As a result of its continuing offensives in Iraq, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIS) has become the latest Islamist threat to civilisation. If the rightwing Internet website World Net Daily is to be believed however, the US government may have inadvertently played a direct role in ISIS’s creation, through a military training program which began in the spring of 2012.
According to WND, ‘dozens of ISIS members were trained at the time as part of covert aid to the insurgents targeting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The officials said the training was not meant to be used for any future campaign in Iraq.‘
Evidence to support this thesis comes from ‘ informed Jordanian officials’ and is rather thin on the details. WND does not say, for example, how US military trainers knew that they were training ISIS, given that the group has only emerged as a military force in Syria in the last 12 months. Its reporters also quote ‘a high official in the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’ who says that the US was aware of more recent training and support provided to ISIS by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Nevertheless, it is not outlandish to suggest that Isis may be – in part – yet another of the unexpected consequences or ‘blowback’ of the clandestine backchannels through which US/ Western strategic interests are pursued. From the earliest period of the rebellion against Assad, the Syrian opposition was receiving money, weapons and training from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States.
In March last year, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that some 200 US miltitary advisors in Jordan were training some 1, 200 Syrian rebels in Jordan as part of an eventual project to train 10,000 fighters ‘ to the exclusion of radical Salafists.’ That same month the Guardian reported that the British Foreign Office was providing military training to rebels in Jordan. According to William Hague this consisted of ‘ on co-ordination between civilian and military councils, on how to protect civilians and minimise the risks to them, and how to maintain security during a transition.’
The Guardian also revealed that the Pentagon had already begun a training programme at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Centre near Amman in the autumn of 2012, in which special forces operatives were training rebels to ‘ prepare for the possibility of Syrian use of chemical weapons and train selected rebel fighters.’
Naturally all the governments concerned insisted that any military training and weaponry reaching the Syrian rebels was only reaching the ‘good rebels’ who don’t go around crucifying the opposition, murdering Christians, suppressing women and killing prisoners etc. By March 2012, John Kerry insisted that ‘There is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them.’
Such claims cannot be taken seriously, even for a milisecond. Firstly, the idea that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States asked prospective recipients of military aid for their views on parliamentary democracy or the rights of women is laughable. Secondly, even democratic States that are interested in overthrowing governments generally provide military aid to the organizations that they believe are most militarily effective in achieving their aims, and they are not likely to be bothered too much whether these organizations are politically ‘moderate’, even if they like the world to believe otherwise.
It has been thus, ever since the Afghan war against the Soviets, when Western governments helped re-launch the international jihad in order to ‘make Russia bleed.’ In those halcyon, pre-al Qaeda days, neither the CIA nor the American government nor their allies worried themselves too much about distinctions between ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ rebels, and generally ensured that weapons and money went to the most violent and the most militarily active anti-Soviet organizations.
If those groups skinned Russian prisoners alive or blew up girls schools, or were more concerned with establishing an Islamic state than a parliamentary democracy, that was all part of the game and certainly did not undermine their credentials as ‘freedom fighters’ as far as the White House or Downing Street were concerned.
As the world now knows only too well, with the help of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the US also encouraged and faciliated not only the indigenous mujahideen, but an international movement of Muslim volunteers who transformed Afghanistan into the Islamic equivalent of the Spanish Civil War.
Many of the on-the-ground details of the jihad were left to the Pakistani ISI or the Saudi secret services, so that the US could maintain the usual fiction of ‘plausible deniability’ that has always accompanied its covert op programmes, but the US government also played its part, for instance, by maintaining a visa waiver program in Riyadh which enabled selected Saudis to receive military training in the US.
It all worked very well, and made a lot of Russians – and Afghans – bleed, so much so that the US also continued its relationship with some of the international jihadist groups after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, with a view to extending similar operations into Central Asia and the ‘stans’.
Of course these organizations were not merely puppets. They had their own agendas, and sometimes the US was useful to them and sometimes not. In the aftermath of the Afghan war it wasn’t, at least not to the ‘far enemy’ school of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, which declared war on the United States.
But even then there was still scope for collaboration between ‘jihadists’ and the ‘far enemy’ in areas of mutual interest, for example in Bosnia, where, according to the 2002 Dutch government inquiry into the 1995 Srebenica masacre, the US collaborated with Turkey and Iran in facilitating the transport of weapons and ‘Afghan-Arabs’ from proscribed ‘terrorist’ organizations to assist the Bosnian government.
More recently, in 2007, the Bush administration received congressional approval for an escalation of covert operations against Iran, that included support and assistance to the Baluchi/Sunni Jundallah, another violent ‘fundamentalist’ organization which has carried out numerous bombings and assassinations in Iran. Then there was Libya, where Western governments relied heavily on armed jihadist groups with a radical Islamist agenda to knock off Gaddafi, including some of the same people it had only recently been torturing.
So if the US and ISIS did overlap and even collaborate for a period, there would be nothing surprising about it – except for those who like to see geopolitics as an ongoing struggle between the civilised world and terrorism, or between democracy and ‘Islamo-fascism.’
Such collaboration doesn’t mean that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are mere pawns of Washington. It is difficult to see how current developments in Iraq can possibly be in the interests of the United States, but then governments that engage in short-term ‘games of thrones’ do not always see what is coming in the longer-term, and sometimes they find that the pieces they bring to the chessboard have a curious and unwanted ability to move by themselves.