Syria: What if Turkey and Saudi Arabia install al-Qaeda in Damascus?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | –

Journalists such as the intrepid Liz Sly covering the Syrian Civil War were struck with the victories of the Army of Conquest coalition in northern Syria, which in recent weeks first took Idlib city (they had already taken most of Idlib province) and then Jisr al-Shughur, a key town that is the gateway to the port of Latakia and its largely Alawite Shiite hinterland. What accounted for sudden breakthrough of the extremist coalition of the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Support Front ( Jabhat al-Nusra), of Syrian Freedom Fighters (Ahrar al-Sham), and other smaller groups devoted to holy war?

Idlib Governorate via Wikimedia

One explanation: These groups were better funded all of a sudden and receiving coordinated outside help from Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Under the late King Abdallah, Saudi policy in Syria was a mess. He hated the Muslim Brotherhood, from which many Syrian rebels hail, and wanted to create alternatives such as the Army of Islam (the Syrian Freedom Fighters are part of this coalition). But the Army of Islam did not do very well. The Saudis, having themselves been targeted by al-Qaeda, saw the Support Front as poison, and were reluctant to help the groups in the north who were willing to ally with the Support Front.

Turkey under President Tayyip Erdogan has no such compunctions and is convince Desmond Butler of AP reports, that the Support Front cannot be all that influential in a post-Assad Syria.

The Turkish calculation is way too unimaginative and insouciant. Those Sunni countries that supported the Sunni Arab insurgency against the new American and Shiite establishment in Iraq after 2003 also appear not to have counted on an extremist group like Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) taking over 42% of Iraqi territory.

The new Saudi king, Salman, is said to be less harsh toward the Muslim Brotherhood and willing to use them both in Yemen and in Syria in his struggle with what he perceives as Iranian hegemony in the region. (Iran supports the Baathist government of Bashar al-Assad. While Iran is Shiite and al-Assad is from the Alawite Shiite sect, it is not the case that Iran is supporting Damascus because of Shiism; the Alawites are heterodox and the Baathist regime is miiitantly secular. But King Salman sees it that way).

Salman is thus on the same page with Erdogan, and this new Saudi-Turkish bloc is able to funnel substantially more funds to the Army of Conquest coalition, which includes but subsumes al-Qaeda and the Army of Islam (including the Freedom Fighters of Syria).

The United States is appalled at the idea of supporting groups that a) are themselves religious extremists, b) often have their own links to al-Qaeda, and c) are openly allying with al-Qaeda in Syria, i.e. the Support Front.

Some Syria observers have written me complaining that you cannot put the Turkey-backed Freedom Fighters of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham) in the same category with al-Qaeda, although they are Salafi hardliners. An Ahrar leader, Hassan Aboud, with strong al-Qaeda links has since been killed, but I doubt he was the only one in the group with al-Qaeda connections; and it tells you something that he rose among them to become a leader! Not to mention that they are actively allied with al-Qaeda in Syria

The first thing Ahrar did on taking Idlib was to a couple of Christians.

We have seen this movie before. Syria is a multicultural society, with 14% Alawite Shiite, 5% Christian, other groups like Druze and Twelver Shiite and Ismaili, then 10% mostly Marxist Kurds, and a majority of the Sunnis are strong secularists. A Taliban-like group taking over the country would be just another huge catastrophe like 1996 in Afghanistan. Moreover, you can’t count out the Support Front rising to the top in that post-Assad government; nor, indeed, has Daesh been defeated, and it could make territorial gains.

One caveat: The fall of a couple of towns in Idlib is not necessarily a game changer in the war; the regime has lost more important cities, like Homs, and managed to come back. Things are likely to seesaw for a long time, and if the Army of Conquest has Saudi money, al-Assad has Russian and Iranian money.

The current Obama administration compromise with Turkey and Syria is to try to train and fund 5,000 “moderate” Syrian fighters a year in hopes that they over time will displace both the extremists and the al-Assad regime. But this program in Afghanistan saw substantial defections to the Taliban, and many of these ‘moderates’ could end up in al-Qaeda and Daesh with US weapons and training (as has already happened).

Pretty much anything that happens in Syria for the next 10 or 15 years is likely to be horrible. A victory for the Turkish-Saudi plan is only one of the potential horrors. But it would be a horror.

17 Responses

  1. Juan, your post is a little messed up but I can glean from it that the jihadists killed two Christians in Idlib and thus (implicitly) the Baathists have to be supported as a lesser evil, which coincidentally is the position of the Obama administration even though you seem loath to admit it. As it turns out the reality in Idlib is more complex than you seem willing to admit. This is from the 3/31 NY Times:

    Tensions are already evident in Idlib over the treatment of Christians, a bellwether issue. Two activists, who asked not to be identified out of fear for their safety, said that foreign fighters from Nusra had killed two Christians after hearing they worked in a liquor store.

    They said that fighters from Ahrar al-Sham had rebuked the foreigners and set up checkpoints to protect Christians from them.

    Abdullah Mohamad Al-Muhaisini, a Saudi Islamic law jurist traveling with the fighters, used Twitter to construct a complex argument against killing Christians who do not resist.

    Christians appeared to be suffering from both sides, as rescuers said government airstrikes hit Christians’ homes. In video of shaken, crying residents in smoking, damaged homes, a non-veiled woman yelled, “bastard tyrant!”

  2. You didn’t mention support in this fight coming from Israel. It is a very cionfused fight. Israel appears to be supporting someone near the Golan, presumably fighting against whoever Iran is supporting (Hezbollah etc.). Is Israel an ally, now, of Saudi Arabia and Turkey and to that extent an enemy, perhaps it might be said, of the USA (whose own position is equally confused)?

  3. Wow. Things are looking up! Especially, if your a weapons pusher.

  4. For as long as the disaster of Syria has been conducted, I have been staunchly against our (U.S.) supplying arms to any of the disparate groups known as militants there. The groups are on their own. We know nothing of their true plans for a post-trauma Syria, once a beautiful country, whose people were very friendly toward visitors like me. No, weapons are in too great abundance in Syria. Second, why would the U.S. attempt to support violence there, where it is already a tragedy the outcome of which is unknowable and for which our country has no immediate or compelling reason to upend another of the world’s dictators.

    The U.S. position should: Offer food and medical aid to the more than three million Syrian refugees, camped out in neighboring countries. When the dust of war has ended, they, at least, will be grateful to our country for assisting them in their suffering condition. It is very important that we don’t support sending them abroad, away from their familiar culture, only to be offered the distortions of another culture and to be labeled refugees. Assist them near their homes. Make our weapons the relief of human suffering. Then we will have friends, no matter who ends up on top in the winless conflagration of Syria, the home of St. Paul, St. Ananias, and the streets and houses of Damascus that they made holy pilgrimage sites still flourishing because of their conversions to Christianity.

  5. Whatever happened to the old days when you fought in order to drive the other guy to the bargaining table? Why is war getting more zero-sum when the countries wars are fought in are becoming more worthless?

    • “Whatever happened to the old days when you fought in order to drive the other guy to the bargaining table?”

      In January of 2014, the Geneva II conference between the Syrian government and the Qatar-based Syrian National Coalition was held and accomplished next to nothing.

      The Islamic Front, an umbrella group of brigades fighting the Assad regime and calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria, called the Geneva II attendees traitors and indicated they would be executed upon the toppling of Assad’s regime.

      The Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nusra, and ISIS have rejected any settlement discussions with Assad and have pledged to fight until the Baathists are defeated.

      “Why is war getting more zero-sum when the countries wars are fought in are becoming more worthless?”

      Good question.

      Afghanistan and Yemen are two of the poorest countries in Asia yet have had ongoing civil wars fueled by al-Qaeda or other Islamic extremist groups for years with no end in sight. Islamic fundamentalism seems to flourish in poorer countries and their endgame is not primarily money-driven but motivated by eventual imposition of Islamic rule in lieu of secular state.

      The Syrian government had 30 billion dollars in financial reserves when the civil war commenced – which has now dwindled to $1 billion. Syria’s civilian infrastructure has largely been destroyed and millions of refugees have streamed into neighboring countries. Syria is subject to international financial sanctions – including a trade embargo the U.S. has imposed.

      Syria is becoming a vast depopulated wasteland.

      • Assad refused to resign. This is requirement #1 for any negotiations to commence. Remember, Assad is the author of the unprovoked massacres of civilians, and his father was known for breaking agreements. Nobody will make a deal with him because he’s untrustworthy.

        If he left, there would probably be a deal in short order. Old-school imperial geopolitics would call for his assassination, but the US sucks at assassinations.

        • Rubbish. If you make achieving your goal the ground of any negotiation, wtf is there to negotiate?

  6. Before all this, wasn’t Turkey a long time ally with Syria? What happened to turn them into mortal enemies? Was it just the Arab Spring?

    • Assad massacred Sunni protesters. Erdogan did his best to have a good relationship with Assad, but small town Sunnis are his constituency and Assad crossed a red line.

  7. Excellent article Juan! Disappointed in Liz Sly, Charles Lister & Aaron Millers’ articles on the same topic. Do you think that Israel is supporting Nusra Front? And if so what are the implications of that?
    I’m an independent journalist and I’m trying to research on what kind of deal the U.S. is giving through N.A.T.O to Saudi Arabia, Emirates, etc to calm them. I’ve heard that they are giving nuclear development of some sort. Hope you can help get this out. NYtimes: link to
    I read you all the time and think you’re one of the best covering the middle east.
    Thank you,
    Arn Menconi

  8. As far as nations that consume oil and natural gas are concerned, the ME countries involved are NOT “becoming more worthless”. They are being fought over precisely because they possess two very valuable things:
    1) Resources
    2) Routes


    Syria – 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil (January 2013); shale oil (50 billions tons); natural gas 8500 billion cubic feet.

    link to

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    Iraq – “Iraq holds about 18% of proved crude oil reserves in the Middle East and almost 9% of total global reserves.”

    link to

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    The importance of ports on the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea—and the need to keep roads open and pipelines flowing—can’t be overstated. Without secure routes, the oil and natural gas resources can’t be accessed and sold.

    Google “Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline” versus the “Qatar-Turkey pipeline” for more insight into what feeds the fighting.

    Remember the scandal when it was discovered that former NATO official Brian Sayers (hired by the DC-based Syria Support Group) was NOT working to help the Syrian opposition but was instead working to set up Syrian oil deals—as if the US had already conquered Syria and was empowered to handle its resources?

    Money is pouring into the fight because a lot of money is at stake. It doesn’t matter to Big Oil and Gas if cities are bombed into rubble, artifacts are looted, and civilians are living in caves, as long as—at the end of the fray—their companies get lucrative contracts.

    Add the political/religious dimension on top of the financial incentives—and you get the mess that we see today.

    • Oil & gas will be irrelevant by roughly 2040 (probably a bit earlier actually). It will be interesting to see how the politics shifts.

  9. “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” The U.S.’s invasion and occupation of Iraq was a gratuitous enterprise of aggression that could be seen as justified only through the same “lens” used by Nazi Germany to justify what would later be seen as paradigmatic wars of aggression. There can be little doubt that the U.S. embarked on what it quite consciously and deliberately knew was a gratuitous war of aggression against Iraq, when measured according to the respected standards of Nuremberg.

    The Nuremberg chief American prosecutor’s statement with which I began this comment may be read not only proscriptively, but also descriptively, and even prescriptively: i.e. the statement not only prohibits, according to its logic, “wars of aggression,” it also describes with effective communicative economy a thesis which may, in fact, be read as a determinative theory of what such “wars of aggression” inherently, even auto-dynamically, entail: “the accumulated evil of the whole [of all other war crimes].” A given description may of course also be read as a prescription or, at least, as a concision of actual utilizable prescriptions contained elsewhere, so that in the case of the text in question one may reasonably conclude that its theory of a determinative (“it contains” [not It “may contain,” and not because it does., but because it is.]), totalistic “evil” inherent in all aggressive war may serve implicitly as a “recipe,” or at the least as an instrumental prognosticator of the conditions requisite for the generation of such “supreme…accumulated evil.” In any case, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. were, of course, aware of the multifarious implications of this famous Nurembergian declaration and there can be little doubt that they perceived with the utmost clarity the inerrancy of such statements when the belligerent aggressor is possessed of a war machine of the kind Nazi Germany or they themselves had at their disposal, and when the will is there to commit to a genuine war of aggression, i.e. to one that is sure, because so intended, to contain “the accumulated evil of the whole.” Abu Ghraib, we now know, was part of that intention, of that project to create conditions of supreme evil, of the accumulated evil of the whole that still has not stopped accumulating, indeed, that now encompasses not only great swathes of the Middle East, but, in fact, the majority of the world, almost in the manner (especially ideologically, jurisprudentially, constitutionally, etc.) of a Third World War (ostensibly, to be sure, on “terror”) which, less evidently, is a metastatic product of that supreme evil, which contains (and continues to spread) the accumulated evil of the whole, and which has its origins in the U.S.’s aggressive war contravention of the Nuremberg principles through its gratuitous (yet supremely aggressively calculated) 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.

  10. So this war is heading for two decades? (anything that happens in Syria for the next 10 or 15 years is likely to be horrible). At what point do we decide on the lesser of the evils to stop the killing? Now or a decade down the track?

  11. OK, I get why Russia is supporting Assad (it’s completely stupid geopolitically, but I get it). But why on earth would Iran support Assad? I get why Iran supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, but Assad has never really been their friend….

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