Despite some recent diplomatic improvements, Russia has consistently been one of the greatest critics of Erdogan's Turkey and its role in the Syrian War. To what extent can these criticisms be validated? Are the United States and other Western powers starting to distance themselves from Turkey in Syria? Leksika's Sean Crowley offers an in-depth investigation.
Saturday. 16 May 2015. 0200 hours.
The heavens were illuminated and fire rained down from the black sky over Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province. Those on the ground not dematerialized by the rockets were eviscerated by the machine gun fire. The guns fell silent only to be replaced by the thunderous rotor blades of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and V-22 Osprey vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) tiltrotor craft. From the Black Hawks came 15 commandos from Delta Force, the United States Army’s elite counterterrorism unit. The 15 operators now assaulting the compound were but a small contingent of a force of 50 Combat Applications Group (CAG; another name for Delta) personnel taking part in this mission. They were closing in on a high-value target (HVT) whose location had been provided to the U.S. by Kurdish informants working for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon.
Joining the Delta operators on the raid were members of the United Kingdom’s own counterterrorism force, the 22nd Special Air Service (SAS). The SAS troopers had actually inserted using V-22s sometime before the CAG operators arrived. Dug into the desert and wearing U.S. uniforms, dozens of SAS personnel maintained a constant watch on the compound, apprising the Delta commandos of its fortifications and the positions of the guards. The SAS troopers also formed a perimeter to prevent militants from escaping and reinforcements from arriving. The Regiment (another name for the 22nd SAS) troopers not only wore American uniforms but carried Colt Model 727 carbines often used by Delta operators and Navy SEALs. (The acronym “SEAL” actually stands for “Sea, Air, and Land.”) The SAS personnel used high-resolution cameras with telescopic lenses to feed pictures of the compound and its guards back to U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM or simply CENTCOM) in Qatar. U.S. commanders immediately ordered the assault once the commandos verified the presence of the target.
With the green light having been given by SAS, the Delta operators slipped across the border from Iraq into eastern Syria to capture or kill Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic State’s (IS) head of oil and gas operations. This would be the first (and to this day only) U.S. special operations raid on a senior IS member’s compound. In addition to being involved in some of the caliphate’s military operations, Sayyaf served primarily as the overseer of IS’s illicit oil and gas sales, operations which generate substantial amounts of revenue for the khilafa. He was also reportedly close to IS’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi having even been described as a “best friend” of Caliph Ibrahim (the title al-Baghdadi uses).
U.S. President Barrack Obama authorized the operation as soon as he and his national security staff had compiled enough intelligence to ensure that the operation could be carried out successfully. Defense Secretary Ashton “Ash” Carter then authorized U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) to insert into Syria’s al-Amr region to capture Sayyaf. Then-British Prime Minister David Cameron gave the SAS permission to operate in Syria without consulting the parliament. The raid on Sayyaf’s compound had already been cancelled twice. The first time was because of a guidance problem and the second because of severe weather. This was the third attempt.
With the mujahidin guards outside neutralized, Delta assaulted Sayyaf’s base of operations. U.S. jets still flew sentinel overheard. The commandos killed two jihadists directly outside the compound and then broke down the front door and shot one bodyguard on the stairs. The CAG operators reportedly engaged in hand-to-hand combat with some jihadists, and Sayyaf reportedly used women and children as human shields. “It was a real firefight – a no kidding old school firefight,” one U.S. defense official later recalled. In total, the commandos killed about 11 jihadists.
Abu Sayyaf was shot twice in the chest as he reportedly attempted to grab his pistol. The operators also recovered two women, one of whom was an 18-year-old Yazidi sex slave. A third woman was also present; the wife of one of Sayyaf’s bodyguards. The Yazidi sex slave, now being attended by a Delta operator, had been in sexual servitude to IS for six months in the Iraqi city of Mosul before being sold to Sayyaf. She came to the compound a week before the raid.
The girl called to a Unit (another name for Delta) commando, “I am a Yazidi girl who has been captured.” At that moment, the second woman spoke up, “I am also a Yazidi.” However, the girl accused her of lying. She was Umm Sayyaf, the wife of Abu Sayyaf. She supposedly played a major role in IS’s terror operations. (The third woman in the compound – the bodyguard’s wife – was her sister.) She and her husband had fled into the room where Sayyaf eventually died with the Yazidi girl in tow after hearing the shooting downstairs. The couple reportedly cowered under heavy fire. The ruse to save her own life failed, and the D-Boys soon handcuffed the jihadi bride and closed her eyes and mouth.
The CAG operators recovered ancient Assyrian texts and other priceless artifacts along with what was described as a “treasure trove” of materials including cell phones, laptops, and other documents. Perhaps the most alarming discovery were hard drives and flash drives that showed links between IS and senior Turkish officials. The find had “urgent policy implications” according to messages sent to Washington and London following the raid.
The CAG operators brought the girl and the blindfolded Umm Sayyaf outside when they came under fire from more jihadists. One of the Unit commandos told the Yazidi girl to get behind him. They left behind IS fighter bodies as they raced toward the waiting Black Hawks. It took two hours to reach the U.S. base in Erbil, a Kurdish-held city in northern Iraq. Umm Sayyaf’s sister was left behind. The Yazidi girl spent a week at the base. An Army doctor tended to her injuries and gave her a medical exam. Afterward, she was interviewed by Kurdish and U.S. intelligence personnel. There are no plans to transfer Umm Sayyaf to Guantanamo Bay, the Cuban detention facility where the U.S. has held many suspects in the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
Likely the most controversial aspect of the increased tensions between Russia and Turkey are Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertions that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan actually supports not only the so-called “moderate” opposition but also certain jihadist and Islamist groups seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Though President Putin’s accusations may appear rather brazen, there is significant evidence to support them. Through human and signals intelligence (HUMINT and SIGINT) the U.S. has discovered that Turkey has been supporting Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qa‘ida franchise in Syria, for years and is now doing the same for IS.
Criticisms of Russia not devoting enough of its military assets in Syria to fighting IS can also be applied to Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally. Senior IS leaders have even admitted that Turkey rarely directly confronts the group with military force. One IS member stated that the Turkish military gave them free reign. “ISIS commanders told us to fear nothing at all because there was full cooperation with the Turks,” said the jihadist. “ISIS saw the Turkish army as its ally especially when it came to attacking the Kurds in Syria.” Turkey’s primary adversary in the Syrian Civil War has been the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê; PKK), an entity designated as a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the U.S. Reportedly, over 80 percent of the bombs dropped in Turkey’s anti-IS campaign have been directed against the Kurds. Turkey has been fighting the PKK for over 40 years. The PKK has been incredibly effective in fighting IS. Turkey has bombed them.
The Syrian-Turkish border has also become a haven for takfiris since the decisive battle for Kobani began. (Some jihadists reportedly used lulls in the fighting to obtain meals from McDonald’s restaurants in Turkey.) In the rear areas of the fight against IS, the Kurds are being bombed by Turkey while in the east, the Kurds have launched a major offensive against Raqqa, IS’s de facto capital. Russia media also speculated that Turkey’s downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M (NATO reporting name: “Fencer”) fighter-bomber came at a time when Russia was about to uncover the links between Turkey and jihadist elements within the anti-Assad opposition.
As Russian strategic bombers pounded IS – and likely other rebel groups – with air-launched cruise missiles, President Putin brought attention to the caliphate’s illicit oil trade. The caliphate’s oil industry reportedly generated up to USD 2 million per day. IS controls near all of the oil fields in eastern Syria along with one major oil field in Iraq. Most of the oil is smuggled into Turkey and sold cheap prices to generate revenues of around USD 50 million per month. IS reportedly produces 30,000 to 40,000 barrels of oil per day. IS needs oil to fund attacks, purchase weapons, and bribe those that would not support them otherwise.
IS controls around six locations that produce oil. The caliphate sells the oil to traders in Iraqi Kurdistan who in turn deliver it to customers in Turkey and Iran. In June 2014, Turkish MP (minister of parliament) Ali Edibogluan stated that IS has smuggled USD 800 million worth of oil to Turkey from Iraq and Syria. MP Edibogluan is a member of Turkey’s primary opposition party, the Republican People’s Party. The MP also mentioned that IS uses the Rumaila oil fields in northern Syria and fields near Mosul to transfer oil into Turkey, noting that the caliphate has laid pipes. The U.S. Treasury Department estimates that IS’s illicit oil trade provides the group with over USD 40 million in revenue. IS also takes advantage of longstanding black markets. Turkish oil smugglers provide IS with USD 10 million per month in revenue. Turkey has not gone after the smugglers.
Russia made it a priority to bomb the trucks themselves rather than the dated oil production infrastructure taken from the Syrian government by IS. Bombing the infrastructure has been the U.S. strategy. In Russia’s strikes on IS oil facilities, Tupolev Tu-22M3 (NATO reporting name: “Backfire”) bombers dropped OFAB-250-270 bombs on IS’s oil production infrastructure. Su-34 (NATO reporting name: “Fullback”) fighter-bombers. Were also employed. It hit over 206 targets in over 127 sorties on Tuesday (around 18 November). Russia announced that it had destroyed over 500 fuel trucks at that point in the campaign.
Russian General Staff spokesman Colonel General Andrey Kartapolov called IS’s illegal oil trade a “pipeline on wheels.” On 19 November 2015 (or the Thursday before), Russian bombers struck an IS headquarters, three major oil facilities, and an oil pumping station. "The air strikes destroyed the headquarters, three depots with oil, lubricants and ammunition; a plant for the production of explosive devices; a command center, a workshop for the production and repairs of mortar launchers, three major oil facilities and an oil pumping station," said General Kartapolov.
On Thursday morning, Tu-95MS (NATO reporting name: “Bear”) bombers made their sorties while Backfires struck during the daytime. "The air strikes have destroyed the headquarters, three depots with oil, lubricants and ammunition; a plant for the production of explosive devices; a command center, a workshop for the production and repairs of mortar launchers and an oil pumping station," General Kartapolov said. The Bears launched 12 cruise missiles. The bombers, however, missed one target, an IS HQ building in Idlib.
"The air strikes have destroyed the headquarters, three depots with oil, lubricants and ammunition; a plant for the production of explosive devices; a command center, a workshop for the production and repairs of mortar launchers and an oil pumping station," General Kartapolov said. Tu-160s (NATO reporting name: “Blackjack”) and Backfires, meanwhile, destroyed 12 targets in the Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor provinces. Six of those targets went to the Backfires.
The Pentagon, however, remains skeptical of Russia’s claims that it destroyed over 1,000 IS tanker trucks. One U.S. defense official maintained it was virtually impossible to destroy that many trucks with the kinds of unguided munitions that Russian aircraft use. Russia claimed that it destroyed the tanker trucks over a five-day period. Moscow also asserted that it hit 472 targets in Syria in two days. On 21 November 2015, the U.S, reported that it destroyed 283 IS tanker trucks. The attack was carried out the Saturday before 21 November by U.S. Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II (nicknamed “Warthog” by U.S. service personnel because of its perceived ugliness) close air support (CAS) aircraft and Lockheed Martin AC-130 Spectre gunships at a site near Deir el-Zour and Hasakah. The U.S. conducted a similar operation on 15 November, destroying 116 tanker trucks. The operations were part of a broader mission codenamed Operation Tidal Wave II, which is designed to cripple the caliphate’s oil production, refinement, and distribution system.
The 15 November strike marked the first time that the U.S. attacked IS oil tankers. It refrained from doing so before out of fear of inflicting civilian casualties. Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S. coalition in Iraq, stated that U.S. aircraft dropped warning leaflets and made strafing runs during the 21 November strikes in order to persuade the trucks’ civilian drivers to exit their vehicles before they were blown up. As a result, no civilians were injured or killed according to Colonel Warren. Russia has, however, attempted to paint the U.S. as not going far enough in targeting IS’s oil infrastructure. The Russian MoD released video footage showing hundreds of IS oil tankers parked end-to-end near a lightly-damaged oil refinery.
On 3 December 2015, the Russian Defense Ministry released satellite images that supposedly showed proof that Turkey was engaged in an oil trade with IS. Oil reportedly makes up over half of IS’s revenue. The images – gathered by either a Russian Ressurs P-2 or Persona satellite – showed thousands of Turkish-registered oil tankers heading for a Turkish port. President Erdogan denied the claim saying, “Shame on you—those who claim we buy oil from Daesh [a slang term for IS derived from the group’s Arabic acronym] are obliged to prove it…If not, you are a slanderer.” According to President Putin,“IS has big money, hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, from selling oil. In addition they are protected by the military of an entire nation. One can understand why they are acting so boldly and blatantly. Why they kill people in such atrocious ways. Why they commit terrorist acts across the world, including in the heart of Europe.”
Moscow has even accused President Erdogan’s children of being involved in the oil trade with IS. Gursel Tekin, a member of Turkey’s Socialist Party, states that IS’s oil is smuggled into Turkey by BMZ, a shipping company controlled by President Erdogan’s son, Bilal.
Russian denouements of Turkey in the wake of the Fencer shootdown and accusations of Ankara’s ties to jihadists were not limited to President Putin. Nikolay Levichev, the head of the left-wing Fair Party in Russia’s State Duma, asked Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency to cease all flights to Turkey out of fear of terrorist attacks on Russian citizens. He stated that Turkish Airlines was servicing a number of airports in areas of Turkey with increased terrorist activities. These same airports service flights to Russian cities. He added, “As the current attitude of the Turkish authorities to the Islamic State terrorist group can hardly be called negative, there is a risk that terrorists would infiltrate Turkish airports, which would put Russian aircraft in danger.”
Turkey’s downing of a Russian Fencer strike fighter and its involvement in the IS oil trade have even prompted Russia’s opposition media to denounce Ankara. Some media figures called Turkey’s actions a deliberate attempt to disrupt Russia counterterrorism operations in Syria. They also pointed out Ankara’s concerns about the growing involvement of the Kurds in the fight against IS.
Maksim Yusin of Kommersant said that it was no coincidence that the shoot down occurred during the same week that French President Francois Hollande was visiting both Washington and Moscow to build an anti-IS coalition. Such a coalition would strengthen two of Turkey’s enemies: Syria and the Kurds. On the radio program Kommersant FM, Yusin said, “For this reason Erdogan has gone for a provocation, expecting that we will conduct ourselves recklessly, emotionally, we’ll be thinking up steps in response that will provoke a crisis in relations between Russia and the West, after which it won’t be possible to talk about any coalition or any definitive actions by us in Syria.
Television personality Aleksandr Prokhanov tweeted, “Is the downed Russian plane revenge for the fact our aviation bombed an ISIS [another acronym for IS standing for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”] oil storage facility and refinery? Turkey is for ISIS?” State-owned Rossiya 24’s Middle East analyst Yevgeniy Satanokskiy said that President Erdogan had “gone mental” after Russia scuttled his plans for the “liquidation of Syria.” He also said, “We stepped on the most painful part of his organism, on his wallet and on the feeling that the sultan can do whatever he wants.” Ilya Varlamov, a popular anti-Putin blogger, tweeted, “The Turks have gone fucking insane of course.”
Leonid Isayev, a Russian Arabist, said on the radio program Echo of Moscow that Turkey had essesntially declared war on Russia by downing the Fencer. He also compared Turkey’s support of Syrian rebels to Russia’s support of separatists in eastern Ukraine saying, “Turkish leader Erdogan has invested too much in the last five years to give up his Syrian project.”
President Erdogan challenged Russia’s accusations saying that he would resign if Russia could provide evidence that Turkey was trading oil with IS. He stated that all of Turkey’s gas and oil imports were conducted legally. Turkey insists that it only supports “moderate” opposition groups.
“No country has been more important for the rebels than Turkey," said Middle East expert Mouin Rabbani. "The Jordanians were much more selective, while the Turks just opened the spigot on the assumption that the more open the border, the more support goes in, the faster Assad goes." President Erdogan aligned himself with the “glorious resistance” in November 2011. It was Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) that helped to organize the first in a series of Syrian military defectors into what would become the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA still uses Turkish soil to plan operations. At a CIA-run Joint Operations Center (JOC), FSA brigades receive both training and U.S.-made Raytheon BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) to destroy Syrian military tanks.
In May 2015, a video from 2014 released by Turkish media showed Turkish customs agents inspecting an MIT truck. According to the truck’s manifest, it was simply carrying humanitarian aid, but agents found ammunition and shells that the Turkish media said were meant to be delivered to Islamist groups. President Erdogan charged two of journalists from the newspaper that released the video with espionage and aiding terrorist organizations. The journalists were subsequently arrested.
Turkey has also supported the Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fatah). This coalition of Islamist groups including al-Nusra is also backed by Saudi Arabia, and it seized control of Syria’s Idlib province in a March 2015 offensive that Turkey and Saudi Arabia supported. Two border crossings controlled by an Army of Conquest faction handles 300 trucks per day providing the group with up to USD 660,000 in revenue per day.
It was only in 2014 that Turkey, under international pressure, instituted better regulations on those entering and exiting the country. Before that, bearded men with tactical backpacks and clothing were a common sight in Turkish airports in Istanbul, Antakya, and Gaziantep. From there, these fighters would travel to Syria to link up with IS.
Many also found Turkey’s reluctance to defend the border town of Kobani from takeover by IS to be disturbing. Observers believed that Turkish non-intervention was part of a strategy to ensure that no Kurdish state would be established on the Syria-Turkey border. Only U.S. air support saved Kobani from being overrun by the caliphate. Turkish airstrikes conducted around that time did hit some IS targets, but they mostly hit PKK targets in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Turkey also bombed PKK shelters and storage facilities in northern Iraq.
Turkey has reportedly gone to great lengths to make sure that its relationship with IS goes unnoticed. In December 2015, journalists from Russia’s Rossiya 1 TV station were detained and deported from Turkey. The reporters had been investigating ties between Ankara and the IS oil trade. The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the incident. The detained crew were from the program “Special Correspondent” hosted by Aleksandr Buzaladze. They were detained in southeastern Turkey by authorities in civilian attire.
The crew’s previous work in Istanbul and Ankara reportedly went uninterrupted, but things changed when they traveled to the border between Syria and Turkey. As they attempted to enter Gaziantep province, the crew was arrested in Hatay province. Turkish authorities were especially concerned if the crew had a camera. They had left it in their luggage but this did not stop Turkish authorities from taking their documents and transporting them to a police station.
At the station the crew were photographed, fingerprinted, and examined by a doctor to confirm their sanity. Turkish police did not explain the reason for the camera crew’s deportation. The police then took them to the airport and they were soon on a plane bound for Russia. The whole time, Turkish authorities refused to cooperate with Russian diplomats. The Russian Foreign Ministry publicly stated that the TV crew may have been detained because it uncovered information that Ankara wanted to be kept hidden.
Of the 15,000-20,000 foreign fighters to join IS many have first flown to Turkish airports in Istanbul or Adana. Others have arrived by ferry along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. The southern cities of Hatay –where the Fencer was shot down – and Gaziantep served as staging areas for IS fighters. This influx of foreigners using Turkey to travel to Syria began in mid-2012 but was curtailed in 2014 under U.S. and European Union pressure. The foreign fighters in Hatay and Gaziantep would use those cities’ hotels, coffee shops, and bus stations.
Turkey has, nevertheless, arrested 500 suspected jihadists in connection with a 20 July 2015 suicide bombing in Turkey’s southeast that killed 32 people. Turkish authorities arrested some as they crossed the Turkey-Syria border while it raided the homes of others.
Still, Turkey’s policy toward jihadist groups such as IS remains one of support, and this network extends beyond Syria and Turkey. Turkey plays a key role in a channel that smuggles fighters and weapons into Syria – a so-called “rat line.” Perhaps what is most disturbing is the role that the U.S. has played in maintaining this network. One component of the rat line that the U.S. supported reportedly operated not out of Syria or Turkey but Libya – in a port city called Benghazi.
With help from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, the CIA developed a Libya-based channel for supporting rebel groups in Syria. Britain’s MI6 (Military Intelligence 6) also assisted in the effort which involved smuggling weapons from Libya to southern Turkey and across the Syrian border. The operation reportedly began shortly after Colonel Moammar El-Gadhafi’s death on 20 October 2011.The CIA and MI6 transported the weapons while Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar provided funding. Some of the groups the U.S. was arming were jihadists affiliated with al-Qa‘ida. Many of the arms came from the stores of Colonel Gadhafi (deceased by then as a result of bayonet sodomy). The U.S. set up a number of front companies masquerading as Australian businesses that were staffed by retired U.S. military personnel who handled the procurement and shipping of the weapons, unbeknownst as to their true employer’s identity. Then-CIA Director David Petraeus ran the Libyan operation, but denied any involvement in it. Turkey, according to the report, had coopted the gun-running program to provide arms as well as logistical and technical assistance not only to “moderate” rebels but jihadists such as al-Nusra and IS. The “moderates” had mostly fled Syria with the FSA reduced to a fledgling group based at a Turkish air base.
While the CIA played an active role in the arms shipments, many in the military disapproved of the Obama administration’s policy. In 2013 a report drafted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) stated that the fall of the Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s regime would lead to chaos in the Middle East with jihadists taking control of the country. The report was derived from signals intelligence (SIGINT), imagery intelligence (IMINT), and human intelligence (HUMINT), and it essentially dismissed any idea of the White House’s policy succeeding. The assessment concluded that any support the U.S. was providing to the anti-Assad opposition was going to jihadists. According to Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (USA, Ret.), then-DIA director, this intelligence “got enormous pushback from the Obama administration.” General Flynn recalled, “I felt that they did not want to hear the truth.”
One of the Libyan compounds involved in the ratline was a classified CIA annex located in a longtime Libyan port city, Benghazi. On 11 September 2012 the compound, located near the U.S. embassy, suffered an attack that killed four Americans – Ambassador John Christopher Stevens, State Department computer specialist Sean Smith, and Global Response Staff (GRS; an organization tasked with providing security for CIA compounds and case officers) contractors Tyrone “‘Rone” Woods and Glenn “Bub” Doherty (both former Navy SEALs). While the alleged failures of the Obama administration to provide security for the compound made headlines, what received little attention was a classified annex of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s (SSCI) Benghazi report which mentioned a meeting between Presidents Obama and Erdogan in 2012 that discussed the gun-running operation.
According to a 1970s law, the Hughes-Ryan Act, the executive branch was supposed to inform Congress of the operation, but it was able to avoid this legal hurdle with the help of MI6, which classified the gun-running as a liaison operation with the CIA. The annex of the report discussing the rat line only made it into the hands of a select number of Congressional staffers, the ranking Democrat and Republican leaders in the House and the Senate and the ranking Democrats and Republicans on the SSCI – the so-called “Gang of Eight.” According to a former intelligence official, the consulate “had no real political role,” and “[its] only mission was to provide cover for the moving of arms.”
Following the Benghazi attack, journalists from The Washington Post recovered Ambassador Stevens’s journal. In it were references to a scheduled 10 September 2012 meeting with the head of operations at the CIA annex, a man known only in the media as “Bob.” On 11 September, the day he died, he was scheduled to meet with a representative from Al-Marfa Shipping and Maritime Services, a Tripoli-based company. According to a JCS adviser, the company was involved in transferring arms to the anti-Asad opposition.
The Benghazi attack stopped CIA operations in Libya but not the arms transfers as a whole. In fact, the U.S. now had almost no control over what Turkey provided the jihadists whether it be weapons or information. Within weeks of the Benghazi attack, Syrian rebels received over 40 man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). On 27 November 2012, one rebel group used a MANPADS to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter. However, there was no indication that these missiles came from a U.S. covert operation. Some speculated that the MANPADS came from Qatar or looted Syrian military armories.
A 2013 DIA assessment warned that jihadists dominated the CIA-funded anti-Assad forces. This did not stop the flow of arms. The weapons from Colonel Gadhafi’s arms depots had created an international arms bazaar with high prices. In July 2013, as part of an effort to appease President Asad, the JCS sought to interfere with the CIA’s shipment of arms to the rebels. A JCS representative approached the CIA with an idea of introducing cheaper weapons into the arms flow to the rebels. The JCS also worked with elements in the Turkish government not loyal to President Erdogan. In the end, the anti-Asad opposition received mostly Soviet small arms as well as the most obsolete weapons in the U.S. arsenal, namely M1 carbines that had not seen service since the Korean War. The JCS adviser said that the hope was to send a clear message to President Asad: “We have the power to diminish a presidential policy in its tracks.”
Saudi Arabia was also providing arms to the jihadist elements of the anti-Assad opposition. In January 2014 CIA Director John Brennan summoned American and Sunni Arab intelligence chiefs to a secret meeting in order to persuade the Saudis to stop supporting jihadist elements among the opposition. “The Saudis told us they were happy to listen,’ the JCS adviser said, ‘so everyone sat around in Washington to hear Brennan tell them that they had to get on board with the so-called moderates. His message was that if everyone in the region stopped supporting al-Nusra and Isis their ammunition and weapons would dry up, and the moderates would win out.” The Saudis did not listen to Brennan. They only increased their efforts to support the jihadists. Because the U.S. did nothing to stop them, they also ended up supporting jihadists.
By 2012 many U.S. intelligence analysts believed that the rebels were losing the war which upset President Erdogan. He felt that his funds were being wasted, and saw the U.S.’s withdrawal from the gun-running operations as a betrayal. The U.S. also learned that the MIT, Turkey’s national intelligence agency, and the Gendarmerie, a militarized law enforcement agency, were working with al-Nusra including in efforts to develop a chemical weapons program for the jihadist group. The MIT handled political liaisons while the Gendarmerie handled logistics and military training – including in the use of chemical weapons. In 2013, this dark alliance would prove how desperately President Erdogan wanted the U.S. to interfere in Syria and overthrow the Asad regime.
The Thin Red Line
There are reports that President Erdogan secretly supports Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria, and may have coordinated with the group to launch chemical attacks in 2013 that the U.S. publicly attributed to the Asad regime. According to a former senior U.S. intelligence official, “We knew there were some in the Turkish government who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.”
In late May 2013, the CIA had briefed the White House on al-Nusra’s sarin weaponization program. IS was also working on a chemical weapons program. Al-Nusra was operating in areas close to Damascus including Eastern Ghouta. An intelligence report distributed in mid-summer 2013 profiled Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, a former chemical weapons expert with the Iraqi military who moved his operations to Syria. There, he reportedly joined al-Nusra. He has experience producing mustard gas and was implicated in making and using sarin. Ahmed is a high-value U.S. military target. A four-page report delivered on 20 June 2013 to DIA Deputy Director David R. Shedd indicated that al-Nusra indeed had the ability to produce chemical weapons.
In late July, Shedd spoke of al-Nusra’s chemical capabilities at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “I count no less than 1200 disparate groups in the opposition,” he told the audience. “And within the opposition, the al-Nusra Front is … most effective and is gaining in strength.” He said that this was “of serious concern to us. If left unchecked, I am very concerned that the most radical elements will take over.” Shedd also mentioned IS in his speech. He insisted that the Syrian Civil War “will only grow worse over time … Unfathomable violence is yet to come.” Because the reports prepared by his agency were highly-classified, Shedd did not mention chemical weapons in the presentation.
In the summer of 2013, the FSA alerted the U.S. to a number of attacks on its fighters by al-Nusra mujahidin. Some observers speculated that this indicated a greater FSA fear of al-Nusra than the Syrian government. The Obama Administration, in its public statements on the civil war, focuses mostly on the role played by regime defectors that make up groups such as the FSA. Administration figures such as Secretary Kerry have publicly downplayed the role played by jihadists in the conflict.
On 20 June 2013 analysts for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) prepared a highly-classified briefing on a budding al-Nusra sarin program which the report called “the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort.” The paper went on to state that because of the relative freedom it is has to operate in Syria, al-Nusra’s chemical weapons programs would be difficult to disrupt. The report also claimed that “Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.”
In May 2013, Turkish police arrested more than ten al-Nusra jihadists in the country’s southern region. According to local police, they were in possession of over two kilograms of sarin. A 130-page indictment accused the group of attempting to purchase fuses, piping for mortar construction, and sarin chemical precursors. After a brief detention, the Turkish government released five of the men. Among them was the group’s ringleader, Haytham Qassab, originally slated for a 25-year sentence. Qassab identified himself as a member of al-Nusra. He was also directly connected with al-Nusra’s emir for military manufacturing, Abd-al-Ghani. Qassab and an associate named Khalid Ousta worked with Halit Unalkaya, an employee of Zirve Export, a Turkish firm that supplies sarin precursors. Al-Ghani’s plan was to acquire the nerve agent and then travel to Syria in order to train others to start large-scale production at an unidentified lab. Afterward, the Turkish government attempted to play down the incident. Ankara’s ambassador to Moscow, Aydin Sezgin, claimed that the sarin was actually “anti-freeze.”
By 2013, President Erdogan was desperate to undermine the Asad government in Syria. Saudi Arabia had decreased its role in the war because of distance and logistics, and Jordan and Lebanon were not seen as viable avenues via which to transfer the weapons. With a rebel defeat in sight, President Erdogan feared that he would lose his opportunity to carve out a client state in Syria. The rebels – thousands of them – were also likely to turn on him if the Asad regime won the war. The Turkish president blamed his predicament on the U.S.
President Erdogan wanted to create an incident that would reinvigorate the U.S.’s support for the anti-Assad opposition. Even reports sent to then-CJCS General Martin Dempsey (USA) and the JCS indicated this. According to a former U.S. intelligence official, both General Dempsey and then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel received a briefing shortly before 21 August 2013 that discussed the Erdogan administration’s “acute anxiety” about the rebels’ imminent defeat. The briefing concluded that Turkey would “do something that would precipitate a US military response.”
As the war progressed, it appeared that only American airpower could prevent a Syrian victory. Though blame for the 2013 chemical attacks ultimately fell on the Asad regime, many in the IC and the military suspected the Turks’ involvement. A former intelligence official called the attack a “covert action” by the Erdogan administration to push the U.S. over the red line. According to the intelligence official, President Erdogan wanted to pull off “something spectacular” and that the decision to strike Damascus was made because United Nations inspectors arrived there on 18 August 2013.
On 16 May 2013 Presidents Obama and Erdogan met at the White House with limited tension in the air between the two men. During a dinner, Turkish officials insisted that Syria had crossed the red line and that the Obama administration should do more to respond. Sitting with President Obama were Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. With President Erdogan were Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and MIT chief Hakan Fidan, a stalwart Erdogan loyalist and supporter of the Syrian opposition. Fidan was there to help President Erdogan make the case that President Assad had crossed the red line. Fidan, at President Erdogan’s urging, tried to interject into the conversation only to be shot down twice by President Obama with the response “We know.” A furious President Erdogan, according to Donilon, waved his finger at President Obama shouting, “But your red line has been crossed!” President Obama’s response, directed at Fidan, was “We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria.” At a later press conference, President Obama stated that he and President Erdogan reached an agreement that President Asad “needs to go.”
The U.N. investigated the 2013 chemical attacks, the first of which occurred 19 March in Khan Al-Assal near the Syrian village of Aleppo. The gas attack killed 19 civilians and one Syrian soldier. Multiple individuals were injured. The U.N. reportedly interviewed multiple eyewitnesses to the attacks – including the doctors who treated the injured – who claimed that the rebels were responsible.
Another gas attack occurred in Damascus on 21 August 2013. Despite the Obama administration’s public claims, the president publicly ignored the fact that the U.S. intelligence community (IC) has acknowledged that President Asad is not the only faction in the Syria Civil War to possess sarin gas, the nerve toxin that the U.N. concluded was used in the rocket attack. The U.N. was unable to determine which side in the war launched the attack.
On 10 September 2013, President Obama issued a public statement that placed the blame for the nerve gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta on the Asad regime. President Obama also stated that he was going to respond to the gas attack with a military strike against the Asad regime. The president laid out his case as follows, “In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad’s chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighbourhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces.” Administration officials echoed his claims.
However, there are reports of dissent within the military and the IC. Some officials compared this cherry-picking to the intelligence processes that led up to the up to the pre-Vietnam War Gulf of Tonkin incident and the Iraq War. The intelligence indicated that the White House did not have any advance warning from the assumed source of the attack. Yet this is what the administration used to base its theory – passed off as fact by administration officials such as White House press secretary Jay Carney – that he Asad regime was responsible for the attack. (Carney called assertions that the Asad regime was not responsible for the attack “as preposterous as suggestions that the attack itself didn’t occur.”)
Many officials maintain that the Asad regime was not responsible for the chemical attack and that the Obama administration cherry-picked the intelligence to fit its own needs. In fact, internal intelligence reports indicate that the administration knew little more than the public about the attacks. The so-called Morning Report, a brief prepared by military intelligence community for the chairman of the JCS (CJCS) and the secretary of defense, first mentioned sarin attacks on 23 August, days after the attack when photographs and video footage of the attack had already appeared on YouTube, Facebook, and other social media sites. A copy of the Morning Report also goes to the national security adviser and the director of national intelligence (DNI). Reports indicate that the administration may have manipulated intelligence on the attacks to make it appear as though it received it in real time even though it only obtained this intelligence days after the attack.
In fact, according to documents provided by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton for the National Security Agency (NSA), there was no way that the U.S. could have known about the chemical attack in advance. One of the documents – classified higher than top secret – provided by Snowden described targeting President Asad’s office as an intelligence gap. The document said that the NSA was “able to monitor unencrypted communications among senior military officials at the outset of the civil war.” However, it was “a vulnerability that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces apparently later recognized.” The U.S. eventually lost the ability to eavesdrop on the communications of the Asad regime’s top military leaders. This meant that they would have been unable to intercept communications between President Asad and his military officials – namely communications regarding a nerve gas attack.
The NSA documents, provided to The Washington Post, also detailed the existence of a sensor system positioned on the ground in Syria by the U.S. which was used to monitor a change in the status of the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal. The system was operated by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The NRO reportedly had sensors positioned at all known chemical warfare sites in Syria. The sensors are designed to provide constant monitoring of the movement of chemical warheads stored by the military. They are also meant to alert both U.S. and Israeli intelligence about when the warheads are being loaded with sarin.
A warhead loaded with sarin is only useful for a few days; the nerve agent begins eating away at the rocket almost immediately. Therefore, according to a former U.S. intelligence official, “The Syrian army doesn’t have three days to prepare for a chemical attack.” The NRO sensors detected no activity in the days leading up to 21 August. Though it remains possible that the Syrian military could have obtained the sarin via other means, this means that the White House would have not been able to obtain information on the gas attack as it developed.
The sensors have worked in the past, picking up possible sarin production activities at a site in December 2012. It was unclear if this was part of an exercise (something many militaries do with their chemical arsenals) or preparation for an attack. Shortly after, President Obama publicly warned about the use of sarin gas in the war. This could indicate that the president received intelligence from what the sensors detected. Eventually, the activity was confirmed to be part of an exercise. The president did not make similar statements before the 21 August attacks.
The NSA’s technicians continued to monitor President Asad’s office, but they deemed communications from Syrian army units in combat less important and did not analyze them in real time. According to the former intelligence official, “There are literally thousands of tactical radio frequencies used by field units in Syria for mundane routine communications…It would take a huge number of NSA cryptological technicians to listen in – and the useful return would be zilch.” The chatter is still stored on computers. Once the attack occurred, the NSA’s technicians began searching these computers for any information related to the attack such as key words. Therefore, the IC analyzed the attacks after they occurred and treated this information as if they had obtained it beforehand.
According to one document, Syria began “preparing chemical munitions” three days before the attack. This document was prepared by the White House not the IC. Secretary of State John Kerry provided more details on the document saying that Syria’s “chemical weapons personnel were on the ground, in the area, making preparations” by 18 August. He added, “We know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.” These statements indicate that the White House was tracking the developments in real time – it was not.
Acting on the assumption that the U.S. knew about the attack three days before it occurred, the FSA released a statement expressing its outrage that the U.S. did not warn of the attack. The attack killed over 1,400 people with 400 of them being children. The Obama Administration initially claimed that at least 1,429 people died in the attack. A Syrian human rights group reported 502 deaths while Doctors Without Borders (Médicins sans Frontières; MSF) estimated at least 355. A French report listed 281 known fatalities. The Wall Street Journal later reported that the U.S. body count was actually an estimate determined by CIA analysts who scanned hundreds of YouTube videos from Eastern Ghouta into a computer system and looked for images of the dead.
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) later said, “Let’s be clear, the United States did not watch, in real time, as this horrible attack took place. The intelligence community was able to gather and analyse information after the fact and determine that elements of the Assad regime had in fact taken steps to prepare prior to using chemical weapons.” However, this claim went relatively unnoticed by the press who mostly toed the administration line.
Some of the intelligence which the White House claimed was related to the 21 August attacks actually dated back to the December 2012 exercises, namely when the Syrian military mobilized chemical warfare units and distributed gas masks to its troops. These were not descriptions of a specific event, but standard procedures the Syrian military would follow before any chemical attack. It is unknown, however, if President Obama was aware that this was an analysis of standard Syrian military protocols.
According to a U.N. report released on 16 September 2013, sarin was indeed the gas used in the attack. The report also stated that the inspectors’ access to the site, which occurred five days after the attack, was controlled by rebel groups. The report read, “the locations have been well travelled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the mission … During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated.”
An annex to the report included screenshots from YouTube videos that supposedly showed 330-mm rockets used exclusively by the regime. The administration used this evidence to make its case. Other experts, however, maintained that the rocket was actually an improvised munition manufactured locally. The rocket does not precisely match the specifications of a similar albeit smaller rocket used by the Syrian military. However, analysis of two of the rockets’ trajectories, based on the U.N. report, indicated that the rockets were launched from a Syrian military base nine kilometers from the impact zone. An improvised rocket range would have a range of two kilometers or less. The rockets involved also carried a larger payload of sarin than previously estimated.
In the March and April chemical attacks, both the Asad regime and the rebels accused each other of using chemical weapons. The U.N. concluded that chemical attacks did occur, but it could not determine which party was responsible. The White House, nevertheless blamed the Syrian government for all of the attacks. The U.S. later increased non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition.
In anticipation of a U.S. military deployment to Syria to seize the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal, the JCS ordered an all-source analysis of the potential threat. The U.S. could have used its troops to protect the weapons from the rebels as well as deny them to the Syrian government. However, if they advertised their objective as protecting the weapons from the rebels, the regime would be less likely to attack them. The operations order (OpOrd) also mentioned the possibility that rebel forces in Syria could attack U.S. troops with chemical agents, implying that the rebels indeed possessed makeshift weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
Many in the JCS were skeptical of a U.S. ground invasion of Syria. In July then-CJCS General Martin Dempsey (USA) told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces” were required to seize Syrian WMD caches, which were spread over great distances. An invasion would also require “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers.”
The Pentagon put the number of U.S. troops required to police Syria at 70,000. To deny the rebels potential delivery capabilities, U.S. troops would also have to secure Syria’s rocket arsenal. In a letter to Senator Carl Levin, General Dempsey also said, “We have learned from the past ten years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state … Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.” One special operations adviser said that the American airstrikes on Syria would have essentially have been “like providing close air support for al-Nusra.” The White House continued to insist that only the regime possessed chemical weapons, and this narrative was used to persuade Congress to authorize military action against the Asad government.
Following the March and April 2013 sarin attacks in Syria, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough ordered the curtailment of the distribution of a DIA report that concerned intelligence on chemical weapons in the Syria conflict. The decision was reportedly made as the JCS began drawing up plans for a ground intervention in Syria with the objective of eliminating chemical weapons. The JCS maintained that it was unsure what President Obama meant by “red line;” would it entail, as a U.S. intelligence official recalled, “[t]roops on the ground? Massive strike? Limited strike?”
Early on, the JCS provided a list of 35 mostly military targets in Syria which the White House later rejected because their loss would not be “painful” enough for the Assad regime. According to a former U.S. intelligence official, both the target list and the mission became larger. The White House ordered that submarines equipped with Raytheon-built Tomahawk cruise missiles be moved off the Syrian coast. Since the warheads of the Assad regime’s missiles were buried too far underground for the Tomahawks to destroy, two air wings of Boeing B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers were redeployed to air bases closer to Syria; each aircraft carried a payload which included multiple 2,000-pound bombs. The Obama administration also requested unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for target selection and search and rescue (SAR) teams put on standby to rescue downed pilots. The target list now included electrical grids, oil and gas depots, command and control facilities, logistics and weapons depots, and military and intelligence facilities.
Even though the U.K’s parliament ultimately voted against intervention in Syria, then-Prime Minister Cameron already ordered six Royal Air Force (RAF) Eurofighter Typhoons deployed to Cyprus and a Tomahawk-equipped submarine stationed off the Syrian coast. France also planned to contribute Dassault Rafale fighters to the intervention, striking targets in western Syria. However, President Obama announced on 29 August that he would halt the operation and seek Congressional approval even though the JCS had already decided on 2 September as H hour.
From the beginning, the U.S. military remained skeptical of the Obama administration’s claims that the Assad regime was responsible for the attacks and that only it possessed chemical weapons. Particularly skeptical was General Dempsey. The military’s skepticism stemmed primarily from its belief that, according to the former intelligence official, “Assad was winning the war.” The military pressed the IC for more conclusive evidence. General Dempsey had also reportedly upset many in the Obama Administration with his warnings against U.S. military intervention in Syria.
As it turns out, Russian military intelligence had recovered samples of the chemical agent used in Ghoutta and passed them on for analysis by the British MI6 at a U.K. lab called Porton Down. The Russian who delivered the sample was reportedly a trustworthy source. Porton Down officials confirmed the samples tested positive for sarin. Since the first use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War, U.S. and allied intelligence agencies have established an information sharing regime to determine the identity of chemicals employed. They were unable to determine the identity of the compound used in the spring 2013 attacks, but after the 21 August attack, the opposition announced that the gas was sarin deployed by the Syrian military. This was before any analysis had been conducted. Porton Down’s findings, however, maintained that the Asad regime was not responsible.
President Obama’s last minute decision to cancel the operation came not from a snap decision to seek Congressional approval but after being confronted by General Dempsey about the Porton Down findings. President Obama sought Congressional approval hoping that if the Syria intervention went awry, the legislative branch would share blame with him as the JCS’s conclusions indicated that a U.S. intervention would have disastrous effects on the Middle East. However, Congress wanted to hold hearings before the intervention to verify that the Syrian military was indeed responsible for the chemical attacks. Thus, the White House called off the attack and agreed to a Russian-brokered deal that called for the dismantlement of Syria’s chemical weapons under U.N. supervision. The administration, however, did not change its tone that the Syrian military was responsible for the sarin attacks.
On 26 September 2013 the U.S. joined with Russia in approving a draft U.N. resolution calling on Syria to dismantle to its chemical weapons program. The resolution was adopted on 27 September by the U.N. Security Council (UNSC). The resolution read: “no party in Syria should use, develop, produce, acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer [chemical] weapons,” implicitly implying that the rebels also possessed chemical weapons. It also stipulated that the UNSC be notified if non-state actors came into the possession of chemical weapons. Ironically, with the Asad government destroying its chemical arsenal, al-Nusra could and some other jihadist entities could end up being the only groups in the conflict in possession of such weapons.
The sarin was supplied through Turkey and Turkey also provided the training in sarin production and the handling of the chemical weapon. Intercepts uncovered after the incident also reveal Turkish officials celebrating the attack and congratulating each other on a successful operation. Since the White House canceled the airstrikes on Syria, there has been almost no additional evidence indicating the Assad regime’s involvement in the chemical attacks. The White House, reportedly, does not want to back-pedal and publicly blame the Erdogan administration for the attacks after fervently lobbying that the Syrian military was responsible.
In March 2014 – a few days before local elections were scheduled in Turkey – a recording allegedly of a Turkish government national security meeting leaked onto YouTube. Officials in the meeting reportedly discussed the idea of conducting a false-flag operation that would give Turkey a pretense to intervene militarily in Syria. The attack was to take place near the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I who founded the Ottoman Empire. The tomb is located near Aleppo and was ceded to Turkey in 1921 by French-controlled Syria. One voice heard in the recording is reportedly MIT chief Fidan’s who says, “Now look, my commander, if there is to be justification, the justification is I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land [in the vicinity of the tomb]. That’s not a problem. Justification can be created.” The Turkish government acknowledged that it had held a national security meeting discussing the situation in Syria, but said that the audio in the YouTube video had been manipulated. The government subsequently banned public access to YouTube.
President Erdogan’s influence over the anti-Asad jihad reportedly extends beyond Syria and even Libya. Imad Moustapha is Syria’s ambassador to China, a state that has invested USD 30 billion in post-war reconstruction for Syria. China is also concerned about IS. According to Moustapha, “China regards the Syrian crisis from three perspectives,” he said: international law and legitimacy; global strategic positioning; and the activities of jihadist Uighurs. The Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic group living in China’s Xinjiang province which also borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. China sees the region as a gateway for jihadist activities in China and the rest of the world.
Many Uighurs now fighting in Syria are members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a jihadist group that seeks to establish an amirate in Xinjiang. “The fact that they have been aided by Turkish intelligence to move from China into Syria through Turkey has caused a tremendous amount of tension between the Chinese and Turkish intelligence,” Moustapha said. “China is concerned that the Turkish role of supporting the Uighur fighters in Syria may be extended in the future to support Turkey’s agenda in Xinjiang. We are already providing the Chinese intelligence service with information regarding these terrorists and the routes they crossed from on travelling into Syria.”
According to a Washington, D.C.-based foreign policy analyst, “Erdogan has been bringing Uighurs into Syria by special transport while his government has been agitating in favour of their struggle in China. Uighur and Burmese Muslim terrorists who escape into Thailand somehow get Turkish passports and are then flown to Turkey for transit into Syria.” This represents yet another jihadist rat line in which President Erdogan is involved.
The Uighur rat line has reportedly funneled about a few hundred to thousands of fighters through the years. The jihadists move from China through Kazakhstan then into Turkey and then finally into IS territory. As many as 5,000 Uighur fighters have arrived in Turkey since 2013 with 2,000 supposedly going on to fight in Syria. According to Moustapha, there are at least 860 Uighurs fighting in Syria right now.
This represents a chance for the U.S. and China, for years geopolitical rivals, to cooperate. Uighurs in Syria have been trained by IS in survival tactics which could aid them in committing terrorist attacks in China. “If Assad fails,” said Christina Lin who worked as Chinese scholar attached to the Pentagon under former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “jihadi fighters from Russia’s Chechnya, China’s Xinjiang and India’s Kashmir will then turn their eyes towards the home front to continue jihad, supported by a new and well-sourced Syrian operating base in the heart of the Middle East.” Chechen jihadists have also traveled to Syria through Turkey and some of them, according to retired Russian colonel Vladimir Mukhin, have participated in attacks on the Russian base in Latakia.
It does not appear that the U.S. is going to let up its support for the anti-Asad opposition. Hero of the Iraq surge General David Petraeus (USA, Ret.) reportedly expressed his desire to colleagues that the U.S. arm “moderate” elements of Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qa‘ida affiliate in Syria. General Petraeus insists that what he meant by this was to coopt members of al-Nusra that joined the group not for ideological reasons, but because it appeared to a powerhouse in terms of opposition groups. The U.S. would then use these so-called moderates to fight IS and the Asad regime. He compared the idea to his surge strategy where Sunni tribes originally aligned with al-Qa‘ida in Iraq (AQI; which would later become IS) switched sides to the U.S. when it prevented a better alternative. Many of these Sunni insurgent groups had killed Americans.
Al-Nusra has carried out multiple suicide bombings against Christians and non-Sunni Muslim sects in Syria. It has both attacked the FSA and conducted joint operations with it. It has also spoken out against the Syrian National Coalition, another secular rebel faction. Its objective is to overthrow the Asad regime and turn Syria into a sharia state.
The general’s plan proved to be highly controversial for many U.S. officials especially considering that the U.S. began the so-called “War on Terror” as a response to al-Qa‘ida’s 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. The U.S. also declared al-Nusra a terrorist organization in 2012, and conducted airstrikes in 2014 against the so-called Khurasan Group, a number of al-Qa‘ida jihadists with Western passports sent to Syria to smuggle bombs onto airliners. The U.S. only targets al-Nusra in Syria when it believes that its members are attempting to attack the West. General Petraeus still maintains considerable influence within the Obama administration. As CIA director, he and then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta urged President Obama to back “moderate” rebels as the Syrian Civil War erupted in 2011.
It is unknown how the general’s proposed vetting process would work. U.S. officials insist that any deal with al-Nusra is off the table, but the U.S. is not opposed to working with other groups.
Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has supported dialogue with Ahrar al-Sham, an openly jihadist group fighting the Asad regime. The group has expressed a desire to establish a sharia state in Syria, has conducted joint operations with IS and al-Nusra, and was founded by the former deputy of current al-Qa‘ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Ford insists that al-Nusra and Ahrar are ideologically opposed while other U.S. officials insist that the group is only trying to improve its public image in order to secure arms from Washington and that it plans to seize power once President Asad is deposed. American journalist Peter Theo Curtis was actually freed because of contacts that Qatar maintained with al-Nusra.
U.S. airstrikes against IS may also be indirectly benefiting al-Nusra. Al-Nusra has taken advantage of the power vacuum, and some U.S. officials are concerned that the U.S.’s focus on destroying IS has blinded it to the resurgence of al-Qa‘ida. The U.S. air campaign has not targeted al-Nusra to the extent that it has targeted IS. Al-Nusra is also looking to build new alliances with local groups.
“Now, al Nusra Front and [ISIS] don’t get along… I guess you could say to the extent that we’re weakening [ISIS], maybe it benefits al Nusra Front,” said the commander of the U.S.’s war on IS, Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland. Al Nusra’s standing in Aleppo is under threat, and it may be looking to change that by seeking new alliances with local groups. Opponents of striking al-Nusra believe that doing so could turn the Syrian Civil War into a conflict between the Asad regime and IS. CENTCOM supports doing more.
Nevertheless, al-Nusra is reportedly not behaving as brutally as IS. It has attempted to build rapport with the local population in order to convince the people that they are the true vanguards of the jihad. It has also sought to portray itself as a credible opposition force against the Asad regime. This approach is a result of a series of setbacks that the group experienced in 2014. It has made itself appear as more of a local force, and this actually makes it more effective. Some U.S. officials also believe that al-Qa‘ida will use its newfound strength to target IS. The biggest threat to al-Nusra comes from the Russia airstrikes, which the U.S. has been highly critical of.
In the end, it is likely that Turkey will continue to meddle in the Syrian Civil War. According to a former U.S. intelligence official, “We could go public if it was somebody other than Erdogan, but Turkey is a special case. They’re a Nato ally. The Turks don’t trust the West. They can’t live with us if we take any active role against Turkish interests. If we went public with what we know about Erdogan’s role with the gas, it’d be disastrous. The Turks would say: ‘We hate you for telling us what we can and can’t do.’”
“We can handle the Saudis,” said a JCS adviser. “We can handle the Muslim Brotherhood. You can argue that the whole balance in the Middle East is based on a form of mutually assured destruction between Israel and the rest of the Middle East, and Turkey can disrupt the balance – which is Erdogan’s dream. We told him we wanted him to shut down the pipeline of foreign jihadists flowing into Turkey. But he is dreaming big – of restoring the Ottoman Empire – and he did not realise the extent to which he could be successful in this.”
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons