US Interests in the Syrian Civil War
By Jane Powers
For months, the United States has been directly aiding the Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime. This aid includes tens of millions of dollars in funding and CIA facilitation of arms delivery from countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia to the rebels. This is worrisome given that it’s been known for months that many of the rebel factions are radical Jihadists. Some even have ties to Al-Qaeda. Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said months ago that up to a quarter of the 300 rebel factions fighting Assad could have ties to Al-Qaeda.
Although the US claims to have a vetting process by which it determines which rebel factions receive its aid, in July the Washington Post cited a US official saying that because of intelligence gaps “it’s hard to know exactly who they are.” By mid-October, the NY Times reported that “Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists…Some with ties or affiliations with Al Qaeda.”
The UN has said that both the Assad regime and the rebels have committed atrocities. The rebels are accused of kidnapping for ransom, torture, and execution. As predicted by many, US support for these rebels has only increased violence, marginalized more peaceful factions, and worked to destabilize the region. For example, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its terror has been increasing as a result of the prolonged civil war. AQI now has an estimated 2,500 fighters, up from 1,000 last year. AQI has set up training camps along the Syrian border, and has been sending in fighters to join the US-backed rebels.
The obvious question is: why would the US fund jihadists? Why would we work to bolster Al-Qaeda? Don’t we hate them? Don’t they “hate our freedoms?” Didn’t they carry out the September 11th attacks? Didn’t we just fight two wars because of these guys?
The truth is that the US is not concerned about ending jihadist terror, or any kind of terror. Not only does US aggression and militarism inspire hatred and jihad around the globe, but the US regularly supports jihadist terrorists when it suits its interests (as it does now in Syria).
The most glaring example of this is when the CIA funded the Afghanistan mujahedeen in the 1980s to fight the Soviet occupation. This was the most expensive operation in CIA history. This operation included funneling billions of dollars into Pakistan to build and train a fundamentalist Afghan rebel force, as well as to recruit jihadists from other countries in the region, many from Saudi Arabia. This operation created a climate of fundamentalism and jihad in the entire region that worked to radicalize an unknown amount of people. It was out of this climate that the Taliban and Osama bin Laden emerged.
In the Cold War, supporting Afghan jihadists was seen as beneficial to a main US interest, weakening the competing super power. So what are the US interests in Syria that make supporting jihadist groups a good idea? US interests in Syria generally reflect the US’ broader regional interest, namely maintaining obedient client states and eliminating states that challenge US hegemony. This order is necessary in order to ensure control of the regions oil resources.
More specifically, the US has an interest in ending the Assad regime. This is because Syria is part of the “Iranian sphere of influence.” This sphere includes Syria, Lebanon, to an extent Iraq, and a number of insurgent groups. Iran competes for influence with the US which has its own sphere of influence in the region, headed by Saudi Arabia and Israel. The US will not tolerate states that challenge its hegemony in a region as vital as the Middle East; therefore, the US is interested in chipping away at Iran’s sphere of influence.
These interests have been noted by many, as the NY Times reported in March on the “positive effect of the unrest” in Syria, namely that “it could deprive Iran of a reliable ally in extending its influence over Lebanon, Hezbollah and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.”
George Friedman, chief intelligence officer of Stratfor, wrote that with the end of the Assad regime “Iran will rapidly move from being an ascendant power to a power on the defensive.” This is good as it will degrade Iran’s “wide-reaching sphere of influence” and will relieve the US’ “burden of containing Iran.” Friedman also notes the dangers of the survival of the Assad regime, as it would be “isolated from the West,” and “would be primarily dependent on Iran, its main patron” during the civil war.
Iran is a threat to US interests, that is, total domination of the region. It must be degraded. Ending the Assad regime will be a major blow to Iran’s influence. This is a top priority for the US, and in the twisted logic of power, enough reason to support any forces that are working towards this objective, even if these forces include Al-Qaeda.
For good reporting on this subject, see John Glaser’s work.