Allying with political Islam: The United States’ tactical alliances with Al Qaeda and its associates in Syria
Originally posted July 15, 2016
Updated July 18, 2016
By Stephen Gowans
Summary. The New York Times reported that the United States has refrained from systematically attacking Al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria because US-backed fighters coordinate and are enmeshed with the outfit. The newspaper also reported that the Pentagon had refrained in 2015 from attacking ISIS militants in and around the Syrian town of Palmyra in order to further the US foreign policy goal of regime change in Damascus. The United States has a long history of forming tactical alliances with political Islam to counter secular Arab nationalists, whom it views as inimical to its interests of dominating the Arab world, with its vast petroleum resources. Syria, whose constitution describes the country as “the beating heart of Arabism” and “bedrock of resistance against colonial hegemony on the Arab world,” is the last of the secular Arab nationalist states opposing US domination and control of the region.
Unlike Russia, the United States “has refrained from systematic attacks against the Nusra Front,” the newspaper reported. That is because “United States-backed rebel groups often coordinate their activities” with Al Qaeda fighters, Times reporters Gardiner Harris and Anne Barnard wrote.
A myriad of articles in mainstream US newspapers, including the New York Times, have previously documented the existence of extensive combat coordination between al-Nusra and US-backed fighters, noting that so called “moderate” rebels are enmeshed with, cooperate with, are ideologically similar to, fight alongside of, coordinate with, share arms with, and operate under licence to, Al Qaeda in Syria. 
In fact, so highly integrated are US-backed fighters with Syrian Al Qaeda forces that Russian attacks on Nusra Front positions have amounted to attacks on US-proxies, raising objections from Washington, and denunciations of Moscow for what Washington says are actions to prop up the Syrian government rather than fight terrorists (creating a false narrative by implication that the forces on the ground acting to topple Arab nationalists in Damascus do not use terrorist methods.)
Yet, al-Nusra, the outfit the United States has refrained from systematically attacking, has been branded a terrorist organization by the United Nations Security Council.  The obvious implication is that if US-backed insurgents are fighting alongside of and coordinating with the terrorist Nusra Front, then they too are very likely using the same terrorist methods for which the Nusra fighters–with whom they’re enmeshed–have been condemned. This would explain why in 2013 US “President Obama waived a provision of (US) federal law designed to prevent the supply of arms to terrorist groups to clear the way for the U.S. to provide military assistance to ‘vetted’ groups fighting” the Syrian government.  Obama’s waving of the arms-to-terrorists ban amounts to a White House admission that the fighters it’s backing are terrorists.
Moreover, the Security Council’s resolution “Calls upon Member States… to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by (ISIS)…as well as (al-Nusra), and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al-Qaeda” (emphasis added). Clearly, the US-backed insurgents’ coordinating with, cooperating with, fighting alongside of, sharing arms with, and operating under license to, Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, amounts to an association with the officially designated terrorist organization. The US-backed fighters, then, fall within the ambit of actions prescribed for UN member states by the Security Council. This means that not only is Washington not complying with the resolution, it is actively subverting it, by supporting individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda.
On July 14, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss a proposed agreement which would see the two countries coordinate their attacks “to ensure that strikes aimed at Nusra do not hit United States-backed groups.”
The proposed accord worries some members of the US political establishment, who believe Kerry has agreed to commit US forces to attacking the Nusra Front, which they see as a highly effective weapon against the Syrian Arab Republic. Since Arab nationalist-removal, not terrorist-removal, remains Washington’s principal goal in Syria, attacking the Qaeda fighters would militate against achievement of a key US foreign policy objective, these critics contend.
The Atlantic Council, for example, a US-based think tank funded by wealthy individuals and foundations, major corporations, and the US government, warns that combined US-Russian attacks on the Nusra Front could “effectively end the Syrian opposition,” an admission that the insurgency in Syria is dominated by Al Qaeda’s foot soldiers.
That there is no significant semblance of moderation in Syria’s armed opposition is indicated by concerns in Washington that weakening Al Qaeda will “effectively end the Syrian opposition,” and worries within the US political establishment that Kerry’s agreement with Putin could lead the United States to a point where it is “under Russian pressure to attack other rebel groups, like the Army of Islam,” an ideological cognate of al-Nusra, which also seeks to replace Syria’s secular republic with an Islamic state under Sharia law.
Washington has created a false dichotomy between terrorists and rebels, and the dichotomy has been adopted uncritically by the New York Times. Reporters Harris and Barnard wrote that, “One of the great complications…is figuring out which groups should be considered rebels focused on ousting the Assad government — a goal the United States supports — and which are aligned with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, organizations that Washington has designated as terrorist and has vowed to defeat.”
This draws a false distinction between rebels focused on ousting the Assad government (rebels who, it is implied, don’t use terrorist methods and aren’t committed to creating an Islamic state in Syria, though neither is true) and Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (who, Washington’s narrative implies, aren’t focussed on ousting the Assad government, which, of course, they are.) The reality is that Al Qaeda, ISIS, the Army of Islam, and a slew of other jihadist groups enmeshed with al-Nusra and backed by the United States do use terrorist methods, are focussed on ousting the Assad government, and do seek to create an Islamic state in its place. There is no dichotomy. When in 2012 the United States officially designated the Nusra Front a terrorist organization, “moderate” fighters launched a protest under the banner “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra,”  affirming the point.
As the veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn wrote in 2014: The “Syrian military opposition is dominated by ISIS and by Jabhat al-Nusra… in addition to other extreme jihadi groups. In reality, there is no dividing wall between them and America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies.” 
Nusra Front is not the only UN Security Council-designated terrorist organization which the United States has been accused of refraining from attacking. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly argued that the United States is only managing ISIS—that is, attacking it enough to prevent it from threatening US oil interests in Iraq, but not so much that ISIS will be eliminated as a tool to counter secular Arab nationalists in Damascus. He cites as evidence the fact that ISIS continued to expand in Syria despite the United States leading a coalition of dozens of countries against the Al Qaeda break-away organization, and that Islamic States’ expansion was only halted and reversed when Russia intervened militarily in the country, with Damascus’s imprimatur. The United States, he concludes, lacks the political will to destroy ISIS, because the Islamist organization remains useful to Washington’s project of toppling the Syrian government. By contrast, Moscow, which doesn’t share Washington’s regime-change goal, has the political will to destroy ISIS, and therefore has been more effective against it. 
While it’s easy to dismiss Assad’s view as partial, it does resonate with mainstream Western sources. For example, on May 20, 2015, the New York Times’ Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad reported that the United States refrained from attacking “Islamic State militants in and around Palmyra” in order “to avoid … aiding a leader whose ouster President Obama has called for.”  And the US Congressional Research Service has concluded that “US officials may be concerned that a more aggressive campaign against the Islamic State may take military pressure off the” Syrian government. 
Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk summed up the US-led coalition’s campaign against ISIS this way: “And so we went to war against Isis in Syria—unless, of course, Isis was attacking (the Syrian republic), in which case we did nothing at all…” 
“Many people do not realize that the United States has had a long history of flirting with political Islam,” writes scholar Mohammed Ayoob. That flirtation goes back to at least the 1950s when Washington enlisted “Saudi Arabia, the ‘fundamentalist’ kingdom par excellence” to help counter “Arab nationalism as the unifying force in the Arab world. American policy makers perceived Arab nationalist regimes, such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq…to be…inimical to American interests.”  Those interests included US control of the Arab world’s vast petroleum resources.
Washington has had considerable success in eliminating secular opposition to its hegemony in the Middle East and North Africa, the Mashriq and the Maghreb. Egypt has been co-opted; the Anglo-American 2003 invasion of Iraq eliminated that country’s Arab nationalists, who are now proscribed from holding positions in government; and Arab nationalists in Libya were swept away by a combined NATO-Islamist assault in 2011. Syria remains as the last redoubt of secular Arab nationalism. (The country’s constitution defines Syria as the “beating heart of Arabism” and “the bedrock of resistance against colonial hegemony on the Arab world and its capabilities and wealth.”) And Washington seems intent on relying on its hoary tactic of forming tactical alliances with jihadists to crush the opposition of secular nationalists to the region’s domination by the United States and its Western allies.
The United States has a troubled relationship with terrorism and terrorists. It has a long history of pursuing state-terrorist activities, defined as the deliberate politically motivated infliction of harm on non-combatants by a state, including fire bombings of German and Japanese cities during WWII; the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; massive terror bombing campaigns, including napalm use, during the Korean War; the carpet bombing of Indochina; the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure during the first Gulf War and the 1999 air war on Yugoslavia; the 1990s sanctions of mass destruction against Iraqi civilians, which led to numberless deaths, reaching perhaps a million or more; the 2003 “shock and awe” campaign unleashed on Iraq, and on and on ad nauseam. This has been accompanied by temporary tactical alliances with non-state terrorists, including the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the forerunners of Al Qaeda; the contras in Nicaragua; and today, a tactical alliance with ISIS, al-Nusra, and support for al-Nusra-embeds in Syria.
The US priority in Syria is Arab nationalist-elimination, and not the elimination of Islamist terrorists, who remain useful to Washington in clearing away the last of the Arab nationalist state obstacles to total US hegemony over the Arab world.
My book Washington’s Long War on Syria is forthcoming April 2017.
1. Gardiner Harris and Anne Barnard, “John Kerry meets Vladimir Putin to discuss new Syria plan,” The New York Times, July 14, 2016.
2. Journalist and writer Max Blumenthal has referred to Israel as JSIL, the Jewish State in the Levant. While the allusion to ISIL is intended facetiously, it does call to mind certain important parallels between Israel and the Islamic State.
First, both are founded on religion and give priority to anyone who adheres to the right one. Zionists go further than Islamists in referring to their co-religionists as a people whereas Islamists refer to Muslims only as members of a community. There exist no Jewish people, in the original sense of people as a group sharing a common language and territory.
Second, both ISIL and JSIL were founded on terrorism, that of the former obvious, and requiring no elaboration; that of the later, mostly absent from public discourse, but scholarly documented, all the same. Jewish irregulars, led by Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, men who would later become prime ministers of the Jewish state, used terrorist methods against British Mandate authorities in Palestine, and against the indigenous Palestinians; in the first case, to compel the British to end their mandate and turn Palestine over to Jewish rule, and in the second, to drive Palestinians from their homes, to alter the demographic character of a future Jewish state in order to ensure it included a large majority of Jews.
Third, both are implacably opposed to Syrian Arab nationalism. ISIL opposes the Syrian republic because it is a secular state based on ethnic identity rather than an Islamic state based on religious identity. JSIL opposes the Syrian republic, because the latter insists that the settler state based on Jewish religious identity which was implanted by force and colonization on Arab territory be dismantled and the usurped territory it occupies be returned to its rightful owners and incorporated into a larger Arab secular state.
3. Jay Solomon, “U.S., Russia agree to implement Syria cease-fire,” The Wall Street Journal, February 22, 2016; Karen de Young, “U.S. Russia hold Syria cease-fire talks as deadline passes without action,” The Washington Post, February 19, 2016; Karen Zraick and Anne Barnard, “Syrian war could turn on the battle for Aleppo,” The New York Times, February 12, 2016; Farnaz Fassihi, “U.N. Security Council unanimously votes to adopt France’s counterterrorism resolution,” The Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2015; Sam Dagher, “Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Tries to Force the West to Choose Between Regime, Islamic State,” The Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2015; Anne Barnard and Michael R. Gordon, “Goals diverge and perils remain as U.S. and Turkey take on ISIS,” The New York Times, July 27, 2015; Sam Dagher, “Militants seize oil field, expand Syrian domain”, The Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2014.
4. “Security Council ‘Unequivocally’ Condemns ISIL Terrorist Attacks, Unanimously Adopting Text that Determines Extremist Group Poses ‘Unprecedented’ Threat,” United Nations, November 20, 2015, http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12132.doc.htm
5. Joel Gehrke, “Updated: Obama waives ban on arming terrorists to allow aid to Syrian opposition,” Washington Examiner, September 15, 2013.
6. Mark Landler, Michael R. Gordon and Anne Barnard, “US will grant recognition to Syrian rebels,” The New York Times, December 11, 2012.
7. Belen Fernandez, “Book review: The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising,” The Middle East Eye, September 3, 2014.
8. In a July 1, 2016 interview with Australian television Assad said: “Actually, we welcome any effort to fight terrorism in Syria, any effort, but this effort first of all should be genuine, not window-dressing like what’s happening now in northern Syria where 60 countries couldn’t prevent ISIS from expanding. Actually, when the Russian air support started, only at that time when ISIS stopped expanding.” “President al-Assad to SBS Australia: Western nations attack Syrian government openly and deal with secretly,” SANA, July 1, 2016.
9. “ISIS fighters seize control of Syrian city of Palmyra, and ancient ruins,” The New York Times, May 20, 2015.
10. Christopher M. Blanchard, Carla E. Humud Mary Beth D. Nikitin, “Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response,” Congressional Research Service,” October 9, 2015.
11. Robert Fisk, “I read the Chilcot report as I travelled across Syria this week and saw for myself what Blair’s actions caused,” The Independent, July 7, 2016.
12. Mohammed Ayoob, The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World, The University of Michigan Press, 2011, p. 164.