Al Nusra fighters: paid and directed

Reaping the harvest

Al Nusra are not brave rebels, writes Yassamine Mather. The jihadist group has been financed and directed by the west’s allies with the sole aim of bringing about regime change from above

Anyone who has had direct experience of the violent conflicts and wars that have engulfed the Middle East will tell you that one of the most difficult tasks facing those on the ground is distinguishing fact from fiction. The region has seen hundreds of small-scale civil wars, as well as major battles between states and internal opposition forces, and, of course, imperialist intervention.

Often, even if you are a reporter in the middle of a war zone, embedded in one of the many warring factions of opposition groups or with government troops, what you see and hear about military advances, defeats and casualties does not necessarily have any connection with reality. It is not that the reporters are usually lying, but also that the information available to them is often inaccurate.

The current situation in Syria is no exception. All sides have their own version of who has committed a massacre, who is winning and who is losing. Add to this the vast amount of funds made available by US and UK governments, as well as Iran and Russia, for manufacturing ‘news’ about the war in Syria, both on social media and traditional outlets and the situation becomes even worse. I must admit, when it comes to casualties, claims of massacres, etc, I sometimes find it impossible to separate the truth from the falsehoods. That is why I have come to the conclusion that you should not take claims coming ‘from the war front’ in Aleppo, Raqqa or Palmyra at face value - I certainly do not.

Last week’s revelations about the funding from the UK foreign ministry for the Revolutionary Forces of Syria (RFS) media office - one the main sources of ‘information’ quoted by major news agencies - including details of how the so-called ‘independent’ agency is managed by agents operating in Turkey, confirms the rightness of this stance.

In November, the group released a video showing a staged ‘rescue’ by the White Helmets - a much heralded, western-funded ‘emergency service’ that operates exclusively in rebel-held territory. This raised a lot of controversy on social media, and RFS quickly removed the video and issued an apology. They were concerned that this clearly contrived incident “would create doubts about the authenticity of other videos by the White Helmets”.

According to one reporter, quoted on many websites, RFS contacted him about working for the group. He subsequently published quotes from their exchange and, according to the website, Alternet, this offer was received when he was working in Istanbul on a media project for the British government: “We’re looking for a managing editor/production manager talking to opposition people on the ground and writing news pieces based on statements from media activists who are affiliated with the armed groups in places like Aleppo.” The salary offered was $17,000 a month.

To his credit this particular reporter decided not to pursue the RFS position because he felt it would be journalistically unethical.

Speaking to Alternet, he said:

The idea that I would work for the government of a country that’s intimately involved in the Syrian conflict is one that’s incomprehensible for me as a journalist … this was far beyond working for state-owned media in my opinion. It was to actually be a mouthpiece for specific armed groups that are backed by a western regime with a long history of disastrous interference in this region. That doesn’t mean I don’t have sympathy for people who are against the Syrian government. I am not pro-regime. At the same time, I am a journalist and would like to maintain my integrity at that level.

Alternet and a number of independent sources tell us that any comment or criticism of armed opposition groups in Aleppo, including the al Qa’eda-affiliated Al Nusra (now rebranded as Al Shabab), involves the risk of being arrested, tortured or killed, according to those who over the last few days have escaped from the hell-hole that is Aleppo under the so-called ‘moderate opposition groups’. Of course, none of this justifies the horrific crimes committed by the Syrian army and its Iranian and Lebanese allies, who even in victory have shown terrible vindictiveness and brutality in dealing with the civilian population. However, if the media gave equal time to the atrocities committed by both sides, it would certainly add credibility to their reporting.

Of course, I do not believe any of the comments made by the pro-Assad Russian and Iranian media on the popularity of the Syrian regime. Nor do I believe Saudi- and western-funded media outputs claiming to be genuine voices from Aleppo or the disingenuous ‘human rights’ representatives from the United Nations. None of their claims should be taken at face value. However, there are clear facts that I will summarise below.

Anti-Assad policy

Wikileaks revelations make it clear that in December 2006 the top US diplomat in Syria believed that “the goal of US policy in Syria should be to destabilise the Syrian government by any means available; that the US should work to increase Sunni-Shia sectarianism in Syria.”1 This included:

According to an email from Hillary Clinton the aim should be to destroy Syria in order to help Israel. The message headed ‘The best way to help Israel’ was one of many declassified by the US department of state following the uproar during the presidential election campaign over Clinton’s private emails while she served as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.

Despite all this, some sections of what remains of the Fourth International and pro-Zionist groups such as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty tell us that the western-supported ‘Syrian revolution’ was a significant part of the ‘Arab spring’ to be defended by socialists. I have no doubt that there were genuine protests by the Syrian opposition in the winter and spring of 2013 against the Assad regime. However, anyone who was in Egypt or Tunisia at the time will know that the size of the demonstrations there dwarfed those in Syria. I was in Cairo during December 2011 and January 2012 at a time when tens of thousands were protesting in Tahrir Square. But Al Arabya TV, funded by Saudi Arabia, virtually ignored the protests in Cairo, concentrating 24/7 on much smaller protests in Damascus. Already the agenda for regime change in Syria was in operation, in line with US policy clearly declared in 2006-07. Of course, Saudi support for the Syrian opposition meant funding jihadist groups to defeat the secular opposition and force them into exile. In other words, the Syrian ‘Arab spring’ was killed off once pro-Saudi jihadists got involved.

‘Moderate opposition’

For all the attempts by the US and its allies to paint the Aleppo armed opposition groups as ‘moderates’, we know that both Al Nusra and IS had their origins in al Qa’eda. But IS was financed and supported by the west and its allies until at least 2013.

Benjamin Hall, who was one of the few journalists who stayed in FSA camps, is the author of Inside Isis: the brutal rise of a terrorist army, in which he claims that Abu Omar al-Shishani, considered to be one of the leading IS strategists, was trained by the US, receiving military instruction as part of an elite Georgian army unit in 2006. He “enjoyed US backing and financial support as late as 2013, soon after entering Syria with fellow Chechen jihadists”. At that time he was by all accounts a hero of both Isis and Al Nusra fighters:

It took 10 months for the rebels to finally capture that base [in Syria], but it only fell when the FSA were joined by the Isis leader, Abu Omar al-Shishani, and his brutal gang of Chechens. When we had been there, it had been under the sole control of badly funded, badly armed rebels with little knowledge of tactical warfare - but, when Shishani arrived, he took control of the operation, and the base fell soon after.2

Hall also reveals that the Free Syrian Army’s Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi, the operational head of the Syrian ‘moderate opposition’, was paid a personal visit by the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, just months prior to the final victory at Menagh.

Al-Oqaidi’s subsequent victory speech proves that, while he was on the US government’s Syria support payroll, he fought alongside and publicly praised IS fighters, calling them “heroes”, and presumably exercised some degree of operational command over them. In the summer of 2013 the IS and FSA fought as one, under a unified command structure, which just happened to have direct US backing. No wonder that in a recent poll conducted inside Syria by ORB International it was revealed that “82% of Syrians blame US for Isis”.3

As Robert Fisk writes,

… many of the ‘rebels’ whom we in the west have been supporting - and which our preposterous prime minister, Theresa May, indirectly blessed when she grovelled to the Gulf head-choppers last week - are among the cruellest and most ruthless of fighters in the Middle East. And, while we have been tut-tutting at the frightfulness of Isis during the siege of Mosul (an event all too similar to Aleppo, although you wouldn’t think so from reading our narrative of the story), we have been wilfully ignoring the behaviour of the rebels of Aleppo.4

Syria has been devastated, with whole towns destroyed, because the US and its allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, thought that ‘regime change form above’ in Syria would weaken Iran’s Islamic Republic. However, far from doing that, the actions of the United States have ended up strengthening the Shia state in Tehran. Not only because its ally, the brutal Assad regime has survived, but - far more significantly - because 80 million Iranians, of whom at least 90% do not support the clerical regime, look at the disasters in Libya, Syria and Iraq and have come to the conclusion that living within the vast prison that is Iran is preferable to the hell created by US regime change from above, be it in Libya or Syria.

The so-called ‘socialists’ who support imperialist interventions for ‘humanitarian’ reasons should hang their head in shame. The only hope of defeating political Islam in the region is through a revolution from below - a prospect that every imperialist intervention over the last three decades has made more distant.



1. www.truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/33180-wikileaks-reveals-how-the-us-aggressively-pursued-regime-change-in-syria-igniting-a-bloodbath.

2. https://levantreport.com/2015/09/18/isis-leader-omar-al-shishani-fought-under-u-s-umbrella-as-late-as-2013.

3. www.washingtonsblog.com/2015/09/polls-show-syrians-overwhelmingly-blame-u-s-for-isis.html.

4. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/aleppo-falls-to-syrian-regime-bashar-al-assad-rebels-uk-government-more-than-one-story-robert-fisk-a7471576.html?cmpid=facebook-post.