The missing ingredient in most US-based news coverage of the ongoing civil war in Syria is the deeply complex nature of the opposition groups allied against President Bashar al-Assad and how the relationship between moderate elements of the Free Syria Army, the oft-described "al-Qaeda-aligned" al-Nusra Front (or Jabhar Al Nusra), and western intelligence services is not as simple a formula as many make it appear.
As many voices within the US media and the Washington, DC echo chamber discuss the idea that the US government should more aggressively intercede in Syria's civil war, what is largely ignored, glossed-over, or misunderstood are the hard-to-digest dynamics taking place within the country. Especially under-reported and unacknowledged are the complex workings and relationships within and among the opposition forces themselves.
"The Americans began discussing the possibility of drone strikes on Al Nusra camps inside Syria and tried to enlist the rebels to fight their fellow insurgents."
Essential to better understanding the situation, including the behind-the-scenes efforts of US intelligence, a news report from the United Arab Emirates newspaper The National shows how meetings in later 2012 between CIA officials and leaders of the FSA reveal the distance between US strategic interests and the aspirations of the Syrian opposition.
America's hidden agenda in Syria's war
From The National:
It was some six months ago that Syrian rebel commanders met US intelligence officers in Jordan to discuss the status of the war and, the rebels hoped, to secure supplies of the sophisticated weapons they [needed] to overthrow President Bashar Al Assad.
But according to one of the commanders present at the meeting, the Americans were more interested in talking about Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaeda-affiliated group waging war on the Syrian regime than they were in helping the rebels advance on Damascus.
The commander - a moderate Sunni and an influential rebel leader from Damascus who said he has met intelligence operatives from Western and Arab states - said the US officials were especially keen to obtain information about the identities of Al Nusra insurgents and the locations of their bases.
Then, by the rebel commander's account, the discussion took an unexpected turn.
The Americans began discussing the possibility of drone strikes on Al Nusra camps inside Syria and tried to enlist the rebels to fight their fellow insurgents.
"The US intelligence officer said, 'We can train 30 of your fighters a month, and we want you to fight Al Nusra'," the rebel commander recalled.
Opposition forces should be uniting against Mr Al Assad's more powerful and better-equipped army, not waging war among themselves, the rebel commander replied. The response from a senior US intelligence officer was blunt.
"I'm not going to lie to you. We'd prefer you fight Al Nusra now, and then fight Assad's army. You should kill these Nusra people. We'll do it if you don't," the rebel leader quoted the officer as saying.
What the commander says transpired in Jordan illustrates a dilemma that has preoccupied, even paralyzed, Syria's opposition and their international supporters - how to deal with the expanding role of Islamic extremists in the anti-Assad insurgency.
Other meetings with Western and Arab intelligence services have shown a similar obsession with Al Nusra, the commander said.
"All anyone wants is hard information about Al Nusra, it seems to be all they are really interested in. It's the most valuable commodity you can have when dealing with these intelligence agencies," he said.
Despite Uncertainties, US Hawks Renew Push for Arms
Earlier this week Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, proposed legislation that would allow arms, military training, and other supplies to the FSA. Other hawks in the Senate, including Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have continued their calls to do the same, saying that concerns over US weapons falling into the hands of "unfriendly" or anti-American elements can and would be prevented.
But as reporting in The National shows, discussing the relationship between the moderate and more radical Islamic factions, such as Al-Nusra, is not nearly as cut and dry as US officials often describe it. The reporting describes how even those uncomfortable with Al-Nusra's hard-core Islamic elements continue to say that fighting al-Assad without them would be near impossible, and continues:
Those within the moderate opposition advocating dialogue with Al Nusra warn that merely dismissing all of its fighters as hard-core radicals is a dangerous oversimplification.
It also risks alienating the many ordinary Syrians in rebel-held areas who have come to admire the group, with its reputation of honesty, discipline and provision of humanitarian supplies to those in need.
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"There are very localized differences between rebel groups, and Al Nusra is no exception. Some are more extreme than others, and it's not right or useful just to put them all together as being Al Qaeda," said a moderate, Western-educated pro-democracy activist who has been involved in meetings with Nusra fighters in northern Syria.
Syria's political future was discussed at the meetings, and Nusra members were open to debate and discussion, and had shown interest in proposals about democracy and safeguarding Syria's minority communities, activists said.
"When you actually sit down with them [Al Nusra], you realize they are not what you thought and they also have to rethink their own preconceptions. We had a meeting and it was very good and these young fighters were surprised because they thought all people who supported democracy were atheists," the activist said. "For those reasons, it's important to keep a dialogue going."
Another Assad opponent, a secular Syrian involved in organizing armed groups in Damascus, also warned against ignoring the differences within Al Nusra.
The 'Intractable' Civil War
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, concurred with the complex nature of the military entanglement in Syria. Interviewed by foreign policy analyst Jim Lobe for the Inter Press Service news agency, he said: “The more you learn about Syria the more you realize how intractable the conflict is, and thus the more attractive a political solution appears to be."
"There are three strands of Al Nusra - the minority are serious Al Qaeda people, some are just in for the glamor of fighting jihad and the majority are ordinary Syrians who just want to save their country."
While many US lawmakers and pundits call for US weapons be sent to the Free Syria Army—backed by claims that they are the "good" rebels—The Guardian on Thursday paints a picture of growing defections from the FSA, with many former members leaving to join al-Nusra.
And The Guardian continues:
FSA commanders say that entire units have gone over to al-Nusra while others have lost a quarter or more of their strength to them recently.
"Fighters feel proud to join al-Nusra because that means power and influence," said Abu Ahmed, a former teacher from Deir Hafer who now commands an FSA brigade in the countryside near Aleppo. "Al-Nusra fighters rarely withdraw for shortage of ammunition or fighters and they leave their target only after liberating it," he added. "They compete to carry out martyrdom [suicide] operations."
Abu Ahmed and others say the FSA has lost fighters to al-Nusra in Aleppo, Hama, Idlib and Deir al-Zor and the Damascus region. Ala'a al-Basha, commander of the Sayyida Aisha brigade, warned the FSA chief of staff, General Salim Idriss, about the issue last month. Basha said 3,000 FSA men have joined al-Nusra in the last few months, mainly because of a lack of weapons and ammunition. FSA fighters in the Banias area were threatening to leave because they did not have the firepower to stop the massacre in Bayda, he said.
The FSA's Ahrar al-Shimal brigade joined al-Nusra en masse while the Sufiyan al-Thawri brigade in Idlib lost 65 of its fighters to al-Nusra a few months ago for lack of weapons. According to one estimate the FSA has lost a quarter of all its fighters.
The Good, The Bad, the Syrians, and the other Syrians
The subtext of The Guardian's story seems to suggest that the FSA is suffering because of Western governments' failure to give them the military support they've been openly and loudly demanding. However, a separate reading of events shows the fluid nature of rebel fighters' allegiances in the midst of a civil war that is rapidly shifting.
"It is clear that fighters are moving from one group to another as one becomes more successful," a diplomat who follows Syria closely told The Guardian. "But it's very area-specific. You can't talk about a general trend in which [Jabhat al-Nusra] has more momentum than others. It is true that some say JAN is cleaner and better than other groups, but there are as many stories about it being bad."
And as The National concludes:
The rebel commander who described meeting US intelligence officers in Jordan said he had refused to give them any information about Al Nusra.
Although not a supporter of Al Qaeda's ideology, he said the Americans were being too clumsy and would only undermine the revolt against Mr Al Assad.
"There are three strands of Al Nusra - the minority are serious Al Qaeda people, some are just in for the glamor of fighting jihad and the majority are ordinary Syrians who just want to save their country," he said.
Since that meeting the rebel commander has not bothered to talk to Western or Arab intelligence agencies, despite what he described as frequent invitations for more talks. Rather than wait for foreign governments to supply weapons, his group has imported their own advanced explosives and begun manufacturing their own munitions.
"They [foreign governments] are not fighting for the same things as us," he said. "Syrians are fighting for our freedom, while they just want us to bleed to death fighting each other."