Are al-Qaeda Affiliates Fighting Alongside U.S. Rebels in Syria’s South?

If forced to choose, Israel prefers the presence of terrorist groups to Iranian influence.

A street in Manbij, Syria. (Wikimedia Commons)

DARAA, Syria – At first glance, all appears calm in this southern Syrian city where protests first broke out seven years ago. Residents mill around shops in preparation for the evening Iftar meal when they break their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

But the tension is nonetheless palpable in this now government-controlled city. A few weeks ago, Russian-brokered reconciliation talks in southern Syria fell apart when Western-backed militants rejected a negotiated peace.

Whether there will now be a full-on battle for the south or not, visits last week to Syria’s three southern governorates, Daraa, Quneitra, and Suweida, reveal a startling possibility: al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise—the Nusra Front—appears to be deeply entrenched alongside these U.S.-backed militants in key, strategic towns and villages scattered throughout the south.

U.S. media and think tanks obfuscate this fact by referring to all opposition fighters as “rebels” or “moderates.” Take a look at their maps and you only see three colors: red for the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies, green for opposition forces, black for ISIS.


So then, where is the Nusra Front, long considered by Western pundits to be one of the most potent fighting forces against the SAA? Have they simply—and conveniently—been erased from the Syrian battle map?

Discussions with Syrian military experts, analysts, and opposition fighters during my trip revealed that Nusra is alive and kicking in the southern battlefields. The map below specifically identifies areas in the south controlled by Nusra, but there are many more locations that do not appear where Nusra is present and shares power with other militants.

Despite its U.S. and UN designation as a terrorist organization, Nusra has been openly fighting alongside the “Southern Front,” a group of 54 opposition militias funded and commanded by a U.S.-led war room based in Amman, Jordan called the Military Operations Center (MOC).

Specifics about the MOC aren’t easy to come by, but sources inside Syria—both opposition fighters and Syrian military brass (past and present)—suggest the command center consists of the U.S., UK, France, Jordan, Israel, and some Persian Gulf states.

They say the MOC supplies funds, weapons, salaries, intel, and training to the 54 militias, many of which consist of a mere 200 or so fighters that are further broken down into smaller groups, some only a few dozen strong.

SAA General Ahmad al-Issa, a commander for the frontline in Daraa, says the MOC is a U.S.-led operation that controls the movements of Southern Front “terrorists” and is highly influenced by Israel’s strategic goals in the south of Syria—one of which is to seize control of its bordering areas to create a “buffer” inside Syrian territories.

How does he know this? Issa says his information comes from a cross-section of sources, including reconciled/captured militants and intel from the MOC itself. The general cites MOC’s own rulebook for militants as an example of its Israel-centricity: “One, never threaten or approach any Israeli border in any way. Two, protect the borders with (Israeli-occupied) Golan so no one can enter Israel.”

To illustrate the MOC’s control over southern militants, Issa cites further regulations: “three, never take any military action before clearing with MOC first. Four, if the MOC asks groups to attack or stop, they must do so.”

What happens if these rules are not upheld? “They will get their salaries cut,” says Issa.

The armed opposition groups supported by the MOC are mostly affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), itself an ill-defined, highly fungible group of militants who have changed names and affiliations with frequency during the Syrian conflict.

Over the course of the war, the FSA has fought alongside the Nusra Front and ISIS—some have even joined them. Today, despite efforts to whitewash the FSA and Southern Front as “non-sectarian” and non-extremist, factions like the Yarmouk Army, Mu’tazz Billah Brigade, Salah al-Din Division, Fajr al-Islam Brigade, Fallujah al-Houran Brigade, the Bunyan al-Marsous grouping, Saifollah al-Masloul Brigade, and others are currently occupying keys areas in Daraa in cooperation with the Nusra Front.

None of this is news to American policymakers. Even before the MOC was established in February 2014, Nusra militants were fronting vital military maneuvers for the FSA. As one Daraa opposition activist explains: “The FSA and al-Nusra join together for operations but they have an agreement to let the FSA lead for public reasons, because they don’t want to frighten Jordan or the West…. Operations that were really carried out by al-Nusra are publicly presented by the FSA as their own.

Efforts to conceal the depth of cooperation between Nusra and the FSA go right to the top. Says one FSA commander in Daraa: “In many battles, al-Nusra takes part, but we don’t tell the (MOC) operations room about it.”

It’s highly doubtful that the U.S. military remains unaware of this. The Americans operate on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis with regard to FSA-Nusra cooperation. In a 2015 interview with this reporter, CENTCOM spokesman Lieutenant Commander Kyle Raines was quizzed about why Pentagon-vetted fighters’ weapons were showing up in Nusra hands. Raines responded: We don’t ‘command and control’ these forces—we only ‘train and enable’ them. Who they say they’re allying with, that’s their business.”

In practice, the U.S. doesn’t appear to mind the Nusra affiliation—regardless of the fact that the group is a terror organization—as long as the job gets done.

U.S. arms have been seen in Nusra’s possession for many years now, including highly valued TOW missiles, which were game-changing weapons in the Syrian military theater. When American weapons end up in al-Qaeda hands during the first or second year of a conflict, one assumes simple errors in judgment. When the problem persists after seven years, however, it starts to look like there’s a policy in place to look the other way.

It’s also not difficult to grasp why U.S. maps patently ignore evidence of Nusra embedded among U.S.-supported militias. The group, after all, is exempt from ceasefires, viewed as a fair target for military strikes at all times.

In December 2015, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 called for “Member States to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), Al-Nusra Front (ANF), and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council” (emphasis added). Furthermore, the resolution makes clear that ceasefires “will not apply to offensive or defensive actions against these individuals, groups, undertakings and entities.”

This essentially means that the Syrian army and its allies can tear apart any areas in the south of Syria where Nusra fighters—and “entities associated” with it—are based. In effect, international law provides a free hand for a Syrian military assault against U.S.-backed militias co-located with Nusra, and undermines the ability of their foreign sponsors to take retaliatory measures.

That’s why the Nusra Front doesn’t show up on U.S. maps.

In an interview last week, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad blamed the sudden breakdown of southern reconciliation efforts on “Israeli and American interference,” which he says “put pressure on the terrorists in that area in order to prevent reaching any compromise or peaceful resolution.”

Today, the Israeli border area with Syria is dotted with Nusra and ISIS encampments, which Israel clearly prefers over the Syrian army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies. The Wall Street Journal even reported last year that Israel was secretly providing funding for salaries, food, fuel, and munitions to militants across its border.

In early June, two former Islamist FSA members (one of them also a former Nusra fighter) in Beit Jinn—a strategic area bordering Syria, Lebanon, and Israel—told me that Israel had been paying their militia’s salaries for a year before a reconciliation deal was struck with the Syrian government. “Every month Israel would send us $200,000 to keep fighting,” one revealed. “Our leaders were following the outside countries. We were supported by MOC, they kept supporting us till the last minute,” he said.

Earlier that day, in the village of Hadar in the Syrian Golan, members of the Druze community described a bloody Nusra attack last November that killed 17: “All the people here saw how Israel helped Nusra terrorists that day. They covered them with live fire from the hilltops to help Nusra take over Hadar. And at the end of the fights, Israel takes in the injured Nusra fighters and provides them with medical services,” says Marwan Tawil, a local English teacher.

“The ceasefire line (Syrian-Israeli border) is 65 kilometers between here to Jordan, and only this area is under the control of the SAA,” explains Hadar’s mayor. “Sixty kilometers is with Nusra and Israel and only the other five are under the SAA.”

Israel is so heavily vested in keeping Syria and its allies away from its borders, it has actively bolstered al-Qaeda and other extremists in Syria’s southern theater. As Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon famously explained in 2016, “In Syria, if the choice is between Iran and the Islamic State, I choose the Islamic State.” To justify their interventions in the battle ahead, the U.S. and Israel claim that Iranian and Hezbollah forces are present in the south, yet on the ground in Daraa and Quneitra, there is no visible sight of either.

Multiple sources confirm this in Daraa, and insist that that there are only a handful of Hezbollah advisors—not fighters—in the entire governorate.

So why the spin? “This is a public diplomacy effort to make the West look like they’ve forced Iran and Hezbollah out of the south,” explains General Issa.

The U.S., Israel, and their allies cannot win this southern fight. They can only prolong the insecurity for a while before the SAA decides to launch a military campaign against the 54-plus-militias-Nusra occupying the south of Syria. The end result is likely to be a negotiated settlement peppered with a few “soft battles” to eject the more hardline militants.

As one SAA soldier on the scene in Daraa tells me: “Fifty-four factions in a small area shows weakness more than it shows strength.” And their cooperation with the Nusra Front just makes the targets on their backs even larger.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Mideast geopolitics based in Beirut.

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15 Responses to Are al-Qaeda Affiliates Fighting Alongside U.S. Rebels in Syria’s South?

  1. Janwaar Bibi says:

    The US has a long history of getting in bed with every terrorist, dictator and mass murderer it can find: Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, the Saudi reptiles, the Taliban, the generals in Pakistan, to name just a few. Also funding Al-Qaeda and ISIS keeps our masters in Jerusalem and Riyadh happy so we do it.

  2. Winston says:

    Saving their lives also
    Saving their sworn enemy: Heartstopping footage shows Israeli commandos rescuing wounded men from Syrian warzone – but WHY are they risking their lives for Islamic militants?

    Elite Israeli troops rescue wounded Syrians from the world’s worst war almost every night
    They have saved more than 2,000 people since 2013, at a cost of 50 million shekels (£8.7million)
    Many are enemies of Israel and some may even be fighters for groups affiliated to Al Qaeda
    MailOnline embedded with Israeli commandos stationed on the border between Israel and Syria
    Dramatic video filmed by MailOnline and the Israeli army shows these operations taking place
    Israel says that the operation is purely humanitarian but analysts believe Israel also has strategic reasons

  3. Whine Merchant says:

    The US political establishment and military is collaborating with al-Qaeda clones and affiliates rather than stay out of Syria’s civil war, just to appease Bibi and AIPAC.

    The new GOP motto: Israel First!

  4. Kirt Higdon says:

    It is not exactly news that the “moderate rebels” the US supports in Syria are actually Al Qaida and its allies. It’s been thus since the beginning of the civil war. The US also supports the Kurdish national communists, who are Al Qaida enemies, but it seems to be withdrawing this support in favor of Turkey and its Al Qaida allies. Using and then selling out the Kurds is almost as much a constant of US mid-eastern policy as is support of Israel and Saudi Arabia.

  5. retired in va beach says:

    Israeli support for ISIS and Al-Qaeda ought to disqualify it for US support. These people kill Americans. I wish I could say I’m surprised, but the Israelis never showed too much interest in dead Americans. They only care about that annual welfare check from the US Treasury. And that there are plenty of American men and women who can be sent to fight and die in the Middle East, so that Israelis don’t have to.

  6. staffordite says:

    “As Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon famously explained in 2016, “In Syria, if the choice is between Iran and the Islamic State, I choose the Islamic State.” “

    Nice to know where Israel stands on this.

  7. JR says:

    Looks the title is supposed to be too confrontational without that “?”.
    US has now been sponsoring and faciitating terrorism for geopolitical purposes since Russia was present in Afghanistan. Clinton’s email made clear that such sponsoring was considered beneficial for US geopolitical interests.

  8. Johann says:

    I remember when the Sri Lankan government had the remains of the Tamil Tigers surrounded and were ready to crush them, the west went bat crazy bonkers and demanded that they pull back for “humanitarian” reasons. Its true that there were many innocent civilians caught up in the pocket. But it was almost like the west was panicking that the long war with the ruthless Tamil Tigers would be over. Thankfully, the Sri Lankan government ignored the west’s pleas and destroyed the remaining Tiger forces. That was the quickest way to end the endless killing. The long drag-out civil wars result in seemingly endless killing and the deaths just keep adding up.

    Time for our military involvement in Syria to end with or without Israel’s agreement and let the Syrian government end the civil war Time for Syria to wipe out the jihadists.

    But then the Syrian government must address the grievances of all the various ethnic and religious groups and include them as full and equal citizens in government and in society. Hopefully the Sinhalese are doing the same with the Sri Lankan Tamil population.

  9. SteveM says:

    This is not news. The U.S. has taken a “see-no-evil” position all along. E.g.

    John McCain getting his picture taken with “moderate” jihadist lunatics.

    The video of U.S. backed “moderate” jihadist lunatics beheading a boy.

    The U.S. refusing to acknowledge the White Helmet support of the “moderate” jihadist lunatics.

    The U.S. refusal to acknowledge the compelling false flag evidence of the chemical weapons incidents that led to massive U.S. missile strikes in retaliation.

    The U.S. refusal to acknowledge the return of thousands of residents of Aleppo once the city had been liberated from the U.S. backed “moderate” jihadist lunatics by the Syrian Army and the Russians.

    The U.S., Israel, and their allies cannot win this southern fight. They can only prolong the insecurity for a while before the SAA decides to launch a military campaign against the 54-plus-militias-Nusra occupying the south of Syria.

    If only. The U.S. has already demonstrated that it will attack Syrian Army units on a whim. Expect the “prolonged insecurity” to include the active slaughter of Syrian soldiers by the U.S. in that last gasp effort.

    P.S. And we should be thanking those American “Warrior Heroes” doing the slaughtering for “defending our freedoms”?

  10. Stephen J. says:

    After reading this article one has to ask:
    March 1, 2018
    “Are They Training Terrorists in Secret Camps”?

    “Last year the chiefs of staff of the US, Britain, France, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey met in Jordan; and a report by UAE’s newspaper… also mentions the existence of a secret command center in Jordan which is staffed by military officials from 14 Western and Arab countries including Israel. This command center coordinates the operations of the rebels (jihadis) in southern Syria; while the operations of the jihadis in northern Syria are coordinated by similar command centers and bases in Turkey….” Nauman Sadiq, Asia Times.

    Are they training terrorists in secret camps?
    Our ruling villains; the warmongering pimps
    The tax dollars of the masses pay for this treason
    While the bandits in power hide their treacherous reasons

    They parade, posture, and preen on the world stage
    War criminals and their “allies” that should be caged
    Total evil rules a system that is depraved and rotten
    Ethics and morals have long since been forgotten

    Creators of carnage and destroyers of countries
    These are the evil filth; the war criminal junkies
    Millions are dead and millions are refugees
    Many wander the earth or drown in the seas

    Trying to escape from the perpetrators of perdition
    The demons of “democracy” and their hellish impositions
    The helpless victims have nowhere to run, and no place to hide
    They are “collateral damage” and the war criminals decide

    The system has been captured by the dictators of war
    The profiteers and the plotters of all the blood and gore
    Light needs to be shed by many powerful lamps
    On those that are training terrorists in secret camps

    “As for the Islamic State (IS), which is even ‘too extreme’ in the eyes of regular al-Qaeda fighters, its key members were trained by the CIA and the Special Forces command at a secret camp in Jordan in 2012, according to RT, citing informed Jordanian officials.”

    “Should the Past and Present Leaders of a Number of Countries Be Charged With Conspiracy, War Crimes, Crimes Against Humanity, and Funding, Training and Arming Terrorists”?

  11. b. says:

    “The U.S., Israel, and their allies cannot win this southern fight. They can only prolong the insecurity for a while before the SAA decides to launch a military campaign against the 54-plus-militias-Nusra occupying the south of Syria.”

    Maybe not. If Islamic State had effectively fought against Assad instead of all “unbelievers” in reach, the US would have backed them as they back al-Nusra. Now the US is prepared to defend “al Qaeda in Syria” to the utmost – and all under the alleged cover of the AUMF against al Qaeda. Meanwhile, UAE mercenaries provide the one degree of plausibly deniable separation between US JSOC forces and AQAP in Yemen.

    Shameless does not even begin to cover it, and long before we get to Obama and Trump, Congress has to take the full blame for this craven display.

  12. Liam says:

    Let us not forget also that the US, UK and France continue to promote and fund the White Helmets who are also FSA and al-Nusra jihadists posing as rescuers. Some members have even been photographed with ISIS and involved in beheadings and public executions. The US and UK media are complicit in promoting this fake group and prolonging the war via such propaganda. They even tried to give them a Nobel Peace prize and they did receive an Oscar from Hollywood.

    Massive White Helmets Photo Cache Proves Hollywood Gave Oscar to Terrorist Group

  13. You say Tomato, I Say Al Qaeda says:

    If I understand correctly, Trump is using the “authorization to use military force” given to Bush to fight Al Qaeda. But instead of fighting Al Qaeda with the Al Qaeda AUMF, he’s fighting Syrian regular troops with the AUMF and turning Al Qaeda into a US ally!

    Love it! It’s so STOOPIT and OFF THE WALL that it’s COOL!!!

  14. Jim says:

    No sh## ! Its sad and a deep betrayal.

  15. DR says:

    As far as I understand, the US-Israel-Saudi endgame in Syria is to hold the line against Assad and Syria and hope for a regime change in Iran.

    For a businessman, Trump sure does not understand well the concept of sunken costs.

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