Unless America addresses the chaos Assad has run, it can’t stop the rise of jihadism in Syria.”>
Warfare and diplomacy are intrinsically connected, except when it comes to the Obama administrations policy on Syria. While a negotiated settlement remains the only viable pathway out of the Syrian crisis, currently existing facts on the ground do not in any way allow for a meaningful process, let alone a solution. As matters stand, there is no reason for Bashar al-Assad to view a political process as anything less than a game in which to taunt and kill his adversaries, while compelling his allies to double-down in defense of his regime.
Nevertheless, the principal philanthropist of Assads survival is not Assad , nor Russia, Iran, Hezbollah or even ISISit is Al-Qaeda. Having spent the past five years embedding itself within broader revolutionary forces and strategically choosing to limit and very slowly reveal its radical face, Al-Qaedas Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is reaping the rewards of our failures to solve the Syrian crisis. According to sources close to the group, al-Nusra has accepted more than 3,000 Syrians from Idlib and southern Aleppo into its ranks since February alone. That is an extraordinary rate of recruitment from within a territory roughly the size of Connecticut.
It is urgently unfortunate and painfully ironic that for increasing numbers of Syrians, Al-Qaeda appears to have been a more loyal defender 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 induced Al-Qaedas growth. Even our struggle against ISIS has provided an opening for Al-Qaeda, which exploits the fact that most of our chosen anti-ISIS partners preserve 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.
Enough is enough. It is not sufficient to wait for a new administration in 2017. Events are unfolding too quickly and ISIS is far from the only issue needing urgent resolve. Based on its current trajectory, the conflict in Syria will almost certainly continue and indeed worsen, lasting for a decade or more. Extremists on each side will benefit the most, entailing we will face an Afghanistan on steroids, on Europes 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.
While it remains feasible to defeat ISIS in Syria independently from attempts to solve the countrys broader crisis, Al-Qaedas fate is intrinsically linked to the conflicts outcome and how it aims. Moreover, unlike ISIS, undermining and ultimately defeating Al-Qaeda in Syria cannot and should not be done primarily through military means. Russia has consistently pushed for a bilateral campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra alongside the U.S. Air Force and though this is still some way off from being realise, it is being actively considered by President Obama. Far from being helpful, this is precisely the wrong thing to do. Jabhat al-Nusras entire modus operandi has been designed to insure itself and ultimately benefit from just such a scenario.
At the end of the day, Al-Qaeda has increasingly thrived in Syria due in part to two realities: consistent conflict, instability and the regimes unchallenged mass killing of civilians; and an insufficiently supported mainstream, moderate civil, political and armed opposition. If and when reversed, these two factors could come to represent Al-Qaedas greatest and likely crippling vulnerabilities.
To challenge the first reality, the U.S. have a chance to grasp back some credibility by prioritizing a identified and if necessary, aggressive protection of civilians. Whether through the creation of limited safe or no-bombing zones along border areas, or through the use of punitive strikes to penalise the bombing of civilian, humanitarian or medical facilities, the U.S. must demonstrate a willingness to draw more discernibly upon its might to penalise war crimes. An escalatory menu of softer optionsexpanded sanctions, naval interdictions in the Mediterranean, or challenging Syrias role within the UN General Assemblycould be considered prior to military action, although these take time, which we do not necessarily have.
While military action does indeed carry with it risks, pre-warning Moscow of such plans would minimise any opportunity of counter-escalation, while realistically, Russia has absolutely no interest in , nor a capability for penetrated into a war with America. It is long past time to call Vladimir Putins bluff. After all, beyond its aggressive military actions in Syria, Russias biggest investment has arguably been in exploiting its bilateral relationship with the U.S. in an attempt to acquire an outward appearance as a constructive partner in solving Syria. Russia will not be shooting down American jets or cruise missiles anytime soon, especially if our targets are non-critical regime infrastructure.
Consequently, by employing protecting civilians as a mechanism for limited and targeted aerial intervention, the U.S. would simultaneously contribute towards saving human lives; de-escalating the most deadly aspect of Syrias conflict and a more stable surrounding in which the moderate civil opposition could thrive. Most importantly, the Assad regime will lose its principal source of escalation, while its backers will face less reason to stand so aggressively by his side. Paired with hard diplomacy, such conditions would be at least more potentially favorable to lead towards meaningful negotiations. In September 2013, simply the risk of being limited punitive U.S. strikes sparked a temporary collapse of regime confidence in Damascus, as dozens of figures fled to Beirut with their families. It is by no means unthinkable that a similar situation could be replicated.
To challenge the second reality, the U.S. must be recognised that while the vetted opposition is far from perfect, they remain the best and merely viable option on the table for securing a mainstream Sunni Arab role in Syrias future and undermining Al-Qaedas pseudo-revolutionary narration. There are currently at least 50 such vetted opposition cliques across Syria, who have received assistance through the CIAs covert Timber Sycamore program since late-2 012. Such assistance had recently ever been enough for each faction to sustain a role within Syrias complex conflict dynamics. That it has never been sufficient enough to produce genuine moderate opposition dominance is exactly what has allowed Al-Qaeda to step in so strongly. To continue our current policy of just-enough support to the vetted moderate opposition means nothing short of indirectly enabling Al-Qaedas continued growth.
This must change. While weaker than some conservative Islamists, all 50 vetted opposition cliques remain deeply rooted within the exact Syrian communities we need most to repudiate radical alternatives. Using external force to combat Al-Qaeda will feed the jihadist groups existing narrative, as occurred in late-2 014 when U.S. strikes against its forces were quickly labelled by the opposition as counter-revolutionary for they served only to weaken opposition lines against the regime. Allowing Assad and his external backers to take the fight to Al-Qaeda would likely have even worse mobilizing consequences. The only solution is local and the mainstream, moderate opposition is the only game in town. But the only feasible scenario in which such forces can and would take on their long-time military friend of convenience is if we seemed more assertively on-side in challenging the Assad regimes continued brutality and obduracy in the face of an internationally-backed political process.
Al-Qaeda is not a problem that can be simply contained in Syria. At its current rate of growth, it could feasibly command close to 20,000 fighters by the time a new President steps into the Oval Office. Moreover, the establishment of an Islamic Emirate in northwestern Syria is now very much on the cards. Its creation will bring the coming into force of complex and centralized foreign assault planning, from Europes doorstep. Letting Syria burn itself out while trying to contain its consequences is not only a fantastical policy, but an astonishingly dangerous one.
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