September 28, 2015 | House Committee on Foreign Affairs; Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade

U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts in Syria: A Winning Strategy?

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Chairman Poe, Ranking Member Keating, and other members of the committee, thank you for inviting me here today to speak about America’s counterterrorism efforts in Syria.

The war in Syria is exceedingly complex, with multiple actors fighting one another on the ground and foreign powers supporting their preferred proxies. Iran and Hezbollah are backing Bashar al Assad’s regime, which is also now receiving increased assistance from Russia. The Islamic State (often referred to by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL) retains control over a significant amount of Syrian territory. Despite some setbacks at the hands of the U.S.-led air coalition and Kurdish ground forces earlier this year in northern Syria, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization has not suffered anything close to a knockout blow thus far. Sunni jihadists, led by Al Nusrah Front and its closest allies, are opposed to both the Islamic State and the Assad regime. Unfortunately, they have been the most effective anti-Assad forces for some time, as could be seen in their stunning advances in the Idlib province earlier this year. Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other nations are all sponsoring proxies in the fight.

Given the complexity of the war in Syria, it should be obvious that there are no easy answers. We were asked to assess whether or not the U.S. and its allies have a winning strategy. I would argue that there currently is no comprehensive strategy in place. The West’s involvement is ad hoc, tactical and reactionary. Consider the recent news, confirmed by CENTCOM, that some of the equipment and ammunition supplied to U.S.-backed rebels has been turned over to the Al Nusrah Front, which is an arm of al Qaeda. These provisions were supposed to be used in the fight against the Islamic State, Al Nusrah’s bitter jihadist rival. But Al Nusrah interfered in the plan. And this isn’t the first time al Qaeda got in the way. In July, Al Nusrah quickly disbanded a small cadre of more than 50 fighters who were inserted into Syria to fight the Islamic State. In both cases, U.S. officials either did not know that Al Nusrah was likely to move against America’s proxies, or assumed that Al Nusrah wouldn’t. This demonstrates a lack of strategic thinking, as the train and equip program was so focused on the Islamic State that U.S. officials had not properly accounted for Al Nusrah’s entirely predictable actions.

My testimony below is focused on the ideas that I think should inform our strategic thinking about the Syrian war. It is far from comprehensive. To my mind, three main points stand out:

(1)   Any strategy for truly defeating the Islamic State needs to incorporate plans for clearing and holding large areas currently under its control. Thus far, no ground forces have been capable of doing this in cities such as Raqqa and Mosul, which are key to the Islamic State’s “caliphate” claim. There is opposition to the Islamic State in these areas. For instance, the Kurds have delivered some significant losses on the Islamic State in northern Syria and have come within 30 miles of its de facto capital this year.

(2)   Iran has escalated the conflict and Iranian influence is inherently destabilizing the entire region. Iran supports both Bashar al Assad’s regime and the Iraqi government, but it does so by sponsoring Shiite extremism, which is no bulwark against Sunni extremism. Instead, the increasing role of Shiite extremists backed by Iran is driving more Sunnis into the jihadists’ arms. This is precisely the opposite of what any strategist should want. Iran’s proxies are not capable of clearing and holding territory from the Islamic State or al Qaeda. And even if they were, this would only further strengthen the hand of Iran’s virulent anti-American revolution.

(3)   Some have advocated working with Sunni jihadists in Syria, but this would play right into al Qaeda’s hands. Groups such as Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham have long been working to inculcate jihadism within the Syrian population. They are using the vicious war to spread their radical ideology, which is a different strain of jihadism from the Islamic State’s belief system, but no less of a threat. In some ways, in fact, their version of jihadism may be a bigger long-term threat.