06.01.2015
  • Syria
  • Iraq

How the US Helped ISIS

A recently declassified document again shows the United States' complicity in the rise of ISIS.

An ISIS member waves a flag in Raqqa, Syria last June. Reuters

In October 2014, Vice President Joe Biden publicly criticized US allies for backing ISIS. The previous month, General Dempsey had told the Senate Armed Services Committee that America’s “Arab allies” were funding the group.

US officials were trying to distance themselves from the ISIS-supporting actions of their allies without harshly condemning them. Biden suggested that their arming of ISIS was unintentional and quickly apologized to them. (Responding to Dempsey, Senator Lindsey Graham actually defended them: “They were trying to beat Assad. I believe they realize the folly of their ways.”)

This mild criticism of allies came amid the effort of American officials to sell the decision to start bombing ISIS. By this time, the group was already entrenched in eastern Syria and western Iraq. But there’s no evidence that in the months and years prior, the Obama administration had made any attempt to prevent its client states from helping ISIS become a regional power.

The United States itself continued to send arms into Syria despite the certainty that some would end up in the hands of ISIS. “We have good relations with our brothers in the FSA,” said ISIS leader Abu Atheer in 2013, referring to the US-backed Free Syrian Army. He said ISIS bought anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank weapons from the FSA.

A recently declassified US military intelligence document is further evidence of US complicity. Formerly classified as “secret,” an August 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report was among a batch of documents obtained by the conservative group Judicial Watch.

The mainstream press and Republican politicians have focused on other documents in the collection: those related to the 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Largely overlooked is this document, which contradicts the official narrative not just about the rise of ISIS but also the makeup of the opposition in Syria and its relationship with foreign backers.

“The August 5, 2012 DIA report confirms much of what Assad has been saying all along about his opponents both inside and outside Syria,” says “terrorism analyst” Max Abrams.

The report concerns a period in time when the escalating violence in Iraq had ceased to be a prominent topic in the US press and when its coverage of the war in Syria — mirroring the discussion in Washington — focused on the Assad government, not the forces aligned against it. This may be hard to imagine now that ISIS has become the US government’s favorite monster, but during these months President Obama and his team gave major speeches on Syria that didn’t even mention the group.

Even after ISIS took Fallujah in January 2014, discussion of the group in establishment outlets was scarce. It wasn’t until later in 2014 — after continued battlefield victories and heavily publicized beheadings of westerners — that Islamic State became Public Enemy Number 1.

American officials claimed the ascendancy of ISIS had caught American intelligence by surprise. Yet in the 2012 report — which was circulated widely through the US government — the DIA foresaw the creation of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria. It also said that Islamic State of Iraq could “return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi” and declare an “Islamic state” in western Iraq and eastern Syria.

More than that, the report says the creation of an Islamic state was precisely the goal of the foreign governments that support the opposition:

If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor) and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).

The document previously identifies, in a slightly different context, “supporting powers” as “Western countries, the Gulf States, and Turkey.” Even if one interprets the document to exclude the United States from the “supporting powers” — indeed, why would its intelligence agency tell the US government what its policy was? — it reveals that at least as early as 2012, the United States knew that its client states sought the creation of an “Islamic state.” Two years would pass before the United States offered its peep of performance protest.

More broadly, the United States participated in a war against the Syrian government that turned Islamic State of Iraq into a regional power encompassing — and devastating — large parts of two countries. Such an outcome was predictable — and indeed predicted by the US government itself.

While American politicians and pundits have blamed the ascendance of ISIS on former Iraqi president Nouri al-Maliki and Assad — or on the removal of American troops from Iraq — the DIA report reminds us that the key event in the rise of ISIS was the corresponding rise of the insurgency in Syria. Brad Hoff of the Levant Report, the first journalist to analyze the DIA report, says it shows that “A nascent Islamic State became a reality only with the rise of the Syrian insurgency . . . there is no mention of U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq as a catalyst.”

Maliki warned that the war in Syria could engulf Iraq, yet the United States and its allies kept supporting the insurgency. The American bombing of ISIS, relatively light and sporadic, has only intensified the belief of many Iraqis that the United States doesn’t want to defeat the group.

According to the official storyline, the US has sought to weaken ISIS in Syria by supporting “moderate” rebels. (President Obama has faced constant criticism for not arming opposition groups in Syria despite constantly arming opposition groups.)

The decision of the US to train its own force was an acknowledgement that it’d been unable to find moderate groups to support. Former US Ambassador Robert Ford has admitted as much, saying that “for a long time, we have looked the other way” as US-backed groups worked with al-Qaeda’s affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq spinoff al-Nusra Front. Many “moderate” rebels — “entire CIA-backed rebel units” — have joined al-Nusra Front and ISIS. Earlier this year, the main US-backed group, Harakat al-Hazm, couldn’t beat al-Nusra Front — so it joined them.

The 2012 DIA document confirms that reactionaries dominated the opposition from early on. “The Salafist, The Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria,” it says. It also notes that “AQI supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning.”

This is the long-obscured truth that the DIA report underscores: that after the initial stage of the war in Syria, simply to support the war on the Syrian government was to help ISIS.

American complicity in the rise of ISIS would hardly be an anomaly. At various times since World War II—most infamously in Afghanistan in the ’70s and ’80s — the United States has armed, allied with, or otherwise strengthened jihadists (and their precursors) for the purpose of undermining its more immediate and authentic adversaries.

And one need not consult history for an antecedent. Right now, as its effort to build a force from scratch founders, the United States is encouraging its proxies in Syria to work with al-Nusra Front and has green-lighted a new coordinated effort of Gulf countries and Turkey to arm an opposition coalition that includes al-Nusra Front and other reactionary groups.

If the United States really wanted to defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda, it would stop empowering them.