As Tulsi Gabbard criticizes former Congressional colleagues for ignoring the ongoing US dirty war and sanctions on Syria, a look at the comments of Joe Biden and top aides show that they have admitted to the same underlying, horrific facts. Gabbard only stands apart — and is even vilified — for being willing to call it out.
While Joe Biden has faced some mild Congressional pushback for bombing the Iraq-Syria border, Tulsi Gabbard says her former colleagues are ignoring the larger issue: the ongoing US dirty war on Syria. After a decade of proxy warfare that empowered Al Qaeda and ISIS, the US is now occupying one-third of Syria and imposing crippling sanctions that are crushing Syria’s economy and preventing reconstruction.
While Gabbard has been vilified for her stance on Syria, many top White House officials — including Joe Biden himself — have already acknowledged the same facts that she has called out. Aaron Maté plays clips of Biden and some of his most senior aides admitting to the horrific realities of the US dirty war on Syria, and argues that Gabbard only stands apart in being wiling to criticize it.
Featuring clips from: Tulsi Gabbard, former Democratic Congressmember; President Joe Biden; Brett McGurk, National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa; Martin Dempsey, former Joint Chiefs chairman; Rob Malley, Special Envoy for Iran; John Kerry, Special Envoy for Climate & former Secretary of State; former President Donald Trump; Alena Douhan, UN Special Rapporteur on Sanctions; Dana Stroul, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East; Vice President Kamala Harris.
Audio: [Also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher]
AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback, I’m Aaron Maté. I want to talk about Syria today, which is back in the news in the aftermath of Biden’s military strike on a Shiite militant group near the Iraq-Syria border. There has been some criticism of Biden, even from members of Congress on the Democratic side, because he took the strike without congressional authorization, and he’s been reminded of the War Powers Act.
But I want to look today at how this criticism is narrow and short sighted and misses what is really the big US scandal in Syria — which began under the Obama administration, continued under Trump, and by all appearances is now continuing under Biden as well. And the person who called this out was someone who was on the national stage, but is now no longer in Congress, and that is the former Democratic Congress member, Tulsi Gabbard.
She released a video addressing her former colleagues in Congress, and pointing out that Biden’s strike in Syria is far from the most serious scandal when it comes to us policy in Syria today.
TULSI GABBARD: I am glad to hear that some of my former colleagues in Congress are speaking out against the recent unconstitutional airstrikes in Syria. But they’re ignoring the bigger issue. The regime change war that the United States continues to wage in Syria — using al-Qaeda, Al Nusra, HTS terrorists as our proxy ground force, and who now occupy and control Idlib, imposing Sharia law, and cleansing the area of most Christians and religious minorities. The Biden administration continues to use our military to illegally occupy northeastern Syria to, quote “take the oil” as Trump so crassly, but honestly put it, violating international law. A modern day siege of draconian embargo and sanctions, similar to what the Saudi-US alliance employed in Yemen, is causing death and suffering for millions of innocent Syrians. Depriving them of things like food, medicine, clean water, energy, warmth — and making it impossible for the Syrian people to try to begin to rebuild their war-torn country.
AARON MATÉ: Now what Tulsi Gabbard said there is important. She basically stands alone as a prominent political figure, in being willing to not just criticize the US dirty war and sanctions on Syria, but even to acknowledge it.
Take the sanctions. As Tulsi Gabbard says the US is imposing crippling sanctions on Syria, under something called the Caesar Act. And the Caesar Act explicitly targets Syria’s reconstruction. This was passed by Congress in a bipartisan fashion in 2020. And it gets almost no discussion, certainly in Congress.
And also in the US media, where if you read articles about how Syria is suffering a major crisis right now, at best, sometimes you only get one mention of the US sanctions in passing. And what’s interesting is that while you have people like Tulsi Gabbard virtually alone in criticizing the sanctions, or even acknowledging them, there are others who are willing to acknowledge them — but they do so in a way that celebrates the fact that the US is currently crushing Syria’s economy and preventing reconstruction.
So take, for example, James Jeffrey, who is a former envoy to the Middle East under Donald Trump. He recently wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs, where he bragged that the US “crushed [Syria’s] economy through sanctions.” Now it’s sadistic, I think, to brag about crushing any country’s economy, let alone a country that has been destroyed by 10 years of war.
And here again, is where Tulsi Gabbard stands virtually alone politically in that she is also willing to acknowledge that the US — far worse than one strike by Biden on the Iraq-Syria border — spent billions of dollars on a dirty war that lasted nearly a decade, and which helped destroy Syria.
The truth isn’t hidden though. For example, the New York Times called the dirty war on Syria “one of the costliest covert action programs” in CIA history. The Washington Post said that the CIA’s program had a “budget approaching $1 billion a year.” In 2017, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius cited what he called a “knowledgeable official,” who estimated that “CIA backed fighters may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years.”
Now to illustrate what kind of fighters the CIA supported in Syria, Ignatius gave the example of the “rebels,” who waged an offensive in a town called Latakia, “threatening Assad’s ancestral homeland and Russian bases there.”
Well, according to Robert F. Worth of the New York Times, these rebels actually threatened genocide of the Alawite sect that was dominant in Latakia. This is what Worth wrote: “If the rebels had captured the area — where Alawites are the majority — a result would almost certainly have been sectarian mass murder. Many people in the region would have blamed the United States, which armed some of the rebels operating in the area.”
So those are the kinds of “rebels” that the US was supporting in Syria. And that’s why Tulsi Gabbard accurately referred to them as jihadist proxy forces, who would have done things like commit sectarian mass murder. And again, on top of the murderous sanctions, it is crazy that Tulsi Gabbard stands virtually alone in being willing to criticize this. And that, for her criticism, she has actually been made a pariah in Washington.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the truth has not been acknowledged before. And what I want to do today is actually go through some cases where top US officials have actually acknowledged the truth about what the US did to Syria. And contrast that acknowledgement with the level of public awareness, and how often these critical admissions and facts are ackknowledged in the US media, and how that helps prevent a sane and humane policy in Syria today.
So the reality of what the US did in Syria, as described by Tulsi Gabbard, has been acknowledged, from the very top beginning with President Joe Biden himself. Listen to what Joe Biden said back in 2014, about what US allies did in Syria.
JOE BIDEN: Our biggest problem was our allies. Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks – who are great friends – and I have a great relationship with Erdogan, which I just spent a lot of time with; the Saudis; the Emiratis, et cetera. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and, essentially, have a proxy Sunni-Shia war… what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens… thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being… who were being supplied were Al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.
AARON MATÉ: Now, Joe Biden actually apologized for making this statement, not because he got anything wrong. If anything, his only error was leaving out the critical US role in all of this. Because the US — alongside its Saudi, Qatari UAE and Turkish partners — were spending money on weapons and facilitating their transfer to Syria. So Biden’s only error was actually omitting the key US role. But Biden actually apologized for this — not because he left out the US role — but because his admission of the allies’ role angered them.
While Biden admitted the truth in public, other top officials have admitted it in private. So take Jake Sullivan, who is now Biden’s national security adviser. According to WikiLeaks, this is what Sullivan wrote to Hillary Clinton back in 2012: “AQ [al-Qaeda] is on our side in Syria.” And given that al-Qaeda was on our side in Syria, you can imagine that al-Qaeda benefited as a result, and they did. Because al-Qaeda was able to fight alongside US-supplied rebels and even steal their weapons, al-Qaeda was able to capture a province called Idlib, which it still occupies today.
And this has led another top Biden official named Brett McGurk, who is now Biden’s National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa — Brett McGurk admitted in 2017 that Idlib is now al-Qaeda’s largest safe haven since 9/11.
BRETT MCGURK: Look, Idlib province is the largest Al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11, tied directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri. This is a huge problem. It’s been a problem for some time. We have shone the spotlight — the international spotlight — on ISIS. We’ve been very focused on Al-Qaeda and Idlib province. Leaders of Al-Qaeda that make their way to Idlib province often do not make their way out of there.But we have to ask a question: Why and how is Ayman al-Zawahiri’s deputy finding his way to Idlib province? Why is this happening? How are they getting there? They’re not paratroopers, and the approach … I obviously will not talk about anything the U.S. government has done in certain parts of Syria on this problem, but the approach by some of our partners to send in tens of thousands of tons of weapons and looking the other way as these foreign fighters come in to Syria may not have been the best approach, and Al-Qaeda has taken full advantage of it. Idlib now is a huge problem. It is an Al-Qaeda safe haven right on the border of Turkey.
AARON MATÉ: And by the way, it’s not just al-Qaeda that has benefited from US assistance. It’s also ISIS, as is also openly acknowledged. Martin Dempsey, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Obama told Congress in 2014 that US allies have directly funded ISIS. He was scolded for admitting that by Senator Lindsey Graham.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Do you know any major Arab ally that embraces ISIL?
GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: I know major Arab allies who fund them.
GRAHAM: Yes, but do they embrace–they fund them because the Free Syrian Army couldn’t fight Assad. They were trying to beat Assad. I think they realize the folly of their ways. Let’s don’t taint the Mideast unfairly.
AARON MATÉ: And on top of having allies that directly funded ISIS, the US also tacitly supported ISIS in its own way too. Another Biden official, John Kerry, who is now Biden’s climate envoy. Back when he was Secretary of State under Obama, Kerry made a huge, secretly recorded admission. Kerry said that the US stood back and watched as ISIS encroached on Damascus, in the hopes that ISIS’s advance would force Assad to negotiate. So in short, the US was willing to risk ISIS taking over Damascus, if that could advance the US regime change goals against Assad. And that’s why Kerry said, Russia actually intervened in Syria because he said, Russia did not want an ISIS or Daesh government.
JOHN KERRY: The reason Russia came in is because ISIL was getting stronger, Daesh [ISIL] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth. And that’s why Russia went in. Because they didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know that this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened.
AARON MATÉ: So all these admissions by top Biden officials help expose one of the biggest lies about the Obama administration, where many of them served. And that line that we often hear about Obama is that he did not do enough in Syria. He did not intervene enough. It’s the exact opposite. As all these officials have laid out, Obama massively intervened in Syria primarily through a covert, giant CIA program. And that has led to the chaos that Syria is still recovering from today. And it was so cynical that the US was willing to use al-Qaeda and ISIS to advance their goals of regime change.
And this takes me to another Biden official named Rob Malley, who served under Obama and is now Biden’s envoy to Iran in the hopes of possibly reviving the Iran nuclear deal — although whether Biden will do that, is actually unclear. But listen to what Rob Malley told me in an interview we did back in 2018. Contrary to the dominant line that Obama didn’t do enough in Syria, Malley told me that in fact, the US was a part of what fueled the war, rather than stopping it.
ROB MALLEY: Once we threw in our lot and we became part of the regime change — by definition, even if we denied it — once we’re supplying the armed opposition which had only one goal, which was to topple — had one goal, which was to topple the regime. And once we were in bed with the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks who also had that goal. And their goal was not just — their goal was not, and I don’t want to, I don’t want to simplify too much, but their role was not only to protect the Syrian people. In fact, as you said, a lot of their actions exacerbated the situation and led to more deaths. Their goal was to break the regime in order to break Iran’s role in the, in Syria. Once we became part of that, then you’re right. Then we were part of what fueled the conflict rather than stopped it.
AARON MATÉ: So that is how the US helped destroy Syria, as told entirely by Obama and Biden administration officials. And pretty much everything that Tulsi Gabbard criticized is what these officials have admitted to. The main difference is that for the most part, none of these officials seem to see anything wrong with destroying a country via a proxy war, and then imposing murderous sanctions to prevent Syria from reconstructing. Now, it’s worth stressing that Trump carried out this policy too; he imposed the Caesar sanctions that target Syria’s reconstruction. And he openly admitted that the US is staying in Syria to steal its oil.
DONALD TRUMP: And then they say, he left troops in Syria. You know what I did, I left troops to take the oil. I took the oil. The only troops I have are taking the oil. They’re protecting the oil. I took over the oil.
LAURA INGRAHAM: We’re taking, we’re not taking–
DONALD TRUMP: Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.
LAURA INGRAHAM: They’re protecting their facility.
DONALD TRUMP: I don’t know maybe we should take it. But we have the oil. Right now, the United States has the oil.
AARON MATÉ: And now Biden is continuing this by keeping US troops in Syria. There are some reports that he’s even fortified the US military occupation there, and also keeping these murderous sanctions in place. It’s worth talking about what the sanctions have done to Syria. So now there are reports of long breadlines, the country is facing a massive economic crisis, its currency is at a record low.
ALENA DOUHAN: Because of the fear, everyone is very scared to be involved into any reconstruction processes. As well as any other processes, which as a result affects the human rights. And I would say, even human lives in Syria a lot. That basically results in a sort of discrimination to all of the people of targeted countries. How it takes place in Syria: they do not get medical treatment, they do not get housing, they do not get sufficient food.
AARON MATÉ: Now, aside from this recent bombing at the Iraq-Syrian border, Biden and the White House have not said much about Syria. But again, all indications are that they plan to continue this dirty war that they started under Obama. And we can glean that from another Biden official named Dana Stroul, who is now Biden’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East. And previously Stroul served as the co-chair of something called the Syria Study Group, which was established by Congress. And when Stroul discussed the sanctions on Syria, the hindering of reconstruction, and the US military occupation, Stroul previously has been very vocal about the fact that all these things are “leverage” in pursuit of regime change.
DANA STROUL: The reason the Syrian Study Group talked about needing to retain a U.S. military presence in that one-third of Syria was not only about completing the anti-ISISfight. It was about the broader leverage of that one-third of Syria which is the resource-rich part of Syria which provided us leverage to influence a political outcome in Syria.
AARON MATÉ: So similar to Trump, here is now a Biden official, saying openly that the US military occupation of Syria — in the region where there is oil — is “leverage,” and is being used for US political goals. And it’s not just oil that’s in that northeast of Syria — that one third of Syria that the US is occupying — it’s also Syria’s breadbasket. It’s wheat. Where Syria’s food is produced for the rest of the country.
DANA STROUL: And that one-third of Syria is the resource-rich, it’s the economic powerhouse of Syria, so where the hydrocarbons are, which obviously is very much in the public debate here in Washington these days, as well as the agricultural powerhouse.
AARON MATÉ: So that’s the US leverage, according to Biden official Dana Stroul: occupying the third of Syria that has its oil and its wheat, and also, in her words, “holding a card” on reconstruction — preventing a war-torn country from rebuilding,
DANA STROUL: There was some stabilization assistance in the part of Syria that was liberated from ISIS and controlled via the Syrian Democratic Forces in northern-eastern Syria. The rest of Syria though is rubble. And what the Russians want and what Assad wants is economic reconstruction. And that is something that the United States can basically hold a card on, via the international financial institutions and our cooperation with the Europeans. So we argued that absent behavioral changes by the Assad regime, we should hold a line on preventing reconstruction aid and technical expertise from going back into Syria.
AARON MATÉ: So that is the reality of what the US has done to Syria — as told by the Obama and Biden administration officials who’ve carried out the policy. And again, compare the mild criticism you got from some members of Congress, that Biden did not consult with them, or seek their approval for his strike on the Syrian-Iraqi border, with their resounding silence on all the crimes that came before it in this 10 year long, dirty war. And all the crimes that are continuing today, with these US sanctions that are preventing the Syrian people from rebuilding. And it is very telling that the one person on the national political stage, willing to criticize all this, Tulsi Gabbard is the one who has been vilified for it. Which we saw during the Democratic primary when Kamala Harris, who was now the Vice President, accused Tulsi Gabbard of being an Assad apologist.
KAMALA HARRIS: Listen, I think that this coming from someone who has been an apologist for an individual, Assad, who has murdered the people of his country like cockroaches. She has embraced and been an apologist for him in the way she refuses to call him a war criminal. I can only take what she says and her opinion so seriously.
And so that really says it all. Tulsi Gabbard was saying for a long time, many of the things that, as we saw, Biden administration officials openly admitted to about Syria. The one difference is that Tulsi Gabbard had the moral integrity to criticize it. To criticize a catastrophic war in a foreign country. To criticize the continued sanctions that deny Syrians a chance to rebuild, and Syrian children food and medicine. And until that changes — until Tulsi Gabbard’s perspective on this no longer becomes the exception, but the rule… Until then, the continued rule under the Biden administration will be more suffering for the Syrian people, After all the suffering and harm tha — as Biden administration officials have openly admitted — they have already caused.