Deal with Saudis? Why does the US care if Russia bombs al-Qaeda and its Allies in Syria?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

President Obama on Friday pledged not to turn Syria into an arena for a proxy war between the US and the Russian Federation. But he went on to criticize president Vladimir Putin for attempting to prop up Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad and predicted that Syria under these circumstances will turn into a “quagmire” for Moscow.

Russia began its own, direct bombing campaign this week. On Wednesday and Thursday it mainly lashed out at al-Qaeda in Syria (the Support Front) and its allies, though in doing so it may have hit some small remnants of the Free Syrian Army (though several of those elements have since allied with al-Qaeda). On Friday, Russia hit Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) targets in and around Raqqa, the capital of the phony caliphate.

Despite the squawking from the likes of Sen. John McCain, Russia mainly hit al-Qaeda in Syria and groups closely allied with it such as Ahrar al-Sham (Freemen of Syria) and Suqour al-Jabal (Mountain Eagles)–which allied with al-Qaeda in an Aleppo campaign this last summer. Russia also may have hit some small independent groups left over from the old, collapsed Free Syrian Army along with these bigger targets.

Radio Free Europe reported, “The areas in northern Homs Province reportedly targeted by the Russian air strikes are controlled by a number of Syrian rebel groups — including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well as Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front), and hard-line Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, according to activists, locals, and experts.”

The Russias also hit Talbisa. RFE says “The U.S.-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported that the rebel-held town of Talbisah is controlled by the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and a number of other local rebel groups.” In other words, the Russians hit the Nusra Front/ al-Qaeda and its allies.

The fact is that the United States has bombed the Support Front/ al-Qaeda on several occasions, itself, so it is odd to criticize Russia for that. As for the others, if they are al-Qaeda allies sitting with al-Qaeda operatives they seem fair game for bombing. The United States has droned to death lots of people in northern Pakistan and Yemen for allying with al-Qaeda.

So why is President Obama really protesting? And note he isn’t protesting very loudly– promising no proxy war, and his officials are admitting they can’t protect the small number of US-backed Free Syrian Army troops from Russian airstrikes.

You could imagine the following scenario: The Free Syrian Army has largely collapsed and it holds almost no territory. Daesh has taken the east except for the Kurdish region.

The most effective fighters in the west and the south are the Support Front or al-Qaeda, which reports directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri (a 9/11 mastermind). Smaller hard line Salafi groups that reject democracy, such as Ahrar al-Sham/ The Freemen of Syria decided to make a coalition with al-Qaeda, rather as the Taliban had done in Afghanistan in the 1990s. They call this al-Qaeda-led coalition the Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fateh), and use it as a smokescreen to deny that it is mainly al-Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey support the Army of Conquest, which is heavily al-Qaeda. And they have convinced Obama to support it too, at least rhetorically. That support may be a booby prize for Saudi Arabia, which lost its fight against the Iran deal.

But in my view it is both dangerous and shameful for the US to ally with groups that are in turn linked to al-Qaeda or have al-Zawahiri in their reporting line.

So that is why Obama took the odd stance of complaining about Russia bombing al-Qaeda and its allies but promising not to do anything about it. The first part was to mollify Saudi Arabia, angry about Russia coming into the Middle East. The second part (not doing anything about it) is just common sense when two well-armed nuclear states confront one another.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: “Russia defends air strikes in Syria”

33 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    “But in my view it is both dangerous and shameful for the US to ally with groups that are in turn linked to al-Qaeda or have al-Zawahiri in their reporting line.”

    The Israelis however have no such scruples and are lending aid and comfort to the enemy

  2. This civil war has drag on for too long with no end in sight. Radicalized and armed, none can put Syria together.
    Consolidate area deemed necessary for the Alawite state,
    Ceasefire, population transfer, referendum and let Turks, the Saudi have their State.

  3. You write, “Saudi Arabia and Turkey support the Army of Conquest, which is heavily al-Qaeda.”

    Two of America’s ‘best allies’ in the Middle East apparently believe that an ideological commitment to Sunni forms
    of Islam over Shi’a forms of Islam (including murdering people who disagree with you over these preferences) is a good basis for policy. And thus end up supporting people with guns who would also wish to overthrow their own regimes in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

    Many of the people in the Middle East, and most of the people in the rest of the world, are intelligent enough to see the foolishness of this path. They will need much help to develop and grow a local-based political consciousness that rejects the strongly authoritarian governments that exist throughout the region — the governments which are
    keeping conflicts going, on and on, and on, just because it might benefit some local elite class, some day in some way.

    And American political activists will have to work harder to make sure that even Democratic presidential administrations do NOT get sucked into supporting one side or another in such ancient religious conflicts in faraway lands.

  4. Thank you professor for another enlightening post. Clearly, Putin has exposed the utterly feckless and irresponsible foreign policy of the US. Training unreliable “friendly rebels” was a pipe dream that could only lead to the current disaster that is Syria. Simply getting rid of a dictator we don’t like has sure produced the goods. Saddam? yeah that went well. Muammar Gaddafi? Couldn’t have turned out better.

    If Syria collapses..as what would happen if the US’s useless policy were to succeed–the flood of refugees would be even worse. The fanatical goons would step into the breach, and be a 20 hour drive from Russia. Vladi ain’t waiting for that to happen.

    Say what you will about these secular despots, but Daesh is the worst thing to arise up since Hitler and they mean business. It’s truly scary stuff and no matter what the crimes of the likes of Cheney and Bush and Wolfowitz, somebody needs to step in and take control.

    Thankfully it appears Putin is doing just this. At least he has a horse in this race. He will ally himself with the Syrian army and the Iranians. And Daesh will get crushed like the slimy cockroaches they are. The day of reckoning of these criminal fascist jihadis is nigh. The next few months will sure be interesting.

    And it definitely appears that Obama has once again been outfoxed by Putin and looks like a very weak leader indeed.

    • It’s unrealistic to think that Russia will crush Daesh or will even try. Putin is not out to save the world — he just wants to protect and advance Russia’s interests.

      The Arab spring threatened to overthrow the Syrian government, which could dissolve a long-standing Syrian asset for Russia and potentially replace it with a liability. Assad was the key link to the status quo so Putin took actions to block Western intervention against Assad. The Western alliance allowed themselves to be dissuaded because it appeared for a while that internal opposition was strong enough to ensure that Assad’s overthrow was just a matter of time. Plus, there was little appetite for military intervention.

      Assad proved to have staying power, with Russian and Iranian support. The vague Syrian opposition groups that were mildly and incompetently supported by the US are now only minor threats or rolled into the greater threat of Daesh.

      Daesh is a problem for the whole region that is dynamic, not confined by borders, threatens to grow, and has no apparent solution. Not even the fullest capability of Russia, applied in a brutal manner, could crush them. It could even be said that Daesh thrives on opposition.

      Accordingly, I think Putin will be content for now if he can just establish a Daesh-free zone in Syria that is suitable to protect Russia’s interests. They will knock off any significant remaining Syrian opposition groups that they see as troublesome. They will likely flex their muscle to keep Daesh out of certain key areas without picking a general fight. Russia will avoid becoming a Daesh target and part of the price for that may be to cede some of the Syrian territory that is already lost.

      On the other hand, Putin may allow Iran to exterminate Daesh Sunnis to their heart’s content and will help supply the arms. That would result in an Iran with more power and broader influence across the region. Iran may become so strong and allied with Russia that the West could not effectively re-impose sanctions or launch an attack if they resume their nuclear program. Iran may also position themselves to attack Israel and are already on their way to achieving an air defense system that could prevent a counter attack.

      In other words, Putin and Iran will spin a web in the region that will pose a threat to the US, given them leverage to end sanctions and cause Ukraine to seem like small potatos.

      • A slight difference of opinion . . .

        I do not think Iran will attack Israel, but its growing influence in the ME and the world will severely decrease Israel’s power and restrict its belligerence.

        I think the main target of Iran is Saudi power. Iran wants to decrease it so that the extremely radical Saudi version of the Sunni branch of Islam will be muted. The USA should welcome the this because it is the Saudi Arabian version of Islam that funds ISIL and Al Quaida which are a danger to the USA, EU, Russia and China.

      • You are wrong.

        Putin has a much wider geopolitical interest in crushing ISIS as quickly and as completely as possible.

        It is this: the entire ME is in play here, and Putin’s “appeal” will be that the USA *says* it wants to defeat ISIS, but all it does is pussy-foot around.

        It’s “bombing campaign” over the last 12 months has been a joke. They are very clearly not serious.

        Compare and Contrast.

        When Russia decides that enough is enough then ISIS gets crushed. Quickly. Comprehensively.

        So who do you guys want to side with?

        An America that talks a good talk but then does nothing but GET IN THE WAY?

        Or a Russia that says what it means and means what it says?

        Your choice is yours but, really, it’s not much of a choice.

        Putin HATES terrorists. He detests them, precisely because they DO pose a threat to the Russian Federation.

        He’s serious. He wants those SoB’s dead, and if Uncle Sam is going to just pussy-foot around then there’s the exit, dudes. Let the grown-ups handle this.

        • Dream on. There is no one “grown up” enough to quickly crush a nebulous and widespread force like ISIS. You’re forgetting Russia’s misadventure in Afghanistan. A lot has changed since them, but the lesson still applies.

          Also, what a joke to say that Russia “says what means and means what it says.”

        • Keep in mind that the REPUBLICAN congress has CHOSEN to not authorize active warfare against ISIS. They will NOT even discuss it.

          While Putin, as a virtual dictator, can just order up war any time he wants, the POTUS has very limited war making ability. Per the USA Constitution, Congress MUST authorize and fund ALL war making that the USA engages in.

          The reason the USA has not been able to accomplish very much is the POTUS has no leverage and the so-called coalition is not really interested in stopping ISIS and in many cases (Saudi Arabia and Turkey) are actively helping ISIS.

          Obama is NOT the blame for the situation with ISIS. Most of the lack of action rests squarely on Congress.

          That being said, the congress critters have a very valid reason for not even discussing ISIS – If congress authorizes war on ISIS, most congress critters will lose their job and a few might even be strung up on the nearest light post.

  5. Intentionally or not, Obama seems to be adopting the role of opposition in relation to Putin, the role he argued Republicans should eschew in favour of coöperation with him. To an outside observer it simply makes him appear petulant. It’s even possible, assuming they are successful in Syria, Russia may one day extend its anti-Daesh, etc. activities into Iraq, if only because it makes little sense simply to push them outside the door. Lavrov insists Russia has no such intention which is doubtless true but intentions are rooted in ‘now’ and ‘now’ has a very short lifespan. France24 interviewed al-Abadi the other day link to france24.com? and it’s not hard to see such a move as a distinct possibility, with the one saying Russia has not offered and the other saying Iraq has not asked.

  6. “…………..[t}he Free Syrian army has largely collapsed and it holds almost no territory…….”

    This is not accurate.

    The Free Syrian Army has significant territory in the Deraa governorate south of Damascus and had defeated the government troops there when taking the provincial capital there this summer in conjunction with Gulf-supported Islamist brigade fighters:

    link to carnegieendowment.org

    The Free Syrian Army operates in the Idlib governorate also, in the north.

    • Idlib is controlled by a coalition of Ahrar al-Sham/ Freemen of Syria and al-Qaeda. FSA doesn’t have a significant position there any more. Sorry, I just don’t see FSA as a significant player any more.

  7. Thanks for this explanation and analysis. Our own government’s comments can’t be taken at face value, unfortunately, yet our media and politicians often do so, and often compound the confusion.

  8. Question/thoughts – is the pattern here really Cold War redux? Yes, under Obama the US is in retreat in MENA – but by choice I would argue (hence why John McCain has his knickers in a perpetual twist). While Russia might see this vacuum as a space to burnish great power credentials, the real question in my mind is whether the Saudis, the Egyptians, Turks, or the Israelis really see Russia as the next big player in town – I don’t think so. I think the same group is also pretty clear that meddling in messy conflict zones is not China’s MO, and the EU has already proven itself to be a bunch of has-beens. Is it possible we are gearing up for a show-down between former US proxies seeking regional hegemony in the post great power era in ME history?

  9. Must watch video Lawrence Wilkerson on U.S. being on classic trajectory of declining empires of the past. Russia, China, and Iran are taking on a Noble Peace President who has bombed more nations than anyone in history (that too a classic sign of U.S. fitting into past empire declines) a sign they sense a tottering empire about to fall?

    link to youtube.com

  10. Could all those ‘moderate rebel’ defections, and stolen weapons being lost to the bad guys, have been a clever U.S. ploy? If so, who would come up with such a plan? Wasn’t it David Petraeus who recently said, the U.S. would do better to back al-Queda? Would any of this resemble Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard strategies? Didn’t the WSJ and John McCain just this week claim that Russia was bombing our CIA assets?

  11. If you can’t tell the difference between a tactical alliance between groups fighting a common enemy and an ideological “coalition” then I don’t know how you would have negotiated WWII (or any other armed conflict for that matter). Moreover Suqour al-Jabal was part of the Fateh Halab operations room in Aleppo, which did not include Jabhat al Nusra. It may have coordinated with JaN and Ahrar as-Sham at some points, but that would seem to be “just common sense”, wouldn’t it?

      • Juan Cole: “the operations room in Aleppo did in fact come to include the Support Front of al-Qaeda” No evidence for this – the link you provide is about Jabhat al Nusra in Idlib, no mention of Alleppo. As for Suqour “allying” with JaN their tactical cooperation is less substantial than the relationship you advocate with Russia. Why one rule for the US and another for everyone else?

  12. Thank you professor for a very informative blog. It is almost impossible to get unbiased and ‘correct’ information in the mainstream media. As for ISW is concerned it is in my opinion another think tank for the neo-cons and neo-libs interested in furthering the goals of defense manufacturers.
    I think Obama is hoping for an Afghanistan/ Taliban repeat with the Russian Syrian intervention, by creating another Saudi financed Wahhabi group.

  13. Uncle Sam is obviously ambivalent about al Qaeda-type groups.

    On one hand they were/are used as a tool against enemies such as the USSR, Russia, and China. And blowback like the 9/11 attack provided the occasion for the neocons to gain a stranglehold over the ‘Homeland’ by giving themselves secret powers, secret budgets, secret prisons, and total surveillance. On the other hand, they can’t admit that they employ terrorists, because ‘that’s not who we are’.

    Russia and China, having large Muslim populations and being targets of neocon destabilization, have no such ambivalence.

  14. A convincing analysis! It should be added that the potential emergence of a Saudi-Turkey axis dominating the ME was an impetus for Iran deal as well. If no deal, both the West as well as Russia would have been boxed out of any meaningful presence in the ME. Thankfully, both Obama and Putin saw through this ruse. The last thing one wants is a ME dominated by Wahhabis or the MB and their affiliates.

  15. El Eléctrico

    Finally reading some thorough yet concise dissection of those vague FSA/al-Qaeda-affiliated/collapsed-rebel-coalition/latter-day-ally groups. And good thing it’s coming from a well-respected source. It’s been sorta disconcerting reading all the self-righteous castigation of the past week.

  16. US policy is to overthrow Assad? Does anyone, including Obama, know who will replace Assad? Sounds like Libya all over again. Maybe on steroids.

    • No one in the USA ever thinks that far ahead or if they do try, they are completely delusional.

      Right now, the only group strong enough to replace Assad is ISIS.

  17. Thank you for this brave and enlightening piece. It is time the truth was told about the tragedy that is unfolding in Syria. The Syrian people have suffered enough, their ancient country has been almost totally destroyed, millions of them have been turned into refugees and now Europe has to pay the price for the sectarian war that was mainly started by Saudi Arabia. You point out, “… it is both dangerous and shameful for the US to ally with groups that are in turn linked to al-Qaeda or have al-Zawahiri in their reporting line.” I would add, “It is shameful for the US to ally with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel to distort the truth and destroy the Syrian people.” The United States has formed a coalition with a number of countries to fight against the terrorist who had been formed and funded by the same countries. This has been a joke from the start.

    Earlier today I gave an interview to Tehran Times that will be published in a few days’ time. In that interview, I referred to a Wikleaks cable sent in December 2009, in which former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clearly identified Saudi funding for Sunni “militancy” in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She wrote: “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups.” The same is true about the Sunni militancy in the Middle East. Vice-President Jo Biden in an unguarded moment admitted that America’s allies in the Middle East were the main backers of terrorism.

    John Hannah, Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, wrote in summer 2011 that a senior Saudi official had told him that the late Saudi king Abdullah believed that regime change in Iran would be highly beneficial to Saudi interests. He went on to say: “The king knows that other than the collapse of the Islamic Republic itself, nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria.” It was precisely at that time that a plot to organize and fund terrorist groups to bring down Assad’s government took shape. As you have clearly pointed out in your earlier posts, Assad is no angel. He is a tyrant and has committed many war crimes, just as Saudi rulers are committing in Yemen at the moment. But the genuine initial uprising in Syria for greater freedom and democracy was hijacked and used by some Sunni states with Western backing to bring about a regime change in Syria. That plot has failed. It is time to admit it and to start fighting the terrorists. If Russia can help in that venture she should be welcomed. It is certainly hypocritical to criticize her.

  18. Dr. Cole, would you please use a post to dissect what the United States government’s actual intentions and preferences are in Syria? There’s so much rhetorical smokescreen and omission from news reporting – even alternative news reporting – that getting a clear picture of U.S. intent is. For instance, I’ve read that now in Iraq the U.S. is not really bothering to bomb ISIS targets for the most part, even ignoring ISIS’ frequent oil tanker truck traffic deliveries that they derive significant income from, even though those trucks are greatly exposed for hundreds of miles in open ground. Is a negotiated stalemate in the cards in both Iraq and Syria?

  19. So the deal is that Obama pretends condemnation of Putin and the Saudis pretend satisfaction? Maybe. Certainly isn’t the stupidest thing that has occurred recently in the Middle East. Probably one of the more intelligent.

  20. Yet another example of Obama’s hollow rhetoric. If Obama’s primary objective is the overthrow of Assad, then he is in a de facto alliance with ISIS.

  21. The world will be so much better off when we are no longer reliant on petroleum, especially Saudi petrol.

  22. Militias aligning themselves with different political objectives – aganist a common foe – are likely to prolong the civil war, as in-fighting occurs when victory is insight e.g. the collapse of the Najibullah government in Afghanistan.

    The fluidity of the Syrian opposition(s) have yet to legitimise a consensus and Russia’s counter-balance has tacit support from the US. However, overtures will need to occur for relative sustainability.

  23. I like your view. It’s supported by the recent arguments by the Pentagon that we plan to ally with Al Qaeda.

    I’d like to add that the journalist Nir Rosen opposes immediately overthrowing Assad. But unlike both Russia and the US, he advocates ending the war rather than continuing it.

    According to Asad Abu Khalil the US has already selected the man in charge it wants. It follows that is the reason for demanding Assad’s ouster, or discrediting his supporters with broad propaganda, so strongly now.

    It’s also kind of amazing. The leading human rights organization Human Rights Watch is more hawkish than the president. I’m no fan of Assad either but Ken Roth wrote an editorial coming as close to demanding war as possible without overstepping his organization’s policy against discussing aggression.

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