By Protecting Syria’s Idlib, US Created Safe Haven for Baghdadi & ISIS

By claiming to kill self-proclaimed ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, U.S. officials have blown apart the regime-change propaganda about Idlib, writes Dan Cohen. By Dan Cohen
The Grayzone 

October has been a tough month for the motley crew of self-styled Syria experts and regime-change diehards who spent years cheering on the so-called “moderate rebels.” 

First, the “Free Syrian Army” fighters they had long championed were finally and undeniably exposed as the brutal extremists they always were. 

All it took for the curtain to be pulled back was for President Donald Trump to green-light a Turkish invasion of Syria, and those once-“moderate” CIA-trained contras who had long terrorized civilians in Syrian government territory were revealed to be Turkish-backed mercenaries, slaughtering and beheading their way throughout the Kurdish-majority regions of northeastern Syria. 

As The Grayzone’s Max Blumenthal reported, 21 of the 28 former Syrian “rebel” factions employed in Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria were previously armed or trained by the U.S.

Almost as soon as that episode was in the rear-view mirror, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by a U.S.-led operation in Idlib, the northwestern Syrian provence controlled by Syria’s local al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. 

Even as U.S. officials acknowledged that Idlib was home to the largest faction of al-Qaeda fighters since 9/11, supporters of regime change and the U.S. government itself fiercely protected the province, upholding it as the last rebel stronghold resisting the government of President Bashar al-Assad. 

With Baghdadi’s killing, they were forced to contend with the fact that they helped provide a sanctuary to the bloodthirsty ruler of ISIS.

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Following Trump’s announcement of Baghdadi’s death, mainstream pundits homed in on Trump’s hyperbolic commentary — “he died like a dog, he died like a coward” —  and sneered at the president’s compliments to Russia, Turkey, and Syria for not obstructing the operation.

But the proverbial elephant in the room continued to go unnoticed, or ignored: The U.S. had been using diplomatic leverage and threats of military force to keep Baghdadi’s hosts in power.

Smearing Truth Tellers

Only a few political outliers have dared to state the inconvenient truth about Idlib. Chief among the marginalized truth-tellers was Democratic presidential hopeful and congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. 

During a Democratic primary debate, Gabbard accused Trump of supporting al-Qaeda by protecting Idlib with threats of military force. 

Senator Kamala Harris lashed out at Gabbard, branding her as an “apologist for an individual, Assad, who has murdered people in his country like cockroaches.” Neoconservative Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin piled on, writing that Gabbard “helped Assad whitewash a mass atrocity.” 

After the debate, the supposed fact-checking website Politifact rated Gabbard’s statement as “false.”

But it was not only Gabbard who had lifted the mask on the U.S.’s disturbing relationship with Idlib. In July 2017, Brett McGurk, the former special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL, announced that “Idlib province is the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.”

While Gabbard was targeted for political destruction, McGurk was simply ignored. 

U.S. & Europe Preserve Jihadist Haven

Meanwhile, the millions of Syrians living within firing range of Idlib have had to live next door to some of the world’s most vicious extremists, withstanding constant mortar shelling and threats of genocide against religious minorities. 

Having suffered massive personnel losses throughout the brutal seven-year war, the Syrian government momentarily acquiesced to international pressure against a full-scale offensive to retake Idlib. 

But in the summer months of 2018, UN-brokered ceasefires between the Syrian and Russian militaries and insurgents in Idlib fell apart. As mortar shells continued to rain down on Damascus and kill civilians, the Syrian government became convinced that it was time to oust al-Qaeda from its stronghold. 

Western European governments seemed desperate to preserve Idlib as a holding pen for foreign fighters who originated from their countries, and who threatened to return if their jihadist haven collapsed. EU governments thus implicitly acknowledging the reality of Idlib as a purgatory for the extremist proxies they had used to wreak havoc on Libya and Syria, and which threatened to destabilize their own.

The United States vehemently opposed Syria’s operation too, but for a different set of reasons. While the Trump administration claimed to reject the mission on humanitarian grounds, its stated motive was contradicted by scenes of ruin only a few hundred miles away, in the Iraqi city of Mosul, where the U.S. employed what then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis called “annihilation tactics.” There, the U.S. carried out 1,250 air strikes with 29,000 bombs, reducing huge swaths of the city to rubble and killing at least 9,000 civilians, all in the name of defeating ISIS.

Though Washington refused to say it outright, it clearly saw al-Qaeda-controlled Idlib as a powerful cudgel that would keep the Syrian military weak and force Assad to negotiate. This cynical strategy was employed throughout the dirty war on Syria, and met with little opposition inside the U.S. government. 

A rare piece of dissent was conveyed to former U.S. President Barack Obama in a secret 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency memo which foresaw the establishment of a “Salafist principality” or “Islamic state” in eastern Syria. Instead of taking action against the spread of the Islamic State to Syria, the Obama administration stood by and watched a jihadist enclave develop, hoping that it would force increased pressure on Assad to leave. 

Their cold calculus was nearly proven right, until Russia intervened and tipped the scales of the war in Assad’s favor.

And all along, self-proclaimed Syria experts nested in Beltway think tanks insisted that more arms had to be handed over to the “moderate rebels” — including among local al-Qaeda allies — in order to defeat ISIS. 

Propagandists Duck & Cover

As soon as Trump blasted out his late night tweet declaring “SOMETHING VERY BIG JUST HAPPENED“ and reports that Baghdadi had been killed began to spread, the pro-regime change think tank crowd went into damage control mode, feigning astonishment that the leader of ISIS could have been hidden inside al-Qaeda’s Idlib stronghold, which they had insisted rejected Takfiri ideology. 

“This is shocking,” declared former Israeli soldier and think tank fellow Elizabeth Tsurkov, who has long run a veritable Israeli-jihadist pen pal program. 

Daily Beast editor and longtime neoconservative operative Michael Weiss called Baghdagi’s location bizarre.” Weiss’s co-author Hassan Hassan assured his readers that “under no circumstances would al-Qaeda or other jihadists help ISIS hide Baghdadi.” 

Middle East Institute think tank fellow Charles Lister declared he would “be amazed if Baghdadi had made Idlib a semi-permanent hiding place,” and even denied that al-Qaeda controlled Idlib. 

Jennifer Cafarella, a neoconservative Institute for the Study of War researcher, whose predecessor was fired after she was found to have faked her PhD, pontificated that “Baghdadi in Idlib would be wow.” 

Emma Beals, a think tank fellow based in southern Turkey and Beirut, called Baghdadi’s appearance in Idlib “something of a surprise.”

One of the few academic experts on terrorism and jihadist groups who was not surprised to see Baghdadi flee to Idlib was Northeastern University professor Max Abrahms. 

“The think tank crowd gets an F for ISIS and Syria analysis,” he told The Grayzone.“These same pundits who got the main points about ISIS and Syria so obviously wrong are now shocked that Baghdadi was hiding in Idlib, the opposition stronghold. This is because they have been arguing since day one that ISIS is not part of the opposition to Assad, but rather his ally. And they have been trying to minimize the portion of the opposition seen as extreme.”

Since the fall of the Islamic State’s capital in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa in late 2017, Baghdadi’s whereabouts have been unknown. But it was no secret that thousands of his fighters had escaped to Idlib. There, they joined forces with their jihadist brethren and strengthened Idlib’s al-Qaeda rulers. The presence of ISIS militants in Idlib was even reported in Anglophone media, and referred to as “sleeper cells.”

“For those of us who understood that ISIS and Assad are not friends and that the rebels have been al-Qaeda-tainted for some time, it’s no surprise that the ISIS leader would set up shop in the heart of the opposition, where al-Qaeda and friends are the dominant groups,” Abrahms explained. 

He added, “Why did Baghdadi go there? Not because he’s irrational. Baghdadi went there for a simple reason: This is the best place for him to find sympathizers to recruit and rebuild the Caliphate.”

Whitewashing al-Qaeda

The same pundits who were shocked by Baghdadi’s presence in Idlib have sought to downplay the extremist nature of al-Qaeda’s rebranded local affiliate, known as HTS, portraying it as the arch-nemesis of ISIS. In effect, they were marketing the extremist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks as a bunch of “moderate rebels.”

“HTS was once as extreme as they come, with roots in al Qaeda. But with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s victorious Russian-aided forces bearing down, and mindful of the collapse of the ultra-hard-line Islamic State, the group’s leaders are taking a more lenient, pragmatic approach to enlistment,” Elizabeth Tsurkov wrote in Foreign Policy in September.

Among all the pundits seeking to remake al-Qaeda’s image, Charles Lister has been perhaps the most energetic. During a 2017 meeting on Capitol Hill, Lister proclaimed that “al-Qaeda has really got it right.” 

Then, this August, he wrote that HTS “continues to evolve in intriguing ways – into a more politically mature & intelligent jihadist movement,” in an apparent effort to have the group’s designation as a terrorist organization lifted.

Michael Weiss, a self-styled Syria and Russia expert who has never visited Russia and speaks neither Arabic nor Russian, forcefully dismissed a November 2018 warning from Russia’s FSB intelligence agency that al-Qaeda and ISIS could merge, denouncing it a false justification for an assault on Idlib.

The whitewashing of al-Qaeda extended to the opinion pages of The New York Times, where neoliberal columnist Thomas Friedman has urged the U.S. to arm and create a no-fly zone around the “moderate rebels in Idlib” and to “back off fighting territorial ISIS in Syria.”

While such thinking may sound absurd, outrageous, and even treasonous to the average American, Friedman’s thinking underscored the prevalent mindset among policymakers in Washington. 

Among them was former CIA Director David Petraeus, who was a driving force behind Obama’s 2012 decision to enact a multi-billion dollar covert CIA train-and-equip program. In fact, Petraeus was shopping a plan as late as 2015 for the U.S. to directly arm al-Qaeda fighters.

After protecting Idlib as a haven for the jihadist fighters the U.S. has depended on for years, Trump is gleefully exploiting Baghdadi’s death for election season fodder. Meanwhile, the regime-change propagandists who whitewashed the rulers of Idlib are ducking for cover. 

With the explosion that killed the longtime ISIS leader, their fraudulent narrative was blown to pieces as well.

Dan Cohen is a journalist and co-producer of the award-winning documentary, “Killing Gaza.” He has produced widely distributed video reports and print dispatches from across Israel-Palestine, Latin America, the U.S.-Mexico border and Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @DanCohen3000.

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14 comments for “By Protecting Syria’s Idlib, US Created Safe Haven for Baghdadi & ISIS

  1. November 4, 2019 at 06:59

    Dan’s article is excellent. Good luck Max!

  2. jdd
    November 3, 2019 at 13:23

    Strangely enough, the author’s otherwise thorough report fails to name the DIA Director who warned that Obama’s fanatical commitment to regime change was knowingly contributing to the growth of both al-Qaeda and ISIS. That would of course be Gen. Michael Flynn, who was set-up by key CIA/FBI operative Stepam Halper, business partner of former MI6 head Richard Dearlove, both of whom played a central role in the Russiagate hoax.

  3. November 1, 2019 at 14:41

    What’s going on? Hard to believe America needs the oil since there is an over supply. So why are we holding onto the Syrian oil fields? Like Trump’s blessing of the Golan Heights theft, it robs Syria of revenue it desperately needs and territory that belongs to it. That is why. Clear enough our illegal behavior serves the needs of our foreign “friends” but what possible interest of the American people is served. Given the waste of our soldiers and our wealth, it makes more sense to say what we are doing runs counter to our interests.

  4. October 31, 2019 at 11:20

    He was blown up, so we have only the “American intelligence” as proof that the person blown up is who they say it is.
    He was their asset.
    I have my doubts.
    He could be in some safe gaven, new name, new look, new life. Who knows.

    • Ron. Craven
      November 2, 2019 at 22:33

      You think like me. This is nothing but an election scam. Any body blown to molecules will do.

  5. SteveK9
    October 31, 2019 at 10:01

    As soon as I read the reports about Baghdadi I wondered how the spin-doctors were going to explain that one. However, the sad fact is that it is not a problem at all. Americans live in an ocean of propaganda. Any ridiculous lie will do.

  6. AnneR
    October 31, 2019 at 08:14

    Thank you, Mr Cohen, for this to the point article.

    Is there a so-called “Think Tank” anywhere in the western world that is remotely trustworthy? (A rhetorical question, really, because I do not think any such beast exists.) These “Tanks” would be much more accurately termed Orwell’s Progeny or Newspeak/Doublethink Groups. Thinking is the very activity they – and the MSM and government at all levels – are designed, instituted and managed to prevent, in the vox populi anyway.

    And I’ve not heard any hint of back-tracking from painting those “rebels” as anything but the good guys, at least not on the two radio media (NPR and the BBC World Service, both deeply propagandist and both, though they *never* say this, state funded, if the differing degrees) that I have on pretty much all day to diminish the silence that is my late husband’s absence. It is sickening listening to their constant Orwellian (and to some extent Huxleyan) Newspeak, but one does need to know what garbage the MSM-MIC-Ruling Elites want us all to believe in.

    Anyway, my thanks again, Mr Cohen.

    • October 31, 2019 at 14:19

      Anne–my deepest sympathy on the loss of your husband. I can imagine the silence must be deafening. I also empathize with you on the issue of propaganda in the media. I can only stomach it in very small doses, as you said, to keep abreast of the latest pack of lies they’ve decided to impose on us. The rest of the time I listen to music. Classical music is very calming and yet energizing and inspirational. It reminds me that there is still beauty and goodness in the world.

  7. Realist
    October 31, 2019 at 06:12

    At the best, not a single American president (past or present), not a single presidential candidate, aside from Ms. Gabbard, nor the entire cadre of mainstream journalists have a freaking clue as to what is really going on in Syria. To say they or Politifact wouldn’t know the truth if it bit them in the behind is an understatement. At the worst, all but Ms. Gabbard are part of a massive conspiracy to deny actual facts on the matter to the American public and deliberately replace them with outrageous false narratives.

    That’s my take-home lesson from this piece by a rare honest reporter notably outside a corporate media totally complicit in duping the American public, and not just on this issue but on as many as you can mentally process in any given day. The American leadership, as Karl Rove revealed to us quite succinctly during the reign of Bush II, fancy themselves as creators of “new realities” which are really just fictions spoonfed to us by their mercenary tools in the media. It’s something we all are forced to re-learn every flippin’ day of the week.

  8. exiled off mainstreet
    October 30, 2019 at 23:36

    The support of the jihadi camps in Idlib is just the latest episode of a long-term pattern of behaviour. The yankee imperium has been at war against civilization in the long period of time they have been supporting jihadi barbarians in the Middle East. While their official propaganda designates them as terrorists and their military types use epithets like “towelheads” to describe them, the yankee regime has been the major supporter of these elements against civilization in the Islamic areas for the last 30 or 40 years or so. The record reveals the US and its handmaidens to be the chief source of support for this element. The establishment friendship for them was sealed when the so-called “White Helmets”, the paid for propaganda organization of these barbarous elements, was given an Oscar in 2017 for a propaganda film extolling the virtue of these enemies of civilization.

  9. Evangelista
    October 30, 2019 at 20:41

    There are a lot of problematic elements in the “TV-Series Final Episode” style “Narrative of the Finally Final Destruction of Terrible Terrorist Al-Bagdaddi”, provided by Reality TV Star Donald Trump become Reality TV Producer, with the help of Reality TV Studio The Pentagon.

    Among the lesser of the poblematic elements is the on-the-spot-and-under-field-conditions “DNA-Testing” “proof” of the asserted victim being the victim asserted. Only slightly up from this on the scale of implausibility comes the immediate total destruction, by a bombing sortie, of the “raid” location and all evidences it would have contained. The ostensible reason for the precipitate destruction of all site evidences was purported to be to prevent the site being made a ‘shrine’, which would have taken some time for Al Qauaeda mourners to do, and can be done equally well with a crater as with a structure: Just put a dome over the crater and call it “The Dome of the Crater”. Precipitate destruction of evidences always brings a shroud of suspicion down on the destroyers.

    The list of beyond credible elements in the Reality TV Producer President’s recount of the “Get Bagdaddi” Final Episode goes on to the purported correct victim being cornered in a “dead-end tunnel”, where he, conveniently outfitted with an explosive vest, blew himself and three children up. Putting aside the vocabulary selection basic, that “dead-end” tunnels under structures in war zones are usually called “Bomb Shelters”, and are where those able to go th, taking children, to keep them safe, and the oddity that someone lounging at home with the kids, not expecting a surprise raid would just happen to wear a ‘suicide vest’ around the house, instgead of a bathrobe or dressing gown, or would throw one on before racing the kids down to the bomb-shelter-cum-“dead-end tunnel”, will let us get on to the ultimate peculiarity of the Reality TV Report, that the victim blew himself and the kids up. This is peculiar because the real reality, in commando-raid situations, where commandos come to a tunnel, or tunnel branch, is that approved procedure is to “roll in a grenade and follow around the corner firing.”

    It is this commando-survival basic that suggests, with the other peculiarities, that what blew up the adult and kids in the bomb-shelter-tunnel was more likely a regulation blind-throw of a grenade to “soften-up” whatever opposition might be around the corner, that blew up the kids and their protector. Whoever they were. Of course a Reality TV fakery trained liar would not hesitate to lie in reporting that kind of situation, or, not ‘reporting’, rather ‘sanitizing’.

    As for the quickie DNA testing, the new “miracle-method” of “positive identification” (or official-version supplementation), if that is not a lie, too, it would have been able to have determined that the remnant bits remaining in the mix with the dirt blown into with the cadaver-shreds were Al Bagdaddi family…

    So, my review is: Another Realityh TV Spectacular Finale, featuring a Gunships-n-Guns Navy Seal Style Raid, shot-up. blow-up and erasure of evidences, followed by a White-Helmets pattern denouement de-escalating from climax to finish. Another American Entertainment Extravaganza!

    We now wait to learn if it was that, or was a bizzard-of-bullshit, as so much of American Extravagance seems to turn out to be. Was it REALLY, this time, Al-Bagdaddi? Or another American Whack-a-Mole miss? And if it was a real American assassination of their own key anti-Assad asset, How could he, Al-Bagdaddi, have been such a damn fool as to let leak to the Americans that in his retirement he was going to write his uninhibited autobiography? Surely nothing else could have pushed the Americans to such a shit-n-shoot wild-ass response.

  10. Skip Edwards
    October 30, 2019 at 19:05

    There is one thing that is certain to annihilate all life on Earth, all of it, and that is the human caused climate disaster that barrels down on us practically unchallenged by that entity that has the power to make a difference; government leadership. Unfortunately, that leadership hides from its responsibility behind the fog of war; or, should I say the never ending illegal, US caused wars which rob our treasury of the wealth needed to properly address it while those wars also divert the necessary attention of sufficient numbers of our population needed to force change. Why is this you might ask? Why is it that we spend half of our discretionary budget, nearly one trillion dollars per year, on a military budget that does two things: it gives immense wealth to those few who crave wealth above all else; and, it brings power to those same people who are addicted to both.

    We people who care about the innocent life on Earth are being sacrificed for that addiction for wealth and the power it brings to the few as we sit at home beside ourselves weeping silently for the injustice being shoved down our throats. Other than outright rebellion, which by the way our Declaration of Independence highlights in our oh so tarnished history, we at least need to understand that history of ours and accept the fact that the United States of America is not, nor has it ever been, what we have been indoctrinated to believe. A Nation built on genocide, slavery and the continued dependence on endless wars to create wealth and power to justify its existence will not stand. For the threads of violence will not be allowed to stitch together such violence, violence against each other and violence against our very Earth, for much longer. History proves this if we will only read it and heed it.

  11. Marb
    October 30, 2019 at 18:27

    Even the BBC had to admit in 2017 that so called Moderate rebels were in the BBC’s Words “Helping Isis escape Raqqa under the noses of the US and British” there is no way that could have happened without it being explicitly allowed.

    Many alternative news sites were already Talking about Isis Collaborating openly with the US in field operations against Assads Syrian Army.. I saw a photograph of John McCain meeting with leaders of the so called Moderate Rebels in 2015 Al Baghd..adi was among them in the photo ..

    a cursory search and voila:

    Many in the Underground Media , have been exposing these connections since 2013… dismissed of course as conspiracy theorists..Journalist Wayne Madsen in his 2016 book ISIS unmasked, page 80, published another photo of John McCain in a room with Al-Baghdadi, McCain’s office denied this Madsen says on the same page.. “But Photographic Evidence of the ISIL Chief’s meeting with McCain and U.S supported Free Syrian Army officials is overwhelming.”

  12. Robert
    October 30, 2019 at 17:39

    Turkey has the same plans for NE Syria – using (with NATO blessing) its Al Qaeda proxies to ethnic cleans the area of Kurds & Yazidis, force moderate Sunnis to convert to the “true” extremist religion, and continuing their attacks on the Syrian government to expand their territory. Turkey will not return the territory to Syria because of the oil. Trump has replaced US troop protection of Kurds with oil well protection, and is now likely trying to bring in US oil companies to sell Syrian oil to Turkey.

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