A brief overview of collaboration between the US-backed Free Syrian Army and al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
Among Syria commentators in the West, both left and mainstream, it is commonly claimed that the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad has attempted to crush the supposedly moderate, secular rebels of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), while at the same time deliberately supporting extremist rebel groups in order to “Islamize” the Syrian rebellion and to convince the West the Syrian government is really fighting terrorism. It is argued that if Assad could claim his government was fighting al-Qaeda terrorists, rather than secular freedom fighters struggling for democracy, this would force the US and other Western powers to end their support for the Syrian rebels trying to topple the Syrian government, and to instead embrace Assad as a partner with the West in the so-called War on Terror.
A closer review of events in Syria shows the opposite, however, namely that it is the US-backed FSA-branded Syrian rebel groups that have consistently collaborated with and fought alongside al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, as well as alongside other Salafi-Jihadi rebel groups, namely Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, and at times even alongside the Islamic State (ISIS).
Nusra and FSA-affiliated brigades have essentially functioned as a coalition in the fight against the Syrian government, with FSA commanders often referring to fighters from Nusra as members of the FSA itself. In many cases, FSA offensives against Syrian government military bases or check points have begun with suicide or truck bombings carried out by Nusra militants. Nusra and FSA-affiliated brigades have established joint committees to divide weapons captured from the Syrian army in rebel offensives. FSA commanders often sell US and Gulf-supplied weapons to Nusra.
Certain FSA brigades and Nusra have of coursed clashed at times, however, there is a clear pattern of FSA collaboration with Nusra generally. FSA and Nusra militants have fought side by side in key battles in which the Syrian opposition has been able to capture large population centers and territory from the Syrian government. FSA and Nusra rebels, often hailing from the Syrian countryside or from outside of Syria itself, invaded many of Syria’s major cities, causing large numbers of civilians to flee to other Syrian government controlled areas, or to neighboring countries as refugees, as occurred in Aleppo, Raqqa, and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the Damascus suburbs. The majority (77%) of Syrian refugees in Europe reported fleeing violence from both the Syrian government and the rebels, suggesting that Syrians feared both the rebel invasions of their cities, and the harsh Syrian government response which inevitably followed.
Residents who remained in their homes were then forced to live under jihadist occupation, as FSA brigades and Nusra continued to coexist and jointly control Syrian territory for months or even years, as was the case in Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Ezzur, Idlib, and Yarmouk camp. This means that when the Syrian army was fighting to recapture cities and territory from the FSA, it was typically also fighting Nusra.
In some opposition controlled areas, joint Nusra-FSA control was a precursor to Islamic State (ISIS) control. It must be remembered that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi founded Nusra by sending a delegation of fighters from Iraq to Syria in late 2011. Nusra and ISIS were essentially the same organization. After FSA and Nusra rebels captured Deir Ezzur in the spring of 2013, a dispute over control of newly captured Syrian oil fields caused Nusra to split from ISIS. Nusra fighters therefore had to choose whether to remain loyal to Nusra, or to pledge loyalty to Baghdadi and join ISIS. When many Nusra fighters did choose to join ISIS, the group gained immediate influence in areas previously captured by Nusra and the FSA, in particular in Raqqa and Deir Ezzur. ISIS, Nusra, and FSA brigades at first co-existed in these areas, however, ISIS was able to oust the FSA and what remained of Nusra from Raqqa and Deir Ezzur entirely within the next year. This allowed ISIS to capture Syria’s most lucrative oil fields, establish Raqqa as its Syrian capital, and greatly grow the size and strength of its so-called Caliphate.
Cooperation between ISIS and Nusra actually continued in some areas, so that in 2015, Nusra fighters deliberately helped facilitate an ISIS takeover of the Yarmouk refugee camp after Nusra had jointly occupied the camp alongside its FSA counterparts for three years. In the Yarmouk basin in southwest Deraa province, near the Israeli border, a prominent FSA brigade declared loyalty to ISIS in late 2014, bringing additional opposition-held territory under ISIS control. This means that ISIS gained its foothold in many areas as a result of the FSA and Nusra first capturing those areas from the Syrian government.
In a lengthy study analyzing Nusra strategy, Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) concluded that “JN [Jabhat al-Nusra] serves as a force multiplier for other rebel groups. JN leverages small units of highly skilled fighters to contribute an essential special forces-like capability to rebel military offensives. JN provides highly effective capabilities such as the deployment of suicide bombers to produce asymmetric effects against the regime.”
Such FSA/Nusra cooperation is not surprising given Nusra’s goal of embedding itself within the broader US-backed Syrian insurgency. Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani highlighted this approach, stating to al-Jazeera that “Preserving good relations with the other groups and treating them well and turning a blind eye to their mistakes is the foundation in dealing with the other groups.”
Nusra support for the FSA is generally downplayed by rebels themselves for public relations reasons. For example, an opposition activist in Deraa described how “The FSA and Al Nusra join together for operations but they have an agreement to let the FSA lead for public reasons. . . Operations that were really carried out by Al Nusra are publicly presented by the FSA as their own.” Similarly, the Western media often describe joint Nusra/FSA operations in vague terms, such as “rebel offensives” and describe Nusra/FSA controlled territory as “opposition-held,” making it difficult to observe the symbiotic relationship between the two groups when casually reading the news of events in Syria.
FSA dependence on Nusra was made clear when US officials designated Nusra as a terrorist organization in late 2012. FSA commanders protested the decision, insistingthat “We are all Nusra.”
At first glance, it might appear that US officials were alarmed by cooperation between Nusra and the FSA, given that Nusra is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. However, there is considerable evidence that US planners have themselves viewed Nusra as an ally in its effort to overthrow the Assad government, despite designating it a terrorist organization. US planners have bombed Nusra only sparingly, as Nusra’s efforts to topple the Syrian government dovetailed with the United States’ own. When US planners did bomb Nusra targets in an effort to kill specific al-Qaeda militants suspected of planning attacks against the West, US officials took great pains to emphasize they were not bombing Nusra, which they viewed as helping Syrians fight against Assad but rather elements of al-Qaeda they considered to belong to a separate and previously unknown entity, the Khorasan group. US planners also expected that US-trained rebels would be welcomed by Nusra in the battle against the Syrian government, and expressed shock when Nusra attacked these US-trained groups and stole their weapons in several instances.
In November 2016, some officials in the Obama administration acknowledged the tacit alliance with Nusra and argued for a shift in US policy. The Washington Post reportsthat “Officials who supported the shift said the Obama administration could no longer tolerate what one of them described as ‘a deal with the devil,’ whereby the United States largely held its fire against al-Nusra because the group was popular with Syrians in rebel-controlled areas and furthered the U.S. goal of putting military pressure on Assad.”
Further, one must not rely on claims from Assad, or Syrian, Russian, and Iranian state media to conclude that it is the US-backed FSA that collaborates with al-Qaeda. Rather this is clear from admissions from FSA commanders themselves, and from reporting in Western and Gulf media outlets (broadly hostile to the Syrian government) about specific rebel offensives.
In the remainder of this essay, I will provide a brief overview of the events showing collaboration between the FSA and Nusra in each of the areas mentioned above, as well as evidence suggesting that US planners have typically viewed Nusra (and even ISIS in specific circumstances) as an ally in its covert fight against the Syrian government.
Deraa province is located in the south of Syria, bordering both Jordan and Israel. Deraa city is the provincial capital. Evidence of Nusra involvement in the Syrian insurgency in Deraa province began to emerge in late 2012. The BBC reported that on November 10, 2012 “At least 20 soldiers have been killed in twin explosions in the southern Syrian city of Deraa, activists report . . . two cars packed with explosives were detonated at a military camp, killing and wounding ‘dozens.” No specific group claimed responsibility for the attack; however, it appears to have been carried out by Nusra, as large car bombs were used.
In this period, the flow of weapons to Syrian rebels increased drastically as well. The New York Times reported that in November 2012, Saudi Arabia “financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters” in southern Syria, via shipments through Jordan, and that these shipments were arranged with help from the CIA, including from then CIA director David Petraeus. The Croatian weapons began reaching rebels in Deraa province by late December 2012.
Eliot Higgins of the crowdsourcing journalism website Bellingcat notes that FSA brigades and Nusra jointly assaulted a Syrian government military base outside of Al Sahweh that same month. Higgins located images showing Nusra fighters using these Croatian weapons, presumably because FSA groups had shared them with Nusra during the joint operation.
Higgins also noted that the FSA and Nusra jointly attacked the Syrian army outpost, Hajez Barad, in Busr al-Harir, Daraa, in March 2013. He located images of Nusra fighters using the same Croatian weapons during that operation as well.
Nusra was not the only jihadist group to receive the Saudi purchased weapons. McClatchy quoted an Ahrar al-Sham spokesperson in late February as acknowledging “of course they [the FSA] share their weapons with us, we fight together.”
In March 2013, the Washington Post reported that the FSA-affiliated Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade had cooperated with Nusra to seize the 38th Division air base of the Syrian army in Deraa province. In September 2013, Al-Jazeera reported that opposition rebels, among them fighters from Nusra, wrested control of the Ramtha border crossing to Jordan from the Syrian army.
The New York Times reported that by the summer of 2013, the US was itself sending weapons to rebels in southern Syria, in addition to those being sent via Saudi and Jordanian intelligence. The National reported that these weapons were distributed to Syrian rebels via an operations command center in Amman. These distributions included vehicles, sniper rifles, mortars, heavy machine guns, small arms and ammunition to FSA units. Western and Arab military advisers based in the operations center offered tactical advice on attacking Syrian government targets.
On Oct 04, 2013, the pro-opposition Lebanese Daily Star reported that according to a source in the opposition Joint Military Council, Saudi-supplied anti-tank missiles sent to FSA groups in Deraa had reached Nusra “within days” of delivery to the FSA . The source stated “Nusra paid $15,000 for each. So they are going in, and immediately being sold on.”
That Nusra regularly purchased weapons from the Western-backed military councils supplying the FSA was confirmed one year later. In October 2014, the New York Timesreported that Shafi al-Ajmi, a Nusra fundraiser, told a Saudi news channel that “When the military councils sell the weapons they receive, guess who buys them? It’s me.”
On January 5, 2014, the National interviewed opposition activists and FSA fighters and commanders in Deraa. One FSA fighter explained how “They [Nusra] offer their services and cooperate with us, they are better armed than we are, they have suicide bombers and know how to make car bombs.” A local opposition activist described how “The FSA and Al Nusra join together for operations but they have an agreement to let the FSA lead for public reasons, because they don’t want to frighten Jordan or the West. . . Operations that were really carried out by Al Nusra are publicly presented by the FSA as their own.” An FSA commander further explained that assistance from Nusra to the FSA had been crucial during several battles against the Syrian government in the south of the country and that the FSA and Nusra had an agreement to share weaponry captured during successful operations, but that this is rarely acknowledged because, “The face of Al Nusra cannot be to the front. It must be behind the FSA, for the sake of Jordan and the international community.”
Despite FSA/Nusra cooperation, Reuters reported that Congress approved sending additional small arms and anti-tank rockets to FSA rebel groups in southern Syria in late January 2014, with a budget that would extend weapons shipments through September 2014.
In February 2014, the Southern Front was established to consolidate the command structure and military operations of 49 southern FSA rebel groups, including the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade. US funding to the Southern Front was justified on the basis of claims that the Front was an umbrella for moderate opposition groups denouncing sectarianism and extremism.
Close cooperation between the US-backed FSA brigades comprising the Southern Front and Nusra continued, however. In February 2014, the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade participated with Nusra in a campaign to capture strategic positions between Deraa and Quneitra.
In May 25, 2014 a commander of the FSA affiliated al-Omari Brigade told Vice Newsthat despite some tensions, its relationship with Nusra was good, and that he was committed to maintaining it. The commander stated that, “God forbid there would be a war between the FSA and Nusra. It would be a disaster for everyone, and a victory for the regime.” Mohammed Ktefan, a Nusra fighter from Daraa, also told Vice that “Fighters from the FSA and Nusra work together in the free areas and relations between them are very natural” and that, “This talk about controversies and clashes [between the FSA and Nusra] is just propaganda. It doesn’t exist on the ground.”
In the fall of 2014, FSA rebels and Nusra jointly assaulted several southern Syrian cities near the Israeli border, including Tel al-Harra and Baath city (causing thousands of residents to flee) and took control of the Quneitra crossing to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
By December 2014, the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade split from the Southern Front and Nusra and pledged allegiance to ISIS. This brought FSA territory in the Yarmouk basin under ISIS control. In March 2016, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appointed a Saudi National, Abu Abdullah al-Madani, as the new head of the group. In May 2016, the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade merged with two other armed factions sympathetic to ISIS, forming the Khalid Bin Walid Army (KBW). Fighting between the KBW on the one hand, and FSA and Nusra rebels on the other became common. When US-backed Kurdish and Arab militias drove ISIS out of its then capital, Raqqa, in the fall of 2017, a number of senior ISIS commanders fled to the area controlled by the KBW, setting up a new training camp and overseeing the dissemination of online propaganda. Despite publicly expressing hostility to ISIS, the Israeli government followed a “live and let live” policy with ISIS-affiliated factions and Nusra, which both maintained a presence near the Israeli border over the course of several years, according to the Times of Israel.
In April 2015, the US-backed Southern Front and Nusra jointly captured the Nassib border crossing, the last government-controlled border crossing between Syria and Jordan. In the summer of 2015, the Southern Front cooperated with Nusra to launchthe “Southern Storm” campaign to take full control of Deraa city, though the campaign was ultimately unsuccessful. As part of this campaign, rebels from the Southern Front and Nusra jointly captured the Brigade 82 military base in southwestern Deraa province, which, according to one rebel commander, would help the rebels “cut supply routes of the regime forces in the south from their supplies in the north to be able to eventually take over Deraa city.”
This cooperation continued into 2017. In February, the FSA announced the beginning of an operation entitled “We Prefer Death to Kneeling Down” with the objective of taking control of the Menshiya neighborhood in Deraa City from the Syrian Army. The operation was directed by the al-Bunyan al-Marsous operations room, which coordinated rebel activities among the different factions, including the FSA, Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra (by then known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham). The operation began with two suicide car bombs carried out by Nusra fighters. The fight for Menshiya continued for months, as rebels were able to take control of much of the district, prompting the Syrian army to send an elite army unit to attempt to retake it with the assistance of Russian airstrikes.
On March 2, 2013 a coalition of rebel groups, including the FSA, Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham expelled Syrian government forces and conquered the city of Raqqa, the capital of the eastern Syrian governorate of the same name.
Syria analyst Matthew Barber provides an account of the fighting in which rebels, all originating outside of Raqqa itself, took control of the city. Barber also describes video footage from the rebels showing what appears to be the massacre of Syrian government soldiers whom Nusra had promised free passage out of the city upon surrender. Other videos emerged showing Nusra fighters executing Syrian government intelligence officials in the town’s central square, as well as parading the bodies of others throughout the city in pickup trucks.
The capture of Raqqa was widely celebrated by the Syrian opposition, as it was the first provincial capital to be controlled entirely by rebel forces. Reuters reported that the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) claimed the capture of Raqqa would prove “a decisive victory in the struggle for the downfall of the criminal Assad regime and to salvage Syria from the ugliest epoch in its history.”
The sentiment of local residents in Raqqa did not seem to match those of opposition supporters abroad, however. While the city was under government control, some 800,000 Syrians from other areas of the country had sought refuge there in an effort to escape violence elsewhere. As the rebel invasion loomed, the BBC cited Reuters as reporting that some residents, including Raqqa’s local representative in the opposition SNC, had pleaded with rebels not to enter the city, as “The fear now is that the regime will hit Scud missiles indiscriminately at Raqqa to punish the population.” Once the rebels captured Raqqa, civilians sought to flee the city en masse, in contrast to having sought refuge there previously. Al-Arabiya reported on March 31 that according to opposition sources, “more than half of Raqqa residents and those who migrated to it before it was seized have fled, amounting to more than a million.”
The residents that remained soon had to fear not only possible retribution from the Syrian army, but oppression at the hands of rebels now occupying the city. From March 2013 to January 2014, the city was controlled by multiple rebel factions, including by FSA brigades, ISIS, and Nusra (which had broken away from ISIS at roughly the time Raqqa fell from government control).
Though idealized by secular opposition activists as a time when Raqqa residents supposedly “enjoyed a period when we could work freely and walk in the streets carrying revolutionary flags,” the first months after Syrian government forces were defeated were in fact characterized by strong influence of both Nusra and ISIS.
Reuters quoted an opposition activist from Raqqa, who described how “All the FSA cared for was stealing and accumulating money. From the first day of Raqqa’s liberation they left it to the Islamic State [ISIS].” Reuters notes as well that “Residents say they know little about the fighters. They include Iraqis, Gulf Arabs and Libyans, they say, but keep their identity hidden behind masks and avoid conversation” suggesting that Raqqa was essentially under foreign occupation by jihadist militants.
In June 2013, Youtube footage emerged showing Raqqa residents protesting outside of a joint ISIS/Nusra headquarters in Raqqa in an effort to win the release of relatives imprisoned by the militant groups, who were detaining residents in Raqqa for having “exceeded the boundaries of Shari’a.” Women protestors used slogans against Nusra and ISIS such as “I want my brother,” and “We want dad,” to demand the release of detained family members. Billboards containing ISIS propaganda, encouraging residents to pray, and to fight against idolatry, and encouraging women to wear the niqab (clothing covering their bodies, including their face), could be seen throughout the city. In July 2013, ISIS kidnapped pro-opposition Italian Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who had traveled to Raqqa to negotiate a ceasefire between quarreling rebel factions. Local activists believed he was executed a short time later. The New York Times interviewedISIS commander Abu Omar in Raqqa in August 2013, in a story highlighting the role of jihadists in not just Raqqa, but in the Syrian insurgency broadly, providing a further indication of ISIS’ presence in Raqqa when the city was supposedly under some kind of secular, democratic self-rule and considered an example of the success of the revolution.
That same month, clashes broke out between ISIS and members of the FSA-affiliated Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade in Raqqa, in which one prominent Rasoul commander was killed. ISIS was so strong in Raqqa that Rasoul fighters were forced to announce it was ceasing hostilities against ISIS, supposedly “to preserve frontline unity” while pro-rebel rallies continued to feature FSA flags flying side by side with flags from ISIS.
The next month, in September 2013, the FSA in Raqqa essentially ceased to exist, as one activist from Raqqa described how, “Not all, but the majority of FSA have joined Nusra because of [fear of] ISIS. Al-Nusra are Syrian and ISIS is not. Al-Nusra, at the end of the day, is essentially FSA, in that they are fighting to bring down the regime.”
That same month, the BBC reported that local residents began to protest ISIS after its fighters began attacking churches in Raqqa, including the iconic Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs. ISIS militants responded with beatings, arrests, and kidnappings, causing one local activist to claim that in Raqqa, ISIS “are the new dictators, just like Bashar al-Assad but dressed in black,” and that ISIS had “banned the sale of alcohol, they tried to close cafes where boys and girls sit together, they banned street theatre, cinema, bright colours, and forced women to wear Islamic dress.”
Finally, in January 2014, clashes between ISIS and Nusra broke out, as a result of which ISIS managed to take full control of the city, making it the organization’s Syrian capital. Foreign fighters continued to flock to Raqqa to join ISIS, and the group accelerated itsoppression of Raqqa residents, closing churches, crucifying dissidents, destroying Shia shrines, and further imposing its extremist, fringe interpretation of Islamic law on residents.
After years ISIS occupation of Raqqa, US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led a four month long assault against the city, accompanied by a large-scale US bombing campaign from the air, which successfully defeated ISIS in October 2017. The brutal US/SDF assault caused massive destruction, clearly visible by footage taken by drone. Hostilities finally ended when the last few hundred ISIS fighters and their families were evacuated in an agreement with US-backed forces. ISIS fighters left in a large convoy of buses and semi-trucks, taking large quantities of weapons with them. SOHR estimated the total dead from the fighting at some 3,250, including many from US airstrikes. Once Raqqa was destroyed by US bombs after years of ISIS occupation, it became clear that the supposed liberation of the city in the spring of 2013, which brought celebrations among secular Syrian opposition activists, was just the beginning of the “ugliest epoch” in the city’s history, rather than the end of it.
Aleppo is Syria’s largest city and main economic hub, located in northern Syria near the Turkish border. In the summer of 2012, rebel fighters from the Tawhid Brigade invadedAleppo. At the time, Tawhid was considered a member of the FSA. Tawhid fighters, largely from the countryside outside Aleppo, received assistance from Nusra in their assault of the city. The Washington Post quoted Tawhid commander Abu Ibrahim as saying of Nusra that “We are together. . .There is good coordination.” The Post also quoted a member of the Aleppo Revolutionary Council as describing Nusra fighters as “heroes” who “fight without fear or hesitation.” The International Crisis Group (ICG) pointed to YouTube videos which “depicted a militant waving a Jabhat al-Nusra flag celebrating among Liwa al-Towhid fighters and local civilians. Amid thirteen minutes of singing and dancing not generally associated with jihadis, those celebrating cheered and chanted for the FSA, Liwa al-Towhid and Jabhat al-Nusra.” ICG noted YouTube videos depicting Nusra fighters attacking the Hanano military barracks alongside FSA fighters, and explained that “Such open collaboration with its larger [FSA] counterpart has earned Jabhat al-Nusra public praise from prominent rebel leaders and local activists.”
Aleppo’s residents did not by and large welcome the rebel invasion and occupation of the city, however. One FSA commander acknowledged that “Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them,” while another rebel commander vowed to make Aleppo “burn” for this lack of support for the rebels, while yet another insisted the city must be “dragged” into the revolution.
By January 2013, the grim reality of life under FSA/Nusra rule had become apparent. A US State Department assessment described life under rebel rule in Aleppo: “There are hundreds of small groups (10-20 fighters) spread all over the area of Aleppo . . . The FSA has [been] transformed into disorganized rebel groups, infiltrated by large numbers of criminals. All our efforts with MCs [military councils] were abolished. . . . Warlords are a reality on the ground now. . . . A [failed] state is the most likely outcome of the current condition, unless adjustment [is] done. . . Rebel violations are becoming a normal daily phenomenon, especially against civilians, including looting public and private factories, storage places, houses and cars.” As a result of FSA criminality, Nusra was “gaining popularity” due to their discipline and refrain from participating in the looting, according to the report.
Nusra continued to play a prominent role in the rebel occupation of East Aleppo for much of the next four years. In March 2013, the Washington Post reported that Nusra “assumed control of bakeries and the distribution of flour and fuel” in the city, and was the dominant rebel faction in establishing the “Sharia authority” to govern the city according to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law.
Other indications of FSA collaboration with Nusra come from Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, the head of the Revolutionary Military Council in Aleppo, which, according to the Telegraph, was one of the main rebel recipients of US military aid. In an interviewwith an opposition media outlet, al-Okaidi claimed that Nusra was actually part of the FSA, stating that Nusra “constitute perhaps 10% of the FSA in the city of Aleppo and in Syria.” This mirrored then Secretary of State John Kerry’s claim that maybe 15 to 25 percent of the rebels were “al Qaida and the bad guys.” Oddly, Kerry cited these numbers to try to prove that “[t]here is a real moderate opposition that exists,” ignoring the fact that whatever groups he referred to as moderate were collaborating closely with al-Qaeda (Nusra).
Al-Okaidi has met personally with former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, whom he personally thanked for aid shipments to the FSA, as well as with US Congressman Adam Kinzinger in September 2014. Okaidi has been interviewed in the Western Press, for example, in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz when he led the rebel offensive to capture Aleppo in 2012 and by CNN in conjunction with Kininger’s meeting with Syrian rebel representatives in 2014.
Al-Okaidi and his US-backed Aleppo Military Council have worked closely not only with Nusra, but with ISIS as well. After a ten month campaign, FSA brigades were finally successful in capturing the Menagh air base, located one hour from Aleppo city, in August 2013. The FSA was only able to do so, however, with the help of fighters led by prominent ISIS commanders Abu Jandal and Abu Omar al-Sheshani. The New York Times reported that weeks of “relentless suicide vehicle bombings on the walls of the base” turned the tide in the battle, and that afterward “al-Okaidi, the head of the United States-backed opposition’s Aleppo military council, appeared in a video alongside Abu Jandal, a leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]. In camouflage, Colonel Okaidi offered thanks to ‘our brothers al-Muhajireen wal Ansar [Jandal’s battalion] and others, adding: ‘We’re here to kiss every hand pressed on the trigger.’ He then ceded the floor to Abu Jandal and a mix of jihadist and Free Syrian Army leaders, who stood together, each praising his men, like members of a victorious basketball team.”
In September 2014, the Los Angeles Times quoted several fighters from Hazm Movement (a “vetted” rebel group that received TOW anti-tank missiles from the US) in Aleppo as explaining that, “Nusra doesn’t fight us, we actually fight alongside them. We like Nusra,” through relations between the groups would eventually sour, when in March 2015 Nusra attacked various Hazm bases and confiscated its weapons, essentially dissolving the group.
Al-Monitor reports that Nusra reinforced its presence in Aleppo in February 2016 (having previously lost influence there to ISIS), as a column of Nusra tanks and trucks carrying medium and heavy weapons resembling a military parade entered the city by way of the al-Kastelo road. Nusra was then at the forefront of the fighting when the final battle for the city between rebels and Syrian/Russian forces began in the fall of 2016. When the Syrian government attempted to liberate East Aleppo from Nusra and its FSA counterparts, the Western press described the Syrian government’s efforts as “genocide” and repeated unfounded rebel allegations of Syrian government war crimes, including that women in Aleppo were committing suicide to avoid being raped by Syrian government soldiers.
The Western press characterized the defeat of al-Qaeda in Aleppo is the “fall” of the city, rather than its liberation, even as the massacres of the civilian population predicted by Western journalists failed to materialize. Instead, reports emerged that rebels had murdered civilians attempting to flee from rebel controlled areas to government controlled areas of the city, and that large numbers of Syrian displaced persons and refugees began returning to their homes in East Aleppo in the months after it returned to Syrian government control, thus slowly reversing the flight of civilians from the city that occurred in the summer of 2012 when rebels first invaded it.
Idlib province is located in northwest Syria, along the border with Turkey, with Idlib City serving as the provincial capital. By July 2012, Nusra was playing a large role in assisting the rebels in Idlib province. Time magazine reported that “’Abu Mohammad, a local FSA commander with 25 men, said he dealt with the Jabhat [Nusra] because he needed their ‘explosives, bullets and other things … They have experience that I can benefit from, and I can also give them some help, information that benefits them.’” Time notes further that by July 2012, Nusra had “a presence in at least half a dozen towns in Idlib province as well as elsewhere across the country, including strong showings in the capital of Damascus and in Hama, according to the Jabhat member and other Islamists who are in contact with senior members of the group.”
During this period, foreign support for the rebels increased markedly, as Qatar was using C-130 transport aircraft to deliver weapons to Turkey which would then be delivered to rebels in Idlib province. The New York Times quoted one former US official who described how Qatari efforts, with assistance from then CIA head David Petraus, resulted in a “cataract of weaponry” flowing to the rebels in Syria. The NYTnoted as well that “The Qatari flights aligned with the tide-turning military campaign by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib, as their campaign of ambushes, roadside bombs and attacks on isolated outposts began driving Mr. Assad’s military and supporting militias from parts of the countryside. As flights continued into the summer, the rebels also opened an offensive in that city — a battle that soon bogged down.”
In November 2012, the Washington Post provided details of a report from an NGO affiliated with the FSA regarding the influence of Nusra in Idlib and elsewhere, noting that, “In Idlib province, west of Aleppo, Jabhat’s ranks number 2,500 to 3,000, or about 10 percent of the total number of FSA fighters there,” suggesting that Nusra was considered part of the FSA itself.
Also in November 2012, FSA brigades and Nusra were able to capture a key Syrian military base. The BBC reported that, “Hundreds of FSA fighters – led by the jihadist groups al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Vanguard – have besieged Taftanaz Military Airport in Idlib province. . . . Rebel fighters broke into the airbase on Wednesday night after days of fighting, and by Thursday had seized control of more than half of it. On Friday morning, the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an opposition activist network, reported that the FSA was now in full control,” once again indicating there was little if any distinction between the FSA and Nusra.
In February 2013, another joint FSA/Nusra operation led to capturing another key Syrian military base in Idlib, this time in Wadi Deif. Time magazine reports that the Nusra Front and other rebel groups, including the FSA’s Idlib Revolutionary Military Council, headed by Colonel Afif Suleiman, renewed the assault on the Wadi Deif military base and other targets in Idlib. Taking the base was a crucial step in controlling the M5 highway that allows the Syrian government to transport military supplies from Hama and Damascus north to Idlib and Aleppo. All factions involved committed to obey rulings of a Sharia committee established to distribute spoils of war between the groups, which had been a point of contention previously. The Nusra commander leading the operation told Time that “We invited all of the leaders of the brigades here,” and that “They have all sworn to the court to work together. God willing, this will serve as an example to others.”
In May 2013, the Long War Journal reported that Nusra and seven different FSA brigades carried out a large joint operation in Idlib province involving 2,000 fighters, eight tanks, a BMP armored vehicle, as well as mortars, rockets, machine guns, and other heavy weapons, noting that “The Al Nusrah Front explained that it decided to assist the Syrian rebel units after they failed to take control of the camps despite laying siege to the area for more than three months. . . .The al Qaeda-linked terror group also said that in another attack, on June 14, it worked with four other rebel groups to overrun ‘the Military Housing Foundation’ in Idlib.” During that operation, Nusra partnered with Ahrar al-Sham, as well as with FSA brigades Liwa al-Tawhid, and Liwa al-Haq.
In February 2014, the commander of the US and Saudi backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Jamal Maarouf, said that his group was happy to fight alongside al-Qaeda, and that he had provided weapons to Islamist rebels (he did not specify which groups) at the behest of his Saudi sponsors during a battle at Yabroud.
On May 25, 2014, SOHR reported that “Four al-Nusra Front fighters carried out suicide attacks this morning, driving vehicles packed with explosives into four regime forces’ checkpoints in the Jabal al-Arbaeen area near Ariha city,” while Emirates Todayreported that “Fighters of the Free [Syrian] Army and Islamic brigades followed up the bombings by storming and controlling roadblocks and buildings.”
On October 27, 2014 the Independent reported that “Syria almost lost its second city to the jihadists of Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra last night when hundreds of fighters stormed into the provincial capital, Idlib, captured the newly installed governor’s office and began beheading Syrian army officers. By the time government troops recaptured the building, at least 70 soldiers – many senior officers – had been executed, leaving one of the oldest cities in Syria in chaos” before the Syrian army was able to repel the rebel assault. EA Worldview reported that FSA fighters took part in the assault on Idlib city as well, noting that “Insurgent forces, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army, attacked this morning from the north, south, and west and captured several checkpoints on the perimeter of the city. They then moved on positions such as the stadium and the College of Education.”
Some tensions between Nusra and other opposition rebel groups did appear. In November 2014, al-Nahar reported that Nusra fighters executed 13 members of an opposition rebel group in a town in the Idlib countryside, shooting them in the back. The reason for the clashes was not known, though the factions had fought side by side against the Syrian government previously. In March 2015 al-Monitor reported that Nusra attacked both the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Hazm movement (both groups had fought with Nusra previously) and that the groups had “collapsed within a few hours in the Idlib countryside” and that Nusra seized both groups’ weapons depots.
Relations between Nusra and other Western-backed rebel groups in Idlib remained strong however, while close US-ally Qatar sought to improve its relations with Nusra. In March 2015, Reuters reported that Qatari intelligence officials had met with Nusra leader al-Jolani “several times in the past few months to encourage him to abandon al Qaeda and to discuss what support they could provide,” even though “the ideology of the new entity is not expected to change,” suggesting Qatar desired such a change for public relations reasons.
US planners sought better relations with Nusra as well. Syria analyst Charles Lister, writing in Foreign Policy, noted that US planners encouraged FSA brigades to coordinate with Nusra to launch a spring offensive against a number of cities and towns in Idlib province still under Syrian government control.
The campaign involved an assault on Idlib city in March 2015 as well as an attack on Syrian government check points in the al-Ghab plain in April 2015. When Nusra took control of most of Idlib city, the opposition government in exile (based in Turkey) considered moving its headquarters to Idlib so it could begin to operate from within the country. The opposition government enjoyed strong support from Qatar and later received direct US funding.
On April 22, 2015, Nusra (by then known as Jaish al-Fateh) launched three simultaneous offensives, with support from FSA factions (Liwa Forsan al-Haq, the 1st Coastal Division, Liwa Suqor al-Jebel, and others) in Jisr al-Shigour, the Mastouma military base, and the nearby al-Qarmeed and Sahl al-Ghab checkpoints. FSA groups used US-provided TOW anti-tank weapons in these offensives. Nusra suicide bombings helped capture the National Hospital in Jisr al-Shagour. By late May, the opposition capture of Idlib province was complete, as Nusra took control of the town of Ariha.
Syria analyst Charles Lister, writing in Foreign Policy, observed that the opposition gains in Idlib province during this period were the result of several months of extensive planning, and that “The operations also displayed a far improved level of coordination between rival factions, spanning from U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades, to moderate and conservative Syrian Islamists, to al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and several independent jihadist factions.”
In addition to highlighting increased FSA/Nusra cooperation, Lister also notes that US planners had directly instructed their FSA proxies in Idlib to cooperate with Nusra. Lister writes, “The involvement of FSA groups, in fact, reveals how the factions’ backers have changed their tune regarding coordination with Islamists. Several commanders involved in leading recent Idlib operations confirmed to this author that the U.S.-led operations room in southern Turkey, which coordinates the provision of lethal and non-lethal support to vetted opposition groups, was instrumental in facilitating their involvement in the operation from early April onwards. That operations room — along with another in Jordan, which covers Syria’s south — also appears to have dramatically increased its level of assistance and provision of intelligence to vetted groups in recent weeks.”
Lister finishes the article by arguing that US cooperation with al-Qaeda (Nusra) is the best option for US planners: “[T]here still remains no better alternative to cooperating with al Qaeda, and thus facilitating its prominence. If the West wants a better solution, it must broaden and intensify its engagement with Syria’s insurgent groups and considerably expand its provision of assistance to a wider set of acceptable groups” echoing a popular view among Western and Gulf think tank analysts that Nusra was worthy of US support.
Lister expanded further on this subject, writing in the Huffington Post that, “none of the major victories in Idlib since early-April would have been possible without the crucial rearguard actions of U.S.— and Western-backed FSA units and their externally-supplied artillery shells, mortars and American-manufactured BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile systems. . . As this author revealed in early-May, the depth of coordination between Western-backed FSA factions, Islamists, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadists has increased markedly in Idlib since April, both due to a natural need for cooperation on the ground, but also thanks to a tacit order to do so from the U.S.- and Saudi-led coordination room in southern Turkey [emphasis mine].”
Lister also notes that,” Specifically in Idlib, Jabhat al-Nusra also began unilaterally imposing a harsher level of Sharia justice, including stoning men and women to death, restricting women’s dress and freedom of public movement, and enforcing the closure of shops during prayer time.”
Roughly one year later, in March 2016, relations deteriorated between Nusra and the 13th Division, one of the major FSA brigades in Idlib province. After cooperating to capture Idlib one year before in a joint operation, Nusra killed seven Division 13 fighters in Ma’arat al-Numan, and took a dozen more as prisoners after a night-long gun battle. Nusra was able to defeat Division 13 “in large measure because none of the other FSA factions in the town were willing to help their allies. Most prominent among the nearby FSA divisions that sat on their hands was another U.S.-backed faction, Fursan al-Haq, led by another Syrian Army defector, Col. Fares Bayyoush,” according to reporting in Foreign Policy.
Nusra continued to consolidate its position of dominance in the province. In February 23, 2017 the Washington Post quoted an official with the U.S.-backed FSA Fastaqim rebel group as saying he and his fighters had jointed Ahrar al-Sham because “Al-Qaeda is eating us,” while also noting that “A video posted on YouTube this week by the new Nusra-led alliance showed its fighters destroying a government gun position using one of the U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles that were supplied to the moderate rebels.”
While Nusra threatened to subsume some smaller, weaker, FSA brigades, cooperation between Nusra and other FSA brigades continued, in particular between Nusra and the US-backed Free Idlib Army (FIA). Syria Deeply reports that the FIA was formed in 2016 when three FSA brigades merged and that US had supplied all three groups with TOW anti-tank missiles. Syria Deeply notes further that the FIA receives support from the CIA operated MOM operations room in Turkey, while its actions are “intertwined with the military plans and operations of local extremist groups.” According to reporting in the Long War Journal, in March of 2017 the FIA cooperated with Nusra (by then known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), Ahrar al-Sham, and a number of smaller FSA brigades in a large offensive in northern Hama in which opposition rebels assaulted over a dozen villages and towns. Nusra foreign fighters initiated many of the assaults, carrying out suicide bombings the towns of Suran, Maardes, and Qamhada, where a large truck bomb was employed. The FIA itself focused on assaulting the regime-controlled Zayn Al Abdeen Mountain.
In mid-July 2017, an intra-jihadi civil war erupted, as Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham began to fight for control of Idlib. Nusra quickly defeated its former ally, which had been one of the strongest rebel groups in Syria since 2011, thereby cementing Nusra’s hold on the province, including Idlib city. Nusra also won control of the “lucrative Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey and surrounding territory near the frontier including checkpoints and key roads.” Syria analyst Sam Heller noted that, “Inside the northwest, there’s now no one who can challenge the clear, hegemonic control of [Nusra].”
Yarmouk camp, with a pre-war population of some 200,000, was the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. Palestinians in Yarmouk, as in the rest of Syria, attempted to remain neutral in the conflict, however, these efforts soon failed as both the rebels and the regime attempted to draw the Palestinians of Yarmouk and other Palestinian camps into the conflict.
In February 2012, a senior regime security official warned the Palestinian leadership in Yarmouk to “keep the camp quiet,” implying that the Syrian army would unleash considerable violence on the camp if rebels were able to infiltrate it. The rebels were determined to do just that, however, against the wishes of Yarmouk’s residents. Rebel groups under the direction of then Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, sought to occupy Yarmouk, in an effort to use it as a base for launching attacks on Damascus, as it is located on the southern outskirts of the city, only a few miles away from Assad’s presidential palace and the Damascus airport, and could be supplied from rebel controlled districts and rural areas further to the south.
As a result, during the spring and summer of 2012 opposition rebel groups detonated a car bomb in the camp and assassinated a number of pro-regime Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA) commanders (a regime sponsored militia in which Palestinian refugees performed compulsory service, but which had not participated in the Syrian conflict).
Rebels then massacred 17 young PLA conscripts traveling by bus near the Neirab Palestinian camp outside of Aleppo on July 11, 2012. According to one PLA commander, “half were shot, while the other half were tortured and then beheaded.” Rebels also made public threats stating that pro-regime Palestinian leaders were “legitimate targets.”
Members of Palestinian factions, in particular the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) then began fighting alongside the Syrian army against rebels in neighborhoods adjacent to Yarmouk, thus breaking the commitment to neutrality. In August 2012, the PFLP-GC organized self-defense militias to prevent rebel fighters from infiltrating the camp. The efforts of the Popular Committees to protect the camp from rebels came amid allegations PFLP-GC members continued to help the Syrian army fight rebel groups outside the camp as well.
Rebels, including brigades from the FSA and Nusra, were finally able to invade and take control of the camp in December. The Guardian reported that, “In December 2012 the FSA and the al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra were ready for a concerted attack to capture Damascus and topple Assad. Yarmouk was the gateway to the capital, closer to the centre than any of the other suburbs where the regime was losing control. The crisis came to a head on 16 December, when a Syrian air force plane bombed Yarmouk in what the government later claimed was a mistake. Dozens of civilians were killed. Brigades from the FSA and Jabhat al Nusra seized the opportunity to enter the camp – and in response, the government launched a hail of artillery shells, turning most buildings on the edge of the district to rubble.”
As a result of the rebel occupation of the camp and subsequent fighting with the Syria army, the majority of residents of Yarmouk were forced to flee. Of this period, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) commented, “In December 2012, fierce clashes erupted in Yarmouk, an area of Damascus home to approximately 160,000 Palestine refugees. The intensity of these clashes and the widespread use of heavy weapons caused numerous civilian casualties, severe damage to property and the displacement of 140,000 Palestine refugees and thousands of Syrians.”
When talks to negotiate the exit of both the Syrian army and the rebels failed, the remaining Yarmouk residents began to suffer both from jihadist rule and from the Syrian government imposed siege. Rebels soon began looting homes, taking over hospitals and stealing medicine. The government imposed siege made food, water, and basic necessities scarce, forcing residents to depend on intermittent UNRWA humanitarian aid deliveries. Government and rebel use of heavy artillery and mortars led to significant destruction in the camp, and scores of civilian deaths. Civilians attempting to leave the camp feared being detained by the Syrian security forces enforcing the siege at check points on the camp’s edges, but also feared retribution from rebel groups for “defecting” to the government side if they tried to escape rebel rule.
In April 2015, Nusra fighters facilitated the entry of ISIS fighters into Yarmouk. The BBC reported that “Monitors say IS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, who have fought each other in other parts of Syria, are working together in Yarmouk.” Several thousand residents who managed to escape the camp and take shelter in a school in an area under Syrian army control told of ISIS atrocities, including one boy who saw ISIS fighters using a severed head as a soccer ball, and a women who described how “’Daesh’s [ISIS] arrival meant destruction and massacre. Their behavior’s not human and their religion is not ours.”
Clashes between ISIS and local Palestinian rebels (who are loyal to Hamas and had previously supported Nusra’s initial invasion of the camp) exacerbated the humanitarian situation, forcing UNRWA to cease the already limited aid deliveries to the camp. The Guardian quoted one Yarmouk resident as stating, “There is no food or electricity or water, Daesh [Arabic acronym for Isis] is killing and looting the camp, there are clashes, there is shelling. Everyone is shelling the camp. . . As soon as Daesh entered the camp they burned the Palestinian flag and beheaded civilians.”
The Syrian government tightened the siege, reaffirming their concern that ISIS fighters controlled territory so near the heart of the Syrian capital. Al-Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker explained that “It is a complex situation. The government forces control the northern part [of the camp] towards Damascus. It is their priority to keep the capital safe. . . The fact that ISIL [ISIS] fighters are less than 10km away is of a huge concern. If they allow a humanitarian corridor, who will be coming out?”
This concern was shared by Russia. Journalist Charles Glass notes that according to one analyst familiar with Russian decision-making, “In autumn 2015, it was clear Damascus could fall.” This coupled with the success of US efforts to assist Nusra and the FSA in capturing Idlib earlier that year, constituted a “red line,” that Russia would not tolerate. As a result, Russia “increased air support and sent ground forces to guarantee the survival of Syria’s government, army, and institutions. Its action saved Damascus from an insurgent onslaught and gave the Syrian army the upper hand in the long seesaw war.”
With ISIS threatening Damascus, US planners had felt they were close to achieving their aim of forcing Assad to step down. However, they did not anticipate the possibility of decisive Russian intervention. Of this period, then Secretary of State John Kerry explained that “the reason Russia came in is because ISIL [Islamic State] was getting stronger. Daesh [Islamic State] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus. And that is why Russia came in. They didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength. And we thought Assad was threatened. We thought we could manage that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him.”
Kerry made this comment while speaking to a group of Syrian opposition members at the Dutch Mission of the United Nations in New York. Oddly, the New York Timesreported on this meeting at the time, but omitted any mention of the Kerry’s shocking admission that US planners welcomed the ISIS assault on the Syrian capital.
Nusra and ISIS later turned on one another in Yarmouk, and fought for control of the camp for the next two years, with ISIS making significant gains in April 2016. By this time only 10,000 civilians remained. ISIS refused to let additional civilians leave the camp and had taken over the Palestine Hospital to treat its own fighters, while residents continued to fear ISIS snipers and shelling on the one hand, and government mortars on the other. By June 2017, the Syrian government was attempting to negotiatethe evacuation of Nusra and ISIS fighters as part of the “four towns” deal, which efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. As of the time of writing (October 2017), ISIS continued to occupy most of Yarmouk camp, and fighting between ISIS, the Syrian army, and other rebel factions continued, as did the suffering of the few Yarmouk residents who had been unlucky enough to be trapped in the camp, but lucky enough to still be alive.
Deir Ezzur province and city are located in the Eastern part of Syria, bordering Iraq. The province is home to many of Syria’s largest oil fields. Nusra Front collaboration with the FSA was evident by July 2012. That month, the Guardian interviewed Abu Khuder, who founded one of the earliest FSA brigades in Deir Ezzur province. Abu Khuder described how Nusra members had provided him with a truck rigged with two tons of explosives, which was crucial in expelling government forces from a garrison in the town of Mohassen. Impressed with Nusra’s military experience and expertise, Abu Khuder split from the FSA and joined Nusra. However, he continued to work with the FSA, stating “We meet almost every day. . . We have clear instructions from our [al-Qaida] leadership that if the FSA need our help we should give it. We help them with IEDs and car bombs. Our main talent is in the bombing operations.”
In April 2013, opposition rebels captured the majority of Deir Ezzur province. Speaking to the State Department-funded news site, Syria Direct, FSA spokesperson Omar Abo Laila claimed the “FSA alone rules Deir Ezzur,” but acknowledged receiving assistance from Nusra on the battle field. Leila described how “The FSA usually starts and supervise operations and Jabhat a-Nusra follows at the later stages. The battle of Shams al-Furate [Euphrates Sun] to liberate Deir e-Zor military airport is an example.”
In fact it was unclear which group, the FSA or Nusra, was in control of Deir Ezzur province. For example, Laila claimed that 95% of Deir Ezzur province’s oil fields were under FSA control. However, this was disputed by opposition activists who claimed to the Financial Times that “many of those oilfields are now under the control of Jabhat al-Nusrah, the al-Qaeda-linked rebel group.” Despite this, the European Union liftedsanctions on the sale of Syrian oil to help the rebels raise funds for military operations.
In the fall of 2013, as rebels took control of the province’s last and largest oil field, al-Omar, the New York Times cited the pro-opposition SOHR as stating that Nusra and the Saudi-backed jihadi rebel group Jaish al-Islam were the factions involved in taking over al-Omar. Any mention of the FSA was notably absent, suggesting that the FSA and Nusra in Deir Ezzur were either largely indistinguishable, or that the FSA had, for public relations reasons, simply taken public credit for Nusra’s initial capture of the province.
But the al-Omar and other Deir Ezzur oil fields did not remain in the hands of Nusra for long. In June 2014, ISIS militants were ascendant, having captured Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq, thereby prompting ISIS leader al-Baghdadi to proclaim the establishment of the so-called Caliphate. Shortly thereafter, in July 2014, ISIS militants launched a lightning military campaign into eastern Syria, capturing large swathes of territory and essentially erasing the old colonial border between the two countries. In the face of the ISIS’ military advance, Nusra militants fled the oil fields in Deir Ezzur, allowing ISIS to capture them without a fight. Al-Jazeera reported that, according to one ISIS commander, the Nusra militants “fled like rats.”
Control of these oil fields provided a major source of revenue for ISIS, but also likely helped the terror group arm itself, as did the oil fields captured by ISIS in Iraq. Munitions researcher Damien Spleeters of Conflict Armament Research (CAR) explained how oil fields captured in Iraq by ISIS “provided the industrial base—tool-and-die sets, high-end saws, injection-molding machines—and skilled workers who knew how to quickly fashion intricate parts to spec” needed by ISIS to mass produce its own munitions.
When ISIS occupied the town of Abu Hamam in Deir Ezzour province in July 2014, local fighters from the Shaitat tribe rebelled. ISIS was able to easily defeat the local fighters thanks to a new influx of weapons captured from the Iraqi military in Mosul. ISIS militants massacred some 700 tribesman, many by decapitation. The town was depopulated, with many escaping to Turkey. The Washington Post reported that refugees from the town were puzzled as to why the US bombing campaign was at that time helping the Yezidi population across the border in Iraq and Kurds in the northern Syrian border town of Kobane, but not coming to the aid of the tribes of Deir Ezzour. One refugee lamented that “We saw what the Americans did to help the Yazidis and the Kurds. But they have done nothing to help the Sunnis against the Islamic State.” In response to these complaints, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the US Central Command leader said the US goal was preventing the Islamic State from projecting power in Iraq only, rather than in Syria. “Iraq is our main effort, and it has to be. . . .And the things we are doing right now in Syria are being done primarily to shape the conditions in Iraq.”
Similar US disinterest in preventing the growth of ISIS was evident elsewhere. After conquering Deir Ezzour, ISIS continued its push Westward towards Damascus. In May 2015, ISIS conquered city of Tadmur at the site of ancient Palmyra, famous for its Roman ruins, and which lies in Homs province on the road between Deir Ezzour and the Damascus. CNN reported of the ISIS assault to take Tadmur that “After at least 100 Syrian soldiers died in fighting overnight, Syrian warplanes carried out airstrikes Thursday in and around Palmyra . . . But there’s no indication that Syrian ground forces will try to take back the city, 150 miles northeast of Damascus, the capital. Nor that any other countries such as the United States will come to the rescue. ‘The world does not care about us,’ the Palmyra resident said. ‘All they are interested in is the stones of ancient Palmyra [emphasis mine].’” The fall of Tadmur to ISIS occurred at a time when ISIS was able to capture the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the southern suburbs of Damascus, allowing ISIS to threaten Damascus from two directions.
As discussed above, then Secretary of State John Kerry explained how US planners welcomed the ISIS advance on the Syrian capital, as they thought it would give them leverage against Assad and thereby force him to step down through negotiations, thus giving power in Syria to pro-US rebel factions. This attitude may explain why US efforts to bomb ISIS and stop its advances in Iraq and northern Syria were not coupled with a similar effort to stop the terror group’s advance in Deir Ezzour, Tadmur and Damascus.
In March 2016, roughly one year after ISIS conquered Tadmur, the Syrian army was able to recapture it. When early reports emerged of the Syrian army’s success emerged, then State Department spokesperson Mark Toner was asked in a press conference if the US government preferred that the Syrian army recapture the city, or that it remain in ISIS hands. Toner refused to affirm that the US government would prefer to see the Syrian army retake the city from ISIS, stating instead that the US wished for progress on the political track of negotiations. Toner’s response also alludes to the US strategy, as explained by Kerry of using the growth of ISIS as a tool to force Assad to step down.
That US planners took a positive view of the growth of ISIS should not be surprising, given details about US policy preferences found in the well-known Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) memo from 2012, which explained that “there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria, and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime,” with the word “Salafist” referring to the fundamentalist and fringe version of Islam espoused by ISIS, Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and the government of Saudi Arabia.
ISIS continued to control most of Deir Ezzur province for the next three years, with the notable exception of parts of Deir Ezzur city, which were under siege by ISIS but under government control and protected by the Syrian army. In its sections of the city, ISISintroduced religious police, along the Saudi model, directed by a Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, and filled the schools with teachers from Tunisia, Iraq and Morocco, who would implement the ISIS educational curriculum. Chemistry, physics, philosophy, social sciences and math were eliminated.
ISIS conducted major offensives to take the city entirely in December 2014 and September and October 2015. A major ISIS goal was to capture the Deir Ezzour airport. Control of the airport was crucial for the Syrian army, allowing the government to airdrop military supplies to its forces in the city, as well as food for the civilians still inside. The Syrian army also held strategic areas atop Jabal al-Tharda, a mountain overlooking the city, giving it the high ground when fighting ISIS forces and the ability to protect the airport.
In September 2016, US forces controversially bombed Syrian army positions on Jabal al-Tharda, killing 100 Syrian soldiers and destroying Syrian army tanks and artillery. This allowed ISIS to advance on the mountain and take over strategic areas needed to further its assault on the city and making it more difficult for the Syrian government to re-supply its forces by air.
US planners claimed the bombing of the Syrian army was by accident, suggesting they mistook Syrian army positions for ISIS positions, and that ISIS was the intended target. There is evidence to suggest the contrary, namely that the bombing was no mistake and US planners meant to target the Syrian army, as discussed in detail here by journalist Gareth Porter, and Australian academic Tim Anderson here.
Finally, in September 2017, the Syrian army was able to break the ISIS siege, liberate the city, and push ISIS out of the province.
US Planners View Nusra as an Ally
The pattern of US bombing in Syria also suggests that US planners viewed Nusra as an ally in the fight against the Syrian government. The US bombing campaign against in Syria largely avoided targeting Nusra, and instead focused on targeting ISIS. US efforts to degrade ISIS seem to have been undertaken at least in part to benefit Nusra.
The US began a widespread bombing campaign against ISIS in August 2014 after it had been growing in strength for over a year, and had conquered several major Iraqi and Syrian cities, including Raqqa, Fallujah, Ramadi, and most significantly, Mosul, and after the organization was threatening to march on both Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan. President Obama stated that he refrained from initiating military operations against ISIS during the organization’s rapid advance through Western Iraq in order to put pressure on then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step down. When Obama finally initiated a bombing campaign against ISIS, he claimed this was undertaken to prevent a possible genocide faced by Iraq’s minority Yezidi population (strangely this was not a concern until Maliki agreed to step down). US foreign policy experts quietly suggested another motivation, however. The New York Times reportedat the time that “Analysts view the organization [Nusra] as well placed to benefit from American strikes that might weaken the Islamic State [ISIS].”
That US planners viewed Nusra as its ally was evident several weeks later, in September 2014, when the US carried out air strikes against the so-called Khorasan Group. More specifically, the strikes targeted Muhsin al-Fadhli, a Nusra commander and also a long-time member of al-Qaeda and associate of Osama Bin Laden. Al-Fadhli was said to be planning attacks against Western targets, operating under the protection of Nusra.
While it was clear to most observers that the Khorasan group was a cadre of fighters and commanders belonging to Nusra, US officials took pains to suggest that they were not striking Nusra itself, but rather a supposedly separate organization, which it labeled the Khorasan group.
In the US Central Command (CENTCOM) press release announcing the strikes, US officials stated they did not target the Nusra Front “as a whole” but rather the “Khorasan Group whose focus is not on overthrowing the Asad regime or helping the Syrian people.” Implicit in this statement is the dubious claim that Nusra is helping the Syrian people.
The language of the press release suggests that US planners were not opposed to Nusra because it was fighting to overthrow Assad (a goal in line with official US policy), and that they had only taken action against the so-called Khorasan group because it had been planning terror attacks carried out against Western targets.
Researchers at the Long War Journal observed that CENTCOM was making a false distinction between the Khorasan Group and Nusra, given that Nusra itself did consider the US bombing as an attack on the broader organization.
Another target of the September strikes appears to have been former French spy and Nusra bomb maker, David Drugeon. The reaction of US-sponsored rebel groups (who had been tracking Drugeon) to the airstrikes also suggests that it was common knowledge that Nusra and US intelligence agencies were allies. McClatchy reports that “The Syrian rebels said they were surprised when American missiles targeted Drugeon on Sept. 23 in the first series of U.S. airstrikes in Syria. They had expected the American action to target the Islamic State, but not also the Nusra Front, which has worked closely with the rebels in their efforts to topple the government of President Bashar Assad [emphasis mine].” US planners targeted Drugeon in an additional airstrike on his car in November 2014.
In March 2015, US planners bombed Nusra targets once again, after Nusra fighters attacked a US-backed rebel group from the Hazm movement (with whom Nusra had previously collaborated, as described above), capturing their base and weapons, including US supplied TOW anti-tank weapons. The CENTCOM press release again mentioned the Khorasan group by name, rather than Nusra.
In July 2015, US-trained rebels known as “Division 30” were attacked by Nusra militants after the division entered Syria to fight ISIS. US officials were confused, however, as to why Nusra would attack them. The New York Times explains that US military trainers “did not anticipate an assault from the Nusra Front. In fact, officials said on Friday, they expected the Nusra Front to welcome Division 30 as an ally in its fight against the Islamic State. . . ‘This wasn’t supposed to happen like this,’ said one former senior American official. . . . A senior Defense Department official acknowledged that the threat to the trainees and their Syrian recruiters had been misjudged, and said that officials were trying to understand why the Nusra Front had turned on the trainees. . . Division 30’s leaders called on all nationalist Syrian insurgents to ‘stand firm and proactively’ against what they called an unprovoked attack, and asked ‘the brothers in the Nusra Front’ to ‘stop the bloodshed and preserve the unity.’” In response, US planners undertook additional airstrikes against Nusra targets.
In April 2016, US planners bombed several Nusra targets, but once again used the Khorasan name to describe the target of their attacks, and reminded observers that the Khorasan group was planning attacks against the West as the justification for the strike. Foreign Policy reported that “Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook was careful Monday to portray al-Suri [the target of the strike] as a member of al Qaeda rather than al-Nusra.”
One month later in May 2016, after Nusra militants massacred 19 Alawite villagers from the town of Zara in Hama province, US officials rejected Russian offers to coordinate air strikes against Nusra, which the Russian air force was carrying out in conjunction with UN Security Council resolutions. US officials once again emphasized that the US was focused on targeting ISIS, not Nusra. Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis explained that “We do not collaborate or coordinate with the Russians on any operations in Syria. Russian operations are supporting and enabling the Assad regime and our focus is solely on degrading and defeating [ISIS].”
In November 2016, US planners seemed to finally reverse course, and began targeting the Nusra Front more broadly. They acknowledged the previous tacit understanding between the US and the Nusra militants they were now bombing. The Washington Postreports that “Officials who supported the shift said the Obama administration could no longer tolerate what one of them described as ‘a deal with the devil,’ whereby the United States largely held its fire against al-Nusra because the group was popular with Syrians in rebel-controlled areas and furthered the U.S. goal of putting military pressure on Assad.”
What then was the purpose of the strikes on the so-called Khorasan Group? Two reasons seem apparent. The first is that US planners targeted Nusra militants, such as Muhsin al-Fadhli and David Drugeon, because they were in fact planning terror attacks on Western targets (as they stated publicly). Though the US approved of Nusra’s efforts to fight the Syrian government, they could not allow a terror attack to take place in the West, and therefore pro-actively took military action to prevent such specific attacks, but not to degrade Nusra generally.
The second reasons seems to be that US planners undertook such strikes to send messages to warn Nusra that attacking US rebel assets (such as Division 30) in Syria was a red line not to be crossed. As long as Nusra focused its efforts on fighting Assad (in line with US objectives), they would not be subject to US attacks. The few airstrikes carried out by US planners against Nusra, in response to specific, unacceptable Nusra actions, would convey this. In other words, as long as Nusra was collaborating with US-backed rebel groups (which the typically did, as described above) they would not be targeted.
What is clear is that US planners took a somewhat different approach to Nusra than they did to ISIS. US planners undertook a massive bombing campaign against ISIS in certain areas, knowing this would strengthen Nusra. US bombing largely destroyed the ISIS capitals of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The US did bomb Nusra targets, but these bombings were rare, and seemed to be in response to very specific and exceptional instances when Nusra seemed to be going rogue. US planners have not undertaken any large-scale US bombing campaign against Nusra in Idlib province, which it controls, for example. In fact US planners were explicitly encouraging their FSA proxies to cooperate with Nusra in Idlib.
Despite the sustained US bombing campaign against ISIS, US planners still saw ISIS gains against the Syrian government as helpful at times, as articulated by Secretary Kerry, and as is evident from events in Yarmouk, Palmyra and Deir Ezzur, as described above.
The evidence presented above shows that the US-backed brigades known as the Free Syrian Army have collaborated with extremist rebel groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, in particular the Nusra Front, in many of the most crucial battles of the Syrian conflict. As the US and its Gulf allies have funded and supported the FSA, financially, militarily, and in the media, it is reasonable to suggest that in fact the US has collaborated with al-Qaeda, if only indirectly. This contradicts the consistent claims made in the Western press, including among leftists, suggesting that the Syrian government has attempted to support extremist rebel groups in order to discredit the “moderate” Syrian opposition, in an alleged effort to appeal to the West. In fact, just the opposite is true, as recent Syrian government victories against the Nusra Front and ISIS also show. If indeed the US ever had a binary choice between supporting the Assad government, on the one hand, or extremists from al-Qaeda on the other, it is clear that in fact the US chose to support al-Qaeda, in the form of Nusra. US planners did so in an effort to topple the Assad government and thereby weaken its main regional rivals Iran and Hezbollah. Unsurprisingly, US intervention in Syria has had terrible consequences for the Syrian people, as the conflict between the rebels and the Syrian army has ruined much of the country. Such an outcome was easy to predict, and yet US planners funneled massive amounts of weapons into the country, typically by way of their Saudi and Qatari partners. Further, living under al-Qaeda rule is not something that Syrians, including Syrian Sunnis, welcome, and yet US planners supported the growth of al-Qaeda in Syria in order to accomplish its own foreign policy goals. It is often claimed that US planners seek to “stabilize” the Middle East. However, the US intervention in Syria serves as yet one more reminder that US policy in the region has sought to do just the opposite, at the cost of great human suffering for Syrians, as it did for Iraqis and Libyans before them.