Why the U.S. Owns the Rise of Islamic State and
the Syria Disaster
By Gareth Porter
October 08, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "Truthdig"
- Pundits and politicians are already looking for a convenient
explanation for the twin Middle East disasters of the rise of
Islamic State and the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. The genuine
answer is politically unpalatable, because the primary cause of both
calamities is U.S. war and covert operations in the Middle East,
followed by the abdication of U.S. power and responsibility for
Syria policy to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni allies.
The emergence of a new state always involves a
complex of factors. But over the past three decades, U.S. covert
operations and war have entered repeatedly and powerfully into the
chain of causality leading to Islamic State’s present position.
The causal chain begins with the role of the U.S.
in creating a mujahedeen force to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan
in the 1980s. Osama bin Laden was a key facilitator in training that
force in Afghanistan. Without that reckless U.S. policy, the
blowback of the later creation of al-Qaida would very likely not
have occurred. But it was the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq
that made al-Qaida a significant political-military force for the
first time. The war drew Islamists to Iraq from all over the Middle
East, and their war of terrorism against Iraqi Shiites was a
precursor to the sectarian wars to follow.
The actual creation of Islamic State is also
directly linked to the Iraq War. The former U.S. commander at Camp
Bucca in Iraq
has acknowledged that the detention of 24,000 prisoners,
including hard-core al-Qaida cadres, Baathist officers and innocent
civilians, created a “pressure cooker for extremism.” It was during
their confinement in that camp during the U.S. troop surge in Iraq
2007 and 2008 that nine senior al-Qaida military cadres
planned the details of how they would create Islamic State.
The Obama administration completed the causal
chain by giving the green light to a major war in Syria waged by
well-armed and well-trained foreign jihadists. Although the Assad
regime undoubtedly responded to the firebombing of the Baath Party
headquarters in Daraa in mid-March 2011 with excessive force, an
armed struggle against the regime began almost immediately. In late
March or early April, a well-planned ambush of Syrian troops killed
at least two dozen soldiers near the same city. Other killings of
troops took place in April in other cities, including Daraa, where
19 soldiers were gunned down.
During the second half of 2011 and through 2012,
thousands of foreign jihadists streamed into Syria. As
early as November 2011, al-Qaida was playing a central role in
the war, carrying out spectacular suicide bombings in Damascus and
Aleppo. Obama should have reacted to the first indications of that
development and insisted that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar keep
external arms and military personnel and funding out of Syria in
order to allow a process of peaceful change to take place. Instead,
however, the administration became an integral part of a proxy war
for regime change.
reported last year that an unpublished addendum to the Senate
Intelligence Committee report on Benghazi revealed a covert CIA
operation to arm Syrian rebels, in cooperation with Sunni allies’
intelligence services. In early 2012, Hersh reported, following an
agreement with Turkey, then-CIA Director David Petraeus approved an
elaborate covert operation in which Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar
would fund the shipment of weapons to Syrian rebels from stocks
captured from the Gadhafi government. The scheme employed front
companies set up in Libya to manage the shipments of arms in order
to separate the U.S. government from the operation. An October 2012
Defense Intelligence Agency report released by the Department of
Defense to Judicial Watch
confirmed the shipments of Libyan weapons from the port of
Benghazi to two Syrian ports near Turkey beginning in October 2011
and continuing through August 2012.
A larger covert program involved a joint military
operations center in Istanbul, where CIA officers worked with
Turkish, Saudi and Qatari intelligence agencies that were also
providing arms to their favorite Syrian rebels groups, according to
talked with The Washington Post’s David Ignatius.
By November 2012, al-Qaida’s Syrian franchise, al-Nusra
Front, had 6,000 to 10,000 troops—mostly foreign fighters—under its
command and was regarded as the
most disciplined and effective fighting force in the field. The
CIA’s Gulf allies armed brigades that had allied themselves with al-Nusra—or
were ready to do so. A Qatari intelligence officer is said to have
declared, “I will send weapons to al-Qaeda if it will help” topple
The CIA officials overseeing the covert operation
knew very well what their Sunni allies were doing. After the U.S.
shipments from Benghazi stopped in September 2012 because of the
attack on the U.S. diplomatic post there,
a CIA analysis reminded President Obama that the covert
operation in Afghanistan had ended up creating a Frankenstein
monster. Even the now-famous account in Hillary Clinton’s 2014
memoirs about Obama rejecting a proposal in late 2012 from CIA
Director Petraeus for arming and training Syrian rebels does not
hide the fact that everyone was well aware of the danger that arms
sent to “moderates” would end up in the hands of terrorists.
Despite this, after rejecting Petraeus’ plan in
approved the covert training of “moderate” Syrian rebels in
April 2013. As the Pentagon has been forced to acknowledge in recent
weeks, that program has been a complete fiasco, as the units either
joined al-Nusra or were attacked by al-Nusra. Meanwhile, as Vice
Joe Biden pointed out in October 2014, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and
the United Arab Emirates were pouring “hundreds of millions of
dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons” into Syria that were
ending up in the hands of the jihadists.
Unfortunately, Biden’s complaint came two and a
half years too late. By October 2014, more than 15,000 foreign
fighters, including 2,000 Westerners,
were estimated to have gone to Syria. Islamic State and al-Nusra
Front emerged as the two major contenders for power in Syria once
Assad is overthrown, and the Saudis and Qataris were now ready to
place their bets on al-Nusra. In early 2015, after King Salman
inherited the Saudi throne, the three Sunni states began focusing
their support on al-Nusra and its military allies, encouraging them
to form a new military command, the “Army of Conquest.” The al-Nusra-led
front then captured Idlib province in March.
Obama, focusing on the Iran nuclear agreement, has
given no indication that he is troubled by his allies’ approach. If
the Bush administration destabilized Iraq in order to increase U.S.
military presence and power in the Middle East, the Obama
administration has countenanced a proxy war that has destabilized
and Syria because of his primary concern with consolidating the U.S.
alliances with the Saudis and the other Sunni regimes.
Although it has been almost a rigid rule that
pundits must ascribe U.S. fealty to its Saudi alliance to oil
interests, oil is far from the top of the list of U.S interests
today. More important to our national security state is the interest
of the Pentagon and the military services to protect the military
bases they have in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and
the UAE. Their need to preserve those alliance relationships is
intensified by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) cornucopia of
military contracts for U.S. arms manufacturers that assures enormous
profits will continue to flow for the foreseeable future.
One estimate of the total at stake for the Pentagon and its
private allies in military relationships with the GCC is $100
billion to $150 billion over two decades.
Those are crucial bureaucratic and business stakes
for the U.S. national security state, which is usually driven by the
bottom lines associated with different courses of action. Especially
given the administration’s lack of a coherent geopolitical
perspective on the region, the security state’s interests offer a
persuasive explanation for Obama’s effectively farming out the most
important element of its Syria policy to regional allies, with
Gareth Porter is an independent investigative
journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He
is the author of the newly published
Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.