Reprinted from Consortium News
After years of hemming and hawing, the Obama administration has finally come clean about its goals in Syria. In the battle to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, it is siding with Al Qaeda. This has become evident ever since Jisr Ash-Shughur, a small town in the northeastern part of the country, fell on April 25 to a Saudi and Turkish-backed coalition consisting of the Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al Sham, and an array of smaller, more "moderate" factions as well.
Al Nusra, which is backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, is Al Qaeda's official Syrian affiliate. Ahrar al Sham, which is heavily favored by Qatar, is also linked with Al Qaeda and has also cooperated with ISIS. The other groups, which sport such monikers as the Coastal Division and the Sukur Al Ghab Brigades, are part of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army and are supposedly as anti-terrorist as they are anti-Assad. Yet they nonetheless "piggybacked" on the offensive, to use The Wall Street Journal's term, doing everything they could to further the Al-Nusra-led advance.
With Syria charging the Turkish military with providing "logistical and fire support," it appears that the rebels transported the missiles across the Turkish border, located less than eight miles to Jisr Ash-Shughur's west. Whether the pro-U.S. factions or Al Nusra carried the TOW's over is unknown. But there is little question as to the ultimate source.
In late 2013, Saudi Arabia went on a buying spree, purchasing more than 15,000 Raytheon anti-tank missiles at a total cost of more than $1 billion. The purchase raised eyebrows since TOW's are mainly useful against tanks and other armored vehicles, a threat that the Saudis have not had to face since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
But now it all seems clear. Up in arms over supposed Shi'ite advances in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, the arch-Sunnis of Riyadh purchased the missiles with the intention of transferring them to the Syrian Salafists in the hopes of reversing the Shi'ite tide.
U.S. regulations prohibit such third-party transfers, yet so far Washington has not uttered a peep. U.S. policy is also to arm moderate rebels only on the condition that they have nothing to do with Al Qaeda. Yet the response in this regard has been nil as well.
A senior administration official admitted to the Washington Post that the White House is "concerned that Al Nusra has taken the lead." But he said that it is aware that "because of the realities of the battlefield, where the more moderate opposition feels compelled to coexist" with terrorist groups, cooperation will occur. He also said the administration is "not blind to the fact that it is to some extent inevitable" that U.S. weapons will wind up in terrorist hands. But all he could say in response is that "it's not something we would refrain from raising with our partners."
The administration, in other words, knows that its clients are teaming up with Al Qaeda and knows that American weapons are finding their way to the terrorists. Yet all it can say in response is that it may raise the topic at some later date. For now, it is thoroughly on board with the Al-Nusra offensive.
It is as if 9/11 never happened. Yet rather than protesting what is in fact a joint U.S.-Al Qaeda assault, the Beltway crowd is either maintaining a discreet silence or loudly hailing Al Nusra's advance as "the best thing that could happen in a Middle East in crisis," to quote Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest.
Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, was equally enthusiastic. "Nusra's pragmatism and ongoing evolution mean that it could become an ally in the fight against the Islamic State," she wrote. "...While not everyone likes Nusra's ideology, there is a growing sense in the north of Syria that it is the best alternative on the ground -- and that ideology is a small price to pay for higher returns."
A growing sense among whom -- Alawites and Christians who rightly view Al Qaeda as a genocidal threat? A dozen years ago, anyone suggesting an alliance with Al Qaeda in any form would have been a candidate for lynching. But now foreign-policy pundits like Mead and Khatib feel free to broach the topic without fear of contradiction.
Why? America's relationship with Al Qaeda has long been more ambiguous than Washington's bipartisan foreign policy establishment would like ordinary Americans to understand. Not only did the U.S. join with the Saudis in midwifing the modern jihadist movement during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, but, post-9/11, the Bush administration worked feverishly to cover up ties between Osama bin Laden and its long-time Saudi allies.
Saudi nationals, including members of the bin Laden clan, were allowed to fly out of the country in the days following the attack with at most cursory questioning by the FBI. A crucial 28-page section of the joint congressional report on 9/11 was suppressed while an investigator with the subsequent 9/11 Commission was fired after attempting to look into the question of Saudi funding. [See Philip Shenon, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation (New York: Twelve, 2008), pp. 109-11.]
Bush and Cheney "refus[ed] to declassify anything having to do with Saudi Arabia," former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman, a member of the special commission, later complained. "Anything having to do with the Saudis, for some reason it had this very special sensitivity." [Ibid., 185-86.]
The Bush administration was eager to establish links between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein -- which were, of course, nonexistent -- and at the same time desperate to suppress abundant evidence of ties between Al Qaeda and the House of Saud.