Al Qaeda’s Ties to US-Backed Syrian Rebels

Exclusive: The U.S. is demanding the grounding of Syria’s air force but is resisting Russian demands that U.S.-armed rebels separate from Al Qaeda, a possible fatal flaw in the new cease-fire, writes Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter

The new ceasefire agreement between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which went into effect at noon Monday, has a new central compromise absent from the earlier ceasefire agreement that the same two men negotiated last February. But it isn’t clear that it will produce markedly different results.

The new agreement incorporates a U.S.-Russian bargain: the Syrian air force is prohibited from operating except under very specific circumstances in return for U.S.-Russian military cooperation against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, also known as Daesh, ISIS or ISIL. That compromise could be a much stronger basis for an effective ceasefire, provided there is sufficient motivation to carry it out fully.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry chats with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov outside a room in the Russian Foreign Ministry's Osobnyak Guesthouse in Moscow, Russia, on July 15, 2016. [State Department Photo]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry chats with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov outside a room in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Osobnyak Guesthouse in Moscow, Russia, on July 15, 2016. [State Department Photo]

The question, however, is whether the Obama administration is willing to do what would certainly be necessary for the agreement to establish a longer-term ceasefire at the expense of Daesh and Al Qaeda.

In return for ending the Syrian air force’s operations, generally regarded as indiscriminate, and lifting the siege on the rebel-controlled sectors of Aleppo, the United States is supposed to ensure the end of the close military collaboration between the armed groups it supports and Al Qaeda, and join with Russian forces in weakening Al Qaeda.

The new bargain is actually a variant of a provision in the Feb. 27 ceasefire agreement: in return for Russian and Syrian restraints on bombing operations, the United States would prevail on its clients to separate themselves from their erstwhile Al Qaeda allies.

But that never happened. Instead the U.S.-supported groups not only declared publicly that they would not honor a “partial ceasefire” that excluded areas controlled by Al Qaeda’s affiliate, then known as Nusra Front, but joined with Nusra Front and its close ally, Ahrar al Sham, in a major open violation of the ceasefire by seizing strategic terrain south of Aleppo in early April.

As the Kerry-Lavrov negotiations on a ceasefire continued, Kerry’s State Department hinted that the U.S. was linking its willingness to pressure its Syrian military clients to separate themselves from Al Qaeda’s forces in the northwest to an unspecified Russian concession on the ceasefire that was still being negotiated.

It is now clear that what Kerry was pushing for was what the Obama administration characterized as the “grounding” of the Syrian air force in the current agreement.

Al Qaeda’s Ties

Now that it has gotten that concession from the Russians, the crucial question is what the Obama administration intends to do about the ties between its own military clients and Al Qaeda in Aleppo and elsewhere in the northwest.

President Barack Obama delivers a statement on confronting the terrorist group ISIL in Syria, on the South Lawn of the White House prior to departure for New York, N.Y., Sept. 23, 2014. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

President Barack Obama delivers a statement on confronting the terrorist group ISIL in Syria, on the South Lawn of the White House prior to departure for New York, N.Y., Sept. 23, 2014. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Thus far the primary evidence available for answering that question is two letters from U.S. envoy to the Syrian opposition Michael Ratney to opposition groups backed by the United States. The first letter, sent on Sept. 3, after most of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement had already been hammered out, appears to have been aimed primarily at reassuring those Syrian armed groups.

As translated by al-Monitor, it asserted, “Russia will prevent regime planes from flying, and this means there will not be bombing by the regime of areas controlled by the opposition, regardless of who is present in the area, including areas in which Jabhat Fateh al Sham [the new name adopted by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front] has a presence alongside other opposition factions.”

Ratney confirmed that the U.S. would in return “offer Russia coordination from our side to weaken al Qaeda.” But he also assured U.S. clients that their interests would be protected under the new agreement.

“[W]e believe this ceasefire should be stronger,” he wrote, “because it should prevent Russia and the regime from bombing the opposition and civilians under the pretext that its striking Jabhat al Nusra.”

The Ratney letter makes no reference to any requirement for the armed opposition to move away from their Al Qaeda allies or even terminate their military relationships, and thus implied that they need not do so.

But in a follow-up letter, undated but apparently sent on Sept. 10, following the completion of the new Kerry-Lavrov agreement, Ratney wrote, “We urge the rebels to distance themselves and cut all ties with Fateh of Sham, formerly Nusra Front, or there will be severe consequences.”

The difference between the two messages is obviously dramatic. That suggests that one of the last concessions made by Kerry in the Sept. 9 meeting with Lavrov may have been that a message would be sent to U.S. military clients with precisely such language.

The totality of the two letters from Ratney underlines the reluctance of the United States to present an ultimatum to its Syrian clients, no matter how clearly they are implicated in Al Qaeda operations against the ceasefire. Last spring, the State Department never publicly commented on the participation by the U.S.-supported armed groups in the Nusra Front offensive in violation of the ceasefire agreement, effectively providing political cover for it.

The decision by U.S.-supported armed groups in March to defy the ceasefire was taken in the knowledge that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia had agreed to resupply the Nusra Front-led commands in the northwest and had even provided shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles to Nusra’s close ally Ahrar al Sham.

Turkey’s Dubious Role

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent shift in policy toward rapprochement with Russia and his talk of ending the war in Syria are fueled by determination to prevent Syrian Kurds from establishing a unified Kurdistan along the Turkish border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a press conference in Turkey on Dec. 1, 2014. (Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a press conference in Turkey on Dec. 1, 2014. (Russian government photo)

The Wilson Center’s Henry Barkey, a leading specialist on Turkey, told a meeting sponsored by the Middle East Institute last week that Erdogan’s Syria policy is “90 percent about the Kurds.”

But Erdogan does not appear ready to pull the rug out from under Turkey’s client groups in Syria. In fact, Turkey suddenly dialed back its rhetorical shift on Syria in July just when the newly renamed Jabhat Fateh al Sham revealed for the first time that it was about to launch its major offensive for Aleppo.

The domestic political context of U.S. Syrian policy remains strongly hostile to any joint U.S. operations with Russia that could affect U.S.-supported anti-Assad clients, even though it is now generally acknowledged that those forces are “marbled” with troops of Al Qaeda’s franchise, especially in Aleppo.

During the spring and summer, Reuters, The Washington Post and other media outlets reported a string of complaints from the Pentagon and the CIA about Obama’s plans to reach an agreement with Russia on Syria that would commit the United States to cooperate against Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise. These complaints argued that the Russians could not be trusted and that they intended to target U.S –supported groups in a proxy war.

The real reasons for these attacks on the negotiations with Russia, however, were more parochial. The Pentagon is determined to maintain the line that Russia is a dangerous threat and should be firmly opposed everywhere. The CIA’s clandestine service has long wanted a more aggressive program of military assistance for its Syrian clients, which would be a major CIA covert operation.

Thus, even though the new agreement calls for U.S. “coordination” with Russia of air strikes against Al Qaeda forces, the Obama administration can be expected to raise objections whenever it sees that a proposed operation would come too close to targets associated with its clients. Otherwise, more leaks from opponents of the agreement in the Pentagon and CIA – or even in the State Department – would surely follow.

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.

13 comments for “Al Qaeda’s Ties to US-Backed Syrian Rebels

  1. Nancy Gillard-Bartels
    September 17, 2016 at 13:49

    Will Congressional leaders not stop this Pentagon/Obama madness? Please address the American people with honesty.

  2. b.grand
    September 15, 2016 at 14:16

    Syria’s Assad sends a message to Western officials from recaptured city – English Subs, 3 min.

  3. David G
    September 14, 2016 at 19:34

    I don’t understand why Russia is signing on for another would-be ceasefire, basically on the same terms as the one from earlier this year, except with an additional concession from their side with respect to grounding the Syrian air force.

    The last one served as a chance for Al Qaeda to regroup and re-arm courtesy of the U.S. and friends, with the U.S. making the same phony effort to get the “good rebels” to extricate themselves from Nusra.

    I don’t believe Lavrov is a “fool me twice” fool, so I don’t quite see what’s going on here.

    • Peter Loeb
      September 18, 2016 at 08:15

      TO DAVID G…”WHY?”…

      The US (Kerry) complains (!!) that Russia must get Syria to cease its
      bombing etc. as a condition of “agreement” What is unclear is that
      Russia demanded a separation of al Nusra (al Qaeda affiliate) from
      so-called “rebels”(against Assad???) which the US is providing
      weapons. I assume there was such an agreement while having no
      confirmation. This was not reported in US & West, of course.

      1. It is nonsensical to ask one country supporting a third sovereign
      nation to demand it to direct its defenses etc. (Should the US
      DEMAND Israel to…etc??)

      2. The US is unable to separate al Nusra from so-called
      “rebels” (“opposition”) because they are virtually
      identical. And the US knows this.

      3.. Russia “agreed” in the knowledge that the US would not
      and could not keep its part of the agreement (separation
      of al Nusra from “rebels”).

      4. Of course, the US should declare its wholehearted support
      of the sovereign nation of Syria now under attack and invasion
      by foreign nations and terrorist groups. The US should provide
      weapons, intelligence technology etc. to the Syrian government
      (pejoratively called “regime”, like the Obama “regime”).

      This will not happen as is known beforehand. The c easefire
      —if there ever was one?— will be defeated not by Russia
      (whose support of Syria has been of many years) but BY THE US.

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA. US

  4. Steve
    September 14, 2016 at 14:10

    I think this explains the rebranding of the Nusra Front at this time.

    An article on the CNN website quotes a “Syria expert Charles Lister” as saying, “… ‘the potential threat of U.S. and Russian airstrikes put pressure on the group’s senior leadership,’ to make the change.”

    Also from the article — “The rebranding has been dismissed by many in the international community as little more than window dressing.”

  5. Peter Loeb
    September 14, 2016 at 07:20


    In the Quran (my translation at 2:12) we find the following:

    “And if someone says to them” ‘Do not sow discord in the
    earth,’ they answer: ‘We are merely trying to bring people
    together’. In truth, they are sowers of discard, but
    they know it not.”

    (Note: Not being a Muslim, this is quoted out of context. Apologies.
    Out of context it serves the purpose well here.
    The main exception,being that they know it. Only too well!!!)

    Even without any confirming detail or background it was clearly
    apparent that this “agreement” (the current “cease fire”) is
    nothing at all. An almost pathetic tiny article in a Boston
    newspaper cited Kerry as saying “the opposition must stop
    mingling with al Nusra.” Absolutely absurd. Secretary Kerry
    knows quite well what is going on (see Porter above).

    This was reported along with Kerry’s warning (?) to “the opposition”
    that they “MUST stop mingling with al Nusra”. Is there a joke here
    that I missed?? And the oft repeated statement that Syria and
    Russia are responsabile for all 450,000 deaths etc. etc. Evidently
    from Kerry’s perspective there never was an invasion, the CIA
    and other foreign powers never assisted foreign invaders of Syria,
    these invaders (including al Nusra of course) never
    killed anyone and so forth. Evidently they were welcomed with
    flowers and cheering from the Syrians welcoming their liberation
    or some such thing. There never was a unanimous UN Security
    Council resolution condemning the “terrorists”.

    (If Canada were invaded by foreigners, evidently the US would
    provide weapons to the so-called “opposition” which controlled
    Montreal …I doubt that!)

    Gareth Porter’s article provides background with his usual accuracy
    and brilliance for which all of us should be grateful.(I am
    tired of being grateful to G. Porter…He rarely fails.)

    To sum up, there will be no ceasefire, no “agreement”.

    The US and its friends are still reeling from the fact that
    Russia and Syria are winning. The tricks (“agreement”) of
    the US will not hold and are not meant to
    hold. Instead Russia and “evil” Syria which doesn’t
    like being invaded and having its capital attacked and
    major cities occupied will be blamed by the US and
    West. Preparation for this increased demonizing is
    doubtless already in the works.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    • John the Ba'thist
      September 16, 2016 at 17:25

      A fine comment about a fine piece of reportage. I won’t quibble this time, not wishing to discourage Gareth, whose recent work is much needed.

      The dance with Terror continues.

  6. Realist
    September 14, 2016 at 06:42

    Why this phony “cease fire” that is purposely structured to fail after giving Obomber’s head choppers some time to regroup and reload? To fool the American voters into thinking that Obomber, and, by the commutative property of American politics, the Dems, and most notably Killary Clinton are at heart a bunch of peaceniks for whom you can safely vote. All this talk of Killary being a war hawk is just so much bushwa, am I right? After all, nobody likes loud mouthed disagreeable people like Donald Trump who is prone to hurt people’s feelings. All together now–you too, Bashar–oh, Lord, kumbaya! (Offer subject to change after 8 November 2016. Act now.)

  7. John
    September 13, 2016 at 20:06

    Slight of the hand…..Keep your eye on the ball (msm)….it’s Israel again in the shadow…….sell your children to the highest bidder…

  8. Gregory Kruse
    September 13, 2016 at 18:23

    I’m a Russia sympathizer. I don’t think Putin is any worse than Obama, Clinton, Hussein, Netanyahu, Merkel, Kim, or any other national leader past or present. In fact, he is being more rational in his public rhetoric than anyone else on the stage recently.

  9. jaycee
    September 13, 2016 at 15:48

    Of course, the cognitively dissonant elephant in the room is that US backed rebels are strategically and materially allied with America’s supposed arch enemy al-Qaeda. Mendacity aside, it is truly astonishing the success of US political and news-reporting culture in assuring this brutal fact has no operative value or function in the body politic, i.e. it has no meaning outside the shadow world which benefits from the alliance. How many Americans know the social and political worldview of the “moderate rebels” is effectively the same as the Taliban? How many have noticed the arch-enemy is no longer al-Qaeda or even ISIS but is now Russia and China?

    • Gregory Herr
      September 18, 2016 at 09:22

      The success of US political and news-reporting culture in terms of crimes of omission and acts of contrived nonsense is truly astonishing.

      The US Peace Council presented the following upon return from Syria. The cruelty of sanctions and the misnomer “civil war” are exposed as are facts concerning the vaunted “moderate” terrorist mercenary “rebels”.

      I think this summer’s NBC “interview” of Assad is fascinating:

  10. Michael Eremia
    September 13, 2016 at 14:48

    A fine contribution to honest journalism. An antidote to the nostrum narratives spoon-fed to Americans by the mainstream media.

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