US will never separate its fighters from ‘Islamists’ because it depends on them
Information Clearing House.
It was the big idea that was supposed to herald a new era of US-Russian co-operation in Syria: the separation of Western-backed ‘moderate rebels’ from groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, in order that the former could be brought into political negotiations whilst the latter were targeted by combined US and Russian military operations. Russia and Syria managed to get the UN Security Council to agree to a ban on the funding, training and arming of foreign fighters joining such groups back in September 2014, whilst the US-Russia ceasefire agreement this September reiterated that “separating moderate opposition forces from Nusra [Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, now rebranded as Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham]” was “a key priority”. As Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recalled at a press conference last week, “our agreements with the Americans linked this separation to a seven-day period of quiet. At the end of the period, the Americans undertook to show us on the map exactly where they believed there were terrorists and where there were none. On this basis, we should have jointly coordinated targets for effective engagement. To reiterate, they requested seven days for that, insisting that a seven-day pause should be a precondition. We announced this pause but it was violated with a strike against Syrian Army detachments three days later” – when, lest we forget, British and US bomber jets carried out a sustained attack on Syrian army troops fighting ISIS in Deir al-Zour, killing 62 and wounding over 100, effectively burying the ceasefire. Nevertheless, in response to Western demands, Syrian and Russian planes again suspended airstrikes on Aleppo two weeks ago, giving the US another chance to make good on its promises to ‘separate’ its favoured rebel factions from the Al Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front. A fortnight later, however – and fully ten months after his initial public call (at an International Syria Support Group meeting in February) for so-called ‘moderates’ to separate themselves from Al Qaeda and co – Kerry was still pleading for them to have more time to do so.
Events on the ground, meanwhile, have been moving entirely in the other direction. More and more of the groups supposedly fighting under the West’s ‘Free Syrian Army’ banner (never much more than a fiction to which militias could pledge mythical allegiance in exchange for Western finance and weaponry) have been fighting with the Al Nusra-led Jaysh Al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) alliance since it was launched in March last year. Indeed, so successful has this formation been – both in terms of capturing territory, mainly in Idlib province, and in establishing Nusra’s hegemony over the various insurgent factions – that its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, apparently believes the ‘grand merger’ of rebel groups he has long dreamed of, fully integrated under a Nusra chain of command, is now a realistic possibility.