Russian Strike on al-Qaeda Lair kills 51 at Prison, as US hypocritically slams Moscow

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Russian air war against al-Qaeda in Syria (the Nusra Front or the Support Front) took a tragic turn on Saturday when a missile hit a downtown government building complex and prison in Maarat al-Numan. It left some 51 or more dead and 70 wounded. The Russians also bombed nearby towns of Saraqib and Khan Shikhun.

Presumably the inmates in a prison run by al-Qaeda were a mixture of other radicals (perhaps Daesh [ISIL, ISIS] and liberals of the former Free Syrian Army. Whether what we would consider criminals were in the prison I don’t know. Al-Qaeda runs its territory in Syria in a Taliban-like way, with morals police and social regimentation. So some prisoners could just be people who didn’t go along with the al-Qaeda state practices. Alarabiya is reporting that some of those killed or wounded were in the downtown market adjacent to the government buildings. Russia needs to be more careful or it will end up simply alienating all the ordinary Sunnis in Syria with these blunt tactics. Locals are demanding that Russia be charged by the international community with war crimes.

The killing of so many non-combatants underlines how blunt the use of air power in a guerrilla war is. Critics are saying that Russia has adopted the same lazy and deadly air tactics as had the Syria regime itself. This is a fair criticism.

The US critique of the Russian strike, however, is just misdirection and hypocrisy. I oppose the Russian airstrikes in Syria, but the fact is that Russia is clearly hitting al-Qaeda-held territory. The US pretends that al-Qaeda doesn’t exist in Syria or that it isn’t the threat that Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) is. But al-Qaeda is more dangerous to the regime than Daesh, and it is generally a dangerous organization that reports directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks on New York. There is every reason for Russia to bomb al-Qaeda in Syria, and more reason to bomb it than to bomb Daesh, which is off in the eastern desert.

Russian strategy is to push up from Homs north into Idlib and take the province back away from al-Qaeda and its allies in the Saudi and Turkey-backed Army of Conquest. It is suspicious to me that the State Dept. is complaining about this campaign, and I think it may be because the US itself in Syria is allied with allies of al-Qaeda.

Everyone in Washington will have forgotten that the US routinely bombed civilian cities during its occupation of Iraq. Here is an example, in which the US killed 49 with one strike on Sadr City. Here is another, considering the matter as tactics and strategy.

Not to mention that when it bombs Raqqa and other Daesh-held cities even today, the US kills civilians regularly. Just a month ago, the US killed 26 civilians in Khan in Hasaka province during attempted strikes on Daesh positions.

Maarat al-Numan is the birthplace of a great medieval blind Arab poet, Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma`arri (973-1057). He is known for rejecting the doctrine of life after death, and for having exalted reason over religion. There was a statue to him in Maarat al-Numan, which al-Qaeda destroyed when it took over the town. In the following poem, rendered by the great early 20th century Arabic and Persian specialist, R. A. Nicholson, al-Ma’arri considered that we are constantly walking on the dead of previous generations, buried in the ground on which we tread:

The Arrogant beneath our Feet

It’s sorrow enough that after he roamed at will,
The days beckon a man and say,
“Leave, and enter now a grave!”
How many times have our feet trodden beneath the dust
A brow of the arrogant, a skull of the debonair!


And here is al-Ma`arri’s condemnation, across the centuries, of both the sort of tyranny in which the al-Assad regime engages and of the religious messianism of al-Qaeda, praising instead the path of reason:

None to Lead but Reason

You’ve had your way a long, long time,
You kings and tyrants,
And still you work injustice hour by hour.
What ails you that do not tread a path of glory?
A man may take the field, although he love the bower.

But some hope a divine leader with prophetic voice
Will rise amid the gazing silent ranks.
An idle thought! There’s none to lead but reason,
To point the morning and the evening ways.



Related video:

Russian Insider from last week: “Exclusive footage of destroyed ISIS convoy in Syria after the Russian airstrikes”

18 Responses

  1. We don’t actually know who was in this prison. There may well have been ISIS prisoners there or the place may have been used as some kind of base or HQ for Al-Qaeda. Last time I heard, Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organisation according to America and the West generally, so their loss together with some ISIS prisoners is a legitimate target by anyone’s standards. We always assume that spies on the ground are some kind of monopoly of the West, but as the Russians are there at the request of the Syrian government, they almost certainly have their intelligence people all over the Country as well.

  2. Bombing a populated area will kill people; trying to kill some but not others is like trying to boil only some of the water in a kettle. That is a fact and this sort of event proves it. Hoping it won’t happen, indeed even trying to avoid it happening, is nothing more or less than gambling. The Germans and the British did it to each other in WWII, however that slaughter was quite deliberate and involved no hypocrisy. I was not yet four when our London house received a direct hit; mercifully there were siren warnings and we had time to decamp to the nearby subway platform or I would not be recounting it now. Perhaps it’s human nature: Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. and, one is inclined to add, conspicuously fail to do.

  3. Deeply disturbing all of the loss of life in Syria due to outside forces supporting so many different inside forces. Diabolical.

    How many U.S. strikes on Syrian soil? 7000? As you point out the U.S. has killed many innocent people that they don’t count or report.

    The U.S. calling out Russia is clearly a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

    Although I consider the Obama administration far more immoral in the Syrian catastrophe. They had an opportunity to make a deal with Assad five years ago…instead applied the tactic “Assad must go, Assad must go” resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and a refugee situation that is shameful.

    Sure will not hear MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow etc reporting about the Syrian situation. No they have to endlessly cover the Trump dumps.

    If Hillary wins the Dem nomination we can expect more death and destruction in the middle east. She is clearly committed to regime change. Not the case for Sanders

    • What evidence do you have that the US and Syria could have reached a deal that would have prevented a civil war? The civil war began when Assad’s security forces fired on peaceful protesters and engaged in a massacre. In the early days, many regular army forces deserted to the rebel side, as I remember the news reports. The idea that the US, which has never been closely involved in Syria before, could have stopped a civil war from breaking out seems very fanciful to me. Probably the only way a civil war could have been prevented is if Assad had been willing to share power and I have never seen any indication of his willingness to do that.

  4. The Russian response to the Chechen revolution is indicative of how few moral scruples the Russians/Soviets have in warfare. While the US has had many sins in warfare, they pale when compared to those of the Russians since at least 1919. Here’s one historical factoid which I have always found interesting. The Soviet Army was involved with the Japanese in WWII for only about 2 weeks, but captured approximately 2 million prisoners at the end of the war. When they repatriated their Japanese prisoners a couple of years later, only 1 million returned.

      • Well, I have read hundreds of books on WWII, so I can’t remember the source. I looked it up just now via
        Google and found what is probably more recent data that wasn’t available before, as I suspect I was reading estimates. that were made before the fall of the Soviet Union. Here is the quote from a google search: “On June 20, 1990, academics and Red Cross officials from the Soviet Union convened a panel and found that the U.S.S.R. detained more than 594, 000 Japanese for forced labor after WWII, among this number, 546, 000 were taken to camps within the Soviet Union and forced into labor. Most of these camps were in Siberia, but some were sent to Soviet Europe and the Caucasus for railroad construction, factory work, and other types of labor. They found that in the course of the dentition, 46, 082 died.” The Japanese had claimed about 10 times more were missing. link to

    • You are lying. The numbers are not even close.

      Also your usage of words like “chechen revolution” is quite showing of a jihadi sympathiser.

      • Would Chechen insurrection be better? I have read a couple different accounts that were written fairly recently and the impression I got is that the Chechen conflict was fairly widely supported by Chechens in Chechniya and was not at all solely a jihadist movement–that is Russian propaganda. Do you know any Russian history? The Soviet Union had minority problems for quite some time. For example, it wasn’t until 1923 that the Ukrainians were conquered and forced to remain in the USSR, the Georgians gained independence after 1990 and so on. The USSR was made up of a polyglot of ethnic groups and different cultures. And most of them did not like being under Russian rule. As both an undergrad and graduate student I took a lot of course work on the Soviet Union and its political system. Putin is basically a despot without the communist trappings. We shouldn’t expect him to behave any differently than previous Russian despotic rulers.

        • Chechen insurrection 1 under Yeltsin was nationalist. Chechen insurrection 2 under Putin was jihadi.

  5. It is clear that the US is responding to Israeli/zionist pressure to prioritize taking out Assad in order to hamstring Hezbollah. Syria is being sacrificed to the all consuming zionist dream of keeping Golan Heights and acquiring southern Lebanon.

    • It is my understanding that while Syria provided a conduit for the transfer of arms, it is Iran that has been the major supplier of Hezbollah. The Israeli government couldn’t stop the Iran arms deal. I think Obama is much less pro-Israeli than any president ;since Carter.

  6. How long before Donald Trump catches on that that the Administration is being very soft on al Qaeda, and makes an issue of it?

  7. After nearly 18 months of coalition bombing, a DAESH convey like that could still be driving down the road? Has the coalition been serious in targetting DAESH or has regime change been thei biggest priority?

  8. Read UN resolutions 2249 and 2254. It is the common position of all UNSC veto powers to “eradicate” havens of ANF in Syria and Iraq. If US MSM calls on Russia to focus on IS, they do so, because the US needs ANF as major rebel group to hold fronts in Aleppo, Latakia, Idlib and Daraa. SAA would overrun fronts without ANF and the US would have no say in realignment of Syria, They would be out. Thus they pretend UNSC resolutions 2249, 2254 dont exist.

    IMO: The US fell for Russia when they agreed to these resolutions, because Russia knew ANF was all over Syria. These resolutions give Russia carte blanche to hit ALL major rebel groups, because they are interlinked with ANF.

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