Learning to Fight Like an American at the FSA Training Camp in Jordan

Here’s the article I mentioned a couple days ago: “I do not want to mention my name,” said a 20-year-old Free Syrian Army fighter, “because the camp we practiced in was highly classified.”

So classified, in fact, that the CIA—which is rumored to be running the camp (but declined to comment for this article)—still won’t acknowledge it exists.

For nearly a year, rumors have swirled about a covert, US-run training camp for FSA fighters in the vast Jordanian desert. (Jordanian intelligence also did not respond to requests for comment on this article.) And last week it was reported that the Obama administration appears to be expanding “its covert program of training and assistance for the Syrian opposition.” However, despite all this speculation, little is known about how this supposed Jordanian camp works, who trains there, and what tactics they learn.

I recently tracked down a fighter who said he’d completed the course and was willing to talk.

“Fighter A” is from Daraa, just a stone’s throw from the Jordanian border in southern Syria. He was in high school when the revolution twisted into civil war, and his plans to study law were set aside for a Kalashnikov; he joined the FSA at just 18 years old.

One day last May, when Fighter A was 19, he was taken aside and given some good news. “I was selected by the brigade commander to go to training camp,” he said. “I was told we would be trained on heavy weapons and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.” But he didn’t know exactly what to expect. “I had heard of military camps taking place, but I didn’t know where and when.”

The next morning, Fighter A and 39 other young men like him headed south into Jordan, their journey jointly choreographed by Daraa’s FSA military council and, allegedly, Jordanian intelligence. Mobile phones were confiscated, to be returned at the end of camp. No questions were asked. These men were going off the grid.

When the group finally arrived at a high-security military facility deep in the Jordanian desert, Fighter A found the last thing he expected: Americans.

“I was surprised when I saw foreign trainers,” he said. “The Americans who taught us wore military uniforms I did not recognize. We called them by their first names, and they spoke English to us.”

And so began a 40-day program of fitness, fighting tactics, and weapons training, all—according to Fighter A—barked out by US military instructors with interpreters at their sides, translating every order into Arabic. Recruits exercised in the morning and at night, knocking out set after set of crunches and push-ups and going for long runs. “The exercises were tiring, but I became fitter,” said Fighter A.

He was also well fed. “They served us the best types of food at the camp, grilled meat, mansaf (a Jordanian lamb dish), Kentucky Fried Chicken, soup, rice, Mexican chicken, and many other foods. Each person got American food or Arab food at his request.”

Accommodations on site were in pre-fabricated housing, and days were spent preparing for combat. “We were trained in urban warfare and street fighting: how to break into buildings as a team, how to blow up houses held by the enemy, and how to free captives.”

Weapons instruction was at the heart of the program. Recruits were trained on Kalashnikovs, light machine guns, cannon mortars, anti-tank mines, and SPG-9 unguided anti-tank missiles. This teaching beefed up Fighter A’s light- and medium-arms skills and introduced him to heavy weapons he hadn’t previously used. “Before the camp I used a Kalashnikov and light machine guns, and at the camp I was trained to shoot faster and more accurately. Mortars and anti-tank missiles like the SPG-9 were new to me.”

The much-anticipated anti-aircraft missiles known as “MANPADS,” which Barack Obama was reportedly planning to send to Syrian rebels, never materialized.

I asked Fighter A about a graduation ceremony: How had the recruits and their instructors marked the end of the program?

“There was no graduation ceremony, but we did a graduation project at the end. It was a complete fighting project that included everything we had been trained on. For me, this was the best part of the camp.”

And then camp was over.

Fighter A and his fellow recruits were each given $500 and sent back to Syria. It took a day to reach Daraa, where phones were returned and lives re-connected. He went to see his family first, then reported to brigade headquarters for his next orders.

Since his American training, Fighter A has become a trainer himself, teaching the men in his brigade to shoot faster and more accurately, to fire mortars and lay into the enemy with anti-tank mines and missiles. He still fights with a Kalashnikov and a light machine gun, and his brigade has added mortars and 14.5 millimeter machine guns to its arsenal. Though he hasn’t received any more money or any weapons from the US or Jordan, “I benefited a lot from the camp,” he told me. “I gained a lot of new fighting skills.”

One thing he doesn’t keep up with is the exercise program. The lack of food in Daraa leaves a 20-year-old man hungry on a good day, so Fighter A figures there’s no sense burning the extra energy if he can’t replace it.

In recent months Fighter A has met other rebels who have been through the same training camp. Experts suggest that this isn’t the only Jordan-based program training moderate Syrians to fight the American way.

“There’s a dribble, a small trickle of fighters, maybe 150 soldiers a month,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “But there’s not enough of them to make a difference.”

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Doha Center—and an expert on FSA activity in southern Syria—agreed. “So far, because this training effort has been on such a small scale, it doesn’t appear to have a qualitative impact on conflict dynamics inside the country.”

Beyond manpower, there’s also the issue of arms; the earthbound FSA is seriously outmatched by the Syrian Air Force. Rebels have been asking for anti-aircraft missiles for more than a year, and at the top of their wish list are shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, the “MANPADS,” that can shoot a plane out of the sky.

While Saudi is keen to provide these, Landis said, the US has so far refused to let it happen. “America has a very important national interest, which is to know who is getting what weapons.” As al Qaeda digs into the infrastructure of rebel-controlled Syria, the threat for US interests becomes untenable. “America cannot let MANPADS into Syria because they will be used against Israeli planes someday,” he said.

Lister sees America’s refusal to step up training numbers and allow rebels more sophisticated weapons systems—namely, the anti-aircraft missiles Fighter A was waiting for—as an indication that it’s just not that committed to changing conflict dynamics.

Landis admits that the US is playing a “rather mischievous role” by supporting the rebels with one hand and restraining them with the other. “The result is that we’re prolonging the rebellion, but we’re also making sure it can’t win.”

Back in Daraa, Fighter A is under no illusions that the American training, American food, and American dollars he enjoyed in Jordan are in any way indicative of an American desire to help the rebels win. “America is benefiting from the destruction and the killing in order to weaken both sides,” he said.

He does think the training is helping the rebels make gains in Syria and, for now, this is enough. He believes in his cause, and he is patient. “I didn’t know or expect revolutions [to be] filled with blood,” he said. “But I remember the saying: If you want to jump forward, you have to take two steps backward.”

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Chechens now fighting on both sides of the Syrian conflict?

abu.omarThe “prestige” of Chechen fighters is growing among the rank-and-file of the “rebels.”  Abu Omar ash-Shishani (see image) will be a name we will know as commonly as we know Bin Laden’s in the near future–if he survives the Syrian war and his tuberculosis.  He is the northern commander of Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and was instrumental in recovering Raqqa, the only provincial capital held by “rebels” in Syria, from other “rebel” factions during the infighting. But I have just learned that it is quite possibly that there are also Chechens now fighting for Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. This makes perfect sense.

First, jihadist Chechens have come to Syria not only to fight a mercenary war for the sake of “jihad” (and Gulf money of course), but also to fight Putin’s ally, Bashar al-Assad. The hatred of Putin and Russia runs so deep among the Chechen jihadists that many have come to Syria to strike a blow at Putin by participating in the struggle to topple one of his most important allies in the Middle East. But I’m learning now that Chechen forces are possibly fighting for Assad’s regime, which makes sense because the Chechen President Ramzan Kadrov is Putin’s ally and has long been fighting the Chechen Islamists.  These Chechens fighting for the Syrian regime could be part of the Chechen state’s desire to deliver a debilitating blow to the Chechen Islamists in Syria so as to prevent their return to Chechnya, while also supporting an ally to Russia.

If Chechen Islamists are fighting in Syria as part of their wider war against Putin and the Chechen state, then Chechen soldiers fighting for the Syrian regime are also part of the wider war to against Chechen Islamists and the preservation of a Russian ally.

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Prolonging the War in Syria

I read an article yesterday that I simply cannot stop thinking about… it outlined how the US is arming the “rebels” in Syria with light weapons and rudimentary military training in CIA camps in Jordan, both of which are not enough to make a qualitative difference on the ground but just effective enough to keep the war going on for as long as possible. It reminded me of when the US supported both Iran and Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War in order to make sure nobody won but to ensure that they fought each other for as long as possible. Kissinger aptly summarized this strategy with his infamous quote about the Iran-Iraq War: “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.” But they did, and everyone involved in the Syrian war are losing as well.

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This is probably the most accurate and important article I’ve read in a long time. I’ve read one of the author’s books (Muqtada al Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq) and I can tell you that he knows his stuff.

The Independent

ISILAl-Qa’ida-type organisations, with beliefs and methods of operating similar to those who carried out the 9/11 attacks, have become a lethally powerful force from the Tigris to the Mediterranean in the past three years. Since the start of 2014, they have held Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, much of the upper Euphrates valley, and exert increasing control over the Sunni heartlands of northern Iraq. In Syria, their fighters occupy villages and towns from the outskirts of Damascus to the border with Turkey, including the oilfields in the north-east of the country. Overall, they are now the most powerful military force in an area the size of Britain.

The spectacular resurgence of al-Qa’ida and its offshoots has happened despite the huge expansion of American and British intelligence services and their budgets after 9/11. Since then, the US, closely followed by Britain, has fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and adopted procedures formerly associated with police states, such as imprisonment without trial, rendition, torture and domestic espionage. Governments justify this as necessary to wage the “war on terror”, claiming that the rights of individual citizens must be sacrificed to secure the safety of all.

Despite these controversial security measures, the movements against which they are aimed have not only not been defeated but have grown stronger. At the time of 9/11, al-Qa’ida was a very small organisation, but in 2014 al-Qa’ida-type groups are numerous and powerful. In other words, the “war on terror”, the waging of which determined the politics of so much of the world since 2001, has demonstrably failed.

How this failure happened is perhaps the most extraordinary development of the 21st century. Politicians were happy to use the threat of al-Qa’ida to persuade people that their civil liberties should be restricted and state power expanded, but they spent surprisingly little time calculating the most effective practical means to combat the movement. They have been able to get away with this by giving a misleading definition of al-Qa’ida, which varied according to what was politically convenient at the time.

Jihadi groups ideologically identical to al-Qa’ida are relabelled as moderate if their actions are deemed supportive of US policy aims. In Syria, the US is backing a plan by Saudi Arabia to build up a “Southern Front” based in Jordan against the Assad government in Damascus, but also hostile to al-Qa’ida-type rebels in the north and east. The powerful but supposedly “moderate” Yarmouk Brigade, which is reportedly to receive anti-aircraft missiles from Saudi Arabia, will be the leading element in this new formation. But numerous videos show that the Yarmouk Brigade has frequently fought in collaboration with Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the official al-Qa’ida affiliate. Since it is likely that, in the midst of battle, these two groups will share their munitions, Washington will be permitting advanced weaponry to be handed over to its deadliest enemy.

This episode helps explain why al-Qa’ida and its offshoots have been able to survive and flourish. The “war on terror” has failed because it did not target the jihadi movement as a whole and, above all, was not aimed at Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two countries that had fostered jihadism as a creed and a movement. The US did not do so because they were important American allies whom it did not want to offend. Saudi Arabia is an enormous market for American arms, and the Saudis have cultivated and, on occasion bought up, influential members of the American political establishment.

A measure of the seriousness of the present situation is that, in recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has for the first time been urgently seeking to stop jihadi fighters, whom it previously allowed to join the war in Syria, from returning home and turning their weapons against the rulers of the Saudi kingdom. This is an abrupt reversal of previous Saudi policy, which tolerated or privately encouraged Saudi citizens going to Syria to take part in a holy war to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and combat Shia Muslims on behalf of Sunni Islam.

In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has called on all foreign fighters to leave Syria, and King Abdullah has decreed it a crime for Saudis to fight in foreign conflicts. The Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who had been in charge of organising, funding and supplying jihadi groups fighting in Syria, has been unexpectedly removed from overseeing Saudi policy towards Syria, and replaced by a prince who has led a security clampdown against al-Qa’ida inside Saudi Arabia.

The US is increasingly fearful that support for the Syrian rebels by the West and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf has created a similar situation to that in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when indiscriminate backing for insurgents ultimately produced al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and jihadi warlords. The US Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, warned this month that “terrorist” movements, such as JAN  and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), were not only destabilising Syria but “these well-funded and well-equipped groups may soon turn their attention to attacks outside of Syria, particularly as scores of newly radicalised and freshly trained foreign recruits return from Syria to their home countries”. The number of foreign fighters that Mr Cohen gives is a significant underestimate, since the head of US intelligence, James Clapper, estimates foreign fighters in Syria to number about 7,000, mostly from the Arab world, but also from countries such as Chechnya, France and Britain.

Al-Qa’ida has always been a convenient enemy. In Iraq, in 2003 and 2004, as armed Iraqi opposition to the American and British-led occupation mounted, US spokesmen attributed most attacks to al-Qa’ida, though many were carried out by nationalist and Baathist groups. According to a poll by the Pew Group, this persuaded 57 per cent of US voters before the Iraq invasion to believe that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and those responsible for 9/11, despite a complete absence of evidence for this. In Iraq itself, indeed the whole Muslim world, these accusations benefited al-Qa’ida by exaggerating its role in the resistance to the US and British occupation.

Precisely the opposite PR tactics were employed by Western governments in 2011 in Libya, where they played down any similarity between al-Qa’ida and the Nato-backed rebels fighting to overthrow the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. This was done by describing as dangerous only those jihadis who had a direct operational link to the al-Qa’ida “core” of Osama bin Laden. The falsity of the pretence that the anti-Gaddafi jihadis in Libya were less threatening than those in contact with al-Qa’ida was forcefully, if tragically, exposed when US ambassador Chris Stevens was killed by jihadi fighters in Benghazi in September 2012. These were the same fighters lauded by governments and media for their role in the anti-Gaddafi uprising.

Al-Qa’ida is an idea rather than an organisation, and this has long been so. For a five-year period after 1996, it did have cadres, resources and camps in Afghanistan, but these were eliminated after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Subsequently, al-Qa’ida’s name was a rallying cry, a set of Islamic beliefs such as the creation of an Islamic state, the imposition of sharia, a return to Islamic customs, the subjugation of women and waging holy war against other Muslims, notably the Shia, as heretics worthy of death. At the centre of this doctrine for making war is an emphasis on self-sacrifice and martyrdom as a symbol of religious faith and commitment. This has turned out to be a way of using untrained but fanatical believers to devastating effect as suicide bombers.

It has always been in the interests of the US and other governments that al-Qa’ida should be viewed as having a command-and-control structure like a mini-Pentagon, or the Mafia in America as shown in the Godfather films. This is a comforting image for the public because  organised groups, however demonic, can be tracked down and eliminated through imprisonment or death. More alarming is the reality of a movement whose adherents are self-recruited and may spring up anywhere.

Osama bin Laden’s gathering of militants, which he did not call al-Qa’ida until after 9/11, was just one of many jihadi groups 12 years ago. But today its ideas and methods are predominant among jihadis because of the prestige and publicity it gained through the destruction of the twin towers, the war in Iraq and its demonisation by Washington as the source of all anti-American evil. These days, there is a decreasing difference in the beliefs of jihadis, regardless of whether or not they are formally linked to al-Qa’ida central, now headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri. An observer in southern Turkey discussing 9/11 with a range of Syrian jihadi rebels earlier this year found that “without exception they all expressed enthusiasm for the 9/11 attacks and hoped the same thing would happen in Europe as well as the US”.

Unsurprisingly, governments prefer the fantasy picture of al-Qa’ida because it enables them to claim a se ries of victories by killing its better-known members and allies. Often, those eliminated are given quasi-military ranks, such as “head of operations”, to enhance the significance of their demise. The culmination of this most publicised but largely irrelevant aspect of the “war on terror” was the killing of Bin Laden in Abbottabad in Pakistan in 2011. This enabled President Obama to grandstand before the American public as the man who had presided over the hunting down of al-Qa’ida’s leader. In practice, his death had no impact on al-Qa’ida-type jihadi groups, whose greatest expansion has been since 2011.

The resurgence of these jihadis is most striking on the ground in Iraq and Syria, but is evident in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia and, in recent months, Lebanon and Egypt. In Iraq, it was a final humiliation for the US, after losing 4,500 soldiers, that al-Qa’ida’s black flag should once again fly in Fallujah, captured with much self-congratulatory rhetoric by US Marines in 2004. Aside from Fallujah, Isis, the premier jihadi movement in the country, has rapidly expanded its influence in all parts of Sunni Iraq in the past three years. It levies local taxes and protection money in Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, estimated to bring in $8m (£4.8m) a month.

It has been able to capitalise on two factors: the Sunni revolt in Syria and the alienation of the Iraqi Sunni by a Shia-led government. Peaceful protests by Sunni started in December 2012, but a lack of concessions by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and a massacre at a peace camp at Hawijah last April is transmuting peaceful protest into armed resistance.

Last summer, Isis freed hundreds of its leaders and experienced militants in a spectacular raid on Abu Ghraib prison. Its stepped-up bombing campaign killed 9,500 people, mostly Shia civilians, in the course of last year, the heaviest casualties since 2008. But there is a crucial difference between then and now. Even at the previous peak of its influence in 2004-06, al-Qa’ida in Iraq did not enjoy as strong a position in the Sunni armed opposition as it does today.

Jessica D Lewis, of the Institute for the Study of War, commented in a study of the movement at the end of 2013 that al-Qa’ida in Iraq “is an extremely vigorous, resilient and capable organisation that can operate from Basra to coastal Syria”.

In Syria, Isis was the original founder in early 2012 of JAN, sending it money, arms and experienced fighters. A year later, it tried to reassert its authority over JAN by folding it into a broader organisation covering both Syria and Iraq. The two are now involved in a complicated intra-jihadi civil war that began at the start of the year, pitting Isis, notorious for its cruelty and determination to monopolise power, against the other jihadi groups. The more secular Free Syrian Army (FSA), once designated along with its political wing by the West as the next rulers of Syria, has collapsed and been marginalised.

The armed opposition is now dominated by jihadis who wish to establish an Islamic state, accept foreign fighters, and have a vicious record of massacring Syria’s minorities, notably the Alawites and the Christians. The Islamic Front, for instance, a newly established and powerful alliance of opposition brigades backed by Turkey and Qatar, is fighting Isis. But that does not mean that it is not complicit in sectarian killings, and it insists on strict imposition of sharia, including the public flogging of those who do not attend Friday prayers. The Syrian jihadis rule most of north-east Syria aside from that part of it held by the Kurds. The government clings to a few outposts in this vast area, but does not have the forces to recapture it.

The decisions that enabled al-Qa’ida to avoid elimination, and later to expand, were made in the hours immediately after 9/11. Almost every significant element in the project to crash planes into the twin towers and other iconic American buildings led back to Saudi Arabia. Bin laden was a member of the Saudi elite, whose father had been a close associate of the Saudi monarch. Of the 19 hijackers on 9/11, 15 were Saudi nationals. Citing a CIA report of 2002, the official 9/11 report says that al-Qa’ida relied for its financing on “a variety of donors and fundraisers, primarily in the Gulf countries and particularly in Saudi Arabia”. The report’s investigators repeatedly found their access limited or denied when seeking information in Saudi Arabia. Yet President George W Bush never considered holding the Saudis in any way responsible for what had happened. The exit of senior Saudis, including Bin Laden relatives, from the US was facilitated by the government in the days after 9/11. Most significantly, 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report about the relationship between the attackers and Saudi Arabia was cut and never published – despite a promise by President Obama to do so – on the grounds of national security.

Nothing much changed in Saudi Arabia until recent months. In 2009, eight years after 9/11, a cable from the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, revealed by WikiLeaks, complains that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”.

Moreover, the US and the west Europeans showed themselves indifferent to Saudi preachers, their message spread to millions by satellite TV, YouTube and Twitter, calling for the killing of Shia as heretics. These calls came as al-Qa’ida bombs were slaughtering people in Shia neighbourhoods in Iraq. A sub-headline in another State Department cable in the same year reads: “Saudi Arabia: Anti-Shi’ism As Foreign Policy?” Five years later, Saudi-supported groups have a record of extreme sectarianism against non-Sunni Muslims.

Pakistan, or rather Pakistani military intelligence in the shape of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was the other parent of al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and jihadi movements in general. When the Taliban was disintegrating under the weight of US bombing in 2001, its forces in northern Afghanistan were trapped by anti-Taliban forces. Before they surrendered, hundreds of ISI members, military trainers and advisers were hastily evacuated by air. Despite the clearest evidence of ISI’s sponsorship of the Taliban and jihadis in general, Washington refused to confront Pakistan, and thereby opened the way for the resurgence of the Taliban after 2003, which neither the US nor Nato has been able to reverse.

Al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and other jihadi groups are the offspring of America’s strange alliance with Saudi Arabia, a theocratic absolute monarchy, and Pakistani military intelligence. If this alliance had not existed, then 9/11 would not have happened. And because the US, with Britain never far behind, refused to break with these two Sunni powers, jihadism survived and prospered after 9/11.

Following a brief retreat, it took advantage of the turmoil created by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, later, by the Arab uprisings of 2011, to expand explosively. Twelve years after the “war on terror” was launched it has visibly failed and al-Qa’ida-type jihadis, once confined to a few camps in Afghanistan, today rule whole provinces in the heart of the Middle East.

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Open letter from NYC Iranians to Mayor de Blasio: When you stand by AIPAC, you do not stand by us

Beaming with pride: “We stand with those Jewish New Yorkers who have recently said in their open letter to you, ‘AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.’ We hope that you keep all of us in mind when formulating your foreign policy perspective and withdraw your unqualified loyalty to an organization that promotes policies so destructive to the children, women and men in Iran–and in Palestine–whom so many of your constituents hold dear. When AIPAC promotes collective punishment, neither they, nor the government of Israel, share our values. When you stand by them, you do not stand by us.”

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“We can get rid of Assad or fight al-Qaeda, but we can’t do both”

ISILThis is a very informative article containing a lot of food for thought. The Telegraph: For the past three years, when seeking enlightenment about the Syrian crisis, I have often talked to Alastair Crooke, a former MI6 officer. Mr Crooke, who left government service a decade ago after a long career, now runs a think tank called Conflicts Forum, which maintains contact with organisations such as Hizbollah and governments such as Iran, when official contact has been broken off.

I have learnt to respect and trust Mr Crooke, who has the invaluable habit of being right. When the British and American governments both claimed that President Assad of Syria would fall within weeks, he told me this was wishful thinking. When Western governments hailed the Syrian rebels as a democratic movement of national liberation, he said: hang on a moment. At the heart of the rebellion, he pointed out, was a group of armed gangs funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, dedicated to the establishment of a militant Sunni caliphate across the Middle East. He uttered this warning right at the start of the Syrian conflict, and at last the penny is (ever so painfully) beginning to drop in Whitehall and Washington.

So when Conflicts Forum invited me to a seminar in Beirut, I accepted with alacrity. It was over the weekend in an otherwise deserted seaside hotel. Lebanon, so prosperous and thriving when I was here four years ago, now conveys an air of desolate menace, as the country struggles to accommodate more than a million Syrian refugees. Parts of the country, including the second city of Tripoli, are increasingly dominated by jihadists.

At the seminar, there was a different world view to the one normally presented in the British media, and a more exotic cast of characters. Mr Crooke had assembled an adviser to President Putin, several Iranian diplomats, as well as representatives from Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad – all three organisations labelled as terrorists by Western governments.

To many Telegraph readers, this might sound like a rogues’ gallery. But what they had to say was very interesting. Everyone there took for granted that President Assad has won the war, though they admitted that there may be some time to go before it ends. In the north, they said, the rebels have turned on each other. A crucial battle is now being fought at Qalamoun, in the west. The Syrian army and rebel forces are engaged in a ferocious battle for this strategic ridge, which controls the all-important supply line between Lebanon and rebel territory. We were told that the Battle of Qalamoun was all over bar the shouting, and that it will fall to Assad’s forces quite soon.

The second message was that by far the greatest threat to stability in the Middle East is not Iran, as so often claimed, but Saudi Arabia. This may seem surprising: the Saudis remain among Britain’s closest allies, and only last week Prince Charles paid a happy visit to the kingdom. Yet they have been far and away the most important and deadly sponsor of global terrorism – a fact very well understood by all intelligence agencies, even if the British and American governments cannot bring themselves to admit it, let alone to come to terms with the consequences.

Several participants drew attention to the haunting parallel between Pakistan during the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, and Saudi Arabia today. Back then, the Pakistan intelligence services, urged on by the CIA, channelled money and arms to rebel forces. But they catastrophically failed to foresee that these very groups would create mayhem back home when the war ended.

This is the danger that faces Saudi Arabia today. The kingdom has been providing – indirectly – a vast amount of cash and resources to extremist groups advocating the takfiri mutation of Islam, an orientation that brands other Muslims as targets for killing. These takfiris deny the legitimacy of any state or secular power – including King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. A comparable problem is starting to emerge in Britain, where M15 is fretting about what British jihadists fighting in Syria might do on their return. This concern has created a potential conflict with the more gung-ho SIS, which has effectively been egging on these very same jihadists.

It was the third message from the seminar, however, that continues to haunt me. The international sponsors of Assad’s Syria – Iran and Russia – see eye to eye: they have been consistent in their support, whatever the consequences. But some of the rebels’ backers – Saudi Arabia, the United States, Britain and Israel – are in bitter conflict with one another, and share no coherence of vision or common purpose.

The British Government has consistently rejected the analysis I have recorded above, and I would not expect many people to agree. But I was impressed by the power of the views I have heard over the past few days, especially when contrasted with the contradictions, emotionalism and wishful thinking from so many Western experts and policy-makers. At the very least, these voices are worth listening to. Yet British officials are forbidden from even speaking to Hizbollah. No wonder thinking in Whitehall has been so stale and misguided – even though the United Nations, South Africa and several European countries were all represented at the seminar at senior level, and all paying attention.

Yet there have been interesting indications over the course of the past few days, although not widely reported, that Western leaders are starting to change course. The first concerns the mysterious disappearance of Bandar bin Sultan. Two years ago, prompted by the United States, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia gave Prince Bandar the task of destroying President Assad. Since then, the prince has poured the Saudi kingdom’s unlimited resources into his mission, backing a wide range of rebel groups, from the so-called moderates to the takfiris who now cause increasing anxiety within the House of Saud. Prince Bandar seems to retain his official title of National Security Adviser and Intelligence Director. But he was missing from a secret meeting of intelligence chiefs recently held in Washington to discuss Syria. He is out of action.

Meanwhile, Robert Ford, the American diplomat who has been the chief US organiser for the Syrian rebels – herding them in and out of negotiations during the failed Geneva talks two weeks ago – has also got the chop. These changes of personnel come amid reports that the Obama administration has confronted the Saudis with a file full of evidence of their involvement in terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. This report can be found in Al-Akhbar English, a Lebanese newspaper seen as close to Hizbollah. The newspaper hints at the possibility that Saudi could yet be formally classified by the UN security council as a state sponsor of global terrorism. That sounds fanciful, but President Obama’s visit to Riyadh next month now looks pregnant with significance.

As the Beirut meeting closed, I asked Mr Crooke, who wears a tweed jacket and might at first appearance be a country solicitor or land agent, whether President Assad would survive. He said there was no doubt. The United States and Britain are, nevertheless, still pressing for his removal. But the signs are mounting that the Western powers are beginning to understand that they have a choice. They can get rid of Assad, or they can fight al-Qaeda. But they can’t do both. That option was never really there.

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Letters of Support for the Divestment Campaign at UCLA

UCLA is set to vote on the divestment bill soon. The divestment bill is part of the wider global campaign to pressure Israel economically to end its apartheid occupation of the remainder of Palestine. Here are some letters of solidarity from UCLA student groups (Israeli and Jewish, Iranian, and Armenian). The Armenian letter is so profound that I had to post it in full here: The Armenian Students’ Association of UCLA supports the “Resolution to Divest from Companies that Violate Palestinian Human Rights”. The executive body along with a considerable number of its members has decided to support this measure after long consideration and research on the practices of the companies listed. Our initial hesitation was due to individual friendships and prior associations with prominent opposition to the bill, Bruins for Israel at UCLA, with which we held a successful cultural event in the fall. But we have come to realize that this resolution does not seek to solve a divisive Palestinian vs. Israeli issue, but is rather a step in the ethical direction.

The Armenian people have a long shared history with that of the Jews and understand the pain of centuries of persecution. We respect the resilience and the premise of having an independent and secure state. But what we do not condone is the infliction of suffering on other ethnic groups, regardless of infractions. Freedom and safety should not come at the expense of innocent civilians. To brand all Palestinian civilians as threats is inherently racist. And so although we believe that the Israeli state has every right to be concerned about the safety of its citizens, its government cannot be exempt from criticism in the event of human rights violations. This is not a singling out of the Israeli government, but rather providing it with fair and equal feedback in order to improve its own human rights record.

We encourage criticism of even our very own Armenian government’s practices. The Republic of Armenia was also established against all odds nearly eighty years after the Genocide. The country is similarly vulnerable, because hostile neighbors surround it. But under no circumstances would the organization unconditionally support inhumane measures enforced by the government. We encourage our Israeli-American friends to remain critical of the nation they love, because improving Israel’s practices would improve the country’s image as a democracy in the region. Scrutiny over Israeli policies cannot be considered inherently anti-Semitic, because that thought-process perpetuates blind support and suppresses diversity of opinion. To address a commonly asked question – the organization undoubtedly condemns all human rights violations, but is especially opposed to being complicit in them through the university. For instance, bulldozing over civilian homes is not a defense tactic; it is an inexcusable act of the state. The ASA refuses to ignore such atrocities, as our university should not invest in oppressive companies. Lastly, we realize the emotional toll this resolution has taken on all who are invested, but offer our solidarity to the oppressed in this particular situation.

This resolution does not demonize Israel, slander its people or even call for divestment from Israel in general – it merely asks for our university to disassociate itself from the list of companies. The rhetoric concerned about sufficient context assumes that all students involved are ignorant or brainwashed. The conversations about safe spaces or divisiveness are common scapegoats which Armenian activists encounter. We do not seek to shy away from controversy for the sake of convenience. Any student calling for “humanity” without urging for divestment from ruthless companies is unaware of the word “irony”.

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Thank you Scarlet Johansson

Scarlet Johansson, a global ambassador to Oxfam and the new face of SodaStream, was forced to choose between the two as they was a distinct contradiction between them. The former supports the oppressed and the deprived and the later was built on stolen and illegally occupied land and is part of an industry that makes the Israeli occupation of the remainder of Palestine profitable and continuous. She chose to be on the wrong side of history by resigning from Oxfam. But what people do not realize is that the controversy has shed more and more light on the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) Movement. More and more people are learning about it and more and more organizations and companies are, unlike Johansson, making history. She has inadvertently done more for the BDS movement than anyone else. That Secretary Kerry warned the Israeli government that its lack of interest in peace with the Palestinians risks a global boycott affirms the growing prominence of the BDS movement.

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The Rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant

Al-Qaeda has officially disavowed the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS). ISIL and other armed groups have been fighting each other for the past 2 months in northern Syria and beyond. One reason for the infighting among the rebel groups is that ISIL has been sidelining other groups from the areas under its control. In doing so, ISIL has shown other armed groups that it is not interested in sharing power but in consolidating its hold at the expense of other factions. What’s more, its hardline approach to Islamic law has alienated many under its control.  But there’s more to the story. ISIS and the Nusra Front, the other al-Qaeda-inspired group in Syria formed a merger several months ago but then the Nusra Front chief, al-Golani, repudiated the merger. Part of the reason why the union was annulled could be explained in the Saudi role in the conflict. The Saudis fund the Nusra Front but not ISIS, which some analysts view as a threat to the Saudi regime. While Nusra Front is ultra-conservative, they do not seek the overthrow of the Saudi regime and have their eyes on implementing Islamic law in the Levant region whereas ISIL not only seeks the implementation of Islamic law but also the destruction of “American regimes” such as the Saudi dictatorship.  Thus, if there was indeed a merger between the Nusra Front and ISIL, then Saudi funding could have been suspending.

While Saudi funding possibly complicated the merger between ISIL and Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s repudiation of ISIL today hints at a power struggle for the leadership of the global jihadist movement. The original Al-Qaeda organization headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri  quite possibly feels threatened by ISIL. Out of sight and away from the major jihadist frontlines, ISIL has emerged as the main al-Qaeda franchise and it expanded its reach from Iraq into Syria without Zawahiri’s approval. In other words, Zawahiri’s disavowal of ISIL not only hints at an international jihadist power struggle but quite possibly underscores a shift whereby ISIL and not Zawihiri’s al-Qaeda is the main jihadi powerbroker.

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Why Israel Fears the Boycott

[Again, this article is so good that I must post in full] New York Times: IF Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to revive talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority fail because of Israel’s continuing construction of illegal settlements, the Israeli government is likely to face an international boycott “on steroids,” as Mr. Kerry warned last August.

These days, Israel seems as terrified by the “exponential” growth of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (or B.D.S.) movement as it is by Iran’s rising clout in the region. Last June, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively declared B.D.S. a strategic threat. Calling it the “delegitimization” movement, he assigned the overall responsibility for fighting it to his Strategic Affairs Ministry. But B.D.S. doesn’t pose an existential threat to Israel; it poses a serious challenge to Israel’s system of oppression of the Palestinian people, which is the root cause of its growing worldwide isolation.

The Israeli government’s view of B.D.S. as a strategic threat reveals its heightened anxiety at the movement’s recent spread into the mainstream. It also reflects the failure of the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s well-endowed “Brand Israel” campaign, which reduces B.D.S. to an image problem and employs culture as a propaganda tool, sending well-known Israeli figures around the world to show Israel’s prettier face.

Begun in 2005 by the largest trade union federations and organizations in Palestinian society, B.D.S. calls for ending Israel’s 1967 occupation, “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,” and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes and lands from which they were forcibly displaced and dispossessed in 1948.

Why should Israel, a nuclear power with a strong economy, feel so vulnerable to a nonviolent human rights movement?

Israel is deeply apprehensive about the increasing number of American Jews who vocally oppose its policies — especially those who are joining or leading B.D.S. campaigns. It also perceives as a profound threat the rising dissent among prominent Jewish figures who reject its tendency to speak on their behalf, challenge its claim to be the “national home” of all Jews, or raise the inherent conflict between its ethno-religious self-definition and its claim to democracy. What I. F. Stone prophetically wrote about Israel back in 1967, that it was “creating a kind of moral schizophrenia in world Jewry” because of its “racial and exclusionist” ideal, is no longer beyond the pale.

Israel is also threatened by the effectiveness of the nonviolent strategies used by the B.D.S. movement, including its Israeli component, and by the negative impact they have had on Israel’s standing in world public opinion. As one Israeli military commander said in the context of suppressing Palestinian popular resistance to the occupation, “We don’t do Gandhi very well.

The landslide vote by the American Studies Association in December to endorse an academic boycott of Israel, coming on the heels of a similar decision by the Association for Asian-American Studies, among others, as well as divestment votes by several university student councils, proves that B.D.S. is no longer a taboo in the United States.

The movement’s economic impact is also becoming evident. The recent decision by the $200 billion Dutch pension fund PGGM to divest from the five largest Israeli banks because of their involvement in occupied Palestinian territory has sent shock waves through the Israeli establishment.

To underscore the “existential” danger that B.D.S. poses, Israel and its lobby groups often invoke the smear of anti-Semitism, despite the unequivocal, consistent position of the movement against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. This unfounded allegation is intended to intimidate into silence those who criticize Israel and to conflate such criticism with anti-Jewish racism.

Arguing that boycotting Israel is intrinsically anti-Semitic is not only false, but it also presumes that Israel and “the Jews” are one and the same. This is as absurd and bigoted as claiming that a boycott of a self-defined Islamic state like Saudi Arabia, say, because of its horrific human rights record, would of necessity be Islamophobic.

The B.D.S. movement’s call for full equality in law and policies for the Palestinian citizens of Israel is particularly troubling for Israel because it raises questions about its self-definition as an exclusionary Jewish state. Israel considers any challenge to what even the Department of State has criticized as its system of “institutional, legal and societal discrimination” against its Palestinian citizens as an “existential threat,” partially because of the apartheid image that this challenge evokes.

Tellingly, the Supreme Court recently rejected an attempt by Israeli liberals to have their nationality or ethnicity listed simply as “Israeli” in the national population registry (which has categories like Jew, Arab, Druse, etc.). The court found that doing so would be a serious threat to Israel’s founding identity as a Jewish state for the Jewish people.

Israel remains the only country on earth that does not recognize its own nationality, as that would theoretically avail equal rights to all its citizens, undermining its “ethnocratic” identity. The claim that B.D.S., a nonviolent movement anchored in universal principles of human rights, aims to “destroy” Israel must be understood in this context.

Would justice and equal rights for all really destroy Israel? Did equality destroy the American South? Or South Africa? Certainly, it destroyed the discriminatory racial order that had prevailed in both places, but it did not destroy the people or the country.

Likewise, only Israel’s unjust order is threatened by boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian human rights activist and the author of “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.”

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Israel Needs to Learn Some Manners

I was going to post excerpts of this article here but since there were so many good ones, I thought it better to post the article in full.

New York Times: On Jan. 14, the Israeli defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, told the daily Yediot Aharonot, “Secretary of State John Kerry — who arrived here determined, who operates from an incomprehensible obsession and a sense of messianism — can’t teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians.” Even by Israeli standards, Mr. Yaalon’s comments were rather rude. Mr. Kerry’s crime was to try to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that began last July and to stipulate a nine-month deadline. This is the kind of talk that gives chutzpah a bad name.

The episode also reveals a great deal about the nature of the much-vaunted special relationship between the United States and Israel. It suggests that this relationship is a one-way street, with America doing all the diplomatic heavy lifting while Israel limits its role to obstruction and whining — repaying Uncle Sam’s generosity with ingratitude and scorn.

Israeli leaders have always underlined the vital importance of self-reliance when it comes to Israel’s security. But the simple truth is that Israel wouldn’t be able to survive for very long without American support. Since 1949, America’s economic aid to Israel amounts to a staggering $118 billion and America continues to subsidize the Jewish state to the tune of $3 billion annually. America is also Israel’s main arms supplier and the official guarantor of its “quantitative military edge” over all its Arab neighbors.

In the diplomatic arena, Israel relies on America to shield it from the consequences of its habitual violations of international law. The International Court of Justice pronounced the so-called “security barrier” that Israel is building on the West Bank to be illegal. All of Israel’s civilian settlements on the West Bank violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, but Israel continues to expand them.

Since 1978, when the Camp David Accords were brokered by President Jimmy Carter, the United States has used its veto power on the Security Council 42 times on behalf of Israel. The most shocking abuse of this power was to veto, in February 2011, a resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion that had the support of the 14 other members of the Security Council.

Some Americans, especially those of the neoconservative persuasion, favor the strongest support for Israel on the grounds that the interests of the two allies coincide in the Middle East. An argument can be made that the occupation of the West Bank serves Israel’s security interests even if it erodes the foundations of Israeli democracy and turns Israel into an international pariah.

There is no rational argument, however, that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank serves America’s national interest. On the contrary, as General David Petraeus told a Senate committee in 2010, the occupation foments anti-American sentiment throughout the Islamic world and hinders the development of America’s partnership with Arab governments. A resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is therefore a major, if not vital American interest.

America poses as an honest broker, but everywhere it is perceived as Israel’s lawyer. The American-sponsored “peace process” since 1991 has been a charade: all process and no peace while providing Israel with just the cover it needs to pursue its illegal and aggressive colonial project on the West Bank.

The Quartet, which consists of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and European Union, came up in 2003 with an excellent road map for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2005. But the Quartet cannot act independently of the United States to pressure Israel. Its record suggests that it is little more than a clever American device for wasting time.

Mr. Kerry is to be commended for the energy and commitment that he has displayed in pursuit of peace in the Middle East and for the 11 trips he has made to the region in his first year in office. But his peace mission was doomed to failure from the start. The Kerry-hating Mr. Yaalon and his hawk-infested Likud party are committed to the geopolitical status quo on the West Bank at almost any price. Their real aim is to terminate the peace talks and blame the Palestinians.

In a normal country a defense minister who played fast and loose with such a crucial bilateral relationship would have been thrown out on his ear. But Israel is not a normal country.

The reason that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not disown his defense minister is that what Mr. Yaalon said is what Mr. Netanyahu thinks. The real problem is not Mr. Yaalon’s bad manners but the policy that he and Mr. Netanyahu are trying to foist on their senior ally: to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, to confront Iran, to protect Israel’s nuclear monopoly, and to preserve its regional hegemony solely by military means. This program is diametrically opposed to America’s true national security interests.

America gives Israel money, arms and advice. Israel takes the money, it takes the arms, and it rudely rejects the advice.

The fundamental problem with American support for Israel is its unconditional nature. Consequently, Israel does not have to pay a price for acting unilaterally in a multilateral world, for its flagrant violations of international law, and for its systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights.

Blind support for the Jewish state does not advance the cause of peace. America is going nowhere in the Middle East until it makes the provision of money and arms conditional on good manners and, more importantly, on Israeli respect for its advice.

Avi Shlaim is an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University and the author of “The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.”

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Al-Qaeda leader in Syria speaks

Look at the manner in which the al-Qaeda leader in Syria talks about Iran. Is there any doubt that the Saudis (and many others) are behind this guy and his ilk?

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Who Has Nukes in the Middle East

If there’s one relatively long YouTube video you watch this month, let it be this one. It puts much into perspective.

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