9/11 anniversary: Syria cannot become another Afghanistan

Thirteen years after 9/11, the United States once again finds itself drawn to a military confrontation

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam
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Thirteen years after 9/11, the United States once again finds itself drawn to a military confrontation against a rejuvenated brand of al-Qaeda in the form of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It’s a war that the Obama administration was reluctant to enter, but it is both strategic and necessary to prevent Syria in 2014 from becoming the Afghanistan of the 1980s and 1990s.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who for three years opted for minimal involvement in the Syrian conflict, announced a few hours ago that his administration will be ready to take action against ISIS beyond Iraq and in Syria. “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIS in Syria, as well as Iraq… if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven,” he said. The U.S. President also requested authorization from Congress to arm and train the vetted Syrian rebel forces, making it clear that Washington “cannot rely on the Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost.”

Obama’s departure from his containment policy on Syria, coming on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11th, is primarily driven by the threat of ISIS and regional security. In essence, it was neither the humanitarian tragedy in Syria with the killing of more than 190,000 Syrians nor the displacement of over three million that triggered U.S. action. It also was not the chemical weapons attack that the U.S. concluded last summer was carried by the Assad regime in a suburb of Damascus.

The Assad regime, backed by Iran and Russia, is nowhere near conceding power and sees in the strikes a validation of its fight against the opposition

Joyce Karam

In one of Washington’s policy events on Syria this week, Frederick Hof, a former adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a senior fellow at the Atlantic council, said jokingly that ISIS managed to do what him and many others in the administration failed at in convincing the president to act on Syria in 2012. Hof, Clinton, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) David Petraeus,former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former Ambassador Robert Ford have all advised Obama to boost the support for the more moderate rebel forces in Syria in 2012 to counter the rise of the extremists. Even regional players volunteered help in fighting the radicals last year, but the administration decided to wait and take more time in weighing out its options.

ISIS did not wait, however. In June, the group’s territorial control spread like wildfire, erasing the Syrian-Iraqi border and adding the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit to its column, which includes Deir Azzor and Raqqa in Syria. This expansion drove the U.S. to launch more than 150 airstrikes targeting ISIS in Iraq since August 7 and leading up to planning an expansion into Syria.

In the shadow of Afghanistan

Syria’s political volatility and the brutality of the Assad regime has exacerbated the level of disenfranchisement and sectarian grievances and has also created the perfect setting for ISIS. Today, the group is more consolidated and rooted inside Syria, not in the same intensity but close to al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan under Taliban between 1996-2001. For example, ISIS enjoys full control of the Raqqa province, its leadership is in Syria, and most of its loathsome activities such as the beheading of hostages happen there.

Also, most of the foreign recruits of ISIS are in Syria. Instead of Kandahar and Waziristan, foreign extremists today flock to Homs, Aleppo and Deir Azzor. Syria has become the top destination for jihadists, attracting, according to the expert Peter Neumann, more than 12,000 fighters from 74 countries. Neumann adds that this is the highest number since the Mujahedeen recruits went to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

In Syria, foreign extremists recruits are learning bomb making skills, basic military training and are also bringing their expertise to ISIS. Those coming from the West are about 20 to 25 percent according to the same study, and they represent a higher risk to their home countries, given the difficulties in tracking them and knowledge of their countries of origin. Europe experienced this threat firsthand last June when the French ISIS recruit Mehdi Nemmouche shot four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum. While U.S. intelligence does not point to any current plans by ISIS to attack the United States, Washington is determined not to repeat the Afghanistan blunder and let ISIS threat simmer and grow in the heart of the Middle East.

A long war

It took ISIS almost 11 years to take root in Iraq and Syria after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Extracting ISIS from this contingent will not happen overnight and will require political resolve along with military action.

Obama is right in setting the tone for a long war. Boosting Syrian rebels to fight ISIS will take months as arms supplies will not arrive immediatley and the groups will take time to be fully vetted. By the same token, rolling back ISIS territory will require more than airstrikes. Forming ground coalitions with the tribes of Deir Azzor and the locals in Raqqa could prove difficult under ISIS’ reign of fear and terror. But finding a political path to peel off the local support from ISIS will be the most tedious in Syria.

The Assad regime, backed by Iran and Russia, is nowhere near conceding power and sees in the strikes a validation of its fight against the opposition in the last three years. Assad, whom the U.S. branded as a “magnet for terror,” will not relinquish power easily and could coexist with an extended conflict.

Leaving Syria unresolved will only strengthen ISIS and its presence in the near east. Preventing an Afghanistan-like situation on the Mediterranean and a stone’s throw away from Europe is key today to international peace and a lesson learned the hard way from 9/11.


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

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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