Where is the outrage: U.S. alliance with Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria

As Islamic State gains ground, calls to reach out to the Nusra Front intensify


BEIRUT—In the three-way war ravaging Syria, should the local al Qaeda branch be seen as the lesser evil to be wooed rather than bombed?

This is increasingly the view of some of America’s regional allies and even some Western officials. In a war now in its fifth year, in which 230,000 people have been killed and another 7.6 million uprooted, few good options remain for how to tackle the crisis.

The three main forces left on the ground today are the Assad regime, Islamic State and an Islamist rebel alliance in which the Nusra Front—an al Qaeda affiliate designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and the United Nations—plays a major role.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the more secular, Western-backed rebels have found themselves fighting shoulder to shoulder with Nusra in key battlefields. As the Assad regime wobbles and Islamic State, or ISIS, gains ground in both Syria and Iraq, reaching out to the more pragmatic Nusra is the only rational choice left for the international community, supporters of this approach argue.

Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front carry their weapons as they move toward their positions during an offensive to take control of the northwestern city of Ariha from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Idlib province on May 28. ENLARGE

The dilemma in Syria facing policy makers is heightened by continued reports of atrocities committed by Nusra, including the killing of prisoners and the alleged execution on Wednesday of more than 20 Druse villagers by a local commander following an altercation over a house.

“It does say something when suddenly Nusra become a lot more tempting. It speaks volumes as to the severity of the situation,” said Saudi Prince Faisal bin Saud bin Abdulmohsen, a scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. “At this point we must really differentiate between fanaticism and outright monstrosity.”

At first, it was mostly Turkey and Qatar that aided Syrian Islamist rebels cooperating with Nusra. Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia was more reluctant, wary of abetting al Qaeda, an avowed enemy of the House of Saud.

In recent months, however, Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman has moved to work much more closely with Doha and Ankara in supporting the Islamist-dominated rebel alliance that includes Nusra, diplomats and officials in the region say. These countries see the suffering inflicted on Syria by the Assad regime as the main reason for Islamic State’s emergence in the first place, and they prefer to see Nusra and its allies, rather than Islamic State, move into territory surrendered by Damascus.

“The Turks, the Saudis and the Qataris have decided that the problem above all is to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, and the Americans don’t have leverage over them to change what they are doing,” said Robert Ford, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria in 2010-2014 and is now a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“Those countries are willing to use even the extremist groups like Nusra to bring down Assad, and that determination came out of the failure of the United States to provide a viable alternative to those extremists by ramping up substantially support for more moderate groups,” Mr. Ford said.

The coalescing of regional powers behind this “lesser evil” policy has led to a recent influx of weapons and funding, enabling the so-called Army of Conquest—a rebel alliance in which Nusra plays an indispensable role—to make strategic gains against the Syrian regime in the northern province of Idlib. Rebels allied with Nusra are also advancing in southern Syria.

These overtures to Nusra are highly controversial, even among foes of the Assad regime. Sejean Azzi, Lebanon’s labor minister, is a prominent Lebanese Christian politician long opposed to Mr. Assad.

“It is unfortunate that certain Arab countries try to convince the U.S. and the rest of the antiterrorist alliance to rehabilitate Nusra,” said Mr. Azzi, whose Kataeb political party is allied with the Saudi- and Western-backed Sunni bloc in Lebanon’s parliament.

“This is great error—we refuse the choice between ISIS and Nusra, We want to choose between democracy and dictatorship, not between terrorism and terrorism. If the Syrians have to choose between ISIS, Nusra or Assad, they will choose Assad.”

Unlike Islamic State, Nusra is largely composed of Syrians, and its religious views, though certainly radical, aren’t nearly as extreme. While it has refrained from attacking Israel despite controlling towns along the demarcation line in the Golan Heights, the group has taken on Islamic State and has been willing to work with non-Islamist rebels.

“Nusra has been a real magnet for young Syrian fighters who don’t have any particular jihadist or even radical sectarian agenda,” said Frederic Hof, who served as President Obama’s envoy to the Syrian opposition and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

“They have found in Nusra two things. It is well-resourced…And Nusra seems to have been willing to fight the regime and not to engage in some of the corrupt activities and warlordism that you would find elsewhere within the panoply of Syrian opposition.”

Nusra’s attempt to differentiate itself from Islamic State was clear in recent interviews that the group’s leader, Abu Muhammad al Jawlani, gave to Qatar’s Al Jazeera television network.

Dressed in a plaid shirt and his face covered, Mr. Jawlani sat in a high-backed, thronelike chair once occupied by Idlib’s former governor. He fielded fawning questions during the two separate, nearly hourlong broadcasts, which were widely seen in the region as an effort by Qatar to make Nusra more attractive.

While Mr. Jawlani repeated his allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, he said Nusra wasn’t targeting the West and made conciliatory remarks about the Christian minority. He was less conciliatory about Mr. Assad’s Alawite community, saying members of the sect would be embraced as “brothers” only if they convert to mainstream Islam.

Video screen capture from aljazeera.net. Abu Muhammad al Jawlani, leader of the Nusra Front, left, being interviewed by Ahmed Mansour of Al Jazeera. ENLARGE

“I cannot classify, like Western countries, Nusra as terrorist because most of Nusra are Syrians. The terrorist regime of Bashar obliged the Syrians to join Nusra,” said Walid Jumblatt, a prominent Lebanese politician and a leader of the Druse community who has been negotiating with Nusra over the security of Druse villagers in Idlib.

On Thursday, after the reported killings in Idlib, Mr. Jumblatt urged via his Twitter TWTR 3.46 % account to end “incitement” that could complicate the situation.

While countries such as Qatar have pressed Nusra to sever its ties with al Qaeda, it is unlikely that its U.S. designation as a terrorist group will be lifted soon, even if the group agrees to the request, which it has refused to do so far.

“Once an organization is designated, it doesn’t become undesignated,” said Andrew Tabler, Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a U.S. think-tank. “No politician and no agency is going to want to delist Nusra just because they suddenly come out and say: ‘Oh no, we’re no longer al Qaeda.’”

Yet, with Islamic State on the offensive, Washington is likely to go “pretty far” in tolerating the budding collaboration between its regional allies and Nusra, said U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, who retired two years ago as NATO’s supreme allied commander.

“It is unlikely we are going to operate side by side with cadres from Nusra, but if our allies are working with them, that is acceptable. If you look back to World War II, we had coalitions with people that we had extreme disagreements with, including Stalin’s Russia,” said Mr. Stavridis, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston.

“I don’t think that is a showstopper for the U.S. in terms of engaging with that coalition.”

Source Article from https://uprootedpalestinians.wordpress.com/2015/06/20/where-is-the-outrage-u-s-alliance-with-al-qaeda-affiliate-in-syria/

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