March 2021 marked the 10th anniversary of the Western regime-change war on Syria. And after a decade of grueling conflict, Washington is still maneuvering to extend its longstanding relationship with the Salafi-jihadist militants fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
With the northeastern province of Idlib under the control of a self-proclaimed "Syrian Salvation Government" led by the rebranded version of Syria’s al-Qaeda franchise, and protected under the military aegis of NATO member state Turkey, powerful elements from Brussels to Washington have been working to legitimize its leader.
This June, PBS Frontline aired a special, "The Jihadist," featuring a sit-down interview with Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, de facto president of the "Syrian Salvation Government" and founder of the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda originally called Jabhat al-Nusra, today re-branded as Hay-at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS.
Having traded in his battlefield garb for a freshly pressed suit, Jolani was presented with the once unthinkable opportunity to market himself to a Western audience and pledge that his forces pose no threat to the US homeland because they were merely focused on waging war against Syria’s "loyalist" population.
The PBS correspondent who conducted the interview, Martin Smith, previously starred in a 2015 PBS special, "Inside Assad’s Syria," which presented a US audience with a rare and relatively objective look at life inside Syrian government-controlled territory, as insurgents backed by NATO and Gulf monarchies encircled and terrorized its population.
Whether or not he realized it, when Smith returned to Syria this March to meet Jolani, he was on more than a journalistic field expedition. A network of think tanks and Beltway foreign policy veterans were engaged in a simultaneous push to remove Jolani and his militant faction HTS from the State Department’s list of designated terrorist groups.
This would open the door for international acceptance of his de facto government in Idlib, which regime-change advocates view as an important piece of leverage against Damascus, and as a human warehouse for the millions of refugees languishing there. In turn, the audacious PR campaign would consolidate a branch of the organization responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States into a de facto US asset.
The campaign to normalize Jolani was publicly initiated by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank with close ties to the Biden administration and NATO. By the time of Smith’s interview, operatives from a network of Gulf-funded, pro-Israel think tanks had spent years quietly lobbying for Washington to support al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, and succeeded in securing shipments of weapons from the CIA to some of its battlefield allies.
Though figures involved in this coordinated lobbying push were featured in Smith’s PBS Frontline report, they were presented to viewers as dispassionate analysts or former officials with no ulterior interests. Framed as hard news yet shaped by one of the most insidious public relations campaigns in recent history, the nationally broadcast PBS special provided an effective vehicle for rehabilitating a jihadist leader and perpetuating the decades-long dirty war against Syria.
Whitewashing US and foreign support for Syria's extremist insurgency
When Muhammad Jolani first crossed the Syrian-Iraqi border in 2012 with a small detachment of fighters, he belonged officially to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, an extremist group responsible for countless attacks on US military occupiers and Shia civilians across Iraq.
Upon their thrust into Syria, Jolani’s forces enabled the late self-proclaimed leader of the caliphate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to establish his Islamic State, or ISIS, in the northeastern city of Raqqa. A feud over strategy and finances soon prompted Jolani to split from the Islamic State and establish Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda, with the explicit blessing of the jihadist group’s global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Martin Smith recounted this history in his PBS Frontline report, albeit briefly, while neglecting any mention of the scandalous covert US operation that made Nusra’s rise possible.
Smith, for instance, neglected mention of the prescient August 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessment which stated clearly that "the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria,: and that the Western-backed opposition would likely create a "Salafist principality in eastern Syria" if weapons were placed in the hands of anti-Assad Islamist militants.
Despite the warning, in 2013, the CIA launched Operation Timber Sycamore, an arm-and-equip program that funneled up to $1 billion per year (one out of every $15 in the CIA’s budget) into material support for an armed opposition thoroughly dominated by Islamist extremists. It was the agency’s largest covert operation since a similar initiative in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which gave birth to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Just as the DIA predicted, an extremist "Salafist principality" took root in northeastern Syria, while Al Qaeda’s local franchise quickly emerged as the dominant force within the armed opposition.
Nusra militants – including a former fighters of the CIA-created "Free Syrian Army" – were filmed cutting open the chests of Syrian soldiers, tearing their hearts out, and eating the organs raw (while receiving sympathetic media coverage from the BBC).
As it seized control of the Idlib province and moved to take Damascus, Nusra earned a reputation for grisly suicide attacks and executions, while instituting a medieval-style theocratic regime in the areas it controlled. An undercover 2017 documentary filmed by local residents, "Undercover Idlib," exposed the dystopia that unfolded under Nusra control, with all non-religious music and public celebrations banned, the wearing of colorful headscarves outlawed, and Druze and Christian residents killed or forced to convert at gunpoint.
Jolani is the focus of the new PBS/Frontline documentary “The Jihadist” - the chameleon is trying to alter his image yet again. Terrorist, Torturer, Kidnapper, and sponsor of many suicide bombings. https://t.co/s6IEOo9FPZ— GarWarner (@GarWarner) June 5, 2021
(Terror expert @azelin also featured!)
Rather than being uprooted from its "safe haven," Nusra was encouraged by its NATO-aligned sponsors to rebrand and superficially distance itself from al-Qaeda so it could survive. First, in 2016, the al-Qaeda franchise changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, then morphed into Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) the following year.
Under tutelage from Turkey, which controlled the northern border of Idlib, HTS subsequently formed the "Syrian Salvation Government," and embarked on a PR campaign for international legitimacy.
Syria's rebranded Al Qaeda branch courts Western media
In 2020, Idlib’s "Salvation Government" established a media relations office to assist the entry of Western journalists and provide them with fixers to guide them in its territory. While independent reporters (including the co-author of this article) have been subjected to waves of online abuse by mainstream Western correspondents for visiting Damascus, a New York Times tour of Idlib that was openly managed by al-Qeada’s Syrian affiliate took place without a hint of criticism.
Martin Smith’s March 2021 visit to Idlib was a similarly guided venture. His report on Jolani blended interview footage with scenes of the HTS leader pressing the flesh with residents of Idlib City, conveying the image of a popular retail politician stumping for local office.
Idlib "does not represent a threat to the security of Europe and America. This region is not a staging ground for executing foreign jihad," Jolani reassured Smith. Over the past decade, he added, "we haven’t posed any threat to the West."
“Al-Qaeda has really got it right” - @Charles_Lister.— Dan Cohen (@dancohen3000) September 16, 2018
From my new @GrayzoneProject mini-doc “The Syria Deception – Al-Qaeda Goes to Hollywood”. Watch here: https://t.co/KOxwQx8Xro pic.twitter.com/mXPcLN5q10
In the interview, Smith focused entirely on whether Jolani would attack the West or not, demonstrating a near-total lack of interest in the lives of the millions of Syrians trapped under HTS’ neo-feudal rule in Idlib, and the minority groups threatened by its sectarian violence in nearby areas.
Dressed in a pressed shirt and blazer suitable for any job interview, Jolani rattled off rhetoric about the "Syrian revolution," while stressing that his Salafi-jihadist brethren and Washington shared a common goal: regime change in Damascus.
Continue reading the full report at the The GrayZone