How U.S. Support for Syrian Rebels Drove the Refugee Crisis That Trump Has Capitalized On

News & Politics

President Donald Trump’s travel ban for seven Muslim-majority countries ignited an outpouring of protest and was ultimately shot down by the Ninth Circuit. But the fight is far from over. Trump plans to introduce a new travel ban, one that might actually stick. And he has a substantial base of support to rally for its ratification.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 49 percent of American adults either “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed with Trump’s ban versus 41 percent who opposed it. In other words, nearly half of the country has bought into Trump’s demagoguery about Muslims and refugees.

The predominant counter narrative to Trump’s ban, particularly the one adopted by the Democratic Party, has been self-serving and wholly inadequate.

With a Muslim refugee family standing beside him, a tearful Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) labeled Trump’s executive order “mean-spirited and un-American,” warning “it will only serve to embolden and inspire those around the world who will do us harm.” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) implored congress to “say to Donald Trump and to the world we will not turn our backs on lawful immigrants and refugees fleeing murderers.” And Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) warned that Trump’s policy will “alienate entire nations and their people, help our enemies spread propaganda about the United States, and aid radicals and violent extremists in their recruitment efforts.”

To be sure, these were important statements delivered amidst a precarious situation. But it’s not enough to highlight the importance of tolerance and the need to accept people fleeing violence.

Many of Trump’s most high-profile liberal opponents have failed to articulate to the American public the political and historical context behind the crisis. For Democrats like Schumer who have seldom met a military intervention they did not like, doing so might be inconvenient, as it would require reckoning with the way America’s destructive policies in the Middle East have fueled extremism.

The uncomfortable reality is that American wars of regime change in Iraq, Libya and Syria directly contributed to the growth of Al Qaeda and ISIS, sometimes intentionally, while spawning the worst refugee crisis since World War II. This comes on top of decades of U.S.-allied Gulf states funding the spread of Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s strain of Islam that has provided Salafi jihadist groups with a theo-political bedrock. 

The resulting flood of refugees into Europe combined with the gruesome bloodletting by groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda has fueled anti-Muslim hatred—helped in no small part by a well-funded Islamophobia industry that seeks to conflate the actions of extremist groups with Muslims everywhere—and galvanized reactionary forces across the West.

Donald Trump is a prime beneficiary of this blowback, as are far-right European figures like Marine le Pen in France, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Nigel Farage in the U.K., who divert attention from rising economic inequality by scapegoating refugees and fear mongering against Muslims. This type of fear-mongering animated Trump’s presidential bid and helped propel him to the top of the Republican ticket and into the White House.

If the U.S. continues on the same destructive path in the Middle East, future terrorist attacks are all but guaranteed, giving authoritarians like Trump the fodder they need to keep winning the security argument, further erode civil liberties and march the country further down the road toward civilizational war. Until Trump’s opponents reckon with the roots of the refugee crisis and America’s role in backing Salafi jihadists, there’s little chance of beating back the panic and hate he’s whipped up. It’s up to the left to shift the narrative and that begins with understanding the mayhem America ignited in Syria.

Who are Syrians fleeing?

The civil war in Syria, now in its sixth year, has been the primary driver of the refugee crisis. Around 11 million people, nearly half of Syria’s pre-war population, have been displaced by the conflict. While the majority fled to government-held areas of Syria, nearly 5 million left the country.

According to conventional wisdom, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is entirely to blame for the Syrian exodus. Foreign policy pundits have often argued that solving the refugee crisis requires the forced removal of the Syrian president. While the Syrian government has used overwhelming violence against areas occupied by insurgents, the reality of the refugee crisis is far more complicated and deeply implicates the U.S. Indeed, it was the U.S.-led project to forcibly weaken and unseat Assad that caused the refugee crisis to reach such epic proportions.

Max Abrahms, an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University and an outspoken critic of U.S. policy on Syria, co-authored a forthcoming study that examines Syrian refugees’ reasons for fleeing. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation, the study was carried out over several months and consists of in-depth interviews with hundreds of Syrian refugees traveling along a migrant route through the Balkans.

Abrahms emphasized that the study is not based on a representative sample because a such a  sample is impossible to obtain under the chaotic conditions of migration. However, “what makes this different than other projects is the geographic coverage,” explained Abrahms in an interview with AlterNet. “We spent months and months and months in all sorts of different migrant centers in Greece, Slovenia, Macedonia.”

“There really is a conventional wisdom that refugees are fleeing from Assad, that Assad is to blame for the refugee problem,” he said. “We polled the refugees and asked who they are fleeing from: is it Assad, the opposition or is it both? We found in all the different countries they went, Syrian refugees were much more likely to say they were fleeing from both,” he revealed. “They basically say that they are trying to flee from a civil war where there are really no safe sides and where none of the parties really represent them.”

Abrahms’s findings match my own experience inside Syria and in the region.

During a recent two-month reporting trip in Lebanon and Syria, I spoke to Syrian refugees of all backgrounds. Whether they were pro or anti-regime, internally displaced in Damascus, living in squalor in makeshift refugee camps in northern Lebanon, wealthy businessmen in Beirut, college students or poor children begging on the street, their reasons for fleeing were very similar.  

They fled Syria, they would say, because fighting broke out in their neighborhoods, bombs started falling on their towns, or because they feared bombs would start falling on their villages because insurgents had set up shop close by. Young men fled to avoid army conscription. Others left to find work because crippling U.S. and E.U. sanctions have destroyed economic opportunities in Syria.

A 12-year-old Syrian-Palestinian boy selling flowers in Beirut told me his family fled Yarmouk in 2012 because “the armies started fighting.” Which armies? I asked. “Too many armies. The Syrian army. The Free Syrian Army. Daesh. Take your pick,” he replied, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

A Syrian woman, 22, and her sister, 28, said they were visiting friends in Beirut when President Obama threatened to bomb the Syrian government after an alleged chemical weapons attack crossed his “red line” in 2013. The women have lived in Lebanon ever since, fearing that the U.S. would bomb Damascus, where their family lives.

Four large families living in a makeshift anti-regime refugee camp in northern Lebanon just outside of Akkar, packed up and left their homes in the outskirts of Homs in 2012 out of fear that the government would start bombing their village due to nearby fighting. While they blamed the government for the conflict, they added that they don’t care who wins at this point, they just want to return to their farming village because refugee life is a miserable existence.

None of the children in the camp can read except for the oldest, 12-year-old Jawaher, though she is way behind for her age. Those younger than her remember little if anything about the Syria they fled. Their parents can’t find work and are dependent on inadequate UNHCR aid that doesn’t always come through. They described life in Syria before the war as perfect and want things to go back to the way they were.

The common thread was that regardless of their political affiliations, refugees packed up and fled the instability and violence typical of war. And almost everyone, particularly those living in squalor, expressed their desire to return once the war is over.

America prolonged the bloodshed

“Civil wars have historically tended to end when one side has been able to demonstrate dominance over the other. The fact that the international community propped up the weaker side extended the conflict for years,” argues Abrahms.

“All of the countries that supported the opposition actually contributed to a lot of the misery in Syria by prolonging the war. Without that external support, Assad would have snuffed out the uprising within the first year. It’s really been upsetting and ironic because those who support the so-called rebels say they’re doing so in interest of Syrians,” he said.

Indeed, the war would have ended much sooner if not for the US and its allies pouring weapons into the country to reinforce a patchwork of disorganized rebel groups, many of whom had links to al Qaeda. Arming the rebels led to a war of attrition that ensured the carnage would continue.

John Kerry admitted as much in a leaked conversation with representatives of the Syrian opposition, who were demanding more weapons. The US had already sent an "extraordinary amount of arms,” Kerry told them, adding, "we can always throw a lot of weapons in but I don't think they are going to be good for you" because "everyone ups the ante … Russia puts in more, Iran puts in more; Hezbollah is there more and Nusra is more; and Saudi Arabia and Turkey put all their surrogate money in, and you all are destroyed.”

Kerry also told the opposition that the US watched ISIS grow and hoped to use it as leverage against Assad, until Russia spoiled the fun.

“We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, that Assad would then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him,” he said.

Kerry’s admission points to the more sinister side of US policy in Syria, that of empowering extremists to do their dirty work.

Outsourcing war to Al Qaeda

In written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June 2016, Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter IS, warned that “Nusra is now Al Qaeda’s largest formal affiliate in history.” According to U.S. intelligence officials, Jabhat al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syria franchise which has twice rebranded and now goes by Tahrir al Sham, has started plotting attacks against the US.

If Al Qaeda in Syria poses a genuine danger to the US, the U.S. government has only itself to blame.

Timber Sycamore, the covert CIA program to arm the so-called rebels, has been an unmitigated and not terribly surprising disaster. Weapons often made their way onto the black market and in some cases were used to kill Americans. In other cases, the armed groups used American weapons to kill each other. More alarmingly, the weapons regularly ended up in the hands of ISIS and Al Qaeda. US officials knew but apparently did not care.

The Obama administration was repeatedly warned as early as November 2011 that the armed opposition had been infiltrated by Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor to ISIS.

A classified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document circulated in August 2012 alerted the White House to the formation of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria and framed it as a desirable outcome to counter Iranian influence in Iraq. “This is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran),” said the report.

The DIA report also predicted the rise of ISIS, even forecasting the cities it would likely capture. The destabilization of Syria, said the report, “creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the Jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters. ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.”

These intelligence findings contradicted the accepted narrative about ISIS taking U.S. officials by surprise. As recently as December Obama told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that the ability of ISIS to “initiate major land offensives … was not on my intelligence radar screen.” As the DIA document demonstrates, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Moreover, the DIA document observed that AQI “supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning, both ideologically and through the media” and that “The Salafist, The Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”

In spite of all of this, the Obama administration repeatedly  ramped up and expanded its covert CIA program to arm and train what officials knew to be an extremist-driven insurgency to the tune of $1 billion-a-year, according to the Washington Post, all while spinning a tale about “moderate rebels” bravely battling an evil regime. US media outlets dutifully echoed this narrative even as their own reporters were kidnapped and ransomed by the rebels.

NBC News went so far as to falsely blame pro-Assad Shia militias for kidnapping and threatening to kill the star correspondent Richard Engel despite knowing that the kidnappers were Sunni insurgents from the Free Syrian Army.

As a result, the American public is largely unaware that their government effectively outsourced a war on Syria to a franchise of the international organization that claimed credit for the 9/11 attacks, and to its allies in the field.

It was not until late 2014, when ISIS started beheading westerners on video, that the group became a major concern for the US. Prior to that, U.S. officials were so focused on weakening Assad, they looked the other way as US allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar funded and armed ISIS, as Hillary Clinton has acknowledged.

Our Saudi friends

Much like the CIA’s covert operation to support the Afghan rebels during the 1980’s, arming the Syrian rebels was made possible by funding and political guidance from Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s state religion, Wahhabism, a puritanical and ultra conservative form of Sunni Islam the emerged in the 1700s, has been a major source of inspiration for Salafi Jihadist groups like Syria’s Al-Nusra. It is difficult to explain why ISIS uses Saudi textbooks to indoctrinate children, why 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi, and why Saudi nationals make up the largest number of foreigners in ISIS, without an understanding of Wahhabi theology.

Many of the Islamophobic tropes peddled by anti-Muslim bigots are based on the practices inherent in Wahhabism and carried out in Saudi Arabia and areas controlled by ISIS, such as stoning of adulterers, amputating the limbs of thieves, and death by beheading. Then there was the fatwa issued by the longtime Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, a godfather of modern Wahhabi thought, Abdulaziz Bin Baz, which declared that the Earth was stationary and that the sun revolved around it. (Bin Baz was also behind the Saudi ruling forbidding women from driving).

Saudi Arabia has spent tens of billions of dollars spreading Wahhabism throughout Sunni Muslim communities around the world. By building Wahhabi influenced mosques, schools and Islamic centers, Saudi Arabia seeks to remake Sunni Islam in its image. Areas of the world where this tactic has paid off—Kosovo,  Albania, Chechnya and South Asia—have provided fertile recruiting pools for Salafi jihadist fighters. In South Asia, Saudi Arabia has also funded Deobandi (an ultra-conservative version of Islam similar to Wahhabism) schools and mosques, the kind from which the original generation of the Taliban emerged.

War on terror coincides with rise in terrorism

Wahhabism might be the theological inspiration for the Salafist jihadist groups supposedly targeted by the US war on terror, but it’s the war on terror itself that has inflamed extremism and strengthened the reach of these groups.

The Global Terrorism Index, an annual report generated by the Institute for Economics and Peace, found that terrorism worldwide increased 550 percent from 2000 to 2016. The report also found that Al Qaeda has spread from just three to twelve countries in the same time period. Meanwhile, ISIS, an outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has affiliates in 28 countries.

Today’s chaos can be traced to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, which, according to the GTI report, “has ranked as the country most impacted by terrorism every year since 2004.”

When the US dismantled the Iraqi state in 2003, instead of replacing it with a functioning government it installed a sectarian Shiite regime comprised of exiles with no popular support in the country. The inflammation of sectarian fears and lack of security resulted in a power vacuum that opened the floodgates to Al Qaeda in Iraq and ignited a gruesome civil war. AQI eventually morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq. Before morphing into ISIS, ISI established an Al Qaeda offshoot in Syria called Jabhat al Nusra, the strongest and most disciplined armed opposition group in Syria.

These groups cultivate and thrive off of stateless zones as well as a Sunni Arab victimhood narrative, which started with the execution of Saddam Hussein and has been propagated throughout the region by popular gulf-funded religious figures and media outlets like Al Jazeera Arabic.

Mainstreaming Al Qaeda’s Sunni victimhood narrative

 Despite all his bluster about combating “radical Islamic extremism,” Trump has followed in the footsteps of previous administrations, lining up with the Gulf states that have been backing the extremist groups America is supposedly at war with. With the encouragement of the Trump administration, Israel has openly joined them, forming an “Israeli-Sunni Arab alliance” against Iran.

Leaders from both Israel and the Sunni Arab states have even expressed a preference for ISIS and Al Qaeda over Iran, which they claim is creating a “Shia crescent” that reaches from Beirut to Yemen.

Following ISIS’s capture of Mosul, former Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told US secretary of state John Kerry that “Daesh is our [Sunni] response to your support for the Da’wa,” the Shia Islamist party the US installed in Iraq.

In fact, Israel has provided aid to Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate in the Golan Heights and has expressed its preference for a sectarian Sunni government to take power in Syria to diminish the power of Hezbollah, its most persistent foe.

For most people caught in between these warring parties, the consequences have been nothing short of catastrophic. Historic and vibrant cultures have been wiped out by groups like ISIS, whose conduct closely resembles that of the Wahhabi Ikhwan warriors that conquered modern day Saudi Arabia.

Salafi Jihadist groups are tools of empire

Extremist groups like Al Qaeda certainly harbor some legitimate grievances against Western foreign policy. But so do people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, Chile, Cuba, not to mention the Arabs and Muslims who are battling Al Qaeda and ISIS. Why isn't there similar blowback from these groups?

The reason is that the U.S. and its international partners have not been training and arming them to fight their adversaries in the Middle East for the past three decades. As soon as these extremists attack soft targets in the West, American nationalists reflexively blame Islam as a whole, conveniently ignoring their government’s role in creating them. The erosion of civil liberties and more war inevitably follows.

But the problem isn't Islam. The problem is the weaponization of Salafi jihadist factions to serve narrow geopolitical goals. These groups need to be understood not as victims of Western foreign policy, but as useful tools that fuel long term crises after serving their purpose in a near-sighted agenda.  

Genuinely dealing with the threat of jihadism demands that the U.S. halt its support for proxy militias in Syria, dramatically reduce its presence in the region and most importantly, confront its allies for spread the toxins of extremism around the world.

If we aren't honest about the roots of the crisis, we will continue to cede the narrative to the far right, ensuring that the demagogues have a free hand to blame Muslims, Arabs and refugees for a problem the West continues to aggravate.

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