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Shady PR Operatives, Pro-Israel Ties, Anti-Castro Money: Inside the Syrian Opposition’s DC Spin Machine
During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria on September 3, Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain both cited a Wall Street Journal editorial by Elizabeth O’Bagy to support their assessment of the Syrian rebels as predominately “moderate,” and potentially Western-friendly.
“She works with the Institute of War,” Kerry said of O’Bagy. “She’s fluent in Arabic and spent an enormous amount of time studying the opposition and studying Syria. She just published this the other day. Very interesting [Wall Street Journal] article, which I commend to you.”
Kerry added, “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys.”
What Kerry and McCain neglected to mention was that O’Bagy had been recently hired as the political director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), a little known outfit that functions as a lobbying arm of the Syrian opposition in Washington.
Until today, O’Bagy had failed to note her role as a paid Syrian opposition lobbyist in her Wall Street Journal byline and did not note the position in her official bio at the Institute for the Study of War. Only after a storm of criticism did the Wall Street Journal insert a note in O’Bagy’s recent op-ed disclosing her paid position at SETF. O’Bagy was also compelled to amend her bio with a lengthy clarification about her work at SETF.
But her work at the Institute for the Study of War should have been enough to set off alarm bells.
“Logrolling for war”
The Institute for the Study of War’s (ISW) board of directors is led by William Kristol. Kimberly Kagan, the group’s president, was on General Stanley McChrystal’s strategic review team in 2009, advocating for a dramatic expansion of the US presence in Afghanistan. Her husband is Frederick Kagan, the AEI fellow who is the uncle of fellow neocon Robert Kagan.
In its 2011 annual report [PDF], the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) detailed its close working relationship with Palantir Technologies, a private surveillance firm contracted by Bank of America in 2011 in an unsuccessful plot to dismantle Anonymous and sabotage Glenn Greenwald.
The report listed New York Times reporter Michael Gordon as “ISW’s journalist in residence.” Back in January 2013, Gordon published an article pushing claims that Syrian army forces had used sarin gas, thus crossing Obama’s “red line” and triggering a US intervention. Noting that the State Department could not confirm the information in Gordon’s report, former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Pat Lang accused Gordon of “logrolling for war in Syria.”
Despite his past affiliation with a think tank dedicated to pushing for US intervention in Syria, Gordon remains on the Times’ Syria beat.
When O’Bagy took to Twitter to boast about McCain’s “shout out” to her during the Senate hearing on Syria, the conservative writer Charles C. Johnson (who recently reported on O’Bagy’s lobbying) asked her if she was in fact employed by the Syrian Emergency Task Force.
“Yes I do humanitarian aid work through the organization,” O’Bagy told Johnson. “Can’t go to Syria frequently and not help the people.”
But O’Bagy’s work has less to do with tending to the needs of war-stricken refugees than it does with leveraging the media to agitate for US intervention. Indeed, she has been among the most prominent and widely cited commentators marketing the Syrian rebels as a bunch of America-friendly moderates.
As she said during an August 26 appearance on Fox News, “What I’ve tried to show through this research and by traveling around with many of these rebel groups is that there are actually a majority of the opposition that would be aligned with U.S. interests.”
The Cuban Connection
Last summer, I encountered an exceptionally talkative young Syrian man at a tweet-up of Middle East-oriented activists in Washington DC’s Woodley Park area. Having learned that I was a journalist, he struck up a conversation, telling me eagerly about his work on behalf of the Syrian opposition through something called the Syrian Emergency Task Force.
About thirty seconds into our chat, I could tell that the young man was not the most sophisticated operator. “We’re really trying to get in with the Jews,” he told me. “We feel like the Americans really listens to them the most, so we’re working with them all we can.”
“We prefer to be referred to as the yahood,“ I responded in a deadpan tone, prompting nervous laughter from a few friends who were listening in on the conversation.
Unfazed by the sarcastic aside, the activist told me about meetings at WINEP and entreaties to AIPAC. He mentioned Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Syrian Center for Political & Strategic Studies, as a key emissary between SETF and pro-Israel lobbyists.
Ziadeh appeared at the American Jewish Committee’s 2011 Global Forum to make the case for Western intervention in Syria. Ziadeh was among the self-proclaimed “foreign policy experts” who signed an August 27 open letter to Obama calling for military intervention in Syria. Other “experts” lending their names to the letter included Karl Rove, Elliot Abrams, Governor Tim Pawlenty, and veteran anti-abortion activist Gary Bauer.
As our conversation continued, the Syrian activist revealed to me a recent training session SETF had arranged between Syrian opposition figures and Cuban exiles in Coral Gables, Florida. Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott attended the seminar, he said with pride, greeting a who’s who of hardline anti-Castro activists who had spent decades pushing for the overthrow of Cuba’s socialist regime.
When I returned home, I searched for details of the meeting and discovered a single press release posted on the anti-Castro web portal Directorio. I could find no coverage of the seminar in any US media.
According to the press release, participants in the seminar pledged “To coordinate all of our political, diplomatic, logistic and humanitarian efforts in pursuit of the liberation of Cuba and Syria; hence constituting a United Front for Freedom and Democracy; Therefore, the Cuban Resistance and the Syrian Revolution jointly declare: The people want the overthrow of the dictatorial regimes of Assad and Castro.”
On its website, SETF cites as one of its landmark achievements securing $1 million in humanitarian aid “from the Cuban-American community.”
WINEP ties, pressing for regime change
At the helm of the SETF, which is registered as a 501 c-4 lobbying organization, is a previously unknown activist named Mouaz Moustafa. Back in May, Moustafa arranged a meeting between John McCain and a group of Free Syrian Army fighters. The photo-op quickly transformed into a public relations disaster when Lebanon’s The Daily Star reported that one of the man posing with McCain had kidnapped 11 Shiite pilgrims a year before.
Since emerging as SETF’s Executive Director, Moustafa has forged close ties with WINEP, the neocon-oriented think tank founded as an ancillary of AIPAC. Formerly listed as a WINEP “expert” – his page on the think tank’s site has disappeared – Moustafa spoke at WINEP’s Soref Symposium this year.
By Moustafa’s side at the conference was Louay Sakka, the founder of the Syrian Support Group, the only organization licensed by the US government to send financial and supposedly non-lethal support to the Free Syrian Army. In soliciting donations, the group notes, “We leave it up to the people on the ground to judge how financial assistance can best put to use.”
With Congress set to vote on a resolution authorizing the US to strike Syria, SETF has issued an action alert on its website urging supporters to light up congressional phone lines urging “yes” votes. In a call with the White House, SETF urged much broader action in Syria than the “limited strikes” Obama has asked Congress to authorize. The group is dedicated to regime change, and is pressing for any and all military measures to accomplish the mission — even, apparently, boots on the ground.