Syrian Rebels Embrace al-Qaeda

September 26, 2013

Exclusive: The leading Syrian rebel groups have declared their intent to transform Syria into a Taliban-style state that would collaborate with al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the heart of the Middle East. This lifting of the veil presents President Obama with an even trickier policy dilemma, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Official Washington was caught off-guard this week when the radicalization of the Syrian rebels went from being an obscured reality to an undeniable truth. Syria’s most powerful rebel forces renounced the “moderate” exiles, who have been nurtured by the West, and embraced an Islamic extremist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda.

This development now confronts the West with a set of even grimmer choices: help the radical jihadists win the war and turn Syria into a Taliban-style homeland for terrorism in the center of the Middle East; accept an indefinite continuation of the bloody civil war hoping that no one wins as the bodies pile up; or work with the Assad regime and the weakened “moderates” to bring about some kind of political reform that might placate the estranged Sunni majority while isolating the extreme Islamists.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks during his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 23, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

If the last option seems to you to be the least worst, you would find yourself in a distinct minority inside Official Washington, where politicians and pundits still prefer to swagger about, issuing ultimatums demanding the unconditional removal of President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has committed many atrocities in a civil war where brutality is common on both sides.

But if President Barack Obama were to pick the negotiation option, he would not only face resistance across Official Washington; his choice would put him at odds with Saudi Arabia and Israel, which have formed ade facto alliance in pursuit of joint regional goals, including the ouster of Assad.

Saudi Arabia and its neighboring oil sheikdoms have spearheaded the arming and funding of the radical jihadists who are now flooding into Syria from across the Arab world and from other Muslim areas such as Chechnya in Russia. Israel has quietly supported this effort, too, in political and diplomatic circles.

Though the Saudi monarchy has long presented itself as a “moderate” Arab state and friend of the United States, it is, in reality, an extremist government that imposes the hard-line Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam on its people. Through its skillful intelligence service, Saudi Arabia also has financed Sunni extremists for decades, including Osama bin Laden and other radicals who formed al-Qaeda in the 1990s.

Bin Laden may have become an expatriate Saudi before the 9/11 attacks, but alleged Saudi financing for al-Qaeda has remained a national security mystery in the United States, with the 9/11 Commission’s conclusions on this sensitive topic the only section redacted in its final report.

More recently, Saudi intelligence – now under Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the savvy former ambassador to the United States – has been pressing for the military defeat of Assad as a way to deal a severe blow to Saudi Arabia’s chief regional rival, Iran. The Saudis see themselves as the leader of Sunni Islam, seeking to counter the influence of Iran’s Shiite Islam.

Assad, who comes from the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, is viewed as a crucial link in the Shiite crescent reaching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to the Hezbollah enclaves of Lebanon. The Saudis consider knocking out Assad’s regime as central to their regional strategy of expanding Sunni dominance of the region. They also recognize that Sunni jihadists, who often employ terrorist tactics, are among the most effective fighters and thus deserve Saudi backing.

Saudi Arabia’s oust-Assad strategy even brought Prince Bandar into a verbal confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July when, according to leaked accounts of the meeting, Bandar implicitly admitted Saudi control of Chechen radicals who have committed widespread acts of terrorism in Russia and who are considered a potential threat to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. [See’s “Should Cruise Missiles Target Saudis?”]

Israel’s Tilt

But the Saudis are not alone in their eagerness to see Islamic jihadists overthrow Assad’s regime in Damascus. Israeli leaders, too, have expressed a preference for the jihadist “bad guys” to take control of Syria if that’s the only way to remove Assad and his Iranian-backed “bad guys.”

Last week, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told the Jerusalem Post that Israel “always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” Echoing the Saudi concern about the Shiite crescent, Oren said, “The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc.” [See’s “Israel Sides with Syrian Jihadists.”]

So, Tuesday’s pronouncement that the dominant Syrian rebel forces want Shariah law and are now in league with an al-Qaeda affiliate puts the Obama administration in the difficult predicament of either pursuing a course that could lead to radical Sunni Islamists establishing a Taliban-style state in the center of the Middle East or bucking the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

To work toward a political settlement between Assad’s regime and the remaining Sunni “moderates” would require telling the Israelis to back off their anti-Assad lobbying and warning the Saudis about possible retaliation if they persist in arming al-Qaeda-style jihadists in Syria (and Islamic terrorists generally).

Only by getting the Saudis and their fellow oil sheikdoms to cut off the flow of arms and money to the jihadists in Syria could a negotiated end to the civil war even be remotely possible.

But the Saudis and the Israelis — operating with what I’m told is now an intelligence-level collaboration on their mutual interests which also include support for the new Egyptian military regime – feel they have the clout to counter any pressure from the big powers of the United States and Russia. The Saudis wield enormous economic power both over energy and finance, while the Israelis have unmatched skills at propaganda and politics.

It is not clear whether the Obama administration has either the will or the strength to convince Saudi Arabia and Israel to stand down. It’s easier to simply pretend that Assad is the obstacle to peace talks and that “moderate” rebels could somehow still win the day if the United States only shipped in supplies of sophisticated weapons. [See’s “Who Blocked Syrian Peace Talks?”]

However, the battlefield reality inside Syria is increasingly dominated by the Sunni militants who would likely end up with much of whatever the United States delivers, one way or the other, according to intelligence sources.

Thus, the Syrian option favored by most of Official Washington – to somehow funnel weapons exclusively to the “moderate” rebels so they can oust Assad and build a multi-ethnic democracy – has become a pipedream. Nor does it make much sense to follow through with threats of some calibrated air war to “degrade” Assad’s military unless you want to risk the possibility of its sudden collapse and a clear-cut victory by rebel jihadists.

Indeed, the rebel jihadists may be speaking out now because they had planned a major offensive to coincide with President Obama’s threatened missile strikes against Syrian government targets (following a disputed chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21) and were bitterly disappointed when Obama decided to pursue diplomatic initiatives instead.

The Syrian Battlefield

With Tuesday’s pronouncement, the dominance of the Islamic extremists can no longer be covered up or ignored. It is a reality that even the mainstream U.S. press corps is acknowledging, as Ben Hubbard and Michael R. Gordon reported for the New York Times from Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday:

“As diplomats at the United Nations push for a peace conference to end Syria’s civil war, a collection of some of the country’s most powerful rebel groups have publicly abandoned the opposition’s political leaders, casting their lot with an affiliate of Al Qaeda. As support for the Western-backed leadership has dwindled, a second, more extreme Al Qaeda group has carved out footholds across parts of Syria, frequently clashing with mainline rebels who accuse it of making the establishment of an Islamic state a priority over the fight to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

“The fractured nature of the opposition, the rising radical Islamist character of some rebel fighters, and the increasing complexity of Syria’s battle lines have left the exile leadership with diminished clout inside the country and have raised the question of whether it could hold up its end of any agreement reached to end the war.

“The deep differences between many of those fighting in Syria and the political leaders who have represented the opposition abroad spilled into the open late Tuesday, when 11 rebel groups issued a statement declaring that the opposition could be represented only by people who have ‘lived their troubles and shared in what they have sacrificed.’

“Distancing themselves from the exile opposition’s call for a democratic, civil government to replace Mr. Assad, they called on all military and civilian groups in Syria to ‘unify in a clear Islamic frame.’ Those that signed the statement included three groups aligned with the Western-backed opposition’s Supreme Military Council.

“Mohannad al-Najjar, an activist close to the leadership of one of the statement’s most powerful signers, Al Tawhid Brigade, said the group intended to send a message of disapproval to an exile leadership it believes has accomplished little. ‘We found it was time to announce publicly and clearly what we are after, which is Shariah law for the country and to convey a message to the opposition coalition that it has been three years and they have never done any good for the Syrian uprising and the people suffering inside,’ he said.”

The prospect of Sunni religious extremism imposed on a post-Assad Syria is particularly troubling to Alawites, the sect to which Assad belongs, but also worries Christians, who include communities that date back to the founding of the religion. Other Syrian Christians are descendants of Armenians who fled the Turkish genocide a century ago. These groups fear that revenge by the Sunni jihadists could include extermination campaigns.

So, Official Washington’s effort to whip the American people into a war frenzy against Assad’s regime, particularly over its alleged use of chemical weapons, now has to contend with this new reality among the rebels. They can no longer be sold to the public as pro-democracy “moderates” locked in a good-guy-versus-bad-guy struggle with an evil dictator.

The leading rebel groups have now announced their intentions: They want a Shariah state and are willing to collaborate with al-Qaeda. But the U.S. options are further complicated because these Islamists have at their backs purported U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia and, oddly, Israel.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.