The 2012 Benghazi Attack

Update: Geoffrey Ingersoll of Business Insider has written an article titled “American Who Fought With Libyan Rebels: I Was Right About Benghazi” about my accurate assessment of what happened in Benghazi which I shared with Business Insider on September 12, 2012, the day after the 2012 Benghazi attack occurred.

The New York Times investigation by David Kirkpatrick into the September 11, 2012 attack on a US compound in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, has confirmed much of my theory about who was responsible for the attack, what motivated it, and how little planning by the attackers was involved.

I knew how militias operated in Libya because I fought in the Libyan Civil War in 2011 as part of the rebel forces. Yet surprisingly, few journalists thought to email or call me after the Benghazi attack for insight into what had likely happened.

Freedom fighter Matthew VanDyke with his military unit during the Libyan Civil War

With my rebel military unit during the Libyan Civil War.

Instead, many journalists were reporting opinions that were not accurate, such as the attack being “a coordinated, military-style, commando-type raid” carried out by Al Qaeda – opinions offered by the regular cadre of talking heads who are popular at cocktail parties in Washington, DC but who have no operational experience on the ground in Libya and certainly no experience fighting as part of a Libyan militia or military unit.

The media often follows this same pattern of behavior when reporting on the Syrian Civil War as well.

I first shared my theory about Benghazi with journalists who did think to contact me on September 12, 2012 (the very next day after the attack). I based this theory on my academic background in Security Studies, years of experience in the region, clues from a few eyewitness accounts that had emerged but were largely dismissed or overlooked by the media, and most importantly on my experiences fighting in the Libyan Civil War which gave me unique insight into how the militias operate.

Business Insider published my thoughts and theory about the Benghazi attacks on September 13, 2012 (just two days after the attacks) in an article titled Insiders Tell Us What Really Happened in Libya. My views on Benghazi can also be found in Jack Murphy and Brandon Webb’s New York Times Bestseller book Benghazi: The Definitive Report.

It has been frustrating to watch the tragic events in Benghazi being used as a political football in the US Congress and media. I have been confident that my theory about that day was much closer to what actually happened than what politicians and much of the press have been reporting for the past year. The political and media circus about Benghazi for the past year has been irresponsible because the myths and misrepresentations about what happened in Benghazi has politicized a tragedy that should have united all Americans. I hope those of you with an interest in what actually transpired that horrible day in Benghazi will take the time to read David Kirkpatrick’s New York Times report.

The Controversy Surrounding the Syria Film “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” at the Arpa International Film Festival

The documentary film about Syria, Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, is being shown at over 75 film festivals around the world, has won nearly 20 awards, has been seen by millions on television, and has been the subject of intense media coverage for over a year.

With the exception of the ranting and raving of YouTube and Twitter users, the film has not generated much controversy. It is a straightforward and honest film – the story of the Syrian revolution as told through the experiences of two young Syrians, a male rebel fighter and a female journalist. I simply let the two subjects of the film, Nour Kelze and Omar Hattab (Mowya), tell their story without injecting my personal views about the conflict into the film.

This lack of controversy changed at this year’s Arpa International Film Festival held at the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, California. Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution was to be awarded the prestigious Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award, one of the highest awards and honors of the festival (Armin T. Wegner was a German soldier turned human rights activist whose photographs documented the Armenian Genocide.)

That Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution would receive the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award was announced in the press on September 13: “The 2013 nominees and Special Awards recipients Matthew Van Dyke and Sev Ohanian truly reflect the festival’s core philosophy, which is to cultivate cultural understanding and global empathy. These are films which shed light on people and places that Los Angeles audiences might only know from the news. Matthew’s film follows two people on the front lines of the conflict in Syria, while Sev’s film shows the tragic effects of cultural divide here in the United States.” (Sev Ohanian was being awarded the Breakthrough Filmmaker Award for his work as a producer on one of the biggest films of 2013, Fruitvale Station.

The Arpa International Film Festival contacted me requesting that I attend the festival to receive the award in person, noting that the recipient of the award has personally received it each year since the inaugural award in 2003.

For nearly 2 weeks there was no reaction to the announcement. Then suddenly, just a few days before the awards ceremony on September 29, Arpa International Film Festival director Alex Kalognomos was flooded with phone calls demanding that the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award be withdrawn for Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution. The pro-Assad activists had begun their campaign against the film.

The complaints were primarily from Armenian-Americans (Arpa International Film Festival is an Armenian-American event). Some objected to the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award being given to a pro-revolution film because they believed that a humanitarian award, and especially one with Wegner’s legacy attached to it, should not be awarded to a film that takes one side and features two subjects who advocate armed struggle against an oppressor. This was an understandable concern given many people’s limited perspective on what humanitarianism is and means.

However, many others openly voiced their support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. They accused Arpa International Film Festival of giving an award to a film that shows the Syrian revolution in a positive light, when in their view the Syrian revolution will lead to a genocide against the Armenian community in Syria. They argued that the Assad regime had protected Armenians in Syria and that supporting the Assad regime was in the best interest of the Armenian community.

Judging by the complaints, most of these people had not seen the film. They accused the film of celebrating Al Qaeda (Al Qaeda is not mentioned in the film, no members of Al Qaeda appear in the film, and the only fighters in the film are part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which in recent months has occasionally been fighting against Al Qaeda).

After a couple of days of being flooded with phone calls, some of which threatened protests against the festival, Alex Kalognomos informed me that the Arpa International Film Festival had decided to withdraw the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award this year. Alex Kalognomos was very sympathetic and apologetic about the situation.  He was also concerned about my welfare during the Q&A session and assured me that it would be conducted in a civil manner but that I could face tough questions.

I told him that I made the film in one of the most dangerous places in the world, Aleppo, Syria, so there was nothing I feared in Los Angeles, California.

Alex also informed me that Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution would receive a new award, the Silver Lens Award, that would honor courage and bravery in filmmaking. The Arpa International Film Festival Silver Lens Award would be given annually, with Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution being the inaugural recipient of the new award. This was to be a great honor.

I was disappointed that the film would not receive the humanitarian award because it would have been a great way to highlight the humanitarian nature of the crisis in Syria. Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution had already won a similar award, the Best Human Rights Short Award (sponsored by Amnesty International) at the Isle of Wight Film Festival in the United Kingdom.

However, I recognized that this was a great opportunity for dialogue about the conflict in Syria and to get Americans talking about the Syrian revolution. I contacted several activists and asked them to rally revolution activists to support Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution through phone calls, Tweets, Facebook posts, and emails to Arpa International Film Festival.

And they responded with a level of energy and commitment that was inspiring. The Syrian American Council (SAC) and the Syrian American Alliance (SAA) sent emails to their members and posted online about the controversy, asking their members to contact Arpa International Film Festival in support of Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution receiving the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award.

Alex Kalognomos received many calls in support of Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, and he really tried hard to discuss the issue with each caller when possible.

On the night of the screening of the film on September 28, the night before the award’s ceremony on the 29th, Syrian-Americans (mostly from SAC-LA) faced the protestors against the film outside of the famous Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, California.

A police helicopter even came and hovered above, watching the protest. But they did not find violence, just scenes like this:

Syria protestors from opposite sides hug outside of the Arpa International Film Festival at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, California.

Syria protestors from opposite sides hug outside of the Arpa International Film Festival at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, California.

They also saw supporters of the film outnumbering those protesting against it.

At the Q&A session after the film I did receive a few tough questions, mostly having to do with Al Qaeda in Syria, which my film had nothing to do with.

Director Matthew VanDyke answers questions about his Syria film

Director Matthew VanDyke answers questions about his Syria film “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” during the Q&A at Arpa International Film Festival.

It provided a good opportunity to point out that the Free Syrian Army is the only thing standing between Al Qaeda and the Armenian community in Syria, and that the Free Syrian Army protects Armenians and Christians from both the Assad regime and Al Qaeda.

It was also a good opportunity to point out that the Free Syrian Army is fighting for the liberty of everyone in Syria, including Syrian-Armenians.

I chose not to prepare a speech for the awards ceremony the following night, deciding instead to speak from the heart given the level of emotions that others had expressed surrounding the giving of a humanitarian award to Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution at the Arpa International Film Festival.

In addition to reiterating that the Free Syrian Army is not Al Qaeda and that the Free Syrian Army is fighting for all Syrians, and thanking Alex Kalognomos for his kindness and professionalism throughout the controversy, I made two points that need repeating here:

  1. I was pleased to see the protestors against the film because it showed that they cared enough about something to get up off their sofa and show up outside Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre to express their opinions. This freedom of expression is part of why the Syrian revolution is being fought, so that Syrians can one day have that freedom as well. I appreciated the dialogue between the pro-revolution and pro-Assad protestors and although I disagree with supporters of the Assad regime I was glad that they expressed their opinions on an issue they are passionate about.
  2. I accepted responsibility personally and on behalf of other Syrian revolution activists for failing over the past two years to effectively communicate to the American people who the Syrian rebels are and why they are fighting the Assad regime. The Q&A session after the film had revealed that some Americans believe that the revolution is run by Al Qaeda and even that the Free Syrian Army is synonymous with Al Qaeda. It is not their fault, however, that they believe this but instead our fault for failing with public outreach to inform the American people about the Syrian revolution. I said in the speech that we all needed to do a better job of communicating with the American people and that the controversy surrounding the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award being awarded to Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution had energized me to work even harder on doing so effectively.

There are many lessons we can learn from what happened at Arpa International Film Festival this year – that there are many interests involved in the Syrian conflict, that activism in the revolution is alive and well, that Arpa International Film Festival is a professional and well-run event, and that Alex Kalognomos deserves much acclaim for his handling of the controversy.

And that Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution sure looks good on a big screen like the one at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre.

The Syria film

The Syria film “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” being shown in the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles during the Arpa International Film Festival

However, the most important lesson of all is that the Syrian revolution must refocus its efforts on public outreach.

When we have Americans confusing the Free Syrian Army with Al Qaeda, we are facing a serious problem. We will never convince Americans to support the Syrian revolution if they believe that international intervention would be in support of Al Qaeda. We must do a better job of communicating to the American people that the Free Syrian Army is not Al Qaeda, that the Free Syrian Army is the beating heart of this revolution, and that the Free Syrian Army needs our support.

I would like to thank all of those who contacted Arpa International Film Festival to voice their support for the film, particularly SAC, SAC-LA, and SAA.

Director Matthew VanDyke with supporters of his documentary film about Syria

Director Matthew VanDyke with supporters of his documentary film about Syria “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” at the Arpa International Film Festival.

Matthew VanDyke with supporters at the Arpa International Film Festival at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, California.

Matthew VanDyke with supporters at the Arpa International Film Festival.

I would also like to thank Arpa International Film Festival for the Silver Lens Award, as well as Arpa founder Sylvia Minassian and Alex Kalognomos for their care and support, and for having one of the best film festivals I have ever been to.

Click here to watch the documentary film about Syria, Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution

Please share this blog post on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Reddit, etc.

Comments on the blog and under the film on YouTube are also much appreciated.

Thank you for your support.

How Osama bin Laden Changed My Life

How Osama bin Laden Changed My Life

My article this week is at The Huffington Post.  Click below to read it:

“I didn’t learn that Osama bin Laden was dead until August 24, 2011, nearly four months after he was killed. I had just escaped from Abu Salim prison in Libya a few hours earlier and was talking to my girlfriend on the phone for the first time in nearly six months.”

“I now realize with the benefit of hindsight that the course of my life was altered dramatically by Osama bin Laden in ways that I had never considered. Specifically, the response by my country to bin Laden’s attack on 9/11 changed my fate and exposed me to a world and experiences that would lead me down a very strange path.”

Read more at The Huffington Post HERE

Why Islamists Winning Elections Is Good for Democracy and the War on Terrorism

Why Islamists Winning Elections Is Good for Democracy and the War on Terrorism

My article this week is at The Huffington Post. Click the text below to read it:

Why Islamists Winning Elections Is Good for Democracy and the War on Terrorism

“Journalists, pundits and politicians seem increasingly obsessed with fears that Islamists winning elections in the wake of successful Arab Spring uprisings will prove detrimental to democracy, regional security, and the War on Terrorism.

Nothing could be further from the truth…”

Read more at The Huffington Post

The Tuareg Rebellion in Mali

The Tuareg Rebellion in Mali

(also available in French here)

Matthew VanDyke wearing a Tuareg tagelmust in the Sahara desert

Matthew VanDyke wearing a Tuareg tagelmust in the Sahara desert

I admittedly had some mixed feelings when deciding whether to write about the Tuareg rebellion because of my experience as a freedom fighter in the Libyan civil war.  Thousands of Tuaregs were serving in Muammar Gaddafi’s army during the Libyan civil war and others went to Libya as mercenaries to join them.  If I had encountered any of them on the battlefield they would have been in my crosshairs like any other Gaddafi fighter.

But I never saw a Tuareg during the war and with good reason.  Most had already fled back to Mali before I escaped from prison and returned to the front lines.  They weren’t Gaddafi loyalists, they were Gaddafi opportunists – they came for money – and while I consider this even more deplorable than actually believing in Gaddafi and being a true loyalist, it at least suggests that their participation in the Libyan civil war was morally but not ideologically corrupt.

The Tuareg desire for self-determination cannot be dismissed despite the desire of many to do so for the past hundred years.  This is a conflict that has been ongoing since 1962 and is just the latest of four Taureg rebellions in Mali.  The Tuareg, the fabled Blue Men of the Desert, have demonstrated repeatedly that they won’t disappear quietly into the Sahara.

The current Tuareg rebellion, by far the most organized, equipped, and successful of them all, has given the Tuaregs the best opportunity for self-determination that they have ever had.  They may never be in this position again, flush with arms and ammunition and their ranks dominated by veteran fighters returning from war in a neighboring country.  The military wing of the movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad(MNLA), has learned the mistakes of past Tuareg rebellions and will not repeat them.  This time they have also learned some lessons of the Arab Spring and are supported by a virtual army of Tuareg activists around the world who use social media to communicate, coordinate, and propagandize the conflict to carry it far beyond the sands of the Sahara.

Azawad Calling

The Tuareg want to establish their own country, Azawad, in northern Mali.  Their traditional homeland in the Sahara was carved apart by the French during the Scramble for Africa and divided among Mali, Niger and Algeria, all of whose borders were carefully drawn by France to pursue its own interests in Africa.  The Tuareg of Mali, a nomadic desert people, were lumped into a country twice the size of France and quickly fell under the dominance of their former slaves, the black Africans living in tropical Mali south of the Niger River.  Like many of the colonial borders drawn in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia by European powers in the 19th and 20th centuries during the period of New Imperialism Mali was destined for perpetual strife.

Unlike many other intrastate conflicts, the Tuareg aren’t fighting for resources or valuable land.  The conflict is primarily ideological, a matter of cultural pride to a people with simple needs and interests.  Mali is already one of the poorest countries in the world and Azawad would be even poorer, at least for the first several years.  However, the geology of the Taoudeni Basin in northern Mali suggests that significant oil and gas reserves may lay beneath the sand.  Companies have been unable to conduct adequate surveys of the area due to poor security in the region, but there is little doubt that there is enough oil to allow Azawad to survive as an independent nation.  Cynical observers with no sense of history have suggested that those oil reserves are behind the current rebellion, an argument that doesn’t stand when one considers that the Tuareg have been fighting for independence in Mali for 50 years.

Resistance by the West, Mali, and its Neighbors

The arguments in favor of preserving Mali’s territorial integrity at the expense of the Tuaregs are difficult to justify.  The West’s primary interest in Mali is fighting Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and preserving Mali’s 20 year history as a democratic country and stabilizing force in West Africa.  Mali is active in several programs, initiatives, and organizations in the region and has been a valued and reliable partner of the West.  The US and EU are also concerned that unrest in Mali could spread and that a lack of central authority in the Azawad region could lead to a safe haven for Al Qaeda as existed in Afghanistan prior to 2001.

Algeria and Niger believe that the creation of Azawad would incite Taureg rebellions in their own countries (and in the case of Algeria, perhaps a Tuareg-inspired Berber rebellion as well).  This is similar to the arguments made by Turkey and Iran about Kurdish independence – that it would inspire the Kurds in their own countries to also seek independence.  Like Turkey and Iran, Algeria and Niger will do everything they can to crush the aspirations for self-determination in a neighboring country in the pursuit of crushing them at home.

The government of Mali is panicked, despite enjoying the overwhelming support of non-Tuareg Malians (and a limited number of Tuaregs as well).  The Tuareg rebellion has been so successful that it prompted a coup d’etat by military officers desperate to stop it, ending 20 years of democracy in Mali.  The Malian government and most of its citizens believe that preserving their multi-ethnic, territorially vast, democratic country is in the best interest of everyone.  They also don’t want to lose whatever natural resources might lay hidden beneath the sands of northern Mali.

Intelligence and Policy Failure

The scandal in all of this was that the Tuareg insurgency of 2012 was entirely predictable and could have been prevented by Mali and its allies.  Tuareg fighters were able to haul a massive arsenal of weapons and ammunition over a thousand miles from Libya to Mali, through Algeria or Niger, without interference by Mali’s allies in the West, Algeria, or the Malian government.  It was an extraordinary display of incompetence by all involved.

That a Tuareg insurgency would follow the Libyan civil war was entirely predictable.  The Mali civil war (1990-96) was begun by Tuareg fighters supported by Libya, including Tauregs who returned to Mali after serving Gaddafi in his war against Chad.  A veteran of the civil war,  Ag Bahanga, led the failed 2006 uprising and was forced to flee to Libya in 2009.  He became a close confident of Muammar Gaddafi.  Another Tuareg leader, Mohammed Ag Najm, became a commander of one of Gaddafi’s elite desert units, and many Tuaregs enlisted in the Libyan army.

Bahanga and Najm waited for their opportunity to act.  Once the Libyan civil war began to turn against Gaddafi in early summer 2011 Bahanga and Najm led the Tuaregs to raid the arms depots and then headed southwest back to Mali.  They were in command of elite desert units that had the men, equipment, and knowledge of the desert necessary to transport their massive stockpile of weapons over a thousand miles through three countries.  It was a time-consuming and difficult operation that allegedly took several trips over a period of months and is rumored to have had the consent of the Libyan rebel government (the NTC) because it reduced Gaddafi’s arsenal and took Tuaregs off the battlefield.

The United States clearly had an interest in preventing this through either direct action or by coordinating with the Algerian or Niger authorities to stop it, especially since Bahanga and Najm’s arsenal may have included surface to air missiles.

Once again the US intelligence community has dropped the ball despite overwhelming technology and funding simply because they lacked the ability to think a few steps ahead and have the wrong people (with the wrong type of experience) working as analysts.

What happens next?

This time the proverbial genie is out of the bottle and it isn’t getting put back.  The Mali government strategy, if one can call it that, appears limited to waiting for the Tuaregs to run out of ammunition.  This is unlikely to happen anytime soon as the MNLA will successfully negotiate for the surrender of towns and garrisons as they proceed south and capture the weapons left behind.  Tuareg soldiers from the Malian army have also defected to the rebels bringing with them vehicles, weapons, and ammunition.

The coup d’etat, intended by the conspirators to better enable the military to crush the rebellion, will at least for now have the opposite effect.  The government is weaker than ever, which will hurt the morale of government forces and lead to more surrenders and defections from army ranks.

Years of cooperation between the US and Malian government are going down the drain and analysts are typing away on their keyboards generating assessments of what the latest Tuareg rebellion means to the United States and the War on Terrorism.  A determination will likely be made that short-term regional stability trumps all other concerns, as usual; even the right to self-determination which is part of our national ethos.

The State Department will frantically start pulling the levers of diplomacy to find a negotiated solution to end the conflict – a negotiated solution that will certainly not allow for the creation of Azawad as a new country.  The US military may even cooperate with the Malian military to crush the rebellion which will do far more than anything to push Tuaregs, who have historically shown little affinity for AQIM, straight to their neighborhood jihadi recruitment office.

Red, White, and Blue Men of the Desert?

The current situation presents a historic opportunity for the United States.  The coup d’etat was counterintuitively fortuitous by giving the US government an excuse to withhold support for the Malian government.  This will provide more time to assess the situation, avoid angering the Tuaregs, lessen AQIM’s ability to capitalize on the insurgency with propaganda against the West, send the message that coup d’etats against democratic governments will not be tolerated, help the US walk the fine line of not angering Algeria and Niger, and most importantly allow the Tuaregs to achieve their goal of establishing Azawad.

How is the creation of Azawad possibly in the interest of the United States?  The time to stop this from happening was when Bahanga and Najm set off from Libya.  Tracking their movements and having the Algerians stop them, or alternatively, making sure those convoys mysteriously disappeared in the desert with nothing but charred, smoking wrecks of vehicles left behind, would have solved this before it started.  Now, it is too late.

Within the next few weeks Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu will fall to the Tuaregs.  With the acquisition of the three capitals of the three regions that will compose Azawad the territorial aspirations of the Tuaregs will be largely complete.  Entrenched in favorable terrain and enjoying the support of the local population, the Tuaregs can defend Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu against any counter-offensive by Mali’s small army of 7,000 (now likely only 4,500 if estimates of casualties and desertions are accurate).

The war is lost.

If policymakers in Washington have learned anything from the Arab Spring (and they appear to be learning, slowly) they should realize this and will soon begin tapping every connection they have with the Tuaregs to convince them to stop at the Niger River, to negotiate a ceasefire with Mali, and to guide the Tuareg leadership towards democracy, self-governance, and further cooperation with the US against AQIM in exchange for political and economic support.  They’ll push for the federal solution to the conflict that grants the Tuaregs semi-autonomy over northern Mali, which might not be acceptable to either side.  The Tuaregs have been burned before by the Malian government refusing to honor the terms of previous agreements.

The US government will be reluctant to support the creation of Azawad as a new country.  Those working at the State Department, Pentagon, and the intelligence agencies have never understood this part of the world, as revealed by Wikileaks documents on Mali.  A career government analyst will have a hard time wrapping his head around how dispersed desert nomads would be better partners in the fight against AQIM than the government of Mali.

The reason why should be obvious even to those who haven’t spent time among the people of the Sahara.  Mali has never had any real control over the Azawad territories.  The Tuaregs are culturally, racially, and politically foreign to the central government, and the Sahara is hostile territory to the vast majority of Malians.  They have never been able to tame it, understand it, or function in it.  Mali was never going to be a truly effective partner against AQIM.

Azawad, on the other hand, will be.  Nobody knows the desert better than the Tuaregs.  They have lived there for two thousand years, know every route and every track in the desert, are connected by tribal and family ties that make it impossible for someone to join AQIM without others knowing, and most importantly have shown little desire for either radical Islam or terrorism in the past.  The MNLA has made it very clear that they intend to create a secular, democratic state. With no history of radical Islamism, the majority of Tuaregs opposed to the imposition of sharia law, and a matrilineal society that respects the rights of women, there is no reason to doubt their intentions.

Most importantly for the United States, the Tuareg are the only people who can effectively police that region of the world, and since the Tuaregs are dispersed over 5+ nations their reach and potential as a partner in the War on Terrorism should not be underestimated.

The Sahara is their sandbox, and they know everyone who plays in it.

Fighting AQIM is the only significant strategic interest the United States has in this fight, other than maintaining good relations with Algeria and Niger or preventing instability from spreading beyond Mali’s borders.  Every effort should be made to reach out to the Tuaregs and gain influence and favor with them to ensure that the United States has influence in Azawad when this war is over.

It won’t be easy.  The Tuareg are fiercely proud and independent.  Whatever we do they won’t ever love us – they even fight among themselves.  They’ll always question our intentions and the Sahara is notorious for conspiracy theories that will only bolster their suspicions.  However, the Tuareg relationship with Gaddafi should serve as a model for a US-Azawad relationship.

The Tuareg can be bought.  They have replaced their ancient camel caravans transporting salt across the Sahara with Toyota pickup trucks smuggling cocaine, weapons, and migrants.  They’ve been involved in kidnapping foreigners for sale or ransom.  Corruption and criminality have spread among the Tuaregs as the Mali and Niger governments have failed to integrate them into modernity and the rest of society.  When Gaddafi stepped into this void by funding development projects, employing Tuaregs in his armed forces, declaring support for a Tuareg state, and identifying himself with the Tuareg by sleeping in tents and various other displays of tacky showmanship, the people loved him for it.

Therein lies an opportunity for the United States.  Obama doesn’t need to sleep in a tent, but supporting the Tuareg’s Azawad aspirations would go a long way if accompanied by economic development projects.  Stepping into the void left by the removal of Gaddafi would position the United States to have real influence in the region and monitor a part of the world that is often obscured in darkness.

This might be achievable through the likely outcome of this war: the federal solution of Tuareg semi-autonomy in Azawad, while remaining part of Mali.  This would resemble the situation of Kurdistan in Iraq and might satisfy enough Tuaregs to take the steam out of their rebellion.  Regardless of whether the Tuaregs achieve semi-autonomy or independence (and one of these outcomes will be the result of this successful rebellion) the United States must position itself as a friend of the Tuaregs and aggressively support the region with aid and development to buy the support of the people.

The United States cannot risk Azawad resembling Afghanistan pre-2001, where American reach was so limited that Al Qaeda was able to operate with impunity.  If the US reaches out to the Tuaregs now we will gain influence over the emerging Azawad government and create bonds that could be among our most significant victories in the fight against Al Qaeda.

The Syria Game

The Syria Game

The leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently called on Al-Qaeda fighters to join the revolution in Syria and help overthrow Bashar al-Assad.  That the United States and al-Qaeda find themselves on the same side in Syria highlights the complexity of the conflict.

Syria is about more than just Syria.  Its geographic location, ethnic and religious divisions, ties to Iran and Hezbollah, influence in Lebanon, relationships with Russia and China, vast chemical weapons program, conflict with Israel, and pivotal role in the Arab Spring movement has made it the center of a geopolitical struggle that extends far beyond Syria’s borders.

The Syrian Civil War is well on its way to becoming a proxy war, much like the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970s and 80s.  It is also part of a larger strategic rivalry between East and West, much like The Great Game between the British and Russian Empires in Central Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The players in this new Great Game in Syria have chosen their sides and have enough at stake that they’ll do almost anything to win.

Team Assad

Map of the most influential countries supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria

The most influential countries supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad

Russia and China

Russia is engaged in a desperate bid for survival and relevancy in a rapidly changing world.  It has declined from a world superpower to a flawed, corrupt, quasi-democratic, largely dysfunctional shadow of its former self that is desperately grasping at spheres of influence that are steadily shrinking away.  Most of these spheres of influence are in the Arab world, Asia, and Africa, where the Russians maintain significant economic and military interests.  In Syria, these include billions of dollars in defense contracts and Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base (at the Syrian port of Tartus.)

China is a rising power with similar economic and military interests in Syria.  More importantly, both Russia and China realize that the Arab Spring is just the beginning of a wave of revolutions likely to spread across the globe, and that eventually the Arab Spring will morph into a Russian and Chinese Spring that will land at their doorsteps.  They will do whatever they can, from obstructing the United Nations to advising, arming, and supporting authoritarian regimes, in order to slow the advance of democracy around the world.


Iran and Syria have an extremely close relationship that has endured for over 30 years.  They are both ruled by Shia Muslims, are opponents of Israel, and provide funding and weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Iran will do everything in its power to prevent the fall of the Assad regime because it would eliminate their strongest Arab ally, choke off Hezbollah, deny them territory from which to launch attacks against Israel, and drastically reduce Iranian influence in the Arab Middle East.  Iran also fears that once Syria falls, Iran will be among the next countries to experience a popular uprising that threatens their own regime.


Iraq, run by a Shia-dominated government that maintains a close relationship with Iran, has supported Assad throughout the uprising.  Iraq fears that a civil war punctuated by sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni could spill over the border and reignite more serious problems in Iraq.  There is no doubt that close ties with Iran also guide their support of the Assad regime.


Hezbollah receives support from Syria, and funding and weapons from Iran.  The removal of Assad would be devastating to them, and if it paved the way for regime change in Iran as well, the organization would be unlikely to survive.


Hezbollah’s political alliance, “March 8,” has been the ruling coalition in Lebanon since 2011.  Although the rival “March 14” Alliance and the majority of Lebanon’s population support the uprising against Assad, Hezbollah will use their political power to keep Lebanon in Assad’s corner, or at least on the sidelines.

Team Free Syrian Army

Map of the most influential countries supporting the Free Syrian Army

The most influential countries supporting the Free Syrian Army

The West

The United States and Europe are driven by a belief in democracy and human rights.  Although they have turned a blind eye to many protest movements in the past and considered regional stability their main priority (as evidenced by the tepid response to Egypt’s uprising against Mubarak), public outcry driven by social media has combined with a realization that the Arab Spring is unstoppable and that their political, economic, and strategic interests are best served by allying with the winning side (the revolutionaries) who will form the governments of the future.

The United States and Europe also want to remove Assad because it would severely weaken Iran strategically and politically.  Regime change in Syria, combined with economic sanctions, the covert war currently being waged against Iran, and the likelihood that Iranian nuclear facilities will be bombed within the next year, could help incite an Iranian Spring and the downfall of the regime.

The West’s enthusiasm for the revolution in Syria is nevertheless tempered by concerns that a militarized, post-Assad Syria could result in a failed state that would be disastrous for regional security, especially for the security of Israel.  The fact that Syria has one of the largest chemical weapons programs in the world and the likelihood that some of these weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists after the war ends dramatically exacerbates those concerns.


Assad’s regime is among several secular governments in the Middle East that have long been on al-Qaeda’s target list.  They are especially motivated to fight since Assad and his regime are Alawite Shia Muslims, considered heretics by al-Qaeda.  Al-Qaeda views Syria as an opportunity to join the right side of a popular revolution, and by doing so gain popularity and new recruits, weapons, and influence.  The overthrow of Assad is also central to their belief system, as the Islamic faith mandates helping oppressed Muslims.


Turkey has no interest in a protracted, years-long civil war on its border.  But the calculations that led them to provide sanctuary to the Free Syrian Army run much deeper.  Turkey has had a contentious relationship with Syria and Iran over their neighbors’ sponsorship of Kurdish PKK insurgents who are fighting Turkey’s government.  Turkey now sees an opportunity to cut off the PKK’s funding and supply lines by removing Assad from power.  They have gone all-in on the Syrian uprising, as an Assad victory would be a significant boost to the PKK, and result in a contentious relationship that could impact regional trade for years.


The Gulf Cooperation Council, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar as its most vocal critics of Assad, is siding with the Syrian protestors because the majority of them are Sunni, and because they want good relations with the new government after Assad falls.  They also want to weaken Iran.  While it may seem hypocritical for the authoritarian regimes of the GCC to be supporting popular uprisings, they have calculated that it is better to be seen as supportive of the Arab Spring, thereby diminishing calls for reform in their own countries.

The Game Has Begun…

All of these players in the Syrian game make the debate about foreign intervention rather meaningless.  Foreign intervention is already taking place.  The United Nations has been rendered useless by Russian and Chinese obstructionism, and the game is now being played through covert action, supplying weapons to the rebels, and diplomatic maneuvering.  The players of this game intend to win at almost any cost.  Although the outcome of the Syrian Civil War appears to favor the downfall of Bashar al-Assad, the amount of time it takes and the number of lives that are lost will be largely dependent on who plays the game the best.

The Lebanese Civil War should serve as a cautionary tale for foreign intervention in Syria.  That proxy war lasted 15 years with over 1 million killed or wounded.  The similar demographics and sectarian divisions in Syria virtually ensure a repeat scenario if the international community plays the game the same way in Lebanon.

The countries that support a free Syria must intervene in an unambiguous, direct way that signals a full commitment to the removal of Assad.  The Syrian rebels must consolidate under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.  Once they have done this, they must be well-equipped with all of the weapons, ammunition, intelligence, and supplies needed to defeat Assad as quickly as possible.

Foreign intervention in Libya helped us win the war far more quickly and with fewer casualties than would have been possible on our own.  The NATO campaign was not only strategically important, but it signaled an international commitment to the removal of Gaddafi that led to far more Libyans joining the rebel ranks.  Once this happened, we were unstoppable.

The international community has the ability, and the obligation, to ensure that the outcome of the Syrian Civil War looks like Libya, not Lebanon.

Matthew VanDyke with his Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycle at the Castle of Assassins in Musyaf Syria

Matthew VanDyke with his Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycle at the Castle of Assassins in Musyaf, Syria