Remember Benghazi? How could you forget? There were nine separate investigations into the attack, and dozens of hearings. The major one, a House Select Committee investigation chaired by Trey Gowdy, cost $7 million and produced nothing of substance on the incident. There was so much interminable blather that it even gave rise to artsy word clouds devoted to the topic.
The probe did, however, start the drumbeat about the (phony) national security concerns about Hillary Clinton’s private email server, which—other than xenophobia, racist dog whistles, and general rancid vulgarity—became the Trump’s top campaign theme.
Donald Trump certainly would not coddle terrorists to the detriment of U.S. security and the risk of American lives. As he loved to remind us, he would “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” His initial Muslim travel ban was so tightly drawn that it prohibited an Iraqi four-star general from attending regular meetings with his American counterparts at Central Command headquarters in Tampa. You can never be too careful with the safety of the American people!
As coalition forces geared up this spring for the assault on ISIS’s last strongholds in Syria, Secretary of Defense James Mattis kept up the tough talk. Describing it as a war of “annihilation,” he said the following: “Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa. We are not going to allow them to do so.”
Thanks to investigative reporting by the BBC, we now know that Mattis’s promise did not come to pass. During the final October offensive on Raqqa—ISIS’s capital and holdout of the group’s toughest, last-ditch fighters—the Syrian Democratic Forces (the American-backed local coalition opposing ISIS) negotiated a deal with knowledge and agreement from the U.S. The deal resulted in the convoying out by truck of at least 250 ISIS fighters and their families, along with so many weapons and so much ammunition that it overloaded the trucks.
The report raises many questions. Why the shift of policy on the part of the U.S. government, particularly after all the blood and thunder about wiping out ISIS from Trump and his underlings? Was this truce agreement approved at the highest level, meaning by President Trump himself? What was his rationale, and doesn’t he owe the country an explanation? If not, were local U.S. commanders empowered to make such an important decision, and in that case, did they seek input from our intelligence and security services about the implications of 250-plus heavily-armed ISIS fighters running loose in the Middle East? Was the congressional leadership informed in a timely manner?
The agreement allegedly did not permit foreign-born fighters to evacuate Raqqa in the convoy. Yet the truck drivers who ferried them out stated that “there was a huge number of foreigners. France, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi, China, Tunisia, Egypt…” Were local U.S. commanders aware of that, and, if so, why did they acquiescence? And why were ISIS fighters allowed to evacuate with so much ammunition that, as one driver complained, it broke the axle of his truck?
There was also a suspiciously high ratio of purported “family members” evacuated; were they all voluntary departures, or might some of them have been hostages? (The Jerusalem Post has reported that among the civilians evacuated were ISIS’s sex slaves). Was this the only way to end the fight without the further leveling of Raqqa? Possibly so, but it would be good for administration officials to state this before a congressional committee while under oath.
It is common knowledge that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has funded and logistically supported ISIS. It is plausible that the Saudis, particularly under the energetic new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the virtual power behind the throne in the Kingdom, would be involved in any decision involving ISIS, a number of whose fighters were Saudi nationals. Since the crown prince gained power, Saudi Arabia has orchestrated the blockade of Qatar, held the Lebanese prime minister as a near-prisoner, used famine as a weapon against Yemen, and replaced Benjamin Netanyahu as the most active force trying to instigate war between America and Iran. Was there a diplomatic exchange between the Saudis and the United States over the Raqqa deal to preserve a Saudi “asset?”
Uncritical support of the Saudis has long been an Achilles heel of U.S. foreign policy. The sword-dancing by Trump’s Cabinet members at a Saudi confab during which Trump lavished praise on the despots who happen to have Trump properties on their territory does not suggest an agonizing reappraisal of our relationship. On the contrary, it points to the possibility that the relationship will be further entangled by Trump’s characteristic prehensile greed, weakness for flattery laid on amid vulgarly ostentatious trappings, and fondness for tyrannical leaders. Could this fondness have led to a side deal on Syria?
Democrats would do well to avert their gaze momentarily from Roy Moore’s slow-motion suicide-bombing of the Republican Party, and from Trump’s habitually imbecile tweets, to focus their attention on Raqqa and awaken the American press from its slumber. If Benghazi was worth two years of wall-to-wall hearings, the American people should at least be aware of what happened in Raqqa, and on whose watch it occurred. It would also lay down a marker for Trump, always quick to claim that his opponents will have blood on their hands for thwarting his immigration policies, that turnabout is fair play.