Skip to main content

Gen Petraeus’s mad plan to bring Syrian al-Qaeda into US war against ISIS

It’s as if Petraeus had read and learnt nothing about the slew of disasters brought on by US support for proxy militias from Iraq to Afghanistan

America loves its military generals. It elected two of them president - Eisenhower and Grant - and has deified a great many more, in particular MacArthur and Patton.

So much about the US military has taken on the qualities of a cult, and when the military and its leaders fail, which they have done in almost every conflict the US has fought since World War Two, Hollywood can be relied upon to rewrite history and glorify what Americans would have otherwise preferred to forget.

In the modern era, both American military glory and collective national amnesia are wrapped around retired General David Petraeus, who led the US to an “honourable withdrawal” from Iraq.

In an interview with CNN, Petraeus suggested the US should and could peel away jihadists, who had previously fought alongside al-Qaeda and its affiliates, to help the US-led coalition defeat the Islamic State group, also referred to as ISIS and ISIL.

"The question, therefore, is whether it might be possible at some point to peel off so-called 'reconcilables' who would be willing to renounce Nusra [al-Qaeda affiliate] and align with the moderate opposition (supported by the US and the coalition) to fight against Nusra, ISIL, and [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad,” said Petraeus. “Doing so would require both the rise of much stronger, moderate opposition groups - backed, again, by the US and the coalition seeking to defeat ISIL - and at the same time, intensified military pressure on all extremist groups."

This begs the question: has anyone in America read a history book, I mean ever?

Seriously, when has America arming and funding a non-state militia ever not produced unforeseen and costly blowback? (Cue Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity.)

I mean has Petraeus forgotten his own history book – the one he recited to his biographer? You know, the biographer he disclosed classified military secrets to while having an affair.

My point? Petraeus has first-hand experience for what happens when the US arms a militia it can’t control. In 2007, as part of a strategy to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Petraeus armed and funded Sunni militias to stop fighting the US and start fighting AQI. The strategy worked, well, at least temporarily – that is until many of these militias later became ISIS. Now Petraeus wants to hit wash, spin, repeat.

What can go wrong? Well, I’ll tell you.

After the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the US and its Sunni Arab allies sought to counter Iranian influence in both Iraq and Syria via proxy Sunni militias. Why? The US toppling of Saddam had inadvertently put Iraq alongside Syria in Iran’s column.

“The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh in a 2007 op-ed titled “The Redirection".

Armed with American cash and guns, these Sunni extremist groups were meant to fight Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria, and Shiite militias in Iraq. Instead, many of these Sunni Arab militias became ISIS.

"I think the United States is one of the key creators of this organisation," wrote former CIA analyst and Middle East commentator Graham Fuller. "The United States did not plan the formation of ISIS," he adds, "but its destructive interventions in the Middle East and the war in Iraq were the basic causes of the birth of ISIS."

It’s extraordinary that America’s most respected general would want to venture down a road that is well-travelled and littered with failure. In fact, this path is so well-worn that a CIA study of America’s history of funnelling covert aid to non-state actors had produced negligible results.

In a New York Times article titled “CIA study of covert aid fuelled scepticism about helping Syrian rebels,” President Barack Obama is quoted saying he had ordered the CIA to conduct a review of all instances where the US had financed and supplied arms to insurgents. The result? “They couldn’t come up with much,” said Obama.

In other words, the CIA took a dim view of its own track record of supporting militia groups that fought without any direct US military support on the ground.

The New York Times cited three major examples of covert aid - to rebel groups in Angola, Nicaragua and Cuba - all of which not only led to disastrous results for the US but also for the peoples of those respective countries.

Interestingly, the CIA cited the arming and funding of the Afghani mujahedeen in the 1980s against the Soviets to be a quantifiable success story, but that overlooks the fact that some of these same fighters, led by Osama Bin Laden, went on to form the core group of al-Qaeda that attacked the US on 9/11.

More recently, the US armed al-Qaeda affiliate groups to overthrow Gaddafi in Libya, and no one needs to be reminded of the calamitous results from that intervention. Ok, I will remind you. Libya is now not only a failed war-torn state, but US intervention ultimately led to the deaths of four American diplomats in Benghazi.

A seven-month review of the deadly 2012 attack, conducted by former military officers and CIA personnel, concluded the terrorist attack could have been prevented “if the US hadn’t been helping to arm al-Qaeda militias throughout Libya a year earlier”.

 “The United States switched sides in the war on terror with what we did in Libya, knowingly facilitating the provision of weapons to known al-Qaeda militias and figures,” Clare Lopez, a former CIA officer, told MailOnline.

Petraeus’ recommendation is yet another admission that the US military machine is ill-equipped to defeat non-traditional militaries such as ISIS. “This is an acknowledgment that the US stated goal to degrade and destroy ISIS is not working. If it were, we would not be talking to these not quite foreign terrorist groups,” Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Washington, DC-based Institute for the Study of War, told The Daily Beast. “Strategically, it is desperate.”

It’s so desperate that it brings an old Yiddish proverb to mind: you learn nothing the second time you’re kicked by a donkey. But faced with an enemy that doesn’t play by pre-Black Hawk Down rules i.e. that doesn’t fight in the open with long lines of armoured tanks and even longer lines of uniformed infantrymen, the US continues to ignore its own history books.

CJ Werleman is the author of Crucifying America, God Hates You. Hate Him Back, Koran Curious, and is the host of Foreign Object. Follow him on twitter: @cjwerleman

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Image: Former director of CIA and former commander of US forces in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus gives a speech after exiting the federal courthouse after facing criminal sentencing on April 23, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.