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“We Are Going To Wipe the Floor With Them”

On the subject of the Syrian civil war, many Americans maintain that the best the US can possibly do is stay well away — in part because of the lack of clear direction from the top, but also because there are no good guys to support in Syria. Or rather, as Jonathan Spyer told us on our podcast in February, the good guys who could have used our support didn’t get it in time, and it’s too late to empower them now.

An ideal scenario, it is argued, would be for the bad guys to be so focused on destroying one other that they leave Western interests alone. They do seem preoccupied with their own antagonism, so much so that they are not waiting for the fall of Assad to mix it up. Last Thursday, the al-Qaida strain of the rebellion assassinated Kamal Hamami, a top commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA is calling the attack a declaration of war. ”We will not let them get away with it…we are going to wipe the floor with them,” said a senior FSA commander.

Hamami (aka Abu Bassir al-Ladkani) was killed at a checkpoint in the Turkmen mountains in Latakia, on the Turkish border, while on a surveillance mission. The al-Qaida-linked people who killed him, members of a group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), declared in true Wild West fashion that there wasn’t room in Latakia for the both of them.

The attack was unambiguous and brazen: Abu Ayman al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s Emir of the coastal region, shot Hamami and his brother to death, then sent a third person traveling with the Hamamis to deliver the message that the FSA are considered heretics and its Supreme Council will henceforward be expressly targeted by al-Qaida.

They also put in a phone call. “The Islamic State phoned me saying that they killed Abu Bassir and that they will kill all of the Supreme Military Council,” a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, Qassem Saadeddine, told Reuters. The FSA demanded that ISIL hand over al-Baghdadi within 24 hours or face “justice”. The 24 hours passed without incident.

This is hardly the first assault by al-Qaida on the FSA. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime monitoring organization, has recorded other instances of attacks, including the beheading of an FSA member in Idlib. The FSA and al-Qaida have also cooperated, however, and will likely continue to do so when the expediency of fighting regime forces outweighs the opportunity to stick it to each other. As long as that cooperation continues, American concerns about US arms or aid ending up in al-Qaida hands seem well founded.

Still, it’s difficult to feel particularly sanguine, whether we help the rebels or not. The FSA is behind the eight ball: it can’t defeat Assad without Western help, which is coming in much more slowly and reluctantly than Gulf help for the Islamists; it can’t defeat Assad without cooperating at least on occasion with those same Islamists (who have vowed ultimately to turn their sights on the FSA); and it can’t convince the Western powers to provide unstinting support unless such cooperation ceases.

Al-Qaida, by contrast, is on the ascendant in Syria. Michael Totten’s argument — that we should wait until Assad falls and then supply the FSA so they can fight al-Qaida effectively — makes sense, but the surprising durability of the Assad regime continues to work in al-Qaida’s interest. Al-Qaida’s object, as we know, is nothing less than the disintegration of existing nation-state boundaries and the imposition of one vast Islamic nation across the Middle East. We can stay out of the Syrian mire for the time being, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have one hell of a battle to fight down the road.

  1. Devereaux

    I have contended, and continue to hold the same view, that the arabic portion of the Mideast is basically tribal. Here we see yet another such tribal rivalry.

    In a tribal war, the allegiance is to the tribe – over all. I very much doubt that anything we do now will make any difference to our interests, and so there is little reason to spend our gold. Let them fight. As long as they want or can. They have only been doing just that for the last 1,000+ years.

  2. Valiuth

    It seems to me that if Syria splits into 3 official factions that makes out job easier. 

    Devereaux: I think you are missing something here. Al’ Queda thrives on broken states. They can easily carve up a piece of territory to set up camps and plan attack abroad. Then we will be forced to go in an root them out any way like we did in Afghanistan. Why let them set up to begin with? 

    Again if we worry about pumping weapons into the system, we wouldn’t have to if we decide to just wiled them ourselves. A Serious bombing campaign could grind Assad to a halt. We can at the same time use drones to target Al Queda types. 

    Basically I see the situation as only getting worse and worse for us and our interests the longer the war festers. In the end when we feel forced to act our only course will be military and it will have to be big to be effective. The longer we wait I think the more we will have to pay down the line one way or another. 

  3. Nick Stuart

    As the parent of two active duty Army soldiers, my view is that whoever thinks we need to get involved in Syria should send their children, not mine.

  4. Jerry Carroll

    Having extricated ourselves from Iraq and in the process of doing the same in Afghanistan, why should we go looking for another bog to sink ourselves into for years to come? The Israelis are the clearest-eyed people in that region and they are rejiggering their military for the next wars. They will have fewer tanks, more IT and a nimbler anti-guerrilla war capability. This tells me they see their various enemies will be weaker because of the tribal wars breaking out all over. This will keep the participants busy for years to come. If the Europeans want to get their hands dirty for a change, let them. It’s our turn on the sidelines. To give him his due, I think Obama sees this as well.

  5. BrentB67

    If Syria breaks into tribal regions or if al queda sets up shop we should still stay out of it.

    The second al queda steps a toe outside the borders and remotely appear to threaten us or our interest we decimate the entire region. No humanitarian food drops, nation or school building – relentless, merciless destruction and then leave in haste.

    We have tried to build democracy and public schools on swamps when we can’t manage our own democracy or school system.

    Let them kill each other. Not our problem.

  6. Yeah...ok.
    BrentB67: If Syria breaks into tribal regions or if al queda sets up shop we should still stay out of it.

    The second al queda steps a toe outside the borders and remotely appear to threaten us or our interest we decimate the entire region. No humanitarian food drops, nation or school building – relentless, merciless destruction and then leave in haste.

    We have tried to build democracy and public schools on swamps when we can’t manage our own democracy or school system.

    Let them kill each other. Not our problem. · 12 minutes ago

    Indeed

  7. HVTs
    Byron Horatio: And our interests are what exactly?

    Let’s call them goals . . . not necessarily in order:

    1.  Muslim hostility toward Israel remains below the level of force-on-force warfare.

    2.  Islamists die fighting one another for as long as possible – preferably measured in decades.

    3.  The Alawite grip on the Iranian client-state of Syria gradually comes undone.

    4.  Outside of distinct enclaves no Sunni or Shi’ite faction ever feels secure in post-Assad Syria (see goal #2).  Basically, we want a Balkanized Syria.

    5.  Iran spends vast sums of money and manpower in a failed effort to shore up its Alawite clients.

    6. Russia spends vast sums of money in a failed effort to shore up its Alawite clients.

    7.  By successfully enabling proxy forces in Syria, Sunni regimes friendly to the US gain confidence in their ability to thwart Iranian ambitions.

    8. Attrition of Hezbollah’s most ardent and capable warfighters, who have deployed away from Israel’s northern border hopefully never to return.

    9. Egypt remains sidelined, internally focused.

  8. HVTs
    billy: … why don’t we just arm Assad if he agrees to cut his ties to Iran?

    Because we don’t want Syria under unified control.  We want it to be where Sunni and Shiite factions bleed out. I don’t say that happily … simply as a realist.

    Muslim sectarian extremists have been unable to control or moderate their hatreds in some 1400 years.  We can’t change them and it’s no longer our responsibility to try.  That infantile hope brought us Iraq and Afghanistan. No more Americans should die pursuing that false hope.

    What good we accomplished in Afghanistan (debatable) is not sustainable at a cost we are willing to pay.  So it will be reversed by those who have time on their side (and sanctuary in Pakistan).  Iraq? Arguably the biggest winner was Iran.  The sectarian violence continues on … wish them luck.

    What unity Shia and Sunni extremists exhibit extends as far as killing us or our allies.  Why shouldn’t we prefer that they direct their murderous pathologies toward one another, rather than us and our friends?  It’s a phase the Muslim world must go through and we are powerless to stop it.

  9. billy
    HVTs

    What unity Shia and Sunni extremists exhibit extends as far as killing us or our allies.  Why shouldn’t we prefer that they direct their murderous pathologies toward one another, rather than us and our friends?  It’s a phase the Muslim world must go through and we are powerless to stop it. · 0 minutes ago

    I was being somewhat facetious. Honestly, I think our best long term strategy for the Middle East as a whole is to frack like mad here in the U.S.

  10. Devereaux
    Valiuth: It seems to me that if Syria splits into 3 official factions that makes out job easier. 

    Devereaux: I think you are missing something here. Al’ Queda thrives on broken states. They can easily carve up a piece of territory to set up camps and plan attack abroad. Then we will be forced to go in an root them out any way like we did in Afghanistan. Why let them set up to begin with? 

    Sorry, I’ve been at work and unable to respond.

    Al Queda is itself tribal. It will be where its tribes are, whether we like it or not. Setting up camps implies physical presence and we sh0uld be able to see those, especially in a place like Syria – not particularly mountainous.

    Other than getting carried away with “concerns” over alQueda, I see no real benefits in Syria. Explain to me any OTHER usefulness to Syria than this fixation with alQueda. So far all I’ve seen there is that both sides are doing a fine job of getting their behinds kicked. ALL of them are losers.

  11. Starve the Beast
    BrentB67: If Syria breaks into tribal regions or if al queda sets up shop we should still stay out of it.

    The second al queda steps a toe outside the borders and remotely appear to threaten us or our interest we decimate the entire region. No humanitarian food drops, nation or school building – relentless, merciless destruction and then leave in haste.

    We have tried to build democracy and public schools on swamps when we can’t manage our own democracy or school system.

    Let them kill each other. Not our problem. · 6 hours ago

    Sheesh… where to start?

    “The second Qaeda steps a toe outside the borders… we decimate the entire region… relentless, merciless destruction…”

    So the next time they fly planes into our buildings, or set off nukes in our cities, or God knows what, we retaliate by slaughtering the millions of innocent people they’re hiding behind? Which, incidentally, would leave the ringleaders untouched, free to plan their next move? And hand them a massive propaganda victory?

    Really?

  12. billy

    If we really want to be Machiavellian, why don’t we just arm Assad if he agrees to cut his ties to Iran?

  13. Zafar

    No point repeating history if the outcome the first time round wasn’t that great.

  14. Byron Horatio

    And our interests are what exactly?