Commentary Magazine


Topic: Nusra Front

Obama’s Syria Shift

President Obama’s decision to provide $500 million to train and equip the Syrian opposition, like his decision to send 300 Special Operations soldiers to Iraq, can best be understood as a halting half-step away from his preferred policy on non-involvement in the Middle East.

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President Obama’s decision to provide $500 million to train and equip the Syrian opposition, like his decision to send 300 Special Operations soldiers to Iraq, can best be understood as a halting half-step away from his preferred policy on non-involvement in the Middle East.

If only he had acted sooner. The Syrian civil war began in March 2011. At one time it looked as if Bashar Assad would fall as quickly and easily as Muammar Gaddafi or Hosni Mubarak. Obama was so certain of this that in August 2011 he declared, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

That time quickly passed, however, because Obama refused to do much to bring Assad down, treating his demise as a historical inevitability. Not even when Assad brazenly violated Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons did the U.S. ramp up its efforts to topple him.

U.S. inaction, which held back American allies as well, allowed Assad to recover from his early stumbles. With the aid of the Iranian Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah, he launched a murderous counterattack that resulted in the deaths of over 150,000 Syrians and that produced a stalemate which endures to this day. Out of this hellish civil war have arisen extremists on both sides–the Quds Force/Hezbollah on the pro-government side and the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on the rebel side. The Free Syrian Army, the military arm of the more moderate nationalist opposition, has gotten weaker and weaker. In fact it’s not clear if they have sufficient strength left to benefit from Obama’s delayed offer of aid.

Meanwhile the extremists have gotten so strong that ISIS has surged across the border to take most of the Sunni Triangle in Iraq, from Fallujah and Al Qaim in the west to Mosul in the north.

At this point it is far from clear that extra U.S. aid and training will be sufficient to turn the tide. American airpower and raids by the US Special Operations Command seem to be called for as well before the divisions of Iraq and Syria harden into the permanent establishment of Shiite and Sunni terrorist states. But that would require an even greater acknowledgement on Obama’s part that the “tide of war” is not “receding” and that the U.S. does not have the luxury of “pivoting” away from the Middle East. The best that can be said for his small, half-hearted moves in Syria and Iraq are that they may be the prelude to a wider reconsideration of his disastrous policy in the Middle East.

Or at least so we can hope. Obviously no one wants to get more deeply enmeshed in the region’s violent politics, but the only thing worse than American involvement, we are now learning, is American non-involvement.

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Is Turkey Supporting Al-Qaeda in Syria?

Perhaps the most dangerous group in Syria is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Nusra Front. The group does not hide its sympathy for al-Qaeda and targets more moderate Syrian opposition groups alongside the Syrian regime. While Syrians comprise most Syrian opposition groups, the Nusra Front counts Libyans, Saudis, Mauritanians, Chechens, Uighurs, Germans, and Turks among its fighters. Around Syria, it is an open secret that Turkey supports—or at least has supported—the Nusra Front.

Not only has Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denied that the Nusra Front are terrorists—more like honorable jihadists, he suggested in the face of questions from an opposition leader—but Turkish forces have also apparently used al-Nusra as a proxy against the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish party linked to Turkey’s own Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which remains overwhelmingly popular among Syria’s Kurdish population. If it comes to a choice between an al-Qaeda affiliate and a secular Kurdish party controlling territory, Erdoğan sides with al-Qaeda.

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Perhaps the most dangerous group in Syria is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Nusra Front. The group does not hide its sympathy for al-Qaeda and targets more moderate Syrian opposition groups alongside the Syrian regime. While Syrians comprise most Syrian opposition groups, the Nusra Front counts Libyans, Saudis, Mauritanians, Chechens, Uighurs, Germans, and Turks among its fighters. Around Syria, it is an open secret that Turkey supports—or at least has supported—the Nusra Front.

Not only has Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denied that the Nusra Front are terrorists—more like honorable jihadists, he suggested in the face of questions from an opposition leader—but Turkish forces have also apparently used al-Nusra as a proxy against the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish party linked to Turkey’s own Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which remains overwhelmingly popular among Syria’s Kurdish population. If it comes to a choice between an al-Qaeda affiliate and a secular Kurdish party controlling territory, Erdoğan sides with al-Qaeda.

When I asked Iraqi counterterrorism officials who monitor the transit of al-Qaeda last summer about the Turkish relationship with the Nusra Front, they were careful. “Let’s just say that whenever the Nusra Front wants to have a meeting, they know they can do so inside Turkey and won’t be bothered,” one official told me. While diplomatic tension between Iraq and Turkey remains strong, the official was able to give very specific examples that suggest he was not simply trying to tar Turkey.

Erdoğan, himself, however has bristled at any suggestion Turkey provides safe haven or even free passage to the Nusra Front. Now, however, there is video evidence. CNN International has an excellent video report on the transit of jihadis through the Hatay airport in Turkey and into Syria. Perhaps it is time for officials to question the judgment of President Obama for his friendship with and personal endorsement of Erdoğan, who appears not only to sympathize with the most radical elements in Syria’s civil war, but also to be a liar.

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Play with Terrorism; Get Burned

There is an unfortunate pattern in which countries believe that they can utilize al-Qaeda against their enemies, and never suffer the consequence for such cynicism at home. In the early 1990s, for example, Saudis both publicly and privately donated to al-Qaeda. The extremists’ jihad was fine—even honorable—many Saudis believed so long as they fought abroad and not within Saudi Arabia itself. While al-Qaeda was perfectly happy accepting Saudi largesse, within a decade al-Qaeda terrorists were striking at the Kingdom, targeting not only foreign compounds but also seeking to assassinate members of the ruling family.

Syria likewise played with al-Qaeda throughout much of the last decade, turning Syrian territory into an underground railroad for suicide bombers and other terrorists destined for Iraq. The Sinjar documents (analyzed here in an excellent report by Brian Fishman and Joseph Felter) show how al-Qaeda transited Syria with the cognizance if not direct assistance of senior Syrian officials. Today, of course, al-Qaeda-linked radicals have turned their guns on the Syrian regime. Bashar al-Assad played with fire, and his regime got burned.

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There is an unfortunate pattern in which countries believe that they can utilize al-Qaeda against their enemies, and never suffer the consequence for such cynicism at home. In the early 1990s, for example, Saudis both publicly and privately donated to al-Qaeda. The extremists’ jihad was fine—even honorable—many Saudis believed so long as they fought abroad and not within Saudi Arabia itself. While al-Qaeda was perfectly happy accepting Saudi largesse, within a decade al-Qaeda terrorists were striking at the Kingdom, targeting not only foreign compounds but also seeking to assassinate members of the ruling family.

Syria likewise played with al-Qaeda throughout much of the last decade, turning Syrian territory into an underground railroad for suicide bombers and other terrorists destined for Iraq. The Sinjar documents (analyzed here in an excellent report by Brian Fishman and Joseph Felter) show how al-Qaeda transited Syria with the cognizance if not direct assistance of senior Syrian officials. Today, of course, al-Qaeda-linked radicals have turned their guns on the Syrian regime. Bashar al-Assad played with fire, and his regime got burned.

Turkey may very well be the latest country to figure out that channeling al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers has a very high price at home. A car bomb in a Turkish border town has killed upwards of 40 people. While the Turks may point the finger at forces aligned with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—a charge the Syrians deny—some Turks suggest that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, a group which some in the Turkish government have supported, may be responsible and might have conducted the attack to try to frame Assad and goad the Turks into greater involvement. A gag order issued by a court in Hatay forbidding many journalists from reporting regarding alleged—though unconfirmed—Nusra Front claims of responsibility has exacerbated the rumors.

While the Turks will attribute responsibility to whichever group most merits Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s animus of the moment, beyond the speedy accusations lurk three major suspects:

1)      The Nusra Front: The bomb was—despite Turkish denials—the work of the Nusra Front. This suggests that the devil’s bargain the Turks made, in which the Nusra Front would limit its attacks to Kurds and other enemies of the Turkish government, has broken down.

2)      The Syrian Regime: The same blowback theory, alas, also applies to the Syrian regime which up to just a couple years was courted and supported by Ankara. Indeed, Erdogan’s government supported Syria against Lebanon during the Cedar Revolution, and Erdogan famously invited the Assads to vacation with him along the Turkish Mediterranean coast.

3)      Internal radicals: The most recent reports suggest that the suspects rounded up by Turkish security forces are actually Turkish citizens, not Syrian refugees. Such a scenario suggests that the internal rot in our NATO ally is deeper than many American policymakers realize, both in terms of Turkey’s growing radicalism and in the weakness and incompetence of the Turkish security service in the wake Prime Minister Erdogan’s repeated purges.

Make no mistake: The terrorists targeting civilians are fully to blame; terrorism is never acceptable, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. Perhaps, however, the Turkish government will reconsider its approach to counterterrorism, in which it now condemns all terrorism except that conducted for causes to which the prime minister is sympathetic. Every country engaging in such à la carte terror support sooner rather than later discovers that what goes around, comes around.

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Al-Qaeda’s Growth in Syria

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has an important op-ed in today’s Washington Post, has long expressed reticence about U.S. efforts to arm the Syrian opposition. When I was in Baghdad last fall, both officials and ordinary Iraqis expressed concern about the radicalization of the Syrian opposition. That does not mean that they loved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad more: He had provided the underground railway through which for years so many al-Qaeda terrorists had infiltrated Iraq. Nor does fear of the opposition provide an excuse to enable Iranian supply of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Still, the Iraqis—like the Turks and Jordanians—are more attuned to events transpiring in neighboring Syria than are many U.S. senators. And while the senators may be acting with their hearts in the right place, the situation on the ground in Syria has changed dramatically since the debates began. Pundits are correct to question why the Obama administration felt a “responsibility to protect” in Libya, but turned their blind eye toward the suffering in Syria. The best parallel for what is transpiring in Syria, however, is no longer Libya but rather Bosnia, which had no shortage of war criminals on all sides of the fight.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has an important op-ed in today’s Washington Post, has long expressed reticence about U.S. efforts to arm the Syrian opposition. When I was in Baghdad last fall, both officials and ordinary Iraqis expressed concern about the radicalization of the Syrian opposition. That does not mean that they loved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad more: He had provided the underground railway through which for years so many al-Qaeda terrorists had infiltrated Iraq. Nor does fear of the opposition provide an excuse to enable Iranian supply of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Still, the Iraqis—like the Turks and Jordanians—are more attuned to events transpiring in neighboring Syria than are many U.S. senators. And while the senators may be acting with their hearts in the right place, the situation on the ground in Syria has changed dramatically since the debates began. Pundits are correct to question why the Obama administration felt a “responsibility to protect” in Libya, but turned their blind eye toward the suffering in Syria. The best parallel for what is transpiring in Syria, however, is no longer Libya but rather Bosnia, which had no shortage of war criminals on all sides of the fight.

The announcement posted yesterday on jihadi forums under Islamic State of Iraq leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s name detailing the union of the Nusra Front in Syria and the Islamic State of Iraq confirms what many analysts have long suspected. “It’s now time to declare in front of the people of the Levant and world that al-Nusra Front is but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and part of it,” he declared. In effect, the Nusra Front becomes one more al-Qaeda affiliate to join al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Ash-Shabaab in Somalia. The Nusra Front is not simply about Syria: Recent postings by Saudi fighters, demands directed to Beijing by Chinese Muslims fighting in Syria, and the eulogy of a Swedish member all underline the internationalization of the Nusra Front. In effect, Syria has become the new Chechnya.

That should put Washington in a diplomatic quandary. Qatari and Turkish support for the Nusra Front is now effectively aiding an al-Qaeda affiliate sworn not only to kill Bashar al-Assad but also Americans. If Gulf analysts in Bahrain and Kuwait are to be believed, Qatar is mucking about with such groups not simply out of religious solidarity, but also because the emir of Qatar is high on the notion that tiny Qatar can afford to muck about and be a player on the international stage. Turkey would rather pump money to an al-Qaeda affiliate than recognize the rights of Syrian Kurds who will not pay fealty to Turkey’s leader, like the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which now controls most Kurdish areas in Syria.

A no-fly zone, such as that Max Boot advocates, would have once helped ordinary Syrians protect themselves against the excesses of Bashar al-Assad’s rule. And it still may not be such a bad idea, so long as it simply does not do the Nusra Front’s work for it. Nor is simply funding the Syrian opposition wise since neither the State Department nor Central Intelligence Agency is skilled at separating the wheat from the chaff among Syrian opposition groups. Liberals will not rise to the top in any safe-haven when faced with a group bent on their repression at any cost. Whether we like it or not, any strategy for Syria must now prioritize crushing the Nusra Front. Defeating Assad and hoping for the best is not a strategy that will bolster U.S. interests.

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