The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Syria and Imperialist Intervention, Past and Present

  • Christopher M. DavidsonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-91206-6_41-1

With its major cities having long served as key centers of cultural and intellectual production and bordered by Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, Syria has long been regarded as one of the most strategically important states in the Arab world. Unsurprisingly, therefore, since the mid-twentieth century, two of the most powerful external actors in the region – Britain and then the USA – have repeatedly sought to influence its politics and, in more extreme cases, topple its most uncooperative regimes. Drawing on a range of primary and secondary sources – including archived official documents, published records of diplomatic correspondence, and NGO reports – this chapter attempts to understand the various British- and US-sponsored Syria-focused campaigns by identifying and appraising the tactics and strategies used and by situating them in their correct historical contexts stretching from the rise of Arab nationalism and the Cold War to the 2011 Arab uprisings.

From Arab Nationalism to the Cold War

Although limping through the Second World War as a technical victor, Britain’s surviving global empire was nonetheless in retreat. With repeated uprisings and national liberation movements chipping away at overseas possessions, Whitehall officials and planners were already expert in devising strategies aimed at blocking or reversing indigenous challenges. But with increasingly resource-intensive heavy industries requiring vast imports of basic materials at a cheap and stable price from their remaining colonies and protectorates, such counterrevolutionary efforts had to become much more focused on what had become the greatest threat of all: economic nationalism. Certainly, the enemy insurgents Britain was facing by the mid-twentieth century were no longer being measured by their ideology, religion, or barbarity, but quite clearly by their capacity to nationalize resources and industries or, at the very least, build states capable of demanding greater stakes in the local production of wealth.

Since its secret Sykes-Picot agreement with France that effectively carved up the territories of the crumbling Ottoman Empire in the wake of the First World War, Britain’s grip over much of the Middle East and its resources had been more or less uncontested. But by the 1950s and certainly the 1960s, a potent pan-Arab movement was threatening to unseat remaining British client rulers in the region and jeopardize lucrative trade arrangements and control over valuable natural resources. With “classic nationalism [having become] impotent” in the Middle East, as veteran correspondent Patrick Seale described, many of the new “Arab nationalist” revolts were effectively military operations, often led by army officers intent on forcibly removing foreign influences from their countries. Described by some as “armed plotters waiting in the wings, legitimized by a third world discourse” (Seale 1987, pp. 3–5; Filiu 2015, p. 32), the Arab nationalist uprisings and revolutions may have had little in common with the progressive movements of mid-nineteenth-century Europe, but, as illiberal as they were, they nonetheless represented one of the most organized and potent challenges to imperial structures Britain had ever faced.

The gravity of the situation was not lost on London: Foreign Office reports warned of Middle Eastern ruling elites “losing their authority to reformist or revolutionary movements which might reject the connexion with Britain”; official references were made to the dangers of “ultranationalist maladies”; and the cabinet secretary informed the prime minister in no uncertain terms that “we are fighting a losing battle propping up these reactionary regimes” (Curtis 2003, pp. 256–257). According to a particularly candid 1952 Foreign Office study entitled The problem of nationalism, there were two strains to watch out for. The first was “intelligent and satisfied nationalism” which was not very well defined but seemed to involve Britain being able to divert inevitable nationalist sentiments into regimes that would “minimize losses to Britain.” The other, however, was likely to be very harmful to British interests as it would lead to new governments that would “insist on managing their own affairs…including the dismissing of British advisers, the appropriation of British assets, unilateral denunciation of treaties with Britain, and claims on British possessions” (Hiers and Wimmer 2013, p. 239; Curtis 2003, pp. 237–238). Declassified documents from 1961 have shown that British officials were even wary of the “force of liberalism” in such countries for much the same reason (Curtis 2003, p. 256).

Despite some muted discomfort over the imperialist practices of its British and French allies, the USA of the mid-twentieth century was rapidly waking up to the demands of its own resource-hungry industries and the realities of its Cold War stalemate with the Soviet Union. Ensuring vacuums left in the wake of the retrenching European empires were not filled by antagonistic forces bent on nationalizing assets or – equally dangerously – liberation movements likely to align themselves with Soviet-sponsored international communism, the US government and its intelligence agencies soon found themselves at the very forefront of counterrevolutionary action. As Karl Korsch put it, the USA may have been based on the ideals of revolutionary France, but by this stage, it was fast losing its “capitalist infancy” (Korsch 1940).

Soon advancing into the void left by Britain’s retreat and quickly overcoming their initial fence-sitting on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, by the mid-1950s, US planners acknowledged that securing the Middle East was going to be vital to the future prosperity of Western industries and, in turn, for holding the Soviet Union in check. As it was in the rest of the world, the extraction of natural resources was once again an obvious priority, so all indigenous attempts to nationalize economic assets – regardless of any progressive, liberal, or even democratic agendas – needed to be intimidated or destroyed by the USA. In 1955, according to secret correspondence between British officials, President Dwight Eisenhower had even called for a “high-class Machiavellian plan to achieve a situation in the Middle East favourable to our interests which could split the Arabs and defeat the aims of our enemies” (Kyle 2011, p. 552; Curtis 2012, p. 62).

Just 2 years later, the region got its own “Eisenhower Doctrine,” an evolution of the earlier Truman and Monroe doctrines that had sought to secure US interests against international communism and foreign encroachment on the American continents. Stating that “the US regards as vital to the national interest and world peace the preservation of the independence and integrity of the nations of the Middle East,” Eisenhower effectively made the Middle East a special zone of US control. Moreover, as with Truman’s more global declaration, Eisenhower sought to tie the Cold War to all threats to the Middle Eastern status quo by claiming he was “prepared to use armed forces to assist [any Middle Eastern country] requesting assistance against armed aggression from any country controlled by international communism” (Blum 2014, p. 89). He also proclaimed that “the existing vacuum in the Middle East must be filled by the United States before it is filled by Russia” (Dreyfuss 2006, p. 121).

Thus, in this context the USA and its nascent intelligence organizations soon started to look beyond Nasser’s Egypt and effectively began to assume prime responsibility for countering most of the other Arab nationalist movements in the Middle East and North Africa. Worryingly for Washington, its enemies had even reached Israel’s gates as a series of ineffective military dictatorships in Syria came to an end in 1954 when Syrian “free officers” restored free and fair elections. With the nationalist People’s Party and the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party – the Ba’ath – winning a combined 55 out of 140 seats and thus representing the biggest bloc in parliament, the former French protectorate seemed finally poised to pursue an independent foreign policy (Nohlen et al. 2001, pp. 54–5; Filiu 2015, pp. 32–35).

Refusing all US aid and staking out its Cold War neutrality, the new Syrian government confirmed the Department of State’s fears, with embassy cables from Damascus warning that “if the popular leftward trend in Syria continues … there is a real danger that Syria will fall completely under left-wing control.” Unsurprisingly, given the still gestating Eisenhower doctrine, the embassy also made multiple claims that the Syrian Communist Party was actively penetrating the government and the army, even though the party had won only one seat in the general election (Nohlen et al. 2001, pp. 54–55; Blum 2014, p. 85). Without evidence, one cable stated: “If the present trend continues there is a strong possibility that a communist-dominated Syria will result, threatening the peace and stability of the area and endangering the achievement of our objectives in the Near East.” On this basis it recommended that “we should give priority consideration to developing courses of action in the Near East designed to affect the situation in Syria.” But even within the embassy, there was confusion, as another cable stated: “In fact the [Syrian] Communist Party does not appear to have as its immediate objective seizure of power. Rather it seeks to destroy national unity … and to exacerbate tension in the Arab World” (Blum 2014, pp. 85–86). British government reports were much the same, warning that “[Syria’s] army is deeply engaged in politics and increasingly under the influence of the extreme left; and there’s much communist penetration.” Foreign Office records also reveal that the British cabinet agreed an attempt should be made to “swing Syria on the right path” (Curtis 2012, pp. 70–71; Public Records Office 1956a, c).

Keeping it in the family, the CIA’s Archibald Roosevelt – a cousin of Kermit, the officer who had played a major role in the CIA’s covert operation in Iran a few years earlier – took the lead after a meeting with the leader of Syria’s conservative Populist Party. The memoirs of a former National Security Council official indicate that, after a discussion of what aid the USA could supply to bring them to power, money was given to the party so that it could buy off military officers, radio stations, and newspapers (Blum 2014, pp. 86–87). MI6 meanwhile arranged for a Turkish border incident to take place: serving as a distraction for the Syrian military, it was to allow British-funded Iraqi tribes to rise up and cross Syria’s eastern border while Lebanese elements would come in from the west. Moreover, in the same vein as its outreach to Egypt’s Brotherhood and Iran’s ayatollahs, Britain also began to put into effect an Islamist “Plan B” by contacting the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and encouraging it to stage simultaneous demonstrations in Syria’s cities. The aim, it seems, was for the ensuing confusion to create a state of anarchy requiring intervention from the still pro-British Iraqi armed forces (Curtis 2012, p. 71). Worryingly, British foreign secretary Selwyn Lloyd also wrote to the new prime minister, Anthony Eden, with details of a longer-term plan. According to their correspondence, after the CIA- and MI6-sponsored coup had taken place, an effort would then be made to “attach Syria to the Iraqi state … in connection with the development of the fertile crescent” (Public Records Office 1956b). A date for the coup, known as “Operation Straggle,” was set for late October 1956, while an aftercare plan was drawn up involving the sealing off of all Syrian border posts and with the USA immediately granting recognition to the new government (Curtis 2012, p. 71; Blum 2014, pp. 86–87).

Although the Suez Canal crisis derailed Straggle, with Eden asking for it to be aborted on the grounds that anti-Western sentiments were running too high in the region, within 3 months Damascus was back in the spotlight after it signed a technical aid agreement with the Soviet Union. According to Department of State reports, “the British [were] believed to favour active stimulation of a change in the present regime in Syria, in an effort to assure a pro-Western orientation.” By summer 1957 a new coup was thus prepared, this time with Kermit Roosevelt back at the helm. Known as the “Preferred Plan,” it was again to rely on Brotherhood demonstrations along with the arming of “political factions with paramilitary capabilities.” As before, violent border incidents were to be staged, but this time they were to be false flag operations so as to place the blame on the Syrian government. More drastically, Eden also authorized the assassination of a number of Syrian officials including the head of military intelligence and the chief of the general staff. Rather than relying on the Populist Party to take power, the USA and British fell back on the more tried and tested strategy of installing a strongman after the expected collapse of the government (Blum 2014, pp. 87–88; Curtis 2012, pp. 72–73). Opting for Adib Shishakli, London and Washington consciously backed the country’s former military dictator who had staged an election in 1953 to install himself as president and had then banned all newspapers critical of him (Torrey 1964).

One of the CIA officers who had been involved in the earlier Iran operation was sent to Damascus, and Shishakli’s former chief of security was brought to Lebanon so that he could then be smuggled across the border in a US diplomatic vehicle. The stage was set for the Preferred Plan (Blum 2014, p. 88; Curtis 2012, p. 73). Or so it seemed. In fact a number of the USA’s paid informants in the Syrian military had handed over their cash payments to Syrian intelligence along with the names of the CIA agents involved. They also revealed that the USA had promised the Shishakli faction between $300 and $400 million in aid if it made peace with Israel once it had seized power. The idea of a continuing US presence had quickly become untenable. Especially bitter, the expelled US Army attaché ran his Syrian motorbike escort off the road as he reached the Lebanese border, shouting to him that the Syrian chief of intelligence “and his commie friends” would have “the shit beaten out of them by him with one hand tied behind his back if they ever crossed his path again” (Blum 2014, p. 88).

Smarting from failure and forced to gaze in from the outside, the USA’s focus on Syria nonetheless remained strong, with the Syrian government repeatedly complaining of “unidentified aircraft flying over Latakia” – the Mediterranean port where most foreign ships docked. As a NATO member since 1952, Turkey also seemed willing to be drawn into the standoff, likely in an attempt to underscore its role as an Eisenhower Doctrine-enforcing state. Indeed, at one point Eisenhower himself stated that the Turks were massing on Syria’s border with a “readiness to act” due to “anticipated aggression” from Syria and that “the US would undertake to expedite shipments of arms already committed to the Middle Eastern countries, and further, would replace losses as quickly as possible” (Blum 2014, p. 91).

On top of these pressure-building tactics, the US media continued its campaign to brand Syria a “Soviet satellite,” even though there was little evidence to support such assertions. Certainly by 1958 this seemed wholly implausible as under the terms of Syria’s merger with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic both states had declared their respective communist parties to be illegal (Blum 2014, p. 94). As a New York Times correspondent later described, a number of reports were nevertheless still filed, mostly describing Soviet arms and aircraft arriving in Syria, but these later proved to be false (Blum 2014, pp. 90–91). Even the Department of Defense was reluctant to buy into the ongoing CIA and Department of State Soviet-Syria narrative, with one of its reports stating that “the Soviet Union has shown no intention of direct intervention in any of the previous Middle Eastern crises, and we believe it is unlikely that they would intervene, directly, to assure the success of a leftist coup in Syria” (Blum 2014, p. 91). Furthermore, on the subject of the anti-communist Turkish antagonism, one of Eisenhower’s own advisers later wrote of how the undersecretary of state “reviewed in rueful detail … some recent clumsy clandestine US attempts to spur Turkish forces to do some vague kind of battle against Syria” (Blum 2014, pp. 91–92; Hughes 1963, pp. 253–254).

Although a glimmer of hope came for the White House in 1961 following an army-led coup d’état that took Syria out of the short-lived United Arab Republic (with Egypt) and restored Syrian independence, in many ways its only real function was to reverse Egyptian encroachment and end Damascus’ subordinate status to Cairo. Weak and lacking popular support, the post-coup regime was soon vulnerable to an increasingly militant wing of the Ba’ath and its numerous sympathizers within the armed forces. After seizing power in 1963, the Ba’ath renamed Syria the “Syrian Arab Republic” (Oron 1965, pp. 605–607; Filiu 2015, p. 51) and sought to reaffirm its nationalist credentials, albeit outside Nasser’s sphere of influence. Pro-Ba’ath military officers were promoted, including a prominent lieutenant colonel, Hafez al-Assad, who was made commander of the air force, while his brother Rifaat assumed control over the party’s militia (Filiu 2015, pp. 58–59). As this worst-case scenario unfolded, the US and British leaders met but were only able to agree upon a vague path forward that sought the “penetration and cultivation of disruptive elements in the Syrian armed forces … so that Syria can be guided by the West” (Blum 2014, p. 89).

From the War on Terror to the Arab Uprisings

In the wake of the “9/11” attacks in 2001 and the subsequent US intervention in Afghanistan, the George W. Bush administration had begun to mark up additional regimes in the region that, like the Taliban, were similarly uncooperative and in command of resource-rich and strategically significant territories. Unable to establish the same sort of links between these states and the purportedly 9/11-linked Al-Qaeda, the USA moved to an effective second stage in its “War on Terror,” with Bush’s January 2002 State of the Union address declaring that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were all part of an “Axis of Evil” that more broadly supported terrorism and sought to produce weapons of mass destruction (PBS 2002). Borrowing from Yossef Bodansky’s “New Axis Pact” – as described in a 1992 paper prepared for the House Republican Research Committee – Bush’s target list was soon supplemented by his equally neoconservative colleagues. In May 2002 Undersecretary of State John Bolton then announced his “Beyond the Axis of Evil,” adding Libya, Cuba, and Syria (by this stage presided over by Hafez al-Assad’s son Bashar) as fellow travellers (Bodansky and Forrest 1992; BBC 2002).

Although the failures associated with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq effectively prevented the War on Terror from ever really reaching Bashar al-Assad’s Syria or the other members of the two “evil” axes, the 2011 Arab uprisings nonetheless provided the USA and its allies with an invaluable opportunity to again try to dismantle the al-Assad regime and, in parallel, the equally problematic Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi. In this sense, the amorphous nature of the so-called Arab Spring was exploited for its strategic silver lining. Although the mass nationwide uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen had clearly knocked out key Western clients, the idea was to give ostensibly similar but evidently much smaller-scale protest movements in Libya and Syria the sort of outside helping hand they needed to become full-blown and state-threatening insurgencies.

Apart from the staunchest of anti-imperialists, few of course would dispute that by this stage the al-Assad and Gaddafi dictatorships were equally if not more venal and repressive than those of Hosni Mubarak, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and Ali Abdullah Saleh. Few also would doubt that their supposed “resistance” to states like Israel was largely for show and primarily a function of their own legitimacy building. As Hamid Dabashi explains, by then both Syria and Libya, along with the Arab world’s other authoritarian-socialist states and Iran-aligned powers, were mostly “united in hypocrisy” as they “offered no alternative to domination by imperialism; they are a condition of this domination” (Dabashi 2012, p. 111, 204). But the fact remained that these two regimes, sitting astride vast natural resources and in command of key ports, rivers, and borders, were still significant obstacles that had long frustrated the ambitions of Western governments and their constituent corporations to gain greater access.

With the Western publics still mindful of the disastrous Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns and with the stakes too high for Washington, London, or Tel Aviv to get caught directly supporting opposition movements in Libya and especially Syria (which was not only allied to Iran but had also long been home to a Russian naval facility), the solution appears to have been to use Arab proxy powers. In this sense, the same pro-Western states in the region that had survived the Arab uprisings and were already sponsoring counterrevolutionary activity in Egypt and Tunisia soon took on the concurrent role of funding and weaponizing a more violent and Western-sponsored version of the “Arab Spring.” With Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar duly working together but separately against the Syrian and Libyan governments despite their differences elsewhere on the regional chessboard, a sort of “alliance of rivals” had formed where, as per state cartel theory, the benefits of cooperation were clearly deemed to outweigh the costs (Hobson 1902, p. 301). Sometimes referred to as the “Axis of Moderation,” derived from a speech delivered by Tony Blair to the World Affairs Council in 2006 in which he called for an “alliance of moderation” in the Middle East to counter the “arc of extremism,” and clearly modelled on Condoleezza Rice’s 2007 definition of “centers of moderation” that could fight those “on the other side of that divide … that have made their choice to destabilize,” these three proxies, along with Kuwait, Jordan, and others, were ready to take on the “Axis of Resistance” (BBC 2006; New Yorker 2007).

The War for Syria

Although as 2011 progressed and Bashar al-Assad soon outlasted Muammar Gaddafi, his long-term survival prospects seemed little better. Despite much fragmentation and a growing jihadist menace, what Syrian blogger Shadia Safwan describes as a “domestic nucleus of opposition” was nonetheless forming (Safwan 2012, p. 121). Even if most of the Syrian population remained loyal to the government, as also initially seemed to be the case in Libya, it became increasingly apparent that such a nucleus was to serve as the conduit for external support and perhaps even a full-scale intervention. Certainly, with a number of so-called “moderate” opposition groups coalescing into a “Free Syrian Army,” their new shadow government – known as the Syrian National Council – seemed well placed to assume the same sort of pro-Western role as the Libyan National Transitional Council had eventually done. Sensing victory, even the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s several fighting brigades – by then known as the Commission of the Shields of the Revolution – had quickly subordinated themselves to the bigger Western-backed FSA despite many of their preachers continuing to call the USA the “world’s leader in terrorism” (Lefevre 2015, pp. 56–57).

With al-Assad’s family and many of his key military and security commanders being Alawite, a minority Shia sect which accounted for about 12% of the Syrian population in 2011, it seemed that the quickest way for the Western powers and their regional allies to boost the prospects of both the FSA and the Brotherhood was by adding a stronger sectarian edge to the conflict. In this sense, regardless of the nonsectarian slogans of the original protests in Daraa, Hama, Homs, and elsewhere, it was reasoned that if the regime could be portrayed as a cadre of Shia overlords, then it could more easily be overwhelmed by a full-scale nationwide revolution led by a Syrian Sunni majority. Leading the charge were prominent preachers in the Gulf monarchies, some of whom had online followings in their millions. Kuwait’s Nabil al-Audi, Saudi Arabia’s Mohamad al-Arefe, and the Saudi-based Syrian cleric Adnan al-Aroor all jumped on the bandwagon by repeatedly describing the Syrian uprising as a jihad against the “polytheist” Alawite regime and, more broadly, as part of an international Sunni struggle against Shia oppression (European Parliament 2013, p. 14; Brownlee et al. 2015, p. 91). Although most US officials were naturally too cautious to offer their opinions, a number of key opinion-makers nonetheless seemed firmly on board. As one of the most influential supporters of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Stanford University’s Fouad Ajami perhaps unsurprisingly chose to rationalize the Syrian conflict as a “revolt that fused a sense of economic disinheritance and the wrath of a Sunni majority determined to rid itself of the rule of a godless lot” (Ajami 2012). Similarly, as early as August 2011, the University of Vermont’s Gregory Gause had already described “the sectarian element of the Syrian confrontation, with an ostensibly secular and Alawite Shia-dominated regime brutally suppressing the Sunni Muslim majority” (Gause 2011).

Although European government briefings noted how such efforts to sectarianize the conflict were fuelling the image of a “regional Shia conspiracy,” the problematic reality in Syria was quite a bit different, helping us understand why the Sunni masses did not immediately shift their allegiances away from the regime to the rebels. As one rebel fighter wistfully told the New York Times: “Before the revolution, we never had this feeling toward any sect” (European Parliament 2013, p. 14; New York Times 2016). In Ziauddin Sardar’s words, for all its faults, the al-Assad regime was “a bit more inclusive, sharing power between Sunni, Christian, Druze, and Alawite elites.” As he has since reflected, this is “perhaps why [Bashar] still has support from members of all communities” (Sardar 2012, p. 7). As others have pointed out, not only is Bashar’s wife’s family Sunni but so too have been many high-ranking officials in the Syrian government including Walid Muallem who, as foreign minister, is arguably the second most public face of the regime (USA Today 2013; Weiss and Hassan 2015, p. 91). Leading Sunni clerics also remained loyal to the regime, although as Edinburgh University’s Thomas Pierret has astutely demonstrated, this was mostly a result of the government having earlier co-opted much of the religious establishment into the political fold (Pierret 2013; European Parliament 2013, p. 11).

Likely hoping US or NATO air strikes could be avoided, not least given Syria’s complicating alliances with Iran and Russia, the Western governments sought at first to keep their support for the opposition as discreet and as limited as possible. While some have accused the Western embassies of having stirred up the original uprisings, there is little hard evidence to support this view, although there is no doubt they had made early expressions of solidarity. In July 2011, for example, the US and French ambassadors had visited the opposition stronghold in Hama which led to a strong condemnation from the Syrian government. According to the interior minister, “Ambassador Ford’s visit to the restive central city of Hama was proof that Washington was inciting unrest.” He also claimed that “Mr Ford met with saboteurs and incited them to violence, protest, and rejection of dialogue.” Defending the episode, US officials have explained that Ford and his French counterpart, Eric Chevallier, had indeed travelled to Hama to meet with demonstrators but had left shortly before the protests began. They claimed that when the two men entered the city “their car was immediately surrounded by friendly protesters who were putting flowers on the windshields, they were putting olive branches on the car, they were chanting down with the regime” (BBC 2011).

But by 2012, with the Syrian uprising still not having evolved into a fully national revolution or even a sectarian civil war, there was a growing realization that much more direct support was required. At the very least, the opposition needed to get more weapons and funding so they could keep fighting, and ideally they needed sufficiently sophisticated battlefield equipment so that they could enjoy a qualitative advantage over the much larger Syrian government forces. According to Seymour Hersh, a CIA- and MI6-sponsored “ratline” for weapons duly began, with arms that had originally been sent to Libyan rebels, mostly supplied by Qatar and the UAE, then being re-exported to the Syrian conflict. As he explains, Australian front companies earlier set up in post-Gaddafi Libya took care of the logistics, while the CIA’s inclusion of MI6 as its partner was designed to enable the agency to classify the operation as a “liaison activity” and thus allowed it to circumvent the layers of congressional oversight that had been installed in the wake of the Nicaragua campaign (London Review of Books 2014). As later reports in the Washington Post and IHS Janes indicate, by 2013 this had evolved into a more comprehensive CIA operation, while in parallel the White House announced a more public $500 million program to train and equip “the right militants” and the “moderate rebels,” a process which apparently involved some sort of screening for extremist views and then the transfer of heavy weapons including US-manufactured anti-tank missiles (Washington Post 2014; Huffington Post 2014; IHS Janes 2014).

The Proxy War Unfolds

In an almost carbon copy of the leading role they had undertaken in Libya, the Gulf monarchies were strongly encouraged to enmesh themselves in the politics and financing of the Syrian opposition. As far as these and other nearby Western proxies were concerned, there seemed little downside to having Bashar al-Assad ousted. Moreover, having witnessed the speed and success of NATO’s intervention in Libya, it is likely that even if no promises had been made by Washington, the Gulf rulers nevertheless expected a similar intervention, at least in the form of a no-fly zone. In this scenario, they could be confident that the conflict would be wrapped up within a few months, thus giving Iran and Syria’s other allies such as Hezbollah as little opportunity as possible to mount a counter-attack.

As they had in Libya with the National Transitional Council, the Gulf monarchies began by using the Arab League as a vehicle to endorse the Syrian National Council and expel the Syrian government. Under Qatari chairmanship the organization had already agreed to do this in November 2011, albeit with Lebanon and Yemen voting no, Iraq abstaining, and Algeria raising serious objections on the basis it would complicate future peaceful solutions. In parallel, the Arab League was also used to lobby the UN Security Council to do the same, but with only limited results given the vetoes of both Russia and China. More successful were Saudi Arabia’s efforts to use its UN Human Rights Council membership, which the British government had helped it to secure, to call for “concrete, immediate, and comprehensive reforms” to address the “deplorable situation of human rights” in Syria (Atwan 2015, p. 96; Mann 2012; Ulrichsen 2014, p. 135; Independent 2015b).

Writing soon after the Arab League decision, Columbia University’s Joseph Massad made it clear that the “League and imperial powers have taken over the Syrian uprising in order to remove the Al-Assad regime” (Al-Jazeera 2011). Taking a similar position, so it seemed, was the UN and Arab League’s joint peace envoy who chose to drop his Arab League affiliation on the basis that it was “backing the opposition at all costs” and preventing key powers such as Iran from participating in negotiations. Nonetheless, by the beginning of 2013, the Arab League had begun inviting the head of the SNC to sit as Syria’s representative under the Syrian flag in its meetings, while it succeeded in freezing Syria’s assets in most of its member states and blocking further Arab investment in Syria (Atwan 2015, pp. 96–97; Ulrichsen 2014, p. 134). Co-founded by a grandson of the previously described former military dictator who had been backed by the CIA and MI6 in their attempt to overthrow the Syrian government in 1957, the SNC was by this stage running a de facto shadow government from bases in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey (Times of Israel 2013).

On a state-to-state level, the Doha regime certainly began to assume one of the biggest roles, much as it had in Libya. Suspending all diplomatic relations and trade agreements with Damascus and thus abruptly reversing the once burgeoning relationship between the al-Thani and al-Assad dynasties, Qatar and Al-Jazeera soon sought to portray the Syrian uprising as yet another instance of the Arab Spring, just as it had done with the Benghazi protests. Described by al-Assad loyalists as broadcasting “exaggerated and dishonest coverage,” Al-Jazeera’s intensive coverage of Syria was, as Marc Lynch notes, seen by many as an “energetic media campaign organized outside Syria … largely divorced from realities on the ground” (Lynch 2012, p. 181).

More importantly there is compelling evidence that the US CENTCOM-hosting Qatar also became the principal NATO link to the conflict, being best placed to provide substantial levels of funds and weapons to the Syrian rebels far beyond the cautious and modest assistance provided by the CIA and MI6. As with its similar job in Libya, however, this was initially obscured by attempts to frame Qatar’s intervention as an opportunity for Doha to take a stand against “tyrannical rule.” Sultan Barakat of the Brookings Doha Center, for example, described it as something of a natural shift to a more interventionist foreign policy due to the opportunities of the Arab Spring, while the Economist explained Qatar’s actions as part of its “pursuing an aggressively non-aligned foreign policy” (Barakat 2012, p. 36; Economist 2013). Others have even tried to present Qatar’s intervention as part of “stepping up to play a role” in the context of Mubarak’s demise and “[the] US having lost in a way its central diplomatic partner in the [Arab] world” (NPR 2013).

Much closer to the truth, however, was the investigative reporter Elizabeth Dickinson who wrote in an extensive Foreign Policy essay in 2014 that “[Qatar] had such freedom to run its network for the last three years because Washington was looking the other way.” Putting it more precisely, she also stated that “in fact, in 2011, the US gave Doha de facto free rein to do what it wasn’t willing to do in the Middle East: intervene” (Dickinson 2014). In an article for the BBC, King’s College London’s David Roberts, who had previously been based in Doha, similarly concluded that “there is no chance that Qatar is doing this alone: the US and Britain governments will certainly be involved in or at least apprised of Qatar’s plans” (BBC 2015).

Getting money to the rebels was relatively straightforward, with Qatar having set up a number of funding channels for the Syrian National Council and in some cases directly to the Free Syrian Army. In early 2012, for example, it was reported that the Qatar-backed Libyan National Transitional Council had recycled $100 million to “anti-al-Assad officials” in Syria, ostensibly as Libyan humanitarian aid for Syria. With further donations made, some directly from Qatar, the SNC promised that they would reduce any confusion by serving as the “link between those who want to help and the revolutionaries.” Qatar’s prime minister gave his public blessing to such assistance on the grounds that the Syrians are “right to defend themselves … I think we should help these people by all means” (Guardian 2012). In late 2012 he further justified his country’s support on the basis that Syria was no longer just in a state of civil war but that the government had begun to carry out genocide (Agence France-Presse 2012).

Naturally, as was the case with its Libya strategy, Qatar was not only backing the formal opposition but was also making sure funds reached the more extremist groups, including even Al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra franchise. As brazen as Qatari officials had been about contravening the UN resolution on Libya, by admitting the deployment of their special forces on the ground, so too were they quite open about the sort of groups they were willing to finance in Syria. Speaking at a conference in late 2012, Qatar’s deputy foreign minister explained to the audience that “I am very much against excluding anyone at this stage, or bracketing them as terrorists, or bracketing them as Al-Qaeda given Qatar’s perceived necessity of removing al-Assad at all costs” (Dickinson 2014). Indeed, in a 2012 interview with a German correspondent, one Al-Nusra member stated bluntly that his organization’s evocative name was “a great name … we get money from the Gulf with it” (Weiss and Hassan 2015, p. 100).

Designated a terror fundraiser by the US Department of the Treasury, an Iraqi cleric had already appeared on Al-Jazeera praying at the opening ceremony of Qatar’s state mosque and standing only a few feet away from the Qatari crown prince (New York Times 2014). Similarly, Qatar’s ministry for Islamic affairs was understood to have invited a Kuwaiti cleric known for his running of a Syrian opposition support network. Allowed to preach in a Qatari mosque, he argued that mere humanitarian assistance to Syria was insufficient and declared that “the priority is the support for the jihadists and arming them” or, as the New York Times reported him saying, “give your money to the ones who will spend it on jihad, not aid” (New York Times 2014; Dickinson 2014). After he had returned to Kuwait, collections were raised on his behalf by an individual whose Twitter biography described himself as “loving Sunni jihadists who hate Shia and infidels” and whose Twitter timeline was “flush with praise for Osama bin Laden.” When particularly big donations were received, they tweeted them, including pictures of expensive Qatar-bought jewelry. One Al-Qaeda-linked brigade even released a video in which the Kuwaiti cleric personally appeared to thank “the kind people of Qatar, O people of the Gulf, your money has arrived” (Dickinson 2014).

Some Syrian rebels were also reported to have “[deliberately] grown the long, scraggly beards favoured by hardline salafist Muslims after hearing that Qatar was more inclined to give weapons to Islamists,” while others were understood to be using the money to “buy weapons in large quantities and then burying them in caches, to be used after the collapse of the al-Assad government” (New York Times 2012a). The New York Times also claimed that members of the Qatari funding and tweeting circle had appeared on Al-Jazeera and had received favorable coverage, while perhaps even more remarkably, others reported that Al-Nusra’s leaders had begun to visit Doha in person and, according to both US officials and those of other Arab governments, had held meetings with senior Qatari officials and key financiers (New York Times 2014; Wall Street Journal 2015b; Independent 2015a).

As far as the USA was concerned, there only seemed to be one limit on what Qatar could help supply. Likely fearful of civilian aircraft being brought down, a request was reportedly made that no heat-seeking shoulder-mounted antiaircraft missiles be delivered to Syrian rebels. But by 2013 even this seemed to have been ignored, with US intelligence officials claiming to have knowledge of “Qatar’s shadowy arms network,” stating to the New York Times that at least two batches of such missiles had been sent to Syria since the beginning of the year, one being Chinese-manufactured and the other Eastern European and previously part of Libya’s arsenal. A few months later, some of the videos produced by rebel units, including known extremist groups, rather embarrassingly featured such missiles – none of which were known to have been part of the Syrian government’s inventory nor to have appeared in the Syrian conflict before (New York Times 2013c).

According to data supplied by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, over the course of late 2012 and the first half of 2013, approximately 160 military cargo flights arrived in Turkey and Jordan laden with a total of 3,500 t of weapons and equipment destined for Syria. As the SIPRI has stated, by far the largest number of flights, 85, originated from Qatar (New York Times 2013a). Helping explain this, US officials later confirmed that the CIA had been involved in a “consultative role” and that Qatar’s activeness in the “global gray market for arms” had been greatly enhanced by its acquisition of C-17 military transport planes from Boeing. These aircraft, described as “capable of intercontinental flight and landing on short, poorly equipped runways,” were understood to be being used for both military and humanitarian missions and had been delivered to Qatar in 2009, making it the only Middle Eastern state at the time in possession of durable long-range aircraft (New York Times 2013b, c; Agence France-Presse 2008).

Going through the motions, as they had done with Qatar’s well-known equipping of Libyan militias, a batch of US officials had tried to place some distance between the two countries, stating that the “US had growing concerns that, just as in Libya, the Qataris are equipping some of the wrong militants” (New York Times 2012b). Other officials told the media that “the [Syrian] opposition groups that are receiving most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it” and claimed that the weaponizing of the Syrian opposition was an operation that was “going awry.” Complaining to the New York Times, they explained that “hardline Islamists have received the lion’s share of the arms shipped to the Syrian opposition through the shadowy pipeline with roots in Qatar, and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia” (New York Times 2012a). More realistically, however, a few months later, a White House official explained that “Syria is [Qatar’s] backyard, and they have their own interests they are pursuing” (New York Times 2013c).

Less is known about the extent of arms flowing into Syria from the other Gulf monarchies during this period; however, the SIPRI’s data from late 2012 and early 2013 indicates that 37 of the incoming military cargo flights originated from various parts of Saudi Arabia (New York Times 2013a). Jordanian officials also claimed to have seized several shipments of arms destined for Syria that had come from Riyadh, indicating a land route had also been established of which they did not entirely approve (Atwan 2015, p. 102). Raising funds for such equipment seemed to be no problem, with reports circulating of numerous Saudi clerics soliciting donations. In one case, a Syria-based Saudi preacher who was known to be close to Al-Qaeda was discovered to be running a campaign called “Wage jihad with your money.” As part of this, donors could earn “silver status” by giving $175 for sniper bullets or “gold status” for giving $350 to help purchase mortar rounds (New York Times 2013d). In another case a Saudi citizen known as Sanafi al-Nasr was reportedly killed in northwestern Syria after having served as an Al-Qaeda recruiter and having “moved funds from the Gulf into Iraq and then to Al-Qaeda leaders in Syria” (Reuters 2015b).

According to a Wall Street Journal investigation, the bulk of Syria-destined Saudi weapons seemed to have been procured from third-party countries. Their correspondents explained that, in line with the CIA’s long-held preference for false flag signaling, “in September and October [2012], the Saudis approached Croatia to procure more Soviet-era weapons. The Saudis got started distributing these in December and soon saw momentum shift toward the rebels in some areas.” Again, as with attempts to establish some distance from Qatar so as to insulate themselves from any possible fallout from such risky moves, US officials were cited as cautioning that “this has the potential to go badly wrong … [because of] the risk that weapons will end up in the hands of violent anti-Western Islamists.” It was also claimed that “not everyone in the Obama administration is comfortable with the new US partnership with the Saudis on Syria,” with some officials apparently balking at the role being played by Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud. Notably, there was a “fear [Syria] carries the same risk of spinning out of control as an earlier project in which [Saudi Arabia] was involved – the 1980s CIA programme of secretly financing the contras in Nicaragua against a leftist government” (Wall Street Journal 2013).

On top of its clerics visiting Qatar, there are also strong indications that Kuwait itself was serving as a logistical and financing hub for Syrian opposition groups, including extremist organizations. Described in one particularly detailed report as the rebels’ “back office” and as one of the main “back channels” for private weapons transfers (Ulrichsen 2014, pp. 138–139; National 2013), the emirate’s reputation was not helped when a Kuwaiti preacher openly bragged on a Saudi-owned television station in 2013 of having personally bought up weapons from the “Western-backed councils” in Syria. As he put it, “when the military councils sell the weapons they receive, guess who buys them? It’s me.” Later identified by US officials as a leading supporter of Al-Nusra, he also usefully confirmed on television that “all the Gulf intelligence agencies are competing in Syria and everyone is trying to get the lion’s share of the Syrian revolution” (New York Times 2014).

Much of the Kuwaiti funding for such individuals and their networks seems to have come from a mix of informal mosque collections and those held in family-owned diwan meeting houses. In 2013, for example, the New York Times described how one such Kuwaiti effort raised enough to pay 12,000 rebel fighters $2,500 each. When interviewed about this, one former Kuwaiti soldier reasoned that “now we want to get Bashar out of Syria, so why not cooperate with Al-Qaeda?” (New York Times 2013d). According to Elizabeth Dickinson, social media also played a prominent role in “touting their cause.” As she explains, in this way “a deep Rolodex of Kuwaiti business contacts, clerics, and other prominent Kuwaiti Sunnis raised hundreds of millions of dollars for their clients” (Dickinson 2014). As a briefing prepared for the European Parliament alleged, one such preacher was able to raise so much money in this manner that an entire Syrian brigade named itself after him – the Katibat al-Sheikh Hajaj al-Ajami (European Parliament 2013, p. 14).

With al-Assad still very much in place by the end of 2013, the Western powers and their regional proxies effectively revamped their strategy of strengthening the rebels on the ground. With Damascus’ Iranian allies now clearly playing a pivotal role on the battlefield and with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah having already declared of Syria that “This battle is ours … and I promise you victory” (BBC 2013), the US’ fallback option seemed to be a massive and urgent increase in its backing for those opposition groups it still felt were publicly supportable, alongside turning an even blinder eye to the type of Syrian rebels that the Gulf monarchies were continuing to support.

Greatly reinvigorated and expanded, the USA’s program of supplying the “right militants” spawned a string of statements over the course of 2014 promising further weapons. In February 2015 the USA announced that teams of such rebels would be brought across to Jordan and Turkey for training and would then be supplied with Toyota Hi-Lux trucks. The Toyotas were to be “outfitted with a machine gun, communications gear and global positioning system trackers enabling them to call in airstrikes… along with mortars” (Wall Street Journal 2015a). In October 2015, just days after Russia began to conduct air strikes on behalf of the Syrian government, US officials informed the media that they had begun to make “air drops of small arms ammunition” to unspecified Syrian rebels in northern Syria. They explained this was part of their “revamped strategy” (Reuters 2015a; Al-Jazeera 2015a).

As well as the US-supported units often turning on each other, including the worryingly named “Knights of Righteousness” eventually fighting the “Syrian Democratic Forces,” a more serious problem for the USA’s renewed efforts was that most of the fighters the CIA had chosen to back had already suffered numerous defeats, with many having had their weapons seized by Al-Nusra or other such groups (Washington Post 2014; IHS Janes 2014; Los Angeles Times 2016). According to one Arab intelligence officer, “[extremist organizations] say they are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-al-Assad groups of any kind, because they can always get the arms off them by threats of force or cash payments” (Cockburn 2015, p. 3). Similarly, as per the USA’s own intelligence assessments from late 2014, funding from the USA and its allies that was flowing to anti-regime rebels was still “consistently ending up in the hands of the most virulent extremists” (Middle East Eye 2015). As a former Defense Intelligence Agency official described, once US-backed fighters crossed back over the border into Syria, “you lose a substantial amount of control or ability to control their actions” (Los Angeles Times 2016).

An even bigger issue for the USA, however, was whether its favored “moderates” were ever really moderate to begin with. Department of Defense officials had reportedly been aware for some time that the “vast majority of moderate Free Syrian Army rebels were in fact, Islamist militants” (Middle East Eye 2015). Also critical of the FSA’s credentials was Britain’s former ambassador to Syria, who stated bluntly in television interviews that the “so-called FSA is just a footnote … let’s be clear here, we’re talking about jihadists, most of the opposition groups are jihadists” (Sky News 2015). Similarly, as a former director of French intelligence warned, either the intelligence services had been “given bad information or it was [the government’s] policies that, despite the information, wanted to go in a direction that was not the reality.” In particular he worried that “we will be manipulated into helping people, supposedly rebellious, whereas in reality they have been pushed by Al-Qaeda…” (Paris Match 2016). Pointing out that well-known FSA commanders had already publicly defected to the Islamic State or “other, more militarily successful extremist groups,” Abdel Bari Atwan was equally suspicious (Atwan 2015, p. 104; Al-Jazeera 2013b). Published in summer 2013, a report prepared for the European Parliament stated that Al-Nusra’s fighters had “operated many times alongside FSA formations on the battlefield earning public praise from prominent rebel leaders.” It also described how “many salafists are believed to fight within FSA units but these rebel formations portray the uprising as a national struggle against an oppressive dictatorship rather than as a Sunni jihad against an Alawite regime” (European Parliament 2013, pp. 16–17). An International Crisis Group report from 2012 made much the same suggestion, arguing that “mainstream rebel groups eager for more effective weapons and tactics likely find that benefits of such collaboration [with extremist groups] outweigh any long-term political and ideological concerns” (International Crisis Group 2012).

Others also questioned the FSA’s ability to police criminality within its own ranks. Writing for Middle East Policy, counter-terrorism specialist Ahmad Hashim noted how the “undisciplined and brutal behaviour of the FSA” stood in contrast to the much more disciplined Al-Nusra, which often set up efficient food and medicine distribution systems in areas under its control (Hashim 2014, p. 7). Similarly a British journalist familiar with the region accused the FSA of engaging in looting and banditry (Cockburn 2015, p. 85), while Arabic media correspondents reported that former peasants had been enriching themselves through the FSA, allowing them to buy “huge new homes and expensive cars” (Atwan 2015, p. 105). Giving more detail, an extensive Daily Telegraph report featured interviewees in Syria describing how FSA commanders had been focused on profiteering, gun-running, and the extracting of tolls from road checkpoints. One interviewee even described how the FSA was taking bribes from the Syrian regime to allow government forces to get supplies to besieged units. The report concluded that in northern Syria at least the FSA “has now become a largely criminal enterprise” (Daily Telegraph 2013). Disturbingly, in 2015 NBC News even had to revise its official account of the brief 2012 kidnapping of its chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel (NBC 2015). Having originally stated that Engel was captured by the pro-regime and predominantly Alawite Shabiha or “Ghosts” militia before then being rescued by “Sunni rebels,” NBC News’ position dramatically changed following an investigation by the New York Times. Having interviewed NBC News employees and Syrian activists, it was suggested that “Mr Engel’s team was almost certainly taken by a Sunni criminal element affiliated with the FSA, the loose alliance of rebels opposed to Mr Assad.” The New York Times’ correspondents concluded that Engel was likely misled by his captors in order to discredit the Syrian government (New York Times 2015).

To make matters worse, there was considerable evidence that known extremist groups in Syria were actively trying to sanitize their images and present themselves alongside the FSA as suitable candidates for US support. In journalist Patrick Cockburn’s assessment of such groups, and especially those close to Damascus, those that had earlier given themselves “Islamic-sounding names to attract Saudi and Gulf financing” had by this stage “opportunistically switched to more secular-sounding titles in a bid to attract US support” (Cockburn 2015, p. 26). According to a European Parliament report, one such organization based close to the Lebanese border had changed its name to the “Rafic Hariri Brigade” in reference to the pro-Western former Lebanese prime minister (European Parliament 2013, p. 13). Moreover, the Yarmouk Brigade and other such groups, which ended up becoming part of the US- and Saudi-sponsored “Southern Front” based out of Jordan and eligible to receive advanced weaponry such as antiaircraft missiles, had frequently been spotted fighting alongside Al-Nusra (Cockburn 2015, p. 53). In 2013 the Yarmouk Brigade was also understood to have repeatedly detained UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, and in late 2014 a Lebanese newspaper accused it of having already secretly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (Atwan 2015, p. 109; Al-Jazeera 2013a; As-Safir 2014).

The “Syrian Islamic Liberation Front” seems to have tried to follow the same sort of path, having recognized the FSA and fought with it but then disbanding within a year after many of its ultra-conservative members had joined Al-Nusra or the Islamic State (Atwan 2015, p. 107). Moreover, in a widely read January 2014 Foreign Affairs article a group called Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya or “The Islamic movement of the free men of the Levant” was openly described as “an Al-Qaeda-linked group worth befriending,” with the three US thinktank authors trying to place it temporarily within the US-friendly camp. But although it had cooperated with the FSA in military actions, others have noted how many of its fighters later moved over to the Islamic State and that it was still very much an Al-Qaeda-style organization, having been co-founded by Abu Khalid al-Suri. Indeed, US federal prosecutors have since described it as “frequently fighting alongside Jabhat Al-Nusra” and as having the goal of “installing an Islamic state in Syria.” Nonetheless, as recently as July 2015, Ahrar al-Sham’s spokesman wrote on the Washington Post’s website that it still favored “a moderate future for Syria that preserves the state and institutes reforms that benefit all Syrians,” while a few months later Qatar’s foreign minister claimed in an Al-Jazeera interview that it was not an extremist organization but rather “a Syrian group [looking] for their liberation, and they are working with other moderate groups” (Doran et al. 2014; Atwan 2015, p. 107; Washington Post 2015; Al-Jazeera 2015b; Daily Telegraph 2016).

The most remarkable attempt at a volte-face has, however, been the Saudi-backed Jaysh al-Islam or “Army of Islam” – an umbrella for dozens of rebel groups created in late 2013 (Guardian 2013). Giving an interview on its behalf in May 2015, former Liwa al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush tried to backtrack completely on his earlier sectarian and anti-democratic statements. As the University of Oklahoma’s Joshua Landis observes, this was evidence of Alloush’s increasing savviness as “every major player wants to be acceptable to the West and to the international community” (McClatchy 2015). Not all, however, were convinced, as a few months later the Jordan government reaffirmed its designation of the group as a terrorist organization, while Al-Hayat newspaper reported that Jaysh al-Islam’s fighters in Ghouta were putting Alawite civilians in iron cages and using them as “human shields” (Al-Monitor 2015; Al-Hayat 2015). Since then Russia has attempted to add Jaysh al-Islam along with Ahrar al-Sham to the UN terror sanctions blacklist, but its efforts have been blocked by the USA, Britain, France, and the Ukraine, with a US spokesman stating that “now is not the time to shift course, but rather double-down on our efforts towards a reduction in violence” and with an anonymous diplomat stating that such a designation would “provide a pretext for yet more moderate groups to come under target” (Agence France-Presse 2016).

More information is slowly coming to light about Britain’s support for such Syrian rebels, as it seems to have followed the same trajectory as the USA, with the definition of “moderate” being stretched extremely widely. Following an investigation by the Guardian, it transpired that since 2013 the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense had been hiring contractors to “produce videos, photos, military reports, radio broadcasts, print products, and social media posts branded with the logos of fighting groups.” According to the investigators, which had seen government contracting documents, Britain was “effectively running a press office for opposition fighters” and that the materials it circulated online were “posted with no indication of British government involvement.” The campaign appears to have been funded by the “Conflict and Stability Fund” and to have been based out of Istanbul under the guise of delivering “strategic communications and media operations support to the Syrian moderate armed opposition.” Worryingly, the contracts seen by the Guardian included references to Jaysh al-Islam and a group called Harakat Hazm or “Steadfast Movement” which had collapsed in March 2015 with most of its weapons being seized by Jabhat al-Nusra (Guardian 2016; Al-Akhbar 2014).

Further light has been cast on British involvement by the circumstances surrounding the collapse of the London trial of a Swedish citizen accused of attending terrorist training camps, receiving weapons, and working with “a group considered to be Al-Qaeda in Syria.” With the evidence supplied to the court having reportedly made clear that “Britain’s security and intelligence agencies would have been deeply embarrassed if the trial had gone ahead,” the suspect’s lawyer had stated: “If it is the case that [the British] government was actively involved in supporting armed resistance to the al-Assad regime at a time when the defendant was present in Syria and himself participating in such resistance, it would be unconscionable to allow the prosecution to continue.” Another lawyer involved in the case agreed, arguing: “Given that there is a reasonable basis for believing that the British were themselves involved in the supply of arms, if that’s so, it would be an utter hypocrisy to prosecute someone who has been involved in the armed resistance” (Guardian 2015).

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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.European Centre for International AffairsBrusselsBelgium