14 Years after 9/11, US, Israel Tempted to ally with Al-Qaeda in Syria

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Jabhat al-Nusra or Support Front is one of the major rebel groups in Syria, holding extensive territory in the hinterland of cities like Homs and Aleppo and in the province of Idlib. The Support Front is just al-Qaeda. It has announced allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of . . . al-Qaeda and one of the figures who planned out and helped implement 9/11 (al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician from an elite family in Ma’adi, Cairo, was Bin Laden’s number 2 and is now number 1.)

The terrible thing is that the Support Front, unlike core al-Qaeda, has actually managed to take territory and is ruling parts of Syria as a mini-state.

So the Support Front of Syria would be America’s worst enemy, right? The US military and the CIA would be plotting its demise? Staunch American allies like Israel are joining in the effort to destroy it, correct?

Not so much.

The US is heavily and regularly bombing Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), itself an offshoot of al-Qaeda. But strikes against al-Qaeda in Syria are rare.

Israel appears to be de facto allied with the Support Front in the Golan Heights against Lebanon’s Shiite Hizbullah and against the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad. Israel has been bringing wounded al-Qaeda warriors over to Israeli hospitals for treatment, a policy that provoked a riot by Israeli Druze in the Occupied Golan (al-Qaeda has targeted Druze populations, which it considers heretics.)

In Idlib Province and around Aleppo, the far right but less radical Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of Syria) rebel militia has made some advances against al-Assad’s troops. Its representative argued in an NYT op-ed that the US should support the Free Men of Syria. But they don’t believe in democracy and would like to erect a Taliban-style state in Syria.

That set of values might give Washington pause about an alliance. But it gets worse. The Free Men of Syria are actively and genially allied with al-Qaeda.

Maybe I’m just funny that way, but I object to allying with allies of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans in a single day.

Amazingly, a US joint effort alongside al-Qaeda doesn’t seem out of the question. Former general and former CIA director David Petraeus advocates wooing the Support Front away from their allegiance to al-Zawahiri and then deploying them against Daesh. This policy would be a repeat of what Petraeus and other generals did in Baghdad and al-Anbar Province in 2007, getting Sunnis to turn on al-Qaeda and fight against it. But Iraq’s Shiite government never forgave the “Sons of Iraq” for having previously been al-Qaeda, and it prosecuted some of them after Petraeus left. Others it just left twisting in the wind, so that they were executed by their former al-Qaeda colleagues.

Nor would a US-al-Qaeda alliance on the ground be unprecedented.

The first American alliance with al-Qaeda came in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration deployed the Mujahidin or holy warriors of Afghanistan against the People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and its Soviet patron. US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, supporting this anti-Communist jihad, released their radicals to Peshawar in Pakistan as support for the Mujahidin, a development that was fine with the United States.

The American support for radical Muslims against the left seems foolish for two reasons decades later. First of all, it was unnecessary. The Reagan jihad was launched on the eve of the collapse of the East Bloc and of the Soviet Union. Contrary to what right wing pundits allege, the Reagan covert war against the Soviets had nothing to do with the latter’s fall. Military spending in Moscow’s annual budget was flat in the 1980s. Reagan did not bankrupt the commissars via the Mujahidin. The other development that makes this strategy appear foolish in retrospect was the September 11, 2001, attacks themselves, carried out at the orders of Usama Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders who previously had been allies of the US-backed Mujahidin. Encouraging Muslims to radicalize was foolish because it was like pulling the pin on a grenade and then just sitting on it.

It is heresy to say so in hyper-capitalist Trumpland, but everybody might have been better off if Reagan had just left the Communists in Afghanistan alone. We don’t usually hear dire things from Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan would likely have evolved in similar directions. Instead, the Mujahidin took over and then some morphed into Taliban, who hosted al-Qaeda. Kazakhstan is hardly paradise but compared to Afghanistan today it is a kind of heaven.

Because of the 3,000 dead, I can’t accept a US alliance with al-Qaeda in Syria or with groups like Ahrar al-Sham that in turn are allied with al-Qaeda. You can’t suck up to Ayman al-Zawahiri and then get close US air support in your battles. On the other hand, Bashar al-Assad has been dropping barrel bombs on kindergartens and has tortured thousands of political prisoners to death. He can’t be allowed to remain in power.

The US needs to work with Iran, Russia and China to convince the Baath Party high officials to dump Bashar al-Assad and then to go to national elections for a pluralist parliament and a new form of provincial federal decentralization. The Baath Party has already lost 60% of the land area of the country and over a third of the population. If it goes on like this with war criminality, it will lose everything, and al-Qaeda will pick up the pieces. If hard ball diplomacy and trading of horses has to be done, it should be done with Moscow and Tehran, not with al-Qaeda. Another 1980s style American jihad has the potential to create another 9/11, which I’m not sure our democracy can survive.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CCTV from 3 weeks ago: “Russia, Iran present united front on Syria”

28 Responses

  1. Replace “The US” with “Israel” : Israel needs to work with Iran, Russia and China to convince the Baath Party high officials to dump Bashar al-Assad and then to go to national elections for a pluralist parliament and a new form of provincial federal decentralization.

  2. Nothing new… , to conquer them you divide them and get them to fight with each other. Thus you don’t need to spend money in bullets nor you need to hire a Public Relations agent to maintain a good reputation.

  3. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”. So in the convoluted
    breakdown of the middle east, everyone is eligible on some level to be our friend, as well as eligible to be our enemy.

    • This is no different than what was done after the end of WWII.

      The U.S. saw some former Nazis as useful and placed a number in intelligence positions.

      Nazi spymaster Reinhard Gehlen not only was not prosecuted for war crimes, but was named West Germany’s postwar intelligence chief. Klaus Barbie became an agent of the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps.

      Syria themselves became hosts to a number of wanted Nazis – including Alois Brunner, deputy to Adolf Eichmann; Brunner became a “consultant” to Syrian intelligence services.

      Intelligence agencies often ignore morality in the equation of who to recruit as an asset.

  4. “It is heresy to say so in hyper-capitalist Trumpland, but everybody might have been better off if Reagan had just left the Communists in Afghanistan alone.”
    It takes a long time to understand the consequences of actions. I despised Ron Dellums for saying that the Soviets were justified in invading Afghanistan. Actually, I still despise that statement. But if we move away from “justified” to “punishable”, I can see that for the Soviets it was a war of imperial maintenance, just like America’s wars. Actually, I think the US should also have been punished by the entire world for what it did in Vietnam. But at least under the traditions of Great Power politics, an empire has a special right to interfere with its weaker neighbors, under the rubric of “buffer states”. Afghanistan was definitely a buffer state for the USSR. Technically, the US only has two buffer states: Canada and Mexico.

    Clearly, the US is locked into a pattern of defeating an old enemy by creating a new one. We naturally sided with Stalin against Hitler because Hitler knew no bounds and had a regime that conquered for a living, converting resources and populations into weapons for the next invasion. But abandoning our anti-Communist paranoia to do this created a cognitive dissonance about our postwar relationship with the USSR.

    We repeated this whole sorry pattern with our use of Islamist militants to bankrupt the USSR. We allied with Saudis and Pakistanis whose values and vision for the world should have been repugnant to us. We assumed that in the postwar world everything would return to some mythical “normal” free of violent coercion.

    However, the America of 1942 was coming off a history of having no long-term alliances, and in that emergency situation we couldn’t be picky. The USSR was the only country that could wear down a Wehrmacht possessing a 15-to-1 kill ratio. What is alarming is the alacrity with which the US bypassed its longtime democratic allies in 1981 to work with two of the worst regimes on Earth, and take their word for it that the jihadis we were backing were the “good” ones. I would argue that in both eras, the US and its voters wanted the benefits of world power while making someone else do the dying – which forced us to be very lax about who that someone else was. But the conditions of 1981 did not justify any of that. Fascism appeared to be winning in 1942. The USSR was not winning in the eyes of any objective analyst in 1981. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who talked Carter into going into Afghanistan first, had already correctly predicted in his 1971 book that computer technology would favor Western economies and finish off the Soviet Bloc. So he knew this intervention was not necessary to save the Free World.

  5. The main conclusion is correct: the idea of an alliance with these groups is odious. We are currently supplying Saudi Arabia with technology to commit war crimes in Yemen. Under the last two White House administrations, severe war crimes were committed in Iraq. Our continued use of drones is also in contravention of international law, and really can only be seen as a war crime. The idea that we unilaterally should decide when leaders of other countries should be deposed reeks not only of hypocrisy but more importantly of imperialism. If we were serious about creating a world without war crimes, we would strengthen international institutions (for example ICC) that would try individuals and governments who commit such crimes. In the 21st century, we were in a prime position to shape such institutions, but instead we abrogated our duties to human rights law by undermining such institutions for short term folly.

  6. Don’t you think Saudi Arabia should be at that table too? If not for their under the table financial support, the very extremists you referenced in Syria would be weakened substantially. Stop this proxy war between the Saudis and Iran, and we have a chance to scale down this human tragedy.

  7. I want some feedback, please….
    As I see it the U.S. intention re Syria, has always been regime change as in Iraq, Libya, Ukraine. Our Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford enthusiastically supported Syrian protesters – seeing a great opportunity for a much hoped for regime change, weaken Iran and appease Saudi Arabia.
    A different sort of ambassador could have promoted serious discussions between protesters and Assad. My recollection is that Assad was willing to have discussions. But I also realize that there was harsh treatment of protesters – but I wonder whether there was any exaggeration of that because U.S. and protesters wanted regime change. The protesters may have believed and may have been encouraged to believe that the U.S. would do in Syria what they had just done in Libya.
    I would like to think that wiser policy would have had less tragic results. Obama was stupid in immediately saying Assad must go. And his Secretary of State has never seen a regime change opportunity she didn’t want to exploit…
    Does anyone agree with me that had the U.S. not put the precondition that Assad must go, on UN attempts to broker talks in 2012 maybe Syria wouldn’t have devolved into such hell. If incredible efforts to keep as many factions as possible engaged in talking, wouldn’t Syria be in a better place. Besides, maybe the world’s conflict resolving skills would be strengthened.
    Of course killing would go on, but on a less horrific scale.

    But there is the present to deal with – Why does Assad have to go? At least, it is not the place for the U.S. to demand that.
    That demand just reinforces the U.S. notion that regime change is a good policy, when evidence is otherwise.
    Let the Syrians deal with resolving the conflict in a way that reflects their wants – maybe an Assad governed area and an ISIS governed area… nothing perfect, just an effort to calm the violence and get Syrians talking…
    I’m under no illusions about Assad, but he was never his father – and wasn’t his father’s brother an ominous presence that made it harder on Assad to ‘liberalize’.
    It is a miracle that Assad has lasted this long, with the U.S backing the Saudis in providing the rebels with weapons and fighters. Assad has always been willing to talk,but unwilling to step down.
    Very complicated, but as the self proclaimed, exceptional and indispensable world the U.S. has much responsibility for the hellhole that is Syria today.

    • “Regime change” NEVER turns out as envisioned by the people wishing for it.

      Power restructuring in any country will generally be very messy and bloody with an outcome no one envisioned.

      The USA is foolish to try to make “regime change ‘ happen anywhere on earth because the USA has very consistently FAILED in the end.

      – The USA forcibly changed the regime in Iran in 1955 and ended up with a very anti-USA government today.

      – The USA forcibly changed regimes all over Latin America after WW2 and now most of Latin American governments are very much anti-USA.

      The bottom line is the USA would have a far better future if it just let the locals fight it out with no interference by the USA and then deal with the aftermath in a rational manner.

      Any solution imposed on the locals will ALWAYS fail.

      Will the civil war in Syria be brutal? Yes it will because all civil wars are brutal.

      Am I saying we should just turn a blind eye to the destruction? YES, because NOTHING the USA does will matter in the end and will just make it harder for the USA to deal with the aftermath.

      One of the hardest lessons I had to learn in life is that it is often better in the long term to just let people fail miserably so they restructure their lives on their own than try to “help” them.

    • Lillie, I agree with the points you bring out in your post. The real question is why we keep pursuing these policies that result in the destabilization of the countries involved followed by our stated need to stabilize them and get more engaged through proxies. Obama’s policy has been a disaster for the people of the Arab countries and now Ukraine, but has it been so bad for us (the USA).
      The cynic in me says that it has been a strategic move by Obama to destabilize the countries/ governments we view as not subservient and either replace them with vassal states or states with infighting. This has been great for us (strategically) as our media focus is on these while our ally Israel continues to neutralize Palestinians; our ally Saudi Arabia continues to raze Yemen, our ally Egypt continues to wipe out any opposition to the regime. The resulting swarm of refugees has overwhelmed Europe and removed it from having any aspiration as the fourth (Russia, China, USA being the other three) pole in geopolitics. The non Anglo Europeans have been put in their place for they were getting too cozy with Russia.

      In conclusion, I say it is not that we are fighting fires set by others rather we are setting strategic fires. That is my cynic side as the only beneficiary in all this I see is USA and Israel.

  8. The US will not be satisfied with anything less than a vassal state in Syria. The US is not interested in a “pluralistic democracy”. US support for Saudi Arabia proves that. The Saudi’s detest democracy with every fiber of their being.

    The US does not care about the welfare of the population of Syria – our response to the refugee crisis proves that.

    What the US cares about is establishing a vassal state that will follow our dictates.

    • Starting with that pipeline project across Syria, from Iraq to the Med, that the American press doesn’t seem interested in writing about.

      The idea of getting Russia, US/UK, and Assad together to broker a settlement is unrealistic. Any settlement must first address the competing interests of the GCC and Russia about that pipeline.

  9. How in the world are you going to get all these factions to agree to fair elections, and to accept the outcome?

    It seems to me that the only realistic possibilities are that Assad or one of his generals will stay in power, or that ISIS or one of the other rebel actions will come to power.

    None of these options are good, from a U.S. perspective or from the perspective of people in Syria, but it’s no good proposing an alternative that can’t be implemented.

  10. Maybe I’m just funny that way, but I object to allying with allies of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans in a single day.

    But morally denuded politicians don’t work that way. They do whatever is politically expedient for whatever short-term gain they perceive and never mind the blowback.

    Former general and former CIA director David Petraeus advocates wooing the Support Front away from their allegiance to al-Zawahiri and then deploying them against Daesh.

    Lotsaluck on that one with al-Qaeda associates and their long memories.

    • Agreed. These groups aren’t different ideologically. They differ only in their competing interests. Whichever Salafist radical leader gains control of Syria will become a multibillionaire. To think that any of them would trust the US to be a reliable ally is simply nuts. The US has proven to be untrustworthy in dealing with mideast players (go ask the Taliban, or Gaddafi, or Assad for that matter). To think that the US could trust any of them is simply nuts.

      The Saudi/GCC funders of these mercenary fighting groups are like venture capitalists sprinkling funds among various startups in a particular sector. They win no matter which Salafist leader wins the war. Any Islamic radical will be fine, so long as he is (a) Sunni, (b) Salafist, and (c) a loyal member of the GCC.

  11. Thomas Pierret

    Russia/Iran will burn Syria rather than accepting a parliamentary regime. Their minions woud fare miserably in free elections

  12. This war on terror gets “Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).”

  13. I’m sure that there is ongoing cooperation between Israel and the Nusra front at least in Golan, but I’m surprised you think the US would be “tempted” to join this unholy alliance, professor. Surely this is one of the angry points of division between Israel/KSA and the US.

    It’s hardly been the case that “strikes against al-Qaeda in Syria are rare”, the US has been bombing Nusra from the beginning of the Syria campaign in March, and was violently criticized for it too, if I remember right, by self-denominated “progressives” who thought it should only strike Daesh. I’m also convinced that the training of “Sunni moderates” is designed to fail, precisely because these recruits cannot be trusted not to join up with Nusra (as they may have done in last month’s “kidnaping”).

  14. Indeed everyone would have been better off “if Reagan had just left the Communists in Afghanistan alone.” That secular ideology was far more likely to unify and modernize than inciting factional strife, which was apparently the real goal.

    If the Syrian Baath party would consider “national elections for a pluralist parliament and … federal decentralization” but for Assad, then he is a problem, but is his conduct worse than US policymakers under like circumstances?

    Another American jihad would indeed extinguish any remnants of its former democracy, not extinguished by the right wing anyway, but likely there would have been no American jihads if we still had a democracy.

  15. “The first American alliance with al-Qaeda came in the 1980s (in Afghanistan)……”

    There is no conclusive proof that al-Qaeda had any direct link to U.S. intelligence during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (although it is debatable). Bin Laden at that time eschewed Western support, although other Afghan Mujahidin, such as Gulbuddin Hekmyatar, has clear ties to the CIA with respect to supplying of weapons.

    Furthermore, Bin Laden’s fighters in Afghanistan against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul were only a very small percentage of the overall rebels fighting at that time.

    It was eventually the US.-backed Mujahidin that formed the backbone of the Northern Alliance who eventually removed the Taliban from power in post-9/11 Afghanistan – this includes fighters loyal to the charismatic Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated just days prior to 9/11.

  16. Isarel aligning with the Support Front may make sense in their regional context and their own worldview. (Israel seeing Iran as a potential credible threat and not Al Queda or even Daesh). But it absolutely boggles the mind that the US sees fit to ally with Al Queda groups!!!!! Astonishing !!!!

    Obama has been a disappointment with respect to Syria and other post “Arab Spring” conflicts. I thought he would bring a fresh perspective (such as the one that resulted in the deal with Iran) but unfortunately he is going along with the Israeli strategy.

    I agree with Prof. Cole that US needs to talk with Russia, Iran and China and come up with a solution. I have just read that Germany is starting to talk to Russia, this is a good start. With the west talking to Russia there is a chance for diplomatic resolution of Syrian conflict and resolution of the Ukranian conflict will be bonus!!!

  17. “The American support for radical Muslims against the left seems foolish for two reasons decades later.”

    Was just a news-junky teenager back then, but already knew then that it was foolish. Admittedly my analysis may have been a bit shallow, it came down to Najibullah wearing a suit, as a outward sign that he wasn’t beholden to tribalism.

    After the Soviets left he would have cut a deal with anyone to keep the Taliban out of Kabul, but no the US stuck to their best fundamentalist buddies in the funny outfits, and let them string up Najibullah on a lamppost.

  18. Hate to break it to you Juan, but the CIA has been arming and training fighters of Al Nusra Front and the Free Men of Syria since the beginning of the war

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