Thiessen cites the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project (CTP). They find that “current U.S. strategy empowers al-Qaeda, which has an army in Syria, is preparing to replace ISIS,. . . [and] is more dangerous than ISIS.”
How so? Because Sunnis see the United States as working with their mortal enemies, Russia, the Assad regime, and Iran. Al-Qaeda is taking advantage of this perception to build support among Sunni tribes, portraying itself as the defender of Sunni Arabs against a U.S.-Russo-Iranian axis intent on subjugating and destroying them.
Right now, al-Qaeda has established itself as the tip of the spear in the fight against the Assad regime, so many Sunnis who do not share al-Qaeda’s ideology are flocking to al-Qaeda because it is the only game in town for fighting Assad. Al-Qaeda’s goal is to take charge of the anti-Assad uprising and slowly transform it into a global jihad against Iran, Russia and the United States. [Note: ISIS used a similar strategy during its rise after President Obama pulled the U.S. out of Iraq.]
Instead of undermining these efforts, we are helping them, by focusing almost exclusively on the Islamic State and driving the Sunni population to ally itself with al-Qaeda.
In addition, Thiessen reminds us, the Trump administration told most of the pro-American Sunnis who want to fight with us that we would arm and train them only if they signed a pledge promising not to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has massacred their families with mortars and poison gas. Then, as a concession to Putin, it cancelled the covert CIA program that allowed a small number of rebels to fight Assad.
The effect, says Thiessen, will be to drive many of the fighters into the waiting arms of al-Qaeda, which promises to help them against Assad. Meanwhile, the cease fire Trump negotiated as part of the deal that cancelled the CIA program “create[s] an al-Qaeda haven in southern Syria. . .where the terrorist network behind 9/11 is free to operate without fear of U.S. attack.”
We need to restore the CIA’s covert train-and-equip program and lift the Defense Department’s restrictions preventing Sunnis who join us from fighting the Assad regime. We must then facilitate the emergence of a Sunni Arab partner force in southern Syria that will fight alongside U.S. forces to expel not just the Islamic State but al-Qaeda as well, while helping stop Iran from imposing Persian-backed domination by the Alawite minority against the Sunni majority.
As the ISW-CTP report puts it, “We must stop attacking the Sunni Arab community from the outside through proxies, and instead embed ourselves within that population as its defenders.”
None of this will happen as long as President Trump collaborates in Syria with Vladimir Putin.