We have been led to believe that the Syrian conflict was the result of the Assad government’s crackdown on an “Arab Spring” pro-democracy movement starting in late January 2011, resulting in factions within the protest movement taking up an armed struggle against President Bashar al-Assad. This reading of events has been challenged by senior figures even in the United States’ own political establishment.
According to Virginia State Republican Senator Richard Black “the war in Syria was not a domestic uprising.” He describes a conflict that was from the start fought by “hardcore jihadists led by the Muslim Brotherhood with support from CIA, MI6, and with help from the Saudi Arabians, and the Turks.” This is similar to the picture drawn in August 2011 by former MI6 officer Alastair Crooke who described two significant forces at play in the Syrian situation; experienced Sunni urban guerrillas following the teachings of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and US-backed Syrian exile groups from France and the United States.
Both the al-Zarqawists and the returnees had, in Crooke’s understanding, been engaged in stoking up popular discontent as a pretext for violence against the Syrian state. The guerrillas, who had fought against the US occupation in Iraq and who were in receipt of “outside finance,” were adept at infiltrating protests as a means to attacking Assad’s forces. Whereas provoking NATO intervention by paying “Sunni tribal chiefs to put people on the streets,” working with NGOs “to feed uncorroborated stories of atrocities to Western media,” and collaborating with other radicals in order to escalate the violence was the aim of the returnees.
Crooke further contradicted the Western media presentation of the conflict, saying that Syria and Egypt were very different realities, adding that “the picture you see in the European and American press is that you are dealing with peaceful protests and that Assad has nothing better to do than to kill his own people.”
Until the Snowden leak this counter-narrative was dismissed by the Western media as conspiracy theory at best and anti-Western propaganda at worst. Leaked US diplomatic cables from as early as February 2011 inform us that in discussions between Syrian General Intelligence Director Ali Mamlouk, Syrian Vice Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad, and the US State Department’s coordinator for counter-terrorism Daniel Benjamin in Damascus the United States was made aware of takfiri fighters (Islamist mercenaries) crossing into Iraq from Syria as the Syrian delegation sought to secure a joint border security deal with the US. Interestingly, Syrian clerics were describing these takfiri as “Americanised Muslims.”
What the Syrians at this time did not know, and what we learn from the WikiLeaks cables, is that the US had been tracking and exploited these foreign fighters since 2006. In fact, with the co-opting of these fighters by the US and Britain through the coalition’s middlemen, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the arrival of more through the Syrian backdoor became inevitable. Oliver Miles, a retired senior British diplomat wrote in a 2014 Guardian article: “It is depressing that the government seems to be following the example of Tony Blair, who ignored consistent advice from the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6 that our Middle East policy – and in particular our Middle East wars – has been a principal driver in the recruitment of Muslims in Britain for terrorism here.”
US and British policy in Iraq was not only putting pressure on Syria, but also stimulating Islamic radicalisation in the United Kingdom. In Iraq what had in effect happened as a consequence of this policy was that al-Qaeda – the primary target of the War on Terror – had become an asset of the US-led coalition. It was this unwittingly compromised al-Qaeda in Iraq; the self-styled Dawlat al-ʿIrāq al-ʾIslāmiyyah, that developed into the statist Islamic State of Iraq – the precursor of ISIS.
As US foreign policy changed [or progressed] towards Syria it was these same takfiri fighters, belonging to ISIS and other al-Qaeda offshoots such as Jabhat al-Nusra that were used as the cat’s paw in the destabilisation of the al-Assad government. In an attempt to obfuscate their relationship to al-Qaeda they were rebranded “rebels” by the Western media. It was the realisation that this was a re-run of events in Libya that finally brought Russian intervention on the Syrian government side, and to-date, as Sen. Richard Black has said, it has only been the activity of Russia in Syria that has reduced the territorial grip of the Islamic State.
Jason Michael McCann