US Downplays a New Syrian Massacre

Exclusive: The Obama administration claims Syrian rebels in Ahrar al-Sham deserve protection from government attack although they have close ties to Al Qaeda and joined its official Syrian affiliate in a slaughter of Alawites, writes Daniel Lazare.

By Daniel Lazare

On May 12, at dawn, members of Al Nusra and an allied Syrian rebel group known as Ahrar al-Sham stormed the Alawite village of Al-Zahraa, reportedly killing 19 people and abducting 120 others. In typical Salafist fashion, Ahrar al-Sham then posted a grisly YouTube video showing jihadis chanting Allahu akbar – “God is great” – and pointing in triumph to a bloody female body sprawled across the floor.

The incident, which occurred about 10 miles north of Aleppo, couldn’t have been more embarrassing for the United States since, just a day earlier, it had blocked a Russian proposal to formally designate Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist group.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia and his entourage arrive to greet President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

King Salman of Saudi Arabia and his entourage arrive to greet President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Under intense questioning, State Department spokesman John Kirby grew visibly flustered as he struggled to defend US policy.

“I’m not going to get into internal deliberations one way or the other,” he said of the discussions among the 17 members of the International Syria Support Group, the United Nations body in charge of Syrian peace talks in Vienna. When a reporter from the “Russia Today” TV network demanded to know why, he sputtered:

“I’m telling you – look, you’re putting – I love how you do this, try to put everything on the United States.  The International Syria Support Group is an international – it represents the international community. Iran is a member. Russia is a member. Saudi Arabia – I could go on and on and on. All of them collectively made this decision.”

This was nonsense since it was the U.S. that led the charge against the resolution to classify Ahrar al-Sham as terrorist and Russia that was forced to back down. Kirby was simply dodging the issue. But if his inability to take responsibility shows anything, it is how uncomfortable at least some Washington officials have become with the Obama administration’s Syrian policy.

Obama’s Quagmire

And it’s no wonder. Syria is Obama’s Vietnam, a quagmire that grows messier and messier the harder he tries to escape – and Ahrar al-Sham shows why. One of the largest rebel factions in Syria, the so-called “Free Men of Syria,” began in 2011 as more or less an Al Qaeda spin-off with Mohamed Baheya, a long-time aide to Osama bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, occupying one of the group’s top spots. But for tactical reasons, it chose to adopt a more moderate tone.

Last July, for instance, it published op-eds in the Washington Post and the London Telegraph declaring that Syria should not be controlled “by a single party or group” and that any future government should aim at “striking balance that respects the legitimate aspirations of the majority as well as protects minority communities and enables them to play a real and positive role in Syria’s future.”

It sounded reasonable enough, especially once Robert S. Ford, Obama’s former ambassador to Syria, followed up a few days later with an article for Washington’s Middle East Institute arguing that Ahrar is worth dealing with because it believes that religious minorities should be allowed to hold low-level political positions provided “they possess the right qualifications.”

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (left) in a scene from an al-Qaeda video, released by the U.S. Defense Department.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (left) in a scene from an Al Qaeda video, released by the U.S. Defense Department.

Did the White House take its ex-ambassador’s advice? The answer, all too typically, was yes and no. Aware that the group opposes democratic self-rule and believes in imposing shari‘a at gunpoint, Obama kept it at an arm’s length. But at the same time he resisted pressure to classify it as terrorist and made no objection when it joined forces with Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, to form a new coalition calling itself Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest.

When Turkey and Saudi Arabia supplied the new alliance with U.S.-made TOW missiles so it could launch a major offensive in Syria’s northern Idlib province in March 2015, the administration held its tongue as well. [See’s “Climbing into Bed with Al-Qaeda.”]

It was a policy of neither-nor that allowed the administration to maintain “plausible deniability” while doing nothing to ruffle the feathers of Ankara or Riyadh as they cheered Ahrar al-Sham and Al Nusra on.

Besides, Turkey and Saudi Arabia had a point. However bigoted and reactionary, Ahrar al-Sham was a large and effective force at a time when secular rebels were increasingly rare. As long as the White House continued to back “regime change,” it couldn’t help collaborating with distasteful groups that were nonetheless effective on the battlefield.

The result, as Kirby’s dismal performance shows, has been to play down atrocities, plead ignorance, and then, when that doesn’t work, change the subject to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad alleged misdeeds instead.

When asked about reports that Ahrar al-Sham militants were “comingling” with Al Nusra – which is to say fighting side by side with Al Qaeda – State Department spokesman Elizabeth Trudeau replied on May 11 that “it’s very difficult to tease that out” because information is incomplete.

When asked who was to blame for the atrocities in Al-Zahraa, her colleague Kirby refused to say two days later because “we don’t have a whole lot of specific information about these attacks right now.” Three days after that, he was still reluctant to assign blame because, he said, the facts remained up in the air: “The only other thing I would say is regardless of who was responsible for this attack, there’s no excuse for killing innocent civilians, none whatsoever.”

Knowing Nothing

If the State Department was in no hurry to find out, it was because it didn’t want to know. “We are working with all members of the ISSG,” Kirby went on, “to use the appropriate amount of influence that they have … over groups in Syria to get everybody to abide by the cessation.”

If Ahrar al-Sham was guilty of mass murder and abduction, then the U.S. would use its influence to see to it that its behavior was less … extreme. What’s going on here? Is Ahrar al-Sham playing the U.S. for a fool? Or is the Obama administration using such groups to advance its strategic goals?

The answer is a bit of both. The best way to understand bizarre behavior like this is to see it in the context of a vast imperial breakdown that is now unrolling across much of the Middle East.

America’s two main partners in the great Syrian misadventure are both in a state of deepening crisis. Not only is Turkey lurching toward dictatorship under an increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but its economy is crashing as well. The Istanbul stock market fell eight percent after Erdogan forced Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu out of office on May 5 while the Turkish lire fell nearly six percent in a single day. Corporate bankruptcies are up, growth is down, and tourist income is falling amid bombings and civil war in the Kurdish southeast.

President Obama and King Salman Arabia stand at attention during the U.S. national anthem as the First Lady stands in the background with other officials on Jan. 27, 2015, at the start of Obama’s State Visit to Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza). (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama and King Salman Arabia stand at attention during the U.S. national anthem as the First Lady stands in the background with other officials on Jan. 27, 2015, at the start of Obama’s State Visit to Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza). (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

But America’s other partner – Saudi Arabia – is even worse as it lurches from one disaster to the next. The war in Yemen is costing the kingdom and its Sunni Arab allies an estimated $200 million day, with the lion’s share borne by Riyadh. This is money that the Saudis can ill afford given a budget deficit projected to reach 13.5 percent of GDP this year due to an 18-month slump in oil prices.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s “Vision 2030,” his grandiose economic plan for weaning the kingdom off oil, is meeting with widespread skepticism while the kingdom is so short of cash that it is considering paying contractors with IOU’s. When the Binladin Group, the kingdom’s largest construction company, laid off 50,000 foreign employees late last month, workers responded by rioting and setting fire to seven company buses. (Yes, Osama bin Laden was a member of the family that owns Binladin Group.)

Politically, the news is nothing short of ghastly. Under the late King Abdullah, the kingdom rapidly descended into fear and paranoia as it sent troops into neighboring Bahrain to crush democratic protests by the country’s 70-percent Shi‘ite majority and funneled billions of dollars to anti-Assad rebels in hopes of toppling Syria’s pro-Shi‘ite government.

Saudi Extremism

But where Abdullah was actually a mild reformer, believe it or not, his brother, Salman, who took over in January 2015, is a hardliner whose answer to criticism by Western human rights groups was to step up the number of public executions immediately after taking office and then doubling them again in 2016.  Salman’s March 2015 agreement with Erdogan to supply Al Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other jihadist groups with TOW missiles was in keeping with this increasingly xenophobic mindset.

It was the response of a beleaguered monarch convinced that Shi‘ite militants are pressing in on the kingdom from all sides and that the only way to hold them off is by stepping up aid to Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists.

But such efforts have only added to the kingdom’s woes. While Al Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham were able to eke out a short-term victory in Syria’s northern Idlib province, the only effect was to bring Russia into the war and tip the scales back in favor of Assad.

As a result, the Saudi kingdom now finds itself back on the defensive in Syria as well as in Yemen where the war against Shi‘ite Houthi rebels is hopelessly stalled. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran is rebuilding its ties to the world community after the April 2015 nuclear accord with the U.S. The more the kingdom struggles to assert itself, the more vulnerable its position grows.

“Were the Saudi monarchy to fall, it might be replaced not by a group of liberals and democrats but rather by Islamists and reactionaries,” warned Fareed Zakaria last month in the Washington Post. This is the nightmare that causes policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic to wake up in a cold sweat.

With oil prices off more than 50 percent from their peak in mid-2014, Saudi Arabia’s vast oil fields are worth less and less. But the prospect of a quarter of the world’s proven fossil-fuel reserves coming under the control of Al Qaeda or ISIS (as Islamic State is also known) is still too much to bear. So something – anything – must be done to maintain the status quo.

Buying Time

Thus, the administration dithers and stalls in the hope that a magic solution will somehow appear. Obviously, Obama made a big mistake in August 2011 in calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. With Arab Spring demonstrations erupting across the country and the Baathist regime seemingly nearing a breaking point, it seemed like an easy call. But it wasn’t.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Five years later, Assad is still in power while Obama finds himself on the hook to the Saudis, who want to see their bête noire toppled at all costs and are therefore determined to hold the U.S. to its word. Obama can’t afford another war in the Middle East or a military showdown with Russia.

He also knows that the Free Syrian Army, America’s favorite rebel faction, is a hollow shell no matter how much money and materiel the CIA sends its way. So he finds himself cooperating in one way or another with dangerous Sunni jihadists who, ideologically speaking, are no different from the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center on 9/11.

The upshot is a policy that makes no sense other than as a delaying tactic. Obama bombs Al Nusra to show he’s still serious about beating back Al Qaeda but includes its inseparable ally, Ahrar al-Sham, among the “non-terrorist” groups exempt from Syrian government attack under the terms of the May 5 Aleppo ceasefire agreement. [See’s “The Secret Behind the Yemen War.”]

Obama condemns terrorism but maintains back-channel communications with Ahrar al-Sham even though it’s nothing more than Al Qaeda-lite. He bombs Islamic State to show that he’s serious about combating ISIS but gives it a free pass whenever it goes up against Assad. [See’s “How US-Backed War on Syria Helped ISIS.”]

Obama calls for peace but refuses to condemn those responsible for atrocities like those in Al-Zahraa. Finally, Obama calls for a negotiated settlement but threatens to impose something called “Plan B”  if Assad doesn’t step down. That mysterious escalation could mean dividing the country along ethnic or religious lines, arming the rebels with portable anti-aircraft weapons known as Manpads, or something else entirely.

In truth, Obama is just trying to keep the lid on until Jan. 20 when the Syria mess becomes somebody else’s problem. At that point, he may well wind up on the Saudi payroll like Bill and Hillary Clinton or Tony Blair – assuming, that is, that the entity known as Saudi Arabia still exists.

Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).

18 comments for “US Downplays a New Syrian Massacre

  1. May 23, 2016 at 18:30

    @ Joe B —

    You’ve missed that the pivotal part of the U.S.-Saudi deal is the Saudis promise to only accept payment for their oil in U.S. dollars. Should the Saudis switch to some other currency for settling debts and particularly if folowed by other member-states of the Gulf Coast Council, the undoubted result would be the collapse of all western economies. See for more detail,

  2. Joe Lauria
    May 21, 2016 at 13:50

    Maybe the best thing I’ve read on the current state of play in Syria.

  3. Abe
    May 21, 2016 at 13:05

    Al Nusra’s ability to create the groundwork for Al Qaeda’s upcoming “emirate” is owed entirely to the United States and its coalition allies, including Turkey.

    Al Qaeda Exists Because it is Allowed, Even Encouraged to Do So…

    Jubhat Al Nusra, a US State Department listed foreign terrorist organization, is considered one of the largest and most influential forces on the battlefield in Syria fighting Damascus, second only to the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Stanford University in its report titled, “Mapping Militant Organizations: Jabhat al-Nusra,” admits that:

    “Al-Nusra is one of the best-equipped rebel groups in Syria…

    “…Second only to ISIS, al-Nusra attracts the most foreign fighters among rebel groups in the Syrian civil war. These fighters mostly come from the Middle East, but also from Chechnya and European states, with a smaller number from more distant countries like Australia and the United States.”

    Considering the immense resources admitted by the United States, the European Union, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar pledged to rebel groups in Syria, an alarming question arises when considering how much better equipped and funded Al Nusra appears to be. Where precisely are they getting more funding to be so much better equipped than rebel groups the US and its allies are pouring billions of dollars into? How is Al Nusra able to acquire more resources than the combined efforts of America, Europe and the Persian Gulf?

    The answer is just as alarming. It is not a coincidence that the US has spent billions on training programs for rebel groups that do not exist and are not currently fighting on the Syrian battlefield. The money was truly spent, but not on “rebels.” Instead, the money, through Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, has gone straight into Al Nusra’s war chests, armories and administrative budgets. The proof stares the world in the face each day with headlines of Al Nusra’s spanning exploits amid Syria’s grinding war.

    And as much has even been admitted.

    Articles like the Independent’s, “Turkey and Saudi Arabia alarm the West by backing Islamist extremists the Americans had bombed in Syria,” the New York Times’, “U.S. Relies Heavily on Saudi Money to Support Syrian Rebels,” and the BBC’s, “Arming Syrian rebels: Where the US went wrong,” add up to paint a stark picture of a United States and the coalition of allies it leads, intentionally building up Al Nusra and sustaining its occupation and entrenchment in Syria.

    This groundwork, courtesy of the United States and its allies, is what Al Qaeda is building its “emirate” on.


    Al Qaeda’s entire history since its inception in the 1980s to present day is a story of state-sponsored terrorism and proxy military campaigns. There is no possible means for Al Qaeda to have accomplished any of what it did without vast state-sponsorship behind it. And there is no possible way for it to do so today without vast state-sponsorship. This is why the New York Times refuses to ask difficult questions or quantify just what precisely is required to build Al Qaeda’s new “emirate” apparently overnight.

    Al Qaeda Goes to Syria: How to Build an Emirate Overnight
    By Ulson Gunnar

  4. Ron
    May 21, 2016 at 04:18

    ”… the nightmare that causes policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic to wake up in a cold sweat…” As these satanic personalities richly deserve.
    It takes a particularly evil type of sociopath to scour the world for savage psychopathic killers, beheaders, rapists, torturers and mass murderers – these minions of the New world Order have done that, with a relish. You don’t get to assemble tens of thousands of the worst degenerates on the face of the earth, arm them and turn them on a peaceful nation who were minding their own business — unless you are yourself a demon fit for the Eleventh Circle of Hell.
    And that’s where these people — many clad in dapper three-piece suits, male and female — belong. I hope that they have had their last sleep before the thousand-year waking horror that awaits them.

  5. May 21, 2016 at 02:54

    So the U.S. and Saudi policy of keeping oil prices down to pile the pressure on Russia are working, right? What a band of neoconpoops!

  6. Ol' Hippy
    May 20, 2016 at 20:43

    I’m just wondering how much support Saudi Arabia will get from the US when the oil drys up. The US allies in the region are all bad actors that have repressive regimes with horrible civil rights issues. Syria is a cluster f–k of a mess that no one knows how to resolve. I can’t follow who is fighting who from one day to the next. At least al Assad had a working state with a somewhat secular government. Will the US govt ever learn to stay out or will they continue to rain hell on peoples that don’t want the US govt’s. brand of democracy. I’m so tired of reading about endless wars and also wonder how many other Americans also would like some peace for a change.

  7. Zachary Smith
    May 20, 2016 at 20:09

    Under intense questioning, State Department spokesman John Kirby grew visibly flustered as he struggled to defend US policy.

    This is sort of off-topic, but I’ve got to wonder how a mush-for-brains moral train-wreck like John Kirby made it to Admiral in the US Navy. Doesn’t that service have any standards at all?

    • May 21, 2016 at 13:18

      lol …

  8. Zachary Smith
    May 20, 2016 at 19:53

    At that point, he may well wind up on the Saudi payroll like Bill and Hillary Clinton or Tony Blair – assuming, that is, that the entity known as Saudi Arabia still exists.

    Evildoers taking over Saudi Arabia would give NATO an excuse to bomb the hell out of the place. Perhaps that’s Plan A for that country.

    Speaking of conspiracy theories, one at the Saker site had this headline:

    Like with MH17 in Ukraine EgyptAir Flight MS804 crash is prequential to the US war on Egypt

    While that seems a little farfetched, Egypt is one of the few relatively stable Muslim nations near Holy Israel.

    Finally, from the essay again:

    America’s two main partners in the great Syrian misadventure are both in a state of deepening crisis. Not only is Turkey lurching toward dictatorship under an increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but its economy is crashing as well.

    If Turkey can somehow be turned into a disaster area too, the shitty little ‘wag-the-dog’ nation state on the east end of the Med will be in hog heaven.

  9. Joe B
    May 20, 2016 at 18:00

    I would like to see an analysis of the oil market if Saudi Arabia was angry at the US. They would still sell their oil to others, at lower prices to attract the remaining buyers, the supply would be unaffected, and the US would grab whatever others were not buying. A few contracts and shippers would experience a bump, with no long term effect. So I think the oil argument has always been incorrect.

    I have heard that there is or was a special obligation of Saudi Arabia to keep in the US the proceeds from their oil sales. If so they would try to abrogate that if angry, but the US could in principle seize the assets at least temporarily. So again a bump but not a major disruption.

    Keeping the lid on as lame duck may also not be necessary. If bold acts are required now is the time. But Obama had a full term as lame duck and still did nothing much but avoid playing with the army. The Saudi/Oil/MIC pension plan is more like it, or avoiding disruption that might help the Repubs.

    • Joe B
      May 20, 2016 at 18:18

      I should add that Iran would doubtless by happy to supply what it could of any oil withheld by KSA.
      And the “special relationship” of KSA and Israel is probably buying AIPAC influence right now for Clinton.

    • Joe B
      May 20, 2016 at 18:27

      Obama may be staying out of conflicts just to make the Ds less vulnerable to the charge of warmongering – so that Killary can go to war shortly after election. Then she gets the AIPAC/MIC campaign money for more war, the Obama Museum goes ahead with the peacemaker theme, and the sheeple think its high time for more slaughter.

  10. inooc biriina
    May 20, 2016 at 16:31

    President obama is abettiing and aiding saudi and turkisk jihadists right?

  11. Pablo Diablo
    May 20, 2016 at 15:04

    Gotta keep the war machine well fed.

  12. Chris Chuba
    May 20, 2016 at 14:12

    Unfortunately the war in Yemen is only costing the Saudi’s around $550M per month (if I did the math right, it was $5.5B for 2015 since March 29).
    I wish it was $200M a day, that would come out to 73B a year.

    If we actually used our leverage to get Saudi Arabia and Turkey to stop supplying U.S. made weapons to the rebels then the non-IS rebellion would collapse and Assad’s forces would be able to concentrate on ISIS and then there would be multi-party elections in Syria. This in combination with the support that we are giving the FSA that collaborates with Al Nusra and the Army of Islam groups is the primary reason that Al Qaeda and ISIS survive in Syria. It is as simple as that.

  13. Tom Welsh
    May 20, 2016 at 13:24

    “Were the Saudi monarchy to fall, it might be replaced not by a group of liberals and democrats but rather by Islamists and reactionaries…”

    So that would make no material difference, right?

    • May 20, 2016 at 14:17

      More like a Bloodbath! Saudi’s tried to Enforce their Own Religious Views on the other Arab States. Rather than allow for Religious tolerance. At the expense of Hired Mercenaries. Funding War after War. They have NO Military. No Strategy.Only $$$$$. That is quickly changing. If NATO pulls out…. If the other States gain advantage over Saudi Arabia (due to lack of ,they will Not be shown mercy.

      • May 21, 2016 at 13:15

        I am surprised the “deeply” religious saudis have not turned on the royals … or are lap-dances, alcohol, and cocaine only mortal sins if indulged within saudi Arabia.
        such hypocrisy knows no bounds.

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