Friday, December 6, 2013

America's unlearned lessons

After the September 11, 2001 attacks against New York and Washington, you would often hear from Americans that Washington had botched the aftermath of the civil war in Afghanistan. Instead of helping stabilize the country after having armed the Afghanis in their struggle against the Russian occupation, it had left behind a vacuum that was later exploited by al-Qaeda.

While the situation in Syria is somewhat different, similar dynamics have been at play: a devastating conflict has led to a breakdown in the state and in traditional social structures, creating an ideal space in which militant jihadis can thrive and gain in strength. Ultimately, the existence of such failed entities poses a threat to the West, because the jihadis either move back to Europe and the United States from where they came, or use their lawless territory to mount terrorist actions against ideological enemies abroad.

American officials are increasingly aware that Syria poses such a risk for the West, and this is greatly shaping their outlook on the conflict in Syria. No longer is their priority to push for the removal of President Bashar Assad; rather, it is to avoid anything that might turn to the advantage of the two rebel groups linked to al-Qaeda, namely Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

A former US diplomat in the Middle East, Ryan Crocker, expressed the changing American mood best, when he told The New York Times this week, “We need to start talking to the Assad regime again [about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern]. It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”

Crocker is no fool, and faced similar situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he served. And yet such a statement suggests that even experienced Americans are falling into a trap that the Assad regime set for them almost three years ago, when it radically escalated the level of violence in Syria. It knew that this would generate greater religious extremism on the rebels’ side, ultimately validating the regime’s narrative that it was fighting a jihadi insurgency. 

What has remained largely unsaid, however, is that the Obama administration bears indirect responsibility for the emergence of the al-Qaeda danger in Syria. This reality has only highlighted that if the US understood the lessons from Afghanistan, it did absolutely nothing to apply them during the Syrian conflict.

For over a year after the start of the war in Syria in 2011, the administration insisted that it wanted a managed transition, one that would avoid a vacuum that might profit jihadis. But it never grasped that by refusing to help the Syrian rebellion – on the grounds that it did not want weapons to reach Islamist extremists – it only created objective conditions favorable to the jihadis.

As the Syrian people were being crushed by a barbarous regime while the West stood by issuing empty statements, it was natural for the extremists to take advantage of this outrage. The Assad regime’s brutality meant that anyone fighting against it would be welcomed by rebel combatants and opposition sympathizers, and would have an ideal rallying cry to attract young militants from around the world.

The extremists were good fighters, were willing to die, and captured territory. The Obama administration urged the more moderate rebel groups to build up governing administrations in the areas under their control, but otherwise did nothing to ensure that this would take place. Al-Qaeda groups proved far more serious in pursuing such a project, and implemented a cynical strategy of eliminating rival rebel groups that might challenge their authority.   

By failing to read the situation properly and by making very little effort to work toward building up a unified, moderate opposition with a well-armed force, the Americans facilitated a void the jihadis would fill, replicating the Afghan experience. Now the Americans are eager to clean up the mess, and their specialists are suggesting that the best way to do so is to collaborate with a regime that made it possible.

The real problem was the faulty template used by the Obama administration when addressing Syria. Officials never tired of saying that this was “someone else’s civil war.” They never mentioned that many internal conflicts in the world today – for instance in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya – have repercussions beyond their borders. And yet the Americans must know this, since their special forces are operating worldwide, allegedly to protect America from terrorism.

In reality, President Barack Obama’s only real concern in Syria was to avoid being drawn back into the Middle East. His was a self-centered, short-term, foolishly insular reaction, in a region in which the US otherwise has significant stakes. Obama and his advisors never made any real effort to estimate the costs of such a policy, or rather non-policy, and are now scrambling to make up for their negligence.

The administration has shown not only that it failed to adequately learn the lessons from the past, but that it was also incapable of deriving lessons from its own current policies. The implications of the Syrian conflict for America are not likely to end soon. Expect more mistakes as the US stumbles to get a handle on things.  

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