Fighting Terrorism in Syria: It's More Than ISIS

Al Qaeda is building its own proto-state, which America is ignoring.

The once-promising cessation of hostilities that had significantly reduced the fighting between the Assad regime and the armed opposition in Syria is collapsing, and major questions are being asked about the future course of U.S. policy toward Syria. These questions are being asked as, more and more, Al Qaeda and its allies are building a proto-state in northern Syria, which will have potentially dire consequences for the future of Middle East and international security.

A recently released Center for a New American Security report emphasizes that in order to defeat Al Qaeda and its enablers, the United States will need to more proactively support the Syrian opposition to build security and governance institutions in rebel-controlled areas of the country. Beyond the anti-ISIS campaign, there is also a preventative counterterrorism campaign that needs to be waged in other areas of the country, as Al Qaeda and its enablers in the Syrian armed opposition seek to build a sharia state based on the teaching of influential global jihadi theorists.

One of the longest running and strongest criticisms against current U.S. policy in Syria is that it needs to do more than just combat ISIS, and needs to do a better job of supporting the Syrian opposition. The latest vicious cycle of regime-initiated siege-and-starve warfare, and the bombardment of opposition-held areas in Syria’s two most important cities of Damascus and Aleppo, certainly demands stronger international action to enforce the cessation of hostilities. Many critics of the present U.S. approach are seeking a strategy that goes beyond the current diplomatic process and its product—the shaky, frequently broken cessation of hostilities.

They are seeking a strategy that protects Syrian civilians, stems the flow of refugees from Syria that destabilizes its neighbors and increasingly Europe, and which applies military pressure on the regime to bring it seriously to the negotiating table. There is open discussion within the U.S. and its regional partners of “Plan B” courses of action: a military assistance strategy that provides advanced MANPADS directly to rebel groups, and the imposition of a safe zone over rebel-ruled areas of Syria, particularly in the north along the Syrian-Turkish border. While these lines of action deserve strong consideration, as the situation on the ground inside of opposition-held areas of northern Syria stands, there is great risk that pursuing them now could have long-term negative consequences for Syrian, regional and international security.

The reason is that it is a clear fact on the ground is that the IRGC, its proxies and Russia have strengthened and entrenched Assad’s rule over a statelet in western Syria, particularly in Latakia, Tartus, Homs and around Damascus, and have begun expanding this territorial base east to Palmyra. But as much the Assad regime and its allies might like to pretend that they can reconquer all of the territory that has fallen under opposition control, including ISIS’s pseudostate in eastern Syria, they will not accomplish that mission. The reality is that post-Assad Syria exists throughout the country, and that it is unlikely anything short of a significant escalation in the conflict such as a large-scale foreign military intervention will change that.

For most of the civil war, the debate over the proper level of U.S. support for the moderate Syrian opposition has focused on overthrowing the Assad regime, particularly because of its extensive and infamous record of perpetrating human-rights abuses and crimes against humanity. While it is understandable that there is a great deal of sympathy for removing Bashar al-Assad and his enablers from Syria, including Russia and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) and its proxies, this scenario is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future. For all intents and purposes, Syria is in a process of partitioning that leaves a large area of the country open to alternative governance structures to the Assad regime.

In the majority Sunni areas that are rebel-ruled, there is a looming war-within-the-war between more ideologically moderate opposition organizations and ideological extremist actors, which will have great impact on the type of Syria that emerges from the conflict. Ideological extremist groups such as Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and its principal ally Ahrar al-Sham, are embedded within the rebel movement throughout northern Syria, and are a formidable vanguard within the anti-Assad fight. The two are parallel organizations established by Al Qaeda in Syria, and following jihadi theorists’ strategic directives for guerilla warfare, they are seeking to be the vanguard of the popular revolution against the Assad regime.

Working with other allies within the armed opposition, Al Qaeda and its enablers are laying the groundwork for the implementation of a sharia state, and building local community cover in Syria for the global jihadist network. It is significant that at the onset of the anti-ISIS campaign, in November 2014, U.S. aircraft struck targets in northern Syria controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham that were suspected of hosting international jihadist operatives. And the resulting furor within the Syrian armed opposition at the U.S. strikes against these non-ISIS, ideological extremist groups demonstrated the considerable and unfortunate power that they hold within Syria’s rebel movement.