of the Alawite family Shomaliya and the family of a Sunni member of parliament who was regarded as a collaborator. Immediately after the massacre, the offenders are said to have filmed their victims, calling them Sunni victims and distributed the videos via the Internet.”

To date, the full story of what happened at Houla remains unclear and hotly disputed – but it seems likely at the least that the rebels played a role. Similarly, sources from the Jacob Monastery in Qara told Dutch journalist Martin Jannsen that armed rebels had murdered “entire Alawi families” in the village of Taldo in the Houla region. In one case, rebels piled the bodies of dead soldiers and civilians in front of the mosque and told UN observers their version of the massacre. In early April, Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix of the Monastery recorded in an open letter that rebel atrocities were being wrongfully repackaged in media accounts as regime atrocities. Rebels had, for instance, gathered Christian and Alawi hostages in a building in Khalidiya, Homs, which was blown up with dynamite and blamed on Assad’s troops. “Even though this act has been attributed to regular army forces,” she wrote, “the evidence and testimony are irrefutable: It was an operation undertaken by armed groups affiliated with the opposition.” Indeed, 90 percent of Christians in Homs – over 50,000 people – fled after “their homes have been attacked and seized by “fanatics” with links to al-Qaida” according to the Catholic News Agency.

It is, therefore, far from clear that the FSA represents the sentiments of Syrian civil society. Even its civilian benefactor, the Syrian National Council (SNC) – an umbrella body for Syrian opposition groups formally recognized by the West as “a legitimate representative of all Syrians” – is “undemocratic,” merely a “liberal front for the Muslim Brotherhood” according to Kamal Labwani, who resigned from his SNC post earlier this year. Labwani slammed the Council’s drift away from “democracy and modernity … towards a renewed form of [religious] despotism,” a complaint corroborated by activists on the ground, including the Council’s own Local Coordination Committees. “One day we will wake up to find an armed militia … controlling the country through their weapons,” warned Labwani.

How liberal democracy will emerge from this process is difficult to imagine. The Syrian people – the driving force of the peaceful protests against Assad’s regime – are faced with a “choice” between Assad’s brutal dictatorship and US-sponsored Islamist rebel militants allied with an exiled Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition. They have become unwitting pawns on a geopolitical chessboard in which the principal players – the US, Iran, Russia and China – are fighting a proxy war for strategic influence.

For the US and UK, the three main goals are complementary and interlocking: firstly, to shore up Washington’s autocratic “guardians” of the old regional petroleum order in the Gulf against expanding Iranian power, and to defuse the impact of popular uprisings in the wider region; secondly, to counter the growing reach of traditional rivals Russia and China into the Middle East and Mediterranean; and thirdly, to protect Israel against Iranian influence in the Levant through Syria.

But just as the West’s Islamist gambit during the cold war (and after) paved the way for the global acceleration of al-Qaeda’s operations, the implications of this ill-conceived strategy will be even more devastating. It will intensify sectarian conflict, escalate anti-Western terrorist operations and potentially destabilize the whole Levant.

It is not too late to reverse course. Foreign powers should unequivocally cease all support to both Assad and the rebels. Maximum pressure using all reasonable diplomatic, economic, and other mechanisms must be exerted on both sides to demilitarize the situation and encourage each to enter into meaningful negotiations, so far scuppered by international geopolitics.

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