With no political end in sight to the conflict in Syria, and no desire in Washington or the United Nations to get involved in a serious intervention, drone attacks might make their way into the Syrian skies to combat the rise of al-Qaeda in the heart of the Middle East. It’s a prospect that comes with many challenges but could become a reality given the regional woes and the U.S. policy limitations in addressing the conflict.
Back in March, the Los Angeles Times reported that the CIA has stepped up its secret contingency planning on Syria and is “collecting intelligence on extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes.” The effort includes detailed files on militant leaders with “both lethal and nonlethal options” if U.S. President Barack Obama decides to take action.
Rising ISIS threat
Since the contingency planning for drone attacks has been drafted, the situation in Syria has continuously deteriorated. The state infrastructure is weakened, and extremists groups affiliated with al-Qaeda are on the rise especially in the north, and in the border areas with Iraq and Jordan. According to U.S. officials, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL)- a strong off shoot of al-Qaeda- is now a “transnational threat network,” with a sister group in Syria (ISIS) and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi operating out of Syria.
The group has been able to take control of areas captured by the rebels in Syria such as Raqqa and Azzaz, and is establishing training camps and facilities in both Syria and Iraq, according to U.S. officials. It is more lethal than the local al-Nusra Front in terms of attracting foreign fighters, outside funding and fighting the moderate opposition. ISIS sees in the continued death and killing in Syria a new tool for recruitment, and an opportunity to launch a new base for al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda’s rise in Syria is a regional security threat, and has been the topic of discussion in meetings between the Obama administration and regional leaders. It was on the table last week when Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Washington, and before that in bilateral meetings between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Jordanian, Qatari, Saudi and Turkish counterparts.
Drones and containment
In hindsight, al-Qaeda’s surge in Syria might have been prevented if the international community had acted early on through vigorous diplomacy or U.N. action to stop the bloodshed. Almost three years into the conflict, however, and with an estimate of 120,000 dead and almost 8.5 million displaced internally and outside the country, the window for a political solution has narrowed and the sectarian divisions and radicalization are grim reminders of the intensity of the war and Syria’s uncertain future.
...sectarian divisions and radicalization are grim reminders of the intensity of the war and Syria’s uncertain future.Joyce Karam
Against this reality, the Obama administration has chosen a path of containment that would prevent the U.S. from getting dragged into a direct intervention and would seek to contain the threats of chemical weapons use and al-Qaeda. The chemical weapons agreement reached with Russia last month at the United Nations is seen by the administration as an “accomplishment” towards both getting an international consensus and possibly eliminating Syria’s stockpile. When it comes to al-Qaeda, however, the task is more complex given the intensity of the fighting and the limitation of U.S. policy and influence in addressing it.
The drone option could strike a balance for Obama and his desire to limit U.S. involvement in the conflict. It could prevent safe havens for al-Qaeda in Syria, without getting dragged into the fighting.
In the past, the U.S. has shied away from that option out of fear of breaching Syria’s sovereignty and risking retaliation from Assad’s air defenses. But those defenses have been mute in the last two and half years and have not responded to Israel’s five strikes on Syria during that time.
Drone attacks are the weapon of choice for the Obama administration in places like Pakistan and Yemen, for they are a cheap and targeted approach in eliminating al-Qaeda leaders. The threat of a revived al-Qaeda in the heart of the Middle East has forced Washington to reassess its Syria strategy and could bring those Spring contingency plans to Obama’s doorstep as part of the containment option.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam