Can US Break with Jihadist Allies?

Exclusive: The Obama administration finds itself caught in the contradictions of its Syrian policy, having backed radical jihadists to achieve another “regime change” but now finding that its opportunism is spreading chaos beyond the Mideast into Europe. But can the U.S. adjust course and abandon its jihadist clients, asks Joe Lauria.

By Joe Lauria (Updated on Jan. 25 with new last two paragraphs)

The passage of a major U.N. Security Council resolution is like a cheap high: the euphoria wears off pretty quickly. Such was last month’s unanimous adoption of a “peace plan” to end nearly five years of Syrian bloodshed.

With Monday’s start date for a planned ceasefire and the launch of negotiations already put off, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the talks will start any time soon. The major obstacle is deciding who will represent the opposition across the table from the government. And that hinges on the question of who is a terrorist in Syria. It doesn’t help that world governments have failed since the League of Nations to agree on a treaty legally defining terrorism.

President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, attends a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Dec. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joe Biden, attends a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Dec. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Geneva on Wednesday and the two were unable to decide who the Syrian terrorists are that should be excluded from the negotiations.

They agree on excluding the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front (Al Qaeda’s affiliate) who have already been eliminated from participation. But what about the myriad other opposition groups, some of whom collaborate closely with Nusra and other extremists?

A hundred of them were melded together by Saudi Arabia in Riyadh last November. But they want Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down immediately. That’s a complete non-starter as the U.N. plan would allow him to stay on for six months making way for a transitional government until a new constitution is written and a general election held in 2017. Kerry has been blasted by neoconservatives for agreeing to this compromise and for allowing Assad to run again in that election.

The U.S. compromised on that point after being spurred on by the refugee crisis that is spreading disorder into Europe and by Russia’s entry into the war against the Islamic State and other jihadist groups. But there is so far little compromise on the question of terrorism.

Putin’s Challenge

Moscow’s and Washington’s disagreement goes back to the beginning of the Syrian civil war, as I reported more than three years ago. In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin went a step further in accusing the U.S. of supporting terrorists in Syria in his address to the U.N. General Assembly.

“The Islamic State itself did not come out of nowhere,” Putin said. “It was initially developed as a weapon against undesirable secular regimes.” He said it was irresponsible “to manipulate extremist groups and use them to achieve your political goals, hoping that later you’ll find a way to get rid of them or somehow eliminate them.”

He made it clear he was speaking of the U.S., when he added: “I’m urged to ask those who created this situation: do you at least realize now what you’ve done? But I’m afraid that this question will remain unanswered, because they have never abandoned their policy, which is based on arrogance, exceptionalism and impunity.”

Putin did not mention clear evidence he was certainly aware of from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. An August 2012 DIA document declassified by a judge says that Washington, Ankara and the Gulf States were helping to establish a Salafist principality in eastern Syria to pressure Assad and that it could team up with extremists on the Iraqi side of the border to form an Islamic State, the document uses that exact phrase. Then DIA chief Gen. Mike Flynn later told Al Jazeera that this was a “willful decision in Washington,” not the U.S. merely turning a blind eye to what was happening.

The U.S. has long supported unsavory groups to reach short-term U.S. interests. Washington argues it is vetting what groups it supports, but even the Daily Beast (a big supporter of neoconservative regime-change strategies) has called this into question, reporting that CIA-backed rebels fight in tandem with Al Qaeda.

In his speech Putin called for a coalition similar to the Soviet-U.S. alliance in the Second World War to fight the most fearsome terrorist force in history, Adolf Hitler’s Nazis. Putin argued that Syria’s military is the only effective ground force (along with the Kurds) against the Islamic State and that all nations who really want to defeat it should work with Assad’s army and fight the groups trying to overthrow him.

“Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of parties willing to stand firm against those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind,” Putin said.

Russia presented a draft resolution at the Security Council that would have authorized such a grand coalition. But the U.S. flatly rejected it because it still plots Assad’s overthrow with groups that Russia says are terrorists. It wasn’t a surprise then that two days after Putin spoke that Russia launched its first airstrike was against a CIA-backed group threatening the Assad government. It was a strong message from Moscow to Washington: if you keep supporting extremists in Syria we will strike them.

The U.S. government and its corporate media accused Russia of hitting “moderate” groups instead of the Islamic State (which Russia has repeatedly also targeted). Washington leveled the tired charge that Putin is trying to reestablish the Soviet Empire and takeover the Middle East from the U.S.: a duplicitous case of projecting imperial designs onto another. Perhaps Russia really is worried about terrorism spreading from Syria and really wants to do something to stop it.

Defining Terrorism

Having an international agreement legally defining terrorism would be useful in this circumstance, but coming up with one codified in a treaty has long bedeviled governments. The League of Nations tried and failed. A month after 9/11 the U.N. General Assembly met to agree on an international convention against terrorism, but failed because it couldn’t agree on defining terrorism.

Terrorism is only a tactic. But governments seem to conflate it with a cause. It’s okay when their side uses it, but not when their enemy does. This has spawned the cliché, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

If you can objectively isolate the tactic from the cause, an agreed definition may be possible. It would be along the lines of terrorism is an act of violence carried out by non-state actors, targeting civilians for any cause, whether just or not.

The cause of the Palestinians under occupation is just, for instance, but blowing up Israeli civilians in a bus is terrorism. The cause of the Islamic State, as an occupying force, is clearly unjust, and it commits terrorism when it targets civilians. The target is essential to the definition. A non-state actor, even the Islamic State, attacking military targets is using guerilla tactics not terrorism. Some groups, like ISIS, use both.

The lack of a definition has helped states to continue sponsoring terrorism, though they do not directly commit acts of terrorism themselves, as many people contend. States commit war crimes, which is worse. Only non-state actors employ terrorism, which is not under the jurisdiction of the war-crimes International Criminal Court and could only in some instances be considered a war crime.

Without a common understanding of what terrorism is, it is difficult to imagine agreement between Moscow and Washington to get the Syrian talks started without some extremely deft diplomatic maneuvering. That may still happen amid reports that the U.N. will invite two sets of opposition groups to satisfy both the U.S. and Russia.
Without such a compromise to get talks started, however slim the chance they will succeed, there is no prospect in sight of an end to the Syrian war until one side wins it militarily.

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached at[email protected]  and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.

9 comments for “Can US Break with Jihadist Allies?

  1. Peter Loeb
    January 27, 2016 at 07:10


    These were the words of conservative newscaster Paul
    Harvey on his radio news programs.

    The essential information provided by Joe Lauria in his
    piece “Can the US Break with Jihadist Allies?” and suplemented.
    by the comments of “Abe” above is needed. Most Americans
    (and probably most westerners?) are oblivious to these
    resolutions and subsequent developments. It is not written about in
    the media so perhaps it didn’t happen. Only it did! (Example:
    If there is a discussion about Syria and one begins to talk about the
    progress of negotiations, the result will be a blank stare.One could
    as easily be talking about a trip to Mars!)

    More articles on this area are needed as a base of our knowledge.
    Thanks for these contributions.

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  2. Abe
    January 26, 2016 at 22:03

    On January 25th, which was the date when peace talks on Syria were to start, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that the organization founded by Osama bin Laden admirer, Zahran Alloush, represent the anti-Assad forces in the upcoming Syrian peace talks […]

    Alloush had founded and led the jihadist organization, Jaysh al-Islam. Wikipedia says “Jaysh al-Islam ex-leader Zahran Alloush gave a speech on the merits of Hajj in 2013 and praised Usama bin Laden, addressing him by the honorific ‘Sheikh’ and the honorific ‘rahimahu Allah. … Alloush addressed the Al-Qaeda organization Jabhat al-Nusra as ‘our brothers’.” Al-Nusra had helped in carrying out a U.S.-Turkish-Saudi-Qatari arranged sarin gas attack in August 2013 that President Obama blamed on Assad and that Obama still cites as his reason and justification for bombing Assad’s army. Even when Obama entered the White House in 2009, he was aiming to find a way to remove Syria’s President, Assad, from power. Setting up this gas-attack (and blaming it on Assad) turned out to be the way to make that possible.

    Al Jazeera announced on 25 December 2015 that “Russian Air Raids Kill Prominent Rebel Commander” Alloush. Both Russia and Assad now will have to negotiate with Mohammad Alloush, his survivor. Even French leader Francois Hollande supports Alloush — despite the recent jihadist attacks in France. Apparently, anything to get rid of Russia’s ally Assad is okay with Western leaders.

    The Saud family actually required Alloush to head the anti-Assad delegation. The Sauds were insisting on it even back in early December 2015. Kerry and the rest of the West weren’t entirely comfortable with that demand. A ‘compromise’ was reached: there will be two heads: Alloush, and another figure supported by the Sauds: Asad al-Zoubi. This is yet another example of the Saud family’s leadership of the Western alliance against Russia and its allies.

    Thus, on the one side of these peace talks will be Assad (the non-sectarian Shiite leader who is supported by the vast majority of Syrians and is also supported by Russia and by Iran); and, on the other side will be Alloush and al-Zubi, two favorites of the Saud family (supported by the West, which is led by the Saud family, who financed Al Qaeda).

    U.S. & Allies Make bin Laden Admirer a Negotiator in Syria Peace Talks
    By Eric Zuesse

  3. Herman
    January 25, 2016 at 20:44

    I agree with Mr. Luria that absent a 180 degree turn by the United States the only end possible is the defeat of one side or the other.

    Our fixation on the Soviet Union and now Russia has driven us to support the extremists as a strategy to weaken both. This was true in Afghanistan as with Syria, and it is only the international outrage caused by extremists actions in Europe that forces us to take action against them. We still vacillate, supporting with weapons groups we claim not to be extremists.

    America seems to have a hard time being honest with itself, in admitting the colossal blunders in Syria, as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and hopefully we will find a way to abandon our policy and when peace is restored to declare victory.

  4. Bevan Ramsden
    January 25, 2016 at 20:10

    Terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians to achieve a political end.
    There can be no distinction between state-perpetrators and non-state perpetrators.
    The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was an act of terrorism – one of the worst in history. The napalming of vietnamese villages were acts of terrorism.

  5. Erik
    January 25, 2016 at 08:03

    Good article. But using the term “terrorism” for violence against civilians only by non-state actors (calling the same crime by state actors “war crime”) does not lead to clarity let alone agreement. “Terrorism is only a tactic” not a goal, so call it that regardless of who does it, and call it a war crime as well.

    The reason that “governments seem to conflate it with a cause” is that they want to obscure the goals of the other side to deceive their own populations on what they are fighting about. Using “terrorism” only to describe non-state violence is participating in state propaganda, capitulating to right-wing fearmongering, which as Aristotle warned must create fear of a foreign enemy so as to demand power as protectors and accuse their opponents of disloyalty. If we also call right-wing state attacks upon civilians “terrorism” they are seen as the frauds they daily struggle to be, so why withhold the honor from them?

    The ICC war crimes jurisdiction can be invoked by simply considering state sponsorship of non-state terrorism to be state terrorism.

    “Word-smithing” will not lead to diplomatic compromise; only an agreement as to goals can do that. We don’t have that because the US government hides the goals of its politicians from its own people, to pursue goals contrary to the interests of humanity, but profitable to the right-wing politicians installed by unregulated economic concentrations.

    • Erik
      January 25, 2016 at 20:28

      I should have noted that ICC jurisdiction cannot be invoked because the US refuses to sign the treaty – no more war crimes, no future for the right wing.
      A very good article.

  6. Jerad Howell
    January 25, 2016 at 03:52

    It is maddeningly frustrating that the vast majority of the US media seems to ignore anything other than the official US government line on Syria. I appreciate the good reporting that you folks at consortium news do on Syria and other issues which are very poorly covered by most of the media.

  7. Call A Spade
    January 25, 2016 at 01:23

    I would love to be able to plot the overthrow of the corporate governments of the world in favour of the people.

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