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.