Michael Weiss

Assad’s hypocrisy – and America’s

Both Assad and Obama's claims about Al-Qaeda in Syria do not match up with their actions

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Watching the opening ceremonies of the so-called Geneva II conference in Montreux this week – a conference that has been all but declared dead before arrival – one can’t help but experience a profound depression at how a regime such as Bashar al-Assad’s has managed to outwit and outmaneuver even the languid efforts of the United States. This is quite clearly a Manson family cult masquerading as a national government, and its continued existence is extraordinary considering what it’s been up to in the past 40 years and how pathetically it’s evaded justice for the last gruesome three.


Yet an explanation for its longevity has begun to emerge. The White House claims that its Iran policy is safely compartmentalized from its Syria policy. But its actions betray its press releases, as do the president’s own thought-experiments in unguarded moments.


Here he is in dialogue with the New Yorker’s David Remnick: “[A]lthough it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion – not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon – you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”


Thus do grand visions articulate themselves, and thus did the Obama administration recently suffer a decision-making crisis about whether or not to invite a would-be responsible country, which has subsidized and supplanted much of Assad’s atrocity-making abilities, to a conference all about “peace.”  Would Iran accede to a two-year-old program for “transitional” government in Damascus? Nope. Would the Syrian National Coalition, a body that had to be cajoled and threatened into attending Geneva II in the first place, accept mullah representation without this necessary precondition? Come on. Yet an invitation to Tehran nevertheless was extended by the United Nations, an institution which hardly needs more bad press and which, in the space of 24 hours, had to embarrassingly rescind its own courtesy. How this happened remains controversial, with the kindest interpretation being a “multifaceted, multilayered miscommunication,” as former US diplomat Fred Hof diplomatically described it. However, Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman Martin Nesirsky must now be added to the long list of aggrieved parties who believe the United States these days is completely full of shit. “I know for a fact that this could not have been a surprise to the US authorities,” Nesirsky told Foreign Policy about this pre-Geneva SNAFU, as those selfsame US authorities played at innocence and crossed wires with Turtle Bay. What it must take to piss off Ban Ki-moon’s office.


Syrians by now are much wiser. In a week that has seen the most persuasive and tribunal-ready evidence emerge of the systematic torture and murder of some 11,000 prisoners of Assad’s dungeons – many of whom had been starved to death or beaten with rods or strangulated with serrated cords – this is what the US government has managed to contrive in response: “The regime has the ability to improve the atmosphere for negotiations in Geneva by making progress in several areas. However, this latest report of horrific and inhumane prison conditions/actions further underscores that if anything, it is tarnishing the environment for the talks.”


“Improve the atmosphere for negotiations.” “Tarnishing the environment for the talks”– this,even as the barrel bombs continue to fall on Hama and the artillery on Homs, and the prisoners continue to be tortured by the very “state institutions” Washington has said it wants to remain in charge after Assad leaves. Would now be a bad time to mention that Assad’s Minister of Information paraded around Montreux on Wednesday shouting, “Assad will not leave, Assad will not leave”?


The current Alpine pantomime is made even more Prozac-worthy when one weighs exactly what the United States is up against: not very much.


Walid Moallem looks like someone who has just passed out on a toilet at McDonald’s. That he is foreign minister of an important Arab country and has been for some time is tragedy and farce rolled into one. Instead of having handcuffs slapped on him, as would be a sensible response to his appearance in Europe, Moallem has just been granted the opportunity to expiate at endless length, and to accuse the West of “claim[ing] to fight terrorism, but…secretly feed[ing] terrorism.” Leaving aside how this doesn’t bode very well for conciliation by Swiss moonlight, it is also what Freudians would call a serious case of “projection.”


Bizarrely, Moallem’s logic is one that has been taken up by a raft of foreign governments, which really do seem to think that he may be onto something. Western intelligence officials have lately been dispatching Damascus seeking urgent help about nationals who have gone to Syria to practice jihad and may one day return to practice it at home. The problem lies in believing that Assad shares an enmity for transnational terrorism, or is genuinely interested in helping the West to combat it.


The Telegraph’s Ruth Sherlock and Richard Spencer have done us all a great service by reporting that the regime has “funded and co-operated with al-Qaeda in a complex double game even as the terrorists fight Damascus, according to new allegations by Western intelligence agencies, rebels, and al-Qaeda defectors.” This collusion began in the spring of 2013, although Syria’s facilitation of Al-Qaeda actually began more than a decade ago when Assad ran “rat-lines” of jihadists into US-occupied Iraq. The clearinghouse system got so unbearable that one Al-Qaeda operative, a man called “Abu Ghadiya,” had to be assassinated in a cross-border raid by US forces in Deir Ezzor in 2008.


Previous journalists have also documented how Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s only “official” franchise in Syria, had not only taken control of oil fields in eastern Syria, but had financed its own operations by selling millions of dollars worth of crude back to the regime it was putatively at war with. (This happened at a time when Damascus was importing tanker after tanker of virtually-free petrol from Iran.) But part of what was new in the Telegraph disclosure was that now the Zarqawist offshoot Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has also started horning in on the same oil-for-caliphate action.


It was never a coincidence that Assad released many hardened Salafists and jihadists from Sednaya prison in 2011, men who have since gone on to occupy commanding positions in ISIS, Nusra, and the Islamic Front. Dr. Mohammed Habash, a Syrian cleric and former member of parliament who was sent to this prison between 2008 and 2009, told The National this week that Sednaya was a center for radicalization long before schoolchildren sprayed graffiti on the walls of Deraa. Who better, then, to send back into Syrian society during the days of a still-peaceful protest movement than the very terrorists Moallem now accuses the West of helping to destroy his country?


I rang Ruth Sherlock after her story appeared and she kindly shared with me some of the reportage that didn’t make the final cut. Among the highlights: Assef Shawkat – Assad’s brother-in-law and the regime security chief who was first poisoned, then blown up by rebels two summers ago – was the one in charge of coordinating with Al-Qaeda jihadists imprisoned at Sednaya. Also, one defector from ISIS told Sherlock that his former group is indeed infiltrated and manipulated by the mukhabarat. “I know men who were officers in the police and Syrian intelligence branches who are now in ISIS,” he said. “They grew long beards and joined. When I asked my emir I was told they had defected from the regime. But this does not make sense, because ISIS doesn’t accept defectors; they killed a friend of mine because they discovered he had been in the military as a normal soldier.” 


This tracks well with what Ali Mamlouk, another top security chief (still alive), privately told a US delegation in Damascus a year before the Syrian revolution kicked off, as documented by State Department cables: “In principle, we don't attack or kill them immediately. Instead, we embed ourselves in them and only at the opportune moment do we move.”


In other words, if Assad really wanted to stop Al-Qaeda in Syria, he need only give the order. Perhaps then ISIS headquarters and training camps all throughout the north would be bombed by his Air Force, as other rebel installations have.


The above will seem shocking only to those who discovered this crisis when cars began exploding, but it’s actually pretty ho-hum to journalists and national security experts who have made a careful study of the pathological liars now expected to “improve the atmosphere for negotiations” in Switzerland. And here we come to what’s new and interesting in the Telegraph report – that Western intelligence agencies have long known about this regime-jihadist “double game,” and might have made more of it before now. Evidently, the chutzpah of seeing a leading state sponsor of terrorism reinvent itself as a leading counterterrorist for an international confab is “bare-faced hypocrisy,” as one source put it.


Yet if hypocrisy demands exposure and contradiction, why does the United States continue to play along with this prefabricated and regime-friendly counterterrorism narrative by focusing exclusively on fighting Al-Qaeda and not extirpating the root of all extremism in Syria, which still resides comfortably in the presidential palace?


Another Telegraph exclusive, this one a solo effort by Sherlock, has found that Washington has once again decided to back and at least indirectly arm the Syrian opposition – but only to fight ISIS, not its oil buyer. Saudi and Qatari intelligence and the CIA are overseeing the distribution of a bonanza of heavy weapons and cash to the Syrian Revolutionary Front and Jaysh al-Mujahedeen, two newish re-brandings of the Free Syrian Army. The former has quite a lot of Muslim Brotherhood (read: Qatari) support behind some of its constituent brigades, even though its leader, Jamal Ma’arouf, is directly sponsored by the Saudis.


What both groups have received in the last two weeks is impressive, according to my own sources: 200 tons of heavy machine guns, mortars, Red Arrow anti-tank guns, and ammunition for the lot of it, all having arrived in the last fortnight. Even more impressive is that this hardware is passing through a Syrian-Turkish border crossing controlled by the Islamic Front, which has in principle consented to see the materiel reach its designated recipients. The most extreme ideologues in the Front, those in Ahrar al-Sham, have only intermittently attacked these shipments, I’ve been told, but so long as everyone sticks to sticking it to the takfiris, the United States has promised not to turn off the Saudi spigot. 


So Langley, Riyadh, and Doha are now engaged in fighting the very Al-Qaeda crazies that Moallem pretends is the whole of the Syrian opposition rather than a contractor of the Syrian Oil Ministry and marionette of the secret police.


America’s counterterrorism-only policy is made more bewildering by Obama’s own profession of non-aggravation by the presence of ISIS and Jahbat al-Nusra. As he told Remnick, who challenged his assertion that Al-Qaeda had been “decimated” after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV [junior varsity] team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a [B]in Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”


Various local power struggles and disputes? This tortured basketball metaphor is another way of saying, “No big deal, somebody else’s civil war.” Even what Obama pretends to care about, he doesn’t really care about, as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has observed of the president’s approach to Afghanistan in a much-scrutinized memoir.


Bald-faced hypocrisy seems to be an international condition. At least it explains why Moallem is waddling around Lake Geneva and not sitting in the dock.

"Assad will not leave, Assad will not leave." (AFP Photo)

"In other words, if Assad really wanted to stop Al-Qaeda in Syria, he need only give the order. Perhaps then ISIS headquarters and training camps all throughout the north would be bombed by his Air Force, as other rebel installations have."

  • Youssef Haddad

    This American administration was so adamant at showing a "Change" in its foreign policies especially those regarding the Middle East. It ended up missing great opportunities for true changes. Being politically correct in supporting the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt or showing a crippling indecisiveness in the Syrian crisis have led to the loss of any chances for American leadership in solving the Syrian conflict. Negotiations have always allowed despots to become more brutal yet, some in the Obama administration still believe that talking to the enemy is an achievement by itself. Iran and Syria have regimes that have caused major calamities in the Middle East region and around the world and have cost our military thousands of casualties in a protracted Iraq war. The only language they will heed to is a credible and imminent military threat by the US and its allies. Regretfully, president Obama does not have the ideological belief to lead such an alliance. Pity the victims of these two monsters who have turned the Middle East into an extremists battle ground creating the necessary chaos in which they could justify their being.

    January 24, 2014

  • jichi.g.ali

    U write nonsense when will u fools leave the people to decide what they want and not what u hypocrites want

    January 24, 2014

  • Vlad Tepes

    Nobody but you Weiss, is as able to write so much and use so much fancy language and yet say absolutely nothing. Your smoking gun; the governments of nations do what is the best in their interest is nothing new or significant. Why do I bother? I guess I just like reading nonsense from time to time and getting a headache. Only here at NOW can someone like you ever hold a job. I can get a job as a writer at NOW too. Here's my written journalistic application: "Assad is bad. He sucks. He's a criminal. Let's start a war with everyone who we want to claim is a criminal every other other day". Congratulations! I'm hired. I'm now a colleague.

    January 24, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    When the US administration was having a dirty secret love affair with Assad for 40+ years, letting him burn Lebanon and the Lebanese to the ground, people like you praised the policy. You all loved Assad for "keeping his word", for his army of occupation being "a factor of stability" in Lebanon, and for respecting all the shady deals and green lines he and Israel set for themselves in Lebanon. All of that while we the Lebanese people were being bombed and shelled to smithereens by Syria and by Israel... and all of that for simply keeping the Golan quiet for Israel and reining in Palestinian aspirations from ever reaching Palestine. Now that this duplicitous US policy is no longer a secret and is openly friendly to Assad, everyone is screaming bloody hypocritical murder. If the Assad regime - Lebanon's enemy number 1 - is succeeding in manipulating western hypocrisy, it is because of western hypocrisy and duplicity over 40+ years. Obama is merely exposing what Bush, Clinton, Bush Sr., Reagan and Carter did under the covers with Hafez Assad and his bloody son. I can only rejoice at your sight seething with anger. You deserve it. Assad is the monster you all created and my country was the price paid to him. Now good luck dealing with the tyrant, or - should he leave office - with his alternative, the equally barbaric and monstrous "rebels". For the Lebanese, their joy at the sight of Syria burning over all their enemies' heads - like Samson's temple - is only tempered by the potential impact it may have on Lebanon. But since we have been at it for 40 years now, and since we have been at the bottom for so long, it can only get better.

    January 23, 2014

  • richard.rittenburg

    UN snafu is just media making a mountain out of a molehill. Tehran got rebuffed because they said the opposition was nothing but a bunch of foreign terrorists. Even Lavrov has distanced himself from this position and recognized that the opposition is of Syrian origin. Iran was rebuked because they were unwilling to agree upon this starting point.

    January 23, 2014

  • ray.gibbs.5

    ever the best ... many thanks

    January 23, 2014