Islamic State, al-Qaeda agree to truce
In a small town west of Aleppo, Syria, representatives from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda (Nusra Front) sat down and hashed out a truce between the warring terrorist groups. They also agreed to limited cooperation in their war against President Bashar Assad.
Such an accord could present new difficulties for Washington's strategy against the IS group. While warplanes from a U.S.-led coalition strike militants from the air, the Obama administration has counted on arming "moderate" rebel factions to push them back on the ground. Those rebels, already considered relatively weak and disorganized, would face far stronger opposition if the two heavy-hitting militant groups now are working together.
IS - the group that has seized nearly a third of Syria and Iraq with a campaign of brutality and beheadings this year - and al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, have fought each other bitterly for more than a year to dominate the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Associated Press reported late last month on signs that the two groups appear to have curtailed their feud with informal local truces. Their new agreement, according to the sources in rebel groups opposed to both IS and Nusra Front, would involve a promise to stop fighting and team up in attacks in some areas of northern Syria.
Cooperation, however, would fall short of unifying the rival groups, and experts believe any pact between the two sides could easily unravel. U.S. intelligence officials have been watching the groups closely and say a full merger is not expected soon - if ever. A U.S. official with access to intelligence about Syria said the American intelligence community has not seen any indications of a shift in the two groups' strategy, but added that he could not rule out tactical deals on the ground. The official insisted on anonymity because he said he was not authorized to speak publicly about the subject.
According to a Syrian opposition official speaking in Turkey, the meeting took place Nov. 2 in the town of Atareb, west of Aleppo, starting at around midnight and lasting until 4 a.m. The official said the meeting was closely followed by members of his movement, and he is certain that an agreement was reached. The official said about seven top militant leaders attended.
The Islamic State, formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, was disavowed by the parent al-Qaeda group in Pakistan earlier this year for its over-the-top brutality and a turf battle between the Nusra Front and ISIS. The two terrorist groups promptly went to war against each other, as Time Magazine reported at the time:
But ISIS’s savagery and draconian interpretations of Islamic law alienated many Syrians and drove a wedge between rebel groups. On Jan. 3, fighting broke out between ISIS and a new alliance that included the Nusra Front. ISIS has managed to stand its ground, but this most recent al-Qaeda announcement could lead to a greater conflagration. Al-Qaeda central may not have been able to stop Baghdadi outright, but the threat of excommunication seemed to have reined in his worst tendencies — his deadly campaign of suicide-bomb attacks in Iraq has not yet been replicated in Syria to the same degree. ISIS is now likely to lash out with increased attacks as it tries to prove its efficacy in spite of losing its valuable al-Qaeda designation.
Since then, relations have improved marginally, as there has been some indication of local cooperation between the two groups. This truce – if it holds – would certainly complicate matters for the United States in Syria.
The president has already acknowledged that his Syrian policy is a failure, ordering a top-to-bottom review by his national security staff last week. Word out of the White House is that the president now realizes he can't fight the Islamic State without also helping the rebels dislodge Assad from power. This was self-evident all along, as more secular outfits like the Free Syrian Army have been telling the U.S. for months.
But if we help the rebels with Assad, we will be assisting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. If we go after the terrorists exclusively, we will be helping Assad.
Obama will try to play Solomon and split the difference somehow – a surefire recipe for failure. Congress could step in, but you can bet they don't want to touch this tar baby, either.
In the end, we're going to have to take sides in the Syrian civil war. Whichever way we go, we're going to make a lot of people very unhappy.