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AUSTIN, Texas — Western weapons and equipment flow freely between the so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria and their close allies from extremist groups like al-Qaida, according to an investigation from a BBC reporter.
In a Dec. 17 episode of the BBC Radio series “The Report,” investigative journalist Peter Oborne documented disturbing evidence that the United Kingdom and United States continue to support the the Syrian opposition, particularly the Free Syrian Army, despite ample evidence that they work closely with extremist groups NATO has traditionally thought of as enemies.
Oborne reported that at least two Westerners who were accused of aiding extremist groups in the region, found their charges rapidly dropped when they argued that by seeking to destabilize Syria and depose its president, Bashar Assad, they’d fought on the same side as the U.K.
He also explained how the U.S. has aided al-Qaida’s efforts to “rebrand” its Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, as a moderate group able to be safely financed and “managed” by the U.S.
As Oborne noted, government officials as high-ranking as the vice president have admitted that ”[t]he United States and al-Qaida are on the same side, at least when it comes to fighting Assad.”
Western aid becomes ‘a sort of Wal-Mart’ for extremists
To explain how Western military weapons and equipment end up in the hands of extremist groups in Syria, Oborne invoked the origins of al-Qaida in the 1989 invasion of Afghanistan by Russia, and the Afghan rebel groups and foreign “mujahideen” fighters from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, who were secretly backed by the West.
“What we saw in Afghanistan 30 years ago was that the West didn’t directly arm the extremist groups, some of which were to become al-Qaida,” Alastair Crooke, a British diplomat and former intelligence analyst for MI6, the U.K.’s primary foreign intelligence agency, told Oborne.
Rather than directly supplying weapons to these rebels, Crooke explained, “They used the Pakistani intelligence service, and also the Saudi Arabian intelligence service.”
He recalled that when he complained to U.S. intelligence agents about the nature of their allies, they agreed, retorting: “Well, yes, Alastair, but these groups you’re complaining about sure kick Communist ass.”
Of course, after repelling Russia from Afghanistan, these rebel groups turned on the West and became al-Qaida, a source of multiple devastating terrorist attacks, including those carried out by former leader Osama bin Laden.
With Western military aid once again flowing from those labeled “moderate” rebels and into the hands of extremists, Crooke said he sees history repeating itself: “I said at the beginning of what’s happening in Syria that this is going to be worse. We’re going to do exactly the same thing and that is exactly what’s happened.”
“The West does not actually hand the weapons to al-Qaida — let alone to ISIS,” Crooke continued. “But the system they’ve constructed leads precisely to that end.”
“The weapons conduit that the West gave to the FSA is understood to be a sort of Wal-Mart that the radical groups can take weapons and use to fight Assad. The weapons migrate along the line to the more radical elements.”
Aid to rebels leaves UK government repeatedly ‘embarrassed’ in court
To corroborate these claims, Oborne examined the case of Bherlin Gildo, a Swedish national who had traveled to join Syrian rebels during the battle for Aleppo that began in 2012. He was arrested in the U.K. in October 2014 and charged with attending terrorist training camps and possessing terrorist intelligence.
As Richard Norton-Taylor noted in The Guardian in June 2015, the prosecution’s case “collapsed … after it became clear Britain’s security and intelligence agencies would have been deeply embarrassed had a trial gone ahead.”
“His lawyers argued that British intelligence agencies were supporting the same Syrian opposition groups as he was, and were party to a secret operation providing weapons and non-lethal help to the groups, including the Free Syrian Army,” Norton-Taylor continued.
Speaking to Oborne, Gareth Peirce, Gildo’s legal counsel, further detailed what Gildo saw in Syria:
Mr. Gildo’s own observation is that there’d be trucks coming in, people referred to them as NATO trucks, coming in from Turkey. The Free Syrian Army would unload them and ask for assistance in unloading. And the weapons would be handed out generally, without any specificity as to the exact recipient.
Gildo’s legal team argued in court that to prosecute Gildo was “abusive” because both he and the U.K. government were fighting to topple Assad.
Publicly, the British government stated it was only supplying rebels with “non-lethal” aid like armored vehicles. Gildo’s charges were dropped when his counsel began pushing for evidence disclosure that would have suggested the government had supplied “far more,” Oborne suggested.
In a strikingly similar case, Moazzam Begg, who had previously been imprisoned by the U.S. government at the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, was arrested again in 2014. Despite assurances he’d received from British security services that he could travel abroad unimpeded, he faced seven charges related to aiding terrorists in Syria.
Begg insisted he had traveled to Syria only to organize medical training to be used to defend the civilian population. His charges were dropped in October 2014 after it became clear that, as Oborne described it, “If he was guilty of terrorism, so was the British state.”
The journalist emphasized:
The British could not have been unaware that they are sending non-lethal aid to the FSA, who are clearly collaborating and sharing resources with the various Islamist groups, there can be no doubt about that.
In December 2013, U.S. and U.K. aid to the FSA was temporarily halted in the wake of reports that extremist groups were seizing “moderate” bases and equipment warehouses.
Moderate rebels ‘integrate themselves operationally’ with al-Qaida during battles
Robert Ford was the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014 before retiring from politics. Since then, he’s been outspoken in his criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, including several statements in which he’s admitted that the ”moderate” rebels the U.S. supports are actually allied with al-Qaida and Syrian groups affiliated with Daesh (an Arabic acronym for the group commonly known as ISIS or ISIL).
He told Oborne that even though the FSA turned into an equipment pipeline for jihadi groups, “that doesn’t mean it was a deliberate policy.”
He recalled being dismayed by intelligence reports showing the collaboration in the days before his retirement:
We were very unhappy when one of the commanders of the Free Syrian Army, a colonel I had met, appeared in a picture standing next to a jihadi commander, after they all fought together in a coordinated operation that took a Syrian air base in northwestern Syria.
But the FSA commander told Ford, “it’s not your business” because his group had no choice but to ally with groups like the Nusra Front due to the lack of aid from the U.S.
Despite the evidence of collaboration and the repeated failure of rebel groups both to topple the Assad regime and to resist the temptation to defect to extremism, the U.S. and U.K. continued to pursue policies of aiding rebels. In August, after spending millions on training, the U.S. had only produced a few dozen rebel fighters, who almost immediately scattered when they encountered hostility from the Nusra Front. In a separate September incident, another group of U.S.-backed rebels gave a quarter of their equipment to the al-Qaida affiliate before scattering or defecting.
“Schemes for training moderate rebels have a habit of going wrong, and never more so than when the CIA is involved,” Oborne reported.
Charles Lister, a researcher for the Brookings Institution who has personally interviewed over 100 Syrian rebels, told Oborne that the FSA is just the latest in a series of rebel groups supported by the U.S. and its allies.
For example, Lister explained that the U.S. supported the Syria Revolutionaries Front from late 2013 until “they were wholeheartedly militarily defeated by Al-Nusra” in July 2014. Dozens defected to the Nusra Front, while the remainder fled into the Syrian countryside, allowing the al-Qaida affiliate to collect their equipment.
Oborne noted that some “CIA-supported groups have been more successful” at resisting al-Qaida ”while others fought alongside them.”
In March 2015, the “The Army of Conquest,” a coalition led by the Nusra Front, captured the city of Idlib from Syrian government forces. According to Lister, during the battle the FSA received an order from a Turkish military control room that’s supported by the West to “integrate themselves operationally in Idlib” with al-Qaida.
In other words, these “moderate” rebels fought side-by-side with the Nusra Front in combat, as if they were one force, and they did so under direct orders from the allies of the West.
‘Our biggest problem is our allies’
In October 2014, Vice President Joe Biden openly admitted that military aid had gone to extremist groups in the name of toppling the Assad government. However, he drew widespread criticism because he tried to shift the blame from the U.S. to Washington’s Middle Eastern allies.
“Our biggest problem is our allies,” he told an audience at the Harvard Kennedy School, continuing:
The Turks … The Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war. What did they do?
They poured hundreds and millions of dollars and tens and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra [the Nusra Front] and al-Qaida and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world. Now you think I’m exaggerating. Take a look –
Although Biden soon called to personally apologize to the leaders of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, Oborne noted that “his words have gone global” and exposed the extreme measures the West and its allies are willing to take to bring about regime change in Syria.
“Biden’s apology hides the truth,” wrote Turkish journalist Tulin Daloglu in an Oct. 6, 2014 analysis for Middle Eastern news source al-Monitor, adding that he’d only apologized “to keep Turkey as part of the coalition.”
As it became clear that only extremist groups like the Nusra Front have a hope of defeating Assad, the U.S. and U.K. began working with the group to make it appear more mainstream and less extreme.
“Increasingly now, there appears to be a recognition that al-Nusra is not your typical al-Qaida affiliate,” Lister told Oborne. “Al-Nusra can be dealt with. … They are someone we can try and manage.”
While Osama bin Laden had to communicate by smuggled videotapes, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the leader of the Nusra Front, “is becoming an accomplished media performer” and holding press conferences, according to Oborne. In Arabic-language interviews with Al-Jazeera that the journalist quoted, the leader of the Nusra Front even promised not to use Syria as a base for international jihad after defeating Assad.
“The Syrian branch of al-Qaida remains a murderous organization, but it is trying to present a human face,” Oborne said.
Lister agreed, noting that the Nusra Front is playing “a very long game — presenting themselves as support to a repressed community.” Oborne added that one translation of the group’s name is “support front,” a reflection of its attempt to appear as kinder, gentler extremists.
Just as bin Laden made allies among the civilian populace by building roads in Pakistan, Oborne reported that the Nusra Front made friends by taking over Aleppo’s bakeries and cutting prices in half. By contrast, the FSA had habitually taken most of the bakeries’ product for its soldiers.
While Oborne said his investigation found “no evidence that Britain or America is deliberately supporting al-Qaida, war notoriously creates strange bedfellows.”
Still, as Oborne noted, the civil war in Syria is widely considered a proxy war between many factions, including Saudi Arabia and Russia, and Russia and the U.S. It’s also viewed as a conflict that’s heavily fueled by Saudi Arabia’s support for jihadis. Despite supporting terrorist movements both financially and via the promotion ofWahhabism, an extreme form of Islam, the Gulf kingdom remains a key ally that purchases billions in weapons from the U.S. and the U.K. every year.
Ultimately, Oborne concluded: “Anyone who knows their history shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that Britain and the West have ended up on the same side as the jihadis.”