Letter from Washington — From the January 2016 issue

A Special Relationship

The United States is teaming up with Al Qaeda, again

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The determination of Turkey (a NATO ally) and Qatar (the host of the biggest American base in the Middle East) to support extreme jihadi groups became starkly evident in late 2013. On December 6, armed fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and other militias raided warehouses at Bab al-Hawa, on the Turkish border, and seized supplies belonging to the Free Syrian Army. As it happened, a meeting of an international coordination group on Syria, the so-called London Eleven, was scheduled for the following week. Delegates from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East were bent on issuing a stern condemnation of the offending jihadi group.

The Turks and Qataris, however, adamantly refused to sign on. As one of the participants told me later, “All the countries in the room [understood] that Turkey’s opposition to listing Ahrar al-Sham was because they were providing support to them.” The Qatari representative insisted that it was counterproductive to condemn such groups as terrorist. If the other countries did so, he made clear, Qatar would stop cooperating on Syria. “Basically, they were saying that if you name terrorists, we’re going to pick up our ball and go home,” the source told me. The U.S. delegate said that the Islamic Front, an umbrella organization, would be welcome at the negotiating table — but Ahrar al-Sham, which happened to be its leading member, would not. The diplomats mulled over their communiqué, traded concessions, adjusted language. The final version contained no condemnation, or even mention, of Ahrar al-Sham.

Two years later, Washington’s capacity for denial in the face of inconvenient facts remains undiminished. Addressing the dominance of extremists in the Syrian opposition, Leon Panetta, a former CIA director, has blamed our earlier failure to arm those elusive moderates. The catastrophic consequences of this very approach in Libya are seldom mentioned. “If we had intervened more swiftly in Syria,” Gartenstein-Ross says, “the best-case scenario probably would have been another Libya. Meaning that we would still be dealing with a collapsed state and spillover into other Middle Eastern states and Europe.”

Even as we have continued our desultory bombing campaign against the Islamic State, Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra are creeping closer and closer to international respectability. A month after the London Eleven meeting, a group of scholars from the Brookings Institution published an op-ed making the case for Ahrar al-Sham: “Designating [the] group as a terrorist organization might backfire by pushing it completely into Al Qaeda’s camp.” (The think tank’s recent receipt of a multiyear, $15 million grant from Qatar was doubtless coincidental.)

Over the past year, other distinguished figures have voiced support for a closer relationship with Al Qaeda’s rebranded extensions. David Petraeus, another former head of the CIA, has argued for arming at least the “more moderate” parts of Nusra. Robert Ford, a former ambassador to Syria and a vociferous supporter of the rebel cause, called on America to “open channels for dialogue” with Ahrar al-Sham, even if its members had on occasion slaughtered some Alawites and desecrated Christian sites. Even Foreign Affairs, an Establishment sounding board, has echoed these notions, suggesting that it was time for the United States to “rethink its policy toward al-Qaeda, particularly its targeting of Zawahiri.”

“Let’s be fair to the CIA,” said Benazir Bhutto, the once and future prime minister of Pakistan, back in 1993, when the consequences of fostering jihad were already becoming painfully clear to its sponsors. “They never knew that these people that they were training to fight Soviets in Afghanistan were one day going to bite the hand that fed them.”

Things are clearer on the ground. Not long ago, far away from the think tanks and briefing rooms where policies are formulated and spun, a small boy in the heart of Nusra territory was telling a filmmaker for Vice News about Osama bin Laden. “He terrified and fought the Americans,” he said reverently. Beside him, his brother, an even smaller child, described his future: “To become a suicide fighter for the sake of God.” A busload of older boys was asked which group they belonged to. “Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda,” they responded cheerfully.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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