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Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: New Challenges for the European Union
Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: New Challenges for the European Union
A man gestures as people rush to a site hit by what activists said was heavy shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus, on 16 June 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Report 163 / Middle East & North Africa

New Approach in Southern Syria

Syria’s civil war is stuck in a vicious cycle, and the U.S. is best placed to change the appalling status quo. Washington should take advantage of opportunities in southern Syria to launch a new policy to improve the chance of a political settlement, chiefly by deterring regime aerial attacks on rebel-held civilian areas.

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Executive Summary

The Syrian war rages on, its devastating civilian toll rising with no viable political solution in sight. Diplomacy is stymied by the warring parties’ uncompromising positions, reinforced by political deadlock between their external backers. The U.S. is best placed to transform the status quo. A significant but realistic policy shift focused on dissuading, deterring or otherwise preventing the regime from conducting aerial attacks within opposition-held areas could improve the odds of a political settlement. This would be important, because today they are virtually nil. Such a policy shift could begin in southern Syria, where conditions are currently most favourable.

While the White House has declared its desire for an end of President Bashar Assad’s rule, it has shied from concrete steps toward this goal, pursuing instead a strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (IS), which it deems a more serious threat to its interests. Yet, a year into that strategy, the overall power of Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria (as in Iraq) has risen. This is no surprise: the Assad regime’s sectarian strategy, collective punishment tactics and reliance on Iran-backed militias, among other factors, help perpetuate ideal recruitment conditions for these groups. By attacking IS while ignoring the regime’s ongoing bombardment of civilians, the U.S. inadvertently strengthens important aspects of the Salafi-jihadi narrative depicting the West as colluding with Tehran and Damascus to subjugate Sunnis.

Salafi-jihadi groups, including IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate which fights both IS and the regime, are strongest in the north and east, where they have exploited disarray and conflicting priorities among the opposition’s external sponsors. While the U.S. has attached greatest importance to the battle against IS, for example, Turkey has pressed for a more concerted effort to topple the Assad regime, while pushing back against Kurdish groups allied with Iran. Continuing disagreement has prevented establishment of a northern no-fly zone, a key Turkish demand.

Southern Syria currently provides the best environment for a new approach. Beginning in early 2014, increased assistance from Western and Arab states and improved coordination among the southern armed opposition factions they support sparked a string of victories against regime forces, enabling these factions to gain strength relative to Salafi-jihadi groups. With these factions in the lead, by late January 2015 opposition forces had gained control over contiguous territory encompassing most of Quneitra province and the western third of Deraa province. A major regime counter-offensive the next month south of Damascus, with unprecedented Iranian and Hizbollah support, recaptured only a small share of territory and failed to halt the momentum of opposition forces that extended their territory through much of eastern Deraa between March and June. An opposition offensive is ongoing in late summer to capture the portion of Deraa’s provincial capital still under regime control.

Some of this success can be attributed to the steady erosion of regime military capacity, which manpower constraints suggest will continue. This may force Assad to deepen reliance on Iran-backed militias in areas he fears losing, or concede these to the opposition and resort to aerial attacks (including barrel bombs) to keep them ungovernable. In either scenario, Salafi-jihadi groups would gain further traction, lowering prospects for resolving the conflict politically. Avoiding this requires a joint strategy among the opposition’s backers to empower credible opposition elements to fill the military and civil voids on the ground by establishing effective civil administrations. The south, where Salafi-jihadi groups are weakest, is the most favourable starting ground.

As has become clear throughout Syria, however, opposition elements cannot build effective governance amid the death and destruction caused by aerial bombardment, particularly given the regime’s tendency to target precisely those facilities necessary for capacity to emerge. Diplomatic admonitions which are not backed by concrete action carry little weight with the regime’s backers, and are unlikely to halt Assad’s use of air attacks as part of a scorched-earth strategy and a way to mete out collective punishment. The U.S. needs to be ready to pursue other means at its disposal, and to signal that readiness.

The Obama administration has sought to avoid that deeper involvement in the conflict, due to scepticism about what a more robust policy could achieve and concern that the regime’s allies might retaliate against U.S. personnel and interests elsewhere. But this conflict will not end without a shift in U.S. policy. In addition to improving living conditions in the south, it could also significantly help in degrading Salafi-jihadi power and otherwise improve prospects for an eventual negotiated end of the war.

It would do so, first, by enabling opposition groups to consolidate military control and establish governance capacity in the south. This would improve their strength and credibility vis-à-vis Salafi-jihadi groups and could incentivise their development as political actors capable of governing their areas.

Secondly, achieving a zone free of aerial attacks in the south could provide a model for a different approach by the rebels’ state backers in the north, where poor coordination and divergent priorities with Ankara, Doha and Riyadh have contributed to a situation not conducive to an escalated U.S. role. A move by Washington to halt regime aerial attacks in the south could signal it would consider doing so in the north as well, if those allies would assist in bringing about a similar shift in the northern balance of power away from Salafi-jihadi groups.

Thirdly, a U.S. push to halt regime air attacks in the south would signal resolve to the regime’s most important backers, Iran and Hizbollah, and demonstrate that the returns on their investments in the status quo will further diminish. Iranian and Hiz­bollah officials play down the long-term costs of their involvement, believing they can outlast their opponents in a proxy war of attrition, and viewing the price of doing so as preferable to negotiating a resolution that includes an end to Assad’s rule. Their view appears based, in part, on the assumption that Washington’s narrow focus on IS and reluctance to confront the regime are pushing its policy toward accepting Assad’s political survival and thus, ultimately, a resolution of the conflict more favourable to them.

The U.S. initiative described here could help refute that assumption and put weight behind the White House’s assertions that the nuclear deal will not pave the way for Iranian hegemony in the region. This message of resolve should be paired with a parallel one indicating U.S. willingness to take the core interests of the regime’s backers into account in any political deal to end the war.

Beirut/Brussels, 2 September 2015

Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: New Challenges for the European Union

Despite suffering significant blows in Syria and Iraq, jihadist movements across the Middle East, North Africa and Lake Chad regions continue to pose significant challenges. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to prioritise conflict prevention at the heart of their counter-terrorism policy and continue investment in vulnerable states.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Over the past few months, military operations have eaten deep into the Iraqi and Syrian heartlands of the Islamic State (ISIS). Much of Mosul, the group’s last urban stronghold in Iraq, has been recaptured; Raqqa, its capital in Syria, is encircled. Its Libyan branch, with closest ties to the Iraqi leadership, has been ousted from the Mediterranean coastal strip it once held. Boko Haram, whose leaders pledged allegiance to ISIS, menaces the African states around Lake Chad but has split and lost much of the territory it held a year ago. Though smaller branches exist from the Sinai to Yemen and Somalia, the movement has struggled to make major inroads or hold territory elsewhere.

ISIS’s decisive defeat remains a remote prospect while the Syrian war rages and Sunnis’ place in Iraqi politics is uncertain. It will adapt and the threat it poses will evolve. But it is on the backfoot, its brand diminished. For many adherents, its allure was its self-proclaimed caliphate and territorial expansion. With those in decline, its leaders are struggling to redefine success. Fewer local groups are signing up. Fewer foreigners are travelling to join; the main danger they represent now is their return to countries of origin or escape elsewhere.

Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, is increasingly potent. It, too, has evolved. Its affiliates, particularly its Sahel, Somalia, Syria and Yemen branches, are more influential than the leadership in South Asia. Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, inspires loyalty and offers guidance but has little say in daily operations. Al-Qaeda’s strategy – embedding within popular uprisings, allying with other armed groups and displaying pragmatism and sensitivity to local norms – may make it a more durable threat than ISIS. Its strategy also means that affiliates’ identities are more local than transnational, a shift that has sparked debate among jihadists. Although Western intelligence officials assert that cells within affiliates plot against the West, for the most part they fight locally and have recruited large numbers of fighters motivated by diverse local concerns.

U.S. national security policy looks set to change too. Much about new President Donald Trump’s approach remains uncertain, but aggressive counter-terrorism operations for now dominate his administration’s policy across the Muslim world. Protecting U.S. citizens from groups that want to kill them must, of course, be an imperative for American leaders. But since the 9/11 attacks a decade and a half ago, too narrow a focus on counter-terrorism has often distorted U.S. policy and at times made the problem worse.

The roots of ISIS’s rise and al-Qaeda’s resurgence are complex and varied. Patterns of radicalisation vary from country to country ... though war and state collapse are huge boons for both movements.

Some early signs are troubling. Past months have seen a spike in civilian casualties resulting from U.S. drone and other airstrikes. The degree to which the administration will factor in the potential geopolitical fallout of operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda is unclear. U.S. allies could misuse counter-terrorism support against rivals and deepen chaos in the region. Nor it is clear that the U.S. will invest in diplomacy to either end the wars from which jihadists profit or nudge regional leaders toward reforms that can avert further crises. The new administration may also escalate against Iran while fighting jihadists, creating an unnecessary and dangerous distraction.

Though the influence of European leaders and the European Union (EU) on Arab politics and U.S. counter-terrorism policy has limits, they are likely to be asked to bankroll reconstruction efforts across affected regions. They could use this leverage to:

  1. Promote a judicious and legal use of force: Campaigns against jihadists hinge on winning over the population in which they operate. “Targeted” strikes that kill civilians and alienate communities are counterproductive, regardless of immediate yield. Indiscriminate military action can play into extremists’ hands or leave communities caught between their harsh rule and brutal operations against them. European leaders should press for tactical restraint and respect for international humanitarian law, which conflict parties of all stripes increasingly have abandoned.
     
  2. Promote plans for the day after military operations: Offensives against Mosul, Raqqa or elsewhere need plans to preserve military gains, prevent reprisals and stabilise liberated cities. As yet, no such plan for Raqqa seems to exist – it would need to involve local Sunni forces providing security, at least inside the city. As operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda linked groups escalate, the EU could seek clarity on what comes next and how operations fit into a wider political strategy.
     
  3. Identify counter-terrorism’s geopolitical side effects: The fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda intersects a tinderbox of wars and regional rivalries. Frank discussion of the potential consequences of military operations could reduce risks that they provoke a wider escalation. The Raqqa campaign, for example, should seek to avoid stimulating fighting elsewhere among Turkish and Kurdish forces and their respective allies. Success in Mosul hinges on preventing the forces involved battling for territory after they have ousted ISIS. European powers’ own counter-terrorism support should not result in allies being more resistant to compromise.
     
  4. Reinforce diplomatic efforts to end crises: From Libya to Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, no country where ISIS or al-Qaeda branches hold territory has a single force strong enough to secure the whole country. Unless the main non-jihadist armed factions in each country can arrive at some form of political accommodation among each other, there is a risk they either ally with jihadists against rivals or misuse counter-terrorism support for other ends. European powers should step up support for UN-led diplomacy if the U.S. neglects such efforts.
     
  5. Protect space for political engagement: Over recent years, as jihadists have gathered force on today’s battlefields, Western powers have tended to draw a line between groups they see as beyond the pale and those whom they envisage as part of settlements. The EU should keep the door open to engagement with all conflict parties – whether to secure humanitarian access or reduce violence. It should be made clear to groups on the wrong side of the line how they eventually can cross it. Al-Qaeda affiliates’ increasingly local focus makes this all the more vital.

  6. Warn against confronting Iran: Such a confrontation would be perilous. Militarily battling Tehran in Iraq, Yemen or Syria, questioning the nuclear deal’s validity or imposing sanctions that flout its spirit could provoke asymmetric responses via non-state allies. Iran’s behaviour across the region is often destabilising and reinforces the sectarian currents that buoy jihadists. But the answer lies in dampening the rivalry between Iran and the Gulf monarchies, not stimulating it, with the attendant risk of escalating proxy wars. This will mean resuming a tough but professional senior-level U.S.-Iranian channel of communication, something the U.S. administration seems reluctant to do but that Europe could encourage. And, for the EU and its members states (notably France, Germany and the UK), it means clearly signalling to the U.S. administration that any step to undermine the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – in the absence of an Iranian violation of the deal – will leave Washington isolated and unable to recreate an international consensus to sanction Iran.

The roots of ISIS’s rise and al-Qaeda’s resurgence are complex and varied. Patterns of radicalisation vary from country to country, village to village and individual to individual. Clearly, though, war and state collapse are huge boons for both movements. Both groups have grown less because their ideology inspires wide appeal than by offering protection or firepower against enemies, or rough law and order where no one else can; or by occupying a power vacuum and forcing communities to acquiesce. Rarely can either group recruit large numbers or seize territory outside a war zone. The EU’s investment in peacebuilding and shoring up vulnerable states is, therefore, among its most valuable contributions against jihadists. European leaders must do everything within their power to disrupt attacks, but they should also put conflict prevention at the centre of their counter-terrorism policy.