The 'German idealist' Immanuel Kant could be hard-headed. "Whoever wills the end, wills the unavoidably necessary means," he said.
There are many non-Syrians who rant and rave against Assad. They demand that the world 'do something' about him. They 'support' the rebels, or some of the rebels. These people allegedly want Assad gone. But they do not will the unavoidably necessary means to remove him, so they do not will the alleged end. Their ranting expresses mere dislike, not serious intention. Since they will not so much as advocate what it takes to end the catastrophe, even their dislike can't run so terribly deep.
What it takes to end Assad's catastrophe is support for all the rebels, including some radical, anti-democratic Islamists who have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. It takes willingness, directly or indirectly, to supply these extremists. Try, if you like, to find one single commentator who doesn't espouse some sort of falsehood or sophistry to avoid this conclusion.
The main maneuver is to claim that there is a secularist democratically-minded rebel force, usually called the Free Syrian Army, sufficient to defeat Assad. Sometimes it is said, approvingly, that this force is 'vetted' by the CIA. With more backing, some say, this force is also the best bet against ISIS, far better than Assad. Or, even if they're not the best bet in the short run, they're the best bet in the long run: even if Assad might do as well as a weapon against the immediate threat of ISIS, only the FSA could provide a long-term, solid counter to ISIS - by eliminating the Assadist tyranny that spawned ISIS in the first place.
None of this is right - it's false, misleading or incapable of making its case.
There are incorruptible secularist democratically-minded forces, but they are small; on their own they couldn't even hold their own. In the South, where they are strongest and most independent of Islamist influence, big things have been promised for years. The promises faded and now, with Russian assistance to the régime, they have vanished. In the North, also for years, the FSA has needed help from and alliance with radical Islamists. Fear of these Islamists is why the US is so squeamish about supplying arms, in North and South alike. Now, with Russian-backed attacks from the régime and the Kurds, no one seriously suggests that the FSA is going to overthrow Assad.
But suppose, somehow, the FSA were generously reinforced and redirected against IS - presumably in exchange for some sort of shameful deal with the régime. Would they be the best military answer to ISIS in Syria? This would be as much as to say that a heavily reinforced Syrian army, backed by Russian close air support, Iranian regulars and Shia militias, would not do as well. There isn't the slightest reason to suppose this. What's more, it's not even clear that Iran, Russia, the Kurds and Assad won't put an end to ISIS on their own.
But what about the long term? Wouldn't the FSA offer a better solution than the régime, whose oppression spawned the extreme Islamists in the first place? In the long term there is little reason to suppose so. Assad's oppression was far from the only factor that spawned extremist Islam, which took root and flourished much earlier. The West's gratuitous assault on Iraq, following decades of foolish interventions in the Middle East, had much to do with it. The FSA can't undo these injuries, and it will not easily shake its association with the Americans held responsible for them . Nor do the programs of the FSA testify to the slightest interest in addressing the poverty and inequality that are probably the deepest causes of the Islamist surge. Instead FSA & its supporters issue declarations that voice commitments to liberal and democratic values. They are sometimes mildly welfarist but offer no economic or social transformation likely to interest poorer Syrians. So the idea that the FSA, as opposed to Assad, offers some lasting solution to the problem of extremist Islam is implausible.
The military and political shortcomings of the FSA begin to make the case for un-vetted support for the rebels, including the extreme Islamists. Contrary to received opinion, it is a strategy which holds very little risk to the West, very little cost, and some benefit.
Consider the whole idea of vetting Syrian fighters, as pure a product of American insularity and ignorance as you're likely to find. For one thing, anyone born and raised under a brutal police state has learned to conceal his opinions and leanings from much tougher and wilier intelligence authorities than a CIA officer. For another, the vetting project flies in the face of Syrian realities.
Vetting has never been wonderfully effective. The latest notable failure in the region became apparent when "a Jordanian physician named Humam Khalil al-Balawi" blew up seven CIA officers at a meeting in Afghanistan. I knew someone who vetted French resistance fighters for the OSS and considered the whole exercise a joke. But Syria is far, far less favorable terrain for vetting than Nazi-occupied France. It is far, far less favorable terrain than contemporary Middle Eastern countries that have experienced unrest such as Algeria or Egypt.
In wartime France there were maybe two or three factions to which you could belong. In Egypt or Algeria, there have been two or three radical Islamist factions, and it doesn't even matter too much which one has your allegiance. In Syria there are literally hundreds of opposition groups, many of them ephemeral. Not only do these groups have very different orientations; the groups themselves quite often change their orientation. Even CIA-vetted groups have done this. So vetting can easily be invalidated both at the group and at the individual level.
It's not just that these opportunities for 'deviance' exist: it's also that constantly changing circumstances provide powerful motives to deviate. Groups may change for ideological reasons: they are disillusioned with the Islamist or secularist movements, or they come to adopt the agenda of some external supporter. Individuals may change for these reasons too, but also for many non-ideological reasons. They find that another group has come to be far more effective against Assad, or they become disgusted with the tactics of their own group, or they come to consider their current leaders corrupt, or they are attracted by the salaries of some other group, or they find that their own group simply isn't militarily viable any more. Finally and perhaps most important, vetted groups may and frequently do find alliance with un-vetted groups a pressing strategic necessity. So even if vetting produced correct conclusions today, those conclusions quite frequently don't hold tomorrow. The plethora of options afforded to groups and individuals in Syria is likely unique and completely undermines the vetting project.
This makes me impatient with analysts' and commentators' suggestion that such-and-such group or individual might not be really sincere in their professed commitment to this or that Western Value. Of course they might not be; what adult isn't aware that you can't really see into others' hearts? Syria analysts seem to live in a world of rebel statements and organizational charts which they treat like a window on reality. Better not to take the statements and charts too seriously in the first place, and look instead at actions and the immediate pressures of circumstances. When you do this, it's immediately clear that in Syria, individuals frequently and radically change their minds. Rather than fuss about depth of commitment, policy makers should think about how to give people reason to commit.
Since rebel groups and individuals cannot be effectively vetted, they can be supported only un-vetted. This is the only real alternative, largely because once the US starts vetting, its hysteria about al Qaeda deters it from delivering even minimally adequate support, even to those it distrusts least. But isn't unvetted support terribly risky, particularly in the case of 'al-Qaeda affiliated' Jabhat al Nusra? The short answer is no, if by 'risky' is meant increasing the risk of attacks on the West. Only the same sort of bad analysis that underlies vetting can make it seem otherwise.
From the West's point of view, the main risk posed by Nusra lies in the threat of attacks on the West. (The West has certainly shown it is not overly concerned about attacks on Syrians.)
To be clear from the start, there is absolutely no doubt that Jabhat al Nusra does indeed pose a terror threat to the US.
Immigrants and indeed visitors to the US also pose a clear and documented terror threat. Of course there are some other threats. Hezbollah is a threat. Unlike Jabhat al Nusra, it has actually carried out a truly massive terror attack against US troops. So Assad, Hezbollah's close ally, is also a threat. The Druze, since many are allies of Assad and therefore of Hezbollah, also pose a threat. So do many Syrian Christian groups, for the same reason. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Turkey, all linked to groups linked to Jabhat al Nusra, must pose a threat as well. Arguably the US poses a terror threat to itself, because it trains soldiers knowing some will go nuts and kill people at random.
In other words, it is not enough just to say something is a threat. You need to know the scale and nature of the threat. Even more important and usually ignored, you need to know whether the existence of the threat actually increases the risk of an attack on the West. We'll see that the answer isn't obvious.
The scale and exact nature of Nusra's threat to the US is, of course, unknown. We can only look at the evidence that Nusra plans to attack the US, or is likely to do so in the future. That evidence hardly exists.
The principal ground for seeing Nusra as a threat is that it is 'affiliated' with Al Qaeda. That at least is actually confirmed by official Nusra statements. What does it mean?
In the first, place, affiliation with Al Qaeda does not mean subordination to the Al Qaeda leadership. Al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, does give orders or at least exhort affiliates to do or not to do certain things. Whether they pay attention is an entirely different matter.
Al Qaeda is now frequently characterized as a brand - in the loose sense of some set of names and symbols un-enforced by some sort of intellectual property police. As Richard Reeve, terrorism analyst at the UK based Oxford Research Group, puts it: "Brand franchising is essentially what the AQ 'central' leadership now does..." And according to Myriam Benraad, policy fellow on the European Council on Foreign Relations, the al Qaeda affiliation no longer has the impact it was designed to have. "What we see... very clearly is the fracturing of what is called al Qaeda, which has more or less become a brand." Yet this characterization of Al Qaeda's relation to its 'affiliates' does not begin to provide an assessment of the strength of such links. To assess that, you have to look at the affiliates themselves.
Matters may be very different in North Africa, but in the case of Jabhat al Nusra, what the leadership maintains is not, for the membership, written in stone. As we've seen, people join Nusra for all sorts of non-ideological reasons. What they have in common is a desire to fight Assad, not some Al Qaeda dogma. So it is not as if Nusra provides hordes ready to do anything the leadership says. The idea of its rank and file suddenly devoting themselves to attacking the West is a non-starter. And since the leadership depends on its rank-and-file, there is a definite limit to its capacity to turn anti-Western sentiments into anti-Western plans of action.
But aren't there some serious anti-Western terrorist operatives within Nusra? The chief proponent of this claim is Charles Lister, who tells us that Nusra is a bigger threat than ISIS. Why does he say this? What follows does not review all his case, but portions representative, I think, of its character.
The overwhelming bulk of Lister's evidence for his contentions comes under the rubric of: some people said some words. It should be obvious that anywhere, but especially where the Syrian conflict is concerned, this has little weight. But Lister's claims get credibility because, in part, they conform to facts on the ground. For the hostility of Jabhat al Nusra to Western ideals, it is not just a matter of their statements; it is apparent from, for example, their regulations about women and their modes of governance. But for the claim that Jabhat al Nusra is a threat to the West, there isn't one single fact on the ground to support, let alone confirm it.
Lister notes that Jabhat al Nusra has bomb experts and that it has planted bombs in Syria and Lebanon. Yes, it is fighting a war in Syria and like other groups this leads to occasional conflict with Lebanese government forces. In this conflict, everyone uses bombs: that hasn't the slightest tendency to suggest that any of these parties will use bombs in the West. Indeed it undermines Lister's identification of the presence of Al Qaeda bomb experts in their ranks. Given that Jabhat al Nusra actually does use bombs in Syria and Lebanon, and nowhere else, might not they need bomb experts for this purpose, and not for attacks on the West? Certainly it is possible that Jabhat al Nusra will in some distant future blow up a shopping mall in Kansas; it is also possible that the US will invade Canada. These possibilities become serious worries if and only if there is something more than the presence of individuals who theoretically could help make these possibilities a reality.
Well, then, is there some reason to suppose that these individuals have ever planned an attack on the West? No.
The basis for claiming otherwise is laughably thin. Lister tells us that "The first public recognition of this came in early July 2014, when security at airports with direct service to the United States was tightened due to “credible threats.”For one thing, this is not only the first but also the only 'evidence' that the Khorasan group - alleged super-terrorists whose members Lister has laboriously documented as belonging to Nusra's core membership - planned an attack on the US. But this is no evidence at all; it is a claim that there is evidence.
What then is the actual content of that claim? Lister points to an article which has some US-based fans of Nusra doing exactly nothing, plus a government warning about the July 4th weekend. The warning, however, stated that "At the moment, U.S. officials say there is no specific, credible threat to the homeland." Here is an evaluation of such warnings from Buck Sexton, a former CIA intelligence officer who was assigned to their Iraq and Afghanistan offices and later joined the NYPD intelligence division. He is now a TV commentator, loud and aggressive about terrorism.
The overall odds are low that a major terrorist attack will be attempted over the July Fourth weekend. Authorities say there is "no specific, credible threat," which is bureaucrat-speak for "we don't really know" and is a strong indicator that our intensified counterterrorism posture is based more on gut instinct than actionable intelligence.
As for reports from Syria itself, they seem more like hints than evidence. Consider the basis for the US threat assessment regarding the Khorasan Group.
The assessment's character is suggested in Kevin Jackson's "From Khorasan to the Levant: A Profile of Sanafi al-Nasr", posted by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Jackson, says Lister, is one of those "experts whose consistent excellence in researching and analysing international terrorism has influenced my work." Jackson states that
[al-Nasr's] writings reflect a deep-seated animus toward the United States that has both ideological and personal components. In the years after 9/11 one of his brothers was killed and two of his brothers were imprisoned by the United States.
Allegedly in 2007 he went to the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal areas, where he allegedly befriended Al Qaeda leaders.
What did he do there? Oh, as far as anyone knows, mainly media stuff:
There is little documentation of al-Nasr’s engagement in al-Qa`ida’s military efforts. He is said to have featured in an al-Sahab production showing rocket attacks in Paktika, a province in southeastern Afghanistan. Al-Nasr also provided a vivid account of a multi-pronged attack he had been charged with filming in 2007. This supports other sources in which he was characterized as one of the “media men of Qa`idat al-Jihad in Khorasan” by a fellow member of the organization.[n] Al-Nasr’s only other appearance in al-Qa`ida’s official media was his later article for the group’s magazine Tala`i’ Khorasan in which he addressed the issue of Saudi women in custody.
To shorten the tale, he then went to Iran for a while, did media and supposedly financing, was arrested, released, and did some more media stuff. Later he went to Syria, and in Jabhat al Nusra engaged in combat, against Assad of course.(*) He was involved in Nusra internal politics. There is no reason to doubt his importance in the organization (before his reported death). But Jackson tell us "It is unclear if al-Nasr had any operational role in the alleged plotting of international attacks by the Khorasan Group."
If I may translate: there is not the slightest, tiniest scrap of evidence that he ever had such a role or that any such attacks were planned. All Jackson can muster is the observation that, in the case of any such attacks, it is most likely that he was involved, because he had "close working relationship with al-Fadhli, who headed external operations for al-Qa`ida Central in Syria." Jackson offers no reason to suppose there was any such "case", and admits that Jabhat al Nusra doesn't seem to be planning any such attacks, but well... you know... Jabhat al Nusra did use bombs in Lebanon during fighting there.
So this is a mostly media guy who really doesn't like the US and has fought Assad a bit. There is no evidence, specific or general, of any planning whatever of any attacks against the US. This is not like the level of intelligence available to the US before 9/11, and ignored. It is like the level of intelligence that would justify Russia acting on 'reports' that the US was about to strike Russia. After all, some high-ranking US military guys and influential congressmen no doubt know some guys who hate the Russians and talk a lot about nuking them. And typical of these analyses, we get extensive, minute detail about individuals who, for all anyone knows, are up to approximately nothing, followed by stern conclusions about the menace of the organizations to which they belong.
What about something more like hard evidence? Well, not a single Nusra sleeper cell has been identified. No one even states that such cells exist in the West. Western police forces have discovered no Nusra-linked documents or arms caches or laptops or cell phones. So the entire case for the Nusra threat is based on what are essentially mutterings about some members of the group, or some statements someone associated with the group has at some time made. That's enough, I suppose, to say a threat exists, because for all we know Nusra might attack the West tomorrow morning. But threats based on such evidence are not rational grounds for policy.
The terror threat
However, absence of evidence is far from the main reason support for Nusra should not be considered risky. The main reason is that the obsession with this or that potentially terrorist group is futile. The terrorist threat will not change in any substantial way because this or that group is strengthened or weakened.
Most groups affiliated with Al Qaeda have little or nothing to do with terrorist attacks on the West. They are almost invariably opposing local governments and use terrorist tactics because they cannot achieve much through conventional warfare. ISIS itself has that origin. Oddly enough, any slight shift they exhibit to attacks on the West occur after the West has sent planes and weapons to kill and mutilate as many of them as possible. What's more, in any particular area, the suppression of one group actually causes another to emerge. Now there are anti-Western terrorist or potentially terrorist groups in at least Somalia, Algeria, Mali, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Anti-Western terrorists move among almost all these countries with ease. They have “a huge reservoir of sympathizers who all have western or European passports and who were born or raised” in the West. The idea that eliminating the very slight terrorist threat posed by Nusra will make a noticeable difference is absurd. Eliminate Nusra, and it will strengthen IS in Syria by quite a lot, as well as most certainly fostering another Syrian al Qaeda branch, most likely more anti-Western than Nusra ever was. So Nusra's existence makes does not increase the overall terrorist threat to the West one bit. So it does not, after all, increase risk to the West if Nusra gets its hands on Western arms. The claim that you can substantially reduce the terror threat only by addressing deeper causes such as invasion, poverty, inequality and oppression may amount to useless preaching: no, these woes will not be eliminated. That doesn't change its truth.
Suppose then that the West and particularly the US doesn't care about what happens to Syrians and doesn't care that much - since Obama wants to 'disengage' from the region - about what happens in the Middle East. What the West does care about are attacks on Western soil. We've seen that backing Nusra doesn't appreciably increase the risks, because deep injustices assure that the threat will remain robust and widespread. So the terror threat can be reduced only by addressing these deeper causes.
The problem is that the West can do nothing positive to remedy these injustices: its destructive incompetence at the silly project of 'nation-building' is almost universally acknowledged. But the West can do something negative that will help: it can remove itself as an obstacle to any remedies.
If the West cannot improve conditions in Middle Eastern nations, the best it can do abroad to ward off terror attacks is to remove the grievances that help spawn them. Un-vetted backing of the rebels can help the West and especially the US achieve what may seem like incompatible goals: reducing the threat of terror attacks and disengaging from the region.
The key to seeing how this works is to note that, apart from anti-IS campaigns, the only essential function performed by the US in Syria is to obstruct regional powers from aiding the rebels. The futile vetting project is complemented by a far-from-futile project to stop the regional powers from supplying whom they please with what they please. To achieve the 'activist' goal of removing Assad - and incidentally to curb both Russian and Iranian influence - the US doesn't have to do anything. It simply has to not do something, to remove the constraints on the Gulf States and Turkey. The massive aid they can and should provide wouldn't even need to come from the US; both nations have ample stocks of arms. That the US would very likely be the main replenisher of these stocks is hardly the sort of risk that wannabe policy wonks invoke when they speak of quagmires or 'boots on the ground'. So massive support for the rebels isn't just compatible with disengagement; it is disengagement.
Might this disengagement also reduce the risk of terror attacks - always assuming that Syria generates appreciable risk in the first place? Here's the correct answer: no one knows. But that is also the correct answer to the same question about current US policies, including the campaign against ISIS. That said, there is reason to suppose that any such risk would be reduced.
If the deeper roots of terrorism are beyond the reach of Western efforts, the same doesn't seem to hold for the reasons terrorists attack the West. The main grievances against the West are said to be that its forces occupy the region and it supports repressive secularist régimes. In Syria, despite US evasions, this is certainly the case: the US has explicitly said it prefers the régime to an Islamist takeover. Well, disengagement from Syria is at least a small step away from the status of an occupying power in the region. It is a large step away from supporting repressive secularist régimes.
Looking at the longer term, US disengagement in support of the rebels and against Assad seems to go quite far towards neutralizing extremist resentment of the West. Recent experience throughout much of the region suggests that, absent brutal repression, the future of Syria and other states is Islamist. This cannot be stopped; it can only be delayed by shedding oceans of blood. For the US quite clearly to indicate that it prefers even a radical Islamic presence in the region to atrocious secularist régimes addresses fundamentalist grievances pretty directly. If indeed foreign policy can do anything to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks, this would seem the most promising direction it could take.
There are other advantages to the sort of disengagement that gives regional powers a free hand against Assad. Middle Eastern people, like people everywhere, are selective in their moral outrage - but no less serious about it for all that. Just as, say, many Americans care deeply about police murders of black people, but don't give a shit how many Syrians die in agony, so Middle Eastern people are genuinely outraged that the West is indifferent to atrocities in Syria, where more innocents can die in a day than are murdered by US police in a year. So at some primitive level, morality and Western self-interest converge. Terrorists, we often hear, are at least in part motivated by a well-founded sense of justice that, it seems, is baffling to many Westerners. Perhaps if these terrorists were humoured by genuine, consequential Western opposition to Assad's off-the-charts atrocities, the West would be hated a little less. This too might undermine anti-Western agendas.
Finally, disengagement would improve US and Western credibility. Given all the fine words uttered against Assad, it would be a bit less confidence-destroying if the West actually allowed him to be removed, rather than fussing about the Values of those involved in removing him. Syrians are probably not impressed by world powers that tut-tut about Nusra's democratic credentials but apparently accept the democratic credentials of a man who killed over 100,000 dissidents to stand for election. This is, indeed, speculation. But again, so are any claims about the virtues of current US policy, assuming always there is one. In any case, with Russia's entry into the conflict, those claims have relapsed into silence. (*)
How, then, does all this bear on the panic about Jabhat al Nusra's Al Qaeda affiliation? Many in the group are not fanatics; they joined to fight Assad or even for a salary to feed their families. None, so far as any hard evidence suggests, have joined to attack the West: that would be a very odd way to go about such a project. The leadership may possibly be a different story, but the leadership must depend to some extent on its membership, and it's hard to believe its membership would want to attack Western nations that, finally, had make removal of Assad possible.
And even the leadership are people. People change their minds, their loyalties and their strategies. It used to be considered naïve to suppose your alliances had to be with those who like you and share your moral outlook. Perhaps that attitude is worth revisiting. At this moment Hezbollah is an essential ally of Bashar al Assad despite the fact that its militants were slaughtered by his father Hafez. And the US is in a de facto anti-ISIS alliance with Shia militias who killed American soldiers.
(*) Jackson's references to al-Nasr's alleged combat role simply name interviews with Charles Lister and Aimen Dean, so one has to guess how they provided confirmation. Aimen Dean is a defector from Al Qaeda turned MI5 spy. However I have found no indication that Dean ever set foot in Syria, much less Latakia or Idlib.
(**) Backing rebels who may well come to be dominated by extreme Islamists does pose one very real risk, to Syria's minorities. On this score there is reason for optimism.
The West and especially the US loves to defend minorities against Arab Muslims. This is because while involvement in Syria generally goes over poorly with the voters, who couldn't care less about Muslim Syrians, that same electorate is always in favor of defending someone, anyone, against them. So here there is no political risk to the US president, which is all that really concerns him. So non-Muslim minorities will very likely get Western protection if they need it, and, since Russia tends to favor these same minorities, probably under UN auspices. As for the Shia, Iran and Hezbollah can and almost certainly will protect them. So even assuming ill will and fanaticism among the rebels, any threat they pose to minorities will very likely be addressed.