Wednesday morning’s statement from US Central Command was — unsurprisingly — buoyant. The US and allies from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Jordan had launched attacks the previous day inside Syria, with 14 airstrikes and 47 Tomahawk missiles. Multiple targets of the Islamic State had been hit in northern and eastern Syria, including “fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks, and armed vehicles”.
Central Command promised, “The U.S. military will continue to conduct targeted airstrikes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq as local forces go on the offensive against this terrorist group.”
Behind the confident assessment, Central Command did not point to — and presumably did not recognize — reality: with those initial strikes, the US had probably already lost its belated intervention in the 42-month Syrian conflict.
The military did not mention that the greatest casualties of the first night’s attacks had not been suffered by the Islamic State, which had moved most of its forces before the arrival of the warplanes. Instead, the US had struck hardest on two locations of the Islamist insurgents Jabhat al-Nusra, killing more than 70 fighters and civilians in Idlib and Aleppo Provinces.
Central Command cloaked those attacks in the final two paragraphs of its statement:
Separately, the United States has also taken action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al-Qa’ida veterans — sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group — who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations. These strikes were undertaken only by U.S. assets.
In total, U.S. Central Command conducted eight strikes against Khorasan Group targets west of Aleppo to include training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities.
Many in the US media eagerly ran with this presentation of a necessary attack on evil plotters — who had only surfaced a week earlier in headline declaration by American intelligence services — planning a toothpaste-tube bomb on an airliner.
But inside Syria, that declaration carried little weight with many civilians, as well as the opposition and insurgency. Already angered that the US — which had stepped away from intervention a year earlier after the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks — was again sparing the President and his military, these groups reacted with bitter statements and large protests on Friday.
The suspicion is that if the US is serious about confronting the Islamic State, it is also — without any acknowledgement, and possibly through deception — attacking a faction which has part of the Syrian insurgency for more than two years. The sentiment was summarized in posters and chants that, while Washington had stayed away, the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra had defended those facing the ground and aerial assaults of the Assad regime.
And even if that sentiment could be set aside, the question remained: what exactly was the strategy behind the US assault on the Islamic State? Insurgent commanders and opposition leaders said the US — which had told Israel, Syria’s ally Iran, and the Assad regime of the imminent strikes — had seen no reason to coordinate operations with the “moderate” insurgents whom it is supposedly supporting. So the Islamic State could move freely on the ground, not only evading the aerial assault but pressing its own offensives such as the attack on the Kurdish center of Kobane in northern Syria.
Attacks on Jabhat al-Nusra and the Mysterious “Khorasan Group”
There was a strange disconnect on Tuesday between the headline news of US airstrikes and claims seeping through social media. Videos and photographs showed that the greatest damage had been suffered in the village of Kafar Daryan in Idlib Province in northwest Syria. There were images of slain civilians, with others in the rubble of demolished buildings.
The mystery was that, while Jabhat al-Nusra members were killed by the US missiles, there were no Islamic State fighters in the village. Indeed, there have been no ISIS units in Idlib Province since they were pushed out by insurgents early year.
And Kafar Daryan was not the only target beyond the Americans’ official cause of hitting the Islamic State. Even deadlier — though almost unnoticed, because there was no video — was an attack on the Aleppo suburb of al-Muhandiseen. The Local Coordination Committee said more than 50 Jabhat al-Nusra fighters died.
None of this was noted in Central Command’s statement that it hit eight targets “west of Aleppo”. So what was the US doing with attacks beyond its initial declared aim of hitting the Islamic State?
As the US military’s PR strategy made clear, the answer was the “Khorasan Group”. Unnamed US officials primed the media even before Central Command issued its statement:
Administration officials said Tuesday they have been watching the Khorasan Group, an al-Qaida cell in Syria, for years….Intelligence showed that the Khorasan Group was in the final stages of plotting attacks against the U.S. and Europe, most likely an attempt to blow up an airplane in flight.
“An intelligence source with knowledge of the matter told CNN” that plots against the US had been discovered over the past week, including “a bomb made of a non-metallic device like a toothpaste container or clothes dipped in explosive material”.
While the Islamic State group is getting the most attention now, another band of extremists in Syria — a mix of hardened jihadis from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Europe — poses a more direct and imminent threat to the United States, working with Yemeni bomb-makers to target U.S. aviation.
Five days later, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, told a conference, “There is potentially yet another threat to the homeland,” similar to that posed by the Islamic State.
If you read past the mainstream media, there was a curiosity about the US campaign as its first missiles were fired: leading experts on Al Qa’eda and jihadists were questioning the US Government’s timing and presentation. Washington, they said, had merely slapped a label on some fighters who had professed allegiance to Al Qa’eda and had come from Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra.
There've been guys from AQ Khurasan (AfPak) in JN for more than year. This isn't news. And it's not a separate group. Nice work intel/media.
— Aaron Y. Zelin (@azelin) September 22, 2014
It’s cute Pentagon is literally making up new group called ‘Khurasan’ when it’s just AQ AfPak/Iran guys in JN. Don’t get my gov sometimes.
— Aaron Y. Zelin (@azelin) September 23, 2014
One of the few public mentions of the “Khorasan Group” before last week backs up Zelin’s remarks. Peter Bergen, writing for CNN, briefly said:
According to both British counterterrorism officials and U.S. intelligence officials, senior al Qaeda members based in Pakistan have traveled to Syria to direct operations there. They are known as the Khorasan group. Khorasan is an ancient term for an Islamic empire that once incorporated what is now Afghanistan.
Unnamed US officials only fuelled the scepticism as they pressed their case through the week. One official said the threat from the Khorasan Group was “imminent”, but another denied this as “there were no known targets or attacks expected in the next few weeks”.
The officials said that the Group was led by Muhsin al-Fadhli, a Kuwaiti who was “Al Qa’eda’s senior leader in Iran” before he moved to Syria in 2013 to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra. The State Department’s designation of al-Fadhli says he was “among the few trusted Al Qa’eda operatives who received advance notification” of the attacks of September 11, 2001 — even though he was only 20 at the time. Now, the US sources said, “Al Qa’eda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri dispatched this deputy to recruit those Western fighters, who have a better chance of escaping scrutiny at airports and could place bombs onto planes”.
For someone who is supposedly a high-level Al Qa’eda operative in Syria, there is little public information on al-Fadhli. One of the lengthiest reports is in the Arab Times in March, based on “informed sources”. The Yemeni supposedly played a role in the decision of Al Qa’eda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s decision to support Jabhat al-Nusra in 2013 when the Islamic State challenged it for leadership of the jihadist movement.
Yet does this establish that al-Fadhli was planning a terror attack on the US? The Arab Times offers no evidence and makes the bizarre assertion that the Yemeni and Al Qa’eda were acting on behalf of Iran:
The most important objective is to use Al Qa’eda’s world terror cells to target Western nations particularly the United States of America, in case [Iran’s] nuclear facilities face any kind of military strikes from the US or Israel. [The sources] revealed that Iran believes Al-Qa’eda’s terror cells are the most important asset that can be used in either secret or open negotiations with the United States. Iran offered to train al-Qaeda elements on how to use bombs, and provided some financial support and safe refuge as part of an agreement that was reached in 2009, which resulted in the execution of the related agendas.
The report is further shaken by its assertion that al-Fadhli was directing activities not only against the Islamic State and the Assad regime, but also against the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front — both of whom were fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra against Syrian forces.
The stories, beginning with the Associated Press “Al-Qaida’s Syrian Cell Alarms US” on September 13, also invoked the name of Ibrahim al-Asiri, “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s master bomb-maker” — but without establishing that al-Asiri had ever stepped foot inside Syria or had been in contact with al-Fadhli.
Whether or not al-Fadhli and a “Khorasan Group” were planning terror attacks, what matters is the perception — and the perception of many inside Syria is that the claim was just a pretext for the Americans to strike their real target: Jabhat al-Nusra.
So What’s Wrong With Hitting Jabhat al-Nusra?
One might claim that, even if the US was being deceptive in refusing to declare its real intention, the attack on Jabhat al-Nusra makes sense. After all, the group has been listed as a terrorist organization by the US since late 2012. Its leadership is linked to Al Qa’eda, even if it has pursued a local fight against the Assad regime, working with Syrian organizations and communities. Before spring 2013, it was connected with the Islamic State.
The problem is that this case was not made effectively inside Syria. A series of opposition and insurgent groups — from the “moderates” whom the US has said it wants to promote to the Islamic Front to independent brigades — castigated the US airstrikes as counter-productive. Rallies on the day after the attack bluntly set out the sentiment of some Syrians: “Jabhat al-Nusra came to support us, when the whole world abandoned us.”
The US might have the simple formula of “moderates” v. “extremists”, but the reality is that Jabhat al-Nusra is part of the insurgency, even if it is formally kept as some distance because of Washington’s position.
So that means the attack on the group is considered an attack on the insurgents. The point was made, directly or indirectly, by the US-backed Supreme Military Council, the General Staff of the US-backed Free Syrian Army, the US-backed Harakat Hazm Brigade, the faction Jaish al-Mujahideen, and the Islamic Front, as well as Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Supreme Military Council (SMC) & 18+ other #Syria rebel groups have condemned US-led strikes so far. MANY others doing so privately.
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) September 27, 2014
A “moderate” insurgent source inside Syria summarized, “The US strategy? How about turning possible coalition partners on the ground into sceptics, if not enemies, with the first wave of missiles?”
Firing from the Air, Losing on the Ground
The anger at the US airstrikes was compounded by Washington’s failure — whether deliberate policy or an oversight — to connect its operations with the situation on the ground. The US informed Israel, Syria’s ally Iran, and the Assad regime of the impending attacks, but did not see fit to mention them to insurgents.
That meant that even those US attacks which hit the Islamic State struck far from the key frontlines. An article by McClatchy News gave one example:
There are now 10 groups fighting [the Islamic State] north of Aleppo, near the town of Mare, but the U.S. and its allies “offered very little ammunition support, no information, no air cover, and no collaboration in military plans and tactics – nothing,” said Colonel Hassan Hamadi.
Far from being crippled by the airstrikes, the Islamic State simply took their fighters and their offensives elsewhere. While the US-led coalition hit Raqqa, the largest city held by the jihadists, they moved more forces to the assault on the Kurdish center of Kobane near the Turkish center — where there were no coalition attacks until last weekend.
So, far from being a coherent operation to “degrade” the Islamic State, the opposition saw no connection between the aerial campaign and the declared Obama Administration effort for $500 million to arm and train “moderate” insurgents. Indeed, even as the planes flew, that effort receded: the head of the American military, General Martin Dempsey, said it would be many months before even 5,000 insurgents — a fraction of the fighters inside Syria — were completely trained and equipped.
An Alternate US Strategy?
Given the shredding of any US strategy — if there was one to work with insurgents, one can only search for alternatives.
Perhaps the US believes it can “contain” the Islamic State with airstrikes alone?
If so, the approach flies in the face of the experience in Iraq next door, where the jihadists are only being pushed back when aerial operations support ground attacks. Washington has not set out how the Islamic State can be held back from further advances, such as the possible takeover of Kobane, let alone be removed from bases of powers such as Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor — two of the seven largest cities in Syria.
Perhaps the Obama Administration envisage a refashioned “moderate” insurgency as the ground component of the strategy?
Washington’s rhetoric, as it pressed for the $500 million from Congress, set out this line; however, it was quickly erased by Dempsey’s “clarification” on what armament and training meant in practice.
President Obama’s interview on Sunday night was an effective admission that the strategy is a non-starter: “There is a moderate Syrian opposition, but right now, it doesn’t control much territory. They are being squeezed between [the Islamic State] on the one hand and the Assad regime on the other.”
That leaves one other option: could the US see the Syrian military as the ground force to check the Islamic State?
Publicly the Administration is not pointing to any consideration of the option. Obama continued to tag Damascus as a “barbaric regime” in his speech last week at the UN, and he repeated the formula last night that President Assad would have to step aside in a political transition.
Still, the biggest cheerleader for the US-led airstrikes is the Assad regime. Damascus switched within 48 hours from opposition to intervention to a welcoming of the attacks, and its caution is being replaced with an acceptance of operations not only by the US but also Gulf States and Europeans — provided, of course, they are strictly focused on the Islamic State.
In practice, the Assad regime is indicating that there does not have to be a formal commitment for an alternate US strategy. It is quite happy to accept an American approach which takes on its recent enemy of the Islamic State, as well as its longer-term foe of the insurgency — or, at least, parts of it.
That welcome from Damascus does not constitute a US “victory”, of course, but it is as good as Washington can get after a week of its campaign.
And even that will not be much in the weeks to come. For Washington, far from containing the “extremists”, may have bolstered the threat that it has been generating in the media as well as facing on the ground.
The declaration of the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, is not a declaration of war on the US. It is not close to a renewed “alliance” with the Islamic State, despite the misguided headlines in some media outlets. As an EA analyst framed al-Joulani’s message this morning, “Well, brother Barack, if you rethink your approach and consider the possible backfiring from it, then you’re safe from that backfire.”
However, an insurgency which has been alienated by the US attacks gives significant relief to the Islamic State, which can rest assured that it will not face a coordinated challenge as it does in Iraq. It may even give them more recruits: even if al-Joulani stands aside from reconciliation, individual Jabhat al-Nusra units and fighters — and indeed those of other elements in the insurgency — may join the jihadists out of anger against America.
And while most insurgents will not pursue that option, they are likely to conclude that there is no prospect of working with the US against the Islamic State, let alone the Assad regime.
We have been calling for these sorts of attacks for three years and when they finally come they don’t help us. People have lost faith.