Michael Weiss

Our enemy’s enemy

Syrian rebel snipers

To Syrians, US policy toward their country resembles the actions of a man who, unsatisfied with watching indifferently as his neighbor’s house burns down, proceeds to sue the victim over the ill-making effects of smoke inhalation. Such was the reaction to the US Treasury Department’s decision this week to proscribe Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization “acting on behalf of Al Qaeda in Iraqi (AQI).”


That Nusra is a nasty jihadist outfit fond of self-immolation, car bombings, beheadings and grim pronouncements about what awaits in a post-Assad state of its own imagining isn’t a point of contention. Rather, it’s that JN is the only vanguard fighting force in Syria at present and is thus performing a role that most Syrians would rather have Special Forces, the CIA and the SAS perform instead. Furthermore, doesn’t this hastened designation, coming as it does just as rebels started winning the war, serve a badly needed propaganda victory to Bashar al-Assad, making his attempt to pulverize the resistance on par with what used to be known as the global war on terror? (It’s long been Bashar’s chief frustration that Western governments and media outlets fail to see his struggle in precisely these terms.)


If the Obama administration’s goal was to separate the good from the bad in the Syrian rebellion, then it only ended up incensing both. Simultaneously with designation, 29 opposition groups, both civilian and military, denounced the decision under the heading: “No to American intervention, for we are all Jabhat al-Nusra.” I’m old enough to remember when we were all Hezbollah and the consequences of solidarity-making out of spite for a common enemy. As of this writing, the petition now carries over a 100 signatories, and I’d quite like to know what each one thought about American intervention, say, six or even three months ago.


It’s hard to know much about Nusra because its lust for attention is in inverse proportion to its battlefield prowess. But the established facts are these. It made its debut in Syria about a year ago after claiming credit for the second car bombing of the conflict, on January 6, in the al-Midan district of Damascus. Although estimates of its size now reach as high as 10,000 fighters, Aaron Zelin, a counterterrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me he thinks this figure is inflated. “I’d guess maybe a few thousand at most. The majority is Syrians, but there is ample evidence that some fighters are from other countries, based on martyrdom notices posted to the jihadist forums stating individuals' group affiliations.”


Nusra’s presence is felt in nearly all hot zones in the country, especially in Homs and Deir Ezzor, where a few weeks ago its militants sacked an army base and made off with at least one tank. (No doubt the Pentagon fears what other materiel, from flyable attack helicopters to chemical warheads, the group might next cart away.)


What distinguishes Nusra jihadists from al-Qaeda in Iraq, and arguably makes them more of a worrying long-term threat, is that they’ve not yet taken to terrorizing local civilian populations. “Ninety-nine percent” of their activities, Zelin said, are confined to battling the regime. They’ve even provided food and petrol services in Deir Ezzor and Aleppo, and rather than target minorities such as Christians, they've confined their worst sectarian instincts (denunciations of "nusayri infidels" and so on) to their digital propaganda—at least for now. But even then, there have been exceptions. 


For instance, when Nusra bombed an Air Force Intelligence building in Damascus last March, killing scores of people, the presence of the site in a predominantly Christian neighborhood prompted the group to post an explanation on its own website, saying that the regime and not the non-Muslim minority was the real target. The Daily Telegraph’s Ruth Sherlock interviewed one high-ranking member, Yasser al-Sibahi, whose brother is evidently the “emir” of Nusra. Sibahi may turn out to be the next Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but he doesn’t yet sound like one: “We have lived with our Christian brothers for centuries. There are millions of Alawites and Christians in Syria. We cannot just throw them into the sea.” He would say that, of course, but this signals that so badly scorched was al-Qaeda in Iraq that its attempt to cultivate a constituency in Syria might make it far harder to uproot later on.


Of particular interest in the Treasury’s designation is that the first Nusra member it singles out is Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi, a native Iraqi who is now the “religious and military commander” for the group’s operation in eastern Syria. Juburi is suspected of taking part in an attack on Coalition forces at a checkpoint in Ninawa Province, Iraq in 2004. Indeed, most terrorism analysts agree that jihadists in Syria were not only once jihadists in Iraq but also an uneasy proxy of Syrian military intelligence.


Every professional Syria watcher I know speculates in private that these former Iraq war insurgents still maintain ties with their old mukhabarat patrons, maybe those who might now be wavering in their loyalties to the regime but also those who believe that an active al-Qaeda presence in Syria helps legitimate the regime narrative. When Nusra car bombed the Syrian defense headquarters in central Damascus on September 26, it apparently drove the vehicle through the “front entrance” of the building, into which it then blasted a hole. Anyone who knows Syria knows that one can’t simply cruise up to the doorstep of the facility housing the military’s general staff without passing through security checkpoints. Recall, too, that Nusra’s first attack, that car bombing in al-Midan, was instantly thought to have been a regime false flag operation because the footage of the aftermath—actors playing at being wounded, then running off; severed heads positioned surreally on the pavement—showed that the authorities on the scene were less interested in forensic analysis than they were in post-production value.


Well worth reading is this essay by Michael Gordon and Wesley Morgan, adapted from The Endgame, Gordon and Bernard Trainor’s new definitive history of the Iraq war, examining how frustrating Assad was to stemming the flow of al-Qaeda “rat lines” into Mesopotamia during the final stages of the surge. David Petraeus had badly wanted to meet with Assad to convince him to shutter this conduit and expel a man called Abu Ghadiya, who ran a prominent import-export business in eastern Syria for holy warriors. Ghadiya divided his time between a safe house in Deir Ezzor and Abu Kamal, a Syrian town on the Euphrates that borders Anbar Province. Between 2006 and 2007, it was discovered, “90 percent of the fighters entering Iraq had done so through Syria.” The regime’s military intelligence, then headed by Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law who joined the choir invisible last July, was well aware of the Ghadiya network, members of whom would be captured, then released by his agents. Because of the Bush administration’s no-engagement policy with Syria over the Rafiq Hariri assassination, Petraeus’s meeting with Assad never took place, though Ghadiya was finally assassinated in October 2007 in a raid near Abu Kamal not dissimilar in style from the one that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.


In a normal environment, not the Alice-in-Wonderland of the Middle East, what’s happening right now in Syria would be a textbook definition of “blowback.” And yet with Nusra’s growing capability, as well its new blacklisting by the United States, will it be the resistance or the regime with more soot on its face? I asked my friend Joe Holliday at the Institute for the Study of War about the new terror designation. “If it’s an attempt to clearly separate Nusra from the new coalition and pave the way for real US support to the opposition, then this is a good step,” he said. “But if we don't follow through with clear, quantifiable support for the opposition, then this designation will probably alienate a broader segment of the opposition, who will see this as pro-Assad policy.”

Syrian rebel snipers take position during a battle in Aleppo. A militant opposition group in Syria has been labeled a terrorist organization by the US Treasury. (AFP photo)

Indeed, most terrorism analysts agree that jihadists in Syria were not only once jihadists in Iraq but was also an uneasy proxy of Syrian military intelligence.

  • xtinava

    Absolutely agree with Sami.

    December 19, 2012

  • Free_Man

    American foreign policy in the midlle east is dictated by israel to the extent that Israel forces Washington to make middle east policy decision even if they are against American interests!

    December 13, 2012