In France, a whiplash from rotten Syria policy
Considering the fact that “Armed moderates” are practically non-existent in Syria, France announced in 2012 that it was delivering “lethal weapons” to Syrian rebels. French Arms deals were also with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar; states at the forefront of supporting Salafi networks.
Let’s not beat around the bush.
The terror attacks in Paris last Friday shook the globe, even in countries where these acts are sadly the norm. Europe hasn’t seen carnage on this scale, with this degree of planning, for decades. But was this political violence entirely unexpected?.
Perhaps not. When French commentators railed against the perpetrators for “an attack on our values, our way of life” they couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Paris attacks had one source only and that was the Syrian conflict. True, the alleged terrorists, ISIS, were able to recruit angry, young, European Muslims to the task because of years of disenfranchisement and voicelessness in the heart of their continent.
But there would have been no calling, no urgency, no engine driving the recruitment frenzy, out of context of the Syrian storyline.
Nearly five years ago, several regional and western states utilized the larger-than-life symbols of the Arab Uprisings to create regime change in Syria. Syrians had already hit the streets in small numbers, galvanized by the fearlessness of their fellow Arabs to demand political and economic reforms. But it was only when shots rang out and Syrians fell dead that demands turned to rage and larger numbers mobilized.
With the benefit of time and disclosure, we have since learned that Syrian security forces were also being killed from the earliest days – 88 soldiers in the first month – and that there were armed elements shooting at both sides, to stir up conflict for the explicit purpose of effecting regime change in Syria. (1)
In a 2015 report on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the US-think tank Brookings Institution wrote:
“Presented with an opportunity to inject violence into what had been a peaceful revolt, Baghdadi sent one of his Syrian operatives to set up a secret branch of the Islamic State in the country that year. The branch, later known as the Nusra Front, initially followed the Islamic State’s playbook by attacking civilians as part of a clandestine terror campaign to sow chaos.”
And chaos they sowed.
Chaos, of course, is a goal for radical, Salafist, militant groups. It creates a political and security vacuum that they are well-equipped to fill. These practices and experiences were honed at the expense of Afghans three decades ago, when the Saudi-funded and CIA-trained Mujahedeen learned how to create, then exploit, power vacuums.
The US-led invasion of Iraq, however, was the pivitol event that began the seeding of these extremist terror networks far and wide. Baghdadi is an Iraqi and ISIS is borne from Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which then merged into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the precursor to ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham).
During the course of the Syrian conflict, we have seen the ease of movement between extremist groups. Free Syrian Army (FSA) members join ISIS, Ahrar al Sham militants join Jabhat al-Nusra, they fight with each other, they break up and re-form under new leadership – avowed enemies fighting on one front form security pacts when fighting on another. And thousands of these western-backed rebels have fought alongside ISIS and Al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
“Armed moderates” are practically non-existent in Syria, despite countless efforts by western media, analysts and politicians to whitewash the “rebels” and pretend ignorance on the radical character of the militants they armed and assisted. Former US Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn admitted in August that his government and western allies had taken a “willful decision” to support the establishment of a “Salafist principality in Eastern Syria” – the same area now controlled by ISIS. (2)
At the forefront of the foreign intervention that has supported, financed, armed and assisted militants in Syria are three western states, the US, UK, France, and three main regional states, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (UAE too).
In August 2012 when the Syrian conflict ratcheted up to a whole new level of armed political violence, I visited Zaatari Camp in Jordan, near the border with Syria where refugees were encamped. Right outside the camp entrance was a French military hospital, which I was told was providing emergency medical assistance to civilian refugees.
Later, we learned that the French facility was involved in patching up rebel fighters who would then return to the Syrian military theater. These were still early days in the Syrian conflict – around 10,000 dead compared to the 250,000-plus death toll today. (3)
But by the end of 2012, the proactive French role inside Syria was clearly detectable. British daily The Guardian wrote in December 2012:
“France has emerged as the most prominent backer of Syria’s armed opposition and is now directly funding rebel groups around Aleppo as part of a new push to oust the embattled Assad regime. Large sums of cash have been delivered by French government proxies across the Turkish border to rebel commanders in the past month, diplomatic sources have confirmed. The money has been used to buy weapons inside Syria and to fund armed operations against loyalist forces.” (4)
At this point, an EU arms embargo on Syria was in effect, but direct French weapons shipments to rebels were also secretly taking place. According to the 2015 book “In the corridors of French diplomacy,” French President Francois Hollande told author Xavier Panon, a diplomatic and military specialist, that France’s “services” were delivering “lethal weapons” to Syrian rebels in the second half of 2012. These arms shipments included canons, machine guns, rocket launchers and anti-tank missiles, and were, according to Hollande, ostensibly earmarked only for vetted FSA militias.
France and the UK teamed up to push through a lifting of EU weapons sanctions on Syria in May 2013, and the following month, at a ‘Friends of Syria meeting’, Paris committed to further increasing military aid to rebel groups. Furthermore, the French government was arguably the biggest cheerleader for launching airstrikes against Syria in August 2013 – efforts that were ultimately thwarted by widespread public pressure against military intervention in the US and UK.
We know that French funds ended up in the hands of Islamist militant groups like Liwa al-Tawhid for the purchase of ammunition and undoubtedly other military necessities. We also know that a slew of other weapons connected to France have shown up in the Syrian military theater, whether directly or indirectly. These include MILAN anti-tank missiles, Russian Igla anti-air missiles (reportedly transferred to Syria via Libyan Al Qaeda members who claim they were trained by the French), APILAS anti-tank weapons, SNEB rockets, FAMAS assault rifles and others lethal arms.
And just this month, photos of the APILA rocket launcher originally supplied to rebels were spotted in ISIS’ possession. (5)
Why were the French so determined to pursue a policy of military escalation in Syria – given that the proliferation of weapons in the Syrian theater was clearly leading to massive casualties, widespread destabilization and the exacerbation of a humanitarian crisis?
One need only to look at another of Hollande’s foreign policy and economic initiatives to understand his Syria policy.
To bolster a lagging economy, the French president dove headfirst into a series of mega arms deals with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Persian Gulf states – selling sophisticated weaponry to despotic, sectarian regimes neck-deep in dealings with jihadi and Salafist networks spanning the Middle East and North Africa.
Last year, US Vice President Joe Biden exposed the dangerous game being played by some of these states – he names Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in these comments:
“They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except that the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” (6)
While Hollande was raking in the Euros from arms deals with these very states, he was turning a blind eye to their activities in Syria.
France’s weapons exports in 2014 were just over 8 billion Euros. By May of 2015 alone, that number had skyrocketed to 15 billion Euros, primarily due to a $7 billion sale of military hardware to Qatar. The French ministry of defense claimed that 30,000 jobs would be created by this one sale – but at what cost?
And last month, the French inked an additional $12 billion in contracts with the Saudis, including major military hardware and parts.
France isn’t alone in these arms sales – the UK and US are right alongside competing for Persian Gulf petrodollars. Never mind that one of the biggest recipients of weapons is Saudi Arabia (today the number one weapons importer in the world), which has instigated the horrific carpet-bombing of Yemen that has killed thousands and decimated the already impoverished country. Worse yet, the main beneficiaries of the Yemeni bombing campaign appear to be Al Qaeda, who are de facto allies of the Saudis against the Houthis, and have used the chaos to move into new territory throughout the south of the country.
On Monday, the US White House announced a further $1 billion sale to the Saudis of air-to-land munitions for their Yemeni campaign – under the guise of “counter-terrorism” no less – ironic, given that Al Qaeda gains each time the Saudis drop a bomb.
Two years after the September 11 terrorist attacks that claimed almost 3,000 victims in the United States, the US Senate’s Judiciary Committee held hearings on terrorism and its connection to Wahhabism (state religion of Saudi Arabia and Qatar). During the hearings, Saudi Arabia was called the “epicenter” of terror funding for “principally Al Qaeda but many other recipients as well.” The Saudis, according to Senate transcripts, had contributed a whopping $70 billion over 25 years to the funding of “what they call Islamist activities.” (7)
In 2009, a secret US State Department cable signed off by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claims: “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide…Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT (Laskhar-e Taiba), and other terrorist groups…It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”
Hollande’s government is hooked on the profits derived from its Persian Gulf allies. But this relationship has also made him hostage to short-term rewards – in exchange for turning France’s foreign policy into a subservient arm of Saudi-Qatari geopolitical objectives.
The Paris attacks were surely undeserved, but never unexpected. Over the past three decades we have seen, over and over again, that Salafist extremists bite the hand that feeds its ranks. While mentor states enjoy the fact that militants are convenient foot soldiers and proxies who can fight their foreign battles, they do not yet see the inevitable blowback as a deterrence. Rather, they hunker down when a terror attack heads their way, cut off further civil liberties under the guise of fighting “terrorism,” drop a few bombs and scapegoat an ethnic or religious minority group until the anxiety fades. Then it is back to old business.
In Paris, on Friday, the perpetrators – whether ISIS or another radical Salafist group – had little to lose and much to gain. Chaos is their game, and their goals, operations and cells are easily shifted. Not so France.
Hollande reacted by declaring war, stomping his feet in outrage…and dropping some bombs on Syria. He is not a visionary, but a cog in a business wheel. Under his governance and prior to the Paris attacks, France had conducted all of five airstrikes in their “war on ISIS” in Syria. And collected a lot of cash for it.
No, ISIS/Al Qaeda/Nusra Front/Whomever doesn’t give a fig about French “values” and “way of life.” The terror in Paris is due entirely to France in Syria.
Sharmine Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Middle East geopolitics. She is a former senior associate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University and has a master’s degree in International Relations from Columbia University. Sharmine has written commentary for a wide array of publications, including Al Akhbar English, the New York Times, Russia Today, the Guardian, Asia Times Online, the Huffington Post and others.