Belmont Club

The Mystery at Idlib

The sheer ruthlessness and ferocity of Islamic-style warfare was underscored by the decimation of ISIS’ main rival by persons unknown. “Nearly fifty senior commanders of a major coalition of Islamic ‘moderates’ opposed to ISIS in Syria have been killed by an explosion at their secret command bunker as they met to discuss strategy against the the Islamic State,” writes Breitbart.

The group, the Ahrar al-Sham, was also opposed to the Assad regime as the New York Times reminds us. “An explosion tore through a secret meeting of one of Syria’s strongest and most enduring rebel groups on Tuesday, killing a dozen of its top leaders, including its head, and striking another blow against the forces seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad.”

The blast hit a basement where the leaders of the group, Ahrar al-Sham, had collected to plot strategy, according to antigovernment activists. It remained unclear who had carried out the attack, which reportedly killed dozens of people and occurred in Idlib Province in Syria’s north.

The explosion added to the troubles facing Syria’s rebels, who have lost ground in the country’s civil war in recent months to Mr. Assad’s military while also being overshadowed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group that has seized territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

Ahrar al-Sham were the in-betweeners, close enough to al-Qaeda to give Westerners pause when supporting them, but with substantial links to the “moderate rebels” as well. The Carnegie Foundation has a long description of the group’s history.

Ahrar al-Sham was one of the first armed movements to emerge in Syria, and it has long appeared to be one of the best organized. Its foundations were laid in Idlib and Hama in May-June 2011 by former Islamist political prisoners and Iraq war veterans held in the Sednaya Prison north of Damascus, after their release from jail in early 2011. These men espoused a stark Salafi ideology calling for a Sunni theocracy in Syria. Funding was quickly secured from foreign sympathizers such as Hajjaj al-Ajami and other Gulf clerics, many of whom were linked to the Salafi Umma Party in Kuwait.

Ahrar al-Sham never made any pretense of belonging to the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella term for rebels backed by some Western and Gulf countries. But while it was in some ways close to the al-Qaeda movement, and some leaders had worked with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, Ahrar al-Sham was not quite a transnational jihadi group either. For one thing, it consistently stated that its battle was limited to Syria and avoided the aggressive minority-baiting common among the more radical jihadis. Ahrar al-Sham also sought to ally pragmatically with all groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government—certainly including al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, but also Western-backed FSA factions. Emerging as a central pillar within the wider Syrian Islamist landscape, Ahrar al-Sham helped engineer a large rebel coalition called the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) in December 2012 and then grew by absorbing most of its smaller member groups. A year later, the enlarged Ahrar al-Sham movement co-created a successor to the SIF, the still-existing Islamic Front.

It was, in short, the missing link between radical Salafi-jihadism and the type of mainstream and Syrian nationalism-infused Islamists that Western and Gulf state powers preferred to work with—a powerful “swing voter” in the struggle over the ideological direction of Syria’s insurgency.

Now that its entire leadership has been blown to glory, Bill Roggio at Long War Journal says that Ahrar al-Sham’s new boss previously led a Free Syrian Army unit, emphasizing the revolving-door nature of the factions. The attack on Ahrar al-Sham provides a glimpse into the world of sub-national warfare. It’s a world where, as Bill Roggio notes, “even US-vetted Syrian rebel groups such as Harakat Hazm fight alongside the Al Nusrah Front.”

A piece by Jean-Marie Guehenno and Noah Bonsey in the New York Times argues that the West can’t be too choosey, since ISIS noted its lightning thrusts in Iraq, has switched emphasis to Syria. It bids fair to overrun Aleppo. “Given Aleppo’s strategic and symbolic importance as a rebel stronghold, the very viability of mainstream anti-Assad forces in northern Syria is at stake in this battle on two fronts. The vital significance of this is that it is they who must take the lead on the ground in rolling back ISIS gains in Syria.” As in the case of Ahrar al-Sham, both Assad and ISIS appeared to have joined forces to liquidate the middle.

These dynamics are on display in Aleppo. Even as ISIS forces in eastern Syria fight to evict the regime from its remaining outposts there, the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus has concentrated on defeating the mainstream, non-jihadist opposition. Regime forces, backed by indiscriminate aerial bombardment, continue to encircle the rebels who control the eastern half of the city. … Without effective support, the opposition in Aleppo faces defeat.

If they succeed in wiping out the last holdouts then Obama will face a stark choice between two unmitigated evils, handing him to all intents and purposes, a complete defeat. “A day late and a dollar short” perfectly characterizes the administration’s Syria/Iraq policy. If ever there were any “moderate rebels” to start with, their numbers are thinning rapidly. What’s increasingly left in the bottom of the pan are the hard cases, who may portray themselves as more moderate than they really are in order to get access to Western arms and ammunition. It’s probably useful to recall that the Communist insurgent Chin Peng was helped by British Commando Force 136 set up an anti-Japanese resistance during World War 2.

Not to be outdone, the OSS helped their own favorite insurgent in Vietnam. His name was Ho Chi Minh.

As U.S. Army Major Allison Thomas sat down to dinner with Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap on September 15, 1945, he had one vexing question on his mind. Ho had secured power a few weeks earlier, and Thomas was preparing to leave Hanoi the next day and return stateside, his mission complete. He and a small team of Americans had been in French Indochina with Ho and Giap for two months, as part of an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) mission to train Viet Minh guerrillas and gather intelligence to use against the Japanese in the waning days of World War II. But now, after Ho’s declaration of independence and Japan’s surrender the previous month, the war in the Pacific was over. So was the OSS mission in Indochina. At this last dinner with his gracious hosts, Thomas decided to get right to the heart of it. So many of the reports he had filed with the OSS touched on Ho’s ambiguous allegiances and intents, and Thomas had had enough. He asked Ho point-blank: Was he a Communist? Ho replied: “Yes. But we can still be friends, can’t we?”

Moderate Rebels

Moderate Rebels

Ho, it may be recalled, was not above decimating his rivals, the better to dominate the underground. It is “argued that in June 1925, Nguyễn betrayed Phan Bội Châu, the famous leader of a rival revolutionary faction and his father’s old friend, to French Secret Service agents in Shanghai for 100,000 piastres.” It is widely believed that Joseph Stalin was at one point in his career, a paid agent of the Okhrana.

Another Moderate Rebel

Another Moderate Rebel

Once the “moderate” nucleus is gone — where we can define moderate as SOBs who are our SOBs — you are essentially forced to choose between alternatives defined by your enemies. People who imagine that playing the clandestine card is a cheap and uncomplicated substitute for traditional warfare should think again. The game Obama is trying to play is not a “safe” alternative. It’s as fraught with peril as anything else. It’s not that this proxy game can’t be played, but that you need to know what you’re doing. Otherwise, well … Former NSA Chief Michael Hayden had this to say about Obama’s strategy.

Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden compared President Obama’s plan to begin bombing ISIS militants in Syria to “casual sex” in an interview with U.S. News & World Report on Thursday.

“The reliance on air power has all of the attraction of casual sex: It seems to offer gratification but with very little commitment,” said Hayden, who served as director of both the CIA and the National Security Agency. “We need to be wary of a strategy that puts emphasis on air power and air power alone.”

Because you’re putting that air power and technical assistance at the disposal of your proxies. If your proxies are loyal and work in America’s interests, well and good. But if they’re double-crossers you may be sure, as night follows day, that you’ll be double crossed.  Then all that money, all that expense will not be spent in America’s interest.

Welcome to Idlib. Boom.

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