A new study shows that U.S. government weapons ended up in the hands of Islamic State jihadists, but no one in Washington seems interested in how they got there or what President Obama knew, writes Daniel Lazare.
By Daniel Lazare
Did Barack Obama arm ISIS? The question strikes many people as absurd, if not offensive. How can anyone suggest something so awful about a nice guy like the former president? But a stunning report by an investigative group known as Conflict Armament Research (CAR) leaves us little choice but to conclude that he did.
CAR, based in London and funded by Switzerland and the European Union, spent three years tracing the origin of some 40,000 pieces of captured ISIS arms and ammunition. Its findings, made public last week, are that much of it originated in former Warsaw Pact nations in Eastern Europe, where it was purchased by United States and Saudi Arabia and then diverted, in violation of various rules and treaties, to Islamist rebels seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The rebels, in turn, somehow caused or allowed the equipment to be passed on to Islamic State, which is also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL, or just the abbreviation IS.
This is damning stuff since it makes it clear that rather than fighting ISIS, the U.S. government was feeding it.
But CAR turns vague when it comes to the all-important question of precisely how the second leg of the transfer worked. Did the rebels turn the weapons over voluntarily, involuntarily, or did they somehow drop them when ISIS was in close proximity and forget to pick them up? All CAR will say is that “background information … indicates that IS [Islamic State] forces acquired the materiel through varied means, including battlefield capture and the amalgamation of disparate Syrian opposition groups.” It adds that it “cannot rule out direct supply to IS forces from the territories of Jordan and Turkey, especially given the presence of various opposition groups, with shifting allegiances, in cross-border supply locations.” But that’s it.
If so, this suggests an astonishing level of incompetence on the part of Washington. The Syrian rebel forces are an amazingly fractious lot as they merge, split, attack one another and then team up all over again. So how could the White House have imagined that it could keep weapons tossed into this mix from falling into the wrong hands? Considering how each new gun adds to the chaos, how could it possibly keep track? The answer is that it couldn’t, which is why ISIS wound up reaping the benefits.
But here’s the rub. The report implies a level of incompetence that is not just staggering, but too staggering. How could such a massive transfer occur without field operatives not having a clue as to what was going on? Was every last one of them deaf, dumb, and blind?
Not likely. What seems much more plausible is that once the CIA established “plausible deniability” for itself, all it cared about was that the arms made their way to the most effective fighting force, which in Syria happened to be Islamic State.
This is what had happened in Afghanistan three decades earlier when the lion’s share of anti-Soviet aid, some $600 million in all, went to a brutal warlord named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar was a raging bigot, a sectarian, and an anti-western xenophobe, qualities that presumably did not endear him to his CIA handlers. But as Steve Coll notes in Ghost Wars, his bestselling 2004 account of the CIA’s love affair with Islamic holy war, he “was the most efficient at killing Soviets” and that was the only thing that mattered. As one CIA officer put it, “analytically, the best fighters – the best-organized fighters – were the fundamentalists” that Hekmatyar led. Consequently, he ended up with the most money.
After all, if you’re funding a neo-medieval uprising, it makes sense to steer the money to the darkest reactionaries of them all. Something similar occurred in March 2015 when Syrian rebels launched an assault on government positions in the northern province of Idlib. The rebel coalition was under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra, as the local branch of Al Qaeda was known at the time, and what Al-Nusra needed most of all were high-tech TOW missiles with which to counter government tanks and trucks.
Arming Al Qaeda
So the Obama administration arranged for Nusra to get them. To be sure, it didn’t provide them directly. To ensure deniability, rather, it allowed Raytheon to sell some 15,000 TOWs to Saudi Arabia in late 2013 and then looked the other way when the Saudis transferred large numbers of them to pro-Nusra forces in Idlib. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Climbing into bed with Al-Qaeda.”] Al-Nusra had the toughest fighters in the area, and the offensive was sure to send the Assad regime reeling. So even though its people were compatriots with those who destroyed the World Trade Center, Obama’s White House couldn’t say no.
“Nusra have always demonstrated superior planning and battle management,” Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said a few weeks later. If the rebel coalition was successful as a whole, it “was entirely due to their willingness to work with Nusra, who have been the backbone in all of this.”
Scruples, assuming they existed in the first place, fell by the wayside. A senior White House official told The Washington Post that the Obama administration was “not blind to the fact that it is to some extent inevitable” that U.S. weapons would wind up in terrorist hands, but what could you do? It was all part of the game of realpolitik. A senior Washington official crowed that “the trend lines for Assad are bad and getting worse” while The New York Times happily noted that “[t]he Syrian Army has suffered a string of defeats from re-energized insurgents.” So, for the master planners in Washington, it was worth it.
Then there is ISIS, which is even more beyond the pale as most Americans are concerned thanks to its extravagant displays of barbarism and cruelty – its killing of Yazidis and enslavement of Yazidi women and girls, its mass beheadings, its fiery execution of Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, and so on.
Yet U.S. government attitudes were more ambivalent than most Americans realized. Indeed, the U.S. government was strictly neutral as long as ISIS confined itself to attacking Assad. As a senior defense official told the Wall Street Journal in early 2015: “Certainly, ISIS has been able to expand in Syria, but that’s not our main objective. I wouldn’t call Syria a safe haven for ISIL, but it is a place where it’s easier for them to organize, plan, and seek shelter than it is in Iraq.”
In other words, Syria was a safe haven because, the Journal explained, the U.S. was reluctant to interfere in any way that might “tip the balance of power toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is fighting Islamic State and other rebels.” So the idea was to allow ISIS to have its fun as long as it didn’t bother anyone else. For the same reason, the U.S. refrained from bombing the group when, shortly after the Idlib offensive, its fighters closed in on the central Syrian city of Palmyra, 80 miles or so to the east. This was despite the fact that the fighters would have made perfect targets while “traversing miles of open desert roads.”
As The New York Times explained: “Any airstrikes against Islamic State militants in and around Palmyra would probably benefit the force of President Bashar al-Assad. So far, United States-led airstrikes in Syria have largely focussed on areas far outside government control, to avoid the perception of aiding a leader whose ouster President Obama has called for.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “How US-Backed War on Syria Helped ISIS.”]
The United States thus allowed ISIS to capture one of the most archeologically important cities in the world, killing dozens of government soldiers and decapitating83-year-old Khalid al-Asaad, the city’s retired chief of antiquities. (After looting and destroying many of the ancient treasures, ISIS militants were later driven from Palmyra by a Russian-backed offensive by troops loyal to President Assad.)
Obama’s bottom line was: ISIS is very, very bad when it attacks the U.S.-backed regime in Iraq, but less so when it wreaks havoc just over the border in Syria. In September 2016, John Kerry clarified what the administration was up to in a tape-recorded conversation at the U.N. that was later made public. Referring to Russia’s decision to intervene in Syria against ISIS, also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh, the then-Secretary of State told a small knot of pro-rebel sympathizers:
“The reason Russia came in is because ISIL was getting stronger. Daesh was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth, and that’s why Russia came in, because they didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got … Putin in to support him. So it’s truly complicated.” (Quote starts at 26:10.)
“We were watching.” Kerry said. So, by giving ISIS free rein, the administration hoped to use it as a lever with which to dislodge Assad. As in Afghanistan, the United States thought it could use jihad to advance its own imperial interests. Yet the little people – Syrian soldiers, three thousand office workers in lower Manhattan, Yazidis, the Islamic State’s beheading of Western hostages, etc. – made things “truly complicated.”
Putting this all together, a few things seem clear. One is that the Obama administration was happy to see its Saudi allies use U.S.-made weapons to arm Al Qaeda. Another is that it was not displeased to see ISIS battle Assad’s government as well. If so, how unhappy could it have been if its allies then passed along weapons to the Islamic State so it could battle Assad all the more? The administration was desperate to knock out Assad, and it needed someone to do the job before Vladimir Putin stepped in and bombed ISIS instead.
It was a modern version of Henry II’s lament, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” The imperative was to get rid of Assad; Obama and his team had no interest in the messy details.
None of which proves that Obama armed ISIS. But unless one believes that the CIA is so monumentally inept that it could screw up a two-car funeral, it’s the only explanation that makes sense. Obama is still a congenial fellow. But he’s a classic liberal who had no desire to interfere with the imperatives of empire and whose idea of realism was therefore to leave foreign policy in the hands of neocons or liberal interventionists like Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.
If America were any kind of healthy democracy, Congress would not rest until it got to the bottom of what should be the scandal of the decade: Did the U.S. government wittingly or unwittingly arm the brutal killers of ISIS and Al Qaeda? However, since that storyline doesn’t fit with the prevailing mainstream narrative of Washington standing up for international human rights and opposing global terrorism, the troublesome question will likely neither be asked nor answered.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).