Everyone Is Denouncing the Syrian Rebels Now Slaughtering Kurds. But Didn’t the U.S. Once Support Some of Them?

It’s a lazy, cynical rewriting of history to pretend these groups have nothing to do with the U.S., or were never backed by the U.S., in their current form.

In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from fires in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, caused by bombardment by Turkish forces, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Wednesday on Syrian Kurdish fighters to leave a designated border area in northeast Syria 'as of tonight' for Turkey to stop its military offensive. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Smoke billows from fires in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, on Oct. 16, 2019, as seen from Ceylanpinar, Turkey.

Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Question: What unites Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, Nancy Pelosi, David Petraeus, Tom Friedman, and the editorial board of the Washington Post?

Answer: Their support for arming what they called “moderate” Syrian rebel groups between 2013 and 2017.

In recent weeks, Syrian rebel groups described only as “Turkish-backed” have murdered and mutilated their way across Kurdish-controlled areas of northeastern Syria. These fighters are guilty of “war crimes,” declared U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a recent interview. “Those responsible should be held accountable,” Esper – or is it Esperanto? – told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “In many cases, the government of Turkey should be held accountable.”

I happen to agree with him. The government of Turkey has much to answer for, given that many of the horrific killings have been captured on camera. But I would like to see people in Washington, D.C., “held accountable” too. Top Democrats and Republicans have joined together to loudly — and rightly — lambast the Trump administration for abandoning their allies in the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. Clinton has decried the “sickening horror” of Kurdish men, women, and children being slaughtered by Turkish-backed groups, while the likes of Petraeus and Graham have accused these groups of “ethnic cleansing.” These politicians, however, have stayed conveniently silent on their own prior advocacy on behalf of many of these rebels, while journalists have shamefully refused to mention the U.S. government’s prior support for them.

Have we so quickly forgotten how the CIA backed a range of secular and Islamist militias to fight Assad, via the covert program Timber Sycamore, while the Pentagon vetted “moderate” fighters to fight ISIS via the congressionally-approved Train and Equip Program? The former, according to a U.S. official, led to the death or injury of 100,000 Syrian army troops and their allies, while the latter was coordinated with — wait for it — Turkey.

“The groups that were educated and equipped by the United States west of the Euphrates,” wrote Turkish journalist Fehim Tastekin for Al-Monitor, “are now fighting against the groups east of the Euphrates that have been also educated and equipped by the United States.”

You wouldn’t know this, though, from watching or reading the mainstream U.S. media. The New York Times described the Turkish-backed rebels only as “fighters the United States had long rejected as extremists, criminals and thugs.”

Denialism abounds. In the wake of the fourth Democratic presidential debate, I tweeted about the “hypocrisy” of top Democrats “who wanted to arm Syrian rebels, but now slam many of those same Syrian rebels.”

Charles Lister, an analyst with the Middle East Institute, called me “ill-informed.” The fighters killing Kurds, he claimed, “are not the same” as the Free Syrian Army, or FSA — aka the secular and “moderate” fighters who were openly backed by the West in the initial stages of the conflict.

Shane Bauer, a reporter with Mother Jones, said it was “extremely dishonest” of me “to conflate the FSA of 2012 and 2013 with the mercenaries fighting for Turkey now.”

There is some validity to this argument. Although some of the the Turkish-backed fighters currently attacking the Kurds did indeed fight with the FSA back in 2012 and 2013, some of them did not. “Many of these fighters were 10 years old when the conflict started,” as one critic of mine observed. Others noted how plenty of Syrian rebels were “radicalized” over the course of a bloody conflict in which the repressive Bashar Assad regime used chemical weapons, barrel bombs, starvation, and mass torture against them.

I don’t disagree. For the Russian government or Rep. Tulsi Gabbard to suggest that every Syrian rebel group began as an offshoot of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State group, filled only with “terrorists” or “jihadis,” is a lazy and cynical rewriting of history. The Syrian revolution began in March 2011 with nonviolent protests, from Deraa to Damascus, against a vicious dictator who responded with shocking violence. Young men such as Abdul Baset al-Sarout, the former goalkeeper in Syria’s national youth football team who was profiled in the acclaimed documentary Return To Homs, went from “leading chants in the streets in 2011,” as The Guardian noted, to reluctantly “becoming a battle-worn leader for the militia.” (He was killed this summer, fighting for an Islamist militia against government forces in the north of the country.)

Plenty of these Syrian rebels, both Arabs and Kurds, both Islamists and secularists, fought not only against the Assad government, but also against Al Qaeda and ISIS. There were, however, other rebel groups that were dominated by violent Salafists and so-called jihadis from the start and who bragged about fighting alongside Al Qaeda and ISIS. The truth is that many of the rebel forces now committing war crimes against the Kurds were also committing war crimes in the early years of the Syrian civil war.

And here’s the problem: It is an equally lazy and cynical rewriting of history to pretend that these groups have nothing to do with the United States, or were never backed by the U.S. government, in their current form or with their current personnel.

How else to explain Gen. Salim Idris? He’s the current defense minister in the self-styled Syrian Interim Government, or SIG, and commander of the Syrian National Army, or SNA, the ragtag force of Turkish-backed rebel fighters that has wreaked havoc in northeastern Syria in recent weeks.

Between 2012 and 2014, though, Idris served as chief of staff to the Supreme Military Council of the West-friendly FSA. In 2013, according to the Washington Post, he was “anointed” by then Secretary of State John Kerry as “the sole conduit for aid to Syria’s rebels.” He was welcomed on CNN and MSNBC. In a glowing profile, the Times described him as “soft-spoken and humble” and declared that Syria’s future depended on “General Idris’s success on the battlefield.”

In May 2013, the Syrian rebel chief was even rewarded with the ultimate prize from the hawks in Washington: a secret visit from the late John McCain.

Got that? John McCain was an ally and supporter of a rebel commander whose forces are now being loudly condemned by a dizzying array of U.S. political and media figures including, among others, Meghan McCain. Is your head spinning yet? And don’t you think it should be a bigger story that the Turkish-backed general ordering Syrian rebels into battle against the Kurds right now was the U.S.-backed general who ordered Syrian rebels into battle against Bashar Assad in 2013?

Then there’s Lt. Seyf Ebu Bekir, a defector from Assad’s military and suspected former ISIS fighter. He heads up the Hamza Division of rebel fighters that was vetted by the Pentagon in 2016 and then armed and trained by the U.S. to battle against ISIS. Today, the Hamza Division is one of the key groups killing and expelling Kurds as part of the Turkish offensive in Syria. So too is the Sultan Murad Division, which in 2015 was boasting about being “well stocked” with new supplies of U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles.

In fact, according to a damning analysis by SETA, a pro-government Turkish think tank, of the 41 armed factions which make up the now Turkish-backed SNA, 28 of them were formed before the Trump administration cut off aid to the Syrian rebels in 2017. “Out of the 28 factions,” concludes SETA, “21 were previously supported by the United States, three of them via the Pentagon’s program to combat DAESH. Eighteen of these factions were supplied by the CIA. … Fourteen factions of the 28 were also recipients of the U.S.-supplied TOW anti-tank guided missiles.”

Shouldn’t this be a source of huge controversy in Washington? Shouldn’t those politicians and pundits who backed the arming and funding of the same Syrian proxies now accused of committing war crimes be asked to explain themselves, rather than invited back on air as disinterested analysts or experts?

Yes, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has blood on his hands and so too does Donald Trump, who gave Erdogan the green light to attack and “clean out” Kurdish-controlled areas. But what of the blood on the hands of those U.S. hawks and interventionists, both Republicans and Democrats, who threw their support behind the likes of Idris, Ebu Bakir, the Hamza Division, and the Sultan Murad Brigade only a few years ago?

Yes, the brutal Assad is responsible for the bulk of the violence in Syria — as are the governments of Iran and Russia that armed and backed him. But those responsible for arming and backing some of Syria’s most thuggish rebel groups include — among many others — the government of the United States. Some of us warned that the U.S. providing money and weapons to such rebels would backfire. We were smeared as genocide apologists, Assad stooges, Iran supporters. And yet what we are seeing on the ground in northeastern Syria today is a classic — and depressing — case of what the CIA has called “blowback.”

The former allies of the United States in Syria have turned on the current allies of the United States in Syria. And no one seems to want to admit this — or take any responsibility for it.

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