The Need for a Syrian Deal

In the wake of the Paris terror attacks and other mass killings in Beirut and aboard a Russian airliner there are new demands for military action. But the one step that might help matters is a more pragmatic approach to resolving the political crisis in Syria, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

As usual after a terrorist event as salient and jarring as the attacks in Paris, instant analysis and exhortation have gotten well ahead of the availability of information about the genesis of the attacks. A claim statement, a general pronouncement by the French president, and the few investigative tidbits that have become public so far are not nearly enough to reach sound conclusions about exactly where and how this operation was conceived, prepared, and directed, and thus what the most appropriate policy responses to it will be.

The way that the name Islamic State or ISIS has been used to date leaves a range of possibilities in that regard. Nonetheless a strong public consensus has quickly been reached that this attack was ordered and organized by the people who, under that name, have been trying to run a radical mini-state from Raqqa, Syria. That may turn out to be the case, but whether it does or doesn’t, Western policymakers have at least a political imperative to respond as if this were already established fact.

The dominant theme in the surge of commentary in the first couple of days after the attack has been that ISIS is a global threat, not just a regional one, and must be confronted as such. Policymakers will be expected to respond in a way consistent with that theme, too. As they do, however, they should be wary of the common conflation between military outcomes in other regions and terrorism and counterterrorism in the West.

Any escalation of military efforts in Iraq and Syria should be undertaken with our eyes open to two realities. One is that we may be sustaining the motive for ISIS to strike back in retaliation in the West, even though the group earlier had every reason to stay focused on trying to build its so-called caliphate in the Middle East rather than to embark on a campaign of transnational terrorism.

We may already be seeing a pattern in that regard with what has happened in the last two weeks in Beirut and the Sinai as well as Paris. The West and especially the United States already has crossed this particular Rubicon, however, and so the practical effect of awareness of this reality may be nil.

The other reality is that military success on a distant battlefield is not to be equated with elimination of a terrorist threat at home. Despite all the attention given to terrorist havens, possession of a sandy and distant piece of real estate is not one of the more important variables that determine who poses or doesn’t pose a terrorist threat to one’s homeland.

The motivations and the tactical opportunities that are more significant variables will still be there. The chief beneficial effect, as far as transnational terrorism is concerned, of any military success against ISIS is to refute the belief that the group’s expansion is inevitable and thus to dampen the group’s attraction to would-be recruits.

Years of experience confronting Al Qaeda provide some relevant lessons in this regard. One is that smashing a center does not eliminate transnational terrorism from the periphery, with a group such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula having become more significant in that regard than Al Qaeda central. (And lest we forget, ISIS was once one of those Al Qaeda affiliates.)

Another lesson, looking at such post-9/11 anti-U.S. terrorists as Faisal Shahzad and Nidal Hasan, is that lethality does not necessarily correlate with training received from a group overseas.

Most of the effective counterterrorist work against the universe of radicals operating under the ISIS label will involve the same unspectacular security work that is commonly performed outside of public view. This fact will be a frustration for policymakers looking for more visible ways of responding to demands for action.

The incidence of terrorism in the West under the ISIS label also will involve, as such terrorism always has, social and economic issues within Western countries. One does not have to be a Le Pen-style exploiter of the Paris tragedy to note that according to one of those early tidbits, one suspected perpetrator was a French citizen with a long criminal record who had been on an extremist watch list since 2010.

We should also think about the diplomatic effects of the Paris attacks, especially given how efforts to counter ISIS have been badly impeded and confused by other quarrels involved in the complicated war in Syria. Secretary of State Kerry is correct that continuation of that war provides continued opportunities for ISIS.

This is one example of how such strife has traditionally aided radical groups, both by breaking down whatever order would have prevented them from emerging in the first place and by enabling them to fill the role of the most forthright opponent of a despised power structure. In the case of ISIS, the group was born under a different name as a direct result of the internal warfare touched off by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it got a later boost by exploiting the civil war in Syria.

Curbing such benefits for ISIS is the principal reason for the U.S. to expend much effort on multilateral diplomacy aimed at somehow resolving the Syrian conflict. The idea is that if some workable compromise can be reached among the other players, both internal and external, a more organized and coherent effort against the ISIS presence in the country can ensue.

The concept is sound as far as it goes, but it risks holding a coherent anti-ISIS effort hostage to resolution of other disputes that are so messy and involve such irreconcilable players that a stable and lasting compromise might not be achieved for years.

An alternative approach would be to devote more effort searching for ways to make the anti-ISIS effort at least marginally more organized even in the face of continued disagreement over the other power struggles in Syria. This approach has plenty of problems as well, and obvious formulas for implementing it do not present themselves.

But the Paris attacks have strengthened arguments that could be used in favor of moving in this direction. Western governments can say, with even more conviction than before, to the other players both inside and outside Syria, “Look, the main reason we are interested in this mess is because of the connection it may have to threats against our citizens back home. Compared to that issue, we really don’t care much about disputes over who has how much power in Damascus. We will deploy our resources, our leverage, and our attention accordingly.”

Such a message ought to have some resonance among other important outside players. The Russians say they are concerned about countering ISIS, and they may have received a taste of how ISIS-related transnational terrorism can affect their interests with the plane crash in the Sinai. The Iranians received a taste with the attacks on their Shiite and Hezbollah friends in Lebanon last week.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)




Grasping the Motives for Terror

The Paris terror attacks particularly the methodical shooting of unarmed civilians have shocked the world and generated new tough talk from policymakers. But the West cannot ignore how some of its violent policy prescriptions over the past 35 years have contributed to the crisis, writes James Paul.

By James Paul

As we mourn the many killed in Paris by the terror attacks of Nov. 13, we may be tempted to react mainly with anger and outrage and to rally around the Western governments in their “war” against the Islamic jihadists. But if we want to live in a world free of terror, we must do more than react blindly in support of widened Western military campaigns, air strikes, drone attacks, secret operations, assassinations, destabilization campaigns, secret prisons and all the apparatus of official violence.

We must ask honestly and fairly: what is the Western responsibility for these horrible attacks on our cities and our people? Can there be, in our governments’ actions over the years, causes that would motivate and set in motion such horror? And what might be an alternative?

There is, of course, a considerable responsibility that even Western security experts acknowledge. And unless we do something to bring those policies to an end, we can expect more terror and more suffering, both here and in the war-torn lands of the Middle East (and beyond). The history is clear.

First of all, we should consider the many wars of Israel, supported by Washington and other Western governments, wars that have caused great suffering and aroused enormous anger in the region. Then, there are the decades of warfare in Afghanistan, where Washington and its partners funded and armed Islamic fundamentalists (the “mujahedeen”) beginning in 1979. The war to control Afghanistan has raged almost continuously ever since.

Another brutal conflict, the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, was notorious for its wholesale violence. Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who was then a friend of Washington, began the hostilities and fought Iran with a hefty flow of arms and military intelligence from Western suppliers. Ninety U.S. Air Force target specialists worked inside the Iraqi defense headquarters to help with aerial targeting, including chemical weapon attacks on Iranian cities. The war left at least a half-million dead and vast destruction.

In 2003, the U.S. (in partnership with the United Kingdom) attacked Iraq, seeking regime change from the former ally Saddam Hussein. Washington stayed for eight years until 2011, creating fiendish Islamic militias as part of a vicious counter-insurgency program created by much-admired U.S. General David Petraeus and later turned into doctrine at the Harvard Kennedy School.

There was round-the-clock bombing, huge prison camps, torture and ongoing military operations throughout the country, leading to a tremendous loss of life among Iraqis (more than a million perished) and complete destabilization of the country.

In 2011, the U.S. and various allies, intervened again, this time in Libya, using air strikes and special operations forces to produce  another “regime change.” The CIA and its Persian Gulf friends armed Islamic militias opposed to the Gaddafi government, while U.S. and allied air forces bombed the capital and other cities, overthrowing the government and creating internal violence and political chaos that continues down to the present.

In short order, Washington again intervened in Syria in yet another “regime change” project. A peaceful Arab Spring protest was transformed by the Western powers and their regional allies as they armed and financed rebel groups (including Islamic groups). Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other regional allies had a hand in the conflict.

Four years later, the country is now in chaos and torn by a terrible civil war with hundreds of thousands of casualties, four million refugees and most cities in ruins. From the chaos of Iraq and Syria has emerged Daesh (also known as Islamic State, ISIS and ISIL), an Islamic movement that has seized territory and won adherents against the West.

Western governments justified their many military operations on the basis of supposed “moral” arguments. Today, as internal documents come to light, we can see that the leaders’ motivations were hardly innocent (control of an oil-rich region loomed large) and arguments they presented to the public were patently fabricated.

In spite of claims to moral leadership, Western countries disregarded the cost of these conflicts to the people in the region. During the sanctions phase of the Iraq conflict (1990-2003), for example, more than half a million children died according to the UN. When asked on U.S. national television about this death toll, Madeleine, who would soon become Secretary of State, said that to achieve U.S. goals the price in children’s deaths was “worth it.”

Climate change has worsened the effects of war in the region, as drought has ravaged the countryside, shrunk the food supply and depopulated rural areas. Syria was particularly hard hit, accelerating the shift to civil war as unemployed young men were recruited with foreign money into armed rebel militias.

Thousands of foreign fighters, mostly jihadis, came from Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones as well as Saudi Arabia. Previously a secular society with ethnic and religious diversity, Syria was transformed into an inferno of religious intolerance.

Millions of Syrian refugees now live in camps. In Turkey alone there are more than two million with a million more in Lebanon. Incredibly, in mid-year, the rich Western countries failed to fund adequately the UN’s Syrian refugee assistance program, forcing cuts in food and medical allowances and leaving millions of people utterly desperate.

Many were ready to risk death to find their way to survival in the European Union. These anguished and traumatized people are prime recruitment targets for terrorist groups. Recruitment also takes place among disaffected Muslim youth in the Western countries themselves.

Such facts are well-known to the top-level Western policymakers, but the same policies continue, irrespective of the costs. There are two famous official assessments that connect the dots. They came from Sir David Omand, Security and Intelligence Coordinator in the British Cabinet Office, and separately from Eliza Manningham-Buller the head of MI5, the British secret security service.

The MI5 chief wrote a secret memorandum to Prime Minister Tony Blair and she later said in public testimony that British involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq had “radicalized a whole generation of young people” of Islamic background and greatly increased the threat of terrorism within the UK.

The terror attack in the London underground of July 7, 2005, which killed 77 people, was soon to show the accuracy of the predictions of the intelligence chiefs. Though the Prime Minister had approved a doubling of the budget (and a doubling of personnel) of the British counter-terrorism program, such measures were not able protect the people of London riding innocently on the underground.

Manningham-Buller also spoke within the government against the use of torture, arguing that it, too, would lead to public outrage in the Middle East and provide a source of terror recruitment as well it did.

The French government, like its British counterpart, has taken a hard line in these events at home and in the Middle East, coordinating its policy closely with Washington. The Paris authorities have largely ignored their large Muslim population, consequently France is increasingly vulnerable to terror cells in the underprivileged and resentful Muslim neighborhoods.

France was one of the first countries to join airstrikes against Libya in 2011 and, as the former colonial power in Syria, it has been closely involved in clandestine operations and regime change maneuvers in the Syria conflict. France began bombing Daesh targets in Iraq in late 2014 and it widened its bombing to eastern Syria in September 2015. At least one of the Nov. 13 terrorists shouted that the attack was a reprisal for France’s role in Syria.

The assault was the second major terror operation in France this year (the massacre at the office of Charlie Hebdo took place in January). Confronted with these attacks, the French government is keen to show its determination and to prove its military mettle.

As it intensifies its attacks on the enemy, it has not recognized the threat of its own making. In the wake of the terror attacks, the government has announced intensified bombings against Daesh in Syria and tough new security rules at home. President Hollande has decreed a State of Emergency and closed the borders. These are desperate measures that are unlikely to succeed. Nor will the U.S. be safe.

The evidence is clear. Decades of violent Western policies in the Middle East have caused state collapse, political chaos, civil war and immense human suffering. These policies must change if the terror threat is to decline and the peoples of the region are to enjoy a decent life again.

We can and must reject utterly the terrorist attacks, but we must also reject the Western violence to which they respond. As the chickens come home to roost, Western publics must wake up and demand a peaceful policy path, if they are to avoid more suffering themselves and live in harmony with their neighbors.

Author of Syria Unmasked, James Paul was executive director of Global Policy Forum, a think tank that monitors the UN. He also wrote The Crisis of Regime Change Refugees.]