Secretary Kerry shared several of his thoughts on his administration’s (ostensible) plans for peace in Syria late last month. Speaking in Aspen, Kerry claimed it was crucial to “reach an understanding” with the Russian government. This “understanding” would include the USAF joining the Russian Air Force in bombing the al-Nusra Front. In exchange, President Putin would tell Assad to call off the assaults on rebel groups backed by the US (although he’s under no obligation to do so).
Talks in this regard have been going on for some time, several days ago Reuters quoted Russia’s foreign ministry as claiming that Kerry and Lavrov had actively been discussing the “possibility of Russian-American cooperation in the fight against terrorist groups in Syria”, without giving details.
This was hardly to be unexpected; US strikes have been hitting the al-Nusra Front (now defunct) for some time. These strikes have been incredibly unpopular among Syrians, especially due to US jets sharing the skies with barrel bomb-dropping helicopters in order to conduct them. Further strikes were to be expected.
But then Kerry let on a little more. He went out of his way to condemn Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, two Islamic groups calling for Islamic law in a post-Assad Syria (and strongly opposed to the Da’esh interpretation of Islamic law). Kerry accused them of carrying out “shocking crimes” against innocent civilians. What’s worse, he lumped Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam alongside Da’esh, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and al-Qa’eda. No mention of Assad, Iran or Hezbollah. In fact, Hezbollah and Iran were removed from the US terror threat list due to the nuclear talks. Is terrorism now defined by political expediency?
This could be brushed off as more US government tough talk or bravado, if it wasn’t for several very interesting lines of his address. After grouping al-Nusra (JFS), Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam alongside Boko Haram and Da’esh, Kerry claimed that his government’s priority was not just to defeat Da’esh and its affiliates, but also “its imitators”. These words are particularly concerning in the context of his previous remarks, as is what followed:
“There are a couple of subgroups underneath the two designated — Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra — Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham particularly…”
In other words, Kerry condemned two of Syria’s largest, most vociferously anti-Da’esh resistance groups as “subgroups” of JFS and Da’esh, the former of which is also strongly opposed to the actions and worldview of Da’esh. In terms of local politics and logistics, it’s simply dishonest. Ahrar al-Sham possesses its own leadership and has clashed with JFS in a number of disputes. Constant proposals for the two to merge as a single group have led to nothing in the past, and are now proceeding slowly. To say nothing of the fact that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is overwhelmingly composed of local Syrians (who dare to be practising Muslims) defending their families. They have staged no attacks outside of Syria, nor do they intend to do so. Kerry talks as if they’re no different from the 9/11 attackers.
Furthermore, Jaysh al-Islam and JFS have engaged in infighting in East Ghouta, with hundreds killed on each side. Both have lost hundreds of fighters in their attempts to expel Da’esh from Syria. Kerry’s comments are blatantly untruthful. As Secretary of State, Kerry cannot claim ignorance. His office, and all its employees, are acquainted with the factions of the Syrian conflict in detail.
What makes these remarks all the more alarming is the fact that they came just as Obama proposed striking anti-regime groups such as JFS alongside the Russians. The Russian government claims to be focused on groups like JFS, yet 90% of their strikes are against anti-Da’esh rebel fighters. Even the CIA-backed New Syrian Army (Jaysh as-Souri al-Jdiid) was bombed, a group forbidden from fighting Assad by the Obama administration itself.
The US president just signed up to join Putin’s “crusade”, perfectly content with his actions. Which include dropping white phosphorous on civilians. The USAF already tested the waters in 2014, bombing Liwa al-Haqq in Atmeh, an anti-regime group linked to the FSA. The attack killed several civilians.
The administration’s plan since 2011 has been to foster reconciliation between the regime and the opposition, to preserve the “state institutions”. In short, to prove to the opposition that Assad isn’t going anywhere, and they must treat with him or face the consequences. As well as preventing any game-changing anti-air missiles from getting into opposition hands, Kerry privately threatened to cut off aid to the opposition coalition unless progress was made in forming a “government of national unity” which would retain Assad as president.
When the Jaysh al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) coalition began to make sweeping gains once again, the administration suddenly became concerned about the “threat to US national interests and allies” supposedly posed by JFS (which has never attacked the US in its entire existence) and publicly admitted coordination with Russia. JFS is one of the largest components of the coalition. Add that to the US drones and spies passing intelligence to the Syrian regime and Hezbollah (and Assad boasting that they share information with him) and this doesn’t look good.
The Obama administration’s next move becomes increasingly clear; strike any anti-regime group that refuses to come to an agreement with the regime in order to intimidate the others into capitulation. Hence the disingenuous attempts to link Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham to JFS and Da’esh. Unable to find a pretext for bombing them, Kerry is attempting to create a loophole. Interestingly enough, Ahrar al-Sham is labelled as a “terrorist group” in the US 2017 budget. In 2015, US citizen Amin al-Baroudi was formally charged for supplying the group with weapons.
According to the pro-government Russian News Agency (Tass), Kerry will be back in Moscow for talks between July 14-15. Efforts to “combat terrorists” and to promote “the intra-Syrian negotiating process” are at the top of the list. Many Syrians would pay dearly to listen in. Many will pay with their lives if the US officially turns on the anti-regime forces. If their bombing runs are anything like the Russians’, the civilian population will pay dearly too.