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US should lure 'opportunistic' fighters from al Qaeda in Syria, Petraeus says

Frederic J. Brown, AFP

Former CIA chief and retired general David Petraeus said Tuesday that the US should consider luring individual fighters away from al Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, to help in the fight against the Islamic State group.


Al Nusra Front has long been battling against Islamic State (IS) fighters, and Petraeus said some of their less ideologically driven members might be lured to join the fight against the IS group in another capacity.

In a statement to CNN, he said some fighters had probably joined al Nusra for “opportunistic” reasons, but emphasised that he was not suggesting an alliance with the militant group.

"We should under no circumstances try to use or co-opt Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, as an organisation against ISIL," Petraeus said of the IS group, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL.

"But some individual fighters, and perhaps some elements, within Nusra today have undoubtedly joined for opportunistic rather than ideological reasons: They saw Nusra as a strong horse, and they haven't seen a credible alternative, as the moderate opposition has yet to be adequately resourced."

Whether or not to finance Syria’s moderate opposition has been a hotly contested debate in Washington since the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad began in the spring of 2011. Many in Washington – including US President Barack Obama’s former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton – have blamed a lack of US support for Syrian moderates for the rise of jihadist influence in the war-torn country.

Petraeus said it may be possible to "peel off so-called reconcilables, who would be willing to renounce Nusra and align with the moderate opposition to fight against Nusra, ISIL and [Assad]".

But US military support would be vital to any such effort, the general said. Petraeus said a shift in strategy would require "both the rise of much stronger, moderate opposition groups – backed, again, by the US and the coalition seeking to defeat ISIL – and at the same time, intensified military pressure on all extremist groups".

The former CIA chief may be hoping to repeat a strategy that has proved successful in the past.

Petraeus became a household name in the United States when he oversaw the 2007 troop "surge" in Iraq, and many US politicians have credited him for salvaging a troubled post-war effort plagued by instability, frequent sectarian attacks and an al Qaeda insurgency.

Part of the Iraq surge effort saw the decorated general convince Sunni fighters to stop fighting with al Qaeda and to work with the US military instead.

Wassim Nasr, France 24’s expert in jihadist networks, said Petraeus's efforts were “very, very efficient” in creating what was called the “Awakening”, a group of mostly Sunni fighters, to counter al Qaeda’s insurgency in Iraq. “He succeeded by using some members [of groups] who were against the United States at the time,” Nasr said. “Washington succeeded by paying money, by arming them, by giving them some promises about more sharing of power in the new system in Iraq.”

“He has this success on his side,” Nasr said.

Nasr went on to note that the United States has also been trying to work with Islamist groups who are not affiliated with al Qaeda.

“It’s a very complicated situation for the United States, because to this point, they have no one on the ground to fight the jihadis.”


Some analysts think the lack of US engagement in Syria has led Washington to be faced with increasingly unsavoury choices.

“This is an acknowledgment that the US 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-based Institute for the Study of War, told The Daily Beast. “Strategically, it is desperate.”

“Alliances of convenience that would have been impossible two years [ago] are now plausible, and in some ways inevitable, because we are not willing to put boots on the ground,” Harmer said.

So far the Pentagon has trained only 60 Syrian rebels as part of its plan to fight against the IS group in Iraq and Syria, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in July during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

The US mission, which plans to train 15,000 rebels over three years, was approved by Congress in September but it took five more months to set up operations (in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar) and get the first contingent of rebel forces into training.

Defense officials have said they hope 3,000 fighters will be trained by the end of the year and 5,400 by May 2016. The main factor slowing down the recruitment of fighters is the "rigorous" US vetting process for each volunteer, Carter said.

So far the US effort has met with little evident success, and has already had its share of embarrassments.

At least seven members of a US-trained rebel group known as Division 30, including its commander, were seized by al Nusra, which later stormed the group’s headquarters, killing at least five. Those abducted were released by al Nusra the following month.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)


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