Sea change: Turkey enters Syrian conflict – as an enemy of the U.S.’s closest partner

Turkish tanks assembled on the Syrian border in 2015. (Image: Screen grab of RT video, YouTube)

Turkish tanks assembled on the Syrian border in 2015. (Image: Screen grab of RT video, YouTube)

Liberty Unyielding, by J. E. Dyer, Aug. 24, 2016: (h/t/ Tundra Tabloids)

Turkey has done cross-border shelling for a long time now, and has used her air force to bomb Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria.  There was even evidence in November 2015 that Turkey had troops deployed just across the Syrian border in northeastern Latakia Province.

But for the first time, on Tuesday, 23 August, Turkey has ordered an entire town on the Turkish border with Syria to evacuate, in preparation for an overt cross-border military operation, complete with an armored invasion force.  The objective is to take the Syrian town of Jarablus from Islamic State.

That may sound superficially like it serves America’s goals.  (Indeed, the operation is reportedly being supported by NATO air power.  That could get messy, if it continues.)

But Turkey has actually been content to have ISIS in control of Jarablus for many months now.  The timing and context of this latest move are the key: Turkey’s real objective is to prevent theKurds from wresting Jarablus from ISIS.

And the Turkish entry into the Syrian conflict looks to be part of a joint effort – with Russia, Assad, and Iran – to neutralize the Kurds, as part of the campaign to take all of Syrian territory back from the factions now holding it.

The Kurds have been the major U.S. partner in fighting ISIS in both Syria and northern Iraq.  Until the Iran-sponsored Shia militias in Iraq ejected ISIS from Tikrit, Ramadi, and Fallujah – under the military direction of Iran’s Qods Force commander, Qassem Soleimani – the Kurds were by far the most effective ground force against ISIS.

But Erdogan has been uneasy with the Kurds’ success in consolidating territory.  Now Turkey wants to roll them up in this sensitive border area.

There are reasons why Iran is satisfied to be part of that effort, at least for now.  And for Russia, dealing with or protecting the Kurds is always a calculation, not a cause.  Don’t look for Russia to be solidly on one side of this thing; the Russians will maneuver simply to be at the center of it, so everyone has to come to them for solutions.

Remember, Moscow isn’t trying to get out of Syria, or leave Syria in good hands.  The whole point for Putin’s Russia is to stay there.

U.S. position eroded beyond recovery

The U.S has been the Kurds’ main patron for a long time now.  I very much fear Obama is about to abandon them – because he’d get so much bad press if any Americans got hurt, in the Syrian war realignment that now looks inevitable.

Obama has no intention of strengthening our forces’ posture against that realignment.

More importantly, he has absolutely no policy for what to do other than watch that realignment happen.  From a policy standpoint, he’s an inert quantity, a leadership void, tethered to a bunch of SOF, intel assets, and strike-fighters still wandering through the battle space burning gas and bullets.

It’s only with extraordinary pain that I say this, but it would be better for America – because of who’s in the Oval Office – if we did simply pull out.  Our forces on scene are in an increasingly impossible situation.  They should not be left there, exposed and unsupported.  Moreover, there’s nothing they can achieve there.  It’s not worth their lives to try to hang on to a situation that’s slipping away, for no positive good.  The next president will just have to deal with whatever reality has become, five months from now.

But pulling out – even quietly – and abandoning all pretense of having a policy or a plan would signal a definitive end to the last vestige of U.S leadership in the Middle East.  It would be a severe blow to the Kurds, who don’t deserve to be treated that way.  It would be a signal of faithlessness that our other long-time partners and allies could not ignore.

It’s difficult to preview comprehensively everything that might be unleashed; it could be very, very bad, or there could be random factors that keep it from getting too bad between now and next January.

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Meet Aleppo’s ‘Moderate,’ ‘Secular’ ‘Rebels’: Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood


Let’s support moderate Muslims. But that means figuring out which ones are the real deal.

National Review, by Andrew C. McCarthy, Aug. 19, 2016:

As the invaluable David Pryce-Jones notes, Syria’s second-most important city, Aleppo, is the locus of heavy combat, pitting Russia and Iran, the forces propping up theBashar Assad, against anti-regime fighters, also known as the “rebels.” David refers to reports that, as he summarizes them, “secular rebels appear to have liberated most of [Aleppo], maybe all of it.” Meanwhile, the estimable Charles Krauthammer observes that Russia is operating out of an air base in Iran (probably yet another violation of Obama’s disastrous nuclear deal with the mullahs). And who does Charles say Vladimir Putin’s air force is targeting? “It’s hitting a lot of the moderate rebels . . . in Aleppo.”

I have been arguing for years (and as recently as last weekend) that there are simply not enough moderate, secular rebels in Syria to overthrow the regime, much less to defeat both Assad and ISIS simultaneously. Suggestions to the contrary are wishful thinking. More important, such suggestions are counterproductive: The illusion of a vibrant secular, pro-Western opposition in Syria is the basis for urging that America throw its weight behind the “rebels,” on the theory that we would be undermining radical Islam.

In truth, we’d simply be empowering one set of anti-American Islamists against another.

At The Long War Journal, Tom Joscelyn, who for my money does the best job in America of analyzing the factions involved in the global jihad, takes a careful look at who is fighting against Assad in Syria. To what should be no one’s surprise — but will apparently be very surprising to many — the bulk of the opposition consists of Islamists.

As Tom explains, two coalitions are spearheading the campaign that has enjoyed recent success against the regime in Aleppo. The first is headed up by al-Qaeda and goes by the name Jaysh al-Fath (Army of Conquest). The al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, until recently known as al-Nusrah, has rebranded itself as Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS). It has a close alliance with a group called Ahrar al-Sham (Ahrar), which includes many al-Qaeda veterans and (as Tom notes) models itself after the Taliban (al-Qaeda’s close ally in Afghanistan). JFS and Ahrar run the Jaysh al-Fath coalition, which includes sundry other jihadist militias long affiliated with the al-Qaeda terror network.

Al-Qaeda is well aware of the West’s myopic focus on ISIS (the Islamic State — the al-Qaeda splinter group that began as al-Qaeda in Iraq). This myopia has the U.S. government and much of the commentariat turning a blind eye to other anti-American Islamists, even absurdly labeling them “moderates,” as long as they are not part of ISIS. The leaders of al-Qaeda realize that a great deal of financial and materiel support is to be had in the “moderate rebel” business but that the al-Qaeda brand could be problematic in maintaining the façade. So they have encouraged their franchises to obscure and soft-peddle their al-Qaeda connections — particularly by not brandishing “al-Qaeda” in their names.

It’s working.

To their credit, the Wall Street Journal’s editors concede that “the Army of Conquest coalition . . . includes al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.” Yet this is still an understatement, just as the Journal’s follow-up observation — that this al-Qaeda affiliate “fights alongside more moderate and secular forces” — overstates the case. In reality, al-Qaeda is the Army of Conquest; and the forces they are fighting alongside are a different coalition — and one whose moderation and secularity are exaggerated.

As Tom Joscelyn elaborates, the other coalition in Aleppo is known as Fatah Halab (“Aleppo Conquest”). To be sure, it has some secular, moderate elements; but it also features deep Islamist ties.

The “secular, moderate” veneer is built on the fiction, heavily promoted in the U.S. from the first stages of the uprising, that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a gaggle of secular factions seeking to replace Assad with a Western-style democracy. In reality, the FSA has long been coopted by the Muslim Brotherhood — as has the Syrian National Council, which was set up early on to pose as the overarching framework of the opposition.

As I have pointed out any number of times over the past several years, enthusiasts for American intervention in the civil wars of Muslim-majority countries bend over backward to avoid mentioning the Muslim Brotherhood. They say “moderate” and “rebel,” hoping no one will try to pin them down about who these “moderate rebels” are. But way too many of them are members of the international sharia-supremacist organization whose motto remains: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!”

The Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist organization in recent years by Egypt (which ousted a government led by the Brotherhood), and by its former allies, the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (See Daniel Pipes’s 2014 piece in National Review on how perceptions of the Brotherhood have changed.) In the U.S., legislation to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization has been proposed by Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and was approved by the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year. Nevertheless, it remains progressive Beltway wisdom that the Brotherhood is better thought of as a moderate Islamist organization — even a “firewall against violent extremism,” as Marc Lynch of George Washington University put it in a Washington Post opinion piece in March.

But the Brotherhood, which has a history of violence and boasts as its Palestinian branch the Hamas terrorist organization, is hardly opposed to “violent extremism” (the Washington euphemism for “jihadist terror”). It is true that its methods differ from those of al-Qaeda and ISIS. For the Brothers, jihad has its place but is just one form of aggression in a broad arsenal that includes political activism, vexatious lawsuits, media propaganda, etc. Nevertheless, the Brothers’ objective is exactly the same as that of the more brutal jihadist networks: the imposition of the totalitarian sharia system of governance. And given the geography of the conflict in Syria, it is worth emphasizing that the Brothers have no more coveted short-term objective than the destruction of Israel.

Just as the al-Qaeda affiliates pretend to be “moderates” by stressing their opposition to ISIS, the Brotherhood affiliates pose as “secularists” — with no small amount of help from the Obama administration — by stressing their differentiation from al-Qaeda. This pose is also helped along by the fact that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has taken to mocking the Brotherhood as overly cozy with secular regimes and insufficiently zealous for transition to sharia. (See Tom Joscelyn’s report, here.) Consistent with this strategy, the Fatah Halab coalition in Aleppo made a point of claiming that al-Qaeda groups would be excluded. But this, again, is mainly a feint to project the illusion of secular moderation, which triggers Western and other support. In reality, as Tom documents, key Fatah Halab constituents have been working with al-Qaeda affiliates all along.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not to belittle the magnitude of the Russia–Iran alliance. Not only is Putin leveraging his increasingly close relations with the mullahs to project power; Tehran reportedly has dispatched hundreds (perhaps thousands) more fighters to bolster Assad’s forces in Aleppo (to say nothing of the 80,000 to 100,000 militia fighters whom Iran controls in Iraq). My point is that we need a strategy that recognizes all of our enemies for what they are, not one that imagines enemies into potential allies for no better reason than that other enemies seem worse.

I am far from an isolationist, but I strenuously opposed foolish interventions. I am not unsympathetic to the cause of supporting secularists and moderate Muslims — meaningnon-Islamists. But that means figuring out which ones are the real deal. We should be analyzing “rebels” in the exacting way Tom Joscelyn does, so that we can grasp what realistically can be accomplished. In Syria, that may be no more than creating safe space for refugees, promoting pro-Western groups, attacking jihadist hubs, and awaiting an American president who understands that both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood are our enemies, not our prospective “regional partners.”

Until then, the lesson of Libya ought to teach us that it is no advancement of American interests if al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood win in Aleppo, even if that means that Assad, Iran, and Russia lose.

Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

Who should rule Syria? Nobody

Aleppo, Syria (Photo: Getty)

Aleppo, Syria (Photo: Getty)

Or at least not all of it. Grasp that and you can see a clear strategy for the West

The Spectator, by Jonathan Spyer, Aug. 18, 2016:

The long civil war in Syria is still far from conclusion. Any real possibility of rebel victory ended with the entry of Russian forces last autumn — but while the initiative is now with the Assad regime, the government’s forces are also far from a decisive breakthrough. So who, if anyone, should the UK be backing in the Syrian slaughterhouse, and what might constitute progress in this broken and burning land?

It ought to be fairly obvious why a victory for the Assad regime would be a disaster for the West. Assad, an enthusiastic user of chemical weapons against his own people, is aligned with the most powerful anti–western coalition in the Middle East. This is the alliance dominated by the Islamic Republic of Iran. It includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shia militias of Iraq, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. If Assad won, the Iranian alliance would consolidate its domination of the entire land area between the Iraq-Iran border and the Mediterranean Sea — a major step towards regional hegemony for Iran. So an Assad victory would be good for Islamism — at least of the Shia variety — and bad for world peace. It should be prevented.

The controversy begins when one starts to look at the alternative to an Assad victory.

In November last year, David Cameron claimed to have identified 70,000 ‘moderate’ rebels ready to challenge Islamic State in the east of Syria. That figure was a myth. Yours truly was among the very first western journalists to spend time in Syria with the rebels. I recently returned from a trip to southern Turkey, where I interviewed fighters and commanders of the main rebel coalitions. With no particular joy but a good deal of confidence, I can report that the Syrian rebellion today is dominated in its entirety by Sunni Islamist forces. And the most powerful of these are the most radical.

The most potent rebel coalition in Syria today is called Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest). It has three main component parts: Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of the Levant), a Salafist jihadi group; Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently the official franchise of al–Qaeda in Syria, now renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham; and Faylaq al-Sham (Legion of the Levant), whose ideology derives from the Muslim Brotherhood branch of Sunni political Islam.

Jaish al-Fatah dominates the main rebel-controlled area in Aleppo, Idleb, Latakia and northern Hama. Its various components seek the establishment of a state dominated by Islamic sharia law. There is no reason to suppose that Nusra’s recent renunciation of its al-Qaeda affiliation was anything more than tactical. When one speaks of the Syrian rebellion today, one is speaking of Jaish al-Fatah. The small ‘Free Syrian Army’ groups that still exist do so only with Jaish al-Fatah’s permission, and only for as long as they serve some useful purpose for it. In the now extremely unlikely event of the Islamist rebels defeating the Assad regime and reuniting Syria under their rule, the country would become a Sunni Islamist dictatorship.

So if there is no British or western interest in a victory for either the regime or the rebels, what should be done with regard to Syria?

First of all, it is important to understand that ‘Syria’ as a unitary state no longer exists. A rebel commander whom I interviewed in the border town of Kilis in June told me: ‘Syria today is divided into four projects, none of which is strong enough to defeat all the others. These are the Assad regime, the rebellion, the Kurds and the Islamic State.’ This is accurate.

So the beginning of a coherent Syria policy requires understanding that the country has fragmented into enclaves, and is not going to be reunited in the near future, if at all.

Various external powers have elected to back one or another element in this landscape. The Russians and Iranians are backing the regime. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting the Islamist rebels.

The West, too, has established a successful and effective patron-client relationship — with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Dominated by the Kurdish YPG, but including also Arab tribal forces such as the Sanadid militia, this is the force which is reducing the dominions of the Islamic State in eastern Syria, in partnership with western air power and special forces.

In contrast to the sometimes farcical attempts to identify partners among the Syrian Sunni rebels, the partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces works. Weaponry does not get passed on to or taken by radical jihadi groups, because the SDF is at war with such groups. Training and assistance produces a united force with a single chain of command. And this force captures ground and frees Syrians living under the vicious rule of Isis.

On the commonsense principle that success should be built on, it is clear that the alliance with the SDF ought to be strengthened and grown. The West is committed, correctly, to the destruction of the Islamic State. The pace of the war against Isis needs to be stepped up. As witnessed in Nice, Würz-burg, Normandy and elsewhere in recent weeks, Isis is an entity that will make war on the West until it is destroyed.

The destruction of the Islamic State by a strengthened SDF would lead to control of Syria east of the Euphrates by a western client of proven anti-terrorist credentials. Further west, the truncated enclaves of Assad and of the Sunni Arab rebels would remain. It is possible that, over time, the fragmentation of Syria would be formalised. But it’s equally likely that the various component parts would remain in de facto existence for the foreseeable future.

What matters is that three outcomes be avoided: the Assad regime should not be permitted to reunite Syria under its rule, the Islamist rebels should similarly not be allowed to establish a jihadi state in the country, and the Islamic State should not be permitted to remain in existence. By strengthening the alliance with the SDF, utilising it and its allies to take Raqqa and destroy Isis in the east, and then allowing its component parts to establish their rule in eastern and northern Syria, these objectives can be attained. For a change, the US and its allies have found an unambiguously anti-Islamist and anti-jihadi force in the Middle East which has a habit of winning its battles. This is a success which should be reinforced.

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Philos Project, by Andrew Harrod, Aug. 12, 2016:

Between Israel and Hezbollah, “another conflict is all but inevitable,” wrote retired Israeli Brigadier General Yakov Shaharabani. “It will be far more destructive and harmful than any other war Israel has fought in recent memory.” The former Israeli Air Force Intelligence chief thus introduced a sobering Foundation for the Defense of the Democracies report a decade after Israel’s last clash with the Lebanese terrorist organization.

Shaharabani said that the July 2006 Lebanon War “was the longest Israel had experienced since its War of Independence in 1948,” but any future clash with Hezbollah will make those destructive 34 days pale by comparison. According to his FDD coauthors, the Israeli government estimates that Hezbollah has approximately 150,000 rockets today as opposed to the mere 14,000 it possessed prior to the 2006 conflict. Writing for the Weekly Standard, Vanderbilt University law professor Willy Stern said that this gives Hezbollah a “bigger arsenal than all NATO countries – except the United States – combined.”

Stern elaborated that Hezbollah’s state sponsor Iran has “supplied its favorite terrorist organization with other top-of-the-line weaponry,” including advanced Russian-made anti-tank and anti-ship missiles and air defense systems. The FDD report noted that sanctions relief for Iran under the recent nuclear agreement will only darken this picture, for “Iran’s massive windfall is expected to trickle down to its most important and valuable proxy: Hezbollah.” Additionally, “Hezbollah has gained significant experience during five years of fighting in Syria” for the embattled Bashar Assad dictatorship.

Israeli Defense Forces leaders have presented Stern with grim scenarios in which “elite Hezbollah commandos will almost certainly be able to slip into Israel and may wreak havoc among Israeli villages in the north.” Given Hezbollah’s “capacity to shoot 1,500 missiles per day, Israel’s high-tech missile-defense system will be ‘lucky’ to shoot down 90 percent of incoming rockets, missiles and mortars.” Accordingly, “IDF planners quietly acknowledge that ‘as many as hundreds’ of Israeli noncombatants might be killed per day in the first week or two of the conflict.”

The FDD report documented Shaharabani’s prediction that the “next Lebanon war could actually devolve into a regional war.” With Hezbollah’s expanding into Syria, “Hezbollah and Iran plan to connect the Golan Heights to the terror group’s south Lebanese stronghold – to make it one contiguous front against Israel. Iran can also unleash violence on Israel through its Palestinian proxies,” meaning, for example, that Hamas rockets “could force the Israelis to divert Iron Dome and other anti-missile batteries to the southern front with Gaza.” As Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “was already embedded with Hezbollah during the last conflict, there is the very real possibility that Iranian forces could join Hezbollah in battle during the next confrontation.”

The FDD report noted that recurrent Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria raise the dangers of killing Russian advisers or coming into combat with Russian warplanes now supporting Assad against the Syrian rebels. Israeli consultations with Russia seek to avoid these clashes, but scholar Michael Doran warned at his Hudson Institute’s July 26 panel discussing the report that the “potential for friction there is enormous.” Recent American coordination plans with Russia in striking jihadist groups like the Islamic State would enable the Assad coalition to approach Israel’s borders, implicating an Israeli “red line” concerning the IRGC there.

Experts agree that a future Hezbollah-Israel conflict’s havoc will engulf as well Lebanon, termed at the Hudson Institute as “Hezbollahstan” by the Israeli embassy’s Deputy Head of Mission Reuven Azar. “The IDF no longer distinguishes between the sovereign nation of Lebanon and Hezbollah,” Stern has written, now that the Shiite-based organization has expanded its influence beyond its south Lebanon stronghold to countrywide domination. Simultaneously, “Hezbollah cleverly places its arsenal where any Israeli military response – even legal, carefully planned, narrowly targeted, proportionate measures – will lead to huge civilian casualties among Lebanese.” As report author Jonathan Schanzer noted at a July 25 FDD event, Hezbollah has “turned Shia villages into essentially missile silos.”

“We are not in the business of trying to provoke a new round,” Azar said, echoing certain arguments in the FDD report, yet several factors indicate that Israel will accept a decisive challenge with Hezbollah if it comes. While report author Tony Badran noted at the Hudson Institute that Hezbollah “is not even comparable to what it was in 2006,” the coming years “risk seeing a Hezbollah that is infinitely more capable in terms of its weapon systems. This time period of the Iran nuclear agreement also portends an Iran that is unleashed, that is probably by that point a threshold nuclear state with a legalized industrial scale program and recognized regional primacy in Iraq and Syria.” As the FDD report stated, the nuclear deal “has placed Iran on a patient pathway to a nuclear weapon. The clock is ticking. Israel’s window of opportunity to defeat Hezbollah in the shadow of the nuclear deal cannot be ignored.”

Not surprisingly, the FDD report cited Israeli assessments of Hezbollah as Israel’s greatest threat, a view confirmed by Schanzer’s past three years of meetings with Israeli officials. While Shaharabani at FDD discussed how Hezbollah would view not losing a future conflict with Israel as a victory, Israel would desire a short, yet decisive campaign against a growing threat, however contradictory these two goals. As he wrote, “Israel may find out very quickly that deterring Hezbollah is not a sufficient strategic goal. Therefore, defeating Hezbollah (or forcing it to leave Lebanon) might become its strategic objective.”

Although Shaharabani’s remarks noted that the more extensive Israel’s actions against Hezbollah, the likelier the intervention by Iran and others, the FDD report remained resolute. “Should war break out, the United State should actively delay the imposition of a premature ceasefire in order to buy the Israelis as much time as needed to complete their military campaign,” it read. This no substitute for victory approach makes eminent sense if, as Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Joseph Bahout judged at FDD, Israel’s war with Hezbollah is unavoidable, only the “question is when and under which circumstances.”

Jihadi jumble: Syria’s endless war begins on the Turkish border

The rubble following an airstrike on the rebel-held neighbourhood of al-Kalasa in Aleppo. Picture: Yasser Ibrahim

The rubble following an airstrike on the rebel-held neighbourhood of al-Kalasa in Aleppo. Picture: Yasser Ibrahim

So where is all this heading? Bassam Haji Mustafa, an ethnic Kurd and a senior member of the Islamist Nour al-Din al-Zenki militia group in Aleppo, in conversation with Inquirer, accurately notes the presence of four “projects” in fragmented Syria today — “the Assad regime and its allies; the (Kurdish-led, US-supported) Syrian Democratic Forces; Islamic State; and the rebellion”.

The Australian, by Jonathan Spyer, August 13, 2016:

The town of Gaziantep is located 30km from Turkey’s border with Syria. Over the past five years it has become an epicentre for the unfinished business of the Syrian civil war.

When the history of this most savage of wars is written, there will be a chapter on these dusty border towns and how they came to form way stations for so much of the traffic travelling to or escaping from the killing zones.

I recently visited Gaziantep and the town of Kilis on the border. My purpose was to try to ascertain the current state of the Syrian rebellion against the Assad regime.

Gaziantep in high summer is shimmering in the heat, its many minarets pouring forth the call to prayer. Syrian refugees gather in the evenings to smoke nargileh (hookah) and talk and argue about where things are heading. Deeper down, outside of unaided vision, the complicated politics and logistics of the Syrian war are playing out all around.

Kilis, a short drive south, is the last stop before the war. It feels more Syrian than Turkish. Arabic is spoken everywhere. The apartment blocks with their stone stairs and peeling paint and the tiny shops make it look like a northern Syrian town. The offices of the rebel groups are to be found among them. The shooting begins 5km to the south.

At the beginning of the Syrian war, Gaziantep’s small international airport was one of the main entry points for jihadis from all over the world looking to cross the border to join the fight against Bashar al-Assad. They would arrive in the town, put up in one if its many shabby hotels and await the call from this or that organisation to take the road to Kilis and then across the border. Now the Turkish authorities, pressured by the West, have cracked down on this particular traffic. The airport attack in Istanbul in June cemented the process whereby Islamic State went from tolerated presence in Turkey to deadly enemy.

Islamic State, in invisible form, is in Gaziantep too. Every so often, its presence becomes manifest. In late December, it murdered Naji Jerf, a prominent journalist and critic of the movement, in downtown Gaziantep. Two more people were killed in a suicide bombing in May. “You should be careful here. Its less normal than it feels,” the receptionist tells me with a smile.

Five years since the start of the uprising against the Assad regime, the world’s attention has largely moved on. The war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has sidelined the fight against Assad. What remains of the rebellion is boxed up, frustrated and exhausted, deployed in northwest and southwest Syria, or waiting in these towns across the border in Turkey.

“Of course, if we thought logically, we’d never have begun the revolution,” Yasser Ibrahim of Nour al-Din al-Zenki, one of the Islamist rebel militias, tells Inquirer. “We went out bare-chested in front of the regime. We lost a lot — but we’re continuing.”

They surely are. The Syrian rebels have in recent days broken a government siege on rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo. The rebellion’s entry into Syria’s second city in late 2012 represented perhaps its single most significant advance. The government strangle­hold on the city threatened to reverse this. It lasted a week. So the rebellion is far from broken and remains, despite it all, a potent force.

Where all this is heading, however, is far less clear.

Tangled lines of support
The first and most immediately noticeable element of the Syrian rebellion in northwest Syria is its bewildering variety. An enormous number of rebel groups, all with ringing and grandiose names in Arabic but varying greatly in size and orientation, are engaged. Unity has remained elusive.

The networks of foreign support for the rebels — from the US, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — are equally confused and confusing. The US maintains a Military Operations Command centre in southern Turkey through which weaponry is supplied to certain vetted rebel militias. There are about 40 such groups. Representatives of Arab and other western countries are also present in the MOC centre.

In a covert operation headed by the CIA, these vetted groups are the beneficiaries of the BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles that have exacted a heavy toll on regime armour in Latakia, Idlib and Aleppo provinces. There are additional lines of support from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to the powerful Salafi jihadist forces that Washington does not support. ­Finally, there are groups that receive support from the US as well as one or another of these regional players.

But there is no tidy distinction between US-supported and non-US-supported groups, as one might expect. There is a continuum. The groups have the same hierarchy of enemies (Assad at the top, then Islamic State). And they co-operate at ground level. Weaponry finds its way into the hands of the strongest.

The guns and assistance provided by the US and the regional backers have been sufficient to prevent the rebellion from facing defeat at the hands of Assad. But since the Russian intervention, which began in September last year, an outright rebel military victory appears beyond reach.

In the meantime, people on the ground are dying. “The MOC supports us, but the world isn’t seeing the shelling of the schools and children and public buildings by the Russian planes,” says Ezadin al-Salem of the Jabhat al-Shamiya rebel alliance as we sit in his office in Gaziantep.

The rebels, in all their multifarious and confusing variety, are at present locked into two grinding wars of attrition — against Assad and against Islamic State — with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel.

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Jonathan Spyer is a journalist, author and Middle East analyst. Based in Jerusalem, he is director of the Rubin Centre for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle East Forum

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Exclusive: U.S. Allies Now Fighting CIA-Backed Rebels

Daily Beast, By Nancy A. Youssef, Feb. 12, 2016:
Not long ago, U.S. jets and Shia militias worked together to battle ISIS. Today, those militias are trying to take down American proxies in Syria.

Iraqi militias who once fought ISIS with U.S. help are now working with Russian and Iranian forces to crush American-backed rebels in the strategic Syrian city of Aleppo, two defense officials have told The Daily Beast.

At least three Shia militias involved in successful battles against ISIS in Iraq—the Badr Brigade, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the League of the Righteous—have acknowledged taking casualties in fighting in south and southeast Aleppo province. U.S. defense officials confirmed to The Daily Beast that they believe “at least one” unit of the Badr Brigade is fighting in southern Aleppo alongside other Iraqi militia groups. Those groups are backed by Russian airpower and Iranian troops—and all of whom are bolstering President Bashar al Assad’s Syrian Arab Army.

Reports on social media say the Iraqi militias in Syria are armed with U.S. tanks and small arms they procured on the Iraqi side of the border. Those reports could not be independently confirmed.

The presence of militias fighting on behalf of Assad—a dictator that the U.S. has pledged to depose—is yet another reminder of the tangled alliances that the United States must thread as it pursues seemingly contradictory policies in its battles against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. In Iraq, these Shia militias were battling on behalf of the U.S.-backed government. In Syria, they are fighting against an American-supported rebel coalition that includes forces armed by the CIA.

In other words: The forces the U.S. once counted on to take back Iraq’s cities are the same ones the Russians now are counting on to get Aleppo back. And those militias are fighting units of the American-backed Free Syrian Army—including the 16th Division, elements of Jaish al Nasr, and Sultan al Murad—according to Nicholas Heras, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security.

U.S. officials claim not to be alarmed. “On our list of problems, one Badr brigade in Syria is way down there,” one U.S. official explained.

But the role of the Shia militias continues to be controversial. The militias are backed and funded by Iran—Badr, in fact, was created as a branch of the Iranian military. But in Syria, their role is part of the increasingly effective one-two punch of the Russian/Iranian alliance that has given the Syrian government the upper hand in the battle for Aleppo.

U.S. officials agree that without those Iraqi militias, the Syrian Army would be too weak to hold territory on their own.

It is perhaps because of these dynamics that both Russia and the U.S agreed to a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria late Thursday, to begin in one week. Even if Aleppo fell, Assad forces’ hold on the city and the country would be tenuous, at best, and would depend on unending Russian/Iranian support, an unappealing proposition for two states with fragile economies. For the U.S., the deal offered hope for ending uncomfortable alliances that had militias that once served it interests fighting opposition forces it was no longer willing to back militarily.

In the last week, Russia has launched hundreds of punishing, largely indiscriminate strikes in Aleppo. That’s allowed forces loyal to Assad—including the Iraqi militias—to move in and reclaim parts of Aleppo, cutting off the main supply route to the city. According to the Red Cross, at least 50,000 refugees have sought to flee to Turkey since the Russian assault began.

“Without the Russian airstrikes the Shiite militias would not have been as successful,” said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who studies Shiite militias. At the same time, “It is clear that Iran is routing as many fighters as possible to Syria, particularly on the Aleppo front.”

To make matters worse for the U.S. effort in Syria, among the opposition groups now losing territory in Aleppo are groups once backed by the United States. Unfortunately, those groups are also intermingled with Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and a member of the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. The great irony of Aleppo is that U.S. strikes against the Islamic State have the perverse effect of benefiting al Qaeda.

It was Nusra forces who, in 2013 and 2014, were key in pushing ISIS out of Aleppo.

Today Nusra and its allies now are largely fighting back the Russian/Iranian offensive alone.

The fall of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, would be a major win for Assad supporters and potentially leave Syria with two major rival forces—ISIS and the Assad regime.

In Iraq, the Shiite militias, known as Popular Mobilization Forces, were key to important wins against the Islamic State in Amiri and Tikrit, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s hometown. With the help of U.S. airstrikes, the militias were able to claim those cities from ISIS and end the jihadist group’s land grab across Iraq.

Fighting in Syria is a more lucrative undertaking, however. During the battle for the Iraqi cities of Amerli and Tikrit, militia members earned roughly $720 a month, according to Iraqi government officials. In Syria, the militiamen earn as much as $1,500 a month, Smyth said. The pay increase is a powerful incentive to join the battle—as if the appeal to sectarian loyalty were not enough.

U.S. officials are quick to say that they have never directly coordinated with the militias—small wonder, given that the Badr Brigade, for one, targeted hundreds of American troops in Iraq with Iranian-provided explosively formed projectile bombs, one of that war’s deadliest weapons.

But U.S. officials also acknowledged that the pro-Iranian militias benefited from U.S. airstrikes in Amerli and Tikrit, something the militias themselves refused to acknowledge. Only “weak people like the Iraqi army” wanted U.S. help, Haider al Amiri, the head of the Badr Brigade, said of the battle for Tikrit. He publicly celebrated Iranian support.

Either way, the fall of Amerli and Tikrit last year paved the way for the coalition and Iraqi forces to reclaim the city of Ramadi, the biggest prize to be taken back from ISIS so far. That, in turn, allowed the militias to increase their influence over Iraqi security matters.

The U.S. has been notably silent on the role of its erstwhile Iraqi allies in the ongoing battle in Syria, though it no longer predicts that Russia will become bogged down in the conflict as the Russian airstrikes provide the cover needed for the Iranian-backed forces to advance.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Kurdish forces captured a military base in Aleppo, near the Turkish border.

with additional reporting by Michael Weiss

The CIA’s Syria Program and the Perils of Proxies

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Daily Beast, by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, Jan. 19, 2016:

After fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates for a decade and a half, the CIA is now helping them gain ground in Syria.
Almost every aspect of the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria has been scrutinized, lambasted or praised in recent months, but one of the most significant facets, the CIA’s covert aid program to Syrian rebels, has largely slipped below the radar.

It is time that we start paying attention, since this initiative is benefiting the very jihadist groups the U.S. has been fighting for the past 15 years.

America’s abrupt about-face is a mistake, but even those who would defend this new course as the least bad option should favor a more robust public debate.

The CIA’s program, launched in 2013, initially was conceived as a way of strengthening moderate rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime without significantly increasing the U.S. footprint in the conflict.

The program got off to a slow start, with rebel commanders grumbling that the CIA was stingy due to its concern that weapons would fall into extremists’ hands. As a result, moderate rebels were forced at times to ration ammunition. At least one rebel group severed its ties with the CIA and joined an Islamist-led coalition, while other CIA-backed rebels stopped fighting.

After these early hiccups, the program evolved.

Anonymous U.S. officials now tell the media that CIA-backed rebels have begun to experience unprecedented successes, particularly in northwestern Syria. Yet these gains reveal a darker side to the CIA-backed groups’ victories, and even American officials’ framing of these advances provides reason for concern. As the Associated Press reported in October, officials have explained that the CIA-backed groups were capturing new territory by “fighting alongside more extremist factions.”

Who are these extremist co-belligerents? Analysis of the geography of “moderate” rebels’ gains during this period and reports from the battlefield demonstrate that CIA-backed groups collaborated with Jaysh al-Fateh, an Islamist coalition in which Jabhat al-Nusra—al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate—is a leading player.

Hassan Hassan, co-author (with The Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss) of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, suggested that rebel gains in Idlib in April 2015 showcased the symmetries between CIA-backed forces and Nusra when he attributed the rebels’ successes to suicide bombers (frequently deployed by Nusra and other jihadists) and “American anti-tank TOW missiles.” In southern Syria, the CIA-backed Southern Front fought alongside Nusra in the campaign to take the city of Deraa in June 2015.

CIA-backed groups in northwestern Syria publicly acknowledge their relationship with the al Qaeda affiliate. A commander of Fursan ul-Haq, a rebel group that received TOW missiles through CIA channels, explained that “there is something misunderstood by world powers: We have to work with Nusra Front and other groups to fight” both Assad’s regime and the Islamic State.

Similarly, a spokesman for CIA-backed Suqour al-Ghab justified his group’s collaboration with Nusra by noting that “we work with all factions when there are attacks on the regime, either through direct cooperation or just coordinating the movements of troops so we don’t fire at each other.”

The fact that CIA-backed groups collaborate with Nusra does not necessarily prove that they harbor jihadist sympathies, nor that they hoodwinked the American officials who vetted them. In many or perhaps most cases, these groups’ decision to cooperate with Nusra is born out of pragmatism.

When fighting a regime as brutal as Assad’s, it is natural to look for allies wherever they may be found. Further, as one of the dominant players in northern Syria, Nusra can dictate terms to smaller rebel factions. The experiences of Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front, two CIA-backed groups that Nusra literally obliterated in late 2014, are a stark warning.

Jamaal Maarouf, the commander of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, explainedafter his group was ousted from Syria that no militia in the rebel umbrella organization known as the Free Syrian Army can operate in northern Syria “without Nusra’s approval.”

Because of Nusra’s strength, CIA-backed factions have entered what has beencalled a “marriage of necessity” with the jihadist group, which is exploiting its position to gain access to American weapons.

After rebels seized a Syrian military base in Idlib province in December 2014, CIA-backed groups admitted that they had been forced to use U.S.-provided TOW missiles to support the Nusra-led offensive. One rebel explained that Nusra had allowed CIA-backed groups to retain physical control of the missiles so as to maintain the veneer of autonomy, thus allowing them to sustain their relationship with the CIA. In short, Nusra has at times gamed the system.

But such subterfuge notwithstanding, at this point it is impossible to argue that U.S. officials involved in the CIA’s program cannot discern that Nusra and other extremists have benefited. And despite this, the CIA decided to drastically increase lethal support to vetted rebel factions following the Russian intervention into Syria in late September.

Rebels who previously complained about the CIA’s tight-fistedness suddenly found the floodgates open, particularly with respect to TOW missiles. One rebel explained: “We can get as much as we need and whenever we need them. Just fill in the numbers.” Reports suggest that the Obama administration and Sunni states backing the opposition have also discussed, though not committed to, providing shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons to vetted groups.

With the CIA doubling down on its support for Syrian rebels, it is now more important than ever to have a candid and vigorous public debate about the agency’s program. Put simply, such an about-face in U.S. policy—backing groups that help al Qaeda to make advances, after spending a decade and a half fighting the jihadist group—should not occur without a public debate that helps Americans understand why such drastic changes in U.S. policy have occurred.

Several prominent figures have defended this program. For instance, Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, argued that by maintaining the supply of lethal support to moderate rebels, the CIA may ultimately be able to build up these factions as a viable alternative to Nusra, the Islamic State and Assad.

But the program’s costs outweigh its possible benefits. Though aiding al Qaeda’s advances is not the program’s intention, it is the effect. Thus, after fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates for a decade and a half, the CIA is now helping them gain ground in Syria.

At the moment, al Qaeda is trying to rebrand itself by contrasting its approach to that of the far more brutal Islamic State—and, unfortunately, it has experienced some success due to its jihadist competitor’s excesses and the escalating conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Al Qaeda has portrayed itself to Sunni states and the Muslim public as a bulwark against both the Islamic State’s growth and Iranian encroachment. If U.S.-backed rebels are cooperating with al Qaeda, the United States will be hard-pressed to stop al Qaeda from gaining more room to operate in the region.

It is unlikely that the United States, with no meaningful presence in Syria, understands the situation on the ground better than al Qaeda, and can strategically outmaneuver the jihadist group. The danger is too great that continuation of this policy will empower Nusra further, eventually forcing policymakers to confront a greatly emboldened al Qaeda force in Syria.

This is why, at the very least, we should have a robust public discussion about whether to continue this course in Syria—a debate that the U.S. Congress is well positioned to kickstart through public hearings on the CIA’s program. Allowing this program to continue without carefully thinking through the benefits, costs, and possible unintended consequences is incredibly risky, and could erode public trust and support.


Also see:

US-Trained Syrian Rebels Allegedly Hand Weapons to Al Qaeda Affiliate

Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated to al-Qaeda, took the technicals, guns and ammunition from the US-trained Division 30 in northern Aleppo Photo: Reuters

Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated to al-Qaeda, took the technicals, guns and ammunition from the US-trained Division 30 in northern Aleppo Photo: Reuters

Washington Free Beacon, by Morgan Chalfant, Sep/ 22, 2015:

U.S.-trained rebels that reentered Syria over the weekend after completing the Pentagon program allegedly gave their weapons to the al Qaeda affiliate in the region, al Nusra.

The Telegraph reported that rebels fighting with Division 30, the rebel group with whom the U.S.-trained Syrian fighters are partnering to combat the Islamic State, surrendered and handed over weapons and ammunition to members of al Nusra, according to members of the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

Abu Fahd al-Tunisi, who identifies himself as a member of al Nusra, wrote on Twitter, “A strong slap [in the face] for America … the new group from Division 30 that entered yesterday hands over all of its weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra after being granted safe passage.”

“They also handed over a very large amount of ammunition and medium weaponry and a number of pick-ups,” al-Tunisi added.

Another alleged al Nusra member, Abu Khattab al-Maqdisi, claimed on Twitter that the commander of Division 30 Anas Ibrahim Obaid said he tricked the U.S.-led coalition in order to obtain weapons.

“He promised to issue a statement … repudiating Division 30, the coalition, and those who trained him,” al-Maqdisi wrote.

U.S. Central Command said Monday that approximately 70 U.S.-trained Syrian rebels had reentered Syria after undergoing training in Turkey.

If confirmed, the U.S.-trained rebels relinquishing their weapons would represent another setback for the $500 million Pentagon program. In July, al Nusra kidnapped a number of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels when they entered Syria after becoming the first class to complete the training program. The al Qaeda affiliate was allegedly tipped off by Turkey. Currently, only four or five rebels from the first class of the training program are still fighting the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS) in the Middle East

The Pentagon plans to overhaul its effort to train rebels to fight the Islamic State.


Also see:

Explosive accusations against Turkey are exposing a major problem for Obama

REUTERS/Jason Reed

REUTERS/Jason Reed

Business Insider, by NATASHA BERTRAND AND MICHAEL B KELLEY, Aug. 25, 2015:

US-trained rebels allege that Turkish intelligence tipped off Al Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front and orchestrated the kidnapping of US-trained rebels entering Syria, Mitchell Prothero of McClatchy reports.

Though experts immediately advised skepticism of the accusations, the situation typifies the contradictory priorities in the faltering partnership between the US and Turkey against ISIS in Syria.

“All of this speaks to a bigger issue of how Turkey is perceived to have been nurturing the Islamist side of the Syrian insurgency at the expense of Syrian nationalists,” Aaron Stein, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Business Insider.

The US began training a small group of Syrian rebels known as the New Syria Force, or NSF, in early May, on the condition that they focus solely on combating ISIS while refraining from going after forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his allies.

The program was intended to graduate as many as 2,000 moderate Syrian opposition forces, but only 54 have completed the program so far. In July, the Pentagon’s sent the first NSF graduates, known as Division 30, into Syria to fight ISIS.

The initiative failed spectacularly when the group was attacked by al-Nusra Front, the branch of Al Qaeda operating in Syria, immediately after it entered the country. The Division 30 Syria headquarters was subsequently bombed by Assad’s warplanes.

Map of Syria showing control by cities and areas held as of August 3 as well as a safe zone that the US and Turkey are trying to implement.

Map of Syria showing control by cities and areas held as of August 3 as well as a safe zone that the US and Turkey are trying to implement.

The US-backed rebels now claim that Turkish intelligence leaked information about the NSF’s arrival plans in Syria to al-Nusra. And a Turkish official told McClatchy that the leak would humiliate the Obama administration and push the US to go after both ISIS and Assad’s regime.

But some analysts quickly noted that a leak wasn’t necessary.

“The group itself had advertised its entry into Syria on social media, and it was well known that they were entering through Turkey,” Stein said.

Nevertheless, the accusations underscore Turkey’s alliances with rebel groups — specifically Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra — that the US opposes.

A member of al Qaeda's Nusra Front carries his weapon as he squats in the town of the northwestern city of Ariha, after a coalition of insurgent groups seized the area in Idlib province, May 29, 2015.

A member of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front carries his weapon as he squats in the town of the northwestern city of Ariha, after a coalition of insurgent groups seized the area in Idlib province, May 29, 2015.

“Our research has long pointed to a closer Turkish relationship to Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra than to IS. In that sense, this is not surprising,” Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider by email.

Stein has previously written about how Turkey “eventually reached out directly to al-Nusra, believing that the rebel group would be useful in achieving its ultimate goal: the overthrow of Assad.”

“Turkey also believed that it could potentially moderate the group and that al-Nusra would be good to work with as a ‘Syrian group’ fighting against the regime for the future of all Syrians,” he added.

The country has even closer ties to Ahrar, which is one of Syria’s largest rebel groups and the one with the most Turkish citizens. And although Ahrar is linked to Nusra, its stated political project is focused on toppling the Assad regime and establishing an Islamic state in Syria.

Read more 


FDD VP for Research Jonathan Schanzer discusses Turkey and the growing threat from ISIS. – The John Batchelor Show (Syndicated) – August 20, 2015

State Department Testimony: Rebels Cannot Defeat Assad

homs-syria-rebel-reutersBreitbart, by FRANCES MARTEL:

The Islamic State has gained momentum in both Syria and Iraq while allegedly “moderate” groups against President Bashar al-Assad in the former nation have suffered increasing setbacks. With the outlook dire, even the U.S. State Department is admitting that a military overthrow of Assad appears far from a viable reality.

Speaking to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, senior State Department official Brett McGurk said the State Department “do not see a situation in which the rebels are able to remove [Assad] from power,” instead noting that Assad’s removal would have to be a “democratic” process.

The admission raises questions regarding President Obama’s continued push to arm and support “moderate” rebels against Assad, citing the use of chemical weapons against civilians, among other human rights violations. The President initially allowed for weapons to reach Syrian rebels who were considered “moderate” in June 2013, in response to allegations and accrued evidence that Assad had used chemical weapons against civilians. At the time, a poll found that 70% of Americans opposed the President’s action.

A year later, Assad appeared nowhere closer to falling, yet the President once again called arming moderate rebels– this time engaging Congress. The President and Congress finally agreed to a $500 million program to train and arm rebels vetted to be moderate.

At the moment, the program is not expected to begin until March, according to Foreign Policy. It aims to train 5,000 rebels per year, but many have criticized it as a slow reaction to a crisis that is bleeding millions of refugees into the outside world a day, not counting those displaced within Syria. A particularly troubling report this week from McClatchyindicates that there is currently little to no support to rebels on the ground from the United States at all– many rebel leaders say they have received nothing– leaving unanswered questions as to where the funding has been going.

Meanwhile, both Assad and the Islamic State have been making gains, as well as the Syrian jihadist group the Al Nusra Front. Al-Nusra, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda, alleged this week that they had used a United Nations vehicle in a terrorist attack in Syria, a milestone for the group’s fight against the West. In Jordan and Afghanistan, the Islamic State’s popularity is only growing, posing the serious danger of a new influx of foreign jihadis into the Syrian war theater.

President Assad remains in power, with increasing confidence. In a recent interview with Paris Match magazine, Assad went so far as to blame the United States for the creation of ISIS, and call airstrikes against ISIS targets within Syria by US and coalition forces “illegal,” despite the consensus that they have helped his army. Of his own rule, Assad remained confident that “we as Syrians will never accept that Syria become a western puppet state”– which is to say, accept his removal from power as long as the United States has a role to play.

The situation leaves reasonable doubt regarding the potential for rebel groups to remove Assad, making McGurk’s comments an almost necessary reality from the State Department. Nonetheless, such comments do not appear to be currently interfering with President Obama’s plans to spend $500 million on training and arming rebels that even his State Department see little potential for victory in.

Also see:

How Obama Walked Boehner and GOP Leadership Off the Syrian Rebel Cliff

 r-GOP-LEADERSHIP-large570PJ Media, By Patrick Poole, Nov. 3, 2014:

One of the last acts Congress undertook before leaving Washington, D.C., in September for the midterm election break was to add $500 million in new funding to arm and train the so-called “vetted moderate” Syrian rebels. The $500 million in funding had been an agenda item for Obama since June, when ISIS began making quick gains in an offensive push back into Iraq.

But the political net effect of this vote was to get the GOP leadership in Congress to publicly buy into Obama’s rapidly crumbling Syria policy. Led by Boehner in the House and McConnell in the Senate, the congressional GOP leadership allowed Obama to walk them off the Syrian rebel cliff.

As I reported here at PJ Media yesterday, the most important “vetted moderate” rebel groups are in retreat, having surrendered or defected to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria.

This development should come as no surprise to any member of the congressional GOP. In the week before the rebel amendment funding vote, I was asked to brief a number of GOP members and prepared a presentation on the collapse of the U.S.-backed Syria rebels that was widely circulated amongst both the House and Senate GOP conferences.

Among the chief trends I noted in these briefings — and that I was concurrently reporting on here — was that large groups of Free Syrian Army (FSA) units were defecting to al-Qaeda and ISIS, surrendering their U.S.-provided weapons along the way, and that other FSA units were forging peace deals and fighting alongside al-Qaeda and ISIS in some areas.

Even before the votes on the rebel funding, there was growing evidence that these “vetted moderate” forces were not moderate at all, and certainly would provide little assistance in fighting against ISIS.

Obama was hinting at where his policy was headed, too. Just a month before those congressional votes, in an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Obama said that the belief that arming the Syrian rebels would have changed the situation had “always been a fantasy”:

With “respect to Syria,” said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”

Even now, the president said, the administration has difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”

Again, this was more than a month before congressional GOP leadership took up the cause of sending $500 million more to the Syrian rebels, even though there were reports that the FSA had already lost at least $500 million in arms to ISIS and other jihadist groups.

GOP leaders also bought in on another highly controversial element to Obama’s Syrian rebel policy. In September 2013, it was reported that Obama had signed a waiver circumventing a federal law intended to prohibit aid from going to terrorist groups. But when GOP leadership rolled out their amendment to fund the “vetted moderate” Syrian rebels, it contained hardly any substantial limits to Obama’s waiver policy.

In order to pass the amendment in the House, Boehner and GOP leadership had to buck considerable resistance from their own party and join with House Democrats to pass the amendment. The September 17 vote was 273-156, with 71 Republicans voting against the amendment.

And yet even more House Democrats — 85 in all — voted against the funding amendment, giving them cover for the upcoming midterm elections.

The 78-22 vote in the Senate also received support from Senate GOP leadership, with notable Senate Republicans voting against the measure, including Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.

Congress had barely left Washington, D.C., for the break before events would demonstrate the GOP leaders buying into Obama’s policy was a fool’s errand. As U.S. airstrikes began hitting ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra positions, the attacks were widely condemned by the same “vetted moderate” groups that Congress had just approved another $500 million for.

At the same time, the Obama administration began to quickly back away from the rebels that congressional GOP leadership had now jumped into bed with. A week after the House amendment vote, administration officials began complaining that there were no reliable partners on the ground in Syria. A few weeks later, the administration leaked a CIA assessment of past funding of rebel groups that found such aid as Congress had just approved rarely works.

The coup de grâce came less than a month after the House vote. Obama’s envoy trying to build the anti-ISIS coalition, retired Marine General John Allen, told reporters that the administration was ditching the FSA. Now, two weeks later, the FSA is near collapse.

The only successful move of Obama’s disastrous Syria policy was to get the GOP leadership in Congress to buy into it at the last minute.

So how could GOP leaders be so easily duped?

1) The absence of a coherent GOP foreign policy. Republicans in Congress are torn by two opposing foreign policy poles: on one side is John McCain’s “war at any price” caucus, and on the other is Rand Paul’s neo-isolationist “pull up the drawbridge” approach. The McCain position has blindly given a blank check to the administration’s military misadventures (e.g. Libya, et al.), and the Paulian approach flies in the face of reality — there is no drawbridge to pull up anymore in our global society, and the growing threats to America’s interests overseas are growing rapidly.

2) “We’ve got to do something!” When I talked to members and staff, this was a recurring theme. GOP leaders during the debate over the amendment used this as a bludgeon against the amendment’s detractors. But without American boots on the ground, which no one in Congress was going to support weeks before midterm elections, there’s little the U.S. can do to directly change events on the ground. Even the airstrikes targeting ISIS are having a very limited effect. And less than a month after GOP leaders were publicly castigating their own members for not falling into line, the administration was abandoning the very position they had just embraced.

3) Congress is reliant on the administration for all their information. This is a recurring problem on the Hill. Congress has few means to vet the information the administration gives them, or to know if information is being withheld.

When I briefed members during that week prior to the rebel amendment vote, particularly those sitting on committees that had national security responsibilities, very few were aware of the ongoing difficulties of the defections, peace deals, and alliances with jihadist groups that the U.S.-armed and trained “vetted moderate” groups were engaged in. I’ve previously said that Congress needs to revive something along the lines of the House Task Force on Unconventional Warfare and Terrorism that gave them a back door to the SPECOPS world and intelligence community to be better informed regardless of what party controls the White House.

The midterm elections tomorrow might rearrange the chairs on the Hill come January, but the GOP leadership problems demonstrated by the rebel funding this past September are likely to remain.

Even worse, rushing the Syrian rebel funding through at the last minute meant there was no serious discussion of the growing national security threats metastasizing in Syria and Iraq and on what Congress intended to do. By buying into Obama’s rebel funding proposal, they allowed Obama to walked them over the cliff just as he was stepping back from it. Pure amateur hour.

By the time the new Congress convenes in January, events could transpire in the Middle East that will require Congress and leaders of both parties to make choices more difficult than throwing $500 million at the problem. By then, the situation could be more stark than anyone now realizes.

Washington’s VICE: Supporting Islamists

vice newsCSP, By Kyle Shideler:

VICE News recently produced a revealing documentary highlighting the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist Syrian rebels. Embedded with Tawhid Brigade fighters in the Syrian city of Aleppo, the documentary maintains a generally unquestioning and supportive tone, but nonetheless is informative. Within the first five minutes, the narrator affirms the Tawhid Brigade’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the role of Qatar in supporting and backing the Islamic Front is repeatedly emphasized throughout the hour-long program. In a segment with the Islamic Front Sharia court, the judges vow to implement Islamic law in a manner not much different from the Islamic State (ISIS), although stressing that ISIS should have waited until Syria was fully liberated and Assad beaten. The VICE video does not mention, however, the Islamic Front’s ties to Al Qaeda, through the AQ-linked Ahrar Al-Sham unit of the Front, whose connections have been ably documented by jihadist monitoring website, the Long War Journal.

While perhaps news to the general public watching VICE News, these sorts of facts are well known. They were certainly known even before the push by elements of the foreign policy community in Washington to highlight the Islamic Front as the kind of rebels that should be supported in Syria. One piece for Foreign Affairs in January of 2014 referred to the Front’s Ahrar Al-Sham as “An al Qaeda–Linked Group Worth Befriending.” One of the authors of that piece, William McCants, works for Brookings Institute, a think tank revealed by the New York Times to have received $14 million over four years from the government of Qatar. The Qataris themselves had arranged for Ahrar Al-Sham to meet with Western diplomats in November 2013 just three months prior to the Foreign Affairs piece. Of course, Brookings would have us believe that their support for Qatari-backed rebel groups, and their own backing from Qatar are unrelated. And of course, it is unsurprising that Qatar would back a Muslim Brotherhood-linked rebel group, considering the strong support Qatar has expressed for the Brotherhood in the past.

Not all those who wished to put the U.S. into bed with an Al Qaeda-Muslim Brotherhood alliance in Syria have financial interests as potential motivations. For some, that support is likely ideological- as they have, like the Tawhid brigade, ties to the Muslim Brotherhood themselves.

Consider the repeated calls by the Syrian Emergency Taskforce for U.S. support for the Islamic Front, even after the U.S. was rebuffed by the group. According to the Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Watch, an intelligence digest focusing on the Muslim Brotherhood, four of the seven named board members of the SETF have ties to Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations. The executive director of SETF, Mouaz Mustafa, was responsible for arranging Senator John McCain’s meeting with the Northern Storm rebel group. Northern Storm has been accused of playing a role in the abduction of journalist Steven Sotloff. Sotloff’s fixer for the trip, who was also kidnapped by ISIS but released, was affiliated with the Tawhid brigade, which Northern Storm later joined.

Another group, the Syrian American Council (SAC), has also attempted to position the Islamic Front as appropriate U.S. allies. Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, the group’s director of government relations accused the United States of bombing Islamic Front targets in an article entitled, “In Syria, the United States is bombing friend and foe alike.” Ghanem has publicly praised the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief shariah jurist, Yusuf Al Qaradawi, a man who called for jihad in Syria, and called for the 2004 killing of Americans in Iraq. The Syrian American Council has sponsored a speaking tour of the United States featuring a known radical cleric named Sheik Mohammad Rateb al-Nabulsi who supported Palestinian suicide bombings. Another cleric Sheik Osama al-Rifai, who raised funds for the Syrian Sunrise Foundation (which shares board members with the SAC), has publicly supported the Islamic Front. Among the places where Rifai raised funds was the Mosque Foundation of Bridgeview, Ill., whose two founders have Muslim Brotherhood ties according to documents released by federal prosecutors in the Holy Land Foundation trial.

All of this background is part of what makes the VICE documentary so revealing. What VICE stated openly is an unassuming factoid that can, in fact, be found on Wikipedia. But its unstated significance explains much regarding elements among those who support the Syrian rebels, and their fixation on involving the U.S. with the Islamic Front. The Front’s sharia judges openly, and without slick editing, stating their case for sharia law, including beheadings for “criminals,” is something that people outside of Washington will see and comprehend, even if those who should know better continue to push for relations with the Islamist group.

It seems for many in Washington, support for Islamists is a vice they are unable to quit.


Ghosts of Aleppo (Full Length)

Published on Sep 30, 2014 by VICE News


Also see:

Congress’ Support of Syrian Rebels Fraught With Danger

A free Syrian Army fighter runs to avoid sniper fire (Photo: © Reuters)

A free Syrian Army fighter runs to avoid sniper fire (Photo: © Reuters)


The U.S. Congress has approved the Obama Administration’s plan to train and arm Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State terrorist group. The plan is fraught with danger and the Congress must ensure that five steps are taken to minimize its risks.

1. Create a Secular-Democratic Force

The U.S. must recognize that every existing rebel group, including the much-touted Free Syria Army, includes an Islamist component. It is against Western interests to support Islamist radicals and they are not worthy of American taxpayer money.

The bill “requires that opposition groups be vetted for associations with terrorist groups, Shia militias aligned with or supporting the government of Syria, and groups associated with the government of Iran, including, but not limited to: ISIL [the Islamic State]; Jabhat al Nusrah; other al-Qaeda related groups; and Hezbollah.”

The weak standard is that rebels must not be linked to the Assad regime (which Syrian rebels are not by definition) and Al-Qaeda affiliates, which presumably includes Ahrar al-Sham whose leadership has had high-level Al-Qaeda ties.

Over a dozen of Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders were killed in a suicide bombing recently, presumably carried out by the Islamic State. Leaders of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Front, a coalition of Syrian Islamist rebels,  mourned them.  Its new leader previously led a Free Syria Army unit.

So who can the U.S. pick as an ally?

In April 2013, the New York Times reported, “Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.” As of June 2013, 10 of 12 rebel groups were Islamist.

The most obvious candidates are the Kurds who have proven so reliable and effective in Iraq. They have defeated Al-Nusra in battle. Kurds also fought Islamist Kurds aligned with Al-Qaeda (the Islamic Kurdish Front), Ahrar al-Sham and the Qatar-backed Ahfad al-Rasoul militia.

“We as Kurds are usually secularists, and the reason for that is the injustice that we suffered through Islamic history, and certainly we would be against any new Caliphate project,” said the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria.

Kurds are only about 10% of the Syrian population so their reach is limited. Other non-Kurdish groups must be assessed.

Read more at Clarion Project

We Don’t Need to Ally with Terrorists to Defeat ISIS

isis-431x350by Daniel Greenfield:

The big foreign policy debate now is whether we should ally with Sunni or Shiite Jihadists to defeat ISIS.

The pro-Iranian camp wants us to coordinate with Iran and Assad. The pro-Saudi camp wants us to arm the Free Syrian Army and its assorted Jihadists to overthrow Assad.

Both sides are not only wrong, they are traitors.

Iran and the Sunni Gulfies are leading sponsors of international terrorism that has killed Americans. Picking either side means siding with the terrorists.

It makes no sense to join with Islamic terrorists to defeat Islamic terrorists. Both Sunni and Shiite Jihadists are our enemies. And this is not even a “the enemy of my enemy” scenario because despite their mutual hatred for each other, they hate us even more.

The 1998 indictment of bin Laden accused him of allying with Iran. (Not to mention Iraq, long before such claims could be blamed on Dick Cheney.) The 9/11 Commission documented that Al Qaeda terrorists, including the 9/11 hijackers, freely moved through Iran. Testimony by one of bin Laden’s lieutenants showed that he had met with a top Hezbollah terrorist. Court findings concluded that Iran was liable for Al Qaeda’s bombing of US embassies. Al Qaeda terrorists were trained by Hezbollah.

While Shiite and Sunni Jihadists may be deadly enemies to each other, they have more in common with each other than they do with us. Our relationship to them is not that of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” That’s their relationship to each other when it comes to us. In these scenarios we are the enemy.

The pro-Saudi and pro-Iranian factions in our foreign policy complex agree that we have to help one side win in Syria. They’re wrong. We have no interest in helping either side win because whether the Sunnis or Shiites win, Syria will remain a state sponsor of terror.

It’s only a question of whether it will be Shiite or Sunni terror.

Our interest is in not allowing Al Qaeda, or any of its subgroups, to control Syria or Iraq because it has a history of carrying out devastating attacks against the United States. We don’t, however, need to ally with either side to accomplish that. We can back the Kurds and the Iraqi government (despite its own problematic ties) in their push against ISIS in Iraq and use strategic strikes to hit ISIS concentrations in Syria. We should not, however, ally, arm or coordinate strikes with either side in the Syrian Civil War.

Both the pro-Saudi and pro-Iranian sides insist that ISIS can’t be defeated without stabilizing Syria. But it doesn’t appear that Syria can be stabilized without either genocide or partition. Its conflict is not based on resistance to a dictator as the Arab Springers have falsely claimed, but on religious differences.

Helping one side commit genocide against the other is an ugly project, but that would be the outcome of allying with either side.

Stabilizing Syria is a myth. The advocates of the FSA claimed that helping the Libyan Jihadists win would stabilize Libya. Instead the country is on fire as Jihadists continue to fight it out in its major cities.

Even if the FSA existed as an actual fighting force, which it doesn’t, even if it could win, which it can’t, there is every reason to believe that Syria would be worse than Libya and an even bigger playground for ISIS. The FSA enthusiasts were wrong in Egypt and Libya and everywhere else. They have no credibility.

Read more at Frontpage

Also see:

The “Khorasan Group”, New Name, Old Threat

khor1CSP, By Kyle Shideler:

Recent media coverage has been bombarded by revelations of a “new terror threat“, “more dangerous than ISIS”, the Khorasan Group.

Khorasan refers to the historical area under the Islamic Caliphate that corresponds to Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan and the subcontinent, and the Khorasan Group, according to intelligence officials speaking to the media, consists of a relatively small (between fifty and a hundred) group of veteran Al Qaeda fighters from the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. These fighters are said to include a number of highly skilled bomb makers and other operatives, led by Muhsin al-Fadhli, a native Kuwaiti, and long time Al Qaeda insider, who specializes in financing and facilitation. Jihadist social media is hinting that Al-Fadhli may have been killed in the first round of U.S. bombing.

Khorasan Group’s mission, supposedly, has been to find jihadists with western passports who have travelled to Syria, train them, and reinsert them into the West to conduct spectacular attacks of the kind that Al Qaeda is famous for.

Khorasan Group operates in and among Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and there’s been lively debate in the counterterrorism community over whether its really worthwhile distinguishing between Jabhat al-Nusra and Khorasan group at all. This is significant because Jabhat al-Nusra, despite being Al Qaeda, is deeply intertwined with the Syrian rebels at-large, and they are widely supported by these rebels, including those that the Obama strategy calls for arming and training to fight ISIS. For their part, Jabhat al Nusra hasn’t made the distinction, claiming they were the recipient of U.S. bombings.

It’s entirely plausible that intelligence suggested that this Khorasan group was preparing an imminent attack, and even if they weren’t, they are definitely enemies of America and a legitimate target.

But the extra hype about this specific group, and separating them out as somehow different or more threatening than Jabhat al Nusra, and Al Qaeda proper, has more to do with attempting to limit the negative reaction from rebels within Syria, and to distract Americans from the reality that in Syria there really are few good guys, with a possible exception of the Kurdish forces, who aren’t really receiving support. That strategy has already failed, with multiple Syrian rebel groups complaining about the strikes against Jabhat al Nusra, including one group expected to be the core of the force the U.S. intends to train to send against ISIS.

There has been an attempt to try to separate out elements of Al Qaeda, into Core, and affiliates, and in the case of the Khorasan group, small units within affiliates. Or for that matter to disassociate ISIS from Al Qaeda, as ISIS being “too brutal”, when the reality is that ISIS hasn’t engaged in any tactic that Al Qaeda didn’t institute first.

This is a misguided attempt to convince people that what we face is a series of minor groups, and that the enemy who attacked us on 9/11 is broken, and/or on the run. The reality is we face an overarching enemy, a Global Islamic Movement-which is how they identify themselves- operating in accordance with a knowable strategic doctrine that we are not addressing.

That doctrine is Shariah law. It is the same law that ISIS is instituting in its territory, and the same one that Jabhat al Nusra and several of the other Syrian groups would institute in Syria if they prove successful in defeating Assad.

Our enemy knows that you can not defeat an opponent you do not name. They do not say that their war is with the U.S. Army,  the 75th Ranger Regiment, or the 5th Special Forces Group. They say plainly and openly, that their war is with America, and the allies of America, and more importantly, that it is an ideological war, based on a conflict between belief systems which are irreconcilable.

Until we are prepared to discuss the conflict in ideological terms, we will forever be playing “whack-a-mole” with a never ending series of “new” threats.