jabhat al-nusra
(Photo credit: Jabhat al-Nusra propaganda video)

Media’s favorite Gulf monarchy-funded ‘experts’ admit Syria war made Al-Qaeda ‘mainstream’

The media’s favorite “experts” admitted at the US-funded Atlantic Council that the Western dirty war made Al-Qaeda’s extremist ideology “mainstreamed, not just in parts of Syria, but also in parts of the region,” and extremists from the terrorist group have “looked like heroes.”

By Ben Norton / AlterNet’s Grayzone Project

A panel discussion at a prominent Washington think tank epitomized the self-referential, and farcical, nature of the Western media’s narrative on the war in Syria: An organization funded by Western governments and Gulf monarchies hosted pundits who work at think tanks supported by those same states, as well as weapons manufacturers, and they called for more US military intervention in the Western-backed, Gulf-funded war in Syria.

In “Combating Al-Qaeda in Syria: A Strategy for the Next President,” a January 12 event at the powerful Atlantic Council, hawkish analysts who have persistently called for greater US military intervention in Syria doubled down. Eagerly listening in the front row of the audience was former CIA director and counter-insurgency specialist David Petraeus.

The panel featured some of the most prominent talking heads on Syria, who are frequently cited in major Western media outlets as supposed experts. The moderator casually underscored the fact that everyone on the panel wanted “greater use of US military force” in the country.

The speakers openly acknowledged that al-Qaeda is a powerful and increasingly dominant force in the Syrian opposition, and detailed how extreme many rebel groups are. Syria is the “newest and most important safe haven for [al-Qaeda’s] ideology,” stressed one.

Syrian al-Qaeda has made its fascistic ideology “part of the mainstream of Sunni Muslim political discourse,” another think-tanker admitted.

The notorious neoconservative ideologue Charles Lister added, “Al-Qaeda’s relative success in Syria has seen its ideology and its narrative mainstreamed, not just in parts of Syria, but also in parts of the region.”

Lister commented that, in its fights with the Syrian government, Al-Qaeda extremists have “looked like heroes.”

The hawkish media pundit Hassan Hassan conceded that Al-Qaeda “portrayed itself as part and parcel of the Syrian rebellion from the beginning.”

But they blamed the spread of Salafi-jihadist ideology in Syria not on the theocratic Gulf regimes that have supported it for years (and funded their work), but rather on the Syrian government and its allies.

In fact, the influential pundits even went so far as to accuse Iran, a Shia-majority country and implacable enemy of the extremist Sunni al-Qaeda, of fostering the group’s rise. They claimed Gulf monarchies had no choice but to support Salafi militants, given Iran’s role.

“We’re not conspiracy theorists,” assured Lister, one of the media’s go-to Syria experts, and a fellow at a think tank that has received funding from the US government and Gulf regimes.

What the impending administration of Donald Trump could do in Syria is difficult to foresee, given the far-right, demagogic president-elect’s many inconsistencies and affinity for flip-flopping. Trump has nonetheless suggested that he may cut US support for militants in Syria, many of whom are linked to extremist groups.

Given these prospects, the panelists suggested Iran as a potential wedge issue with which to influence the incoming administration and push for a more hawkish policy. “By seeking a rapprochement with Russia, [Trump] will be emboldening Iran, which the vast majority of his potential appointees seem to take a particularly hard line against,” Lister noted.

Little got in way of the black-and-white picture the panelists painted of the brutal Syrian war, which has dragged on for nearly six years, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing half of the country’s population. The Syrian government and its allies were portrayed as the root of all evil.

That there were very few criticisms of the role of Western governments and Gulf regimes in fueling the conflict may come as no surprise, when one follows the money.

In 2013, the Atlantic Council released a list of donors that showed that the major think tank, which has a kind of revolving door with the US government and is bankrolled by it, has received funding from NATO; the governments of the UK, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar; and Turkish state institutions; along with an array of powerful multinational corporations.

These are all governments that have spent years, and invested large sums of money, supporting Syrian rebels committed to overthrowing the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Not everyone listening to the speakers was buying it, however. In the question-and-answer session that followed the remarks, the editor of AlterNet’s Grayzone Project, Max Blumenthal, challenged the panelists. “Given that you got it so badly wrong on who the moderate opposition is, how can we trust you or any other Gulf-funded expert,” Blumenthal asked.

During the Q&A, a fellow think tanker who previously shared the speakers’ interventionist views also expressed concerns that their policies could effectively amount to “basically being al-Qaeda’s air force.”

Hawkish think-tankers admit Syrian al-Qaeda is now “mainstream”

The Atlantic Council event was named after a report co-authored by the five panelists. The document, which was compiled over six months, was sponsored by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a Washington, DC-based think tank whose board of advisors has links to the US State Department.

Nancy Okail, executive director of the Tahrir Institute, kicked off the panel discussion with introductory remarks, acknowledging that Syria is today the “newest and most important safe haven for [al-Qaeda’s] ideology.” The speakers all agreed that the threat of al-Qaeda is very real — and growing.

Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, argued, “What Jabhat al-Nusra has done is make previously eccentric political ideas part of the mainstream of Sunni Muslim political discourse” in “one of the most important geographies of the Muslim world.” He warned that Syrian al-Qaeda might continue recruiting and metastasizing, and could eventually carry out attacks against the US.

“There is a new generation of Syrian children that is growing up with al-Qaeda’s ideology in some parts of rebel-held Syria as the norm,” added Jennifer Cafarella, a lead intelligence planner at the neoconservative think tank the Institute for the Study of War, which has received funding from the biggest names in the military industry, including Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and DynCorp.

Similarly, Charles Lister explained, “People on the ground in different areas of Syria are increasingly willing not just to accept al-Qaeda operating within their midst, but are actually willing to overtly support the fact that they are in their midst.” He later warned, “Al-Qaeda’s relative success in Syria has seen its ideology and its narrative mainstreamed, not just in parts of Syria, but also in parts of the region.”

Like her colleagues, Okail put the blame for this dangerous development squarely on the shoulders of the government of Bashar al-Assad. She criticized foreign governments for, in her view, not providing enough support to Syrian rebels, and argued that the strength of al-Qaeda “is only a symptom of the problems that have been plaguing the country,” and claimed rebels “had very little if any support.”

None of the Atlantic Council panelists acknowledged the enormous amounts of money and resources the US and its allies have dedicated to backing the insurgency inside Syria.

Gulf states and Turkey were funding rebels by early 2012 at the latest. At its peak, the CIA was spending nearly $1 billion per year, dedicating $1 out of every $15 in its entire budget, for covert operations in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Qatar also spent billions helping to fund the US program to arm and train rebels committed to overthrowing the Syrian government.

Okail’s opening remarks established the tenor of the event. This hawkish thread was continued by the panel’s moderator, Margaret Brennan, the foreign affairs and White House correspondent at CBS News. Brennan pointed out that everyone on the panel wanted “greater use of US military force” in Syria, on humanitarian grounds. The speakers were there to gin up support for more intervention. And some important people were listening.

David Petraeus, the ex-director of the CIA and four-star Army general who led US forces in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sat in the front row at the event, listening attentively to the speakers. This may seem ironic, considering Petraeus, who resigned amid a scandal in 2014, has since quietly urged US officials to support so-called moderate members of Syrian al-Qaeda and help them fight ISIS.

Give the paradoxical views expressed on the panel, the hypocrisy fit right in.

“How can we trust you or any other Gulf-funded expert?”

In the event’s question-and-answer session, Max Blumenthal, editor of AlterNet’s Grayzone Project, pointed out that, although the panelists’ report calls for more US intervention in Syria, it did not list any so-called moderate rebels groups that should be supported.

Supporters of rebels have often spoke vaguely of the “moderate opposition,” but rarely ever name specific militant groups.

Blumenthal referenced a 2015 article in which Charles Lister claimed there were some 70,000 moderate rebels in Syria. Lister singled out US-backed rebel groups that Blumenthal noted have carried out atrocities, such as Nour al-Din al-Zinki, a CIA-vetted militia that has received anti-tank weapons from the U.S. and that beheaded a young man on camera, and Jabhat al-Shamiya, a hard-line Salafi Islamist group that has been supported by the US and Turkey and has profited from trafficking ISIS fighters.

“Given that you got it so badly wrong on who the moderate opposition is, how can we trust you or any other Gulf-funded expert?” Blumenthal asked.

Lister wrote off the question. “I’m not going to devolve myself and belittle myself to talk about funding of think tanks,” he said, adding, “All my work here in Washington is funded by a corporation in New York. So I’m certainly not receiving Gulf funding.”

Yet, according to its past annual reports, Lister’s employer has received funding from Gulf regimes. In its 2013 annual report (the most recent one available on its website), the Middle East Institute discloses that its top sponsors have included the embassies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

Grants to Lister’s employer have also come from the US State Department, the European Union delegation to the US, the embassy of the United Arab Emirates, and the royal court of another Gulf monarchy, Oman. Other large donors to the Middle East Institute have been arms manufacturers like Raytheon, BAE Systems, and Northrop Grumman; oil giants like Chevon, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, and Shell; and corporate colossuses like Coca Cola and Microsoft.

Lister previously served as a visiting fellow at the Qatar-funded Brookings Doha Center as well. A former fellow at the same think tank told The New York Times that there “was a no-go zone when it came to criticizing the Qatari government,” calling it “unsettling.”

In response to accusations on Twitter that his work is biased, Lister said defensively, “My contact w. the opposition had absolutely nothing to do with Qatar. My work on this is 100% funded by Western govts.”

Lister also defended his positions from Blumenthal’s critiques. “The picture you painted perfectly describes what we have all talked about, which is the complexity of Syria and how fast things change,” he said.

Lister claimed Nour al-Din al-Zinki was a very different group in 2014 and 2015, and he knew much of its leadership. “Not in a million years did they represent the organization they represent today, which I would completely, and I have said publicly, does not deserve any kind of relationship with the United States or any of our allies,” he added. “Its behavior has been disgusting; the beheading video was horrific.”

Al-Qaeda “portrayed itself as part and parcel of the Syrian rebellion from the beginning”

Hassan Hassan, another panelist frequently cited in the US media and a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute, explained that he cannot imagine how the U.S. can “address this challenge in the short term, or even medium term,” because al-Qaeda has been spreading its ideology and growing in Syria for more than five years.

Al-Qaeda “portrayed itself as part and parcel of the Syrian rebellion from the beginning,” Hassan noted. He added that extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are not just terrorist organizations; they are also social movements and insurgent groups with members who truly believe their ideology, and that is much harder to defeat.

Hassan also pointed out that Jabhat al-Nusra hid its affiliation with al-Qaeda for a long time, before coming out openly as a formal affiliate. Margaret Brennan, the moderator, noted that it was controversial in the U.S. at the time when Jabhat al-Nusra was declared to be recognized terrorist organization, because it played an important role in the opposition that was backed by the U.S. and its allies. Hassan conceded that it “complicated” the process of supporting Syrian rebels.

The speakers and their joint report used the names Jabhat al-Nusra and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham interchangeably. The former is the previous name of Syria’s official al-Qaeda affiliate; the latter is the name the extremist group now uses, after rebranding in mid-2016.

Lister acknowledged the important role played by al-Qaeda in the Syrian opposition. When al-Nusra led an offensive that temporarily broke the government siege on Aleppo, “they looked like heroes,” Lister said.

The prominent pundit described Aleppo as as the heart of the Syrian opposition. Media reports from early in the conflict, however, paint a much more complex picture: The uprising was in fact not very popular in Aleppo, which was Syria’s largest city before the war. Rebels only seized control of the area through violence.

Since the Syrian government retook Aleppo in December, the major northwestern province of Idlib has become the largest remaining rebel stronghold. Lister described Idlib as “the heartland of al-Nusra.”

Lister indicated that people living under rebel rule in Idlib have been lamenting, “This place is Hell; we don’t want to live under this Islamist rule, under all this oppression.” There have been protests in the area not just against the Syrian government, but also against the extremist groups that have taken its place, he noted. In Idlib, “they see what life would be like under this organization, and they don’t like it.”

Amnesty International has corroborated these observations. In a July report, the human rights group documented an array of “serious violations of international humanitarian law” committed by militant groups in Idlib in elsewhere, including summary killings, torture, abductions, and sectarian attacks. The report furthermore detailed how powerful Syrian rebels have imposed harsh Sharia law in the areas they control.

As potential solutions to the dominance of extremists in the opposition, the panelists simply proposed more Western intervention. Lister acknowledged that the facts on the ground have greatly changed in the conflict, but he called for the U.S. to play a more active role, in terms of counter-terrorism work and diplomacy. Brennan added that U.S. diplomacy should be backed by the threat of the use of military force; Lister agreed.

Hassan stressed that the U.S. concern should be to support militants on the ground that oppose both ISIS and the government. “They might not be perfect democrats,” he conceded, “but it’s important to shape the insurgency.”

Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, the fifth member of the panel, expressed dismay that the U.S. did not more directly intervene in the conflict and take a “leadership” role. He called on the U.S. to play a more active role on the ground in Syria.

Ghosh-Siminoff, president and co-founder of the group People Demand Change, also confessed that the intelligence gathered on the conflict has often had problems, because “everybody is operating out of a neighboring country,” such as Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon.

Hassan ironically observed that “much of the American policy and the way people talk about Syria today is really wishful thinking.” Later in the talk, however, Cafarella explained that their report “purposefully avoided” naming supposed moderate rebel groups the U.S. should more heavily support and instead identifies “the kind of future Syria that we thought the Syrian people could accept and the United States could accept from a foreign policy perspective.”

“Al-Qaeda’s air force”

Cafarella came out directly and said “American military force is likely going to be necessary in some form in order to effect the kinds of behaviors that we intend to effect.” She continued, “It is imperative to act soon, to preserve the relative success that we have.” She added, “The U.S. has to start acting soon, to start reshaping trends.”

Lister has been very open about his extreme hawkishness. In October, the prominent pundit published an op-ed in The Washington Post with co-author John R. Allen, a retired US general who led forces in the war in Afghanistan and oversaw US bombing of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In the piece, the two proposed that the US should “escalate the conflict” in Syria. They continued, “The United States must challenge the status quo and end the regime’s war crimes, by force if necessary.”

US military intervention, Lister and Allen argued, “should target Syrian military facilities and assets involved in supporting the bombardment of civilians, such as military airfields, aircraft, weapons stores and artillery positions.” Even if Russian and Syrian forces are co-mingled as a deterrent, they added, the US “should not miss the opportunity to hit offending Syrian elements and units.” That such attacks could risk war with Russia is glossed over.

Lister and Allen also called for the deployment of more US Special Operations forces in Syria, and emphasized that “the United States and its allies must both accelerate and broaden the provision of lethal and nonlethal assistance to vetted moderate opposition groups.” The two did not name any examples of so-called moderate opposition groups, but insisted that they “should also be provided with the means to bombard regime military airfields.”

Despite these hard-line views, the panelists still were not able to articulate of clear vision of supposed moderate rebels that can be supported. An audience member pointed out in the Q&A session that the Syrian opposition is incredibly fragmented and forces are unable to ensure that weapons will not fall in the hands of extremists.

Lister conceded that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) “is existentially reliant on external support to continue its relevance on the ground.” He continued, “Turkey in particular in the north has almost virtually every single [non-Kurdish] Syrian opposition group under an iron grip. You as an armed opposition group in northern Syria cannot launch an operation without effectively permission, arms, and money from Turkey.”

In the South, the Jordanian monarchy plays a similar role, he went on. Before Russia militarily intervened in September 2015, Jordan reached out to President Vladimir Putin and cut a deal. King Abdullah wanted a stable border, and Russia and the Syrian government agreed to not heavily bombard southern Syria while Jordan agreed to cut off support for rebels in the area. “Jordan and Turkey for now are calling the shots,” Lister said.

Cafarella also noted that al-Qaeda’s presence in the south is still “formidable,” and that ISIS has a presence as well.

Given this complex array, even some of the panelists’ former ideological allies are no longer on board with their hawkish views. In the Q&A session, Ilan Goldenberg, Israel director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, inquired, “Is this still a realistic political alternative?”

Since Aleppo was retaken, “the place that makes the most sense to execute something like now is Idlib, which opens you up to accusations of basically being al-Qaeda’s air force,” he said. “Six months ago, I think this made complete sense, but now I’m wavering a little bit myself.”

Pointing the finger at Iran

In the Q&A session, another audience member pointed out that, while the Trump administration’s foreign policy is ambiguous and contradictory, some clear trends have emerged, namely those of countering Iran, battling ISIS, and strongly supporting Israel. The panelists seized on the opposition to Tehran as a possibility.

In their report and discussion, the panelists claimed that Iran is strengthening al-Qaeda in Syria — even though Iran is a Shia-majority country that is violently opposed to al-Qaeda’s extremist, anti-Shia, hard-line Sunni ideology. They also claimed that, through the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Iran is creating a kind of statelet in Syria.

It appeared as though not everyone on stage was fully onboard with these paradoxical accusations. In her introduction, Okail acknowledged that the co-authors of the report had different agreements with each other.

“We’re not conspiracy theorists,” Lister insisted. He said they are arguing Iran does not directly support al-Qaeda, but is rather empowering al-Qaeda by supporting the Syrian government.

Cafarella argued that, given Iran’s role in the conflict, Saudi Arabia essentially has no option but to support extremists like al-Qaeda. “The Iranian presence and expansion in Syria is inherently destabilizing in the region, among other things, because it incentivizes the Saudis to choose more effective elements within the opposition to back, which tend to the Salafi-jihadi elements,” she said, calling this “a pretty basic argument.”

Western allies have been accused of directly supporting al-Qaeda in Syria. Turkey also kept its border open for years, allowing extremists from around the world to flood into Syria to join ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other groups.

Lister went on to warn that Hezbollah leaders are already discussing a new war with Israel. He fearmongered about the large number of weapons the Lebanese group now has access to.

Cafarella recognized that the conflict in Syria is a proxy war. “Syria is not simply a civil war that is tangential to American interests. If that was ever true, it’s certainly not true anymore. Because Syria is now the battleground on which regional and global struggles for power is being fought.”

Defending US and Gulf policy

A Syrian man in the audience concluded the event speaking about his 26-year-old brother, a doctor who was killed in a rebel mortar attack on a civilian area in government-held western Aleppo. He also pointed out that, when eastern Aleppo was retaken, enormous stockpiles of Western-provided weapons were found in the previously rebel-held area.

Western allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have for years supported extremist groups in Syria, the man noted — why does the U.S. not pressure these allies to stop arming these extremist groups?

Lister defended U.S. policy in Syria, which he claimed had prevented weapons from falling in the hands of extremist groups. But he also admitted, “Almost all of those vetted groups have worked in broader operations with groups like Ahrar al-Sham, JFS, al-Nusra before that,” even if they have political disagreements on the ground.

Western allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey “have sent in weapons with a much more chaotic, freeloading” policy, Lister conceded. But he defended Saudi Arabia, saying the only major extremist group it has supported is Jaish al-Islam — an extremist group that put women from the Alawite minority Muslim sect in cages.

Lister added that Qatar and Turkey “have very strongly supported Ahrar al-Sham since the very beginning of the conflict.”