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Syria takes the heat for the cold war

Western nations largely support regime change in Syria but haven’t the will to do it. That is understandable because Iraq, Afghanistan, and more recently, Libya have all turned out disastrous, following Western-sponsored regime change. Each mission has contributed to the illicit proliferation of arms and given rise to new heights of terrorism in Syria. A history of jihad by proxy between Eastern and Western powers is extensive. 

Jihad refers to an existential conflict with the Self as it stands against the image of God. For fundamentalists and Islamist militant recruiters, jihad is justified violence against non-believers. Jihad has become a household brand and runs parallel to the word “terrorism,” implicating Islam as the defining factor of terror. But if you look closely, the ones defining that word are governments. They are not impartial; it is subjective, and this brand of jihad was effectively developed by the CIA to fight the war against communism.

The fiery world inside Syria is fueled by cold political calculus outside of it. President Assad has withstood extreme violence for five years, keeping his government together while his nation falls apart. He is accused of unleashing force without provocation, with great intensity, retaliation, and committing war crimes. He’s exhausted his economy and his military would have no chance were he not propped up by Russia and Iran.

The Eastern power bloc supports the Syrian regime with a vested interest in keeping their geopolitical position. Iran, in the midst of nuclear negotiations, covertly defended Assad as the civil war raged. With Russia at the ready to protect them both, a Western regime change mission may be the catalyst for World War III. Many say that the US and Russia have entered a new kind of Cold War.

They bomb whatever militants they want to in Syria, in order to fight each other, and to kill the monsters they created.

The long and winding road of the original Cold War led Presidents Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Barack Obama to where they are today, fighting each other in Syria, together. All nations with a bomb in Syria claim they are fighting The Islamic State — now commonly referred to as Daesh — but in practice, they are not. Looking deeply into the Syrian crisis sets a colorful wheel of contradiction in motion and reveals a tapestry of stories that are too easily forgotten.

The “Cold War” is truly a PR term. Beneath the surface-to-air missiles and nuclear-ready rockets that never launched, for decades a savage war was waged by proxy in the third world. Russia continued to expand while the US invaded communist governments wherever they turned up: Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan, to name only a few Asian examples.

I’ve been struck by the fact that military support for rebel groups in the third world whose political goals are convenient to this or that military has long been a favored practice throughout the first world. It is called a covert war, or a proxy war, where “boots on the ground” do not belong to any military. Often these forces are referred to as rebels, fighters, guerillas and jihadists. The nature of thier organization basically allows them to commit war crimes. The result of this practice is that jihadists have earned tremendous power.

Military weapons are bought and transferred to war zones covertly utilizing government intelligence networks. The West has delivered an unfathomable number of weapons directly and indirectly into the hands of jihadists. The US has covertly sponsored Osama Bin Laden, branding jihadism in Afghanistan to fight communism during Soviet occupation.

As the Syrian crisis gets more convoluted with more and more air forces supporting all sides of the conflict, the story is revealing itself, and now the world’s most powerful nations overtly support their preferred factions in a complex, accidentally transparent proxy war. They bomb whatever militants they want to in Syria, in order to fight each other, and to kill the monsters they created.

Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Osama Bin Laden

Osama bin Laden, Jalalabad region of Afghanistan in 1978. Picture: Telegraph/Sipa Press/Rex Features
Osama bin Laden, Jalalabad region of Afghanistan in 1978. Picture: Telegraph/Sipa Press/Rex Features

Osama Bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, the mythic conspirator of the September 11 terror attacks, did not start his career fighting America; America started his career. The elite, wealthy Saudi engineering student became a leading figure in the armed Mujahedeen movement, in Pakistan. His recruitment skills and leadership were instrumental in fighting a Soviet-backed, socialist Democratic Republic in Afghanistan, from 1979 through the 80’s.

The American strategy was to politicize Islam and militarize extremists in the Middle East, so as to defeat communism. Religious ideology always counters communism — guns would finish the work. The Mujahedeen enjoyed covert arms transfers, interagency intelligence, training, and financing from the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Politicizing Sunni-Islam would benefit all the proxy players, riling up men to counter Iran’s new Shia government.

Covert operations began with the Carter Administration and ramped up under Reagan and Bush. The Mujahedeen built tremendous skill and might, strategically defeating the USSR, repelling its forces from Afghanistan in 1988. Osama Bin Laden would form and govern al-Qaida that year.

Osama Bin Laden did not start his career fighting America; America started his career.

The socialist Afghan government struggled to defend itself without a Soviet military. Its leadership sought political recourse with the terrorists, but soon fell with the Soviet Union in 1992, into economic ruin, and the nation descended into chaos. No definite government would form for years — that government became The Taliban in 1996. Bin Laden continued recruiting and training jihadists. His fighters relocated to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Sudan mostly, while some remained in Afghanistan.

Russia would lose its Middle East territory, struggling to rebuild its imperial ambitions, especially under leadership from Vladimir Putin. Defeating jihadist elements in Chechnya (1999-2000) for example, was a major victory, in part because he aligned with certain militant factions. Russia may not back militants as vigorously as the US has, historically, but it has developed a new set of guerrilla tactics, as demonstrated in the recent occupation of Ukraine and Crimea.

Bin Laden continued to amass wealth as a legitimate businessman, funding al-Qaida. He was employed by a British firm, Hunting Aerosurveys Ltd, involved with oil prospecting in Sudan. In the mid-nineties, he employed jihadist fighters as laborers in his many construction projects in Sudan. He turned his anger toward American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, forcing a reduction by demanding their complete removal, staging terror attacks. Because Bin Laden was a Saudi national threatening an important relationship with the US, Saudi King Fahd revoked Bin Laden’s citizenship in 1994 and persuaded his family to cut off his $7M annual allowance.

In 1995, he sponsored an assassination attempt on Egyptian President Mubarak. His jihadist activities got him in increasing trouble with Sudan. President Clinton ignored Sudanese requests to share intelligence, rather, he labelled the nation an international sponsor of terrorism and refused to listen. Bin Laden was expelled from Sudan, his riches vastly confiscated, and relocated to Jalalabad, Afghanistan in 1996. He had nothing left to do beyond full-time jihad.

The Taliban would come to power in Afghanistan that same year. When Bin Laden claimed responsibility for 9/11 through al-Qaida, the second President Bush would first target Afghanistan. He may have really understood that the US created this monster and sought to eliminate him.

Another monster produced by the US needed to be removed soon: Saddam Hussein.

Iraq, Iran, and the weapons of jihad

Shaking Hands: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein greets Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Ronald Reagan, in Baghdad on December 20, 1983.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein greets Donald Rumsfeld in Baghdad on December 20, 1983.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution was a popular uprising that swept away the US-backed government, commonly referred to as The Shah. It was replaced with the Shia-rooted Islamic Republic of Iran. That same year, Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-rooted Ba’ath Party took formal control of Iraq, ruling over a Shia majority populous. Iraq prompted the first Gulf War by invading Iran, on September 22, 1980, embroiling itself in border disputes for eight years.

Iraq and Iran used marginalized populations in one another’s countries against each other, fighting a conventional and proxy war simultaneously. Kurdish and Shia militias protected Iran, as they were the usual targets of repression from Saddam. Fighting for a democratic government in Iran since the 1960’s, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq rebels aligned with Iraq.

This period marked tremendous military build-up in Iraq. Western financing and weapons helped maintain Iraq’s posture, but 65% of the weapons were Russian or Chinese. The US had long since lost favor with the Iranian people, for backing The Shah, and the revolutionary government has not since stopped preaching on the evils of America. This was a major economic and geo-strategic loss for the West, but especially for the US and UK.

Iraq offered a proxy to destabilize Iran, and held an impressive conventional arsenal as one of the top weapons importers in the world. Saddam wanted to produce and export his own weapons, however, forging relationships where possible, and rapidly built atrocious chemical weapons with support from the US, UK, Germany, and early in development, with Soviet Russia. Iraq, in five years, would begin routine massacres, killings tens of thousands of civilians until 1990. The whimpering condemnation of the US fell quietly while reestablishing formal diplomatic relations to Iraq.

The wheel of contradiction turns with the Iran-Contra Affair, in the mid-eighties. It was an arms deal with Israel meant for Iran, to free American hostages held by Iran. Cash from the deal, providing arms to Iran via Israel, was to at once provide support for Nicaraguan Contra terrorists, which involved cocaine smuggling, with the purpose of destabilizing the socialist government. This was all covert and very illegal. Apparently, President Reagan was unaware of the CIA-devised plan, but he supported the Contras, and Vice President Bush was most likely an architect of the plan.

Iran held its ground, made few allies but managed to keep its revolutionary government together until both sides accepted a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1988. Iraq’s mutual exhaustion offered brief reprieve in the region. Not until the fall of the USSR and its subsequent democratization could Russia form a strong alliance with Iran. Now, under Vladimir Putin, the allies appear as firm as necessary to counter the US and Saudi Arabia.

The second Gulf War broke out when US coalition forces defended Kuwait following an Iraqi invasion. Kuwait had been provoking Iraq with economic warfare, by oversupplying the oil market throughout the 1988 oil glut. Iraq’s revenue loss didn’t help with a $14B loan from Kuwait, about 17% of their total war debt. In 1990, Saddam accused Kuwait of slant-drilling across their borders and invaded, which was likely true. President Bush rallied a broad coalition of forces to defend Kuwait, quickly repelling and degrading Iraq. American forces would remain installed in Saudi Arabia well into the nineties, causing grievance for Bin Laden.

Photo from "The Secret Casualties of Iraq's Abandoned Chemical Weapons" // The New York Times
Photo from “The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons” // The New York Times

During the second Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of chemical weapons were buried in the sand. In the following ten years, he had been all but disarmed. Twelve years later, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq led to the rediscovery of chemical stockpiles, and there was a widespread cover up, because they weren’t the stockpiles President Bush wanted to discover. The ones he wanted to discover just didn’t exist. The ones we weren’t supposed to know about surprised the soldiers whose health battles would become more lethal than their reconnaissance work. US officials would deny their exposures to mustard gas and nerve agents.

American weapons continued pouring in by the hundreds of thousands, year after year, and the vast majority went unaccounted for.

It is uncertain how many aging chemical stockpiles remain underground, or how many more were discovered — as well as their effectiveness — but it has been speculated fairly that Islamic State recovered some of them. In the least, shells can be used for IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices).

Instability wreaked havoc on US reconstruction efforts after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. Al-Qaida organized against US occupation, as did The Islamic State of Iraq. Iran supported Shia militias while Kurdish forces held their ground. Unemployed Iraqi soldiers joined militias, carrying weapons with them. Continuously fighting incursions, American troops had extraordinary difficulty establishing security. American weapons continued pouring in by the hundreds of thousands, year after year, and the vast majority went unaccounted for.

Years of mismanagement and corruption within the new government allowed for weapons disbursements to be determined by the boots on the ground. Accounting measures required by Congress (much too late) in 2008, for arms transfers to Iraq were relieved in 2014, specifically when rampant defections and desertions by new Iraqi security forces allowed Daesh to acquire extraordinary firepower.

Iraqi troops, in late 2015, started making headway against Daesh. The liberation of Ramadi in December was a tremendous victory, and may mark the beginning of the total expulsion of Daesh from their first stronghold: the Anbar Province.

It is worth noting that Iraq’s forces are typically referred to in the news as a traditional army, but it has become a mix of Shia militias, Kurdish forces, and nationalist Sunni militias. So when massive shipments of weapons go to Iraq’s security forces, they end up in the hands of militants, and the accounting procedures are still relaxed. It is assumed that copious weapons will continue to be shipped there, for years.

Syria and the world proxy war

Syria Blobby Control Map 22 DEC 15_2
Syrian War territorial map by the Institute for the Study of War.

Defecting Syrian regime officers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), on the basis of refusing to target peaceful protesters, in 2011. They were the first dominant militia in defense of the Syrian uprising. It is widely believed that Assad ordered security forces to open fire unprovoked. Civil war waged and has continued against the regime since. Chaos in Syria ensued as Assad increased pressure, and various jihadist movements elbowed into the revolution, including al-Nusra and Islamic State in Syria. Both were under al-Qaida leadership at the time.

While the FSA initiated the armed resistance, with US-backing, they were soon vastly outnumbered. The FSA is grounded by nationalism and military roots, relies mostly on disaffected Syrians for recruitment, and maintains a political relationship with the West. Daesh flies high on sectarian conflict, recruits non-Syrians rampantly, and desires to destroy the West. There are lots of jihadists fighting for numerous reasons. Assad views nationalist rebels alongside jihadist fighters as a single foe. Assad brands his bombing campaign much like the US, as a war against terrorism.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar have been the dominant players in the proxy war, initially with the aim of bringing down the regime, to install an Iran-maligned government. Most of the Syrian rebels would be opposed to a relationship with Iran. Turkey hosts the most refugees, including the future politicians of a democratic Syria. Turkey also hosts rebel training camps in partnership with the CIA.

Iran uses a proxy called Hezbollah, a Shia political party and militia in Lebanon. When Assad’s armies were falling apart in the beginning, they covertly joined the fight, along with Iranian advisors. By late 2012, their involvement was widely known, and became overt support. Today, they mostly defend Syria’s Lebanese border territories.

The US has armed all sides of the conflict indirectly, but overt support has been to the “moderate rebels” such as FSA and Kurdish forces. The FSA lost US-trained rebels and weapons to jihadists in large numbers from 2012-2014. With a period of regrouping and Obama’s additional pledge for support in 2014, the FSA partnered with other rebels to regain territory against Assad, while fighting Daesh. The fall of Damascus looked imminent this summer. Then Russia joined the air campaign on September 29, 2015.

Assad is a terrorist, and twelve million refugees are an indictment against his leadership.

Russia came out lockstep with Assad, claiming that they could not differentiate between terrorists and moderate elements. Iran and Russia deployed additional troops through Russia’s military base. Their bombardment of US-backed rebel targets allowed the regime to regain territory, while allowing Daesh to persist.

The West views Assad as the problem in Syria, largely because he didn’t step down, still refuses to step down, and still targets anyone against his regime, with extreme force. He uses indiscriminate weapons like barrel bombs, targeting civilians. Assad is a terrorist. The security vacuum his government has produced cannot remedy this crisis, and twelve million refugees are an indictment against his leadership.

The most successful challenger to Daesh are the Kurdish Protection Units, backed up by US-led airstrikes. The Kurds have been a long-oppressed minority culture in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Kurdish forces have been willing to work with any government that will give them weapons and tolerate their culture, so that they can continue to fight for independence. They are chiefly aimed at maintaining Kurdish populations, considering themselves a government in exile.

Turkey has been accused of aiding Daesh with the aim of suppressing the Kurds and toppling Assad. President Erdogan has a popular reputation in Turkey of suppressing his adversaries. In the last few years, he has limited the free press, dragged feet joining the US-led coalition, and when they finally agreed to launch airstrikes against Daesh, most of their targets were actually in Kurdish territory. In November, Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft which landed in Daesh territory at Turkish borders, causing a deep rift. It was taken personally by President Putin.

Revolution is the door for jihad.

Daesh is the result of decades of violent revolutions and careless wars sponsored by world powers. Jihadists were never expected to develop the political will to start an Islamic State. They were supposed to work by proxy and retire when no longer needed by their sponsors. But that sure seems presumptuous, if not plain stupid; a stupidity of false assumptions against their intelligence.

Daesh is now the enemy of everyone’s enemy, yet they are the most effective at recruitment and propaganda, so their numbers don’t seem to diminish after thousands of air strikes against them. All they need to expand is a nation in the process of political revolution, and to insert themselves within it. As a religious movement, it defies the fear of death. As if for every militant killed in battle, two are born to replace them.

Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush set out to end communism and created al-Qaida. President Bush waged war on terror, inflaming it. President Obama sought to dismantle al-Qaida, but the offshoot is even more dangerous. The next President will be elected into a much messier mess than ever.

If the next approach is violent, if the next plan is to arm rebels, jihad will continue to grow. It will take a coalition of leaders, not fighter jets, to redirect jihad inwardly. Inward jihad for Americans means an honest look at our violence, to stop sending weapons into dangerous territory, to allow the flame to be extinguished.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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