The US In Syria and the Rationalization that Ate the Sober Web

There’s been much debate over how to understand a 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency document describing efforts by the US coalition and conditions on the ground in Syria. The document showed startling prescience about the emergence of ISIS in Syria out of AQI support and its intention to claim historic territory in Iraq. Indeed, the events in the Syrian War have unfolded almost exactly as the document analyzes.

(For a full transcription of the document courtesy of US Middle East intelligence analyst Juan Cole, scroll to the bottom of the page. A link to the document.)

The document, from 2012, stated “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia, China and Iran support the regime” and described the likely “development of the current events into a proxy war” in Syria.

Headlines today read Obama says he won’t be drawn into ‘proxy war’ with Russia over Syria, implicating Russia as the aggressor.

When the document was published, several news outlets ran stories about the US coalition’s support for opposition fighters in Syria, implying that the coalition in fact had been supporting the elements that became ISIS.

DailyBeast ran a story called “America’s Allies are Funding ISIS“. Details came to light concerning the covert funding and arming of Syrian extremists including al-Fatah and al-Nusra by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and the training, funding and transport of arms to ISIS from Turkey in pursuit of strategic objectives, and the support of ISIS by Saudi Arabia, with anonymous Washington officials indicating support from independent Qatari and Saudi donors.

Now the truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq, wrote The Guardian as Michael Flynn, former head of the DIA, indicated on al-Jazeera that policies for the support of Salafist factions to isolate the Assad regime came down from Mr. President Obama himself out of the White House. Moreover, the illegal international running of arms out of Benghazi was dropped as it’s own scandal and officials and journalists began to link the Benghazi arms running operation to US support of weapons ISIS and AQI in Syria. The Medium reported The US Government’s Not-So-Secret Support for al-Qaeda and ISIS. Jeffrey Kuhner at the Washington Times deserves credit for pre-empting this coverage by reporting in 2013 How Obama arms al Qaeda.

DailyBeast quickly ran a counterstory: The ISIS Conspiracy that Ate the Web. In the story, former intelligence analyst turned writer for domestic media Jacob Seigel provided a counter-narrative interpretation of the document. Seigel quotes the important parts of the document indicating coalition support for terrorism. Siegel even links to Joe Biden’s account, where Biden expressed regret that coalition allies supported extremist elements in Syria – also indicating that no anti-Assad moderate forces ever really existed.

Yet Seigel cast aspersion on the idea that the Obama administration itself supported ISIS, AQI, or Salafism in Syria. Seigel makes the following counterarguments to the US-support-of-extremism analysis:

  1. The report isn’t a policy decision – just an analysis of facts on the ground. Despite it’s indication that the coalition found the prospect of supporting terrorists in Syria strategically valuable – it did not indicate that this was a policy decision enshrined by the White House.
  2. The report has no indication of being special or otherwise a turnkey piece of analysis. He quotes an official who suggests the document is routine and unremarkable. He notes that the document itself is half redacted.
  3. Seigel notes that the document does not list the United States as a backer of the opposition – only that Turkey and the Gulf States and “The West” are. He motions with an appeal to absurdity that the US wouldn’t support terrorism – that this is reason to believe that “The West” doesn’t intend include the US. Seigel then suggests that, if you take that point, you can understand the document as describing unruly partners in the Middle East and a conspiratorial Europe bucking the the nobler intentions of the United States.
  4. The report references ‘the opposition’ and ‘salafists’ but does not go on to specify which opposition and which salafists.
  5. He notes that the document predicts ISIS fighters would claim territory in Iraq in addition to Syria. And that the US wouldn’t have wanted this to happen and so would never have endorsed such a policy.

Let’s go through those one by one. Seigel very rightly points out that the document is not a policy directive – that it merely describes the situation on the ground. Unfortunately he overstates his case. He closes his essay with a variation of this argument: “The Obama administration, whatever the faults of its policies towards Syria and ISIS, wasn’t weighing any decisions based on a single seven-page document. Or six pages, if you count the cover sheet.”

Seigel’s argument marginalizes the material and information inside the document about the strategic value of bolstering terrorism to take down Assad – in favor of downplaying the size of the document and noting that only one document was received by the lawsuit, compared to the thousand other intelligence community documents that would have assuredly been informative to policy.

Seigel’s first argument is inconsistent with his second. He magnifies the voice of John Schindler who he quotes as saying about the document “nothing special here, not one bit.” Indeed, it’s highly unlikely that this document was the only one with information about the actors on the ground, about the opportunity to support those actors, and the implications of doing so. This is precisely what the intelligence community is in charge of providing for policy makers. Of the dozen or so documents that would have been produced by the DIA on Syria at this time, it’s very likely that most of the reports rhymed with the contents of this one.

To understand what policy was in effect, and whether the analysis made available by this document and others played into policy decisions, we need not speculate as Seigel tries to do. The former director of the Department of Defense’s intelligence agency agreed to an interview with Mehdi Hasan of al-Jazeera where he stated that not only did he remember this specific document, but that policy decisions to pursue the support of terrorist cells in Syria were not his but belonged to those at the top of the executive branch. Of course, the article also fails to address the journalism enumerating the coalition’s support for terrorism in Syria – it merely argues that the DIA document alone doesn’t establish it. Drawing from from the DIA report, statements made by the head of DoD intelligence, the journalism enumerating coalition funding, arming and training inform us of the policy decisions without needing to theorize and speculate the way Seigel encourages us to do.

Those familiar with the United States’ history of support of terrorism, recently in related events in Libya, Yemen and Somalia, but also through its entire imperial history in the Middle East, Central Asia and South America will find no surprise that this document is unremarkable intelligence. The intelligence report is a (redacted) sample of the everyday workings of what the document itself describes as a developing proxy war.

The third argument is difficult to take seriously. Its premise is that the US isn’t enumerated when the document specifies that the proxy war is divided by “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia. China, and Iran support the regime.” Very clearly the United States supports the opposition to the Syrian regime and is allied against Iran and Russia and has been voting almost exclusively in the UN Security Council against China. The US allegiance to Turkey, the EU, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates is clear: these are precisely the major allies of the coalition. Could the document have meant that Europe, but not the US, wanted to isolate Assad by magnifying terrorist activity in its shores?

Let’s pretend that we can grant Seigel this one. That the support of terrorism, in fact ISIS, was a policy pursued by everyone in the coalition with the exception of America. Wouldn’t that mean that the coalition betrayed the US – given how its stated mission is to “degrade and defeat ISIS”? And shouldn’t that mean that the US needs to sanction the West, Turkey and the Gulf Countries – as it is required to do by international law (and indeed by Federal law)? The argument that the United States was blissfully unaware of or helpless to stop its allies export terrorism and then failed to uphold the law is a nice sentiment if you believe that the world’s most powerful country could somehow be victim to such a thing, but otherwise the word parsing required to exclude the US from “the West” is pure fear, uncertainty and doubt.

The argument is also concerned with how to understand the term ‘Salafist’ and ‘opposition’. It’s author rightly points out that there are many Salafist factions that could have been intended by the document. Put aside for now the fact that no real moderate opposition has ever existed in Syria in any significant number with various initiatives to build or sustain them fail as a rule of thumb; put aside for now that there is even an inside joke at the Pentagon that goes “Q: Where are the moderate forces? A: In another country“. We can infer quite easy from the content of the document, based on its details and its timeline, who the opposition and the Salafists being discussed are.

The document clearly states:

AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) SUPPORTED THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION FROM THE BEGINNING

THE REGIME DECREASED ITS CONCENTRATION IN AREAS ADJACENT TO THE IRAQI BORDERS (AL HASAKA AND DER ZOR).

OPPOSITION FORCES ARE TRYING TO CONTROL THE EASTERN AREAS (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), ADJACENT TO THE WESTERN IRAQI PROVINCES (MOSUL AND ANBAR), IN ADDITION TO NEIGHBORING TURKISH BORDERS. WESTERN COUNTRIES, THE GULF STATES AND TURKEY ARE SUPPORTING THESE EFFORTS

The one sentence that indicated a specific group (Syrian Free Army) made explicit motions to do so.

Those following the Syrian war know that the battle of Hasaka was between Syrian Regime forces, which had indeed decreased its concentration there, with ISIS trying to take and control the territory. The result of the battle was a defeat of Syrian Regime forces and a successive oust of ISIS by the Kurdish YPG.

Clashes continued for the third consecutive day between pro-Assad army forces –backed by militias of the National Defense– and militants of the radical group of Islamic State (ISIS) in the eastern countryside of Hasakah, northeastern Syria, local sources reported on Saturday.

Speaking to ARA News in Hasakah, media activist Muwaffaq Aziz reported that ISIS militants have been striving for days to break into the regime-held military base of Mount Kawkab, in eastern Hasakah.

Kawkab is the largest military camp held by pro-Assad forces in Hasakah province.

– Ahmed Shiwesh of Aranews reports

But what of the opposition fighters in Der Zor? They too were, and are, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In April of 2014, ISIS invaded al-Bukamal, fighting with al-Nusra (AQI-affiliated) rebels to establish territory. In May, ISIS captured Western Der Zor and in June not only East Der Zor, but also absorbed the Western backed al-Qaeda affiliated rebels and Syria’s largest oil field.

In December 2014 ISIS attempted to take the military airfields in Der Zor, but were repelled by Syrian government forces – but not after causing a large number of casualties. ISIS’s reign of Der Zor has been weakening, and in March of this year US special forces assassinated a local military leader and detained his wife for torture and interrogation.

Why is it that ISIS’s movements to control the Eastern areas of Hasaka and Der Zor, along adjacent to the Western Iraqi provinces (Mosul and Anbar)? Why is it that ISIS has established control of these cities and neighboring Turkish borders?

Here’s a map of Free Syrian Army territory drawn by the same Juan Cole who provided a transcription of the document PDF.

Seigel suggests the document may refer to Ahrar al-Sham. Let’s pretend for a minute that they were present in the territories previously mentioned, Hasaka and Der Zor and Mosul and Anbar and the border regions in Iraq, as is actually the case for the Islamic State. Ahrar al-Sham is sister organization of al-Qaeda and has been involved in chemical weapons and who aims to install Sharia law. Yes Ahrar al-Sham has recieved military support from Turkey and the Gulf countries. Seigel’s offering that it could have been Suqoor al-Sham meet similar ends quickly.

Even if we were to invoke the necessary suspension of disbelief necessary to buy that some other factional force was being referred to by the report, the immediate implication seems to be that the document isn’t talking about the coalition supporting ISIS, but instead al-Qaeda.

But if we take Salafists to mean ISIS, the report describes more or less what happened with the Islamic State establishing itself in eastern Syria before expanding over the border from eastern Syria into Iraq. It provides, as right-wingers incensed by the government’s failure to heed it have noted, an accurate if limited prediction of what was in store for the region as ISIS began consolidating its power in 2012. But it’s the second part—“this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want— that’s been grist for conspiracy theorists who think they’ve finally found proof that ISIS is essentially a U.S. plot.

– Seigel

The author himself acknowledges that the report is not only consistent with ISIS, but eerily predictive. This is where he suggests that “the West” probably didn’t mean the US.

And so we come to the final argument: since US led coalition support for Sunni terrorism would have exacerbated the Sunni situation in Iraq, the US would never have signed off to destabilize Syria and Iran, even if eliminating an Russian Alawite Shia client state would strengthen Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, weaken Iran and Russia, eliminate Russian access to the Mediterranean, allow the blocked Saudi-Turkey oil pipeline to provide Europe with energy security, and open Europe and the West up to a globalizing Eurasia, while eliminating seeds of Arab Nationalism that has sought independence from superpower poles.

The American strategy, described as a success by the Obama administration, has involved operations against ISIS almost exclusively in Iraq until very recently, keeping the Islamic State from moving Eastward outside of tribal Sunni areas where they are able to recruit in Syria but not post an immediate direct thread to Baghdad. The recent, and relatively small, airstrikes in Syria have overall been ineffective at defeating – indeed degrading – ISIL. Iraq’s US-installed government has not been able to fend off ISIS on its own (it recently had its military and defense regime obliterated) and has needed to become a US protectorate, under which Iraq agrees to conditions imposed by the US including sphere of influence ultimatums reminiscent of the Cold War.

That hasn’t left Obama without critics. Foreign policy analysts, military officials, and members of both sides of the aisle in Washington have questioned both whether Obama’s Syria strategy would be effective or whether there exists a strategy at all. The administration had thought that it could recreate Libya – fund and arm terrorism or accidentally hand military gear to rebel hands along with revolution to get the regime to impose some form of martial law – use the resulting human rights violations to justify a military intervention – find local factions to ‘hand’ victories won with special forces – and engineer with this new ‘freedom fighter government’ a positive security and political relationship.

But Syria isn’t Libya. In Libya, most factional forces were united. There was a greater international consensus, and the US arranged a deal with Russia to vote for regime change. In Syria, infighting among the groups, while it may allow the US to oust Assad through a diplomatic track, has left it without a group to fill the vacuum. The groups remaining are the Kurds and Islamists – the former of which won’t fly with Turkey and the latter can’t meet the definition of moderate the way Washington uses extremist as a synonym for nationalist.

Seigel’s attempted refutations, while honorable in duty and faith in the US as the rightful leader of the world and champion of all things good and beautiful, just don’t hold water. Some of them, like the suggestion the West doesn’t include the US, could even be called silly. The United States support of rebel fighters to overthrow governments for strategic purposes is well known. To other countries and powers our rebels who seek their overthrow from power, who in the amoral fervor and abyss of war behead and dismember and cannibalize bodies of enemies, are terrorists. We don’t even have to boo it, if the officials are afraid of what the reputation would mean for soft power. Think of how quickly the American people have forgotten about the illegal war in Iraq, the CIA torture program, global mass surveillance and the global financial crisis.


The full document:

DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE – CLASSIFICATION: SECRET.
INFORMATION REPORT, NOT FINALLY EVALUATED INTELLIGENCE.
COUNTRY: (U) IRAQ (IRQ). DOI: (U) 20120730.
1. {REDACTED}
2. {REDACTED}
THE GENERAL SITUATION:

A. INTERNALLY, EVENTS ARE TAKING A CLEAR SECTARIAN DIRECTION.

B. THE SALAFIST,- THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, AND AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] ARE THE MAJOR FORCES DRIVING THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA.

C. THE WEST, GULF COUNTRIES, AND TURKEY SUPPORT THE OPPOSITION; WHILE RUSSIA. CHINA, AND IRAN SUPPORT THE REGIME.

D. {REDACTED}

E. THE REGIME’S PRIORITY IS TO CONCENTRATE ITS PRESENCE IN AREAS ALONG THE COAST (TARTUS, AND LATAKIA); HOWEVER, IT HAS NOT ABANDONED HOMS BECAUSE IT CONTROLS THE MAJOR TRANSPORTATION ROUTES IN SYRIA. THE REGIME DECREASED ITS CONCENTRATION IN AREAS ADJACENT TO THE IRAQI BORDERS (AL HASAKA AND DER ZOR).
3. AL QAEDA – IRAQ (AQI):

A. AQI IS FAMILIAR WITH SYRIA. AQI TRAINED IN SYRIA AND THEN INFILTRATED INTO IRAQ.

B. AQI 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.

C. AQI CONDUCTED A NUMBER OF OPERATIONS IN SEVERAL SYRIAN CITIES UNDER THE NAME OF JAISH AL NUSRA (VICTORIOUS ARMY), ONE OF ITS AFFILIATES.

D. AQI, THROUGH THE SPOKESMAN OF THE ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ (ISI), ABU MUHAMMAD AL ADNANI, DECLARED THE SYRIAN REGIME AS THE SPEARHEAD OF WHAT HE IS NAMING JIBHA AL RUWAFDH (FOREFRONT OF THE SHIITES) BECAUSE OF ITS {THE SYRIAN REGIME) DECLARATION OF WAR ON THE SUNNIS.

ADDITIONALLY. HE IS CALLING ON THE SUNNIS IN IRAQ, ESPECIALLY THE TRIBES IN THE BORDER REGIONS (BETWEEN IRAQ AND SYRIA), TO WAGE WAR AGAINST THE SYRIAN REGIME, REGARDING SYRIA AS AN INFIDEL REGIME FOR ITS SUPPORT TO THE INFIDEL PARTY HEZBOLLAH, AND OTHER REGIMES HE CONSIDERS DISSENTERS LIKE IRAN AND IRAQ.

E. AQI CONSIDERS THE SUNNI ISSUE IN IRAQ TO BE FATEFULLY CONNECTED TO THE SUNNI ARABS AND MUSLIMS.

4. THE BORDERS:

A. THE BORDERS BETWEEN SYRIA AND IRAQ STRETCH APPROXIMATELY 600KM WITH COMPLEX TERRAIN CONSISTING OF A VAST DESERT, MOUNTAIN RANGES (SINJAR MOUNTAINS). JOINT RIVERS (FLOWING ON BOTH SIDES), AND AGRICULTURAL LANDS.

B. IRAQ DIRECTLY NEIGHBORS THE SYRIAN PROVINCES OF HASAKA AND DER ZOR, AS WELL AS (SYRIAN) CITIES ADJACENT TO THE IRAQI BORDER.

C. THE LAND ON BOTH SIDES BETWEEN IRAQ AND SYRIA IS A VAST DESERT PUNCTUATED BY VALLEYS, AND IT LACKS TRANSPORTATION ROUTES, WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE INTERNATIONAL HIGHWAY AND SOME MAJOR CITIES.

5. THE POPULATION LIVING ON THE BORDER:

A. THE POPULATION LIVING ON THE BORDER HAS A SOCIAL-TRIBAL STYLE, WHICH IS BOUND BY STRONG TRIBAL AND FAMILIAL MARITAL TIES.

B. THEIR SECTARIAN AFFILIATION UNITES THE TWO SIDES WHEN EVENTS HAPPEN IN THE REGION.

C. AQI HAD MAJOR POCKETS AND BASES ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BORDER TO FACILITATE THE FLOW OF MATERIAL AND RECRUITS.

D. THERE WAS A REGRESSION OF AQI JN THE WESTERN PROVINCES OF IRAQ DURING TI-IE YEARS OF 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 SUNNI’S IN SYRIA.

6. THE SITUATION ON THE IRAQI AND SYRIAN BORDER:

A. THREE BORDER BDES ARE SUFFICIENT TO CONTROL THE BORDERS DURING PEACE TIME FOR OBSERVATION DUTIES AND TO PREVENT SMUGGLING AND INFILTRATION.

B. {REDACTED}

C. IN PREVIOUS YEARS A MAJORITY OF AQI FIGHTERS ENTERED IRAQ PRIMARILY VIA THE SYRIAN BORDER.

7. THE FUTURE ASSUMPTIONS OF THE CRISIS:

A. THE REGIME WILL SURVIVE AND HAVE CONTROL OVER SYRIAN TERRITORY.

B. DEVELOPMENT OF THE CURRENT EVENTS INTO PROXY WAR: WITH SUPPORT FROM RUSSIA, CHINA, AND IRAN, THE REGIME IS CONTROLLING THE AREAS OF INFLUENCE ALONG COASTAL TERRITORIES (TARTUS AND LATAKIA), AND IS FIERCELY DEFENDING HOMS, WHICH IS CONSIDERED THE PRIMARY TRANSPORTATION ROUTE IN SYRIA. ON THE OTHER HAND, OPPOSITION FORCES ARE TRYING TO CONTROL THE EASTERN AREAS (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), ADJACENT TO THE WESTERN IRAQI PROVINCES (MOSUL AND ANBAR), IN ADDITION TO NEIGHBORING TURKISH BORDERS. WESTERN COUNTRIES, THE GULF STATES AND TURKEY ARE SUPPORTING THESE EFFORTS. THIS HYPOTHESIS IS MOST LIKELY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE DATA FROM RECENT EVENTS, WHICH WILL HELP PREPARE SAFE HAVENS UNDER INTERNATIONAL SHELTERING, SIMILAR TO WHAT TRANSPIRED IN LIBYA WHEN BENGHAZI WAS CHOSEN AS THE COMMAND CENTER OF THE TEMPORARY GOVERNMENT.

8. THE EFFECTS ON IRAQ:

A. {REDACTED} SYRIAN REGIME BORDER FORCES RETREATED FROM THE BORDER AND THE OPPOSITION FORCES (SYRIAN FREE ARMY) TOOK OVER THE POSTS AND RAISED THEIR FLAG. THE IRAQI BORDER GUARD FORCES ARE FACING A BORDER WITH SYRIA THAT IS NOT GUARDED BY OFFICIAL ELEMENTS WHICH PRESENTS A DANGEROUS AND SERIOUS THREAT.

B. THE OPPOSITION FORCES WILL TRY TO USE THE IRAQI TERRITORY AS A SAFE HAVEN FOR ITS FORCES TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE SYMPATHY OF THE IRAQI BORDER POPULATION, MEANWHILE TRYING TO RECRUIT FIGHTERS AND TRAIN THEM ON THE IRAQI SIDE, IN ADDITION TO HARBORING REFUGEES (SYRIA).

C. IF THE SITUATION UNRAVELS THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF ESTABLISHING A DECLARED OR UNDECLARED SALAFIST PRINCIPALITY IN EASTERN SYRIA (HASAKA AND DER ZOR), AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE SUPPORTING POWERS TO THE OPPOSITION WANT, IN ORDER TO ISOLATE THE SYRIAN REGIME, WHICH IS CONSIDERED THE STRATEGIC DEPTH OF THE SHiA EXPANSION (IRAQ AND IRAN).

D. THE DETERIORATION OF THE SITUATION HAS DIRE CONSEQUENCES ON THE IRAQI SITUATION AND ARE AS FOLLOWS:

1. THIS CREATES THE IDEAL ATMOSPHERE FOR AQI TO RETURN TO ITS OLD POCKETS IN MOSUL AND RAMADI, AND WILL PROVIDE A RENEWED MOMENTUM UNDER THE PRESUMPTION OF UNIFYING THE JIHAD AMONG SUNNI IRAQ AND SYRIA, AND THE REST OF THE SUNNIS IN THE ARAB WORLD AGAINST WHAT IT CONSIDERS ONE ENEMY, THE DISSENTERS. ISI COULD ALSO DECLARE AN ISLAMIC STATE THROUGH ITS UNION WITH OTHER TERRORIST ORGANIZATIONS IN IRAQ AND SYRIA, WHICH WILL CREATE GRAVE DANGER IN REGARDS TO UNIFYING IRAQ AND THE PROTECTION OF ITS TERRITORY.

2. {REDACTED}

3. THE RENEWING FACILITATION OF TERRORIST ELEMENTS FROM ALL OVER THE ARAB WORLD ENTERING INTO THE IRAQ AREA.

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