Scott talks to William Van Wagenen about his recent Libertarian Institute article exploring the extremist roots of Syria’s civil war. Contrary to the popular narrative, according to which peaceful, secular, democratic protestors were met with violence by the Syrian government, Van Wagenen explains that Muslim Brotherhood activists were really inciting the protests and attacking Syrian security forces from the very beginning. Though the government has undoubtedly killed its own citizens, this was not a case of peaceful demonstrators being met with force, but one of force being met with force. Not to mention, of course, the fact that America’s support for “moderate rebels” has turned out to be, as usual, support for some of the most brutal and radical islamist militants.
Discussed on the show:
- “The Salafist Roots of the Syrian Uprising” (The Libertarian Institute)
- “Coping with Crumbling States: A Western and Israeli Balance of Power Strategy for the Levant by David Wurmser 1996” (The Scott Horton Show)
William Van Wagenen has a BA in German literature From Brigham Young University and an MA in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. You can read more of his writings at the Libertarian Institute. Follow him on Twitter @wvanwagenen.
This episode of the Scott Horton Show is sponsored by: NoDev NoOps NoIT, by Hussein Badakhchani; The War State, by Mike Swanson; WallStreetWindow.com; Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom; ExpandDesigns.com/Scott; Listen and Think Audio; TheBumperSticker.com; and LibertyStickers.com.
The following is an automatically generated transcript.
All right, y’all welcome it’s Scott Horton Show. I am the director of the Libertarian Institute editorial director of antiwar.com, author of the book Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan. And I’ve recorded more than 5000 interviews going back to 2003, all of which are available at ScottHorton.org. You can also sign up to the podcast feed. The full archive is also available at youtube.com/ScottHortonShow. All right, you guys introducing William Van Wagenen. He is regular writer for the libertarian Institute. And he’s got another one on Syria here. The Salafist roots of the Syrian uprising. Welcome back to the show, William How you doing?
William Van Wagenen 0:55
Hey, I’m doing well appreciate appreciate you letting me on. How are you?
Scott Horton 0:59
I’m doing great. Pretty You’re joining us here today and listen to another masterpiece. And you sure don’t what I don’t know, eight or 10 of these for the institute so far, and they’re just great. Especially going back to the early history of the Syrian war there. So here you’re addressing the all important question, I guess, of the origin of the war. The common narrative is that peaceful protesters went outside to protest, and then the government shot them and that radicalize them and the protest movement turned into a war. Is that about right?
William Van Wagenen 1:36
Yeah, so that’s the, the standard narrative. And in that the thing that never gets mentioned, is, you know, what was going on in the Salafist community in Syria at the time, in that mainstream narrative, there were just the peaceful democratic secular protesters and there’s no mention made of the salt This community, what Salafist activists were up to what Muslim Brotherhood activists were up to. And so there’s a, if you just take a closer look, it turns out that Salafist community was really active. And they were, in my view, in the view of some of the scholars that I Syrian scholars that I cited in the paper, it was, it was Salafist activists that were driving the early protests to a large degree. And then also there were Salafist militants, who were, you know, attacking Syrian security forces and police, you know, from the beginning. So they were really launching an insurrection, armed insurrection from the beginning rather than say, there being again, the secular democratic protesters who were then violently suppressed by the government. And then as a response to that, then suddenly people decided to take up arms become militarized, and then suddenly As if out of thin air all became, you know, Salafis and jihadists and started creating all the armed groups that, you know, we see later on and that are acknowledged, but actually all that stuff was going on from from the very beginning.
Scott Horton 3:15
Alright, so now let’s rewind a little bit back, I used to interview Eric Margolis and people like him, real experts on the Middle East back during Iraq War Two. And we would talk about how the neocons crazy plan as David warms or put it in coping with crumbling states is to expedite the chaotic collapse of the Baathist states, Iraq and then in this case, he was referring to Syria so that we could, you know, better determine how things should be in the future after we’re done. Destroying what’s there now, and I distinctly remember talking with Eric Margolis about this and probably would have been oh five or oh six at the latest. Asking him. Well, But so who’s there to replace the Assad regime? If they did get rid of it? And I remember after asking Patrick Coburn and others this back then, and they all had the same answer, which is, there is no organized political force in Baathist controlled Syria, that could possibly replace them other than possibly the Muslim Brotherhood. They were the only people who really had an organization ready to go. And they’re perceived as being al Qaeda light, essentially. Sunni Islamised only in most places, not as violent as the Ballade Knights so then the argument It was like a joke. So you get the Muslim Brotherhood if you’re lucky, but you might end up getting al Qaeda in Iraq. And then of course, just a few years later, that’s exactly what happened. But so if you want go back and talk about the the rise in the power of The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. And then, you know, as my follow up question to that is, what was the role of literal al Qaeda in Iraq at that point? At the start of the war in say the spring of 2011, or At what point did Sark Howie’s group then calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq? before they started going by on those right in Syria, what point did they come across and really start making their presence known?
William Van Wagenen 5:29
Yeah, sure. So, again, that’s something to keep in mind that the Muslim Brotherhood had started an armed insurrection against the Syrian government starting essentially in 1979, that lasted until 1982. That started with this famous massacre at the Alma white army cadets in Aleppo in 1979. And that essentially ended with the battle in Hama in 1982. And ever since that time, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood has been repressed in Syria during that period 1979 82. Again, the Muslim Brotherhood started in armed insurrection. And it was important to know that, for example, one of their chief ideologues named Syed How was writing things at the time citing even Tamia the medieval Salafist scholar who advocated genocide against Allah White’s for being heretics Muslim Brotherhood leaders like cite how in you know 7982 were basically advocating killing Allah whites for their for religious reasons and committing genocide and things like that. So that’s kind of the background and so in 2011 came around you had a lot of these same same To the same movement that was kind of ready to try to restart that war from 79 to 82. They wanted to reignite or restart that war again in 2011. And there were a lot of characters, you know, from the 70s and the 80s that reemerged. One person, for example, is a noted jihadi named Abu Khalid is Suri who fought with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 80s or, and then ended up going to Afghanistan. You know, fighting with al Qaeda, basically, during the 80s there, everyone knows that story. And then when the uprising in 2011, was about to get underway, this same person, I will call it a story, who was very famous. He helped established the earliest armed group in Syria that thought once the uprising started, which is called 100. Shawn, and he received money from Al Qaeda from in Afghanistan and received a lot of support, it looks like from Saudi intelligence and from Salafist networks in Saudi Arabia. And so this is like March, April 2011, is when Sean was getting started. They were attacking Syrian security forces and police. They were getting foreign fighters coming from Saudi Arabia to help them getting weapons from Saudi Qatari intelligence, again with the approval of, of the US of the CIA. So as far as the question goes, but when did al Qaeda become involved in the Syrian war? The usual answer is that the franchise the Syrian franchise of al Qaeda, is job hunting mystery. Or the Minister of front, which was started when the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Baghdadi sent the leader of Misra Jelani to Syria supposedly in like August 2011. And then the Nusra Front didn’t actually announce their existence until January 2012, with some pretty big bombings in Damascus. So everybody kind of assumes that we’ll have the Mr. Front, the official al Qaeda franchise didn’t announce its presence in the war until January 2012, that al Qaeda must not have been part of the uprising or the war until that point. And Previous to that time, all the people fighting against the government must have been the secular democratic revolutionaries. And it wasn’t until you know almost a year in that al Qaeda really got involved in so that the insurgency went from secular and democratic and orientation with Allegedly with the Free Syrian Army. And only over time, did it transform into a jihadist insurgency when al Qaeda, you know, started taking officially announced its involvement in January 2012. But when you look at the the formation of Shazam, again, their own fighters and commanders have acknowledged that they were forming armed groups in March and April and May in 2011. And there are, of course, Syrian soldiers and security forces that were being killed during that period of time. And again, it was a longtime jihadi bahala de Sori, who helped start the group and who was receiving money and funding from Al Qaeda. So that essentially was like the original involvement of al Qaeda was really the armed group are a sham. But that just gets papered over looked over and people imagine that again, Al Qaeda didn’t get involved until January 2012. When job hunting really started making its activities open.
Scott Horton 11:05
Yeah, now I’m sorry, I have this one from November but I’m sure that there was another one from earlier in 2011 by Alistair crook, former EMI six officer turned journalist Greg guy friend of the show. And he was reporting in here that well, Prince Bandar is sending off to hotties to go and fight in the war. And from here, that’s pretty much all you need to know, is we already know from just a couple of years before this that any Saudis fighting in Iraq War Two, we’re fighting on the side of the Sunni based insurgency and probably as part of Zarqawi group against the US there and their Shia allies in that war. And so what more do you need to know at that point, then Never mind that there are some Islam is involved in this thing. But Prince Bandar of Saudi intelligence is helping run The thing and get the whole deal going again, it’s going to look just like the Sunni insurgency in Iraq only on the other side of the border here.
William Van Wagenen 12:07
Right. and former Bush administration official john Hannah, who was a national security adviser to dick cheney fire, remember? Correct. He wrote an article in foreign policy in April 2011. Where he alluded to that, that, you know, there was a chance that Prince Bandar was going to fire up the old Sunni jihadi network and point it in the general direction of Iran. And john Hannah, in the article, he basically argued that, you know, hey, we Bandar is going to do this, and we need to make sure that when this happens, it’s done in a way that aligns with US foreign policy, and that undermines the Syrian government specifically. So even then, you know, there was Is the indication that, again, Saudi intelligence was going to get involved or was already involved that Prince Bandar was at the head of it, and that there would be, you know, a Salafist insurgency. And again, that was already going on, but it just wasn’t acknowledged in, in the press. But john Hannigan in that article basically alluded to that and of course, years later, those admissions were made, you know, john mccain famously said, Thank God for Bandar. And at the time to, you know, the CIA, the Obama administration was asking cutter to cut trees intelligence to send weapons to al Qaeda affiliated fighters in Libya. I know, your listeners probably know this story, of course, about the Libyan Islamic fighting group. So that was all going on at the same time in the spring of of 2011. And, you know, it was going on in both Libya and Syria, but in both places, you know, the press tried to essentially obscure all of that and go with the narrative that there were secular, peaceful protesters. Clearly there were many people like that, that were protesting. But the Salafist were there from the beginning. They were, you know, chanting, chanting these sectarian and even genocidal slogans at times, like ello eyes to the grave Christians to Beirut. So the signs were all there. But again, the the narrative, as you know, just tried to obscure that and just make it seem like the Syrian government was just for no reason cracking down on peaceful protesters, even though actually they were responding to an arm solve this insurgency for for for that entire time, which again, doesn’t mean that the Syrian government did, you know, kill any protesters. Most governments do that. Sadly. I mean, we saw that in Iraq and the recent protests over the last six months, lots of protesters getting killed. So it’s not to say that Syrian Government never killed anybody. But definitely the the narrative that that was promoted was totally was just was was totally distorted.
Scott Horton 15:04
Hold on just one second Be right back. So you’re constantly buying things from amazon.com. Wow, that makes sense. They bring it right to your house. So what you do though, is click through from the link in the right hand margin at Scott Horton. org and I’ll get a little bit of a kickback from Amazon’s into the sale won’t cost you a thing. Nice little way to help support the show. Again, that’s right there in the margin at Scott Horton. org. Hey, I’ll check it out. The libertarian Institute. That’s me and my friends have published three great books this year. First is no quarter, the ravings of William Norman Greg. He was the best one of us. Now he’s gone. But this great collection is a truly fitting legacy for his fight for freedom. I know you’ll love it. And there’s coming to Palestine by the great Sheldon Richmond. It’s a collection of 40 important essays he’s written over the years about the truth behind the Israel Palestine conflict. You’ll learn so much and how highly valued this definitive libertarian take on the dispossession of the Palestinians and the reality of their brutal occupation. And last but not least, is the great Ron Paul. The Scott Horton show interviews 2004 through 2019 interview transcripts of all of my interviews of the good doctor over the years on all the wars, money taxes, the police state and more. So how do you like that? Pretty good, right? Find them all at libertarian institute.org/books. You need stickers for your band your business will Rick and the guys over at the bumpersticker.com have got you covered great work. Greg prices, sticky things with things printed on them. Whatever you need the bumpersticker.com We’ll get it done right for you. The bumper sticker.com Well, and I’m glad you brought up john mccain. he famously crossed the border into Syria to go and meet with the northern storm brigade. And they were already known as being kidnappers of Lebanese Shia, who had Who were pilgrims on a religious trip? And you know, you could check the dates. It was almost certain it was in April of 2012 that he went over there when, in March of 2012. The northern storm brigade had talked to Time magazine on video and had bragged that Yeah, we fought in Iraq war to against the Americans What of it? And this was a month before McCain went and met with them. And then it was after that, that we found out that the northern storm brigade were the ones who had kidnapped Steven sotloff and then sold him to ISIS for $25,000 or was it $20,000 who then cut his head off as one of the reasons that got the war started was the murder of salt loft, by john mccain’s friends. Well, by john mccain’s friends, friends in the Islamic State.
William Van Wagenen 15:29
Yeah, it’s a it’s obviously pretty disturbing and infuriating, but that’s kind of a An indication of how it went where when the Salafist insurgency started again, all the early armed groups were Salafist, even those fighting under the, the moniker of the Free Syrian Army. Not that there weren’t any secular brigades, but they were just totally fringe and minor in influence. All the biggest Free Syrian Army groups were Salafist militias. JCL Islam led by is around the loose was, you know, one of the most notable examples of that, obviously, are Sean which didn’t fight under the Free Syrian Army moniker, but they were a Salafist group, and they were, you know, the first arm group to begin with, but the the the the Syrians that had fought in the past in Afghanistan and Iraq. You know, some of these guys were still around, and they basically provided support to the newly formed Salafist militias. Were getting a lot of money from the Gulf. And again, presumably from Italy. And agencies. Also the future movement in Lebanon was sending a lot of weapons to the political party led by Assad Hariri. So all these groups are popping up because all the money is just funneling in creating a lot of entrepreneurs, right? If there’s a ton of if there’s a ton of, you know, demand for armed groups, because the money is flowing in and lots of groups will be created. But again, it was these veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, or sorry, in Iraq, etc. that were there to provide, you know, training logistics and things like that to the newly formed groups. And that was originally why the Mr. Front had its name. nostra means in Arabic could mean victory or it could mean support. But in the case of job hunting, it was meant as this like the support group for, you know, these Syrian armed groups on the ground and so that’s why there was so much easy collaboration and cooperation between job hunt industrial when it formally announced itself and all of the other armed groups because, again, before minister announced its involvement in January 2012. I mean, there were still a lot of these jihadi veterans that were, had already been there providing, you know, training and in support, bomb making capabilities, teaching bomb making skills and things like that to the newly formed armed groups. And that’s, um, you know, I’ve got another article that it’s not going to be too long before I get it done. I think that talks more about that and how, you know, the Free Syrian Army, for example, it’s always assumed that the fighters for the Free Syrian Army were army defectors, but there are lots of admissions by pro opposition figures. That suggests Actually, that’s totally false. I mean, that was just a myth that they were mostly defectors. In fact, if Syrian Syrian soldiers tried to defect to the opposition groups, A lot of times they would be investigated for allegedly having blood on their hands and they would probably be be killed in a lot of cases. Because again, the the Salafist armed groups, including the Free Syrian Army groups looked at them as you know, Baptist atheists as their enemies. So there really were hardly any defections. From the army. A lot of people deserted and left but they did desert. They didn’t join the Free Syrian Army, because these were Salafist groups that were, again getting help and support from these jihadi Veterans.
Now ISIS got the worst publicity because again, the beheadings and of course, they’re conquering of all of western Iraq in 2014. But when they split from nosara, it was really nostra staying loyal to al Qaeda, and Imanol Zawahiri while ISIS was breaking off, to go ahead and do their own thing against the wall hurries wishes and advice, going ahead and creating the caliphate now, which he warned won’t work. Because the Americans will just pop it off the face of the earth that was why they were picking on the far enemy in the first place anyway, but the aisle notes were front which is now high at two rear all Sean there’s still blood oath loyal to Iman al-zawahiri the butcher of New York City, correct?
Yeah. But maybe the only place out differ with you is that I, I don’t think this split happened as a result of loyalty to one group or another. If you want, we could talk about this a little, maybe a little
Scott Horton 22:31
it fighting over the oil in the east of the country there.
William Van Wagenen 22:34
Yeah. So Theo Padnos, it’d be an interesting guy for you to interview if you haven’t already, maybe you did and I missed it. But he was kidnapped who said he was? His name is Theo Padnos, okay. No, I don’t know. He was a journalist. He, I think he had a PhD in literature and he studied Arabic in Yemen. And then when the the Syria war started, I think sometime in 2012, he went to southern Turkey like a lot of people in wanting to become a journalist and he found some Free Syrian Army guys that would smuggle him into the country. You know, give him an interview and he could start writing and you know, pitching pieces to get published in western the western press. Turns out the Free Syrian Army guys were basically al Qaeda guys and they they they kidnapped him they handed him over to the Mr. Front, and then Theo Padnos was kidnapped for two straight years. And he traveled with a lot of top commanders as their captive. And he says that when there was the split between nostra and ISI between Jelani and Baghdadi, this was right as the Mr. Front was capturing the oil fields in eastern Syria, the Omari field the fields that the United States is occupying now with with Kurdish forces, but co Padnos makes clear that the reason that Jelani and Baghdadi had a falling out in Jelani didn’t want to, you know acknowledge being part of the Islamic State of Iraq and how the two organizations merge into ISIS. The reason Jelani wanted to keep those two separate was that nostra had just barely with the help of the Free Syrian Army taken over all these oil fields. And so that was just a massive amount of revenue that Jelani was going to get. And if he merged with officially with Baghdadi to become ISIS, basically he would lose all of that revenue and all that power and all that will go to Baghdadi so rather than there being some like fight over who should we be loyal to or an ideological differences or anything like this it was really just a fight over oil revenues in oil fields. Baghdadi lost initially but later ISIS was able to table the takeover those oil fields from Austria and and you know, helped establish the caliphate in in eastern Syria. But it was really just yeah, that struggle over oil but again, you know, ever since I emerged on the scene and they’re murdering these hostages and doing all these terrible things on video. There was in the media this idea, hey, you can demonize ISIS, but then nostra was, you know treated as moderate right and revolutionaries and blah, blah blah even though I mean they were the same, the same ideology, the same organization, maybe ISIS was a little bit crazier, but just because ISIS is 300% crazy doesn’t mean this for guys are moderate, you know, maybe means they’re 200% crazy.
Scott Horton 25:30
I’m sorry. We’re all out of time, and I got to run right now. But um, this is such a great piece. Everybody, please go and look at this at the libertarian Institute, libertarian institute.org, the Salafist roots of the Syrian uprising. We only touched on about 5% of the thing here. It’s really great. So please go and check it out. That’s William Van Wagenen and thank you again, sir.
William Van Wagenen 25:51
Hey you’re welcome.
Scott Horton 25:52
The Scott Horton show anti war radio can be heard on kpfk 90.7 FM in LA APSradio.com antiwar.com ScottHorton.org and libertarianinstitute.org.
More places to listen to The Scott Horton Show.
Scott Horton has done over 5,400 interviews with military leaders, whistleblowers, and investigative journalists. Avoid being part of the mob that calls for innocent blood by learning from foreign-policy experts, and spread the message of peace to others.