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.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

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.)

16 comments for “The Need for a Syrian Deal

  1. Richard Steven Hack
    November 20, 2015 at 15:15

    There isn’t going to be a peace deal of any kind.

    The US and Israel are intent on destroying Iran’s influence. The goal of the Syria crisis is to degrade Iran’s allies, Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon, so that Israel can start a war with Iran and the US/NATO will do the heavy lifting in that war. Until that is achieved, the Syria war will go on and efforts to escalate it will be persisted in by the US.

    Obama has just reiterated that he will “not allow” Assad to run for office again in any election. So he is doubling down on military intervention in Syria. All this crap about how Obama is going to “cooperate with Russia” is delusional. Until the US shuts down the Saudi and Turkish and Qatar support for ISIS and Al Qaeda, nothing can resolve the Syria issue (except for some form of military success by Russia and the Syrian Arab Army, which is going to be extremely difficult given the external support to the terrorists.)

  2. Mortimer
    November 17, 2015 at 15:19

    (Of interest to any who seek answers over supposition… .)
    What I Discovered From Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters

    They’re drawn to the movement for reasons that have little to do with belief in extremist Islam.

    By Lydia Wilson
    OCTOBER 21, 2015

    • Mortimer
      November 17, 2015 at 16:02

      More from Lydia Wilson:

      LYDIA WILSON: So, they were prisoners. They had been through due process. They had been found guilty of terrorism for various vehicle explosions and assassinations within Kirkuk. And so, I was given access by the police, and I was interviewing them before they were serving their sentence.

      And so, they were quiet, to begin with. And when I gave them a chance to talk and to ask more open-ended questions, it became very clear that they were fueled by a lot of anger, anger primarily against the Americans, but also against their government, that they perceived as Shia, sectarian, and anti-Sunni. They perceived that everybody was against them, that they weren’t given a chance in their own country. And many of them were poor. They were very low education rates—one was illiterate entirely—and big families and often unemployed. So, ISIS was not only offering them a chance to fight for their Sunni identity, but they were offering them money. They were being paid to be foot soldiers. And, I mean, one of them was the eldest of 17 siblings, and his story was that he hurt his back and couldn’t earn any money as a laborer, which he had been doing.

      Now, this money was greatly appreciated by them all, but that’s not to say it’s only economic need. There was this driving anger against Americans, against the occupation—but not in terms of this ideology that we see coming out of the ISIS official publications or through social media. It was anger—it was much more personal. It was much more about their own childhoods and adolescences, that they had been blocked from having a normal life because, as they saw it, of the American occupation.

      AMY GOODMAN: What you know about the so-called handbook of ISIS called The Management of Savagery?

      LYDIA WILSON: Well, it was interesting that your previous guest actually referred to it, but very indirectly, because this is huge. It’s really a playbook for what is going on, which is why, to a certain extent, what is going—what has happened in Paris shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yes, it’s shocking and tragic, but actually it’s all there in this handbook that’s written—it’s a pseudonym, but it’s under the name of Abu Bakr Naji, published around 10 years ago, when this group of people was still al-Qaeda in Iraq. Later, a lot of these people formed the Islamic State. And they are fulfilling it. They are following the rules held in this guidebook. One is to attack the unbelievers wherever they are. One is to cause as much terror on the streets as you can, to attack tourist destinations so that security is strengthened in those places, and it costs the unbelieving nations more money. And one is to drag us into a war, to drag our forces into wars that we cannot win, and—as they see it—and also that we will spend an awful lot of our money and power fighting.

  3. Helge
    November 17, 2015 at 10:34

    I am wondering what Samantha Power has to say to all this. She wanted to convince us that the people of Syria are escaping Assad’s violence but now suddenly plenty of interviews appear where the refugees explain that they are fleeing the same people responsible for the attacks in Paris: IS. How comes? May that be true? How comes that the refugees came in masses to Europe when IS and Al Nusra were gaining more and more territory? I think President Obama should send her to Assad and check what the US could do for him to repulse the jihadists…..

  4. Zachary Smith
    November 17, 2015 at 02:14

    Another blog post title:

    How to Respond to the Paris Attacks

    Answer: do absolutely nothing.

    The author styles himself a “left libertarian”. His stance reminds me of that of a one-time author on this site. Asked a question about stopping a genocide, he answered “It’s not our responsibility, to put it bluntly.”

    So there are others besides fanatical Saudis or power-hungry Turks or greedy Zionists who want to leave ISIS the hell alone. Some are the None of our business types.

    BTW, in the course of looking up the “left libertarian” fellow, I learned that he’s a Second Amendment true believer. How many guns you own – and presumably the types – is nobody’s business but your own. Some of these extreme types would allow 18-month old toddlers to go deer hunting with high powered rifles. For individuals to own and use battleships cannon if they so desire. Oh yes, this one wants totally open borders. Anybody who can get to the border ought to be allowed in. ANYONE.

    It’s a crazy world out there, and there are lots more nuts besides the hard-shelled seeds growing on trees.

  5. Zachary Smith
    November 17, 2015 at 00:16

    I’m running into some really strange stories tonight. At The Guardian is a piece by Nicolas Hénin titled “I was held hostage by Isis. They fear our unity more than our airstrikes”. The author was held hostage by ISIS for a while, and therefore has ‘credentials’ to say this:

    “The group is wicked, of that there is no doubt. But after all that happened to me, I still don’t feel Isis is the priority. To my mind, Bashar al-Assad is the priority. The Syrian president is responsible for the rise of Isis in Syria, and so long as his regime is in place, Isis cannot be eradicated. Nor can we stop the attacks on our streets. When people say “Isis first, and then Assad”, I say don’t believe them. They just want to keep Assad in place.”

    My take: forget those many Paris deaths. TAKE OUT ASSAD! If this fellow isn’t being paid well by Israel, he sure ought to be.

    Next was this: Why ISIS War Would Make Paris Attacks a Success.

    Doubling down on exterminating ISIS would mean the terrorists win. All the wannabe jihadis around the world will overcome their reluctance to become mincemeat from Russian bombs and Syrian artillery and rush to Syria to protect the poor fellows who cut off heads and burn people alive. Don’t make this mistake of fighting back against ISIS!

    Everywhere I look I see authors urging us to lay off ISIS. I doubt if this is a coincidence.

    • Joe Tedesky
      November 17, 2015 at 00:32

      Those authors you reference, are probably friends of David Petraeus.

      • Brad Owen
        November 17, 2015 at 13:00

        And THAT suggests to me it’s a trans-national “Deep State” vs. “the several National Democracies” conflict. The Deep State finds terrorists to be useful tools for keeping the National Democracies “check-mated” and unable to use funds for more constructive purposes that would generally support the general welfare of the citizenry (and consequently render The Deep State obsolete).

    • John P
      November 17, 2015 at 23:17

      I thought it had been proved that Assad hadn’t used the gas (the direction from which the gas weapon came from and the chemical analysis of the gas showed it wasn’t his). He has been using barrel bombs which are pretty brutal. He won’t have the technology to create the new bombs which Israel has been using which are extremely lethal in a small area, but which still harm non combatants.

  6. Zachary Smith
    November 16, 2015 at 23:41

    I’m going to cut/paste the entirety of an AP “Big Story” piece from

    UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Britain says the United Nations Security Council says it is going to immediately draw up a council resolution for a U.N.-administered cease fire enforcement mechanism in Syria.

    That follows Saturday’s meeting in Vienna at which foreign ministers of nearly 20 countries agreed to an ambitious but incomplete plan for bringing peace to the country. They agreed on a way to enforce a cease-fire and set a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between President Bashar Assad’s government and opposition groups.

    Britain currently holds the council presidency. Deputy Ambassador Peter Wilson told reporters Monday that the council is “very clear” that it will act right away on putting a resolution together.

    Wilson did not give details, including how long the process would take.

    A cease-fire means that everybody will stop being shot at, and that includes ISIS. That way they’ll have time to recover from the pounding the Russians and Syrian army has been giving them. I’ve got to wonder how there can be any kind of enforcement without UN troops going into Syria. Seems to me they’d have to be armed to the teeth, and would be right on the spot in case the evil Assad tried something like his previous gas attack on innocent civilians. Given the interests of Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, some very evil deed like that would seem to be more than likely. Bad Assad! Bad Bad Bad.

    Just like last time.

    Unless I’m overlooking something, this appears to be a desperation measure to protect the “good terrorists”. And the “bad terrorists” as well.

    Is this the sort of deal Mr. Pillar is laying the groundwork for?

  7. John P
    November 16, 2015 at 21:56

    To get the Zionist view of what is going on and what they are doing just Google “A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties”.
    Everyone has been doing what is in their own interests in the area blind to the consequences we now face. Turkey after the Kurds, Israel after Hezbollah and to fracture the regional countries for their own benefit (Greater Israel), the Saudis and Bahrain in spreading Sunni control against Shia. The Neocons were pushing the Israeli line to what degree I don’t know, but G.W. Bush and his escapades did Iraq in to Israeli cheers. Where this mess ends up is anyone’s guess but we are all going to pay a price for stupidity.

  8. Zachary Smith
    November 16, 2015 at 21:18

    I’ve read this piece twice, and could make no more sense out of it the second time than the first. Except for the part I’m quoting, it struck me as totally opaque bafflegab. One wonders what Mr. Pillar believes ought to be done with ISIS in a “Syrian Deal”.

    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.

    A search for “ISIS claims responsibility” turned up an awful lot of results indicating that organization did indeed ‘claim responsibility’. And even with this part of the essay, Mr. Pillar leaves the impression that although ISIS might turn out to be the guilty party, a response isn’t really a good idea. Again, what would he propose to do to ISIS?

  9. MEexpert
    November 16, 2015 at 18:05

    Mr. Pillar generally has sound arguments to back up his assertions. In this case, however, he completely missed the point. In this case he is suggesting the fox guard the henhouse. The ISIS is backed by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Turkey. All of these countries are backed by the US, Britain, Israel, and France.

    All the weapons that ISIS has including the new Toyotas to move its troops around are supplied by the US and its allies. If the US were really interested in defeating ISIS, all it has to do is to put squeeze on these Arab states and stop the illegal sale and purchase of ISIS oil and ISIS will wither away in no time.

    The US because of its crooked foreign policy is just as much to be blamed for the mayhem caused by ISIS as ISIS itself.

  10. Drew Hunkins
    November 16, 2015 at 17:36

    What I’m dubbing “The Washington/pro-Israel/Saudi Terror Network” is ultimately responsible for the Paris death and destruction.

    This terror network has supported the most retrograde and violent Sunni factions in its quest to topple any secular, independent or pro-Palestinian Muslim or Arab leader in south central Asia, north Africa and the Middle East.

    The battle lines are now clear: basically the only states battling back against The Washington/pro-Israel/Saudi Terror Network are Russia and Iran.

    Of course The Washington/pro-Israel/Saudi Terror Network primarily uses proxy forces in the form of ISIL/al-Qaida.

    • alexander
      November 16, 2015 at 20:01

      You may be right on this one…

      Certainly any restraints to entering the Syrian fray imposed upon France by the U.N.S.C. become null and void once France is “attacked.”
      The “ISIS ” attacks against France, have now allowed that nation (and perhaps any NATO ally also) to enter the war legitimately…whereas previously it was” hog tied” by the need for a U.N.Security Council resolution permitting it ….

      The logic of your argument bears fruit when you consider the (inane) alternate supposition that ISIS attacked France to “welcome ” France (a super power) to start bombing the hell out of it…..How stupid is that ?
      Too stupid !

      Certainly the “alleged”central tenet of ISIS was to operate as a” regional caliphate” and perhaps take over Syria and Iraq…..if that was their legitimate goal…then attacking France so France can bomb it into smithereens is just too stupid a strategy to take seriously…

      On the other hand, the ISIS attacks on France, being a catalyst for NATO intervention transcending the need for a U.N.S.C. just what the “interventionists” ordered …..adding to your supposition that it is , indeed… an Israeli/Saudi/ Neocon proxy(false flag) attack.

      The idea…that Israel was worried that Russia’s legitimate entry into the conflict at the request of Syria would ultimately turn the tables on ISIS and reconstitute Syria’s sovereignty over its territorial integrity…had to be countered by a” staged attack” to allow a NATO ally to enter the fray and continue to shatter Syria, Israel’s arch enemy and the one “true” owner of the “Golan Heights” ..

      Don’t get me wrong if I was Israel I would probably want to keep the “Golan” too….but I would also like to own” Biarritz”, “Monte Carlo” and the “Alps of the Valais” ..that doesn’t give me the right to take them .

    • Peter Loeb
      November 18, 2015 at 08:28


      The so-called “deal” was made and consummated at least
      on paper not by any self-chosen “representatives” but
      by the UN Security Council itself.

      The deal was ratified UNANIMOUSLY. That means it
      included the US, France, Russia etc. etc.

      It became S/Res/2139(2014). Of particular note
      is the unanimous commitment to Syrian sovereignty
      (prelude) and in point # 14 (page 4 of the document,
      available on the UN Security Council
      webvsite) a very specific definition of means to be
      taken by all involved.(I have reprinted excerpts
      several times in this space.)


      Buried in history because it undercut reigning
      US policies at all levels (White House and
      Congress plus media).

      Now it is dead and forgotten because Washington
      effectively killed it. At point blank range.

      Only Russia followed the UN prescriptions.
      (It is noted that Russia has its own
      self-interest but of all the nations in the
      world, I challenge you to find me any with no
      self-interest at all.)

      At the time this resolution was passed (February 22,
      2014)ISIS was not the large problems it is today although
      point # 14 urgently predicts that that will be the
      case unless action is taken in concert with the
      Syrian Government.

      Except for Russia (and with reluctance evidently), no
      action was taken. NONE!!

      There is no need for additional meetings. A decision
      was reached unanimojusly at a high level and the
      US and western friends unilaterally did nothing at all.

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

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