Fair is foul and foul is fair in Syria

BY SAEED NAQVI

Like Henry Kissinger, New York Times columnist, Thomas L Friedman, belongs to a growing tribe of strategists who insist that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been overshadowed, indeed overwhelmed, by a much bigger, Shia-Sunni faultline.

Even though Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 hijackers, Wahabism, Salafism, are all traced to Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel and the West in general have developed a high comfort level with Saudi Arabia regardless. In this framework, the West has placed the Shia world in opposition to it.

Was it always like this? Consider this recent historical perspective.

“As we approach the season of the Nobel Peace Prize, I would like to nominate the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for this year’s medal.” The recommendation came from NYT ace columnist, Friedman. For emphasis, he added: “I’m serious.”

This was in 2005. Friedman, was “in” with George W. Bush. In ecstatic pieces for the world’s most powerful newspaper, the NYT, he repeatedly described the occupation of Iraq as history’s greatest effort at democratization.

Americans had come against Saddam Hussain, a tough Baathist and atheist by belief and a manufacturer of weapons of mass destruction. Remember Saddam invoked “Allah” for political mobilization only after the 1992 operation Desert Storm. He had Allah o Akbar inscribed on an otherwise secular emblem as an afterthought.

The eclipse of Saddam brought great relief to Shias in the South – around the holy cities of Najaf, Karbala and oil rich enclaves neighbouring Basra. For the first time the world realized that Shias were an overwhelming majority in all of Iraq.

A triangular situation had emerged – the occupying Americans, Sunni (plus Kurdish) minority and the Shia majority. The Shias, led by Ayatollah Sistani, played a straight political hand. Once occupation had taken place, he encouraged the occupiers against his tormentor, Saddam Hussain.

That is when Friedman was moved to write:

“If some kind of democracy takes root here (Iraq), it will also be due in large measure to the instincts and directives of the dominant Iraqi Shiite communal leader, Ayatollah Sistani.”

“It was Sistani who insisted that the elections not be postponed in the face of the Baathist-fascist insurgency. And it was Sistani who ordered Shiites not to retaliate for the Sunni Baathist and Jihadist attempts to drag them into civil war by attacking Shiite mosques and massacring Shiite civilians.”

Friedman proceeded to compare the Ayatollah with other icons who helped bring democracy to their respective countries – Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev. The quality of democracy that obtains in Russia, Iraq and South must be left for Friedman to applaud.

Rightly or wrongly, Friedman extrapolated from his experience in Iraq. This is at a variance from the fraud Bush’s Defence Secretary, Dick Cheney sought to perpetrate on April 9, 2003, when he had the marines pull down Saddam Hussain’s statue at Firdous square and attributed the event to a popular uprising.

Friedman zigzagged along shifting convictions, until by August 2015, he began to show the first signs of tolerating something so totally different from Sistani as to take one’s breath away. In a conversation with Barack Obama he appeared to be nodding agreement on a kind of positive ambiguity about the ISIS.

Sudden and exponential growth of the Islamic State was something of a mystery. It is in the nature of the post colonial media that the views of Developing country elites particularly in the Arab world (except allies like Saudi Arabia, other GCC countries and Jordan) never get reflected in the media. How did the elites in Iraq, Oman, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Iran and other Muslim countries view the IS phenomenon. Without exception, they described it as an American, French, British, Saudi, Qatari and Turkish cooperative effort. I know first hand. Ask the ambassadors in New Delhi.

If this is what they thought, why were they silent? They were not silent, but their protestations were ignored by the global networks. So hopelessly one sided is the global media, that even shining stars of independent journalism like Seymour Hersh and Robert Fisk are killed by a simple trick of being ignored.

Writing on Donald Trump’s proposed visit to the centres of semitic religions, Riyadh, the Vatican and Jerusalem, Fisk satirically speculates: “Trump will be able to ask Netanyahu for help against the IS without – presumably – realizing that Israel bombs only the Syrian army and the Shia Hezbollah in Syria but has never – ever – bombed IS in Syria. In fact, the Israelis have given medical aid to fighters from Jabhat al Nusra which is part of Al Qaeda which attacked the US on 9/11.”

By universal consent, Fisk is among the most knowledgeable journalist who has lived in West Asia for decades. But the Imperial Information order keeps him outside the ken.

Truth however has a way of surfacing. Let us revert to Friedman’s interview with Obama. Friedman asked Obama why he delayed taking action against the IS when it was in its nascent stages?

Obama replies: “That we did not just start taking a bunch of airstrikes all across Iraq as soon as the IS came in was because that would have taken the pressure off Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki.”

In other words, by the US President’s own admission, the IS at that stage worked as an asset to apply pressure on Maliki who was in bad adour with the US because he had refused to sign the Status of Forces Agreement with the US ironically on the advice of exactly the person Friedman was recommending for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 – Sistani.

Lo and behold, in his recent column, Friedman is advising Trump to give up the pretense of fighting IS – because that is not in the US (and presumably Israel’s) national interest.

He wants “Trump to be Trump – utterly cynical and unpredictable. ISIS right now is the biggest threat to Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and pro-Shiite Iranian militias.”

“In Syria” Friedman recommends, “Trump should let ISIS be Assad’s, Iran’s Hezbollah’s and Russia’s headache.” In other words, let the IS be a Western asset.

A recent cartoon with a most succinct message shows one Saudi ask another: “We finance wars all around us, when shall we bomb the Jewish state?” “When it becomes Shia.”

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

With skates on, Turkey could slip into Syrian quagmire

BY SAEED NAQVI

Hakan Fidan, Chief of Turkish Intelligence, did not give much credence to warnings by Russian Agencies that a coup to oust President Tayyip Erdogan was in the works. But he shared the information with others on a “need-to-know” basis. In a manner of speaking, he closed the door, a sort of general precaution. He did not send out an alert.

The Russians persisted. A helicopter gunship would target Erdogan at his Mediterranean holiday resort.

Subsequent stories remain unverified – that Erdogan could not land at Istanbul, Germany, Azerbaijan. That is when the Americans gave him refuge at the Incirlik air base which, ironically, happens to be in Turkey. Then Fethullah Gulen surfaced as the master plotter, in cahoots with “some” American Generals.

Obviously the Russians had their ears close to the ground when they picked up the earliest signals of the impending coup. When Erdogan called out the people to thwart the plotters, Tehran was the first capital to openly support the embattled Turkish president. Suddenly, Moscow, Tehran, Hezbullah in Lebanon, Iraq particularly Najaf, because Prime Minister Haider al Abadi in Baghdad is seen as something of an American puppet – all of them had broad smiles on their faces.

With athletic agility, Erdogan turned up at St. Petersburg, apologized for the Russian pilot being shot down over Turkey in November, 2015, and locked Vladimir Putin in a tight embrace.

And, to and behold, Turkish forces are now in Syria, tanks and all. Is the theory of unintended consequences catching up with everybody after the failed coup of July 15? I mention this because I have been witness to another botched up coup which changed the world – The Saur (April) 1978 revolution which brought the Afghan Communist Parties, Khalq and Parcham, to power. This paved the way for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980. I remember a panic stricken Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser on the Pakistan-Afghan border, discussing strategies.

Let me first explain how it was a “botched” up coup.

Having suffered reverses in Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nicaragua at the hands of local communist movements, the Americans pressured the Shah of Iran’s Savak secret service to oust the Left in Kabul which was getting powerful around President Daoud Khan.

When the coup plan was still in its nascent stages, Mir Akbar Khybar, a trade union leader, affiliated to Parcham, was killed in an intelligence-counter intelligence mixup. The coup plot had leaked. Abdul Qadir and Aslam Watanjar, Communist moles in the Afghan Armed Forces, drove out tanks from Pul e Charkhi. They slaughtered Daoud and his entourage.

The Left, unprepared for power, persuaded Nur Mohammad Taraki of Khalq to take over as Prime Minister. Within two years, the Soviets were in Afghanistan.

The US, Saudis, Pakistan, for their own reasons, got into a scrum. Began the training of Mujahideen in hundreds of Madrasas along the border with Afghanistan. The strategy was to play on Islamic aversion to “Godless” communism. The trick, bolstered by stinger missiles, worked.

After 1981, President Reagan had raised the cost of the Cold War for the Soviet Union everywhere, including Afghanistan. By 1989, the new Secretary General of CPSU, Mikhail Gorbachev, began withdrawing Soviet troops. Then, the Berlin wall fell. By 1991 the Soviet Union had come down like melting ice cream.

Two comparisons with the situation in Turkey and Afghanistan are possible. It was a botched up coup in Afghanistan in 1978 which changed the world. The consequences plague us to this day. Witness the ghastly attack on the American University in Kabul this week. Likewise, the botched up coup in Turkey has brought about strategically new power equations globally as well as regionally.

The other comparison, to which Syrians are subscribing, is plausible: Soviet Union hurtled headlong into Afghanistan and came out irreparably broken. Might Erdogan likewise be leading Turkey inextricably into the Syrian quagmire?

The omens are not good. For the past five years every country in the Syrian theatre – the US, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan – has been supporting either “moderates” opposed to Bashar al Assad or extremists like Jumat al Nussra in pursuit of the same end. Each side has other gameplans which are played out as subsidiary side shows. These are too many to be listed.

Americans occupied Iraq for a decade, dismantled all its institutions and left in 2011 more or less empty handed. Which is why they had to remove Premier Nouri al Maliki who had dedicated himself exclusively to the expansion of his Shia base. Saudis next door were throwing fits. Americans needed influence in Baghdad. Little wonder Prime Minister Haider al Abadi is their man.

With such experience in Iraq how did the Americans (and their cohorts) imagine that mere cross border terrorism – albeit, lethally armed – would topple Assad? After all the Baathist structure in Syria is the mirror image of the one in Iraq. Assad is a non practicing Alawi just as Saddam Hussain was only a notional Sunni. Except for public rituals, both must be listed as devout atheists.

The impression now being put out is that Erdogan’s primary aim for entering Syria is to prevent Syrian Kurds carving out territory along the Turkish border. That would feed Turkish Kurd party, the PKK’s quest for separation. Erdogan’s purpose last year was different: he was facilitating ISIS’s oil trade across the border. Erdogan’s ownership of a large fraction of ISIS was universally acknowledged. In brief, everybody in the Syrian war was everybody else’s proxy. Erdogan was a major player in this game of surreptitious intent.

Will the terms of endearment now change totally just because Erdogan kissed Putin on both his cheeks in St. Petersburg?

A new pirouette has begun in Syria. Only after the US elections will it become clear who is on the dance floor and who is sinking in a quagmire.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Aleppo Milestone: Syria to limp along until US Presidential Polls

BY SAEED NAQVI

Just when it appeared that Syrian rebels and their proxies had thrown in the towel, and that they had been persuaded to acquiesce in a political settlement to be negotiated in Geneva, there is a sudden spike in fighting in the northern city of Aleppo. Its 5.5 million population as against Damascus’ 4.5 million, makes it the country’s most populous city.

Writings in the New York Times, other Western and Saudi publications have been talking of a “divided city of Aleppo”. This is ominous.

With Russian help, Syrian forces had won a morale boosting victory in Palmyra. In the third week of March, Russians had all but encircled Aleppo. Why did they spare Izaz, the main smuggling route to Turkey? That is the route through which most new arms and men on brand new vehicles have driven in to revive the mayhem in Aleppo.

Russian Foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov has been flourishing “proof” under Secretary of State, John Kerry’s nose: “look so much of this material is brand new and American in origin.”

In the Syrian whodunit, Americans have actually been admitting their mistakes with endearing docility. Remember Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, his face distinctly in the lower mould, being grilled by a congressional committee, then by the media, for the clumsiness of US Special Operations in Syria? The “moderates” they were training left their weapons with the Al-Nusra Front and sought safe passage. Carter announced, on live cameras, that a $500 million training programme had been discontinued.

Asked by Thomas Friedman, of The New York Times, why had he not used air strikes when the Islamic State first reared its head, President Obama was honest: that would have released pressure on Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. At that stage, the US-Saudi combine’s priority was to put an end to Maliki’s brazenly pro Shia regime. In that project, the IS was an asset. Is it no longer an asset?

In the latest attacks in Iraq, the IS does not look like a diminished power despite US, Britain and Israel having rung alarm bells across the world. Is this trio confronting the IS powerless?

Arab ambassadors, particularly those opposed to the Saudis, draw diagrams to prove that the IS, in its origins, was a US backed project which may have grown out of US control. Just as Osama bin Laden did.

The other day a journalist in Dhaka placed in my hand a copy of Dabiq, the slick IS online magazine threatening Islamist mayhem in Bangladesh, Myammar, India. Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina’s government in not convinced. She believes her arch rival Begum Khaleda Zia’s Jamaat-e-Islami supporters are behind the recent killings of liberal bloggers, university professors, and minority groups to destabilize her government.

Syrian diplomats on the other hand are targeting Britain with fanciful stories. When British Parliament did not permit Prime Minister David Cameron to attack Assad’s Forces in Syria, British intelligence thought of an alternative scheme: set up the propaganda machine for groups opposed to Assad. Intelligence intercepts, which authorities in Damascus decoded, are cited as evidence.

As one grapples with this confusion, emerges Christiane Amanpour of the CNN subjecting the hapless Ashton Carter to fierce interrogation. She put the fear of God in him. “Aleppo is another Srebrenica waiting to happen.”

Srebrenica became notorious for genocide. Serbian troops separated 8373 men and boys from their womenfolk during the Bosnian war and, in July 1995, slaughtered them. They were buried in mass graves.

Carter did not rise to the bait. “The misery of Syria can only be ended by reaching a political solution.”

Why this resumption of fierce fighting in Aleppo?

With Russian help, Syrian Forces had regained so much territory that the opposition had very few chips to play with at the bargaining table in Geneva. Turkish demand for a no-fly-zone along the stretch north of Aleppo and the Turkish border has not been conceded. The US would not like to dislodge Kurdish influence in that region. A divided Aleppo gives the Syrian opposition atleast a toehold. Russians would be doing a cost-benefit analysis to see if they can allow that to happen.

The US and Russians had agreed to the original ceasefire primarily between the Syrian Army and groups who accept the ceasefire. The agreement did not provide scope for the Al-Nusra Front or IS to be protected. But the US, under pressure from the Saudis and the Turks, is lumping Al-Nusra with the so called “moderate opposition”.

Roughly, what is going on is this: there are, say, rocket attacks which the Syrian Army compasses show are coming from Nusra held enclaves. The army retaliates. The Western media screams murder – look, they are attacking civilians and moderate oppositions.

In other words, Al-Nusra is the miasmal mist behind which a so called moderate opposition is being conceived and forged. What I suspect is being sought is a ceasefire along an imaginary line which will then divide Aleppo. The Syrian-Russian combine would like to impose on Aleppo a fait accompli favourable to them. Syria, I am afraid, will probably limp along a path of non resolution until a new administration in Washington begins to take stock of the situation after November 7.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Seymour Hersh dishes on Saudi oil money bribes and the killing of Osama Bin Laden

BY KEN KILPPENSTEIN/ALTERNET

(This interview is republished here with due permission from AlterNet. It was first published here)

Seymour Hersh is an American investigative journalist who is the recipient of many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for his article exposing the My Lai massacre by the U.S. military in Vietnam. More recently, he exposed the U.S. government’s abuse of detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison facility.

Hersh’s new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, is a corrective to the official account of the war on terror. Drawing from accounts of a number of high-level military officials, Hersh challenges a number of commonly accepted narratives: that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the Sarin gas attack in Ghouta; that the Pakistani government didn’t know Bin Laden was in the country; that the late ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in a solely diplomatic capacity; and that Assad did not want to give up his chemical weapons until the U.S. called on him to do so.

Ken Klippenstein: In the book you describe Saudi financial support for the compound in which Osama Bin Laden was being kept in Pakistan. Was that Saudi government officials, private individuals or both?

Seymour Hersh: The Saudis bribed the Pakistanis not to tell us [that the Pakistani government had Bin Laden] because they didn’t want us interrogating Bin Laden (that’s my best guess), because he would’ve talked to us, probably. My guess is, we don’t know anything really about 9/11. We just don’t know. We don’t know what role was played by whom.

KK: So you don’t know if the hush money was from the Saudi government or private individuals?

SH: The money was from the government … what the Saudis were doing, so I’ve been told, by reasonable people (I haven’t written this) is that they were also passing along tankers of oil for the Pakistanis to resell. That’s really a lot of money.

KK: For the Bin Laden compound?

SH: Yeah, in exchange for being quiet. The Paks traditionally have done security for both Saudi Arabia and UAE.

KK: Do you have any idea how much Saudi Arabia gave Pakistan in hush money?

SH: I have been given numbers, but I haven’t done the work on it so I’m just relaying. I know it was certainly many—you know, we’re talking about four or five years—hundreds of millions [of dollars]. But I don’t have enough to tell you.

KK: You quote a retired U.S. official as saying the Bin Laden killing was “clearly and absolutely a premeditated murder” and a former SEAL commander as saying “by law we know what we’re doing inside Pakistan is homicide.”

Do you think Bin Laden was deprived of due process?

SH: [Laughs] He was a prisoner of war! The SEALs weren’t proud of that mission; they were so mad it was outed…I know a lot about what they think and what they thought and what they were debriefed, I will tell you that. They were very unhappy about the attention paid to that because they went in and it was just a hit.

Look, they’ve done it before. We do targeted assassinations. That’s what we do. They understood—the SEALs—that if they were captured by the Pakistani police authorities, they could be tried for murder. They understood that.

KK: Why didn’t they apprehend Bin Laden? Can you imagine the intelligence we could have gotten from him?

SH: The Pakistani high command said go kill him, but for chrissake don’t leave a body, don’t arrest him, just tell them a week later that you killed him in Hindu Kush. That was the plan.

Many sections, particularly in the Urdu-speaking sections, were really very positive about Bin Laden. Significant percentages in some areas supported Bin Laden. They [the Pakistani government] would’ve been under great duress if the average person knew that they’d helped us kill him.

KK: How did it hurt U.S./Pakistan relations when, as you point out in your book, Obama violated his promise not to mention Pakistan’s cooperation with the assassination?

SH: We spend a lot of time with [Pakistani] generals Pasha and Kayani, the head of the army and ISI, the intelligence service. Why? Why are we so worried about Pakistan? Because they have [nuclear] bombs. … at least 100, probably more. And we want to think that they’re going to share what they know with us and they’re not hiding it.

We don’t really know everything we think we know and they don’t tell us everything… so when he [Obama] is doing that, he’s really messing around with the devil in a sense.

…. He [Bin Laden] had wives and children there. Did we ever get to them? No. We never got to them. Just think about all the things we didn’t do. We didn’t get to any of the wives, we didn’t do much interrogation, we let it go.

There are people that know much more about this and I wish they would talk, but they don’t.

KK: You write that Obama authorized a ratline wherein CIA funneled arms from Libya into Syria and they ended up in jihadi hands. [According to Hersh, this operation was coordinated via the Benghazi consulate where U.S. ambassador Stevens was killed.] What was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s role in this given her significant role in Libya?

SH: The only thing we know is that she was very close to Petraeus who was the CIA director at the time … she’s not out of the loop, she knows when there’s covert ops. … That ambassador who was killed, he was known as a guy, from what I understand, as somebody who would not get in the way of the CIA. As I wrote, on the day of the mission he was meeting with the CIA base chief and the shipping company. He was certainly involved, aware and witting of everything that was going on. And there’s no way somebody in that sensitive of a position is not talking to the boss, by some channel.

KK: In the book you quote a former intelligence official as saying that the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the Joint Chiefs as being insufficiently painful to the Assad regime. (You note that the original targets included military sites only—nothing by way of civilian infrastructure.) Later the White House proposed a target list that included civilian infrastructure.

What would the toll to civilians have been if the White House’s proposed strike had been carried out?

SH: Do you really think that at any time this is discussed? You know who’s sanest on this: Dan Ellsberg. When I first met Dan, it was way early—in ’70, ’71, during the Vietnam War. I think I met him before the Pentagon Papers were around. I remember him telling me that he asked that question at a meeting while planning the war [regarding B-52 targets] and nobody had even looked at it.

You really don’t get a very good hard, objective look. You can see a movie in which they seem to do it, but that’s not really so.

I don’t know if [regarding Syria] they looked at collateral damage and noncombatants, but I do know that in wars in the past, that’s never been a big issue. … you’re talking about the country that dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki.

KK: In a recent interview with the Atlantic, Obama characterized his foreign policy as “Don’t do stupid shit.”

SH: I read the Jeff Goldberg piece…and it of course drove me nuts, but that’s something else.

KK: As you point out in your book, Obama originally wanted to remove Assad. Isn’t that the definition of stupid? The power vacuum that would ensue would open Syria up to all kinds of jihadi groups.

SH: God knows I can’t tell you why anybody does anything. I’m not inside their head. I can tell you that the same question was asked by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs—Dempsey—which is why I was able to write that story about their going, indirectly, behind his [Obama’s] back because nobody could figure out why.

I don’t know why we persist on living in the Cold War, but we do. Russia actually did a very good job. They not only did the bombing that was more effective than what we do, I think that’s fair to say. Russia also did stuff that was sort of more subtle and more interesting: they renewed the Syrian army. They took many major units of the Syrian army offline, gave them R&R and re-equipped them. Got new arms, got a couple weeks off, then they came back, got more training and became a much better army.

I think in the beginning, there’s just no question, we wanted to get rid of Bashar. I think they misread the whole resistance. Wikileaks is very good on this…there’s enough State Department documents that show that from 2003 on, we really had a policy—not very subtle, not violent, but millions of dollars given to opposition people. We certainly were not a nonpartisan foreign government inside Syria.

Our policy has always been against him [Assad]. Period.

One of the things that comes across just in the current stories about all the travails we’re having about ISIS allegedly running all these terror teams in Brussels and in the suburbs of Paris… it’s very clear, ironically, that one of the things France and Belgium (and a lot of other countries) did was after the Syrian civil war began, if you wanted to go there and fight there in 2011-2013, ‘Go, go, go… overthrow Bashar!’

So they actually pushed a lot of people to go. I don’t think they were paying for them but they certainly gave visas. And they would spend four or five months, come back and do organized crime and get in jail and next thing you know they’re killing people. There’s a real pattern there.

I do remember when the war began in 2003, our war against Baghdad, I was in Damascus working for The New Yorker then and I saw Bashar and one of the things he told me, he said, ‘Look, we’ve got a bunch of radical kids and if they want to go fight, if they want to leave the mosque here in Damascus and go fight in Baghdad, we said fine! We even gave them buses!’

So there’s always been a tremendous, Why does America do what it does? Why do we not say to the Russians, Let’s work together?

KK: So why don’t we work closer with Russia? It seems so rational.

SH: I don’t know. I would also say, why wasn’t the first door we knocked on after 9/11, Russia’s? They just had a terrible 10-year war with Chechnya. Believe me, the Chechen influence in the Sunni world in terms of jihadism is strong. For example I’ve been told by my friends in the intelligence community that al-Baghdadi (who runs ISIS) is surrounded by a lot of guys with experience in Chechnya. A lot of people involved in that operation did.

So who knows the most about jihadism? You look at it from the Russian point of view—we never like looking at things from other people’s point of view.

KK: In the book you quote a Joint Chiefs of Staff adviser who said that Brennan told the Saudis to stop arming the extremist rebels in Syria and their weapons will dry up—which seems like a rational request—but then, you point out, the Saudis ramped up arms support.

Seymour Hersh: That’s true.

KK: Did the U.S. do anything to punish the Saudis for it?

SH: Nothing. Of course not. No, no. I’ll tell you what’s going on right now … al Nusra, certainly a jihadist group… has new arms. They’ve got some tanks now—I think the Saudis are supplying stuff. They’ve got tanks now, have a lot of arms, and are staging some operations around Aleppo. There’s a ceasefire and even though they’re not part of it, they obviously took advantage of the ceasefire to resupply. It’s going to be bloody.

KK: Just to be clear, the U.S. hasn’t done anything to punish or at least disincentivize the Saudis from arming our enemies in Syria?

SH: Quite the contrary. The Saudis and Qatar and the Turks put money into those arms [sent to Syrian jihadis].

You’re asking the right questions. Do we say anything? No. Turkey’s Erdogan has played a complete double game: for years he supported and accommodated ISIS. The border was wide open—Hatay Province—guys were going back and forth, bad guys. We know Erdogan’s deeply involved. He’s changing his tune slightly but he’s been deeply involved in this.

Let me talk to you about the sarin story [the sarin gas attack in Ghouta, a suburb near Damascus, which the U.S. government attributed to the Assad regime] because it really is in my craw.  In this article that was this long series of interviews [of Obama] by Jeff Goldberg…he says, without citing the source (you have to presume it was the president because he’s talking to him all the time) that the head of National Intelligence, General [James] Clapper, said to him very early after the [sarin] incident took place, “Hey, it’s not a slam dunk.”

You have to understand in the intelligence community—Tenet [Bush-era CIA director who infamously said Iraqi WMD was a “slam dunk”] is the one who said that about the war in Baghdad—that’s a serious comment. That means you’ve got a problem with the intelligence. As you know I wrote a story that said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs told the president that information the same day. I now know more about it.

The president’s explanation for [not bombing Syria] was that the Syrians agreed that night, rather than be bombed, they’d give up their chemical weapons arsenal, which in this article in the Atlantic, Goldberg said they [the Syrians] had never disclosed before. This is ludicrous. Lavrov [Russia’s Foreign Minister] and Kerry had talked about it for a year—getting rid of the arsenal—because it was under threat from the rebels.

The issue was not that they [the Syrians] suddenly caved in. [Before the Ghouta attack] there was a G-20 summit and Putin and Bashar met for an hour. There was an official briefing from Ben Rhodes and he said they talked about the chemical weapons issue and what to do. The issue was that Bashar couldn’t pay for it—it cost more than a billion bucks. The Russians said, ‘Hey, we can’t pay it all. Oil prices are going down and we’re hurt for money.’ And so, all that happened was we agreed to handle it. We took care of a lot of the costs of it.

Guess what? We had a ship, it was called the Cape Maid, it was parked out in the Med. The Syrians would let us destroy this stuff [the chemical weapons]… there was 1,308 tons that was shipped to the port…and we had, guess what, a forensic unit out there. Wouldn’t we like to really prove—here we have all his sarin and we had sarin from what happened in Ghouta, the UN had a team there and got samples—guess what?

It didn’t match. But we didn’t hear that. I now know it, I’m going to write a lot about it.

Guess what else we know from the forensic analysis we have (we had all the missiles in their arsenal). Nothing in their arsenal had anything close to what was on the ground in Ghouta. A lot of people I know, nobody’s going to go on the record, but the people I know said we couldn’t make a connection, there was no connection between what was given to us by Bashar and what was used in Ghouta. That to me is interesting. That doesn’t prove anything, but it opens up a door to further investigation and further questioning.

(This interview was lightly edited for readability)

(Ken Klippenstein is an American journalist who can be reached on Twitter @kenklippenstein. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap or any employee thereof)

Saudi nightmare: What if ISIS plans for Eid in Mecca

BY SAEED NAQVI

In President Barack Obama’s initial list of the coalition against the Islamist State (ISIS) are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain and Jordan. Others are being cajoled, tempted, lured but are not quite there.

India too was sounded. Mercifully, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is embarked on a mission of economic diplomacy. He will tip toe out of this one.

The frenetic hurry with which air attacks were launched on IS positions in Iraq and Syria, would seem to suggest extraordinary anxiety.

To everyone’s surprise, Syria approved the strike. Clearly, a deal had been cut under the table. Would the Saudis have been privy to this understanding?

The danger in their hugely revised estimate is not coming from Iran. In fact Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal met Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the margins of the UN General Assembly.

After the Zarif-Faisal meeting, President Hasan Rouhani congratulated King Abdullah in a message on the kingdom’s 84th national day.

The speed with which the IS had taken Mosul and threatened Baghdad alarmed the world. By contrast the Shia Houthi’s swift takeover of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen from Abd Mansur Hadi has evoked little response.

In a brilliant maneuver, they did not stage a coup but arrived at a power sharing arrangement with the regime. They now have the potential of becoming a Hezbollah-like force in Yemen.

Surprising that Riyadh has not pointed fingers at Iran. In the past, this has been the continuous refrain from Saudi Arabia: that Iran dabbles in Yemen. Not a word this time.

In 1980 when the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan set a hatchery for Jehadists in Afghanistan to help eject the Soviets from that country, the hard line interior minister of Saudi Arabia, the late Prince Nayef set up training camps for true-blue all Arab Mujahideen in Yemen also to fight Soviet influence in Aden. It is these who mutated into Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula. These forces were in the care of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a half brother of the earlier dictator, Abdullah Saleh.

When the Houthis entered Sanaa without resistance, it was Ahmar, a one-time Saudi favourite, who fled and found refuge in Qatar.

In normal times, Saudis would have been at Iran’s throat. Instead they have been kissing Javad Zarif on both his cheeks at the UN.

Something strange is happening. Saudis are swallowing their pride, making up with enemies, towards what end? Are they preparing themselves for an existential battle against the ISIS?

Let me explain why this could be an existential battle. In November, 1979, Juhayman bin Uteybi, a retired corporal in the Saudi National Guard, was identified as the chief leader of the siege of Mecca which shook the foundations of the Saudi regime. Earlier that year the Ayatullahs had come to power in Tehran. The siege and its aftermath were brutally suppressed and attention instead was directed towards Shia mischief from Iran.

The Iranian revolution, removal of triple distilled Sunni Taliban from Afghanistan, rise of Shia power in Iraq after Saddam Hussain’s fall, Hezbollah victory in 2006, failure to have Bashar al Assad’s Alawi visage knocked down, Iran’s conversations with the West on the nuclear issue, and now Shia Houthis in the news, occupying Sanaa. Shia encirclement of Saudi Arabia is complete. This should be the existential crisis for Saudi Arabia. But Riyadh is drumming up its GCC cousins as a coalition of the willing against ISIS.

In 2010, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was chummy with Bashar al Assad. He sought accommodation with Assad for the Akhwan ul Muslimeen or Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian power structure. In other words, there were a sizable number of Brothers in Syria. In Turkey, of course, Erdogan and all his cohorts were Brothers behind the screen of Ataturk’s secular constitution.

Qatar too, a patron of the Brothers, had its irons in the Syrian fire. The Amir leapfrogged into Gaza to promise them the moon. Again, the Brothers axis. All of this was most disconcerting for the Saudis.

In the standoff between President Mohammad Morsi, a Brother to boot, and Gen. Abdel Fattah el Sisi, the US initially hesitated. The Saudis turned up with $8 billion to keep Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood out of power.

The Saudi’s puritanical school of Wahabism belongs to the Hanbali school of Jurisprudence. So do the Brothers. The founder of Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna, was the son of a Hanbali Imam.

In the crisscross of fundamentalist traffic in Syria injected from the outside, there is a strong contingent of Brothers, those whose ancestors laid siege to Mecca in 1979. Their mission was to keep the faith pure. Saudi rulers, in their perception, have since deviated from Wahhabi piety. Other than the Muslim Brotherhood, there are kindred spirits from other Sunni schools under the ISIS umbrella. Frustrated Baathists are too in this grouping as Born-Again Sunnis.

Suddenly, the regime in Riyadh found itself under pressure to revert to its “pure” Wahhabism. The Economist reports that many more beheadings have been done in recent weeks by way of capital punishment presumably to keep pace with ISIS’s televised beheading spree, a Christian group too came under the police gaze for simply practicing their faith. That ISIS intolerance again.

Eid-ul Zuha is on October 6. Attribute it to their black humour, but Arab diplomats not in the Saudi camp, have been floating a story: Abu Bakr al Baghdadi may like to celebrate Eid in Mecca. I had written three weeks ago that a Caliphate cannot be a Caliphate without Mecca.

Ofcourse the US is powerful enough to prevent an outcome that will shake its two principal allies in the region – Saudi Arabia and Israel. But the People versus Potentates balance will have to reset.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Caliphate opposed to Shia apostasy and, eventually to Sunni monarchies

BY SAEED NAQVI

The expanding Shia-Sunni conflict in the Muslim world is exposing vast gaps in popular understanding of the schism.

For example when Zaine El Abedine Ben Ali, the Tunisian strongman was ousted, people thought a Shia dictator had fallen. From this they extrapolated that the Arab Spring was an anti-Shia plot.

Why would such a misunderstanding arise? Because Zaine El Abedine happens to be a very typical Shia name in large parts of the world. The suffix to his name, Ben Ali, makes the name sound that much more Shia because the basic division between the sects centres on the personality of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Shias are “partisans” of Ali in this dispute.

A Sunni, with a Shia ring to his name is explained by a simple historical detail: the Fatimids ruled large parts of North Africa and Mediterranean enclaves from 909 AD to 1171 AD. They even ruled Sicily. The main church in Palermo, capital of Sicily, has a column with Quranic inscriptions which have been preserved as a tourist attraction. For two hundred years Moharram processions, a patently Shia observance, were mandatory on Palermo’s main roads.

Al Azhar University in Cairo derives its name from Fatima Zehra, the Prophet’s daughter. The late Sid Ahmad one of the left leaning intellectuals in Cairo with a regular Salon on the Nile described sophisticated Egyptians with a telling phrase: “Sunna bil Deen; Shia bil Hawa.” Which means: “Our faith is Sunni but our hearts are Shia” all traced to the Fatimid spell.

This kind of cultural confusion is widespread. There are a large number of Muslims who are born Sunni but respect “ahle bait” or members of the Prophet’s family a notch above others. All the Sufi schools in India, for instance, fall in this category. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Ajmeri’s famous quartrain in praise of Imam Hussain is cited as evidence of this streak.

“Shah ast Husain; Badshahast Hussain Deen ast Hussain; deen panch ast Hussain” (Hussain is my spiritual and temporal Master Hussain is my faith and the protector of my faith)

The Sufis came to India from Central Asia which had retained cultural and spiritual strands from the days of the Persian Empire.

They had spread out so wide in India that as early as the 15th century the great Sufi Malik Mohammad Jaisi was writing his great allegory Padmavat near Rae Bareli, making him the first great poet in Awadhi, preceding Tulsidas by decades.

Shia-Sunni equations remained blurred in many parts of the world because of the confluence of the streams with rapidly advancing Sufi mysticism. For instance the Fatimids left behind an ambiguous Islamic culture on this count in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan and the Levant.

For decades Syrian and Iraqi Islam had a heavy overlay of atheistic Baathism. Religion surfaced in a big way only after the US occupation of Iraq in April 2003. It became almost necessary for the US to encourage Shia power because they needed televised images of Iraqis celebrating Saddam Hussain’s fall.

Habitual Baathists could not overnight appear on the streets as pious Sunnis, denouncing the man they lived in awe of. During the 1992 Shia uprising in Karabla, brutally suppressed by Saddam Hussain, hundreds of thousands of “troublesome” Shias had been settled in a ghetto named Saddam city on the outskirts of Baghdad.

When crowds did not materialize on the streets of Baghdad to celebrate the televised pulling down of Saddam Hussain’s statue at Firdaus Square on April 9, 2003, a request was placed with Shia leaders like Muqtada Sadr to mobilize celebrations. That is when the streets were filled with Shias from Saddam city to provide visual support to US success. Promptly Saddam city was renamed Sadr city. Does it make sense that in ten years of US occupation, Baathists first reverted to being devout Sunnis and have now mutated into the likes of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, leading the faithful into the Sunni Caliphate, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? Baghdadi belong to the virulent school of Ikhwan ul Muslimeen opposed to “Shia apostasy” as well as to “Sunni monarchies”.

The Caliphate appears to be a more recent idea which gestated during the brutal campaign in Syria which failed to affect a regime change in Damascus. The embarrassment of those who funneled support to the opposition against Bashar al Assad in Damascus is now enhanced by the durability of Nouri al Maliki in Baghdad. He tried and ousted the Sunni Vice President Tariq al Hashemi who was something of a Western favourite and for that reason suspected by the Iranians.

There are interests in the Syria-Iraq corridor who are under the control of their Western and Saudi sponsors. Aggravating the current situation is the fact that, with time, these controls are loosening. Additionally, a wide range of other Sunni groups who have suffered considerable status reversal, are clustering around an Abu Bakr al Baghdadi like figure, not because they want a Caliphate, but because they wish to weaken and oust Maliki in Baghdad and, if possible, Assad in Damascus.

It is worth noting that while mounting the brutal air and naval attacks against the Palestinians in Gaza, the Israelis are citing the “Caliphate” as the menace they fear Palestinians will eventually gang up with. There is no mention of Hezbullah and Iran.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)