The Syrian Dilemma
It has been a little over two weeks since the downing of the Russian fighter jet at the Turkish-Syrian border. Many hawks who have been against the Russian interference in Syria have no doubt been celebrating with a fine bottle of champagne. But should we be rejoicing too?
Russia says that the fighter jet in question was flying inside Syria while Turkey says it had violated its airspace instead. To me this distinction is not that relevant. Not because international law is not important, but rather because these types of situations happen more often than less. Only a few weeks ago the Colombian government complained that Venezuelan Sukhoi jets had flown over its airspace. In 2014 alone Turkish fighter jets violated Greek airspace 2,244 times. So it is actually really rare to witness the bellicose response taken by the Turkish government.
Some reports argue that the Turkish government downed the fighter jet because Russia was targeting Turkmen. Yes they were ethnic Turks who have lived in Syria, Iraq, and Iran since probably the 11th century. But what made Erdogan choose such a belligerent response is not really the tie that Turkey has to these ethnic Turks, but rather the military role they are playing against Assad. It is not ethnicity or humanitarianism guiding Erdogan but rather military strategy.
Indeed Vice President Biden described how Turkey [along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE] were “so determined to take down Assad,” that they gave “hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons” to anyone who wanted to fight Assad. Biden would then face criticism from those nations and he would chose to apologize to them. It was sad however and to a large extent shameful to have seen the Vice President of the United States apologizing for telling the truth.
What does this say about the US government’s credibility in the war against terrorism? Only that the United States government is not prepared to confront the realities on the ground.
If the United States is to lead the world, like some democrats and republicans alike certainly propose, then it needs to lead it with transparency and sincerity. It cannot bash on Iran for giving material support to groups like Hezbollah while ignoring the dubious and hypocritical actions of its so-called allies in the region.
Call me old fashioned but I dream of a world that is gently guided by the hand of a righteous superpower, one which is not above the laws of the world, but rather which adheres strictly to them, while endorsing all nations to join these laws in communion.
While Russia says that it was targeting ISIS militants, they were indeed targeting Turkmen members of the 10th Coastal Brigade (an FSA affiliated group). Many reports point out that the Turkmen 10th Coastal Brigade are actually allies of Jabhat al Nusra. For anyone who might’ve forgotten, like unfortunately, President Obama, who after the incident said that the Russians “are going after moderate opposition,” al Nusra are al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
And that misperception about Russia’s air campaign has not been his alone, as it is repeated by CNN military analysts and the Deputy Spokesperson of the State Department which seems to prove that they all know very little about the war in Syria. So should we be happy that Turkey downed a Russian military jet that was targeting al Qaeda’s friend? It seems very strange right?
Throughout the war in Syria there have been some military strategies called operations rooms (ghurfat amaliyat). These are basically coalitions to grab territory made up of different militant groups which might have different ideological leanings and even external backings. So while the 10th Costal Brigade might not be hardline salafis like their friends from the Nusra Front or Ahrar al Sham, they work with them on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. While the dynamics of a war do constrain options and actors – it is important to understand that the 10th Coastal Brigade chooses to cooperate with our very radical enemies. The Kurdish YPG (for a variety of different reasons) is one actor for example that does not build bridges with such influences (although they have indeed instituted truces).
In March of 2014 the newspaper al Araby reported: “The 10th Brigade, the 1st Coastal Division, al-Nusra Front, Ansar al-Din, Sham al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, and Ansar al-Sham attacked regime positions in Dourin,” said Abu-Salem al-Hafawi, a Syrian activist. And by October of the same year reports surfaced that the allies held control of the town and had killed all of the regime forces. Similarly last year the newspaper Al Akhbar reported that ISIS, al Nusra, and another FSA-linked group had attacked the Lebanese army in Ersal.
The information above actually addresses the difficulty of finding reliable third parties in Syria to fight terrorism. Most presidential candidates endorse some type of train and equip program. The Post and Courier reported that Jeb Bush “did support aiding the rebel Free Syrian Army with Special Forces troops.” Hilary Clinton has blamed the Obama administration for not supporting the Free Syrian Army enough! And the administration of President Obama has for the last few years endorsed tragic train and equip programs – in the face of their lack of a strategy for Syria.
They spent close to 500 million dollars recently after training only a handful of militants. Yet there are nearly no acknowledgements of mistakes, no apologies and no reprimands. Worse yet the infrastructure here in the United States is crumbling, the people are poorer and the vets don’t get the medical attention they deserve. Oh how they could have all used the 500 million!!
The CIA started arming militants in Syria from around 2012 and from 2014 General John Allen has been responsible for continuing those catastrophic strategies. As the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant he should have reviewed whether what the CIA had been doing for around two years was actually working. Instead like an amateur military planner he ignored the necessity of revising tactics and kept on giving weapons and training to unreliable groups. This cluelessness extends to policymakers who recently argued for the creation of an ISIS Czar even though this position already existed under Allen.
It was recently announced that Gen. Allen would be resigning soon from his position as Chief of Syria’s Policy. But the biggest problem is that the Obama administration actually denied that his resignation had anything to do with the failed counter-insurgency programs. If you do not hold defense officials accountable for policies that are actually making the world less safe then they will believe that this is all a game. I personally do not think that this is humorous or fun, especially when in reality there are probably now more arms and training in the hands of radicals than ever before. It doesn’t make sense to make another ISIS in order to eliminate ISIS.
But it is relatively obvious. I mean – if politicians won’t take the blame themselves, then they won’t blame their officials either. It’s sort of a blame-free environment in Washington – no accountability whatsoever. One thing is for sure, all of these people ought to remember the fiasco with the Hazm brigades. The Hazm brigades were one of the first FSA affiliated groups to be backed by the US government. Yet while the US government was supplying them with anti-tank missiles, they were also collaborating with al Nusra and the Muhajireen Army (an Al-Qaeda affiliate from the Islamic Caucus Emirates). When the USA started bombing al Nusra, the leadership of the Hazm brigades declared those actions to be an “attack on the Syrian revolution.” In the aftermath the 4,200 force of the Hazm brigades disbanded, and many of them defected to al Nusra.
But you know it seems that politicians are either not too sharp or simply don’t care. Or perhaps when they were young all of these politicians abused alcohol a little too much, and they ended up with memory problems. Or perhaps they are just in the business of pretending to be providing security for their citizens when in reality they are not. Elections are more important… I am not sure! But there needs to be some kind of logical explanation as to why they continue to endorse these types of failed programs.
After the tragedy of 9/11 President Bush said: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” This means that terrorists and their collaborators are on the same level. So should it really be irritating that Russia is targeting the collaborators of al Qaeda? And shouldn’t our hawks be irritated that it is Turkey which forms part of NATO the one that has been allegedly helping all of these groups? And this is not just a problem with Turkey. A few years ago the Minister of Justice of Kuwait openly called for people to finance jihadi movements in Syria. And there’s not enough time nor space to get started on Saudi Arabia and Qatar!
One opposition leader in Turkey alleges that the Turkish government has given ISIS millions of dollars for the oil that is smuggled daily into the country. Turkey had previously restricted the use of the US base in Incirlik. There are reports of Turkish ambulances going into Syria and back to retrieve injured ISIS fighters and put them in hospitals in Turkish land. There are reports of ISIS members going from Syria into Turkey to use refugee aid. Finally all of the extremist groups have operated freely alongside the borders of Turkey and Syria.
Of course the Turkish government tactically announces something positive for US policy objectives from time to time, especially in the face of growing pressure and the realization of their actions, but their priority has always been to eliminate both Assad and Kurdish groups like the PKK and the YPG. So Erdogan logically benefits from the actions of ISIS and al Nusra.
Erdogan’s recent actions actually endanger the security of the West as well as ironically undermine his own. They create unneeded escalations with Russia – which should be seen as a major ally in counterterrorism. An intelligence officer once told me: with all of these foreign policy tensions and problems our channels break down. The French Foreign Minister recently came to a similar realization stating that beating ISIS may require Assad’s help. Assad might be a bad man but his forces are the most reliable ones on the ground – apart from the YPG.
The United States military has had problems with the effectiveness of aerial bombardments because of a lack of intelligence on the ground as well as the lack of people to guide the bombardments. Collaboration with Assad and Russia would help fill that gap. Hawks are wrong that the Free Syrian Army groups could act as forward air controllers. It is not logical or productive to give technology and training to groups that have links to Al Nusra and others with radical ideologies.
And if we do not work with Assad then who are we going to work with? Let’s be practical and realistic. Are we going to work with our enemies like ISIS and Al Nusra? Are we going to continue to work with Free Syrian Army groups that are allied with Al Nusra? If the answer is no then are we going to work with Ahrar al Sham? Ahrar al Sham is a 20 thousand strong salafi extremist group which some observers have erroneously considered to be taking a “moderate turn.” Yet just a few days ago they walked out of a Syrian rebel meeting in Saudi Arabia because of political disagreements. They have advocated an Islamic State, they are against democratic institutions and political pluralism and they have executed people in Idlib just because they were Christians. A group that would have beheaded my grandmother’s family (they were Syrian Christians) just because of their faith does not deserve to have a future in Syria.
There is a need for smooth channels of intelligence sharing between Russia and the USA/EU. There are hundreds of Chechnyan jihadists fighting in Syria putting at risk Russian national security. A few weeks ago ISIS put a bomb on a Russian commercial plane flying out of Egypt. A few weeks ago the tragic magnitude of the Paris attacks was made possible by European foreign fighters who had traveled to Syria. There are thousands of Europeans, and many North Americans affiliated to radical groups in Syria.
Russia has information and intelligence that it gets through Assad, and which is not available to European or American intelligence agencies. And the American/European intelligence community has information not available to the Russians. We must understand that in these transnational and irregular wars we have a symbiotic relationship with other nations who do not share the radical ideologies and intentions of the terrorists.
There is no Second Cold War; unless we allow external influences from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, or internal ones from right wing elements to generate it for us. People like Carly Fiorina who think only through archaic conventional military methods have no place in this new era of transnational terrorism. The Sixth Fleet would not be able to confront the challenges that we face. And a no fly zone in Syria as endorsed by virtually all presidential candidates except for Paul, Sanders, Cruz and Trump, does not help the situation at all but actually worsens it. To enforce a no fly zone over Syria would be to actually become the air force of radical terrorist groups like ISIS and al Nusra and to give them an edge over controlling the whole country. And people like Hillary Clinton who argue that there should have been more help to the opposition in Syria need to read the recently declassified report of the Defense Intelligence Agency which stated that from the start the “Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq) (were) the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”
We also need to stop our obsession with ISIS. They are not the first and they will not be the last. I will always perceive al Nusra as a more dangerous actor, regardless of ISIS recent attack in Paris and to what extent they inspired the other attack in California. Doesn’t it worry you that al Nusra is more effective at making alliances with other groups in Syria, and is actually popular among civilians in the country? And it is highly plausible that they also have the capacity to do a high intensity attack inside the United States. US born “Abu Salha” travelled from Syria into the United States and then back to Syria all while undergoing indoctrination and training by Al Nusra. Anyone could travel to Syria, but what is striking here is that he was an active terrorist member of Al Nusra and was able to travel into the United States, bypassing so-called “intelligence.”
Worse yet, all of this talk about a Cold War is what is enabling and encouraging nations like Turkey to take unprecedented and dangerous actions against countries which should be seen as imperative allies like Russia. Neither is Assad nor Russia the enemy; the enemy is ISIS, Al Qaeda, and anyone who allies with them. The allies of al Qaeda are not our friends. And terrorism will not be confined to ISIS or al Qaeda. In the end these are just names.
This article was originally posted in The Huffington Post.
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