The Buried Lede: Al Qaeda as a US-Approved Partner in Syria

Let me clarify at the outset: this post doesn’t directly concern the 2012 DIA intelligence report, the one that clashes with the official narrative on the rise of ISIS, the makeup of the opposition in Syria, and its relationship to its foreign backers. (More on that later.) It’s about the increasingly cozy relationship between the United States, its regional allies, and al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

It’s amazing what you can learn from establishment reporting on Syria. But you usually have to read past the first few paragraphs because journalists tend to bury the good stuff — the stuff that challenges conventional opinion — and often obscure it further with convoluted or disjointed writing, presumably so as not to discomfit government officials. Sometimes you have to read something twice to make sure it’s saying what, in fact, it’s saying.

Consider these two paragraphs that appear in a piece called “Why Assad is Losing.” It should be called: US Urging Its Proxies to Work with Al Qaeda.”

The involvement of FSA groups, in fact, reveals how the factions’ backers have changed their tune regarding coordination with Islamists. Several commanders involved in leading recent Idlib operations confirmed to this author that the U.S.-led operations room in southern Turkey, which coordinates the provision of lethal and non-lethal support to vetted opposition groups, was instrumental in facilitating their involvement in the operation from early April onwards. That operations room — along with another in Jordan, which covers Syria’s south — also appears to have dramatically increased its level of assistance and provision of intelligence to vetted groups in recent weeks.

Whereas these multinational operations rooms have previously demanded that recipients of military assistance cease direct coordination with groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, recent dynamics in Idlib appear to have demonstrated something different. Not only were weapons shipments increased to the so-called “vetted groups,” but the operations room specifically encouraged a closer cooperation with Islamists commanding frontline operations.

Got that? The US used to say to its proxies in Syria, “We’ll give you arms as long as you don’t work with Al Qaeda.” It’s now saying, “Here are some arms and please work with Al Qaeda.” Big News? Well yes, it should be, but if a tree falls in the forest and it’s not in the lede…

Example number two. These three paragraphs appear (and not in succession) in a story on the same topic covered by the previous story: the new coordinated effort of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to arm its proxies in Syria and deal a decisive blow to the Syrian government.

The leader says he explained that they and every other opposition group in the north, with the exception of Islamic State (Isis), were about to be beneficiaries of a detente between regional powers who had agreed to put their own rivalries aside and focus on a common enemy – the Syrian regime…

In early March, senior regional figures had been summoned to Riyadh by the newly crowned King Salman to hear his plans for the region. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was one of the first to arrive. Qatari officials and Gulf Co-operation Council leaders soon followed.

His message was threefold: first, there was to be no more division along regional lines, which had seen the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned governments of Turkey and Qatar pour support into allied Syrian groups, while Saudi focused on more mainstream outfits. Second, Riyadh would agree to send gamechanging weaponry to northern Syria in return for guarantees of coordination and discipline. And, finally, the US would not stand in the way. “Quite frankly,” a Saudi official told the Observer, “it would not have bothered us if they had tried to.”

There you have it. The Obama administration is green-lighting a plan to send huge amounts of arms to a coalition that includes Al Qaeda (and other jihadist groups.) Pretty good story, eh? But like the related news in the previous story, it gets lost in an often-giddy discussion of Assad’s alleged diminishing prospects in the face of new cooperation between his foreign adversaries.

Those who dismiss as a conspiracy theory the notion that the US was complicit in the rise of IS should consider its AQ-friendly policy today.

Posted in Blog
2 comments on “The Buried Lede: Al Qaeda as a US-Approved Partner in Syria
  1. Louis Proyect says:

    So gratifying to see a young man like yourself sounding the alarum about the dreaded Islamic terrorist. You are part of the new generation carrying on in Christopher Hitchens tradition.

    • Tettodoro says:

      David – you take a complex and informative story and fillet it for the bits that can be fitted into your narrative. That’s really not a good way to use your intellectual capacities. Lister is a knowledgeable analyst,so let’s take this story as accurate. The “vetted” elements of the Syrian armed opposition are being supported by the US to fight ISIS: but they view their fight as against both ISIS and the Syrian regime – they reject being an American proxy army (since you don’t like proxy armies you should sympathise). In order to wage this fight successfully they have to cooperate with other forces – and that includes Jabhat al-Nusra (or “al-Qaeda” as you folk like to refer to them). What Lister says is that all the support coming through the “Turkish operations room” is going to the vetted groups (aka moderates) – but they are being given a go ahead to work in a wider coalition. My guess would be the reasoning goes like this “Better we let the people we’ve vetted carry on the fight on the ground they way they want than lose them altogether and have no leverage at all.” A pretty common military strategy. What’s your beef?
      Some of the bits of the story you choose to pass over: Lister refers to “moderate and conservative Syrian Islamists” – a distinction you seem incapable of making(as in your DIA post);he tells us “the reality on the ground was that the recent offensive brought together many groups holding very different ideologies.” (ditto)”Despite the improved cooperation on the battlefield, Syrians still remain deeply suspicious of Jabhat al-Nusra’s objectives in Syria, and U.S.-backed factions still engage warily with Islamists.”
      Lister also understands the real dynamic of all this: “This by extension will provide an even more solid barrier of defense against the Islamic State, should it some day carry through on its threat to return to northwestern Syria.”
      This might not be the anti-ISIS forces that you and your government want, but its the only one you are going to get. These are the only people – along with the Kurds -who have a demonstrated capacity to defeat ISIS (that’s why Lister says “return” – they were driven out of most of Syria by these guys in early 2014.) Ignore these facts and you might as well hand the keys to ISIS.

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  1. [...] one need not consult history for an antecedent. Right now, as its effort to build a force from scratch founders, the United States is encouraging its proxies [...]

  2. [...] one need not consult history for an antecedent. Right now, as its effort to build a force from scratch founders, the United States is encouraging its proxies [...]

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