Syria: As al-Qaeda defeats ‘moderate’ US allies, will US ally with al-Qaeda?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

President Obama’s impossibly complicated plan for dealing with ISIL involves a de facto alliance with Iran in Iraq, and training up a ‘third force,’ essentially creating a new, ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army to attack al-Qaeda and ISIL.

Training an effective new fighting force will likely take 15 years, making it a not very practical option.

Worse, the few moderate units allied with the US in the north of Syria have been being badly defeated by the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), an al-Qaeda affiliate. Just this week, remnants of the al-Hazm Group were defeated at Aleppo and they have been forced to disband. Some of their fighters appear to have gone over to al-Qaeda, taking their American-supplied T.O.W. anti-tank weaponry with them.

The US increasingly has no one with whom to ally in Syria.

Now comes the supposedly good news that the Support Front is considering severing its ties with al-Qaeda. This step seems to have been forced on it by Gulf patrons who are increasingly angry about the al-Qaeda presence.

The danger here is that the Support Front will remain al-Qaeda in all but name, running a hard line ’emirate’ in Idlib and elsewhere.

It should be remembered that the US dealt with the Taliban in the 1990s, toying with the idea of a gas pipeline through Afghanistan from Turkmenistan.

A decade earlier, in the 1980s, the US was in a de facto alliance with the Office of Services (which became al-Qaeda) against the Communist government of Afghanistan and its Soviet allies.

Those alliances, with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, got the USA attacked on September 11, 2001.

The extremist guerrillas fighting in Syria are no less brutal or mercurial. Those who favor direct US intervention in Syria give ISIL as a pretext.

Over time the temptation to ally with the Support Front will become irresistible in Washington, and the radicals may well be forgiven their years as an active ally of al-Qaeda.

The US as a de facto ally of the next generation’s Usama Bin Laden? We’ve seen this picture and the ending is ugly. Don’t do it. Just say no. The Support Front must not be rehabilitated or become the recipient of US military aid. US troops must not embed with al-Qaeda, or with a group that allied with the latter for years.


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28 Responses

  1. It seems to me that whenever the US meddles, the momentum of effective resistance immediately shifts to back the other side.

    It’s as though defeating the US, and whomever then becomes its evident local stooge/collaborator, is the greatest single motivation and goal for those who are genuinely committed and effective.

    It’s impossible politically to just abandon the situation, and serious security problems would inevitably germinate in a safe haven for groups like AQ or ISIL. But, maybe we should be playing things here with a bit more subtlety.

    • “…..whenever the US meddles, the momentum of effective resistance shifts to the other side.”

      When Jabhat al-Nusra was designated as a terror organization be the U.S. State Department, the practical effect was nil as far advancing American foreign policy interests as this designation allows the U.S. to do such things as freezing bank accounts the U.S. has jurisdiction over and imposing other penalties that require effective power over the designee that the U.S. does not have over the al-Nusra Front.

      In Syria, thousands took to the streets to protest this odious designation, which actually helped al-Nusra protect their reputation and expand within Syria.

  2. Oh what a tangled web we weave. The US has been through similar situations, and as Prof. Cole says, it has backfired on us.
    Do we ever learn lessons? No. We keep making mistakes over and over again. We must be gluttons for punishment.

  3. Thanks for this. The situation, and U.S. policy, seems confusing (at least to me). Then there is the question of Israel’s actions. This is from a pro-Israel source, and may or may not be accurate:
    link to

  4. Well Professor Cole, this video has made to Al Arabyia of Iraqi troops executing a boy; so the sectarian war is in full swing, and today there are fears of retribution in Tikrit, so go figure.
    Here maybe you would consider sharing with others: link to

  5. This statement: “Those alliances, with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, got the USA attacked on September 11, 2001” could use a little clarification, explanation….

    • The CIA’s Operation Cyclone funded and armed Islamic fundamentalist forces fighting the Soviet-backed Marxist puppet regime headquartered in Kabul.

      Osama bin Laden was allied with those rebels and may or may not have had direct ties to U.S. intelligence – but it was clear bin Laden was fighting the same enemy. This collective rebel alliance – who often fought each other – eventually seized power in Kabul in 1992.

      The Taliban, however, did not exist during the 1980s, but was a creation of the Pakistani intelligence service ISI during the mid-1990s and eventually forced the Islamic fundamentalists out of power and largely into northern regions of the country – thus named the Northern Alliance.

      The Taliban, however, allowed al-Qaeda to establish training camps inside of Afghanistan that eventually hosted training in terror tactics. Absent American involvement in Afghan affairs due to Cold War concerns, the camps would likely not have existed and al-Qaeda not jelled as a terror organization.

  6. Supporting the Kurdish YPG seems the logical choice – let’s just stop pretending Erdogan has the Western interests at heart.

    Surprised that this option isn’t even mentioned.

  7. Intrusion to apply strong economic or military force always creates assymetric response and social and political destabilization. US policy of pressure favoring the stick over the carrot is responsible for creating the response it later claims it needs to further oppose via escalation and protracted conflict. If the business of America is simply business, destabilization is just a business deal cloaked in political rhetoric, combined with the the arrogant delusion that the resulting mess will be controllable and economically profitable. The past half century is littered with examples. This policy is self contradictory over time and is the classical definition of mental illness.

  8. I don’t think that the Obama Administration has a strategy concerning Syria or for confronting and defeating ISIS. And I don’t think anyone else does either. Just saying what not to do is not helpful. (Just say no?) I don’t see any good options in either case, and we may just have to wait for an opportunity to present itself in the future.

    • It really is an impossible problem; who do you support, Assad or an Al Queda affilliate?
      The US plan was to just stay out of the Syria civil war. But when ISIS spilled across the Syria-Iraq border, we became involved. Once the Iraqis and Kurds push ISIS back across the border, I don’t see the US doing much more. At that point, they’ll ask all the neighboring Arab, Turkish, and Kurdish states to form a peacekeeping group. No one will actually want to join it, though.
      The last time the US tried to be a peacekeeper in a mideast war (that we weren’t already fighting), 248 Marines were killed. Obama is not interested in that option.
      I guess Syria is just reaping what it sowed in Lebanon for 15 years…and maybe it will take that long for passionate Syrian fighters to burn themselves out (or die).

    • Again, why not YPG? They are secular and they have proven to be efficient combatants.

  9. What is the US end goal? Removing Assad from power and replacing it with a pro-US regime is unlikely to succeed now. Its probably Turkish, Israeli and Arab states’ insistence that the US support ANY militant resistance to Assad, which helped feed ISIL and other Sunni fundamentalist groups in the first place. While difficult to accept Assad’s cruel rule, the status quo (at least for now) maybe more sound than further instability, as seen as how it spread to Iraq and even attacks overseas.

  10. What would happen if the US did just say no, to the whole thing? It seems that each intervention inflames and provides fuel for the radicals. Now, this heroic attempt to stop ISIL by the Iraqi army may look like or be a Shi’ite attempt at revenge on Sunnis for their oppression under Sadaam. Maybe Biden’s idea of a partition wasn’t such a bad idea.

  11. The U.S. doesn’t have to ally with anyone in Syria because Daesh is not a big enough player to justify it. They got a butt carving in Kobane and they are about to get a bigger one in northern Iraq. In Syria, attacking their oil refineries from the air should be enough to slowly but surely make them even less of a force. They’ve already lost momentum so it’s only a matter of time.Not doing anything would have given Netanyahu one more reason to howl at the moon. Obama made a smart move and took that card off the table.

  12. You know, supporting Assad to protect the status-quo sounds like the old American policy of supporting any brutal dictator in the region in the name of stability. That didn’t turn out so well.

    • This gets somewhat at what seems to be the core of the problem: policy driven by reactionary shortsightedness for (largely domestic) political reasons. If there were a coherent and well thought through strategy it would need to include looking ruthlessly at whether we do, in fact, want to back the strongest of the local thugs. Pursuing that approach, the long-term viability of that particular option should dismiss it. But its the process that is most important: I don’t get that there is such a process, or if there is that it can survive the political realities.

      The reality is that policy cannot be made and implemented in a non-political vacuum, and if you think too much along these lines you end-up shacking-up with the unitary executive theory.

  13. The US will ally with anyone fighting Iran because Israel wants that. The US democratic process is about which candidate spends more money. You buy and pay and then of course expect a payoff. Iran is trouncing ISIS in Tikrit to the outmost disappointment of the US and Bibi.

  14. Just so I understand what’s going on…the fighting is between the Free Syrian army. ISIL, al-Qaeda, al-Hazm, Taliban, the Support Front, Syrian rebels?… it. Who in their right mind thinks we should drop our young soldiers into that chaos?

    • Unfortunately I watched a number of talking heads calling for various types of US troop engagement during last Sundays morning news shows.

  15. Bush/Cheney’s plan was to invalid Iraq, set up a puppet “Democratic” Pro-Western Government that would let the oil cartels control the oil supply of the Gulf and by extension the world oil market.
    This is the Neocon Fantasy and it is still being followed by Obama and it is absolutely insane.
    Obama is now going to retrain and reequip the Iraqi Army that we trained and equipped for ten years and countless Billons. The same Army that fell apart and ran away in their first battle, abandoning it’s American equipment to the bad guys, to fight alongside the Iranian Army and the American Army.
    The Iranians are never going to leave and as soon as we help them whip the bad guys they will turn to the Kurds to get the oil back for the Shi’ite Iraqis, and what will we do then?
    Has anyone thought that those thousands of support personnel could be used as hostages?
    The Bibi & Boehner Show , with AIPAC shoveling Gold from the balconies, has whip Congress into action to do something against
    Iran – anything as long as it makes them seem tough.
    Does anyone seriously believe this is not going to blow up in our faces, as usual, again?
    It’s really very simple: The Iraqis are not going to let us steal their oil so we should stop trying.
    We probably could have replaced oil with renewables with the money we wasted on this failed armed robbery, which is no where near over, but that’s really going to Fantasy Land.

  16. As noted topthread, any side the US backs will attract the other sides’s attentive hatred. The only thing left to do is to give up our opposition to the Syrian Arab Republic and stop lending any support whatsoever to the SAR’s opponents. Russia, Hezbollah, Iran and the SAR itself will take care of the rest.

    The desired endstate should be the comprehensive extermination of all al Quaeda and ISIS personell within the borders of Syria and Iraq. That involves the diplomatic re-recognition of President Assad as being the legitimate president of the only legitimate government which Syria has . . . the Syrian Arab Republic. And that involves accepting whatever casualties the SAG/SAR feels it needs to impose in order to get the rebellion comprehensively exterminated and destroyed for decades to come.

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