Is Kerry Right? Are Freemen of Syria and Army of Islam Radical Terrorists?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Josh Rogin of the Washington Post caused a stir by noticing something Secretary of State John Kerry said at Aspen last month. Kerry slammed Syrian al-Qaeda (Nusra Front) and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), then said,

“There are a couple of subgroups underneath the two designated — Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra — Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham particularly — who brush off and fight with that — alongside these other two sometimes to fight the Assad regime . . .”

In his opinion piece, Rogin characterizes what Kerry said as a gaffe that yielded to the Russian position that all rebels against the al-Assad regime in Syria are terrorists. Rogin also defended Ahrar al-Sham (Freemen of Syria) as not an al-Qaeda affiliate or in the line of command of al-Qaeda, though he admitted that it is Salafi and wants a radical Muslim dictatorship.

I’m not sure why the State Department officials who anonymously blasted Kerry think that Freemen of Syria are good guys just because they aren’t al-Qaeda.

And the fact is that they are in fact in a formal political and military coalition with al-Qaeda. I.e. they are playing Mulla Omar and the Taliban to al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri (the 9/11 mastermind to whom the Syrian Nusra Front reports).

I wrote some time ago:

“The Free Men are closely allied with the open al-Qaeda affiliate, the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra). This is not a mere alliance of convenience. They have formed joint operation offices. They coordinate closely militarily. They have a common rubric in Idlib Province of the Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fath).

When the two groups of holy warriors and their allies took over the city of Idlib . . . they conquered 18 villages north of that city largely inhabited by members of the esoteric Shiite Druze religion. The Free Men leadership gave control of the Druze villages to al-Qaeda, which promptly began stealing their property and killing them when they objected. Some 23 were massacred…

Note that the Free Men did not have to give the Druze in Idlib Province to al-Qaeda. They could have administered that territory themselves. That they thought al-Qaeda a suitable overlord for a group viewed by hard line Salafis as unbelievers and idolators shows that they just don’t care about human rights. They want a Salafi , Taliban-style Islamic state. We know exactly what happened to Shiite Hazara under the Taliban in Afghanistan. They were massacred.

If the Free Men are so moderate, they would renounce their close alliance with al-Qaeda and stop coddling the terrorists, who report directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri, a mastermind of the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. That this intertwining of the Free Men with al-Qaeda is all right with the Washington Post is just baffling.

Me, I’d say a formal political and battlefield ally of al-Qaeda is pretty sketchy and just the sort of sub-group to which Kerry referred. Why would the US want to protect a group that differs in no respect from Afghanistan’s Taliban and wants to turn Syria into a dictatorial Salafi society? What would happen to Syrian Christians, Druze, Alawis and leftist Kurds under a Freemen government?

As for the Saudi-backed Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam), it is less politically tied to al-Qaeda but it is a frequent battlefield ally, just as Kerry said.

Josh Wood at the UAE’s The National pointed out last winter that Russia and Syria are not the only ones worried about the Army of Islam and the Freemen of Syria:

“While the groups both oppose ISIL, they are allies of Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra and their behaviours during the war have been seen as tinged with extremist tendencies. Jaish Al Islam’s former leader Zahran Alloush spoke of Alawites and Shiites in derogatory terms and at times advocated that they be cleansed from parts of Syria. Last autumn, the group paraded captured Alawite civilians and soldiers through Damascus’ suburbs in cages, allegedly planning to use them as human shields against government air strikes. The group also does not shy away from gory displays of violence.

Nice.

So what Kerry said was not inaccurate and it did not give away anything to the Russians. But it probably did anger Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who apparently roped the CIA into this business of allying with the Salafi Jihadis.

Really? In 2016, elements of the US government want to repeat the mistakes of the 1980s that in many ways led to the September 11 attacks? You don’t build up Salafi Jihadis and help them take over a country. They don’t believe in democracy, they hate minorities, and deep down inside they despise and want to harm the United States, even if they are willing to ally with it tactically to get what they want. After they have gotten it, that is when they start dreaming about taking down towers.

And by the way, that Israeli flirtation with al-Qaeda in the Golan Heights should have brought enormous US pressure to cut it out.

It is al-Qaeda for God’s sake.

So, in this instance both Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are right. A resolution of the Syrian civil war cannot come as long as the strongest groups are terrorists. It is true that the regime is also a state terrorist on a massive level. That is why it has provoked a tremendous revolution against itself. But these anti-democratic radical religious groups just give the alternative to the regime a bad name.

Or at least they would if journalists would do their homework and think straight.

——

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Newsy: “Did Sec. Kerry Mistakenly Call 2 Syrian Rebel Groups Terrorists?”

12 Responses

  1. The U.S. and Britain have allied with and otherwise actively used such terror groups (even helping create them as well as supply, train, and fund them) since the 1950s, starting in Egypt, though there may have been earlier or other such support elsewhere as well. Blowback was never supposed to blow as far back as the United States itself, as in 9/11. U.S. and British adherents of using this extremist paramilitary anarchy to gain advantage and continue power in western Asia however merely used the 9/11 blowback as a cynical rationalization to intensify and expand their unholy sadistic alliance with terror ‘over there’. U.S. and British “State Terror” therefore is used both directly and indirectly to assert hegemony against made-up and cornered ‘enemies’. The so-called homeland U.S. and Britain can just go to hell as far as these U.S. and British manipulators are concerned.

  2. Kerry is right. Those two groups have committed terrorist attacks in Syria, and should be labelled as such.

    You write, “It is true that the regime is also a state terrorist on a massive level. That is why it has provoked a tremendous revolution against itself. But these anti-democratic radical religious groups just give the alternative to the regime a bad name.”

    State terrorist: this phrase has no meaning. Certainly does not have any legal meaning. It’s better to write that the Assad government has committed war crimes. Here, there is a legal meaning that clearly has enforceable repercussions (at least in theory).

    The strife in Syria started just like every other quashed Arab spring revolution: a broad, at times youth-based, movement that demanded full democratic and civil rights. Saudi Arabia quashed every single revolution: in Bahrain, in Egypt, in Libya, in Yemen, and finally in Syria. Instead, Saudi Arabia either backed the ruling dictators or funded the most extremist groups in order to impede non-violent protesters from bringing republican democracies to the middle east.

    • No, when a state brings in shia terrorist organisations that murder civilians en masse and post their murdering and raping on social media (check HRW reports and graphic pictures and videos) then the state is a terrorist state if it can be called such because the Syrian state according to my neighbour who visited it last year does not exist anymore.

      Jaysh Al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Sham have committed war crimes and allied themselves with AQ but at least they are Syrian and rule over 4 million Syrians who refused to leave or join Assad, the shia militias are Iraqis, Lebanese, Pakistanis and Afghanis, ironically a shia version of Daesh.

      • Again, purely from a legal perspective state terrorism does not have a definition or interpretation. You can use words without meaning, but the other party at the end of the conversation will not be able to understand what you are saying. The word terrorism has legal meaning, even if the definition is far looser than desirable. In the case of ‘state terrorism,’ not only does it not have meaning, it does not have any legal interpretation.

        “Jaysh Al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Sham have committed war crimes and allied themselves with AQ but at least they are Syrian and rule over 4 million Syrians who refused to leave or join Assad…”

        How lovely that Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham are Syrian (please read my sarcasm). Playing into sectarianism does not help the situation. What Iran is doing is not right, but is operating at the government of Syria. Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh Al-Islam, AQ are committing terrorism in Syria, Iraq, the entire middle east, and Europe.

  3. Kerry has a punishing schedule and must be completely exhausted. Looks like he simply confused what he can say with Lavrov with what he mustn’t say at home. Unmistakable facts were ignored in favour of appearances. Tacitus, Annals

  4. Thanks for that concise assessment, Juan. It would appear that the Department of State has a collective case of Dunning-Kruger syndrome.

  5. “Or at least they would if journalists would do their homework and think straight.”

    That sounds terribly naive.

    Kerry gave a speech that undermined the narrative regarding “good rebels”. It certainly wasn’t a “gaffe”, but it certainly would have pissed off the CIA – who are the agency within the US government that sees the greatest utility in using “good rebels” to do all the dirty work.

    What could be simply than for the CIA to use a tame journalist to tip a bucket on Kerry?

    Rogin had, indeed, done his homework.

    It’s just that this is homework had been handed to him on a platter, and all he had to “think” about was how much stenography was required on his part to make it look as though these were his words and not simply regurgitations.

  6. Just to point out these lines from Rogin’s article:
    “Two administration officials who work on Syria told me”…

    Those two dudes are almost certainly going to be CIA, and they have a vested interest in insisting that Night is Day w.r.t. “their terrorists”.

    …”one senior administration official told me”…

    That’d be CIA spook Number 1.

    …”Another U.S. official simply emailed”…

    And…. that’d be CIA spook Number 2.

    “State Department spokesman John Kirby told me”…

    Attribution! Yeah! Good for you Josh.

    So Rogin has three sources:
    1) Kirby, who agrees with his boss.
    2) Some unnamed dude from the CIA.
    3) Another unnamed dude from the CIA.

    This has to be hammered time and time again: there is an agency within the US government that is RUNNING TERRORISTS. That agency is the CIA, so of course they are going to be mighty pissed whenever Kerry pours a bucket on “their terrorists”.

    After all, Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham are THEIR TERRORISTS.

  7. The reason Turkey and Saudi Arabia and co. back these groups is because they are, among others, the dominant rebel groups on the ground, and have popular support in the areas they hold. They are also of the Sunni majority and are against the Assad regime and the expansion of Iranian influence, and are not hostile toward other countries in the region.

    They have also shown a relatively moderate tone and a willingness to cooperate with local and international powers.

    Hence, although their ideology is not what the US and yourself would prefer, these groups are in such a position that any practical or meaningful stance against the Assad regime requires supporting, or at least, not alienating them, let alone dehumanizing them and branding them as terrorists as the Assad regime does.

    I think you should be less harsh on US policy: it has tried to create alternative secular Sunni Arab groups that could rival these groups but has so far failed. It is stuck in an icky position that has prolonged the war and cost thousands of lives.

    • “They have also shown a relatively moderate tone and a willingness to cooperate with local and international powers.”

      Evidence? Both on record Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham have had leaders who have said some pretty nasty things, including but not limited to ethnically cleansing Shias and Alawis. Jaysh al-Islam has also engaged in war crimes in Syria: use of human shields and far nastier stuff. If you are going to make such assertions as your quote above, you should back it up with quotes or examples. The record of these two groups in Syria and Iraq runs completely contrarily to your assertion.

      “…these groups are in such a position that any practical or meaningful stance against the Assad regime requires supporting, or at least, not alienating them, let alone dehumanizing them and branding them as terrorists as the Assad regime does.”

      Umm… They are terrorists. Just because you dislike Assad and these two groups happen to want to Assad, does not give you the license to negate facts on the ground. These two groups are responsible for the actions that Professor Cole highlights. One may dislike Assad and rightly call out the Assad government for war crimes, as well as human rights abuses, and still coherently argue that these two groups have committed terrorism. What actually is dehumanizing to the people of Syria is failing to call out terrorism by groups that Turkey and Syria support.

      “…they are, among others, the dominant rebel groups on the ground, and have popular support in the areas they hold.”

      Again, where is the evidence that these two groups hold popular support? They have held territories in Syria and Iraq at gunpoint against the wishes of the population. Maybe it isn’t obvious, but some of the towns that these two groups held that were ethnically cleansed and depopulated did not wish these events to happen to them.

      “It is stuck in an icky position that has prolonged the war and cost thousands of lives.”

      On the margins, the US is hopefully changing positions. Giving munitions and financial support to these groups is in contravention of international law. Kerry’s signalling indicates that the US is ready to work with Russia to put this carnage to a hold. Turkey too is about to normalize relations with Syria (hopefully). The situation becomes less “icky” if the US stops supporting extremist groups in Syria.

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