Should an al-Qaeda Ally have a seat at the Syrian Table? Al-Assad rejects talks w/ any armed Group

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Riyadh conference of the Syrian opposition this week included political groups but also nine armed bands. One of the nine, the Free Men of Syria or Ahrar al-Sham, has a formal alliance with al-Qaeda in Syria, the Nusra Front. I don’t think the US and the Saudis, who sponsored this meeting, should have let Ahrar attend unless it renounced that formal alliance (it isn’t just tactical). I don’t buy the attempt to whitewash Ahrar as moderate. If you’re in bed with al-Qaeda, you aren’t moderate. Ahrar also hates the leftist Syrian Kurds and won’t cooperate with them. Imagine what they’d do to the Alawite Shiites if they took Latakia. It would create millions more Syrian refugees.


After the conference, Saudi Arabia came out and demanded al-Assad step down before the negotiations. This is a sign it is not serious about negotiations.

I think this mistake gave Bashar al-Assad an opening to attempt to shoot down the negotiations entirely.. Al-Assad says he considers everyone with a gun in the opposition a terrorist. That is ridiculous, though maybe it is a reasonable request that he negotiate with civilian representatives of the opposition (Sinn Fein rather than the IRA by analogy.)

Al-Assad said that from the beginning of the uprising against him, the US had supported terrorist groups in Syria, and that the so-called ‘war on terror’ was always a myth.

Al-Assad in general can’t be taken seriously on such matters — he had 10,000 helpless prisoners tortured to death and deployed snipers and artillery against peaceful crowds.

But the Nusra-led Army of Conquest of which Ahrar al-Sham is member is a fatal weak link in the stance of the US. We are allied with the allies of al-Qaeda, as in Afghanistan in the 1980s – a horrible error that is shocking given everything that has happened since.

Syed Farook, the San Bernardino shooter, when he was looking for a terrorist group to join, is said reached out to the Nusra Front, i.e. alQaeda in Syria. Its direct ally just sat with our Saudi friends in Riyadh to forge a negotiating position with regard to the Syrian government.

It isn’t surprising that is unscceptable to al-Assad.

What is shocking is that it is acceptable to us.

14 Responses

  1. Not dealing with terrorists is a generally accepted principle, one the US espouses, publically at any rate, and as such it has no more to do with Assad’s character and behaviour than it would Obama’s. It seems to me highly doubtful Assad ever exercised complete control over the actions of the Syrian military elite, and to blame him for all the ruthlessness against political opposition may risk ignoring the strength and nature of the enforcement structure left in place by his father who may well have left it fairly impregnable considering he was obliged to leave so complex a situation in the hands of an ophthalmologist. The US and a bunch of other nations continually insist Assad cannot be part of the Syrian future, without apparently considering that such an approach to another nation’s electoral process is not only undemocratic but transparently hypocritical, particularly from Saudi Arabia. Russia considers the Syrian people should decide who they want as President, as does the UN Secretary General.

    What is really at issue here is the US etc. reacting to the threat facing its preferred uni-polar global vision, a threat that appears to be coming to a head in a manner that would likely be occurring even if ISIL did not exist. Looked at from a different perspective there is no ‘moral’ element involved, it is rather a process with a high degree of inexorability. One superpower would face constant anarchy, two would be forever at each others throats, three, as Orwell projected, could reach a delicate degree of fluctuating but overall acceptable equilibrium. That is as much physics as politics.

    • I saw a Syrian expert a year or two ago on TV (his name escapes me) talking about his relationship with Assad. He had visited him several times and had another meeting scheduled about 6 months before the protests broke out that led to the Civil War. He told about how he was detained and badly handled while entering the country, despite the fact that he was scheduled to meet with Assad and they were on friendly terms. He finally got a chance to call Assad’s office and was then immediately treated well. He concluded that Assad’s security forces often operated independently. He was at a bit of a loss to understand the regime’s vicious reaction against the protesters, assuming that at least some of that was done without Assad’s direction. Nevertheless, given events since then, he held Assad ultimately responsible for the depredations visited upon his citizens. And so should anyone else, regardless of the independence of the security services, which Assad could have overruled, had he so chosen. Assad is a war criminal. War criminals should not be in charge of nation states. Some people are quick to criticize US leaders for violations of international norms, but then give a break to others. Bush was a war criminal, Obama has taken actions that are war crimes, and Assad is a war criminal. Standards are standards and should be upheld.

    • I tended to like the title of the Common Dreams article germane. This one I’ve read, so I know it’s (as usual for the prof) very, very informing.

      It’s strange that the Syrian drought synched up with all this. Beginning in ’06 or ’07 it would seem the “think” tanks could have tried to do some scenarios. Might be due to my exposure to farm life (American) that I gravitate towards coverage of displaced or out-priced farmers, and that I empathize with their plight. IOW from my point of view Assad was no saint the way he handled things. Can’t believe he was out of any loop.

      I think Sergio below makes good points. There is an issue which no one’s bringing up. Don’t know if it’s because unconsciously folks don’t want to be tagged, or unconsciously they just don’t want to face it. If I recall correctly, both Noam Chomsky and Richard Clarke have written statements regarding the likelihood of Al Qaeda possessing one or a few suitcase nukes. We are worried about what Cruz has said, but what about what Chomsky and Clarke wrote? Actually, what they wrote adds a little more meaning to Cruz’s approach (preemptive, if Cruz is thinking at all). Iran accepts nuclear monitors. Ultimately might not ISIL-land accept human rights monitors? Such an arrangement (handing over the territory) would only IMO make sense in the context of this nuclear element.

  2. If they want to make peace, they’re going to have to talk to someone. Or be able to kill everyone who is fighting (a bad option, even if it was possible)

    BTW, you’ve got a typo in the second last sentence.
    “It isn’t surprising that is unscceptable to al-Assad.”

    Should be unacceptable.

  3. Thank you Professor, for consistently beating this drum that the US is actually allying with the very people who killed over 3000 people on 9/11, and would perpetrate much worse if they could today.

    Perhaps you can delve into the reasons why and how this is allowed to happen. Our diplomats and policy makers are clearly clueless and/or seriously corrupt. The adults in the room had better take charge soon, or this is not going to go well at all.

    • This is how wars that you lose end. We signed a “peace with honor” deal with Hanoi to end the Vietnam war after they killed 58,000 Americans.

      If this deal or any other serves to get the US out of the Middle East then it is a good thing.

  4. As long as we insist on pretending that Turkey is an ally we’re right there with Ahrar al-Sham anyway.

  5. Here is evidence of ignorance lace with malice, pouring salt on the afghan open wound.
    There are people (general petraeus) Looking forward to working with our new allies.
    link to

  6. Why would not Assad be taken seriously, Juan Cole? Stalin was….Mao was….Nixon went to China much worse than Al-Assad. Al-Assad a torturer murderer of 10,000 people, do you have proof? How many has the USA tortured since 9/11? Or since the WWII in Latin America? Please stop being “American” and be impartial, a man of the world and call the truth on all. Again, Putin is right in saying he does not want in Syria the same that the US invasion directly produced in Iraq/Afghanistan.

  7. This is a charade. There is no place for the Saudis and its allies to demand conditions for peace.

    That this is even considered as viable is indicative that the US and allies in the region are delusional and dangerous.

    This is the most surreal juncture of US geopolitics that I have ever observed.

    My attention is focused on the viability of international law, and how the will of the people in nations is slighted or honored.

    What is certain is that the imperialist narrative is I’m decline and doesn’t resound among the populations of Western nations.

    The center cannot hold–and narration and mythos are key in the context of ascent and decline.

Comments are closed.