Who’s behind the Syrian Support Group?

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This is an open-ended exploration of some of the outside figures offering assistance to the Syrian Support Group (SSG). These figures have assisted in the granting of a license that enabled the Group to effectively send arms and money to the ‘Free Syrian Army’. The license was provided by the US State Dept’s oddly named ‘Office of Terrorism Finance and Economic Sanctions Policy’. Part of the Office of Terrorism Finance’s stated remit is to coordinate: “efforts to create, modify, or terminate unilateral sanctions regimes as appropriate to the changing international situation, such as Iran, Syria, and Libya.” The license was granted in July 2012, based on a May application letter—a remarkably short time considering the nature of the SSG’s objectives and the complexities of the situation.

With the license the SSG can now bypass laws restricting trade with Syria and it is free to pay the wages of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and enable them to buy weapons. The arrangements also seems to include chemical weapons training. From its onset Louay Sakka, the SSG spokesman stated: “Right now we’re only asking them to provide more sophisticated weapons which nobody is willing to do” (Agence France Presse, June 8, 2012).

Obviously this American funding is in addition to secret CIA funding, the funding of the FSA by Qatar and Saudi Arabia and it is likely it will encourage an increase in funding and support of Assad and the other factions supported by Russia and Iran as the situation develops.

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The Outside Figures

A range of outside figures have been said to appear because they are connected “to the Anglo-American opposition creation business.” Examples are given such as those around western-elite connected figures such as Bassma Kodmani, formerly of the Syrian National Council (now with the Oxford Research Group). Together with other groups the SSG ostensibly lobby the US government to provide support to the resistance against Assad.  But part of the State Dept’s deal with the SSG is that it reciprocally provides them with reports on who the money is going to. The idea is that this will help them to turn the FSA into a more organized group that could then receive intelligence and so forth from Western security agencies. Essentially this is the formation of a proxy force at arm’s length from the State Dept., so that it can retain the fiction that it is still opposed to providing direct lethal aid.

According to the New York Times, the SSG set up a base in Washington (it also has offices in London, Paris, and eastern Turkey) in April 2012 but had come together earlier in 20011; and even then the group was:

…already serving as a conduit between the United States and the armed forces seeking to topple Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and having an effect on American policy.

To further their cause and advise the Syrian Opposition Coalition in April 2013 (the dates are imprecise) the SSG hired Carne Ross and his New York-based firm, Independent Diplomat. This describes itself  as the “world’s first non-profit diplomatic advisory group.”  The idea was that the firm would:

…meet with key officials and desk officers in the State Department and other U.S. agencies to gather their views [on the Syrian civil war] and advise the Syrian Coalition how best to tailor their own approach to the U.S. Government.

In May 2012 (possibly months earlier) the SSG (or its advisers) also hired Brian Sayers, supposedly after finding him through an online employment agency. At this point the license was applied for and then approved.  Technically it was applied for by Mazen Asbahi, a lawyer who, when President Obama first ran for office, was appointed as his national coordinator to raise millions from Muslim Americans.

By granting such a license, according to a law expert, the US government has breached the UN Charter’s article 2(4), the prohibition on the threat and use of force in international relations: “the basic principle of customary international law prohibiting the interference into the domestic affairs of another state.” But no one seems interested, even although exactly who the FSA are remains a mystery: for the Russians “America’s Syrian friends and Afghan foes are same people.”

The SSG’s lucky find, Brian Sayers is said to have been an ex-NATO Advisor in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya—what he advises on we can only guess at.  Some say he was a ‘Political Officer for the International Secretariat at NATO’, others say he worked for the ‘Defense Operations Division at the US State Department,’ or he was the ‘Civilian Representative of the Secretary of Defense’.  He was also said to have run a company called ‘Private Digital Limited Corporation’.  Information on all this is scant, but the State Dept’s records have a Brian Neil Sayers, the husband of Mrs Adeline Hinderer Sayers, the second secretary for Trade at the US’ K Street Delegation of the European Union.  Sayers previously studied at the University of St. Andrews and then Georgetown University—who else found him useful one wonders?

What is peculiar here is that Sayers’ output has been given a remarkably sympathetic airing in the Israeli press.  Elsewhere we find him quoted as setting out the FSA as the lesser evil:

We believe that if the United States does not act urgently, there is a real risk of a political vacuum in Syria, including the possibility of a dispersion of chemical weapons to rogue groups such as Hezbollah.

This type of framing and commentary has a familiar ring about it: a private group being given tax-deductible status to raise money for an armed rebel group trying to overthrow a government in a country with which the US is not at war: the outsourcing to the private sector of the sort of thing the CIA used to do.

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The Spook

Carne Ross’ International Diplomat (ID) reports to Najib Ghadbian, who co-ordinates the SSG. According to Ross’ firm, with SSG he will: “meet with key officials and desk officers in the State Department and other U.S. agencies to gather their views [on the Syrian civil war] … and advise the Syrian Coalition how best to tailor their own approach to the U.S. Government.” The acknowledged (thanks to Wikileaks) State Dept. funding of a Syrian opposition dates back to at least 2006. Ross started to advise the ‘National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces’ at the point were concerns were publicly raised that the rebellion was “being hijacked by Islamists linked to Al Qaeda” according to the New York Times.  But the rebellion has never really been in the ascendency, nor has its rebels been homogenous: in 2012, when the US blacklisted the Al-Qaeda-linked group Al-Nusra Front in Syria, the measure was initially criticized by the opposition. Of his firm’s role Ross was quoted as saying: “We’re not lobbyists, we’re an advisory group.”  But he openly advocates intervention, arguing that similar fears of a perceived Islamist threat were used to justify non-intervention in Bosnia two decades ago.  This was parroted by Johnathan Freedland in the Guardian (seemingly before Ross was hired).  Ross’ other pronouncements in favour of escalating the conflict, include the inflamatory ‘Let’s call Russia’s bluff on Syria,’ also in the Guardian.  Independent Diplomat, as a private firm, clearly perceived an opportunity to shakedown the émigré groups that would emerge and be supported by the West.

After he resigned over Syria, Kofi Annan wrote in the Financial Times that peace was never given a chance by the UN: multiple players were responsible for the failure of diplomacy in Syria, and he said that Assad was not solely responsible for peace in the region. For Al Jazeera the UN’s Security Council is engaged in a hegemonic power struggle over the Syrian conflict.  The legend which has been put around Carne Ross is that he is some saintly liberal interventionist helping the underdog, somehow at a remove from these machinations and the sanctions on, and then invasion of Iraq.  But he was not. Now that he has ‘resigned’ Ross has availed himself of the situation whereby governments outsource aspects of ‘diplomacy’. This privatisation of diplomacy is a return to the pre-League of Nations’ secret diplomacy: it will not tackle the problem whereby wars are run by sinister vested interests.

Ross was head of the Arab-Israeli Section of the Foreign Office according to the Jerusalem Post (September 5, 1995) and it is mentioned far and wide that he was the chief drafter of a key December 1999 UN Security Council resolution easing sanctions against Iraq in return for restarting weapons inspections (The Cairns Sun (Australia) January 5, 2001). Less put-about stories include when John Pilger met Ross, and described him, more accurately, as the British official responsible for the imposition of sanctions.  To confront him Pilger read to him a statement Ross had made to a parliamentary select committee in 2007:

“The weight of evidence clearly indicates that sanctions caused massive human suffering among ordinary Iraqis, particularly children. We, the US and UK governments, were the primary engineers and offenders of sanctions and were well aware of this evidence at the time but we largely ignored it or blamed it on the Saddam government. [We] effectively denied the entire population a means to live.”

 Ross’ reply was:

“I feel very ashamed about it… Before I went to New York, I went to the Foreign Office expecting a briefing on the vast piles of weapons that we still thought Iraq possessed, and the desk officer sort of looked at me slightly sheepishly and said, ‘Well actually, we don’t think there is anything in Iraq.’ “

Pilger’s story is really about another individual, Dr. Rafil Dhafir, who for 13 years with his ‘Help the Needy’ organisation had raised money for food and medicines for sick and starving Iraqis who were the victims of Ross’ sanctions. US officials told Dhafir his humanitarian aid was legal and then arrested him. Today, Dhafir is serving 22 years in prison for aiding terrorism.  Remember the State Dept. gave the SSG a licence to fund who knows who after looking at them for just over four or so weeks.

As chance would have it Ross has explained exactly how a false case for war is constructed using émigré and/or defector groups.  He has also outlined further how he and his colleagues pretended to delude themselves, when he was Blair’s Iraq expert at the UN security council, and was responsible for liaison with the weapons inspectors and intelligence on WMD. This was accomplished:

…not by the deliberate creation of a falsehood, but by willfully and secretly manipulating the evidence to exaggerate the importance of reports [...] and to ignore contradictory evidence. This was a subtle process, elaborated from report to report, in such a way that allowed officials themselves to believe that they were not deliberately lying —more editing, perhaps, or simplifying for public presentation.

One of many witnesses at the Chilcot enquiry bent on self-exoneration, Ross was involved in all that he condemns, i.e. he was involved in the initial preparation of Blair’s dossier on WMD, and kept quiet about it until it was too late.  He even claims to have discussed the Number 10 WMD dossier at length with David Kelly in late 2002, who told him it was overstated.  There are reasons to doubt that his resignation was particularly motivated by his experience engineering the war—as he claims. Before, when on sabbatical leave in the US, he was happily extolling the virtues of his employers in the Guardian in March 21, 2002, claiming that:

I’ve never had a problem with motivation. I always thought that this job was worthwhile and work that needed to be done. One of the great things about the Foreign Office is that nearly everbody feels like that [...] I didn’t feel unvalued a year ago.

Ross was also the UK’s Afghanistan “expert” at the UN Security Council after September 11th, 2001, and also briefly served in the British Embassy, Kabul, after the 2002 invasion.

Independent Diplomat’s name comes from one of his books: ‘Independent Diplomat, Dispatches From an Unaccountable Elite’. But we are not far away from this elite in his firm’s make-up.  It has a prestigious board of directors including Kieran Prendergast, who is also a member of the advisory board of another ‘British business intelligence’ firm, Hakluyt (Intelligence Online, January 8, 2009). Its advisory board, includes Sir David Manning, who was Tony Blair’s principal foreign affairs adviser in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. The company has been found to have engaged in activities such as employing an operative to infiltrate environmental groups on behalf of BP and Shell; it was the firm that hired the subsequently murdered British businessman Neil Heywood as a consultant in China—he was said to be “part of a global network of consultants who use local connections to provide intelligence for Hakluyt clients.”

Haykluyt’s parent company is the Holdingham Group who’s Advisory board are beyond a shadow of a doubt an unaccountable elite. Its other organisations are H+ (described as: “An insight-driven consultancy providing independent and objective advice to senior executives at leading international corporations who face major strategic challenges and decisions”) and Pelorus Research (which says: “Government intrusion into the commercial space is on the rise, and this is an increasingly important investment consideration. This weighs heaviest on industries most exposed to regulatory action, including telecoms, financial services, tobacco and natural resources”).  Yes governments are way down the pecking order here—just another palm to cross with silver in the process of money making.

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The Lobbyist

In April 2013, along with Carne Ross, the SSG also hired professional lobbyist Andrew Gifford as co-director with Sayer, together with UK Ambassador Donald MacLaren as a political Consultant and Ian Griffiths (in charge of operations). 

According to a 1991 study of the firm: in the 1980s GJW’s three founding partners worked in the offices of David Steel, James Callaghan and Edward Heath (an original partner was to be Peter Mandelson). Its Finance director, Nigel Clarke, is the nephew of former defence secretary Tom King. Gifford is known for manipulating the press, e.g. for the arms industry (such as GEC’s bid to retain an MoD contract for heavyweight torpedoes). Gifford’s firm, GJW Government Relations, also hired the young Nick Clegg and was known for its work aiding Colonel Gaddafi with Lockerbie. Other clients included Enron, Lady Shirley Porter and the Kuwaiti ruling family.  But according to PR Week (April 29, 1993) the biggest account GJW handled was with ‘Citizens for a Free Kuwait’ (similar to the SSG).  But let me back track a little bit here. Gifford is an associate of ex-SAS officer, Tony Buckingham who was “linked to a series of mercenary military operations launched on behalf of governments in power or exile and multinationals, in return for cash.” The New Statesman noted that:

Executive Outcomes was registered in the UK in September 1993 by Simon Mann, a former troop commander in 22 SAS specializing in intelligence and South African director of Ibis Air, and Tony Buckingham, an SAS veteran and chief executive of Heritage Oil and Gas. The Heritage Oil and Gas board of directors includes former Liberal Party leader David Steel, and Andrew Gifford of GJW Government Relations, an influential parliamentary lobbyist. The company, originally British, now registered in the Bahamas, is associated with a Canadian oil corporation, Ranger Oil.

Both Heritage Oil and GJW are subsidiaries of Sandline International, another international security company.  Their own testimony states that together they brokered the arms into Sierra leone that met with the approval of the British Government and MI6In the mid 1990s EO blended into Sandline International. The military companies operated from Buckingham’s offices in King’s Road, Chelsea, with the premises operated by Heritage Oil and Gas, and Branch Energy.  GJW, City PR firm Financial Dynamics and pollster Gallup joined forces to bankroll a new public affairs agency called Matrix Public Affairs Consultants.  Gifford and Tony Buckingham also share ownership with Guardian Newspapers of a publishing company called Fourth Estate.

If I turn back to GJW’S big account, Citizens for a Free Kuwait (CFK) this was a front group, established with the assistance of another large public-relations company, Hill & Knowlton. Other groups: e.g. the Council of American Muslims for Understanding were funded by the US State Dept. The Iraqi National Congress, was also a front organisation funded by the US government—all echoed the call for intervention and war.  After his 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein was accused of removing Kuwaiti premature babies from incubators and leaving them on the floor to die. The charges were made during testimony given before a meeting with a front group the ‘Congressional Human Rights Caucus’ designed to resemble the US Congress in October 1990. As John McArthur put it:

The Human Rights Caucus is not a committee of congress, and therefore it is unencumbered by the legal accouterments that would make a witness hesitate before he or she lied [ ...] Lying under oath in front of a congressional committee is a crime; lying from under the cover of anonymity to a caucus is merely public relations.

Nevertheless the story was widely circulated in the media and cited by political leaders (including George Bush and Amnesty International) as a justification to launch the invasion three months later. After the Gulf War was over, the false testimony was revealed to have been by the teenage daughter of Saud bin Nasir Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington as part of an elaborate propaganda campaign devised by Hill & Knowlton and financed by the Kuwaiti government via CFK.  GJW was hired by the Association for a Free Kuwait to lobby Westminster and Brussels. The Kuwaitis paid GJW more than £400,000 in fees and expenses while the Association’s US equivalent paid $5.6 million to Hill and Knowlton for the work in Washington (PR Week, January 17, 1991).

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The Ambassador

The SSG also hired Ambassador, Donald MacLaren, who can be seen at rallies in Whitehall that call for intervention in front of 10 Downing St. He joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 1978 and served until 2008, after posts in Berlin and Moscow he became Ambassador to Georgia from 2004 to 2007, but he was seconded to Oxford Analytica from 1998-99.  Their assessment of the situation in Syria as of May 16 (2013) was:

Syrian regime forces have managed to turn the tide in central and southern Syria by adopting a new counter-insurgency strategy. Despite slow but steady rebel advances in the north and east, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is now in a position to exploit international developments, such as the US-Russian diplomatic initiative, Saudi-Qatari divisions over the opposition, and Jordanian reluctance at hastening regime change in Syria.

Oxford Analytica is a private intelligence company advised by Sir Colin McColl the ex-Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service amongst others that includes John Negroponte who was involved in supervising the Nicaraguan Contras, and according to Michel Chossudovsky:

Negroponte’s mandate as US ambassador to Iraq [together with, now US Syrian Ambassador, Robert S. Ford] was to coordinate out of the US embassy, the covert support to death squads and paramilitary groups in Iraq with a view to fomenting sectarian violence and weakening the resistance movement. Robert S. Ford as “Number Two” [Minister Counsellor for Political Affairs] at the US Embassy played a central role in this endeavor.

OA also have Peter Woicke, former CEO of the International Finance Corporation and Managing Director of the World Bank Group and other high flyers (and David Milliband). It was started by David Young after he fled from the Nixon administration after working with the White House Special Investigations Unit, the ‘Plumbers,’ and was miraculously granted immunity from prosecution.  OA believe that the Syrian conflict is a proxy war involving the regional actors and the US and Russia.

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Conclusion

Syria’s misery is all gravy from a dripping roast for the lobbyists and advisors who will work both sides of the street thousands of miles away. Back in 2005 the Syrian government, then under fire for its suspected role in sponsoring terrorism, involved the lobbying and PR world to improve its image in the West.  Recently, the New York Times reported that high-priced PR firm, Brown Lloyd James were paid $5,000 a month for liaison between Vogue and the Syrian ‘first lady’ to put Assad and his wife into the magazine (see picture above). Even Barbara Walters, after she conducted a negative interview with Assad on ABC News, offered to provide recommendations for Sheherazad Jaafari, Assad’s press aide and a BLJ intern then applying for a job at CNN—and the daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the UN. We know of this because of information that was leaked by the hacker group Anonymous. Jaafari suggested to Assad that the:

American psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are ‘mistakes’ done and now we are ‘fixing it.’ It’s worth mentioning also what is happening now in Wall Street and the way the demonstrations are been suppressed by policemen, police dogs and beatings.

Carne Ross also advises the Wall Street Protestors. Brown Lloyd James offered advice on how to create the appearance Syria is pursuing reform while repressing the uprising and reports say it formerly advised Gaddafi in Libya and supporters of the Mujaheedin-e-Khalq (an Iranian opposition group identified as a terrorist organization by the US); other reports include the Tony Blair Faith Foundation as a client; and the BLJ team also supported the UN’s Independent Inquiry into the Oil-for-Food Programme that Carne Ross organised.

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