The US government has finally announced an end to its years-long program to arm and train Syrian rebels. The initiative, one of the CIA’s largest covert operations, with billions of dollars of funding, fueled mass killing in Syria and significantly prolonged the country’s horrific war. Widely respected experts have also acknowledged that it greatly strengthened murderous extremist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
If one only read corporate media reporting, however, you would likely think that the termination of the CIA program was an abject tragedy. Spin doctors at major news outlets depicted the Trump administration’s decision as variously a spineless concession to the evil Russian puppet master and/or a wretched abandonment of a supposedly noble US commitment to “freedom and democracy.”
The Washington Post (7/19/17) took the lead with the article “Trump Ends Covert CIA Program to Arm Anti-Assad Rebels in Syria, a Move Sought by Moscow,” which framed the development almost entirely as a concession to the Kremlin. It cited Charles Lister, a hawkish analyst who has for years lobbied for US-led regime change in Syria: “We are falling into a Russian trap,” lamented Lister, who works for think tanks funded by the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, and never fails to toe the line.
Western corporate media compliantly echoed the Post‘s talking points: The Guardian (7/20/17) declared “Donald Trump Drops CIA Program in Syria ‘in Bid to Improve Russia Ties’”; USA Today (7/20/17) said, “Trump’s Cutoff of Aid to Syrian Rebels Marks Victory for Assad, Russia and Iran”; “Donald Trump Ends Covert CIA Aid to Syrian Rebels in ‘Win’ for Russia,” the Telegraph (7/20/17) added.
The Washington Post‘s resident unofficial CIA PR rep, David Ignatius (7/20/17), practically boasted that “CIA-backed fighters may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years.”
A top US general later made it clear that the halt of the CIA operation was not about Russia. But this mattered little to the Fourth Estate; the “Kremlin plot” seed had already been planted.
The idea that it might actually be good to end a program that even establishment think tanks conceded empowered Al Qaeda and other jihadist militant groups in Syria, regardless of what Russia desires, was never entertained.
Empowering Al Qaeda
For once, K Street offered a rare voice of reason. Writing for the Century Foundation, centrist analyst Sam Heller noted the halting of the program was “a concession to reality,” given it had for years been “indirectly feeding the Nusra Front”—Syrian Al Qaeda.
“As for the ‘moderate rebel force’” the CIA program was supposed to create, Heller noted,
for the last several years much of America’s support has gone to “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) factions that have functioned as battlefield auxiliaries and weapons farms for larger Islamist and jihadist factions, including Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.
In north Syria, in “the revolution’s center of gravity,” Heller continued, “CIA-backed northern rebels were mostly backfilling for either the Nusra Front or Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist movement-opposition faction and Nusra’s erstwhile ally.” Moreover, the genocidal “Islamic State burst out of the opposition’s chest.”
CNN (7/20/17) declared “the End of a Small CIA Program in Syria Is a Big Win for Russia,” which compounded the distortion by labeling the rebel support “small”; Timber Sycamore, the official name of the CIA operation for arming and training Syrian rebels, was one of the agency’s biggest. It spanned multiple countries, and involved billions of dollars, from the coffers of not just the US, but also of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Officially, the CIA operations began in 2013, but in reality they started in 2012 at the latest.
“The problem with the program,” Sam Heller emphasized in his report, “was not that it was under resourced or ‘insufficient in scale.’”
Scholars like Joshua Landis, a leading academic expert on Syria with moderate, middle-of-the-road politics, also welcomed the end to the CIA program, which he uncontroversially noted “benefited spread of radicals like Al Qaeda and ISIS.”
Landis pointed to a largely forgotten 2012 New York Times report (10/14/12) that revealed that “most of the arms shipped” to Syrian rebels by US allies were “going to hard-line Islamic jihadists.” “Washington knew this by mid-2012. Took five more years to shut down flow,” commented Landis, who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
The professor cited another report that Syrian Al Qaeda had taken large chunks of the weapons sent to “moderate” rebel groups. Landis stressed, “US regime-change policy in the Middle East was a failure that fueled radicalism, prolonged civil wars, death and torture.”
Cheering for More War
It is extremely difficult to find a good policy pursued by Donald Trump. His administration is chock-full of Goldman Sachs plutocrats, and he is detaining and deporting huge numbers of immigrants, making life hell for Muslims (both here and abroad) and dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency at breakneck speed.
Yet in the atypical moments when the Trump administration takes a break from escalating war and instead tries to rein military operations in a bit, corporate media harshly condemn it—frequently with Cold War–esque fearmongering about the Russian bear.
In fact, it is only when Trump escalates military aggression abroad that he is lauded and lionized (FAIR.org, 4/7/17, 4/11/17)—even by a liberal so-called “Resistance” that has elevated US intelligence agencies with long histories of coups to the status of heroes.
On Twitter, Trump lashed out at “The Amazon Washington Post“—a reference to the Post‘s billionaire owner, Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of corporate online giant Amazon (which also happens to have a $600 million CIA contract). “The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad,” Trump wrote.
He was immediately swamped with accusations that he was coddling a bloodthirsty cartoon villain dictator on behalf of the Kremlin.
These histrionic lamentations for a catastrophic CIA operation that fueled Al Qaeda may perhaps come as no surprise, nevertheless, when one considers bloviating New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (4/12/17), just a few weeks ago, outlandishly proposed that the US should openly support the genocidal ISIS in order to weaken the Syrian government and its allies Iran, Russia and Hezbollah (FAIR.org, 4/13/17).
Meanwhile, mere days after the US announced it was halting its CIA program, the rebranded Syrian Al Qaeda–led rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham—some of whose members were previously “moderate” groups vetted and armed with anti-tank missiles by the CIA—solidified its control over Idlib, the last remaining rebel-held province in Syria.