U.S. Support for Al Qaeda-Linked Rebels Undermines Syrian Ceasefire

Michael Hughes Foreign Policy Analyst

The United States needs to do more than wag its finger at Syrian rebel groups for “comingling” with Al Qaeda-affiliated Salafist jihadists or else an already tenuous ceasefire accord between government and opposition forces is destined to collapse.

 

Earlier this week, the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG) co-chaired by the U.S. and Russia agreed to render persistent violators of the ceasefire as “fair game” on the battlefield, relegating them to the same status as the Islamic State and Jabhat-al Nusra, or the Nusra Front, which is Al Qaeda’s franchisee in Syria.

On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson John Kirby expressed concerns that U.S.-backed Syrian opposition factions such as Ahrar al-Sham have been cohabitating with the Nusra Front. However, Washington has doggedly resisted calls to add the Al Qaeda collaborators to the UN terrorist list – claiming it would damage the ceasefire – which journalist Finian Cunningham sees as an “unwitting U.S. admission” about who is really leading the Syrian “rebellion.”

Ahrar al-Sham along with Jaysh al-Islam, another Western-sponsored faction, not only have zero inclination to respect the ceasefire, they have aspirations that completely contradict the U.S. stated goal of ushering in a Jeffersonian democracy to replace Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Both organizations, according to University of Ottawa extremism specialist Kamran Bokhari, share the common goal of instituting an Islamic state governed by sharia law. Further, Bokhari argues, the real reason the U.S. opposes designating them as terrorists is because they are proxy groups supported by American allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Hence, it has nothing to do with concerns about the ceasefire.

Moreover, on May 12, according to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Ahrar al-Sham collaborated with the Nusra Front in an assault on the Alawite-majority village of al-Zara, killing at least 19 civilians, including women and children. Point being, the attack provided clear evidence that Ahrar al-Sham is doing more than intermingling with Al Qaeda’s Syria branch.

Three days later, The New York Times reported that Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri plans to create an alternate headquarters in Syria to “lay the groundwork for possibly establishing an emirate through Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front,” which some experts claim complicates Washington’s support for the rebels even further.

“The United States has placed itself in a very difficult situation because many of the rebel groups that it wants to become principal holders of state power in Syria work hand and glove with Al Qaeda,” University of Oklahoma Center for Middle East Studies Director Joshua Landis told Sputnik on Monday.

Islamists are not only leading the Syrian opposition’s charge on the military front, they are dominating its role in the peace talks in Geneva as well. The rebel political delegation is being led by Jaysh al-Islam and other Islamist parties while the secular Syrian Kurds have been excluded, a surreal development fully sponsored by the United States.

During the early stages of the intra-Syrian talks in January, Washington Kurdish Institute Director of Media and Policy Yousuf Ismael said without the Kurds the creation of an Islamic system of government in Syria was inevitable based on the current constitution of the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC).

Even more disconcerting is the lack of outrage or any major objections to U.S. policy emanating from either Congress, the media or the public at large. American media outlets, including CNN, the Associated Press and the Washington Post, among others, have consistently propagated the fictional narrative that the United States is supporting “moderate opposition forces” on the battlefield and in the peace talks in Geneva. Not to mention the media’s primary focus has been on Syrian government ceasefire violations with little attention paid to opposition transgressions.

Secretary of State John Kerry has long claimed that the United States is committed to seeing a “whole, unified, pluralistic, nonsectarian Syria,” which is hard to believe given the State Department’s objection to classifying these two organizations as what they truly are: jihadist terrorist groups that should be excluded from any cessation of hostilities.

Which prompts a fair question that goes beyond simply upholding a fragile ceasefire: How in the world does the U.S. government believe for a second that a post-Assad regime in Syria will be secular to any degree based on the current makeup of the opposition’s negotiating team, whose members by and large have openly proclaimed that they want to establish an Islamist state?

The unfortunate answer is that the U.S. government has never absorbed the lessons of previous policies based on the credo, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Washington is following the exact same playbook employed during the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s, in just one example, wherein we supported the most radical and virulently anti-Western factions within the mujahideen to achieve geopolitical ends at all costs, leading to the well-documented blowback known as Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Despite all this, Washington’s love for jihadists has apparently not waned. As a result, the tragic irony is we are now facilitating the resurgence of these very same elements – in some cases literally the same figures – all in the name of a secular and unified Syria.