10 Questions: Syria

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Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, alternatively known as Abu Ala al-Afri, was a senior Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) official who reintegrated himself into ISIL following his release from prison in early 2012 and traveled to Syria to work in a Syria-based ISIL network. Al-Qaduli joined al-Qaida in 2004 under the command of now deceased al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and served as al-Zarqawiâs deputy and the AQI amir (leader) of Mosul, Ninawa Province, Iraq. (Rewards for Justice/US State Department)

Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli


This week President Barack Obama presented his strategy for confronting the growing threat of the Islamic State, or IS, in Syria. While many of us first heard about the brutal group of terrorists this summer, it's been around for a while and is actually a splinter from what was known as al-Qaida in Iraq. The civil war that has been ravaging Syria over the last several years has created conditions that helped IS gain strength and numbers. To understand Syria’s role, the Assad regime, and the road ahead, I posed 10 questions to Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former CIA analyst.

1. Syria has been crushed by a civil war for the last three years. What caused the conflict?

It’s a complicated story, but here’s a thumbnail sketch: Syria has been ruled by the brutal dictatorship of the Assad family since 1971. In 2011, as part of the Arab Spring, Syrians across the country rose up to try to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. The Assads are Alawites, an offshoot of Shiism; they had placed Alawites in key positions throughout the government and military, and rewarded the Alawite community and other minority groups with economic perks and disproportionate political power to buy their support against the majority Sunni populace. The regime convinced most of the Alawite and other minority communities that the Arab Spring was really a movement to install a vicious Sunni regime that would oppress Syria’s minorities even worse than the Alawites had treated the Sunnis (which was pretty bad, including another civil war from 1976 to 1982 that Assad’s father crushed by slaughtering roughly 40,000 Sunni rebels in the town of Hama).

Fearing they would be slaughtered by the Sunnis, most of the Alawites and many of Syria’s other minorities rallied around the Assad regime, whereas most of the largely Sunni populace opposed it and eventually turned to armed resistance when the regime began to slaughter what had at first been peaceful protesters. As is common in these kinds of civil wars, splits began to emerge among the opposition as warlords emerged who were as intent on enhancing their own power relative to one another as they were on defeating the regime. Meanwhile, the chaos and “ungoverned space” of most of Syria served as a power vacuum, the kind of place that al-Qaida and other Salafi Sunni extremist groups like to use to set up shop, mount terrorist operations, and go to war against Shiites and others whom they consider apostates. Inevitably, these kinds of “intercommunal civil wars” suck in the neighbors — in this case bringing in Turkey and the Sunni Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, Qatar, etc.) to support various Sunni groups, and the Shiite Iranians (and the Russians, the Cold War patrons of the Assads) to back the regime.

So that’s how we got from a peaceful protest movement against a brutal dictatorship to a vicious civil war pitting the remnants of that regime, backed by Syria’s Shiite Alawite community and other minorities, against a variety of Sunni groups that fight each other as much as they fight the regime.

2. How many people have died so far, and what is the refugee situation?

Officially, 191,000 have been documented as killed, but it is widely believed that the real number is closer to 240,000. At least 9 million Syrians, out of a total population of about 18 million, have become refugees of the war. Of those, about 3 million have fled to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq (although many of those have moved again because of the civil war in Iraq). Another 6 million or so are internally displaced. Syrian refugees are becoming a very severe burden for Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan (where they are threatening the country’s depleted water supplies).

3. Assad was initially seen as a potential reformer. What went wrong?

Bashar al-Assad certainly tried to portray himself as a reformer but never actually acted like one. We still don’t know why. There are those who claim that he really wanted to liberalize Syria but was prevented from doing so by the “old guard” of leaders left over from his father’s era, who opposed all change as potentially destabilizing the dictatorship. Others believe that Assad’s talk of reform was nothing but rhetoric meant to keep the U.S. and the West off his back. At this point we simply don’t know, and we won’t until the civil war is ended and we can speak to members of the regime and perhaps get access to their records — if there are any left when it’s over. For now, all we can say is that Assad never made good on his promises, and that’s what provoked the popular revolt that eventually metastasized into the Syrian civil war.

4. How did IS come to flourish in Syria and establish its headquarters there?

IS or ISIS or ISIL (or DA’SH, as the Arabs call it) began life as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). But the U.S. surge, the Anbar Awakening and the dramatic political progress in Iraq from 2008 to 2010 came close to wiping them out. (An important lesson as we try to understand what it will take to “degrade, then destroy” ISIS this time around.) What was left of AQI was saved by the descent into civil war next door in Syria. Its fighters fled to Syria, where in the chaos of civil war they were able to find sanctuary, regroup and start to gathers new recruits and then slowly begin to take control of territory, applying the military and political lessons they had learned from their defeat in Iraq.

5. Who are the opposition forces that make up the Free Syrian Army?

There are dozens of groups of varying sizes, ideologies and effectiveness in the Free Syrian Army. Some are moderate Islamists, some secular. Most are built around one or more key personalities and/or recruited from particular locales. They have almost nothing binding them together except their general hatred of the regime and the fact that they are not Salafi extremists. Not surprisingly, many of the groups have proved ineffective. That said, it’s also important to note that they really haven’t had much help at all. The U.S. and Europeans have provided them with next to nothing, whereas the more extreme groups have gotten much greater help from the Gulf states, Turkey and other Sunni governments. The extremists also have both religious zeal to inspire them and experience from fighting in insurgencies and civil wars elsewhere around the world. Likewise, the remnants of the Assad regime have gotten much more help from the Iranians and Russians, and they have the framework (and heavy weapons) of the old Syrian army to fall back on.


6. Is it possible IS could move to another country and continue staging its jihad from there, as al-Qaida did?

Absolutely. That’s what they do. But what is important to note is that they tend to move from civil war to civil war. They have had a much harder time establishing themselves and hanging on in strong, stable states. They got wiped out in Egypt in the 1990s and Saudi Arabia in the 2000s. But they started in Afghanistan during its civil war in the 1990s, then moved into Iraq when it descended into civil war after the U.S. invasion, and right now they are thriving in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya — all four countries in civil war. They have also made important inroads in Lebanon, which has similarly been destabilized by spillover from the Syrian civil war.

7. Why didn't the U.S. arm and train the opposition forces before this?

Only President Obama can truly answer this, and so far he has been less than candid about it. What is noteworthy — and very frustrating to all of his critics, some of his supporters, most of the Arab world and a bunch of other folks — is that his rationale for not providing greater support to the Syrian opposition has changed constantly, but the policy never has. His subordinates have run through a list of rationales — from not wanting to make the situation worse by providing arms, to fearing that arming the opposition would only provoke the Russians to arm the regime, to claiming that it could not identify anyone “moderate” to arm, to claiming that the moderates had basically lost to the extremists already. None of these are terribly compelling, especially since they all happened anyway and yet the administration never changed its policy.

My own read — and I can’t possibly prove it, it is merely speculation based on my observations of the president and conversations with his staff — is that Obama just did not believe that America’s interests were threatened until Mosul fell to ISIS in June of this year and still does not believe that the Syrian part of the Iraqi-Syrian civil war threatens American interests. As we all know, he believes he was elected to get America out of wars in the Middle East and is simply averse to making a new commitment. To me, that seems to explain the sharp distinction in his most recent speech between his strategy for Iraq and his strategy for Syria.

8. What role will Assad's army have in the fight against IS?

Hopefully none. Here the president was very clear (and very good, in my opinion). He said that the U.S. would not ally with the Assad regime, not even to fight ISIS, and that the U.S. would fight both simultaneously. I think that’s spot on. The U.S. has gotten repeatedly burned by adopting the flawed logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In the Middle East in particular, the enemy of my enemy can also be my enemy. The president is right that if the U.S. were willing to really begin to assist the Syrian opposition, there is every reason to believe that we could defeat both the regime and ISIS — but we need to make that commitment. And it was that flawed logic that led us to do disastrous things like ally with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War and look the other way while he used massive amounts of chemical warfare on the Iranians and developed vast nuclear and biological-warfare programs, which required the waging of the 1991 Gulf War to deal with (and that ultimately laid the foundation for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and all the disasters and tragedies that attended it).

9. Why has Saudi Arabia agreed to be a staging area for training Syrian opposition forces?

This is a very important question. We need to understand that the Saudis, and many other Sunni Arab states, are not sold on the president's Iraq strategy. For the record, I think it exactly right, and I say that as someone who has been extremely critical of Obama’s Iraq policy and his wider Middle East policy. But the Saudis don't agree. They hate and fear ISIS too, but they hate and fear the Shiites (and the ultimate Shiite power, Iran) and the moderate Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood far more than they hate and fear ISIS. They look at the U.S. strategy in Iraq and say to themselves, "We like the fact that Obama is finally engaging the Middle East and finally demonstrating some leadership there, but he is asking us to help our two greatest enemies crush a lesser enemy." That doesn’t really make sense to them. For them, Syria is a much more straightforward fight: They want Assad gone and the Alawite regime broken and want to see the Sunnis in charge, and they don’t really care which Sunnis as long as it is not the Brotherhood.

10. Will airstrikes really help eradicate ISIS forces? What about "collateral damage," aka civilian casualties?

Probably yes in Iraq and probably no in Syria. Here you have to go back to the strategy the president announced. It will take large-scale airstrikes — thousands of sorties over weeks or months, as opposed to the 150 the U.S. has flown in the past month — in support of some kind of an army on the ground to smash ISIS and its allies and drive them out of Iraq. Airstrikes alone cannot do the job, but you don’t need a fantastic army to do the job, just an army good enough that their capabilities plus U.S. airpower are enough to defeat the adversary. ISIS has tough, committed and experienced fighters, but they are not 10 feet tall. And there really aren't a whole lot of them. Remember, in Afghanistan it was U.S. airpower in support of the Northern Alliance that smashed the Taliban in 2001, and in Libya it was NATO airpower in support of a few thousand Libyan rebels that crushed Gadhafi’s army. So it is definitely doable if we have even a mediocre Iraqi military to support — it’s just that it will probably take months to rebuild the Iraqi military to the point where it has reached “mediocrity.” Plus, it needs to include Sunni formations that will be accepted by Iraq’s Sunni community.

In Syria, according to the president’s strategy, it doesn’t sound as if we will have even that. The administration remains incredibly vague about what it plans to do with the $500 million it requested from Congress, and in his speech, the president was at pains to describe his Syria strategy as a counterterrorism strategy like that in Yemen or Somalia, not a military offensive as in Afghanistan or Libya. So it doesn’t sound as if we are going to even try to eradicate ISIS in Syria.

As for collateral damage, yes, there will always be collateral damage. It is unavoidable in wars. But the U.S. military will try to limit that as best it can, and in truth, it does a remarkable job compared with most other militaries.

Katie Couric talks with Ken Pollack , Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, about whether the United States is any safer after September 11.