Paul Pillar

A Terrorist Haven in Syria?

As the Syrian civil war spun up and drew in radicals on the anti-government side, worries mounted in the West, to the point now of front-page attention in the New York Times, about a new extremist haven being established in Syria. How should we approach this problem? One way we definitely should not approach it, which unfortunately has been all too common in overall discourse about the Syrian civil war, is to feel we must “do something”—anything—in response to our concerns. A more sober approach is to break the problem down into some constituent parts, each with an associated question.

One question concerns exactly what is the danger we are worried about. The concept of a physical safe haven is one of the more overrated components of a presumed terrorist threat. In a globalized era, a patch of physical real estate has not proven to be one of the more important variables determining the degree of such a threat—and is less important than exploitable grievances in a target population. Preparations for significant terrorist attacks—including the big one, 9/11—have not been confined to such a patch or depended on control of one.

Even if a physical haven contributes to the strength of a terrorist group, it is a fungible commodity. We used to talk more about Afghanistan as the critical place in this regard. Today there is more worry about Yemen, and more talk about a shift of the center of our fears from South Asia to there. Maybe some fear a shift from Yemen to Syria. If Syria were somehow brought under control, why wouldn't there be further shifts elsewhere?

Even if we agree that precluding any physical haven for a terrorist group is preferable, the next question is what measures are available to the United States and how effective would they be in promoting that objective. The United States cannot determine the outcome of the Syrian civil war, short of large-scale military intervention that would be beyond the tolerance of the American public as well as being unacceptably costly in other respects and still would not achieve lasting positive effects. Arguments that smaller forms of interference in the war would be enough to determine its outcome are based on multiple forms of wishful thinking. It is unrealistic to think that in the disorganized and ever-shifting Syrian opposition landscape, in which weapons often change owners and fighters often change primary allegiances, it is somehow possible to aid good rebels while vetting out the bad ones. It is also unrealistic to think that something like aid in the form of materiel buys moderation or buys gratitude.

Even if the course of the war were more subject to outside manipulation, a further question is what outcome of the war would be best with regard to the incipient terrorist haven we are supposed to be worried about. In the short term probably the best outcome in that respect would be prompt re-establishment of control by the Assad regime. Over the longer term rule by a brutal autocracy with a narrow sectarian identity would not be good for counterterrorism, but that does not mean the most likely alternative would necessarily be any better. A lesson is provided by Libya, where enough time has passed since the ouster of Muammar Qadhafi to demonstrate how the new order may not be much of an order at all but a form of disorder that provides more operating space for violent groups than there was before.

Regardless of the nature of the regime, the United States can consider unilateral means of trying to attack would-be terrorist havens, especially with drones. Here the most relevant lesson is in Yemen, where, as Gregory Johnsen explains, the net counterterrorist effect of the drone strikes has probably been negative, owing to the resentment and revenge that the strikes have incurred.

A broader question concerns the overall strategy to apply to whatever terrorist threat does emanate from Syria. Fareed Zakaria has the right idea, after rejecting counterinsurgency and more focused kinetic methods such as the drones, in recommending a third approach: “to try to get local governments to fight the terrorists.” Zakaria acknowledges that some of the very places we are concerned about are in large part ungovernable, yet points out:

The best policy in the long run would be to shift the struggle over to locals, who can most effectively win a long war against militants in territory they know better than any outsiders. It also shifts the struggle over to Muslims, who can most effectively battle al-Qaeda in the realm of ideas.

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