Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society
In the last week, the American-led Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, whose primary mission is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (IS), has apparently conducted two airstrikes against senior members of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), once known as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s rebranded presence in Syria. In late 2016, the U.S. began an intensified targeting campaign against al-Qaeda and associated individuals; this appears to be a continuation of that policy, which provides some guidance about Western policy on Syria more broadly.
NEW STRIKES AGAINST AL-QAEDA
On the first day of 2017, an airstrike, seemingly from a U.S. drone, killed at least eight jihadists associated with al-Qaeda as their convoy drove from Sarmada, northwest of Atarib in Idlib Province, near the Turkish border. The initial reports mistakenly suggested that among the slain was Muslah al-Alyani, a close associate of Abdallah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi jihadi-salafist who claims independence but who was recently named as a senior JFS leader in sanctions from the U.S. Treasury. Those killed included Abu Umar al-Turkistani, a senior leader of the JFS-dependent, Uyghur-dominated Turkistan Islamic Party, who is trying to help al-Qaeda effectively co-opt the insurgency in northern Syrian by having it merge under JFS’ banner. Additionally, the strike killed Abu Khattab al-Qahtani, said to be a veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets and of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Abu Mutassem al-Deiri, a Syrian, presumably from Deir Ezzor judging by his pseudonym.
The details of the second attack, on 3 January, remained murky until this evening. It was certain that there were multiple airstrikes on a complex in Sarmada that killed at least twenty people. Beyond that, even who carried them out was not absolutely certain: when asked about this at press conference later in the day on 3 January, the Department of Defence spokesman claimed to be unaware of the strikes having occurred. And it could have been Russia. Though a new ceasefire was ostensibly put in place on 30 December—worked out between Turkey, Russia, and Iran (conspicuously excluding the U.S.)—JFS and IS are excluded from its terms, a condition the pro-Assad coalition is currently using as a pretext to savage the town of Wadi Barada, west of Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR)—which has come under renewed criticism for its sourcing—said that the among the facilities bombed in the second set of strikes was a JFS-run prison, so some of those killed were perhaps elements arrested (kidnapped) by JFS. A JFS spokesman, Abu Anas al-Shami, denied there was a prison at the site and said it was a JFS “headquarters for that area and contains a number branch offices”. But a later memorandum released on JFS channels said that the Coalition—whom JFS were adamant from the start had conducted the strikes—had in fact bombed a JFS shari’a court/prison adjacent to the headquarters.
The Pentagon cleared up this matter on 5 January, informing the press that the U.S. “struck the headquarters compound itself, including multiple vehicles and structures. Al-Qaeda’s foreign terrorist fighter network used this headquarters as a gathering place, and their leaders directed terrorist operations out of this location. Although we’re still assessing the results of these strikes, our initial assessment is that these strikes … killed more than 15 al-Qaeda militants and destroyed six vehicles and nine structures on Jan. 3.”
THE COUNTER-AL-QAEDA POLICY SO FAR
The U.S.-led Coalition has intermittently struck at JFS—indeed the first U.S. airstrikes into Syria in September 2014 were against then-al-Nusra. But the focus was on externally-focused al-Qaeda “central” operatives—sometimes called the “Khorasan Group”—within al-Nusra/JFS until September 2016. At that time President Barack Obama issued a new order to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), providing them with greater resources, notably armed drones, and authority “to go after al-Nusra’s broader leadership, not just al-Qaeda veterans or those directly involved in external plotting.” This coincided with the disastrous attempt to form a military pact with Russia to jointly target JFS.
Usama Nammoura (Abu Umar al-Saraqib), the JFS military official leading the attempt to break the pro-Assad coalition’s siege of Aleppo City, was killed by the U.S. on 8 September. Ahmad Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri), one of al-Qaeda’s most important operatives, was killed on 3 October, and an airstrike probably intended for Mabruk had cut down Rifai Taha (Abu Yasser al-Masri), the leader of al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, on 5 April. Both Mabruk and Taha had been involved in the effort to unify JFS and other insurgent groups, particularly Ahrar al-Sham. On 2 November, American airstrikes in Idlib killed two JFS officials, soon named as Ala’a Ayoub and Mustafa Zaytir. The same day, the Pentagon announced that it had killed Haydar Kirkan on 17 October, also in Idlib. And on 18 November, the U.S. struck down Abu Abdallah al-Muhajir, misidentified at the time as Muhammad al-Saghir, a key ideological founder of IS, who also uses that kunya.
In explaining the decision to eliminate Kirkan, the Defence Department noted that he was “a long-serving and experienced facilitator and courier for al-Qaeda in Syria, who … had ties to al-Qaeda senior leaders, including Usama bin Ladin” and was “al-Qaeda’s senior external terror attack planner in Syria”. Thus, even as the campaign against JFS has been expanding, the message has remained that this is a means to counter a threat against the homeland. The threat is real and permanent from al-Qaeda.
In testimony to Congress in February 2016, National Intelligence Director James Clapper said that al-Qaeda “aspires to attack the U.S. and its allies,” and that al-Qaeda “nodes” in the Pakistan-Afghanistan and Syria-Turkey theatres were at that time “dedicating resources to planning attacks”. In July, Clapper clarified that JFS/al-Nusra “poses only a ‘nascent’ danger to the U.S. homeland and ‘doesn’t approach the threat’ posed by the Islamic State. Jabhat al-Nusra’s ability to attack the United States and Europe is ‘aspirational’ rather than ‘imminent,’ he said, describing as overly ‘strident’ recent news reports about increasing evidence of external plots by the group.”
Measuring al-Qaeda’s threat solely by the immediacy of its terrorist plots against the West, however, is a bad metric. Even if al-Qaeda is capable of a terrorist strike against the West at this point, it has taken a strategic decision to de-prioritize such attacks.
Al-Qaeda is following the strategy, laid down by men like Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri), that Bin Ladin was advocating at the end of his life. Moving away from a centralized structure that can be attacked, al-Qaeda is focused on physically enmeshing itself in local communities throughout the Middle East. By offering itself to Sunni populations in need of protection, namely those caught up in wars, al-Qaeda has an easier road to normalizing its extremist ideology and socializing populations into acceptance of its rule as the lesser-evil. Establishing deep roots in this way—creating a broad-based Islamist polity that does not insist on political or ideological exclusivity in the armed groups it is prepared to collaborate with, and providing services and security for the masses—means that when al-Qaeda returns to war with the West, it has a durable base from which to launch attacks that offers no easy return address.
Denying al-Qaeda such a base is obviously imperative, and is not something that can be delayed. In Syria, unless the West is prepared to sign-off on mass-slaughter by the pro-Assad coalition in Idlib, then al-Qaeda has to be uprooted by providing a better alternative to a population and rebellion that al-Qaeda has nurtured into functional interdependence. Put simply, if the military capabilities JFS are providing to the insurgency are to be eliminated, then the U.S. should replace them. This is not how the Obama administration has proceeded.
Over the last year, the Obama administration has at various times effectively threatened the opposition with Russian airstrikes if it did not “de-marble” from JFS. After the collaboration with Russia was shelved and the U.S. stepped up its campaign of airstrikes against JFS on its own, it was claimed that “the administration’s hope is that more-moderate rebel factions will be able to gain ground as both the Islamic State and al-Nusra come under increased military pressure.” Neither has worked.
The decision by the Free Syrian Army-style rebels and non-Qaeda Islamists in the Idlib-Aleppo to refuse instructions to decouple from JFS is not an ideological one. Moving geographically away from JFS and leaving it in sole control of an area would have allowed it to be obliterated. This would have enabled the pro-regime coalition to fill that void. In other words, the rebels would have been assisting in the defeat of the revolution. Beyond politics, the pro-Assad coalition would have been able to move beyond these areas it conquered from JFS to make advances against the mainstream rebels (and even non-mainstream rebels like Ahrar al-Sham) since the insurgency as a whole would be weaker. Massacres and mass-arrests would have followed, and not just for the rebels but their families in a country where death is the least of the torments in the regime’s prisons. Personal security is a powerful motivator.
The most likely outcome from airstrikes alone against JFS was and remains that, so far from driving a wedge between the rebels and al-Qaeda, it pushes the insurgency toward JFS, perhaps into a formal merger, which would be the final end of the rebellion’s political acceptability in the West, leaving only the question of how explicitly the West supports the efforts to put down the insurgency. It is difficult to believe this wasn’t understood.1
IRAN POLICY OVERSHADOWS SYRIA
Perhaps more indicative of the truth of the U.S. intentions was The Washington Post reporting: “A growing number of White House and State Department officials … have privately voiced doubts about the wisdom of applying U.S. military power, even covertly, to pressure Assad to step aside”.
As Michael Weiss, a senior editor at The Daily Beast and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, put it to me: the recent strikes against JFS are less a change of policy than the revelation of a long-obfuscated one. “The U.S. has been striking JFS/AQ for as long as it’s been striking ISIS. If there’s a greater emphasis on the former now then it’s because the U.S. has finally come out of the closet with respect to its policy in Syria,” Weiss said. “The Obama administration was never serious about countering Assad or helping moderate rebels carve out and maintain their own zones of influence in the country. To do so would risk its accommodation with Iran. Rather, the policy was always about fighting a counterterrorism war.”
The irony is that the narrow counterterrorism policy is assisting terrorism of all kinds. The fact that the U.S. has not and will not try to protect a single Syrian inside Syria, while al-Qaeda fights alongside forces providing civilian protection, leaves the remaining mainstream Syrian armed oppositionists vulnerable to al-Qaeda: they know that a merger with JFS is political destruction and they also know that not merging with JFS might mean physical destruction. Allowing Aleppo City to fall to the pro-Assad coalition and the deportation of an embittered population to Idlib, where al-Qaeda has a strong presence, only exacerbates this trend. Aleppo’s collapse also destroyed rebel forces who could have been used to sustainably defeat the Islamic State, rather than the partners that have been selected, who cannot. And as al-Qaeda’s ranks swell on the one side, the importation of tens of thousands of foreign Shi’a jihadists into Syria continues unhindered by the West on the other side, creating—on NATO’s doorstep—a powerful node in Iran’s global terrorist network that has conducted, and attempted, terrorism against Western targets from Argentina to Washington, D.C.
The Iran nuclear deal was sold in the “narrowest possible terms” as an arms control agreement, but there were “grander ambitions” behind this well-orchestrated public diplomacy. The reality is that the Iran deal was a facilitation mechanism for a U.S. drawdown in the region. In place of U.S. hegemony would be a self-enforcing concert system. To get there, however, the nuclear issue would have to be neutralized with a paper agreement. Hence, it was Tehran that always seemed to hold the upper-hand in negotiations; the U.S. needed a deal as a gateway to its real ambitions and the Iranians did not.
The real-world consequences of this policy were that the Iranian revolution was granted “equities” that had to be respected—specifically Syria, which meant building a viable alternative to Iran’s proxy regime was off the table—and the U.S.’s Gulf allies were told to find a way to “share” the region—by definition empowering the Islamic Republic, and Russia into the bargain, which moved to underwrite this Iranian sphere of influence, returning to the Middle East after its eviction in the 1970s.
The fall of Aleppo to the pro-Assad coalition is by no stretch of the imagination the end of the war, but the objectives of the Syrian revolutionary forces, which the U.S. claimed were its allies and which allied governments supported, have now been defeated. This means that—whatever Donald Trump’s inclinations—Obama has severely limited the President-elect’s options. One wonders only if Obama takes that as an indictment or a compliment.
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 Underlining this point, on 6 January, Hishem al-Shaykh (Abu Jaber), the former leader of Ahrar al-Sham who recently launched a semi-coup that brought several of the most hardline Ahrar factions under his leadership in a formation called Jaysh al-Ahrar, tweeted: “What the Coalition wants [to say with] its operations targeting our brothers in Fatah al-Sham [JFS]: ‘Don’t get to close to them, otherwise your fate will be theirs’. So we say to [the Coalition]: #FatahAlShamIsOfUsAndWeAreOfThem.”
UPDATE: A wave of Coalition attacks against al-Qaeda in Syria have taken place starting in January 2017. See here for a full list.