Did former US officials support extremists in Syria as an 'asset'?

It is unclear why the US saw these groups as assets, considering that not long ago, they were cheering 9/11 and supporting genocidal terrorism.

Islamist rebels from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are seen outside the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya (photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
Islamist rebels from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are seen outside the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)

In a bizarre twist of the remnants of the Syrian civil war, it was revealed in a recent PBS interview that the former US envoy on Syria saw an extremist group as an “asset” in the war-torn county.

How this was revealed is a circuitous route that ended with an interview by PBS Frontline correspondent Martin Smith in Syria's Idlib province. Smith spoke with Mohammad al-Jolani, a terrorist and senior extremist Islamist leader whose group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Committee - HTS) has turned Syria’s Idlib province into a mini theocratic state. 

According to the article at PBS, former US Syria Envoy James Jeffrey, who also headed a separate envoy’s office to the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, told Smith that Jolani’s organization was an “asset” to US strategy.

This surprising revelation uncovered the depth to which the US under the Trump administration appears to have considered working with extremists backed by Turkey – or at least to advance Turkey’s occupation of northern Syria and the empowerment of extremist groups that harm religious minorities and women’s rights.
It is unclear why the US saw these groups as assets, considering that not long ago they were cheering 9/11 and supporting genocidal terrorism. Why some US officials have had a long history of flirtations with religious extremist groups, even organizations linked to Al Qaeda, is also unclear.
It may have been due to America's historical obsession with thinking that these groups can be used against Iran or the Soviets in previous eras. History has shown that most of these groups spend their time attacking local people and killing minorities and don’t actually balance Iran or US adversaries, instead turning their guns on their supporters in the West.  

PBS noted that Jolani founded an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, but that he now seeks to work with Washington. This turn of events is not dissimilar to the jihadists that flocked to fight alongside the US against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The difference is that those fighters were not initially jihadists and that they only later became hosts to Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda took up root in Afghanistan as a result of the chaos that unfolded after the war against the Soviets, and after the Taliban took power. The worldwide jihadist group was thus really a second-generation phenomenon in Afghanistan. In Syria, however, the extremism has come full circle with Al Qaeda’s remnants trying to sell themselves as potential allies of the US. 

JOLANI TOLD PBS that the area his group controls in Syria, an area protected by Turkey today, doesn’t represent a threat to the security of Europe and the US. “This region is not a staging ground for executing foreign jihad.” Perhaps this is a quiet way of saying that Idlib is merely an area for carrying out local jihad. ISIS also emerged out of this milieu, beginning with “local” grievances and then going on to commit genocide of minorities and later to terrorize the world.

Jolani and his extremists are selling themselves to the West now. It isn’t entirely clear why but these kinds of groups have a long history of trying to get Western support for their local, religious-extremist genocidal activities. In areas that HTS controls, women have no visible public role at rallies or in public office and religious minorities have all been removed from an area that was once diverse.  

The article notes that Jolani and his group Jabhat al-Nusra (Levant People's Support Front) was designated as a terrorist group by the US State Department in 2012. The group was involved in violent “sectarian” attacks. HTS, which runs Idlib and works with Turkey, is the current version of Nusra and Al Qaeda in Syria.

In contrast to other Syrian rebel groups that became mercenaries and contractors for Turkey, many of which continue to work as armed gangs in areas that Turkey occupies, HTS has remained its own regimented phenomenon. Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups ethnically cleansed Afrin of 160,000 Kurds in 2018 and then attacked Kurds, with Turkish backing, in October 2019 when former US president Donald Trump ordered a withdrawal from part of northeastern Syria.  

According to the PBS article, the former US envoy on Syria saw the extremists as an option for US policy. “James Jeffrey – who served as a US ambassador under both Republican and Democrat administrations and most recently as special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS during the Trump administration – told Smith that Jolani’s organization was ‘an asset’ to America’s strategy in Idlib,” the article notes.  

“They are the least bad option of the various options on Idlib, and Idlib is one of the most important places in Syria, which is one of the most important places right now in the Middle East,” Jeffrey said in an interview on March 8, according to PBS.  

IT IS NEVER clear why some in the US tend to view the region through a series of bad options and come up with religious extremists as the “least bad option.” When Jeffrey was US envoy, he sought to encourage closer support for Turkey’s role in Syria and also encourage more US cooperation with Israel against Iran. Ankara’s Washington lobbyists at the time were arguing that Turkey could balance Iran and that US “geopolitics” meant that the US should work with Turkey.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s government, run by the AK Party and the increasingly anti-Western authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was buying Russia’s S-400 and working with Iran, Russia and China. Turkey supported ethnic cleansing in Syria and had a long track record of letting ISIS members transit through its territory. When ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed himself and two of his children after being cornered by US forces in October 2019, he was found in Idlib near Turkey’s border. He had probably been able to transit areas held by Jolani’s HTS and maybe even areas run by Turkey.  

It is unclear why the US would be leading a coalition against ISIS on the one hand and then also view groups that are similar to ISIS as an “asset” on the other. It’s also unclear why the ISIS leader was able to flee Mosul and Raqqa and so easily live close to Turkey and to Jolani’s HTS. And it’s unclear why extremists in Idlib, where some enslaved Yazidi minorities taken by ISIS in 2014 have turned up, would be an “asset” to the same US government that has been fighting ISIS.

The only way the concept of them being an asset could make sense is if part of the US government is actually against another part of the US government and views those like Jolani as an asset. For instance, during the Trump administration, members of the US State Department team who were close to Turkey were openly contemptuous of the Pentagon and the US-led coalition’s military component at Central Command.
It could be that HTS is an “asset” that can be used against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces so that the US State Department thought it could use extremists in Idlib to fight the US Central Command’s SDF partners. The US government did this before, in 2016 when Turkey invaded part of Syria near Manbij after the US-backed SDF took the northern Syrian city from ISIS. Turkey intervened to make sure ISIS would not be defeated too quickly and prevent these areas from becoming run by Kurds.
SOME US officials who opposed the Obama administration’s policy of the Iran Deal and the war on ISIS, which the US entered in 2014 during the ISIS genocide of Yazidis, believed that the main goal of America should be to work with Turkey in Syria. Turkey works with Iran and Russia in Syria and doesn’t want to unseat the Assad regime, but these voices believed that Turkey and some Syrian rebels might be convinced to fight Iran in Syria.
Under this bizarre logic, these officials wanted to empower extremists to balance Iran. Instead, all they ended up doing was giving Iran and Hezbollah a greater excuse to enter Syria. The rise of ISIS, for instance, enabled Russia to enter Syria under the guise of “fighting ISIS.” In the end, areas taken from ISIS near Albukamal and Deir Ezzor are now part of Iran’s weapons trafficking network that threatens Israel. Thus, empowering extremists ended up empowering Iran, too.  
Nevertheless, the theory was that Turkey could be convinced to fight Iran in Syria if the US would give more backing to extremists in Idlib. The idea was that some US officials who came to power during the Trump era would sabotage the Obama era policy and get revenge on their fellow US officials who had backed the creation of the Kurdish-led SDF in 2015.
Brett McGurk, seen as one of the architects of that policy, left the Trump administration in 2018. He would return under the Biden administration, but for 2019 and 2020 there was a window for some officials to undo what he had helped create.
This built on the State Department’s historic linkage with Turkey, a phenomenon that went back to the 2016 Manbij crisis when US officials had seemed to tell Turkey that Washington wouldn’t back the SDF to take Manbij, and while CentCom continued to work closely with the SDF. The miscommunication led to one crisis after another, but it was also at the heart of competition between the US State Department, the CIA and Central Command.  
TURKEY SOLD itself as an alternative leader to take Raqqa, but in an October 2017 article by former US secretary of defense Ash Carter, he wrote about how operations “would begin to isolate Raqqa, both in preparation for assaulting the stronghold of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and, just as important, to protect publics in Europe and the United States by interrupting the flow of terrorist operatives from Syria through Turkey to the West.”
As he noted, “Turkey was less interested in fighting ISIS than in preventing Kurds in Eastern Syria from linking up with those in the town of Afrin.” Carter was candid in his article, noting that “there were reports that some units we had trained and equipped had handed over US-supplied equipment to the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.” 
Carter’s team didn’t want to work with the extremists and was clear that Turkey was not being helpful. Under the Trump team, a short period of US policy tried to alter the course in Syria to work with extremists in Idlib and sabotage Washington's relationship with the SDF, at least in part as a way to get back at the Obama administration. Now America is saddled with that legacy.
It’s unclear if Jolani’s latest propaganda about wanting to work with the US will have any takers in Biden’s Washington. He didn’t sell himself quickly enough to the team under Trump that was obsessed with Iran, nor did he spread any propaganda about being an “asset” against the Islamic Republic. He merely claims he wants to fight the Assad regime.
But there is little evidence that Jolani or HTS fight the Assad regime; they seem to spend most of their time policing how women dress and turning Idlib into a religious extremist sub-state. Experience has shown that such sub-states usually are breeding grounds for extremists.