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A “bombshell” CNN report has revealed that US-made weapons found their way to Al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Yemen. But is anyone surprised? And where was CNN when the Obama administration armed hardcore jihadists in Syria?
The CNN investigation revealed how American-made weapons ended up in the hands of “al Qaeda-linked fighters, hardline Salafi militias, and other factions waging war in Yemen,” vis-a-vis the US’ coalition partners Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Some of these weapons have also been seized by Iranian-backed militias, CNN claims.
The hardware, referred to as “Beautiful military equipment” by President Trump, was supplied to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have backed the embattled Yemeni government in its three-year civil war against Houthi rebels. However, CNN claims that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have funnelled the arms to pro-government factions, including the islamist Giants Brigade and the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Abbas brigade.
The shifting frontlines in Yemen ensured that many of these weapons – including wire-guided TOW missiles and mine-resistant armored vehicles (MRAPs) – ended up seized by Houthi militants and Iranian proxy forces. More American weapons still ended up for sale in Yemen’s teeming arms bazaars, where they fetch a higher price than the rusted AK-47s more common to the region.
CNN lays responsibility squarely at the feet of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Trump administration, which refused to cancel its multibillion dollar arms deals with the Saudis last year, for fear of losing “all of that investment being made into our country.”
The report paints a depressing, but familiar picture. Picking sides in foreign wars has historically proven disastrous for the United States, yet successive administrations have made the same mistakes again and again. The Reagan administration armed Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran, going as far as arranging the sale of anthrax to the Iraqi leader. Both Jimmy Сarter and Ronald Reagan propped up the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets in the 1980s. In both cases, US forces would be shot at with the same weapons just two decades later.
Covering for Obama
More recently, in 2014 Barack Obama announced that the US would hand-select and arm ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria, stepping into the country’s bloody civil war. That too would prove disastrous, with troves of US arms ending up in the hands of Al-Nusra and ISIS.
But where was CNN when Obama asked Congress for $500 million to train, arm, and “empower the moderate Syrian opposition?”
CNN was reporting the news verbatim from Obama’s mouth, repeating the phrase “moderate rebels” without the ironic quotation marks that have become necessary since. Obama’s assertion that the rebels offered the “best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator” was not questioned, unlike Trump’s continuation of the longstanding US policy of arming the Saudis.
Obama called for funding in June 2014, but Syrian militias had already received support from the CIA for two years at that stage. CNN’s reporting on the covert arms pipeline was scant, didn’t question the credentials of the recipients, and mostly repeated the line of US intelligence officials: “That is something we are not going to dispute, but we are not going to publicly speak to it.”
Few questions were asked as Congress authorized the military support that September, and none were asked a year later as Obama resupplied his chosen rebels in Syria. Instead, Obama’s declaration of support for “the moderate Syrian opposition” was taken at face value and left unquestioned.
The reality in Syria
As CNN repeated the White House line on Syria, the network published just one report hinting that things might be amiss: an investigation by Amnesty International that found Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) militants were armed to the teeth with US-made weapons. The weapons were acquired by IS from local forces armed by the Obama administration, and then used to “relentlessly” target civilians with “small arms, artillery fire and huge quantities of improvised explosive devices.”
While CNN was assuaging the public, the situation on the ground in Syria was anything but moderate. US arms were quickly sold on the black market by ‘moderate rebels’ who either retired from the fight or wanted to turn a quick buck. With morale low, some of these fighters literally handed their weapons to Al-Nusra jihadists in exchange for safe passage away from the frontlines, while more were stolen by the Islamists.
Moreover, one Al-Nusra commander codenamed Abu Al Ezz told the German Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper that his group, and not so-called ‘moderate rebels’, received TOW missiles directly from the US. “The missiles were given to us directly,” he said, adding: “The Americans are on our side.” The commander went on to detail how his fighters had received training from US instructors, and financial support from Saudi Arabia and Israel for capturing specific objectives in Syria.
The Trump administration ended the arms supply program to the Syrian rebels in 2017, a decision that CNN called“a big win for Russia.” The idea that ending material support for terrorists might just be a good thing was not raised, and CNN described the program as “a lifeline” to anti-government forces.
Two months before the 2016 election, CNN absolved Obama of all his sins in Syria by publishing an interview in which the then-president said the situation there “haunts” him constantly. The network blamed external factors for the deteriorating situation in Syria, and ended with a quote from Obama’s press secretary, who said that every one of the former president’s decisions “was squarely within the national security interest of the United States and even advanced our national security interests.”
CNN’s latest exclusive report is a well-researched piece of journalism, fleshed out with on-the-ground reporting from war-torn Yemen. However, given the network’s history in reporting US arms programs, it was much more likely motivated by a desire to score points against Trump than the pursuit of cold truth, no matter who is in charge.