Trump Rescuing Al-Qaeda's 'Heartland' in Syria?
Western intervention would save Syria's
beleaguered al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels.
By Max Blumenthal, Ben Norton
10, 2017 "Information
- After formally calling off the longstanding
U.S. policy of regime change in Syria, the Trump
administration is sending signals of shifting
its Syria policy under massive political
pressure following a grisly chemical attack in
the rebel-held province of Idlib.
chemical attack allegedly took place on April 4.
Dozens of civilians were reportedly killed,
although many details are still unknown.
"We have not yet any official or reliable
confirmation" of what took place or who was
responsible, said the
UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura,
at a press conference after the incident.
"We also do not have evidence at the moment," added Federica
Mogherini, high representative of the EU for
foreign affairs and security policy.
chemical attack occurred just as peace talks
were beginning in Geneva, and with the Syrian
army in a dominant position in the sixth year of
a war fueled by outside powers.
attacks threaten to reverse the political gains
made by the government of Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad, leading to unrelenting
bipartisan pressure for Donald Trump to
authorize a bombing campaign targeting the
Syrian government and its military.
al-Qaeda-allied rebels who were ousted from
their stronghold in eastern Aleppo in December
2016, and whose gains in a recent series of
offensives have been rapidly reversed, Western
military intervention is the only hope.
its dominant position, why would the Syrian
government authorize a chemical attack that was
likely to trigger renewed calls for regime
change? The answer remains elusive.
War on the
a dearth of independently sourced evidence about
the attack, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to
the UN, warned that the U.S. was "compelled to
take our own action" in Syria, although it was
unclear what she meant by this.
For his part, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said there
was "no doubt in our mind" that the Syrian
government carried out a chemical attack in
Idlib, but provided no evidence to support his
claim. Tillerson warned Russia it should
reconsider its alliance with President Assad,
suggesting regime change was back on the table.
The Pentagon has reportedly begun drawing up a list
of targets to
Several hours after this article was published,
the U.S. attacked the Syrian government,
launching 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat
air base, in the city of Homs.
ISIS seized on the opportunity
and launched an offensive against the Syrian
government immediately after the U.S. strike.
The attack was likewise applauded by the Salafi
The media has helped spread the war fever. New
York Times columnist and Iraq war cheerleader
Thomas Friedman reflexively proposed that
Syria be partitioned, with U.S. troops if
necessary. On CNN, correspondent Arwa Damon wept
over the lack of U.S. resolve, suggesting that a
bombing campaign against Damascus would somehow
salve the wounds of Syria.
there has been one issue major media outlets
have refused to touch, and that is the nature of
the rebels who would gain from any U.S. military
offensive. Who holds power in Idlib, why are
they there and what do they want? This is
perhaps the most inconvenient set of questions
for proponents of "humanitarian" military
intervention in Syria.
The reality is that Idlib is substantially
controlled by al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, which
has gone through a series of rebranding schemes
but remains the same jihadist group it always
was: Jabhat al-Nusra. In the province it rules,
al-Nusra has imposed what a leading scholar has
described as a Taliban-like regime that has
ethnically cleansed religious and ethnic
minorities, banned music and established a
brutal theocracy in which it
women accused of adultery.
Even analysts who have repeatedly called for
U.S.-led regime change in Syria have described Idlib
as the "heartland of al-Nusra."
'Talibanization of Idlib'
Joshua Landis, the director of the University of
Oklahoma's Middle East Studies Center, is among
the leading U.S. scholars of Syria, and lived in
the country for several years. In a January
2016 article in
Foreign Affairs, Landis provided a chilling
survey of life in Idlib:
judge how incompetent the rebels have been
in providing a viable or attractive
alternative to Assad, one need merely
consider the situation in the province of
Idlib, where the rebels rule. Schools have
been segregated, women forced to wear veils,
and posters of Osama bin Laden hung on the
walls. Government offices were looted, and a
more effective government has yet to take
shape. With the Talibanization of Idlib, the
100-plus Christian families of the city
fled. The few Druze villages that remained
have been forced to denounce their religion
and embrace Islam; some of their shrines
have been blown up. No religious minorities
remain in rebel-held Syria, in Idlib, or
elsewhere. Rebels argue that Assad’s bombing
has ensured their failure and made
radicalization unavoidable. But such excuses
can go only so far to explain the terrible
state of rebel Syria or its excesses. We
have witnessed the identical evolution in
too many other Arab countries to pin it
solely on Assad, despite his culpability for
the disaster that has engulfed his country."
More hawkish experts have acknowledged the same.
On a panel in January at the Atlantic Council, a
pro-regime change think tank that is funded by
Western governments and their allies, Nancy
Okail, executive director of the Tahrir
Institute, acknowledged that
Syria is today the "newest and most important
safe haven for [al-Qaeda's] ideology."
"There is a new generation of Syrian children
that is growing up with al-Qaeda's ideology in
some parts of rebel-held Syria as the norm," added Jennifer
Cafarella, a lead intelligence planner at the
neoconservative think tank the Institute for the
Study of War, which has receivedfunding from
the biggest names in the military industry,
including Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, General
Dynamics, and DynCorp.
Charles Lister, perhaps the foremost advocate of
regime change and the arming of Islamist rebels
in Syria, sounded a similar note. He explained,
"People on the ground in different areas of
Syria are increasingly willing not just to
accept al-Qaeda operating within their midst,
but are actually willing to overtly support the
fact that they are in their midst."
later warned, "al-Qaeda's relative success in
Syria has seen its ideology and its narrative
mainstreamed, not just in parts of Syria, but
also in parts of the region."
Lister noted local populations have protested
not just the Syrian government, but also the
al-Qaeda extremists terrorizing them. People
living under rebel rule in Idlib, Lister indicated,
have been lamenting, "This place is hell; we
don't want to live under this Islamist rule,
under all this oppression." In Idlib, "they see
what life would be like under this organization,
and they don't like it."
In 2016, Amnesty International published a report documenting
an array of "serious violations of international
humanitarian law" committed by militant groups
in Idlib and elsewhere, including summary
killings, torture, abductions, and sectarian
attacks. The report detailed how extremist
Syrian rebels have imposed harsh Sharia law in
the areas they control.
With music officially outlawed in Idlib, the
U.S.-funded media outlet Radio Fresh has
resorted to novel
Instead of music, station director Raed Fares
has been reduced to broadcasting the sound of
bleating goats and bird chirps. Ordered by
Idlib's authorities to fire all his female
employees, Fares instead relied on a computer
program that auto-tuned their voices to make
them sound male.
now sound more like robots,” he said.
When Al Nusra and its ally, Ahrar Al Sham, took
Idlib’s Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base in 2015, a
cleric appeared on
the scene in camouflaged battle dress uniform.
Standing among a group of blindfolded, exhausted
captives, all Syrian army regulars, the cleric
blessed their mass execution, cursing them as takfir for
fighting on the government’s side.
don’t like to call them Sunni. They were once
Sunni but became apostatized once they enlisted
in the Alawites’ regime,” he said of the 56
captives. Moments later, they were lined up and
riddled with bullets.
The cleric was Abdullah Muhaysini, a 33-year-old
zealot from Saudi Arabia, who was a student of
Sulayman Al-Alwan, the Wahhabi cleric who
oversaw what his Muslim critics have called a "terrorist
Saudi Arabia’s Al-Qassim Province. Al-Alwan was
also the instructor of the 9/11
hijacker Abdulaziz Alomari.
Today, Muhaysini commands an almost mystical
status among the Islamist armed groups rampaging
across northern Syria. According to Bilal
an American-born rebel propagandist currently in
Idlib, Muhaysini is "probably the most loved
cleric in the Syrian territories today.”
moving to Syria in 2014, Muhaysini embedded
himself among the rebels’ most powerful factions
and worked to unite them under a single banner.
At first, he helped cobble together the
coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army
of Conquest. Drawing on his connections in the
Gulf, he successfully oversaw the “wage jihad
with your money” fundraising effort that raised
some $5 million for the rebels’ push to take the
northern Idlib governate from the Syrian army in
Through his Jihad Caller's Network, Muhaysini
has mobilizing resources thanks to a collection
of wealthy Gulf oligarchs. In an online
interview, Muhaysini thanked “a
group of brothers in Islam from Riyadh (Saudi
Arabia), some from our brother Abu Ahmed from
Kuwait, some from our brother Abu Joud from
deeply unsettling video from
Muhaysini's Jihad Caller's Network shows him
recruiting child fighters inside the Atmeh
Refugee Camp on the Syrian-Turkish border, a
squalid redoubt for some 30,000 war victims,
handing the adolescent volunteers rifles before
trucking them off to Idlib and elsewhere. More
recently, Muhaysini appeared before
an assembly of fighters from Tahrir al-Sham, his
latest jihadist coalition, to deliver a
motivational battlefield sermon.
Tahrir al-Sham was responsible for a twin suicide
killed dozens of civilians at the Palace of
Justice in Damascus and during a birthday
celebration at a restaurant on March 15. It has
waged a furious campaign to retake lost
territory around the city of Hama, wielding
suicide attacks but ultimately failing to hold
on against a Syrian army counter-attack.
U.S. and its Western allies carry out their
threats to attack the Syrian government, the
intervention is the last best hope for Muhaysini
and the al-Qaeda-aligned forces in his thrall.
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One of the least reported yet most significant
developments of the Trump administration's
foreign policy has been its warm embrace of the
ultra-conservative, theocratic Saudi monarchy.
Immediately after he entered office, Trump made
a pact with Saudi Arabia to escalate aggression
friendly White House meeting with Trump and
Steve Bannon, the architect of Trump's Muslim
ban, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman
hailed Trump as “his Excellency,” describing him
as a “true friend of Muslims who will serve the
Muslim world in an unimaginable manner, opposite
to the negative portrait of his Excellency that
some have tried to promote.”
Trump has also pledged to work with Saudi Arabia
to create so-called safe zones in Syria. What
exactly these would look like has been unclear.
Hillary Clinton campaigned on the promise to
create such zones, although in a 2013 speech to
Goldman Sachs, she conceded that safe zones
a lot of Syrians."
heart of the Trump administration's foreign
policy has been diehard opposition to Iran,
Saudi Arabia's mortal enemy. The Syrian
government is one of Iran's closest allies.
In Yemen, U.S. and Saudi intervention has driven
the growth of al-Qaeda, even while the U.S.
carries out airstrikes against the extremist
group. As the International Crisis Group reported in
February 2017, thanks to "state collapse"
brought on by war, the “Yemeni branch of
al-Qaeda (AQ) is stronger than it has ever
intervention would be the last hope for Syrian
rebels, and a shot in the arm to al-Qaeda, which
has grown to record size thanks to America's
military meddling across the Middle East.
Max Blumenthal is a
senior editor of the
Grayzone Project at AlterNet,
and the award-winning author of
His most recent book is The 51
Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza. Follow
him on Twitter at
is a reporter for AlterNet's Grayzone
Project. You can follow him on Twitter
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