Is Trump Rescuing Al-Qaeda's 'Heartland' in Syria?
After formally calling off the longstanding U.S. policy of regime change in Syria, the Trump administration is sending signals of shifting its Syria policy under massive political pressure following a grisly chemical attack in the rebel-held province of Idlib.
The chemical attack allegedly took place on April 4. Dozens of civilians were reportedly killed, although many details are still unknown.
"We have not yet any official or reliable confirmation" of what took place or who was responsible, said the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, at a press conference after the incident.
"We also do not have evidence at the moment," added Federica Mogherini, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy.
The chemical attack occurred just as peace talks were beginning in Geneva, and with the Syrian army in a dominant position in the sixth year of a war fueled by outside powers.
The attacks threaten to reverse the political gains made by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leading to unrelenting bipartisan pressure for Donald Trump to authorize a bombing campaign targeting the Syrian government and its military.
For the al-Qaeda-allied rebels who were ousted from their stronghold in eastern Aleppo in December 2016, and whose gains in a recent series of offensives have been rapidly reversed, Western military intervention is the only hope.
Given its dominant position, why would the Syrian government authorize a chemical attack that was likely to trigger renewed calls for regime change? The answer remains elusive.
War on the table
Despite a dearth of independently sourced evidence about the attack, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, warned that the U.S. was "compelled to take our own action" in Syria, although it was unclear what she meant by this.
For his part, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said there was "no doubt in our mind" that the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack in Idlib, but provided no evidence to support his claim. Tillerson warned Russia it should reconsider its alliance with President Assad, suggesting regime change was back on the table.
The Pentagon has reportedly begun drawing up a list of targets to attack. (Update: Several hours after this article was published, the U.S. attacked the Syrian government, launching 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat air base, in the city of Homs. ISIS seized on the opportunity and launched an offensive against the Syrian government immediately after the U.S. strike. The attack was likewise applauded by the Salafi jihadist militia Ahrar al-Sham, Saudi Arabia and Israel.)
The media has helped spread the war fever. New York Times columnist and Iraq war cheerleader Thomas Friedman reflexively proposed that Syria be partitioned, with U.S. troops if necessary. On CNN, correspondent Arwa Damon wept over the lack of U.S. resolve, suggesting that a bombing campaign against Damascus would somehow salve the wounds of Syria.
But there has been one issue major media outlets have refused to touch, and that is the nature of the rebels who would gain from any U.S. military offensive. Who holds power in Idlib, why are they there and what do they want? This is perhaps the most inconvenient set of questions for proponents of "humanitarian" military intervention in Syria.
The reality is that Idlib is substantially controlled by al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, which has gone through a series of rebranding schemes but remains the same jihadist group it always was: Jabhat al-Nusra. In the province it rules, al-Nusra has imposed what a leading scholar has described as a Taliban-like regime that has ethnically cleansed religious and ethnic minorities, banned music and established a brutal theocracy in which it publicly executes women accused of adultery.
Even analysts who have repeatedly called for U.S.-led regime change in Syria have described Idlib as the "heartland of al-Nusra."
The 'Talibanization of Idlib'
Joshua Landis, the director of the University of Oklahoma's Middle East Studies Center, is among the leading U.S. scholars of Syria, and lived in the country for several years. In a January 2016 article in Foreign Affairs, Landis provided a chilling survey of life in Idlib:
"To judge how incompetent the rebels have been in providing a viable or attractive alternative to Assad, one need merely consider the situation in the province of Idlib, where the rebels rule. Schools have been segregated, women forced to wear veils, and posters of Osama bin Laden hung on the walls. Government offices were looted, and a more effective government has yet to take shape. With the Talibanization of Idlib, the 100-plus Christian families of the city fled. The few Druze villages that remained have been forced to denounce their religion and embrace Islam; some of their shrines have been blown up. No religious minorities remain in rebel-held Syria, in Idlib, or elsewhere. Rebels argue that Assad’s bombing has ensured their failure and made radicalization unavoidable. But such excuses can go only so far to explain the terrible state of rebel Syria or its excesses. We have witnessed the identical evolution in too many other Arab countries to pin it solely on Assad, despite his culpability for the disaster that has engulfed his country."
More hawkish experts have acknowledged the same. On a panel in January at the Atlantic Council, a pro-regime change think tank that is funded by Western governments and their allies, Nancy Okail, executive director of the Tahrir Institute, acknowledged that Syria is today the "newest and most important safe haven for [al-Qaeda's] ideology."
"There is a new generation of Syrian children that is growing up with al-Qaeda's ideology in some parts of rebel-held Syria as the norm," added Jennifer Cafarella, a lead intelligence planner at the neoconservative think tank the Institute for the Study of War, which has received funding from the biggest names in the military industry, including Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and DynCorp.
Charles Lister, perhaps the foremost advocate of regime change and the arming of Islamist rebels in Syria, sounded a similar note. He explained, "People on the ground in different areas of Syria are increasingly willing not just to accept al-Qaeda operating within their midst, but are actually willing to overtly support the fact that they are in their midst."
He later warned, "al-Qaeda's relative success in Syria has seen its ideology and its narrative mainstreamed, not just in parts of Syria, but also in parts of the region."
Lister noted local populations have protested not just the Syrian government, but also the al-Qaeda extremists terrorizing them. People living under rebel rule in Idlib, Lister indicated, have been lamenting, "This place is hell; we don't want to live under this Islamist rule, under all this oppression." In Idlib, "they see what life would be like under this organization, and they don't like it."
In 2016, Amnesty International published a report documenting an array of "serious violations of international humanitarian law" committed by militant groups in Idlib and elsewhere, including summary killings, torture, abductions, and sectarian attacks. The report detailed how extremist Syrian rebels have imposed harsh Sharia law in the areas they control.
With music officially outlawed in Idlib, the U.S.-funded media outlet Radio Fresh has resorted to novel measures. Instead of music, station director Raed Fares has been reduced to broadcasting the sound of bleating goats and bird chirps. Ordered by Idlib's authorities to fire all his female employees, Fares instead relied on a computer program that auto-tuned their voices to make them sound male.
"They now sound more like robots,” he said.
'The most loved cleric'
When Al Nusra and its ally, Ahrar Al Sham, took Idlib’s Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base in 2015, a cleric appeared on the scene in camouflaged battle dress uniform. Standing among a group of blindfolded, exhausted captives, all Syrian army regulars, the cleric blessed their mass execution, cursing them as takfir for fighting on the government’s side.
“I don’t like to call them Sunni. They were once Sunni but became apostatized once they enlisted in the Alawites’ regime,” he said of the 56 captives. Moments later, they were lined up and riddled with bullets.
The cleric was Abdullah Muhaysini, a 33-year-old zealot from Saudi Arabia, who was a student of Sulayman Al-Alwan, the Wahhabi cleric who oversaw what his Muslim critics have called a "terrorist factory" in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Qassim Province. Al-Alwan was also the instructor of the 9/11 hijacker Abdulaziz Alomari.
Today, Muhaysini commands an almost mystical status among the Islamist armed groups rampaging across northern Syria. According to Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American-born rebel propagandist currently in Idlib, Muhaysini is "probably the most loved cleric in the Syrian territories today.”
After moving to Syria in 2014, Muhaysini embedded himself among the rebels’ most powerful factions and worked to unite them under a single banner. At first, he helped cobble together the coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest. Drawing on his connections in the Gulf, he successfully oversaw the “wage jihad with your money” fundraising effort that raised some $5 million for the rebels’ push to take the northern Idlib governate from the Syrian army in 2015.
Through his Jihad Caller's Network, Muhaysini has mobilizing resources thanks to a collection of wealthy Gulf oligarchs. In an online interview, Muhaysini thanked “a group of brothers in Islam from Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), some from our brother Abu Ahmed from Kuwait, some from our brother Abu Joud from Qatar.”
A deeply unsettling video from Muhaysini's Jihad Caller's Network shows him recruiting child fighters inside the Atmeh Refugee Camp on the Syrian-Turkish border, a squalid redoubt for some 30,000 war victims, handing the adolescent volunteers rifles before trucking them off to Idlib and elsewhere. More recently, Muhaysini appeared before an assembly of fighters from Tahrir al-Sham, his latest jihadist coalition, to deliver a motivational battlefield sermon.
Tahrir al-Sham was responsible for a twin suicide bombing that killed dozens of civilians at the Palace of Justice in Damascus and during a birthday celebration at a restaurant on March 15. It has waged a furious campaign to retake lost territory around the city of Hama, wielding suicide attacks but ultimately failing to hold on against a Syrian army counter-attack.
If the U.S. and its Western allies carry out their threats to attack the Syrian government, the intervention is the last best hope for Muhaysini and the al-Qaeda-aligned forces in his thrall.
Trump's Saudi connection
One of the least reported yet most significant developments of the Trump administration's foreign policy has been its warm embrace of the ultra-conservative, theocratic Saudi monarchy. Immediately after he entered office, Trump made a pact with Saudi Arabia to escalate aggression in Yemen.
After a friendly White House meeting with Trump and Steve Bannon, the architect of Trump's Muslim ban, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman hailed Trump as “his Excellency,” describing him as a “true friend of Muslims who will serve the Muslim world in an unimaginable manner, opposite to the negative portrait of his Excellency that some have tried to promote.”
Trump has also pledged to work with Saudi Arabia to create so-called safe zones in Syria. What exactly these would look like has been unclear. Hillary Clinton campaigned on the promise to create such zones, although in a 2013 speech to Goldman Sachs, she conceded that safe zones could "kill a lot of Syrians."
At the heart of the Trump administration's foreign policy has been diehard opposition to Iran, Saudi Arabia's mortal enemy. The Syrian government is one of Iran's closest allies.
In Yemen, U.S. and Saudi intervention has driven the growth of al-Qaeda, even while the U.S. carries out airstrikes against the extremist group. As the International Crisis Group reported in February 2017, thanks to "state collapse" brought on by war, the “Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda (AQ) is stronger than it has ever been."
U.S. intervention would be the last hope for Syrian rebels, and a shot in the arm to al-Qaeda, which has grown to record size thanks to America's military meddling across the Middle East.