Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton discuss the billion-dollar CIA program arming and training rebels in Syria, detailing how it strengthened extremist groups including ISIS and al-Qaeda. We use mainstream media reports and government documents to conclusively show how the US knew it and its allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were fueling genocidal Salafi militants.

Blumenthal and Norton also address how the failure of mainstream liberal parties and politicians to challenge this, and to oppose the national security state in general, has led to the growth of extremely dangerous far-right forces, who scapegoat Muslims and refugees for the problems caused by war and empire.

Here you can find comprehensive show notes with links to the articles mentioned and other references made in this episode.




Ben Norton: You are listening to the second episode of Moderate Rebels. I’m Ben Norton, here with Max Blumenthal.

In the first episode of our podcast we discussed Russiagate. We detailed how there is little evidence for allegations of supposed Russian intervention in US politics; how the US national security state is using these largely unsubstantiated accusations to continue escalating aggression against Russia, ramping up sanctions and potentially even moving toward war; and how the Democratic Party has ultimately used Russia as a kind of scapegoat to avoid moving left in any way, to avoid adopting any kind of serious progressive policies, and to avoid engaging in any kind of self-criticism for losing to Donald Trump, a far-right billionaire bigot.

Well, in this episode we’ll be talking about a closely related issue, and that’s the U.S. proxy war in Syria. We see this episode as being very important in a variety of ways.

For one the tragedy that Syria has seen since 2011 is one of the worst crises in this century. More than half of Syria’s population has been displaced; hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom were civilians, have been killed; and yet for the most part Western corporate media outlets and politicians have laid the blame solely on US enemies — the Syrian government, Iran, and Russia — absolving the US and its proxies of any complicity in prolonging this horrific bloody war for so long.

In this episode we go into great detail as to how the billion-dollar CIA program arming and training rebels in Syria, which is one of the largest covert operations in the history of the agency, greatly strengthened extremist groups, namely ISIS and al-Qaeda, who have genocidal inclinations and have carried out attack after attack on civilians not just in Syria but in many other parts of the world.

There has been so much propaganda on the war in Syria; in fact there have been more lies and distortions in the reporting and discussion of this war than any other conflict I’ve ever seen.

So this episode is also personally important for me, because in the early years of the war in Syria I myself was very mistaken the conflict. There were a lot of things I didn’t really understand correctly, and I had a really misleading cartoonish view of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government and its allies, an incredibly widespread yet grossly distorted view of the conflict, one that is largely the product of mountains and mountains of propaganda that has been expertly cultivated by the US government, Gulf regimes, and exiled opposition figures.

So in this episode we dive deep, compiling the evidence that led my views to evolve, that demonstrates that many of the talking points used by Western supporters of the opposition — talking points I myself once believed — are simply false or at best only show part of the picture, and that also shows conclusively that the U.S. knowingly empowered extremist groups in Syria, just as it did in the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and how not just Syrians who have already horrifically suffered for much too long but the entire world will have to live for decades to come with the dire consequences of this war.

There are a lot of articles videos and more we address in this episode. You can find links to all of that and detailed show notes at our website Moderate Rebels is also on iTunes and SoundCloud. We have a Patreon account, if you want to support us: And of course we’re on social media; our Twitter handle is @Moderate_Rebels.

So Max, let’s get started.


How US intervention in Syria fueled hundreds of thousands of deaths

Max Blumenthal: All right, so we are going to talk about the termination of the CIA’s arm and equip program, where the CIA, in coordination with the Sunni allies, the Gulf allies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as Turkey, have been arming Syrian rebels.

This is a program that has extended the Syrian civil war and really turned it into a proxy war for six years. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead.

And we’re going to talk about first of all about the freakout in Washington over the end of this program. You know it seemed like this was something positive, a positive development.

We’re moving towards de-escalation in Syria; there are cease-fires in southwest Syria; people are coming home to Aleppo; refugees, 440,000 internally displaced people, have come home, according to the UN, just this year alone.

It seems like it might be a good thing for human beings in Syria, to bring this war to a conclusion. But in Washington that’s not really what took place is it, Ben?

Ben Norton: No, not at all. Many pundits in Washington, New York, and elsewhere portrayed the end to the CIA arm and equip program as a supposed concession to the Russian puppet master, or even more insidiously as a purported plot by the Kremlin.

And perhaps one of the most intriguing — I would say even deranged — responses was written by David Ignatius, who is a Washington Post columnist and a cheerleader — one might even say an unofficial spokesperson for the CIA.

Max Blumenthal: Deep State David.

Ben Norton: And he published an article titled “What the demise of the CIA’s anti-Assad program means.” In this article one of the most amazing things he does is he practically boasts that “CIA backed fighters may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years.”

Then he goes on — and we’ll discuss why this is absurd later — and he says “by the summer of 2015 the rebels were at the gates of Latakia on the northern coast, threatening Assad’s ancestral homeland and Russian bases their rebel fighters were also pushing toward Damascus.”

What he doesn’t mention is that, especially when extremists were at the gates of Latakia, they were on the verge of genocide. We’ll get into that later.

But this is a really uncanny moment. You have someone who is very closely tied to the CIA writing in a major newspaper practically bragging that nearly 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies were killed or wounded thanks to the CIA program.

This is really fascinating because it really debunks one of the key talking points of the Syrian opposition in the past six years, and that is “Assad has killed half a million people; he’s murdering his own people.”

First of all, if you think the conflict is just about Assad and you think the Syrian state can be reduced to one person, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

This is a significantly more complex conflict in which there is an entire state apparatus that has a lot of internal contradictions; it’s not all just based on one mustache-twirling cartoon villain.

But even beyond that, for years pundits and politicians, including Hillary Clinton in a presidential debate, have repeatedly claimed that the Syrian government is responsible for all the casualties in the war.

And this has been a very misleading and blatantly false claim, but you see it even in op-eds in the New York Times, which said the Syrian regime has killed half a million people.

Well we don’t even have an accurate death toll.

Max Blumenthal: The UN stopped its death count in 2014.

Ben Norton: Yeah the UN stopped counting in January 2014, because it was unable to verify the figures. And many of the monitor groups were biased and explicitly pro-opposition. They were nontransparent with the methodologies they were using.

And this could be a topic of a whole new episode, but for those who are interested, Foreign Policy actually published a pretty decent article on this called “The War over Syria’s Dead.” It’s very interesting.

But David Ignatius outlines a few different talking points in his article that are very common. And with this episode we want to go through and talk about what the reality is behind the CIA’s program inside Syria; just what the CIA was doing for all these years, and the U.S. in general; and why we should be applauding the end to this, not mourning it.

And that doesn’t mean that we in any way support Trump. I know both of us vehemently oppose Trump and, as we stress in the previous segment, this is one of the only good things Trump has done and may ever do in his administration.


The CIA’s covert war on Syria: Operation Timber Sycamore

Max Blumenthal: Let’s talk about the history of the CIA program, and specifically Operation Timber Sycamore. We constantly hear this talking point about the aid to the rebels being “too little” and coming “too late” to have — I don’t know what effect they wanted it to have, regime change, or causing enough death and havoc in Syria to force the Syrian government to the negotiating table and get it to give up, to basically neuter its sort of independent foreign policy.

But let’s talk about how it began. Operation Timber Sycamore I think was the official program that began in June 2013, but there are weapons going into Syria well before to the rebels.

Ben Norton: Yeah, and in fact this is another lie, just like the claim the Syrian government is responsible for all of the casualties in the war, that we see constantly repeated even in major newspapers of record like the New York Times.

We made an interesting timeline here that chronicles just how early the U.S. armed and trained program began inside Syria.

And in the next segment we also interview Gareth Porter, a journalist who has many sources within the government who have also divulged some information about this that has been ignored by mainstream media.

But one of the earliest reports on this is from August 2012, and it’s in Reuters, the international news agency. The article from August 2012 is titled “Obama authorizes secret support for Syrian rebels,” and it details how Obama by August 2012 had already approved us support for rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian government.

The August article notes that “Obama’s order was quote approved earlier this year,” so it’s sometime early in 2012, so this is the latest. I mean this is incontrovertible, you have US government officials admitting to Reuters that sometime in early 2012 the US was already arming and training Syrian rebels, which directly contradicts the talking point that the U.S. didn’t intervene until 2013.

Max Blumenthal: Right, and arms were already flowing in from Libya from the arms depots of the defunct Libyan army through the CIA’s program. I guess it ended when the consulate at Benghazi was attacked, but you know this is what a Hillary adviser called “the bank shot.”

So there are already heavy weapons going in. We already had seen violence as early as July 2011. Just months after the rebellion began in Jisr al-Shughour, in the north of Syria, where something like 80 Syrian soldiers were massacred by the opposition. So there already were weapons in there.

And then in June 2012, Reuters reports that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding the Syrian rebels. These are you know the real — like this clearly was democracy promotion.

I mean anything Saudi Arabia is doing in other countries is to spread freedom and democracy, and we need to be in solidarity with it.

Ben Norton: Freedom and democracy for everyone — except their population.

Max Blumenthal: There’s a good quote in the article: “The payment has been going on for months and the agreement was made on April 2 by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with logistical organization from Turkey where some Free Syrian Army factions are based.”

We’re introduced to the Free Syrian Army here; these are the “moderate rebels.” Not us, these are the real “moderate rebels.”

“The point of this is to encourage as many factions of the Syrian army to defect and to organize the FSA,” the Free Syrian Army, according to Reuters.

Ben Norton: Yeah they were quoting an official who is working in the Syrian opposition. So let’s just unpack this here.

Reuters is admitting in June 2012 that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two extremist absolute monarchies, were already supporting and paying the salaries of the so-called moderate FSA, as of April 2012.

And then you have an FSA official who says that the point of this is to encourage all of these armed groups to unify behind the aegis of the FSA.

Well and then we see in October of 2012, the New York Times published an article that was largely ignored, titled “Rebel Arms Flow is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria.”

And after we heard that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were paying the salaries of these so-called “moderate rebels” we now learn that, and I’m quoting The New York Times here, “Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hardline Islamic jihadists.”

And this is based on the statements of American officials and Middle East diplomats. So it’s pretty much incontrovertible.

Max Blumenthal: Why? I don’t understand why countries whose official state theology is Wahhabism would support Salafi-jihadist groups. It doesn’t make any sense; it’s conceivable!

Ben Norton: I thought they were supporting moderate secular democrats.

Max Blumenthal: Anarchists, they’re — we have to listen to the anarchist Syrian voices.


Ben Norton: And then there’s another quote. This is again in the New York Times, the most mainstream, establishment newspaper.

It says the U.S. “is providing intelligence and other support for shipments of secondhand light weapons like rifles and grenades into Syria mainly orchestrated from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The reports indicate that the shipments organized from Qatar in particular are largely going to hardline Islamists.”

So again we have more confirmation from US government officials that in 2012 the US was already working with its extremist Gulf allies to arm Syrian rebels.

Again, this is well before the talking point we hear in mainstream media outlets that the program began “much too late” in 2013.

Max Blumenthal: Yeah, it just was reported continuously at the time, in 2012.

You know what else was reported, which is interesting, is that eastern Aleppo was taken by force by these rebels, and that these rebels included and were substantially led by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda.

I mean that was all over the New York Times at the time. And you know, you flash forward to 2016, when America was introduced to the 7-year-old —

Ben Norton: Bana al-Abed.

Max Blumenthal: — soon-to-be multi-millionaire Simon & Schuster author Bana al-Abed. And you know Omran Daqneesh, the so-called “dusty boy,” who has now been revealed to be the son of a pro-government family, who was offered money to basically lie about what happened to them, by the Syrian opposition.

Ben Norton: And who turned down many thousands of dollars.

Max Blumenthal: $20,000 from a Saudi broadcaster.

You know, you go back to that time when the whole — you just saw this massive freakout, all framed in the kind of language of humanitarian intervention, demanding a no-fly zone for Aleppo.

But it was well known back in 2012 that jihadists and Salafi forces were substantially in control of eastern Aleppo.

They didn’t come into control of it because they were protesters who had to take up arms to defend themselves against the mustache-twirling, you know, black cat petter in his evil bat computer cave in Damascus.

Ben Norton: Who was drinking the blood of children out of a chalice.

Max Blumenthal: It was just this is a straight up insurgent onslaught. They destroyed the old city in Aleppo. And this was all forgotten four years later.

But that’s why it’s important to go back to this.

Ben Norton: And also to look, I mean not even just mainstream media outlets.

We now know, because we have declassified government documents, that, for instance, an October 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report, it explicitly says that in August 2012 the US had sent 500 sniper rifles, 100 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 300 RPG rounds, 400 howitzers, you go down the list.

These are huge, huge arms shipment. That was 48,000 pounds of cargo. And this is not the only one of course.

The CIA had already sent tons more weapons. And again, this is a US government document admitting this in mid-2012 — a year before the CIA program officially supposedly began.

And another mainstream media outlet report that has also fallen down the memory hole is a June 2013 LA Times story titled “US has secretly provided arms training to Syria rebels since 2012.”

And again it quotes US government officials and says, “CIA operatives and US Special Operations Forces have been secretly trading Syrian rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons since late last year.”

And it talks about how the Syrian opposition is “beleaguered,” and how the US support helped push the opposition into an offensive position.

So again this underscores the fact that the US, from the very beginning, was arming and training rebels, especially arming rebels with the help of its allies, and working at US bases inside Turkey and Jordan.

And if it were not for that support, the war likely would have ended in 2012, maybe 2013.

But instead, as David Ignatius acknowledged and practically boasted, it prolonged the war for years and led to the deaths and the injuries of at least 100,000 Syrian fighters and their allies.

Max Blumenthal: Yeah and we’ve seen from the Northeastern University report, on who the refugees fled from, that close to half did flee from the rebels.

You have 7 million internally displaced people in Syria who fled from rebel-controlled areas to government areas.

Ben Norton: And this isn’t even to mention the fact that the majority of the Syrian population is today living in government-held territory, and has for the entirety of the conflict lived in Syrian government-held territory.

Rebels never really held the densely populated areas in Syria.

Raqqa, which became the capital of ISIS, was the first provincial capital to be seized by rebels, and that was in 2014.

Then in 2015, Idlib was only the second provincial capital in Syria ever seized by rebels. And Idlib was conquered in an offensive led by al-Qaeda.

And even when Aleppo was retaken by the Syrian government in 2016, it’s not like all Aleppo was held by the rebels; they only held the eastern portion of it.


There’s no question whatsoever that the Syrian government is an authoritarian police state, just like the other US allies in the region; and there’s no question that the Syrian government has committed horrible atrocities during this war, and has heinously killed large numbers of civilians.

But at the same time, media outlets and Western opposition figures have for years been ignoring the majority of the Syrian population, which has lived in government-held territory.

Max Blumenthal: You constantly hear this narrative of “Assad killing his own people,” but the real story on the ground is so much more complex.

And it’s been fueled by the weapons that we have sent in, the training that we have provided, or has been provided under the umbrella of the CIA, to the rebels.

And escalation produces counter-escalation. When the rebels marched on Idlib, which is now the stronghold of al-Qaeda, they began to threaten, as David Ignatius pointed out, Latakia.

This is the Alawite heartland, and these are rebels who have a genocidal ideology.

They say, as Zahran Alloush has said, as the Salafist preachers embedded with the armed opposition have said, they’ll “grind the flesh” of the Alawites.

Ben Norton: Yeah the Salafi cleric Adnan al-Aroor, who is from Syria but lives in Saudi Arabia, actually threatened on a TV show in Saudi Arabia that the opposition would, quote, “grind the flesh,” he said, of Alawites, and then he added, quote, “feed it to the dogs.”

Max Blumenthal: I mean they would have ethnically cleansed large areas. 40 percent of Syria are minorities.

Russia intervened as a result of what happened in Idlib, and what was happening in 2015.

And what happened in Idlib was a direct result of the fact that the US, through Saudi Arabia, was sending thousands of BGM TOW missiles. These are anti-tank missiles, which were devastating Syrian armored columns and allowing the rebels to march forward.

And also causing massive amounts of civilian casualties. So you just, you had a terrible situation driven by this program.

And now I think we’re looking at New York Times continuing to report on this but you know these reports are buried.

January 2016: “US relies heavily on Saudi money to support Syrian rebels.”

“The CIA takes the lead in training the rebels on AK-47 assault rifles and tank-destroying missiles” — in other words, the BGM TOW missiles

Ben Norton: And quote, “the Saudis contribute both weapons and large sums of money.” And the New York Times, citing government officials, says that “estimates have been put in the total cost of the arming and training effort at several billion dollars.”

Max Blumenthal: Yeah, I think it’s like one out of every $15 in the CIA’s budget.

Ben Norton: This is the money in addition to the CIA’s budget. So we now know, because of leaks from Edward Snowden, the Washington Post published a story acknowledging that, “at its peak, the CIA program was spending one out of every 15 dollars on its budget, or $1 billion arming and training rebels.”

This was one of the largest CIA covert operations ever undergone. And in addition to that, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Jordan were also spending billions of dollars. This is an enormous operation.

Moreover we now have multiple reports confirming that Israel has for years been supporting and funding the Syrian opposition, especially rebels inside the Golan Heights, which Israel has been illegally occupying for 50 years, since June 1967.

Israeli-backed rebels have been fighting the Syrian government and Hezbollah.

The Wall Street Journal even reported that Israel was treating Jabhat al-Nusra, Syrian al-Qaeda, fighters in Israeli hospitals, and then sending the al-Qaeda fighters back into Syria to fight the government and Hezbollah.

And in the next section we’ll overview the evidence that shows that the US and its allies knowingly supported an opposition they knew was dominated by extremist groups inside Syria.


Empowering al-Qaeda’s largest affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra

Ben Norton: We’re done over viewing all of that nitty-gritty evidence. I know there’s a lot to unpack there.

But the point we’re trying to make is that these are not fringe alternative outlets; these are US government officials, and other government officials, acknowledging facts in mainstream media outlets.

Of course once these stories are reported, they’re buried. These things have been reported on, but they defy at a larger narrative arc that has been constructed by the US government, by think tanks, by the opposition, and that has been force-fed down many of our throats for years.

And it’s really important to unpack and show why all of this is false.

Max Blumenthal: Yeah, I remember James Traub, the liberal interventionist at the New York Times, said that Obama has done absolutely nothing in Syria. I mean he actually got away with saying that.

So not only has has the US done something very substantial, and I would say something that was extremely criminal that will haunt us for generations, but they knew.

Those who devised this policy knew that al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra, which emerged out of the Islamic State in Iraq, which was sent into Syria by Ayman al-Zawahiri —

Ben Norton: Who’s the leader of al-Qaeda, and who co-founded it with Osama bin Laden —

Max Blumenthal: Yeah, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was then his underling. Mohammed al-Jolani, the leader of al-Nusra, was sent into Syria in 2012. The US knew that they were dominating the opposition.

Ben Norton: We actually have smoking gun evidence of this. This is not just speculation.

And in this segment here, we’ll briefly overview the incontestable evidence that we have from the past several years showing how the US government knew that the CIA and its allies were empowering extremist groups, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, inside Syria.

But it was all justified in the eyes of the US government, because these were unfortunate side effects of the necessary overthrow of the Syrian government.

So the most smoking gun, if you will, is a 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report that was actually released in May 2015 thanks to a FOIA request.

And this DIA document states very explicitly, again this is in 2012, that quote, “the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”

And then it adds, quote, “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition.”

Max Blumenthal: The essence of the document is that the arms being provided by these countries to the Syrian armed opposition will lead — I think the key term to remember from this document is — will lead to “a Salafist principality in eastern Syria.”

And that Salafist principality is the Islamic State’s caliphate, or what is now left of it after Mosul fell.

Ben Norton: The DIA document explicitly cites Deir Ezzor, a major city, as the site where this Salafist principality will emerge.

And Deir Ezzor was later taken by ISIS.

Max Blumenthal: Yeah and the Syrian army is basically defending it. It’s surrounded on all sides by ISIS, and the local population survives through air drops of all the basic goods, because they’re completely surrounded, zombie apocalypse style.

We have former CIA director Mike Morell admitting [in 2013] that Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham were the two most effective organizations on the battlefield.

And then there’s the 2014 Hillary Clinton email. I guess this was in WikiLeaks.

Ben Norton: Yeah, and a 2014 email from Hillary Clinton says very explicitly, quote, “the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

I mean this is, again, smoking gun evidence, from the horse’s mouth, from the US government, citing US intelligence sources, that US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar were directly supporting ISIS.

Max Blumenthal: It’s kind of an awesome admission considering that those two governments were two of the top funders of the Clinton Foundation.

Maybe it’s kind of hard to go public with that information when that’s the kind of political empire you’re running, which will provide the basis for your presidential campaign.


Vice President Joe Biden admitted US allies supported ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria

Ben Norton: And then we also of course — again, something that’s fallen down the memory hole — a 2014 speech at Harvard University from former Vice President Joe Biden, who explicitly admitted that US allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey were supporting extremist groups.

And we’ll play a clip of him here:

Joe Biden: But my constant cry was that our biggest problem is our allies. Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks, who are great friends, and I have a great relationship with Erdogan, which I just spent a lot of time with; 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 of millions of dollars, and tens, thousands of tons of weapons, into anyone who would fight against Assad.

Except that the people who were being, who were being supplied were al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.

Now you think I’m exaggerating, take a look: Where did all of this go? So now what’s happening?

All of a sudden everybody’s awakened because this outfit called ISIL, which was al-Qaida in Iraq, which when they were essentially thrown out of Iraq, found open space and territory in western, excuse me eastern Syria, worked with al-Nusra, who we declared a terrorist group early on.

And we could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them.

So what happened? Now all of a sudden I don’t want to be too facetious, but they have seen the Lord.

Now Saudi Arabia has stopped the funding going in. Saudi Arabia is allowing training on its soil of American forces under title 10, open training.

The Qataris have cut off their support for the most extreme elements of the terrorist organizations.

And the Turks, President Erdogan, told me, he’s an old friend, said, ‘You were right; we let too many people through.’ Now they’re trying to seal their border.

Max Blumenthal: What was amazing is Biden delivered those really candid comments at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and then he had to kind of go on a global apology tour.

He had to pick up the phone and call Turkey, which is in NATO, and apologize, and deal with Qatar; and just basically apologize for telling the truth about what our Sunni allies are doing in Syria, and what kind of threat they are presenting through their activities to our national security.

And of course they’re doing it under the CIA’s umbrella.

Ben Norton: So of course we constantly hear these these myths, these bromides, about how the CIA was supporting freedom-loving democratic moderate rebels, but this is the reality.

And we could spend all day talking about the other examples. Recently Qatar’s former prime minister admitted that the US and its allies had supported extremists.


US regime-change operations in Syria before the 2011 protests

Ben Norton: But let’s actually talk about another even more important point.

Regime change in Syria did not just begin in 2011, when the protests began.

And of course looking at the response of the US and its allies and seeing the hypocrisy as easy to underscore.

So for instance, the US did not initially support the protests in Egypt or in Bahrain. And in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent 2,000 troops in to crush the protests.

But the US of course did support the protests inside Syria and Libya, where they later escalated into wars of regime change.

But even before 2011, we now have so much documentation showing that the US was trying to undermine, destabilize, and eventually overthrow the Syrian government.

And the most foolproof evidence we have comes from US government cables that were released by WikiLeaks.

And Robert Naiman, who is policy director of the group Just Foreign Policy, he actually wrote a chapter in the book The WikiLeaks Files that overviews these documents.

This chapter was published in Truthout with the headline, “WikiLeaks Reveals How the US Aggressively Pursued Regime Change in Syria, Igniting a Bloodbath.”

And I won’t go through the over the entire thing, but I’ll mention a few quick points here.

A 2006 US cable released by WikiLeaks says openly, quote, “the potential threat to the regime,” and then it says, it comes from, quote, “the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists.”

So this is very aware, a decade ago, that Islamist extremists were threatening the stability of the Syrian government.

And the head of the US embassy in Damascus, William Roebuck, proposed a few different policies that could be pursued by the US in order to undermine the Syrian government.

One, quote, “play on Sunni fears of Iranian influence.” And this is part of this constant propaganda talking point we hear non-stop about the supposed Shiite Crescent, which is supposedly taking over Syria and other countries; it’s supposedly Iran is now the real imperial power, not the US.

And this 2006 document expressly says the US should advance this conspiracy for its political gain. Although he admits, quote, “it’s often exaggerated.”

And then he mentions that the Egyptian and Saudi missions inside Syria were working with the US and coordinating on this particular talking point.

And then another point that he proposes, again this is the head of the US embassy in Damascus in 2006, he says, quote, “we should continue to encourage the Saudis and others to allow [Abdel Halim] Khaddam,” who is a very prominent dissident in Syria who had previously been vice president, “access to their media outlets, providing him with venues for airing the SARG’s [Syrian government’s] dirty laundry.”

So again, we have US government cables admitting that, in 2006, the US was coordinating with Syrian dissidents and with Saudi Arabia to provide venues for airing the Syrian government’s :dirty laundry.”


And then finally, another policy that the US embassy in Damascus proposed to undermine the Syrian government is, quote, “encourage rumors and signals of external plotting.”

And then the cable adds, quote, “regional allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia should be encouraged to meet with opposition figures.”

So again, we see that five years before the protests even began in Syria, the US was doing whatever it could, covertly, to try to undermine and destabilize the government. This did not happen out of nowhere.

Max Blumenthal: Yeah, and if you look at documentation, there were attempts to actually provide funding to the Syrian opposition internally.

Much of the opposition actually rejected the funding, because they didn’t want to be seen as US stooges. It would have undermined their domestic credibility.

And if you go back to 1998 and you look at the Iraq Liberation Act, which was sort of Bill Clinton’s concession to the regime-change crowd on Iraq, it allocated $98 million to the Iraqi National Congress of the con artist Ahmed Chalabi.

And it also provided for the establishment of an office of the INC in Damascus, and this sort of was folded into the Syrian opposition.

So you have a long history of attempts to interfere, foreign interference — much more aggressive than the kinds we hear about these days on MSNBC and CNN about Russian interference — direct political subversion.

The US was always upset that Syria had no US bases in it, wasn’t doing the same amount of business with West or giving Western corporations the same access that it was giving to other countries.

Ben Norton: And then of course Syria was supporting resistance in Palestine.

Max Blumenthal: Well what happened in 2006? That was the big year of Hezbollah.

Ben Norton: Absolutely. And then Hezbollah fights a war in which it essentially defeats Israel and forces Israel out of Lebanon.

And Hezbollah is of course a longtime ally of the Syrian government.

Max Blumenthal: And that was a war that, if you remember, Bush’s NSC director Condoleezza Rice called “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

And I remember Katie Halper was joking at the time that was actually the episiotomy of a new Middle East.

But what she meant was that this will be the beginning of a regime-change program that will — you know, we’ve already done Iraq; now we’re going to move towards Iran. And what’s the bridge? Syria.

So Syria was next on the target list. They got the Syrian uprising through the Arab Spring; the US supported it heavily.

It was — you know there were reformist, cosmopolitan elements; there were also violent elements.

As we saw in Jisr al-Shughour and elsewhere, Syrian soldiers were being killed; Syrian police were being killed.

In Baniyas, an Alawite a fruit vendor, on one of the first days of the uprising, was beaten to death in the street. There was sectarian violence as well.

And the FSA, the Free Syrian Army, was the main umbrella group of supposed moderate rebels who were going to take the fight to the Syrian government, take the fight to Assad. That was who the US was sponsoring there.

And one of the — you know, I think the most important histories to recover about the Free Syrian Army, which is finally being discussed in some mainstream think tanks and some mainstream media, is the way that it partnered with al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra, and even ISIS.

The FSA repeatedly partnered with ISIS.

Ben Norton: Yeah it’s really important to highlight this fact. Neither of us is denying in any way that there were legitimate protests demanding reforms from the Syrian government. Which, like the other countries in the region, certainly is authoritarian; it certainly is a police state.

Although the US has no problem supporting police states in Jordan, which is just as notorious for its Mukhabarat, the secret police, who torture dissidents; or Saudi Arabia of course, which is an extremist theocratic absolute monarchy.

So we’re not denying that there were legitimate protesters with legitimate demands.

But when we look at media coverage of conflicts — not just Syria but, for instance, Ukraine, with the 2014 coup there, or the ongoing protests in Venezuela.

There’s no question that there are some legitimate protesters, but there are also far-right, violent insurgents who are dedicated to toppling the government.

And in the case of Syria, from the very beginning, we now know thanks to a Time Magazine report that extremist groups like Ahrar al-Sham had actually been organized before the protest even began in Syria.

So naturally, when the protests escalated, thanks to an influx of weapons from US allies, into an all-out war, they were the ones who rose to the top.

Max Blumenthal: Right, and so it was only natural that the FSA, the Free Syrian Army, would go in like a lion and go out like a lamb. It was basically all hype.

We don’t really know what the FSA was, but a collection of kind of local units. And it wound up kind of providing backfill for al-Qaeda, Ahrar al-sham, and even ISIS.


The FSA and ISIS joint attack on Syria’s Menagh air base

Max Blumenthal: One of the most embarrassing incidents for the American apparatus that supported the Free Syrian Army and the whole program to arm the rebels was at Menagh air base in 2013.

This is a besieged Syrian army base that was near Aleppo. And it was supposed to be kind of the centerpiece of the CIA’s program.

A general named Jabbar al-Oqaidi, who had just met with ambassador Robert Ford, the fake ambassador to Syria, who was the face on this entire program of regime change in Syria, and who is just, what he did was absolutely criminal, and he’s never been held to account.

He gave a press conference with al-Oqaidi and really promoted him as the real leader of the FSA at the time. Al-Oqaidi tries to lay siege to this airbase and fails for months.

It wasn’t until Omar al-Shishani, a fearsome jihadist known as Omar the Chechen —

Ben Norton: Who had actually previously been trained by the US when he was in Georgia, in order to fight Russia.

In fact a 2015 McClatchy story was titled, quote, “Pied piper of ISIS recruits was trained by US.”

Max Blumenthal: So he learned special forces techniques, very advanced techniques; comes into Syria and leads a unit of ISIS at Menagh air base filled with foreign fighters, alongside the Free Syrian Army of General al-Oqaidi, Ambassador Robert Ford’s poster boy.

And they take the air base. They give a press conference together, and it’s kind like after winning the NBA championship. The press conference featured al-Oqaidi next to al-Shishani, and the all-star team of ISIS and the Free Syrian Army.

And you can go back and watch video and you’ve got ISIS guys running around saying, “We are going to slaughter the Shia, and slaughter the Rafidi,” and all of the minorities that they’re going to march on their cities and devastate them.

This is really the natural result of the creation of the FSA.

Ben Norton: Max is highlighting how the FSA as we think of it, as a unified entity, has never really existed.

It has collaborated with many of these extremist groups and many of the fighters in the FSA later defected to these groups.

And I think it’s actually really interesting to look at what Mark Lynch, who is a professor in Washington, DC who’s very moderate; he’s worked for establishment think tanks inside DC; he’s by no means an anti-war activist.

But in his book The New Arab Wars, which chronicles a history of the so-called Arab Spring, he writes in his book, quote, “The FSA was still something of a myth, with a media presence far outstripping its actual organizational capacity.”

So again its media presence was far outstripping its actual organizational capacity. This is a group that was largely created by the media; it didn’t actually exist as a unified force on the ground.

And you had members in it who were collaborating and fighting with ISIS.

Max Blumenthal: Yeah fighting directly with ISIS.


How the FSA and al-Qaeda conquered Raqqa

Max Blumenthal: Next you have Raqqa. What happened in Raqqa? Does anyone ever talked about how Raqqa was taken?

Because you have the Syrian Defense Forces, basically the Kurds, attempting to take Raqqa with Pentagon support. There’s massive casualties there, hundreds and hundreds of casualties from US coalition air strikes.

But there’s so little journalism on how Raqqa was taken.

Raqqa was taken by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, alongside the Free Syrian Army, the CIA proxy.

And if you look, if you go back and look at videos — I was actually looking at some photos captured from these videos by the independent researcher Jason Jones, and you just see Free Syrian Army flags, the three-star flags, next to the black flag of Jabhat al-Nusra.

The FSA then left after Raqqa was captured. They, the local people tried to set up these local councils. They were cracked down on by al-Nusra’s intelligence apparatus. Any dissident was thrown in jail.

And then Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rises to the fore through a bloodless coup, declares himself the emir of Raqqa, which soon becomes the capital of ISIS’ caliphate.

And after the breakup that he had with al-Nusra, he becomes the leader of ISIS.

So this is partly thanks to the role of the FSA in providing kind of rearguard support for al-Nusra. That’s how ISIS got its capital.

This is extremely scandalous.


Rebel massacres of Alawite civilians

Max Blumenthal: And then finally I want to point to an operation that took place in August 2013 — another forgotten episode of the Syrian civil war, proxy war, whatever you want to call it.

In August 2013, when the FSA launched what was supposed to be its most ambitious operation, “Operation Liberation of the Coast.”

And where’s the coast? The coast is where the Alawite population of Syria lives.

And they have been targeted by the Salafi-jihadi forces that were allied with the FSA in this operation, targeted basically for extinction.

The FSA entered the battle not only with training supplied by the CIA, but with arms given to them at least under the umbrella of the CIA.

Their allies ranged not only from Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda franchise, to Ahrar al-Sham, but also to ISIS.

You had 300 foreign fighters in this battle, from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Libya. You even had one of the emirs of Libya’s newly minted Islamic State, which was based in the NATO-liberated city of Sirte.

And they put their genocidal agenda on full display in this battle, when the rebels attacked Alawite communities.

You had a cleric named Anas Ayrout, and he called for the rebels bearing down on these Alawite communities to create a “balance of terror.”

He said, “We have to drive them out of their homes like they drove us out; they have to feel pain like we feel pain.”

Where did he say that? Was he in the battle? No, he was in Istanbul, meeting with the Syrian National Coalition, which was formally backed by the United States.

So the United States was behind, was in many ways connected to this genocidal onslaught.

In villages where most male residents were away on army duty; there are conscripts; they were among those 100,000, as David Ignatius mentioned.

After this assault, which was eventually pushed back, Human Rights Watch got some researchers into the towns. It’s one of the few cases where Human Rights Watch got researchers on the ground in Syria.

And they documented that 67 civilians had been summarily executed, even though they were unarmed and trying to flee, in HRW’s words.

They documented the systematic killing of entire families planned as an attack on a civilian population.

Here’s what one Syrian army officer found after he got into the village of Balouta: “When I got into the village of Balouta I saw a baby’s head hanging from a tree.”

“There was a woman’s body which had been sliced in half from head to toe and each half was hanging from separate apple trees. It made me feel I wanted to do something wild,” the officer said.

“We found two mass graves with 140 bodies. They were not shot. They had their throats slit. About 105 people of different ages were kidnapped,” said a conscripted soldiers. “The whole area is unusable. Salafists from abroad were behind the attack.”

This is blood on the hands of the CIA, our so-called intelligence community; they did this. This is what proxy war does to actual people on the ground.

And it produces escalation, a counter-escalation which has killed people in rebel-held territories as well.


FSA/al-Qaeda attacks on Armenian Syrians in Kessab

Max Blumenthal: Now, I want to just point to another incident which had domestic repercussions here, because there’s a large Armenian community in the US, particularly in LA, around Glendale.

They’re in the district of Representative Adam Schiff, who is another — he’s sort of the poster child of the liberal resistance against Trump right now.

From the House Intelligence Committee, he’s pushing the whole Russian interference narrative. He supports bombing Yemen; he supported bombing, or he supported invading Iraq. And you know he even supported bombing Syria, which is strange considering who his constituents are.

The Armenian — there’s an Armenian Christian community in Syria as well, many of them based in the town of Kessab, which fell under assault by guess who, the American-backed Free Syrian Army, operating in coalition with al-Qaeda.

“We knew we would be butchered if we stayed,” said one of the 2,500 Armenians who were forced to flee from this village, they told a reporter from the LA Times.

So let’s hear an exchange between representative Adam Schiff and Samantha Power, who is sort of the guru of liberal interventionism. This is on Kessab and what was happening there:

Adam Schiff: While all of Syria’s people have suffered from the fighting, it is minority populations and especially Syrian Christians who are most at risk. As you know ambassador, these are some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, dating back to the first century AD.

About a week ago the town of Kessab, which is predominantly Armenian Christian, was attacked by al-Qaeda-linked fighters who had crossed over from Turkey, and the town was emptied in a bloody assault. Many of the residents of Kessab are descendants of the victims of the Armenian Genocide, and there’s a particular poignancy to their being targeted in this manner.

Can you tell us what efforts the UN and its agencies working in and around Syria are making to safeguard Syrian minority communities?

Samantha Power: You know, I would note that, unfortunately, the extremist group that has taken, appears to have taken hold of that town is not one that the United States or the United Nations has a huge amount of leverage over. And so our emphasis now is on supporting the moderate opposition in Syria that is taking on those extremist groups, and making sure that the UN has the funding it needs and the resources of all kinds that it needs.

So it’s resources; it’s strengthening the moderate opposition, which is taking on ISIL, the very group that took, that appears to have taken over that town; making sure that none of the neighbors are giving support to terrorist groups or extremist groups which would aid their efforts in seizures like that.

Max Blumenthal: You heard Samantha Power’s response — and by the way I think she should do a podcast with Anne-Marie Slaughter, who’s the other big liberal interventionist; the podcast would be called “Power and Slaughter.”

Ben Norton: Power and Slaughter.

Max Blumenthal: But what was her solution? Her solution was to pour more weapons and funding into the moderate opposition that is in Syria that is taking on those extremist groups.

No! The FSA was in Kasab alongside al-Qaeda. This is the very group that was driving Armenians out.

And a day after Powers’ comments, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, which the US was backing, Ahmad Jarba, he arrived in Kessab to hail al-Qaeda and the FSA as heroes.

The LA Times reported that his visit “dramatized how even ‘moderate’ US-backed opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army — ostensibly under the umbrella of Jarba’s coalition — coordinate in the field with extremist Islamist factions.”

So even the LA Times is acknowledging the FSA was working directly with al-Qaeda.

He promised after meeting the jihadists who had just driven the indigenous Armenian community out of Kessab, he promised them $500,000. Where was he going to get that money from? Well it’s a good question, probably Saudi Arabia.

And he said anyone who believes “there is pressure on us,” the Syrian opposition, to halt the battle for the coast “is delusional” and mistaken.

And you know this is really a reference to Adam Schiff and Samantha Power. It means that there was no pressure on them to stop this genocidal drive into the Alawite heartland.


How imperialist military intervention created the refugee crisis, fueling the racist far-right

Max Blumenthal: The disaster was apparent at the time to everyone who was involved; everyone knew what was happening, as you said Ben.

We kept pumping in the arms; we kept driving the death machine in Syria; and we drove the refugee crisis as well, which has driven the rise of the far-right in Europe.

And we have driven ourselves insane.

Ben Norton: And we’re of course living with the repercussions. Donald Trump and far-right forces throughout the world have exploited this for political gain.

And we have a mealy-mouthed liberal elite who refuse to criticize war or the national security state in any way. Instead they’re doing the opposite; they’re ingratiating themselves with the CIA; they’re heroizing the CIA, which is responsible for getting us in this mess in the first place.

And this is the point we really need to stress: Anyone who considers themselves on the left, and is worried about all of the horrible things happening in the world, we need to realize what the source is for the rising far-right movements.

It’s not just austerity; it’s not just economic crisis; I mean these are all huge factors too — it’s the perpetual war that is being propagated by not just the conservative centrist right-wing, but also the so-called mainstream left-wing, by the Democrats, by the Blairites in the UK, by others throughout the world.

And it’s not enough to simply say that it’s so horrible that 60 million people are displaced, and we should provide refuge to these asylum-seekers.

That is necessary, and we should absolutely provide support to people who have been displaced by these conflicts, but we need to also understand the root causes of these conflicts.

And the fact that the war in Syria only continued for so long because the US continued to fuel it, trying to bleed the Syrian government, trying to bleed Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.

That was the goal, and if the US had to displace half of the population of Syria, if the US had to essentially destroy the country in order to do so, so be it.

Max Blumenthal: Yeah I don’t think I could have put it any better.

It’s just shocking to me when I hear politicians like Hillary Clinton, or the late Joe Cox, who was a great advocate of refugees but who was also one of the premier liberal interventionists, the Samantha Power of her country.

Or even the Council on American-Islamic Relations call for supporting refugees from Syria and to condemn the xenophobic Muslim ban, but to then call for the same militaristic interventionist policies that created the problem in the first place.

You have to call you have to question people and organizations who are that hypocritical and wonder what their agenda is.

It’s also ceded ground to the far-right, which has basically taken the anti-interventionist narrative as its own and won, won elections in part because they’ve owned it.

Ben Norton: And because there is no convincing alternative to what they’re saying; there is no strong anti-war left-wing force pushing back and articulating a counter-narrative that says, “No the CIA is not our friend; the CIA got us into this mess.”

Instead we have liberals in Congress who are applauding Trump as he does his worst, as he bomb Syria, as he bombs Yemen.

Until there is an actual anti-war voice that is articulated on the left, what’s happening is far-right sources, far-right groups like Donald Trump and his ilk, are exploiting anti-war sentiment — even while Trump himself expands numerous wars throughout the planet.

Max Blumenthal: Well it’s easier if you’re UKIP and Nigel Farage and you don’t have to take responsibility for the wars; you can win votes.

But Jeremy Corbyn demonstrated the potential for a left-wing figure to actually take the anti-interventionist mantle, and match it with a position that’s compassionate to refugees and supportive of immigrants, and to win.

And he came within 2,000 votes of winning the national elections.

So where is the American Jeremy Corbyn? Who will challenge the interventionist narrative?

Who will challenge the bipartisan consensus for permanent war and intervention that creates these refugee crises from Libya to Syria to Iraq? So far I haven’t seen any figure emerge within the Democratic Party to do that.

Ben Norton: On that note, this is a great place to end our conversation, on a slightly more hopeful note about the future and the potential for a new left-wing anti-war movement.

In the next episode of Moderate Rebels we’ll bring in Gareth Porter to talk more about the war in Syria, what the CIA was actually doing in these past several years, and why it should be seen as a positive development that this dirty war has finally come to an end.



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Thank you so much for listening. And we’re out.