mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
The Wages of Inaction In Syria


More Westerners are participating in Syria’s civil war than ever fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia according to intelligence officials who spoke to the New York Times. Some worrisome statistics:

Classified estimates from Western intelligence services and unclassified assessments from government and independent experts put the number of fighters from Europe, North America and Australia who have entered Syria since 2011 at more than 600. That represents about 10 percent of the roughly 6,000 foreign fighters who have poured into Syria by way of the Middle East and North Africa.

Most of the Westerners are self-radicalized and are traveling on their own initiative to Turkey, where rebel facilitators often link them up with specific groups, terrorism experts say. Many have joined ranks with the Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front, which American officials have designated as a terrorist group.

The longer this miserable, bloody war drags on, the more trained and radicalized jihadis will return to Middle Eastern and Western countries. We will then have a whole generation in which to contemplate the consequences of our inaction in Syria.

[Khalidiyah district in Homs on July 28, 2013, courtesy Getty Images.]

Features Icon
show comments
  • Thirdsyphon

    This criticism seems off-base. North Americans and Europeans can and have gone off to join Jihadi causes in any country where such a war is underway. This was well-known to have been the case during the Iraq War in particular, to the point where it became a major plot point in Season 1 of the popular cable drama, “Sleeper Cell.”

    In the larger scheme of things, 600 more people receiving such training in Syria is hardly alarming.

    • LivingRock

      The NYT article actually cites “The scale of this is completely different from what we’ve experienced in the past”. Even as compared to Iraq.

      Down playing the consequences of real issues is a common excuse these days for foreign policy inaction.

      • Thirdsyphon

        A good reminder to always check primary sources, but doing so doesn’t help your argument that America should get involved in Syria. Per the article, “Only about a dozen Americans have so far gone to fight in Syria, according to American intelligence officials,” one of whom died in Syria and another of whom is already facing charges.
        Sorry, but as a justification for a new foreign war, this just isn’t that compelling.

        • LivingRock

          Well, the number is 600 people from Europe and North America. I think it’s fair to lump Western fighters in with Western policies of inaction.

          Is this, of itself, justification for a new foreign war? I’m not sure, but I don’t think anybody or WRM is proposing a new war. But, it is interesting to see the consequences of inaction in Syria. An argument against action is that it will radicalize the local populace by intervening. Well, inaction in this case seems to be creating a hub for radicalization.

          • Thirdsyphon

            It’s fair to characterize Syria as an emerging hub for radicalization, I suppose, but it’s not as though there was a conspicuous lack of such places before all this. Also, as long as it remains impossible to completely deprive Hezbullah and al-Qaida of places to send their fledgling jihadis for combat experience, there’s a part of me that finds a certain guilty satisfaction in the notion of these two despicable groups sending troops against *each other*, as is increasingly the case in the Syrian conflict.

          • rheddles

            “inaction in this case seems to be creating a hub for radicalization.”

            Inaction creates things? You might want to rethink this. Inaction might embolden radicals, but it doesn’t create them.

            And if WRM isn’t calling for war, what is he calling for? Supplying arms to one set of thugs to use against another set of thugs so that the thug who prevails can use them against us?

            What is causing all this is the inability of MENA to deal with modernity. I prefer containment and the way to start is to stay out.

    • Kavanna

      It will be consequential. In the 1980s, the Afghan war didn’t feature many outside jihadis fighting (contrary to myth), just raising money. It then took another almost-decade for the real consequences to be felt, because the Taliban weren’t able to take over Afghanistan until 1996. It also took time for a jihadi structure to take shape in western countries.

      That structure is now there — no wait time. The other factor is whether al-Nusra can set up a statelet, like the Taliban-istan of 1996-2002. If it can, the consequences will be rapid.

      • Thirdsyphon

        An excellent point, but if the U.S. were to intervene in Syria to overthrow Assad, it would mean actively aligning ourselves with groups like al-Nusra. . or at the very least aligning ourselves with groups allied with al-Nusra. Any weapons we provide to such groups will find their way into the hands of their al-Qaida backers with, to borrow your phrase, no wait time.
        Although I deplore the humanitarian crisis that’s unfolding in Syria today, I can’t see my way clear to finding a reason for the U.S. to support either side in this conflict. In what looks increasingly like a proxy war fought between al-Qaida and a bloody dictator backed by Moscow and Tehran, the only rational American response would have to be “no thank you.”

  • rheddles

    If we had effective border security and passport control, this would merely be the self identification of wackos like Maj. Hasan or the Tsarnaevs. These wannabe jihadists are going to try to do whatever they can regardless of what we do in Syria. The question is what we will do here to stop them. And getting involved in Syria might have inflamed them more than inaction.

    • Kavanna

      Yes, effective border control is the key, if we want to avoid having to intervene directly into Syria. That effective control must include profiling. Anything else is a waste of time and resources. The Israelis do this and so do the Europeans, more discreetly.

      The same people who so bitterly complained about the Iraq war (and the Afghan war, to an extent) are also opposed to profiling. They don’t get that effective defensive measures at home are the sensible alternative to intervening over there.

  • cubanbob

    Unless there is a consensus among the Western Powers to send in a sufficiently large invasion force in to Syria to occupy and restructure the country and execute every foreign Jihadi found there is no point in getting involved.

  • bpuharic

    And what action would that be? To arm Al Qaida in Syria? Long on generalities. Short on specifics.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service