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News Analysis

U.S. Paved Way for Jihadist Hijacking of Syrian Conflict

Sun, September 15, 2013

Jihadist fighters in Syria. (Photo: © Reuters)

Jihadist fighters in Syria. (Photo: © Reuters)

by: 
Ryan Mauro

Col. Nagi Najjar is the U.S. and U.K. liaison officer for Col. Riad Al-Assad, the chief of the Free Syria Army (a major Syrian rebel group). He was a Lebanese intelligence officer during the civil war and now resides in California. He is of Christian-Lebanese origin.

Najjar is a Middle East advisor for Major-General Paul Vallely (U.S. Army Ret.) and his organization, Stand Up America.

The following is Clarion Project National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro’s interview with Col. Nagi Najjar:

Mauro: You work with the Free Syria Army (FSA) on a daily basis. Is the FSA unified or is it mostly an alliance of independent militias that include Islamists?

Najjar: I work with the FSA on an hourly basis because events are progressing in Syria every hour.

The FSA was a unified coalition of many groups in the first year of the civil war. Many victories were achieved on the ground by various rebel formations until some regional powers, in cooperation with Washington, started to control the spheres of influence. This process slowed down the rebellion from progressing militarily against Assad.

The U.S., tired from the war in Iraq, gave the responsibility of managing the conflict to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which in turn advanced their Islamist designs.  Qatar, the sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood, marginalized the FSA, creating its own religious proxies. Even worse, Qatar established what the FSA called a “coup” in Antalya, Turkey, on December 15, 2012, declaring the “Supreme Military Command” and electing General Selim Idriss as Chief of Staff.

The FSA command had about 300 officers. The majority of these did not attend the Antalya meeting in Turkey. The U.S., Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar each had an observer. General Idriss was one of these commanders before Qatar brought him and 9 other officers up and created the Syrian National Council (SNC), backstabbing the FSA.

This move rolled back the FSA from center stage and weakened its internal strength and even divided its cohesion into hostile militias and units. Weapons, logistics and financial support were given only to “selected” Muslim Brotherhood groups. Qatar and Saudi Arabia armed several militias to serve as proxies. This affected the strategic balance of power within the FSA on the ground profoundly.  

In the U.S. press, this was all done in the name of “moderation.” Of course, the opposite was the reality.

It is understandable that the U.S. public has a lack of interest in supporting another war in the Middle East, but it is important that Washington’s efforts redefine the trajectory of the Syrian rebellion in a good direction and with Syrians directly, outside of Brotherhood influence or other extremist ideologies.

To do this, the U.S. needs to provide covert support to the good rebels. No U.S. boots are needed on the ground. The U.S. needs to cultivate direct influence in the Syrian rebellion. The U.S. will win the sympathy of the Arab world and U.S. influence will expand.

A consolidated Syria will prevent chaos from spilling into Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey. The instability right now will make the entire Middle East collide into a regional sectarian war where moderation will vanish from the scene and extremism will prevail in both camps, something Al-Qaeda wants.

The U.S. cannot turn its eyes the other way and be dependent upon other regional states. This weak approach destabilizes the entire Levant and will create a bigger, wider war in the region.

Mauro: How strong if the FSA in terms of numbers?

Najjar: The real FSA [some proclaim FSA membership unilaterally] gather between 80,000 and 100,000 troops under the command of Colonel Riad Al-Assad in various provinces of Syria. The command has around 300 military officers with 20 senior generals among them.

The Supreme Military Command [SMC] of General Idriss counts about 45-50,000 men. The SMC command has 9 military officers in addition to 9 “civilians” in charge of Idriss’ command.

Mauro: How should the U.S. handle the FSA’s rival, the SMC?

Najjar: The U.S. needs to initiate another “Antalya” meeting that makes a reconciliation between the two groups and merges and integrates Idriss into the larger FSA command under Col. Riad Al-Assad. Idriss will have his place in the command, but he cannot lead and even if he did, he cannot succeed.

He does not have the respect on the ground. The majority of the FSA officers corps do not follow him. They view Col. Riad Al-Assad as more nationalistic and as someone who did not “sell” himself to the Saudis and Qataris.

Idriss has the loyalty of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi-supported Salafist groups just because he is supplying them with weapons and logistics. The day this support ends, their loyalty will end, too.

For instance, Jamal Marouf is a rebel commander on Saudi Arabia’s payroll in Jabal Al-Zawiya, next to Idlib. He gets $1 million a month from the Saudis and manages a force of about 5,000 men known as “Liwaa Shuhada Suria.”

He asked the SMC for weapons. The SMC was too short on weapons to give him what he requested, so Marouf’s men stormed the SMC military compound at the Bab el-Hawa port of entry and took away the weapons.

When Col. Riad was in charge, the FSA was running a smooth war and scoring victories on the ground. When Idriss took charge, with the blessing of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the U.S., the FSA weakened and the extremists were empowered.

This is when the “Islamic emirs” began to show up and the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists got stronger. Idriss was too soft and let it happen. The SMC only armed militias loyal to the Brotherhood and Salafists, who have a combined force of 30,000 that are very well-armed and financed. Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaeda) have a combined force of 10-15,000 men.

Mauro: Some commentators view the conflict as a sectarian war, pitting Sunnis against Shiites/Allawites with the Christians, Kurds and Druze stuck in the middle. Is this an accurate assessment?

Najjar: The Syria conflict has five layers:

1. It is a conflict with Russia and China on one end against the U.S. for control of the energy of the Middle East.

2. It is a conflict between Iran/Assad/Hezbollah on one end against Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey for regional influence.

3. It is a sectarian-religious conflict between Shiites and Sunnis.

4. It is a conflict between nationalism and extremism.

5. It is a conflict between Arabs and Persians. The Arabs are not fighting in Iran. It is the Iranians that are expanding into Arab lands with the Khomeini Revolution.

Mauro: How do you think Russia will respond if the U.S. gets involved in Syria?

Najjar: Russia needs to understand that the clock is not turning back. About 70% of Syria is already controlled by the rebels. Militarily, nothing is holding Assad up but his air force, long-range artillery, his armor and a coalition of Hezbollah shock troops and several Shiite militias from Iraq, managed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Syria became Iran’s personal war because if Syria goes, Iran is finished.

Syria will become Iran and Russia’s Vietnam in the Middle East. Russia has lost all credibility among Syrians for supporting Assad’s massacring of his own population. Had the Russians have behaved differently, the Syrian Rebellion could have cut a deal that would safeguard Russia’s interests in Syria, like the Tartus naval base and arms contracts.

To answer your question, Russia will wage this war through proxies, not directly. It will unleash Iran and Hezbollah in Iraq and Lebanon to do its dirty work, including a possible rainfall of missiles into Israel and U.S. targets in the Middle East.

If it does this, Russia should remember that there are 50 million Muslims living in Russia’s periphery. All these “extinguished” theaters could reignite in its face again and it won’t be in Russia’s favor.

Mauro: Once Assad falls, what are the chances that the Muslim Brotherhood or an Islamist coalition will win elections?

Najjar: The chances are 50-50 if the moderate camp does not get the support it needs from the United States, but this has to be done properly.

After 40 years of brutality, the Syrian people took the streets against the dictatorship. They do not seek to replace the Assad dictatorship with another Islamic dictatorship. They know this will be worse. All that the Syrian people want is freedom and a new state without Assad or anyone in his clique in charge.

Yes, there is danger there with these groups that have been arming with the complicity of the Obama Administration during the last three years. But Syria does not want to be like Egypt once Assad is gone and they do not want to start another war.

 

Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on Fox News.