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The Wages of Civil War
Al-Qaeda Makes Itself at Home in Syria

Al-Qaeda militants may be using Syria as a new launchpad for attacks on the West, having been largely driven out of Pakistan by drone strikes. Several American counterterrorism officials have warned that al-Qaeda leaders in Syria are joining forces with Muslims from Europe and the United States who have come there to fight. The New York Times reports:

“We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the Al Qaeda organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad,” John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, told a House panel recently. […]

Al Qaeda has in the past blessed the creation of local branches in places like Yemen, where an affiliate has tried to strike the United States. But the effort in Syria would signify the first time that senior Qaeda leaders had set up a wing of their own outside Pakistan dedicated to conducting attacks against the West, counterterrorism officials said. It also has the potential to rejuvenate Al Qaeda’s central command, which President Obama has described as being greatly diminished.

The Obama Administration has mostly stayed out of Syria in part because it fears that arming the rebels would help al-Qaeda. But as many people (inside the Administration and out) have been pointing out for years now, allowing the Syrian civil war to turn into a long-term, destabilizing horror was the best possible way to help al-Qaeda gain followers and bases. The polarization and hate that a long and brutal civil war engenders, along with the anarchy following a stalemate, often create the perfect breeding ground for terrorists.

We are receiving more and more confirmation that this is exactly what is happening. While so far as we know no one is advocating that the United States put boots on the ground, the current stance clearly isn’t working. Historians will look back on Obama’s Syria policy as both a moral disaster and a strategic blunder.

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  • gabrielsyme

    Let’s have a little thought experiment: what kind of advantages and disadvantages would have occurred if the West had decisively supported Assad against the rebels in Syria.

    Pro: Almost certainly a shorter and less devastating war, tens of thousands of lives saved.
    Western support might have been leveraged to limit Syrian support for Hezbollah.
    Reduction in Iranian influence on the Assad regime.
    Elimination of an al-Qaeda refuge and focus of recruitment.
    Reduction in destabilising influence on Iraq.
    Fewer refugees and concomitant stress for Lebanon, Jordan, etc.
    Sustaining of a regime that, for all its faults, has provided security and a relatively high degree of freedom to religious minorities (Christian, Druze, Alevi, Ismaili, Alawite, Twelver).
    Syria as a point of concord rather than conflict between the West and Russia.
    No collaboration with unsavoury rebel groups.

    Con: Alienation of Gulf monarchies.
    Annoying Turkey.
    Collaboration with a very unsavoury regime.
    Striking a blow for democracy in the Middle East.

    To my mind, the pros signficantly outweigh the cons. Now, perhaps practical politics would have prevented the West from so altering its policy towards Syria to the extent of substantially support Assad against the rebels. But it seems clear that it would have been the better policy. It may still be the better policy. The risk of genocidal reprisals against religious minorities should the rebels triumph is significant.

    • Andrew Allison

      Good thinking, but it’s waaay too late to change the policy. The damage is done.

    • B-Sabre

      “Collaboration with an unsavory regime” is putting it mildy. It would have made us complicit in the acts committed by that regime. The intitial act that started the rebellion was the brutal suppression of protests, following the death of several young boys guilty of writing anti-regime grafitti. Do we REALLY want to be on the side of a regime that suppresses freedom of speech with artillery fire?
      I would also note that at least 6 of your advantages would have accrued to the US if we had decisively supported the rebels early on, without annoying the Gulf monarchies or Turkey, or giving up on a “more democratic” Middle East. Put that way, the calculus would firmly have been on helping the pre-radicalized rebels topple Assad on Day One.
      Those days are far behind us now, unless the “Southern Front” option pushed from Jordan plays out.

      • gabrielsyme

        Collaboration implies not complicity but a need to act responsibly to reduce suffering and use one’s influence to stop (to whatever extent possible) the crimes committed by one’s partners. We now support the rebels: are we therefore complicit in every war crime committed by the rebels?

        A few other points: while the early days of the rebellion had a smaller contingent of radicalised rebels, we should also recognise that the Muslim Brotherhood was one of the strongest forces at that point in the rebellion, nor were other Islamists absent. As we saw in Egypt, the defeat of an autocracy by largely secularist forces does not mean governance by secularist forces – it was entirely obvious that Salafist influence would hugely increase in a post-Assad scenario.

        It seems obvious to say now, but Assad’s regime was a good deal more robust than originally expected. Decisive intervention on the side of the rebels was and is probably much more costly and difficult than decisive intervention on the side of Assad. In short, I would argue that significant support for the rebels would have been less likely to end the war early than significant support for Assad.

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