Reprinted from Consortium News
A crucial problem in news media coverage of the Syrian civil war has been how to characterize the relationship between the so-called "moderate" opposition forces armed by the CIA, on one hand, and the Al Qaeda franchise Al Nusra Front (and its close ally Ahrar al Sham), on the other.
But it is a politically sensitive issue for U.S. policy, which seeks to overthrow Syria's government without seeming to make common cause with the movement responsible for 9/11, and the system of news production has worked effectively to prevent the news media from reporting it fully and accurately.
The Obama administration has long portrayed the opposition groups it has been arming with anti-tank weapons as independent of Nusra Front. In reality, the administration has been relying on the close cooperation of these "moderate" groups with Nusra Front to put pressure on the Syrian government.
The United States and its allies -- especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- want the civil war to end with the dissolution of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by U.S. rivals like Russia and Iran.
Reflecting the fact that Nusra Front was created by Al Qaeda and has confirmed its loyalty to it, the administration designated Nusra as a terrorist organization in 2013. But the U.S. has carried out very few airstrikes against it since then, in contrast to the other offspring of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State or ISIS (Daesh), which has been the subject of intense air attacks from the U.S. and its European allies.
The U.S. has remained silent about Nusra Front's leading role in the military effort against Assad, concealing the fact that Nusra's success in northwest Syria has been a key element in Secretary of State John Kerry's diplomatic strategy for Syria.
When Russian intervention in support of the Syrian government began last September, targeting not only ISIS but also the Nusra Front and U.S.-supported groups allied with them against the Assad regime, the Obama administration immediately argued that Russian airstrikes were targeting "moderate" groups rather than ISIS, and insisted that those strikes had to stop.
The willingness of the news media to go beyond the official line and report the truth on the ground in Syria was thus put to the test. It had been well-documented that those "moderate" groups had been thoroughly integrated into the military campaigns directed by Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham in the main battlefront of the war in northwestern Syria's Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
For example, a dispatch from Aleppo last May in Al Araby Al-Jadeed (The New Arab), a daily newspaper financed by the Qatari royal family, revealed that every one of at least 10 "moderate" factions in the province supported by the CIA had joined the Nusra-run province command Fateh Halab (Conquest of Aleppo). Formally the command was run by Ahrar al Sham, and Nusra Front was excluded from it.
But as Al Araby's reporter explained, that exclusion "means that the operation has a better chance of receiving regional and international support." That was an indirect way of saying that Nusra's supposed exclusion was a device aimed at facilitating the Obama administration's approval of sending more TOW missiles to the "moderates" in the province, because the White House could not support groups working directly with a terrorist organization.
A further implication was that Nusra Front was allowing "moderate" groups to obtain those weapons from the United States and its Saudi and Turkish allies, because those groups were viewed as too weak to operate independently of the Salafist-jihadist forces -- and because some of those arms would be shared with Nusra Front and Ahrar.
After Nusra Front was formally identified as a terrorist organization for the purposes of a Syrian ceasefire and negotiations, it virtually went underground in areas close to the Turkish border.
A journalist who lives in northern Aleppo province told Al Monitor that Nusra Front had stopped flying its own flag and was concealing its troops under those of Ahrar al Sham, which had been accepted by the United States as a participant in the talks. That maneuver was aimed at supporting the argument that "moderate" groups and not Al Qaeda were being targeted by Russian airstrikes.
But a review of the coverage of the targeting of Russian airstrikes and the role of U.S.-supported armed groups in the war during the first few weeks in the three most influential U.S. newspapers with the most resources for reporting accurately on the issue -- the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal -- reveals a pattern of stories that tilted strongly in the direction desired by the Obama administration, either ignoring the subordination of the "moderate" groups to Nusra Front entirely or giving it only the slightest mention.
In an Oct.1, 2015article, Washington Post Beirut correspondent Liz Sly wrote that the Russian airstrikes were being "conducted against one of the few areas in the country where moderate rebels still have a foothold and from which the Islamic State was ejected more than a year and a half ago."