Peace talks are at a virtual standstill. An emboldened President
Bashar al-Assad has missed two deadlines to turn over his deadliest
chemical weapons. And radical extremists who have fought in Syria
are carrying out attacks in Egypt and allegedly aspire to strike the
United States as well.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told members of
Congress last week that Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda aligned group
in Syria, "does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland."
American and Egyptian officials expressed alarm this week at signs
that Egyptians who fought in Syria have returned home to mount an
Critics of Obama administration policy in Syria argue that none of
this should come as a surprise. For years, they have predicted that
Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers would fight tenaciously;
militants would flock to Syria; and the region would be destabilized
by refugee flows, rising sectarianism and radicalized fighters
"A lot of things that the pro-interventionist crowd had argued two
years ago have come to pass," said Shadi Hamid, a Brookings
Institution expert who called for military intervention in 2012.
"The argument was that radicalism will rise."
It is impossible to know whether a Libya-like intervention would
have ended the conflict in Syria or exacerbated it. But citing
recent statements from administration officials, Hamid argued that
the current American approach is not working.
In his testimony last week, Clapper said that American intelligence
agencies had picked up indications of "training complexes" within
Syria "to train people to go back to their countries and conduct
terrorist acts, so this is a huge concern."
The retired Air Force general estimated that more than 7,000
foreigners from 50 countries — "many of them from Europe and the
Mideast" — are fighting in Syria. He compared rebel-controlled parts
of northern Syria to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of
Pakistan, or FATA, where foreign and local militants have sheltered
since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
"What's going on there may be in some respects a new FATA," Clapper
said. "And the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very
In the past, Clapper has been accused of exaggerating terrorist
threats and making misleading statements about the scope of American
surveillance activities. But Clapper is not the only senior official
expressing concern about the rising militant presence in Syria.
At a private meeting with members of Congress at the Munich Security
Conference last week, Secretary of State John Kerry said that "the
al-Qaeda threat is real, it is getting out of hand," Republican U.S.
Senator Lindsey Graham later told reporters. "He openly talked about
supporting arming the rebels. He openly talked about forming a
coalition against al-Qaeda because it's a direct threat."
State Department officials said that Graham and other members of
Congress who disclosed the private meeting distorted Kerry's
statements. They denied that Kerry raised arming the rebels or
described the current policy as a failure.
Noah Bonsey, a Beirut-based Senior Analyst for the International
Crisis Group, called Kerry's reported statements "an acknowledgement
of the facts." On the rebel side of the conflict, al-Qaeda aligned
militants have badly damaged the international reputation of the
Syrian opposition. On the government side, Assad and his backers in
Iran and Russia are increasingly confident.
"Geneva made abundantly clear that the regime is not prepared to
compromise on anything at all, no matter how small," Bonsey said in
a telephone interview, referring to the peace talks. "They believe
themselves to be winning and they perceive themselves as seeing no
real pressure, certainly not from Iran and probably not from
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"SOMEONE ELSE'S CIVIL WAR"
Steven A. Cook, a Mideast expert at the Council on Foreign
Relations, agreed that Assad and the militants are both growing
stronger. But he defended the administration's decision to not
intervene in what he called "someone else's civil war." Cook said
the best way for Washington to respond to rising militancy in Syria
was through regional allies, not direct American action.
"The question is how we go about countering them," Cook said in an
email. "I suspect that we are already doing things with friendly
countries — Turkey, Jordan, others — to counter Nusra without a
full-blown intervention in Syria."
Bonsey said he too opposed direct American intervention but pointed
out that for the last two years the United States has been trying
unsuccessfully to work through regional allies. Despite scores of
joint declarations, the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and
Turkey all continue to back different rebel groups, a practice that
further atomizes an already fractured Syrian opposition.
"The first step remains working with the opposition's regional
allies," he said. "Providing carrots and sticks that can encourage a
move toward pragmatism which can make them a more effective force."
Bonsey said this week's announcement that Obama will visit Saudi
Arabia in March could be a step toward a more unified effort. But
Hamid said the Obama administration has little credibility after
drawing "red lines" for Assad but failing to enforce them.
A central question — the central question — regarding Syria remains
in dispute in Washington, experts said. Does Syria now represent a
direct national security threat to the United States? Hamid, who
called for intervention in the past, said it does.
"They're saying now that fighters are going to be trained in Syria
and come back to the U.S.," he said. "We can't pretend that it
doesn't have an impact on American national security interests."
Cook and Bonsey agree the threat is rising but say the
administration must first develop a coherent approach to Syria with
its regional allies. Public opinion polls in the United States
continue to show sweeping opposition to greater American
involvement, including arming more moderate rebels.
Experts say only one scenario could change Washington's stance:
Syria-based militants somehow strike the American homeland. Until
that occurs, no level of carnage in Syria, Egypt or the Middle East
is likely to change Washington's political calculus.
(Edited by Sara Ledwith)
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