A New Fight Over Syria War Strategy

Exclusive: President Obama has signaled a willingness to join Russia in going after Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front in Syria, but neocons and other hawks are fighting the policy shift, reports Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter

The long internal political struggle within the Obama administration over policy toward Syria has intensified following a proposal by President Barack Obama to cooperate with Russia in an air campaign against Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise.

The proposal, in response to an overture from Russia in May, would coordinate airstrikes against al-Nusra Front – the most powerful force in the war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime – in return for Russian agreement to constrain the Syrian regime from bombing non-jihadist forces willing to comply with the ceasefire.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (right) talks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, with John Brennan and other national security aides present. (Photo credit: Office of Director of National Intelligence)

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (right) talks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, with John Brennan and other national security aides present. (Photo credit: Office of Director of National Intelligence)

If fully implemented, such a joint U.S.-Russian military campaign against Nusra could help hasten an end to the war by weakening the jihadist group cited by the Syrian regime as a major reason it has refused to make sufficient political concessions. In theory, such cooperation could strengthen both the regime and the so-called “moderate” rebels at the expense of the jihadists.

But Obama’s proposal is under attack by powerful elements of the national security bureaucracy. Even though the opponents have been unable to stop the proposal, they continue to press their case and it is not clear how committed the proponents are in pressuring their Syrian clients to comply with an agreement.

Last week, opponents of the proposal within the Obama administration leaked its existence to Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, whose sympathies clearly lie with the U.S. advocates of direct U.S. war against the Assad regime.

Rogin’s story confirms that one major source of opposition to the proposal is Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and his staff. The article suggests, moreover, that the Pentagon opposition has less to do with Syria than with the Pentagon’s interest in preventing any softening of the new U.S.-Russia Cold War.

Carter opposed the Obama plan for a joint military strategy with Russia, Rogin writes, because Russian President Vladimir Putin sees military cooperation with Washington in Syria as “a way to gradually unwind Russia’s isolation following the Russian military intervention in Ukraine.”

But the primary argument against a joint campaign with Russia targeting Nusra Front is that it would jeopardize the military strength of Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise and thus help the Assad government reclaim key territory.

Rogin quotes a complaint from Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, that, even if Russia delivers on a commitment to halt regime bombing of non-jihadist armed groups, the other armed groups fighting Assad would be in a much weaker position.

The on-the-ground subordination of the so-called “legitimate opposition” to the command structure of Al Qaeda’s offshoot, which is officially designated a terrorist organization, has been at the center of the diplomatic maneuvering between the Obama administration and Russia over possible military cooperation in Syria.

Russia’s Overture

The original Russian proposal to the United States for a joint air campaign, announced by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu on May 20, was conditional on non-jihadist armed groups separating physically from Nusra. The Russians had made that same condition part of the agreement for the partial ceasefire in February.

President Barack Obama meets with President Vladimir Putin of Russia on the sidelines of the G20 Summit at Regnum Carya Resort in Antalya, Turkey, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. National Security Advisior Susan E. Rice listens at left. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama meets with President Vladimir Putin of Russia on the sidelines of the G20 Summit at Regnum Carya Resort in Antalya, Turkey, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. National Security Advisior Susan E. Rice listens at left. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to the condition but never delivered on the pledge to get the “moderate” armed groups to move away from Nusra and its jihadist allies. Nusra and another hard-line jihadist group, Ahrar al-Sham, have been the leaders of the powerful Saudi-backed rebel umbrella group, the Army of Conquest.

The subordinate non-jihadist groups have made it clear they have no intention of abandoning Nusra Front and its superior fighting capabilities. Instead of separating themselves from Nusra, the non-jihadist forces in northwestern Syria joined Nusra in breaking the ceasefire.

Charles Lister, a British specialist on the jihadists in Syria, recounted being told by the commander of a U.S.-supported armed group around March 20 that Nusra Front officials began a round of meetings with non-jihadist opposition groups from the areas of Hama, Latakia and southern Aleppo to persuade them to join in resuming the offensive against the Assad regime, rather than participating in a ceasefire and political negotiations.

When Nusra Front launched an offensive operation on April 3 on three fronts near Aleppo and in Idlib with the aim of taking back territory lost to the Syrian government in 2015, a number of the armed opposition groups supported by the United States fought alongside Al Qaeda’s affiliate.

The opposition commander explained to Lister that, if his group had not agreed to join Nusra’s offensive, “we would be seen as the enemy” — thus acknowledging that the U.S.-supported groups see no choice but to fight with the much stronger Nusra Front.

On May 5, just over two months ago, 37 armed opposition groups that were continuing to call themselves “Free Syrian Army,” the name applied to many of the U.S.-backed rebel forces inside Syria, issued a declaration that rejected any ceasefire that allowed attacks on Nusra Front.

“[A]ll the armed groups from across Syria will form a single bloc,” it said, adding, “Any offensive that takes place in an area where our units are present will be regarded as an attack against all the units throughout Syrian territory and we reserve the right to respond to it.”

In other words, many of the U.S.-armed, supposedly “moderate” rebels are in a strategic alliance with Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. It is that reality that has complicated Russian airstrikes against “terrorist” elements, both Nusra and the Islamic State, without also hitting U.S.-backed rebel groups and provoking outrage in Washington.

Facing Realities

Obama’s willingness to increase cooperation with the Russians is recognition that the continuing collaboration between Nusra and the so-called “moderates” represents an untenable situation if Syrian peace negotiations are to have any meaning. If the “moderates” don’t separate from Nusra, they effectively serve as its protective shield.

Thus, the inside-Washington bureaucratic pushback against Obama’s proposal to Russia was prompted by the fact that the Obama proposal appears to represent a fundamental departure from its policy in 2014-15 of encouraging – if not participating in – making a Nusra Front-led military coalition a powerful threat in northwestern Syria.

Turkish, Saudi and Qatari financial and logistical support for the Army of Conquest military command — dominated by Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib — was the crucial factor in the shift in military balance that raised the specter of a jihadist victory over the largely secular Assad government and led to Russian military intervention last fall.

Though the Russian intervention helped the Syrian military regain key territory, the U.S.-Russian-negotiated partial ceasefire has enabled Nusra and its allies to regroup.

Brett McGurk, Obama’s special envoy for the “Global Coalition to Counter IS” – also known as the Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL or Daesh – has noted in written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Nusra Front “is gaining ground in the west, putting down roots in Idlib province along the Turkish border.”

McGurk said Nusra Front is now “al-Qaeda’s largest formal affiliate in history” and added that it is “a serious concern.” It was the first time anyone in the Obama administration had registered the slightest concern about the military power of Nusra Front in Syria since the strategy of exploiting its military potential for diplomatic advantage over the Assad regime went into effect.

Obama’s proposed cooperation with Russia against Nusra Front was reportedly sent to Moscow by the State Department on June 27. The implication of the counter-argument protesting Obama’s proposal is that the opponents are willing to accept a long-term Al Qaeda-dominated mini-state in northwest Syria and even risk the possibility of a Nusra Front-led coalition coming to power in Damascus.

No Clean Break

But the fact that some hawks in the U.S. security bureaucracy oppose Obama’s proposal does not necessarily mean that the President is seeking a clean break from past administration strategy.

A general view showing damages after what activists said was an airstrike with explosive barrels from forces loyal to President al-Assad in Al-Shaar area in Aleppo

A general view showing damages after what activists said was an airstrike with explosive barrels from forces loyal to President al-Assad in Al-Shaar area in Aleppo

In his Senate testimony, McGurk cited the need to “find a mechanism to de-escalate and end the Syrian civil war, thereby allowing the moderate opposition to take charge of its own territory without threat of Assad’s barrel bombs overhead or terrorists down the street.”

But Kerry and other administration policymakers know very well that the vast majority of the Syrian opposition groups are not going to separate themselves from Nusra Front, so the idea of a “moderate” opposition with its own zone of control is a political fiction.

A key element in the new proposal is the demand that Russia agree to guarantee an end to all Assad regime air attacks against the “legitimate opposition.” That is apparently being interpreted as imposing extreme limitations on operations by the Syrian air force.

Journalist Laura Rozen quotes “a diplomat involved in the international discussions on Syria” as saying, “Grounding the [Syrian] air force is possible; restricting its area of activity could be a possibility.”

Any U.S.-Russian agreement on cooperation against Nusra Front would be clearly based on the premise that any new limitations on either Russian or Syrian airpower would come only after opposition groups have moved away from the Nusra-dominated areas and withdrawn from the Nusra-led military commands with which they have been affiliated.

After those groups failed to move away from Nusra Front troops this spring, Kerry’s State Department did put pressure on their supplies lines across the Turkish border. But Kerry and the State Department continued to blame Russia for failing to prevent the Syrian government from carrying out air attacks on targets in the Nusra Font zone.

Kerry, who is supporting Obama’s proposal, according to Rogin’s report, may still be hoping to use the proposed agreement to build a case that Russian and Syrian government intransigence – not the continued U.S. complicity in Turkish-Saudi-Qatari strategy of backing the Nusra Front-Ahrar al Sham duo in the northwest – is the reason why the “legitimate opposition” is still under air attack.

As the Obama administration goes into its final months, what appears to be the most promising path to an end to the Syrian civil war may yet be blocked by U.S. refusal to break with the policies of its regional allies who have been feeding the jihadist-led war for years.

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.

21 comments for “A New Fight Over Syria War Strategy

  1. Pablo Diablo
    July 9, 2016 at 19:27

    The Neoconservatives and their corporate backers make money (lots of money) off of wars whether they win or lose. Gotta make enemies faster than we kill them.

  2. Jim Hartz
    July 9, 2016 at 15:19

    Gareth Porter’s article is perhaps the most nuanced I have yet seen on recent US strategy toward “regime change” in Syria, taking into account recent “make nice” gestures toward Russia by the US and Turkey. They’re just stalling till Hillary ”Kick Butt” Clinton plants her butt in the Oval Office. These people are on a “Mission from God,” Manifest Destiny on steroids, both resolved and economically determined to keep on going, they know not where. There’s no turning back for them from their goal of Total Global Hegemony. They’re on automatic pilot. And that “God” magnetizing them maniacally forward? Some still-animate grizzled idol-mummy straight out of “Tales of the Crypt,” theism-capitalism incarnate!

  3. July 9, 2016 at 10:40

    too late. too late. I think he cannot be trusted.

    2LT Dennis Morrisseau USArmy Officer [Vietnam era] ANTI-WAR, retired.
    POB 177 W Pawlet, VT 05775 802 645 9727 [email protected]

  4. Zachary Smith
    July 9, 2016 at 10:34

    This morning I read a piece by The Saker about Syria, and it left an impression that what the US does or doesn’t decide may not matter much. That is, unless it plans to “pull a hillary” and sends in the Marines.


    Another piece I saw said that Erdogan has probably concluded that he bit off more than he can chew by snuggling up with ISIS, and may have made a deal with the Russians to wind down Turkish support for the head choppers. If true, this is very bad news for ISIS, and their days are numbered in Aleppo and other border areas.

  5. Erik
    July 9, 2016 at 08:51

    The proposal will be meaningless unless it acknowledges the limited ability of all sides to act without casualties to the US-backed non-jihadists who provide the perfect cover for jihadists.

    If the US cannot separate its allies there, it has no basis for complaint against Russia not doing so.

    It appears from the named opponents that all are merely Israeli operatives and must be ignored. Their goals are opposed to those of all parties and the rest of humanity.

  6. Secret Agent
    July 9, 2016 at 07:59

    Must see. Must spread.


    The whole story on the war on Syria.

    Senator Black describes it as the most despicable act in American history.

    Seriously, Obama is worse than W. By far. Because while W never set out to get all those people killed, it was Obama’s intention from the start. In the Obama administration there is no decency. None.

    • Larry
      July 9, 2016 at 10:45

      “Secret Agent’s” video link is from a LYNDON LAROUCHE affiliated ‘stink tank’, Executive Intelligence Review, which has been spying on and against citizens on behalf of corporations and police departments since the 1970s.

      The interviewee on this LAROUCHIE video link is state senator Richard Black of Virginia, who is known for opposing the use of Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” in schools because it’s “moral sewage” that he said has “too many breasts”. Black also publicly stated that if ISIS defeats Assad, ISIS will then “march on Europe”, a truly paranoid train of thought evoking an impossibility to justify his ridiculous ideologic beliefs.

      “Secret Agent” says Obama is worse than Bush, who along with fellow neocons, starting with Iraq, intentionally created a series of domino-falling catastrophic wars that are not even halfway finished falling. Retired NATO commander General Wesley Clark told of seeing the internal memo that described this neocon plan.

      Syria’s current debacle is part of the neocon plan for Israel’s neighbors, contiguous and further. Obama if anything has been dragging his feet regarding the neocon (and Israel’s) intentions with Syria et al. This “Secret Agent” must be a bumbling ideologue to believe the nonsense he spews and links to.

      • Gregory Kruse
        July 9, 2016 at 12:32

        Even if Obama is just as bad as Bush, or even almost as bad, that would be bad enough.

    • bobzz
      July 9, 2016 at 15:19

      Great link. Thanks.

  7. Kiza
    July 8, 2016 at 23:30

    Kerry is aiming for a position in the Hillary administration, therefore he is not with Obama on Syria even if he pretends to be. But the whole “negotiation” bull was just intended for regrouping and re-arming of the terrorists and now they are on the offensive. The Russians convinced the Syrians to stop and negotiate when SAA had the forward momentum, now the terrorists are on the offensive and the Russians are coming back to Syria, even sending their only aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean. On the terrorist and sponsor of terrorism side (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, US, Israel), everybody is waiting for President Hillary who is expected to aggressively push the Russians out of Syria and finish the job of regime change – the US has two Carrier Battle Groups where the Russians will,only have one. The money that the Israelis and dual US citizens invested in finding oil in Golan Heights is getting impatient. Israel is already openly supporting ISIS: http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/788/120.html (please use online transaltion). The calculation is that the fall of Assad Government and the division of Syria will leave the occupied Golan Heights in the Israeli hands and free up the Israelis to exploit its oil.

    • Kiza
      July 8, 2016 at 23:39

      For those who do not want to use online translator, this is what the head of the Israeli Military Intelligence said:
      “The last three months were the most difficult for Daas since its inception,” he said. “Israel does not want Syria to end the situation where the world powers left the area and we remained with Hezbollah and Iran with better capabilities. [Syrian] state termination of support is problematic.”

      Israelis openly want ISIS et al to win in Syria.

    • Larry
      July 9, 2016 at 10:23

      Interesting about the oil, but I think it’s only a secondary concern at best. Netanyahu wants to pulverize Syria’s remaining military including its airpower. He supports the fall of Assad so he will have the excuse to destroy Syria’s military infrastructure ostensibly so it won’t fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. At that point, there will be no obstacle to Israel extending its territory further into Golan and Syria proper – a big buffer zone, if you will, as it had in Lebanon for 20 years. It’s not [so-]called Greater Israel for nothing.

      • Gregory Kruse
        July 9, 2016 at 12:24

        That’s about it.

  8. Joe L.
    July 8, 2016 at 20:01

    What’s so twisted about Al Nusra is that they were supposedly “rebels” or “moderates” at one time but swore allegiance to Al Qaeda. Frankly, I don’t believe that there are any moderates in Syria – they are all terrorists not good or bad terrorists. I also believe that the US (and western coalition) are either backing Al Qaeda to pull off “regime change” OR factions related to Al Qaeda meanwhile our “allies”, Turkey/Saudi Arabia/Qatar, are funding and arming Al Qaeda/ISIS as VP Joe Biden admitted. As for the US and Russia working together, I hope that it happens if it is genuine, but I don’t believe that the US can be trusted after the complete utter mess that it has made out of the Middle East for the purpose of “regime change” and control of the regions resources. I also do not believe that any country has the right to say whether Assad should go, that should really be up to the people of Syria ONLY. Enough of these wars and “regime change” nonsense – even once all this nonsense is over it is going to take decades or more to repair what the US (and coalition) have broken which also means lost generations in those countries. If this was ever truly about “people” then this would have been over a long time ago but instead geopolitics and dark ambitions got in the way…

    • mary
      July 9, 2016 at 14:29

      to Joe L. Your comments reflect my thoughts. This mess, in my opinion, is based on geopolitics and dark ambitions. Also, I appreciate your clear thinking. Hopefully, such collective thoughts can shed light in a very gloomy situation as well as being able to hold weight based on its on merit.

    • July 10, 2016 at 07:07

      “If this was ever truly about “people” then this would have been over a long time ago but instead geopolitics and dark ambitions got in the way…”

      The Middle East Wars are fought for Israel.

      Who runs the U.S., and the U.S. media? Ask Dr. Alan Sabrosky, Dr. Paul Craig Roberts and Dr. Robert Parry
      Israel owns the Congress, and while any President can start any fight anywhere that the President chooses to start, Congressional supremacy inheres in the US Constitutional order, although there have certainly been periods when a very strong President — especially one who knew how to use the media of the day — could circumvent the Congress.

      But pro-Israel Jews also owns the mainstream media now, so that element of bypassing the Congress on the issue of Israel isn’t there. A President who chose to fight Israel would find himself in the same position as Obama, basically left with the choice of an undignified public grovel, or seeing his Administration’s overall policy stonewalled on Capitol Hill.

      I suspect, The Donald has a backbone and the courage to stand up to Netanyahu and the Israel Lobby once in the drivers seat. No outsider has come as close to winning as he has, he is giving them the jitters… which is why the War Party and its talking heads in the Media are throwing everything at him. He is facing a very undemocratic treatment head on! Go Donald!

    • b.grand
      July 11, 2016 at 22:55

      Indeed. The moderates were infiltrated from the beginning, then swept away. If you don’t know of Va. Senator Richard Black, you’ll be blown away by this important interview. He tells the truth, American 10-year plan to topple Assad began in 2001. (My only criticism is that he and Steinberg frame the destruction of the Mid-east as only new cold war revenge, completely letting Israel off the hook. Their Yinon Plan began in 1982.)

      U.S. Policy in Syria: An Interview with VA Senator Richard Black

  9. Zachary Smith
    July 8, 2016 at 19:58

    Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to the condition but never delivered on the pledge to get the “moderate” armed groups to move away from Nusra and its jihadist allies.

    It seems to me that there has been a pattern of the BHO Administration making promises it either can’t or won’t keep.

    A recent case in point:

    U.S. jets abandoned Syrian rebels in the desert. Then they lost a battle to ISIS.

    People are bound to notice you’re not reliable when this sort of thing keeps happening.

    I would expect the Russians have already been burned enough times they’ll be extremely cautious.

  10. Nancy
    July 8, 2016 at 16:36

    Is this a really happening?

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