Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Ambassador Ford Lied About Giving TOW Missiles to Al-Qaeda in Syria

Posted by M. C. on June 6, 2022

Because U.S. planners continued to supply TOW missiles to FSA groups long after Nusra was clearly benefiting from them, including after the Russian intervention in September 2015, US support for al-Qaeda in Syria constituted informal U.S. policy. Affinity for al-Qaeda persisted in subsequent years.

by William Van Wagenen 

In September 2017, U.S. official Brett McGurk expressed concern that Syria’s northwest Idlib province had become “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.” Idlib had fallen to al-Qaeda, in the form of a jihadist coalition led by the group’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, in March 2015.

Despite acknowledging that Idlib, the last bastion of the supposedly democratic and secular Syrian opposition, was dominated by al-Qaeda, McGurk failed to also note that U.S. planners themselves had played a key role in the terror group’s successful capture of the province. Specifically, he failed to note the key role played by U.S.-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles, which along with Nusra’s suicide bombers, made expelling the Syrian army from Idlib possible.

For example, Syria analyst Hassan Hassan observed in Foreign Policy that in spring 2015 “The Syrian rebels are on a roll” and that “The recent offensives in Idlib have been strikingly swift—thanks in large part to suicide bombers and American anti-tank TOW missiles,” which FSA groups and Nusra deployed in tandem.

Half a dozen?

In contrast to Hassan, U.S. officials have attempted to obscure the importance of U.S.-supplied TOW missiles in the rise of al-Qaeda in Idlib. In a 2021 interview with journalist Aaron Mate, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford claimed that “The United States never gave anti-tank weapons to al-Qaeda.” Mate pushed back against this claim saying, “Not directly, but they gave it to their allies who then gave it to al-Qaeda.” Ford then claimed, “Aaron, the number might be half a dozen,” implying that the number of TOW missiles falling into Nusra’s hands was negligible and played no role in the terror group’s success. Ford then recommended that Mate review the reporting regarding TOW missiles in the conflict by Jakub Janovsky of Bellingcat.

Ford’s comments here are a clearly false. There is considerable evidence that Nusra was able to obtain large numbers of TOW missiles, both by capturing them from U.S.-backed groups, and by co-opting U.S.-backed groups who then deployed the missiles on Nusra’s behalf during the spring 2015 campaign to conquer Idlib.

Further, even before the start of the program to provide TOW missiles, U.S. officials were clearly aware that U.S.-supplied weapons were falling into Nusra’s hands. The New York Times reported in October 2013 that Obama administration officials chose to arm what they referred to as Syrian rebels via a covert program run by the CIA, rather than via a publicly acknowledged program through the Pentagon, not only to avoid the legal issues associated with toppling a sovereign government, but also because, in the words of one former senior administration official, “We needed plausible deniability in case the arms got into the hands of Al Nusra.”

Further, U.S. planners continued shipping the missiles to U.S.-backed groups long after it became clear they had played a key role in Nusra’s conquest of Idlib province. Fearing that not only Idlib, but also Damascus would fall to jihadists fighting with the support of U.S.-backed FSA groups, Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian air force to intervene on behalf of the Syrian army in September 2015. U.S. planners responded by immediately accelerating shipments of additional TOW missiles.

The New York Times reported on October 12, 2015, just two weeks after the start of the Russian intervention, that FSA groups were now receiving as many TOW missiles as they asked for, and that the U.S. was effectively fighting a proxy war with Russia as a result. One FSA commander explained, “We get what we ask for in a very short time,” while another rebel official in Hama called the supply “carte blanche,” suggesting, “We can get as much as we need and whenever we need them.”

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) observed that “at this point it is impossible to argue that U.S. officials involved in the CIA’s program cannot discern that Nusra and other extremists have benefited” from CIA weapons shipments, “And despite this, the CIA decided to drastically increase lethal support to vetted rebel factions following the Russian intervention into Syria in late September [2015].”

In the remainder of this paper, I detail the role of U.S.-supplied TOW missiles in al-Qaeda’s conquest of Idlib.

Khan Sheikhoun

According to the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar, U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles were used in the conflict for the first time during the battle for Khan Sheikhoun in April 2014.

According to pro-opposition news site Zaman al-Wasl, the “Hama Gate” campaign to take Khan Sheikhoun was directed from a unified operations room comprised of 13 armed-opposition factions, including most prominently the Nusra Front, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), and Ahrar al-Sham.

Before the campaign, U.S. planners had begun supplying these missiles to a newly formed group FSA brigade, Harakat Hazm, or the Steadfastness Movement, made up of 12 small FSA factions and including former Farouq Brigade elements. Videos emerged in early April 2014 of Hazm using the missiles in the town of Hesh, along the M5 highway just north of Khan Sheikhoun.

See the rest here

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