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US and Gulf allies supported Islamist extremists in Syria, Qatar’s ex-prime minister admits, bolstering growing evidence

Qatar’s ex-Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani acknowledged the US and its Gulf allies backed Salafi-jihadists in Syria.

By Ben Norton / AlterNet

Qatar’s former prime minister admitted in an interview that the United States and its Gulf allies supported Islamist extremists in Syria.

In CIA-run training sites located in Jordan and Turkey, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani explained, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, “all of us, we [were] supporting the same groups,” he said. Among them were extremists, al-Thani noted.

This testimony adds to the growing body of evidence that the U.S. government and its proxies backed hard-line Salafi-jihadists in order to weaken the Syrian government and its allies Iran and Hezbollah.

Qatar has recently come under fire by the U.S. and Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have condemned the country for its support of Islamist groups.

U.S. officials have internally acknowledged that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar aided ISIS and al-Qaeda, but in a diplomatic fracas, Qatar has become a scapegoat for the spread of violent extremism. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have suspended political and economic ties with Qatar and imposed a de facto blockade on the tiny country.

‘All of us, we [were] supporting the same groups’

Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, who served as Qatar’s prime minister and foreign minister until 2013, sat down for a June 12 interview with Charlie Rose to discuss the crisis.

“What is the reason for this coming now?” Rose asked. “Questions have been raised about how much funding Qatar has done to some of the Islamic groups in Syria.” (The exchange begins at 7:30 in the video, which is embedded below.)

“In Syria, everybody did mistakes, including your country,” al-Thani replied.

When the war began in Syria, he went on, “all of us worked through two operation rooms: one in Jordan and one in Turkey.”

In Jordan, al-Thani continued, “There was countries, some of the GCC countries, among them the Saudis, the Emiratis, Qatar, United States, and other allies. And they [were] working from there. And all of us, we [were] supporting the same groups. In Turkey we did the same.”

The former Qatari prime minister was referring to the U.S. government’s Operation Timber Sycamore, a covert CIA program in which thousands of militants were trained to fight to try to topple the Syrian government.

At its peak, the CIA was spending $1 billion per year training and arming what it claimed were “moderate” Syrian rebels — $1 of every $15 in its entire budget, according to documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Eventually, al-Thani said in the interview, it became clear that some of the armed groups “have other agenda, and we always eliminate them one by one.”

The U.S. also “supported the wrong groups sometimes,” he emphasized to Rose. “It doesn’t mean that we did not do something wrong there.”

In one such example, Nour al-Din al-Zinki, a former “moderate” rebel group vetted by the CIA and armed with U.S. anti-tank weapons, joined a rebranded Syrian al-Qaeda-led coalition.

Growing body of evidence

Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani’s comments are further substantiated by large amounts of evidence.

A 2014 email from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, citing U.S. government intelligence, states that American allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar supported ISIS in Syria.

In a speech at Harvard University in 2014, former Vice President Joe Biden also admitted that close U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey had intentionally supported Islamist extremists in Syria.

“They were so determined to take down [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war. What did they do?” he asked. “They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”

Turkey played a double game with ISIS, allowing thousands of Salafi-jihadists from around the world to cross its border into Syria to join the genocidal militant group. Biden added that his “old friend” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan told him, “You were right; we let too many people through. Now we are trying to seal the border.”

In 2013, former CIA director Mike Morell admitted that Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the extremist group Ahrar al-Sham were “the two most effective organizations on the battlefield,” and “moderate members of the opposition joined forces with them to fight the Syrians.” Yet weapons and support continued flowing in from the U.S. and its allies.

Moreover, a declassified 2012 document from the Defense Intelligence Agency shows that just over one year into the conflict, the U.S. government knew “Salafi[s], the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” The DIA report added that these rebel groups were likely to create a “Salafist principality in eastern Syria,” in the area ISIS eventually took over, “and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.”

Despite this clear understanding, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey poured billions of dollars into the Syrian opposition, empowering these Salafi-jihadist groups.

The Qatar controversy

The U.S. government’s acknowledgement that Qatar has supported Islamist extremist groups has not stopped the arms deals from continuing — suggesting that the longtime U.S. policy of using Salafi-jihadist groups to destabilize its enemies will continue.

On June 14, just days after Donald Trump castigated Qatar over its funding of extremist groups, the U.S. president signed a $12 billion deal to transfer F-15QA fighter jets to the country. This was part of a larger $21 billion U.S. arms package with Qatar.

The primary point of dispute in the conflict in the Gulf is over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt strongly oppose the Muslim Brotherhood and consider it a terrorist organization.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which see Iran as their mortal enemy, have also accused Qatar of being too close to Iran, but Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani strongly rejected this claim.

“Qatar supporting Iran is a big joke,” the former prime minister said in the interview with Charlie Rose. If Qatar and Iran were supposedly close allies, he added, “we would not fight with them in Syria.”

With Iran, Qatar has “a normal relation,” al-Thani stressed. He noted that other Middle Eastern countries have even larger economic ties with Iran than Qatar does.

Qatar is technically a constitutional monarchy, although there are few checks and balances on the absolute authority of the royal family.

Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani is often referred to with the abbreviation HBJ. He was made foreign minister in 1992, and prime minister in 2007. A billionaire notorious for spending large amounts of money on luxury items like a $100 million New York City penthouse, he was one of the scores of politicians mentioned in the Panama Papers.

Though tiny, Qatar has enormous oil reserves, which have made it the richest country in the world, per capita. As al-Thani explained, it has used its vast wealth to punch above its weight on the international stage, including by backing some of the Middle East’s more unsavory actors.