The Middle East Policy Council's 83rd Capitol Hill Conference, held on January 21, 2016 from 9:00 a.m.-11:30 a.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., has concluded. The video and an unedited transcript are available below. To receive invitations to future events, click here, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook. To view our recent Capitol Hill Conferences, click here.
The following is an unedited transcript of the eighty-third in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. on January 21, 2016, with Patrick Theros as moderator and Thomas R. Mattair as discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
PATRICK THEROS, Former Ambassador to Qatar; Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
Good morning, and welcome to the 83rd session of Middle East Policy Council’s Congressional Events. Today we’re here. I’m glad that enough of us have braved the weather this morning. Yes, it’s really bad. And I’m also happy that we’re not holding this tomorrow.
We’re here to talk about a subject whose importance is unchallenged, but who the second part of the subject, how much of a threat is to U.S. national security. There are those who claim that ISIS is the bush league, that ISIS is a localized problem of no real importance to the United States. There are those who believe that it is a purely regional problem which the United States has interests, but that the United States should not intervene.
There are others who believe that this is a problem that could cause enormous damage to U.S. interests, not just in the region but beyond that, and believe that we should be intervening much more forcefully, which then raises questions of how much we should intervene, in what form, for how long, and what do we do afterwards? And we have today a very distinguished group of speakers who will attempt to address those questions and hopefully create more questions that we need to answer in the future.
Dr. William Wechsler, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on counterterrorism and U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia and Africa. I won’t read into — I won’t repeat everything that you all have in front of you, however at the Department of Defense he had advised multiple secretaries of defense on issues of — on what the department should be doing with regard to its policies, its plans in this region.
Dr. Katz, professor of government and politics at the George Mason University School of Policy, Government and International Matters. He was a research fellow prior to teaching at George Mason at Brookings and as a Soviet affairs analyst at the Department of State in the past. Rockefeller Foundation international relations fellow, and holds an M.A. from the University of California and a Ph.D. from MIT.
Mr. Charles Lister, resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, focused on terrorism, insurgency, and sub-state security threats across the Middle East. He’s also a senior consultant in The Shaikh Group’s Track II Syria Initiative, within which he has helped coordinate a two-year process of engagement with the leadership of over 100 Syrian-armed opposition groups. Having spent some time with Syria myself, that is probably the most thankless and difficult task I can think of.
Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin, distinguished service professor also at George Mason University. Prior to that she was professor and director of the core course at the National War College. She came to the War College from Oxford, where she was director of studies for the changing character of war program. She continues at Oxford as a nonresident senior research associate. She has written a number of books on terrorism and related subjects.
I’d also like to talk just for a few minutes — just for a few moments, I should say, on the Middle East Policy Council. We are a Washington-based nonprofit organization, 34 years since its creation. Our mission is to foster intelligent analysis about developments in the Middle East and American interests in the region. We have three major programs. The first is a publication of our quarterly journal, Middle East Policy, which I frankly and honestly believe is the best in the field. It is the most frequently cited journal talking about the Middle East. And we hope if you are not already subscribers, that you will consider subscribing to it.
The second is our Capitol Hill Conference Series, which I misnamed at the beginning. And today’s conference is the 83rd in that series. We are livestreaming it. And if you want to ask questions for those who are livestreaming, you can tweet questions to @MidEastPolicy — M-I-D-E-A-S-T-policy. You can see the video and read the transcript on our website within a day or two. We will also publish the transcript of the conference in the next issue of our journal, which will be spring 2016.
The third program, and the one I believe is probably the most valuable, is an outreach program for educators and students, primarily at the secondary school level. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who will argue that we do not have enough people in this country properly educated on what is one of the most important regions in the world. And the amount of ignorance floating around, pro and con, on the region is appalling, and I think has led to some — to many of our problems in the region.
Finally, we have a great website that supports these programs and also presents other commentary, articles, op-eds and videos on the region. The address is www.MEPC.org. We hope you will become a regular visitor.
That’s it. Very briefly, I would like to turn the microphone over to Dr. Wechsler.
WILLIAM F. WECHSLER, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, U.S. Department of Defense
Thank you very much. I’m just going to talk for a few minutes because I know we have a lot of very impressive speakers here today, and then of course we also want to get to your questions later.
But I do want to go through a little bit of my assessments of where we are in the fight against the Islamic State, how we got here, where we’re going, and the lessons that we — that we should take from our experience thus far. I take this from the years that I was — until last year I was deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combatting terrorism, where I worked on these issues on a daily basis and saw the evolution of our policies and our approach towards the Islamic State throughout that time period.
I think the first step — the first assessment that we have to make is that if you look at the benchmark that the president has laid out for us to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State, we have not met that goal, clearly. And to think about, you know, what Winston Churchill says, you know, this is — we’re not yet at the beginning of the end even. (Laughter.) And I think it’s even questionable whether we’re even at the end of the beginning. We are at a very early stage in this — in this effort, unfortunately.
Why fundamentally are we here? Well, we’re here, as former Secretary Gates said just recently, first and foremost because of the decisions of the local actors, because of what’s happened in Syria and because of the leadership there and its decision to make war on its own people and because of decisions in Iraq by the former leadership there, and its decision to stoke sectarian tensions and dismiss legitimate Sunni grievances and desires.
But that’s not the only reason why we’re here. We’re fundamentally where we are, and we haven’t met our goals, because virtually every single player, every nation that is either in the Middle East or has significant interests in the Middle East does not have as its top priority the destruction of the Islamic State, including the United States. If we had it as our top priority, we would have passed an authorization for the use of military force specifically about this. If we had it for our top priority, many of our policies would be changed.
But you can just go around the region and you can see that for many of the countries, the fight against Assad has been a higher priority than the fight against the Islamic State. For many of our — of the people in the region, the support of the Shia has been more of a priority than the fight against the Islamic State. For others, it is — it is a battle between — a proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is more important that the fight against the Islamic State.
Every country has other priorities that exceed the priority that they place upon the fight against the Islamic State. And when you pull all that together, you end up with the space and the vacuum for the Islamic State to have accomplish what it has accomplished. So you know, at the beginning in our opening statements we said the importance of this issue is unchallenged — to a degree. I think it is — it is perhaps unchallenged in the abstract, but it is definitely deprioritized and it has been deprioritized for years for many of the actors.
Then the other question that was — that was noted at the beginning was, why do we care? How important of a threat is all of this? I argue, personally, that this is a very significant threat, and we need to consider it that way, and it should be prioritized much higher than it has been. And I’m very pleased to see that some of the steps that the Obama administration has taken more recently have moved in that direction. But let me explain to you a little bit why.
First and foremost, even if your position is that you cannot see significant interests that the United States has in the Middle East, in stability in the Middle East, contrary to every president and every administration’s view, at least from FDR on — even if that’s your position and you only hold the position that the only reason we should care about any terrorist group is because of its potential for external threats, then you should care about the Islamic State, then you should see it as a threat. And by the way, this should have been your view even before San Bernardino, even before the inspired attacks from the Islamic State.
And I want to make an important distinction here. It is wrong to say that all terrorist groups around the world threaten the United States homeland directly. It is wrong to say that all Muslim-oriented terrorist groups threaten it, or even all Sunni terrorist groups threaten it. But the Salafi jihadist terrorist groups — al-Qaida, and the Islamic State, and others that have that ideology — will inevitably, once they get territory from which they have sanctuary — it provides them a sanctuary from which they can act with impunity, they will always eventually turn to external attacks.
This is a policy debate that has gone through multiple administrations in the United States. It was in the Clinton administration, it was in the Bush administration, it was in the Obama administration. And every single time the people who argued otherwise were proved to be wrong. And there’s reasons why. It has to do with the internal ideological incentives. It has to do with the incentives to prove leadership. It has to do with what they see as their religious requirements to take the fight to the nonbelievers. It has to do with what they see as the future that is laid out for them in prophecy.
And again, it has to do with jockeying for power for leadership in the minds of those who they want to impress and attract. There is nothing more impressive than an external attack against those countries that — those actors that many people feel have been keeping them down and — for decades and decades. And doing such an attack raises your stature. So we saw that in — when they were in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we saw that in Yemen, we saw that of course now in Syria and Iraq.
But even — but it shouldn’t just be the external attacks that drives our interest in this. Beyond all of our other interests, typical interests that have been there for decades in this part of the world, we have a wider interest. You know, at this point there are no really good potential outcomes for this part of the world. We’re only choosing between variations on bad outcomes for the foreseeable future. But I would argue the worst of all outcomes for U.S. interests is that this — is that the wider region, the master narrative that defines what happens in this region is a sectarian war.
And about five years ago, the likelihood of that I think was extremely low. The likelihood of that now is not extremely low anymore. It’s not — I don’t know that it’s necessarily above 50 percent, but it is a material probability. It is something that we need to be very much concerned about. There are folks in significant positions in major Sunni states who not only use this language but actually see this as a likely or a positive, you know, outcome. There are folks in major Shia powers that see this as a — in the same way. And this is the only scenario in which the Islamic State fully succeeds at its goals. This has been its strategy from the beginning. And if we allow that to happen, that is the best case for the Islamic State to succeed.
I don’t think we’re there now. I think what we can see now is more — is more appropriately explained as a more classic power relationship between two regional powers in Saudi Arabia and Iran. That’s — looking at it through that lens explains more of the — what we see in the world. But every month that goes by, we slip a little bit closer to that nightmare scenario. And then we really are in the 30 Years War. And then we really are — and when those types of wars begin, you don’t know where they — where they end.
And that’s the real danger of all of this, is that it’s fundamentally unpredictable. At the beginning — you know, a hundred years ago, people in this room, perhaps, might have been talking about what the likely outcome was going to be of what we now call World War I. I guarantee you, nobody at the time was predicting a Communist takeover of Russia. You know, these things are tremendously unpredictable, where they go when wars go at that scale and scope.
So last fall the organization for which I work, where I’m a senior fellow, the Center for American Progress, put out a report on what the state of the fight against the Islamic State was, and what we — and what we could be doing about it. Very pleased to see that since then the administration has adopted a lot of the points that we made. It has expanded the air campaign, both in terms of size but also more importantly in terms of scope, in terms of what kinds of targets we’re going after.
The expansion from high-value targets and massed, you know, personnel to strategically important targets that were — that are amongst the infrastructure of the organization is an incredibly important decision that was made. And the recent public announcement that a large store of cash was destroyed, and the recent piece in the news I just saw today that the Islamic State is telling its fighters that their salaries are going to go down by half because of — because of such events is a real strong impact. And that’s the kind of things that we were talking about in our report.
We’ve also expanded the number of special operations personnel that are on the — that are on the ground both in Iraq and in Syria, which is — which is incredibly important to do. It’s also important to notice that, you know, there was a large announcement about sending the 50 special operations personnel into Syria. Now, remember exactly what this is. This is an announcement that says that we’re going to send the same kinds of personnel we already have, working with the same partner that we’re already working with. The only new thing about the announcement was they were going to be doing this work across an imaginary line that nobody in the region recognizes as having any importance, except for the United States. So we stopped being the only country in the world that recognized this border with that announcement.
We’ve also — the administration’s also expanded the battlefield. And again, recently you saw that our forces in Afghanistan now have authority to target the Islamic State’s actors there as well. And there’s been, of course, a very strong effort on the diplomatic front led by Secretary of State Kerry to deal with all the tricky issues involving resolving issues in its entirety. And there’s been a new focus on the underlying — on challenging the underlying narrative of the Islamic State, which is — which is absolutely critical, and is something that not only the United States but all of the players who should be focusing their efforts against the Islamic State need to do a much, much better job on.
You know, if you go back to the ’90s, when I was working on al-Qaida at the National Security Council, you know, what we concluded there was the center of gravity, you know, the element that allows an organization to accomplish its goals for al-Qaida at the time was its money. And eventually that — and the center of the problem there was Saudi Arabia. And eventually, the Saudi government recognized this problem and addressed this problem quite successfully, and has been one of our great allies in going after the — al-Qaida’s money supply, and a great intelligence partner of the United States as well.
Today, when the problem has gone to the Islamic State, the center of gravity for the Islamic State is its narrative, is its ideology, is its attractiveness. Once again, the sort of ur-source for this problem is Saudi Arabia. It’s going to be much more difficult to imagine Saudi Arabia turning against this center of gravity in the way that it turned against al-Qaida’s center of gravity. But that’s perhaps something we can address in the questions.
So what’s the likely outcome, given all of this? The likely outcome is this is a long slog ahead of us. This is going to be years, perhaps decades’ worth of work. We should not in any way expect this to be over soon. That’s just not how these wars tend to work. We’re also seeing more geopolitically. You know, one analyst said to me years ago, and I’ve kept it with me, an Israeli analyst said to me: What we’re seeing finally is, at long last, the end of World War I in this region. And I think that there’s a lot of truth to that. And that portends to, again, the long effort that is in front of us to really understand and deal with all the tremors that come out of this earthquake.
So let’s talk very briefly about just the lessons that we learn from this. First and foremost, the mechanism by which we fight these states, the Islamic State and these types of terrorists actions — adversaries, the administration is fundamentally correct when it wants to focus on indirect action rather than direct action as the primary line of operation. When it comes to fighting terrorist direct action is vitally important, it must be done. You have to be able to finish important personnel, important nodes in networks, directly as the United States or as part of a wider campaign. But direct action, in my experience, is almost never the decisive line of operation in a counterterrorism campaign — almost never.
Much more likely to be the decisive line of operation is indirect action, is working by, with, and through others — people who are on the ground, people who live in this area. If they take on the fight, then we have a possibility of winning over a long period of time and achieving our counterterrorism goals. If we are doing the fighting, we’re much less likely to do so. And by the way, we’ve had tremendous success even within the last 20 years in this approach.
Colombia is a huge success with this approach. Philippines are a huge success with this approach. Somalia even, despite all of its problems, if you look back to what the predictions were in 2006 about what we were going to see out of al-Shabaab, none of those came true. And that’s because of very, very good work by the African Union, supported by the United States, in order to fight that counterterrorism campaign, first and foremost.
So if indirect action is the preferred line of operations, preferred approach for dealing with these kinds of problems, then what are the implications for U.S. policy? I think this is — this is what we can most appropriately think of, most constructively think of as we go forward. First and foremost, as I mentioned before, indirect action — depending on indirect action requires a timeframe that is much longer than we are used to dealing with in the United States. Again, these are generational efforts.
Secondly, when you’re thinking about indirect action, it is critical to go in earlier and lighter than it is to go in later and bigger. You have to start very early and you have to go in very, very small to do — to do this. Any decision that you make to avoid those kinds of situations, it raises the likelihood of the worst possible scenario, where you have to go in big, late. And unfortunately, that’s in many respects what we’re doing now in Iraq and in Syria.
We have to fundamentally — if you’re doing indirect action, you need to understand the human terrain that you’re working with. That’s a military term. People in the State Department just call that understanding the country — (laughs) — you know, understanding diplomacy, understanding the tribes, understanding not just the government but all the local different actors. This is — this is painful lessons that we learn in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we are woefully short on that kind of expertise in the United States. But it’s required if we’re going to work through an indirect action.
It means that when we built our partners, we should focus on small, elite units rather than building in scale. There are not too many examples — in fact, I can’t think of any — where the United States itself has independently built a foreign army successfully in scale. We’ve tried it a number of times. We’ve spent a lot of money doing it. We can spend a lot of money to help another military that is already built and is of modest capabilities get better. We can help that in scale. But going from nothing to very large capable modern army is extremely hard to do. We have — and we don’t have a lot of success.
We do, however, have a lot of success in building small units, elite units, that can work with us directly on counterterrorism operations. Some of these are military. Some of these are law enforcement. Some of these are intelligence. But that we can do well. And that’s where we need to focus our efforts. When I say building them, what am I talking about? Well, I’m talking about the full spectrum of equipping, training, advising, assisting, and accompanying.
Quite often we do this — and if I look at our history — the wrong way, where we start with the lowest one, equipping, and we slowly incrementally work up to the most advanced one, which is accompanying. Just in general, just throwing equipment out the door is a giant waste of U.S. taxpayers’ resources. They become very, very useful if they are joined with the full spectrum of support that we can give. And again, that’s how you build the elite forces, foreign forces into real capable counterterrorism efforts. But that requires policy shifts to do so.
Then once we’ve built those elite units, the question is what kind of support do we provide to them? In general, we should be approaching this the same way we would approach questions about what kind of support we are providing our own forces when they’re in the field. We would never put forces in the field without providing them with command and control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, CASEVAC, MEDEVAC to get them out in time, fire support when necessary, lift support. These are — but quite often, we are reluctant to provide those kinds of support.
This is all in the context, by the way, of what some people refer to as not combat forces being involved. And none of this is involving the U.S. military going on target taking people down. This is all indirect action where we are supporting others. But there are different gradations — that’s what I’m — that’s the main point that I’m trying to leave about what kind of support we can do — and those gradations are critically important.
Working — and the last thing I just want to focus on is that working through indirect action requires the United States to expand the objects of our policy beyond the narrow focus that might interest the United States to the wider focus that interests our partners. If we’re going to be working by, with, and through our partners, it has to actually be a partnership. It can’t be the United States telling someone else what to do. It has to be — it has to be a joint decision about what it is we’re going to do.
And sometimes that can be very difficult. My favorite example of all of this is in Colombia back in the ’90s. You know, when — at some point in Capitol Hill, you heard all the time, the only thing we’re interested in is counternarcotics there. And you know, the old joke in Colombia was, you know, they’re walking through the jungle, someone fires on them, and they run behind a tree or a rock and they get out their bullhorn and they ask: Excuse me, can you please tell me if you are a terrorist, a narco, or an insurgent? Because I have three different clips paid for with three different lines of authority from the U.S. Congress. And I have to know which one I put in my gun before I can return fire.
And it was a joke, but it actually had some truth to it back then, because we were focused on only one stovepipe of what we could do. It was only with Plan Colombia that we adopted a holistic plan for all the problems that Colombia was doing — narcotics, and terrorism, and insurgency — that we got the framework for eventually getting to the point where we are today, where there are negotiations that hopefully will result in the end of the longest-running terrorist war in the western hemisphere. It’s that kind of policy leap to look at things holistically that is absolutely required when we’re doing indirect actin.
So those are the lessons that we learned and the way forward, from my perspective. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
AMB. THEROS: Mr. Wechsler, thank you very much.
MARK KATZ, Professor of Government and Politics, George Mason University; author, Leaving Without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan
Thank you very much to the Middle East Policy Council for inviting me to address this forum. It’s very, very good to be here again.
I am going to talk about the Russia factor in all of this, with the ISIS threat to U.S. national security and our policy choices. I agree strongly with the previous speaker about, you know, everyone opposes ISIS but it’s not anyone’s top priority. And I think that also holds true for Russia. You know, ironically, almost a century ago we had a similar situation in which 1917, ’18, ’19 virtually everyone opposed the Bolsheviks in Russia, but unfortunately with some 22-odd Russian opposition groups, with numerous different external powers involved in the Russian civil war, no one seemed to focus on the Bolsheviks. That was not the top priority. And of course, we all know what happened after that, that sort of one-by-one they were able to get rid of all of their enemies. And I very much fear that we may be in a similar situation now, and I certainly hope not.
But let me turn to Russia. In Vladimir Putin’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly this past September, he called for all those opposed to ISIS to work together to defeat it in Syria. He identified the Assad regime as a key partner in this struggle, and called upon other governments to work with it and Russia against the common threat. Now, many have pointed out since then that Moscow seems more interested in protecting the Assad regime than in defeating ISIS in Syria. Reports that most of Russian attacks in Syria have been against non-ISIS opposition forces and not ISIS itself have bolstered this perception. Moscow, of course, claims that virtually all the Assad regime’s opponents are terrorists and dismisses any criticism of its actions.
Putin is clearly pursuing policies that compete with those of America and the West in Syria, as well as elsewhere. There does seem, though, to be a genuine effort on Putin’s part to persuade Washington that Russia and the West actually do have common aims in Syria. Putin himself has been somewhat critical of Assad on occasion. He argues, though, that he Assad regime ruling Syria is better for everyone than if ISIS or other jihadists come to rule it instead. This being the case, Russia and the West should work together to secure — to ensure that the less-worse option prevails in Syria. Where Moscow and Washington differ, of course, is on whether there is a less-worse option still than the Assad regime.
Moscow insists that there is not, as there is no realistic alternative to the Assad regime other than the terrorists. Further, despite their public differences, Moscow may have persuaded itself, at least on occasion, that the Obama administration tacitly supports Russia’s backing of Assad. And sort of three instances I’d just like to mention. Since the very beginning of the uprising in Syria in 2011, the Obama administration has exhibited an unwillingness to get very strongly involved there, and certainly has cited the lack of U.N. Security Council approval for such intervention as one of the reasons.
Now, the Russian experience with the United States is that if and when the U.S. decides to intervene anywhere, it doesn’t wait for U.N. Security Council approval. It just goes ahead and intervenes. Thus, if the U.S. has not acted in Syria, it’s because Washington doesn’t want to, and is hiding behind the Security Council, if you will. Another instance that may have helped persuade the Russians was the Obama administration’s acceptance of Putin’s proposal for resolving the chemical weapons crisis in 2013.
After President Obama had threatened military retaliation if Assad had crossed the red line of using chemical weapons against his own people and, you know, announced that the U.S. was going to do so, but then, you know, called for congressional approval, and then Putin announces this plan where U.S. and Russia should work together to take away Syria’s chemical weapons, thus leaving Assad with the ability to attack his people with conventional weapons. And essentially, you know, sort of the fact that the U.S. more or less went along with this, was sort of seen by the Russians as another indication that really they were quite willing to work with the Assad regime, that it was the lesser of two evils.
And then there’s been a recent instance in — and, you know, some of you may have doubts about this — but there was just recently an article in the London Review of Books by Seymour Hersh suggesting that some of the joint defense staff here in Washington actually accept Moscow’s argument that Assad is less-worse than ISIS, and so sent intelligence, including via Russia, to help the Assad regime. Now, Hersh claimed that this was unauthorized. But if it actually happened Putin would not believe for a moment that it was unauthorized, that he would believe that it was fully sanctioned by the White House. You know, I’m not saying that it did happen, but in fact — but if it did, it sort of explains to me an awful lot of how the Russians might view what actual American attitudes are as opposed to what the stated attitudes are.
So in fact, you know, from the Russian point of view — so the real question is, if in fact the Obama administration actually seems to be showing signs of seeing the Assad regime as the lesser of two evils, then why does the Obama administration still call for Assad to step down? And Moscow is confused about this. And there may be different explanations. One possibility, you may be shocked to hear, is that American foreign policy may be incoherent. (Laughs.) If that’s actually a possibility, I don’t know. Another, from the Russian point of view, is that Washington thinks it can topple Assad, defeat or contain ISIS, and install a pro-Western government in Syria. In other words, instead of cooperating with Russia, it can just have it all in Syria eventually.
Another possibility still, it seems to me, from the Russian point of view, is that Washington understands that Assad is the least-bad option, but that it wants Moscow to bear all the costs — human, material, and reputational — of supporting him, while Washington avoids these but reaps the benefits of Russian actions. And yes, Russians do actually think this way. So that — so those are some of the — some of the ways in which they think about this. Now, obviously Russia and America, as well as some of America’s other allies, actually do have a common interest in opposing ISIS.
But Moscow and Washington have genuine differences about how to combat it. Putin is truly convinced that the Assad regime, if not Assad himself, is needed to combat ISIS, as he believes there is nobody else in Syria that can do this effectively. The Obama administration seems convinced that it is the brutality of the Assad regime that has helped give rise to ISIS. And so long as this remains the case, and so long as each side believes that its approach is superior and that the logic of the situation will eventually force the other side to see things its way, Russian-American cooperation in combatting ISIS in Syria is unlikely to proceed very far.
Now, I just want to say a few things also about sort of Russian motives for acting in Syria. I suggested that there may be some degree of incoherence in America policy towards Syria. But in fact, there’s a degree of incoherence with regard to Russian policy as well, that they are in fact pursuing multiple aims, they have multiple motives. And I think that — you know, one of the things that one has to understand about — for Putin in particular, Syria is actually a domestic Russian political issue, that it has a real impact for someone like Vladimir Putin who has, you know, staked an awful lot on support for an ally, that it’s best to be seen supporting him to the bitter end than to be seen knuckling under to America, withdrawing support for Assad, and seeing him fall.
I think that it has — in other words, I think for Putin, in other words, that he sees the — you know, the Arab Spring, the decline — you know, the downfall of a number of authoritarian leaders as setting a bad precedent. In fact, early on in the Arab Spring, Russian statements were talking about how really it was a plot aimed at Russia, that it was, you know, aimed at changing the regime in Russia, or at least in the Muslim regions of Russia. In other words, it was a continuation of the color revolutions, which of course had absolutely no local causes but were engineered by the United States, at least as far as someone like Vladimir Putin is concerned.
So for him, I think this is important. It also has an impact on, curiously enough, Putin’s relations with the authoritarian rulers of Central Asia. You may ask, well, how on Earth does that have any relationship? And I think it’s quite simple, and that is that if they doubt Putin’s support, as evidenced by what he may or may not do in Syria, unlike someone like Assad, they have another choice. They can turn to China for support. And so I think that Putin sees supporting Assad as very much something that’s important in terms of Russia’s position in Central Asia. It’s something that they definitely mean to keep. And by the way, Russia — whatever they say about each other — Russia and China are definitely in a competitive relationship.
I think it’s also important to understand that in terms of the Russian view of the Middle East as a whole, that Putin in particular has tended to look at Saudi Arabia in a very similar way to how the United States has tended to look at Iran, at least in the past, and that is the source of an awful lot of problems, that the Russian view of Saudi Arabia is that it is not a conservative monarchy. The Russian view of Saudi Arabia is that it is an Islamic revolutionary regime, that even going back to the ’90s you can find Russian official statements blaming Saudi Arabia, blaming jihadists supported by Saudi Arabia for the conflict in Chechnya, that they — you know, after 9/11, Putin, you know, ceaselessly talked about how 15 of the 19 bombers were from Saudi Arabia, that this is the — this is what they consider to be the source of evil.
There was a little thaw in relations from about 2003 to 2011, they seemed to improve relations a bit, but once the Arab Spring came back, and once, of course, Saudi Arabia was involved in opposing both Gadhafi in Libya and Assad in Syria, this older view of Saudi Arabia has come back, at the same time that they’re trying to sell weapons and do business with Saudi Arabia. This is really sort of, you know, from our point of view kind of mind-boggling. When we don’t like someone like Iran, we tend to simply stop doing business with them. When the Russians don’t like someone, they continue to try doing business with them. It really is — it’s a totally different way in which they approach this.
In any event, that they see this as the problem, and that part of their aim is to persuade the United States of the true nature of Saudi Arabia, and that they eventually believe that this is something that’s going to happen, while at the same time trying to work with Saudi Arabia as well. And we saw this past year in particular with the new monarch in Saudi Arabia, and especially his son Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, when he went to meet with Putin this past June, you know, by the various accounts that they really did hit it off, and that, you know, the prince promised, you know, 10 billion (dollars) worth of investment, Saudi arms purchases, et cetera, et cetera, that they were going to work together in Syria — all at the same time that Putin was working with the commander of the Iranian al-Quds Force, apparently about the upcoming Russian intervention in Syria. And when the prince met with Putin again this past October, obviously the mood was a little bit different.
But what’s interesting is that, you know, by at least one very informed account, what Putin seemed to be conveying — and the prince was complaining, why are you working with the Iranians against us in Syria? And that Putin’s response was that if you really want to contain the Iranians, you’ve got to work with Moscow. That’s what’s going to do it. And it’s — you know, it is very odd. And so what they’re also doing, though, is that they’re trying to, you know, work with Iran in Syria, work with Assad, at the same time somehow engage the major Sunni powers as well. And of course, we’ve seen now this diplomatic initiative.
Now, you know, the intervention that Russia has launched, you know, was very, very dramatic this past fall. I think that one thing that we can be certain of is that while they have succeeded in keeping the Assad regime alive and possibly even, you know, regaining a certain amount of territory, what is very clear is that Russia air intervention alone is not going to enable the Assad regime to defeat its various opponents, that that’s something that they can’t do. And Putin has indicated that he doesn’t want to send ground forces, although they keep occasionally talking about, you know, volunteers going. But even, you know, if they do this, it’s clear that it’s not going to — they’re not going to win it militarily.
So we now have a diplomatic campaign as well. But it seems like — you know, in that they’re supporting the Assad regime so very strongly, that it’s not clear just how serious this diplomatic campaign — this diplomatic effort actually is, that — and in many respects, it’s — despite the drama of what Putin did and his seeming success, just like he did in Ukraine, while it seemed quite successful at first over time it doesn’t seem all that successful. And I think we’re seeing the same thing in Syria. And there has been one needless cost that they have suffered, and that is in terms of the deterioration of Russia relations with Turkey.
And to me, this was really amazing because in fact good relations with Turkey had been one of Putin’s great successes. They had been doing $30 billion of business a year in recent years. I think one year was even $40 billion a year. Putin was encouraging Erdogan in his anti-Western stance, that they seemed to sort of, you know, be standing together against the West. And it seems to me that if Putin had really valued maintaining good relations with Turkey, he wouldn’t have been flying his aircraft so near that border. And in fact, of course he did. Whether or not it was a good idea for Turkey to shoot down the Russian aircraft, you know, you can argue.
But even then, you know, as we’ve seen on certain occasions — in other words, he didn’t have to play it up the way he did. He didn’t have to — he could have played down the incident. But no, he decided that Turkey was the new enemy, and basically now what he’s done is, you know, he’s cut off so much of the trade and he’s pushed Turkey back toward the West. Is this what he really wanted to do? Is this what — is this part of a great master plan? I don’t think so.
And so maybe turning a little bit now to, you know, what does Russia’s involvement mean for the U.S.? I mean, obviously it does limit what the U.S. can do. Certainly Putin is focused on the Libyan example that — you know, with the Security Council resolution in 2011 authorizing a no-fly zone, led to intervention. And that he’s determined that this is not going to take place in Syria. But, oh guess what, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a Security Council resolution because the U.S. operates anyway.
But I think that he wants very definitely to have a say, to have a role in Syria, to be part of the outcome to it. But the problem, I think, is that what we’re seeing if that, you know, we don’t live in the Cold War anymore, when the Soviet-American competition, you know, overlay everything else, and every other conflict in the world had a Soviet-American dimension, and that the U.S. and the USSR were strong enough to restrain their allies in these various conflicts to some degree or another.
I think that what we’re seeing is that even if we have a Russian-American agreement on Syria, it’s not clear to me that we actually have a settlement to the Syrian conflict, that the main external actors, in my view, seem to be Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and certain other Gulf states on the other, that the real task is to find some kind of reconciliation between the Sunni powers and the Shia powers, otherwise we will be headed for this 30 Years War that someone referred to. Maybe even a Hundred Years War, my god, why not?
So that is the thing. I think that the Russia factor obviously complicates American decision making, but certainly America has — sort of the Obama administration policy has frustrated the Putin administration. I think, you know, on sort of any given day they’re prepared to think of the Obama administration as sort of weak and they don’t know what they’re doing. On the other hand, there’s that — you know, there’s that, you know, at least twice a week they seem to think that, actually no, he’s an incredibly Machiavellian guy and that he’s tricked us, and that we’re the ones who are paying the costs in Syria and not the United States, and that it’s the United States that’s going to benefit from all this.
Now, you know, one of the things in terms of dealing with Russia now, in terms of dealing with Putin, he’s obviously a very difficult guy. He clearly has, you know, highly nationalist, highly combative point of view, policies. On the other hand, he also has a pragmatic dimension as well, you know, that he was vehemently opposed to U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, but Putin now has very good relations with the Baghdad government. It really is quite amazing. Putin continues to excoriate us for what happened in Libya, but Putin has amazingly good relations with the internationally recognized Libyan government, as well as with some of the other forces in Libya. They’re restoring their contacts.
In terms of, you know, the Arab Spring, Putin opposed it. When Mohamed Morsi was president of Egypt, Putin had very good relations with him. They met, they did business together, Russia provided assistance. So there’s this odd pragmatic strain to Russian policy. In other words, when they have to they do sort of compromise. They do accept the situation. And I think that that’s one of the things that one has to keep in mind. In other words, they’re not necessarily a, you know, permanent enemy that we can never deal with. That on occasion, in fact, they can be dealt with, they can be pragmatic. And I think that’s — those are some of the things we have to — possibilities we have to look out for.
All right. I think I’ll stop there. Thank you. (Applause.)
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
I should have asked earlier for you to submit questions in writing. And we have cards available for you to do that. And I’m speaking to you in the room, but also to the livestream audience, you can tween questions to @MidEastPolicy. And if I get them, I’ll be able to read them and select them. Thank you.
AMB. THEROS: Dr. Katz, thank you for raising a subject that I don’t think is discussed often enough here in Washington.
Mr. Lister, please.
CHARLES LISTER, Resident Fellow, Middle East Institute; Former Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Center; Former Analyst and Head, IHS Jane's Terrorism & Insurgency Centre
Good morning, everyone. I’d also like to thank the Middle East Policy Council for having me come speak before you this morning, just in my second week in Washington.
I very much agree with what our first two speakers have already said today. And I’m quite glad that they have said what they have said, because it means I can cut out a fairly substantial amount of what I had planned to say myself. So I think what I will do is — what I will talk about primarily this morning, and I’ll try and keep it to roughly 12 to 15 minutes, is focus on Syria, a bit more of a live assessment of the situation as things stand, and also a look back on lessons learned from what’s taken place over the last few years.
The first thing I’ll say or I’ll look to do — I should probably say, I’m going to aim to be somewhat provocative. I think it always aids the discussion afterwards. And I think there are — this is such an important subject that I don’t think one should be holding back when assessing the situation and what to do in the future. So as I say, the first thing I’ll discuss is essentially a current status assessment of anti-ISIS efforts, with a Syria focus.
I think in Syria and Iraq ISIS is probably feeling under more pressure than it has done since the dramatic events in the summer of 2014. That is not to say they are losing, necessarily, but they are certainly more stretched than they have been in quite some time. Having said that, the progress towards this point has been painfully slow. It has also allowed the organization and provided it with the opportunity to expand and acquire the kind of strategic depth and other options that it has done in that period since the summer of 2014 elsewhere around the world. So now we’re looking at places like Libya and Egypt and Afghanistan as potential new big hot points for ISIS, even if it starts to genuinely lose out in places like Syria and Iraq.
In Syria specifically, I’m very glad the first speaker talked about the idea of indirect action, working with allies on the ground, focusing on human terrain. It’s absolutely right, but what I think has been become blatantly clear is that that lesson hasn’t been well enough implemented in the Syrian case. There are many, many options on the table, but for one reason or another many of them have been ignored. And very often, the easiest options, but not necessarily the best, have been chosen. And there have been some fairly substantially negative consequences to some of those decisions.
The first element of this indirect action approach in Syria, and the best known, has, of course, been the partnership with the Kurds, namely the PYD and its armed wings the YPG and the YPJ — that’s the male and female armed wings respectively. The American partnership with the PYD on the ground in Syria, fighting against ISIS, has been successful. The PYD has demonstrated a fairly remarkable amount of professionalism. Certainly they have taken back ground from ISIS. But I think those results should be placed very much within the context of the fact that the Kurds have received a fairly substantial amount of support from the U.S., including close air support.
The argument could be made that many other opposition forces in Syria could be just as capable, if not more so, to take back territory from ISIS if they had that equal kind of support from the U.S. military. Certainly I have made the — I have given the example before that in the very first weeks of 2014 the conventional — the mainstream opposition in northern Syria took back 4 ½ provinces from ISIS in six weeks. The Kurds, with U.S. air support, have taken back roughly two-thirds of a combined province over two provinces in over a year. So we are looking at progress, but I think it’s been painfully slow and I think we could be doing a lot better with more partners.
The Kurds are also complicated. Or, I should qualify, the PYD is also a complicated movement. It is affiliated with the PKK. Whilst many of its senior commanders don’t have public faces — they don’t have Twitter accounts, they don’t conduct media interviews — speaking to them on the ground, and many of those who go in there very frequently, you go and meet with some of these commanders and they identify themselves not as the PYD. They identify themselves as PKK. The PYD and its armed wings have begun introducing a new educational curriculum in northeastern Syria, which abides by the PKK’s sort of socialist kind of ideology, which many Arab tribes are extremely unhappy with. Kurdish is now being taught in many parts of the northeast to children. And Arab tribesmen are being encouraged to allow their children to learn Kurdish, if they live in the predominantly Kurdish northeast.
So all of this is generating a kind of ruffling of the feathers under the surface, which I fear is taking us in a very bad direction, although it may take some time to show. More broadly, that speaks to the fact that the broader conventional opposition in Syria is deeply hostile to the PYD. The fact that the U.S. government has partnered so closely with the PYD has generated, for right or for wrong, a perception that Western policy at large is disconnected from the realities on the ground. And perhaps, Western policy is not supportive of the idea of a unitary Syrian state in the future, because of allegations of what the PYD may or may not want for their own future in Syria, because of their links to the PKK.
The PYD also has serious geographical limitations, and they realize it. They have openly said we cannot go beyond a certain point in the fight against ISIS, because we’ll be stepping into Arab territory, and that’s not going to get us anywhere. So the U.S. partnership and the use of the PYD as is principal partner against — in fighting against ISIS in Syria is kind of coming up to its limit right now.
And in that sense, the establishment of what has been called the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is essentially a broad coalition heavily dominated still by the PYD, but which has incorporated Syria Christians, some other local tribal forces predominately represented by northeastern Sunni tribes. It’s a move in the right direction, but it’s just no way near enough either to convince the broader opposition that the PYD is a legitimate actor within the Syrian context. But it’s also not really necessarily enough, at least in my assessment, to actually take those additional steps into Arab territory and take back territory from ISIS.
I’ll come on to talk about this in a little bit more detail later, but I do think in terms of fighting ISIS, when we’re talking about centers of gravity, there are two. It is their momentum and their finance. Now, the momentum is one thing which, as I say, I’ll come on to talk about later. But the finance is not — so if we’re looking to counter ISIS, we’re not looking to necessarily only blow up cash or target oil fields. That’s not going to destroy or — degrade or destroy ISIS.
What will, and the best way of attacking their finance is taking back the territory. I think another sort of obsession within the media of the last 18 months has been that oil is the dominant source of ISIS’ income. But actually most serious studies which have looked at this subject have come to the conclusion that ISIS’ control of territory and the taxation and extortion of people, businesses, and a variety of other economic sectors is their primary source of income. The only way of defeating that is taking back territory. And I think for that very reason indirect action and working with a broader scope of local allies is really the only way forward. And as I say, I don’t think we’re really there yet.
Moving beyond the PYD, probably the next best well-known example of an attempt at indirect action in Syria is the train and equip program, which as I think most people will accept was a fairly dismal failure, and there have even been acting and existing administration officials who have recently come out and basically admitted that themselves. The train and equip mission essentially aimed to partner with local forces in Syria who the — who CENTCOM, who the U.S. military hoped would essentially drop their fight against the regime in favor of fighting against ISIS, with American support.
The reason for the failure is that very objective is totally disconnected from realities on the ground. And the result was the recruitment for the train and equip program was miniscule. And many of the people they ended up recruited, A, weren’t socially rooted into the dynamics on the ground and, B, were not the kind of reliable personalities that the broader opposition were willing to trust when they were redeployed into Syria. And of course, I think it’s very well-known what happened when the first two batches of those train and equip troops went in.
So this was a really unfortunate example, I think, of this kind of minimalist or to overly risk-averse thinking about how to team up with local forces on the ground, and who to team up with. Of course, there’s been how a variety of almost amusing — unfortunately amusing and ironic stories about how the first batch, for example, was sent back during the first week of Ramadan. And the commanding force — the commander of this first batch put in a request for a bunch of his fighters, as soon as they got into Syria, to be sent back to their families for two weeks to have leave. And it was granted. (Laughs.)
So as soon as they went in the country, they all went home. And many of them traveled almost a hundred miles inside Syria into deeply hostile territory, sometimes into regime-held areas, to go and be with their families for two weeks. And then by the time they went up north, all of the enemies of U.S. policy, namely al-Qaida, had figured everything out. They knew where the bases were, they knew who the local connections were. And as soon as they teamed up two weeks later, they were attacked. So there’s a real shortcoming in strategic thinking. And despite the fact that we’re recognize that this is the right way forward, we haven’t gone about it in the right way.
The third-best example here, but it’s minimally talked about and I find this quite surprising, is the CIA’s — what I call the vet and equip program, which has been going on for a long time. It started very small and it has since become larger. So over the last two, two and a half years, the Central Intelligence Agency, often working with regional countries, which is an inherent advantage. It does help root you in more to the political dynamics and establish a better relationship of trust with other opposition forces. This effort has established relationship, support relationships, with at least 40 and — at my count, at least 40 separate armed groups in northern and southern Syria.
And only two of them have lost. You know, two have been attacked and defeated by hostile al-Qaida forces. But 38-plus continue to fight to this day, often in areas dominated by hostile al-Qaida forces. But they have retained a heavy footprint within local dynamics. Now, of course, this is fighting against the regime and not ISIS, but it has shown, I think, this program, that it is possible to establish relationships with local allies, to support them with regional allies, and buttress them into a kind of position where they are able to — sort of to convey and to establish a kind of influence within their local area that the train and equip program never even got close to.
And it’s also a nationally focused program, you know? It hasn’t focused on the north. It hasn’t focused just on the south. It’s not focused on Damascus. It is nationwide. And I really think this program — I mean, for obvious reasons not a great deal of it — not a great deal of information is released on it from the source, but this program, I think personally, deserves an awful lot more praise than it has necessarily got. And in that sense, of course, one big criticism of this program has been that some of these forces have at times cooperated with al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra.
And I think it’s very easy for us, hundreds or thousands of miles away, to say, well, therefore you’re a terrorist. But as someone who’s spent an awful lot of time with these groups, have got to know their realities, like some people may not have done. And the simple fact of the reality is every single minute of the day they’re fighting for their lives. They still have family in Syria who are being bombed, who are being attacked, who are being shelled by the regime, who are being attacked by Hezbollah, who are now facing Russian airstrikes.
The reality for them is it’s a fight for survival every day. And unfortunately one actor of dozens, if not hundreds on the ground, is an al-Qaida affiliate. My personal argument, my experience of knowing these groups, is the fact that they cooperation with them has absolutely no reflection on their ideological leanings, at all. It’s simply a reflection of the desperation that they face every single day. And we shouldn’t discount that. And I think what’s to be lauded is that the CIA program hasn’t seen that as a reason to discontinue relationships with certain organizations. And the establishment of personal relationships between vetters and the guys on the ground has meant that that kind of trust is genuine, that because they cooperate with someone we don’t like it doesn’t mean they are one and the same. So I think that’s a big, risky thought to bear in mind, certainly for the future.
So to sum up that first section, ISIS, I think, is feeling the pressure, but there is a very long way to go. In Syria ISIS is — has demonstrated very recently the capacity to launch large-scale offensives in Syria. Just very recently they’ve captured a huge amount of weaponry in eastern Deir ez-Zor province on the Iraqi border, which will almost certainly keep them fighting for a long way to come — for a long time to come. I expect now that much of that weaponry has been captured, it will follow the same ISIS pattern that we’ve seen for a very long time.
They capture huge weapon stores from the Iraqi government, from opposition forces in Syria, or from the Syrian regime, and then several weeks later they launch a major offensive somewhere else. And I think it’s fairly likely that we’ll see that in northern Aleppo in the weeks to come, a really — a really — northern Aleppo is a real choking point for the opposition. It also happens to be a very complex battle theater right now, with Russian airstrikes, regime airstrikes, the occasional American airstrikes, opposition forces, Kurds, ISIS, et cetera, et cetera. And I expect ISIS will look to exploit that.
So where to go from now? I spoke a little bit about attacking ISIS finance, and the fact that I think that the most effective and durable way of attacking the finance isn’t to destroy the sources — the individual sources of the money, but it is to attack and take back territory. And that involves a far greater and broader teaming up with local allies on the ground, and a much less risk-averse assessment of who those guys are on the ground.
The second, one of two ways forward now I would say is to — additionally to attack the momentum. And it’s very much linked to the fight against finance. The momentum can be — in ISIS’s case can be defined in many different ways, but essentially it is neutralizing their capacity to fight on multiple fronts at once, which has been their biggest strength, certainly over the last two years or so. That means bringing the fight to ISIS on multiple fronts. It doesn’t mean fighting — focusing all your resources on Ramadi and then thinking about Mosul and Raqqa and elsewhere later. It means fighting on all of those fronts.
ISIS has proven and demonstrated an ability to redeploy forces rapidly from front to front in order to defend or attack. And it’s only been able to demonstrate and exploit that capability, because first we have an Iraq-first strategy, then we started to develop somewhat of a Syria strategy but they’re not in sync. And by saying they’re not in sync, I mean there hasn’t been an anti-ISIS fight on multiple fronts that seems to be quite coordinated in the way that I would suggest that we need to develop now.
On a broader point, I guess just to really — I guess a very simplistic way of talking about teaming up with allies — our allies don’t have to look exactly like us. And they don’t have to talk exactly like us. And you know, I hate to say it, from someone coming from the region, I hear from Syrians all the time: You went to such-and-such a group because — literally, they say this — you went to such-and-such a group because they wear Oakley sunglasses or they wear baseball caps. You went to them because they talk about democracy, democracy, democracy. But guess what? They don’t actually mean it. These are accusations.
The reality is there are many people in Syria who I know for a fact could be excellent American allies but who don’t necessarily speak that way or necessarily always look that way. But that is not always for religious reasons. Very often it’s cultural, traditional, or whatever. But I can’t — I don’t mean to keep repeating this same point, but I really do think we need to broaden our scope of assessing local allies.
I’m probably running out of time already, do I will briefly talk about the effects of the Russian intervention, which have been fairly transformative for the Syrian conflict. In four months of Russian airstrikes in Syria, at least a quarter of a million people have been displaced from their homes by Russia’s airstrikes. IDP camps in northern Syria are overflowing en masse in winter. If we think the refugee flows into Europe were bad in 2015, I don’t think we’ve seen anything until we see what happens in 2016.
The most remarkable thing was a year ago. Syrians weren’t willing to vote on boats without lifejackets last winter. This winter, boats are going every few hours. That’s a really big signal of where people think — of how people are thinking now about where the conflict is going. If they are that desperate, then the flows as spring starts are going to — could potentially be quite huge. Russia has demonstrated that for — I think I’ll praise our second speaker for giving such a balanced view of Russia, and perhaps mine will seem less balanced. But I think Russia has learned from its ally in Damascus that the most effective way of fighting against the opposition in Syria is to blockade, besiege and starve opposition areas. And they’ve done this very effectively over the last four months.
Although the regime, the Assad regime, hasn’t made huge amounts of gains, the gains it has made in the last four months have transformed the conflict, so much so that the current peace process or the political process that we’re looking at that’s supposed to start in Geneva on the 25th of January looked — the chances of success look remarkably slim because of those gains and how the conflict has transformed. The opposition now is really feeling the pressure on the ground. And that has had very direct knock-on effects on their interest — on their genuine interest in engaging in a political process, which six months ago their interest was right there and clear. They were very willing to talk.
So that has had that political knock-on effect. But this kind of kneel or starve strategy, which Russia and Assad and Hezbollah and many other militia forces on the ground have implemented, has, as I say, been brutally effective in slowly taking back territory. You know, Assad has repeatedly used the term “cleanse” in terms of shaping his military strategy on the ground. He is literally looking to cleanse his population of the good and the bad. And this kneel or starve policy, as I say, has been the kind of hallmark of how to do that.
Russia has — it’s been very well-documented, so I won’t list examples, but has been well-documented for using cluster munitions in Syria. It has certainly targeted aid convoys, at least on a weekly basis over the last — certainly over the last two months — aid convoys crossing from Turkey. It has allegedly — I will use the term — allegedly targeted mosques, schools, hospitals, and IDP camps over the last four months. Now, whether or not those allegations are true, perception in Syria is much more important than truth. The perception is, Russia is no longer someone that we can negotiate with. And as I say, that is providing another knock-on effect on the current political efforts. So the consequence of Russia’s intervention are the consequences I’ve listed.
More broadly, the opposition forces now are being asked to sign up to the political — you know, the peace process, to the political talks. Their argument is, we will have no role in any kind of talks until humanitarian provisions are put in place. And for that, they mean the free flow — at least the free flow of aid, the cessation of what they call indiscriminate bombardment, and perhaps the release of some detainees, and the ending the sieges. There’s no sign that that’s anywhere near close. I know the U.N. said yesterday that they’re now going to refocus efforts on trying to push humanitarian confidence-building measures as a way of ensuring that the first round of talks in Geneva take place. But I honestly think we’re a very long way away from seeing the regime — let alone Russia or Hezbollah, from agreeing to any kind of humanitarian provisions like that.
Finally, the final point I’ll make, please don’t forget al-Qaida. ISIS is everyone’s obsession at the moment. Within a Syrian context, one point I’m always keen to say is through my study of Jabhat al-Nusra, one thing I feel like I have learned is that for the long term they are going to be — they are in Syria for the long haul. They have used the last four and a half to five years to deeply root themselves into society, into revolutionary dynamics to the extent to which, as I was kind of indicating earlier, most of the opposition just simply can’t entertain the idea of turning against al-Qaida. Yes, they’re powerful, but they have also — many opposition people will say this — they haven’t often demonstrated anything counter to the revolution.
And so Syrians say, well, until they do, why should we attack them? If they’re fighting alongside us, if they’re fighting as well against the regime, why should we? And this is a real, real danger. I think this is a big danger for Syria, but it’s a big danger for the international community because they’re operating more quietly. They’re not carrying out spectacular attacks like ISIS. They’re not releasing statements saying that we’re declaring war against America. But they’re al-Qaida. And they are, as I say, deeply, deeply rooted into Syrian dynamics.
Whilst I said that the opposition finds it hard to say bad things about al-Qaida, things are slowly changing. The one qualification I will make to that point is the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra recently made a TV — a video interview with several Syrian opposition journalists in which, in subtle ways, he was kind of undermining the respect and the history of the Free Syrian Army which, although the Free Syrian Army isn’t a single organization, the power of the idea of the Free Syrian Army, kind of an umbrella moment that many, many, many armed groups in Syria sign up to, meant that even though he was just indicating some disrespect to the Free Syrian Army, has really sparked something in people’s minds in Syria that really hasn’t been around throughout the conflict. And they’ve started subtly, albeit privately and not in public, to question the long-term motives of their long-time ally of convenience. And perhaps that’s something that the United States and its allies can look to exploit in the months to come.
I have many, many other things to say, but I think I’ll cut it short for now. I look forward to hearing your questions. (Applause.)
AMB. THEROS: Mr. Lister, thank you for putting certainly views that are not widely held in Washington on the table.
AUDREY KURTH CRONIN, Distinguished Service Professor and Director, International Security Program at George Mason University; Author, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns; Author, “ISIS is Not a Terrorist Group,” Foreign Affairs (March to April 2015)
Good morning, everybody. I’d like to thank you, Patrick and Thomas, for inviting me and introducing me so generously, and also to the Middle East Policy Council for putting on this event. I found it extremely interesting thus far.
I’m going to be raising the conversation to a much broader sort of discussion of American policy, and how we look at the challenges of ISIS and al-Qaida. I agree with many of the points that have been made thus far, but I think we are behind ourselves, with respect to the United States, in putting together an effective framework for ISIS. And instead, we’re trying very hard to rejigger, readjust, adapt frameworks that have been in place for 10 or 15 years now to fight al-Qaida. So I’m going to be talking about the movement — al-Qaida movement, as well as ISIS, and about U.S. policy with respect to each.
What I’m arguing is that the United States and its allies are using these tools and frameworks and they were custom made for the wrong enemy. Essentially, they were custom made for al-Qaida, and now they’re trying to adjust them to address ISIS. And unfortunately, classic counterterrorism is not sufficient. ISIS is not al-Qaida. It’s not even an outgrowth or a part of al-Qaida, I would argue. It’s a successor to al-Qaida. This is not the next phase in the global al-Qaida movement, it’s the post-al-Qaida jihadist threat. Yes, the groups were once formally aligned, and al-Qaida remains dangerous, it is not defeated. Its affiliates in Yemen and North Africa are particularly concerning. But the outlines of the next phase of this struggle are coming into focus, have been for a while, and I think the United States is failing to adjust.
There are fundamental differences between al-Qaida and ISIS — their origins, their characteristics, their strategies, their approaches, vulnerabilities, and aims. Al-Qaida and its associates are terrorist organizations. They’re small in numbers, in the dozens or the hundreds. They attack civilians. They generally speaking do not hold territory. We can talk about al-Nusra during the question and answer, but generally speaking the al-Qaida affiliates are smaller. And they don’t directly confront military forces. ISIS uses ruthless terrorist tactics, has very similar rhetoric, but it’s become much more than a terrorist organization. ISIS is a conventional army of some 30,000 fighters that holds territory, has extensive military capabilities, controls lines of communication, commands infrastructure, is independently funded and engages in sophisticated military operations.
Al-Qaida came into being in the aftermath of the 1979 invasion — Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Its formative experience was the 10-year war against Soviet occupation, where thousands of religious mujahedeen, including Osama bin Laden, converged upon the country and attacked Soviet troops. ISIS came into being because of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then blossomed in U.S.-run prisons, grew via, of course, the Syrian Civil War, and exploded after the 2013 killings of Iraqi Sunni protestors by the Shia-dominated Maliki government in Baghdad. ISIS is a direct descendant of the group that in 2004 became known as al-Qaida in Iraq, but now it also includes Iraqi Sunni tribes, former anti-U.S. insurgents, and secular Ba’athist military officers who want to regain power and security, as they had during the Saddam Hussein regime.
So what I’m arguing is that if the United States uses the same strategy and frameworks to counter ISIS that we have used to counter the al-Qaida movement, we will fail. So let’s go quickly through the historical background. A few additional comments about differences between al-Qaida and ISIS. They’re partly rooted in their histories. The closest historical parallel to ISIS, I think, is not the al-Qaida movement, but the armed Islamic group the GIA in Algeria. Just to refresh your memories, in 1991 the Islamic Salvation Front, the FIS, was about to win popular democratic elections. The Algerian Army executed a bloodless coup, and dissolved the FIS by official decree. With FIS members in jail, radicals formed the GIA, which was a very extreme and violent faction.
What followed was unconstrained carnage, with horrifying massacres, terrorism, and atrocities on all sides. The GIA’s numbers grew, including criminals who were released from jail and Salafist fighters who were back from Afghanistan. They made appalling violence their trademark. The purpose was to intimidate opponents, eliminate moderate elements, and force ordinary people to support them. GIA leader Zouabri put it this way, quote, “In war there is no neutrality. Except for those who are with us, all of the others are renegades.” So the GIA was engaging in a very deliberate policy of polarization, of removing any moderate middle that could actually be counted on to govern within Algeria.
Their hyper-violent, pseudo-religious nihilism evolved beyond terrorism to full-scale civil war. Members of the GIA massacred whole villages, hacked old people and newborns to death, slaughtered women and children, as if they were animals. They later beheaded more than 70 journalists, stating that, quote, those who fight with us — I’m sorry — “Those who fight us with the pen shall die by the sword.” They killed Jews, Christians, and moderate Muslims. And over the course of the decade, their communiques became increasingly perverse and bloodcurdling. Quote, “Blood and corpses create glory, and death creates life,” read one of them. So the violence peaked in 1997, but it didn’t end until the early 2000s. At least a 100,000 Algerians died. The numbers are highly contested. We don’t know exactly, because all the journalists were dead, but many more simply disappeared.
Now, al-Qaida leaders over the course of the movement have decried the Algerian experience, and talked about the Algerian experience as what they want to avoid. Over and over in strategy documents, statements and letters, leaders such as al-Suri and al-Maqdisi urged the avoidance of that approaching. Quoting al-Libbi, “They destroyed themselves with their own hands, with their lack of reason, delusions, their ignoring of people, their alienation of them through oppression, deviance and severity, coupled with a lack of kindness, sympathy and friendliness. Their enemy did not defeat them. Rather, they defeated themselves, were consumed and fell.” Now, al-Qaida leader Zawahiri has specifically pointed to the lessons of what he calls the Algerian events.
And most famously, in his letter in 2005 to Zarqawi about AQI’s violence in Iraq. After Zarqawi beheaded U.S. hostages, you’ll remember, Nicholas Berg and Owen Armstrong, Zawahiri wrote a letter to Zarqawi saying: Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young man and their description of you as the sheik of the slaughterers and so forth. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq.
You know, I’m not saying Zawahiri was a great guy who was just, you know, kind of a humanist. He was arguing instead that hostages should be killed with a shot to the head. However, he believed very strongly that that image — that gory image that Zarqawi was projecting through shocking videos and other social media and other media, was something that would alienate the broader Muslim ummah against what al-Qaida was trying to accomplish, which was to mobilize.
Now, by contrast, ISIS is consciously mimicking the excesses of the GIA all over social media. They’re extraordinarily good at it. ISIS grew rapidly because of the Syrian Civil War, but even more so the failure of democratic governance in Iraq. Ba’athist military officers, Sunni troops, tribes and factions in Iraq, these were all promised representation after the United States withdrew. But instead, they got exclusion and repression instead. Like the GIA, ISIS is now embarked on a strategy of ruthless polarization. And this includes sectarian polarization, most especially. And it’s working. Having gained power in Syria, ISIS easily conquered Iraqi cities and towns, because Sunnis welcomed them, even led their military operations. So in this case, unlike in Algeria, there’s no brutal army crackdown in response, for good or ill.
So what does all this mean for the United States, and for the kinds of frameworks and the kinds of policies, and the kinds of ways that we think about these two threats? Well, how should we respond? Should we respond with counterterrorism? It’s very tempting. And we’ve had a considerable amount of success with respect to al-Qaida using many of these tools. We’ve poured enormous energy and resources into counterterrorism bureaucracies, laws. We’ve had some success. It’s only natural to force this new enemy into that framework. We have bureaucracies, we have funding lines, we have people who are hired to work on counterterrorism. This is natural. Bureaucracies take a long time to turn around.
And some of it does make sense. Continuing robust police and intelligence operations and cooperation is vital to minimizing ISIS’ ability to inspire or carry out operations abroad. It’s very important. That’s classic counterterrorism. Unfortunately, beyond that, it often doesn’t fully fit. Just because ISIS has jihadist rhetoric and engages in terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, it does not mean that it’s the same as al-Qaida or even an affiliate. Other techniques that were custom made for al-Qaida cannot simple be redirected if we are to fight this particular threat. Here are four parts of the classic U.S. counterterrorism framework that don’t fit specific parts.
First, leadership decapitation through drone strikes. Al-Qaida, some 75 percent of the leaders of the core al-Qaida group have been killed by raids and armed drones. The technology is well-suited to the task of going after targets that are hiding in rural areas. There has been some success in using drones to take out leadership within Iraq. That’s a technical success. The broad public backlash to the drone strikes that were used against al-Qaida was considered tolerable by us because of the tactical gains, even as it built widespread opposition and fueled anger more broadly.
What about ISIS? Fighters tend to cluster in urban areas. And they are surrounded by buildings and civilian populations. ISIS governs a functioning pseudo-state, with a complex administrative structure. At the top is the emirate, which consists of Baghdadi and two deputies, both of whom formerly served as generals in the Saddam-era Iraqi Army. Below them is a civilian bureaucracy that’s supervised by about a dozen administrators. Although it’s hardly the model government that ISIS tries to project in its propaganda videos, this pseudo-state would carry on without Baghdadi or his closest lieutenants. Killing the leaders will not defeat it, and is quite difficult in the local terrain.
Secondly, disrupting terrorist financing. Cutting off al-Qaida’s funding has been one of counterterrorism’s most impressive success stories. And I credit you for that, Will. I credit those who worked hard at that. Nothing that I’m saying is trying to criticize the gains that we’ve made in that arena. A global network for countering terrorist financing emerged. It was backed by the U.N., the EU, and hundreds of cooperating governments. The result has been a serious squeeze. By 2005, al-Qaida was asking its affiliates for financial help. By 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department claimed that al-Qaida was, quote, “struggling to secure steady financing to plan and execute terrorist attacks.”
ISIS — while I agree here with Charles that it’s very different when it comes to fighting the finances of ISIS, they’re much more oriented toward the territory that they control. They don’t rely strictly on outside funding to the same extent. ISIS systematically took over those key oil assets in eastern Syria beginning in 2012, and then they seized oil operating parts of Iraq two years later. They steal jewelry, cars, machinery, livestock. They charge tolls, sell antiquities, and ransom hostages. They even earn revenue from growing cotton in the breadbasket of Syria, which is Raqqa. Their wide-ranging extortion racket is quite successful. It targets local businesses and the territory that they control, including cellphone service providers, water delivery companies, electric utilities, the list goes on and on. Classic terrorist financing tools cannot defeat armies holding territory.
A third area, our de-radicalization programs. Al-Qaida first. Radicalization occurred through religious arguments and an intellectual message of a kind of twisted altruism. The core group cast the establishment of a caliphate as a long-term almost utopian goal, something to be achieved in the long run. Educating and mobilizing ordinary Muslims came first. Al-Qaida is mainly groups of men fighting in remote places. Publicly the model a very severe aesthetic. Sex is promised after martyrdom. Even for the angriest young Muslim man, this might be a bit of a hard sell.
Let’s look at ISIS. I would argue that the process they’re engaging in is not radicalization, at least in the same sense, it’s more recruitment through power, agency, and identity. It’s very much a different message, and it’s addressed to men and sometimes also women, in alarming numbers — and sometimes children. Its immediate gratification. The caliphate is now. ISIS operates in urban settings and offers recruits instant opportunities to fight and die. And it posts exhilarating podcasts by individual fighters on the front lines. They’re far more effective at using social media than core al-Qaida and even some of its affiliates.
The group also procures sexual partners for its male recruits. Some young women volunteer after meeting a jihadist hottie online. Others follow their husbands or are trafficked there and enslaved. ISIS is extremely adept at getting this message out, and editing it very effectively. Teenagers are attracted to the Islamic State, even before they understand what it is. And they’re not only Muslim teenagers. This is a short-term demonstration of power. No vision is needed. ISIS promotes conquest in every dimension, and that includes the sexual. It’s about immediate agency. It’s about being successful.
Fourth area, targeting errors and publicizing those to undermine and develop a backlash against the group is a classic approach to use against terrorist groups, and it’s been quite effective historically. It worked quite well in putting al-Qaida on the defensive. Zawahiri has been keenly sensitive to the backlash that has been engendered whenever al-Qaida kills the very people that it’s trying to attract, members of the ummah. Attacks in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Spain, Jordan and the U.K. all resulted in Muslim casualties that outraged members of the Islamic communities everywhere that they were trying to attract. The group began to steadily use — lose popular support, starting in about 2007. It was quite dramatic. If you read the Gallup polls, the Pew polls, these quite rigorously collected popular polls about opinions toward al-Qaida.
Not the same with respect to ISIS. Like the Algerian GIA, this group is killing or exploiting Western journalists, for example, so that they can control the message, publicly beheading them to intimidate and show their power. They seem impervious to the risk of a backlash, because their core message is all about power, revenge, not legitimacy in the sense that Westerners think of it. Their brutality is designed to intimidate foes and suppress dissent. Revulsion among Muslims might eventually undermine ISIS, and I firmly and strongly hope that that is the case, but for the time being our focus on their savagery only helps that group augment the image of their strength. This in turn inspires angry or alienated young people throughout the world to carry out attacks in places like the United States, Europe and elsewhere. We help perpetuate that image for them.
So how about a second possible framework, and that would be counterinsurgency? Beginning in 2006, the United States called al-Qaida a global insurgency. The group hijacked local agendas and persuaded local groups to turn nationalist campaigns into al-Qaida-associated affiliates. And so there was exploitable tension between local nationalist aims and al-Qaida and its broader global movement. Now, some see ISIS as the latest outgrowth in that worldwide struggle. And it is true that many local groups are exploiting or taking advantage of the ISIS-megaphone, and associating what they are doing with the Islamic State, even at times when there is no actual logistical trail, and when it’s not exactly clear what the nature of the inspiration source was.
Regarding Iraq, there’s a lot of talk about resurrecting the 2006 surge. Many people still look at Iraq as if we were in occupation there. Many of those now aligned with ISIS are Sunni insurgent groups who formerly targeted coalition troops during the occupation. Some argue that the United States should return in larger numbers to draw them to our side, as we did during the surge. Again, there are vast differences between the situation today and the one that we faced in 2006. The logic of counterinsurgency does not suit the struggle against ISIS. For one thing, of course, we’re no longer in occupation. At the height of the surge, the United States had 165,000 troops in Iraq, and that was against a smaller force than ISIS, alongside a Syrian state that was actually intact.
Washington can send in more troops, but it cannot lend legitimacy to a government that it does not control. ISIS is being led by highly trained, capable, and advanced Iraqi Ba’athists, who know American techniques and habits because we trained them and, to some extent, with American equipment that was the left in the country, also equipped them. Now, they’re heavily armed with M1A1 tanks, armed Humvees, MRAPs, 155 millimeter Howitzers, and so on and so forth. I think it’s ironic that we were reluctant to arm the Syrian moderates because we feared that weapons would fall into the wrong hands.
The former Iraqi military is running this campaign. Local commanders are given mission orders. They’re very sophisticated in their military tactics and objectives and, to some degree, they’re backed by a functioning pseudo-state. Fault lines may again appear between the group’s secular former Iraqi Army officers, Sunni tribal leaders, and Sunni resistance fighters on the one hand, and its veteran jihadists on the other. But if they do, it will be because of ISIS’ missteps more likely than our policies.
A so-called hearts and minds approach that we were so focused on for so long in the so-called also global war on terrorism is not going to work here. It would be misguided. ISIS are not interested in local populations’ opinion or support, and right now they don’t need it. They continue to attract outside recruits. They want to kill, conquer, and control — in that order or priority. ISIS doesn’t want to be popular, they want to be powerful.
So that leads us to the third possibility — and this comes up a lot on the campaign trail — conventional war. Some in Washington and on that campaign trail are urging us to send in more troops with the goal of completely destroying ISIS now. That makes for really good soundbites. But strategy is about matching ends and means. There’s a sharp contrast between the rhetorical statements on the presidential campaign trail, on the one hand, and what it would actually take to defeat a conventional army on the other.
Surely, we should know better than to believe in instant, cost-free solutions given our experience over the last 15 years. Our goal in the wars of those past 15 years, at the cost of $1.6 trillion and the commitment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, and the loss of almost 7,000 American lives, has been to defeat the threat of violent extremism and transform the Middle East. Have we succeeded? More to the point, such a deployment would play directly into ISIS’ pseudo-religious narrative, and its end-of-days argument about confronting the crusaders in Dabiq, and heading toward the apocalypse. A massing of U.S. or Western troops would give ISIS exactly the sort of propaganda victory that could draw more recruits to their cause, particularly if those forces were seen as allied with the Shiites.
So where are we? Where does that leave us? The sobering fact is that the United States and its allies have no good strategic military options in their fight against ISIS. Neither counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, nor conventional warfare is likely to afford a clear-cut, immediate victory against ISIS. For the time being, at least, I believe, despite the bad press the word containment gets, because it sounds passive, I still firmly believe that the best and more realistic policy that matches ends and means and is most likely to succeed over the long term is offensive containment. It combined a limited use of force, including airstrikes, cutting off supplies and so forth, with a major diplomatic and economic effort to weaken ISIS, gradually take back territory, and align the interests of the many countries that are threatened by the group.
ISIS is not merely an American problem. The wars in Iraq and Syria involve not only regional players but also major global players. We’ve heard a lot about the incentives and policies and thinking of the Russians. It’s been extremely interesting. But we also need to think about Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States. They must develop a common economic, military and diplomatic approach to find a solution in Syria, as hard as that will be, and to ensure that the pseudo-state is treated as a global pariah. Offensive containment is a strategy for victory. This approach has resulted in gradually removing about 25 percent of ISIS’ territory thus far, but it’s not easy, it’s not quick, it’s not instant gratification. And there are risks.
In some respects, ISIS’ incentives to project force abroad increase as it loses territory and is forced to shift global perceptions. As horrible as it is to think about, terrorism is a weak tactic. Asymmetrical enemies often resort to it when they are losing a conventional war. It’s not a one-to-one correlation. For this reason, our response must also include that robust police and intelligence cooperation that I mentioned at the outset, continued efforts to counter violent extremism, more aid for displaced persons and refugees.
I have been shocked over the last several years at the degree to which the United States and its Western allies have failed to stem the tide of this humanitarian crisis long ago, when we could have provided more funding and support for displaced persons in places like Jordan, Lebanon, and other parts of the region. That would have been a very smart, forward-looking, strategic step, not to mention also the right thing to do.
Some of these tools do overlap with counterterrorism, but they should be tailored for an enemy that is not al-Qaida, but more akin to a dangerous state actor. Over the long run, allowing ISIS to maintain a sanctuary in Iraq and Syria entails even greater risks of more serious and sophisticated violence directed against us and our allies. In short, the United States and its allies have to move beyond outmoded forms of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, while also resisting the pressure to cross the threshold into full-fledged war. For the foreseeable future, offensive containment is the best U.S. policy available. Thank you. (Applause.)
AMB. THEROS: Professor Cronin, thank you so much.
DR. MATTAIR: I think the first question I’d like to ask before I go to questions from the floor is to combine one — actually, I’m going to combine one that’s from the floor. A question from the floor is: Why did the current administration choose to not get involved earlier in Syria? And my question is: Why is ISIS not our number-one priority in the region right now?
DR. WECHSLER: I think when history is written about the administration, it will conclude a few things. And they apply at different time periods, when the administration was looking at the Syrian, Iraq and Islamic State problems. I think at a certain point there was — there was an overestimation of the likelihood of Assad’s fall — rapidly, at early stage in the Arab Spring. I think unfortunately that was a fairly widespread assessment at that time. And I think at the end of the day that was a distinctly wrong assessment, as has been proved. I think there was an underestimation of the risks of a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, and the resulting limitations of U.S. influence in Iraq.
I think the record is pretty clear that there was — from the intelligence community and others, various members have been very open about this — an underestimation of the strength of the Islamic State at early stages, when it went under different names. I think that there was different approaches of estimation of risk. I mean, you had at a certain point in the process years ago Secretary Hillary Clinton leading an effort with the director of CIA, supported by the secretary of defense, to do a more robust training and equipping program for the Syrian elements. That request was denied.
And then there’s another one that doesn’t get much attention, but should by us, which is legal authorities. It hasn’t been really discussed once here, but it’s vitally important. The United States does not possess standing legal authority to overthrow another country. It does possess standing legal authority to help another country, should that other country request that kind of help and that domestic legal authority is then supported by international law as well. So if you want to understand why there’s a difference between the Iraq and the Syrian context, or why to some degree we ended up with a policy that doesn’t make sense, as you were describing, with the local — with the local realities in Syria, where we were asking people to not fight the Assad regime but only to fight the Islamic State.
One place to very much look is the law. And the law says that we can come to Iraq’s help and fight against the Islamic State there. But Syria’s not asking us to come to their assistance to do that there. And we don’t have standing legal authority to overthrow the Assad regime. Doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of other ways that different administrations have addressed those different problems, but legal authorities are critically important when making policy in the U.S. administration. There’s no doubt about it.
AMB. THEROS: I’d like to suggest another thought, is for the United States, for the administration, and for the other major external players in the region, I think we know deep down in our hearts but haven’t really articulated or expressed it properly, that ISIS to many people, to me at least, is a manifestation of a larger issue, the shifting of tectonic plates in the region. ISIS is only one part of a problem. Turkey sees ISIS in one context. We see it in another. Saudi Arabia sees it in another. I personally love to repeat myself over and over saying this is really 1848 in Europe. This is when Europe turned upside down, the revolutions were crushed, but as one German friend of mine said, 1848 revolution ended in 1946. So this may be why I believe that at least ISIS is not the priority.
DR. LISTER: I guess I would say — I mean, why were we not involved earlier? I think — for one thing, I agree. There was certainly an expectation that the opposition was going to be more quickly and more successful — or more successful and more quickly than turned out to be the case. But on the other hand, there was this fairly long period of time — I mean, the protests started in February/March 2011, and it wasn’t really until the summer of 2012 that the opposition showed any potential to win the revolution.
So there we’re talking about a whole period of a year where some kind of policy could have been developed. And in that sense, I guess Libya would also be an explanation. I mean, we had seen — you know, there was one intervention already underway. I guess if you want to make the legal argument, you could probably equally say there are ways around it because we did intervene in other countries, namely Libya, without the express permission or invitation of the government there.
There was also —
DR. WECHSLER: But with international law.
DR. LISTER: Yes, of course, but that’s a path —
DR. WECHSLER: With the U.N., with other things. I’m not saying that there’s no way around these things, but what I am saying is that these distinctions — if you’re trying to understand U.S. policy, and understanding of the law is a critical element to understand why some things happen and some things don’t.
DR. LISTER: Sure. Absolutely. I mean, I’m in agreement with you. I’m just saying that could have been a path explored. I think also probably what was not — what is often not talked about is very early on, in the very first stages of the militarization of the revolution, U.S. intelligence had already spotted the arrival of al-Qaida in Iraq commanders into Syria — very, very early on. And I think certainly in Washington, that was a key source of concern, whether or not it was spoken about publicly, about the potential path ahead in Syria.
I guess I’d just like to make one more point, which I had intended to make in my presentation, which is, you know, I heard a recent comment from Chuck Hagel who said that, you know, we’ve got it all wrong. Assad was never our enemy and we should never have shaped Syria around that frame. My personal opinion is I think that’s just patently false. I mean, you don’t have to frame yourself within the Syrian revolutionary years to say whether or not Assad is our enemy.
I mean, going back to the Iraq occupation, the Assad regime and Syrian military intelligence was directly involved in busing foreign fighters every day in, for periods of time, from Damascus airport and Aleppo airport to the Iraqi border. And I don’t think anyone’s ever done a study of it, but if someone was able to count how many American soldiers were killed by foreign fighters who were facilitated by Assad to arrive in Iraq, the numbers would be huge.
So the Assad regime has been an avowed enemy of the United States and its allies for a very long time, albeit covertly. And throughout the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime has played an equally significant role in facilitating the growth of groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra before, whether it be through the release of Islamist prisoners who then subsequently went on to establish a variety of extremist groups in Syria. Many of these figures don’t, again, have a very public face, but they’re in ISIS’ top ranks in Syria, they’re in Jabhat al-Nusra’s top ranks, and a variety of other jihadist organizations in Syria.
And the Assad regime purposefully released those people with the explicit knowledge they would go on to establish these kinds of groups. And it’s up to us in the West to recognize that kind of behavior, and the implications that it’s had, and then to make judgements afterwards.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, before we go to more refined questions, let’s just take two big ones, because when we chose this topic it was not long after the attacks in Paris. So can you assess the danger of such an attack taking place here in the United States? And if so — and if that danger is high, and if the holding of territory is a key element in ISIS being able to direct such attacks, can any of you say more than Audrey said about the topic of conventional armed attacks against ISIS by the United States? There are — not just people on the campaign trail — but there are some pretty good scholars in Washington who do advocate that and say we could do that with a relatively small number of forces, let’s say 8(,000) to 12,000. Why are they wrong? How many of you would like to say — endorse or disagree with Audrey?
DR. CRONIN: Can I just say something about the terrorist attacks, and then we can get to the second question? I think it’s inevitable that there will be additional terrorist attacks in the United States. I don’t know that they’ll be of the large scale that was the experience in Paris, because the contexts are quite different. But especially because the United States is inadvertently helping to increase the profile of much of what ISIS is doing, it’s more successful in reaching out to people who are frustrated and want to sign up with their narrative.
I also am extremely concerned about the degree to which we are enhancing their core strategy of polarization by making unbelievably irresponsible statements in the context of our presidential election. I’ll leave it there. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Any other?
DR. WECHSLER: Yeah. And all I’ll say is we would have already had such attacks if not for the continuous work of the FBI and the police department. I mean, it’s not like they’re not trying. The reason why it hasn’t happened as much as it’s happened already, and we’ve had a series of those attacks, is because of the good work of literally thousands and thousands of people across the United States that are doing this every single day. In part, the American public is at risk of missing this fact because they’re so successful. But the threat is real, of these kinds of — of these kinds of attacks.
DR. LISTER: One very quick thought. Yeah, I mean, I absolutely agree with what’s been said already. I think attacks of some form are probably inevitable. The only thing I would add, is don’t forget about al-Qaida. You know, they are still perfectly capable of carrying out an al-Qaida-type spectacular attack in America, of the sort that we fear that ISIS might carry out in another way. And we mustn’t get too obsessed and focused on one organization when there’s another which we’ve been fighting for a very long time which still wants to carry out another 9/11, or just wants to carry out a small bomb in Time’s Square or anywhere else. And I think we must keep that in mind.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes, Mark?
DR. KATZ: Tom, if I could just add, you know, I think it’s clear that such an attack can’t be ruled out. I think the real question is, what would be the impact of such an attack? I mean, obviously I think that, you know, one possibility is we’ll decide, well, we’ve had enough and we’re not going to be involved anymore. I don’t think that’s going to be the American reaction. Certainly with regard to the terrorist attacks, the French government seems to see itself as being at war. The other possibility is that — do we — do we lash out, do we overreact, do we intervene somewhere, perhaps like we did after 9/11. And in fact, is that what terrorists actually want? So I think that the point of these things is to — we have to make sure that we keep our head in terms of how we react to these attacks, that we should not feed into doing what the terrorists want, whether it’s too much or too little.
DR. WECHSLER: Yeah, just to the other side of your question, it would be a significant mistake for us to be putting tens of thousands of troops on the ground inside Iraq and Syria to fight this ourselves, for all the reasons why we had problems doing it before and we didn’t solve all the issues. We’re back at it again. As I said in my comments, direct action in these types of campaigns is almost never the decisive line of operation. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.
It’s critically important. There’s going to be a role for U.S. airpower. There’s going to be a role for discrete, targeted, direct actions when required, for hostage rescues, for raids on certain facilities, for — and then there’s going to be a significant role for U.S. forces to be doing training and equipping and advising and assisting and accompanying missions inside Iraq and inside Syria. And those are very dangerous missions if they’re not finished missions, you know, themselves when we’re doing it.
And that requires significant amounts of people, but it does not require — it is very, very different from a scenario where we are the ones occupying a country, where we are the ones who are relying to take on the fight in the first place. Doing a direct action campaign takes a long period of time, but it can be successful. Again, I point at Colombia and I point to the Philippines, and even now Somalia as places where we have done this to great effect. And we can do it again.
DR. MATTAIR: I think all of you spoke about the importance of working with partners in combating ISIS. And how would you — how would you assess those partnerships and how well they’re working now? I’m speaking about the regional partners — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar. How well do you think those partnerships are working? What some of them are saying is that it’s difficult for them to throw themselves into this when they are not sure that we are — that we have enough skin in the game, that we are — that we are not as involved as they would like us to be, particularly in countering Russia and in countering Iran and Assad? So how is that going? How are the — how are the areas of cooperation developing with those countries? And how — what are we saying to them to alleviate their concerns about our intentions?
DR. KATZ: (Laughs.) Well, I think we clearly need to do more obviously. You know, Tom, you and I were in Riyadh, I think it was in September of 2014, for a foreign ministry conference there, in which they — you know, it was made pretty clear to us, I think, that there was a lot of concern about the pursuit of the Iranian nuclear accord. Now, I personally think it was a good thing to have done. On the other hand, I think that an effort should have been made to reassure our traditional allies in the region that we were going to continue to work with them, that we’re not simply going to give Iran a free pass.
And they certainly have views. In other words, look at Iranian activity in Iraq, in Syria. And they believe, you know, in Yemen and Bahrain, that there was more needed to be done, that’s for sure. And so — and then when they don’t see us doing anything, then they basically start to act on their own. And I think that that was part of the problem you’ve seen in Syria, is that not seeing American leadership, some of our other allies decided they had better do what they needed to do. And you know, I think it’s fairly understandable, but that there’s going to have to be a greater American diplomatic effort, that managing alliances is difficult.
It really is. It’s complicated. It’s in some ways more complicated than dealing with adversaries. You don’t have to worry about hurting their feelings. But you do have to be concerned about your own — about your friends. And so I think that’s something we have to pay attention to.
DR. MATTAIR: Did you want to say something, Charles?
DR. LISTER: I mean, I agree with everything you just said. More needs to be done. I mean, the partnerships are imperfect. There’s a lot of suspicion and paranoia in the region that the United States in particular is diverting its traditional path of alliances in the Middle East onto another track. And whether you want to believe that or not, as I said, you know, perception is very often more important than fact or truth. The perception is certainly that the U.S. is sort of almost unilaterally pursuing a rapprochement with Iran, and is ignoring on the other hand its traditional allies in the region.
And that has had big implications with regards to the ability, on the one hand, to develop a genuinely unified and synchronized strategy against ISIS, but also it’s had a knock-on impact on the ability to develop a genuinely durable political track on Syria, for example, that whilst you do have all of the key states sitting around the table agreeing in principle to certain ideas, I think certainly the established belief in the region is that there is very little actual agreement around that table. And that is particularly the case, A, between Iran and, for example, the Gulf states and Turkey, but also between the Gulf states and Turkey and the United States. And I don’t see at the moment any movement being made to sort of rectify that situation. And that’s unfortunate.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, let me ask you something else, Charles. And this is why I was so interested in your work and interested in inviting you, because you know the cast of characters on the ground so well. And you barely touched on it, I think, in terms of distinguishing between one group and another. So leaving aside the question of regional partners, major countries, who are the partners on the ground inside Syria that we could be working with to change the situation on the ground, maybe increase prospects for a diplomatic resolution in Syria, that would then allow everyone — this is a diplomatic resolution that would lead to Assad’s departure — and would allow everyone to concentrate on ISIS?
DR. LISTER: Sure. I think what I would argue in terms of an expanded strategy of partnerships is almost to build on what the CIA appears to have done with regional partners in the country, which have established relationships with, as I say, roughly 40 groups on the ground. Now, those relationships are solid, but the actual — the scale of support provided to them it still kind of minimal. So that would be why I would argue expanding on them — and I could try and list you all the 40 groups now, but I’m not really sure how much value that would be. But those 40 groups — and I would be happy if anyone wants them. I can certainly give a list.
But those 40 groups would be something worth building on. But there are a variety of other movements in key strategic areas of the country where, for example. Jihadists do not have a stranglehold over the broader dynamics. For example — and the most — the probably two most important examples in that respect is Aleppo, which as I said is a potential stranglehold for the opposition. If ISIS launches a major offensive in this thin northern strip of northern Aleppo, between regime and Kurdish territory in the west and ISIS territory in the east, that’s of massive significance to the entire conflict in Syria, if the opposition loses that strip of land, and Turkey will probably not allow it to happen.
But in any case there are a number of movements. I mean, I’m always hesitant to name all of them because I don’t want to be affiliated with certain — supporting certain groups. But there are groups — Fastaqm Kama Umrat, for example, is a very well-known Aleppo-rooted movement which is — it’s inherently moderate. It’s been in Syria — it’s been in Aleppo since the very beginning of the fighting in Aleppo city. And it has extraordinarily minimal contact with the Western world because it has operated within certain alliances in which there are other organizations that the West hasn’t necessarily liked.
Now, what’s been interesting is this certain movement has a highly — you know, highly capable political leadership who have begun to reach out to some European states, certainly in the last few months, and with some success. But there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of reciprocity from — on the United States’ side. But what’s fascinating about movements like them is that they are fighting on the front line against ISIS. That Aleppo front line I was describing, they are sitting right there, in the trenches, fighting every single day. And they have been in certain situations defending towns that if they fell, everything will fall afterwards, really critical situations.
And they have, through other groups that are supported by the U.S., got the phone numbers of various people. And they have attempted at times — and I know guys who have physically done this — to call in airstrikes. They said, listen, we are absolutely on the precipice of losing everything. And they’ve made phone calls. And when they’re answered they just say, sorry, we can’t do anything and put the phone down. But most of the time, they’re not — they’re not answered. There’s an amazing desire within many of these groups to have a working relationship with the United States.
I think that’s underappreciated. I think, it’s easy to sit here and see loads of men with beards and say, well, they can’t possibly be potential partners of ours. But they’re all desperate to work with the U.S., to work with the West in pursuit of what they see as a — as a just fight. And, yes, part of that does mean fighting Assad. Just to slightly broaden that point, the argument that we shouldn’t be fighting Assad but we should be fighting ISIS, I think is slightly confused because actually, at least as far as I’m concerned, removing Assad — whether politically or in any other form, and preferably politically — will actually open the gates to a much more effective counter-ISIS strategy.
And I would argue, with Assad in place, we’re never going to defeat ISIS in Syria. He is their best recruitment mechanism within the Syrian population. And as I said, he has facilitated their growth, their expansion, and their continued existence within his territory. He’s still buying their oil. In fact, his key middleman was just recently sanctioned by the U.N. for doing exactly that. And it’s just critical that we must recognize that there is an interdependent relationship there. Certainly with regards to defeating ISIS, there has to be some way, preferably politically, to remove Assad and his regime from power.
DR. MATTAIR: Audrey, you want to say something?
DR. CRONIN: Well, I actually — I hope I’m not stepping out of line, but I actually wanted to ask a question that follows on from this conversation and is related to the on that you just asked, Thomas. And that is, it seems to me that we have a number of, in the Syrian context, tactical objectives, and they relate to getting rid of Assad or getting rid of ISIS. But what I don’t understand is, what is the viable future governance of that state — viable, you know, realistic. What is the future, realistic state of Syria, assuming we were to achieve those objectives?
DR. MATTAIR: Well, yeah, there are those who think that state collapse would be the result of getting rid of Assad and his clique, and some who think that there are opposition forces willing to work together and build a new Syria. Charles may want to comment on that, because he’s written about that. And actually, can you just say something about Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham and why those conservative, Islamist, armed opposition movements are different from ISIS and Nusra Front, and where they fit into the struggle against Assad and the creation of a new Syria?
DR. LISTER: How long we do we have? (Laughs.)
DR. MATTAIR: Well, actually, we only have five minutes. I’m sorry.
DR. LISTER: OK. I’ll try and be as concise as possible then.
On the first question, in terms of state collapse or what is the hope for some kind of solution and future government, I mean, OK, it’s thin — the hopes are thin. But I think if you are a diplomat, if you are someone who works in Track II, if you are an analyst or an academic, you have hold out some hope, you can’t just give up. The difficulty I always have is I feel like I have to retain some kind of optimism because I’m aware that there are, what, 150,000 opposition fighters right now — 100(,000) to 150,000 opposition fighters in Syria, who are all armed to the teeth and who have all made it very clear that if Assad is not eventually removed from power, and if there isn’t some hope of them having a role — not the role, but a role — in building a future Syria, that they will fight for the rest of their lives.
And we all know from any other conflicts around the world, that the longer you fight, you can start moderate, and you can generally move along that extremist ladder and become something quite different. That’s the danger. And they see that too. So I feel like we can only try to push the political track. I feel like breaking down boundaries that have been established throughout the conflict — you know, there is such fear on both sides. You know, the opposition sees the regime as inherently evil, like the devil incarnate. And likewise, the regime sees the entire opposition as exactly the same. But I think what can be done, and what I’ve seen in Track II work, is that those boundaries can be broken down, those misunderstandings can be defeated by putting people in the same room together. And I know it’s extraordinarily resource-intensive. It takes a long time. But even government efforts of doing something like that could be remarkably powerful in terms of encouraging the idea that Syria can remain united.
Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham are fascinating movements. If anything, more than ISIS and al-Qaida, they’re the kind of groups that I’ve studied the most since the start of the conflict. They're the two most powerful opposition groups in Syria. And they are absolutely opposition and not anything like al-Qaida or the Islamic State. And the only reason I say that — OK, the line is more blurry with regards to Ahrar ash-Sham, but they are opposition. And the only reason I say that is because they do not have international objectives. They are explicitly only focused on Syria. They have, in some cases, in some individual cases within a group like Ahrar ash-Sham, they have people who retain a transnational vision of what it means it be a Muslim or a Salafi. But they do not retain military or revolutionary objectives beyond Syria’s boundaries.
And when you sit them in a room with a variety of other opposition groups, although they may be recognized has having slightly different ideological leanings, they are inherently part of the revolution. And I’m not advocating by any means that the West should be working directly with these kind of groups, but we must recognize that they are part of the revolution. Saudi Arabia for a very long time took a hard line against groups like this, especially against a group like Ahrar ash-Sham, but has now come around and persuaded the Western world that groups like Ahrar ash-Sham should, if possible, have a role in the political process because, A, they’re too big to ignore, and, B, they are part of the revolution.
So if I had more time I would talk about a lot of fascinating evolutions within these groups. I think Ahrar ash-Sham may be becoming more hardline. They had a period of about a year of big internal debate, deciding whether or not a reformist faction was going to start leading the group down a new path. But they seem to have — that movement seems to have lost out. Jaysh al-Islam has now emerged as the key pivot for the opposition — the armed opposition. Interestingly, their chief political official, Mohammed Alloush, was just named yesterday as the chief negotiator in the entire opposition team that will be hopefully going to Geneva. That’s a big statement if you look at the rest of the people in that negotiating team. So these groups cannot be ignored.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, I’m sorry that we have to give up the room. But we did get a late start due to the weather. And thank you for braving the weather. And again, you can watch the video of this on our website within about a day and read the transcript in the next issue of the journal. And, Pat, would you like to say something?
AMB. THEROS: Thank you all very much for this. This opened a lot of questions of importance to us. A couple of things I wish we had had an opportunity to discuss that were not mentioned very much, one was Turkey, what is the role of Turkey? Do we want Turkey into the war? How do we get Turkey into the war, if we do so? And the other question was, we’ve always spoken of Assad as the personification of the regime. What would change if Assad died, which I think is a very interesting question?
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you. (Applause.)
Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, U.S. Department of Defense
Professor of Government and Politics, George Mason University
Author, Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan
Resident Fellow, Middle East Institute
Former Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Center
Former Analyst and Head, IHS Jane's Terrorism & Insurgency Centre
Distinguished Service Professor and Director, International Security Program at George Mason University
Author, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns
Author, "ISIS is Not a Terrorist Group," Foreign Affairs (March to April 2015)
Former Ambassador to Qatar
Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
The Middle East Policy Council convened its 83rd Capitol Hill Conference on Thursday, January 21. “ISIS and U.S. National Security: Policy Choices” offered four viewpoints on the nature of the threat and efforts underway by the U.S. and its allies to counter it. The conference was conceived in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, which raised concerns about ISIS’ ability to mount more attacks globally. The subsequent shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California put U.S. policy makers under increasing pressure to understand the nature of the ISIS threat and define a coherent response. While the heated rhetoric of the U.S. presidential campaign has produced a range of provocative statements about “destroying” ISIS, specific policy proposals remain limited.
The four-person panel was selected with an eye towards informing more specific policy proposals. William Wechsler (Center for American Progress) offered his experience working at the U.S. Department of Defense on counterterrorism and special operations. Mark Katz (George Mason University) shared expertise on Russia and the motivations for more Russian engagement backing the Assad government. Charles Lister (Middle East Institute) assessed the status of the various opposition groups in Syria and the feasibility of U.S. partnership with them. And Audrey Kurth Cronin (George Mason University) highlighted the reasons why the approach designed to counter Al-Qaeda may not work against ISIS. The event – moderated by Patrick Theros and Thomas Mattair of the Middle East Policy Council as a discussant – can be viewed in its entirety here.
Dr. Wechsler underlined how no nation, including the United States, has as its highest priority to seriously disrupt ISIS and regain the significant territory it controls. For most U.S. partners in the region, focus has been squarely on removing Assad from power, and this remains the case today despite ISIS’ emergence. But ISIS is increasingly turning to external attacks, showing that it is a threat beyond the territory it controls. This demands that the U.S. formulate a coherent response, one which Dr. Wechsler would like to see organized around “indirect action,” where regional and local actors take the fight directly to ISIS with some U.S. support, particularly in the form of air strikes. To illustrate tangible gains from this approach, Dr. Wechsler pointed to evidence that salaries for ISIS fighters were being reduced and that large cash stockpiles were destroyed by a U.S. air strike. Amidst this continued U.S. tactical support, Dr. Wechsler emphasized keeping an eye on the bigger picture: managing relationships in the region to avoid a sustained war along sectarian lines, fueled by a master narrative of Shia versus Sunni.
Dr. Katz gave his latest assessment of the role of Russia, a new variable in Syria after the beginning of Russian air strikes in support of the Assad regime in the fall of 2015. Dr. Katz conveyed both the domestic political realities driving Putin’s foray into Syria, and the numerous examples of Russia’s ability to act pragmatically in the Middle East. These include Russia’s productive relationship with the internationally recognized government of Libya (despite strong opposition to NATO involvement in overthrowing Qaddafi) and Putin’s openness to working with the Morsi government in Egypt in 2012-13 (despite Russia’s disfavoring Islamists). Stressing their pragmatic approach to the region, Dr. Katz suggested that there may be some potential for cooperation with Russia in Syria. He expressed surprise that Putin has allowed relations with Turkey to sour significantly, given the efforts over the past several years to bolster trade and cooperation between the two countries.
Dr. Lister took a deeper look at the reality of “indirect action,” given his extensive experience on the ground studying Syria’s numerous opposition groups. Reinforcing Dr. Wechsler’s point about supporting regional actors, he gave examples of successes by the Kurds and how tactical and financial support made them possible. If other groups receive similar levels of support, he reasoned, they might achieve similar gains against ISIS. He went on to give credit to the CIA’s “vet and equip” program, suggesting it could be a model for future engagement with larger numbers of opposition groups. He disagreed that many opposition groups are in fact allied with Al-Qaeda, stressing how Syrians are in a fight for daily survival; and most of these loose alliances are born out of necessity rather than deep loyalty or adherence to Al-Qaeda ideology.
Dr. Cronin urged decision makers to separate out approaches to Al-Qaeda and ISIS as they are very different organizations and threats. The counterterrorism model built up in the years following 9/11 will not work against ISIS. They control territory and hide in civilian-populated urban areas, so their leadership can’t be killed through drone strikes. Further, they have varied methods for raising revenues (e.g. taxation, oil sales, looting and black markets); traditional tools used to stymie Al-Qaeda’s financing will not work as effectively against ISIS. Dr. Cronin sees no good options except for offensive containment, which reinforces indirect action with air power, alliance building and targeted financial sanctions.
In summary, the conference revealed three main takeaways for U.S. policy makers:
• Indirect action, where the U.S. provides logistical and financial support to regional and local actors, should be developed further in countering ISIS. Areas to consider include more extensive support for Syrian opposition groups, greater efforts to strangle ISIS’ ability to raise revenues, and a more concerted effort to counter ISIS globally, not just in Iraq and Syria.
• The U.S. could benefit from exploring greater cooperation with Russia, despite the mistrust and divergent interests on some issues between the two countries. The Russians have shown an ability to be pragmatic in the region, and this could be a basis for greater cooperation.
• ISIS is not Al-Qaeda, so the strategy for countering it must be different. A policy of offensive containment may be the best option the U.S. has at its disposal, as a traditional military confrontation with ground troops could fuel ISIS’ recruitment narrative.
The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. An edited video by speaker, including a full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email [email protected].