In his book Secret Affairs the British Historian Mark Curtis explains how the US and UK governments have colluded with radical Islam, including terrorist organisations, for decades, “in order to promote specific foreign policy objectives.”
The most infamous example of this largely unknown story was the US and UK’s support of the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s against the Soviet Union’s occupation. “At first everyone thought there’s no way to beat the Soviets. So what we have to do is throw the worst crazies at them that we can find”, explained Cheryl Benard, a RAND corporation expert. “We knew exactly who these people were, and what their organizations were like, and we didn’t care.”
So who were “these people”? The commander who received by far the most US military aid was the fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who the CIA admitted had “fascist” tendencies. As a student at Kabul University Hekmatyar organised attacks on unveiled female students which involved throwing acid in their faces.
Three decades later and the US is increasingly embroiled in the Syrian civil war. The Obama Administration’s official position, faithfully amplified by the mainstream media, is that it is concerned about the growing hardline Islamist influence among the rebels. Therefore, the US is trying to strengthen the democratic, secular forces opposing President Assad’s regime. For example, the US designated the Al-Nusra Front, the dominant rebel fighting force which is allied with Al-Qaeda, a terrorist organisation in December 2012.
However, a careful reading of contemporary news reports highlights several inconvenient facts that suggest the US is not being entirely honest about its relationship with the Islamic jihadists fighting the Syrian Government.
Firstly, we know the Al-Nusra Front and other jihadist groups are being supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia – two of the US’s biggest allies in the Gulf. With the US a key supplier and trainer to their militaries it seems clear Washington could, if it wanted, pressure these two absolute monarchies to stop supporting the “crazies” in Syria. Instead, as the New York Times noted in a November 2012 article discussing US options for intervention, the US is “continuing to use other countries, especially Qatar” to arm the Syrian opposition.
Secondly, as the New York Times reported last month, the CIA has been directly assisting Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan to expand the airlift of arms and equipment to Syrian rebels. “A conservative estimate of the payload of these flights would be 3,500 tons of military equipment”, said Hugh Griffiths from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. American officials told the New York Times that the White House has been regularly briefed on these shipments.
Finally, bloggers such as Brown Moses who closely follow the conflict via youtube videos and news reports have noted that some of these airlifted arms have ended up in jihadi hands. According to the New York Times this has been a concern of US officials since at least October 2012 – over six months ago. “The opposition groups that are receiving most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it”, one US official told the paper. Is the fact the jihadis are continuing to get hold of arms sent into Syria with the help of the CIA down to incompetence, ignorance of the facts on the ground or something more worrying?
Writing for the World Socialist Web Site Bill Van Auken argues that while the Obama Administration has named the Al Nusra Front as a terrorist organisation “its real attitude has been one of tacit support for the Islamist group’s actions, which have included terrorist car bombings and other attacks on civilians.”
In Afghanistan, the US goal was to weaken the Soviet Union – to give “the USSR its Vietnam War”, according to President Carter’s National Security Advisor. Everything else was subordinate to this. In Syria, the US goal is to remove Assad from power and thus weaken the position of Iran in the region. Is everything else, including tolerance if not defacto support for a radical Islamist terror group, subordinate to this? The testimony of Amos Gilad, who heads the Israeli Defence Ministry’s diplomatic defence bureau, hints at Western thinking. The threat from Al-Qaeda elements in Syria “is not the same threat as one posed by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah together, which is much more difficult”, he noted recently before explaining the on-going threat to the Assad regime “is a blow to Iran and Hezbollah together”.
Aaron Zelin from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently argued Syria is set to be bigger “in terms of mobilizing jihadi fighters” than Afghanistan. The unintended blowback from US support of radical Islamists in Afghanistan in the 1980s included the creation of Al-Qaeda and terrorist atrocities like 9/11. What will be the unintended blowback from Syria?
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK and the author of ‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003’, published by Peace News Press.