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Endgame in Syria?
Nusra: We Have No Western Front

The leader of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, has said that the group’s primary objectives are the capture of Damascus and the deposition of Assad, not attacks against the West. The BBC reports:

[Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-] Julani said al-Nusra had been instructed by the overall leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to avoiding launching attacks abroad that might jeopardise its operations in Syria.

“We are only here to accomplish one mission, to fight the regime and its agents on the ground, including Hezbollah and others,” he stressed, referring to the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement that is fighting alongside government forces.

“Al-Nusra Front doesn’t have any plans or directives to target the West. We received clear orders not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the US or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the regime. Maybe al-Qaeda does that, but not here in Syria.”

He also denied the existence of the Khorasan Group, a branch or cell of the Nusra Front which U.S. strikes have also targeted in Syria. Only last week, a CIA official warned of the dangers of this little-known group, saying that it had Western targets in its sights.

This interview may well be only “self-serving propaganda”, as U.S. officials commented; it is certainly at least partly that. But it also seems to show a greater strategic sophistication. Recently backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, having piled up a string of victories, and facing a weakened enemy, Nusra has good grounds for believing the end of the war is in sight. It seems to be plotting how to win the peace, as well. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Nusra was conspicuously treating captured territory more gently than ISIS, and in the al-Jazeera interview, Julani “also promised to protect Syrian minorities that disavowed Mr Assad.” Both of these measures are designed to conciliate the Syrian population. Combined with the vow not to attack the West, they also seem designed to placate Western fears. Nusra, in sum, seems to be making a bid to be seen as an acceptable post-war government (or as part of one) by both its subjects and the international community.

If so, this will put the U.S. in a bind. The U.S. does not want al Qaeda involved in a government in the heart of the Middle East, to put it mildly. On the other hand, there has long been a segment of U.S. foreign policy opinion that has favored working with lesser enemies, no matter how repellent, against greater ones as the quickest way to achieve results for the least U.S. blood and treasure (and, often, with the added bonus of both enemies being bruised in the fighting).

But whether the U.S. wants such a thing to come to pass or not may be irrelevant; we may have already forfeited our chance to choose. The Saudis and the Turks have made their move, and unless we are willing to seriously increase our involvement in Syria (backing whom—Assad? ISIS?), Nusra seems to be the front runner to take the greater part of the joint. Soon, therefore, we may find ourselves in a world where, fourteen years after 9-11, al Qaeda has moved from the mountains of Afghanistan to the palaces of Damascus. This would be a strategic failure on a monumental scale. The wages of ‘leading from behind’ continue to grow.

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  • wigwag

    ” Soon, therefore, we may find ourselves in a world where, fourteen years after 9-11, al Qaeda has moved from the mountains of Afghanistan to the palaces of Damascus. This would be a strategic failure on a monumental scale. The wages of ‘leading from behind’ continue to grow.” (Via Meadia)

    Absolutely; the wages of leading from behind do continue to grow. Obama took an American foreign policy left in shambles by the Bush Administration and accomplished the rather remarkable feat of actually making things worse. The mind truly boggles at the incompetence of Barack Obama.

    But to be fair, the historical antecedents of the looming disaster we face in the Middle East long pre-date September 11th, 2001. It’s not the 14 years that have passed since the tragedy at the twin towers we should be focused on, it’s the 36 years since the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

    After all, it was the Soviet’s Afghan invasion that motivated two foreign policy knuckleheads, the hopelessly incompetent Jimmy Carter and the arrogant and venal Zbigniew Brzezinski, to arm the Afghan Mujahideen in order to give the Soviets a black eye. Remarkably Carter and Brzezinski continue to defend their tragic mistake to this day. Brzezinski actually has the temerity to suggest with a straight face that had the Carter Administration allowed the keystone cop communists the Soviets installed in Afghanistan to remain in power, the Soviet Union might never have fallen. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the stupidity of Carter and Brzezinski.

    Here’s what we know; the progenitor of the Taliban and Al Qaeda was the Mujahideen. If you didn’t like 9-11, if you don’t like the appeasement of Iran and if your worried about Al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq, place the blame where it really belongs. A large share of the blame belongs to Carter and Brzezinski.

    Did you ever wonder why an esteemed publication like the “American Interest” includes a man like Brzezinski, who has been proven wrong time and time again, on its editorial board?

    I do.

    • Tom

      (Waggles hand) Had we been able to arm the men we wanted to arm in Afghanistan, we might not have had as many problems as we did.
      The problem with Afghanistan was that we let the Pakistani intelligence service choose who got the weapons, and they shipped it to radical Islamists. So, yes, Carter (and Reagan) are to blame, but at a remove.

  • Ellen

    I don’t disagree with the thrust of this piece, but it may be that Al Nusra will settle for imposing Sharia, beheading and all the rest of the delicate Muslim way of life, on Syria ALONE, without feeling the need to export this way of life to everyone else. Although I might feel a twinge of sympathy for the Syrian population, it wouldn’t be much. That society is a pit of barbarism; much more so than Egypt or Jordan, where you can’t imagine the sort of slaughter going on that we see in Syria.

    In any case, though, Obama’s whole set of assumptions about the MidEast now go up in flames, if Nusra and ISIS turn out to be the big winners in Syria and Iraq. He was going to trade a nuclear deal in exchange for Iranian hegemony of the Levant, and it looks like the Iranians are going to be roundly defeated with all of their proxies, throughout their newly-established empire.

    There must be a real gnashing of teeth going on in Teheran these days. The Sunni rebels just delivered another defeat to the Alawite/Hezbollah/Iranian army in their last base in Idlib Province. Basically, the Iranian militias are being routed everywhere. One wonders whether the next stop for the rebels is Latakia or Homs or Aleppo. Sooner than we think, they will be at the gates of Damascus.

  • ljgude

    At the beginning of the month (1/5) Jonathan Spyer of The Gloria Centre warned in the Jerusalem Post to not count Assad and Iran finished prematurely. I believe he is an observer worth heeding. He argues that Assad’s manpower shortage is being met with foreign fighters from the Shiite world – not just Hezbollah – and that the rebels have not yet succeeded in evicting the regime from its most strategically important strongholds. He acknowledges the string of rebel victories but advises caution in making too much of them and not underestimate the determination and capability of Iran compared to the still relatively diverse and disorganized Sunni side. Al Qaeda, whatever it is up to, is clearly differentiating itself from ISIL and it remains to be seen if the Turkish Saudi alliance can bring a new measure of Sunni unity to the conflict. I doubt it, if for no other reason than both ISIL and al Qaeda are offshoots of Wahhabi Islam which deem the Saudi Wahhabi ruling family as hopelessly corrupt and are fundamentally at odds with Saudi Arabia and certainly don’t approve of Turkey’s brand of Islamism. What I see is the most toxic elements of Sunni and Shia Islam pitted against each other in a long term war of attrition that neither side will or can abandon. it will, I believe, keep drawing in fresh forces for years until one or both sides is exhausted.

    • Ellen

      Jonathan Spyer is one of the best commentators on the MidEast, far better than most Western analysts. He has been right about most things in recent years, but on this I think he may be overestimating the strength of the Shiite side. Yes, this is critical for Iran’s reputation and Hezbollah’s survival, but that doesn’t mean the Shiites will win. Iran cannot commit enough manpower to make up for the collapse of the Syrian army and the decimation of the Alawite population. It is overcommitting Hezbollah and eventually the Lebanese Shiites will do what the Alawites are doing now – they will refuse to be cannon fodder for Iranian imperial designs. The Shiites of Lebanon were once Lebanese, and now they have become nothing more than Iranian mercenaries. Sooner or later, they will return to being Lebanese, and then the Persian Empire will collapse.

      • ljgude

        Thanks for the reply and I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of Jonathan Spyer. I will say he argues convincingly in that piece that Iran can make up the numbers from Iran and other Shiite populations and I would add that they are very good indeed at the art of proxy war. We shall see. They will certainly try. But my intuition agrees with you that the Persian Empire may indeed be subject to collapse. For demographic reasons for a start but mostly because I don’t think they have the wholehearted support of the Iranian population. The regime has been in power for nearly two generations and that is a long time to sustain fanaticism and a high degree of commitment. I think you are right that the loyalty of the Lebanese and other Shiites to Iran has limits and that things could turn decisively against the Iranian regime if the canon fodder realizes it is dying not for Shia Islam but for Iranian colonialism. I am of the opinion that they will continue to see themselves as Shiites committed to their eternal war against the Sunnis, but it would certainly be nice if they woke up.

  • Brett Champion

    Right. And that won’t change if they ever get control of Syria.

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