President Barack Obama has granted the U.S. military the authority to locate and execute leaders of an al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria that the administration had largely ignored and allowed to become the largest affiliate of the jihadist group in its history, reports The Washington Post (WaPo), citing unnamed U.S. officials.
Although the Pentagon was hesitant to pull resources away from the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), al-Qaeda’s rival, the White House and State Department pushed for prioritizing action against al-Qaeda in Syria.
The Washington Post notes:
The United States has conducted sporadic strikes in the past against veteran al-Qaeda members who migrated to northwestern Syria from Afghanistan and Pakistan to join al-Nusra and whom U.S. officials suspected of plotting against the United States and its allies.
Obama’s new order gives the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, wider authority and additional intelligence-collection resources to go after al-Nusra’s broader leadership, not just al-Qaeda veterans or those directly involved in external plotting.
Predominantly focusing on ISIS, the U.S.-led coalition has permitted al-Qaeda to remain active and growing in its various incarnations while it capitalizes on the chaos in Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, and some African countries to capture territory and recruit jihadists.
Now, The Post reports:
The decision to deploy more drones and intelligence assets against the [al-Qaeda] militant group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra reflects Obama’s concern that it is turning parts of Syria into a new base of operations for al-Qaeda on Europe’s southern doorstep, the officials said.
The move underlines the extent to which Obama has come to prioritize the counterterrorism mission in Syria over efforts to pressure President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, as al-Nusra is among the most effective forces battling the Syrian government.
In Syria, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra recently claimed to have cut its ties with al-Qaeda and become an independent group after renaming itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS).
However, Voice of America (VOA) has reported that “most Western analysts dismiss JFS’s break with al-Qaida [in July] as a feint, seeing it as a long game the jihadist group has been playing for some time across the Middle East and Africa.”
In late June, Brett McGurk, President Obama’s envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, described the al-Qaeda branch in Syria as the “largest” affiliate of the terrorist group “in history” and suggested that while the U.S.-led coalition was focusing on degrading and pushing ISIS out of Syria, its rival group al-Qaeda was flourishing.
The U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Syria since 2014, primarily targeting ISIS. U.S. military officials have since conceded that the air campaign in Syria has helped Jabhat al-Nusra, now known as JFS, has gained strength and become more potent.
In early September, VOA reported that JFS is reportedly looking to establish its own so-called caliphate in the territory it controls in Syria.
The Post now notes:
In the president’s Daily Brief, the most highly classified intelligence report produced by U.S. spy agencies, Obama was repeatedly told over the summer that the group was allowing al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan to create in northwest Syria the largest haven for the network since it was scattered after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Officials also warned Obama that al-Nusra could try to fill the void as its rival, the Islamic State, lost ground.
U.S. military efforts against the al-Qaeda-allied JFS is likely to intensify once President-Elect Donald Trump (R) is inaugurated early next year.
“Trump has said he will be even more aggressive in going after militants than Obama, a stance that could lead to the expansion of the campaign against al-Nusra, possibly in direct cooperation with Moscow,” notes WaPo. “The group now calls itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham — or Front for the Conquest of Syria — and says it has broken with al-Qaeda, an assertion discounted by U.S. officials.”