Using Nusra to fight ISIS?

A report from the Daily Beast notes that Petraeus says that al-Qaeda should be used to fight ISIS, “Members of al Qaeda’s branch in Syria have a surprising advocate in the corridors of American power: retired Army general and former CIA Director David Petraeus. The former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan has been quietly urging U.S. officials to consider using so-called moderate members of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front to fight ISIS in Syria, four sources familiar with the conversations, including one person who spoke to Petraeus directly, told The Daily Beast”.

The piece makes the point that “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 the U.S. persuaded Sunni militias to stop fighting with al Qaeda and to work with the American military”.

Yet, to compare the Sunni militias to al-Qaeda should not be taken at face value. Firstly these Sunni brigades were once an arm of the Iraqi state and thus could have send to have some legitimacy. Secondly, there was some control, however weak, placed over them by the Iraqi state. Therefore there was some chain of command that they could follow. To then transfer this to al-Qaeda seems like a sizable, and perhaps dangerous, leap.

The report continues, “The tactic worked, at least temporarily. But al Qaeda in Iraq was later reborn as ISIS, and has become the sworn enemy of its parent organization. Now, Petraeus is returning to his old play, advocating a strategy of co-opting rank-and-file members of al Nusra, particularly those who don’t necessarily share all of core al Qaeda’s Islamist philosophy. However, Petraeus’s play, if executed, could be enormously controversial. The American war on terror began with an al Qaeda attack on 9/11, of course. The idea that the U.S. would, 14 years later, work with elements of al Qaeda’s Syrian branch was an irony too tough to stomach for most U.S. officials interviewed by The Daily Beast. They found Petraeus’s notion politically toxic, near-impossible to execute, and strategically risky”.

However the piece notes “Yet Petraeus and his plan cannot be written off. He still wields considerable influence with current officials, U.S. lawmakers, and foreign leaders. The fact that he feels comfortable recruiting defectors from an organisation that has declared war on the United States 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 al Nusra fighters, who are battling ISIS in Syria, but who joined with al Nusra because of their shared goal of overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al Assad”.

Pointedly the piece notes that “How precisely the U.S. would separate moderate fighters from core members and leaders of al 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. “This is an acknowledgment that U.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,” Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War, told The Daily Beast. “Strategically, it is desperate.” Privately, U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that any direct links with al Nusra are off the table. But working with other factions, while difficult, might not be impossible”.

The article makes the point that “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, Amb. Michael Ratney, the newly-minted U.S. special envoy to Syria, set out to meet with Russian, Saudi, and United Nations officials in search of a political settlement to the conflict. Like Petraeus, Ratney is in search of partners. He’s “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,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters last week. Kirby stopped short of saying just which opposition groups should be part of the discussion. The U.S. has insisted that any negotiated settlement must not include Assad, even as 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 U.S. allies in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. On the ground, the two most powerful anti-Assad forces are ISIS and al Nusra, and the U.S. won’t negotiate with either”.

The report goes on to unpick the proposal “Petraeus’s strategy depends on a number of key assumptions, chiefly that U.S. intelligence and military officials would be able to distinguish who among al Nusra’s ranks is truly moderate and doesn’t share the terrorist group’s goal of replacing Assad with an Islamist government. The former general isn’t the only ex-official who wants to talk to jihadist-linked fighters who share some, if not all, of the United States’ goals. Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, has called for dialogue with Ahrar al Sham, a jihadist 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 to al Nusra, really should be credited to Ahrar, which had more fighters in the battle”.

The piece concludes “Al Nusra has played an arguably helpful role to the U.S. already, albeit indirectly and behind the scenes. In 2014, officials in Qatar reached out to their contacts with al Nusra to help free American journalist Peter Theo Curtis, multiple sources, including former U.S. officials familiar with the negotiations, have told The Daily Beast. Al Nusra elements were operating so closely with the American-backed Free Syrian Army at that time that American warplanes almost hit the moderate rebels as it was targeting the jihadists”.

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