Syria, Iraq and ISIS:
For several years the media have persisted in telling us that the U.S. “won” in Iraq because of the troop surge that Bush began in 2007 and Obama continued into 2011, when he announced a formal end to the occupation. However, this included maintaining 5,000 private security contractors and 16,000 State Department “civilian employees” there. Knowing their history of engaging in war crimes, he tried unsuccessfully to pressure the Iraqi government to grant them immunity from prosecution.
Full-scale war, of course, never stopped, nor did massive American expenditures. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz contends that the total, including hidden costs, will exceed $3 trillion. It is now a civil war between Shias and Sunnis, who are the main leaders and supporters of ISIS. Major Danny Sjursen, an Iraq veteran, writes:
…the surge was incapable of addressing, and barely pretended to face, the true conundrum of the invasion and occupation: any American-directed version of Iraqi “democracy” would invariably usher in Shia-majority dominance over a largely synthetic state. The real question no surge cheerleaders publicly asked (or ask to this day) was whether an invading foreign entity was even capable of imposing an inclusive political settlement there. To assume that the United States could have done so smacks of a faith-based as opposed to reality-based worldview – another version of a deep and abiding belief in American exceptionalism.
Cui bono? Do you remember when the embarrassed Bush administration changed the title of the invasion to “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (OIF) after someone noticed the acronym formed by the letters of its original name, “Operation Iraqi Liberation”?
Obama claimed that his wars were legal under the 2001 and 2003 authorizations for the use of military force to pursue Al-Qaeda. But Syria has nothing to do with 9-11. How did this war, with its half million dead and seven million refugees, begin? First, let’s acknowledge that Bashar Assad’s cruel regime is irrelevant, unless you still believe that the U.S. intervenes in other countries for “humanitarian” reasons. Cui bono? We are talking about “regime change” – and oil pipelines. Bush had planned to overthrow Assad as far back as 2006. Obama’s second major foreign policy crime – war crime – was to deploy Bush’s plans. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. writes:
Secret cables and reports by the U.S., Saudi and Israeli intelligence agencies indicate that the moment Assad rejected the Qatari pipeline, military and intelligence planners quickly arrived at the consensus that fomenting a Sunni uprising in Syria…was a feasible path to achieving the shared objective…In 2009, according to WikiLeaks, soon after Bashar Assad rejected the Qatar pipeline, the CIA began funding opposition groups in Syria.
In August 2012, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency warned that the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda were “the major forces driving the insurgency. But Obama preferred a different narrative. All it took was an alleged massacre – by the old standby “gassing – weapons of mass destruction” – for him to threaten missile attacks on the Syrian government. The media happy complied. All Things Considered claimed that he “…has done everything he can to avoid another foreign military involvement, but he can’t avoid it after the widespread use of chemical weapons on this scale.” Chemical weapons? Were we really going down that rat hole once again?
Let’s be real clear on this point: Obama, like Bush and Lyndon Johnson before him, was lying to the nation to get it into another war. And he was also distracting it from the real history of American involvement in mass atrocities. He did this because, as I wrote:
Americans, though naïve, are no more inherently violent than other peoples. The state must regularly administer massive dosages of indoctrination to reanimate our sense of innocence. Propaganda merges with belief; every student learns that America never starts wars but always aids those in need. The mythic appeal is so fundamental that occasional disclosures of the truth – cracks in the myth of innocence – do little to alter popular consciousness…Still, the narrative of innocence requires constant ceremonial maintenance, including the regular creation of new images of “evildoers.”
A year later, the U.S. reached further heights of hypocrisy when it demanded that Syria eliminate all chemical weapons by June 30, 2014. Around the same time it requested an extension for itself to 2023 of the U.N. Convention on Chemical Weapons, a treaty it had ratified in 1997. The Syrians had already proposed years earlier to get rid of these weapons. The Russians made a similar proposal, which Washington rejected. When the Syrians called Obama’s bluff and did remove them, Congress restrained direct intervention.
Undeterred by public opposition, the administration gave the green light to the Saudis, who began to funnel massive aid to their Salafi jihadist surrogates. The U.S. itself was spending a billion dollars per year arming and training these “ moderate rebels”. Without this aid, Assad – for better or for worse – would have crushed the rebellion quickly. With it, the carnage increased, and so did the refugee flow.
Let’s be clear (as clear as we can) about another thing. The world is experiencing the greatest refugee crisis since at least World War Two. Many thousands have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Literally tens of thousands of unaccompanied child refugees are wandering the streets of Europe. And the resultant backlash and scapegoating among Islamophobic Americans led directly to the fiasco of the 2016 election. We have Trump not despite Obama but because of him.
This crisis has many causes. But Obama’s decisions to destabilize Syria and Libya (see below) were the major factors. Let’s be clear about this as well: his wars of regime change and his refusal to leave Afghanistan directly contributed to the growth of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS.
We have to see American policy – and Obama’s role in it – in the proper context. The only states in the Muslim world that are not U.S. puppets are Iran and Syria, and the U.S. labeled them as threats only because they resisted American hegemony. And for quite a while, Syria was the only such state actually fighting ISIS and Al-Qaeda. After visiting Syria, Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard accused her own government of funding and arming ISIS. Glen Ford bluntly argues:
The U.S. claim that it is waging a global “war on terror” is the biggest lie of the 21st century …In reality, the U.S. is the birth mother and chief nurturer of the global jihadist network …deployment of jihadists has become central to U.S. imperial policy…And, there is no question that “internal rivalries” do abound in the U.S. war machine, with CIA-sponsored jihadists attacking Pentagon-sponsored jihadists in Syria – the point being, the U.S. backs a wide range of jihadists that have conflicts with one another…the general aim of the Obama administration’s jihadist policy, now deeply in crisis: to preserve the Islamic State as a fighting force for deployment under another brand name, under new top leadership. The Islamic State went “rogue,” by the Americans’ definition, when it began pursuing its own mission…Even so, the U.S. mainly targeted top ISIS leaders for elimination, allowing the main body of fighters, estimated at around 30,000, to not only remain intact, but to be constantly resupplied and to carry on a vast oil business, mainly with NATO ally Turkey.
Even with such dubious intentions, the Pentagon admits that it has spent over $11 billion on the air war against ISIS. In 2016 alone, it dropped at least 26,171 bombs – three bombs per hour, 24 hours a day. Each combat drone required a team of at least 150 people to maintain and prepare to fire it. While most of these attacks were in Syria and Iraq, they also killed people in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan (the same seven majority-Muslim countries from which Trump has tried to ban immigration). Medea Benjamin reminds us that
We have no idea how many civilians have been killed in the massive bombings in Iraq and Syria, where the US military is often pursuing ISIS in the middle of urban neighborhoods. We only sporadically hear about civilian killings in Afghanistan, such as the tragic bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz that left 42 dead and 37 wounded …Pushed to release information about civilian deaths in drone strikes, in July 2016 the US government made the absurd claim it had killed, at most, 116 civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya between 2009 and 2015…The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has tracked drone strikes for years, said the true figure was six times higher. Given that drones account for only a small portion of the munitions dropped in the past eight years, the numbers of civilians killed by Obama’s bombs could be in the thousands.
The administration’s response to these reports was that they may have been marred by “terrorist propaganda.” Indeed, since Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were areas of “active hostilities” it excluded them from the calculations. In June 2011, John Brennan claimed “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.” But the Pentagon had defined as a terrorist any male between the ages of 20 and 40 exhibiting “behavior deemed suspicious” and thus liable to what it euphemistically called “signature strikes.” Daniel Lazare writes:
…the President had in fact signed a secret Executive Order allowing such strikes to continue in Pakistan, directly contradicting his public stance. In June 2016 evidence also emerged that signature strikes were ongoing in Yemen as well, likely through a similar secret policy.
Even the Military Times admits:
The American military has failed to publicly disclose potentially thousands of lethal airstrikes conducted over several years in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan…The enormous data gap raises serious doubts about transparency in reported progress against the Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Taliban, and calls into question the accuracy of other Defense Department disclosures documenting everything from costs to casualty counts.
Of course, all recent presidents have been aware of unpublicized CIA assassinations. However, as Tom Engelhardt writes:
In previous eras…presidents either stayed above the assassination fray or practiced a kind of plausible deniability…We are surely at a new stage in the history of the imperial presidency when a president (or his election team) assembles his aides, advisors, and associates to foster a story that’s meant to broadcast the group’s collective pride in the new position of assassin-in-chief… assassination has been thoroughly institutionalized, normalized, and bureaucratized around the figure of the president…
What the administration did “disclose” was the existence of yet another “other” – the “Khorasan group”, which CBS News called “a more immediate threat to the U.S. homeland.” It was worse than ISIS, which was worse than Al Qaeda, which was worse than the Taliban (even if they were all fighting each other). But when no evidence of this threat was offered, it quickly disappeared from view.
Consider for a moment what these people are doing, their rationales, their religious belief in their own moral purity, their autocratic sense of privilege, their unlimited budgets, their confidence in knowing that they are accountable to no one, and the fact obvious to any idiot that such policies were creating far more new terrorists than they were killing (by one count 10-15 civilians killed for every militant), and then place them into a slightly different context:
…thought about another way, that “terror Tuesday” scene might not be from a monastery or a church synod, but from a Mafia council directly out of a Mario Puzo novel, with the president as the Godfather, designating “hits” in a rough-and-tumble world.
Or consider another perspective, the mythological. We are in the realm of Apollo, who can kill from a distance with his bow and arrow. This god – at least a poor version of him – opposes the inevitable Dionysian upswelling of revolutionary energy by repressed people. Or, as James Hillman noted in discussing the detached, Apollonic consciousness that characterizes all of Western Civilization, “…his distance kills.”
Apollo had reigned ever since our ancestors realized that they could harm each other, and minimize danger to themselves, by throwing rocks and then inventing spears, archery, catapults and guns. American pilots had destroyed inconceivably vast areas of Viet Nam in their B-52 bombers, where they’d been too high in the sky to even hear the explosions.
It was merely another step in advanced battlefield technology to have men with joysticks in air-conditioned offices commanding drones to destroy people of color at wedding parties hundreds of miles away. And who better to serve as the face of this modern, unemotional carnage than the calm, detached, cerebral Obama?
Could any strategy expert have invented a scheme more likely to create more enemies and extend more wars into an infinite future? At what point do we begin to ask: was this really the purpose?
Tragedy or farce? In October 2016, Obama sanctimoniously warned that in the future “…you (could) end up with a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.” But he claimed that the accountability and transparency measures he was instituting would make that less likely. “By the time I leave here, the American people are going to have a better sense of what their president is doing.” Indeed.
Deliberate design or incompetence? Again, what was he doing in (to) Syria? Was he actually in charge? Former CIA officer Ray McGovern reveals that the Pentagon and the CIA had created various groups of “moderate rebels” who were in fact fighting each other:
It has been sort of a helter-skelter choosing process, reminiscent of the people we chose to go into Iraq and set up a government more amenable to our influence. The “moderate” rebels that we are allegedly supporting – you know it is really bizarre because the President of the U.S. two years ago said: ‘There are no moderate rebels. This is a fantasy’. Well, if it is a fantasy and there are no moderate rebels, whom we are supporting there…once you have a covert action program with 500 million dollars like the Defense had, you’ve got all this money and people say: ‘Let’s find some moderate rebels because we have all this money.’
And though the administration claimed that the main fight was against ISIS, some of the CIA-backed groups were affiliated with Al Qaeda and primarily fighting against Assad.
Meanwhile, lest we forget the crucial fact, ISIS was receiving most of its support from U.S. allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It is absolutely inconceivable that the Pentagon and the CIA were not aware of this.
U.S. support for a particular group changed from one part of Syria to another. The Pentagon backed Kurdish YPG forces in eastern Syria but not the YPG in northern Aleppo. Indeed, the YPG north of Aleppo has attacked U.S.-backed forces.
In January 2017, American airstrikes “mistakenly” attacked Syrian army positions, killing 62 soldiers. For an analysis of the complex machinations and internal backstabbing that led Russian U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin to ask, “Who is in charge in Washington? The White House or the Pentagon?” see Gareth Porter’s article.
At best, Obama could not control the murderers. At worst, he was indistinguishable from them, and thus utterly complicit in the fix. The administration wanted both to limit the influence of ISIS and to overthrow Assad, and the military and CIA were backing – and on the ground with – opposing camps. And this certainly led to the possibility of U.S. forces (more likely mercenaries) shooting at each other. Who was the only group to profit from this mess? Cui bono…Ford expands on the four-decade-long history of the U.S.’s creation of Islamic terrorism here:
ISIS did not exist when President Obama took office and put Hillary Clinton in charge at Foggy Bottom. His (and her) regime change in Libya and massive, terroristic pivot to Syria “created” ISIS…the U.S. did not reject the jihadist death cult that became ISIS; rather, the Islamic State divorced itself from the U.S. and its European and royal allies. Yet, it still took the Russian intervention in Syria in September of last year to push Washington to mount more than token air assaults against ISIS.
I hear your voice: Perhaps Obama ended up as a war criminal, but he began with such high ideals. Let’s move on to Part Ten.