Retired general and former Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been “quietly urging” U.S. officials to work with members of al-Qaeda’s Syrian al-Nusra group to combat ISIS and the mounting crisis with Syrian refugees, according to reports from The Daily Beast.
Al-Nusra is made up of Sunni Islamic jihadist fighters and is the only al-Qaeda group operating in war-ravaged Syria. The Syrian al-Qaeda group first formed in 2012, near the beginning of the continuing Syrian civil war, which has displaced millions and sent an untold number of refugees streaming over land and sea routes to Europe seeking safety. Without change, the number of Syrian refugees is only expected to increase.
U.S. officials approached by Petraeus with the notion of working with the Syrian al-Qaeda found the idea “politically toxic” and filled with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Petraeus worked with Sunni fighers in 2007, convincing them to work with U.S. troops rather than fighting against al-Qaeda in Iraq. The strategy was successful for a short period. However, al-Qaeda in Iraq later morphed into ISIS and hold the Syrian al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda elsewhere as a “sworn enemy.”
The Syrian al-Qaeda has been named as a terrorist organization by the Obama government. In 2014, the U.S. conducted air raids on Syrian al-Qaeda Khorasan Group hideouts. The group was training Syrian operatives to smuggle bombs hidden in clothing onto Western airliners, according to reports from CNN.
That the Syrian al-Qaeda has been designated as a terrorist organization puts the legality of a plan of cooperation in question.
However, the Obama administration has had little success with any attempt to combat ISIS in Syria, and the fact that anyone, including Petraeus, is comfortable floating the idea of cooperating with an off-shoot of the Syrian al-Qaeda group speaks volumes with regard to how seriously the U.S. intelligence and defense community takes the ISIS threat.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime is seen as creating an environment ripe for groups like ISIS and al-Nusra to form. Many of the Syrian al-Qaeda group are seen as moderate, fighting with al-Nusra not out of strong shared ideology, but because of a shared common enemy: Assad.
It is these Syrian moderates that Petraeus feels the U.S. may be able to convert.
Senior naval analyst Christoper Harmer, with the Institute for the Study of War, noted the admission of a U.S. failure in Syria.
“This is an acknowledgment that the U.S. stated goal to degrade and destroy ISIS is not working. If it were, we would not be talking to these not quite foreign terrorist groups. Strategically, it is desperate.”
Michael Ratney, the U.S. Ambassador of the Syrian U.S. special envoy, has been recruited to try and find a political solution to the conflict, meeting on August 28 with officials from the United Nations, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
John Kirby with the State Department spoke about Ambassador Ratney’s mission in Syria, stating that he’s “trying to come up with options for some sort of political process, a political process that we know is going to have to include opposition groups and try to work through what that means and what that’s going to look like.”
Russia is reported to have made ovations that such a Syrian political solution could possibly include Assad, a notion the the U.S. flatly refuses. Further, Bashar al-Assad himself has rejected the notion of the Syrian government cooperating with the U.S. or its allies.
In Syria, there is Assad, ISIS, and al-Nusra. The prospect of any of these groups in their current form controlling the entire country is as undesirable as the current situation, which has created the Syrian refugees’ crisis.
A fourth Syrian group, the jihadist Ahrar al-Sham, is described by former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford as “probably the most important group fighting the Syrian regime now. Ahrar is a key force on the battlefield, but Western media allots little space to describe it beyond saying it is hard-line or jihadi. Ahrar is not a junior partner of Nusra; there are ideological and political differences between them.”
“We are not from Mars. We are part of Syrian society and the international community. . . We want to be part of the solution,” Eyad Shaar, an Ahrar al-Sham commander in Syria, was quoted by FT.
The options the United States has in Syria are poor at best, making future decisions by leaders all the more challenging. Working with undesirable groups in Syria may be the best choice among a slate of bad choices and perhaps the only solution to bring the country back under control and stop the flow of Syrian refugees and the further destruction of the country.
[Photo by John W. Adkisson/Getty Images]