The “Blame Russia” Line Deflects From U.S. Blunder
Why the Obama administration won’t admit the real targets of Russian airstrikes.
- Russians are not hitting an imaginary set of “moderate” Syrian armed groups opposing Assad.
- Obama administration strategy on Syria assumed a degree of control that is so obviously unrealistic.
- Why is the US administration not discussing that Russia is targeting a big jihadist threat to Assad?
The Obama Administration is arguing that Russia’s new Syrian military campaign in support of the Assad regime has not been targeted on the Islamic State, but rather on the non-ISIS Syrian opposition to the Assad regime.
That U.S. response is superficially accurate, but deliberately misleading. Although the Russians are not focusing on targets in ISIS-controlled territory, there is a very good reason for that.
The reason is that it is not ISIS, but the forces aligned with al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra or al-Nusra Front, that pose the most immediate threat to the very existence of the Assad regime.
U.S. statements, from government and media sources alike, strongly imply that it was the U.S.-backed “moderate” Syrian groups opposed to the Assad regime that are being attacked.
But this framing of the issue fundamentally mis-represents the situation in Syria.
First, it conjures up a non-existent powerful U.S.-backed “moderate” force, while diverting attention from the real threat posed by al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise.
Second, the Russians are not hitting some imaginary set of “moderate” Syrian armed groups opposing the Assad regime. They are overwhelmingly focused on targeting the military command in which al-Nusra Front is the central strategic force.
There are maps pinpointing the locations of the Russian strikes since September 30, 2015, published in various newspapers and on the website of the Institute for Study of War – the original source for the other maps.
They all show very clearly that the attacks are overwhelmingly concentrated in Idlib province, the adjoining Hama province and areas of Latakia province near Idlib.
The Idlib campaign
But that fact does not take on significance, unless it is recalled that the al-Nusra Front – al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria – and the “Army of Conquest” linked to it, unexpectedly took control of Idlib province in a major military offensive in March.
That victory in Idlib was widely reported at the time to be the biggest turning point in the Syrian war in well over two years and to represent by far the most serious challenge to the Assad regime since the beginning of the war.
And although a number of smaller commands were involved in the Idlib offensive, al-Nusra Front’s 3,000 troops represented the majority of the forces involved in the fight.
And according to a well-informed source, al-Nusra and its close jihadist ally Ahrar al-Sham accounted for 90% of the troops.
We now know, moreover, that the Idlib campaign was the direct result of a policy decision by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with U.S. approval.
The decision was to support the creation of the “Army of Conquest” and provide it with new military hardware that was a crucial factor in that campaign: the TOW anti-tank missile.
What the media is missing
The media, including the Washington Post and Associated Press, have reported the importance of the TOW missiles to the victory in Idlib.
What they never mention is that it was the al-Nusra front-led command that captured the province. And at the same time, they seek to deny that al-Nusra obtained the TOW missiles.
According to a report in the Washington Post, a proponent of the program, former U.S. ambassador Robert Ford, claims that the system prevented the missiles from “falling into extremist hands,” and that he was aware of only two TOW missiles having been obtained by al-Nusra.
However, the Washington Post had reported in March that al-Nusra publicly announced the seizure of the TOW missies that had been sent to a last major independent force in the area before Idlib was overrun.
Overall, the Obama administration strategy on Syria assumed a degree of control that is so obviously unrealistic that it was inherently risky to the point of recklessness.
That is also why no one in the administration or the major U.S. news media is discussing the reality that the Russian offensive is targeting the biggest jihadist threat to the Assad regime.
Editor’s note: A longer version of this article first appeared in the Middle East Eye.