WASHINGTON – Vice President Joe Biden has had to apologize, twice, to two key U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State. It wasn’t because he lobbed false accusations at them. It was because he accidentally told some inconvenient truths.
Speaking at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard University late last week, Biden departed from his prepared remarks to deliver a series of broadsides against Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), three powerful members of the emerging U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia and the UAE took part in the initial U.S. airstrikes against the group, and Riyadh has offered to host a training facility for thousands of moderate Syrian rebels. The Turkish parliament recently voted to authorize military strikes into both Syria and Iraq.
But those weren’t the parts of the three countries’ records that Biden focused on. Turkey, the U.S. vice president said, had failed to close its long border with Syria, allowing militants with loyalties to the Islamic State to easily cross the frontier and join the fight there. He said that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, meanwhile, had transferred hundreds of millions of dollars and large amounts of weaponry to a variety of Islamist militias inside Syria, including at least one with ties to al Qaeda.
The leaders of the three countries were apoplectic, but there are elements of truth in everything Biden said, particularly when it comes to Turkey, which would be a pivotal player in any serious effort to defeat the Islamic State.
Take Turkey. U.S. officials have long believed that Ankara has done virtually nothing to seal its border with Syria and has avoided taking any direct military action against the Islamic State, in part because the militants had until recently held dozens of Turkish diplomats and other citizens as hostages. The New York Times reported in September that as many as 1,000 Turks have crossed the border into Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State, along with an unspecified number of foreign fighters.
In September, when he announced the start of the current campaign against the Islamic State, U.S. President Barack Obama alluded to the border issue – though he didn’t specifically mention Turkey – when he stressed the need to “stem the flow of foreign fighters.”
As many as 1,000 Turks have joined the Islamic State, according to Turkish news media reports and government officials there. Recruits cite the group’s ideological appeal to disaffected youths as well as the money it pays fighters from its flush coffers. The CIA estimated last week that the group had between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria.
Some U.S. officials hope that Turkey will be willing to do more against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, now that the hostages have been freed and the militants appear to be potentially only days away from conquering a strategically important city on the Syrian-Turkish border.
“We have identified the tightened security at some of these borders, including the border between Turkey and Syria, as a key priority in shutting off support to ISIL and other extremists who are operating inside Syria,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday, Oct. 6.
The diplomatic flap dates back to Biden’s remarks at Harvard, where he bluntly said, “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria” in response to a question from a student who asked whether the United States should have acted earlier to stop the civil war in Syria and why it has chosen to act now.
“The Turks were great friends, and I’ve a great relationship with (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan, … the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down (Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war. What did they do?” Biden asked, according to a recording of the speech posted on the White House’s website. “They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra, and al-Qaida and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
“President Erdogan told me – he is an old friend – said, ‘You were right; we let too many people through. Now we are trying to seal the border” with Syria, Biden said.
Erdogan denied making such remarks, insisted that no militants had ever crossed into Syria from Turkey, and said Biden would become “history to me” over the vice president’s comments. The UAE’s foreign minister said the remarks were “far from the truth.”
Biden apologized to Erdogan, and the White House said the vice president called the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, to say that his remarks were not “meant to imply that the Emirates had facilitated or supported” the Islamic State, al-Qaida, or other terrorist groups in Syria. On Monday, the White House said Biden “has enough character to admit when he’s made a mistake.”
Since Obama assembled a coalition against the Islamic State, “Saudi Arabia has stopped the funding going in. Saudi Arabia has allowed training on its soil of American forces,” Biden said. “The Qataris have cut off support for the most extreme elements of terrorist organizations.”
But here’s the rub: Biden’s comments may have been impolitic – and in some ways imprecise – but the substance of his remarks match up with what the U.S. intelligence community has known for some time and has even publicly alluded to.
“Syria has become a proxy battle between Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah on one side and Sunni Arab states on the other,” James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in Senate testimony in January. The “unhappiness of some Arab Gulf States with U.S. policies on Iran, Syria, and Egypt might lead these countries to reduce cooperation with the United States on regional issues and act unilaterally in ways that run counter to U.S. interests.”
The State Department’s latest report on counterterrorism says that though Qatar has cooperated with the United States on some important areas of counterterrorism, its efforts to stop fundraising for terrorist groups have been inconsistent. “Qatari-based terrorist fundraisers, whether acting as individuals or as representatives of other groups, were a significant terrorist financing risk and may have supported terrorist groups in countries such as Syria,” the report says.
Indeed, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have given significant support to the Free Syrian Army, a militia seen as far more moderate that the Islamists now leading the fight against Assad. Some of that money and weaponry is believed to now be in the hands of fighters from the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, and other extremist groups. In a key nuance lost in Biden’s remarks, though, many U.S. officials believe that the Islamists took possession of the money and armaments after overtaking Free Syrian Army positions or welcoming in defectors from the rebel force, but didn’t receive the funds and supplies directly from either Gulf government.
Officials from the UAE and Saudi Arabia strongly deny that they ever funneled weapons or money to the Islamic State or al-Nusra Front, though they acknowledge taking steps to support the Free Syrian Army after Obama overruled his senior national security advisors two years ago and refused to have the United States support the group. Obama has recently reversed himself and announced plans to mount a significant effort to train, fund, and equip the Free Syrian Army, though some rebel commanders believe that it is too little, too late.
Jon Alterman, a senior vice president for global security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Biden’s comments weren’t incorrect but were a bit imprecise.
“There was certainly support for terror groups coming out of friendly countries in the region,” Alterman said. But one could conclude from Biden’s comments that the “governments in the region were directly supporting these groups, and I don’t think that’s what he meant to say. The extent to which governments supported or condoned such support is unclear.”
The role of America’s allies in supporting groups battling Assad was well documented in a research paper commissioned by the Brookings Institution in December 2013.
As new armed groups opposed to Assad were forming in 2012, donors from Kuwait – a key ally of the United States in the region and a staging ground for American troops in the last two wars in Iraq – were ramping up their donations, according to the paper titled “Playing with Fire: Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria’s Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home,” by Elizabeth Dickinson, who’s a contributor to Foreign Policy.
In early 2012, “there was an explosion of videos, tweets and photos on social media, announcing the creation of new rebel brigades – some even named after individual Kuwaitis who had contributed,” Dickinson wrote. “The buzz attracted donors not just from Kuwait but likely from individuals across the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”
Kuwaiti contributors consolidated donations for specific rebel groups, including al-Nusra Front, Dickinson wrote.
Although Saudi Arabia discouraged the country’s religious establishment from getting directly involved in Syria, in 2012 the kingdom conducted a telethon to raise funds, Dickinson wrote.
Many Persian Gulf countries have gotten better at tracking the flow of funds from their nationals to rebel groups in Syria and elsewhere. However, “they have not been 100 percent effective,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Alterman said. That’s partly for “their own internal political reasons.”
Having the freedom to donate to Islamic charities is somewhat similar to the passionate defense of Second Amendment rights in the United States, Alterman added.
“We have people who feel strongly about gun rights,” Alterman said. “They have people who feel strongly about citizens contributing to charities in an unfettered way. It sounds like a trite comparison, but the emotional content is similar.”