Syria Can’t Wait Until 2017

 

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.

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  1. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Current US policy is to get out and let Sunni regional dominance collapse in favor of sectarian war and the dissolution of every national entity in the region.  It will be disaster for at least a generation but the important thing is that it will be the fault of whatever US policies (in place for decades) preceded Obama.

    The idea of establishing a functional multi-sect, multi-ethnic democracy in Iraq as a model for the future of the region was intentionally pissed away largely because it was Bush’s legacy and precipitous withdrawal polled well.

    Old-fashioned Cold War style interventions by supporting one faction against another are too little too late.  There would need to be a massive seizure of territory by militarily superior good guys, resettlement and massive foreign aid to achieve any kind of stability.

    I don’t know whether ISIS/Al Qaeda is a long-term threat. Al Qaeda-type groups don’t do well once in power.  Their sole value is that their fanaticism is effective against Bathist-style dictatorships and gives alienated young men an instant opportunity for war. They can continue to exist only so long as the rest of the world acts (or fails to act) to keep the region in chaos.

    • #1
  2. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    And then there’s:

    Forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad claimed to have severed the last rebel supply line to Aleppo last night in what would be a devastating blow to the Syrian opposition.

    • #2
  3. Columbo Member
    Columbo
    @Columbo

    It is most certainly depressing. But I question why it can’t wait. The Syrian war has been going on for over three years. There are no good solutions and 0bama/hillary/heinz-kerry have only made it worse over the years. If every option is bad, why not choose the path of least resistance – complete disengagement? Let the House of Saud and the EU deal with it.

    In January, the Brookings Institute said that there are no good options for Syria. And nothing has changed since then. It’s terrible. And the very idea of “vetted” partners? Vetted by whom? John Heinz-Kerry?! There are no good actors in Syria.

    There is no Hollywood ending. Why should Syria be such a priority for the next President of America?

    • #3
  4. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Zafar:And then there’s:

    Forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad claimed to have severed the last rebel supply line to Aleppo last night in what would be a devastating blow to the Syrian opposition.

    And this. The Syria Trump and Clinton Aren’t Talking About.

    • #4
  5. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Who knew Obama was using it as a how-to guide.

    Seawriter

    • #5
  6. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    There are two things here:

    Al Nusra (Al Qaeda) gaining control of more sections of Syria: should we care? Probably, but ultimately not our fight. Protecting Syrians from Syrians (or any people from their own compatriots) is probably impossible beyond the short-term.

    Al Nusra (Al Qaeda) staging attacks in the West. If they have half a brain, they should know that this would set them up for a long unwinnable fight. See Taliban, ISIS etc.

    There is a scenario where they fight Assad but don’t mess with the West. Of course the best would be a negotiated settlement, soon.

    • #6
  7. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Obama has never grasped foreign policy, the peace through strength thought process, and has been ok with letting others do the dirty work – except the others are Russia with different intentions. Our military, and intelligence services have been bled dry financially, soldiers have less to work with which puts them further in harm’s way, Obama doesn’t seem to take the advice of the experts and he’s drawing his presidency to a close – he is more focused on endorsing transgenders serving openly in the military and other important issues like that – he can’t leave soon enough – and I believe Hilary will be an extension of these same policies – may be worse – since she can’t distinguish classified from unclassified information.

    Not to get off subject, Claire- but hope to hear about book updates, kitty and travels soon – miss the projects stories!

    • #7
  8. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Front Seat Cat: Not to get off subject, Claire- but hope to hear about book updates, kitty and travels soon – miss the projects stories!

    You will!

    • #8
  9. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Zafar:And then there’s:

    Forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad claimed to have severed the last rebel supply line to Aleppo last night in what would be a devastating blow to the Syrian opposition.

    And this. The Syria Trump and Clinton Aren’t Talking About.

    Syrians that are scattered all over the world want a country – their country, history – how could things possibly get worse there? The terrorists are coming in with the refugees, the rest of the Middle East is far from stable – here’s the legacy of this president and his Secretaries of State – Next story: Syria – Why It Matters.

    Both candidates should be forced to talk about it.

    • #9
  10. Fred Cole Inactive
    Fred Cole
    @FredCole

    Al Nusra’s main adversary is ISIS, the same guys who we’ve spent the last two years hobbling. Their growth is entirely predictable.

    This is one of the problems with getting involved in other people’s civil wars. You hurt one side, you help another.

    The best thing to do is let the Syrians sort this stuff out for themselves. And if you really want to help civilians, the thing to do is to let them come to the US as refugees.

    Unfortunately, The scaremongers have left people  so terrified about ISIS and so fearful war refugees that neither thing is politically possible.

    • #10
  11. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    I find it difficult to imagine that the Obama Administration could put together and Congress support a rush overarching solution to anything anywhere, let alone this chaotic place that few understand and even fewer  share common perceptions.  The entire M.E. not to mention US foreign policy of which it would be a part needs some serious back to the drawing board thinking then serious sales job by credible US and European leaders of which there seems a very short supply.  Rescuing people, creating safe zones, seems plausible to an ignoramus like me were there serious grownups around, but if it doesn’t create short term political benefits for the Democrats,  it won’t happen.

    • #11
  12. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    Afghanistan can’t wait.  Iraq can’t wait.  Libya can’t wait.  The South China Sea can’t wait.  Missile defense in Poland can’t wait.

    Demand that Obama fix Syria too?  Good luck.

    • #12
  13. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Claire,

    We must make a quick inventory. Assad is an ordinary secular tyrant butcher. ISIS is a psychotic Jihadist organization for whom no suicide, murder or sabotage is small enough to be overlooked. They are equal opportunity genocidal maniacs. Al-Qaeda is a more upscale sophisticated brand of Jihadist genocidal maniac organization. Syria has been at the mercy of these horrors from hell for at least 5 years. They’ve slaughtered millions (help me with the latest estimate) and forced 25% of the population into exile (again please help in keeping me accurate).

    One might think that the only viable solution would be conquest of the entire country by a cosmopolitan alliance of Nations. Then to completely render Syria harmless (what a nice thought), subdivide it into sectors like Germany after WWII and place each sector under the control of a different Nation.

    Claire, I firmly believe in National Right as a fundamental a priori concept. However, it is obvious that when an entity that appears to be a Nation goes so rogue as to wholesale murder its own people then it forfeits that National Right to any force that can stop it.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #13
  14. Roberto Inactive
    Roberto
    @Roberto

    The current administration has clearly made the choice to simply ride the chaos out until their exit from office in the hope of simply dumping the whole mess into the lap of the next administration, nothing will change that.

    If the next POTUS is HRC we will almost certainly see a continuation of current policies, the coordination with Russia will deepen and there will likely be a rapprochement with Assad.

    If the next POTUS is Trump it is impossible to say what will occur. He has spoken boldly in the past of massive efforts, at one point mentioning tens of thousands of grounds troops yet also appears to be courting those who opposed Operation Iraqi Freedom.

    If the next few months are what ultimately dictates the future of the Syrian conflict then this future will be shaped without US interests being represented and the fallout will be what it will be.

    • #14
  15. Retail Lawyer Member
    Retail Lawyer
    @RetailLawyer

    This is such an important topic, yet only 14 comments so far!  Nonetheless,  thank you Claire.  The reason for relative lack of interest is that this group knows there is nothing that will alter the trajectory of the C-in-C’s glide path, as Roberto acknowledged above.  Also, as he pointed out, neither candidate deems it useful to speak about.

    Still, I’m interested.

    • #15
  16. aardo vozz Member
    aardo vozz
    @aardovozz

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: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…”

    Assad may differ.

    • #16
  17. aardo vozz Member
    aardo vozz
    @aardovozz

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    “…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…”

    This leaves me with a question: would Al Qaeda, at some point,find it in their interest to kill Syrian civilians in areas nominally protected by America and/or American-supported factions just to show that America could not protect these civilians?

    • #17
  18. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    aardo vozz:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    “…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…”

    This leaves me with a question: would Al Qaeda, at some point,find it in their interest to kill Syrian civilians in areas nominally protected by America and/or American-supported factions just to show that America could not protect these civilians?

    I don’t think that needs proving to anybody.  Obama has dedicated considerable blood and money to demonstrating just that, and in service of the same goal.

    • #18
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