Archive for September 2014
September 24, 2014
By Stephen Gowans
Part of Washington’s legal defense of its violation of Syrian sovereignty in launching airstrikes against ISIS targets on Syrian soil is self-defense against the Khorasan Group, an organization whose name US officials hadn’t uttered until a few days ago and which Syrian rebels say they’ve never heard of and which appears to have no independent existence apart from al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, which cooperates militarily with CIA-directed rebels seeking to overthrow the secular nationalist government of Bashar al-Assad.
On September 20, US officials publicly expressed concern about the Khorasan Group, which they described as an offshoot of the Nusra Front. US officials told reporters that “Khorasan had emerged in the past year as the cell in Syria that may be the most intent on hitting the United States or its installations overseas with a terror attack.” 
Yesterday, US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes announced that Khorasan “had very clear and concrete ambitions to launch external operations against the United States or Europe.” He added that there “was actual plotting that was ongoing from Syria.” The September 23 airstrikes, carried out by the United States and a coalition of Arab crowned dictatorships, were in part, Rhodes said, “aimed to disrupt that plotting.” 
To give its violation of Syrian sovereignty legal cover, the United States declared that it was acting at the request of the Iraqi government in connection with Iraq’s right of self-defense against aggression by ISIS, and that its actions were therefore consistent with the UN Charter. The airstrikes were also congruent with international law, insisted Washington, as a matter of self-defense against the Khorasan Group, which it said was plotting against the United States.  Neither defense is cogent since Washington rejected coordination with the Syrian government and refused to seek its assent to carry out air strikes on its territory.
Despite Washington pointing to Khorasan as a group with an independent existence apart from the Nusra Front, it appears to be indistinguishable from the latter. The alleged leader of the group, Muhsin al Fadhli, is a longtime al Qaeda operative. Since the Nusra Front is al-Qaeda’s official franchise in Syria, it follows that Fadhli is working with Jabhat al-Nusra. Moreover, US officials acknowledge that Khorasan and Nusra Front “are intertwined.” 
Both Jahbat al-Nusra and ISIS were censured by the UN Security Council this summer for gross, systematic and widespread abuse of human rights . Nevertheless, the United States hasn’t officially declared the Nusra Front to be a target of its mission to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS. This shows that protection of human rights does not underpin the US anti-ISIS campaign, notwithstanding expressions of concern about the plight of the Yazidis, ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Instead, Washington’s real motivations are linked to the divergent goals of the two al-Qaeda progeny. The Nusra Front’s ambitions are limited to Syria, and its immediate aim of toppling the country’s secular nationalist government meshes with US objectives. ISIS, in contrast, has larger territorial ambitions, which clash with US domination of the Middle East, particularly its informal control of Iraq’s oil. Hence, ISIS, which is against US foreign policy interests, falls within the crosshairs of the US military campaign, while the Nusra Front, which works (for the moment) in directions which complement US goals in Syria, is ignored, despite a human rights record which is as deplorable and barbaric as that of ISIS (and the United States, if the matter is taken further. Watch the testimony of US soldiers about the conduct of US forces in Vietnam and Iraq to see that barbarity isn’t unique to ISIS and the Nusra Front.)
Still, there’s a loose string. US warplanes and drones struck several bases and an ammunition warehouse belonging to the Nusra Front, according to the New York Times. Almost five dozen Nusra fighters were killed. 
If the Khorasan Group is a part of the Nusra Front, and not a separate organization, the apparent contradiction in the United States excluding the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria as an official target of its war on ISIS, while at the same time attacking it, goes away. It also explains why rebels have never heard of the organization. 
What remains unclear, however, is why the United States attacked Nusra Front targets. Does Khorasan indeed exist as a wing of al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise? Was it plotting attacks on Western targets? Were US airstrikes directed specifically at this wing?
Whatever the case, one leader of a rebel group under US sway objected to the strike on Nusra targets on grounds that al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise is “a loyal partner in the battle against Mr. Assad.”  Numerous press reports have pointed to US-backed rebels cooperating with al-Qaeda in Syria. One veteran observer has argued that there is no dividing wall between “America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies” and ISIS and the Nusra Front.  It’s all one movement, no part of it secular, and all parts of it, including the misnamed “moderate” rebels, are overwhelmingly Islamist. 
That the Nusra Front is a loyal partner of US-backed rebels means that the alleged Khorasan leader Muhsin al Fadhli has been an important part of Washington’s war on Assad. Fadhli was close to Osama bin Laden. According to the Wall Street Journal, he “is a senior al Qaeda facilitator and financier” who “has an extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors who have sent money to Syria through Turkey.” 
While US warplanes were bombing Nusra Front targets and US-backed rebels were objecting to US attacks on their loyal al-Qaeda partner, Israel was intervening on behalf of the Nusra Front by shooting down a Syrian warplane that was attacking Nusra positions on the Syrian-controlled Golan Heights. Al-Qaeda fighters have captured most of this territory. 
The Syrian aircraft had strayed about a half mile into territory of the Golan Heights under Israeli control (legitimately belonging to Syria but occupied by Israel since 1967), and had turned back when Israeli forces shot it down. That the Syrian warplane had no aggressive intention against Israel was clear in its quickly returning to Syrian airspace.
The absence of aggressive intent was also clear from the context: With its hands full fighting Islamist proxies of the United States, Turkey, Jordan and the US-backed Gulf oil tyrannies, Syria is in no position to undertake a war with Israel, and, indeed, is no position to do so even under the most favorable of circumstances. It should have been clear to Israeli commanders that the pilot had made an error, and likely was clear. All the same, it would appear that Israel couldn’t resist an opportunity to lend a hand to al-Qaeda—not to mention al-Qaeda’s Western and Arab allies of convenience—in their battle against a government they all deplore for their own reasons: Israel, because the Assad government is anti-Zionist; al-Qaeda and Turkey, because it is secular; and the United States and its Arab puppet dictators, because it is nationalist and refuses to be integrated into the US-dominated global economic order.
But for the support of Russia and China, Iran and Hezbollah, Syria stands alone against a US-led club of imperialists, their democracy-abominating Arab clients, a Zionist colonial settler regime, and Islamist fanatics, who brazenly dub themselves Friends of Syria, but parts of which are in reality enemies of secularism and the other part enemies of national independence and self-directed development.
Imperialists, royalist dictatorships, an apartheid settler regime, and jihadists who seek to make the Koran their constitution, are as far away from democrats as could possibly be, which makes the spectacle of their invoking democracy as grounds for their war on Syria’s secular nationalist government—topped off now by the violation of Syrian territory by the United States and its Arab janissaries—a matter of revulsion and egregious hypocrisy.
1. Mark Mazzetti, Michael S. Schmidt and Ben Hubbard, “U.S. suspects more direct threats beyond ISIS,“ The New York Times, September 20, 2014.
2. Siobhan Gorman and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. feared al Qaeda group targeted in Syria was plotting terror,” The Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2014.
3. Somini Sengupta and Charlie Savage, “U.S. invokes Iraq’s defense in legal justification of Syria strikes,” The New York Times, September 23, 2014.
4. Julian E. Barnes and Sam Dagher, “Syria strikes: U.S. reports significant damage in attacks on Islamic state, Khorasan,” The Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2014.
5. UN Security Council Resolution 2170 (2014). http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2014/sc11520.doc.htm
6. Ben Hubbard, “Startling sight where blasts are the norm,” The New York Times, September 23, 2014.
7. Gorman and Barnes.
9. Patrick Cockburn, cited in Belen Fernandez, “Book review: The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising,” The Middle East Eye, September 3, 2014.
10. Ben Hubbard, Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. pins hope on Syrian rebels with loyalties all over the map”, The New York Times, September 11, 2014.
11. Gorman and Barnes.
12. Joshua Mitnick, “Israeli military shoots down Syrian aircraft,” The Wall Street journal, September 23, 2014.
By Stephen Gowans
Political Islam has a long history of cooperating with Western imperialism at certain times and in certain places, and of turning against it at other times and in other places. For example, Osama bin Laden cooperated with the United States to overthrow a progressive pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan, and then launched a jihad against the domination of the Middle East by the United States. Many Palestinians were sent to Afghanistan in the 1980s by the Muslim Brotherhood to struggle against the atheists in Kabul (much to the delight of Israel) only to return to join a Palestinian national liberation struggle against Israel in the ranks of Hamas.
What separates the rebels in Syria that the United States and its allies arm, train, fund and direct from those it seeks to degrade and ultimately destroy is not a secular vs. Islamist orientation. Even the so-called “moderate” rebels are under the sway of Islamist thinking. Instead the dividing line between the good “moderate” rebels and the bad “extremist” rebels is willingness to cooperate with the United States and the region’s former colonial powers. The “good” ones are under the control of the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies, or aren’t, but are working in directions that comport with Western foreign policy goals, while the “bad” ones are working in ways that frustrate the attainment of the foreign policy objectives of the West. In other words, one set of rebels is cooperating with Western imperialism while the other frustrates it.
The “moderate” Syrian rebels who US officials are counting on to battle the Islamic State as part of the Obama administration’s plan to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS comprise dozens of groups which report directly to the CIA  and are under the sway of Islamist thinking.  According to General Abdul-Ilah al Bashir, who led the Free Syrian Army before its collapse at the end of last year, the CIA has taken over direction of the rebel force and FSA groups now report directly to US intelligence. 
The groups are run from military command centers in Turkey and Jordan, staffed by intelligence agents of the United States and the Friends of Syria, a collection of former colonial powers and Sunni crowned dictatorships. The command centers furnish the rebels with arms, training, and salaries. The United States provides overall guidance, while Turkey manages the flow of rebels over its border into Syria, and Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states provide much of the funding. 
The centerpiece of the CIA-directed rebel grouping is the Hazm Movement, formerly known as Harakat Zaman Mohamed, or Movement of the Time of Muhammad. It is strongly backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and by key Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Qatar and Turkey. 
The US-backed rebels cooperate with the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda operating in Syria,  which the UN Security Council denounced this summer along with ISIS for their “gross, systematic and widespread abuse of human rights”  but which the United States has left out of its war on the Islamic State, even though its origins and methods are the same as those of ISIS, and its goals similar. Accordingly, the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria will continue to coordinate operations with CIA-directed rebels, unhindered by US strikes.
Aron Lund, a Syria analyst who edits the Syria in Crisis blog for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, deems the idea of the moderate secular rebel a myth. “You are not going to find this neat, clean, secular rebel group that respects human rights…because they don’t exist.” 
Andrew J. Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who follows Syrian events, points out that most of the rebels backed by the United States come from “rural, Sunni areas where Islamist thinking has long held sway and often colors their thinking.”  They are not moderate fighters for secular liberal democratic values.
Veteran foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn echoes these views. In his new book, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising (OR Books), Cockburn observes that there is “no dividing wall” between “America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies” and ISIS and the Nusra Front. 
While US officials and Western mass media promote a false narrative of two sets of rebels occupying opposite ends of two different axes—Islamist vs. secular and extremist vs. moderate—the most relevant axis is one defined by the groups’ orientation toward the West.
Reflecting the ideology of their al-Qaeda progenitor, the Nusra Front and ISIS seek to bring historically Islamic regions under Sunni Islamist political control, which means the ejection of the United States and its local marionettes, the destruction of secular regimes, and the elimination of local “heresies”, including Shia Islam and its heterodox Alawi offshoot, to which Syrian president Bashar al-Assad belongs.
The CIA-directed rebels, in contrast, appear to have a more moderate attitude to the United States, and are open to working with Washington and its Arab and NATO allies. Hassan al-Hamada, a leader of one of the CIA-directed rebel groups says, “We want to be hand in hand with the West, and for the future of Syria to be with the West.” 
The word “moderate,” then, appears to have but one meaning—a willingness to work with the United States, under the direction of the CIA, and in cooperation with Western imperialism…at least for now.
1. Patrick Cockburn, “Syria and Iraq: Why US policy is fraught with danger,” The Independent, September 9, 2014.
2. Ben Hubbard, “U.S. goal is to make Syrian rebels viable,” The New York times, September 18, 2014.
5. Suhaib Anjarini, “Harakat Hazm: America’s new favourite jihadist group”, Al Akhbar English, May 22, 2014.
7. UN Security Council Resolution 2170 (2014). http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2014/sc11520.doc.htm
8. Ben Hubbard, Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. pins hope on Syrian rebels with loyalties all over the map”, The New York Times, September 11, 2014.
10. Belen Fernandez, “Book review: The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising,” The Middle East Eye, September 3, 2014.
By Stephen Gowans
Indications of a new phase in Washington’s longstanding policy of regime change in Syria are emerging in US planning to expand its campaign against ISIS. The Pentagon envisions a multi-year campaign of air strikes inside Syria and assistance to anti-Assad fighters to destroy the Islamic State. But given US policy to topple the government in Damascus, it seems unlikely that the planned campaign will restrict itself to ISIS targets alone. What’s more, Washington has recently accused Syria of hiding chemical weapons, possibly signalling its intention to use concealed WMD—and the threat of chemical weapons falling into the hands of ISIS—as a pretext to expand its target list from ISIS to Syrian forces.
For weeks, Western leaders have delivered two messages about ISIS, one loudly, and the other, not so loudly. The louder message is that ISIS is an unprecedented threat. US defense secretary Chuck Hagel called the Islamist group “an imminent threat to every interest we have” and “beyond anything that we’ve seen.”  Quietly, however, US officials have said the very opposite. On August 22, the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, admitted that ISIS does not have “the capability right now to conduct a major attack on the U.S. homeland.”  The same day, the FBI and Homeland Security Department announced that there are “no specific or credible terror threats to the U.S. homeland from the Islamic State militant group.”  Similar assurances were provided recently by US president Barack Obama, who acknowledged that “he hasn’t seen any ‘immediate intelligence’ to suggest Islamic State could carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.”  Still, the mass media have emphasized statements that draw attention to ISIS as a medieval menace (Obama) worse than al-Qaeda (Hagel) that must be destroyed (US secretary of state John Kerry). 
Washington insists that destroying the Islamic State means US air strikes against ISIS-strongholds in Syria—and violation of Syrian borders. Obama, and the United States’ top soldier, Martin Dempsey, have warned that ISIS cannot be defeated without military action against Islamic State targets in Syria.  For weeks, US surveillance aircraft have been searching for ISIS leaders inside Syria, “developing intelligence on the group’s strongholds” and “collecting intelligence on Islamic State operations inside Syria that could be potential targets.” 
Now, it appears that Washington is on the cusp of pressing ahead with its planned campaign of military action. The New York Times has reported that “Pentagon planners envision a military campaign” to destroy ISIS “in its sanctuary inside Syria” that could last “at least 36 months.”  According to The Wall Street Journal, airstrikes would support anti-Assad fighters unaligned with ISIS, who would be bankrolled by $500 million in US funding, and backed by a global coalition, including the UK and Australia, that would “provide a range of assistance, including humanitarian aid and weapons.” These countries could also join the United States in an air-war over Syria. 
There are reasons to suspect that a US-led military intervention in Syria would not stop at ISIS targets.
First, regime change in Damascus is a long-standing US policy, antedating the Arab Spring. Cables released by Wikileaks showed that US funding to the Syrian opposition began flowing under the Bush administration in 2005, if not before, long before uprisings erupted against the Assad government.  Largely forgotten is that the Bush administration dubbed Syria a member of a “junior varsity axis of evil,” and toyed with the idea of making Assad’s Syria the next target of a US military intervention after Iraq.  The idea that Washington seeks Assad’s ouster as part of a program of democracy-promotion cannot be seriously accepted, especially not in light of unwavering US support for crowned dictatorships in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia which brutally suppressed Arab Spring uprisings there. Washington’s steadfast support of Egypt’s military dictatorship, which crushed peaceful protests against a military coup that ousted the elected president, also reveals that Washington’s publicly stated reason for seeking regime change in Syria—that Assad is a dictator who violently suppressed peaceful protestors and who must therefore be removed in an act of solidarity with the plural-democracy-loving Syrian people—is a complete sham.
Second, the provision of $500 million in funding to “Syrian boots on the ground” would likely amount to increased support for one group of Islamists seeking the overthrow of secular society in Syria by another. Fighters strengthened by an infusion of US aid would not stop after destroying ISIS, if indeed, they didn’t simply ally with them, or more likely, if ISIS members simply transferred allegiance to the US-backed Islamist militant groups.
Third, in recent days, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has begun making noise about the Assad government allegedly “harboring undeclared chemical weapons.” Playing on ISIS-related fear-mongering, Power pointed to the risk that “there are chemical weapons left in Syria,” and that “we can only imagine what [ISIS] would do if in possession of such a weapon.”  Little may develop from this, but it is suspiciously close to the pretext used by Washington to invade Iraq in 2003.
The real danger posed by ISIS is to Arab states, not to the US, a point conceded by Obama. “The dangers that are posed by (ISIS) are more directed at them (the Arab states) right now than they are at us,” he said.  To be sure, ISIS has posed a threat to the Syrian Arab Republic, one Washington was prepared to overlook, if not nurture. But now that the Islamic State threatens Iraq and possibly Saudi Arabia, Washington, along with its British and French allies, are beating the drums of war—and quite possibly, using the opportunity presented by the Islamic State to escalate their campaign of aggression against Syria.
1. Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, “U.S. isn’t sure just how much to fear ISIS,” The New York Times, August 22, 2014.
2. Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, “US isn’t sure how much to fear ISIS,” The New York Times, August 22, 2014.
3. Eileen Sullivan, “FBI: No credible threats to US from Islamic State,” The Associated Press, August 22, 2014.
4. Patrick O’Conner, Dion Nissenbaum and Carol E. Lee, “Obama to spell out strategy to defeat Islamic state,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2014. Glen Greenwald (Americans now fear ISIS sleeper cells are living in the U.S., overwhelmingly support military action,” The Intercept, September 8, 2014) unpacks the reasoning of US officials to show that they cannot possibly regard ISIS as a threat to the vital interests of the United States. US officials say that ISIS cannot be destroyed by airstrikes alone, but at the same time, they say they’re not prepared to commit US ground forces to a military campaign to destroy the Islamist group. If they’re not prepared to undertake action that, by their own analysis, is necessary to eclipse the threat, then it must be that they understand the threat to be less compelling than they’ve led the public to believe it is. Indeed, Washington’s official pronouncements that ISIS does not constitute a threat to the US homeland corroborate the conclusion.
5. Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S. considers attacks on ISIS in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2014.
6. Felicia Schwartz and Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S. eyes wider action on Islamic state,” The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2014; Carol E. Lee, Dion Nissenbaum and Jay Solomon, “U.S. sets goal to ‘destroy’ Islamic militants,” The Wall Street Journal, September 5, 2014.
7. Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S. considers attacks on ISIS in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2014.
8. Eric Schimitt, Michael R. Gordon and Helene Cooper, “Destroying ISIS may take years, U.S. officials say,” The New York Times, September 7, 2014.
9. Patrick O’Conner, Dion Nissenbaum and Carol E. Lee, “Obama to spell out strategy to defeat Islamic state,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2014.
10. Craig Whitlock, “U.S. secretly backed Syrian opposition groups, cables released by Wikileaks show”, The Washington Post, April 17, 2011.
11. Moshe Ma’oz, “Damscus vs. Washington: Between the ‘Axis of Evil’ and ‘Pax Americana’”, in Bruce Cumings, Evarand Abrahamian and Moshi Ma’oz. Investing the Axis of Evil: The Truth about North Korea, Iran and Syria. The New Press. 2004.
12. Rick Gladstone, “Syria may have hidden chemical arms, U.S. says”, The New York Times, September 4, 2014.
13. Jay Solomon, “Arab states skeptical of U.S. plan to combat Islamic state militants,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2014.