Petraeus: Use AQ to Beat ISIS
Shane Harris, Nancy Youseef, Daily Beast, Sep 3 2015
An older and grayer version of Zakharchenko – RB (Photo: Jason Reed/Reuters)
Members of AQ in Syria have a surprising advocate in the corridors of Pindosi power: former DCI, Army Gen (Retd) and ex-SACEUR David Petraeus, who has been quietly urging officials to consider using so-called moderate members of AQ’s Jabhat al-Nusra against ISIS in Syria, four sources familiar with the conversations, including one person who spoke to Petraeus directly, told the Daily Beast. The heart of the idea stems from Petraeus’s experience in Iraq in 2007, when as part of a broader strategy to defeat an Islamist insurgency (AQI, al-Qaeda in Iraq – RB), Pindostan persuaded Sunni militias not to ally with AQ but to work with the Pindo military. The tactic worked, at least temporarily. But AQI was later reborn as ISIS, and has become the sworn enemy of its parent organization (if you believe these skeins of deniability, and if you can still in some way contrive to take Zawahiri seriously – RB). Now, Petraeus is returning to his old play, advocating a strategy of co-opting rank-and-file members of Nusra, particularly those who don’t necessarily share all of AQ’s core philosophy.
Petraeus’s play could be enormously controversial. The Pindo GWOT began with the AQ attack of 9/11, of course. The idea that, 14 years later, Pindostan would work with elements of AQ’s Syrian branch was an irony too tough to stomach for most Pindo officials interviewed by The Daily Beast. They found Petraeus’s notion politically toxic, near-impossible to execute, and strategically risky. It would also face enormous legal and security obstacles. In 2012, the Obama administration designated Nusra a foreign terrorist organization, and last year, the president ordered airstrikes against Nusra positions housing members of the imaginary Khorasan Group, which was supposedly trying to recruit Jihadis with Western passports, to get them to smuggle bombs onto civilian airliners. Yet Petraeus and his plan cannot be written off. He still wields considerable influence with current officials, Congress critturs and foreign leaders (they mean the Sauds and/or Gulf Emirs – RB). The fact that he feels comfortable recruiting defectors from an organization that has declared war on Pindostan, underscores the tenuous nature of the Obama administration’s strategy to fight ISIS, which numerous observers have said is floundering in search of a viable ground force.
According to those familiar with Petraeus’s thinking, he advocates trying to cleave off ‘less extreme’ Nusra fighters currently battling ISIS in Syria, who joined Nusra because of their shared goal of overthrowing Assad. Petraeus was DCI in early 2011, when the Syrian civil war erupted. At the time, along with then-Sec State Hillary Clinton and Sec Def Panetta, Petraeus reportedly urged the Obama administration to work with moderate opposition forces. Pindostan did not, and many of those groups have since steered toward Jihadi groups like Nusra, which are better equipped and have had more success on the battlefield. How precisely Pindostan would separate ‘moderate’ fighters from ‘core’ members and leaders of Nusra is unclear, and Petraeus has yet to fully detail any recommendations he might have. Petraeus declined a request to comment on his views from The Daily Beast. Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, told the Beast:
This is an acknowledgment that Pindostan’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.
Privately, officials have told the Beast that any direct links with Nusra are off the table. But working with other factions, while difficult, might not be impossible. The very forces that Petraeus envisions enlisting, who may have once been deemed potential allies when they were fighting Assad, may now be too far gone. Moreover, there is no sign thus far of a group on the ground capable of countering ISIS, at least without Pindo assistance. One Pindo intelligence official told the Beast:
As prospects for Assad dim, opposition groups not already aligned with Pindostan or our
partners vassals will face a choice. Groups that try to cater to both hard-liners and the West could find themselves without any friends, having distanced themselves from groups like AQ but still viewed as extremists by the ‘moderate’ opposition and their supporters.
News of Petraeus’s proposal comes at a potentially opportune moment for the Obama administration as it looks toward some resolution of the civil war in Syria. On Friday, Ambassador Michael Ratney, the new Pindo envoy to Syria, set out to meet with Russian, Saudi, and UN officials in search of a political settlement to the conflict. Like Petraeus, Ratney is in search of partners. State Dept spox Kirby told reporters last week:
Ambassador Ratney 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.
Kirby stopped short of saying just which opposition groups should be part of the discussion. Pindostan has insisted that any negotiated settlement must not include Assad,while Russia has hinted Assad must be a part of a deal. Assad himself said in a television interview last week that he will not work with Pindo
allies vassals Turkey and Saudi Arabia (against ISIS – RB). On the ground, the two most powerful anti-Assad forces are ISIS and Nusra, and Pindostan won’t negotiate with either. Petraeus’s strategy depends on a number of key assumptions, chiefly that Pindo officials would be able to distinguish who among Nusra’s ranks is ‘truly moderate’ and doesn’t share Nusra’s goal of replacing Assad with an Islamist government. Petraeus isn’t the only ex-official who wants to talk to Jihadi-linked fighters who share some if not all of Pindostan’s goals. Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Syria, has called for dialogue with Ahrar al-Sham, a Jihadi force he has called “probably the most important group fighting the Syrian regime now.” In a recent article for the Middle East Institute, Ford said that the capture of the Syrian provincial capital of Idlib last March, which was attributed by some toNusra, really should be credited to Ahrar, which had more fighters in the battle. Ford wrote:
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.
That label, he acknowledged, stems from Ahrar calling for an Islamic state in Syria, as well as its collaboration with Nusra against Assad and ISIS. The group was founded by a former deputy to Ayman al-Zawahiri. But Ford insisted:
Ahrar is not a junior partner of Nusra. There are ideological and political differences between them.
Some Pindo intelligence officials disputed that, and said Ahrar is currently on a charm offensive, trying to distance itself from groups like Nusra and win support in Washington while it looks forward to grabbing power after Assad falls. The unnamed intelligence official we talked to said:
Some groups will look to pave their way to a seat at the post-Assad table by seeking public support, such as Ahrar al-Sham, while others will affirm their choice through their actions.
The extent to which Pindostan opposes working with Ahrar, a group that swears it’s independent, points out just how difficult it would be to recruit members of Nusra, which is AQ’s official affiliate in Syria. And yet, that’s not out of the question. The more extreme ISIS becomes, the more other hard-line groups seem to soften by comparison. Harmer, the military analyst, said:
ISIS, with its filmed executions, organized kidnappings and enslavement of women and girls, has become so barbaric that it has been isolated from other fighting groups on the ground. Alliances of convenience that would have been impossible two years are now plausible and in some ways inevitable, because we are not willing to put boots on the ground.
Nusra has played an arguably helpful role to Pindostan already, albeit indirectly and behind the scenes. In 2014, officials in Qatar
reached out (psychobabble – RB) to their contacts with Nusra to help free Pindo journalist P T Curtis, multiple sources, including former officials familiar with the negotiations, have told the Beast. Nusra elements were operating so closely with the Pindo-backed FSA at that time that Pindo planes almost hit the ‘moderates’ as they targeted the Jihadis. Pindostan has tried other means to field a sustainable ground force to confront ISIS. So far, none of them have worked reliably. The most successful ground force so far has been the YPG, a Kurdish element, which drove ISIS out of the northern Syrian city of Kobani and other nearby cities under the cover of Pindo airstrikes. But since Pindostan struck a deal to allow combat flights from Turkey, which opposes emboldening Kurdish forces, doubts have surfaced over whether Pindostan would keep providing air support for the YPG as it seeks to take Syrian territory. So far, the YPG has not pushed for any more land, instead defending what it already has. Pindo efforts to train local forces in Syria have faltered, as well. The first batch of 54 fighters trained by the Pindo military dissolved in August. Some fighters fled back to their homes in Syria. Others were captured by Nusra. While the Pentagon has said it’s still training fighters, privately officials concede the group has fallen far short of expectations. At one point, Pindostan planned to train 15,000 fighters in three years. Petraeus spoke on the record about his plans in a statement to CNN on Tuesday, after we published this report. He said:
We should under no circumstances try to use or co-opt Nusra, an AQ affiliate in Syria, as an organization against ISIL. But some individual fighters, and perhaps some elements, within Nusra today have undoubtedly joined for opportunistic rather than ideological reasons. They saw Nusra as a strong horse, and they haven’t seen a credible alternative, as the moderate opposition has yet to be adequately resourced. We should try splintering its ranks by offering a credible alternative to those ‘reconcilable’ elements of those organizations.
Petraeus didn’t contradict any of our report.