By Stanley Heller

The United States’ Middle East strategy is in trouble and its policymakers know it. There was an important article in The New York Times this month by Anne Barnard and Tim Arango. It admits that the U.S.’ Iraq/Syria attacks aren’t going well and Islamic State is making “political gains.” It notes that Islamic State took Ramadi and Palmyra “even after nearly 4,000 airstrikes by the American-led coalition and what United States officials say are the deaths of 10,000 ISIS militants.” The Times authors say “Washington is tinkering with tactics and weapons.”

Mostly the writers talk about unnamed “experts” and “analysts.” One of these says that by attacking Islamic State in Syria while doing nothing to stop Syrian President Bashar Assad from bombing Sunni areas that have rebelled, the U.S.-led campaign was driving some Syrians into the militant group’s camp. The U.S. has talked for months about training a force of Syrians, but, the Times writes, “the program is small, with only 90 fighters in the first round of training.” Ninety fighters!

The implication is that the “experts” want the air war to expand, to have the U.S. bomb Assad forces too. This is an embrace of the Saudi strategy that sees Assad/Iran as the main enemy and the slew of Sunni jihadi armies as either allies or a problem to be dealt with later.

It gets worse. Now the “experts” are toying with an alliance with al-Qaida. We’re supposed to put the 9/11 attacks behind us and be ultra-crafty and use one group of fanatics against the other.

Ahmed Rashid, who wrote the influential book “Taliban,” says “al-Qaida has evolved in profound ways.” He talks about their groups in Syria (al-Nusra) and Yemen (AQAP) and says the two “have become allies and not enemies of the Arab states, despite the fact that [al-Qaida] itself once sought to overthrow these same regimes.” He writes “in interviews with [Al-Jazeera] al-Nusra leaders have vowed not to attack targets in the West, promoting an ideology that might be called ‘nationalist jihadism’ rather than global jihad.” Wonderful — an al-Qaida vow. You can surely take that to the bank. Rashid sees the Americans’ strategy as having failed. According to him, they should have backed the Syrian “moderates” full stop from the start. In his view the U.S. doesn’t understand what the Arab states know, that the “solution will never come from the weak moderate opposition, and that any lasting peace will require support by the strong and ruthless Islamist groups fighting there.”

In case you think Rashid is just one guy off his nut, consider a piece by Wall Street Journal (WSJ) foreign policy analyst Yaroslav Trofimov. He talks about “the view of some of America’s regional allies and even some Western officials.” As they see it, “reaching out to the more pragmatic Nusra is the only rational choice left for the international community.” (Remember: “Pragmatic” Nusra is the official al-Qaida franchise in Syria.) Who are these allies? Trofimov quotes Saudi Prince Faisal bin Saud bin Abdulmohsen, a “scholar” at a research center in Riyadh. His voiced wisdom is to “differentiate between fanaticism and outright monstrosity,” al-Qaida apparently being only fanatics. Trofimov quotes another scholar, this one American, who explains, “The Turks, the Saudis and the Qataris have decided that the problem above all is to get rid of Bashar al-Assad.” Those are the words of Robert Ford, Obama’s former U.S. ambassador to Syria. Ford doesn’t actually say he supports that policy (though he comes closer to that in an article for an institute for which he now works). The former diplomat merely explains the policy of our dear allies, leaving the reader to decipher the tea leaves.

One former U.S. official comes right out in support of this lunacy. Trofimov reports, “Washington is likely to go ‘pretty far’ in tolerating the budding collaboration between its regional allies and Nusra, said U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, who retired two years ago as NATO’s supreme allied commander.” Stavridis says that’s OK: “… If our allies are working with them, that is acceptable.”

Another of our allies has been in a quiet relationship with al-Nusra for some time. Israel takes in wounded al-Nusra fighters, patches them up and sends them back to Syria. Trofimov reported on this in March. The Jerusalem Post, commenting on that article, stated, “Israel has provided medical assistance to nearly 2,000 Syrians” and said “most of those treated were armed rebels fighting the regime.” On June 20 the same Israeli newspaper featured an interview with Michael Morrell, a retired deputy CIA director, who warned about Israel’s “tacit understandings with the Nusra Front.”

U.S. policymakers have repeatedly used the jihadi option. This after all was the brilliant strategy of the 1980s: to arm the mujahedeen of Afghanistan, “giving to the USSR its Vietnam war,” in the immortal words of Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. The most that could go wrong, Brzezinski said, was that we’d create some “stirred-up Moslems.” Methinks he somewhat underestimated the actual blowback.

Now let’s be hard-boiled like proper government officials and not sentimental about the 3,000 dead on 9/11. Is al-Nusra “evolved” and “pragmatic,” and can we enlist it to become another in a long line of “our bastards”? The problem is that neither in its beliefs or actions can you see much evidence of an al-Qaida 2.0. A Nusra-led coalition took the Syrian province of Idlib in March. On June 11 it executed over 20 Syrian members of the Druze religion. (This got Israeli Druze so upset that on June 22, they surrounded an Israeli ambulance carrying suspected injured Nusra fighters and killed one of them.) The al-Nusra version of religion is apparently as bigoted and vicious as ever. Nor has the group read up on the Geneva Convention. As late as January 2014 it was beheading prisoners.Is al-Nusra at least willing to keep the head-chopping limited to the Middle East? Sadly, the answer is no, and for an authority I’ll give you none other than the aforementioned Ahmed Rashid, who wrote about al-Qaida in January in the wake of the al-Qaida-inspired Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. His piece talked about how the Yemeni branch showed its dedication to the longtime al-Qaida strategy of fighting the “far enemy” as opposed to Islamic State going after the “near enemy.” Rashid concluded “ISIS represents an extraordinary threat of its own, but the Paris attacks have demonstrated that the greatest danger to the West is still al-Qaida.”

Well, at least they’re mortal enemies of Islamic State, right? Unfortunately, that’s not true either. Yarmouk on the outskirts of Damascus was once home to 800,000 Palestinians and Syrians. Assad had it under siege for over a year. By the start of this year, 95 percent of the population had fled and Nusra had sway over a large section of the ruins. Then at the start of this year Islamic State entered Yarmouk, let in by none other than its supposed enemy Nusra!

In case I’ve been too subtle, let me say it more clearly: An alliance with Nusra/al-Qaida is crazy, immoral and a recipe for disaster.

Below is a counterstrategy. It’s based on a few principles: 1) With their immense crimes in Iraq and elsewhere, U.S. forces should be the last to be asked to intervene anywhere. 2) Iran, Russia and Hezbollah have committed grave crimes by supporting Assad’s fascist regime, and 3) the left should not support any military force intervening in Iraq/Syria and should concentrate instead on stopping foreign intervention.

As for what the left should advocate, here are some elements of a strategy:

1. The U.S. government should stop its warfare in the Middle East and help the situation by demanding that its Gulf allies and Turkey stop funding or arming al-Nusra and that they vigorously prosecute their citizens who go to Syria/Iraq to fight or to fund jihadi armies. To make its point, the U.S. should stop selling weapons to the Saudi regime, Turkey and the Gulf hereditary dictatorships.

2. The U.S. should take onto our shores hundreds of thousands of refugees.

3. The U.S. should lean on Israel to repatriate Palestinians in Syria back to their homes.

4. The left should insist that Russia and Iran and Hezbollah stop arming Assad forces. In all media, it should puncture any illusion that the Assad regime is “anti-imperialist” or that that supposed quality even matters in view of the horrors it has committed against Syrians. This is not in any way support for a new U.S. cold war. The U.S. government should simply butt out.

5. Call for an end to all sieges. Grant all civilians free access to water and humanitarian aid, and encourage cease-fires.

Over the long term, this will give left and democratic forces in the Middle East the moral, political and material support to prevail.


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