Syrian Rebels Embrace al-Qaeda

Exclusive: The leading Syrian rebel groups have declared their intent to transform Syria into a Taliban-style state that would collaborate with al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the heart of the Middle East. This lifting of the veil presents President Obama with an even trickier policy dilemma, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Official Washington was caught off-guard this week when the radicalization of the Syrian rebels went from being an obscured reality to an undeniable truth. Syria’s most powerful rebel forces renounced the “moderate” exiles, who have been nurtured by the West, and embraced an Islamic extremist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda.

This development now confronts the West with a set of even grimmer choices: help the radical jihadists win the war and turn Syria into a Taliban-style homeland for terrorism in the center of the Middle East; accept an indefinite continuation of the bloody civil war hoping that no one wins as the bodies pile up; or work with the Assad regime and the weakened “moderates” to bring about some kind of political reform that might placate the estranged Sunni majority while isolating the extreme Islamists.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks during his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 23, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

If the last option seems to you to be the least worst, you would find yourself in a distinct minority inside Official Washington, where politicians and pundits still prefer to swagger about, issuing ultimatums demanding the unconditional removal of President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has committed many atrocities in a civil war where brutality is common on both sides.

But if President Barack Obama were to pick the negotiation option, he would not only face resistance across Official Washington; his choice would put him at odds with Saudi Arabia and Israel, which have formed a de facto alliance in pursuit of joint regional goals, including the ouster of Assad.

Saudi Arabia and its neighboring oil sheikdoms have spearheaded the arming and funding of the radical jihadists who are now flooding into Syria from across the Arab world and from other Muslim areas such as Chechnya in Russia. Israel has quietly supported this effort, too, in political and diplomatic circles.

Though the Saudi monarchy has long presented itself as a “moderate” Arab state and friend of the United States, it is, in reality, an extremist government that imposes the hard-line Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam on its people. Through its skillful intelligence service, Saudi Arabia also has financed Sunni extremists for decades, including Osama bin Laden and other radicals who formed al-Qaeda in the 1990s.

Bin Laden may have become an expatriate Saudi before the 9/11 attacks, but alleged Saudi financing for al-Qaeda has remained a national security mystery in the United States, with the 9/11 Commission’s conclusions on this sensitive topic the only section redacted in its final report.

More recently, Saudi intelligence now under Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the savvy former ambassador to the United States has been pressing for the military defeat of Assad as a way to deal a severe blow to Saudi Arabia’s chief regional rival, Iran. The Saudis see themselves as the leader of Sunni Islam, seeking to counter the influence of Iran’s Shiite Islam.

Assad, who comes from the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, is viewed as a crucial link in the Shiite crescent reaching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to the Hezbollah enclaves of Lebanon. The Saudis consider knocking out Assad’s regime as central to their regional strategy of expanding Sunni dominance of the region. They also recognize that Sunni jihadists, who often employ terrorist tactics, are among the most effective fighters and thus deserve Saudi backing.

Saudi Arabia’s oust-Assad strategy even brought Prince Bandar into a verbal confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July when, according to leaked accounts of the meeting, Bandar implicitly admitted Saudi control of Chechen radicals who have committed widespread acts of terrorism in Russia and who are considered a potential threat to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. [See’s “Should Cruise Missiles Target Saudis?”]

Israel’s Tilt

But the Saudis are not alone in their eagerness to see Islamic jihadists overthrow Assad’s regime in Damascus. Israeli leaders, too, have expressed a preference for the jihadist “bad guys” to take control of Syria if that’s the only way to remove Assad and his Iranian-backed “bad guys.”

Last week, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told the Jerusalem Post that Israel “always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” Echoing the Saudi concern about the Shiite crescent, Oren said, “The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc.” [See’s “Israel Sides with Syrian Jihadists.”]

So, Tuesday’s pronouncement that the dominant Syrian rebel forces want Shariah law and are now in league with an al-Qaeda affiliate puts the Obama administration in the difficult predicament of either pursuing a course that could lead to radical Sunni Islamists establishing a Taliban-style state in the center of the Middle East or bucking the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

To work toward a political settlement between Assad’s regime and the remaining Sunni “moderates” would require telling the Israelis to back off their anti-Assad lobbying and warning the Saudis about possible retaliation if they persist in arming al-Qaeda-style jihadists in Syria (and Islamic terrorists generally).

Only by getting the Saudis and their fellow oil sheikdoms to cut off the flow of arms and money to the jihadists in Syria could a negotiated end to the civil war even be remotely possible.

But the Saudis and the Israelis — operating with what I’m told is now an intelligence-level collaboration on their mutual interests which also include support for the new Egyptian military regime — feel they have the clout to counter any pressure from the big powers of the United States and Russia. The Saudis wield enormous economic power both over energy and finance, while the Israelis have unmatched skills at propaganda and politics.

It is not clear whether the Obama administration has either the will or the strength to convince Saudi Arabia and Israel to stand down. It’s easier to simply pretend that Assad is the obstacle to peace talks and that “moderate” rebels could somehow still win the day if the United States only shipped in supplies of sophisticated weapons. [See’s “Who Blocked Syrian Peace Talks?”]

However, the battlefield reality inside Syria is increasingly dominated by the Sunni militants who would likely end up with much of whatever the United States delivers, one way or the other, according to intelligence sources.

Thus, the Syrian option favored by most of Official Washington to somehow funnel weapons exclusively to the “moderate” rebels so they can oust Assad and build a multi-ethnic democracy has become a pipedream. Nor does it make much sense to follow through with threats of some calibrated air war to “degrade” Assad’s military unless you want to risk the possibility of its sudden collapse and a clear-cut victory by rebel jihadists.

Indeed, the rebel jihadists may be speaking out now because they had planned a major offensive to coincide with President Obama’s threatened missile strikes against Syrian government targets (following a disputed chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21) and were bitterly disappointed when Obama decided to pursue diplomatic initiatives instead.

The Syrian Battlefield

With Tuesday’s pronouncement, the dominance of the Islamic extremists can no longer be covered up or ignored. It is a reality that even the mainstream U.S. press corps is acknowledging, as Ben Hubbard and Michael R. Gordon reported for the New York Times from Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday:

“As diplomats at the United Nations push for a peace conference to end Syria’s civil war, a collection of some of the country’s most powerful rebel groups have publicly abandoned the opposition’s political leaders, casting their lot with an affiliate of Al Qaeda. As support for the Western-backed leadership has dwindled, a second, more extreme Al Qaeda group has carved out footholds across parts of Syria, frequently clashing with mainline rebels who accuse it of making the establishment of an Islamic state a priority over the fight to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

“The fractured nature of the opposition, the rising radical Islamist character of some rebel fighters, and the increasing complexity of Syria’s battle lines have left the exile leadership with diminished clout inside the country and have raised the question of whether it could hold up its end of any agreement reached to end the war.

“The deep differences between many of those fighting in Syria and the political leaders who have represented the opposition abroad spilled into the open late Tuesday, when 11 rebel groups issued a statement declaring that the opposition could be represented only by people who have ‘lived their troubles and shared in what they have sacrificed.’

“Distancing themselves from the exile opposition’s call for a democratic, civil government to replace Mr. Assad, they called on all military and civilian groups in Syria to ‘unify in a clear Islamic frame.’ Those that signed the statement included three groups aligned with the Western-backed opposition’s Supreme Military Council.

“Mohannad al-Najjar, an activist close to the leadership of one of the statement’s most powerful signers, Al Tawhid Brigade, said the group intended to send a message of disapproval to an exile leadership it believes has accomplished little. ‘We found it was time to announce publicly and clearly what we are after, which is Shariah law for the country and to convey a message to the opposition coalition that it has been three years and they have never done any good for the Syrian uprising and the people suffering inside,’ he said.”

The prospect of Sunni religious extremism imposed on a post-Assad Syria is particularly troubling to Alawites, the sect to which Assad belongs, but also worries Christians, who include communities that date back to the founding of the religion. Other Syrian Christians are descendants of Armenians who fled the Turkish genocide a century ago. These groups fear that revenge by the Sunni jihadists could include extermination campaigns.

So, Official Washington’s effort to whip the American people into a war frenzy against Assad’s regime, particularly over its alleged use of chemical weapons, now has to contend with this new reality among the rebels. They can no longer be sold to the public as pro-democracy “moderates” locked in a good-guy-versus-bad-guy struggle with an evil dictator.

The leading rebel groups have now announced their intentions: They want a Shariah state and are willing to collaborate with al-Qaeda. But the U.S. options are further complicated because these Islamists have at their backs purported U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia and, oddly, Israel.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

11 comments for “Syrian Rebels Embrace al-Qaeda

  1. gregorylkruse
    September 28, 2013 at 12:32

    I’m hoping this is a tipping point for US policy in the Middle East.

    • Michael Collins
      September 29, 2013 at 05:12

      I think that is is a tipping point and that there was evidence it was coming in March 2012

      We have so many real concerns, there’s no more time to waste on destructive activities. The opportunity costs of the administrations obsession with low-intensity warfare are stunning.

  2. Michael Collins
    September 27, 2013 at 15:25

    Excellent analysis. The “whipping” us into a war frenzy failed, miserably. With the announcement of the “good” rebel, “bad” rebel fusion, there is nothing left to justify ongoing aid to the rebels. Information travels much quicker now than it did in 2003 or even 2011. This fusion will be an issue among the House backbenchers of both parties who were ready to say no to Obama’s attack Syria authorization.

    Obama was burned very badly on the attack strategy. He’s lost any foundation for that and lethal arms to the rebels.

    What will he do? Who knows, since he’s so limited. But, my advice would be to pick up the Hot Line and take advice from Putin.

  3. rosemerry
    September 27, 2013 at 14:16

    “his choice would put him at odds with Saudi Arabia and Israel”
    It is bad enough to have the USA ruling the roost, with its lack of delocracy, freedom or even commonsense, but to let two greedy, extremist, belligerent entities with no good features, decide policy for us all, is a nightmare.,

  4. LD
    September 27, 2013 at 14:07

    Moral of the story: It is still framed as a “good-guy-versus-bad-guy” situation. Didn’t the US (et al) invade Afghanistan on the pretext of getting AQ (et al)? Even if the US/Saudis directly funded the Pakistan ISI’s AQ/Taliban operations. (Still do, so the US never leaves, and keeps stealing everything it can get its hands on. It’s Imperialism 101.)

    In order to stop this farce, the entire “AQ-pretext” farce, even 9/11, has to be exposed. No one in the MSM (even the larger “alternative press”) seems to be willing to confront any of it:

    Hersh: “We are not doing so well in the 80 wars we are in right now, what the hell does he want to go into another one for.” (

    No: “President Obama wants to turn Syria into Somalia where since the US can’t install the regime it wants, it has prevented any central government from functioning since the landing of US Marines in a “humanitarian intervention” in the final minutes of the first Bush administration.” (

    And so, US Imperialism/Empire continues, unabated.

  5. OH
    September 27, 2013 at 11:06

    Iran is the Grover Nordquist bathtub in which American Conservatives want to drown American Democracy. We have read PNAC, we know that in 1996 American Conservatives have officially announced their intention to start wars that don’t make sense and will lead America down a path to ruin. This is planned bankruptcy, this is plotting a war where the real target of the war is the American workers, and future generations of Americans. Killing Iranian and Iraqi people is just collateral damage as a way to bankrupt America, make America 2nd rate, and abolish American Democracy. Imagine the terrorist attacks that would occur in such a disaster, with the USA de-facto bankrupted as of the very first day, and how those predictable terrorist attacks would be used to establish mainline torture and detention without trial of Americans. We know what these war-mongering people are like, they are freaks, they are so obsessed with preventing hippies from having more fun than them that they are literally willing to kill us all if necessary. The moderate Arabs have been treated like they were the worst enemies. The strategy is to prevent the Syrian moderates from making a common cause with the Syrian Baathists against the Syrian Wahabbis, in order to prevent peace. Just like Mossadegh, the Syrian moderates are being treated like they are the worst possible outcome to be prevented even at the cost of helping Al Qaida. MOSSADEGH IS the Syrian moderates, all over again. The warmongers hate Americans because we are free, it is really a war against American workers.

  6. Erica Stuart
    September 27, 2013 at 01:03

    Perry: “Obama’s Predictment”: was carefully created by Netanyahu who, some time ago, announced they would prefer ElQaeda and could work with them, Surprised?? They created and controlled these emerging new ElQaeda. Since Israel is open about it, including their Libya and Cairo action, what are we hiding and covering up? They let us know they do not need our “protection” they have the Saudi now, who less concerned about right and wrong as we are. Futhermore the Saudi want Sunni control of the area, ElQaeda are Sunni and Israel has declared it can work with them. Well????

  7. F. G. Sanford
    September 27, 2013 at 00:54

    Let’s see now. Twelve years ago, there was a completely impotent bunch of stone-age tribalists called Taliban running Afghanistan. They were willing to turn over Osama bin Laden if we would provide proof of his involvement in 9/11. Today, those same stone age tribalists are aligned with bronze-age tribalists, and they control Afghanistan, Bahrain, Chechnya, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Quattar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, not to mention most of the world’s easily accessible oil. Now, they have aligned themselves with a nuclear power, which unfortunately also subscribes to an offshoot of bronze-age mythology. The most technologically advanced secular nation in the western world has succumbed to the lunatic ravings of its indigenous bronze-age lunatics, another offshoot of the same cultural psychopathy currently contributing to cannibalism, human sacrifice, ritual murder, rape and torture in the Middle East.

    Pretty impressive how religion contributes to the advancement of civilization, isn’t it? As Michael Scheuer pointed out a long time ago, the U.S. Congress, (and particularly John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman) is owned by Israel, and only Israel and Saudi Arabia benefit from dragging us into this quagmire. Michael must be somewhere right now, drinking a cold beer and singing, “Told-ya-so, told-ya-so, nah nee nah, nah nee nah…”

    Michael Scheuer: Israel & Saudi Arabia Are Much More Dangerous Enemies To The US Than The Iran

    • F. G. Sanford
      September 28, 2013 at 05:13

      Your friend’s mother-in-law is apparently the highest paid lap-dancer in human history.

      • gregorylkruse
        September 28, 2013 at 12:38

        Best comment of the day.

    • gregorylkruse
      September 28, 2013 at 12:37

      I don’t think religion has ever contributed to the advancement of civilization. If anything it has been an impediment, perhaps a necessary one. Any attempt to excise religion from human consciousness would be like cutting off the tree to get rid of the stump.

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