Why Assad is no bulwark against al Qaeda

One of the strongest-sounding arguments against intervening in Syria is the fear that, by “degrading” Assad’s power, we will increase the odds that jihadist, al Qaeda affiliated rebels will come to power. It was this fear that caused me to suggest last year that a stalemate between Assad and the rebels might be the best outcome. Only after the tide of the civil war seemed to turn in favor of Assad did I warm to idea of assisting non-jihadist rebels.

Earlier this week, however, Rep. Tom Cotton, Frederick Kagan, and other participants in an AEI forum made a powerful case that by declining to intervene against Assad we are actually helping the jihadist, al Qaeda affiliated forces. They contended that by using force against Assad and providing aid to elements of the opposition, we can deal a setback not just to the Syrian tyrant and his Iranian sponsor, but also to al Qaeda and the forces of jihad.

Rep. Cotton fought against jihadists in Iran and Afghanistan. He learned in both places that “what works is supporting those who reject al Qaeda.” Indeed, “the surest way to strengthen al Qaeda is to abandon the general population.” This, Tom reminded us, is what we did in Iraq in 2006, with terrible results. When we reversed course in 2007, via the surge, we were able to rout al Qaeda.

Accordingly, Tom says those who believe that leaving Assad alone provides the best bulwark against al Qaeda are urging “exactly the wrong way to proceed.” The right way to proceed is through assistance to the non-jihadists opposition — albeit on a much smaller scale than in Iraq and Afghanistan — not through indifference.

Frederick Kagan, who helped formulate the Iraq surge, raised an additional argument along these lines. Kagan believes that Assad’s continued rule and ability to fight is a major contributor of the rise of al Qaeda in Syria. Why? Because Assad radicalizes the population. The longer Assad remains in power, the more influential al Qaeda is likely to become.

To be sure, as long as Assad remains in power, al Qaeda has no prospect of controlling all of Syria. But Kagan and others point out that al Qaeda is gaining control over parts of Syria, and Assad has very little hope of ever again governing that territory. What al Qaeda seeks above all is territory, not states. After all, once it consolidates control over a chunk of territory, it has a staging point from which to launch jihad.

Unlike Assad, the non-al Qaeda affiliated rebel opposition is a potentially viable governing force in the region the jihadists are gaining control of. But some argue that (1) this opposition is itself extremist and (2) it isn’t nearly as an effective fighting force as the al Qaeda types.

As to the first argument, I don’t doubt that John McCain and others overstate the “moderation” of the Free Syrian Army. Indeed, applying the term “moderate” to that force may be a stretch. And the line between “moderate” and jihadist rebels may not be quite as bright as McCain and others would have it.

That said, no one on the AEI panel disputed that there is significant non-jihadist rebel opposition to Assad. And a decade of experience in the Middle East should persuade us that such opposition exists in force.

Tom Cotton has worked with non-jihadist forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maliki in Iraq is a non-jihadist. al-Sisi in Egypt is a non-jihadist.

I don’t deny that non-jihadist Muslims can be exceptionally illiberal. The point is that they are disinclined to wage other than defensive war against the West. When this brand of opposition succeeds, it makes us safer, to use the catch phrase of the day.

But the second concern is whether the Free Syrian Army can fight effectively enough to provide a bulwark against al Qaeda. The obvious answer is that they almost certainly can’t, given the foreign support for al Qaeda, unless we help arm them. As Rep. Cotton suggested, experience shows that al Qaeda isn’t nearly as formidable when we support its opponents. At that point, the hatred engendered by their tactics and aspects of their world view comes to the fore.

Moreover, as Kagan pointed out, by helping the non-al Qaeda opposition, we retain the possibility of being able to influence it in a less extremist direction. Of course, this assumes a U.S. President who is interested in exerting such influence.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, it doesn’t look like the U.S. will take military action to degrade Assad. I view this as quite unfortunate, but that train has already not left the station.

The remaining option, which President Obama seems to favor, is providing aid to the non-jihadist opposition. It is clear to me, as it is to Cotton and Kagan, that we should embrace this option.

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