The Pronk Pops Show Podcasts
Story 1: The Select Committee on Benghazi Will Never Answer The Most Important Questions — Why Was The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) In Benghazi, Libya and What Were They Doing? — Shipping Arms Through Turkey To The Syrian Rebels — Free Syrian Army, Al Nustra, Islamic State — Al Qaeda Arms Deal Gone Bad — Congress and Obama Arms Our Enemies To Kill Christians — The War on Christians! — Videos
The Tyrant’s Liars Club
Benghazi Select Committee Holds First Public Hearing Trey Gowdy On The Record
Watch Live: Select Committee on Benghazi Holds First Hearing
President Obama announces bipartisan House and Senate support of his plan to arm rebels in Syria
Islamic State: Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels approved
Rand Paul Lambasts White House, Congress for Arming Syrian Rebels
General: Benghazi ‘Botched Arms Deal’ To Muslim Brotherhood And Al Qaeda
Chairman Gowdy’s Questioning in First Benghazi Select Committee Hearing
Trey Gowdy Demands Answers On Benghazi
Rand Paul Destroys Hillary Clinton Over Benghazi-Gate During Capitol Hill Press Conference
Chaffetz: Clinton’s Top Aides Involved In Benghazi Documents Scrub
Hillary allies secretly removed Benghazi documents damaging to her ahead of ARB probe
Obama Admin Lied To Us! They Knew Who Attack Us In Benghazi, Libya On 9-11!!
RUSH: Benghazi Cover-Up Blown Wide Open And Nobody’s Talking About It
CIA Arming Syrian Rebels With Missiles, Taxpayer Dollars
Congress Passes War Funding To Support Obama’s ISIS Fight
The Benghazi Select Committee: Many Questions Remain Unanswered
Patrick Cockburn on the rise of the Islamic State
The Rise of ISIS: US Invasion of Iraq, Foreign Backing of Syrian Rebels Helped Fuel Jihadis’ Advance
Patrick Cockburn: U.S. Turns Blind Eye As Saudis Fund Jihadists in Syrian Conflict (2 of 2)
Syria – Who are Jabhat al-Nusra? – Truthloader
Who are ISIS? – Truthloader
Thousands of Surface To Air Missiles Are Missing In Libya
Libya rebels discover Gaddafi’s huge tank store in Tripoli ready for battle
The largest arms depot in Africa ( Alqaha)been taking over by Libyan freedom fighters
Benghazi, Arms for Rebels & Obama Lies About Syrian Chemical Weapons
FSA rebels shoot down SAA aircraft with 9K38 “Igla” MANPADS
Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front): Reports on Terror Group from CNN & Al-Jazeera… Purpose Explained!
13 Hours – Full Interview of the Three Benghazi Survivors – Fox News
Benghazi – The Truth Behind The Smokescreen – Bret Baier Reporting
Glenn Beck Why Obama Hid the Truth of Benghazi
Rep. Trey Gowdy blasts Jay Carney and Ambassador Susan Rice: I want to know why we were lied to!
Susan Rice Caught Lying About Benghazi – Rep. Trey Gowdy Whistleblower Questioning
Treason Exposed! Obama Used Benghazi Attack to Cover Up Arms Shipments to Muslim Brotherhood
CIA Pressuring Agents With Knowledge Of Benghazi To Keep Silent
SYRIA CNBC: Benghazi Is Not About Libya But An Operation To Put Arms & Men In Syria
Retired Lt Gen Jerry Boykin suspects US Was Running Guns To Syrian Rebels Via Benghazi
SYRIA Rand Paul “Maybe We Were Facilitating Arms Leaving Libya Going Through Turkey Into Syria”
Rand Paul Blasts Stupid Senate for Wanting to Arm Syrian al-Qaeda Fighters
Sen. Rand Paul: ‘Worldwide War on Christianity’ Ignored by Obama, Media
House Votes to Arm Syrian Rebels; CR Passes (Updated) (Video)
After voting to give President Barack Obama the authority to arm and train Syrian rebels, the House passed legislation Wednesday to fund the government until Dec. 11, moving the bill to avoid a government shutdown and address Islamic State organizations to the Senate.
House lawmakers voted 319-108 to pass the continuing resolution, with 143 Democrats joining 176 Republicans in support of the measure. 55 Democrats and 53 Republicans voted against the bill.
A vote on the spending bill, which will continue government spending through Dec. 11 at a $1.012 trillion level, was delayed last week so lawmakers could attach a request from the president to give him Title 10 authority to fight the Islamic State group.
That authority would allow the Obama administration to equip Syrian rebels for the intended purpose of fighting ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also referred to as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Obama praised the House and urged the Senate to follow suit on the legislation, which he reiterated is not an authorization for the use of U.S. troops in Syria.
“Today’s vote is another step closer to having the authorization to train and equip vetted elements of the moderate Syrian opposition so they can defend themselves against, and ultimately push back on, ISIL forces,” he said in a statement
Just before the CR vote, lawmakers voted 273-156 to adopt the Syrian rebel amendment. 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats voted for the proposal, while 85 Republicans and 71 Democrats voted against it.
As voting on the amendment took place, members stared at the board in the House chamber showing who was voting for the amendment and who was voting against it. Despite a tally that was never really close, it was a dramatic vote.
Much of the debate on the CR turned into a debate on the proposal to arm Syrian rebels, and, more broadly, the specter of another war in the Middle East. In fact, the CR has become such a proxy for the Syria amendment that the Club for Growth, a conservative group opposed to the spending bill, withdrew its key vote on the legislation, explaining that the vote was now largely driven by foreign policy.
But if it were true that foreign policy was driving decisions on the CR, then it was the memories of past foreign policy decisions largely driving this current debate.
Liberal Democrats and some conservative Republicans worried on the House floor that this initial authorization was the first step of a larger military entanglement.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., a staunch opponent of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, said the six-hour debate on the amendment reminded her of “the failure to have a thorough and robust debate in the wake of 9/11,” which, she said resulted in an overly broad authorization that was a “blank check for perpetual war.”
Other members voted against the amendment because they worried of an opposite effect. Louisiana Republican John Fleming expressed concern that the authorization was “little more than an incremental strategy, not unlike the one used in Vietnam.”
“History warns of the dangers of such approaches,” Fleming said. “By moving hesitantly in piecemeal fashion, the enemy has more time to learn, adapt and get stronger. This is a recipe for a stalemate and failure.”
Many other lawmakers expressed concern over the stated strategy of arming the Free Syrian Army. They said there was no guarantee those rebels would always be allies of the United States, or that they wouldn’t simply use their U.S.-supplied weapons to take down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad instead of ISIL.
The Obama administration says there will be a thorough vetting process before any Syrian rebel is handed a weapon, but, by Wednesday, many lawmakers remained less than convinced. California Republican Dana Rohrabacher called the administration’s plan “wishful thinking, not realistic planning.”
But congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle insisted the authority was needed.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said earlier Wednesday that Obama deserved the support of Democrats in what she acknowledged was a “war vote,” but a proposal that was “discrete” and “short-term.”
“It is not pleasant, it’s not easy,” Pelosi later said on the House floor. “It’s hard. But it really is necessary for the House to approve this.”
Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said ISIL was already threatening U.S. allies in the Middle East and in Europe. ”And if left unchecked,” he said, “it will surely threaten us here at home.”
The ranking Democrat on the Armed Services panel, Adam Smith of Washington, argued that arming Syrian rebels would deny ISIL a “safe-haven,” and Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, who sponsored the amendment, said there was “no doubt” that any strategy to defeat ISIL would need to include a Syria component.
The plan to arm Syrian rebels is a middle-of-the-road response to the rise of ISIL. It isn’t an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, as the amendment explicitly indicates, and it won’t, by itself, dismantle terrorists in the region. But it’s not nothing.
Speaker John A. Boehner appealed to his conference by arguing this was a first step toward defeating ISIL, saying Congress had a responsibility to give the president this authority. While hetold reporters Tuesday there’s “a lot more” the U.S. needed to be doing to address ISIL, the Ohio Republican said there was “no reason not to do what the president asked us to do.”
Already, GOP leaders seem to be indicating that the House may soon consider a new authorization for use of military force for the Middle East, with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthytelling reporters on Monday that, “after November,” there may be an “opportunity” to debate a larger military authorization.
As for the CR itself, the 10-week extension, if it is — as expected — agreed to by the Senate and signed by the president, will force lawmakers to return after the midterm elections and begin work on a more permanent spending solution. Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said he was hopeful the House and Senate could work out an omnibus package similar to the one lawmakers worked out in January 2014.
“It is my sincere hope that if this CR is enacted, we can use the coming months wisely to craft agreement on all 12 bills by Dec. 11,” said the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Nita M. Lowey of New York. “There is absolutely no reason to punt our responsibilities into the new year and new Congress.”
Conservatives had pushed for a longer CR — one that would fund the government until, say, March 1, 2015 — so that a new Congress, perhaps one with a Senate under Republican control, could set the spending levels. Conservatives also voiced concern over extending the Export-Import Bank until June 30, 2015. They wanted to simply let the credit agency expire.
But the reauthorization until June 30 seemed to scare Democrats more than Republicans. Democrats are showing unease that they won’t have a must-pass bill in June to which they can attach another extension of the Ex-Im Bank, and they worry that decoupling the agency from a spending bill will ultimately kill it.
Democrats seemed to understand, however, that holding up the CR over the length of extension on such an inside-the-Beltway issue would not be politically advantageous just before an election.
Passing the CR allows both Republicans and Democrats to get back to their districts early and campaign for about six weeks before the midterms. While the House is scheduled to be in session next week, most aides expect McCarthy to cancel the remaining legislative days before November and send everyone to the campaign trail early.
Clinton insiders screened Benghazi documents before ARB probe, official says
BY ED MORRISSEY
Just how unfettered was that “unfettered access” promised by the State Department to the Accountability Review Board in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack two years ago? According to one of the four officials punished and then cleared by State for the failures that led to the death of four men, a weekend housecleaning operation kept the ARB from seeing some of the most explosive documentation related to the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens. Deputy Assistant Secretary Raymond Maxwell told Sharyl Attkisson that the operation was supervised by advisers within Hillary Clinton’s inner circle, in this Daily Signal exclusive:
As the House Select Committee on Benghazi prepares for its first hearing this week, a former State Department diplomat is coming forward with a startling allegation: Hillary Clinton confidants were part of an operation to “separate” damaging documents before they were turned over to the Accountability Review Board investigating security lapses surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
According to former Deputy Assistant Secretary Raymond Maxwell, the after-hours session took place over a weekend in a basement operations-type center at State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. This is the first time Maxwell has publicly come forward with the story. …
When he arrived, Maxwell says he observed boxes and stacks of documents. He says a State Department office director, whom Maxwell described as close to Clinton’s top advisers, was there. Though the office director technically worked for him, Maxwell says he wasn’t consulted about her weekend assignment.
“She told me, ‘Ray, we are to go through these stacks and pull out anything that might put anybody in the [Near Eastern Affairs] front office or the seventh floor in a bad light,’” says Maxwell. He says “seventh floor” was State Department shorthand for then-Secretary of State Clinton and her principal advisors.
“I asked her, ‘But isn’t that unethical?’ She responded, ‘Ray, those are our orders.’ ”
Not long afterward, two people high up the State Department chain arrived to check on the operation. Attkisson describes them as “close confidants” of Hillary Clinton, probably from Maxwell’s own description, although neither are named in Attkisson’s report. Maxwell says that both of them accompanied him into another office with a fourth person, where they personally vetted more documents:
Maxwell says after those two officials arrived, he, the office director and an intern moved into a small office where they looked through some papers. Maxwell says his stack included pre-attack telegrams and cables between the U.S. embassy in Tripoli and State Department headquarters. After a short time, Maxwell says he decided to leave.
“I didn’t feel good about it,” he said.
Don’t expect that this will disappear as quietly. Maxwell says that members of the select House committee on Benghazi have already deposed him on this weekend filing session, including both chair Trey Gowdy and Rep. Jason Chaffetz. Chaffetz told Attkisson that he is “100% confident the Benghazi Select Committee is going to dive deep on that issue.”
The ARB has insisted all along that they conducted a thorough and independent probe, a claim at which Maxwell scoffs on both counts in Attkisson’s report. This could let them off the hook, though. If State conspired to hide evidence from them, it will give the ARB an opening to withdraw their report — which would be a PR move entirely, since the ARB had no authoritative status otherwise — and give Congress even more validation for pursuing this in select-committee form. If Maxwell testifies to this in open session and the BSC finds one or more corroborating witnesses, it will put this right back front and center. And we may still yet hear from the unnamed advisers, too, as to what their orders were, and who gave them.
Benghazi Post-Attack Satellite Revelations
Benghazi, Libya showing the locations of the U. S. Consulate and CIA Annex on the outskirts of town
Perplexing questions yet remain surrounding the attacks in Benghazi that killed U.S. Libyan Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Satellite images taken before and AFTER the attacks, which anyone can view on Google Earth, show evidence of the attacks at both the Consulate and CIA Annex. They help clarify conditions on the ground at the time.
Google Earth (GE) is an incredibly useful online tool. With it, armchair sleuths at home can uncover important details about news events that get overlooked by the big shot mainstream media.
Such is the case with the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
Geography and News Events
Google Earth provides two unique capabilities to the armchair sleuth:
- A scalable geographic look at any place on Earth and its surroundings
- A history of images of that place to investigate its background and history
Most important for investigating the Benghazi attacks is that the most current GE satellite image of both the Consulate and CIA Annex were taken on 9/17/2012, just 6 days after the attack.
GE’s image history is used to go back and forth between before and after images to identify evidence of the attacks visible from space.
For the attack on the CIA Annex this is particularly important because Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were killed when hit by mortar fire while defending the Annex from a rooftop position.
The U.S. Consulate
Plainly visible on the satellite image of the Consulate complex are the burned out remains of two vehicles, the charred remains of burnt furniture next to one of the vehicles and the couch and other things tossed into the swimming pool by either the terrorists or looters.
GE shows us that the U.S. Consulate is located on the outskirts of Benghazi in a very open area surrounded by an orchard and soccer field. Contrary to news reports, GE tells us it is in a narrow rectangular shaped property about 300 feet wide and 800 feet long.
The property is surrounded by trees with no visible wall. It was built as a residence. It has two gates.
The back gate has no defenses whatsoever.
The consulate has three main buildings and a guardhouse at the front gate. The front gate has been fortified with barriers since October of 2011. Those barriers are the only visible signs of increased security at the Consulate. The unprotected back gate opens onto Fourth Ring Road, one of the main streets circling Benghazi.
Its three main structures are the consulate building, a detached Ambassador’s residence with saferoom where Ambassador Stephens was found; and a nearby guard barracks near the front gate.
GE history reveals the main consulate building, detached residence and swimming pool were a lonely patch of dirt in August of 2007 and that they were under construction in June of 2009. Little has changed since then.
During the consulate attack Navy SEAL Woods and others came from the CIA Annex, fought their way to consulate, rescued staff and recovered the body of Sean Smith. They took them back to the CIA Annex from the consulate.
The CIA Annex
CIA Annex showing where mortar rounds struck building tops and grounds
Line of sight, the CIA Annex complex is located about a mile from the consulate next to what appears to be a large warehouse with many buildings.
The annex is within a thick wall surrounding a 300 X 400 foot rectangle. It is better fortified and much more defensible than the consulate. It is also closer to civilian targets.
The annex took mortar fire. Mortar strikes show up as distinct smudges on the satellite image near the red dots. Navy SEALs Doherty and Woods were killed by one of the rooftop mortar strikes.
GE history reveals the annex was built some time after June 28th, 2009.
From satellite images it is easy to see why Ambassador Stephens would be seriously concerned about consulate security, especially given all the al Qaeda activity in area and previous attacks.
The consulate, originally built as someone’s house, was barely modified after it was acquired by the U.S. government. It is not even clear from satellite imagery that it had a surrounding wall. Its unguarded back gate opens onto a main Benghazi street and is easily penetrable.
The Annex is better protected and was successfully defended against a physical breach, albeit at the cost of Doherty and Woods who gave their lives defending the annex from a rooftop position.
Woods and Doherty probably deserve the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroic efforts.
Armchair sleuthing reveals this immutable fact… the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, one of the most dangerous places in the world, was woefully under-protected at the time of the attacks. The warning signs of another inevitable attack were all present. Those up the chain of command had been told.
Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith and the others didn’t stand a chance.
Someone MUST be held accountable!
Intrigue Surrounding The Secret CIA Operation In Benghazi Is Not Going Away
In May CNN’s Jake Tapper argued that the CIA’s presence in Benghazi, where four Americans were killed in an attack on September 11, 2012, should be scrutinized.
Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) agreed, saying: “There are questions that must be asked of the CIA and this must be done in a public way.”
The Agency, for its part, doesn’t want anyone knowing what it was doing in the Libyan port city.
On Thursday Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston of CNN reported that the CIA “is going to great lengths to make sure whatever it was doing, remains a secret.”
Sources told CNN that 35 Americans were in Benghazi that night — 21 of whom were working out of the annex — and that several were wounded, some seriously.
One source said: “You have no idea the amount of pressure being brought to bear on anyone with knowledge of this operation.”
Among the questions are whether CIA missteps contributed to the security failure in Benghazi and, more importantly, whether the Agency’s Benghazi operation had anything to do with reported heavy weapons shipments from the local port to Syrian rebels.
In short, the CIA operation is the most intriguing thing about Benghazi.
Here’s what we know:
At about 9:40 p.m. local time on Sept. 11, a mob of Libyans attacked a building housing U.S. State Department personnel. At 10:20 p.m. Americans arrived from a CIA annex located 1.2 miles away, to help the besieged Americans. At 11:15 p.m. they fled with survivors back to the secret outpost.
Armed Libyans followed them and attacked the annex with rockets and small arms from around midnight to 1:00 a.m., when there was a lull in the fighting.
Glen Doherty, a former Navy SEAL and CIA security contractor, was with a team of Joint Special Operations Command military operators and CIA agents in Tripoli at the time of the attack. When they received word of the assault on the mission, Doherty and six others bribed the pilots of small jet with $30,000 cash for a ride to Benghazi.
At about 5:15 a.m., right after Doherty’s group arrived, the attackers began shooting mortars at the annex, leading to the death of Doherty and fellow former Navy SEAL and CIA contractor Tyrone Woods.
At 6 a.m. Libyan forces from the military intelligence service arrived and subsequently took more than 30 Americans — only seven of whom were from the State Department — to the Benghazi airport.
So the CIA’s response to go to the mission where Ambassador Christopher Stevens was located, after being held back for 20 minutes, saved American lives but also ended up exposing the annex.
And according to Paula Broadwell, the mistress of David Petraeus when he was CIA director, the CIA may have provided an impetus for the attack by holding prisoners: “Now I don’t know if a lot of you heard this, but the CIA annex had taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner and they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to try to get these prisoners back.”‘
At its heart a CIA operation’
The top-secret presence and location of the CIA outpost was first acknowledged by Charlene Lamb, a top official in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, during Congressional testimony in October.
Representatives Jason Chaffetz and Darrell Issa immediately called a point of order when Lamb exposed the location of the annex, and asked for the revelation to be stricken from the record.
“I totally object to the use of that photo,” Chaffetz. said. “I was told specifically while I was in Libya I could not and should not ever talk about what you’re showing here today.”
In November The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. mission in Benghazi “was at its heart a CIA operation.”
In January, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress that the CIA was leading a “concerted effort to try to track down and find and recover … MANPADS [man-portable air defense systems]” looted from the stockpiles of toppled Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi.
The State Department “consulate” served as diplomatic cover for the previously-hidden annex.
Weapons from Benghazi to Syria
Also in October we reported the connection between Ambassador Stevens, who died in the attack, and a reported September shipment of SA-7 surface-to-air anti-craft missiles (i.e. MANPADS) and rocket-propelled grenades from Benghazi to Syria through southern Turkey.
That 400-ton shipment — “the largest consignment of weapons” yet for Syrian rebels — was organized by Abdelhakim Belhadj, who was the newly-appointed head of the Tripoli Military Council.
In March 2011 Stevens, the official U.S. liaison to the al-Qaeda-linked Libyan rebels, worked directly with Belhadj while he headed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
Stevens’ last meeting on Sept. 11 was with Turkish Consul General Ali Sait Akin, and a source told Fox News that Stevens was in Benghazi “to negotiate a weapons transfer in an effort to get SA-7 missiles out of the hands of Libya-based extremists.”
Syrian rebels subsequently began shooting down Syrian helicopters and fighter jets with SA-7s akin to those in Qaddafi’s looted stock. (The interim Libyan government also sent money and fighters to Syria.)
What did the CIA know?
Collectively these details raise the question of what the CIA knew, given that Agency operatives in Libya were rounding up SA-7s, ostensibly to destroy them, while operatives in southern Turkey were funneling weapons to the rebels.
The State Department told CNN that it was not involved in any transfer of weapons to other countries, but it “can’t speak for any other agencies.”
Ambassador Stevens certainly would have known if the new Libyan government was sending 400 tons of heavy weapons to Turkey from Benghazi’s port.
Just like the CIA would know if those the weapons arrived in Turkey and began showing up in Syria.
Journalist Damien Spleeters created this sourced map, drawing info shared on social media such as YouTube, that gives an idea of the MANPADS presence in Syria.
We’ve added red tag noting the Turkish port, Iskenderun, where the massive SA-7 shipment docked.
And this map of nearby Turkish highways shows that the heavy weapons could have been transported from the port to the Syrian city of Aleppo in three hours.
Other intriguing details
This week Nancy Youssef of McClatchy reported that Ambassador Stevens twice turned down offers for additional security, despite specifically asking for more men in cables to the State Department.
Right after the attack American Matthew VanDyke, who fought with Libyan rebels during their revolution, told us he suspected that extremist groups in the nearby mountains — who felt marginalized by the new Libyan government — “saw their opportunity to pounce.”
In May Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kent.) told CNN: “I’ve actually always suspected that, although I have no evidence, that maybe we were facilitating arms leaving Libya going through Turkey into Syria. … Were they trying to obscure that there was an arms operation going on at the CIA annex? I’m not sure exactly what was going on, but I think questions ought to be asked and answered.”
So now that the White House has released more than 100 pages of Benghazi emails, and the State Department’s role during and after the attack have been probed ad nauseam, the only thing to explore is “whatever [the CIA] was doing.”
UN has testimony showing Syrian rebels used sarin gas
WW3 UPDATE – U.S. Intelligence: Rebels Used Sarin Gas
U.N. Strong Suspicions That Syrian Rebels Used Sarin Gas
Syria Gas Attack – ‘Eyes Twitching, Noses Foaming’ (CNN, 30Aug13)
Al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra Caught with Sarin Gas inside Turkey
Seymour Hersh: Obama “Cherry Picked” Intel on Syrian Chemical Attack to Justify U.S. Strike (1 of 2)
Seymour Hersh: Obama “Cherry Picked” Intel on Syrian Chemical Attack to Justify U.S. Strike (2 of 2)
Sy Hersh Reveals Potential Turkish Role in Syria Chemical Strike That Almost Sparked U.S. Bombing
U.S. Ship Finishes Neutralizing Syria’s Worst Chemical Arms: Pentagon
Syrian Sarin gas chemicals destroyed.
The Red Line and the Rat Line
Seymour M. Hersh on Obama, Erdoğan and the Syrian rebels
In 2011 Barack Obama led an allied military intervention in Libya without consulting the US Congress. Last August, after the sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, he was ready to launch an allied air strike, this time to punish the Syrian government for allegedly crossing the ‘red line’ he had set in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons.＊ Then with less than two days to go before the planned strike, he announced that he would seek congressional approval for the intervention. The strike was postponed as Congress prepared for hearings, and subsequently cancelled when Obama accepted Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical arsenal in a deal brokered by Russia. Why did Obama delay and then relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya? The answer lies in a clash between those in the administration who were committed to enforcing the red line, and military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous.
Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff. The British report heightened doubts inside the Pentagon; the joint chiefs were already preparing to warn Obama that his plans for a far-reaching bomb and missile attack on Syria’s infrastructure could lead to a wider war in the Middle East. As a consequence the American officers delivered a last-minute caution to the president, which, in their view, eventually led to his cancelling the attack.
For months there had been acute concern among senior military leaders and the intelligence community about the role in the war of Syria’s neighbours, especially Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups. ‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’
The joint chiefs also knew that the Obama administration’s public claims that only the Syrian army had access to sarin were wrong. The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons. On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was ‘the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort’. (According to a Defense Department consultant, US intelligence has long known that al-Qaida experimented with chemical weapons, and has a video of one of its gas experiments with dogs.) The DIA paper went on: ‘Previous IC [intelligence community] focus had been almost entirely on Syrian CW [chemical weapons] stockpiles; now we see ANF attempting to make its own CW … Al-Nusrah Front’s relative freedom of operation within Syria leads us to assess the group’s CW aspirations will be difficult to disrupt in the future.’ The paper drew on classified intelligence from numerous agencies: ‘Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators,’ it said, ‘were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.’ (Asked about the DIA paper, a spokesperson for the director of national intelligence said: ‘No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.’)
Last May, more than ten members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin. In a 130-page indictment the group was accused of attempting to purchase fuses, piping for the construction of mortars, and chemical precursors for sarin. Five of those arrested were freed after a brief detention. The others, including the ringleader, Haytham Qassab, for whom the prosecutor requested a prison sentence of 25 years, were released pending trial. In the meantime the Turkish press has been rife with speculation that the Erdoğan administration has been covering up the extent of its involvement with the rebels. In a news conference last summer, Aydin Sezgin, Turkey’s ambassador to Moscow, dismissed the arrests and claimed to reporters that the recovered ‘sarin’ was merely ‘anti-freeze’.
The DIA paper took the arrests as evidence that al-Nusra was expanding its access to chemical weapons. It said Qassab had ‘self-identified’ as a member of al-Nusra, and that he was directly connected to Abd-al-Ghani, the ‘ANF emir for military manufacturing’. Qassab and his associate Khalid Ousta worked with Halit Unalkaya, an employee of a Turkish firm called Zirve Export, who provided ‘price quotes for bulk quantities of sarin precursors’. Abd-al-Ghani’s plan was for two associates to ‘perfect a process for making sarin, then go to Syria to train others to begin large scale production at an unidentified lab in Syria’. The DIA paper said that one of his operatives had purchased a precursor on the ‘Baghdad chemical market’, which ‘has supported at least seven CW efforts since 2004’.
A series of chemical weapon attacks in March and April 2013 was investigated over the next few months by a special UN mission to Syria. A person with close knowledge of the UN’s activity in Syria told me that there was evidence linking the Syrian opposition to the first gas attack, on 19 March in Khan Al-Assal, a village near Aleppo. In its final report in December, the mission said that at least 19 civilians and one Syrian soldier were among the fatalities, along with scores of injured. It had no mandate to assign responsibility for the attack, but the person with knowledge of the UN’s activities said: ‘Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas. It did not come out in public because no one wanted to know.’
In the months before the attacks began, a former senior Defense Department official told me, the DIA was circulating a daily classified report known as SYRUP on all intelligence related to the Syrian conflict, including material on chemical weapons. But in the spring, distribution of the part of the report concerning chemical weapons was severely curtailed on the orders of Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff. ‘Something was in there that triggered a shit fit by McDonough,’ the former Defense Department official said. ‘One day it was a huge deal, and then, after the March and April sarin attacks’ – he snapped his fingers – ‘it’s no longer there.’ The decision to restrict distribution was made as the joint chiefs ordered intensive contingency planning for a possible ground invasion of Syria whose primary objective would be the elimination of chemical weapons.
The former intelligence official said that many in the US national security establishment had long been troubled by the president’s red line: ‘The joint chiefs asked the White House, “What does red line mean? How does that translate into military orders? Troops on the ground? Massive strike? Limited strike?” They tasked military intelligence to study how we could carry out the threat. They learned nothing more about the president’s reasoning.’
In the aftermath of the 21 August attack Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up targets for bombing. Early in the process, the former intelligence official said, ‘the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime.’ The original targets included only military sites and nothing by way of civilian infrastructure. Under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved into ‘a monster strike’: two wings of B-52 bombers were shifted to airbases close to Syria, and navy submarines and ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles were deployed. ‘Every day the target list was getting longer,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The Pentagon planners said we can’t use only Tomahawks to strike at Syria’s missile sites because their warheads are buried too far below ground, so the two B-52 air wings with two-thousand pound bombs were assigned to the mission. Then we’ll need standby search-and-rescue teams to recover downed pilots and drones for target selection. It became huge.’ The new target list was meant to ‘completely eradicate any military capabilities Assad had’, the former intelligence official said. The core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.
Britain and France were both to play a part. On 29 August, the day Parliament voted against Cameron’s bid to join the intervention, the Guardian reported that he had already ordered six RAF Typhoon fighter jets to be deployed to Cyprus, and had volunteered a submarine capable of launching Tomahawk missiles. The French air force – a crucial player in the 2011 strikes on Libya – was deeply committed, according to an account in Le Nouvel Observateur; François Hollande had ordered several Rafale fighter-bombers to join the American assault. Their targets were reported to be in western Syria.
By the last days of August the president had given the Joint Chiefs a fixed deadline for the launch. ‘H hour was to begin no later than Monday morning [2 September], a massive assault to neutralise Assad,’ the former intelligence official said. So it was a surprise to many when during a speech in the White House Rose Garden on 31 August Obama said that the attack would be put on hold, and he would turn to Congress and put it to a vote.
At this stage, Obama’s premise – that only the Syrian army was capable of deploying sarin – was unravelling. Within a few days of the 21 August attack, the former intelligence official told me, Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down. (A spokesperson for Porton Down said: ‘Many of the samples analysed in the UK tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.’ MI6 said that it doesn’t comment on intelligence matters.)
The former intelligence official said the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK was ‘a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy’. After the first reported uses of chemical weapons in Syria last year, American and allied intelligence agencies ‘made an effort to find the answer as to what if anything, was used – and its source’, the former intelligence official said. ‘We use data exchanged as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The DIA’s baseline consisted of knowing the composition of each batch of Soviet-manufactured chemical weapons. But we didn’t know which batches the Assad government currently had in its arsenal. Within days of the Damascus incident we asked a source in the Syrian government to give us a list of the batches the government currently had. This is why we could confirm the difference so quickly.’
The process hadn’t worked as smoothly in the spring, the former intelligence official said, because the studies done by Western intelligence ‘were inconclusive as to the type of gas it was. The word “sarin” didn’t come up. There was a great deal of discussion about this, but since no one could conclude what gas it was, you could not say that Assad had crossed the president’s red line.’ By 21 August, the former intelligence official went on, ‘the Syrian opposition clearly had learned from this and announced that “sarin” from the Syrian army had been used, before any analysis could be made, and the press and White House jumped at it. Since it now was sarin, “It had to be Assad.”’
The UK defence staff who relayed the Porton Down findings to the joint chiefs were sending the Americans a message, the former intelligence official said: ‘We’re being set up here.’ (This account made sense of a terse message a senior official in the CIA sent in late August: ‘It was not the result of the current regime. UK & US know this.’) By then the attack was a few days away and American, British and French planes, ships and submarines were at the ready.
The officer ultimately responsible for the planning and execution of the attack was General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs. From the beginning of the crisis, the former intelligence official said, the joint chiefs had been sceptical of the administration’s argument that it had the facts to back up its belief in Assad’s guilt. They pressed the DIA and other agencies for more substantial evidence. ‘There was no way they thought Syria would use nerve gas at that stage, because Assad was winning the war,’ the former intelligence official said. Dempsey had irritated many in the Obama administration by repeatedly warning Congress over the summer of the danger of American military involvement in Syria. Last April, after an optimistic assessment of rebel progress by the secretary of state, John Kerry, in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that ‘there’s a risk that this conflict has become stalemated.’
Dempsey’s initial view after 21 August was that a US strike on Syria – under the assumption that the Assad government was responsible for the sarin attack – would be a military blunder, the former intelligence official said. The Porton Down report caused the joint chiefs to go to the president with a more serious worry: that the attack sought by the White House would be an unjustified act of aggression. It was the joint chiefs who led Obama to change course. The official White House explanation for the turnabout – the story the press corps told – was that the president, during a walk in the Rose Garden with Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, suddenly decided to seek approval for the strike from a bitterly divided Congress with which he’d been in conflict for years. The former Defense Department official told me that the White House provided a different explanation to members of the civilian leadership of the Pentagon: the bombing had been called off because there was intelligence ‘that the Middle East would go up in smoke’ if it was carried out.
The president’s decision to go to Congress was initially seen by senior aides in the White House, the former intelligence official said, as a replay of George W. Bush’s gambit in the autumn of 2002 before the invasion of Iraq: ‘When it became clear that there were no WMD in Iraq, Congress, which had endorsed the Iraqi war, and the White House both shared the blame and repeatedly cited faulty intelligence. If the current Congress were to vote to endorse the strike, the White House could again have it both ways – wallop Syria with a massive attack and validate the president’s red line commitment, while also being able to share the blame with Congress if it came out that the Syrian military wasn’t behind the attack.’ The turnabout came as a surprise even to the Democratic leadership in Congress. In September the Wall Street Journal reported that three days before his Rose Garden speech Obama had telephoned Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, ‘to talk through the options’. She later told colleagues, according to the Journal, that she hadn’t asked the president to put the bombing to a congressional vote.
Obama’s move for congressional approval quickly became a dead end. ‘Congress was not going to let this go by,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Congress made it known that, unlike the authorisation for the Iraq war, there would be substantive hearings.’ At this point, there was a sense of desperation in the White House, the former intelligence official said. ‘And so out comes Plan B. Call off the bombing strike and Assad would agree to unilaterally sign the chemical warfare treaty and agree to the destruction of all of chemical weapons under UN supervision.’ At a press conference in London on 9 September, Kerry was still talking about intervention: ‘The risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting.’ But when a reporter asked if there was anything Assad could do to stop the bombing, Kerry said: ‘Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week … But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.’ As the New York Times reported the next day, the Russian-brokered deal that emerged shortly afterwards had first been discussed by Obama and Putin in the summer of 2012. Although the strike plans were shelved, the administration didn’t change its public assessment of the justification for going to war. ‘There is zero tolerance at that level for the existence of error,’ the former intelligence official said of the senior officials in the White House. ‘They could not afford to say: “We were wrong.”’ (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The Assad regime, and only the Assad regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack that took place on 21 August.’)
The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida. (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The idea that the United States was providing weapons from Libya to anyone is false.’)
In January, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the assault by a local militia in September 2012 on the American consulate and a nearby undercover CIA facility in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three others. The report’s criticism of the State Department for not providing adequate security at the consulate, and of the intelligence community for not alerting the US military to the presence of a CIA outpost in the area, received front-page coverage and revived animosities in Washington, with Republicans accusing Obama and Hillary Clinton of a cover-up. A highly classified annex to the report, not made public, described a secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdoğan administrations. It pertained to the rat line. By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer. (A spokesperson for Petraeus denied the operation ever took place.)
The operation had not been disclosed at the time it was set up to the congressional intelligence committees and the congressional leadership, as required by law since the 1970s. The involvement of MI6 enabled the CIA to evade the law by classifying the mission as a liaison operation. The former intelligence official explained that for years there has been a recognised exception in the law that permits the CIA not to report liaison activity to Congress, which would otherwise be owed a finding. (All proposed CIA covert operations must be described in a written document, known as a ‘finding’, submitted to the senior leadership of Congress for approval.) Distribution of the annex was limited to the staff aides who wrote the report and to the eight ranking members of Congress – the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republicans leaders on the House and Senate intelligence committees. This hardly constituted a genuine attempt at oversight: the eight leaders are not known to gather together to raise questions or discuss the secret information they receive.
The annex didn’t tell the whole story of what happened in Benghazi before the attack, nor did it explain why the American consulate was attacked. ‘The consulate’s only mission was to provide cover for the moving of arms,’ the former intelligence official, who has read the annex, said. ‘It had no real political role.’
Washington abruptly ended the CIA’s role in the transfer of arms from Libya after the attack on the consulate, but the rat line kept going. ‘The United States was no longer in control of what the Turks were relaying to the jihadists,’ the former intelligence official said. Within weeks, as many as forty portable surface-to-air missile launchers, commonly known as manpads, were in the hands of Syrian rebels. On 28 November 2012, Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reported that the previous day rebels near Aleppo had used what was almost certainly a manpad to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter. ‘The Obama administration,’ Warrick wrote, ‘has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian opposition forces with such missiles, warning that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down commercial aircraft.’ Two Middle Eastern intelligence officials fingered Qatar as the source, and a former US intelligence analyst speculated that the manpads could have been obtained from Syrian military outposts overrun by the rebels. There was no indication that the rebels’ possession of manpads was likely the unintended consequence of a covert US programme that was no longer under US control.
By the end of 2012, it was believed throughout the American intelligence community that the rebels were losing the war. ‘Erdoğan was pissed,’ the former intelligence official said, ‘and felt he was left hanging on the vine. It was his money and the cut-off was seen as a betrayal.’ In spring 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government – through elements of the MIT, its national intelligence agency, and the Gendarmerie, a militarised law-enforcement organisation – was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability. ‘The MIT was running the political liaison with the rebels, and the Gendarmerie handled military logistics, on-the-scene advice and training – including training in chemical warfare,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Stepping up Turkey’s role in spring 2013 was seen as the key to its problems there. Erdoğan knew that if he stopped his support of the jihadists it would be all over. The Saudis could not support the war because of logistics – the distances involved and the difficulty of moving weapons and supplies. Erdoğan’s hope was to instigate an event that would force the US to cross the red line. But Obama didn’t respond in March and April.’
There was no public sign of discord when Erdoğan and Obama met on 16 May 2013 at the White House. At a later press conference Obama said that they had agreed that Assad ‘needs to go’. Asked whether he thought Syria had crossed the red line, Obama acknowledged that there was evidence such weapons had been used, but added, ‘it is important for us to make sure that we’re able to get more specific information about what exactly is happening there.’ The red line was still intact.
An American foreign policy expert who speaks regularly with officials in Washington and Ankara told me about a working dinner Obama held for Erdoğan during his May visit. The meal was dominated by the Turks’ insistence that Syria had crossed the red line and their complaints that Obama was reluctant to do anything about it. Obama was accompanied by John Kerry and Tom Donilon, the national security adviser who would soon leave the job. Erdoğan was joined by Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, and Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT. Fidan is known to be fiercely loyal to Erdoğan, and has been seen as a consistent backer of the radical rebel opposition in Syria.
The foreign policy expert told me that the account he heard originated with Donilon. (It was later corroborated by a former US official, who learned of it from a senior Turkish diplomat.) According to the expert, Erdoğan had sought the meeting to demonstrate to Obama that the red line had been crossed, and had brought Fidan along to state the case. When Erdoğan tried to draw Fidan into the conversation, and Fidan began speaking, Obama cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ Erdoğan tried to bring Fidan in a second time, and Obama again cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ At that point, an exasperated Erdoğan said, ‘But your red line has been crossed!’ and, the expert told me, ‘Donilon said Erdoğan “fucking waved his finger at the president inside the White House”.’ Obama then pointed at Fidan and said: ‘We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria.’ (Donilon, who joined the Council on Foreign Relations last July, didn’t respond to questions about this story. The Turkish Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to questions about the dinner. A spokesperson for the National Security Council confirmed that the dinner took place and provided a photograph showing Obama, Kerry, Donilon, Erdoğan, Fidan and Davutoğlu sitting at a table. ‘Beyond that,’ she said, ‘I’m not going to read out the details of their discussions.’)
But Erdoğan did not leave empty handed. Obama was still permitting Turkey to continue to exploit a loophole in a presidential executive order prohibiting the export of gold to Iran, part of the US sanctions regime against the country. In March 2012, responding to sanctions of Iranian banks by the EU, the SWIFT electronic payment system, which facilitates cross-border payments, expelled dozens of Iranian financial institutions, severely restricting the country’s ability to conduct international trade. The US followed with the executive order in July, but left what came to be known as a ‘golden loophole’: gold shipments to private Iranian entities could continue. Turkey is a major purchaser of Iranian oil and gas, and it took advantage of the loophole by depositing its energy payments in Turkish lira in an Iranian account in Turkey; these funds were then used to purchase Turkish gold for export to confederates in Iran. Gold to the value of $13 billion reportedly entered Iran in this way between March 2012 and July 2013.
The programme quickly became a cash cow for corrupt politicians and traders in Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. ‘The middlemen did what they always do,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Take 15 per cent. The CIA had estimated that there was as much as two billion dollars in skim. Gold and Turkish lira were sticking to fingers.’ The illicit skimming flared into a public ‘gas for gold’ scandal in Turkey in December, and resulted in charges against two dozen people, including prominent businessmen and relatives of government officials, as well as the resignations of three ministers, one of whom called for Erdoğan to resign. The chief executive of a Turkish state-controlled bank that was in the middle of the scandal insisted that more than $4.5 million in cash found by police in shoeboxes during a search of his home was for charitable donations.
Late last year Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz reported in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration closed the golden loophole in January 2013, but ‘lobbied to make sure the legislation … did not take effect for six months’. They speculated that the administration wanted to use the delay as an incentive to bring Iran to the bargaining table over its nuclear programme, or to placate its Turkish ally in the Syrian civil war. The delay permitted Iran to ‘accrue billions of dollars more in gold, further undermining the sanctions regime’.
The American decision to end CIA support of the weapons shipments into Syria left Erdoğan exposed politically and militarily. ‘One of the issues at that May summit was the fact that Turkey is the only avenue to supply the rebels in Syria,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘It can’t come through Jordan because the terrain in the south is wide open and the Syrians are all over it. And it can’t come through the valleys and hills of Lebanon – you can’t be sure who you’d meet on the other side.’ Without US military support for the rebels, the former intelligence official said, ‘Erdoğan’s dream of having a client state in Syria is evaporating and he thinks we’re the reason why. When Syria wins the war, he knows the rebels are just as likely to turn on him – where else can they go? So now he will have thousands of radicals in his backyard.’
A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described ‘the acute anxiety’ of the Erdoğan administration about the rebels’ dwindling prospects. The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed ‘the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response’. By late summer, the Syrian army still had the advantage over the rebels, the former intelligence official said, and only American air power could turn the tide. In the autumn, the former intelligence official went on, the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August ‘sensed that Syria had not done the gas attack. But the 500 pound gorilla was, how did it happen? The immediate suspect was the Turks, because they had all the pieces to make it happen.’
As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions. ‘We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors’ – who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas – ‘were there. The deal was to do something spectacular. Our senior military officers have been told by the DIA and other intelligence assets that the sarin was supplied through Turkey – that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.’ Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. ‘Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts. Operations are always so super-secret in the planning but that all flies out the window when it comes to crowing afterwards. There is no greater vulnerability than in the perpetrators claiming credit for success.’ Erdoğan’s problems in Syria would soon be over: ‘Off goes the gas and Obama will say red line and America is going to attack Syria, or at least that was the idea. But it did not work out that way.’
The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House. ‘Nobody wants to talk about all this,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘There is great reluctance to contradict the president, although no all-source intelligence community analysis supported his leap to convict. There has not been one single piece of additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack produced by the White House since the bombing raid was called off. My government can’t say anything because we have acted so irresponsibly. And since we blamed Assad, we can’t go back and blame Erdoğan.’
Turkey’s willingness to manipulate events in Syria to its own purposes seemed to be demonstrated late last month, a few days before a round of local elections, when a recording, allegedly of a government national security meeting, was posted to YouTube. It included discussion of a false-flag operation that would justify an incursion by the Turkish military in Syria. The operation centred on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the revered Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is near Aleppo and was ceded to Turkey in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. One of the Islamist rebel factions was threatening to destroy the tomb as a site of idolatry, and the Erdoğan administration was publicly threatening retaliation if harm came to it. According to a Reuters report of the leaked conversation, a voice alleged to be Fidan’s spoke of creating a provocation: ‘Now look, my commander, if there is to be justification, the justification is I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land [in the vicinity of the tomb]. That’s not a problem. Justification can be created.’ The Turkish government acknowledged that there had been a national security meeting about threats emanating from Syria, but said the recording had been manipulated. The government subsequently blocked public access to YouTube.
Barring a major change in policy by Obama, Turkey’s meddling in the Syrian civil war is likely to go on. ‘I asked my colleagues if there was any way to stop Erdoğan’s continued support for the rebels, especially now that it’s going so wrong,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The answer was: “We’re screwed.” We could go public if it was somebody other than Erdoğan, but Turkey is a special case. They’re a Nato ally. The Turks don’t trust the West. They can’t live with us if we take any active role against Turkish interests. If we went public with what we know about Erdoğan’s role with the gas, it’d be disastrous. The Turks would say: “We hate you for telling us what we can and can’t do.”’
Seymour M. Hersh
Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts. Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded – without assessing responsibility – had been used in the rocket attack. In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order – a planning document that precedes a ground invasion – citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.
In his nationally televised speech about Syria on 10 September, Obama laid the blame for the nerve gas attack on the rebel-held suburb of Eastern Ghouta firmly on Assad’s government, and made it clear he was prepared to back up his earlier public warnings that any use of chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line’: ‘Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people,’ he said. ‘We know the Assad regime was responsible … And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.’ Obama was going to war to back up a public threat, but he was doing so without knowing for sure who did what in the early morning of 21 August.
He cited a list of what appeared to be hard-won evidence of Assad’s culpability: ‘In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad’s chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighbourhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces.’ Obama’s certainty was echoed at the time by Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, who told the New York Times: ‘No one with whom I’ve spoken doubts the intelligence’ directly linking Assad and his regime to the sarin attacks.
But in recent interviews with intelligence and military officers and consultants past and present, I found intense concern, and on occasion anger, over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence. One high-level intelligence officer, in an email to a colleague, called the administration’s assurances of Assad’s responsibility a ‘ruse’. The attack ‘was not the result of the current regime’, he wrote. A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening. The distortion, he said, reminded him of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the Johnson administration reversed the sequence of National Security Agency intercepts to justify one of the early bombings of North Vietnam. The same official said there was immense frustration inside the military and intelligence bureaucracy: ‘The guys are throwing their hands in the air and saying, “How can we help this guy” – Obama – “when he and his cronies in the White House make up the intelligence as they go along?”’
The complaints focus on what Washington did not have: any advance warning from the assumed source of the attack. The military intelligence community has for years produced a highly classified early morning intelligence summary, known as the Morning Report, for the secretary of defence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; a copy also goes to the national security adviser and the director of national intelligence. The Morning Report includes no political or economic information, but provides a summary of important military events around the world, with all available intelligence about them. A senior intelligence consultant told me that some time after the attack he reviewed the reports for 20 August through 23 August. For two days – 20 and 21 August – there was no mention of Syria. On 22 August the lead item in the Morning Report dealt with Egypt; a subsequent item discussed an internal change in the command structure of one of the rebel groups in Syria. Nothing was noted about the use of nerve gas in Damascus that day. It was not until 23 August that the use of sarin became a dominant issue, although hundreds of photographs and videos of the massacre had gone viral within hours on YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites. At this point, the administration knew no more than the public.
Obama left Washington early on 21 August for a hectic two-day speaking tour in New York and Pennsylvania; according to the White House press office, he was briefed later that day on the attack, and the growing public and media furore. The lack of any immediate inside intelligence was made clear on 22 August, when Jen Psaki, a spokesperson for the State Department, told reporters: ‘We are unable to conclusively determine [chemical weapons] use. But we are focused every minute of every day since these events happened … on doing everything possible within our power to nail down the facts.’ The administration’s tone had hardened by 27 August, when Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, told reporters – without providing any specific information – that any suggestions that the Syrian government was not responsible ‘are as preposterous as suggestions that the attack itself didn’t occur’.
The absence of immediate alarm inside the American intelligence community demonstrates that there was no intelligence about Syrian intentions in the days before the attack. And there are at least two ways the US could have known about it in advance: both were touched on in one of the top secret American intelligence documents that have been made public in recent months by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor.
On 29 August, the Washington Post published excerpts from the annual budget for all national intelligence programmes, agency by agency, provided by Snowden. In consultation with the Obama administration, the newspaper chose to publish only a slim portion of the 178-page document, which has a classification higher than top secret, but it summarised and published a section dealing with problem areas. One problem area was the gap in coverage targeting Assad’s office. The document said that the NSA’s worldwide electronic eavesdropping facilities had been ‘able to monitor unencrypted communications among senior military officials at the outset of the civil war there’. But it was ‘a vulnerability that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces apparently later recognised’. In other words, the NSA no longer had access to the conversations of the top military leadership in Syria, which would have included crucial communications from Assad, such as orders for a nerve gas attack. (In its public statements since 21 August, the Obama administration has never claimed to have specific information connecting Assad himself to the attack.)
The Post report also provided the first indication of a secret sensor system inside Syria, designed to provide early warning of any change in status of the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal. The sensors are monitored by the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that controls all US intelligence satellites in orbit. According to the Postsummary, the NRO is also assigned ‘to extract data from sensors placed on the ground’ inside Syria. The former senior intelligence official, who had direct knowledge of the programme, told me that NRO sensors have been implanted near all known chemical warfare sites in Syria. They are designed to provide constant monitoring of the movement of chemical warheads stored by the military. But far more important, in terms of early warning, is the sensors’ ability to alert US and Israeli intelligence when warheads are being loaded with sarin. (As a neighbouring country, Israel has always been on the alert for changes in the Syrian chemical arsenal, and works closely with American intelligence on early warnings.) A chemical warhead, once loaded with sarin, has a shelf life of a few days or less – the nerve agent begins eroding the rocket almost immediately: it’s a use-it-or-lose-it mass killer. ‘The Syrian army doesn’t have three days to prepare for a chemical attack,’ the former senior intelligence official told me. ‘We created the sensor system for immediate reaction, like an air raid warning or a fire alarm. You can’t have a warning over three days because everyone involved would be dead. It is either right now or you’re history. You do not spend three days getting ready to fire nerve gas.’ The sensors detected no movement in the months and days before 21 August, the former official said. It is of course possible that sarin had been supplied to the Syrian army by other means, but the lack of warning meant that Washington was unable to monitor the events in Eastern Ghouta as they unfolded.
The sensors had worked in the past, as the Syrian leadership knew all too well. Last December the sensor system picked up signs of what seemed to be sarin production at a chemical weapons depot. It was not immediately clear whether the Syrian army was simulating sarin production as part of an exercise (all militaries constantly carry out such exercises) or actually preparing an attack. At the time, Obama publicly warned Syria that using sarin was ‘totally unacceptable’; a similar message was also passed by diplomatic means. The event was later determined to be part of a series of exercises, according to the former senior intelligence official: ‘If what the sensors saw last December was so important that the president had to call and say, “Knock it off,” why didn’t the president issue the same warning three days before the gas attack in August?’
The NSA would of course monitor Assad’s office around the clock if it could, the former official said. Other communications – from various army units in combat throughout Syria – would be far less important, and not analysed in real time. ‘There are literally thousands of tactical radio frequencies used by field units in Syria for mundane routine communications,’ he said, ‘and it would take a huge number of NSA cryptological technicians to listen in – and the useful return would be zilch.’ But the ‘chatter’ is routinely stored on computers. Once the scale of events on 21 August was understood, the NSA mounted a comprehensive effort to search for any links to the attack, sorting through the full archive of stored communications. A keyword or two would be selected and a filter would be employed to find relevant conversations. ‘What happened here is that the NSA intelligence weenies started with an event – the use of sarin – and reached to find chatter that might relate,’ the former official said. ‘This does not lead to a high confidence assessment, unless you start with high confidence that Bashar Assad ordered it, and began looking for anything that supports that belief.’ The cherry-picking was similar to the process used to justify the Iraq war.
*The White House needed nine days to assemble its case against the Syrian government. On 30 August it invited a select group of Washington journalists (at least one often critical reporter, Jonathan Landay, the national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, was not invited), and handed them a document carefully labelled as a ‘government assessment’, rather than as an assessment by the intelligence community. The document laid out what was essentially a political argument to bolster the administration’s case against the Assad government. It was, however, more specific than Obama would be later, in his speech on 10 September: American intelligence, it stated, knew that Syria had begun ‘preparing chemical munitions’ three days before the attack. In an aggressive speech later that day, John Kerry provided more details. He said that Syria’s ‘chemical weapons personnel were on the ground, in the area, making preparations’ by 18 August. ‘We know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.’ The government assessment and Kerry’s comments made it seem as if the administration had been tracking the sarin attack as it happened. It is this version of events, untrue but unchallenged, that was widely reported at the time.
An unforeseen reaction came in the form of complaints from the Free Syrian Army’s leadership and others about the lack of warning. ‘It’s unbelievable they did nothing to warn people or try to stop the regime before the crime,’ Razan Zaitouneh, an opposition member who lived in one of the towns struck by sarin, told Foreign Policy. The Daily Mail was more blunt: ‘Intelligence report says US officials knew about nerve-gas attack in Syria three days before it killed over 1400 people – including more than 400 children.’ (The number of deaths attributable to the attack varied widely, from at least 1429, as initially claimed by the Obama administration, to many fewer. A Syrian human rights group reported 502 deaths; Médicins sans Frontières put it at 355; and a French report listed 281 known fatalities. The strikingly precise US total was later reported by the Wall Street Journal to have been based not on an actual body count, but on an extrapolation by CIA analysts, who scanned more than a hundred YouTube videos from Eastern Ghouta into a computer system and looked for images of the dead. In other words, it was little more than a guess.)
Five days later, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence responded to the complaints. A statement to the Associated Press said that the intelligence behind the earlier administration assertions was not known at the time of the attack, but recovered only subsequently: ‘Let’s be clear, the United States did not watch, in real time, as this horrible attack took place. The intelligence community was able to gather and analyse information after the fact and determine that elements of the Assad regime had in fact taken steps to prepare prior to using chemical weapons.’ But since the American press corps had their story, the retraction received scant attention. On 31 August the Washington Post, relying on the government assessment, had vividly reported on its front page that American intelligence was able to record ‘each step’ of the Syrian army attack in real time, ‘from the extensive preparations to the launching of rockets to the after-action assessments by Syrian officials’. It did not publish the AP corrective, and the White House maintained control of the narrative.
So when Obama said on 10 September that his administration knew Assad’s chemical weapons personnel had prepared the attack in advance, he was basing the statement not on an intercept caught as it happened, but on communications analysed days after 21 August. The former senior intelligence official explained that the hunt for relevant chatter went back to the exercise detected the previous December, in which, as Obama later said to the public, the Syrian army mobilised chemical weapons personnel and distributed gas masks to its troops. The White House’s government assessment and Obama’s speech were not descriptions of the specific events leading up to the 21 August attack, but an account of the sequence the Syrian military would have followed for any chemical attack. ‘They put together a back story,’ the former official said, ‘and there are lots of different pieces and parts. The template they used was the template that goes back to December.’ It is possible, of course, that Obama was unaware that this account was obtained from an analysis of Syrian army protocol for conducting a gas attack, rather than from direct evidence. Either way he had come to a hasty judgment.
The press would follow suit. The UN report on 16 September confirming the use of sarin was careful to note that its investigators’ access to the attack sites, which came five days after the gassing, had been controlled by rebel forces. ‘As with other sites,’ the report warned, ‘the locations have been well travelled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the mission … During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated.’ Still, the New York Times seized on the report, as did American and British officials, and claimed that it provided crucial evidence backing up the administration’s assertions. An annex to the UN report reproduced YouTube photographs of some recovered munitions, including a rocket that ‘indicatively matches’ the specifics of a 330mm calibre artillery rocket. The New York Times wrote that the existence of the rockets essentially proved that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack ‘because the weapons in question had not been previously documented or reported to be in possession of the insurgency’.
Theodore Postol, a professor of technology and national security at MIT, reviewed the UN photos with a group of his colleagues and concluded that the large calibre rocket was an improvised munition that was very likely manufactured locally. He told me that it was ‘something you could produce in a modestly capable machine shop’. The rocket in the photos, he added, fails to match the specifications of a similar but smaller rocket known to be in the Syrian arsenal. The New York Times, again relying on data in the UN report, also analysed the flight path of two of the spent rockets that were believed to have carried sarin, and concluded that the angle of descent ‘pointed directly’ to their being fired from a Syrian army base more than nine kilometres from the landing zone. Postol, who has served as the scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations in the Pentagon, said that the assertions in the Times and elsewhere ‘were not based on actual observations’. He concluded that the flight path analyses in particular were, as he put it in an email, ‘totally nuts’ because a thorough study demonstrated that the range of the improvised rockets was ‘unlikely’ to be more than two kilometres. Postol and a colleague, Richard M. Lloyd, published an analysis two weeks after 21 August in which they correctly assessed that the rockets involved carried a far greater payload of sarin than previously estimated. The Times reported on that analysis at length, describing Postol and Lloyd as ‘leading weapons experts’. The pair’s later study about the rockets’ flight paths and range, which contradicted previous Times reporting, was emailed to the newspaper last week; it has so far gone unreported.
The White House’s misrepresentation of what it knew about the attack, and when, was matched by its readiness to ignore intelligence that could undermine the narrative. That information concerned al-Nusra, the Islamist rebel group designated by the US and the UN as a terrorist organisation. Al-Nusra is known to have carried out scores of suicide bombings against Christians and other non-Sunni Muslim sects inside Syria, and to have attacked its nominal ally in the civil war, the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA). Its stated goal is to overthrow the Assad regime and establish sharia law. (On 25 September al-Nusra joined several other Islamist rebel groups in repudiating the FSA and another secular faction, the Syrian National Coalition.)
The flurry of American interest in al-Nusra and sarin stemmed from a series of small-scale chemical weapons attacks in March and April; at the time, the Syrian government and the rebels each insisted the other was responsible. The UN eventually concluded that four chemical attacks had been carried out, but did not assign responsibility. A White House official told the press in late April that the intelligence community had assessed ‘with varying degrees of confidence’ that the Syrian government was responsible for the attacks. Assad had crossed Obama’s ‘red line’. The April assessment made headlines, but some significant caveats were lost in translation. The unnamed official conducting the briefing acknowledged that intelligence community assessments ‘are not alone sufficient’. ‘We want,’ he said, ‘to investigate above and beyond those intelligence assessments to gather facts so that we can establish a credible and corroborated set of information that can then inform our decision-making.’ In other words, the White House had no direct evidence of Syrian army or government involvement, a fact that was only occasionally noted in the press coverage. Obama’s tough talk played well with the public and Congress, who view Assad as a ruthless murderer.
Two months later, a White House statement announced a change in the assessment of Syrian culpability and declared that the intelligence community now had ‘high confidence’ that the Assad government was responsible for as many as 150 deaths from attacks with sarin. More headlines were generated and the press was told that Obama, in response to the new intelligence, had ordered an increase in non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. But once again there were significant caveats. The new intelligence included a report that Syrian officials had planned and executed the attacks. No specifics were provided, nor were those who provided the reports identified. The White House statement said that laboratory analysis had confirmed the use of sarin, but also that a positive finding of the nerve agent ‘does not tell us how or where the individuals were exposed or who was responsible for the dissemination’. The White House further declared: ‘We have no reliable corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.’ The statement contradicted evidence that at the time was streaming into US intelligence agencies.
Already by late May, the senior intelligence consultant told me, the CIA had briefed the Obama administration on al-Nusra and its work with sarin, and had sent alarming reports that another Sunni fundamentalist group active in Syria, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), also understood the science of producing sarin. At the time, al-Nusra was operating in areas close to Damascus, including Eastern Ghouta. An intelligence document issued in mid-summer dealt extensively with Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, a chemical weapons expert formerly of the Iraqi military, who was said to have moved into Syria and to be operating in Eastern Ghouta. The consultant told me that Tariq had been identified ‘as an al-Nusra guy with a track record of making mustard gas in Iraq and someone who is implicated in making and using sarin’. He is regarded as a high-profile target by the American military.
On 20 June a four-page top secret cable summarising what had been learned about al-Nusra’s nerve gas capabilities was forwarded to David R. Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. ‘What Shedd was briefed on was extensive and comprehensive,’ the consultant said. ‘It was not a bunch of “we believes”.’ He told me that the cable made no assessment as to whether the rebels or the Syrian army had initiated the attacks in March and April, but it did confirm previous reports that al-Nusra had the ability to acquire and use sarin. A sample of the sarin that had been used was also recovered – with the help of an Israeli agent – but, according to the consultant, no further reporting about the sample showed up in cable traffic.
Independently of these assessments, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assuming that US troops might be ordered into Syria to seize the government’s stockpile of chemical agents, called for an all-source analysis of the potential threat. ‘The Op Order provides the basis of execution of a military mission, if so ordered,’ the former senior intelligence official explained. ‘This includes the possible need to send American soldiers to a Syrian chemical site to defend it against rebel seizure. If the jihadist rebels were going to overrun the site, the assumption is that Assad would not fight us because we were protecting the chemical from the rebels. All Op Orders contain an intelligence threat component. We had technical analysts from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, weapons people, and I & W [indications and warnings] people working on the problem … They concluded that the rebel forces were capable of attacking an American force with sarin because they were able to produce the lethal gas. The examination relied on signals and human intelligence, as well as the expressed intention and technical capability of the rebels.’
There is evidence that during the summer some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were troubled by the prospect of a ground invasion of Syria as well as by Obama’s professed desire to give rebel factions non-lethal support. In July, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, provided a gloomy assessment, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee in public testimony that ‘thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces’ would be needed to seize Syria’s widely dispersed chemical warfare arsenal, along with ‘hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers’. Pentagon estimates put the number of troops at seventy thousand, in part because US forces would also have to guard the Syrian rocket fleet: accessing large volumes of the chemicals that create sarin without the means to deliver it would be of little value to a rebel force. In a letter to Senator Carl Levin, Dempsey cautioned that a decision to grab the Syrian arsenal could have unintended consequences: ‘We have learned from the past ten years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state … Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.’
The CIA declined to comment for this article. Spokesmen for the DIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence said they were not aware of the report to Shedd and, when provided with specific cable markings for the document, said they were unable to find it. Shawn Turner, head of public affairs for the ODNI, said that no American intelligence agency, including the DIA, ‘assesses that the al-Nusra Front has succeeded in developing a capacity to manufacture sarin’.
The administration’s public affairs officials are not as concerned about al-Nusra’s military potential as Shedd has been in his public statements. In late July, he gave an alarming account of al-Nusra’s strength at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. ‘I count no less than 1200 disparate groups in the opposition,’ Shedd said, according to a recording of his presentation. ‘And within the opposition, the al-Nusra Front is … most effective and is gaining in strength.’ This, he said, ‘is of serious concern to us. If left unchecked, I am very concerned that the most radical elements’ – he also cited al-Qaida in Iraq – ‘will take over.’ The civil war, he went on, ‘will only grow worse over time … Unfathomable violence is yet to come.’ Shedd made no mention of chemical weapons in his talk, but he was not allowed to: the reports his office received were highly classified.
A series of secret dispatches from Syria over the summer reported that members of the FSA were complaining to American intelligence operatives about repeated attacks on their forces by al-Nusra and al-Qaida fighters. The reports, according to the senior intelligence consultant who read them, provided evidence that the FSA is ‘more worried about the crazies than it is about Assad’. The FSA is largely composed of defectors from the Syrian army. The Obama administration, committed to the end of the Assad regime and continued support for the rebels, has sought in its public statements since the attack to downplay the influence of Salafist and Wahhabist factions. In early September, John Kerry dumbfounded a Congressional hearing with a sudden claim that al-Nusra and other Islamist groups were minority players in the Syrian opposition. He later withdrew the claim.
In both its public and private briefings after 21 August, the administration disregarded the available intelligence about al-Nusra’s potential access to sarin and continued to claim that the Assad government was in sole possession of chemical weapons. This was the message conveyed in the various secret briefings that members of Congress received in the days after the attack, when Obama was seeking support for his planned missile offensive against Syrian military installations. One legislator with more than two decades of experience in military affairs told me that he came away from one such briefing persuaded that ‘only the Assad government had sarin and the rebels did not.’ Similarly, following the release of the UN report on 16 September confirming that sarin was used on 21 August, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, told a press conference: ‘It’s very important to note that only the [Assad] regime possesses sarin, and we have no evidence that the opposition possesses sarin.’
It is not known whether the highly classified reporting on al-Nusra was made available to Power’s office, but her comment was a reflection of the attitude that swept through the administration. ‘The immediate assumption was that Assad had done it,’ the former senior intelligence official told me. ‘The new director of the CIA, [John] Brennan, jumped to that conclusion … drives to the White House and says: “Look at what I’ve got!” It was all verbal; they just waved the bloody shirt. There was a lot of political pressure to bring Obama to the table to help the rebels, and there was wishful thinking that this [tying Assad to the sarin attack] would force Obama’s hand: “This is the Zimmermann telegram of the Syrian rebellion and now Obama can react.” Wishful thinking by the Samantha Power wing within the administration. Unfortunately, some members of the Joint Chiefs who were alerted that he was going to attack weren’t so sure it was a good thing.’
The proposed American missile attack on Syria never won public support and Obama turned quickly to the UN and the Russian proposal for dismantling the Syrian chemical warfare complex. Any possibility of military action was definitively averted on 26 September when the administration joined Russia in approving a draft UN resolution calling on the Assad government to get rid of its chemical arsenal. Obama’s retreat brought relief to many senior military officers. (One high-level special operations adviser told me that the ill-conceived American missile attack on Syrian military airfields and missile emplacements, as initially envisaged by the White House, would have been ‘like providing close air support for al-Nusra’.)
The administration’s distortion of the facts surrounding the sarin attack raises an unavoidable question: do we have the whole story of Obama’s willingness to walk away from his ‘red line’ threat to bomb Syria? He had claimed to have an iron-clad case but suddenly agreed to take the issue to Congress, and later to accept Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical weapons. It appears possible that at some point he was directly confronted with contradictory information: evidence strong enough to persuade him to cancel his attack plan, and take the criticism sure to come from Republicans.
The UN resolution, which was adopted on 27 September by the Security Council, dealt indirectly with the notion that rebel forces such as al-Nusra would also be obliged to disarm: ‘no party in Syria should use, develop, produce, acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer [chemical] weapons.’ The resolution also calls for the immediate notification of the Security Council in the event that any ‘non-state actors’ acquire chemical weapons. No group was cited by name. While the Syrian regime continues the process of eliminating its chemical arsenal, the irony is that, after Assad’s stockpile of precursor agents is destroyed, al-Nusra and its Islamist allies could end up as the only faction inside Syria with access to the ingredients that can create sarin, a strategic weapon that would be unlike any other in the war zone. There may be more to negotiate.
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Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With Aid From C.I.A.
By C. J. CHIVERS and ERIC SCHMITT
With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment for the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, according to air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders.
The airlift, which began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year, the data shows. It has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports.
As it evolved, the airlift correlated with shifts in the war within Syria, as rebels drove Syria’s army from territory by the middle of last year. And even as the Obama administration has publicly refused to give more than “nonlethal” aid to the rebels, the involvement of the C.I.A. in the arms shipments — albeit mostly in a consultative role, American officials say — has shown that the United States is more willing to help its Arab allies support the lethal side of the civil war.
From offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive, according to American officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. The C.I.A. declined to comment on the shipments or its role in them.
The shipments also highlight the competition for Syria’s future between Sunni Muslim states and Iran, the Shiite theocracy that remains Mr. Assad’s main ally. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Iraq on Sunday to do more to halt Iranian arms shipments through its airspace; he did so even as the most recent military cargo flight from Qatar for the rebels landed at Esenboga early Sunday night.
Syrian opposition figures and some American lawmakers and officials have argued that Russian and Iranian arms shipments to support Mr. Assad’s government have made arming the rebels more necessary.
Most of the cargo flights have occurred since November, after the presidential election in the United States and as the Turkish and Arab governments grew more frustrated by the rebels’ slow progress against Mr. Assad’s well-equipped military. The flights also became more frequent as the humanitarian crisis inside Syria deepened in the winter and cascades of refugees crossed into neighboring countries.
The Turkish government has had oversight over much of the program, down to affixing transponders to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey so it might monitor shipments as they move by land into Syria, officials said. The scale of shipments was very large, according to officials familiar with the pipeline and to an arms-trafficking investigator who assembled data on the cargo planes involved.
“A conservative estimate of the payload of these flights would be 3,500 tons of military equipment,” said Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, who monitors illicit arms transfers.
“The intensity and frequency of these flights,” he added, are “suggestive of a well-planned and coordinated clandestine military logistics operation.”
Although rebel commanders and the data indicate that Qatar and Saudi Arabia had been shipping military materials via Turkey to the opposition since early and late 2012, respectively, a major hurdle was removed late last fall after the Turkish government agreed to allow the pace of air shipments to accelerate, officials said.
Simultaneously, arms and equipment were being purchased by Saudi Arabia in Croatia and flown to Jordan on Jordanian cargo planes for rebels working in southern Syria and for retransfer to Turkey for rebels groups operating from there, several officials said.
These multiple logistics streams throughout the winter formed what one former American official who was briefed on the program called “a cataract of weaponry.”
American officials, rebel commanders and a Turkish opposition politician have described the Arab roles as an open secret, but have also said the program is freighted with risk, including the possibility of drawing Turkey or Jordan actively into the war and of provoking military action by Iran.
Still, rebel commanders have criticized the shipments as insufficient, saying the quantities of weapons they receive are too small and the types too light to fight Mr. Assad’s military effectively. They also accused those distributing the weapons of being parsimonious or corrupt.
“The outside countries give us weapons and bullets little by little,” said Abdel Rahman Ayachi, a commander in Soquor al-Sham, an Islamist fighting group in northern Syria.
He made a gesture as if switching on and off a tap. “They open and they close the way to the bullets like water,” he said.
Two other commanders, Hassan Aboud of Soquor al-Sham and Abu Ayman of Ahrar al-Sham, another Islamist group, said that whoever was vetting which groups receive the weapons was doing an inadequate job.
“There are fake Free Syrian Army brigades claiming to be revolutionaries, and when they get the weapons they sell them in trade,” Mr. Aboud said.
The former American official noted that the size of the shipments and the degree of distributions are voluminous.
“People hear the amounts flowing in, and it is huge,” he said. “But they burn through a million rounds of ammo in two weeks.”
A Tentative Start
The airlift to Syrian rebels began slowly. On Jan. 3, 2012, months after the crackdown by the Alawite-led government against antigovernment demonstrators had morphed into a military campaign, a pair of Qatar Emiri Air Force C-130 transport aircraft touched down in Istanbul, according to air traffic data.
They were a vanguard.
Weeks later, the Syrian Army besieged Homs, Syria’s third largest city. Artillery and tanks pounded neighborhoods. Ground forces moved in.
Across the country, the army and loyalist militias were trying to stamp out the rebellion with force — further infuriating Syria’s Sunni Arab majority, which was severely outgunned. The rebels called for international help, and more weapons.
By late midspring the first stream of cargo flights from an Arab state began, according to air traffic data and information from plane spotters.
On a string of nights from April 26 through May 4, a Qatari Air Force C-17 — a huge American-made cargo plane — made six landings in Turkey, at Esenboga Airport. By Aug. 8 the Qataris had made 14 more cargo flights. All came from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, a hub for American military logistics in the Middle East.
Qatar has denied providing any arms to the rebels. A Qatari official, who requested anonymity, said Qatar has shipped in only what he called nonlethal aid. He declined to answer further questions. It is not clear whether Qatar has purchased and supplied the arms alone or is also providing air transportation service for other donors. But American and other Western officials, and rebel commanders, have said Qatar has been an active arms supplier — so much so that the United States became concerned about some of the Islamist groups that Qatar has armed.
The Qatari flights aligned with the tide-turning military campaign by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib, as their campaign of ambushes, roadside bombs and attacks on isolated outposts began driving Mr. Assad’s military and supporting militias from parts of the countryside.
As flights continued into the summer, the rebels also opened an offensive in that city — a battle that soon bogged down.
The former American official said David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director until November, had been instrumental in helping to get this aviation network moving and had prodded various countries to work together on it. Mr. Petraeus did not return multiple e-mails asking for comment.
The American government became involved, the former American official said, in part because there was a sense that other states would arm the rebels anyhow. The C.I.A. role in facilitating the shipments, he said, gave the United States a degree of influence over the process, including trying to steer weapons away from Islamist groups and persuading donors to withhold portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft.
American officials have confirmed that senior White House officials were regularly briefed on the shipments. “These countries were going to do it one way or another,” the former official said. “They weren’t asking for a ‘Mother, may I?’ from us. But if we could help them in certain ways, they’d appreciate that.”
Through the fall, the Qatari Air Force cargo fleet became even more busy, running flights almost every other day in October. But the rebels were clamoring for even more weapons, continuing to assert that they lacked the firepower to fight a military armed with tanks, artillery, multiple rocket launchers and aircraft.
Many were also complaining, saying they were hearing from arms donors that the Obama administration was limiting their supplies and blocking the distribution of the antiaircraft and anti-armor weapons they most sought. These complaints continue.
“Arming or not arming, lethal or nonlethal — it all depends on what America says,” said Mohammed Abu Ahmed, who leads a band of anti-Assad fighters in Idlib Province.
Soon, other players joined the airlift: In November, three Royal Jordanian Air Force C-130s landed in Esenboga, in a hint at what would become a stepped-up Jordanian and Saudi role.
Within three weeks, two other Jordanian cargo planes began making a round-trip run between Amman, the capital of Jordan, and Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, where, officials from several countries said, the aircraft were picking up a large Saudi purchase of infantry arms from a Croatian-controlled stockpile.
The first flight returned to Amman on Dec. 15, according to intercepts of a transponder from one of the aircraft recorded by a plane spotter in Cyprus and air traffic control data from an aviation official in the region.
In all, records show that two Jordanian Ilyushins bearing the logo of the Jordanian International Air Cargo firm but flying under Jordanian military call signs made a combined 36 round-trip flights between Amman and Croatia from December through February. The same two planes made five flights between Amman and Turkey this January.
As the Jordanian flights were under way, the Qatari flights continued and the Royal Saudi Air Force began a busy schedule, too — making at least 30 C-130 flights into Esenboga from mid-February to early March this year, according to flight data provided by a regional air traffic control official.
Several of the Saudi flights were spotted coming and going at Ankara by civilians, who alerted opposition politicians in Turkey.
“The use of Turkish airspace at such a critical time, with the conflict in Syria across our borders, and by foreign planes from countries that are known to be central to the conflict, defines Turkey as a party in the conflict,” said Attilla Kart, a member of the Turkish Parliament from the C.H.P. opposition party, who confirmed details about several Saudi shipments. “The government has the responsibility to respond to these claims.”
Turkish and Saudi Arabian officials declined to discuss the flights or any arms transfers. The Turkish government has not officially approved military aid to Syrian rebels.
Croatia and Jordan both denied any role in moving arms to the Syrian rebels. Jordanian aviation officials went so far as to insist that no cargo flights occurred.
The director of cargo for Jordanian International Air Cargo, Muhammad Jubour, insisted on March 7 that his firm had no knowledge of any flights to or from Croatia.
“This is all lies,” he said. “We never did any such thing.”
A regional air traffic official who has been researching the flights confirmed the flight data, and offered an explanation. “Jordanian International Air Cargo,” the official said, “is a front company for Jordan’s air force.”
After being informed of the air-traffic control and transponder data that showed the plane’s routes, Mr. Jubour, from the cargo company, claimed that his firm did not own any Ilyushin cargo planes.
Asked why his employer’s Web site still displayed images of two Ilyushin-76MFs and text claiming they were part of the company fleet, Mr. Jubour had no immediate reply. That night the company’s Web site was taken down.
Reporting was contributed by Robert F. Worth from Washington and Istanbul; Dan Bilefsky from Paris; and Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey.
The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Arabic: جماعة الإخوان المسلمين, often simply: الإخوان المسلمون, the Muslim Brotherhood, transliterated: al-ʾIkḫwān al-Muslimūn) is the Arab world’s most influential and one of the largest Islamic movements, and is the largest political opposition organization in many Arab states. Founded in Egypt in 1928 as a Pan-Islamic, religious, political, and social movement by the Islamic scholar and schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna, by the end of World War II the Muslim Brotherhood had an estimated two million members. Its ideas had gained supporters throughout the Arab world and influenced other Islamist groups with its “model of political activism combined with Islamic charity work”.
The Brotherhood’s stated goal is to instill the Qur’an and Sunnah as the “sole reference point for …ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community … and state.” The organization seeks to make Muslim countries become Islamic caliphates and to isolate women and non-Muslims from public life. The movement is also known for engaging in political violence. They were responsible for creating Hamas, a U.S. designated terrorist organization, who grew to infamy for its suicide bombings of Israelis during the first and second intifada. Muslim brotherhood members are suspected to have assasinated political opponents like Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud an-Nukrashi Pasha.
The Muslim Brotherhood started as a religious social organization; preaching Islam, teaching the illiterate, setting up hospitals and even launching commercial enterprises. As it continued to rise in influence, starting in 1936, it began to oppose British rule in Egypt. Many Egyptian nationalists accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of violent killings during this period. After the Arab defeat in the First Arab-Israeli war, the Egyptian government dissolved the organisation and arrested its members. It supported the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, but after an attempted assassination of Egypt’s president it was once again banned and repressed. The Muslim Brotherhood has been suppressed in other countries as well, most notably in Syria in 1982 during the Hama massacre.
The Muslim Brotherhood is financed by contributions from its members, who are required to allocate a portion of their income to the movement. Some of these contributions are from members who work in Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich countries.
Al-Qaeda (pron.: /ælˈkaɪdə/ al-KY-də; Arabic: القاعدة al-qāʿidah, Arabic: [ælqɑːʕɪdɐ], translation: “The Base” and alternatively spelled al-Qaida and sometimes al-Qa’ida) is a global militant Islamist organization founded by Osama bin Laden at some point between August 1988 and late 1989, with its origins being traceable to the Soviet War in Afghanistan. It operates as a network comprising both a multinational, stateless army and a radical Sunni Muslim movement calling for global Jihad and a strict interpretation of sharia law. It has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United Nations Security Council, NATO, the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, and various other countries (see below). Al-Qaeda has carried out several attacks on non-Muslims, and other targets it considers kafir.
Al-Qaeda has attacked civilian and military targets in various countries, including the September 11 attacks, 1998 U.S. embassy bombings and the 2002 Bali bombings. The U.S. government responded to the September 11 attacks by launching the War on Terror. With the loss of key leaders, culminating in the death of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s operations have devolved from actions that were controlled from the top-down, to actions by franchise associated groups, to actions of lone wolf operators.
Characteristic techniques employed by al-Qaeda include suicide attacks and simultaneous bombings of different targets. Activities ascribed to it may involve members of the movement, who have taken a pledge of loyalty to Osama bin Laden, or the much more numerous “al-Qaeda-linked” individuals who have undergone training in one of its camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq or Sudan, but who have not taken any pledge. Al-Qaeda ideologues envision a complete break from all foreign influences in Muslim countries, and the creation of a new world-wide Islamic caliphate. Among the beliefs ascribed to Al-Qaeda members is the conviction that a Christian–Jewish alliance is conspiring to destroy Islam. As Salafist jihadists, they believe that the killing of civilians is religiously sanctioned, and they ignore any aspect of religious scripture which might be interpreted as forbidding the murder of civilians and internecine fighting. Al-Qaeda also opposes man-made laws, and wants to replace them with a strict form of sharia law.
Al-Qaeda is also responsible for instigating sectarian violence among Muslims. Al-Qaeda is intolerant of non-Sunni branches of Islam and denounces them by means of excommunications called “takfir”. Al-Qaeda leaders regard liberal Muslims, Shias, Sufis and other sects as heretics and have attacked their mosques and gatherings. Examples of sectarian attacks include the Yazidi community bombings, the Sadr City bombings, the Ashoura Massacre and the April 2007 Baghdad bombings.
The Alawites, also known as Alawis, Nusayris and Ansaris (ʿAlawīyyah (Arabic: علوية), Nuṣayrī (Arabic: نصيريون), and al-Anṣāriyyah) are a prominent mystical religious group centred in Syria who follow a branch of the Twelver school of Shia Islam. They were long persecuted for their beliefs by the various rulers of Syria, until Hafez al-Assad took power there in 1970.
Today they represent 12% of the Syrian population and for the past 50 years the political system has been dominated by an elite led by the Alawite Assad family. During the Syrian civil war, this rule has come under significant pressure.
The Alawites take their name from Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin of Muḥammad, who was considered the first Shi’a Imam and the fourth “Rightly Guided Caliph” of Sunni Islam.
Until fairly recently, Alawites were referred to as “Nusairis”, after Abu Shu’ayb Muhammad ibn Nusayr (d. ca 270 h, 863 AD) who is reported to have attended the circles of the last three Imams of the prophet Muhammad’s line. This name is considered offensive, and they refer to themselves as Alawites.[page needed] They have allegedly “generally preferred” to be called Alawites, because of the association of the name with Ali ibn Abi Talib, rather than commemorating Abu Shu’ayb Muhammad Ibn Nusayr. In September 1920 French occupational forces instituted the policy of referring to them by the term Alaouites.
In official sources they are often referred to as Ansaris, as this is how they referred to themselves, according to the Reverend Samuel Lyde, who lived among Alawites in the mid-19th century. Other sources state that “Ansari”, as referring to Alawites, is simply a Western mis-transliteration of “Nosairi”.[page needed]
Alawites are separate from the Alevi religious sect in Turkey, but the terms share similar etymologies, and are often confused by outsiders.
he origin of the Alawites is disputed. The Alawites themselves trace their origins to the followers of the eleventh Imām, Hassan al-‘Askarī (d. 873), and his pupil ibn Nuṣayr (d. 868). The sect seems to have been organised by a follower of Muḥammad ibn Nuṣayr known as al-Khasibi, who died in Aleppo about 969. In 1032 Al-Khaṣībī’s grandson and pupil al-Tabarani moved to Latakia, which was then controlled by the Byzantine Empire. Al-Tabarani became the perfector of the Alawite faith through his numerous writings. He and his pupils converted the rural population of the Syrian Coastal Mountain Range to the Alawite faith.
In the 19th century and early 20th century, some Western scholars believed Alawites to be descended from ancient Middle Eastern peoples such as Canaanites and Hittites.[page needed]
Under the Ottoman Empire
Under the Ottoman Empire they were often ill treated, and they resisted an attempt to convert them to Sunni Islam. The Alawites were traditionally good fighters, revolted against the Ottomans on several occasions, and maintained virtual autonomy in their mountains. In his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence wrote:
“The sect, vital in itself, was clannish in feeling and politics. One Nosairi would not betray another, and would hardly not betray an unbeliever. Their villages lay in patches down the main hills to the Tripoli gap. They spoke Arabic, but had lived there since the beginning of Greek letters in Syria. Usually they stood aside from affairs, and left the Turkish Government alone in hope of reciprocity.”
On the other hand, throughout the 18th century a number of Alawite notables were engaged as local Ottoman tax farmers (multazim). In the 19th century, some Alawites also supported the Ottomans against the Egyptian occupation (1831–1840), while individual Alawites made careers in the Ottoman army or as Ottoman governors. In the early part of the 20th century, the mainly Sunni notables sat on wealth and dominated politics, while Alawites lived as poor peasants. Alawites were not allowed to testify in court until after World War I.
French Mandate period
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Syria and Lebanon came under a French mandate. On December 15, 1918, prominent Alawite leader Saleh al-Ali called for a meeting of Alawite notables in the town of Sheikh Badr, and urged them to revolt and expel the French from Syria. When the French authorities heard of the meeting, they sent a force in order to arrest Saleh al-Ali. Al-Ali and his men ambushed them, and the French forces were defeated and suffered more than 35 casualties. After the initial victory, al-Ali started to organize his Alawite rebels into a disciplined force, with its own general command and military ranks, which resulted in the Syrian Revolt of 1919.
In 1919, Al-Ali retaliated to French attacks against rebel positions by attacking and occupying al-Qadmus, from which the French conducted their military operations against him. In November, General Henri Gouraud mounted a full-fledged campaign against Saleh al-Ali’s forces in the An-Nusayriyah Mountains. They entered al-Ali’s village of al-Shaykh Badr and arrested many Alawi notables. Al-Ali fled to the north, but a large French force overran his positions and al-Ali went underground.
When the French finally occupied Syria in 1920, they recognized the term Alaouites, i.e. “Alawites”, gave autonomy to them and other minority groups, and accepted them into their colonial troops. On 2 September 1920 an Alawite State was created in the coastal and mountain country comprising Alawite villages; the French justified this separation with the “backwardness” of the mountain-dwelling people, religiously distinct from the surrounding Sunni population. It was a division meant to protect the Alawite people from more powerful majorities. Under the mandate, many Alawite chieftains supported the notion of a separate Alawite nation and tried to convert their autonomy into independence. The French encouraged Alawites to join their military force, in part to provide a counterweight to the Sunni majority, which was more hostile to their rule. According to a 1935 letter by the French minister of war, the French considered the Alawites, along with the Druze, as the only “warlike races” in the mandate territories, as excellent soldiers, and the communities from where they could recruit their best troops.
The region was both coastal and mountainous, and home to a mostly rural, highly heterogeneous population. During the French Mandate period, society was divided by religion and geography: the landowning families of the port city of Latakia, and 80% of the population of the city, were Sunni Muslim. However, more than 90% of the population of the province was rural, 62% being Alawite peasantry. In May 1930, the Alawite State was renamed “the Government of Latakia”, the only concession the French made to Arab nationalists until 1936. There was a great deal of Alawite separatist sentiment in the region, as evidenced by a letter dating to 1936 and signed by 80 Alawi notables and was addressed to the French Prime Minister stating that “Alawite people rejected attachment to Syria and wished to stay under French protection.” Among the signatories was Sulayman Ali al-Assad, the father of Hafez al-Assad who would later become president of the country, and grandfather of Bashar al-Assad, the current president. However, these political views could not be coordinated into a unified voice. This was attributed to the majority of Alawites being peasants “exploited by a predominantly Sunni landowning class resident in Latakia and Hama”. Nevertheless, on 3 December 1936 (effective in 1937), the Alawite State was re-incorporated into Syria as a concession by the French to the Nationalist Bloc, the party in power of the semi-autonomous Syrian government.
In 1939 a portion of northwest Syria, the Sanjak of Alexandretta, now Hatay, that contained a large number of Alawites, was given to Turkey by the French following a plebiscite carried out in the province under the guidance of League of Nations which favored joining Turkey. However, this development greatly angered the Alawite community and Syrians in general. In 1938, the Turkish military had gone into Alexandretta and expelled most of its Arab and Armenian inhabitants. Before this, Alawite Arabs and Armenians were the majority of the province’s population. Zaki al-Arsuzi, the young Alawite leader from Iskandarun province in the Sanjak of Alexandretta, who led the resistance to the annexation of his province to the Turks, later became a co-founder of the Ba’ath Party along with the Eastern Orthodox Christian schoolteacher Michel Aflaq and Sunni politician Salah al-Din al-Bitar when his Arab Ba’ath merged with their Arab Ba’ath Movement . After World War II, Salman Al Murshid played a major role in uniting the Alawite province with Syria. He was executed by the newly independent Syrian government in Damascus on December 12, 1946 only three days after a hasty political trial.
After Syrian independence
Syria became independent on April 17, 1946. In 1949, following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Syria endured a succession of military coups and the rise of the Ba’ath Party. In 1958, Syria and Egypt were united through a political agreement into the United Arab Republic. The UAR lasted for three years. In 1961, it broke apart when a group of army officers seized power and declared Syria independent anew.
A further succession of coups ensued until, in 1963, a secretive military committee, which included a number of disgruntled Alawite officers, including Hafez al-Assad and Salah Jadid, helped the Ba’ath Party seize power. In 1966, Alawite-affiliated military officers successfully rebelled and expelled the old Ba’ath that had looked to the founders of the Ba’ath Party, the Greek Orthodox Christian Michel Aflaq and the Sunni Muslim Salah al-Din al-Bitar, for leadership. They promoted Zaki al-Arsuzi as the “Socrates” of their reconstituted Ba’ath Party.
In 1970, then Air Force General, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, took power and instigated a “Correctionist Movement” in the Ba’ath Party. The coup of 1970 ended the political instability that had lasted since the arrival of independence. Robert D. Kaplan has compared Hafez al-Assad’s coming to power to “an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development shocking to the Sunni majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries.” In 1971, al-Assad declared himself president of Syria, a position the constitution at the time allowed only for Sunni Muslims to hold. In 1973, a new constitution was adopted that omitted the old requirement that the religion of the state be Islam and replaced it with the statement that the religion of the republic’s president is Islam. Protests erupted when this was known. In 1974, in order to satisfy this constitutional requirement, Musa Sadr, a leader of the Twelvers of Lebanon and founder of the Amal Movement who had earlier sought to unite Lebanese Alawites and Shi’ites under the Supreme Islamic Shi’ite Council without success, issued a fatwa stating that Alawites were a community of Twelver Shi’ite Muslims. Under the authoritarian but secular Assad government, religious minorities were tolerated more than before, but political dissidents were not. In 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood mounted an anti-government Islamist insurgency, Hafez Assad staged a military offensive against them which has since been referred to as the Hama massacre.
Alawites celebrating a festival in Banyas, Syria, during World War II
The Alawites derive their beliefs from the Prophets of Islam, from the Quran, and from the books of the Imams from the Ahlulbayt such as the Nahj al-Balagha by Ali ibn Abu Talib. Alawites are self-described Shi’ite Muslims, and have been recognised as such by Shi’ite authorities such as Ayatollah Khomeini and the influential Lebanese Shi’ite cleric Musa al-Sadr of Lebanon. The prominent Sunni Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammad Amin al-Husayni also issued a fatwah recognizing them as part of the Muslim community in the interest of Arab nationalism. Some Sunni scholars such as Ibn Kathir, on the other hand, have categorized Alawites as pagans in their religious works and documents. At least one source has compared them to Baha’is, Babis, Bektashis, Ahmadis, and “similar groups that have arisen within the Muslim community”.
Alawite man in Latakia, early 20th century
Some tenets of the faith may be secret and known only to a select few Alawis.  Alawis may have integrated doctrines from other religions (syncretism), in particular from Ismaili Islam and Christianity. Alawis are reported to celebrate certain Christian festivals, “in their own way”, including Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday. The claim that Alawis believe Ali is a deity has been contested by scholars. By some accounts, Alawis believe in reincarnation.
Alawi women in Syria, early 20th century
Some sources have suggested that the non-Muslim nature of some of the historical Alawite beliefs, notwithstanding, Alawite beliefs may have changed in recent decades. In the early 1970s a booklet entitled “al-`Alawiyyun Shi’atu Ahl al-Bait” (“The Alawites are Followers of the Household of the Prophet”), was issued in which doctrines of the Imami Shi’ah were described as Alawite, and which was “signed by numerous `Alawi` men of religion”.
A scholar suggests that factors such as the high profile of Alawites in Syria, the strong aversion of the Muslim majority to apostasy, and the relative lack of importance of religious doctrine to Alawite identity may have induced Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad and his successor son to press their fellow Alawites “to behave like ‘regular Muslims’, shedding or at least concealing their distinctive aspects”.
Alawites have their own scholars, referred to as shaikhs, although more recently there has been a movement to bring Alawism and the other branches of Twelver Islam together through educational exchange programs in Syria and Qom.
Some sources have talked about “Sunnification” of Alawites under Baathist Syrian leader and Alawite Hafiz al-Assad. Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies, writes that Hafiz al-Assad “tried to turn Alawites into ‘good’ (read Sunnified) Muslims in exchange for preserving a modicum of secularism and tolerance in society.” On the other hand Al-Assad “declared the Alawites to be nothing but Twelver Shiites”. In a paper on “Islamic Education in Syria”, Landis wrote that “no mention” is made in Syrian textbooks controlled by the Al-Assad regime, of Alawites, Druze, and Ismailis or even Shi`a Islam. Islam was presented as a monolithic religion. Ali Sulayman al-Ahmad, chief judge of the Baathist Syrian state, has stated: “We are Alawi Muslims. Our book is the Quran. Our prophet is Muhammad. The Ka`ba is our qibla, and our religion is Islam.”
Map showing the current distribution of Alawites in the Levant
Traditionally Alawites have lived in the Alawite Mountains along the Mediterranean coast of Syria. Latakia and Tartous are the region’s principal cities. Today Alawites are also concentrated in the plains around Hama and Homs. Alawites also live in all major cities of Syria. They have been estimated to constitute about 12% of Syria’s population—2.6 million people of Syria’s 22 million population.
There are four Alawite confederations—Kalbiyya, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah—each divided into tribes. Alawites are concentrated in the Latakia region of Syria, extending north to Antioch (Antakya), Turkey, and in and around Homs and Hama.
Before 1953, Alawites held specifically reserved seats in the Syrian Parliament like all other religious communities. After that, including for the 1960 census, there were only general Muslim and Christian categories, without mention of subgroups in order to reduce “communalism” (taïfiyya).
There are an estimated 100,000 to 120,000 Alawites in Lebanon, where they have lived since at least the 16th century. They are recognized as one of the 18 official Lebanese sects, and due to the efforts of their leader Ali Eid, the Taif Agreement of 1989 gave them two reserved seats in the Parliament. Lebanese Alawites live mostly in the Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood of Tripoli, where they number 40,000–60,000, and in 15 villages in the Akkar region, and are mainly represented by the Arab Democratic Party. Their Mufti is Sheikh Assad Assi. The Bab al-Tabbaneh, Jabal Mohsen clashes between pro-Syrian Alawites and anti-Syrian Sunnis have haunted Tripoli for decades.
There are also about 2000 Alawites living in the village of Ghajar, split between Lebanon and the Golan Heights. In 1932, the residents of Ghajar were given the option of choosing their nationality and overwhelmingly chose to be a part of Syria, which has a sizable Alawite minority. Prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the residents of Ghajar were counted in the 1960 Syrian census. When Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, Ghajar remained a no-man’s land for two and a half months.
In order to avoid confusion with Alevis, Alawites prefer the self-appellation Arap Alevileri (“Arab Alevis”) in Turkish. The term Nusayrī, which used to exist in (often polemical) theological texts is also revived in recent studies. In Çukurova, they are named as Fellah and Arabuşağı, the latter considered highly offensive by Alawites, by the Sunni population. A quasi-official name used particularly in 1930s by Turkish authorities was Eti Türkleri (“Hittite Turks”), in order to conceal their Arab origins. Today, this term is almost obsolete but it is still used by some people of older generations as a euphemism.
The exact number of Alawites in Turkey is unknown, but there were 185,000 in 1970 (this number suggests circa 400,000 in 2009). As Muslims, they are not recorded separately from Sunnis in ID registration. In the 1965 census (the last Turkish census where informants were asked their mother tongue), 180,000 people in the three provinces declared their mother tongue as Arabic. However, Arabic-speaking Sunni and Christian people are also included in this figure. Alawites traditionally speak the same dialect of Levantine Arabic with Syrian Alawites. Arabic is best preserved in rural communities and Samandağ. Younger people in Çukurova cities and (to a lesser extent) in İskenderun tend to speak Turkish. Turkish spoken by Alawites is distinguished by Alawites and non-Alawites alike by its particular accents and vocabulary. Knowledge of the Arabic alphabet is confined to religious leaders and men who have worked or studied in Arab countries.
Alawites show a considerable pattern of social mobility. Until 1960s, they used to work bound to Sunni aghas around Antakya and were among the poorest folk in Çukurova. Today, Alawites are prominent in economic sectors such as transportation and commerce. A large professional middle-class had also emerged. In recent years, there has been a tendency of exogamy, particularly among males who had attended universities and/or had lived in other parts of Turkey. These marriages are highly tolerated but exogamy of women, as in other patrilineal groups, is usually disfavoured.
Alawites, like Alevis, mainly have strong leftist political preferences. However, some people in rural areas (usually members of notable Alawite families) may be found supporting secularist conservative parties such as True Path Party. Most Alawites feel discriminated by the policies of the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Turkey (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı).
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“…The top two Defense Department officials were sharply challenged by lawmakers Thursday on their insistent claims that nothing more could have been done to save the four Americans who were killed in the Sept. 11 terror attack in Benghazi.
Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey were peppered with questions from Republican senators during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The officials claimed military aircraft and other assets were too far away to get to the scene in time, and suggested armed aircraft like F16s could have done more harm than good in a chaotic situation. The senators, though, pressed the officials for a fuller explanation on why military assets were not deployed to rescue Americans under attack that night — in what will likely be their last chance to question the outgoing Defense secretary.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., disputed testimony that the difficulty in dispatching assets to the scene was “a problem of distance and time.” He suggested the “light footprint” in the region and a failure to respond to threats left the military ill-prepared.
“For you to testify that our posture would not allow a rapid response — our posture was not there because we didn’t take into account the threats to that consulate, and that’s why four Americans died,” he said. “We could have placed forces there. We could have had aircraft and other capacity a short distance away.”
He continued: “No forces arrived there until well after these murders took place.”
Dempsey acknowledged having gotten word of a warning from the U.S. consulate about being unable to withstand a sustained attack, but said the military never got a request for support from the State Department.
“So it’s the State Department’s fault?” McCain asked, curtly.
“I’m not blaming the State Department,” Dempsey said.
McCain responded: “Who would you blame?”
Dempsey went on to claim that several U.S. posts were facing significant threats, though McCain said none so much as Benghazi.
Shortly afterward, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., pressed Panetta again on why no forces were deployed until after the attack was over. Dempsey and Panetta said they talked to President Obama one time that night, but Graham questioned why there weren’t subsequent follow-up conversations.
“It lasted almost eight hours … did the president show any curiosity?” Graham asked.
Panetta said there was “no question” Obama “was concerned about American lives.”
“With all due respect,” Graham responded, “I don’t believe that’s a credible statement if he never called and asked you, ‘are we helping these people?'”
The secretary’s testimony on Benghazi was long-sought by Republican lawmakers. After then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified last month, Graham had demanded that Panetta be brought before the Senate — threatening to hold up the nomination of his prospective replacement Chuck Hagel over the issue.
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., announced last week that Panetta would testify.
Responding to long-running questions about whether more military assets could have been dispatched to protect those under fire in Libya on Sept. 11, Panetta in his opening statement claimed there simply wasn’t enough time to do more.
“There was not enough time given the speed of the attack for armed military assets to respond,” he said before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We were not dealing with a prolonged or continuous assault which could have been brought to an end by a U.S. military response. … Time, distance, the lack of an adequate warning, events that moved very quickly on the ground prevented a more immediate response.”
Still, he said the Pentagon “spared no effort … to save American lives.”
Panetta was testifying in what may be his final public appearance on Capitol Hill as he prepares to leave the department.
Panetta, in his testimony, detailed the military response on the day and night of the attack.
As Fox News has previously reported, he said an unarmed, unmanned drone was positioned overhead the Benghazi compound.
But he said armed aircraft like AC-130 gunships would have taken too long to get there — “at least nine to 12 hours if not more to deploy.”
“This was, pure and simple … a problem of distance and time,” he said.
Panetta said he also directed that a Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team stationed in Spain prepare to deploy in addition to a second FAST platoon; a special operations force in Central Europe prepare to deploy to a staging base in Southern Europe; and a special ops force in the U.S. similarly prepare to deploy to Southern Europe.
As for what was happening in Libya, he claimed the “quickest response” was the Tripoli-based team of six people which was sent to Benghazi.
“Members of this team, along with others at the annex facility, provided emergency medical assistance and supported the evacuation of all personnel. Only 12 hours after the attacks had begun, all remaining U.S. government personnel had been safely evacuated from Benghazi,” he said.
Since the September assault, some have questioned whether enough was done to protect those at the consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi. Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed that night.
There have been questions about the perceived delays CIA officials — stationed in Benghazi — encountered that night and their frustration that air support was not sent from nearby Sigonella air base. In recent weeks, Fox News has learned that the rescue unit that left Tripoli was told that air support would be above when they landed in Benghazi, but it wasn’t. …”
Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/02/07/panetta-defends-military-response-to-benghazi-attack-at-senate-hearing/#ixzz2KGmLO0Iu
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