Trump’s War in Syria

Incoming US administration must draw a red line between al Qaeda and US-backed rebels, say analysts

US President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration must consider the far-reaching consequences of allowing US-backed opposition forces to work with al Qaeda in Syria, Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said at the Atlantic Council on January 12.

Policy should not be dictated simply by whether or not a particular extremist group poses an immediate threat to the United States, said Lister. Rather, “there is a broader interest-based assessment that needs to be made,” he said. Because al Qaeda was not countered from the outset of the conflict in Syria, its extremist ideology has become normalized within the opposition, and they are now far more dangerous to the United States, Lister added.

Lister joined Jennifer Cafarella, the lead intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War; Faysal Itani, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East; Hassan Hassan, resident fellow at the Tahrir Center for Middle East Policy; and Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, president and co-founder of People Demand Change LLP, to discuss the launch of their recent report—Combating al-Qaeda in Syria: a Strategy for the Next Administration—published by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Margaret Brennan, foreign affairs and White House correspondent with CBS News, moderated the conversation.

While the international community focused on the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, established stronger ties with the Syrian people and moderate US-backed opposition groups. Where ISIS ceded territory, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has filled the gap, said Hassan.  

What it has done is make fringe extremist ideas a part of the mainstream, said Itani. Their influence does not simply pose a threat to the US homeland in the form of an isolated attack, but because it normalizes extremism, he added.

Cafarella contended that US engagement in the conflict in Syria, particularly combating al Qaeda, is necessary to protect national security interests from the proliferation of extremism.

“Syria is not simply a civil war that is tangential to American interests,” said Cafarella. “Syria is now the battleground on which regional and global struggles for power is being fought.”

As Trump transitions into office, he must consider not only the larger implications of the outcome of the conflict in Syria, but the complexity of the problem at hand. According to Cafarella, “the real question is not whether Syria should be on the top of the new administration’s agenda, but whether all of these regional and global issues are in fact well understood and well understood in terms of how they are being played out in this particular battlespace in former Syrian territory.”

Though the outgoing Obama administration did not see enough reasons in Syria to take more definitive action against al Qaeda, the incoming administration should consider the far-reaching implications of allowing the extremist group to continue working within the Syrian opposition, said Lister.

Trump will be inaugurated on January 20. Representatives from the incoming administration have been invited to take part in Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, on January 23. Russian officials will also be present, indicating the potential for cooperation between the White House and the Kremlin with regard to the war on radical extremism.

In her introductory remarks, Nancy Okail, executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said “the situation was not inevitable,” but the lack of international intervention in the Syrian civil war created a vacuum “ultimately providing an opportunity for al Qaeda to establish a strong presence in Syria.”

“There is a new generation of Syrian children that is growing up in al Qaeda-held territories with that as the norm,” said Cafarella. She said this dynamic poses a long-term threat of a large-scale attack on the United States. “This is something that, not having done more in Syria, we have allowed to fester and develop,” Lister added.

However, the dynamics within the conflict complicate the prospect of a response. According to Hassan, al Qaeda affiliates in Syria “are more than a terrorist organization.” Jabhat Fateh al-Sham members are insurgents, members of a social group, and “part of Syrian society as well,” he said. Hassan described how “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has employed various methods and tactics to ensure that it is very close to the Syrian community in which it works.”

All panelists agreed that there must be a greater use of US military force with a focus on protecting the civilian population. According to Lister, protecting civilians is paramount because “al Qaeda has very little leverage over local populations in times of stability.” Hassan said that extremist groups do not function based on the number of their fighters, but by their effect on the population.

“If there is any potential to uproot or belittle the narratives that al Qaeda has latched on to in Syria [it] is to make sure they don’t have a military conflict to use,” said Lister. Ghosh-Siminoff described how the Assad regime, through killings, disappearances, and arrests of peaceful activists, backed the opposition into the corner of a violent conflict. In this way, “the Assad regime has created constraints as to who has come to the forefront of leadership for the opposition,” he said.

“As long as there is a lack of population protection and a lack of governance answers, there will be this vacuum, and it will be occupied by extremists,” said Itani. “As long as these people cannot protect themselves and govern themselves, the field is wide open,” he added.

In 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with Russia and the Assad regime. The agreement was based on trust, however, Lister said that there is no trust among any actors in the conflict. As a result, the ceasefire failed.

According to Hassan, every time the international community tried an approach to ending the conflict which proved unsuccessful, al Qaeda manipulated the circumstances to bolster its own credibility. He said “whatever needs to be done needs to be done now… and needs to be done in a way that works.”

Though the situation has changed since the United States was in a position to assume a primary role, said Lister, “there are certainly still things the United States can do.”

Ghosh-Siminoff called for the United States to take its turn “in the driver’s seat,” and establish a leadership role in Syria. Cafarella said that the United States must act because regional actors, such as Turkey and Iran, have different priorities, and therefore cannot be counted upon to enforce a solution consistent with US interests. 

“The United States’ biggest potential right now is in the diplomatic arena,” said Lister.

According to Itani, the United States should “resume negotiations that have been ongoing over ceasefires… but this time do it with the credible threat of force,” ideally with help from Russia, but if not, “through clear and transparent rules of engagement.” Itani said the United States cannot depend on goodwill to ensure the success of a cessation of hostilities.

However, Trump’s desire for better relations with Russia could complicate the credible use of force against Assad, said Brennan.

While the international community must intervene, as was learned in Iraq, ultimately “only social antibodies [within Syria] can eject these organizations,” said Hassan. The United States should be concerned with protecting Syria’s democratic assets and “transform [moderate opposition groups] in such a way as they turn into antibodies against extremism.”

“Until this is achieved,” added Ghosh-Siminoff, “the United States will not have achieved our national security objectives with regard to al Qaeda.”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: From left: Margaret Brennan, foreign affairs and White House correspondent with CBS News, moderates a discussion with Faysal Itani, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. (Atlantic Council)