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Well, this story has finally hit the front page of The New York Times. Rivals of ISIS Attack U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebel Group, says the headline. “Rivals.” Any old rivals? No, Nusra — al Qaeda, in other words. As we were discussing on this thread. But here’s the thing I don’t get:
In Washington, several current and former senior administration officials acknowledged that the attack and the abductions by the Nusra Front took American officials by surprise and amounted to a significant intelligence failure.
While American military trainers had gone to great lengths to protect the initial group of trainees from attacks by Islamic State or Syrian Army forces, they did not anticipate an assault from the Nusra Front. In fact, officials said on Friday, they expected the Nusra Front to welcome Division 30 as an ally in its fight against the Islamic State.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” said one former senior American official, who was working closely on Syria issues until recently, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence assessments.
I skimmed through the comments — I shouldn’t have, I’m down enough about all of this already — and saw a number of them to the effect of “This is why we shouldn’t be in the Middle East! It’s all too complicated to sort out!”
All too complicated.
Yes, there are many aspects of the politics of this region that are labyrinthine and confusing. But what would be your instinct about how likely al Qaeda is to welcome US-backed fighters?
What if you knew that Nusra has this track record? Not too much to expect that “senior administration officials” had been briefed about this, is it?
For months, the US-backed Hazzm rebel movement held key areas of the Aleppo countryside, boasted thousands of fighters and scores of tanks, and was led by the former commander of the Free Syrian Army, Salim Idris.Yet over just one weekend, it was defeated by the local al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, which began an assault on Hazzm to end the influence of its “criminal and corrupt” leadership. …
Nusra has considered all US-backed factions inevitable future enemies, and has set about eliminating them before they become a large well-trained force in the region.
What else does al Qaeda have to do to alert the US that it’s hostile to the United States?
This latest setback to the train-and-equip program has only realized the quiet fears percolating throughout the Pentagon for months that the U.S. was essentially creating cannon fodder—rebels it was not prepared to defend in the likely event they needed defending. The raison d’être of all Syrian rebels, after all, is to overthrow at the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad, not fight jihadists. And any inductees of the program were bound to have targets painted on their backs from all other comers in a complicated and gruesome four-year-old civil war with many attendant sideshow conflicts. Pro-Assad forces including Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian-built militias, Nusra, ISIS and even other independent rebels—all were bound to try to kill or capture Sunni Arab proxies of Washington.
“If you wanted to sabotage your strategy, this is a pretty good way to do it,” said one official advising on the process. “None of this is about achieving the objective. It is about going through the motions.
This is not an “intelligence failure.” This is a moral failure.