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Ceasefire Deal: US Reluctant To Force Syrian Rebel Groups To Cut Ties With Al Qaeda

A new ceasefire agreement in Syria was recently negotiated between the United States and Russia, but one significant issue with the deal is that it may lack any meaningful mechanism to force rebel groups supported by the U.S. to end coordination or cooperation with al Qaeda.

Gareth Porter, an independent investigative journalist, joins Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” weekly podcast to talk about his piece, “Al Qaeda’s Ties to U.S.-Backed Rebels in Syria.” He highlights the positive aspects of a ceasefire deal for Syria while calling attention to a deeply problematic aspect of the ceasefire—the lack of incentives for the U.S. to make certain groups it supports cut their ties with al Qaeda.

In the latter part of the show, Khalek and Gosztola discuss the massive $3.8 billion U.S. aid package to Israel, the closing of Camp 5 at Guantanamo Bay, and Oliver Stone’s new film, “Snowden.”

The episode is available on iTunes. To listen to the episode (and also to download the episode), go here. A page will load with the audio file of the interview that will automatically play.

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Below is an edited transcript of part of the interview with Gareth Porter.

RANIA KHALEK: Give us an overview of what is happening with the ceasefire deal and how al Qaeda relates to that.

GARETH PORTER: The title of the piece is a little bit unfortunate because it doesn’t really convey that I’m talking here about the problem of the ceasefire agreement and what’s good with it and what’s problematic about it. What I was trying to start to do in this piece was an initial analysis of the ceasefire agreement and particularly looking at what are the incentives for the Obama administration and how is that playing out in its policy with regard to the ceasefire.

Just to come back to the fundamental question of what’s new and different about the ceasefire and what is familiar if you will about the ceasefire agreement—The similarities with this agreement and the original agreement are, I would say, the fundamental underlying politics both within the Obama administration and internationally.

The difference between the two—and I’m making a summary statement to start with—the differences between the two are first of all that the United States was insisting throughout these negotiations on what they call grounding the air force of the Syrian government. They’ve taken the position that that’s the primary problem that civilians have encountered in the last several months, since the first ceasefire went into effect, and that was certainly one of their primary objectives. Certainly, as long as the initial period of the ceasefire lasts, the agreement calls for no operations by the Syria air force.

Second thing, a good thing for sure, is that there is a kind of demilitarized zone in the area southeast of Aleppo that is the Castello Road that is the primary point of access to that part of Aleppo city, which has been the location of the most fierce fighting in recent weeks. So this is an improvement on the first ceasefire agreement because they’re very specific requirements for pullbacks of troops from both sides. Not just troops, but actually heavy weapons are described. It’s actually a set of quite far-reaching requirements that make it more difficult for each side to violate the agreement in that part of Syria without having a major of charge of violation on their hands.

Those are the two key differences in addition to the fact that this agreement is calling for a US-Russian combined campaign against Daesh, the Islamic State, and the al Qaeda forces. What was the al Nusrah front. It is now Jabat Fateh al Sham but still it is, of course, definitely affiliated with al Qaeda globally.

KHALEK: One more name change and nobody is going to remember it though.

PORTER: Right, but I think we will remember it has something to do with al Qaeda. So, anyway, those are the three new elements in the ceasefire agreement. I think all three are to the good in the abstract. The question again is what are the incentives for the United States to make the agreement stick, and that’s where I think we have a problem. That’s where I think we have a serious problem with the way in which this is going to play out because I doubt very much that the incentives for the Obama administration have changed sufficiently over the last few months to make it more likely that the U.S. is going to use its potential leverage to get both the international allies, Sunni allies of the United States in the region, and the U.S. proxies if you will in Syria, the so-called, I hate to use the term, moderates. I should wash my mouth out with soap for using that—to really carry out the agreement.

Let’s face it. The fact is that neither the Sunni allies nor the U.S. proxies have an incentive themselves to carry out, to honor this agreement.

KHALEK: It’s a little confusing because some are saying this is a requirement, but then they’re also saying that the U.S. is being shady on this—that the so-called moderates have to cut ties with al Qaeda. I think in Aleppo you actually wrote about how basically every armed group in Aleppo is like structured in such a way that it is basically connected to al Qaeda or answers to it in Aleppo. Is that correct?

PORTER: To both of those points that you’ve made—In the case of Aleppo, you’re right. The command structure, which was setup clearly by what was then al Nusrah front, there’s no ambiguity about this. This was reported in the Arab language press, associated with a strong anti-Assad position, The New Arab, last year. They apparently had good sources in Aleppo saying that this command structure for Aleppo against the Assad regime was one in which all of the major U.S-supported groups were clearly integrated into that structure. That meant that they were fighting under the supervision, in coordination with, and under the leadership of al Qaeda. So that part of it’s absolutely clear.

The other point that you raised is what I did talk about in my piece in more detail and that is that there are two letters that the U.S. envoy to the Syria opposition, Michael Ratney, sent during and then after the negotiations between the United States and Russia on the ceasefire agreement. And the context here, as you said, is that the U.S-supported forces are in theory supposed to separate themselves from the al Qaeda forces. That was the case under the first agreement as well, although we never saw the text. The Russians said it publicly, and Kerry didn’t deny that was supposed to happen. The United States was supposed to use its influence over those groups to make it happen. Well, it didn’t happen, of course, as we all know.

In this case, to come back to these letters by Michael Ratney, the first letter, September 3, 2016, Ratney made no allusion whatsoever to any requirement that the U.S. proxies in Syria would be required to separate themselves either physically or organizationally from al Qaeda forces. That’s really interesting because this was exactly the opposite of what would’ve been expected, and it suggests to me that the U.S. was hoping and expecting that they wouldn’t be on the hook for any such requirement. They were trying to get out of it.

Now there’s a followup letter, September 10—It’s undated, but apparently it was sent September 10—In which there is not a clear statement that this is a requirement of the agreement, that it is written into the agreement, but it is simply a statement to the U.S. proxies saying we urge you to move away from the al Qaeda forces, although that was not the way it was put. Otherwise, there will be very serious consequences. Now that’s a highly ambiguous statement, and I suspected that perhaps there was something written into the agreement that required the United States to issue a warning to its proxies to that effect.

I just don’t know, but it’s a very strange way to cover this in the letter to our proxies. So that’s what I’ve been able to come up with so far. It indicates to me that there’s some real question mark here about how strong the U.S. commitment is to making this happen.

For the rest of the interview, go here.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."