Again on allegations that the US has armed the FSA since 2012
By Michael Karadjis
Ian Sinclair, in an article entitled “It never happened – US intervention in Syria” (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/ian-sinclair/us-syria_b_5859930.html), writes:
“So to summarise, in mid-2012 the most influential newspaper in the world reported that the US was helping to arm the rebels,” and then goes to quote other sources that the US was not itself arming the rebels. His point being that although some mainstream media have already written what he thinks is the ‘truth,” most continue to deny this “truth.”
In reality, it is true that the US has not armed the FSA. As for the first part of his summary, regarding what the “most influential newspaper in the world” allegedly said, it all depends what “helping” to arm means, and the nature of this “help.”
At the end of his piece, Sinclair even throws that tiny bit of caution to the wind, criticising the western media for “refusing to inform their readers that *the US has been arming the rebels* in Syria since 2012.”
To be blunt, I believe that Sinclair, like many others, needs to “learn to read.”
The contention those who have actually studied the war have made is that the US never sent arms to the FSA. The articles Sinclair links to do not belie that. In none of the articles is the US providing arms.
No-one ever suggested that the US, as sensible (sometimes) imperialists, would not do what they could to co-opt any movement if it could. After all, for what is all the non-lethal aid that the US has supplied parts of the FSA – the tents, radios, night goggles and “ready-meals”, meant, presumably to fight MiG killer jets, ballistic missiles, barrel bombs etc – if not to try to co-opt whoever they can?
And so to summarise, the articles reveal that during 2012, the US became concerned about an existing “arms pipeline”, apparently set up via Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood networks, from Libya to bases in Turkey, and so moved in the CIA to try to control it, via limiting quantities of arms that got into Syria, ensuring the arms didn’t go to anyone the US didn’t like, and ensuring advanced weapons, especially anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, didn’t get to anyone. Thus the operation Sinclair talks about was a limiting operation.
When reading media reports from the time, what stands out is the glaring contradiction between certain reports of massive Saudi and Qatari (not US) arms being sent to Turkey and Jordan, and the constant reports from rebels on the ground that very little actually got into Syria.
For example, an article on the role of the CIA in Turkey (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/25/world/middleeast/arms-airlift-to-syrian-rebels-expands-with-cia-aid.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0) claimed the arms airlift from the Gulf “has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes” landing in Turkey or Jordan since early 2012, estimated to be 3500 tons of military equipment.
Yet on the ground we read:
“Still, rebel commanders have criticized the shipments as insufficient, saying the quantities of weapons they receive are too small and the types too light to fight Mr. Assad’s military effectively … ‘The outside countries give us weapons and bullets little by little’, said Abdel Rahman Ayachi, a commander in Soquor al-Sham, an Islamist fighting group in northern Syria. He made a gesture as if switching on and off a tap. ‘They open and they close the way to the bullets like water’, he said.”
Thus rhetoric about “massive” quantities of arms going to the rebels from the Gulf and “escalating the war” needs to be taken with entire silos full of salt. What then is behind this apparent contradiction?
The article “Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With Aid From C.I.A.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/25/world/middleeast/arms-airlift-to-syrian-rebels-expands-with-cia-aid.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0) from the March 24 New York Times, has often been quoted by those who want to show that the US is already involved. And the article does show this. But what it also shows about the US is far from what those highlighting this often want to show. Indeed, it is the CIA’s role in this operation that precisely explains the contradiction noted. One need go no further than the article itself, which describes the CIA’s specific role in the following terms:
“The C.I.A. role in facilitating the shipments, he said, gave the United States a degree of influence over the process, including trying to steer weapons away from Islamist groups and persuading donors to withhold portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft. “These countries were going to do it one way or another”, the former official said. “They weren’t asking for a ‘Mother, may I?’ from us.”
“But the rebels were clamoring for even more weapons, continuing to assert that they lacked the firepower to fight a military armed with tanks, artillery, multiple rocket launchers and aircraft. Many were also complaining, saying they were hearing from arms donors that the Obama administration was limiting their supplies and blocking the distribution of the antiaircraft and anti-armor weapons they most sought.”
To summarise the article: the arming of the Syrian rebels was a Saudi-Qatari initiative, who were not asking US permission; the US steps in to help “coordinate” it by “limiting supplies”, “steering weapons away” from groups they don’t like, and making sure that none of the weapons the rebels actually needed to fight Assad’s heavy weaponry, e.g. anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, got through to the rebels.
Yes, that’s what happens when you actually read the article. But to make the point even stronger we can look at other articles from the period.
For example, a report by Nour Malas in the Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443684104578062842929673074.html) was even more explicit, pointing out that “the Pentagon and CIA ramped up their presence on Turkey’s southern border” precisely after more weapons began to flow in to the rebels in mid-2012, especially small numbers of portable anti-aircraft weapons (Manpads), some from Libya, “smuggled into the country through the Turkish border”, others “supplied by militant Palestinian factions now supporting the Syrian uprising and smuggled in through the Lebanese border”, or some even bought from regime forces.
“In July, the U.S. effectively halted the delivery of at least 18 Manpads sourced from Libya, even as the rebels pleaded for more effective antiaircraft missiles to counter regime airstrikes in Aleppo, people familiar with that delivery said.”
Exactly. So, if in doubt, “knee-jerk anti-imperialists” can do this little test. I’ll do it with you:
Q1: Do you, as a good anti-imperialist, believe the US/CIA should have got right out of this operation in Turkey referred to here?
A: From me: Yes. From you? I assume as anti-imperialists, Yes.
Q2: What would have been the effects of such a withdrawal?
A: I don’t need your opinion for Q2, the answer is factual: greater quantities of weapons would have got into Syria from Turkey or Jordan; a greater variety of rebel groups would have got these weapons without US “vetting”; actually useful to the rebels weapons, namely anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, would have got through to the rebels.
Q3: Given the answer to Q2, do you still have the same answer to Q1?
A: Me: Of course, that is what I want. You: I wouldn’t have a clue. You work out your confusion.
Interestingly, the situation in the south, in Jordan, was if anything worse, and an interesting prelude to the sharp US-Saudi spat we saw late 2013. Not because the Saudis wanted to arm Islamists and the US said no – the US has always said no to arming Islamists, but that’s a different question – but because the US went out of its way to block the Saudis sending their weapons in Jordanian storehouses to the secular FSA southern resistance:
“While Saudi Arabia has built up large stockpiles of arms and ammunition for the Free Syrian Army, the US blocked shipments until last Thursday. The US and the Saudis are involved in a multilateral effort to support the insurgency from Jordanian bases. But, according to the sources, Washington had not only failed to supply “a single rifle or bullet to the FSA in Daraa” but had actively prevented deliveries, apparently because of concerns over which factions would receive the weapons. The situation also appears to be complicated by Jordan’s fears that arms might find their way back into the Kingdom and contribute to instability there. The sources said the Saudi-backed weapons and ammunition are in warehouses in Jordan, and insurgents in Daraa and Damascus could be supplied “within hours” with anti-tank rockets and ammunition. The Saudis also have more weapons ready for airlift into Jordan, but US representatives are preventing this at the moment” (http://eaworldview.com/2013/06/23/syria-special-the-us-saudi-conflict-over-arms-to-insurgents).
This report, incidentally, makes clear that the famous incident of the glaring failure of the exile-based military leadership in Jordan to supply weapons to the rebels in a strategic south Syrian town that the Assad regime then conquered, around mid-2013, was directly due to US pressure.
Despite all this, once can’t but help notice that one of the pieces Sinclair “quotes”, while still not directly saying the US sent arms, seems to say that the US actually delivered these non-US arms directly to the rebels. Sinclair writes:
“In June 2012 the New York Times, published a report headed ‘CIA Said To Aid In Steering Arms To Syrian Opposition.’ According to the report ‘a small number of CIA officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey’ coordinating the delivery of arms to rebels in Syria, including ‘automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons’.”
You note where Sinclair carefully drops the quote marks. The way he has constructed this sentence can make it mean whatever anyone wants. It is obvious what Sinclair wants it to mean. Better however to go to the source. It says:
“A small number of C.I.A. officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, according to American officials and Arab intelligence officers.
“The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said.”
Thus, others, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were distributing the weapons, already distributing to the rebels before the CIA showed up, indeed got the actual weapons to Turkey in the first place . The only role of the CIA, once it later showed up, was to try to influence the process of who gets the weapons and who doesn’t. As the article further elaborates:
“The C.I.A. officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior American official said.”
Another article, “U.S. Bolsters Ties to Fighters in Syria” (The Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303410404577464763551149048?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424052702303410404577464763551149048.html), usefully discusses some of the purposes of the operation:
“The U.S.’s stepped-up links with the FSA are also part of an effort to gain a better understanding of the rebels’ capabilities and of the identities and allegiances of fighters spread in disparate groups across the country, the U.S. officials said. The U.S. officials remain wary of some rebels’ suspected ties to hard-line Islamists, including elements of al Qaeda …” Some of [this communication] is dedicated to figuring out who these people are by talking to them,” said a U.S. official briefed on Syria.” The article further down explains that the US is also concerned about the role the Muslim Brotherhood was playing in the conflict, ie, the very organisation allegedly involved in the pipeline.
More on that murky 2012 stuff on the Turkish border, I think this article from the Australian (originally from Sunday Times) gets the emphasis right, as can be seen from the title: ‘CIA polices weapons entry to Syria as spooks invade Turkey’ (John Follain and Tony Allen-Mills, August 13, 2012, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/cia-polices-weapons-entry-to-syria-as-spooks-invade-turkey/story-fnb64oi6-1226448705909). The article reads in part:
“Despite mounting calls in Washington for a more aggressive US military role in Syria, the CIA has been quietly working along its northern border with Turkey to limit the supplies of weapons and ammunition reaching rebel forces, Syrian opposition officials say.
“Over the past 10 months, a Syrian opposition official told The Sunday Times, the CIA has blocked shipments of heavy anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, which rebel units of the Free Syrian Army have long said are vital to their efforts to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. At the same time they have approved supplies of AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles, and just over a month ago gave the green light to a shipment of 10,000 Russian-made rocket-propelled grenades.
“The weapons are either bought on the black market in Istanbul or supplied by the rebels’ allies in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“Yet rebel frustration is mounting at the CIA’s reluctance to allow heavy weaponry across the border for fear that it may eventually be used against America’s allies.
“The RPGs aren’t enough,” the opposition official said. “You have to be close to the tank to make any impact, and often the fighter using it gets killed” (probably the CIA’s aim – MK)
“Bob Grenier, a former director of the CIA counter-terrorism centre, said the CIA’s policing activities along the border were intended to protect the administration from future embarrassment if the rebel groups it supported turned out to be hostile to Israel or the US should they gain power. “It would not be good if it was later established that weapons reached people identified with al-Qa’ida, and we could have done something about it,” he said.
“The CIA vetoes al-Qa’ida and it’s not very keen on the Muslim Brotherhood,” a Syrian opposition official said.”
Where does all that leave Sinclair? I would say this is part of the well-discussed phenomenon of the decline of left journalism due to the Syria crisis, with reference to Cockburn, Fisk, Hersch and the like.
By the way, Harold Pinter, whose quote “It never happened” Sinclair uses to make his point, is dead, and has no way to defend himself from being associated with apologists for a fascist dictatorship that has killed 190,000 people and destroyed every city in its country just to keep a narrow mega-capitalist clique in power.
Sinclair ends his piece by claiming that “by so closely following the US and UK Governments’ preferred narrative, the media continues to minimise the US’s responsibility for the on-going carnage in Syria and the rise of Islamic State.”
Since this doesn’t make sense at all, I can only attempt to interpret it. I think he means that by arming the FSA, which he alleges (but fails to demonstrate) the US was doing “since 2012,” this led to the rise of ISIS, because he is shameless enough (like countless other “left”, right and mainstream imperialist journalists) to try to shove together the secular FSA, the moderate Islamist groups, harder Islamists, al-Qaida and ISIS as all much the same thing. He apparently believes, like most imperialist media by the way, that everyone fighting in Syria against the regime is a “jihadist”, some more open than others, that anti-Assad Syrians are by definition all “extremists,” that there cannot be such a thing as an anti-Assad “moderate,” that if you give a gun to an Arab moderate he will automatically give it to a jihadist, and other such breathtakingly racist and orientalist garbage.
The allegation is all the more disgusting given that it has only actually been the FSA and its allies that have fought ISIS, and earlier this year valiantly pushed ISIS out of large parts of Syria, at a cost of thousands of fighters’ lives. If only they did have the weapons Sinclair falsely alleges they have they could have done an even better job.
Question: why do people like Sinclair write things that simply don’t make sense? In fact, he answers this himself, just that he isn’t looking in the mirror when he does so:
“There is a certain discourse that becomes normalized, in which certain views are acceptable and others not.” In this atmosphere, if you make obvious factual statements “you are often marginalised as some sort of looney figure … It is through this process that the mainstream media basically becomes a tool of misinforming people, rather than informing people.”
Yes, not just the mainstream media, but its “anti-imperialist left” echo as well. Sinclair, for example, for repeating this imperialist propaganda that any arms sent to the FSA will inevitably fall into the hands of the jihadists.
Ironically for these “anti-imperialists,” from April 2014, the US actually did start to send a handful of TOW anti-tank missiles to a handful of FSA groups in the context of the FSA’s magnificent attack on ISIS from January 2014. The US had always insisted the FSA had to first attack ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra before the US would consider sending any arms. The FSA had always refused to be the “Sawha” (ie, the name of the Iraqi Sunni forces backed by the US and Saudis that defeated al-Qaida in Iraq in 2007-8). But since ISIS fascism became unbearable, the FSA went to war on ISIS from August 2013, and then the FSA and its allies decided, in January 2014, based on their own needs and not those of the US, to launch a nation-wide, coordinated, frontal attack on ISIS, with no military support from the US (but not on Nusra, which in fact joined the FSA/IF attack on ISIS).
So some months after this, the US, which had never armed them against Assad, decided it was time to test them out. The TOWs were never very many (here’s a good article on the reality of these shipments: http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-harakat-hazm-20140907-story.html#page=1); in some cases the US tried to get them to attack Nusra as well as ISIS, but they refused; in other cases they explicitly gave them weapons to fight ISIS only but not the regime (I have documented all this here: https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/iraq-and-syria-the-struggle-against-the-multi-sided-counterrevolution/).
The outcome of this? For brave, “anti-imperialist” leftists on their computers in the West, they would be sure this meant the FSA was now bought by the US, since they have bravely asserted this for years. And yet, virtually all the FSA and rebel units and coalitions on the ground, including virtually all the groups that got a few TOWs, have condemned the current US bombing of Syria as an attack on the revolution, and stand in solidarity (even if holding their noses) with Nusra, which came under US attack from the very first day of the US intervention “against ISIS.” Above all, the 7000-strong FSA militia Harakat Hazm – the first to famously receive TOWS in April 2014, discussed in that LA Times piece I just linked to – came out with the best and strongest anti-imperialist statement condemning the US bombings (see my new article detailing the reactions of the bulk of FSA and allied rebel units to these strikes: https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/syrian-rebels-overwhelmingly-condemn-us-bombing-as-an-attack-on-revolution/). No surprise, therefore, that Harakat Hazm stopped receiving US TOWs, and indeed, by the end of 2014, the TOW program as a whole had dwindled to nothing.
Revolutionaries that face the actual heat of the double battle against a fascist regime that dwarfs most of the Latin American tyrants of the 1970s-1980s, and a clerical-fascist ISIS as well, who have to make real decisions in these circumstances, receive a handful of half-useful arms after being starved of them for years against such massively armed opponents, and then when the US attacks their country “to help them” they take a principled revolutionary stance. Meanwhile other “revolutionaries” who have never had to make these kinds of decisions in their lives, and never will, content themselves with sitting back and condemning the revolutionaries in Syria for dirtying their hands by finally receiving a little something from the West (never mind that what they need for defense against the regime’s mostly air war is Manpads, which the US Congress explicitly forbade sending).
What is it that causes leftists to think that it is a big deal, that they should “expose,” if those fighting against such a mass-murderous, massively armed, fascist tyranny waging unlimited war on its population, get some arms that, I guess, they are “not supposed to” get? As I’ve repeatedly said, I’m in favour of them getting whatever weapons they can from whoever they can. Just as I would have been for the FSLN, FMLN, MIR, Tupumaros, and all the other Latin American armed movements that fought various lighter shades of Assadist regimes.
Hell, sometimes it was more than just a few arms. In 1994, the US invaded Haiti to bring the leftist Aristide back to power, overthrowing the Assadist-style Cedras tyranny. From memory, I don’t think that meant “revolutionaries” therefore backed Cedras and opposed Aristide. Even though Latin America had always been “easier” than the Middle East, this issue (and likewise the US invasion of Panama that ousted the CIA’s former stooge Noriega) showed even Latin America could be “complex.” A quarter of a century later, some are still confused.
We’ve come a long way when that is the distinction between revolutionaries and “revolutionaries”.