Obama’s ‘regime change’ in Syria: effort to destabilize China, Russia?

The greater Middle East is on fire with one failing state after another overrun by Salafi jihadists—Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen—and rapidly reigniting Afghanistan, inflaming Central Asia, Russia’s Chechnya, China’s Xinjiang, southeast Asia and even South Korea.

Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman palace guards

Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman palace guards

This week, South Korea received bomb threats from an Islamic State (IS)-linked group to blow up a shop near COEX, a large shopping complex in the wealthy district of Gangnam in Seoul.[1] In April, IS attacked the South Korean embassy in Libya and killed at least two people.[2]

It appears the negative contagion of US –sponsored regime changes in the Mideast, that empowered the rise of Salafi jihadism, is pivoting east and destabilizing Asia. After one year of US-led anti-IS campaign, the Islamic caliphate is getting stronger and on the march, destroying the old world order and establishing a new one with the implicit backing of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and especially Turkey’s Erdogan.

As Turkey held election on November 1, a pro-AKP columnist even claimed that under a new presidential system, Erdogan would be “caliph” of the Sunni Muslims in the world, with the 1,005-room new presidential palace hosting “representatives from nations under the caliphate.”[3]

Distracted by an alphabet soup of various salafist jihadi groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (IS), Al Qaeda in Syria (Al Nusra), Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in North Africa (AQIM), Al Qaeda in the Philippines (Abu Sayyaf), Al Qaeda in China (Turkistan Islamic Party), [4] Boko Haram, Taiban, Haqqani Network and so on, and trying to separate “good terrorists” from “bad terrorists”, Washington is blindsided by the fact that ultimately they share the same end of establishing a global caliphate under Sharia, only differing in the means and speed of that goal.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Henry Kissinger warned that IS “seeks to replace the international system’s multiplicity of states with a caliphate, a single Islamic empire governed by Shariah law.”[5]

As such, he argued “the destruction of IS is more urgent than the overthrow of Bashar Assad, who has already lost over half of the area he once controlled. Making sure that this territory does not become a permanent terrorist haven must have precedence.”

However, his warnings seem to fall on deaf ears in the Obama administration, with Secretary Kerry continuing to toe the Saudi/Qatar/Turkey line of a regime change mandate that “Assad must go”(and replaced by their Islamist extremists), rather than a counterterrorism mandate of prioritizing combating IS and other Salafi jihadists to restore regional stability.

Obama’s ‘anti-IS allies’ exporting jihad

It is not surprising IS and other Salafi jihadists in Syria and elsewhere are rapidly spreading like the ebola virus, given Arab autocracies that aided IS rise are now in Obama’s anti-IS coalition that is “a coalition of sinners now dressed as knights in shining armour.”[6]

Writing in 2014, Indian strategist Professor Brahma Chellaney from Center for Policy Research noted how Qatar and Saudi Arabia pouring weapons and funds to Sunni extremists in Syria eventually created fertile ground that spawned IS.[7]

This nefarious pattern of supporting violent jihadists is further evidenced by their bolstering Afghan Taliban, accelerating Libya’s transformation into a failed state via their breeding of Islamist militia, with Qatar even deploying troops covertly inside Libya in the 2011 campaign to oust Gaddafi.

Given Saudi/Qatari/Turkey-backed ‘Syrian rebels’ are not even Syrian, with German intelligence BND estimating 95% of the fighters are paid foreign mercenaries, it seems the Obama administration has also joined as a mercenary force to further Doha/Ankara/Riyadh’s regional agenda.[8]

So obsessed are Riyadh and Ankara to supplant Syria’s secular autocracy with an extremist Islamic theocracy under their control, that in 2013 the Kingdom sent more than 1,200 death row inmates ranging from Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia to wage Syrian jihad.[9]

Recent reports from two CHP deputies in the Turkish parliament corroborate previous testimonies that the notorious sarin gas attack at Ghouta was a false flag orchestrated by Turkish intelligence, willing to commit the war crime of sacrificing 1,300 innocent civilians to goad US into the Syrian war to topple Assad.[10]

Chellaney further chastised the anti-Assad coalition’s naïveté in trying to distinguish between ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ jihadists, and that “the term ‘moderate jihadists’ is an oxymoron: those waging jihad by gun can never be moderate.”[11]

Indeed these “good” terrorists-cum-foreigner infested/counterfeit “Syrian rebels” have displayed the same level of barbarity as IS and are cut from the same jihadi cloth. Most disgusting was the video in 2013 of a rebel commander performing cannibalism and eating the organ of a dead Syrian soldier. Alas, it is twisted irony that the Obama administration wants to impose gun control in the US and take guns away from American citizens, yet arm these cannibalistic barbarians in Syria.

As for Doha, by using Al Udeid Air Base as a weapon to hold US hostage to its agenda and enabling its misadventures with impunity, Chellaney noted Qatar’s clout (along with Riyadh and Ankara) now “allows it to run with the foxes while it hunts with the hounds”—funding violent Salafi-jihadists in Syria, Mali, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Gaza and elsewhere and leaving a destructive trail of destabilized and failing states throughout the greater Middle East.[12]

This is a threat not only to Russia that has entered the Syrian war, but also to China and India.

Syria: Frontline against terrorism

In a recent Huffington Post article, former MI-6 agent Alastair Crooke argued that Russia sees Syria as its frontline against a dominos of eroding and jihadi infested states that are spreading to Russia.[13]

Unless IS and its Wahhabi allies are stopped decisively, Russia fears a repeat of 1980s when radical Wahhabi jihadists in Afghanistan, inflamed by CIA and Saudis, were used in the Chechen insurgency to weaken Russia.

This threat is similarly shared by China with its Xinjiang insurgency, and further reinforced by a February 2014 article in the US Naval Institute’s Proceeding magazine.

In the article entitled ‘Deterring the Dragon’, the author, a retired naval commander, proposed sending special operation forces to arm China’s restive minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet at a time when Beijing is suffering from its worst terrorist attacks by Uyghur militants in the past two years.[14]

The author also proposed laying offensive underwater mines along China’s coast to close China’s main ports and destroy its sea lines of communications, which further creates distrust in the current Sino-US military standoff in the South China Sea, with Chinese naval commander Admiral Wu Shengli warning US counterparts that a minor incident could spark war if US did not stop its “provocative acts” of deploying warships to disputed waterways in the region.[15]

Rightly or wrongly, Beijing perceives this as part and parcel of US strategy to encircle and contain China’s rise, hemming its eastern flank via defense alliances in the Western Pacific and destabilizing its western flank in Central Eurasia via color revolutions and separatist movements.

And when Beijing sees Washington backing Turkey/Qatar/Saudi stance of arming and funding thousands of anti-Chinese Uyghur militants in Syrian “rebel groups”, coupled with US gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea, this “deterring the dragon” combination risks escalation into a military conflict between Beijing and Washington.[16]

US strategic partner India likewise shares suspicions of Washington’s support for Wahhabi allies. Chellaney for one sees US support for Wahhabi extremists contributed to India’s terrorism problem, given “large portions of the CIA’s multi-billion-dollar military aid for the Afghan rebels in the 1980s were siphoned off by the conduit, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISIS), to trigger insurgencies in India’s Kashmir and Punjab…yet paradoxically, the US had used counterterrorism as a key instrument to build a strategic partnership with India.” [17]

In fact Delhi is now sounding the alarm on Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism to dominate India.[18] In a September 2014 Indian Defence Review article, retired general Afsir Karim expressed concerns that Saudi Wahhabis are trying to exert domination over other strands of Islam (Sufi, Shia, etc.) by pumping millions of petrodollars into madrasas and mosques to propagate Wahhabi theology that “anyone outside the Wahhabi sect is a heretic and will burn in hell.”[19]

This Saudi doctrine of intolerance and violence is polarizing Indian society and radicalizing its Muslims, projected by Pew Research to be the largest Muslim population in the world by 2050 even surpassing Indonesia, and opening the way for IS’ steady recruitment in India.[20]

In the face of IS and radical Islam’s invasion of Eurasia that is destabilizing Russia, China and India, all three stakeholders should be included in future talks on Syria.

Given combating IS is the unifier of great powers while Syrian regime change is the divider that allows IS to get stronger, US should recalibrate its Sunni Wahhabi-driven strategy and start working with other legitimate Mideast stakeholders to counter Islamic extremism. Absent this, it may behoove the Eurasian powers outside of US-led coalition to take Kissinger’s advice, and begin forging their own coalition via SCO and CSTO to counter terrorism in Syria.

[1] http://www.indiatvnews.com/news/world/five-isis-members-caught-in-south-korea-27004.html

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/libya-embassy-shooting-isis-gunmen-launch-deadly-attack-on-korean-embassy-in-tripoli-10170483.html

[3] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkeys-erdogan-to-be-caliph-under-presidential-system-pro-akp-columnist-claims.aspx?PageID=238&NID=90298&NewsCatID=338

[4] TIP leader Abdul Haq al Turkistani was dual-hatted as member of al-Qaeda’s majlis-e-shura or executive council in 2005, and his successor Abdul Shakoor Turkistani was appointed commander of Al Qaeda’s Pakistan forces a few weeks before the death of Osama bin Laden. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/MH10Df02.html; http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/MJ26Df03.html

[5] http://www.wsj.com/articles/a-path-out-of-the-middle-east-collapse-1445037513?mod=trending_now_7

[6 http://www.indiandefensenews.in/2014/09/obama-serial-interventionist-it-affects.html

[7] http://chellaney.net/2014/10/11/qatars-jihad/

[8] http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2012/11/03/syria-the-universe-unraveling/

[9] http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/01/21/saudi-inmates-fight-syria-commute-death-sentences/1852629/

[10] http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/10/23/hersh-vindicated-turkish-whistleblowers-corroborate-story-on-false-flag-sarin-attack-in-syria/

[11] http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/08/26/commentary/world-commentary/spawning-islamic-state/

[12] http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/11/03/commentary/friendly-backer-of-jihadists/#.VivepISaLlI

[13] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alastair-crooke/russia-syria-front-line_b_8401212.html

[14] http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-02/deterring-dragon-under-sea

[15] http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/30/us-southchinasea-usa-china-navy-idUSKCN0SO05320151030

[16] http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/5089.htm; http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Publications/Detail/?id=191076

[17] http://www.indiandefensenews.in/2014/09/obama-serial-interventionist-it-affects.html

[18] http://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2014/12/20/the-radicalization-of-south-asian-islam-saudi-money-and-the-spread-of-wahhabism/ ; http://www.oneindia.com/india/interview-wahabism-saudi-weapon-dominate-india-1789915.html

[19] http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/wahhabism-in-south-asia/

[20] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Need-to-expand-caliphate-for-Indian-Muslims-Hyderabad-woman-ISIS-recruiter-says/articleshow/48962795.cms

Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of “The New Silk Road: China’s Energy Strategy in the Greater Middle East” (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy), and a former director for China policy at the U.S. Department of Defense.

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