In Depth

Syria: does Obama know for sure who his 'friends' are?

Family of beheaded journalist claim he was sold to IS by 'moderates' Obama is now supporting

Charles Laurence

Has a row between the White House and the family of Steven Sotloff, the second American journalist beheaded by Islamic terrorists, exposed a hollow core to President Obama’s new war on the Islamic State?

The row is rooted in the grief of Sotloff’s family at his hideous death.

Largely though a family ‘spokesman’, Barak Barfi, they have alleged that the White House did little to help save Sotloff, turned a deaf ear to information they supplied,  and threatened prosecution when they suspected that the Sotloff family was attempting to organise a ransom.

But it took on a whole new twist when Barfi went public this month with the allegation that Sotloff had first been held on the Turkish-Syrian border in August 2013 by a “moderate” Syrian rebel group, who sold him on to IS. And these "moderate rebels" belong to the Free Syrian Army which Obama is now claiming will be America's allies and “boots on the ground” in his campaign against IS.

In other words, the President’s whole strategy to “degrade and destroy” IS with American airpower and equipment, supporting a proxy army, is rotten because there is no such thing as a trustworthy “moderate” opposition in Syria.

The fear is that if America trains and uses the Free Syrian Army there will surely be another “blowback”.

This week, Barfi told Daily Beast reporter Josh Rogin, who was a friend of Sotloff, that the group who first took Sotloff at the border was Asifat al Shamal, known in the West as the Northern Storm Brigade, which is not only a key component of the Free Syrian Army but the same unit with which Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, was photographed on a mission to Syria just three months before the Sotloff kidnapping.

“Steven was delayed at the border by people who worked with the Northern Storm,” Barfi said.

He added that it was a Northern Storm fighter who had telephoned IS to tell them they had Sotloff, and would turn him over for a cash payment believed to be between $25,000 and $50,000.

Barfi told the Daily Beast that Sotloff had been added mistakenly to a list of people suspected of being linked to President Assad’s bombing of a hospital in Aleppo, which is why Northern Storm stopped him at a roadblock. When they discovered that he was an American journalist, they made other plans.

After agreeing to the trade, IS fighters set up a second roadblock a few miles further into Syria. There, they kidnapped Sotloff and his local “fixer”, who was freed 15 days later.

“Sotloff was sold at the border by the so-called moderate rebels that people in our administration want to support,” said Barfi.

After Barfi first aired his allegations on 9 September, Secretary of State John Kerry hurried to testify to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Congress, which was weighing whether to support Obama’s new war.

“Actually, there is intelligence that refutes it,” said Kerry, who like President Obama refers to the Sunni terrorists as Isil rather than IS. “That’s an Isil disinformation claim. And in fact, that never happened. As I said, it’s false information that was put out by Isil itself.”

A White House official used stronger language when repeating that claim to the Daily Beast. “Mr. Barfi’s service to the memory of his friend is honorable, as is his dedication to the Sotloff family. No one questions it, nor should they, and nor would we,” he said.

“But the puzzling accusation, presented without evidence, that the moderate opposition kidnapped or sold Sotloff, flies in the face of all our available intelligence. I can only conclude it’s based on really bad information.”

The Daily Beast itself found that there were two versions of the story on the ground. Much of the key evidence came from the “fixer” originally kidnapped with Sotloff, and he has not been tracked down to repeat it. Some “experts” are saying it is true that Northern Storm sold captives to IS, while others are saying that the two groups have always been mortal enemies.

Truth is as variable on the Middle East battlefield as the ever-shifting allegiances. Barfi’s tale of how Sotloff met his fate is at the least a powerful warning against the expedience of Obama’s plan for a proxy war.

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