Warfare and diplomacy are intrinsically linked, except when it comes to the Obama administration’s 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 things 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 benefactor of Assad’s survival is not Assad, nor Russia, Iran, Hezbollah or even ISIS—it 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 extremist face, Al-Qaeda’s 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 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.
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 resolution. 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.
While it remains feasible to defeat ISIS in Syria independently from attempts to solve the country’s broader crisis, Al-Qaeda’s fate is intrinsically linked to the conflict’s outcome and how it ends. 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 realized, it is being actively considered by President Obama. Far from being helpful, this is precisely the wrong thing to do. Jabhat al-Nusra’s 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 regime’s 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-Qaeda’s greatest and likely crippling vulnerabilities.
To challenge the first reality, the U.S. has an opportunity to grasp back some credibility by prioritizing a determined 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 punish the bombing of civilian, humanitarian or medical facilities, the U.S. must demonstrate a willingness to draw more discernibly upon its might to punish war crimes. An escalatory menu of ‘softer’ options—expanded sanctions, naval interdictions in the Mediterranean, or challenging Syria’s role within the UN General Assembly—could 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 minimize any chance of counter-escalation, while realistically, Russia has absolutely no interest in, nor a capacity for entering into a war with America. It is long past time to call Vladimir Putin’s bluff. After all, beyond its aggressive military actions in Syria, Russia’s 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 using civilian protection 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 Syria’s conflict and providing a more stable environment 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, merely the threat of 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 acknowledge that while the vetted opposition is far from perfect, they remain the best and only viable option on the table for securing a mainstream Sunni Arab role in Syria’s future and undermining Al-Qaeda’s pseudo-revolutionary narrative. There are currently at least 50 such vetted opposition factions across Syria, who have received assistance through the CIA’s covert ‘Timber Sycamore’ program since late-2012. Such assistance has only ever been enough for each faction to sustain a role within Syria’s 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 providing ‘just-enough’ support to the vetted moderate opposition means nothing short of indirectly enabling Al-Qaeda’s continued growth.
This must change. While weaker than some conservative Islamists, all 50 vetted opposition factions remain deeply rooted within the exact Syrian communities we need most to reject extremist alternatives. Using external force to combat Al-Qaeda will feed the jihadist group’s existing narrative, as occurred in late-2014 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 effects. 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 ally of convenience is if we appeared more assertively ‘on-side’ in challenging the Assad regime’s continued brutality and obduracy in the face of an internationally-backed political process.
Al-Qaeda is not a problem that can be merely 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 initiation of complex and centralized foreign attack planning, from Europe’s doorstep. Letting Syria burn itself out while trying to contain its consequences is not only a fantastical policy, but an astonishingly dangerous one.