Timeline of Women's Rights in Afghanistan

An interesting read: Timeline of Women's Rights in Afghanistan

"One need not dig deep to discover the truth of Afghanistan’s once promising past, the US-backed armed conflict that destroyed it, and the resulting Dark Age it suffered through as a direct result."

The article below provides a timeline of women’s rights in Afghanistan that begins in 1907 and ends in 2011.

Asharq Al-Awsat interview with Syria’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, Syria’s Grand Mufti is not an ordinary man. Regardless of the importance of his religious position, he has strong and courageous opinions concerning the relationship between politics and religion.

Sheikh Hassoun recently commented on the problem of Islamic political parties and their understanding of the concept of secularism. He called for the need to spare the Muslims and Islam the consequences of these political conflicts. Hassoun stressed that the Islamists were fighting secularism without distinguishing between the French secularism, and the secularism based on science [The word secularism in Arabic "Ilmaniyah" is derived from the Arabic word "Ilm" meaning science].

In this interview with Asharq Al-Awsat we focus on the Syrian mufti’s concept of secularism, his vision of the nature of the state in Islam, his understanding of the role of the clerics in this state, and his opinion of the conflict between the Islamists and the Arab governments, and between the Islamists and the rest of the intellectual and political tendencies in the Arab world.

The following is the full text of the interview:

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Recently there was controversy over the meaning of secularism from an Islamic viewpoint. What is your own definition of secularism?

(Sheikh Hassoun) One of the fundamental issues about definitions is that they do not become acceptable terms until the experts agree on them. This agreement takes place after extensive studies and deliberations, and then come those who read the concept and not the literal words of the definition to give their opinion. There is no such thing as a personal or non-personal definition of anything, including secularism. It is more correct and more proper to talk about a personal understanding. This personal understanding is based on the personal experience of any individual and his reading, in addition to the surroundings and environment in which he lives. From this starting point, I arrive at the personal understanding of secularism. The same as all humanitarian and philosophical concepts, secularism is neither entirely true nor entirely rejected. Therefore, we ought to discuss the issues before they become either rejected or a fait accompli. This is in order to make them suitable for us by choosing what suits us and rejecting what does not suit us. Here, we have to point out that the prevailing direct and improvised understanding [of secularism] has been masked in an inaccurate way. With its arrival as a contemporary political and intellectual term, secularism was placed through the media and ideologies in conflict with belief in the various religions and sects. Secularism was rejected equally by Christians and Muslims, because it was linked in their minds to the concept of fighting religion. This is what we find in the writings of the Ulema, such as Sheikh Muhammad Mahdi Shams-al-Din, God have mercy on his soul, who dedicated a complete book to secularism in which he refuted, analyzed, and criticized the concept, and which contained correct scientific views. Also Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi wrote and lectured about secularism.

What I say about the lack of contradiction and conflict is based on the linguistic meaning, and not the terminological meaning agreed by the people. I think that the difference between the viewpoints results from the difference between those who call for separating religion from the state, and those who call for the need to incorporate religion in the state. I see Islam as an international religion that does not need getting into such details. Against Single Reading

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you support redrafting society’s concepts according to a secular view of life that preserves the Islamic constants?

(Sheikh Hassoun) Let us keep away momentarily from the text of the question, which I will answer. I ask: what is the meaning of redrafting? What is the meaning of preserving the constants? These are puzzling rhetorical expressions. Redrafting is for something that needs redrafting, and Islam does not fall in this category. However, we also need a perceptive and accurate understanding of the religious text. Understanding comes with having many readers; hence the rule, “The presence of differences within my nation is a mercy.” You can imagine the effect of having a single reading of the text; what will happen then? We do not ask for freezing the religion within a clerical organization and isolating it from the political arena, but we are not in favor of politicizing anything that does not bear any political view. If what is meant by secularization is to neutralize religion, then this is a misconception because the Muslim, the Christian, and the others constitute the political, social, and economic fabric of the society, and no one whatsoever can find people who are absolutely neutral. We have clear examples of the individuals who established secular parties in the conventional sense, and who returned during the times of crisis to their religious roots. Therefore, I say that there is no absolute contradiction, because I am facing societies with many sectors, and I do not accept that they should impose their way of life upon me, and in exchange I do not accept to impose my way of life upon them. God Almighty said in Islam, “Let there be no compulsion in religion [Surah Al-Baqarah, from Verse 256];” and He said, “To you be your Way, and to me mine [Surah al-Kafirun, Verse 6].” Therefore, the Almighty has given the other the freedom to believe and to choose. Islam and the Roots of Secularism.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) There are intellectuals and historians who believe that secularism has roots in Islam, and that Islam is “in essence a secular” religion that includes facts related to Divine inspiration only. Do you support these pronouncements? What are the aspects of secularism in Islamic history?

(Sheikh Hassoun) This question is linked directly to the previous question. I say: Is there any opinion after the Divine text in the Koran? What is the value of the opinions of the intellectuals and muftis against the Divine Koran text? I object to the question in this form. Islam is great in itself and in its message, and it does not need research to indicate that it encompasses other things in order to increase its greatness. If they say that Islam includes the roots of secularism, this will not increase or decrease the value of Islam. This reminds me of the research papers that talk about the scientific miracles in the Koran, and that try to attribute everything to the Koran; this is clear overstretching. I do not care about anything other than the correct understanding of the contemporary terminology, and the correct understanding of the religious text from which I derive the rules that organize my relationships with both the creator and the creatures. Do I want to acquire a certificate of appreciation of Islam from the seculars who do not believe in Islam? Do I want to exonerate the secular’s attitude toward religion? This is the real question, and the answer is with those who present opinions and readings with clear impartiality and true transparency.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Where does secularism meet Islam, and where does it diverge from it?

(Sheikh Hassoun) What is the importance of secularism meeting Islam, or of Islam meeting it? Islam is an eternal religion that is valid for every time and every place. Validity is directly linked to correct understanding. As a Muslim, I am interested in my understanding of Islam, whether or not this understanding meets with secularism. Do I want to twist the neck of Islam in order to be able to say: Here I meet with secularism? This issue needs research and seminars not to identify the meeting points, but to identify the correct understanding of each of Islam and secularism.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some people ask: How can we transform a closed intellectual system into an open and effective one? Do you consider secularism a condition for development on a national level?

(Sheikh Hassoun) Does the question mean that Islam is a closed intellectual system?! If this is the case, then the question as a whole is rejected because Islam is not like this. Here, I refer the honorable reader to the book by the Arab Muslim intellectual, Dr Umar Farrukh, God have mercy on his soul, which was entitled “Renewal in Muslims Not in Islam.” This valuable research came after a preceding book entitled “Evangelism and Colonialism.” If anyone accuses Islam of being closed on itself, this accusation applies to a group of Muslims, which we cannot identify, because every group considers itself correct, moreover it considers the others wrong. This reminds us of the reading of the Ulema, and their identification of the misguided group; perhaps an impartial observer considers all of them as misguided, while we ought to consider the others as correct from their viewpoint. I have not said, and I will not say that secularism is a condition for national rising in any country in the world; all I say is: Correct understanding and recognizing the other and his rights are the way to national rising. Islam has never at any time called for anything other than correct understanding and the recognition of the other and of his rights.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some people also think that leaving the leadership to secular thinking is a road that ultimately leads to atheism. What do you think of this?

(Sheikh Hassoun) Who said that we want to leave the leadership to the secular thinking? We consider that the time of leaving the leadership in any society to any [single] tendency has gone. There are ideas that enrich people’s lives, and there is a leadership that leads the society in a way that serves the interests of the people; this leadership might combine atheists and religious people; there is nothing to prevent this! Arkoun was not correct, but I respect him.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you agree with French Algerian intellectual Mohammed Arkoun in his definition of secularism as “The unanimity of the people – apart from the clerics – i.e. away from their intervention in people’s lives?”

(Sheikh Hassoun) The intellectual Professor Arkoun has widespread opinions circulated by the media. Anyone who says something, whatever he says is up to him and expresses his views. However, if we look into this pronouncement, we will find that it needs scientific accuracy. If we, as he says, exempt the clerics, we will find that the society loses a large sector of its constituents; it is a very big sector, because there is no clerical class (priesthood) in Islam. Every Muslim adheres to the faith. Through Islam’s opinion of the religious scholars we will find that all Muslims adhere to religion. The question now is where is the unanimity of the people if we exempt the religious scholars? It is certain that this opinion [of Arkoun] cannot pass a precise test according to the criteria of mind and logic. However, it is an opinion of a specific person, and it only concerns those who subscribe to this opinion; I respect this opinion, but I do not agree with it. Are There Clerics in Islam?

(Asharq Al-Awsat) What do you think of the belief of some Arab intellectuals that what hinders the understanding and application of secularism is the influence of religion?

(Sheikh Hassoun) First of all, I do not agree with the expression: influence of religion. This is an expression that makes a dig at religion one way or another. Religion is belief, creed, and spirit, and is not a movement, a party, or a power so that we can say “the influence of religion.” However, if what is meant is the influence of the “religious scholars,” then the expression “clerics” does not exist in Islam, because, as I said earlier, every Muslim is a cleric. If such a class exists in our life, then it is a mistaken confusion of the concepts of the well-versed scholar, the Islamic caller, and the imam. The emergence of such a class that monopolizes religion is linked to ignorance and illiteracy among both the people and some callers equally. However, if we say the status of religion, then this is a more accurate expression, and we answer by saying that nothing can harm the status of religion, because God Almighty says, “We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and we will assuredly guard it [Surah Al-Hijr, Verse 9].” Along history, religion has been exposed to confrontations, and we witnessed and lived through some of them; however this has not affected the foundations and essence of religion. I say that adopting a specific method does not necessarily mean abolishing the other ways; however, if one of the two paths is narrow-minded in reality, this will lead to conflict. There are the so-called extremist movements; the extremist movements are not all of the same direction, because they might be religious, they might be of different ideologies, they might be ethnic, or even secular.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some Islamic thinkers consider that in order to achieve secularism in Islam there ought to be a separation of the religion and the priesthood from the state in all societies; in other words they consider that the Islamic model is based on secularism, i.e. on the absence of priesthood and its influence from the rest of the civilian institutions. What is your comment?

(Sheikh Hassoun) The vision of those you mentioned in your question stemmed from two issues: the first is the inevitability of atheism among the seculars, and the second is the inevitability of the conflict between religion and secularism. When they expressed these opinions they were influenced by the translation of the European renaissance when the church was neutralized. There are many differences between the two reality situations which are being compared. Islam is inseparable from the public life of the Muslims. We know that Islam has not been only a way of worship as much as it was a way of worshiping God and of living with the surrounding environment in its diversity; however, Islam has never at any time interfered in the structure of the political life in the countries that believe in it. If we noticed otherwise, this would be due to a group of individuals who cloaked their political ambitions in religious dress in an attempt to include the Shariaa into a collection of systems that act according to an agenda that serves their personal interests, or the interests of those behind this. Within these two groups we will find a mass of true Muslims who have been carried away by their sentiments. Therefore, Islam is a way of life, and has nothing to do with the civilian institutions except through its contribution to some charity aspects, and to moral and spiritual guidance; anything else is an illusion in the mind of the deluded. Once again, there are many religious people allover the world and of all religious denominations; have they been neutralized? Do we not see the world leaders practice their religious rites without anyone asking them to distance themselves from religion, while they are the ones who call for secularism!

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you think it is possible to unite the two religious and political institutions in any society?

(Sheikh Hassoun) Any society is based on pluralism. Pluralism is a form of wealth. Has not the United States and its progress been established on pluralism? Does not Europe live a state of pluralism and unity (gathering in a union)? The question as I understand it means that the religious authority could have political power. This could happen, and would be acceptable if those in power had awareness and impartiality; this situation also could be rejected. As I mentioned, there are a number of rulers in the world who have religious beliefs, and who perform the religious rites, but this has not made them impose their religious or sectarian opinion upon others; if this happened, as in some totalitarian tendencies, there would be a fire that is ready to erupt at any moment under such practice. Do you not think that the experience of most religious parties has been bitter? Do you not see that the Islamic religious parties on the arena adopt a pragmatic form, which changes according to the surrounding incidents and conditions? This is a new awareness.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Where are the areas of conflict between the group supporting partial secularism, the “Islamic left-wing,” and those who reject and fight any concept of secularism?

(Sheikh Hassoun) The conflict areas are represented by misunderstanding each other, and by not coming together to discuss and search for the points of agreement. This is where our greatest problem lies.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) In one of his books, “Islam and Secularism Face to Face,” Dr Al-Qaradawi rejected the presence of secularism in any Arab or Islamic country under any pretext or criterion, be they the criteria of religion, interests, democracy, or origin. What do you say about this?

(Sheikh Hassoun) The opinion of His Eminence Sheikh Al-Qaradawi represents a large section of Muslims. It is an opinion that is worthy of respect and appreciation. However, there is no human opinion that does not change or alter, and there is no human opinion over which people would not disagree. The problem would arise if the rejection were absolute. Let me put it in a different way: Are not there among the fanatical Muslims those who are more degenerate and more hostile than the seculars?

(Asharq Al-Awsat) How do you assess the current secular parties in the Arab and Gulf societies? Do you consider them as fanatics? What do they lack?

(Sheikh Hassoun) I am not a supporter of any party. However, experience has proved that the Arab partisan life, whatever the tendency of the party might be, needs continuous revision in order to benefit from their experiences, but this does not happen. As for being fanatics, this is natural, because as soon as the party is formed – any party – there will be an ideology. As for what they lack, this is a question that should be addressed to the leaders and followers of the parties; we are mere observers who consider the Arab partisan life not to be at the required level; I even fear that the masses will abandon them if they do not revise and develop themselves.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) How can we build bridges between heritage and modernism? Do you support the philosophical criticism of the Islamic history? What do you say about the old saying: Whoever adopts logic adopts atheism?

(Sheikh Hassoun) These are theoretical sayings that have no value in reality. In the past the Ulema used to have a stance against logic. As for the bridges of knowledge, they are built through communication, and through man’s realization of the importance of his past and present. At the same time, no one has the right to support or reject anything without evidence. However, what has been proved by the passage of time is that the Muslim philosophers in the early ages were builders of humanity, and were international intellectual and cultural leading examples. Do Not Wrong the Religious Institution.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Is it true that the individuals in the Muslim societies, particularly the intellectuals, have suffered in the past and continue to suffer because of the hegemony of the religious institution? Is it true that the history and present of the religious institution are arbitrary and packed with stories ranging between burning books, takfir, and killing? What do you think of all this?

(Sheikh Hassoun) Who said that the sectarian conflicts, or the conflicts hidden under a sectarian cloak, which take place today, are not carried out by seculars? If we agree with those who say that secularism is atheism, then it is assumed that no secular will participate in a sectarian war. In reality we also find that many of those who studied in the west and claimed to be seculars hastened to wear the sectarian dress. This makes us have a deeper understanding of the two issues of sectarianism and secularism; neither of them is the solution for the other, because man can change colors between these two sides. The way to get out of the sectarian crises lies in understanding the other, making him understand, and really believing in the right to disagree. The jurisprudence creeds have been established in order to serve the faith through the various understandings of the text, and not through exploiting religion to support the sect or sectarianism. Once again I stress that there is no religious institution in Islam; if there were an institution, its role would be to enlighten and not to increase ignorance. In the face of the practices of some individuals who act in the name of religion, I say that these individuals cannot under any circumstances be fit to rule according to Shariaa and Islam in particular. In order not to deviate from the general framework, I say: The incidents of takfir, killing, and similar deeds that fill the books of history have proved to the Muslim and Arab researchers, before any others, that these were incidents of political or sectarian killing, and it is unfair to attach these deeds to the faith or to the religious institution as you called it in the question.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Thus, do we need a state of religious neutrality?

(Sheikh Hassoun) I do not understand the meaning of religious neutrality. Religion is of the soul and of the spirit, and we cannot ask about the possibility of abandoning the soul or being neutral with it. I am one of those who consider that there is a tendency toward religion within any human being, even if he were an atheist. However, the dormant period of this tendency varies from one person to another. Environment and upbringing is what directs people toward the middle and toward moderation, as in real Islam, or toward fanaticism and the rejection of the other, as in the extremist movements in any religion.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) What do you think of the following pronouncement by one of the intellectuals, “Recent history has settled the issue of the relationship between the state and religion, or the issue of the secularism of politics; however, the irony lies in the piety of the society and the secularism of the state?”

(Sheikh Hassoun) This question comes within the framework of “whoever adopts logic adopts atheism.” I think that the issues are simpler than this sentence, because there are authorities and there are opposition groups, whether religious or non-religious. The religious person has the right to be a citizen who accepts or rejects, and no one has the right to tell him to isolate himself from the domain of the other; on the contrary, he has the right to play his complete role without guardianship, marginalization, or exclusion. As long as man is balanced in his values, free in his decision, and disciplined in his behavior, he will build and will not destroy, and he will unite and not divide; this is the true believer and true Muslim.

Women in Syria – The inside story - by Wayne Sonter

by Wayne Sonter

The Western mainstream media have kept on message over the last three years, persistently presenting the violence in Syria as stemming from a ruthless tyrant’s suppression of a people’s yearning for freedom and democracy.

As the war progressed and the Syrian state stood firm, the mainstream account has adapted accordingly. The war became a civil war, one that is increasingly sectarian, with both sides committing atrocities and religious extremists becoming the foremost opposition forces. This, in turn, is used as an argument for “humanitarian” intervention.

As the line goes, the tyrant Assad of course is still held responsible, because of his refusal to step down so a “transitional” government, composed of the opposition forces, can take over Syria.

Those who look beyond this mass media fairy tale know the real story is very different, that the war in Syria is a long planned project for regime change, initiated by the United States and its NATO and Gulf state “allies”, along the lines of what was done in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Ukraine.

Those the Western media and politicians designate as the “opposition” are not the opposition that actually exists in Syria, who oppose the Baathist government, but defend the independence of Syria and its secular state. Many of these parties are represented in the national parliament and in local government.

The only “opposition” the Western media and politicians recognise are the creations maintained by the US, NATO and the Gulf states. The armed “rebels” are in the main foreign mercenaries – gangsters and jihadi death squads, paid for by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, equipped, trained and directed by US, French and British special forces, operating from bases and command centres in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.

Australia a lackey

Australia, as a completely loyal US lackey, totally obeisant to its military and intelligence apparatus, is part of this gang of criminal conspirators, gathered together under the name, “Friends Of Syria”!

So it is no surprise that when a delegation from Australia recently visited Syria, to show solidarity with Syrian people and gauge the actual situation, both Liberal and Labor parties and the mass media broadly condemned it.

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop called the visit “reckless” and claimed it risked involving Australia in the conflict, but also claimed the delegation’s visit undermined sanctions Australia has on Syria, thus aligned Australia with one side of the conflict, “which is something we would not do”!

Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen called the delegation’s visit “irresponsible” and “extraordinary”, claiming that to “go and have discussions and try to provide some legitimacy” to the Syrian government demanded an explanation.

At the same time print and broadcast media made sure very little space was given to members of the delegation to actually report what they witnessed in Syria, merely attacking them for going at all!

Members of the delegation have tried to outflank the persistent refusal by the media and the political establishment to allow the real story on Syria to reach the mainstream, by holding a number of forums and using social media to get their message out.

One such forum was held recently at Sydney University where three of the Syrian-Australian women who were part of the delegation, plus another well known Syrian-Australian activist, Mimi al Laham, better known as Syrian Girl Partisan, addressed a full auditorium.

Delegation member, Jasmine Saadat, in introducing the speakers made a few salient points:

The conflict in Syria has now endured for three years and the world has witnessed unimaginable atrocities, with children as well as religious figures beheaded, women raped and tortured and forced into prostitution and thousands of Syrians kidnapped for ransom;

It was evident early on that armed militias intended to escalate events, and while millions of Syrians took to the streets to show their solidarity with the Syrian state and each other, media reports, generated by the Qatari owned Al Jazeera, distorted the truth and portrayed events with great bias;

The Syrian government called on many occasions for the opposition to come to the table, offered new reforms and amnesty for all who had not committed atrocities, yet the opposition never came, choosing instead, to escalate their military efforts.

Ms Saadat said that three years on it has become apparent there never was a peaceful or popular uprising: the majority fighting are foreigners; and rather than a revolution, Syria has been set back a hundred years, as NATO-backed insurgents have systematically destroyed the country’s infrastructure, demolished cities and suburbs, looted historic relics, devastated more than two-thirds of Syria’s public hospitals and health centres and 3,500 schools and universities, desecrated churches and mosques and blown up electric towers and gas pipelines.

Women’s rights

Al-Qaeda affiliated groups now roam the country reaping chaos, death and destruction and women have suffered immensely in all this.

“If these extremists take over the country,” Ms Saadat said, “what will become of women of Syria? What will become of their rights? What will be the status of a woman in Syria?”

Reme Sakr, who went to school in both Syria and Australia, said that to know what is at stake in Syria we need to know what the country was like before the war.

When people talk about a movement in Syria supposedly helping the country move forward into freedom and democracy, we need to know how Syrians were really living, because the worst thing to do would be to try to help a nation move forward, but instead take it back hundreds of years – unless of course, that is what is really intended.

Ms Sakr pointed out that in Syria girls and women have access to free education from kindergarten to university. To achieve a degree of equality in society, women need access to education and Syrian women have that.

Women in Syria occupy senior positions in all sorts of roles, including in government.

Unlike other Arab nations, Syrian women get custody of children in marital disputes and the Syrian constitution guarantees women all the opportunities that enable them to participate fully and effectively in political, social, cultural and economic life. The state works to remove the restrictions that prevent women‘s development and their participation in building socialist, Arab society.

Ms Sakr said there is always more to do, but what Syrian women already have is an achievement for the region and needs to be protected, yet the Western world today is working with Saudi Arabia, one of the most anti-woman and anti-democratic governments in the world, to overthrow the Syrian state and its secular society.

Wherever their genocidal religious fanatics have gained control and imposed their radical fundamentalist form of sharia law, women have been turned into slaves, with every aspect of their lives controlled by a man.

A young woman was recently publicly strangled in one of these ‘liberated’ areas for not adhering to sharia law and another stoned to death for having a facebook account, this being regarded as equivalent to adultery, so punishable by death.

Ms Sakr met a young woman from Aleppo, whose uncle had been killed and father and brother kidnapped by the Western-backed militias; she herself was a target because her fiancé was Alawite. Militias had threatened to cut her head off and hang it in the centre of Aleppo, after sending ten men to rape her.

Ms Sakr said one does not have to be an Assad supporter to see that with the government’s collapse or departure foreign backed mercenaries would seize control, and destroy the country, including what women have achieved. The defence of Syria, she concluded is a matter of life and death for Syrian women.


Elham Abboud, her husband and three children moved to Syria in 2008, where she taught as a primary school teacher for nearly six years. Elham spoke of the ongoing disruption of people’s lives she witnessed on her recent return as part of the delegation to Syria, but also commended people’s resilience and determination to prevail against the outside forces.

Ms Abboud recalled that in Homs, the city in which her family lived and worked, the first indication of the trouble to come in early 2011, was signalled with an outbreak of gunfire and the city’s mosques loudly proclaiming that “god is great”, calling people to jihad. This continued for three days, apparently in line with a prophecy that if this was maintained the earth would swallow the infidels and non-believers and a sharia society would come into being! From this point the violence escalated.

Mimi El Laham contextualised Syria in relation to other recent NATO wars, before returning to the situation in her home country. She pointed to women’s rights being exploited to promote war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and now Syria, but that in these countries women’s rights were not better, but worse than they were at time of invasion.

Ms El Laham quoted Afghan feminist Malalai Joya’s statement that Afghan women, “remain caged in our society, without access to justice and still ruled by women hating criminals”.

Likewise in Iraq, women were free to run for office, to go to school and university and to work and freely lead a public life. Now, due to security and government suppression, women are forced to stay at home. Iraq is currently legalising marriage for girls as young as nine.

In Libya women’s rights were also of a level as existed in Iraq before US invasion. With US/NATO’s destruction of Libya, women are regarded as “spoils of war” and Libya is heading toward an “Afghan” model regarding women’s rights, according to Libyan activist, Aicha Almagrabi, The first law the post-Gaddafi government passed was to allow men to marry more than one wife.

Returning to the situation in Syria Ms El Laham referred to the case of the fraudulent blogger, “Gay Girl in Damascus”, whose supposed situation, as the “ultimate outsider revealing the dangers of political and sexual dissent in Syria” was used to vilify the Syrian government and trigger a campaign for “her” release from prison, before it was discovered that “Gay Girl” was actually an American male residing in Scotland!

Ms El Laham also spoke of young women and girls, especially those in refugee camps, being preyed on by the very same Saudi and Qatari sheiks and businessmen who are paying jihadi mercenaries to destroy Syria! She showed a video clip of girls as young as 13, from a refugee camp in Jordan, being procured as short term “wives” for these vile beings.

Embedded media

Ms El Laham concluded that while imperialist states had exploited women’s rights to start a succession of wars, these wars had destroyed women’s rights. We must not let Syria be turned into another Afghanistan, she declared.

At this point an ex-SBS journalist, currently working freelance commented at length on the video, pointing out that she had talked to “hundreds” of other journalists working in the Middle East and they all agreed the video was a hoax; that the girls in the video had later confessed that they made the video for money.

Ms El Laham responded that she and many others could confirm that events like this were taking place through their own connections and families they knew where these sorts of “marriages” were occurring.

Another member of the audience declared he had just returned from Jordan, where he lived the last four years and he had witnessed girls being bussed to premises on the street where he lived and obviously wealthy clients arriving to pick them up.

Apparently hundreds of journalists “embedded” with the forces opposed to the Syrian government, have never come across evidence of this trade, all so visible on the street, but when they checked with the authorities they were sufficiently reassured that such allegations were undoubtedly false.

The journalists’ dismissal of these victims of the Syrian war, relying instead on the more “authoritative” voice of those actually prosecuting the war – encapsulates the insidious role the mainstream media plays in these schemes of imperialist aggrandisement.

The media blocks the truth and actively fabricates falsehoods as an integral aspect of ensuring the war crimes, primarily stemming from US imperialism, but driven by the deepest contradictions in the whole capitalist system, can proceed while keeping the masses as passivised and social upheaval as minimised as possible.

This makes it even more critical that the truth behind the media facades is exposed and disseminated, so people are aware of, and no longer tolerate what their governments and elites do in their name.

The women who have witnessed the true story of what is happening inside Syria are determined to do this.


MI6, the CIA and Turkey's rogue game in #Syria | by Patrick Cockburn | 13 April 2014

The US's Secretary of State John Kerry and its UN ambassador, Samantha Power have been pushing for more assistance to be given to the Syrian rebels. This is despite strong evidence that the Syrian armed opposition are, more than ever, dominated by jihadi fighters similar in their beliefs and methods to al-Qa'ida. The recent attack by rebel forces around Latakia, northern Syria, which initially had a measure of success, was led by Chechen and Moroccan jihadis.

America has done its best to keep secret its role in supplying the Syrian armed opposition, operating through proxies and front companies. It is this which makes Seymour Hersh's article "The Red Line and The Rat Line: Obama, Erdogan and the Syrian rebels" published last week in the London Review of Books, so interesting.

Attention has focussed on whether the Syrian jihadi group, Jabhat al-Nusra, aided by Turkish intelligence, could have been behind the sarin gas attacks in Damascus last 21 August, in an attempt to provoke the US into full-scale military intervention to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. "We now know it was a covert action planned by [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan's people to push Obama over the red line," a former senior US intelligence officer is quoted as saying.

Critics vehemently respond that all the evidence points to the Syrian government launching the chemical attack and that even with Turkish assistance, Jabhat al-Nusra did not have the capacity to use sarin.

A second and little-regarded theme of Hersh's article is what the CIA called the rat line, the supply chain for the Syrian rebels overseen by the US in covert cooperation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The information about this comes from a highly classified and hitherto secret annex to the report by the US Senate Intelligence Committee on the attack by Libyan militiamen on the US consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012 in which US ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed. The annex deals with an operation in which the CIA, in cooperation with MI6, arranged the dispatch of arms from Mu'ammer Gaddafi's arsenals to Turkey and then across the 500-mile long Turkish southern frontier with Syria. The annex refers to an agreement reached in early 2012 between Obama and Erdogan with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar supplying funding. Front companies, purporting to be Australian, were set up, employing former US soldiers who were in charge of obtaining and transporting the weapons. According to Hersh, the MI6 presence enabled the CIA to avoid reporting the operation to Congress, as required by law, since it could be presented as a liaison mission.

The US involvement in the rat line ended unhappily when its consulate was stormed by Libyan militiamen. The US diplomatic presence in Benghazi had been dwarfed by that of the CIA and, when US personnel were airlifted out of the city in the aftermath of the attack, only seven were reportedly from the State Department and 23 were CIA officers. The disaster in Benghazi, which soon ballooned into a political battle between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, severely loosened US control of what arms were going to which rebel movements in Syria.

This happened at the moment when Assad's forces were starting to gain the upper hand and al-Qa'ida-type groups were becoming the cutting edge of the rebel military.

The failure of the rebels to win in 2012 left their foreign backers with a problem. At the time of the fall of Gaddafi they had all become over-confident, demanding the removal of Assad when he still held all Syria's 14 provincial capitals. "They were too far up the tree to get down," according to one observer. To accept anything other than the departure of Assad would have looked like a humiliating defeat.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar went on supplying money while Sunni states turned a blind eye to the recruitment of jihadis and to preachers stirring up sectarian hatred against the Shia. But for Turkey the situation was worse. Efforts to project its power were faltering and all its chosen proxies – from Egypt to Iraq – were in trouble. It was evident that al-Qa'ida-type fighters, including Jahat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) and Ahrar al-Sham were highly dependent on Turkish border crossings for supplies, recruits and the ability to reach safety. The heaviest intra-rebel battles were for control of these crossings. Turkey's military intelligence, MIT, and the paramilitary Gendarmerie played a growing role in directing and training jihadis and Jabhat al-Nusra in particular.

The Hersh article alleges that the MIT went further and instructed Jabhat al-Nusra on how to stage a sarin gas attack in Damascus that would cross Obama's red line and lead to the US launching an all-out air attack. Vehement arguments rage over whether this happened. That a senior US intelligence officer is quoted by America's leading investigative journalist as believing that it did, is already damaging Turkey.

Part of the US intelligence community is deeply suspicious of Erdogan's actions in Syria. It may also be starting to strike home in the US and Europe that aid to the armed rebellion in Syria means destabilising Iraq. When Isis brings suicide bombers from across the Turkish border into Syria it can as easily direct them to Baghdad as Aleppo.

The Pentagon is much more cautious than the State Department about the risks of putting greater military pressure on Assad, seeing it as the first step in a military entanglement along the lines of Iraq and Afghanistan. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel are the main opponents of a greater US military role. Both sides in the US have agreed to a programme under which 600 Syrian rebels would be trained every month and jihadis would be weeded out. A problem here is that the secular moderate faction of committed Syrian opposition fighters does not really exist. As always, there is a dispute over what weapons should be supplied, with the rebels, Saudis and Qataris insisting that portable anti-aircraft missiles would make all the difference. This is largely fantasy, the main problem being that the rebel military forces are fragmented into hundreds of war bands.

It is curious that the US military has been so much quicker to learn the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya than civilians like Kerry and Power. The killing of Ambassador Stevens shows what happens when the US gets even peripherally involved in a violent, messy crisis like Syria where it does not control many of the players or much of the field.

Meanwhile, a telling argument against Turkey having orchestrated the sarin gas attacks in Damascus is that to do so would have required a level of competence out of keeping with its shambolic interventions in Syria over the past three years.


Syria | Al-Qaeda trains Syrian children in al-Ghouta

(Originally published in Al-Alam on Sunday, October 20, 2013)

Al-Qaeda-affiliated group, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) trains Syrian children in Ashbal al-Zarqawi camp in al-Ghouta, Rif Dimashq.

Robert Fisk: Has Recep Tayyip Erdogan gone from model Middle East 'strongman' to tin-pot dictator?

Thursday 10 April 2014

Once a cuddly ally of Barack Obama, the Turkish Prime Minister has shown himself to be increasingly authoritarian

Recep Tayyip Erdogan used to be one of Barack Obama's cuddliest allies. Religious but secular, powerful but democratic, independent but a reliable Nato chum, he was the kind of guy the White House and the Pentagon could rely on to provide a guiding hand in the Arab part of the old Ottoman empire - and a channel for rebels who could bring down the hated Bashar al-Assad of Syria. 

The American think-tank mountebanks - taking their cue as usual from the US 'official sources' - even proclaimed Turkey as a "role model" for the post-dictatorship Arab world.

Queue in hollow laughter. Was a nation which still mistreated its Kurds, acted as a holocaust denier in refusing to acknowledge the 1915 Armenian genocide, and which even trashed the trial of those who killed the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in an Istanbul street in 2007, really the kind of mirror into which the Muslim world should stare with approval? Yea, now the mask has fallen.

Erdogan sent in the police to crush the demonstrators of Gezi Park last year, went berserk when it was suggested his party and relatives were involved in corruption scams, and fired or removed hundreds of police and security officers. Then he promised to wipe out "social media" - Facebook and YouTube were the new 'terrorists', it seemed - before the municipal elections which he inevitably won, and uttered the kind of threats against Turkey's ever more compliant press in words that might have come from the late Saddam Hussein. It turned out that the only role model Turkey was a role model for was - well, Turkey.

So had yet another Middle East 'strongman' turned into a tin-pot (and dangerous) dictator? Or had a conservative, level headed democrat suddenly shown his true colours? When the Arab awakening began to destroy the local dictators in 2011, Erdogan was the first Muslim leader to grasp its significance and praise its revolutionaries. Who would have believed that the old Ottoman flag - or the current Turkish version of it - would be flown once more with pride over Arab homes in Gaza and Egypt? Even when the latter's elected president Mohamed Morsi was chucked out by that wonderful democracy-loving Egyptian deputy prime minister, defence minister and chief of staff - Erdogan could scarcely bring himself to pronounce General al-Sissi's name - the Turkish prime minister, like Qatar, insisted that Morsi was still the leader of Egypt.

Next on his target list, I suspect, will be the Daily Zaman, one of the most feisty and provocative of Turkish newspapers which will soon - its journalists fear - feel Erdogan's lash. The paper this week trashed the prime minister's attacks on his Islamist antagonist Fetullah Gulen, currently residing in Pennsylvania, as having no basis in law, approvingly quoting a retired supreme appeal court prosecutor as saying that Erdogan was trying to influence the justice system. The paper, regarded as close to Gulen ideologically, has carried articles asking if corruption and bribery contributed to Erdorgan's 45 per cent Justice and Development Party election victory. And in an unprecedented reporyeaht, it also wrote that Armenians driven on 16 March from their homes in the Syrian town of Kassab by Islamist rebels supported by Turkey, were drawing parallels with the 1915 mass killings - which the paper was not quite brave enough to call a genocide.

Turkey denies all this, just as it denies the genocide. Both statements are nonsense. The Jabhat al-Nusra men who stormed into Kassab did not come from Iraq or Jordan. The town, in which thousands of Armenians lived in the very last part of what had been Ottoman Armenia, is only a few miles from the Syrian border where the Turks have been furnishing their Syrian rebel allies - both Islamist and secular - with arms. The Armenian expulsions have provided ample opportunity once again for the Assad regime to demonstrate the cruelty of its opponents.

But there is growing evidence that Turkey's - or rather Erdogan's - involvement with the revolt against Assad is critical to his relationship with Obama. The Syrian government were, of course, the first to claim that the sarin gas which killed hundreds of Syrian civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta last August had come from Turkey - and had then been used by Islamist groups in the hope that the West would blame Assad and turn its strategic weapons against the regime. WhenThe Independent enquired about the attacks in Syria, Russian sources stated that the chemicals had not been sold to Assad. They had come from stocks sold by Moscow to the former Gaddafi regime in Libya.

Syrian army officers and one figure close to Assad complained to me, too, that when the US and its allies insisted the regime was to blame for the gas attack - which of course they did at once - no heed was paid to public evidence that sarin gas was being transported through part of Turkey for rebels in the north of Syria. They constantly referred to a 130-page Turkish indictment of ten al-Nusra men accused of transporting through southern Turkey what local police identified as chemical precursors for sarin. They were correct. The ringleader of the group, Haytham Qassab, appeared in court where a Turkish prosecutor demanded 25 years imprisonment, but he was later released "pending trial". They have all since disappeared, while Turkey's ambassador to Moscow was later to dismiss the arrests, claiming - with almost Saddam-like conviction - that the 'sarin' was "anti-freeze". 

That most controversial of American investigative journalists, Seymour Hersh - I confess he is an old mate of mine even though he often uses my most hated phrase, anonymous "officials" and "experts", as his sources - has now published his own disturbing and compelling research on the use of chemicals in Syria and points the finger at Turkey for allowing rebels to use sarin in an earlier chemical attack against the Syrian village of Khan al-Assal.

Far more explosively, he claims that the British Porton Down defence laboratory examined the sarin used in Ghouta (courtesy of a Russian military intelligence operative) - this was the attack that propelled Obama and his administration into paroxysms of rage against Assad - and that British intelligence confirmed to the Americans that the gas did not come from stocks in the Syrian army's chemical weapons' arsenal.

This, according to Hersh - who naturally has his own detractors - was enough to persuade the US Joint Chiefs of Staff to tell President Obama that he must not use the Ghouta attack as an excuse for a military strike against Syria. Obama finally agreed - although he used a sudden (and still unexplained) decision to seek congressional approval for a bombardment of Syria - permission he knew he was unlikely to get. The Turks - and here comes the Erdogan connection - were outraged that the Americans had not fallen into their trap of destroying Assad.

Erdogan, according to Hersh, had allowed the Americans to ship a 'rat line' of weapons from Libya via Turkey to the Syrian rebels - hence the connection to earlier shipments of sarin to Libya from the then Soviet Union. Hersh says that for months after the Ghouta attack occurred, this 'rat line' continued. So did permission to the Turks to trade in gold with Iran - a profitable enterprise which created a slush fund of billions of dollars, the very same corruption money which later appeared to fall into the hands of senior figures around Erdogan. 

One Turkish journalist insisted to me in Istanbul this week that Erdogan's 'madness' - although already evident - reached ferocity pitch after the Ghouta sarin attack in Damascus which was supposed to drive Obama to attack the Assad regime, but which ultimately failed to do so. If the US bombardment had taken place, Turkey would have been the 'kingmaker' in any new Syria, and that ancient nation might even have become part of a putative, enlarged, Ottoman-style empire. This is taking things too far. Erdogan is, like Yossarian in Catch 22, a very odd person. There are signs of political megalomania.

But Hersh does detail a dinner on 16 May last year between Erdogan and Obama - and a senior Turkish intelligence official called Hakan Fidan - at which Obama angrily pointed at Fidan and said: "We know what you're doing with the (rebel) radicals in Syria." The dinner took place. No-one, of course, will reveal on the record what was said.

Turkey's meddling in the Syria war will continue, whatever the Americans do. Obama believes the rebels are both untrustworthy, dangerous and are being beaten. But one of the tapes which so enraged Erdogan when it appeared on YouTube - hence the ban - showed an apparent conversation between Turkish officials seeking an excuse to stage their own attack on Syria. "Manipulated," screamed the Turkish government. No doubt.

The Red Line and the Rat Line Seymour M. Hersh on Obama, Erdoğan and the Syrian rebels

In 2011 Barack Obama led an allied military intervention in Libya without consulting the US Congress. Last August, after the sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, he was ready to launch an allied air strike, this time to punish the Syrian government for allegedly crossing the ‘red line’ he had set in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons. Then with less than two days to go before the planned strike, he announced that he would seek congressional approval for the intervention. The strike was postponed as Congress prepared for hearings, and subsequently cancelled when Obama accepted Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical arsenal in a deal brokered by Russia. Why did Obama delay and then relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya? The answer lies in a clash between those in the administration who were committed to enforcing the red line, and military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous.

Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff. The British report heightened doubts inside the Pentagon; the joint chiefs were already preparing to warn Obama that his plans for a far-reaching bomb and missile attack on Syria’s infrastructure could lead to a wider war in the Middle East. As a consequence the American officers delivered a last-minute caution to the president, which, in their view, eventually led to his cancelling the attack.

For months there had been acute concern among senior military leaders and the intelligence community about the role in the war of Syria’s neighbours, especially Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups. ‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’

The joint chiefs also knew that the Obama administration’s public claims that only the Syrian army had access to sarin were wrong. The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons. On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was ‘the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort’. (According to a Defense Department consultant, US intelligence has long known that al-Qaida experimented with chemical weapons, and has a video of one of its gas experiments with dogs.) The DIA paper went on: ‘Previous IC [intelligence community] focus had been almost entirely on Syrian CW [chemical weapons] stockpiles; now we see ANF attempting to make its own CW … Al-Nusrah Front’s relative freedom of operation within Syria leads us to assess the group’s CW aspirations will be difficult to disrupt in the future.’ The paper drew on classified intelligence from numerous agencies: ‘Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators,’ it said, ‘were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.’ (Asked about the DIA paper, a spokesperson for the director of national intelligence said: ‘No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.’)

Last May, more than ten members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin. In a 130-page indictment the group was accused of attempting to purchase fuses, piping for the construction of mortars, and chemical precursors for sarin. Five of those arrested were freed after a brief detention. The others, including the ringleader, Haytham Qassab, for whom the prosecutor requested a prison sentence of 25 years, were released pending trial. In the meantime the Turkish press has been rife with speculation that the Erdoğan administration has been covering up the extent of its involvement with the rebels. In a news conference last summer, Aydin Sezgin, Turkey’s ambassador to Moscow, dismissed the arrests and claimed to reporters that the recovered ‘sarin’ was merely ‘anti-freeze’.

The DIA paper took the arrests as evidence that al-Nusra was expanding its access to chemical weapons. It said Qassab had ‘self-identified’ as a member of al-Nusra, and that he was directly connected to Abd-al-Ghani, the ‘ANF emir for military manufacturing’. Qassab and his associate Khalid Ousta worked with Halit Unalkaya, an employee of a Turkish firm called Zirve Export, who provided ‘price quotes for bulk quantities of sarin precursors’. Abd-al-Ghani’s plan was for two associates to ‘perfect a process for making sarin, then go to Syria to train others to begin large scale production at an unidentified lab in Syria’. The DIA paper said that one of his operatives had purchased a precursor on the ‘Baghdad chemical market’, which ‘has supported at least seven CW efforts since 2004’.

A series of chemical weapon attacks in March and April 2013 was investigated over the next few months by a special UN mission to Syria. A person with close knowledge of the UN’s activity in Syria told me that there was evidence linking the Syrian opposition to the first gas attack, on 19 March in Khan Al-Assal, a village near Aleppo. In its final report in December, the mission said that at least 19 civilians and one Syrian soldier were among the fatalities, along with scores of injured. It had no mandate to assign responsibility for the attack, but the person with knowledge of the UN’s activities said: ‘Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas. It did not come out in public because no one wanted to know.’

In the months before the attacks began, a former senior Defense Department official told me, the DIA was circulating a daily classified report known as SYRUP on all intelligence related to the Syrian conflict, including material on chemical weapons. But in the spring, distribution of the part of the report concerning chemical weapons was severely curtailed on the orders of Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff. ‘Something was in there that triggered a shit fit by McDonough,’ the former Defense Department official said. ‘One day it was a huge deal, and then, after the March and April sarin attacks’ – he snapped his fingers – ‘it’s no longer there.’ The decision to restrict distribution was made as the joint chiefs ordered intensive contingency planning for a possible ground invasion of Syria whose primary objective would be the elimination of chemical weapons.

The former intelligence official said that many in the US national security establishment had long been troubled by the president’s red line: ‘The joint chiefs asked the White House, “What does red line mean? How does that translate into military orders? Troops on the ground? Massive strike? Limited strike?” They tasked military intelligence to study how we could carry out the threat. They learned nothing more about the president’s reasoning.’

In the aftermath of the 21 August attack Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up targets for bombing. Early in the process, the former intelligence official said, ‘the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime.’ The original targets included only military sites and nothing by way of civilian infrastructure. Under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved into ‘a monster strike’: two wings of B-52 bombers were shifted to airbases close to Syria, and navy submarines and ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles were deployed. ‘Every day the target list was getting longer,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The Pentagon planners said we can’t use only Tomahawks to strike at Syria’s missile sites because their warheads are buried too far below ground, so the two B-52 air wings with two-thousand pound bombs were assigned to the mission. Then we’ll need standby search-and-rescue teams to recover downed pilots and drones for target selection. It became huge.’ The new target list was meant to ‘completely eradicate any military capabilities Assad had’, the former intelligence official said. The core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.

Britain and France were both to play a part. On 29 August, the day Parliament voted against Cameron’s bid to join the intervention, the Guardian reported that he had already ordered six RAF Typhoon fighter jets to be deployed to Cyprus, and had volunteered a submarine capable of launching Tomahawk missiles. The French air force – a crucial player in the 2011 strikes on Libya – was deeply committed, according to an account in Le Nouvel Observateur; François Hollande had ordered several Rafale fighter-bombers to join the American assault. Their targets were reported to be in western Syria.

By the last days of August the president had given the Joint Chiefs a fixed deadline for the launch. ‘H hour was to begin no later than Monday morning [2 September], a massive assault to neutralise Assad,’ the former intelligence official said. So it was a surprise to many when during a speech in the White House Rose Garden on 31 August Obama said that the attack would be put on hold, and he would turn to Congress and put it to a vote.

At this stage, Obama’s premise – that only the Syrian army was capable of deploying sarin – was unravelling. Within a few days of the 21 August attack, the former intelligence official told me, Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down. (A spokesperson for Porton Down said: ‘Many of the samples analysed in the UK tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.’ MI6 said that it doesn’t comment on intelligence matters.)

The former intelligence official said the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK was ‘a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy’. After the first reported uses of chemical weapons in Syria last year, American and allied intelligence agencies ‘made an effort to find the answer as to what if anything, was used – and its source’, the former intelligence official said. ‘We use data exchanged as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The DIA’s baseline consisted of knowing the composition of each batch of Soviet-manufactured chemical weapons. But we didn’t know which batches the Assad government currently had in its arsenal. Within days of the Damascus incident we asked a source in the Syrian government to give us a list of the batches the government currently had. This is why we could confirm the difference so quickly.’

The process hadn’t worked as smoothly in the spring, the former intelligence official said, because the studies done by Western intelligence ‘were inconclusive as to the type of gas it was. The word “sarin” didn’t come up. There was a great deal of discussion about this, but since no one could conclude what gas it was, you could not say that Assad had crossed the president’s red line.’ By 21 August, the former intelligence official went on, ‘the Syrian opposition clearly had learned from this and announced that “sarin” from the Syrian army had been used, before any analysis could be made, and the press and White House jumped at it. Since it now was sarin, “It had to be Assad.”’

The UK defence staff who relayed the Porton Down findings to the joint chiefs were sending the Americans a message, the former intelligence official said: ‘We’re being set up here.’ (This account made sense of a terse message a senior official in the CIA sent in late August: ‘It was not the result of the current regime. UK & US know this.’) By then the attack was a few days away and American, British and French planes, ships and submarines were at the ready.

The officer ultimately responsible for the planning and execution of the attack was General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs. From the beginning of the crisis, the former intelligence official said, the joint chiefs had been sceptical of the administration’s argument that it had the facts to back up its belief in Assad’s guilt. They pressed the DIA and other agencies for more substantial evidence. ‘There was no way they thought Syria would use nerve gas at that stage, because Assad was winning the war,’ the former intelligence official said. Dempsey had irritated many in the Obama administration by repeatedly warning Congress over the summer of the danger of American military involvement in Syria. Last April, after an optimistic assessment of rebel progress by the secretary of state, John Kerry, in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that ‘there’s a risk that this conflict has become stalemated.’

Dempsey’s initial view after 21 August was that a US strike on Syria – under the assumption that the Assad government was responsible for the sarin attack – would be a military blunder, the former intelligence official said. The Porton Down report caused the joint chiefs to go to the president with a more serious worry: that the attack sought by the White House would be an unjustified act of aggression. It was the joint chiefs who led Obama to change course. The official White House explanation for the turnabout – the story the press corps told – was that the president, during a walk in the Rose Garden with Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, suddenly decided to seek approval for the strike from a bitterly divided Congress with which he’d been in conflict for years. The former Defense Department official told me that the White House provided a different explanation to members of the civilian leadership of the Pentagon: the bombing had been called off because there was intelligence ‘that the Middle East would go up in smoke’ if it was carried out.

The president’s decision to go to Congress was initially seen by senior aides in the White House, the former intelligence official said, as a replay of George W. Bush’s gambit in the autumn of 2002 before the invasion of Iraq: ‘When it became clear that there were no WMD in Iraq, Congress, which had endorsed the Iraqi war, and the White House both shared the blame and repeatedly cited faulty intelligence. If the current Congress were to vote to endorse the strike, the White House could again have it both ways – wallop Syria with a massive attack and validate the president’s red line commitment, while also being able to share the blame with Congress if it came out that the Syrian military wasn’t behind the attack.’ The turnabout came as a surprise even to the Democratic leadership in Congress. In September the Wall Street Journal reported that three days before his Rose Garden speech Obama had telephoned Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, ‘to talk through the options’. She later told colleagues, according to the Journal, that she hadn’t asked the president to put the bombing to a congressional vote.

Obama’s move for congressional approval quickly became a dead end. ‘Congress was not going to let this go by,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Congress made it known that, unlike the authorisation for the Iraq war, there would be substantive hearings.’ At this point, there was a sense of desperation in the White House, the former intelligence official said. ‘And so out comes Plan B. Call off the bombing strike and Assad would agree to unilaterally sign the chemical warfare treaty and agree to the destruction of all of chemical weapons under UN supervision.’ At a press conference in London on 9 September, Kerry was still talking about intervention: ‘The risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting.’ But when a reporter asked if there was anything Assad could do to stop the bombing, Kerry said: ‘Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week … But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.’ As the New York Times reported the next day, the Russian-brokered deal that emerged shortly afterwards had first been discussed by Obama and Putin in the summer of 2012. Although the strike plans were shelved, the administration didn’t change its public assessment of the justification for going to war. ‘There is zero tolerance at that level for the existence of error,’ the former intelligence official said of the senior officials in the White House. ‘They could not afford to say: “We were wrong.”’ (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The Assad regime, and only the Assad regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack that took place on 21 August.’)


The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida. (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The idea that the United States was providing weapons from Libya to anyone is false.’)

In January, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the assault by a local militia in September 2012 on the American consulate and a nearby undercover CIA facility in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three others. The report’s criticism of the State Department for not providing adequate security at the consulate, and of the intelligence community for not alerting the US military to the presence of a CIA outpost in the area, received front-page coverage and revived animosities in Washington, with Republicans accusing Obama and Hillary Clinton of a cover-up. A highly classified annex to the report, not made public, described a secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdoğan administrations. It pertained to the rat line. By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer. (A spokesperson for Petraeus denied the operation ever took place.)

The operation had not been disclosed at the time it was set up to the congressional intelligence committees and the congressional leadership, as required by law since the 1970s. The involvement of MI6 enabled the CIA to evade the law by classifying the mission as a liaison operation. The former intelligence official explained that for years there has been a recognised exception in the law that permits the CIA not to report liaison activity to Congress, which would otherwise be owed a finding. (All proposed CIA covert operations must be described in a written document, known as a ‘finding’, submitted to the senior leadership of Congress for approval.) Distribution of the annex was limited to the staff aides who wrote the report and to the eight ranking members of Congress – the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republicans leaders on the House and Senate intelligence committees. This hardly constituted a genuine attempt at oversight: the eight leaders are not known to gather together to raise questions or discuss the secret information they receive.

The annex didn’t tell the whole story of what happened in Benghazi before the attack, nor did it explain why the American consulate was attacked. ‘The consulate’s only mission was to provide cover for the moving of arms,’ the former intelligence official, who has read the annex, said. ‘It had no real political role.’

Washington abruptly ended the CIA’s role in the transfer of arms from Libya after the attack on the consulate, but the rat line kept going. ‘The United States was no longer in control of what the Turks were relaying to the jihadists,’ the former intelligence official said. Within weeks, as many as forty portable surface-to-air missile launchers, commonly known as manpads, were in the hands of Syrian rebels. On 28 November 2012, Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reported that the previous day rebels near Aleppo had used what was almost certainly a manpad to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter. ‘The Obama administration,’ Warrick wrote, ‘has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian opposition forces with such missiles, warning that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down commercial aircraft.’ Two Middle Eastern intelligence officials fingered Qatar as the source, and a former US intelligence analyst speculated that the manpads could have been obtained from Syrian military outposts overrun by the rebels. There was no indication that the rebels’ possession of manpads was likely the unintended consequence of a covert US programme that was no longer under US control.

By the end of 2012, it was believed throughout the American intelligence community that the rebels were losing the war. ‘Erdoğan was pissed,’ the former intelligence official said, ‘and felt he was left hanging on the vine. It was his money and the cut-off was seen as a betrayal.’ In spring 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government – through elements of the MIT, its national intelligence agency, and the Gendarmerie, a militarised law-enforcement organisation – was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability. ‘The MIT was running the political liaison with the rebels, and the Gendarmerie handled military logistics, on-the-scene advice and training – including training in chemical warfare,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Stepping up Turkey’s role in spring 2013 was seen as the key to its problems there. Erdoğan knew that if he stopped his support of the jihadists it would be all over. The Saudis could not support the war because of logistics – the distances involved and the difficulty of moving weapons and supplies. Erdoğan’s hope was to instigate an event that would force the US to cross the red line. But Obama didn’t respond in March and April.’

There was no public sign of discord when Erdoğan and Obama met on 16 May 2013 at the White House. At a later press conference Obama said that they had agreed that Assad ‘needs to go’. Asked whether he thought Syria had crossed the red line, Obama acknowledged that there was evidence such weapons had been used, but added, ‘it is important for us to make sure that we’re able to get more specific information about what exactly is happening there.’ The red line was still intact.

An American foreign policy expert who speaks regularly with officials in Washington and Ankara told me about a working dinner Obama held for Erdoğan during his May visit. The meal was dominated by the Turks’ insistence that Syria had crossed the red line and their complaints that Obama was reluctant to do anything about it. Obama was accompanied by John Kerry and Tom Donilon, the national security adviser who would soon leave the job. Erdoğan was joined by Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, and Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT. Fidan is known to be fiercely loyal to Erdoğan, and has been seen as a consistent backer of the radical rebel opposition in Syria.

The foreign policy expert told me that the account he heard originated with Donilon. (It was later corroborated by a former US official, who learned of it from a senior Turkish diplomat.) According to the expert, Erdoğan had sought the meeting to demonstrate to Obama that the red line had been crossed, and had brought Fidan along to state the case. When Erdoğan tried to draw Fidan into the conversation, and Fidan began speaking, Obama cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ Erdoğan tried to bring Fidan in a second time, and Obama again cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ At that point, an exasperated Erdoğan said, ‘But your red line has been crossed!’ and, the expert told me, ‘Donilon said Erdoğan “fucking waved his finger at the president inside the White House”.’ Obama then pointed at Fidan and said: ‘We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria.’ (Donilon, who joined the Council on Foreign Relations last July, didn’t respond to questions about this story. The Turkish Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to questions about the dinner. A spokesperson for the National Security Council confirmed that the dinner took place and provided a photograph showing Obama, Kerry, Donilon, Erdoğan, Fidan and Davutoğlu sitting at a table. ‘Beyond that,’ she said, ‘I’m not going to read out the details of their discussions.’)

But Erdoğan did not leave empty handed. Obama was still permitting Turkey to continue to exploit a loophole in a presidential executive order prohibiting the export of gold to Iran, part of the US sanctions regime against the country. In March 2012, responding to sanctions of Iranian banks by the EU, the SWIFT electronic payment system, which facilitates cross-border payments, expelled dozens of Iranian financial institutions, severely restricting the country’s ability to conduct international trade. The US followed with the executive order in July, but left what came to be known as a ‘golden loophole’: gold shipments to private Iranian entities could continue. Turkey is a major purchaser of Iranian oil and gas, and it took advantage of the loophole by depositing its energy payments in Turkish lira in an Iranian account in Turkey; these funds were then used to purchase Turkish gold for export to confederates in Iran. Gold to the value of $13 billion reportedly entered Iran in this way between March 2012 and July 2013.

The programme quickly became a cash cow for corrupt politicians and traders in Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. ‘The middlemen did what they always do,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Take 15 per cent. The CIA had estimated that there was as much as two billion dollars in skim. Gold and Turkish lira were sticking to fingers.’ The illicit skimming flared into a public ‘gas for gold’ scandal in Turkey in December, and resulted in charges against two dozen people, including prominent businessmen and relatives of government officials, as well as the resignations of three ministers, one of whom called for Erdoğan to resign. The chief executive of a Turkish state-controlled bank that was in the middle of the scandal insisted that more than $4.5 million in cash found by police in shoeboxes during a search of his home was for charitable donations.

Late last year Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz reported in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration closed the golden loophole in January 2013, but ‘lobbied to make sure the legislation … did not take effect for six months’. They speculated that the administration wanted to use the delay as an incentive to bring Iran to the bargaining table over its nuclear programme, or to placate its Turkish ally in the Syrian civil war. The delay permitted Iran to ‘accrue billions of dollars more in gold, further undermining the sanctions regime’.

The American decision to end CIA support of the weapons shipments into Syria left Erdoğan exposed politically and militarily. ‘One of the issues at that May summit was the fact that Turkey is the only avenue to supply the rebels in Syria,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘It can’t come through Jordan because the terrain in the south is wide open and the Syrians are all over it. And it can’t come through the valleys and hills of Lebanon – you can’t be sure who you’d meet on the other side.’ Without US military support for the rebels, the former intelligence official said, ‘Erdoğan’s dream of having a client state in Syria is evaporating and he thinks we’re the reason why. When Syria wins the war, he knows the rebels are just as likely to turn on him – where else can they go? So now he will have thousands of radicals in his backyard.’

A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described ‘the acute anxiety’ of the Erdoğan administration about the rebels’ dwindling prospects. The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed ‘the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response’. By late summer, the Syrian army still had the advantage over the rebels, the former intelligence official said, and only American air power could turn the tide. In the autumn, the former intelligence official went on, the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August ‘sensed that Syria had not done the gas attack. But the 500 pound gorilla was, how did it happen? The immediate suspect was the Turks, because they had all the pieces to make it happen.’

As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions. ‘We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors’ – who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas – ‘were there. The deal was to do something spectacular. Our senior military officers have been told by the DIA and other intelligence assets that the sarin was supplied through Turkey – that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.’ Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. ‘Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts. Operations are always so super-secret in the planning but that all flies out the window when it comes to crowing afterwards. There is no greater vulnerability than in the perpetrators claiming credit for success.’ Erdoğan’s problems in Syria would soon be over: ‘Off goes the gas and Obama will say red line and America is going to attack Syria, or at least that was the idea. But it did not work out that way.’

The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House. ‘Nobody wants to talk about all this,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘There is great reluctance to contradict the president, although no all-source intelligence community analysis supported his leap to convict. There has not been one single piece of additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack produced by the White House since the bombing raid was called off. My government can’t say anything because we have acted so irresponsibly. And since we blamed Assad, we can’t go back and blame Erdoğan.’

Turkey’s willingness to manipulate events in Syria to its own purposes seemed to be demonstrated late last month, a few days before a round of local elections, when a recording, allegedly of a government national security meeting, was posted to YouTube. It included discussion of a false-flag operation that would justify an incursion by the Turkish military in Syria. The operation centred on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the revered Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is near Aleppo and was ceded to Turkey in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. One of the Islamist rebel factions was threatening to destroy the tomb as a site of idolatry, and the Erdoğan administration was publicly threatening retaliation if harm came to it. According to a Reuters report of the leaked conversation, a voice alleged to be Fidan’s spoke of creating a provocation: ‘Now look, my commander, if there is to be justification, the justification is I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land [in the vicinity of the tomb]. That’s not a problem. Justification can be created.’ The Turkish government acknowledged that there had been a national security meeting about threats emanating from Syria, but said the recording had been manipulated. The government subsequently blocked public access to YouTube.

Barring a major change in policy by Obama, Turkey’s meddling in the Syrian civil war is likely to go on. ‘I asked my colleagues if there was any way to stop Erdoğan’s continued support for the rebels, especially now that it’s going so wrong,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The answer was: “We’re screwed.” We could go public if it was somebody other than Erdoğan, but Turkey is a special case. They’re a Nato ally. The Turks don’t trust the West. They can’t live with us if we take any active role against Turkish interests. If we went public with what we know about Erdoğan’s role with the gas, it’d be disastrous. The Turks would say: “We hate you for telling us what we can and can’t do.”’

4 April 2014