Should US Ally with Al Qaeda in Syria?

Exclusive: The new U.S. “group think” is that Russian President Putin broke his promise to attack only the Islamic State when his warplanes hit other rebel targets in Syria. But Putin never limited which terrorists he’d hit and the targeted rebel coalition includes Al Qaeda’s affiliate, as Robert Parry reports.

By Robert Parry

The key sentence in The New York Times’ lead article about Russian airstrikes against Syrian rebel targets fell to the bottom of the story, five paragraphs from the end, where the Times noted in passing that the area north of Homs where the attacks occurred had been the site of an offensive by a coalition “including Nusra Front.”

What the Times didn’t say in that context was that Nusra Front is Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, an omission perhaps explained because this additional information would disrupt the righteous tone of the article, accusing Russia of bad faith in attacking rebel groups other than the Islamic State.

But the Russians had made clear their intent was to engage in airstrikes against the mélange of rebel groups in which Al Qaeda as well as the Islamic State played prominent roles. The Times and the rest of the mainstream U.S. media are just playing games when they pretend otherwise.

Plus, the reality about Syria’s splintered rebel coalition is that it is virtually impossible to distinguish between the few “moderate” rebels and the many Sunni extremists. Indeed, many “moderates,” including some trained and armed by the CIA and Pentagon, have joined with Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, even turning over U.S. weapons and equipment to this affiliate of the terrorist organization that attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Lest we forget it was that event that prompted the direct U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.

However, in recent months, the Israeli government and its American neoconservative allies have been floating trial balloons regarding whether Al Qaeda could be repackaged as Sunni “moderates” and become a de facto U.S. ally in achieving a “regime change” in Syria, ousting President Bashar al-Assad who has been near the top of the Israeli/neocon hit list for years.

A key neocon propaganda theme has been to spin the conspiracy theory that Assad and the Islamic State are somehow in cahoots and thus Al Qaeda represents the lesser evil. Though there is no evidence to support this conspiracy theory, it was even raised by Charlie Rose in his “60 Minutes” interview last Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The reality is that the Islamic State and Al Qaeda have both been leading the fight to destroy the secular Assad government, which has fought back against both groups.

And, if these two leading terror groups saw a chance to raise their black flags over Damascus, they might well mend their tactical rifts. They would have much to gain by overthrowing Assad’s regime, which is the principal protector of Syria’s Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other “heretics.”

The primary dispute between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which began as “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” is when to start a fundamentalist caliphate. The Islamic State believes the caliphate can begin now while Al Qaeda says the priority should be mounting more terrorist attacks against the West.

Yet, if Damascus falls, the two groups could both get a measure of satisfaction: the Islamic State could busy itself beheadings the “heretics” while Al Qaeda could plot dramatic new terror attacks against Western targets, a grim win-win.

One might think that the U.S. government should focus on averting such an eventuality, but the hysterical anti-Russian bias of The New York Times and the rest of the mainstream media means that whatever Putin does must be cast in the most negative light.

The Anti-Putin Frenzy

On Thursday, one CNN anchor ranted about Putin’s air force attacking “our guys,” i.e., CIA-trained rebels, and demanded to know what could be done to stop the Russian attacks. This frenzy was fed by the Times’ article, co-written by neocon national security correspondent Michael R. Gordon, a leading promoter of the Iraq-WMD scam in 2002.

The Times’ article pushed the theme that Russians were attacking the white-hatted “moderate” rebels in violation of Russia’s supposed commitment to fight the Islamic State only. But Putin never restricted his military support for the Assad government to attacks on the Islamic State.

Indeed, even the Times began that part of the story by citing Putin’s quote that Russia was acting “preventatively to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied.” Putin did not limit Russia’s actions to the Islamic State.

But the Times’ article acts as if the phrase “militants and terrorists” could only apply to the Islamic State, writing: “But American officials said the attack was not directed at the Islamic State but at other opposition groups fighting against the [Syrian] government.”

Unless The New York Times no longer believes that Al Qaeda is a terrorist group, the Times’ phrasing doesn’t make sense. Indeed, Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front has emerged as the lead element of the so-called Army of Conquest, a coalition of rebel forces which has been using sophisticated U.S. weaponry including TOW missiles to achieve major advances against the Syrian military around the city of Idlib.

The weaponry most likely comes from U.S. regional allies, since Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other Sunni-led Gulf states have been supporting Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other Sunni rebel groups in Syria. This reality was disclosed in a Defense Intelligence Agency report and was blurted out by Vice President Joe Biden.

On Oct. 2, 2014, Biden told an audience at Harvard’s Kennedy School: “our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria the Saudis, the emirates, etc., what were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” [Quote at 53:20 of clip.]

Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front also has benefited from a de facto alliance with Israel which has taken in wounded Nusra fighters for medical treatment and then returned them to the battlefield around the Golan Heights. Israel also has carried out airstrikes inside Syria in support of Nusra’s advances, including killing Hezbollah and Iranian advisers helping the Syrian government.

The Israeli airstrikes inside Syria, like those conducted by the United States and its allies, are in violation of international law because they do not have the permission of the Syrian government, but those Israeli and U.S. coalition attacks are treated as right and proper by the mainstream U.S. media in contrast to the Russian airstrikes, which are treated as illicit even though they are carried out at the invitation of Syria’s recognized government.

Obama’s Choice

Ultimately, President Barack Obama will have to decide if he wants to cooperate with Russia and Iran in beating back Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other jihadists or realign U.S. policy in accord with Israel’s obsession with “regime change” in Syria, even if that means a victory by Al Qaeda. In other words, should the United States come full circle in the Middle East and help Al Qaeda win?

Preferring Al Qaeda over Assad is the Israeli position embraced by many neocons, too. The priority for the Israeli/neocon strategy has been to seek “regime change” in Syria as a way to counter Iran and its support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, both part of Shia Islam.

According to this thinking, if Assad, an Alawite, a branch of Shia Islam, can be removed, a new Sunni-dominated regime in Syria would disrupt Hezbollah’s supply lines from Iran and thus free up Israel to act more aggressively against both the Palestinians and Iran.

For instance, if Israel decides to crack down again on the Palestinians or bomb Iran’s nuclear sites, it now has to worry about Hezbollah in southern Lebanon raining down missiles on major Israeli cities. However, if Hezbollah’s source of Iranian missiles gets blocked by a new Sunni regime in Damascus, the worry of Hezbollah attacks would be lessened.

Israel’s preference for Al Qaeda over Assad has been acknowledged by senior Israeli officials for the past two years though never noted in the U.S. mainstream media. In September 2013, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, then a close adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told the Jerusalem Post that Israel favored the Sunni extremists over Assad.

“The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” Oren told the Jerusalem Post in an interview. “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” He said this was the case even if the “bad guys” were affiliated with Al Qaeda.

And, in June 2014, then speaking as a former ambassador at an Aspen Institute conference, Oren expanded on his position, saying Israel would even prefer a victory by the brutal Islamic State over continuation of the Iranian-backed Assad in Syria. “From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail,” Oren said. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia and Israel.”]

So, that is the choice facing President Obama and the American people. Despite the misleading reporting by The New York Times, CNN and other major U.S. news outlets, the realistic options are quite stark: either work with Russia, Iran and the Syrian military to beat back the Sunni jihadists in Syria (while seeking a power-sharing arrangement in Damascus that includes Assad and some of his U.S.-backed political rivals) — or take the side of Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists, including the Islamic State, with the goal of removing Assad and hoping that the mythical “moderate” rebels might finally materialize and somehow wrest control of Damascus.

Though I’m told that Obama privately has made the first choice, he is so fearful of the political reaction from neocons and their “liberal interventionist” pals that he feels he must act like a tough guy ridiculing Putin and denouncing Assad.

The danger from this duplicitous approach is that Obama’s penchant for talking out of multiple sides of his mouth might end up touching off a confrontation between nuclear-armed America and nuclear-armed Russia, a crisis that his verbal trickery might not be able to control.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.




Selling Access to Pope Francis

As much as Pope Francis criticized hyper-capitalism’s cruelty to the poor and the middle class, it was business as usual for the Catholic Church bureaucracy, selling access to the Pope’s events with front-row seats going to well-heeled benefactors, notes Michael Winship.

By Michael Winship

Many of you know the words: “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” So sayeth Jesus in the New Testament’s Book of Matthew, Chapter 19, Verse 24.

But if you were taking a close look at and giving a careful listen to some of those surrounding Pope Francis during his visit here in New York last week, you could practically hear joints pop and muscles groan as the super-wealthy contorted themselves to thread the needle and purchase their way into the pontiff’s good graces. Camels? These wealthy dromedaries gave a new meaning to Hump Day.

Notwithstanding his encounter with notorious Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, the Pope’s visit to the United States last week was a success, with millions turning out to get even a glimpse of him. But some had much better views than others. In fact, since before the Reformation, when the Catholic Church sold indulgences pre-paid, non-stop tickets to heaven for affluent sinners there has not often been such a display of ecclesiastic, conspicuous consumption and genuflection.

All of which, of course, is more than ironic when you think about the things Pope Francis has said and written about the rich and poor, some of which he expressed during last week’s papal tour.

Back in November 2013, the Pope wrote that, “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”

Ideas like that got Kenneth Langone, billionaire founder of Home Depot and major political bankroller of New Jersey’s Chris Christie, a little hot under the collar. You may remember that last year he created a stir when he told Politico that he hoped a rise in populist sentiment against the one percent was not working, “because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

A year before, in 2013, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan had enlisted the DIY plutocrat to help raise $175 million to restore the grand and elegant St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, but in an interview Langone gave to the money network CNBC, he said one of his high rolling potential donors was concerned that the Pope was being overly critical of market economies as “exclusionary” and attacking a “culture of prosperity incapable of feeling compassion for the poor.”

So Langone complained to Cardinal Dolan, and this is how the Cardinal says he replied: “‘Well, Ken, that would be a misunderstanding of the Holy Father’s message. The Pope loves poor people. He also loves rich people ’ So I said, ‘Ken, thanks for bringing it to my attention. We’ve gotta correct to make sure this gentleman understands the Holy Father’s message properly.’ And then I think he’s gonna say, ‘Oh, OK. If that’s the case, count me in for St. Patrick’s Cathedral.’”

“Oh, OK?” Oh, brother. Wonder how Pope Francis would have responded to that bit of priestly pragmatism? After all, Francis is the one who wrote, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

But sure enough, there in the exclusive crowd at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue Thursday night, hanging out as the Vicar of Christ celebrated Vespers, was Kenneth Langone, soaking it all in. There, too, were a couple of other crony capitalists and St. Patrick’s fundraisers Frank Bisignano, president and CEO of First Data Corp., and Brian Moynihan, chairman and CEO of Bank of America.

Bisignano, known as “Wall Street’s Mr. Fix-It” used to work for Citigroup and for Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and reportedly received annual compensation at First Data to the tune of $9.3 million. Moynihan was paid $13 million for 2014, down from $14 million in 2013.

Last year, Bank of America, the second largest in the country but the most hated, made a record-breaking $16.65 billion settlement with the Justice Department to pay up for allegations of unloading toxic mortgage investments during the housing boom. Nice.

But of all the fat cats suddenly in the thrall of the People’s Pope, one was the most impressive. Watching Francis on television Friday afternoon as he met with kids up in East Harlem at Our Lady Queen of Angels primary school, I noticed a well-dressed man hovering near the pontiff. A politician, a government or Vatican official, I wondered? Nope, it was none other than Stephen Schwarzman, head of the giant private equity firm Blackstone.

He was paid a whopping $690 million last year and last week, he and his wife donated $40 million to pay for scholarships to New York City’s Catholic schools. A generous gift for sure, but as Bill Moyers and I wrote in 2012, this is the same Stephen Schwarzman “whose agents in 2006 launched a predatory raid on a travel company in Colorado. His fund bought it, laid off 841 employees, and recouped its entire investment in just seven months, one of the quickest returns on capital ever for such a deal.”

“To celebrate his 60th birthday Mr. Schwarzman rented the Park Avenue Armory here in New York at a cost of $3 million, including a gospel choir led by Patti LaBelle that serenaded him with ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.’ Does he ever, his net worth is estimated at nearly $5 billion.”

As The Wall Street Journal reported, “The Armory’s entrance [was] hung with banners painted to replicate Mr. Schwarzman’s sprawling Park Avenue apartment. A brass band and children clad in military uniforms ushered in guests. The menu included lobster, baked Alaska and a 2004 Louis Jadot Chassagne Montrachet, among other fine wines.”

It must have seemed like Heaven to some. And what makes this billionaire’s proximity to the Pope all the more surreal is that just the morning before, Francis had spoken to Congress in reverent tones of two outspoken, radical, New York Catholics; activist and organizer Dorothy Day co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton, each of whom embraced poverty, social justice and resistance.

“We believe in an economy based on human needs rather than on the profit motive,” Day wrote, and Merton worried about “the versatile blandishments of money.” Day wished the church’s bounty to be spread among the needy and not spent on cathedrals and ephemera.

And Merton wrote, “It is easy enough to tell the poor to accept their poverty as God’s will when you yourself have warm clothes and plenty of food and medical care and a roof over your head and no worry about the rent. But if you want them to believe you, try to share some of their poverty and see if you can accept it as God’s will yourself.”

Whether the irony struck Stephen Schwarzman is unknown. He himself was probably in too much of a hurry for contemplation. After East Harlem, he rushed off to the White House and that state dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping. His plus-one was Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio, the billionaire hedge fund manager who infamously told employees they should be like hyenas stalking wildebeest:

“It is good for both the hyenas who are operating in their self-interest and the interest of the greater system because killing and eating the wildebeest fosters evolution (i.e., the natural process of improvement).”

There you have it. In the Bible right before the camel and the eye of a needle, Jesus says, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”

Masters of the Universe like Dalio and Schwarzman prefer the Law of the Jungle, buying proximity to holiness and assuaging guilt with cash, all the while upholding savage nature red in tooth and claw.

By the way, Schwarzman’s wife gave the White House dinner a pass. She had a better deal: an excellent, paid in advance seat at the Pope’s mass in Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. http://billmoyers.com/2015/10/01/whos-the-guy-in-the-white-suit-next-to-all-those-billionaires/