An unnamed senior Obama administration official told The Washington Post recently that the administration is worried about the threat from Jabhat al-Nusra, or al-Nusra Front – the al-Qaeda affiliate that has made a strategic breakthrough against the Bashar al-Assad regime in northern Syria.
The official professed that the administration’s goal “is not for the regime to lose ground to the benefit of Nusra.” Al-Nusra is the same organization that the US military has been targeting as a terrorist threat to the United States and Europe since September 2014.
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Contrary to that disclaimer, however, the Obama administration has thus far acquiesced in a strategy carried out by its Sunni allies to strengthen a new military command with financial, logistical and arms assistance.
The government of Qatar and some in al-Nusra itself had hoped to placate Washington by rebranding the al-Qaeda affiliate as a nationalist resistance organization that is separate from al-Qaeda and interested in ousting the Assad regime only. But that ruse has now collapsed, and the Obama administration has still made no move to demand that its allies shut down their support for al-Nusra.
And therein lies a key to understanding the real dynamics governing US Middle East policy: The policy makers regard the alliances and the US military bases located in the Sunni states as more important than the threat they have helped to create.
The Path to Camp David
Ever since jihadists began to pour into Syria in 2012, the Obama administration has been wary of the danger of arms provided to anti-Assad forces falling into the hands of jihadist groups. That concern was strongly reinforced by the experience of 2013 when Saudi Arabia and Qatar provided arms to some non-jihadist brigades that later merged with the Islamic State or al-Nusra.
In January 2014, Obama told David Remnick of The New Yorker that a better approach than arming an opposition was “working with those who have been financing the opposition to make sure we’re not creating the kind of extremist force we saw emerge out of Afghanistan when we were financing the Mujahideen.”
After King Salman succeeded to the Saudi throne in January, the Saudis adopted a much more aggressive strategy toward Iran and Syria.
The Obama administration successfully pressed both Turkey and Saudi Arabia to designate al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization early in 2014. And in September 2014, when the US military began carrying out airstrikes on the Islamic State in Syria, it also hit al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front, reportedly killing 70 of its fighters. The US air attacks on al-Nusra Front targets were repeated in November and again in March.
But after King Salman succeeded to the Saudi throne in January 2015, the Saudis adopted a much more aggressive strategy toward Iran and Syria. Saudi Arabia and Turkey quickly dropped their previous differences and forged a new “strategic alliance” on Syria. Along with Qatar, they cooperated in supporting the formation by al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham of a new military command, the Army of Conquest in Idlib Province. With Turkey providing new command and control technology, the new joint military command got an upgraded “operations center” allowing more effective coordination of troops across the Syrian battlefield.
The Qataris realized that the policy was in direct contradiction to the declared US counterterrorism interest in Syria. Reuters reported on March 4 that intelligence officials from Qatar and other states had met with Abu Mohammad al-Julani several times over a few months and had been encouraging him to abandon al-Qaeda in favor of a new organization devoted entirely to the Syrian struggle.
The Reuters story cited “Jihadi sources” as saying that al-Julani had proposed to al-Nusra’s Shoura Council that it merge with a smaller group comprised primarily of foreign jihadi fighters under a Chechen commander. It then cited “a Nusra source who backs the move” as saying some al-Nusra leaders objected, but that al-Julani would make the move anyway.
But the top leadership of al-Nusra was never willing to cut its ties with al-Qaeda. A few days after the Reuters story, al-Nusra Front issued a statement on Twitter that it “completely denies reports of a breakup with Al-Qaeda” as well as having met with foreign intelligence services or seeking assistance from Qatar or other Gulf States.
Meanwhile, the fortunes of the Sunni coalition’s plan for Syria were rapidly improving. In early March, al-Nusra attacked and defeated “moderate” opposition groups to which the United States had previously provided weapons so completely that they were forced to formally dissolve.
The al-Qaeda affiliate is dominating the war against Assad.
It has since become apparent that the Saudis and Qataris were also providing weapons to the new rebel command. Referring to the new Nusra-dominated command, The Washington Post reported on June 4 that “in recent weeks, those [Sunni] countries have provided weapons and logistical support to the rebel coalition.” And a well-informed Saudi royal family source involved in defense and security matters in the Defense Ministry confirmed in an email that the Saudis and Qataris are providing 40 percent of the command’s requirements.
Then, on March 24, the al-Nusra-dominated Army of Conquest captured the Idlib Province capital. It was a major turning point in the war, indicating clearly for the first time that the al-Qaeda affiliate is dominating the war against Assad. That reality forced the Obama administration to either oppose the moves by the Sunni coalition and its new clients or accommodate them.
The first sign that the response to accommodate the new development came soon after that victory, when commanders of non-jihadist units who had not participated in the attack told Brookings Institution researcher Charles Lister that US personnel in the “operations room” in Turkey had begun to “facilitate” their participation in Army of Conquest operations.
The new Qatari-funded, Arabic-language newspaper Al-Araby al Jadeed carried a story on May 1 expressing optimism about the United States claiming that the victories of the new command were “changing the tone of some countries, especially the United States.” It suggested two scenarios were under discussion to seal the deal: Either al-Nusra would signal its disengagement from al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda would disengage from al-Nusra.
The Gulf States believed Obama’s need for Sunni acquiescence in his nuclear agreement with Iran gave them additional negotiating leverage.
In this rapidly changing political-military context, the Obama administration invited the Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising conservative Sunni regimes led by royal families, to a summit meeting at Camp David in mid-May. The Gulf States believed Obama’s need for Sunni acquiescence in his nuclear agreement with Iran gave them additional negotiating leverage on US policy in Syria. Al-Hayat, the Saudi-owned, Pan-Arab news channel, reported the week before the summit that “Gulf leaders” saw an “opportune strategic moment” for US support for a Syria action plan. The maximum Gulf Cooperation Council demand at the summit was for the “no fly zone” the coalition had been requesting for many months, and in return for which they would accept Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
In a column brimming with enthusiasm about the Gulf States’ plan for Syria, David Ignatius of The Washington Post suggested that that they had found a way around the “tricky problem” of al-Nusra Front being an affiliate of al-Qaeda. It was “likely,” he reported his sources as saying, “that in coming days a Jabhat al-Nusra faction will split publicly from al-Qaeda and join the Army of Conquest.”
The Understanding on Syria
After the summit, none of the participants said anything publicly about an understanding on Syria. Administration officials explicitly ruled out any no fly zone in on-the-record comments, but what each side chose not to discuss was more significant: No one in the Obama administration said anything about the Sunni coalition backing for al-Nusra, and the Gulf States stopped complaining about the Iran nuclear agreement.
But again it was Ignatius, who had clearly been briefed by his administration sources on the discussions at Camp David, who let the cat out of the bag. He revealed the essence of the US position at the summit: “Obama and other US officials urged Gulf leaders who are funding the opposition to keep control of their clients,” Ignatius wrote, “so that a post-Assad regime isn’t controlled by extremists from Islamic State or al-Qaeda.”
Apart from confirming that the Gulf States were indeed funding the al-Qaeda-controlled forces, that phrasing also made it clear that Obama was not demanding that the Sunni states discontinue that support. Instead, he was insisting that they should exercise discretion in order to avoid allowing al-Qaeda to dominate a post-Assad Syria.
The reality is, however, that the Sunni coalition does not share the US view that al-Nusra should be prevented from actually causing the disintegration of the Assad regime.
The disavowal of global jihadist aims in the short run does not mean that the organization has abandoned those aims.
After the Camp David summit, the notional fig leaf of an al-Nusra declaration disengaging from al-Qaeda was apparently no longer necessary. Al-Julani gave an interview to Al Jazeera broadcast on May 31 in which he implicitly confirmed that al-Nusra’s ties with al-Qaeda would continue, but denied that it had any intention of plotting terrorist attacks against the West. “The instructions that we have,” Al-Julani said, “is not to use al-Sham [Syria] as a base to launch attacks on the West or Europe, so as not to muddy the current war.” He insisted that the mission of al-Nusra in Syria “is the downfall of the regime, its symbols, and its allies, like Hezbollah.”
But that disavowal of global jihadist aims in the short run does not mean that the organization has abandoned those aims. The original US airstrikes against al-Nusra in September 2014 were accompanied by US claims that a group of senior al-Qaeda operatives who it described as the “Khorasan Group” had been recruiting jihadists in Syria to carry out attacks against the West. That claim was greeted with widespread skepticism at the time, but some “senior Islamists” in Syria said to have “close ties to al-Nusra” have now confirmed to The Guardian that such a group of senior al-Nusra cadres had indeed been involved in work that was unrelated to Syria. The sources said those cadres had joined in the planning for the Idlib campaign as well, but they did not claim that al-Qaeda had terminated the global jihadist project in Syria.
The Obama administration’s refusal to publicly rebuke its Sunni allies’ for their support for the al-Qaeda affiliate highlights the fact that the interests actually determining US Middle East policy are quite different from the interests ostensibly served by the policy. At one level, Obama was sacrificing concern about terrorism to achieve Sunni acquiescence in the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal.
But more fundamentally, the Obama administration’s policy is clearly hostage to its alliances with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni states. The US military relies on them for all of its military land, air and naval bases in the region, and that primordial interest of the US national security state has trumped all other considerations, including preventing al-Qaeda from threatening to gain state power.