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Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the author of “The Syrian Jihad,” has written an article in the Daily Beast warning that the growth of al Qaeda in Syria is a problem that can’t wait for the next administration. “The principal benefactor of Assad’s survival is not Assad, nor Russia, Iran, Hezbollah or even ISIS,” he writes. “[I]t is Al Qaeda.” Lister has been warning for some time now that Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an affiliate of al-Qaida, will be more difficult to uproot than ISIS. Even if Americans aren’t paying much attention, the United States and its allies are now in an urgent battle for influence with Nusra, which is the most effective and successful al Qaeda affiliate to date.
On Wednesday, Putin and Obama agreed to a proposal for coordinated action against al Qaeda in Syria, involving enhanced intelligence sharing about its positions. Lister believes this is exactly the wrong approach — the polar opposite of the right approach. “Jabhat al-Nusra’s entire modus operandi has been designed to insure itself and ultimately benefit from just such a scenario,” he writes.
He argues that the opposition groups Russia has targeted since September 2015 are the only actors on the ground capable of challenging al Qaeda’s influence among Sunni Arabs. The Assad regime remains, overwhelmingly, responsible for the continued mass killings, destruction, and chaos. Coordination between the US and Russia, he believes, will only serve as an al Qaeda recruitment tool. It will entrench Assad, and we will be seen as supporting him, fueling Al Qaeda’s narrative.
It is desperately unfortunate and painfully ironic that for increasing numbers of Syrians, Al-Qaeda appears to have been a more loyal protector of their lives than the United States. Civilian protection is therefore key, and widespread perceptions of the moral bankruptcy of U.S. policy on Syria in this regard has unquestionably and directly stimulated Al-Qaeda’s growth. Even our fight against ISIS has provided an opening for Al-Qaeda, which exploits the fact that most of our chosen anti-ISIS partners maintain an ambiguous relationship to the Assad regime and an open one with Russia. Our fight against the scourge of ISIS is indeed securing us consistent gains, but these are tactical gains fought in such a way as to produce long-term secondary sources of instability that Al-Qaeda will chiefly exploit.
Events are unfolding too quickly, he argues, for us to wait for a new administration in 2017 to respond.
Based on its current trajectory, the conflict in Syria will almost certainly continue and indeed worsen, lasting for a decade or more. Extremists on all sides will benefit the most, meaning we will face an Afghanistan on steroids, on Europe’s borders. ISIS may be defeated territorially in the near-term, but it will live to fight another day. Al-Qaeda meanwhile may come to represent a terrorist actor far more intelligent, more deeply rooted and offensively capable than anything we have faced until now.
He argues that we should instead immediately and aggressively prioritize the protection of civilians in Syria, be it though creating limited no-bombing zones in border areas, using punitive strikes to punish the bombing of civilians and hospitals, expanded sanctions, and naval interdictions in the Mediterranean. What of the argument that this could put us in direct conflict with Russia? He doesn’t believe it will happen: “It is long past time to call Vladimir Putin’s bluff,” he writes.
The only way to excise the al Qaeda tumor, he holds, is through the vetted Syrian opposition. There are at least 50 vetted factions in Syria that have received American assistance since 2012; Lister believes our assistance has been insufficient to allow them to dominate, and this is why al Qaeda has been able to rise. “To continue our current policy of providing ‘just-enough’ support to the vetted moderate opposition means nothing short of indirectly enabling Al-Qaeda’s continued growth.”
By the time a new president takes power, he warns, al Qaeda could have 20,000 fighters and a base, on Europe’s doorstep, for planning foreign attacks. “Letting Syria burn itself out while trying to contain its consequences is not only a fantastical policy, but an astonishingly dangerous one,” he concludes.
He is probably right. It is depressing to contemplate.Published in