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Obama’s anti-terror approach to Syria


When President Obama took to the stage to address West Point’s Class of 2014 on Wednesday morning, the leader of the free world sought to lay out a vision for a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan American foreign policy. In doing so, he also looked to address his domestic and international critics — those who have pointed to his repeated inaction on issues from Syria to the Crimea and the South China Sea and have even gone so far as to accuse the president of culpable negligence. He countered his critics on issues ranging from healthcare to the Benghazi attacks, and directly approached his naysayers head on. In this West Point address he laid out a vision that moved away from the Bush-era unilateralism and full-scale military engagements to a multifaceted approach to tackle America’s security issues and those of its allies.

The “Obama doctrine” views direct military involvement as an option best reserved for cases in which America’s core security interests are egregiously threatened. As the president stated, “U.S. military action cannot be the only, or even primary, component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” Rather, the appropriate response, according to this new vision, should be based upon the scope of the issue and its impact on America’s interests. As for the rapidly changing world in which Washington now finds itself, the president made it clear that realist and interventionist paradigms are ill-suited for the problems of Syria, Ukraine and the Central African Republic. Rather, a responsible and appropriate reaction, according to the president’s vision, should be formulated on a case-by-case basis and developed based on the level of U.S. contribution, short of direct military engagement.

As many awaited the West Point address it was rumored that the president would lay out a new approach to the Syrian conflict, one that would further enlarge America’s overt involvement in the civil war and tackle it through the prism of anti-terrorism. For months it was speculated that the CIA trained vetted moderate rebels in Jordan, Turkey and Qatar; rumors that were then confirmed by the work of courageous journalists who gained access to recently returned fighters. These moderate rebels have also underlined the fact that this funding has been earmarked for groups fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a radical offshoot of al Qaeda.

In his address, Obama confirmed media rumors and acknowledged that the most direct threat to America and its interests at home and abroad remains terrorism. According to the Commander-in-Chief, the most appropriate course of action in dealing with this transnational threat is backing allied governments with the material and intelligence required to tackle radical groups head on. While possible in Nigeria, where 80 U.S. troops have been sent to Chad to look for school girls abducted by Boko Haram and in Yemen, where the U.S. military has undertaken drone strikes against al Qaeda targets in support of the central government, Washington does not have a state ally in Syria. Thus, as Obama called on Congress to back a new counterterrorism partnership fund to the tune of $5 billion to be utilized from South Asia to the Sahel, he highlighted the Syrian opposition as a critical focus of this initiative. He also pledged support for Syria’s neighbors with money from this fund to deal with the massive influx of refugees and the spillover of terrorism from the conflict.

In doing so, the president highlighted the fact that Washington now views the involvement of al Qaeda linked and inspired groups as the biggest security threat, not the Assad regime. It is also clear that Washington sees the moderate rebels as the best counterbalance (or proxy force) to the further spread of radicalism in the Syrian conflict and a check on the growth of ISIS and the official al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra. While the president was vague on the details of this overt initiative, media outlets have highlighted the fact that a new military-led training and equipping program will replace an ongoing initiative by the CIA to train vetted rebels in the art of guerrilla warfare. While still under discussion, according to The Wall Street Journal, the military (quite possibly Green Berets) may train rebels, while the CIA will vet and arm those groups deemed sufficiently worthy and void of extremist leanings.

This move by the Obama administration is a step in the right direction — one that should have been undertaken years ago to allow the U.S. to guide and manage the conflict in a way it now wishes to do so. However, how such a program is enacted is another story and will be subject to the complexity of the situation in Syria and the strategic decisions of involved regional and international actors. On the books, the U.S. has only spent $287 million over a little more than three years in non-lethal support to the rebels, a minuscule number less than what was spent per day on the Iraq war. Furthermore, it is unclear how much of the $5 billion for anti-terrorism campaigns will be sent to fighters on the front lines in the form of weapons, communications gear, ammunition and salaries. For an effective force to be established, commanders will require a constant influx of resources and a pool of fighters trained to tackle ISIS and the regime in Damascus. According to a recent Frontline documentary, rebel commanders have complained about the lack of weaponry provided by the U.S. and the small number of fighters trained, for which one group amounted to less than 100 fighters per two-to-three month cohort. Hopefully, with a shift to overt support, the material and training required will be drastically increased, while taking into consideration the need to create top-down military command structures with units that are accountable for their actions and carry out their missions in an effective manner.

Also of critical importance is the focus of these newly trained and armed rebels. Fighting on two fronts, against the regime and the ISIS is a difficult task and continues to stretch the capacity of these already strained battalions. Furthermore, with the regime leaving ISIS to its own devices in many cases, both to pester rebel groups and given Assad’s own manpower issues, the moderate opposition must contend with two factions who view it as their primary target. Thus, the rebels must be able to alleviate the pressure put on them from one of these belligerents, a situation which calls for both the moderate rebels and the regime to meet a mutual hurting stalemate, in which both sides believe that a settlement is more favorable than continual fighting. For this to happen, the armament of these groups and the training must be drastically improved and include sophisticated weaponry, short of MANPADS, which have yet to be provided. Intelligence support must be provided and training must be appropriate to deal with Assad force multipliers, artillery, tanks and aircraft. Only then, when rebels pose an even bigger challenge to Assad, will both sides be willing to negotiate in good faith. It is from this point onward that both groups would be capable of dealing with the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups to the country’s stability and territorial integrity.

This will require continued leadership on behalf of the U.S., robust engagement with European and Arab allies backing the opposition and when appropriate, engagement with Moscow and Tehran for the transitional process. Only then will a platform to achieve U.S. anti-terrorism goals can be created in Syria — goals shared by external backers from both sides through which the administration can reinvigorate America’s global and regional standing.



Alexander Corbeil

Alexander Corbeil is a Substantive Analyst with The SecDev Group focusing on conflict and instability in the developing world. He has written on the topics of radicalization, sectarianism and terrorism in the Levant and Iraq for a number of publications and is also a contributor to Sada: Middle East Analysis. You can follow Alexander @alex_corbeil