|Map Courtesy of The World Factbook|
Stranahan spoke with SCI by phone and the following report and assessment is exclusive to SCI. Quotations attributed to him are his quotations, with minor changes made in some cases for clarity. This SCI report does not use all information Stranahan provided in his phone interview. Stranahan and Paul Hair both previously contributed content to the Breitbart family of websites but had never met prior to speaking with one another during the week of October 11, 2013.
SCI spoke with Stranahan for approximately one-half hour and asked him about the situation in Syria and the region as the war between Bashar al-Assad and the anti-Assad forces. This assessment focuses on four areas: (1) the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and associated alliances, and who controls them since these are the forces the U.S. is supporting and training; (2) the Syrian people and who they support in the war along with their thoughts on U.S. involvement; (3) what the Syrian people think regarding the allegations of chemical weapons being used; and (4) what impact the war is having on Lebanon and the region surrounding Syria.
Key points and confidence levels* include:
- The U.S. government is directly and indirectly supporting al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and other Islamic terrorists with money, training, equipment, and aid. (High Confidence)
- The Syrian people and other nations in the region do not want U.S. military involvement but will accept U.S.-based relief aid. (High Confidence)
- Syrians are not extremely concerned with chemical weapons attacks when viewed in conjunction with the overall death and destruction resulting from the war in general (Low Confidence)
- Fighting between the Assad regime and anti-Assad forces is not slowing down, and the war itself along with the refugees streaming into other nations will destabilize the region with fighting and war spreading to other nations. (High Confidence)
Background and Analysis:
(1) The FSA and Associated Alliances: The U.S. is supporting and training them but who controls them and where do their allegiances lie?
|Pentagon Press Secretary George Little|
answers reporters' questions regarding
possible U.S. military intervention in
Syria at the Pentagon, Sept. 5, 2013.
DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo.
Photo Courtesy of the DOD.
The FSA supposedly is an organization made up of multiple groups of moderate anti-Assad forces that have formed together for the purpose of toppling the Bashar al-Assad regime. SCI uses the word “supposedly” in reference to the FSA because of what the FSA likely really is. SCI will expand on this in later paragraphs.
The U.S. government is supporting the FSA financially, with training, and with weapons and equipment.
The media, and apparently the U.S. government, recognize a General Salim Idris as the commander of the FSA and often recognize him as the de facto leader of all the so-called moderate anti-Assad forces in Syria. These so-called moderate anti-Assad forces are supposed to be an alternative to groups such as the al-Nusra Front (also referred to as Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Nusra Brigade, etc.) and other al-Qaeda-affiliated or Islamic terrorist groups which also are fighting Assad.
Yet retired Major General Paul Vallely of Stand Up America (SUA) says that a Colonel Riad El Asaad is the true commander of the FSA, and that General Idris, along with the FSA that the U.S. government is supporting, are actually “radical Islamic elements that have inserted themselves into the battle field.”
Major General Vallely has traveled to the Middle East and personally met with Colonel Asaad and others claiming to be the true, moderate FSA.
The media and government are aware of Colonel Asaad but currently do not recognize him as the overall leader of the FSA.
Furthermore, reporting from The Long War Journal suggests that Colonel Asaad might not be a so-called moderate, writing that Colonel Asaad called al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusrah Front, “our brothers in Islam.”
SCI reached out to Major General Vallely and SUA on several occasions seeking comment and clarification but to date has not received a reply.
SCI asked Lee Stranahan what he knew about the FSA as well as the disagreement Major General Vallely and the SUA have on who the true leader is.
Stranahan has heard of Vallely and the SUA but wasn’t aware enough of them to comment on their assessment. However, he spoke with SCI about the FSA.
The Free Syrian Army is a misnomer. There’s really no such thing. That was a linguistic construct that the United States put together; the whole coalition is.
The U.S. at first (under Hillary Clinton and Obama) viewed Assad as a reformer. Then, when the Arab Spring happened, rather than using that to force the reforms the U.S. wanted (which I think the U.S. probably could have) the U.S. suddenly started talking about how it wanted Assad toppled.
And it’s the same way that the U.S. supported all of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East that turned out so badly—Egypt being a prime example.
And it’s a similar thing in Libya, and a similar think all over the place. We suddenly were calling for Assad to be toppled [in Syria]. And there was this ragtag group of people who were opposed to Assad. So we declared them the Free Syrian Army. “We want you to form this coalition and call it the Free Syrian Army so we can refer to you with one thing,” [the U.S. said]. But there’s no central command and control (C2) structure for the literally hundreds of groups.
It would be like if you were trying to have an uprising in the U.S. and you did it by getting together the Occupy Wall Street Black Bloc, the Crips, the Bloods, and the Mexican Zeta cartels. And then Russia says, “That’s the Free American Army.”
But it’s not like they all went to basic training together or don’t fight amongst themselves. People who fled Aleppo told me they [the groups that make up the supposed FSA] are literally gangs in a lot of occasions and what they do is when stuff [aid, etc.] tries to come in at a checkpoint, they take the stuff. They resell it; they take it for themselves.
They kidnap people for money. I’ve talked to a number of people who have had friends and family members kidnapped and a lot of it is just done for money. I talked to one guy; they took his brother and his family had to pay $40,000 to get him back. I talked to another guy from Maaloula; he had to go back to Syria a couple days after we met because his cousin had been kidnapped. And he had to negotiate his release. So when I say these are gangs, I’m not being facetious.But it’s not just that a large portion of the anti-Assad forces are gangs and thugs; they also are Islamic terrorists or they directly work side-by-side with Islamic terrorist groups such as the al-Nusra Front or other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. Stranahan explained the situation as follows.
These groups sometimes work with the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).
See what they’ve done in northern Syria, they’ve actually formed a de facto sharia state. Syria is a hard country to hold because there’s a lot of distance physically between cities with nothing between them. So it’s a hard country and it’s a big country to hold. And Assad can’t do that. So in Aleppo, for instance, basically the al-Nusra Front, the FSA, and ISIS control Aleppo. There are still some Assad forces there but they’re in the very center of the city, kind of holed up.
But the forces we’re backing—which is the FSA—have a temporary allegiance with the al-Nusra Front and ISIS. That doesn’t mean they like each other. The FSA, and al-Nusrah Front, and ISIS fight amongst each other like criminal gangs do; there’s a lot of infighting. But that doesn’t mean they are not allies. This is why the U.S. can’t say it’s going to support the FSA but not the other groups. In the analogy I made, it would be like saying, “Okay, well, we’re going to support the Crips but not the Bloods.” They’re allies.SCI asked Stranahan if the U.S. was directly supporting some al-Qaeda fighters—if some of those we deem “moderates” are actually misidentified—or if arms were only reaching them by way of fighting alongside the FSA. Stranahan didn’t confirm that but he did provide another important piece of information.
There’s no doubt that they’re reaching them. But furthermore, they’re fighting in Maaloula; the al-Qaeda fighters are fighting right next to the FSA fighters using U.S. anti-tank weapons. And not just the arms but the support. The attack on the Christian village in Maaloula came after Obama says he is going to lob missiles into Syria. So the rebels took that as, “Okay, this is going to push us over the edge.” And it emboldened them to attack Maaloula. But as soon as Obama started to waffle on that, then they started fighting each other. So in other words, what Obama did was a huge morale boost for them; they thought it was going to help them win. And so they acted bold and started attacking Christian villages and stuff like that.In other words, the anti-Assad forces revealed who they truly were. Stranahan expanded on that.
What’s interesting is often they don’t even claim to be moderates. That’s something we put on them. But they’re very clear that they’re Muslim Brotherhood. For example, so the U.S. helped form this coalition and then the U.S. issues a statement saying, “Al-Nusra is connected to al-Qaeda so we don’t like them.” The U.S. can say on the record that it condemned the al-Qaeda fighters. But what happened was when the U.S. condemned al-Nusra, other members of the coalition started a, “I Am al-Nusra” campaign, where people in the FSA were saying, “We stand with al-Nusra; I am al-Nusra. We stand with them.” And so when I say they’re not saying they’re moderates, what I mean is everyone is really clear. I didn’t see a lot of hidden agendas. I saw agendas but I didn’t see hidden ones.Stranahan’s reporting sounds similar to what happened in Iraq when the U.S. fought there from 2003-2012. The U.S. was able to cobble together disparate groups for a short time if they had a common enemy. That didn’t mean that the disparate groups liked one another; only that they were willing to put aside their differences long enough to get what they wanted. But once they got what they wanted, they turned on both each other and U.S. forces, attacking and murdering U.S. troops.
Thus, by backing the so-called FSA and other allegedly moderate anti-Assad forces in Syria, the U.S. clearly isn’t backing allies; only thugs and Islamic terrorists who are willing to accept U.S. assistance temporarily so they can defeat their Shi’ite enemy of Assad. These anti-Assad forces will turn on the U.S. as soon as it benefits them, using the money, skills, training, and weapons that the U.S. provided them to fight the U.S. and its allies.
Stranahan’s reporting also lines up with other recent reporting, particularly one of the latest reports that says that the U.S.-recognized FSA has experienced massive fractures, with many of the groups for which the FSA supposedly serves as the umbrella leaving it to join explicitly Islamic terrorist organizations.
A lengthy article from September in The Washington Times also offers information that greatly matches what Stranahan reports. (The Washington Times article also provides detailed information using Major General Vallely as a source, further explaining his views on the FSA, Colonel Asaad, and the battlefield in general.)
And this information is why SCI only recognizes the FSA as supposed organizations. Regardless of who people think the true leader is, SCI assesses with high confidence that the FSA is largely in name only, with little to no C2 over the organizations that they claim fall under their umbrella. The FSA exists only for public relations purposes; an entity created in order for the U.S. to be able to send aid, training, equipment, and weapons to people.
Furthermore, SCI assesses with high confidence that the U.S. government is indirectly sending money, training, equipment, and weapons to Islamic terrorists in Syria by aiding so-called moderate anti-Assad forces who are fighting right alongside Islamic terrorists who then receive said aid (money, training, equipment, and weapons) from the so-called moderate anti-Assad forces.
SCI also assesses with moderate confidence that the U.S. government is directly sending money, training, equipment, and weapons to Islamic terrorists by misidentifying them as so-called moderate anti-Assad forces. SCI assess this based on the skepticism that the U.S. is wholly able to conduct a flawless vetting process that would screen all or most Islamic jihadists. Stranahan’s reporting does not include information that would support this assessment although it does not necessarily contradict it.
The U.S. government is likely aware that it is supporting al-Qaeda and other affiliated groups since news stories continue coming out about defections from the FSA to Islamic jihadists. Stories that tell of anti-Assad forces constructing improvised explosive devices (IED) also raise serious questions on if they learned such skills while murdering and maiming U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the world. Furthermore, the exposé of Elizabeth O’Bagy, her fraudulent academic claims, and additional questions about the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) have been widely publicized. Nevertheless, the fact that the media and government continue relying on the SETF as a legitimate source of information about Syria and those fighting, and the fact that Senator John McCain (R-AZ), an outspoken supporter of the anti-Assad forces, has directly hired Elizabeth O’Bagy following the Institute for the Study of War firing her shows that the U.S. government likely will continue supporting the anti-Assad forces regardless of how overwhelming the evidence becomes that they are Islamic jihadists.
(2) The Syrian People: Who do the Syrian people support in the war and what do they think about U.S. involvement?
SCI also spoke with Stranahan about who the Syrian people support (apart from those joining al-Nusra and other jihadists) and if they want U.S. involvement. He provided some important information on the political views of the population that isn’t involved in the fighting (emphasis below in bold by SCI).
What everybody I talked to over there says is that they don’t want the U.S. involved militarily. They don’t feel we’ve ever done anything useful militarily. Humanitarian wise they think we should be involved. And I don’t think they would mind diplomacy. Everybody thinks that Assad is bad and so I think the U.S. position should be to force Assad to get better. I think that’s the best option. Because the other faction—the other anti-Assad opposition—the good news is they’re sectarian and non-violent. But the bad news is that they literally are all socialists and communists. So those are the “good guys.” And I’m not joking. Literally they’re all Socialist Worker’s Party, Socialists of Syria, communists, etc. But they’re the best option which to me is not a best option. So there is nobody over there who is remotely pro-individual rights. And I think they could be because the people culturally are very Western; very pro-West. I didn’t encounter any hostility towards me as an American at all. They’re all very quick to say that. They just don’t like the U.S. military; not the military [personnel] themselves but the policies over there which tend to cause more problems than they alleviate.
Most people just want the war over. Most people are—most refugees I talked to—want the fighting to end. There are close to 3 million refugees right now. They are amazed that the U.S. is supporting al-Qaeda. And it’s clear that we are supporting al-Qaeda by being one step removed. It’s not like we’re sending arms directly to al-Qaeda or the al-Qaeda fighters; we’re just sending them to the fighters fighting next to the al-Qaeda fighters.”(3) Syria and WMD: What do the Syrian people think regarding the allegations of chemical weapons being used?
SCI asked Stranahan what the Syrian refugees and/or the Lebanese had to say regarding the allegations of chemical weapons being used in Syria.
I didn’t find anything about that specifically. Nobody seemed to know anything about it. I talked to one cab driver who was bothered by it but that was about it. The religious leaders I interviewed and most the people I considered Christians have a very Christian viewpoint which is peace is better than war and they want the fighting and death to end.(4) Syrian War and Its Impact on the Region: What impact is the war having on Lebanon and the rest of the region surrounding Syria?
Stranahan spoke on how the war is impacting Syria, Lebanon, and the surrounding region.
This is a disaster on two fronts. Number one, the Syria refugee crisis is gigantic and very real. I interviewed a U.N. spokesman who was in Somalia working with the refugee crisis there. She said this is worse than Somalia. By the end of the year one in five people in Lebanon will be a Syrian refugee.
The people I spoke with in Lebanon mostly were Christians. They have a very Christian attitude towards them which is they’re sympathetic to the plight of these people who are refugees. On the other hand, they can’t afford it because it’s not a rich country. And they’ll all tell you that. They’re like, “I’m sympathetic but we can’t afford it.”
And the other factor is that Syria occupied Lebanon for thirty years; they left in 2005. And the Lebanese remember how they were. The Syrians were pretty brutal. And so the Lebanese are now in a position to take these Syrians in and they’re doing it. But there is some tension and as more and more come in, there’s more tension. And it’s going to explode.
And the other area that is going to explode is in Syria with all those people [civilians] leaving in cities like Aleppo; like most of the Christians have left Aleppo. What you have left is al-Qaeda.
And al-Qaeda is streaming in to Syria through Turkey; people from Chechnya, Pakistan, even the United States. From all over the region, al-Qaeda fighters are going to Syria right now for training.
The thing about the al-Nusra Front; they’re like the elites. The FSA; they’re like ragtag nobodies. Al-Nusra has standards and they have a training program. They have religious training and combat training. You can’t smoke if you’re in al-Nusra, for instance. They don’t want people who are doing that.
What’s happened is that al-Nusra has become the badasses of the region who if you’re a young fighter that’s who you want to join. It’s like the Navy SEALs. These elite factions, if you have any ambition, the appeal of them is not everyone can make it. The fact is they have this tremendous reputation and it’s well-earned because they are much stronger fighters.
[Also], if Assad gets toppled, what they’ve said is going to happen—this is not conjecture—is that the al-Nusra Front will then go after the FSA and it’s not close to a fair fight. They will beat them. And what they’ve done in a lot of cases is al-Nusra will come in, take over a village, and in some cases rather than killing the people, they train them. [And] to the young people, if you’re a 19-year-old Syrian who has never done anything, there is an appeal there.”This sounds very similar to what happens in other parts of the globe, such as Africa, where some jihadists join in order to fight for Islam, but also to gain status and fame, just as American youth become pop stars to gain status and fame. Stranahan commented on this.
NBC did a report on al-Qaeda in Syria; you can find it on YouTube. And they show this guy who dropped out of college to go join al-Qaeda in Syria. And in the report the guy is grinning ear-to-ear. He’s so excited. And he never had done anything like it before; you can see it. That’s the danger. The powder keg is the refugee crisis combined with the al-Qaeda crisis; it’s going to blow. I believe it’s the biggest story in the world which is receiving the least coverage.
SCI assesses with high confidence that the U.S. government is supporting al-Qaeda and its affiliates (i.e. the al-Nusra Front) and other Islamic terrorists with money, training, equipment, and aid. Although this becomes clearer each day U.S. decision makers will not be persuaded to stop aiding them any time soon. The media will cover for the Obama administration and thus keep American outrage over this atrocity to a minimum, with elements within the Republican Party also aiding the administration through agreeing with support for elements of al-Qaeda as they fight the Assad regime.
SCI assesses with high confidence that the Syrian people and other Middle Eastern peoples as a whole do not want further American military intervention although elements of them will advocate for it. At the same time, Syrians and Middle Eastern peoples as a whole will accept American relief aid and may request more. Americans might not like this but domestic issues, along with the previously mentioned support of the Obama administration by the media and political class, will keep focus off this issue, freeing U.S. leaders to do whatever they decide on it without repercussion.
SCI assesses with low confidence that chemical weapons attacks will not be a major issue for Syrians when compared to the overall death and destruction resulting from the war. However, the United Nations and international opinion will focus heavily on this issue and the media will provide the necessary attention to keep the public interested in this as well. Pending U.N. investigations will determine how much more time is spent on the issue. What affect that will have on Assad and his regime remains unclear at this point.
SCI assesses with high confidence that fighting between the Assad regime and anti-Assad forces will continue and in fact increase, and that the war along with the refugees flooding other nations will destabilize the entire region around Syria. Expect fighting to increase in other nations and even full-blown wars to occur.