By Aaron Maté
Hours after the Feb. 3 U.S. military raid in northern Syria that left the leader of ISIS and multiple family members dead, President Biden delivered a triumphant White House address.
The late-night Special Forces operation in Syria’s Idlib province, Biden proclaimed, was a “testament to America’s reach and capability to take out terrorist threats no matter where they hide around the world.”
Unmentioned by the president, and virtually all media accounts of the assassination, was the critical role that top members of his administration played during the Obama years in creating the Al Qaeda-controlled hideout where ISIS head Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, as well as his slain predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, found their final refuge.
In waging a multi-billion dollar covert war in support of the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, top Obama officials who now serve under Biden made it American policy to enable and arm terrorist groups that attracted jihadi fighters from across the globe. This regime change campaign, undertaken one decade after Al Qaeda attacked the U.S. on 9/11, helped a sworn U.S. enemy establish the Idlib safe haven that it still controls today.
A concise articulation came from Jake Sullivan to his then-State Department boss Hillary Clinton in a February 2012 email: “AQ [Al Qaeda] is on our side in Syria.”
Sullivan, the current national security adviser, is one of many officials who oversaw the Syria proxy war under Obama to now occupy a senior post under Biden. This group includes Secretary of State Antony Blinken, climate envoy John Kerry, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, NSC Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk, and State Department Counselor Derek Chollet.
Their efforts to remake the Middle East via regime change, not just in Syria but earlier in Libya, led to the deaths of Americans – including Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials in Benghazi in 2012; the slaughter of countless civilians; the creation of millions of refugees; and ultimately, Russia’s entry into the Syrian battlefield.
Contacted through their current U.S. government agencies, none of the Obama-Biden principals offered comment on their policy of supporting an Al Qaeda-dominated insurgency in Syria.
The Obama-Biden team’s record in Syria resonates today as many of its members handle the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. As in Syria, the U.S. is flooding a chaotic war zone with weapons in a dangerous proxy conflict with Russia, with long-term ramifications that are impossible to foresee. “I deeply worry that what’s going to happen next is that we will see Ukraine turn into Syria,” Democratic Senator Chris Coons told CBS News on April 17.
Based on declassified documents, news reports, and scattered admissions of U.S. officials, this overlooked history of how the Obama-Biden team’s effort to oust the Assad regime – in concert with allies including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey – details the series of discrete decisions that ultimately led the U.S. to empower terror networks bent on its destruction.
Seizing Momentum – and Munitions – From Libya to Pursue Regime Change in Syria
The road to Al Qaeda’s control of the Syrian province of Idlib actually started hundreds of miles across the Mediterranean in Libya.
In March 2011, after heavy lobbying from senior officials including Secretary Hillary Clinton, President Obama authorized a bombing campaign in support of the jihadist insurgency fighting the government of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Backed by NATO firepower, the rebels toppled Gaddafi and gruesomely murdered him in October.
Buoyed by their quick success in Libya, the Obama administration set their sights on Damascus, by then a top regime change target in Washington. According to former NATO commander Wesley Clark, the Assad regime – a key ally of U.S. foes Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia – was marked for overthrow alongside Iraq in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A leaked 2006 U.S. Embassy in Damascus cable assessed that Assad’s “vulnerabilities” included “the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists,” and detailed how the U.S. could “improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising.”
The outbreak of the Syrian insurgency in March 2011, coupled with the fall of Gaddafi, offered the U.S. a historic opportunity to exploit Syria’s vulnerabilities. While the Arab Spring sparked peaceful Syrian protests against the ruling Ba’ath party’s cronyism and repression, it also triggered a largely Sunni, rural-based revolt that took a sectarian and violent turn. The U.S. and its allies, namely Qatar and Turkey, capitalized by tapping the massive arsenal of the newly ousted Libyan government.
“During the immediate aftermath of, and following the uncertainty caused by, the downfall of the [Gaddafi] regime in October 2011,” the Defense Intelligence Agency reported the following year, “…weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya were shipped from the port of Benghazi, Libya, to the ports of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria.”
The redacted DIA document, obtained by the group Judicial Watch, does not specify whether the U.S. was directly involved in these shipments. But it contains significant clues. With remarkable specificity, it detailed the size and contents of one such shipment in August 2012: 500 sniper rifles, 100 rocket-propelled grenade launchers with 300 rounds, and 400 howitzer missiles.
Most tellingly, the document noted that the weapons shipments were halted “in early September 2012.” This was a clear reference to the killing by militants that month of four Americans – Ambassador Christopher Stevens, another State Department official, and two CIA contractors – in Benghazi, the port city where the weapons to Syria were coming from. The Benghazi annex “was at its heart a CIA operation,” U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal. At least two dozen CIA employees worked in Benghazi under diplomatic cover.
Although top intelligence officials obscured the Benghazi operation in sworn testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, a Senate investigation eventually confirmed a direct CIA role in the movement of weapons from Libya to Syria. A classified version of a 2014 Senate report, not publicly released, documented an agreement between President Obama and Turkey to funnel weapons from Libya to insurgents in Syria. The operation, established in early 2012, was run by then-CIA Director David Petraeus.
“The [Benghazi] consulate’s only mission was to provide cover for the moving of arms” to Syria, a former U.S. intelligence official told journalist Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books. “It had no real political role.”
The Death of a U.S. Ambassador
Under diplomatic cover, Stevens appears to have been a significant figure in the CIA program. More than one year before he became ambassador in June 2012, Stevens was appointed the U.S. liaison to the Libyan opposition. In this role, he worked with the Al Qaeda-tied Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and its leader, Abdelhakim Belhadj, a warlord who fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. After Gaddafi’s ouster, Belhadj was named head of the Tripoli Military Council, which controlled security in the country’s capital.
Belhadj’s portfolio was not limited to post-coup Libya. In November 2011, the Al Qaeda ally traveled to Turkey to meet with leaders of the Free Syrian Army, the CIA-backed opposition military coalition. Belhadj’s trip came as part of the new Libyan government’s effort to provide “money and weapons to the growing insurgency against Bashar al-Assad,” the London Telegraph reported at the time. On September 14, 2012 – just three days after Stevens and his American colleagues were killed – the London Times revealed that a Libyan vessel “carrying the largest consignment of weapons for Syria since the uprising began,” had recently docked in the Turkish port of Iskenderun. Once unloaded, “most of its cargo is making its way to rebels on the front lines.”
The known details of Stevens’ last hours on September 11 suggest that shipping weapons was at the top of his agenda. Although based in Tripoli and facing violent threats, he nonetheless made the dangerous trek to Benghazi around the fraught anniversary of 9/11. According to a 2016 report from the House Intelligence Committee, one of Stevens’ last scheduled meetings was with the head of al-Marfa Shipping and Maritime Services Company, a Libyan firm involved in ferrying weapons to Syria. His final meeting of the day was with Consul General Ali Sait Akin of Turkey, where the weapons were shipped. Fox News later reported that “Stevens was in Benghazi to negotiate a weapons transfer.”
With the Libyan channel shut down by Stevens’ murder, the U.S. and its allies turned to other sources. One was Croatia, where Saudi Arabia financed a major weapons purchase in late 2012 that was arranged by the CIA. The CIA’s use of the Saudi kingdom’s vast coffers continued an arrangement from prior covert proxy wars, including the arming of the mujahideen in Afghanistan and of the Contras in Nicaragua.
Although the Obama administration claimed that the weapons funneled to Syria were intended for “moderate rebels,” they ultimately ended up in the hands of a jihadi-dominated insurgency. Just one month after the Benghazi attack, the New York Times reported that “hard-line Islamic jihadists,” including groups “with ties or affiliations with Al Qaeda,” have received “the lion’s share of the arms shipped to the Syrian opposition.”
Covertly Arming An Al Qaeda-Dominated Insurgency
The Obama administration did not need media accounts to learn that jihadists dominated the Syrian insurgency on the receiving end of a CIA supply chain.
One month before the Benghazi attack, Pentagon intelligence analysts gave the White House a blunt appraisal. An August 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report, disseminated widely among U.S. officials, noted that “Salafi[s], the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency.” Al Qaeda, the report stressed, “supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning.” Their aim was to create a “Salafist principality in eastern Syria” – an early warning of the ISIS caliphate that would be established two years later.
General Michael Flynn, who headed the DIA at the time, later recalled that his staff “got enormous pushback” from the Obama White House. “I felt that they did not want to hear the truth,” Flynn said. In 2015, one year after Flynn was forced out, dozens of Pentagon intelligence analysts signed on to a complaint alleging that top Pentagon intelligence officials were “cooking the books” to paint a rosier picture of the jihadi presence in Syria. (The Pentagon later cleared CENTCOM commanders of wrongdoing.)
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main CIA-backed insurgent force, also informed Obama officials of the jihadi dominance in their ranks. “From the reports we get from the doctors,” FSA officials told the State Department in November 2012, “most of the injured and dead FSA are Jabhat al-Nusra, due to their courage and [the fact they are] always at the front line.”
Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front) is Al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria. It emerged as a splinter group of Al Qaeda in Iraq after a falling out between AQI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and his then-deputy, Mohammed al-Jolani. In 2013, Baghdadi relaunched his organization under the name of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Jolani led his Syria-based Al Qaeda faction under the black flag of al-Nusra.
“[W]hile rarely acknowledged explicitly in public,” Charles Lister, a Gulf state-funded analyst in close contact with Syrian insurgent groups wrote in March 2015, “the vast majority of the Syrian insurgency has coordinated closely with Al-Qaeda since mid-2012 – and to great effect on the battlefield.” As one Free Syrian Army leader told the New York Times: “No FSA faction in the north can operate without al-Nusra’s approval.”
According to David McCloskey, a former CIA analyst who covered Syria in the war’s early years, U.S. officials knew that “al-Qaeda affiliated groups and Salafi jihadist groups were the primary engine of the insurgency.” This, McCloskey says, was “a tremendously problematic aspect of the conflict.”
In his memoir, senior Obama aide Ben Rhodes acknowledged that al-Nusra “was probably the strongest fighting force within the opposition.” It was also clear, he wrote, that U.S.-backed insurgent groups were “fighting side by side with al-Nusra.” For this reason, Rhodes recalled, he argued against the State Department’s December 2012 designation of al-Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization. This move “would alienate the same people we want to help.” (Asked about wanting to help an Al Qaeda-dominated insurgency, Rhodes did not respond).
In fact, designating al-Nusra as a terror organization allowed the Obama administration to publicly claim that it opposed Al Qaeda’s Syria branch while continuing to covertly arm the insurgency that it dominated. Three months after adding al-Nusra to the terrorism list, the U.S. and its allies “dramatically stepped up weapons supplies to Syrian rebels” to help “rebels to try and seize Damascus,” the Associated Press reported in March 2013.
Obama got a Nobel Prize for peace as soon as he was sworn in. He wasn’t going to just take the prize; he was going to EARN it, by God!