Friday, May 10, 2013

America's hidden agenda in Syria's war

America's hidden agenda in Syria's war



Phil Sands

May 9, 2013


It was some six months ago that Syrian rebel commanders met US intelligence

officers in Jordan to discuss the status of the war and, the rebels hoped,

to secure supplies of the sophisticated weapons they need to overthrow

President Bashar Al Assad.


But according to one of the commanders present at the meeting, the Americans

were more interested in talking about Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al

Qaeda-affiliated group waging war on the Syrian regime than they were in

helping the rebels advance on Damascus.


The commander - a moderate Sunni and an influential rebel leader from

Damascus who said he has met intelligence operatives from Western and Arab

states - said the US officials were especially keen to obtain information

about the identities of Al Nusra insurgents and the locations of their



Then, by the rebel commander's account, the discussion took an unexpected



The Americans began discussing the possibility of drone strikes on Al Nusra

camps inside Syria and tried to enlist the rebels to fight their fellow



"The US intelligence officer said, 'We can train 30 of your fighters a

month, and we want you to fight Al Nusra'," the rebel commander recalled.


Opposition forces should be uniting against Mr Al Assad's more powerful and

better-equipped army, not waging war among themselves, the rebel commander

replied. The response from a senior US intelligence officer was blunt.


"I'm not going to lie to you. We'd prefer you fight Al Nusra now, and then

fight Assad's army. You should kill these Nusra people. We'll do it if you

don't," the rebel leader quoted the officer as saying.


What the commander says transpired in Jordan illustrates a dilemma that has

preoccupied, even paralysed, Syria's opposition and their international

supporters - how to deal with the expanding role of Islamic extremists in

the anti-Assad insurgency.


Other meetings with Western and Arab intelligence services have shown a

similar obsession with Al Nusra, the commander said.


"All anyone wants is hard information about Al Nusra, it seems to be all

they are really interested in. It's the most valuable commodity you can have

when dealing with these intelligence agencies," he said.


Jabhat Al Nusra has emerged as the most effective rebel force in Syria. The

fractured, poorly equipped rebels of the Free Syrian Army can ill-afford to

take the fight to Mr Al Assad's forces without Al Nusra, whose key leaders

are foreign veterans of the fighting that followed the US invasion of Iraq

in 2003.


The Obama administration classified Al Nusra as a terrorist organisation in

December, much to the annoyance of the opposition Syrian National Coalition

(SNC), which said the designation would only undermine the rebel campaign

and support Mr Al Assad's insistence that he is fighting "terrorists" rather

than a popular, pro-democracy uprising.


Two months ago, Al Nusra confirmed its link to Al Qaeda, publicly declaring

"allegiance" to the network's head, Ayman Al Zawahiri, and promised to

follow his orders.


Ever since, opposition political and military leaders, and their supporters

in Europe, the US and the Middle East, have been trying to work out how to

deal with the fact their allies on the battlefield are affiliated with the

group that carried out some of world's deadliest attacks on civilians.


As the rebels and their patrons abroad debate how to deal with Al Nusra,

questions persist over exactly how united Al Nusra is, and whether or not it

has adopted a new, less violent, strategy than that normally associated with

Al Qaeda.


While key Al Nusra leaders are foreign fighters bloodied in Iraq's sectarian

civil war, a majority of the group's rank-and-file are Syrians, some of whom

have expressed dismay about the pledge to Al Qaeda.


On Saturday, another major hardline Islamic faction, Ahrar Al Sham, issued a

respectfully worded statement rebuking Al Nusra for openly siding with Al

Qaeda, saying it was divisive and would not help the rebels win - although

it supported the principle of a pan-Arab Islamic state.


Those within the moderate opposition advocating dialogue with Al Nusra warn

that merely dismissing all of its fighters as hard-core radicals is a

dangerous oversimplification.


It also risks alienating the many ordinary Syrians in rebel-held areas who

have come to admire the group, with its reputation of honesty, discipline

and provision of humanitarian supplies to those in need.


"There are very localised differences between rebel groups, and Al Nusra is

no exception. Some are more extreme than others, and it's not right or

useful just to put them all together as being Al Qaeda," said a moderate,

Western-educated pro-democracy activist who has been involved in meetings

with Nusra fighters in northern Syria.


Syria's political future was discussed at the meetings, and Nusra members

were open to debate and discussion, and had shown interest in proposals

about democracy and safeguarding Syria's minority communities, activists



"When you actually sit down with them [Al Nusra], you realise they are not

what you thought and they also have to rethink their own preconceptions. We

had a meeting and it was very good and these young fighters were surprised

because they thought all people who supported democracy were atheists," the

activist said. "For those reasons, it's important to keep a dialogue going."


Another Assad opponent, a secular Syrian involved in organising armed groups

in Damascus, also warned against ignoring the differences within Al Nusra.


Comparing the situation in Syria to that in Afghanistan, he said the reach

of Al Qaeda had always been held in check because they were foreigners not

locals. The Americans, he said, made a mistake by waging war on the Taliban,

with whom the Afghan authorities are now trying to negotiate.


"I am worried about Islamic extremism, but I think we need to be smart in

how we handle it. Otherwise we'll make matters worse, not better," he said.

"In the end this should be a matter for Syrians to resolve, it's not for the

West to tell us who are terrorists and who are not."


The rebel commander who described meeting US intelligence officers in Jordan

said he had refused to give them any information about Al Nusra.


Although not a supporter of Al Qaeda's ideology, he said the Americans were

being too clumsy and would only undermine the revolt against Mr Al Assad.


"There are three strands of Al Nusra - the minority are serious Al Qaeda

people, some are just in for the glamour of fighting jihad and the majority

are ordinary Syrians who just want to save their country," he said.


Since that meeting the rebel commander has not bothered to talk to Western

or Arab intelligence agencies, despite what he described as frequent

invitations for more talks. Rather than wait for foreign governments to

supply weapons, his group has imported their own advanced explosives and

begun manufacturing their own munitions.


"They [foreign governments] are not fighting for the same things as us," he

said. "Syrians are fighting for our freedom, while they just want us to

bleed to death fighting each other."


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