One of the most closely guarded secrets in Washington, D.C. about U.S. involvement in the Syrian war is that the “moderate” rebels whom the Obama administration (and many Republicans) backed were closely aligned with al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. They were also, at times, aligned with the Islamic State.
For regular PJ Media readers, this will come as no surprise. I’ve repeatedly documented the ties between the State Department’s “vetted moderate” rebel groups and designated terrorist groups based on snippets of reporting that challenged the administration’s official narrative.
But now the “moderate” rebels are on their heels and in retreat from internecine pressure from Jabhat al-Nusra. Brookings Institute-Doha Syria analyst Charles Lister — who has probably had as much direct contact with “rebel” leaders as any other U.S. analyst — has finally admitted to the long-time cooperation between “moderates” and “extremists.”
In an article published last month on the Brookings website, Lister states:
This latter alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra has been a consistent facet of insurgent dynamics in Syria, but not only in terms of conservative Salafist groups like Ahrar al-Sham. In fact, while rarely acknowledged explicitly in public, the vast majority of the Syrian insurgency has coordinated closely with Al-Qaeda since mid-2012 – and to great effect on the battlefield. But while this pragmatic management of relationships may have secured opposition military victories against the regime, it has also come at an extraordinary cost. The assimilation of Al-Qaeda into the broader insurgency has discouraged the U.S. and its European allies from more definitively backing the ‘moderate’ opposition. That, by extension, has encouraged the intractability of the conflict we see today and the rise of jihadist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra, IS, and many others.
A year-and-a-half ago, uttering this outside of the polite company of the D.C. foreign policy “smart set” would have gotten you branded a heretic.
The official narrative of the administration and the McCain/Graham “war at any cost” wing of the GOP was that the vast majority of rebels were moderate, as expressed in John Kerry’s testimony before McCain’s committee in September 2013. Such deep and complex truths were unworthy of the unwashed American masses at a time when many in D.C. were openly calling for more heavy weapons to be sent to the “vetted moderate” rebels.
But with the sudden surge of ISIS last June and the announcement of the re-establishment of the Islamic State, the narrative was getting harder to publicly maintain — even as the Obama administration did in fact begin sending heavy weaponry to the “vetted moderate” rebels.
The “smart set” then began to drop hints that the “vetted moderate” rebels were not so moderate after all, but certainly nothing so candid to give the whole game away. Lister notes that the rebel cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra going back to mid-2012 (Nusra announced its formation in January 2012) was “rarely acknowledged explicitly in public.”
Now with things going very badly in Syria and Iraq, the “smart set” is divided between walking back their support for the rebels, or doubling-down on their support by saying the U.S. needs to begin backing “moderate al-Qaeda”.
The media has been more forthcoming about our “vetted moderate” allies since American reporters began losing their heads under Islamic State knives.
In late October, American journalist Theo Padnos — who was captured by the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and then given over to Jabhat al-Nusra — told the story of his two-year captivity in the New York Times Magazine. At one point, Padnos says he escaped from his Al-Qaeda captors and found himself back in the hands of the FSA, who then, again, promptly turned him back over to the terror group.
Padnos also relates this exchange with some U.S.-trained FSA fighters that exposes the glaring weaknesses of the CIA’s vetting system:
I returned to the FSA troops. One told me that his unit had recently traveled to Jordan to receive training from American forces in fighting groups like the Nusra Front.
“Really?” I said. “The Americans? I hope it was good training.”
“Certainly, very,” he replied.
The fighters stared at me. I stared at them.
After a few moments, I asked, “About this business of fighting Jebhat al Nusra?”
“Oh, that,” one said. “We lied to the Americans about that.”
The treatment of Padnos by the FSA is important to recall in light of the revelations yesterday and today that that an NBC News crew taken captive in Syria in December 2012, and who later repeatedly claimed they had been held by an Assad regime militia, now admit — following a New York Times investigation — that they were in fact held by an FSA criminal network.
Also, there is evidence that NBC News executives knew from the time of the crew’s capture that they were held by U.S. allies, but allowed the blame to fall on Assad since that didn’t conflict with the Obama administration’s position at the time.
An example of this newfound openness on the part of the establishment media was an Associated Press report in late November that noted the close cooperation of U.S.-backed rebels with al-Qaeda in southern Syria:
The gains are a contrast to northern Syria, where U.S.-backed rebels are collapsing in the face of an assault by Islamic militants. Notably, in the south, the rebels are working together with fighters from al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, whose battle-hardened militants have helped them gain the momentum against government forces. The cooperation points to the difficulty in American efforts to build up “moderate” factions while isolating extremists.
Over the past year I’ve reported at PJ Media on the slow cracks emerging in the official “vetted moderate rebel” narrative:
It’s refreshing to see the D.C. “smart set” and the establishment media finally ‘fessing up to what has been going on in Syria, “rarely acknowledged explicitly in public.” But the damage done by the Obama administration’s policy, (backed up by the McCain/Graham GOP chorus), such as the hundreds of thousands dead, is irreversible.
Who in D.C. or the media will be held to account for this failure?