Obama changes tack with clampdown on Nusra in Syria

US president’s order to ‘track and slay’ jihadi group’s leaders signals turnabout in policy

US president-elect Donald Trump has reiterated his intention of joining the Syrian government in the battle against Islamic State, also known as Isis, and rejected appeals from the opposition for enhanced aid for their campaign to topple president Bashar al-Assad.

Mr Trump told the Wall Street Journal he would not continue the Obama administration's policy of backing "moderate" armed Syrian groups fighting Damascus. "I've had the opposite view of many people regarding Syria. My attitude [is] you're fighting Syria, Syria is fighting Isis, and you have to get rid of Isis." He pointed out that Russia and Iran are aligned with Syria while the US is "backing rebels against Syria", and, as he put it, " . . . we have no idea who these people are," referring to mostly jihadi groups receiving training, arms and equipment from the US.

He warned if the US attacks Assad, "we [will] end up fighting Russia, fighting Syria". He has repeatedly spoken of reconciling with Russia and mentioned the "beautiful letter" he had from Russian president Vladimir Putin congratulating him on his election.

Curious coincidence

It is a curious coincidence that Trump reconfirmed his intention to shift on Syria shortly after it was revealed by the Washington Post that president Barack Obama had issued an order to the Pentagon to track and slay local leaders of al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra, re-branded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.


He had previously limited US operations to taking-out senior al-Qaeda commanders and agents dispatched to Syria by Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of al-Qaeda central, based on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The decision to focus on Nusra's entire leadership demonstrates Obama's belated realisation that Nusra has become the most powerful insurgent group in Syria. Control by Nusra and its radical allies of the north-western province of Idlib gives al-Qaeda a strategic base from which to mount operations against Europe.

The US has reportedly carried out successful attacks on four Afghan veterans and local leaders but, so far, has not mounted strikes against Nusra bases and fighters in Idlib, as this has been seen as unacceptably widening Washington’s military commitment.

The order amounted to an abrupt turnaround by Obama who has, for nearly a year, refused to honour a pledge to Russia to force US insurgent allies to cut ties with Nusra, branded a "terrorist" organisation by the UN and the international community. In spite of strikes on Nusra leaders intended to compel US allies to break with Nusra, they have refused. Nusra has better motivated fighters and more arms than most insurgent factions. Nusra fighters have, for example, led the campaign to end the Syrian army's siege of insurgent-held eastern Aleppo and have asserted control over other groups holding out there. Once in office, Trump could order a halt to aid to US "vetted" insurgent groups and collaborate with Russia in the air war not only against Islamic State but also Nusra and other jihadi groups fighting Damascus. Once Islamic state is contained or defeated, al-Qaeda-linked groups could inherit its mantle, ideology and agenda. Al-Qaeda could reclaim jihadi dominance on the global scene.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times