A Terrorist Haven in Syria?

Paul Pillar

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.

This does not mean the United States doing nothing. It can do a lot to affect the environment in which terrorists or would-be terrorists, in Syria or elsewhere, are either empowered or marginalized. Marc Lynch provides an insightful explanation of how the early chapters of the Arab Spring marginalized them, by effecting meaningful political change without resort to the sort of violence pitched by the extremists. Much of that beneficial effect has been undone, Lynch points out, by more recent developments such as the military coup in Egypt and the blurring of distinctions between Islamist terrorists and the Muslim Brotherhood. The implications for U.S. policy ought to be plain: construct policy toward politics and political conflicts in the Middle East that weaken, rather than strengthen, the extremist narrative. Besides policy toward the current situation in Egypt, this also involves exercising enough clout and political courage to make success possible in the just-begun negotiations to address what is the most salient issue to people across the Middle East: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Fortunately no one seems to be advocating anything like a repetition of the Iraq War, one of the chief selling points of which had to do with supposedly striking a blow against al-Qaeda-style terrorism. But lest we forget: among the enormous costs of that blunder was the creation of a haven of sorts for Islamist terrorists that did not previously exist, and the creation of a terrorist group—al-Qaeda in Iraq—that did not previously exist. The legacy of that result is being felt very directly today in the activity of extremists in Syria.

Image: Flickr/Jerzy Kociatkeiwicz. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyIdeologyPublic OpinionPost-ConflictTerrorism RegionsEgyptIraqUnited StatesSyriaMiddle East

Unfounded Interpretations of This Week's Terrorist Threat

Paul Pillar

Lots of people have been been extracting and propounding lots of conclusions about terrorism and counterterrorism from the warnings and closures of diplomatic missions the past few days. That's probably inevitable; the story commands attention. It's not every day, or even every year, that several U.S. embassies get closed like this, perhaps for as much as a week. But the factual basis for most of the extracting and propounding is exceedingly thin. All that those of us outside the government have to go on are a few backgrounded or leaked morsels, as well as cautiously worded official statements and the public comments of members of Congress who have been briefed on the matter. The episode is another instance, which has been seen repeatedly before, of over-interpretation of terrorist incidents or other scattered data points having to do with international terrorism.

Let us review some of the principal ways in which commentary stimulated by this latest episode has gone way beyond the publicly available evidence.

The topic addressed most often in the commentary is the overall magnitude of the threat from international terrorism, or more specifically from whatever goes under the label al-Qaeda. One hears comments such as, “Didn't the president say just a couple of months ago that al-Qaeda is washed up? Then why are we seeing such a big deal threat now?” Actually, the president did not say anything like that, although he did make a very sensible speech explaining why we need to get away from a boundless “war on terror.” Regardless of what he or anyone else has offered in the way of an overall appraisal of the continuing threat from al-Qaeda or international terrorism generally, the news of the past few days provides barely any basis for appraising the appraisals. What we are seeing this week is a response to information that evidently was at least somewhat stronger than the stuff that government counterterrorist analysts routinely see every week, with respect to the likelihood and imminence of a planned terrorist attack. It is a tactical response to tactical information. This is very different from the strategic question of the overall threat that al-Qaeda or anyone else is posing these days. Plans for individual attacks come and go, but that does not mean that a correct strategic assessment of the threat gyrates up and down as they do. Nor does it gyrate up and down as intelligence services happen to succeed or not succeed in collecting information about individual terrorist plots. We simply do not have any significant new basis for saying that terrorism ought to rank higher among national security concerns this week than it should have last week, last month, or last year.

A related topic concerns the relationship between the core and the periphery in the radical Sunni conglomeration called al-Qaeda. Reportedly a key piece of information underlying the embassy closures was a message from Ayman al-Zawahiri to the head of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “ordering” an attack. But what may look like an order, and what the person issuing it would prefer to sound like an order, may actually be more of an exhortation. In the current case there is good reason to believe it was more of an exhortation. What has been publicly revealed about the material captured at Abbottabad, Pakistan in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden demonstrated that during at least the last couple of years of bin Laden's life he was doing much exhorting but commanded little and thus wasn't in a position to order many people to do anything. Zawahiri is unlikely to have established command relationships that bin Laden did not have. The events of this week are not grounds for revising the judgment that the core al-Qaeda group is a shadow of its former self and that most of the initiative in the movement for terrorist operations is coming from associated groups on the periphery.

In the wake of controversy over NSA collection programs, another reaction we hear to the story this week is that if such terrorist communications are still being collected then there must not have been much damage from Edward Snowden's revelations. Saying that makes about as much sense as saying that the fact you did not get lung cancer this month means the advice you got last month to stop smoking was unsound. That something does not destroy everything does not mean it does not damage anything. In any event, no one in officialdom has given any indication that the particular NSA programs that are the subject of controversy had anything to do with information collected about the current threat.

Other commentary has focused on the theme that closing the embassies was an overreaction. Maybe it was, and indeed much of the story of America's reaction to terrorism, especially during the past twelve years, has been one of overreaction. But how can any of us not privy to the classified information, and therefore not in a position to compare an evaluated threat against the costs of the response, make that sort of judgment about the particular case at hand at the moment?

A related observation we have heard, from those skeptical about the seriousness of this week's reported threat, is that the threat is being hyped and the embassies being closed as a way of obtaining political cover—whether it is NSA trying to prove its usefulness, the Obama administration not wanting to have another Benghazi, or even Congressional Republicans supporting the administration's response because they know that to do otherwise would look inconsistent with their continuing to harp about Benghazi. Aspects of this observation may be true, too, in the sense that the domestic political context always has much to do with the responses and policies. But just as paranoids can have real enemies, this observation about politically inspired posturing doesn't say anything one way or another about the extent of whatever actual threat exists beyond U.S. borders.

This gets to a current running underneath all of these comments and observations, which is that they say at least as much about our own psychology, expectations, and politics as they do about anything that terrorists are doing in the Middle East or elsewhere. What is to be considered a serious threat, or what should be termed an overreaction, is a function not only of terrorists' operations but of our own relative priorities and weighing of values, costs, and risks. And if there is defensive political posturing going on, it can be traced chiefly to the zero tolerance standard that the American public has applied to terrorist attacks.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionThe PresidencyPsychologyIntelligenceTerrorism RegionsUnited StatesMiddle East

Obama's Petulant Snub of Putin

Jacob Heilbrunn

President Obama prides himself on being cool, calm, and collected. But his latest move—cancelling a summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin—suggests that he is having a hissy fit, succumbing to peevishness. It's wholly counterproductive. In attempting to cow Russia into releasing Edward Snowden, he isn't showcasing American power but its limitations. The more Obama seeks to challenge Putin, the stiffer Russian resistance will become. Obama's persecution of Snowden is singlehandedly transforming him into a Russian hero.

From the outset, Obama has bungled the Snowden affair. He elevated a minor National Security Agency employee into a worldwide hero by pulling out all the stops to capture him even as he proclaimed that he would not. This turned out to be malarkey. The president who said he wouldn't scramble jets after Snowden then scrambled them in Europe to ground the Bolivian president. In his contempt for Bolivian sovereignty, Obama's actions were more reminiscent of the old Soviet Union than American democracy. But it is Obama, more than any president since George W. Bush, who has displayed palpable contempt for American freedoms. Perhaps the former constitutional-law professor is afraid of being deemed weak by the military and intelligence establishments. Or maybe he truly believes that it's necessary to curb freedoms in order to protect them. Either way, he himself appears to have become a hostage of the intelligence agencies, which will relentlessly attempt to expand their reach as they seek what Admiral John Poindexter once termed total information awareness.

Obama seems barely aware of his transformation. His administration has relentlessly tried to track down leakers, imposing draconian penalities on govenrment employees who are either whistleblowers or have committed minor infractions. And in the more serious case of Bradley Manning, as John Judis of the New Republic has observed, Obama presided over what amounted to a "show trial."

Even as America retreats back into the Bush-Cheney era under Obama, the president is blaming Russia for reverting to cold war tactics. He said on Tuesday on the "Tonight Show" that

There have been times where they slip back into cold war thinking and a cold war mentality. And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is that’s the past and we’ve got to think about the future, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.

But who is really stuck in a time warp? How does snubbing Putin enhance cooperation?

When it comes to Snowden, it is America, not Russia, that is behaving as though the frostiest days of the cold war continued to prevail. It seems clear that Snowden has become an obsession with Obama. WIth no one listening to Obama at home, perhaps he felt that this was the one arena where he could flex his muscles. If so, he had it wrong. Obama initially declared that the presidency was bigger than Snowden. If only he had believed what he said. Instead, he has transformed Snowden into a dissident who has found refuge in, of all places, Russia.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Friend of Israel

The Buzz

Israel has lost a key ally in its struggle against Iran—Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. From his inauguration in 2005 to his replacement on Sunday, there was no one in the world who did more to advance Israeli foreign interests. For without the bearded madman raving in Tehran, the international community would have never come together in such an unprecedented manner to isolate and sanction Iran over its nuclear program.

The Israelis had long perceived the Iranian nuclear program as a burgeoning existential threat, and accordingly have been the chief proponents of measures against it. As early as 1992, prominent Israelis across the political spectrum were warning of the danger and urging international cooperation against it. Foreign minister Shimon Peres called Iran “the greatest threat and greatest problem in the Middle East, because it seeks the nuclear option while holding a highly dangerous stance of extreme religious militancy.” And Benjamin Netanyahu, then a deputy minister, called for “an international front headed by the U.S.” to “uproot” the threat. But in spite of Israeli entreaties, America only slowly came around, with its primary focus on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The rest of the world paid little attention.

So, at the turn of the millennium, the international front against Iran had just two members. The 2002 revelation of secret nuclear activities—most notably the massive enrichment halls at Natanz—grabbed the attention of several European powers. Yet they were hardly committed opponents of Iran. Hossein Mousavian, then a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, and Mohammed ElBaradei, then head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, each noted in their memoirs that both the German and British foreign ministers said privately that Europe was taking a leadership role in nuclear talks only because they wanted to be a “human shield” preventing a U.S. or Israeli attack. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office, the international community was watching Iran’s nuclear activities closely—talks with the IAEA were regular—but there was no consensus, and the Security Council had taken no action. Sanctions were spare, climbing oil prices promised new prosperity, and the Americans had just overthrown Iran’s enemies to the east (the Taliban) and west (Saddam).

From Iran’s perspective, however, the situation was still far from perfect. Ahmadinejad and his team felt that the West was subjecting Iran to unfair scrutiny, and that their predecessors’ willingness to negotiate had only increased Western demands. And so at home, they launched a strident public defense of the nuclear program; abroad, they sought to “look to the East,” attempting to gain the support of China, Russia, the Muslim world and the Nonaligned Movement to balance the Israelis, the United States and their halfhearted European supporters. The latter move was a miscalculation—Mousavian would charge that the “‘looking to the East’ policy exaggerated the cohesion, abilities, and willingness of the ‘Eastern bloc’ to confront the West,” that “in some instances, it even consolidated Eastern and Western countries against Iran,” and that the policy’s “failure was a blow to the credibility of Iran’s foreign policy.” And the Ahmadinejad administration’s public defense of the nuclear program, while successful as a domestic political move, did little for Tehran’s position abroad.

These were mistakes, and are sufficient to account for some of Iran’s troubles. Yet the blame for Iran’s present isolation and misery rests squarely on Ahmadinejad’s badly tailored shoulders. He missed no opportunity to make himself appear erratic and irresponsible in international fora. His international debut, just over a month into his first term, was a wandering speech before the United Nations General Assembly. His remarks included references to “the Zionist occupation regime,” oblique doubts that Al Qaeda really carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks, and hints that Israel is secretly manipulating world affairs behind the scenes. All this was bookended by millenarian religious rhetoric, including a closing call for the return of the Mahdi. He allegedly later told a cleric that he had been bathed in a divine light during the speech.

One month after the UN speech, addressing a “World Without Zionism” conference in Tehran, he stated of Israel that “the establishment of the occupying regime of Qods [Jerusalem] was a major move by the world oppressor [the United States] against the Islamic world.” He praised the conference’s title, saying that “They say it is not possible to have a world without the United States and Zionism. But you know that this is a possible goal and slogan.” He compared the arrival of a world without the United States and Israel to the fall of the Shah and of the Soviet Union. He followed this with his most controversial remark—a statement translated by the New York Times as “Our dear Imam [Khomeini] said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map...I have no doubt that the new wave that has started in Palestine, and we witness it in the Islamic world too, will eliminate this disgraceful stain from the Islamic world.”

The translation has been hotly disputed—some argue that Ahmadinejad had not said that Israel “must be wiped off the map,” but rather that it “will vanish from the page of time.” The Israelis did not feel it was terribly important whether their demise was being invoked in the passive or active voice. The fact that Ahmadinejad reprised these remarks at a Holocaust denial conference the next year was even more alarming—and his timing could not have been worse, as Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was visiting German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin the same day, making for a powerful joint denunciation of the Iranian leader.

Suffice to say all of Ahmadinejad’s remarks recounted above—and the many similar ones he made over his eight-year presidency—were unnecessary. All Iranian leaders have to take a hard line on Israel and invoke divine will—these are each part of the Islamic Republic’s raison d’être. Yet stating these positions in such particularly outrageous terms served no purpose. Ahmadinejad lent credibility to Israeli warnings that an apocalyptic regime could not be trusted with apocalyptic weapons. And thus his remarks cost Iran dearly. Mousavian notes: “Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy enabled the United States and Israel to win over the EU, Russia, China, India, Japan and other countries on the referral of Iran’s [nuclear] dossier to the Security Council and to orchestrate unprecedented sanctions resolutions against Iran at the United Nations.” Many states have also launched unilateral sanctions. Coupled with the Ahmadinejad team’s economic mismanagement, the result has been a disaster: bursts of extreme inflation, shriveled oil exports, falling currency reserves, high unemployment and a cutoff from international banking. And Ahmadinejad’s remarks made it impossible to address the crisis in Iran’s international position directly: as Mousavian notes, “the unnecessary controversies that Ahmadinejad created also raised the domestic political costs in Washington of talking to Iran. This contributed to the failure of Obama’s engagement policy.”

In short, then, Ahmadinejad brought Israel major successes in what has become a central goal of its foreign policy. Israeli leaders had been trying, and failing, to convince the world Iran was dangerous for more than a decade. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did that successfully in just a few months. Netanyahu ought to send a card thanking him for his services.

Image: Marcello Casal Jr\ABr. CC BY 3.0.

TopicsNuclear ProliferationSecurity RegionsIsraelIran

Iran's Nuclear Legal Obligations

Paul Pillar

There are many respects in which a greater effort in the West and in particular the United States to understand Iranian perspectives and sentiments would facilitate more productive Western policies toward Iran, particularly with respect to that country's nuclear program. There is, for example, the issue of balance in proposed agreements, in which it should be understandable that Tehran opposes a trade that would place major restrictions on its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief that would be almost trivial in comparison with the panoply of sanctions imposed on Iran. There is the comparably understandable Iranian suspicion, in watching behavior by the United States and especially the U.S. Congress, that the United States is only interested in punishing Iran, not negotiating an agreement with it. And there is the natural resistance in Iran—just as there would be in the United States—to caving in to foreign pressure, including threats of military force.

Iran's legal obligations regarding nuclear activities, and how well it has fulfilled those obligations, constitute another area where efforts to understand the Iranians' quite understandable perspective have been sorely lacking. A common catechism in American discourse on this subject is to refer to Iran being in “violation” of those obligations. But with regard to generally applicable legal obligations that Iran shares with any other party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or participant in the International Atomic Energy Agency, it would be difficult to make a case that Iran is in violation of anything. There have been some instances in the past of Iranian nuclear activities coming to light before Iran declared them to the IAEA. But those instances have been cleared up, Iran may have intended to make a declaration when the operations in question actually came on line, and tardiness in declarations is hardly an uncommon infraction among other parties to the NPT. The nuclear activities Iran conducts today, including the enrichment of uranium, are allowed under the international nonproliferation regime and are the object of regular on-site monitoring by the IAEA.

Any mention of “violation” has to refer instead to a series of resolutions by the United Nations Security Council, which demanded that Iran cease enrichment and imposed sanctions when it did not. These resolutions are aimed uniquely against Iran and do not represent an application of generally applicable legal obligations. In short, they are bills of attainder. What the Security Council has done in this respect it can undo. In fact, it will have to undo it if any agreements on the subject are to be negotiated with Iran. It is the permanent members of the Security Council (plus Germany) that are doing the negotiating. Any formula that included the unique-to-Iran no-enrichment demand, which has no foundation in international law beyond the Security Council resolutions themselves, is a non-starter.

Iran's frustration at being singled out this way while dealing in the obligatory manner with the IAEA comes through in its formal response to the latest IAEA report on its nuclear activities. The Iranian document is filled with legal fastidiousness, but the Iranians' genuine exasperation is also palpable, being expressed at one place with multiple exclamation points (!!!!!). One of the most frequent sources of exasperation arises when Iran responds to a question or meets a requirement, only to have the issue at hand re-opened as if Iran had not responded at all.

The background to some of the Iranian complaints is conduct of the IAEA under its current director general, Yukiya Amano, that sometimes makes the agency look—to many eyes, and certainly to those of the Iranians—like a tool of adversaries of Iran. The Iranian response notes how often questions and accusations that the agency directs at Iran originate with material that is fed to it by “known sources hostile to Iran” but is never revealed enough for either Iran or anyone else to question the authenticity of the material itself. The response also calls the IAEA to account for evidently sharing on a real-time basis with David Albright's Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security information that was based on inspections of Iranian facilities and was supposed to remain confidential within the IAEA.

Much of the Iranians' heartburn concerns the relationship between the IAEA and the U.N. Security Council and how each has blurred what are supposed to be two distinct charters and missions. On one hand the IAEA has been, in the words of the Iranian response, “more Catholic than the Pope” in seeking to implement Security Council resolutions rather than sticking to what is supposed to be its job of monitoring nuclear safeguards agreements. On the other hand, the Security Council has waded into the implementation of safeguards agreements even though it has no business doing so if the IAEA has not made a determination—and it has not—that Iran has diverted nuclear material to military purposes or that there is a threat to international peace and security under the terms of the U.N. charter.

The Iranians come back to the U.N. charter near the end of their 20-page response and quote from Article 2 of the charter, which obligates member states to “settle their international disputes by peaceful means” and to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” The Iranians further note, “Threats to use force against Iran's nuclear facilities are frequently expressed, including by some permanent members of the Security Council, while the Council has proven to be unable or unwilling to restrain such declarations and compel them to 'refrain in their international relations from the threat.' ”

Far shorter than the Iranian response is an Israeli response to a proposal from Arab states to place on the agenda of the IAEA General Conference an item titled “Israeli nuclear capabilities.” It's not surprising it is short; after all, what is there to say if you have the region's only nuclear weapons and you don't even admit their existence, as well as staying totally outside any international control and monitoring regime? The Israelis say a few familiar things about how any attention to what they are doing would be a time-wasting diversion from the “real challenges” in the region, of which Iran and its nuclear program are of course the biggest. “Full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and non-proliferation obligations,” declares the Israeli note, is indispensable. That's one way to be preachy about obligations—just don't assume any yourself.

Image: Flickr/Blake Burkhart. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsArms ControlCongressUNInternational LawSanctionsNuclear ProliferationWeapons Inspections RegionsIsraelIranUnited States