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Topic: Al Nusra Front

An Important Warning on Iraq

Ryan Crocker is quite simply the best diplomat of his generation, and not a person given to hyperbole, so when he writes that recent events in Iraq “are reminiscent of those that led to virtual civil war in 2006 and resulted in the need for a surge in U.S. troop levels, a new strategy and very heavy fighting”–then attention must be paid.

He is alarmed, and rightly so, by the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusrah Front. He notes: “These developments threaten not only to unravel the gains made since 2007, but also to energize the forces of violent extremism in the heart of the Arab world, already burning in Syria.”

In essence, he is sketching out the dire consequences of President Obama’s failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011, although he is too diplomatic to come out and say so.

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Ryan Crocker is quite simply the best diplomat of his generation, and not a person given to hyperbole, so when he writes that recent events in Iraq “are reminiscent of those that led to virtual civil war in 2006 and resulted in the need for a surge in U.S. troop levels, a new strategy and very heavy fighting”–then attention must be paid.

He is alarmed, and rightly so, by the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusrah Front. He notes: “These developments threaten not only to unravel the gains made since 2007, but also to energize the forces of violent extremism in the heart of the Arab world, already burning in Syria.”

In essence, he is sketching out the dire consequences of President Obama’s failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011, although he is too diplomatic to come out and say so.

The only part of his article I disagree with is his ending: “Though the United States has withdrawn its troops from Iraq,” he writes, “it retains significant leverage there. Iraqi forces were equipped and trained by Americans, and the country’s leaders need and expect our help.”

Maybe so, but what I see is that our departure has opened the way for Iran to eclipse our influence–and to the extent that we still have influence we haven’t been doing enough to exercise it, because President Obama prefers to delegate all matters relating to Iraq to underlings, as if he couldn’t be sullied with dealing with the fallout of “George W. Bush’s war.”

As it happens, that war, after tragic early mistakes, was nearly won by the time Obama assumed office. If Iraq does indeed spin out of control, history will not look kindly on the almost casual manner in which Obama aborted negotiations on a Status of Forces Agreement and turned his back on Iraq. The misguided fashion in which we “ended” the war (or, more accurately, ended our involvement in keeping the peace) may eventually be judged as serious a mistake as the misguided manner in which we began it.

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The High Cost of Diplomatic Nicety

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of addressing the World Affairs Council of Houston on the question of Turkey. My basic theme was that there has been a transformation in Turkey, and so it is important that U.S. officials recognize that when discussing Turkey as a model. In the question-and-answer session which followed, a young diplomat from the Turkish consulate who was unhappy with both the choice of speaker and the speech pushed back on one part of my talk, in which I suggested that the United States was unhappy with Turkey’s support for the Nusra Front in Syria.

I’ve discussed previously at COMMENTARY both the Nusra Front and its designation as a terrorist group by the U.S. government, as well as Turkey’s willingness to arm the radical Islamist group in the belief that an al-Qaeda affiliate controlling territory in Syria is better for Turkey’s national security than the secular but Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) doing likewise. When challenged in parliament about Turkish support for Nusra Front, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s increasingly shrill foreign minister, castigated negative descriptions of the Nusra Front as the work of “neo-cons and pro-Israelis in America,” his code-word for Jews.

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Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of addressing the World Affairs Council of Houston on the question of Turkey. My basic theme was that there has been a transformation in Turkey, and so it is important that U.S. officials recognize that when discussing Turkey as a model. In the question-and-answer session which followed, a young diplomat from the Turkish consulate who was unhappy with both the choice of speaker and the speech pushed back on one part of my talk, in which I suggested that the United States was unhappy with Turkey’s support for the Nusra Front in Syria.

I’ve discussed previously at COMMENTARY both the Nusra Front and its designation as a terrorist group by the U.S. government, as well as Turkey’s willingness to arm the radical Islamist group in the belief that an al-Qaeda affiliate controlling territory in Syria is better for Turkey’s national security than the secular but Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) doing likewise. When challenged in parliament about Turkish support for Nusra Front, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s increasingly shrill foreign minister, castigated negative descriptions of the Nusra Front as the work of “neo-cons and pro-Israelis in America,” his code-word for Jews.

Lest anyone have any illusions about for what the Nusra Front stands, here is an excerpt from their latest press release, which SITE Monitoring has translated: “Praise be to Allah, who made jihad in His Cause to be the pinnacle. Peace and prayer be upon the one sent with the sword to raise the banner of Islam….”

The diplomat said that U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had recently talked to Turks and had nothing but praise for the Turkish position. Ergo, the diplomat suggested, suggesting that Washington was concerned with Ankara’s position on the Nusra Front was off-base.

Now, it’s quite possible—even likely—that Ford praised Turkey publicly. Obviously, a Turkish diplomat jotted down Ford’s comments and circulated them in a cable sent to various Turkish missions. Privately, however, there is real concern—expressed reportedly by Ford and many others—about the Turkish support for al-Nusra and its increasing radicalization.

Ford—like many diplomats—likes to assuage concerns with politeness and exaggerated praise. This may be what the State Department preaches, but it has a downside: Adversaries will seize on the praise as reason to avoid dealing with fundamental problems. When it comes to al-Nusra, and Turkey’s support for that radical terrorist group, an unwillingness to address the situation directly may ultimately be counted in American lives. Sometimes it’s important to call a spade, a spade, whether or not it adds tension or aggrieves the diplomat across the table.

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What If Assad Wins?

All throughout the Syrian civil war, analysts and human rights groups were at pains to point out the rising death toll and falling share of media and public attention. But underlying the legitimate frustration was a perhaps forced belief–straining under the weight of reality–in the conventional wisdom: the house of Assad will fall; the victims’ deaths will not be in vain.

But the standard rule of conventional wisdom–that it may be the former but is rarely the latter–applies here as well. As Emile Hokayem writes in the wake of Bashar al-Assad’s recent defiant speech:

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All throughout the Syrian civil war, analysts and human rights groups were at pains to point out the rising death toll and falling share of media and public attention. But underlying the legitimate frustration was a perhaps forced belief–straining under the weight of reality–in the conventional wisdom: the house of Assad will fall; the victims’ deaths will not be in vain.

But the standard rule of conventional wisdom–that it may be the former but is rarely the latter–applies here as well. As Emile Hokayem writes in the wake of Bashar al-Assad’s recent defiant speech:

More importantly, Western states should get off the sidelines. The illusion of a negotiated settlement is a consequence of Western indecision, not the cause for it. The United States in particular has squandered precious time and opportunities: The risks of greater involvement in Syria are certainly great, but the conflict has already overtaken the Iraq war in terms of regional and strategic impact, and Washington is at best marginal to its dynamics. U.S. Sen. John McCain only slightly exaggerated when he said last month: “In Syria, everything we said would happen if we didn’t intervene is happening because we didn’t intervene.” Judging by Assad’s speech, Syria’s civil war is indeed about to become even more tragic as the world stands idly by.

That “illusion” is a Western creation, and more importantly it is not widely–and certainly not universally–shared. The “rebels” do not emit an air of encroaching victory, and to speak of patience and inevitability seems nothing less than vulgar. Can anyone explain why time is on the side of the rebels? It certainly doesn’t feel that way anymore, does it?

As Hokayem points out, Assad’s strategy is to wait until 2014 and then pretend to hold (fake) elections. Westerners can laugh at this now, but the world’s only superpower has just nominated to serve as its chief diplomat John Kerry–a man who referred to Assad as his “dear friend,” a reformer with whom we could work. Kerry is so enamored of mindless, endless negotiations that analysts are already predicting he will attempt to swing Foggy Bottom’s approach to North Korea–a genuinely evil regime, the persistence of which we will one day have to explain to its survivors, though we’ll be unable to–away from Hillary Clinton’s supposedly “tough” approach to one that allows him to hear the sound of his own voice in yet another obsequious, weak-willed context.

The Obama administration sought to help the rebels by recognizing the opposition, but in so doing had to first designate the al-Nusra Front, which is participating in the war, as a terrorist organization. The al-Nusra Front subsequently, and unsurprisingly, became the military leaders of the rebellion. Which raises the question: has the window closed on intervention? Have we made it impossible to intervene even if we wanted to? As Simon Tisdall writes at the Guardian, that is becoming the new convention wisdom:

The west’s hedging of bets over Syria has become glaring in recent months even as its rhetoric has intensified. Political demands, principally that Assad step down immediately and without preconditions, have become ever more inflexible. Led by France, the western position is that nothing less than regime change at the top will do. But at the same time, the argument about doing what needs to be done militarily and logistically to ensure that objective, for example by arming the rebels, seems to be over – and the rebels are the losers. Despite the rebooting of opposition forces under the umbrella Syrian National Coalition, weapons supplies and financial aid are drying up. Even the Sunni Gulf states seem to be having second thoughts as they contemplate a post-Assad Syria sliding into post-Saddam style anarchy.

The most perverse element in all this is that it seems the only event that could now trigger American-sanctioned intervention in Syria would be the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against the rebels. Max has already asked why it is OK for Assad to kill children with guns and bombs but not chemical weapons. It’s a rhetorical question, because the only acceptable answer–that it isn’t OK to kill them with anything–would put Assad on the wrong side of the red line the administration has so carefully placed in front of him.

The White House may also think that this will ease the criticism from interventionists and human rights groups: if it’s too late for action, it’s surely too late for words. It’s more likely, however, that as the inevitable turns into the inconceivable the judgment will be harsh, but it won’t be written on the country’s op-ed pages; it’ll be written in the history books.

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If it Walks Like a Terrorist and Talks Like a Terrorist…

Yesterday, Max Boot criticized the Obama administration for the timing of the designation of the Al Nusra Front as a terrorist group. Timing and coherence is not the Obama administration’s forte: If the Obama administration was a person and had a meeting at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, it would show up promptly at 4 p.m. the following Thursday. I largely agree with Max’s analysis:

On the merits the designation is clearly warranted, given the close links between Al Nusra and Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the administration has dragged its feet for years in designating other terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network even while they were actually killing Americans. The Taliban still hasn’t been so designated. So why rush to designate the Al Nusra Front? Presumably because the administration is planning to confer diplomatic recognition on the Syrian opposition and wants to make clear its disapproval of the jihadist element of the opposition….

I disagree with Max’s implication that the Obama administration should have held off its designation. Max writes, “However justifiable morally, the designation of the Al Nusra Front makes little tactical sense at this moment. From the rebels’ perspective it is simply playing into Assad’s hands without doing anything concrete to bolster the non-jihadist opposition.”

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Yesterday, Max Boot criticized the Obama administration for the timing of the designation of the Al Nusra Front as a terrorist group. Timing and coherence is not the Obama administration’s forte: If the Obama administration was a person and had a meeting at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, it would show up promptly at 4 p.m. the following Thursday. I largely agree with Max’s analysis:

On the merits the designation is clearly warranted, given the close links between Al Nusra and Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the administration has dragged its feet for years in designating other terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network even while they were actually killing Americans. The Taliban still hasn’t been so designated. So why rush to designate the Al Nusra Front? Presumably because the administration is planning to confer diplomatic recognition on the Syrian opposition and wants to make clear its disapproval of the jihadist element of the opposition….

I disagree with Max’s implication that the Obama administration should have held off its designation. Max writes, “However justifiable morally, the designation of the Al Nusra Front makes little tactical sense at this moment. From the rebels’ perspective it is simply playing into Assad’s hands without doing anything concrete to bolster the non-jihadist opposition.”

It is certainly true that a significant portion of the Syrian opposition has rallied around the Nusra Front in the wake of its designation, rather than shunned the group as some U.S. policymakers might have hoped. Rather than castigate the White House, it is important to recognize reality: The most effective factions within the Syrian opposition are now radical. Certainly, it didn’t have to be this way, had we only come to the support of the good guys a year and a half ago, before the radicals sank their roots. But, it behooves use to deal with the here and now.

On December 1, there was a suicide bombing in al-Qusayr, near Homs. Here is an excerpt from the Nusra Front’s claim of responsibility:

Praise be to Allah, who granted victory to His soldiers and defeated the parties alone. Peace and prayer be upon His Messenger, Muhammad, after whom there are no other Prophets, and upon his family and his Companions. And thereafter: Thanks to Allah the Almighty, and due to His grace, one of the soldiers of the al-Nusra Front for the People of the Levant pounded Sharkas barrier with explosives-laden vehicle in a heroic martyrdom-seeking operation… The al-Nusra Front for the People of the Levant promises its people in the city of al-Qusayr more earth shaking operations, Allah permitting, and we say to them: Our blood is sacrificed for yours, and our honor for yours. You will see from us what will please you and cool your chests and frustrate your enemies, Allah willing. This blessed operation is merely the beginning.

Yesterday, 10 Jihadist groups, including the Nusra Front, united in the Islamist hotbed of Deir az-Zour. Here is an excerpt from their press release:

The dawn of jihad has began to emerge on the land of the Levant after its rays were hidden and its fire was extinguished, until Allah dedicated men for it who don’t sleep amidst oppression nor accept humiliation and injustice; rather, they seek death and carry their lives on their palms, seeking nothing other than victory or martyrdom.

Sometimes, if it walks like a terrorist and talks like a terrorist, it is a terrorist. And we shouldn’t allow political considerations to determine the designation. Max is right that politics too long delayed the designation of the Haqqani network, and for that matter prevented the designation of Yasir Arafat’s Fatah in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords. They contributed to Condoleezza Rice’s unconscionable de-listing of North Korea, despite that regime’s support for the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah, and they have prevented the listing of Pakistan as a state sponsor across administrations. American diplomacy and strategy will remain broken until our officials deal with reality, and if the reality is that the Syrian opposition is no longer what its supporters depict, so be it. Ignoring reality poses an undue risk to U.S. national security.

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The Kosovo Precedent

The New York Times has an amusing article today about how Madeleine Albright, Wesley Clark, and other former Clinton administration officials and generals are trying to cash in in Kosovo, which American intervention rescued from Serbian oppression. As a result of the Clinton administration’s actions, Kosovo has become one of the most pro-American places in the world with streets named after both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and a statue of Clinton in the capital, Pristina.

What are the odds, I wonder, that there will be any similar outpouring of pro-American affection in Syria where, instead of intervening, the Obama administration is standing by even as the death toll climbs north of 45,000? The administration has now recognized a rebel government and blacklisted the Al Nusra Front as a terrorist organization but these small, symbolic steps are hardly leading to an outpouring of affection for Uncle Sam. Far from it. Indeed, as another Times article reports:

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The New York Times has an amusing article today about how Madeleine Albright, Wesley Clark, and other former Clinton administration officials and generals are trying to cash in in Kosovo, which American intervention rescued from Serbian oppression. As a result of the Clinton administration’s actions, Kosovo has become one of the most pro-American places in the world with streets named after both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and a statue of Clinton in the capital, Pristina.

What are the odds, I wonder, that there will be any similar outpouring of pro-American affection in Syria where, instead of intervening, the Obama administration is standing by even as the death toll climbs north of 45,000? The administration has now recognized a rebel government and blacklisted the Al Nusra Front as a terrorist organization but these small, symbolic steps are hardly leading to an outpouring of affection for Uncle Sam. Far from it. Indeed, as another Times article reports:

A growing number of anti-government groups — including fighters in the loose-knit Free Syrian Army that the United States is trying to bolster — have signed petitions or posted statements online in recent days expressing support for the Nusra Front. In keeping with a tradition throughout the uprising of choosing themes for Friday protests, the biggest day for demonstrations because it coincides with Friday Prayer, many called for this Friday’s title to be “No to American intervention — we are all Jabhet al-Nusra.”

These groups are rallying to the Al Nusra Front not because they like it–many of the other rebels hate the jihadist extremists who are intent on hijacking their struggle for freedom. But they are also pragmatic enough to know that the jihadists are fighting hard against Bashar Assad while the U.S. does nothing to help.

The administration’s stance would be akin to the Roosevelt administration in 1942 designating the NKVD as a terrorist organization and refusing to cooperate with Stalin. FDR was shrewder than that–he realized that, for all his dislike of Communism, sometimes the enemy of your enemy is your friend, at least temporarily. That is something that the current Democratic president does not seem to grasp.

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Designating the Al Nusra Front: Bad Timing

The Obama administration’s policy on Syria continues to lurch forward incoherently, the latest development being the designation of the Al Nusra Front, one of the rebel groups fighting Bashar Assad, as a terrorist organization. On the merits the designation is clearly warranted, given the close links between Al Nusra and Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the administration has dragged its feet for years in designating other terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network even while they were actually killing Americans. The Taliban still hasn’t been so designated. So why rush to designate the Al Nusra Front?

Presumably because the administration is planning to confer diplomatic recognition on the Syrian opposition and wants to make clear its disapproval of the jihadist element of the opposition. But the U.S. has so far provided no meaningful assistance to the Syrian opposition—certainly not arms. The Al Nusra Front has been growing increasingly prominent precisely because it is getting more outside support than other groups—in its case not only from Al Qaeda in Iraq but also from Gulf states.

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The Obama administration’s policy on Syria continues to lurch forward incoherently, the latest development being the designation of the Al Nusra Front, one of the rebel groups fighting Bashar Assad, as a terrorist organization. On the merits the designation is clearly warranted, given the close links between Al Nusra and Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the administration has dragged its feet for years in designating other terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network even while they were actually killing Americans. The Taliban still hasn’t been so designated. So why rush to designate the Al Nusra Front?

Presumably because the administration is planning to confer diplomatic recognition on the Syrian opposition and wants to make clear its disapproval of the jihadist element of the opposition. But the U.S. has so far provided no meaningful assistance to the Syrian opposition—certainly not arms. The Al Nusra Front has been growing increasingly prominent precisely because it is getting more outside support than other groups—in its case not only from Al Qaeda in Iraq but also from Gulf states.

This has caused considerable consternation among the more secular rebels. They can’t understand why Washington won’t help them. And now, instead of providing aid to the rebels, the U.S. seems bent on declaring war on one of the most militarily successful rebel factions. However justifiable morally, the designation of the Al Nusra Front makes little tactical sense at this moment. From the rebels’ perspective it is simply playing into Assad’s hands without doing anything concrete to bolster the non-jihadist opposition.

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