Obama never wanted to go back to Iraq, and he certainly never planned to get deeply involved in Syria. But things rarely go to plan, especially when you are talking about Middle Eastern Geopolitics. As such, now at the end of 2014 we see the United States alongside a second Coalition of the Willing engaged in bombing runs every day in both countries, and plans in increase the small number of boots of the ground. Of course, the crisis caused by the rapid expansion of the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) made such a policy turnaround all but unavoidable. Obama at least had the advantage of facing off against a perfect enemy. The Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Da’esh) is a religious Khmer Rouge bent on taking the Middle East back to the 7th century and through its sheer brutality, has made itself almost universally hated. America’s allies, but also, critically its rivals such as Iran and Russia, all have a vested interest in seeing the group destroyed.
But beyond IS, things get very messy, very quickly. So the US had to avoid any ‘target creep’ if it was to escape this new conflict reasonable cleanly. For this reason the strike against the ‘Khorasan Group’ took everybody by surprise.
The Official Line
On September 23, the Coalition engaged on its first series of strike against ISIS in Syria. Except that they didn’t just target ISIS…
Among the series of F-16 bombings and Tomahawk missile strikes in North Eastern Syria, was a group of outliers. As well as hitting the ISIS strongholds of Ar Raqqa and Deir Ez Zour, US missiles also struck Aleppo, a stronghold of more moderate Sunni rebels who were actively engaged in combat against ISIS. In the hours after the attack, it emerged that the US had struck Jabhat Al-Nusra (JAN) an Al-Qaeda aligned group in Syria, who nonetheless were still fighting ISIS.
The official US CENTCOM statement on the attack read:
The United States has also taken action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned [al-Qaeda] veterans—sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group—who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations.
This immediately rung alarm bells among those who had been long-time observers of the conflict, namely because nobody it seemed has ever heard of the Khorasan group before. Indeed, while everyone was left scratching their heads wondering who these people were, the repercussions were already being felt among the Syrian Opposition. After one of their own (albeit an Al-Qaeda affiliate) was targeted by the Coalition, rebels burnt US flags and protested their betrayal by the West.
Wolves and Whitewash
In the weeks that followed journalists and security analysts began to delve deeper into what ‘Khorasan’ actually was. It turns out the group was likely targeted not for the fact that it was an imminent threat to the US, but rather because it contained several people high up on the US government’s ‘hit list’ and thus stood as a target of opportunity. These included French-born bomb maker David Drugeon as well as the group’s leader Muhsin al-Fadhli both of whom were experienced Al-Qaeda operatives.
In addition, the claim that ‘Khorasan’ was some kind of independent and highly threatening terrorist group began to unravel. Reporting on the ground and propaganda video analysis established that the Khorasan group was really the “Wolf Group” or “Al-Qaeda Snipers” of Jabhat Al-Nusra, and rather than an independent organisation, were really a small sub-unit of the larger JAN network. Furthermore, the threat they posed to the West was downgraded from imminent and critical, to “within the next few months”.
Clearly, what happened is that the US government made the decision to bomb this Wolf Group of Jabhat Al-Nusra, and then later came up with a way to sell to the public. This strategy ended up in the creation of “Khorasan” a group which never existed in any form beyond the statements of US officials.
After Jabhat Al-Nusra Wolf Group targets were hit around Aleppo on the 23rd by no less than 6 Tomahawk missile strikes, US government went into overdrive promoting the myth of the ‘Khorasan’ Group, and the fact that it was producing non-metallic bombs which could be used to attack Western targets. There is little evidence beyond vague ‘intelligence’ that this was the case. What there is a lot of evidence for however, was that this group was training crack snipers who had been quite successful in the fight against regime forces in the city.
What’s worse, while their buildings and training HQ were destroyed, all high value targets identified by the US reportedly escaped after forewarning from an unknown party. So what we are left with is a Coalition that is effectively bombing both sides of a war to very little effect, aside from slowly turning even the non-ISIS opposition against them. All the while they are misleading the US public as to the true targets of the strikes. While there is no doubt that the Wolf Group as the US government puts it “were bad guys”, the wider strategic implications of this strike could drive a tactical merger between ISIS and JAN make the Coalition’s overtask much harder. At some point you have to ask what they were thinking…