President Obama has ordered the Pentagon to find and kill the leaders of an al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria that the administration had largely ignored until now and that has been at the vanguard of the fight against the Syrian government, U.S. officials said.Needless to say, the Russians are pleased about the decision, though they are hoping for some independent confirmation of the shift in policy.
The decision to deploy more drones and intelligence assets against the 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.
That shift is likely to accelerate once President-elect Donald Trump [Gaah!!!!] takes office. 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. 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.
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.
But aides say Obama grew frustrated that more wasn’t being done by the Pentagon and the intelligence community to kill al-Nusra leaders given the warnings he had received from top counterterrorism officials about the gathering threat they posed.
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.
Lisa Monaco, Obama’s White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, said Obama’s decision “prioritized our fight against al-Qaeda in Syria, including through targeting their leaders and operatives, some of whom are legacy al-Qaeda members.”
“We have made clear to all parties in Syria that we will not allow al-Qaeda to grow its capacity to attack the U.S., our allies, and our interests,” she said in a statement. “We will continue to take action to deny these terrorists any safe haven in Syria.”
A growing number of White House and State Department officials, however, have privately voiced doubts about the wisdom of applying U.S. military power, even covertly, to pressure Assad to step aside, particularly since Russia’s military intervention in Syria last year.
U.S. intelligence officials say they aren’t sure what Trump’s approach to U.S.-backed rebel units will be once he gets briefed on the extent of the covert CIA program. Trump has voiced strong skepticism about arming Syrian rebels in the past, suggesting that U.S. intelligence agencies don’t have enough knowledge about rebel intentions to pick reliable allies.
This is a major move in the direction of the Russian position, which is that fighting the Salafist jihadists in Syria is the first priority, and that regime changes under the current condition is likely to benefit no one,