US Role as
State Sponsor of Terrorism Implied in US
Congressional Research Service Report on Syria
- The implication of a report written for the US
Congress is that the United States is a state
sponsor of terrorism in Syria. At the same time, the
report challenges widely held beliefs about the
conflict, including the idea that the opposition has
grass-roots support and that the conflict is a
sectarian war between Syrian president Bashar
al-Assad’s Alawite sect and the majority Sunnis.
October 2015, the report was prepared by the
Congressional Research Service, an arm of the United
States Library of Congress. The Congressional
Research Service provides policy and legal analysis
to committees and members of the US House and
Conflict in Syria: Overview and US Response,”
the report reveals that:
1. The Syrian conflict is between
Islamists and secularists, not Sunnis and Alawites.
Media reports often emphasize the dominant Sunni
character of the rebels who have taken up arms
against the Syrian government, while depicting the
Syrian government as Alawite-led. What is almost
invariably overlooked is that the largest Sunni
fighting force in Syria is the country’s army. Yes,
the rebels are predominantly Sunni, but so too are
the Syrian soldiers they’re fighting. As Congress’s
researchers point out, “most rank and file military
personnel have been drawn from the majority Sunni
Arab population and other (non-Alawite) minority
groups” (p. 7). Also: “Sunni conscripts continue to
fight for Assad” (p. 12). Rather than being a battle
between two different sects, the conflict is a
struggle, on the one hand, between Sunni
fundamentalists who want to impose their version of
Islam on Syrian politics and society, and on the
other hand, Syrians, including Sunnis, who embrace a
vision of a secular, non-sectarian government.
2. The Syrian Opposition Coalition is
dominated by Islamists and is allied with foreign
enemies of Syria.
According to the report, the Syrian National Council
(whose largest member is the Syrian Muslim
Brotherhood) is the “largest constituent group” of
the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC). The SOC is
based “in Turkey and considered to be close to
foreign opponents of Assad.” (p. 14) The Muslim
Brotherhood seeks to base political rule on the
Quran, which it sees as divinely inspired, rather
than on a secular constitution.
“Political opposition coalitions appear to
lack…grass roots support” (p. 27).
consistent with the findings of a public opinion
poll taken last summer by a research firm that is
working with the US and British governments. That
poll found that Assad has more support than the
forces arrayed against him.
conducted by ORB International, a company which
specializes in public opinion research in fragile
and conflict environments, found that 47 percent of
Syrians believe that Assad has a positive influence
in Syria, compared to only 35 percent for the Free
Syrian Army and 26 percent for the SOC. 
face-to-face ORB poll conducted in May 2014 arrived
at similar conclusions. That poll found that more
Syrians believed the Assad government best
represented their interests and aspirations than
believed the same about any of the opposition
to the poll, only six percent believed that the
“genuine” rebels represented their interests and
aspirations, while the ‘National
Coalition/transitional government,” a reference to
the SOC, drew even less support, at only three
repeatedly challenged the notion that he lacks
popular support, pointing to his government
surviving nearly five years of war against forces
backed by the most powerful states on the planet.
It’s impossible to realistically conceive of his
government’s survival under these challenging
circumstances, he argues, without its having the
support of a sizeable part of its population. 
4. A moderate opposition doesn’t exist. The United
States is trying to build one to act as its partner.
The report refers to US efforts to create partners
in Syria, a euphemism for puppets who can be relied
upon to promote US interests.
“Secretary of Defense Carter described the
‘best’ scenario for the Syrian people as one
that would entail an agreed or managed removal
of Assad and the coalescence of opposition
forces with elements of the remaining Syrian
state apparatus as U.S. partners ….”
(emphasis added, pp. 15-16).
Pentagon “sought to…groom and support reliable
leaders to serve as U.S partners…”
(emphasis added, p. 23).
partners, the United States is engaged in the
project of building a “moderate” opposition.
According to the report:
June 18, Secretary of Defense Carter said, ‘…the
best way for the Syrian people for this to go
would be for him to remove himself from the
scene and there to be created, difficult as it
will be, a new government of Syria based on the
moderate opposition that we have been trying
to build…” (emphasis added, footnote, p.
report summary the researchers write that US
strategy seeks to avoid “inadvertently strengthening
Assad, the Islamic State, or other anti-U.S.
armed Islamist groups” (emphasis added.) What’s left
unsaid is that armed Islamist groups that are not
immediately anti-U.S. may be looked upon favorably
by US strategy. However, that “political opposition
coalitions…appear to lack grass-roots support,” and
that Washington can’t rely on an already-formed
moderate opposition but needs to build one, shows
that the set of rebels on which the US can rely to
act as US partners who will rule with elements of
the existing Syrian state in a post-Assad Syria is
virtually empty. The conclusion is substantiated by
the failure of a now-abandoned Pentagon program to
train and equip vetted rebel groups. Gen. Lloyd J.
Austin III, the top American commander in the Middle
East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that
despite the Pentagon spending $500 million training
and equipping “moderate” rebels, only “four or five”
were “in the fight.”  As the Wall Street Journal
observed in late December, moderate rebels don’t
exist. They’ve either been absorbed into Jabhat
al-Nusra, Ahrah al-Sham and ISIS—the extremist
terrorist groups which dominate the opposition—or
were Islamist militants all along. 
The United States is arming sectarian terrorists
indirectly and possibly directly and covertly.
points out that not only has the Pentagon openly
trained and equipped rebels, but that the United
States has also covertly armed them. According to
the Congress’s researchers:
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a
September 2013 hearing before the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee that the Administration was
taking steps to provide arms to some Syrian
rebels under covert action authorities” (p. 23).
“Secretary Hagel said, ‘it was June of this year
that the president made the decision to support
lethal assistance to the opposition….we, the
Department of Defense, have not been involved in
this. This is, as you know, a covert action’”
United States was prepared to overtly arm some rebel
groups, why is it covertly arming others? A not
unreasonable hypothesis is that it is arming some
rebel groups covertly because they have been
designated as terrorist organizations. To be sure, a
number of press reports have revealed that rebels
who have received training and arms from the United
States are operating with terrorist groups in Syria.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “insurgents
who have been trained covertly by the Central
Intelligence Agency…are enmeshed with or fighting
alongside more hard-line Islamist groups, including
the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate” .
Another report from the same newspaper notes that
“al-Nusra has fought alongside rebel units which the
U.S. and its regional allies have backed” . A
third report refers to collaboration between
“CIA-backed Free Syrian army factions and extremist
elements such as Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham” .
Let’s be clear. Anyone who is enmeshed with and
fighting alongside Al-Qaeda is a terrorist.
to Congress’s researchers, weapons the US furnished
to selected groups have made their way to jihadists.
“Some Syrian opposition groups that have received
U.S. equipment and weaponry to date have surrendered
or lost these items to other groups, including to
extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra” (p. 23).
you consider that, as The Washington Post reported,
“the CIA has trained and equipped nearly 10,000
fighters sent into Syria over the past several
years”  and that, at best, there are 700, and
more likely only 70 “moderate” rebels in Syria ,
then the bulk of the large rebel force the CIA has
trained and equipped is very likely made up of
Islamist extremists. Concealing this shameful
reality from the US public is probably the principal
reason the program is covert.
6. Washington wants to contain ISIS, but not
eliminate it, in order to maintain military pressure
on the Syrian government.
the US coalition’s less than vigorous air campaign
against ISIS, many observers have questioned whether
the United States is at all serious about
eliminating ISIS just yet, and is simply trying to
contain it, to keep pressure on the Syrian
government. For example, veteran Middle East
correspondent Robert Fisk says: “I don’t think the
U.S. is serious. Very occasionally, you can hear the
rumble of American bombs. But they’re certainly not
having much effect.” 
soon after Russia began air operations in Syria,
journalist Patrick Cockburn noted that “Russian
planes carried out 71 sorties and 118 air strikes
against Islamic fighters in Syria over the past two
days compared to just one air strike by the US-led
coalition – and this single strike, against a mortar
position, was the first for four days.”  After
ISIS captured Palmyra, and pushed into Aleppo, the
US coalition did nothing to push back the ISIS
advance, leading even rebels to question “the U.S.’s
commitment to containing the group.”  Assad too
has expressed scepticism about whether the United
States is serious about destroying ISIS, pointing to
the terrorist organization’s continued successes in
Syria, despite the US coalition’s presumed war
against it. “Since this coalition started to
operate,” observed the Syrian president, “ISIS has
been expanding. In other words, the coalition has
failed and it has no real impact on the ground.”
approach to fighting ISIS in Syria would fit with US
president Barack Obama’s stated goal of degrading
the Al-Qaeda offspring organization. Destroying it
may be an ultimate goal, to be achieved after ISIS
has served the purpose of weakening the Syrian
government. But for now, the United States appears
to be willing to allow ISIS to continue to make
gains in Syria. The Congressional Research Service
report concurs with this view: It concludes that
“U.S. officials may be concerned that a more
aggressive campaign against the Islamic State may
take military pressure off the” Syrian government
contrast, Moscow has pursued a more vigorous war
against ISIS, and for an obvious reason. Unlike
Washington, it seeks to prop up its Syrian ally, not
give ISIS room to weaken it. It should be
additionally noted that Russia’s military operations
in Syria are legal, carried out with the permission
of the Syrian government. By contrast, the US
coalition has brazenly flouted international law to
enter Syrian airspace without Damascus’s assent. It
has, in effect, undertaken an illegal invasion and
committed a crime of aggression, compounded by its
training and arming of terrorists.
says that in the absence of grass-roots support for
political opposition coalitions in Syria, the United
States is relying on a number of tactics to pressure
the current government in Syria to step down,
ISIS alive as a tool to sustain military pressure on
• Arming jihadist groups indirectly and (we can
assume) directly (albeit covertly) to pressure
• Seeking to create a moderate opposition that will
act as a US partner.
• Trying to co-opt parts of the existing Syrian
state to take a partnership role in governing a
implication of points 1 and 2 is that the United
States—as the trainer of, and supplier of arms, to
rebels who are enmeshed with and fighting alongside
Al-Qaeda in Syria, and in keeping ISIS alive, in
order to use these terrorist organizations to
achieve its political goal of installing a
US-partner government in Syria—is a state sponsor of
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is based on values and interests, the West is not
serious in fighting terrorists,” Syrian Arab News
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June 12, 2015.
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should abandon ISIS war,” The Toronto Star,
September 25, 2015.
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October 28, 2015.
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