How the Radical Nusra Chief Upset the Obama-Putin Applecart for Syria
The fatal blow to the US-Russian military cooperation and truce deal for Syria was not delivered by the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, or by the bombing of aid convoys to the distressed population of Aleppo in retaliation for the US air strike that killed 80 Syrian troops. The coup de grace was dealt by a Syrian rebel chieftain, Muhammad Jolani, the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front leader, who recently renamed his group Jabhat Fateh Al Sham.
The US-Russian deal hung on the nail of a Joint Implementation Center that was established to coordinate bilateral bombing raids against the two major radical groups fighting in Syria, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov had negotiated a 10-day truce to go into effect on Monday, Sept. 12, to coincide with the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Adha and pave way to a long-term solution of the Syrian conflict.
But Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin soon discovered to their dismay that the shots on the ground were not being called by their top diplomats, but by parties fighting on the ground in pursuit of their own niche agendas. These out-of-control parties proved to be potent enough to determine the fate of the big-power intervention for a solution.
Jolani stood out among the unnamed “spoilers” who, along with Russia, were accused by Secretary Kerry – in a furious diatribe at the UN Security Council on Wednesday, Sept. 21 – of shredding the truce and the prospects for a long-tern solution of the Syrian crisis.
Until this week, the conventional wisdom in Washington, and Middle Eat capitals like Ankara, Jerusalem, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Amman and Qatar was that the various rebel groups’ dependence on arms, training, logistics, intelligence and funding would tame them into toeing the lines set by their suppliers.
That assumption never truly held water in the wild landscape of the nearly six-year Syrian civil war for two reasons:
1. The recipients did not always keep the weapons systems they were given; often sharing or selling the bounty on to groups of which the givers disapproved.
2. The Nusra Front and the Islamic State profited from this traffic. In some cases, American, Saudi and Israel cash grants found their way into the two jihadist organizations’ pockets through serpentine arms transactions.
As part of the Kerry-Lavrov quest for a long-term solution, the Obama administration persuaded Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Qatar, to completely or partially halt support for the rebel groups they had hitherto sponsored.
However, this step was countered, according to DEBKA Weekly’s sources, by Jolani’s campaign to enlist the leaders of the Ahrar Al-Sham Front, the strongest radical Islamic rebel coalition in Syria, for a concerted effort to derail the Kerry-Lavrov track.
He maintained that the truce did not serve their interests, but only Washington, Moscow and most of all their archenemy Bashar Assad.
To support this argument, Jolani informed them (as first disclosed in the last DEBKA Weekly issue) that the Americans and Russians had agreed to co-opt the Syrian air force to their bombardments of Nusra and ISIS.
Even moderate, non-jihadist rebel leaders were affronted by this perfidy and agreed to play ball with Jolani for sabotaging the US-Russian initiative, starting with the truce.
So angry were some US-backed rebels that they were depicted on video as chasing US special operations officers and troops out their joint command centers in some villages and abusing them as “infidels.”
Another of the Nusra chief’s slogans that resonated strongly venerated the entire Syrian resistance movement as the “cornerstone of Arab Sunni opposition to Iranian hegemony in the region.”
This watchword was widely embraced – not only by many Syrian rebel militias but by Middle East leaders opposed to Obama’s Middle East policies.
According to our counterterrorism sources, the Nusra chief set himself the task of upending the United States pledge to Russia to separate “moderate opposition groups” from the extremists. This distinction was designed to enable US and Russian air forces to focus on jointly fighting his organization.
The Jolani bid to trip up US-Russian cooperative policy was crowned with success.
When the time came round for the truce to go into effect on Sept. 12, the Americans and Russians discovered it was an empty letter. No one in Damascus or the rebel movement had any intention of abiding by it.