Elizabeth O’Bagy, a young researcher with the Institute for the Study of War, helped bring America to the brink of war in 2013. Making fraudulent claims of having obtained a PhD, she was a fervent supporter of military intervention in Syria after she allegedly met with Syrian rebel groups. Her public testimony was fawned over by Senator John McCain and Secretary of State John Kerry, who used her fake credentials to backstop their march toward another military action in the Middle East. While portraying herself as an unbiased researcher, O’Bagy was also doing paid work for a pro-Syrian rebel lobbyist group called the Syrian Emergency Task Force. When O’Bagy was exposed, the house of cards came crumbling down. O’Bagy was fired from the Institute for the Study of War, but was quickly hired as a legislative assistant by Senator McCain.
The O’Bagy incident is just one of many bizarre cases of pseudo-intellectuals pounding on their war drums for further military interventions around the world. Their fever dreams have dire consequences for American foreign policy, pushing us further away from our own national interests and toward nonsensical, ill-conceived wars of choice. In the Western media, a constellation of think tank fellows and public relations firms continue to do the same, advocating for U.S. military action, no-fly zones, and the arming of allegedly moderate rebels in Syria.
The new warmongers
Charles Lister is one of the more prominent voices in the media pushing for U.S.-led meddling in the protracted and complicated Syrian Civil War. Taking a dim view of the Assad regime, along with their Russian and Iranian sponsors, Lister writes that the United States has placed too heavy an emphasis on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), arguing that we must arm and equip Arab rebel groups in order to defeat ISIS and ultimately institute regime change in Syria.
Graduating St. Andrews University with a masters degree in international affairs, Lister landed a job at Brookings Doha, where he worked alongside Salman Shaikh, who previously worked as the director of policy and research for Sheikha mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned. Al Missned is a third wife of the former Emir of Qatar. Shaikh left Brookings Doha and started the Shaikh Group, which sponsors what they call the Track II Syria Initiative, which Lister joined. The Track II initiative is a dialog that brings together the major players in the Syrian conflict, such as Russia, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, but apparently not the government of the country in which the conflict is taking place.
Now a fellow at the Middle East Institute, Lister advocates for the arming and supporting of Ahrar al-Sham in Syria, arguing that there are mainstream and moderate elements within the jihadi group that need to be mobilized in order to counter the Assad regime. Lister rightly argues that the Kurdish YPG cannot save Syria from itself, as most of the country is Arab. The Kurds have no interest in fighting for Arab areas and have no historical or cultural claim to them. In short, the locals would see them as an occupational force. On that note, Lister writes that we have to “acknowledge the role that existing mainstream opposition groups will need to play in assuming at least a shared responsibility for protecting Sunni Arab-populated territory captured from ISIS.” However, he goes on to say that those very opposition groups are “far from perfect.”
“Ahrar al-Sham thus set about asserting its own intent to influence the governance of ‘liberated’ areas of Idlib, while intensifying its public outreach to the West, through a series of high-profile op-eds,” Lister wrote, referencing an article in the Washington Post written by Labib al Nahhas, the Ahrar al-Sham spokesperson. In the same paper, Lister cites his private interviews with rebel leaders, and considering some of his bromance Tweets about Nahhas, it seems highly probable that Lister is placing his rebel friend’s op-eds in major American media outlets.
These types of rebel groups “may not necessarily be the kind of opposition that we wanted, but it has a very significant constituency in Syria,” Lister said in an interview, couching his support for groups like Ahrar al-Sham, “…so these are not necessarily people we would want as our allies but we have to acknowledge that these are Syrians and if there is going to be a political solution and they are not involved than we will be creating more of a mess than there already is.”
The problem is that it is highly debatable as to whether there are any moderate rebels in Syria. There is little if any ideological white space between groups like ISIS, al-Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham. Their differences are mainly ones of fitna, or internal strife, over who gets to be in charge of what, not disagreements about jihad. Each of these groups wants sharia law in the end and believes that the Assad regime has to be removed in order to institute their caliphate. One has to wonder if there are any women working at the Brookings Institute, the Shaikh Group, and the Middle Eastern Institute. If so, how do they feel about America potentially supporting groups who endorse sharia law, which doesn’t exactly favor women’s rights?
The links between al-Qaeda and Ahrar al-Sham are perfectly clear to the CIA, who tracked AQ operatives from Pakistan traveling to Syria and embedding in the group, according to a former CIA officer who spoke to SOFREP on condition of anonymity. Lister admits Ahrar al-Sham’s al-Qaeda connections, writing that “Ahrar al-Sham has had within its senior command structure a number of former al-Qaida members.”
He also concedes that Ahrar al-Sham fights alongside al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria: “The alliance between Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham has arguably proven to be the most impactful and long-lasting cooperative relationship in the fight against the Assad regime.” One leader of Ahrar al-Sham even told Lister about his group’s admiration of the Taliban. Why the United States would want to bolster a jihadi group with al-Qaeda links and that wants to create a kind Syrian Taliban simply defies imagination.
Educated and well polished, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi was the Taliban’s spokesman who traveled around the United States telling us that the Taliban wasn’t all that bad, and who said that Osama Bin Laden wasn’t a terrorist on Charlie Rose. A few months after the interview, the 9/11 attacks happened and the America-friendly Taliban narrative went up in smoke. Today Labib al Nahhas does the same for Ahrar al-Sham.
The core of Lister’s argument is that groups like ISIS and Nusra need to be defeated by so-called moderate mainstream opposition forces like Ahrar al-Sham, who can be armed to defeat other jihadi groups and put leverage of the Assad regime, driving the government to the negotiating table and ultimately serving to remove Assad from power. While he concedes that there are jihadi elements in Ahrar al-Sham, Lister believes that they are interested in local, nationalistic political Islam, much like the Taliban, rather than being engaged in an international Islamist political project which would establish a pan-Arab caliphate, such as groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The problems and assumptions in this course of thinking are manifold. Once armed and supported, these “moderate” Islamist groups cannot be controlled by the United States. They will push against rival groups, the regime, and possibly spill across borders into Jordan and Iraq. While they may not be interested in global jihad at this moment, they will provide safe haven to groups who do, much as the Taliban protected al-Qaeda. Lister’s policy recommendations would accomplish little aside from fueling the Syrian conflict, throwing gas on the fire, and perpetuating the conflict.
Additionally, thought has to be given to the long-term consequence and human rights issues tied up in the United States government having a part in sponsoring and putting into power a Taliban-style government. This course of action would be a serious blow to American prestige and soft power, not to mention the immorality behind such an act. Ironically, people like Lister would have America sponsor those who violate human rights in order to secure the human rights of people suffering in Syrian cities like Aleppo.
It is curious that Lister supports Ahrar al-Sham, which has been sponsored and used as a proxy force by countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and more importantly in this case, by Qatar, the country that hosts organizations Lister is or has been affiliated with, such as Brookings Doha and the Shaikh Group. Lister positions himself as an expert on Syrian rebel groups, but it is clear that he is taking his interviews with rebel commanders at face value. U.S. Special Forces soldiers on the ground in Turkey and Jordan have told SOFREP that rebels provide cookie cutter answers to their questions and know exactly what to say in order to make themselves appear secular. Lister says that weapons should be provided to groups vetted by the CIA, but that vetting process is disastrous and consists of nothing more than trace searches in databases that are far from comprehensive.
Another lovely character, whom Lister seemed to mourn over, was Zahran Alloush. Alloush led Jaysh al-Islam, which was for a time fighting the regime on the outskirts of Damascus. Alloush gave a speech in which he called for a cleansing of the Earth of fire worshipers (Kurds), as well as “dirty” Shia. He also put captured Alawite civilians in cages and placed them in his territory to ward off Russian airstrikes. Interestingly, his speech was never meant to be made public, but was rather made for his financial backers in Qatar. Are these the moderate rebels that Lister thinks America should arm and support? Thankfully, the point is moot in this case, as a Russian airstrike did catch up with Alloush in 2015.
Lister’s circle of colleagues gives further insight into his perspective. In the acknowledgments section of his book, “The Syrian Jihad: al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the evolution of an insurgency,” he thanks former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. Ford met with rebel leaders in the opening days and months of the Syrian conflict and came into conflict with the Obama administration, as the president was hesitant to arm the “moderate rebels” that the ambassador felt the U.S. government should use to leverage against the Assad government.
The think tank fellow also thanks Michael Weiss, a Scowcroft fellow and a journalist at the Daily Beast, who advocates further confrontation with Russia (Assad’s ally) on an almost daily basis. An alleged expert on ISIS and Russia, Weiss even co-wrote an article with Elizabeth O’Bagy calling for airstrikes and cruise missile attacks against regime targets in Syria back in 2013, before she was exposed as a fraud. With a history degree from Dartmouth University, Weiss went into journalism, becoming a CNN contributor and a senior editor at the Daily Beast, a news outlet that has evolved into a tabloid rag chomping at the bit for future wars.
Eli Lake at Bloomberg is another journalist propping up Jaysh al-Islam as a group that supposedly isn’t all that bad since they are not involved in international terrorism, just terrorism inside the Syrian state. For Lake, what seems to matter is that Jaysh al-Islam doesn’t hate Israel. In his recent article on the jihadi group, Weiss and Lister provide quotations and figures to plead the same case, even though they all seem to agree that these guys are terrorists.
Taken as a whole, Lister, Weiss, Ford, and others have formed a de facto pro-jihadi echo chamber that advocates for U.S. military action in Syria, regime change, and for arming Islamist terrorist groups with weaponry. They may codify their policy positions with academic language and carefully couch their words, but wittingly or unwittingly, they form an academic backstop for jihad. This creates a dangerous situation because, as we saw with McCain and Kerry referencing O’Bagy’s work to support military action, current and future policymakers can and will cite the work of Charles Lister and his friends as proof that “moderate” rebels should be armed, that a no-fly zone should be established, and that the Assad government has to go.
No doubt anticipating a Hillary Clinton White House a few months down the road, Lister has written a policy paper proposing a road map for the way forward vis-a-vis U.S. foreign policy and the Syrian Civil War. It should be noted that Hillary Clinton supported the arming of Syrian rebels and has repeatedly called for a no-fly zone. Lister’s “A plan for winding down the Syrian Civil War: Surge, freeze, and enforce” unveils a grand strategic vision for ending the conflict, one that is rife with faulty logic and assumptions, and is devoid of historical perspective. It reads like something an ideological freshman student of international affairs would write. In the first 20 days of Lister’s plan, he states,
[The] United States and allied nations would initiate a substantial increase in assistance to vetted opposition groups. This would principally take the form of increased supplies of small-arms and light weapons, mortar and medium-range artillery systems, as well as anti-tank guided missiles. To add to the existing supply of semi-portable BGM-71 TOW anti-tank systems, the United States and allies should consider adding shoulder-launched anti-tank systems for added tactical in-theater utility.”
This would include providing the so-called moderate rebels with MANPADs—shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile systems like the SA-7 or Stinger. Although Lister admits that the CIA’s arming of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been wasteful and largely ineffective, his proposal is to try more of the same hoping for a better result. Lister supports smaller FSA groups in addition to coyly supporting Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam without outright saying it, but these FSA elements are too weak to have any real clout and many of them are simply de facto al-Nusra proxies that jihadis use to receive weapons from the coalition by using their appearance of being secular.
According to the article’s handy timeline, from day 21 to day 30, Lister believes that this increased pressure on the Assad regime would drive the government to the negotiating table with a “coalition of the willing” (i.e. Iraq, 2003) to de-escalate the conflict. Meanwhile, the United States would target Assad regime infrastructure with cruise missiles that will miraculously not kill any Russian advisers because America will have magical intelligence information that is 100 percent accurate. After day 30, America would enforce a ceasefire, all within 24 hours, that would calm the situation on the ground. The centerpiece around which this policy would be formed is the word “humanitarianism,” which sounds a lot better than regime change.
Suffice to say that this plan is absolutely bonkers. It preys on the ignorance of the average person, lulling them into an obligatory head-nod of support for the exact same mistakes that the U.S. government made in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Believing that we can intervene in Syria on humanitarian grounds with a coalition of the willing, leverage jihadi groups against Assad effectively, launch cruise missile attacks without unintended consequences, and enforce a ceasefire leading to a political solution is beyond foolhardy. For a learned man like Lister to suggest such a thing is intellectually dishonest and reckless in the extreme.
The think tank echo chamber may clamor around such interventionist daydreams, but those with experience in unconventional warfare, covert operations, and international politics know that America has a horrible track record with regime change. To be clear, the Assad regime has committed war crimes by deploying Alawite death squads and dropping barrel bombs on civilians. Likewise, the Russians have also indiscriminately bombed hospitals and dropped white phosphorus on civilian targets. However, Lister’s response to the Syrian quagmire is to turbocharge the same foreign policy that got us into the mess we currently find ourselves in. His surge, freeze, enforce strategy is wholesale insanity that does nothing to further U.S. national interests, and there is absolutely zero evidence that American military intervention will ease the current humanitarian crisis in Syria.
Cheering for war from afar
Thankfully, President Obama does not appear to pay people like Charles Lister much mind. Obama “resented military leaders who believed they could fix any problem if the commander in chief would simply give them what they wanted, and he resented the foreign-policy think-tank complex,” who he felt were unduly influencing American policy at the behest of their Israeli and Arab financial backers. Whether or not America’s next president is strong enough to resist the constant momentum toward war in the Middle East, at the prodding of fear-mongering journalists and think-tank fellows, remains unclear.
What is particularly interesting about Lister’s brand of warmongering is that it hides behind left cover. Although right-wing politicians typically use fear to galvanize the public in favor of war, the left often takes cover behind the guise of humanitarianism and human rights to justify military adventures around the world. The myth of sanitized wars fought for the preservation of human rights comes to us largely thanks to the work of zealots like Samantha Power. A long-time Obama staffer, Power currently serves as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, where she remains a strong advocate for U.S. military intervention to prevent human rights abuses, including genocide. This concept is known as Right to Protect (R2P), and is much lauded in academic circles. Finding practical examples of U.S. military intervention making the crisis better rather than worse can be problematic, however.
According to the book “Alter Egos”—written by a White House correspondent Mark Landler—Samantha Power, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton clashed strongly with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden over whether or not military action should have been taken in the aftermath of the 2013 chemical weapons attack in Syria.
This is where the left and the right in American politics come full circle, supporting military interventions even if their publicly stated rationale differ. Retired Generals Tom McInerney and Paul Vallely exist on the fringe right wing of the political spectrum and wrote a book advocating for the removal of the Assad government. As early as 2004, they wrote in their book titled “End Game” that “the Syrian regime is a paper tiger that could crumple if enough pressure is applied to it,” a prediction that simply has not come to pass. Vallely visited the FSA in Syria in 2013 and attempted to cross from the Turkish border just after the chemical weapons attacks.
“The FSA fighters aren’t radical Islamists, they are secularists that believe in a secular society made up of different religious groups and a democratic government that’s free to pursue economic development and education for the people of Syria. They do not want Sharia law. We need to support them and help them eliminate Assad,” Vallely said in an interview after the incident. Much like Charles Lister, Vallely took the bait and believed what he was being told. Operating with left cover and academic credentials, Lister is more likely to be taken seriously by policy-makers even though he makes similar claims to the cantankerous General Vallely.
In the end, it must be hard being a think-tank fellow. In the war and conflict genre of think-tanking, you don’t see anyone making their careers or being awarded grants by going around telling people “we’re safe,” or “I think we’re going to be OK.” Instead, there are career incentives to exaggerate, embellish, and hype every single threat in order for think-tank fellows to remain relevant in their sphere of study. The problem is that, while they advocate for war from their ivory towers, it is the American soldier who gets down in the mud, fighting and dying, in another war they are not allowed to win.
O’Bagy, Lister, Weiss, and Power will no doubt observe the wars they advocate for on CNN as they munch popcorn, watching our servicemen and women fight for their entertainment.
SOFREP reached out to Charles Lister for comment on this article but he did not reply.