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In Syria, We’re Getting Counter-terrorism All Wrong

In Syria, We’re Getting Counter-terrorism All Wrong

Tuesday, 4 February, 2020 - 07:15
Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

Syria has been at the center of the world’s counter-terrorism efforts in recent years. The shocking expansion of ISIS in mid-2014 unified the international community’s attention on Syria in a way that the earlier uprising against the Assad regime had not. In a matter of weeks, the largest multinational coalition in history had been mobilized to launch a counter-attack on ISIS in Iraq and Syria and five years later, the militant's areas had been destroyed. While proclamations of ISIS’s defeat were certainly premature, international policy and attention on countering terrorism in Syria has since declined – as if to suggest that the job is done. In fact, as 2020 sets in, the world seems to be getting counter-terrorism all wrong in Syria, in three interlinked ways.


On the one hand, the threat from ISIS is a long way from over. ISIS retains thousands of militants in Syria and is sustaining a steady pace of insurgent and terrorist attacks east of the Euphrates. More worryingly, ISIS appears to be growing in confidence and ability west of the Euphrates, in Syria’s central desert, where the Assad regime and its militia partners appear largely incapable of containing, let alone defeating ISIS’s activities. Syrian soldiers and militiamen are dying almost daily in ISIS attacks centered along the M20 highway that runs between Palmyra and Deir Ezzor. In recent weeks, ISIS has briefly taken control of a village and several key sections of the M20.


Despite the evidence being clear that ISIS remains alive and well, albeit without a territorial entity under its control, the world appears increasingly uninterested in sustaining a meaningful anti-ISIS campaign in Syria. Defeating the areas under ISIS control was the easy task, but what should follow now is the more difficult and more important challenge. Now is the worst time to lose interest, as doing so merely gifts ISIS with an enhanced opportunity to survive and resurge. Despite the hopes of some, the Assad regime, Russia and Iran do not see ISIS as a priority issue. It is naïve and dangerous to suggest that we should leave ISIS for the pro-Assad coalition to deal with. That isolationist strategy contributed towards the explosive growth of ISIS we were forced to witness in 2014. And it will do so again.


Secondly, and most urgently, the international community’s apathy and inaction towards the situation in Idlib is fueling conditions in which extremists not only thrive but look set to inherit the Syrian revolutionary mantle. Protecting human life and the reinforcing fundamental international norms, as well as humanitarian aid are all critically important components of a long-term strategy against violent extremism. On the other hand, pursuing the opposite – known plainly as inaction – is an effective method of emboldening extremists.


Former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has positioned itself in an invaluable middle-ground, leading what remains of Syria’s anti-regime effort while simultaneously attempting to represent a sustainable extremist future. The decision by the United States and its allies in the Middle East and Europe to sever all support to Free Syrian Army partners in late-2017 gifted the likes of HTS with an opportunity to achieve dominance. But the world’s silence today – as hundreds of civilians are slaughtered; hospitals destroyed in precision strikes; elderly men shot dead and burned on the street; and hundreds of thousands of people are forced to flee, some on foot – risks gifting HTS with a narrative win on the revolutionary street.


The core of the policy problem here is not just inaction – it is the refusal to acknowledge that violent extremism is principally a socio-political challenge, not solely an ideological one. Thousands of ordinary men, young and old, have joined HTS in the last six months – not because of ideological affinity, but because HTS offered their best chance of effectively resisting the regime’s assault on Idlib. Turkey’s failure – through inability or refusal – to staunch the pro-Assad offensive is slowly undermining the credibility of less extreme opposition factions, granting HTS even more of an advantage. When that happens, the even more extreme al-Qaeda loyalists will gain a durable safehaven from which their more globalist ambitions might be realized. Unless the violence is stopped, or at minimum, more moderate avenues for armed resistance are presented, extremists will inevitably thrive, with or without territory. Our silence virtually guarantees this.


Thirdly, the international community’s increasing disengagement from meaningful aspects of the Syria file has given the Assad regime a clear path to continue brutally suppressing its population. Not only will this fan the flames of an increasingly extremist future opposition, it has given Iran and Hezbollah a chance to quietly consolidate their gains made in previous years. Amid the US-led “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran and associated sanctions on Hezbollah, as well as Lebanon’s financial and political crisis, it has been assumed by many that Iran and Hezbollah have stepped back from their Syrian investments.


Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Iranian Quds Force operatives, Hezbollah militants and an array of Iranian militias have remained on the ground, engaged militarily in central and eastern Syria, and in southern Aleppo. In Syria’s south, Hezbollah has taken the lead in a major recruitment campaign, mobilizing several thousand Syrians into new “resistance” units stationed within four Syrian Army bases in Deraa. In eastern Syria, Iran is building a bespoke military base near al-Bukamal, where thousands of militiamen will be housed and hardened tunnels will store Iranian missiles imported via Iraq. Iran is also engaged in a substantial cultural proselytization campaign, spreading its political and theological values, language and inducing locals to convert to Shiism. Taken together, this is an expensive and expansive effort aimed at irreversibly consolidating Iranian strategic-level influence in Syria.


Terrorism comes in many different shapes and sizes, but if there is one consistent rule that applies to violent extremism, it is that it thrives in intractably unstable environments. There is no scenario imaginable in which Syria stabilizes in the coming years. The root causes of violence are too deep rooted and remain entirely unaddressed – in fact, many have significantly worsened since 2011. Though the international community wants to envision a world in which extremism and terrorism become minor challenges that require localized containment, that is not a scenario on the table for Syria. If the likes of ISIS, HTS, al-Qaeda, Iran and its proxies are left to their own devices, we will live to regret it.


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