State Department officials are 'baffled' by John Kerry's latest comments that have 'muddied the waters' in Syria

The State Department is reportedly trying to walk back comments Secretary of State John Kerry made about Syria during an appearance in Aspen last month.

When asked about the US’ anti-ISIS strategy in Syria, Kerry said “the most important thing, frankly, is seeing if we can reach an understanding with the Russians about how to, No. 1, deal with Daesh and al-Nusrah,” Kerry said, referring to ISIS and Al Qaeda’s offshoot in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra.

Kerry then characterised two other Syrian rebel groups, Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, as “subgroups” of ISIS and Nusra.

“There are a couple of subgroups underneath the two designated [terrorist groups], Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra — Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, particularly — who brush off and fight with that alongside these other two sometimes to fight the Assad regime.”

It is true that rebel groups in Syria fighting forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sometimes coordinate or shift alliances out of necessity to improve their battlefield odds. Indeed, both Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are members of the Jaysh al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) anti-Assad military alliance that now controls most of Idlib province.

Neither Jaysh al-Islam nor Ahrar al-Sham, however, are UN-designated terrorist organisations. Both have expressed that they are opposed to ISIS. And neither are beholden to, or take orders, from al-Nusra.

The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin first noticed the comment, which apparently annoyed State Department officials who say they have “been arguing to make sure the Russians and the Syrian regime don’t equate these groups [Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham] with the terrorists.”

“Kerry’s line yields that point,” a senior administration official told Rogin.

“Baffled. SMH,” another said in an email, using an acronym for the expression, “shaking my head.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed to the Washington Post that the administration’s policy with regard to Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham had not changed.

Still, “it’s a telling gaffe,” Middle East expert Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider on Tuesday. “And it’s revealing about the kind of conversation they’re having with the Russians — and where, usually, that conversation leads.”

Political expedience

Russia intervened in Syria on behalf of its ally, Assad, in late September. Since then, Moscow has pushed for the UN to list Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham — both of which are staunchly opposed to Assad — as terrorist organisations. This is both for political reasons and to justify its continued strikes on areas of Syria where the Islamic State has little to no presence.

Jaysh al-Islam, which is backed by Saudi Arabia, is one of the most important rebel groups in Syria, with a formidable presence east of Syria’s capital, Damascus. A leading Jaysh al-Islam figure — Mohammed Alloush — was the chief negotiator for the opposition High Negotiations Committee before he resigned in May, citing a lack of progress on humanitarian issues.

A Russian airstrike targeted and killed the leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Zahran Alloush, in the village of Utaya to the east of Damascus last December.

Ahrar al-Sham, meanwhile — a powerful Islamist rebel brigade headquartered in Syria’s Idlib province — is backed by Turkey and has both criticised and clashed with ISIS in the past.

Until now, it has been politically pragmatic for the US to refrain from characterising Jaysh al-Islam or Ahrar al-Sham as terrorists. Doing so would likely further undermine peace talks and paint Washington as sympathetic to Russia’s bombing campaign — a campaign that has frequently targeted rebel groups supported by important US allies and the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Russia considers all revolutionaries and rebel groups as ISIS or al-Nusra to justify its indiscriminate shelling of civilians and the moderate opposition,” Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, told The Washington Post on Monday.

But the administration’s political calculations may be shifting in light of a new proposal to coordinate more closely with the Russians in Syria against al-Qaeda, in exchange for a promise from the Russians that they will pressure Assad to stop bombing groups that aren’t UN-designated terrorist organisations.

Not the first time

It would not be the first time the Obama administration has touted a Russia-aligned policy in Syria at a politically sensitive moment.

In the midst of a country-wide truce brokered by the US and Russia in late February, US Army Col. Steve Warren, then the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, was asked whether Russian airstrikes on Aleppo — the epicentre of the war since late last year — meant Moscow was preparing to end the cessation of hostilities (CoH) agreement.

Warren responded that it was “complicated” because al-Nusra “holds Aleppo” and is not party to the agreement.

Many experts and analysts were quick to point out, however, Nusra has never controlled Aleppo nor maintained a significant presence there.
While Nusra had indeed been building up its presence in Aleppo since February, the city is also occupied by civilians and armed opposition groups associated with the US-backed Free Syrian Army that agreed to abide by the fragile agreement.

As Middle East analyst Kyle Orton noted on Twitter at the time, Warren came “pretty close” to saying that the coalition supports Russia’s airstrikes in the city.

Then as now, observers wondered if Warren had misspoken. But the
US has been steadily accomodating an increasing number of Russian demands in Syria, including one to urge the moderate opposition to stop co-mingling with Nusra so that Moscow can bomb its positions — even though, some rebels have complained, weakening Nusra would mean strengthening Assad.

Now, for the US’ top diplomat to indicate that he agrees with Russia’s characterization of Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham as terror groups sends mixed signals about Washington’s commitment to the opposition it claims to support.

Writing in the pan-Arab daily newspaper al-Hayat, Ibrahim Hamidi noted that European diplomats are unnerved by what they perceive as a bilateral discussion between Washington and Moscow that has gone over their heads — and are engaged in intense discussions about how to “control the Obama administration’s rush toward the Russian position on Syria.”

And rebels are reportedly concerned that Washington’s new cooperation with the Russians means “dismantling Jaysh al-Fateh, which opens the door to a regime victory and reproducing the regime with Russian backing,” Hamidi noted in Al Hayat.

In any case, analysts agree that Kerry’s comments bizarrely — and inaccurately — conflated roughly five different rebel groups in Syria that are either military allies or in competition with one another.

“It’s true that the groups fighting Assad are hard to distinguish and often co-mingle, but US policy is based on knowing which are which,” Rogin wrote. “Kerry muddied the waters. That’s typically Moscow’s job.”

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