Obama Winks at Terrorist Gains

President Obama is playing a reckless game as he winks at Saudi and other Sunni oil-state support for al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, with the very real possibility that the secular government will collapse and the terrorist black flag will be hoisted over Damascus, writes Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter

News media coverage of the Camp David summit between President Barack Obama and Gulf Cooperation Council members has focused largely on Obama’s success in getting the GCC States to go along with the negotiation of a nuclear agreement with Iran. But the much more consequential story of the summit is Obama’s decision not to confront Saudi Arabia and Qatar about their financing of an al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria that has made the most dramatic gains in the jihadist war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

For months the conflict between the policies of the Obama administration and those of Saudi Arabia and Qatar toward the war in Syria has been sharpening. The U..S policy has been to arm and train several thousand rebels to fight only against Islamic State forces, whereas the Saudis and Qataris have embarked on a new initiative with Turkey to beef up the capability of Jabhat al Nusra (the Nusra Front), the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and its jihadist allies by creating a new military coalition in Idlib province to capture territory from the Assad regime.

King Salman shares a laugh with the President and First Lady during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

King Salman shares a laugh with the President and First Lady during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

A source in the Saudi royal family involved in defense and security matters confirmed for this article the existence of the new military coalition and the Saudi and Qatari assistance to it. The source said that the Army of Conquest is a temporary coalition in the Idlib region in which Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham, which is believed to be heavily influenced if not controlled by al-Qaeda, represent 90 percent of the troops.

The Saudis and Qataris provide funding for 40 percent of the coalition’s requirements, according to the source, whereas the coalition itself provides 60 percent of its own needs mainly from capture. A founding member and senior official of Ahrar al Sham, Mohamed Bahaiah, has revealed in social media posts associated with the organization that he is a senior al-Qaeda operative. Both Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham have cut their ties with the Islamic State group, although Ahrar al Sham has fought alongside the Islamic State in the past.

The new coalition surprised foreign observers by capturing the province capital of Idlib on March 28 the most important development in the Syrian war since the capture of al Raqqa by the Islamic State in May 2013. The Institute for the Study War in Washington, DC called the coalition’s seizure of Idlib “a victory for al-Qaeda in Syria” and predicted that many in the global jihadist community would view it as a vindication of al-Qaeda’s grand strategy.

In light of those facts, one might expect the Saudi role in creating the new Nusra-dominated force to provoke a confrontation of some sort at the summit. In a column last October, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius had reflected the Obama administration’s irritation over a 2013 operation by Turkey, Qatar and the UAE that had delivered arms to Syrian groups that ended up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State.

The column had appeared on the same day that Vice-President Joe Biden, answering a student’s question at Harvard University, had said Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad.” The result, he said, was that “the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” (Biden later apologized to Turkey and the UAE for “any implication” that the supply of al-Nusra or al-Qaeda had been intentional.)

Now the Saudi and Qatari governments are aiding al-Nusra Front and its fellow al-Qaeda front Ahrar al Sham quite deliberately, and the policy had seriously increased the threat of an al-Qaeda seizure of power in Syria, even though al-Qaeda was at least for now –  openly opposing the Islamic State.

But the administration’s foreign policy priorities have shifted dramatically. Defending the nuclear agreement under negotiation with Iran from domestic or foreign attack has become the overwhelmingly primary political consideration in relations with the Saudis.

When Obama spoke by telephone with King Salman on April 2, five days after the fall Idlib to the Nusra Front, there was no hint of dissatisfaction with the Saudi role in bankrolling the al-Qaeda spin-off there. Instead Obama was reported by the White House to have focused solely on Iran’s “destabilizing activities in the region” and the assurance that the nuclear negotiations with Iran “would not lessen U.S. concern” about those activities.

In a column on May 12, just before the Camp David summit, Ignatius described the new arrangement under which Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar had begun supporting Nusra as leading to major military gains by the “Army of Conquest” and tipping the balance in the Syria war against the Assad regime. He referred to the fact that the Saudi-Qatari initiative was helping al-Qaeda in Syria as a “tricky problem,” but suggested that it was manageable, because it was “likely that in the coming days a Jabhat al-Nusra faction will split publicly from al-Qaeda and join the Army of Conquest.”

The GCC States came to the summit hoping that they have could get the Obama administration to support a “no-fly zone” on the Syria-Turkey border, according to diplomatic sources in Washington. But Obama was holding out for a different deal. Immediately after the summit, Ignatius reported that both sides had gotten what they wanted. The Saudis and their GCC allies got “assurances of American willingness to challenge Iranian meddling in the region,” while Obama got the official endorsement of the GCC for the nuclear deal.

As part of the bargain reached at the summit the Obama administration agreed, in effect, to accept that Saudi Arabia and Qatari would continue to finance al- Nusra’s new military power. The issue was covered in a very long annex to the joint statement, which said: “GCC member states decided to intensify efforts to combat extremist groups in Syria, notably by shutting down private financial flows or any form or assistance to ISIL/DAESH (IS), Al-Nusra Front, and other violent extremist groups.”

But in reality, Obama reached a different understanding with Riyadh and Doha on the issue. As Ignatius formulated the U.S. position at the summit, “Obama and other US officials urged Gulf leaders who are funding the opposition to keep control of their clients, so that a post-Assad regime isn’t controlled by extremists for IS or al Qaeda.”

The Saudis are not backing away from their Syria policy. The Saudi royal family source said the reason for the assistance to the Nusra-dominated coalition is “because there are no other options for Riyadh.” The Saudis had tried to assist the Free Syrian Army in the past, he said, but that choice had “failed miserably.” And since Saudi “could never support ISIS,” which he described as “a main enemy,” this is “an arrangement by necessity”.

Obama is well aware that the fall of the Assad regime is likely to result in a terrorist regime in Syria. His decision to tolerate at least for now – Saudi and Qatari policies that make that outcome far more likely appears to reflect little more than a personal political interest. But the longer-term consequences and eventual political blowback from that decision could be enormous, which suggests that Obama will have to revisit the issue relatively soon.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. [This story previously appeared at Middle East Eye.]

18 comments for “Obama Winks at Terrorist Gains

  1. Mrk
    May 26, 2015 at 10:10

    The Institute for the Study War in Washington, DC called the coalition’s seizure of Idlib “a victory for al-Qaeda in Syria” and predicted that many in the global jihadist community would view it as a vindication of al-Qaeda’s grand strategy.

    The Institute for the Study of War was founded by Kimberly Kagan, sister in law of Victoria Nuland. Kimberly and her husband Fred Kagan were responsible for The Surge and the myth of The Surge, see her biography.

  2. alexander
    May 25, 2015 at 11:09

    Thank you, Mr Porter, for another fine (if not disturbing )article,

    To the best of my knowledge there has been only ONE country passively or actively at war with Syria over the past thirty five years(or so)…it is not Turkey…It is not Saudi Arabia..it is not the United Arab Emirates…Syria has never attacked or threatened any of those countries nor do any of those countries covet resources exclusive to Syria….Syria has certainly never threatened the United States…..Its Government dedicated over 4000 troops to the repulsion of Saddam from Kuwait in 1991…and allowed the United States access and use of “secret sites” on its soil, to imprison “alleged “Al Qaeda operatives, post 9-11.
    Given that the nature of the regime in Damascus is a dictatorship, and a sometimes ruthless one, one might be willing to underwrite the legitimacy of its ouster, were the United States not actively propping up dictators ,elsewhere, all the time …Egypt’s Sisi being a case in point !
    One could argue that during the “allegedly” non-violent outset of the Syrian uprising, Assad acted in a ruthless and despicable manner…”.Killing his own people” and acting like “Hitler” to stymie the revolution..
    But since THAT argument has come, largely ,from the demonstrably untrustworthy ( Saddams WMD and Saddams Anthrax)Neocons and their Punditry, who celebrated wholeheartedly the slaughter of innocent children (“the little snakes”) in Gaza ,this past summer.(as well as the slaughter of millions in IRAQ),.one has the right to ask..is that argument accurate ?, and more to the point …..”why do they care?’
    The tragic answer( I believe) is ….”They don’t “!
    They don’t care, Mr Porter, and they never really did !

    There has been only ONE country truly “at war”, or in a permanent state of war, with Syria for the past forty years…and that country is…. ISRAEL..
    The source of Israels’ conflict with Syria IS the “Golan Heights”!
    And the “Golan Heights” is the only “concretely” contested issue in the conflict !
    One does not have to be a “conspiracy theorist” to read into “The 1996 Clean Break Strategy” Israels desire to “roll back Syria” because it says so, point blank !
    And one needs only to take the time to READ the “Strategic studies paper on Israel Keeping the Golan heights”, prepared for Bar-Ilan University by Efraim Inbar in 2011…to “divine” Israels intentions…..One needs only to read the statement issued by Israels Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, just prior to the Syrian uprising….saying , in essence,to (an as yet clueless) Syria, you can kiss the Golan goodbye…..

    But more to the point, assuming that Israel HAS wanted to keep the Golan for some time…
    (I probably would if i were Israel)…how do you achieve that ?
    You could offer to BUY the Golan….but at what price?…and would the Syrians ever agree?
    Probably not !
    Mr. Netanyahu could petition the UN General assembly…seeking AN EXEMPTION from the law that BARS acquiring land through Conquest…(one of Nazi Germany’s raison d’etres ,BTW !) and asking if, for Israels sake ,the world might bend the rules just this one time !
    The world would say NO,… and already has ,in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 497…
    So …if you cannot change the “law” … perhaps you can “change ” Syria.?….through a campaign of propaganda, staged revolutions, destabilization and multi pronged” terrorism” , to, in effect, BALKANIZE and SHATTER SYRIA into a fragmented , impoverished and impotent state……If not by proxy cleaving off the “Golan” over time, at least putting the ” issue ” so far on the back burner…it never comes up again !
    This makes so much MORE sense about the rational for the on going Syrian catastrophe than the (dubious) hatred for Syria from,lets say, the U.A.E. or Turkey….I am surprised no one has recognized it !
    But I suppose “recognizing it ” and “mentioning it” are two different things !

    • alexander
      May 25, 2015 at 14:14

      There should be an “e” at the end of rational…reading “rationale” in the fourth sentence from the bottom….
      …”.This makes so much MORE sense about the rationale for the on going Syrian catastrophe……..”
      Sorry about that type-o !

  3. Richard Steven Hack
    May 24, 2015 at 13:38

    The problem is that journalists like Gareth, Parry, Greenwald and others can’t afford to cross the line into declaring that the US government is deliberately fomenting chaos across the world for the benefit of Israel and the military-industrial complex because then they get accused of “conspiracy theory.”

    The US population doesn’t want to know that they are being ruled by a totally corrupt bunch of opportunists who will sell out their interests for a dime. It’s called “cognitive dissonance”: the state of mind which refuses see reality because the perceived consequences are too awful to tolerate.

    So aside from those unafraid to be called “conspiracy theorists” like Sibel Edmonds, you’ll never read in an article by any alternative journalist – let alone the mainstream media – that in reality all of this chaos is in fact completely deliberate.

    I’m reminded of a line in the TV show “Nikita” where the head villain declares: “People want to believe that God has a plan for them. They don’t want to hear that anyone else has.”

  4. Abe
    May 24, 2015 at 12:21

    A more accurate title for Mr. Porter’s article: “Obama Teabags Tel Aviv Terrorists”

  5. F. G. Sanford
    May 23, 2015 at 17:12

    I’m not averse to tackling convoluted geopolitical interpretations or critically evaluating the manifestations of abstruse ideological determinism masquerading as rational thought. But the last couple of articles here are just begging for a damn good ass beating. We’re asked to believe that there is absolutely no thinking in the “think tanks”, that contrary to FDR’s observations, everything in politics happens by accident, and that every strategy ever concocted contains by design the willful incorporation of elements intended to foster its own failure. We’re asked to believe that the fabrication of a pretext has never, ever preceded the titanic clashes that foment historical tragedy, and that venal motives are always subordinate to the complex fabric of human aspirations that inform the conduct of international relations. We hear every excuse from “Peter Principle” pecker-heads to “filliparous factions” of feckless factotums. The story may be apocryphal, but it serves to illustrate the point. When Alexander the Great was challenged to solve the riddle of the Gordian knot, he suggested, “Have you ever tried a sharp knife?” Common sense suggests they poisoned him and dumped his body in the river. Fast forward to 1963, and consider the parallels. ANY IDIOT should be able to look at a map and decide which borders MUST BE CROSSED in order to deliver shiny white Toyota pickup trucks to Isis/IS/Daesh. For those struggling to interpret the complexities of the strategy that everyone seems to believe doesn’t actually exist, or that the administration is torn between ousting Assad but defeating Isis, I’ll leave you all with this little morsel to consider: When IS raises the Black Flag over Damascus, will Israel recognize its right to exist? And, if not, how many American lives will that cost?

    • Abe
      May 23, 2015 at 20:20

      The Israeli plan to “secure the realm” has already resulted in 129,000 – 158,000 Americans killed and wounded since 2001.

      When IS raises the Black flag over Damascus, Israel will be ready to enact the next military phase of its plan to see not only Syria, but Lebanon and Jordan as well, in fragments.

      • Abe
        May 23, 2015 at 22:40

        Arguably, ISIS is a spectacularly successful, if belated, effort to limit the number of Americans casualties. Can’t bite too deeply the hand that feeds. The golem must remain animated a while longer.

      • lion of zion
        May 24, 2015 at 08:56

        You hate and are a victim. Of islamic fascist propaganda

      • lion of zion
        May 24, 2015 at 08:56

        You hate and are a victim. Of islamic fascist propaganda

      • lion of zion
        May 24, 2015 at 08:56

        You hate and are a victim. Of islamic fascist propaganda

    • Stefan
      May 23, 2015 at 22:49

      Well said indeed, I agree fully, glad to see someone voicing my thoughts much more eloquent than I could ever do.

    • May 24, 2015 at 00:12

      Excellent. All the more appropriate considering the recent DIA revelation.

    • Peter Loeb
      May 24, 2015 at 07:34


      ISIS is using the same means of conquest that Zionists have always used
      and continue to use including murder, massacre, destruction etc.

      And both Zionists and ISIS claim devine approval and guidance.

      As I have written elsewhere in other comments, I seriously doubt that
      the arrogant Zionists and their US fans really understand what they
      are doing.

      Since this Administration has just sent Israel $1.9 billion in weapons,
      it must approve of the purposes Israel intends. (See Rania Khalek
      in EI).

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  6. Abe
    May 23, 2015 at 15:49

    it was clear from the beginning and by the West’s own admissions that success hinged on covertly providing arms, cash, equipment, and both political and military support to Al Qaeda and other sectarian extremists, not opposed by Saudi Arabia, but rather by using Saudi Arabia as the primary medium through which Western material support could be laundered.


    • Ash
      May 23, 2015 at 17:36

      It was also clear all along that regime change was the real goal of all the Syrian hijinks.

      • dahoit
        May 24, 2015 at 11:18

        Yes,of course,and none of this would have happened wo the full consent of our masters,the Israelis,which is not mentioned in the article.

  7. Abe
    May 23, 2015 at 14:15

    The continuation, even expansion of the US-backed conflict in Syria is the most telling evidence of all regarding the disingenuous nature of America’s rapprochement with Iran. The entire goal of destabilizing and potentially overthrowing the government in Syria is to weaken Iran ahead of a similar campaign of encirclement, destabilization, and destruction within Iran itself.

    The fact that events in Syria are being accelerated, with Brookings itself admitting that “international and ideological differences,” have been “pushed to the side,” illustrates a palpable desperation among the West to finish the conflict in Syria in hopes of moving forward toward Iran before regional dynamics and Iran’s own defensive posture renders moot the West’s entire regional agenda, jeopardizing its long-standing hegemony across North Africa and the Middle East.

    Similarly rushed operations appear to be underway in Yemen. With Western-backed conflicts embroiling virtually every nation surrounding Iran, the idea that the US seeks anything but Iran’s eventual destruction, let alone “rapprochement” must surely have no one fooled in Tehran.

    While Brookings enthusiastically reports on the continued destruction in Syria it itself played a part in engineering and promoting, it still admits that overthrowing Syria’s legitimate government is not inevitable. While it attempts to portray Syria’s allies as withdrawing support for Damascus, the reality is that if and when Syria falls, Syria’s allies are indisputably next in line.

    Iran will face an entire nation handed over to Al Qaeda and other heavily armed and well-backed sectarian extremists dreaming of a cataclysmic confrontation with Tehran, fueled by a global network of US-Saudi backed madrases turning out legions of ideologically poisoned zealots. And beyond Iran, Russia faces the prospect of its Caucasus region being turned into a corridor of terror aimed straight at the heart of Russia itself.

    The conflict in Syria is but a single battle among a much larger war – a global war constituting what is basically a third World War, fought not upon vast but clearly defined fronts, but rather through the use of fourth generation warfare, proxies, mercenaries, economics, and information.

    CONFIRMED: US “Operation Rooms” Backing Al Qaeda in Syria
    By Tony Cartalucci

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