Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 16, 2016

Saudi Arabia, Syria and the smoking gun

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 10:48 pm

For those on the left who have taken up the cause of Bashar al-Assad’s survival, the universal tactic is to make the rebels seem so awful that he becomes a “lesser evil” by comparison in the same way that Hillary Clinton is in the 2016 elections. And for that tactic to succeed, it is essential to play up the alleged Saudi and CIA connections to the Syrian rebels and downplay to the vanishing point any of the goals put forward by the overwhelmingly peaceful and democratic opposition of early 2011. Most of all, you have to search for that secret document that proves once and for all that the Syrian revolution was no revolution at all and merely a proxy war by Washington and its Wahhabi allies against a secular state that despite its authoritarian tendencies was far better than al-Qaeda or ISIS. Wikileaks becomes a primary resource for the search for a smoking gun, the latest instance of which is a 2014 Hillary Clinton email that was cited by both Ben Norton and Patrick Cockburn.

Norton’s Salon.com article is titled “Leaked Hillary Clinton emails show U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar supported ISIS”. He writes:

A recently leaked 2014 email from Hillary Clinton acknowledges, citing Western intelligence sources, that the U.S.-backed regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported ISIS.

“We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on 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,” the document states.

This adds to a growing body of evidence that theocratic Gulf monarchies have helped fuel the surge of extremist groups throughout the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Cockburn writes an article titled “We finally know what Hillary Clinton knew all along – US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding Isis” for The Independent, referring to the same email:

It is fortunate for Saudi Arabia and Qatar that the furore over the sexual antics of Donald Trump is preventing much attention being given to the latest batch of leaked emails to and from Hillary Clinton. Most fascinating of these is what reads like a US State Department memo, dated 17 August 2014, on the appropriate US response to the rapid advance of Isis forces, which were then sweeping through northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

The memo says: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isis and other radical groups in the region.” This was evidently received wisdom in the upper ranks of the US government, but never openly admitted because to it was held that to antagonise Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, Turkey and Pakistan would fatally undermine US power in the Middle East and South Asia.

Here’s what can be established. An email from John Podesta to Clinton dated August 27, 2014 replied to her earlier email with a one-liner: “Syria elements are vexing”. You can read the entire thread on Wikileaks with its “smoking gun”, a State Department memo stating that “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isis and other radical groups in the region.”

Now if you are going to come up with smoking guns, you might as well quote the Vice President of the USA who not only said the same thing as the August 2014 email but openly at a Harvard University meeting that Norton referred to in his article: “They [Turkey and Saudi Arabia] were so determined to take down” Assad that they “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra, and al-Qaida, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world.”

Now I wouldn’t put much stock in anything Biden says, especially when he refers to al-Nusra and al-Qaeda as independent entities. This is like referring to ISIS and the Islamic State or Louis Proyect and the Unrepentant Marxist. But the more important question is whether the words coming out of his mouth or in the Podesta-Clinton email exchange truly represent the connections between Saudi Arabia and either ISIS or al-Nusra. It is entirely possible that both Biden and the State Department memo quoted in the email are nonsense.

To start with, there is an important question that seems to be of little interest to either Norton or Cockburn. Does the Saudi royal family support the goals of ISIS or al-Nusra? Let’s take a look at al-Qaeda, the sponsor of al-Nusra.

In February 2006 al Qaeda organized an assault on a Saudi refinery that was thwarted by security forces. Al Qaeda issued a statement hailing the abortive attack: “With grace from God alone, hero mujahideen from the squadron of Sheikh Osama bin Laden succeeded today (Friday)…in penetrating a plant for refining oil and gas in the town of Abqaiq in the eastern part of the peninsula, and then allowed two car bombs in driven by two martyrdom seekers.” Six years later the campaign was continuing as the BBC reported:

Saudi Arabia’s continuing campaign against al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism has enjoyed considerable success. The atmosphere in the country is noticeably more relaxed than it was a few years ago when the kingdom was buffeted by several major suicide bombings.

But the arrest earlier this month of eight men accused of plotting terror attacks in Riyadh and Jeddah is proof that the campaign is not over. As one Saudi newspaper editorial put it: “Renewed vigilance is required.”

Of the eight men arrested in the latest sweep, two were Saudis and the other six were Yemenis. There seems little doubt that the terror plot was hatched in Yemen.

So it doesn’t matter apparently that al-Qaeda not only calls for the overthrow of the Saudi government but acts on it. What about ISIS? Surely the Saudi state so committed to Wahhabist beliefs would support the Islamic State, even though the call for a caliphate involves the abolition of all Arab states run either by Sunnis or Shiites.

Like al-Qaeda, ISIS has declared the royal family to be infidels and has already launched armed attacks from within Iraq. You can read about the growing threat to the Saudi establishment by recruits to the Islamic State who are killing wantonly as the March 31, 2016 NY Times reported:

The men were not hardened militants. One was a pharmacist, another a heating and cooling technician. One was a high school student.

They were six cousins, all living in Saudi Arabia, all with the same secret. They had vowed allegiance to the Islamic State — and they planned to kill another cousin, a sergeant in the kingdom’s counterterrorism force.

And that is what they did. In February, the group abducted Sgt. Bader al-Rashidi, dragged him to the side of a road south of this central Saudi city, and shot and killed him. With video rolling, they condemned the royal family, saying it had forsaken Islam.

In fact, Saudi Arabia is so spooked by such attacks that it has begun constructing a six-hundred-mile wall on the border of Iraq just to keep out such jihadists as the Christian Science Monitor reported on January 15, 2015—just the sort of thing that would turn Donald Trump green with envy:

The main function of the barrier will be keeping out ISIS militants, who have stated that among their goals is an eventual takeover of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, both of which lie deep inside Saudi territory, according to United Press International.

This past week, a commander and two guards on the Saudi-Iraq border were killed during an attack by Islamic State militants, the first direct ground assault by the group on the border.

“It is the first attack by Islamic State itself against Saudi Arabia and is a clear message after Saudi Arabia entered the international coalition against it,” Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with close ties to Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry, told Reuters.

But what really puts the cork in the barrel of the smoking gun is the all-important question of whether ISIS ever needed support from Saudi Arabia to begin with. It is common knowledge that the group seized weapons from those left behind by fleeing Iraqi soldiers as Amnesty International reported in December 2015. I invite you to read the entire report but if you don’t have the time or inclination, this snapshot should give you an idea of how ISIS armed itself with obviously no help from Saudi Arabia that sought nothing less than a wall of separation to keep the jihadists out.

screen-shot-2016-10-16-at-6-12-37-pm

Finally, there’s the question of financing. Was ISIS dependent on hand-outs from ultra-Wahhabist millionaires? Even if you accept (and you should) the obvious mutual hostility between the Saudi rulers and ISIS, should that rule out  the possibility that dissident Saudi millionaires were the main base of support for the “regime change” operation in Syria directed at Assad, the Islamic Republic in Iran and—who knows?—maybe Russia down the road?

The truth is that ISIS never needed a penny from wealthy Saudis or any other state in the region. In 2014 the RAND corporation reviewed 200 documents captured from ISIS and concluded that five percent of its revenues came from foreign donors. Mostly it relies on the following sources:

  • Proceeds from the occupation of territory (including control of banks, oil and gas reservoirs, taxation, extortion, and robbery of economic assets)
  • Kidnapping ransom
  • Material support provided by foreign fighters
  • Fundraising through modern communication networks

Wikipedia reports:

In mid-2014, Iraqi intelligence obtained information from an ISIL operative which revealed that the organisation had assets worth US$2 billion, making it the richest jihadist group in the world. About three-quarters of this sum is said to be represented by assets seized after the group captured Mosul in June 2014; this includes possibly up to US$429 million looted from Mosul’s central bank, along with additional millions and a large quantity of gold bullion stolen from a number of other banks in Mosul.

So that’s how ISIS became such a powerful factor in Iraq and Syria. It was not funded by the USA or Saudi Arabia or Qatar. It financed itself by exploiting Sunni grievances to the point where it was able to capture huge swaths of Iraqi territory and the wealth contained therein. Once it became the effective state in Sunni regions, it colonized Syria and began carrying out the same game plan. Unlike Iraq, there are militias in Syria that regarded it very early on as an enemy of their own project and sought to prevent it from getting a foothold. ISIS began slaughtering these fighters with their advance weaponry at the same time the Baathist air force was bombing them. Why people like Ben Norton or Patrick Cockburn would write such bullshit about ISIS and Syria is anybody’s guess, especially since they are effectively legitimizing the Baathist killing machine. Do they really believe that they are doing the job of an investigative journalist? Sadly, one of the greatest collateral damages of the nearly six-year war in Syria is the intellectual, moral and political decay of such men and women who have decided for reasons known only to them and the devils they worship the reason why.

5 Comments »

  1. It seems transparently clear on the basis of this evidence that Saudi Arabia, tel quel simply cannot be the Daddy Warbucks of ISIS. Obviously, some elements in the country, as was O. bin Laden, are very strongly against the regime, but the government would be committing suicide by backing their version of Wahhabism/Salafism.

    But then why do elements in the State Department and elsewhere insist on saying the things that are documented in the leaked communications?

    I find this very strange–and am not saying that in the tone of a Saturday Night Live paranoiac I just can’t account for it, since it apparently undermines the policy of seeking accommodation with Saudi which presumably all neoliberals and neoconservatives accept with one voice. Conspiracies aside, what is up with that?

    Comment by Pete Glosser — October 18, 2016 @ 12:44 pm

  2. It’s worth pointing out that the the memo quoted by Cockburn alleging that “the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia … are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isis” was not, as Cockburn claims, from the State Department. (It’s a flaw in Louis’ otherwise excellent article that he accepts that claim as good coin.)

    The memo was forwarded by Clinton to Podesta in August 2014, long after she had ceased to be Secretary of State, so how would she be in possession of a State Department document? The author of the memo is unknown, but the obvious candidate would be Clinton’s longtime confidant Sidney Blumenthal. I hadn’t read Ben Norton’s Salon.com article till Louis drew my attention to it but I see that he mentions Blumenthal as a possible author too (even though that undermines his own case).

    If so, the memo simply reflects Blumenthal’s personal views. At any rate, there is no basis for the assumption that it was an official government document. So we have no reason to accept Cockburn’s conclusion that the memo demonstrates that “the State Department and US intelligence clearly had no doubt that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were funding Isis” and that this was “received wisdom in the upper ranks of the US government”.

    So far as I’m aware there is very little evidence indicating any official belief that the Saudi regime has been supporting ISIS. Those who claim there is such an official belief are usually reduced to quoting that speech by Joe Biden.

    Comment by Bob — October 21, 2016 @ 4:36 pm

  3. Thanks, Bob. Great catch.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 21, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

  4. […] rout of Shi’ite control of the Sunni regions in Iraq in 2014. I tried to document this in an article that was written in reply to Ben Norton who like Patrick Cockburn relied on the Wikileaks email […]

    Pingback by A conversation with Anthony DiMaggio about Syria | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 29, 2016 @ 5:59 pm

  5. […] Saudi Arabia, Syria and the smoking gun (October 16, 2016) […]

    Pingback by Another way to access my posts, including those that predate my blog | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 6, 2017 @ 4:42 pm


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