Grinding towards peace in the Middle East as America looks inward - III
by Omar Kassem on 10 Feb 2017 0 Comment

Baathist officers, Syrian intelligence and the creation of ISIS


The lone isolation of ISIS from all the other rebel groups in Syria has always been a mystery. An insight was gained into this mystery from Hassan Abboud, leader of Ahrar al-Sham. Just prior to being blown up in his own quarters in September 2014, along with his entourage, he maintained in an interview, that Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki had received orders from Suleimani to withdraw from Mosul to allow an ISIS take-over. He was convinced of the close relationship between Suleimani, Assad and ISIS.


While ISIS, he said, fought his own group constantly, and sowed division amongst all the rebel forces, it never fought Assad’s forces and appeared ‘to spend a great deal of leisure time with limitless resources and funds’. It had, in fact, been well-funded even before taking over Syria’s oil and gas fields.


Abboud’s story is backed up by reports of strong links between the ISIS leader in Aleppo, Amr Abu Atheer al-Absi, and Baathist officer Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi. Al-Khlifawi had not only been al-Baghdadi’s delegate in Syria, responsible for setting up Jabhat al-Nusra in the first place, but had also developed strong links with Syrian intelligence.


The infiltration of Syria’s rebel forces by Assad’s intelligence services is evidenced by a particular sequence of events in 2012. Zahran Alloush was responsible for organising a massive bombing at the heart of Assad’s security establishment on 18th July 2012 as part of an all-out rebel attack called the ‘Damascus Volcano’ (at the time when Jaysh al-Islam was operating under the name of Liwa al-Islam).

Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz (Bandar), on behalf of the Saudi régime, masterminded Operation Damascus Volcano. The Assad régime retaliated soon after, on July 26th, in the heart of the Saudi capital, at the offices of the Intelligence Services, although subsequent reports of Bandar’s death were premature. Nevertheless, this was a testament to the long arm of Assad’s intelligence apparatus and its dissimulation within the rebel network.


Another illuminating comment made by Abboud in his final interview, was that the UAE was funding ISIS. Saudi Arabia and Qatar might have been backing Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar el-Sham, and Jaysh al-Islam, but the UAE was systematically backing Assad’s interests.


The UAE, the Yemen imbroglio and the Egyptian morass


Yemen, like Afghanistan, is a graveyard of invaders. Part of the reason for Saudi acquiescence to the Russo-Turkish plan may have been the need to cooperate in the oil markets, but war weariness resulting from endless military action in Yemen is also behind this. And here is to be found the strange tale of the UAE, and its leader Mohamed bin Zayed (MbZ).


MbZ runs a police state almost out of science fiction, which has followed a systematic counterrevolutionary policy against Muslim Brotherhood political parties throughout the region. He funded the military coup in Egypt, planning a complete takeover of the country, and then pursued similar goals in Libya and Tunisia. He was opposed to pro-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Assad Qatari and Turkish policy in Syria, and pursued antagonistic policies accordingly.


MbZ had co-opted the Saudi King Abdullah as part of his plan for Egypt through the intermediary of his agent in Riyadh, Khalid al-Tuwaijri, secretary to the Royal Court at the time (and effectively Prime Minister). However, part of the plan that MbZ had hatched with al-Tuwaijri involved a change to his advantage in the line of succession to the Saudi throne. When that plot failed, al-Tuwaijri was arrested by the new incumbent, King Salman, whose son Mohamed bin Salman (MbS) became Deputy Crown Prince, secretary to the Royal Court, Defence Minister, and economic supremo, all at once.


Strangely, MbZ’s relationship with the all-powerful MbS survived. But it did so largely by MbZ agreeing to join MbS’s signature war in Yemen. This was launched in part to consolidate MbS’s control, not just over the Saudi army which he controlled nominally anyway, but also over the equally powerful Saudi National Guard, which was effectively controlled by Mutaib bin Abdullah, the son of the deceased King, and the very person who was frustrated by MbS’s advent to power. His overall command of the new war enabled this assertion of power.


What is rarely reported about the disastrous and vicious war in Yemen, however, is the fact that the Houthi takeover, achieved with the aid of the deposed dictator Ali Abdulla al-Saleh, and prompting the action by Saudi Arabia, had not originally been an Iranian conspiracy. It had been backed and funded by MbZ and the UAE from the start. Furthermore, what has never been reported outside of the Arabic press is that, despite the UAE’s apparent alliance with Saudi Arabia in the Yemeni campaign, the Houthis and Saleh continue to maintain, even now, that they have MbZ’s support and that of the UAE.


The outcome of the interminable Yemen imbroglio is a much weakened Saudi Arabia, hemorrhaging both money and credibility in the region. The reluctance of Saudis to go beyond treating the war like a video game air war, using illegal munitions out of frustration, dooms the whole enterprise. Furthermore, the mean and nasty starvation tactics being used are uniting a hardy nation against them, rolling back any early advantages they might have had. Nothing expresses the collapse of Saudi Arabia’s role in the region better than Rafik Hariri’s son, Saad, turning his back on the kingdom in favour of the Hezbullah nominee for the presidency of Lebanon.


MbZ’s adventures have also cost the UAE dearly as, besides the mounting cost of its various wars and counterrevolutionary commitments around the Arab World, its commitment to Egypt continues to drain its reserves without an end in sight, as the country’s economy collapses. When the Egyptian people are going to erupt again is anybody’s guess, but when they do the UAE will pay a heavy price.


Iranian victory, Sunni-Shi’a divide, and future of the Astana process


Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, recently declared a decisive victory in the Great US-Iranian War. Iran’s only condition for backing the Astana talks was a demand to exclude the US. The Islamic Republic achieved almost everything it wanted from the Syrian War. Specifically, the land link with the Shi’a community of Lebanon was secured through the ruthless pursuit of demographic change in Syrian areas along the Lebanese border unprecedented in its scope, which has involved the settlement of new Iraqi and Afghan Shi’a communities in ethnically cleansed areas.


Previous Turkish outrage against this hideous policy is now suspended in favour of an acceptance of facts on the ground. In return, after months of anti-Turkish rhetoric about Turkish forces in Northern Iraq, Iraqi President Haidar al-Abadi suddenly adopted a more co-operative tone. Also significant was Abadi’s declaration rejecting the presence of the Kurdish PKK in Iraq. This signals an Iranian about turn in its long-standing support of the PKK operations in the Qandil Mountains. Little is reported about Iran’s historic role exacerbating the problems that have weighed against solving ‘Kurdish problem’ through the Turkish ‘Democratic Opening’. The Islamic Republic always sought to avoid facing calls for more political representation from Iranian Kurds.


The consolidation of the relationship between Barzani’s Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) and Turkey over recent years, now leads Iran to seek Turkish guarantees that Barzani ceases his support for the Iranian opposition Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI).


So the tensions at the start of the Astana process have not between Turkey and Iran, but rather between Russia and Iran, especially in regard to the behaviour of Shi’a militias over NGO access to areas needing aid, subsequent to the UNSC resolution.


It is especially galling to Russian policy-makers that in having helped Iran to rescue Assad, they are currently being associated with a regional Shi’a project. Not only do they have to face public opinion in the Sunni Arab street, but also among the Sunni, mainly Tatar, populations within Russia, as well as in its (mostly) Sunni neighbours in Central Asia. Russian spokesmen are working hard to remedy this situation, and it is instructive that, in this regard, the first action Russia took in Aleppo was to deploy Chechen (Sunni) military police.


Ultimately though, Russian calls for compliance under the terms of the new ceasefire violation commission will be heeded by Iran.  Russia is a crucial guarantor of the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), which is important at a time when opposition of the US Congress to the deal is reinforced by a new Trump administration sharply antipathetic towards Iran. It is important that under the new state of affairs, Russia’s guarantee is no longer just political, but military. Russian S-400 and S-300 installations at Khmeimim airbase, the fast expanding Tartus Naval Base near Latakia, and the naval fire-power based in the Caspian,  provide the basic structure for a security architecture for the Middle East, in which Iran can now participate.


The Obama legacy and the prospective role of the US in the Middle East


As Obama was being elected, Inderjeet Parmar wrote about what he called “terror war liberal interventionism”, which he saw as a twenty-first century variant of “Cold War liberalism”, along the lines of Arthur Schlesinger’s The Vital Center. A fusion existed between liberal interventionists, conservative nationalists and neocons which, he said, meant that ‘... Obama’s early opposition to the Iraq War, in late 2002, was... based on tactical, rather than principled, factors.’ Obama’s foreign policy wouldn’t be significantly different from Bush’s.


The new Obama administration would shun “boots on the ground”, but that didn’t mean that it wouldn’t pursue war by proxy. The inexplicable strength of the alliance with Saudi Arabia, the redaction of 28 pages in the 9/11 Commission report, the rise and rise of Bandar and his jihadi project (until the advent of the new King Salman), only makes sense if the desert kingdom was seen as an integral, rather than contingent, part of US global strategy. By at least 2009, Clinton was well aware of Saudi funding of terrorism. Clearly, she didn’t view that as a problem, but rather as a resource.


When Erdogan saw the need for a Syrian National Congress (SNC) as a political framework for military action in Syria, Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State had other ideas. At end October 2012, she branded the SNC as a waste of time and a ‘talking-shop’, because of her opposition to the Muslim Brothers. Bandar had shown his mettle in his handling of Operation Damascus Volcano only a few months before, and Clinton backed his promotion to Chief of Saudi Intelligence, right after his survival of the retaliatory assassination attempt by Assad’s men.


Syria wasn’t going to be a theatre for nascent democracy however difficult, if Clinton had her way, but for a despotic Islamic state along the lines of Saudi Arabia. Obama would excuse the nature of the new régime on the basis of US “security imperatives” as he did after the July 2013 military coup in Egypt. The new ruler of Syria could only be a chimera along the lines of Sisi in Egypt: a cross between a mullah and a general, controlled from Washington.


As it is, a new isolationist administration arrives in the US capital at a time that regional powers in the Middle East have managed to put together a credible system for stability in the region. The foreign policy fusion that Parmar described in 2009 has been shredded in the past few months, as national conservatives in the US begin to take account of new circumstances, resulting from the unexpected election of a leader who saw the opportunity of turning disparate popular discontent into a national movement.


Liberal interventionists and neocons have reacted in tandem with alarm at the developments. The Washington Beltway establishment remains in denial, even when accounting for the rise of this Trumpist movement as “Jacksonian” in character, it fails to fully recognise the full degree of the viciousness of the passing “Liberal Order”, mourning what it thinks was its “cosmopolitanism”, when the world actually suffered the onslaught for years of what was undoubtedly a “unilateralist” and “universalist” doctrine, one, on Mearsheimer’s view, ‘with teeth’.


Although the implications for US foreign policy of all of this are still very much in the air, the very confusion currently dogging the Beltway are isolationist in their effects, giving those nations that have managed extraordinarily to come together at Astana, the freedom to act, for the first time in a long time, according to their own lights.


The views expressed by the author are personal; he can be reached via his website


User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top