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Obama’s “Moderate” Syrian Deception

Russia is targeting hardline groups the United States has tacitly aided for more than a year.

February 17, 2016

Russia is targeting hardline groups the United States has tacitly aided for more than a year.

If the tentative agreement on a Syrian ceasefire negotiated by the United States and Russia falls apart before it can be implemented, the reason will be the Obama administration’s insistence that Russian airstrikes are targeting “legitimate opposition groups.”

That is how Secretary of State John Kerry defined the issue on Saturday, repeating a propaganda theme that began, in a different form, as soon as the Russian air offensive in Syria began in late September of 2015.

The Obama administration portrayed the Russian campaign in support of Syrian operations as hitting “moderate” opposition forces, suggesting that only strikes against ISIS would be legitimate.

Now Kerry insists that the “legitimate” armed organizations being hit by Russian airstrikes are separate from ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front, both organizationally and physically.

But the reality on the ground in Idlib and Aleppo provinces is that there is no such separation.

Aligned with Nusra Front

Information from a wide range of sources makes it clear that every armed anti-Assad organization unit in those provinces is engaged in a military system controlled by al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front.

All of them fight alongside the Nusra Front and coordinate their military activities with it. This reality even slips into mainstream U.S. news accounts on occasion.

At least since 2014, the Obama administration has armed a number of Syrian armed groups even though it knew the groups were coordinating closely with – or under the operational command of – Nusra Front, which was simultaneously getting arms from Turkey and Qatar.

Nusra Front had allowed the groups supported by the United States to maintain the appearance of official independence from Nusra Front, according to fighters in U.S.-supported groups, in order to induce the United States to continue the supply of U.S. weapons.

Playing Washington

In other words, Nusra Front was playing Washington, exploiting the Obama administration’s desire to have its own Syrian Army as an instrument for influencing the course of the war. The administration was evidently a willing dupe.

But instead of breaking with the deception that the CIA’s hand-picked clients were independent of Nusra Front, the Obama administration continued to cling to it, long after it was clear U.S. arms were flowing to Nusra-led military operations in Syria.

At the time, Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham commanders, directing U.S.-armed rebels, were poised to strike the biggest blow against the Assad regime up to the time – the capture of Idlib province. (That operation ultimately prompted Russia’s intervention.)

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia and Qatar were financing the hardline Islamist “Army of Conquest,” commanded by Nusra Front, and were lobbying the Obama administration to support it.

Using Russia as a shield

U.S. strategy on Syria was then shifting toward a tacit reliance on the jihadists to achieve the U.S. objective of putting sufficient pressure on the Assad regime to force some concessions on Damascus.

But the idea that an independent “moderate” armed opposition still existed – and that the United States was basing its policy on those “moderates” – was necessary to provide a political fig leaf for the covert and indirect U.S. reliance on al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise for this military success.

When the fall of Idlib spurred the Russian intervention last September, the U.S. immediately resorted to its propaganda line about Russian targeting of the “moderate” armed opposition.

It had become a necessary shield for the United States to continue playing a political-diplomatic game in Syria.

As the current Russian-Syrian-Iranian offensive between Aleppo and the Turkish border unfolds in early 2016, the Obama administration’s stance has been contradicted by fresh evidence of the subordination of non-jihadist forces to the Nusra Front.

How al Qaeda controls rebel resources

A recent assessment by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which has long advocated more U.S. military assistance to Syrian anti-Assad groups, provides further insights into the Nusra Front’s system of control over U.S.-supported groups.

One way the jihadist organization maintains that control, according to the study, is through its close ally, the Saudi-backed group Ahrar al-Sham, which controls the Bab al Hawa border crossing with Turkey. This gives Nusra Front and Ahrar power over the distribution of supplies from Turkey into Aleppo City and surrounding areas.

ISW points out that another instrument of control is the use of “military operations rooms” in which Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham play the dominant role while allocating resources and military roles to lesser military units.

Yet another facet of Nusra’s power in Aleppo is its control over the main water and power plants in the opposition-controlled districts of the city.

But the ultimate source of Nusra’s power over U.S.-supported groups is an ever-present threat to attack them as agents of the United States, take over their assets and execute their fighters – if they do not do what Nusra wants.

The present Russian-Syrian campaign

The official U.S. posture on the current offensive in the Aleppo theater and the proposed ceasefire obscures the fact that a successful Russian-Syrian operation would make it impossible for the external states, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to resupply the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham.

Such a move would thus end the military threat to the Syrian government as well as the possibility of al-Qaeda’s seizure of power in Damascus.

Russian-Syrian success offers the most realistic prospect for an end to the bloodletting in Syria and would also reduce the likelihood of an eventual al-Qaeda seizure of power in Syria.

The Obama administration certainly understands that fact and has privately adjusted its diplomatic strategy to take into account the likelihood that the Nusra Front will be substantially weakened.

But it cannot acknowledge any of that publicly because such a recognition would infuriate many hardliners in Washington who still demand “regime change” in Damascus whatever the risks.

President Obama is under pressure from these domestic critics as well as from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council allies to oppose any gains by the Russians and the Assad regime and frame them as contrary to U.S. interests.

The Obama administration must also continue to hide the reality that it was complicit in a strategy of arming Nusra Front – in part through the mechanism of arming Washington’s “moderate” clients – to achieve leverage on the Syrian regime.

Thus the game of diplomacy and deceptions continues.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Consortiumnews.


Nusra Front played Washington, exploiting the administration’s desire to have its own Syrian Army.

Russian-Syrian success reduces the likelihood of an eventual al-Qaeda seizure of power in Syria.

Obama is under pressure from Turkey & Saudi Arabia to oppose any gains by the Russians and Assad.

The Obama administration continues to hide its complicity in arming al-Qaeda’s Syrian Nusra Front.