As reported in a September 15, 2013, Wall Street Journal article entitled “US Backs Off Syria Strike for More Talk,” the Obama administration took two steps back from its push for a prompt attack on Syria, allowing several weeks more for diplomacy on eliminating Syrian chemical weapons. The reversals on September 13th came after a week that began with US President Barack Obama insisting that the US Congress urgently approve military action. The Obama administration turned to a Russian diplomatic proposal that was actually suggested offhandedly by US Secretary of State John Kerry while answering a journalist’s question on the possibility of military action being halted. Under the proposal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to execute chemical attacks would be degraded over a period of time, without strikes. Yet, despite this diplomatic activity, the US made it clear, according to the Wall Street Journal, that military strikes, using an international coalition, and not the UN, were still very possible and any effort to stall the chemical weapons elimination process would not be acceptable. US officials also explained that there was also hope that through this diplomatic process, Kerry, the masterful statesman, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his sparring partner, would be able to rekindle efforts to hold an international peace conference on Syria, bringing together the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition in Geneva in an effort to establish a transitional government in Damascus. .
However, despite the importance of these recent events, there is a crucial matter, not referenced in talks between Kerry and Lavrov: the Islamic militant presence in Syria. Members of the US Congress gave great consideration to the issue during their deliberations on US military action in Syria. Islamic militant factions, laden with foreign fighters, truly represent a threat to security and stability in Syria and internationally. Anxious to garner as much support as possible from his former Congressional colleagues for immediate military strikes, when asked about the strength of the Islamic militant presence in the Syrian opposition forces, Kerry brushed off the issue of their presence in Syria as exaggerated. Yet, even under Kerry’s assessments of the Islamic militant presence, it is clear that their numbers are significant, and they continue to grow exponentially daily. Unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, it is inconceivable that the Islamic militants’ would cease their struggle, particularly that of the foreign fighters, under any peace agreement with the Assad regime allowing for a transitional government. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the Syrian opposition leadership’s concepts and intent. While mainstream Free Syrian Army are directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, Islamic militant factions seek to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law. Clashes between moderate, secular opposition groups and the Islamic militant factions have become commonplace. Atrocities are as likely to be committed against other opposition fighters and innocent Syrian civilians by Islamic militants, as Syrian military personnel or regime supporters. Unless an appropriate response is formulated and readied for implementation now or in the aftermath of the signing of a peace agreement, negotiators from the US and Russia will saddle Syria for the moment, or under a potential transitional government, with the scourge of the rogue Islamic militants. Unchecked, the Islamic militants would continue to pour into Syria, and establish a launch pad to create ferment in Syria, its region, and beyond. Examining the situation, two options for coping with the Islamic militants emerge: peaceful coexistence through negotiation and elimination through military action. The review of each will result in the emergence of one that would best serve US, Western, and regional interests, and especially the interests of the Syrian people.
Kerry’s Assessment of the Islamic Militant Presence
As reported in a September 5, 2013, Reuters article entitled “Kerry Portrait of Syria Rebels at Odds with Intelligence Reports,” at Congressional hearings in early September, Kerry provided an assessment on Islamic militant factions among Syrian opposition forces that US and allied intelligence sources and private experts on the Syrian conflict suggest was optimistic. Kerry asserted before Congress that the armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution. He reportedly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 3rd that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.” Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4th. McCaul told Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces – and I say majority now – are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.” Kerry went on to explain, “There is a real moderate opposition that exists. General Idriss is running the military arm of that,” referring to General Salim Idriss, Commander in Chief of the Supreme Military Council, the Syrian opposition’s military-wing and commander of the Free Syrian Army. Kerry reported that increasingly, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are funneling assistance through Idriss. This was a key point as prior, Arab states made deliveries of arms, supplies, and money directly to their main beneficiaries in the field, Islamic militant factions (Please see July 18, 2013 greatcharlie.com post “Obama Emphasizes US Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind.”)
Looking at US, EU, and NATO intelligence assessments of the Free Syrian Army to date in its September 5th article, Reuters interviewed a US official who explained, under the condition of anonymity, that “Most of the groups battling against Assad are composed of Islamist fighters, but only a small minority could accurately be characterized as extremist.” However, a second official, who also asked not to be named, explained that moderate opposition fighters appear to have lost strength rather than gained it in recent months. Due to their relative lack of weapons and organization, they are beginning to make alliances with better-armed Islamic radicals, whom they see pursuing more effective actions against Assad’s forces, the official said. A European security official with experience in the region revealed to Reuters that more moderate rebel factions predominate in the east of Syria and along its southern border with Jordan but have largely devolved into “gangs” whose leaders are more interested in operating local rackets and enriching themselves than in forming a larger alliance that could more effectively oppose Assad’s government. Joshua Foust, a former US intelligence analyst who now writes about foreign policy, told Reuters, “I’ve heard that there are moderate groups out there we could, in theory, support.” Foust went on to state, “But I’ve heard from those same people and my own contacts within (US intelligence) that the scary people are displacing more and more moderate groups. Basically, the jihadists are setting up governance and community councils while the moderates exhaust themselves doing the heavy fighting.”
Realities of the Islamic Militant Presence
In early 2012, many Islamic militant factions, particularly the Salafist/Jihaddis, were operating underground in Syria. Two years of arms and support flowing into opposition forces from Arab states has allowed for the growth of Salafist/Jihaddi factions in Syria. The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria), was active on the ground in Syria under the auspices of their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaida in Iraq) for years prior to the civil war. Ever since the formation of Islamic State of Iraq, itself, the eastern region of Syria—bordering the Al-Anbar Province of Iraq—has been a hot spot for Al-Qaida activity. The Al-Nusra Front, a mostly Syrian organization, is considered an off-shoot of The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, and also Al-Qaida affiliated. The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham and the Al-Nusra Front have been a driving force in the Free Syrian Army. For the balance of the civil war, Al-Nusra Front has led Free Syrian Army assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes. They have also been responsible for the bulk of the suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key officials in the Assad regime. They have become the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the Free Syrian Army. Yet, they are now known best by their rogue acts. Several news organizations have been covering the Syrian civil war from its start. There are journalists in nearly each one who have observed or recorded members of Islamic militant factions abuse and kill captured Syrian military personnel or suspected Assad regime supporters. Some of their stories and recordings have been recently released. The front page of the September 5, 2013 edition of the New York Times included a photo of Syrian Army prisoners being prepared for execution by Islamic militant rebels. This horrific scene brings home grave realities about the situation in Syria regarding the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian opposition’s war on Assad. Nothing the Islamic militant factions have stated or done in Syria would indicate they have a remote interest in working constructively within the Syrian National coalition in reaching the country’s transition toward a democratic form of government. Their plan to create an Islamic mini-state is already underway.
Deadly clashes have raged between the mainstream fighters of the Free Syrian Army and Islamic militants while also at war with Assad regime forces. The fighting is viewed by intelligence and analysts and experts as a parallel struggle for Syria’s future. In the greatcharlie.com post of July 11th, entitled, “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” pointed to a July 8,, 2013, New York Times article detailing how Islamist brigade of Ahrar Al-Sham, along with Al-Nusra Front fighters, ejected a mainstream Free Syrian Army unit, the Farouq brigade, from town of Raqqa. The Islamic militants accused the Farouq brigade of having hoarded arms and refused to go to the aid of allies during the Qusayr battle. They also alleged that some of its members of consorting with women and drinking wine. In the most recent violent incident, in Dana, members of an extremist Islamic militant faction were accused of beheading two rival fighters and leaving their heads beside a can near the town square. On July 2, 2013, the BBC confirmed Islamic militants killed a popular Catholic priest in the convent of the town of Ghassaniya. The priest had fled to the convent after his monastery, Saint Simon, was bombed by Islamic militants. In Aleppo and Idlib provinces, Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant units were accused of trying to monopolize wheat and fuel supplies creating even greater shortages for residents. Throughout towns and villages under Free Syrian Army control, Islamic militants have attempted to impose their strict conception of Islamic law, sometimes even carrying out summary public executions. This has created popular resentment against them among average Syrians. Since that time, Islamic militant factions have continued to abuse and kill Syrian citizens, and intensified their attacks upon mainstream Free Syrian Army groups and Kurdish groups. Popular secular Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters have been murdered by their so-called allies. So egregious have been the acts of the foreign fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham against Syrian citizens, who did not support the regime, that the Syrians of the Al-Nusra Front, themselves, became perturbed and expressed displeasure over the foreign fighters announced plans to create their own Islamic state on Syrian territory.
Significant numbers of Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria. Pakistani Taliban have set up a base in Syria, to assess the needs of the jihad in Syria, and work out joint operations with Islamic militant factions present. Pakistani Taliban bases were allegedly set up with the assistance of former Afghan mujahedeen of Middle Eastern origin that have moved to Syria in recent years. The cell has the approval of militant factions both within and outside of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella organization of militant groups fighting Pakistani government forces. In the past, Islamic militant fighters from Pakistan fought in the Balkans and Central Asia. Between 1992 and 1995, the group Harkatul Mujahedeen sent a large number of fighters to Bosnia to support the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Between 1988 and 1994, Pakistan and Afghan Taliban fought in Nagorno-Karabakh on the side of Azerbaijan against Armenian forces. As long as Islamic militants continue to pour into Syria, their numbers and capabilities will reach a point where the mainstream forces would no longer be able to contend with them. Back in May 2013, the Russian Federal Security Service revealed that it was aware that 200 Russian and European fighters had joined the Free Syrian Army in May. By June 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated the number of Russians and Europeans in the Free Syrian Army’s ranks had reached 600.
Option 1: Peaceful Coexistence with Islamic Militant Factions Through “Negotiations”
As it was their goal in Syria, Islamic militant factions, may still seek to create an Islamic mini-state in Syria after the civil war. However, the creation of a separate state with separate laws for some Syrians, trapped in, would have to live by, would be an anathema to everything the Syrian opposition struggled for in the civil war. It would be a bitter reminder to the Syrian opposition of its failure to create a free and democratic Syria for all Syrians. Such a state would create fears, not only in Damascus, but in other capitals of the region, that an Islamic militant mini-state would become a launch pad for relentless attacks against them. Those nearby states include Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Leaders of the Syrian National Council, the political-wing of the opposition movement have found it difficult to communicate with representatives of Islamic militant factions. Communicating with the Islamic militant groups in the field on occasion has proven to be daunting. A number of secular Free Syrian Army commanders and fighters were killed attempting to make contact with Islamic militant factions. If an agreement is reached on Syria and it requires them to leave its territory, Islamic militant factions must comply. Ostensibly, an effort could be made to provide Islamic militant factions notice of their disposition in Syria under the authority of a transitional government. They would also need to be given official notice to leave Syria. This information could be communicated to representatives of their organizations by the Syrian National Council, leaders of the Supreme Military Council. If that were to fail, diplomats from Arab states that have been the primary benefactors for the Islamic militant units such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, could present notice to the Islamic militants. Those countries might have some leverage as the funding stream for the Islamic militants. However, the Islamic militants may be unwilling to respond. It would be easy enough for them to recognize the relative strength of their position against the transitional government.
The best case scenario would be similar to that of the foreign fighters present in Bosnia after the war. The Dayton Peace Agreement ending the war required foreign fighters to leave Bosnia. This demand was communicated to Islamic militant factions in Bosnia through the President of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Alijah Izetbegovic, and his government. It was enforced by the robust 60,000 member NATO force, I-FOR, that entered Bosnia immediately after the peace agreement was signed. However, many of the Islamic militants remained in Bosnia and were welcomed by Bosnia’s Muslim community to do so. They married Bosnian women and became part of the society. Unlike Bosnia, there is little chance any community in Syria would want the Islamic militants present. The experiences of Syrian civilians with Islamic militant foreign fighters have been quite different from those of the Bosnians. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps units, Quds Force members, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security officers left Bosnia when the war ended. Yet, some Iranian troops who fought in the Bosnian War remained. Welcomed more warmly into the Bosnian Muslim community than any other group of foreigners, they also married Bosnian women and usually joined the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hezbollah completely evacuated Bosnia when requested to do so. As in Bosnia, fighters for Hezbollah would likely rapidly leave Syria and return to Lebanon. Unlike the Islamic militant factions opposing the Assad regime, Hezbollah’s military-wing would be fairly easy to communicate with, either through Iran, its political leadership in Syria and Lebanon, and the Assad regime, through the Russians.
If Islamic militant factions were to comply with an order to leave Syria through a peace agreement, it is difficult to imagine where they would go. It is difficult to picture how their demobilization would be enforced. It is also difficult to envision how they would arrange transport anywhere given their numbers. Although Kerry’s assessment of the size and strength of the Islamic militants was at 15 percent to 25 percent, that would still put their number in the tens of thousands. Further, essentially every Western intelligence organization has assessed they are growing in size and capability. Conceivably, they might charge into Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey, but their presence would not be tolerated in any of those states. They could possibly leave the Levant and travel to the heart of the Middle East, Southwestern Asia, South Asia, and North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Southeastern Europe, Western Europe, or Southern Russia! Yet, transportation would remain an issue, and it would still be difficult to find any country in those regions that would be interested in having them. They would pose immigration and security issues wherever they went.
Option 2: Confronting Islamic Militant Factions During the War or Afterward
In a July 20th, New York Times article, David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and 31-year intelligence veteran suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition, the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements, although he did not say how that could be accomplished. He noted that left unchecked, they will become bigger,” Shedd further stated, according to the New York Times article that “Over the last two years they’ve grown in size, they’ve grown in capability, and ruthlessly have grown in effectiveness.” Eventually, the Islamic militants would need to be confronted. It is unlikely that a transitional government would have sufficient military power to eject the Islamic militants from Syria. As was also explained on greatcharlie.com in its July 11, 2013 post “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” the Obama administration would need to do more than meet its promise to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons and ammunition. Only by intervening, covertly if necessary, on the side of mainstream Free Syrian Army groups against Islamic militant factions would mainstream opposition forces have a chance, during the war, of being positioned to defeat Assad’s forces. Taking this step would put the US in a position to do much more on behalf of the Free Syrian Army and eventually, a transitional Syrian government.
If a prospective peace agreement in Syria required Islamic militant factions, postwar, to join some grand coalition in the transitional government and abide by its authority or leave Syria, they might not join. However, given their disposition, they would certainly refuse to go. It is unlikely that a transitional government would be ready to promote their interest, force them to leave. It might behoove the US, in support of the transitional government and its own interests, to assist the transitional government. The US could announce internationally that the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, the Al-Nusra Front, and other rogue Islamic militant factions are not part of the Syrian opposition. Indicating the degree of danger the Islamic militant factions posed to a secure and sustainable peace in Syria, the US could conduct an operation to destroy those organizations entirely as part of its Counterterrorism policy and in support of its Syria policy. The US could potentially muster its Western allies, as well as Russia and Iran to support its efforts. Assistance from Western allies, Russia and Iran could primarily include intelligence, however, operational assistance and personnel could also be requested. The operation, executed by the US Joint Special Operations Command, would need to be quick, intense, and effective. All Islamic militant groups hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition and the Friends of Syrian, and identified as having attacked mainstream Free Syrian Army fighters, would be identified and targeted for strike. Units, arms, equipment, supply lines, communications, commanders, headquarters, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points for Islamic militants should be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Foreign fighters entering Syria must be targeted. Islamic militant units must be completely destroyed. Any foreign fighters later reaching Syria should not be able to find evidence that any Islamic militant factions ever existed there.
A US decision to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, Al-Nusra Front the and other rogue Islamic militant organizations in Syria would likely please the Russians and Iranians. If any cooperation on a counterterrorism effort could be established, there is a chance that step could further enhance joint diplomatic efforts between those countries on Syria. Among many things, for Iran, such an effort would allow it to work alongside the US and Russia, as an equal partner, and act as a power player in its region. For Russia, it would mean a resolution to the conflict, hopefully allowing it to pursue interests acceptable to the US in Syria. For the US, it would mean establishing peace and stability in the region, placing Syria on the path toward transition to a democratic government, and perhaps opening the door to further cooperation with Russia and Iran on other issues.
Moving and destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile put the chemical weapons out of reach for Islamic militants in Syria. However, it does not address the issue of their presence. The current size and strength of Al-Qaida affiliated Islamic militant factions in Syria is considerable. Allowing them to become a fixture in Syria would hobble a transitional Syrian government, and could lead to its eventual collapse. The US Congress has pressed the Obama administration regarding the Islamic militants. Initially, Members of Congress, as well as legislators and officials in other Western capitals expressed concern that Western arms sent to Syria would fall into the hands of rogue Islamic militant factions, and their concerns were legitimate. Concerns were so great in Britain that its Parliament refused to allow its forces to join the US in military action in response to the August 21st chemical weapons attacks. Now is the time for the US Congress to urge the Obama administration to orient itself on coping with the Islamic militant problem. True, Congress was grumpy toward President Obama’s approach to Syria, and perhaps should have been more supportive of the presidential authority. Yet, conversely, President Obama should be responsive to the concerns of Members of Congress, as representatives of the American people, over the Islamic militant problem in Syria. The White House should be able to recognize the urgency of this issue itself.
Negotiating with the Islamic militants could be attempted, but it is implausible to think results could be achieved with them through formal talks. Only through military action, unilateral or multilateral, could the US relieve Syria of a barbaric Islamic militant threat. A transitional Syrian government will not have the means to eject Islamic militants from sovereign Syrian territory. The entire US effort in Syria hinges on how the US responds to the Islamic militant presence. Syria could become a state hampered by disunity and conflict caused by Islamic militants, or transform into a state ready to become a positive and welcomed player on the world stage. Through potential cooperation against rogue Islamic militant factions, the US, Russia, and Iran, the three states might create conditions that might facilitate greater cooperation on Syria among them. They may urge parties to the conflict to find a peaceful solution to the civil war. By working together to cope with the Islamic militant issue, the US, Russia, and Iran would take further steps forward together beyond the Syria issue, and establish a path toward real cooperation, possibly leading a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue.
(Over the past three months through blog posts, greatcharlie.com has been providing insights into US, EU, NATO intelligence assessments of the Free Syrian Army’s situation on the ground, the organization’s deterioration, and coping with the Islamic militant threat in Syria. Those posts include: Is the US Public Aware the US Is Said to Plan to Send Weapons to the Syrian Rebels?, June 14th; The Price of Loyalty to the Syrian Opposition for the US May Be A Useless Investment of Arms, June 20th; Opposition in Syria Continues to Fracture: Yet This May Create a New Option For Its Allies, July 11th; Obama emphasizes Us Commitment to Syrian Rebels in Saudi Call, But He Can Still Change His Mind, July 18th; Congressional Hurdles Lifted on Arming Syrian Rebels, Beware Assad, and Islamic Militants, Too!, July 25th; and more recently, “White House Says Still Fact Finding Reported Chemical Weapons Use and Weighing Military Options, August 27th.)