Charles Lister is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C., where his work focuses primarily on the Syrian conflict and the issues of terrorism and insurgency associated with it. Since September 2016, he has managed the Middle East Institute’s Countering Terrorism project. Prior to this, he was a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and lead coordinator of nearly three years of intensive face-to-face engagement with the leaderships of over 100 Syrian armed opposition groups, on behalf of the multinationally-backed Syria Track II Dialogue Initiative. Lister also previously held the position of head of Middle East and North Africa at the London-based IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. His critically acclaimed book, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, was published by Oxford University Press in February 2016. He has also published The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction (Brookings Press, 2015), and is now working on a third book on Syria, commissioned by Oxford University Press. Diwan conducted the interview with him in mid-March 2017.
Michael Young: American special operations troops have been deployed in northern Syria with flags waving. Recently, U.S. aircraft participated in the operation to retake Palmyra. Is the United States being sucked into the complexities of Syria?
Charles Lister: In short, yes. What we’re seeing is mission creep taking place at an increasingly fast pace. This shouldn’t surprise anyone though. The inconsistency and half-heartedness of U.S. policy toward Bashar al-Assad—the root problem in Syria—since 2011 and the increasingly tunnel vision-like focus on combating terrorism while ignoring interlinked dynamics means the United States has directly contributed to creating a complex situation with which it now finds itself forced to deal. In terms of foreign and security policy, the Syria issue should always have been framed as being about far more than terrorism. However, the Obama administration resisted dealing with the root causes in Syria as that would have necessitated adopting an aggressive and risky approach that was simply anathema to its foreign policy foundations.
The conflict in Syria has always been complicated and there have never been “good options.” However, what we’ve seen develop since the dramatic expansion of the Islamic State in mid-2014 is the emergence of a policy that for quite some time prioritized the defeat of the Islamic State over and above anything else. There’s no doubting that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) presented itself at an opportune moment to assist the U.S. in pushing back against the Islamic State in Sinjar and then in northeastern Syria. There’s no doubting that the YPG has done an exemplary job of defeating the Islamic State across Kurdish-majority areas of northeastern Syria. And there’s no doubting that Syria’s mainstream anti-Assad opposition was not well placed in 2014, 2015, and 2016 to lend itself en masse to a U.S.-backed anti-Islamic State operation. But that doesn’t mean the path chosen by the United States was the right one.
Whether the U.S. liked Turkey and its Syria policy at the time or not (and there were certainly justifiable reasons not to at the time), Ankara was and remains a key NATO ally of Washington. The American decision to go all-in with the YPG while blatantly ignoring the group’s foundations in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) struck a dagger in Turkey’s most vulnerable and sensitive spot. There is nothing that rivals the PKK in terms of national security policy in Turkey, and by giving its Syrian affiliate virtually unquestioned backing, the U.S. contributed to substantially strengthening the cause of a designated terrorist organization. However, that is not to say that the U.S. shouldn’t have used the YPG as an ally against the Islamic State. But in doing so, it should have balanced that partnership from the get-go with a policy of support for the opposition’s longtime fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. also should have predicated all of this on the basis that Turkey would work back towards détente with the PKK. It would have been a very hard sell, but surely would have been better, and would have had a better chance of creating less dramatic knock-on effects, than what we have now.
What we’re watching play out in Manbij today is a direct consequence of this short-term perspective in U.S. decisionmaking and a desire to “defeat” the Islamic State and “deal with the rest” later. Sadly, the world isn’t that simple. Syria certainly isn’t. Defeating the Islamic State should continue to be a priority, but not the only one. At the end of the day, the United States also cannot afford to take its eye off of the fundamental cause of the dynamics of instability in Syria: the Assad regime. Assad has never been and never will represent a better alternative to the Islamic State, and the idea that this is our binary choice is just plain wrong. True, an opposition victory is no longer in the cards, but a middle-ground solution is the only way of limiting the likelihood of Syria’s further disintegration into chaos in 2017–2018, as hard as “anything worse” is to imagine.
MY: On March 7, we saw the U.S., Turkish, and Russian chiefs of staff meet in Antalya to coordinate their actions in Syria. Why did they feel they had to do so, and how do you see the outcome of such coordination, given the different priorities of each side?
CL: For the last six to nine months, the U.S. has taken a back seat in terms of the Syria-wide issue. Exhausted by what it saw as U.S. weakness, Turkey has prioritized dealing with its immediate national security threats (the Islamic State and the YPG) and found shared areas of coordination with Russia. That has actually worked out very well for both countries, at least until recently.
However, the countryside north of Aleppo has become an intensely complex environment in which the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S.-vetted and Turkish-backed opposition, the Turkish army, the Syrian armed forces, the Russian armed forces, a swathe of pro-regime militias, several Iranian-backed Shia militant groups, and the Islamic State are all vying for territory. Alliances and rivalries cross variously among those actors and the U.S. is the only country with relationships on multiple hostile sides.
The meeting in Antalya was a pre-arranged event, but it came at a critically important time in which a U.S.-backed offensive on Raqqa was existentially reliant on no further flare-ups around Manbij. U.S. troops are now playing peacekeeper on one side of the Manbij front, while the U.S.-backed SDF has turned territory over to the Syrian army and Russia as a buffer on the other side. In some instances, it seems some U.S.-backed SDF fighters simply changed their uniforms and began identifying as pro-regime militiamen. Now we’ve seen Russian and regime forces operating inside Manbij itself, as well as direct YPG-Russian cooperation in the strategically important town of Afrin to the west. Syria’s opposition has long accused the YPG and SDF of having an ambiguous and questionable relationship with the Assad regime and Russia and events in Manbij and elsewhere appear to justify those concerns. Moreover, we now know that a substantial number of policymakers in the White House and elsewhere across the U.S. government are considering a strategy that would see the SDF take Raqqa and hand it over to a pre-agreed “council” that we suspect would end up sharing power or turning it over to Assad or the Russians, or both.
If anyone thinks that’s what defeating the Islamic State looks like, they’re dangerously mistaken. There’s a difference between winning tactical military victories and achieving strategic success. Anyone with sufficient military power and intelligence can force a terrorist group out of a territory, but winning that tactical victory does not guarantee that the Islamic State-Part Two won’t end up coming back again, with a vengeance. We’ve seen that movie play out in Iraq already. Whether we want to accept it or not, defeating the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda is fundamentally about out-competing a narrative and a governance model. Jihadist groups can be horrifically brutal and repressive, but the same or even worse can be said of Assad’s and Russia’s behavior in recent years. You can’t replace one oppressive dictatorship with another and hope for stability to follow.
MY: The Islamic State seems on the defensive in northern Syria and Iraq. Some reports suggest that its leadership has moved toward the Syrian-Iraqi border, in the area of Deir Ezzor and Al-Bukamal. What are the group’s options at this stage?
CL: At its heart, the Islamic State is a terrorist and insurgent movement that has survived in the Sunni-majority Arab deserts of western Iraq and eastern Syria. Large-scale urban control and governance was the challenge that tripped up Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq. Similarly, it has reflected the same existential weakness for the Islamic State. The Islamic State and its predecessors have maintained deep connections, logistical infrastructure, training, and recruitment networks in Deir Ezzor for nearly 15 years and a “retreat to the desert” was always going to be the group’s fallback option. Whether the Islamic State conducts this retreat in order to overtly control territory in the area is an academic issue, as it is also well versed in covert influence operations and infiltration of social structures and power dynamics. The Islamic State ruled Mosul by night for years prior to its takeover of the city in mid-2014 and it can do the same again in Al-Bukamal, Al-Qaim, Al-Mayadin, and other towns along the Euphrates River.
The Islamic State will also likely seek to bolster its presence in southern Syria, where it can exploit those deeply frustrated within Syria’s opposition whose desire to continue the fight against Assad is being strangled by Jordan. Whether or not the Islamic State and its front group there, Jaish Khaled Ibn al-Walid, are already drawing on such circles for recruitment, it seems like an inevitable outcome. That would further the Islamic State’s potential to overtly control and govern territory and people, but it would also add to the group’s media attention, given the proximity of key U.S. allies such as Israel and Jordan. There are also whispers that Jordan is itself seeking to escalate cross-border strikes on the Islamic State in southern Syria. This may in fact further encourage frustrated Syrian opposition groups to change sides in order to continue their armed struggle, as such Jordanian action would come at the expense of further support for the anti-Assad opposition in the south.
MY: Do you see the Islamic State doing anything else?
CL: Yes, it is also likely to conduct media-grabbing and mass casualty attacks in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan later this year, especially as the need to demonstrate “success” becomes more reliant on operations outside of its physical and shrinking “state.” It’s well known in opposition circles that the Islamic State evacuated at least 150 of its militants from northern Aleppo over the past 12 months and sent them back towards Lebanon. Some of them were involved in violent incidents in Al-Qaa in June 2016. Likewise, the group has sought to recruit more deeply within Jordan, where Salafist-jihadists have typically aligned more closely with Al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and before that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham).
Lastly, it would seem logical for the Islamic State to dispatch small cells of fighters or to activate existing sleeper cells in urban environments in Syria to conduct large-scale bombings and to pave the way for a destabilization campaign along the lines of those conducted in Iraq in 2009–2014. Assassinations, bomb attacks, kidnappings, and drive-by shootings may well become more frequent in areas that the Islamic State, as an organization, has been forced to leave in recent months and years.
MY: Who to your mind will ultimately take the city of Raqqa?
CL: At this point, I can’t see any scenario other than one in which the SDF ends up launching the operation, backed by a substantially increased U.S. military contingent of special operations forces and troops providing stand-off fire support. And in that I mean the YPG and a sizeable force of Arab tribal militias. It’s also possible that Russia’s air force may end up—directly or indirectly—assisting in this Raqqa offensive, by targeting the Islamic State’s few remaining transport and supply routes in the surrounding area. The Assad regime’s ongoing push south of Al-Bab towards Al-Thawra may appear to be part of a “race” to Raqqa, but for all intents and purposes its continuation will also help weaken the Islamic State’s ability to hold off a U.S.-backed push on Raqqa.
Depending on what happens in northern Aleppo in the coming weeks, I would not discount the possibility of Turkey launching diversionary attacks on SDF positions in the region, whether around Manbij or elsewhere. Turkey is continuing to train opposition fighters for a planned cross-border offensive on SDF-controlled Tel Abyad, which would severely weaken the U.S. ability to call upon the SDF in strength for Raqqa. It’s one of the few cards that Turkey has left, albeit a deeply controversial one that would further damage its reputation in U.S. policymaking circles.
Assuming all or even some of this takes place, U.S.-Turkey relations will continue on their downward spiral, and Turkey’s recent hedging policy on Syria may come to an end, placing the counter-Islamic State stabilization phase in an even more troubling environment. The Syrian armed opposition may have been dealt a severe blow in losing Aleppo in December 2016, but it remains a movement of 80,000–100,000 heavily-armed and deeply frustrated men. Nobody is going to be marching into Damascus anytime soon, but that fact on the ground will present many more troubling obstacles in the months ahead, independent of the fight for Raqqa.
MY: In northwestern Syria, in Idlib governorate, we see that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has formed a coalition with other groups to establish Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. In response to the Astana talks, and fearing it would be isolated by other armed factions, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham attacked these groups. Where are we today in Idlib and do you agree, as some have said, that this is the beginning of the end for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham?
CL: The dust is still settling in Idlib after recent events. I certainly wouldn’t say it’s the beginning of the end for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or the Al-Qaeda project in Syria, but we’re definitely in a transitory phase in which the nature and trajectory of its long-game strategy is being challenged. The most strategically significant consequence from what we’ve seen play out since January in Idlib is what I’d call a “great sorting out,” in which conditions and developments have forced actors to more clearly take sides between the revolutionary green and the jihadi black. Jabhat al-Nusra and then Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s strategy of socialization and infiltration has shown some benefits, with groups like Noureddine al-Zenki and as many as 1,000 Ahrar al-Sham hardliners agreeing to fall under the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham banner. However, it has also revealed downsides as at least 90 percent of Ahrar al-Sham—long an invaluable military ally and enabler of Jabhat al-Nusra then Jabhat Fatah al-Sham—has repeatedly and at times aggressively refused to submit to the jihadi umbrella. That may be based on small nuances that are of little interest to a general audience, but the implications have been very significant so far.
For one, it dispels the myth that Jabhat al-Nusra had acquired all-out loyalty from Syria’s opposition. Instead, it implies that the jihadi group’s military value could translate only a little way into broader structural unity. This issue of “uniting the ranks” has been a core focus of Jabhat al-Nusra for a long time. In fact, it’s been one of the most existentially important priorities for the group since its formation in October 2011. In presenting itself as a “support front” and as a jihadi actor willing to demonstrate “controlled pragmatism” in order to further the Syrian revolutionary cause, Jabhat al-Nusra looked to have achieved what no other Al-Qaeda affiliate had done in the past: broad-spectrum, local, revolutionary buy-in.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s decision to rebrand as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in July 2016 was explicitly justified internally as a necessary move to guarantee that this buy-in could be translated into genuine interfactional unity: a true uniting of the ranks in Syria. The rebranding was also a deeply controversial decision within Nusra’s leadership, with at least half of the group’s Shura Council refusing to assume positions within Jabhat Fatah al-Sham at the time of its creation. Several of these senior leaders publicly defected shortly thereafter, fearing that a public claim to have broken external ties to Al-Qaeda was a concession to Syrians that would set off a slippery slope towards religious transgressions and the ruining of Jabhat al-Nusra’s pure jihadi project. This was Abu Mohammed al-Jolani’s gamble. He assured his Shura Council and Al-Qaeda’s global leadership that the rebranding would ensure a uniting of the ranks in Syria and a transition towards being a mass movement that could then pave the way towards the establishment of an Islamic emirate in northwestern Syria.
Jolani’s gamble failed—not once, but three times. Successive unity negotiations proved three times in a row that a majority of Syrian opposition groups remained unwilling to unite with a group still perceived internationally as Al-Qaeda and which, despite its rebranding, had not discernibly changed its behavior on the ground. Ahrar al-Sham was the key cog in these negotiations and its leadership declined a Jabhat Fatah al-Sham-influenced unity project each time. This provoked a fairly vicious tit-for-tat series of accusations about where each group’s ultimate allegiances lay. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham accused Ahrar al-Sham of being a Turkish puppet more interested in maintaining its own sources of support than in achieving unity, while Ahrar al-Sham accused Jabhat Fatah al-Sham of bullying and threats that directly contradicted its public image. Ahrar al-Sham was then accused by many within Jabhat Fatah al-Sham of sharing intelligence that led to U.S. drone strikes that killed senior Al-Qaeda figures in Idlib.
MY: How does Turkey fit into all this?
CL: Turkey has been crucially important here. Syria’s northern armed opposition remains existentially reliant on Turkish support, despite its shifting priorities on the broader conflict. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has taken a very aggressive position against Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operations and opposition groups’ willingness to contribute to it. Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham fell out very publicly over this issue. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham subsequently threatened privately more than once to attack and neutralize any opposition group that sent more weapons or fighters to Euphrates Shield territory. It has since followed through on those threats.
Then came the Astana talks, which were backed by the entire opposition and attended by those representing a majority of opposition groups. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham alleged that one purpose behind the Astana talks was to coordinate a Sahwa-like turn against the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham presence in Idlib. Though this allegation was ill-founded, I’m aware that intensive discussions between Turkish intelligence and the Syrian opposition (including Ahrar al-Sham) have taken place since August 2016 regarding what guarantees and support the opposition would theoretically require in order to isolate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and make the group more vulnerable to air strikes. So in a way, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham did have reasons for concern justifying their pre-emptive attacks on opposition groups in January 2017.
Given all of this, it’s pretty safe to say that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham crossed a line that it had been unwilling to cross before. Genuinely popular and revolutionarily credible groups such as the Jaish al-Mujahideen, the Fastaqim Kama Umirta Gathering, and even Suqour al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam found themselves under attack by a jihadi group that had always claimed to be on the side of the revolution. It’s not a coincidence that opposition Syrians have taken to calling the new group formed by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, namely Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, “Hatish,” to resemble the derogatory “Daesh” acronym used for the Islamic State. Do I expect an all-out opposition fight against Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham anytime soon? No. But I also don’t foresee any further unifying of forces—at least given current conditions.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham recently ended nearly a week of attacks on Ahrar al-Sham facilities and positions in Idlib, which appear to have been motivated by an immediate desire to exert control over electricity sources and to loot the group’s weapons stores. More broadly, it’s also a continuation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s and then Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s attempts to force a bigger merger under the threat of force: ‘We’ll continue to weaken you further and further until you agree to join our project and only that way will you retain your credibility and influence.’ There’s no indication yet that such coercive methods are working, but all eyes will be on Turkey’s next moves to see what might come next in Idlib. Ankara is pushing hard for non-Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham groups to unify and it has also called on groups to redeploy heavy weaponry from Idlib to Euphrates Shield territory via southern Turkey. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has blocked Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam from following through on the latter, including by military force.
MY: You wrote a book titled The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency. Is the Syrian conflict going to be seen by jihadis in the future as a success, as Afghanistan was, or will it be seen as a failure, after initial gains?
CL: That’s a tough question! To be honest, it’s very hard to say definitively, but Syria has afforded transnational jihadis with the best opportunities they’ve ever had to establish meaningful zones of territorial control and popular support, and to pose a genuine and sustainable threat to the West from land located nearby. The Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have embraced markedly different strategies to attempt to achieve these goals and I think what we’ve seen is that the impatient approach adopted by the Islamic State and the patient long-term approach taken by Al-Qaeda both have intrinsic advantages and disadvantages.
The Islamic State and its successor movements will certainly celebrate what they see as the successful establishment of a “caliphate” that not only controlled—for a time—contiguous territory spanning across two countries, but which also expanded globally at an unprecedented rate. Even though we’re watching that discernible state project rolled back as we speak, the caliphate itself will remain a concept deeply embedded within the mindsets of those who affix themselves to the Islamic State’s cause and vision. As far as they’re concerned, the “infidels” are those who have taken away the caliphate’s territory and the struggle to win it back is a continuation of their jihadi efforts. In a way then, the “virtual caliphate” is a very apt turn of phrase, insofar as Islamic State members and supporters worldwide will always turn back to any form of caliphate available until the territorial project is re-established.
Despite the struggles it has faced to accomplish its mass movement status, Al-Qaeda has nevertheless led a remarkably—and worryingly—successful project in Syria that has consistently remained one or more steps ahead of the international community’s policy towards the Syrian crisis and in opposition to the actions of the Assad regime. The Al-Qaeda we’ve seen operating in Syria has been a different Al-Qaeda than the one we’ve watched in places such as Yemen, Mali, and elsewhere. At least until recently, it has demonstrated a level of political astuteness that outplayed the U.S., outplayed the Syrian opposition, and to an extent outplayed Turkey. That’s a very worrying development. Al-Qaeda is a learning organization and it will have learned many useful lessons from Syria. Moreover, it remains arguably the most powerful armed group in northwestern Syria today, not only capable of influencing opposition-wide conflict dynamics, but also constraining international action.
Lastly, it ought to be mentioned that beyond Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Al-Qaeda also maintains largely independent and deeply secretive “core Al-Qaeda” cells in northwestern Syria. Dedicated explicitly to Al-Qaeda’s globalist agenda, this very dangerous current was until recently led by Al-Qaeda’s global deputy leader Abu al-Kheir al-Masri and also included at least ten of Al-Qaeda’s most important veteran leadership figures, whose deployment to Syria since late-2012 served to underline the importance that Al-Qaeda assigned to its activities in the country. That in and of itself has given Al-Qaeda an opportunity to resurrect a strategically active and well-positioned leadership cadre, similar to what it maintained in Afghanistan pre-9/11. Barring any major ground intervention in Idlib, this dangerous reality sitting on Europe’s borders looks set to exist for some time to come.
MY: You are based in Washington. From your vantage point is there any coherent U.S. policy toward Syria today?
CL: Not that I can discern right now, no. The White House seems largely focused on domestic issues and to the extent that it is looking at Syria, its focus is on the Islamic State and Raqqa and not a great deal else. The CIA’s Title 50 work in vetting and supporting the moderate Syrian opposition has been frozen and the State Department seems to have very little power under President Donald Trump, at least for now. In that regard, it’s very telling that Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney has had his portfolio expanded to include not just the entire Syria issue, but now also the Israel-Palestine portfolio and Jordan and Lebanon. To me, that indicates that the broader Syria issue is not much of a priority for this administration. I might have had complaints about some of the ways the Obama administration dealt with the Syrian problem, but at least they addressed it more holistically. A terrorism-only approach is just downright naïve and dangerous.
MY: In following this monumental conflict for the past five years, what stays in your mind? What messages will you retain?
CL: On the policy level, it’s become abundantly clear that the United States and the European states are worryingly slow to respond to fast-developing crises. Our frustratingly sluggish response time means our geopolitical adversaries and competitors continue to benefit from exploiting instability to undermine our influence and interests. It ought to have been very clear that, left to fester, Syria’s uprising would give way to major jihadi movements. The history of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria was well known and had been documented in detail: The infrastructure was extensively put together with Assad regime facilitation during the war in Iraq. By the time Syrian protesters took to the streets in March 2011, those networks were just waiting to be re-activated. Assad’s personal history of using jihadists as tools of his foreign policy was equally well known, but little was actively undertaken to pre-empt or prevent that from becoming an issue. Instead, the U.S. approach to Syria from March 2011 until late-2012 could best be described as “eating popcorn at the movies,” as one Syrian once said to me.
There were clear opportunities for the U.S. to take a lead role in mid-2011 to at least control and limit the extent of the insurgency’s growth and expansion. We knew armed groups were being created at a rapid rate and we even had intelligence officers on the Turkish border watching the first weapons and money supplies going in. However, there was never a centralized policy put into place to avoid the chaotic situation that followed, when Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia each threw in money and weapons in the hope of backing the best proxies. That was avoidable, but we missed the boat. By the time we realized that a centralized effort was needed in late-2012, it was too late. I’m not saying that doing so would have solved all the problems we face today. In fact, I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t have. But I’m personally convinced that by pursuing a stronger policy early on, we would have stood a better chance of avoiding the worst of what we’ve faced in recent years. And let’s not forget just how bad it’s been …
The U.S. has also lost a great deal of its credibility in the region. While I do understand why some realists try to argue that “credibility” is irrelevant, I worry that in the medium to long term we’ll look back and realize that it’s a slippery slope. Some of this is an issue of expectations, but broadly speaking, even though no single act sees the U.S. cede huge influence or lose broad respect, a series of acts (or lack of acts) that are widely perceived as successive examples of weakness do have an effect on its ability to influence international affairs and to call upon allies to act in its interests.
The red line example surrounding the use of chemical weapons is of course the most obvious example here, but there have been many others relating to Syria. Those who argue that the chemical weapons deal presented by Russia and signed by President Barack Obama was a “victory” coming out of the Ghouta chemical attack are, I’m afraid, being flagrantly disingenuous. The deal did not serve in any way to deter Assad’s willingness to commit war crimes, as the attack in Khan Sheikhoun this week blatantly showed; the regime is well-known in U.S. and European government circles to have secretly retained a small portion of its chemical weapons stockpile; and of course, for a long period of time it continued to use chlorine gas and has been given a free hand to continue the indiscriminate bombing, besieging, and torturing of its people. If that is a victory, then we all ought to be deeply worried about our policymakers’ grip on reality and about their moral compass.
On another level, it’s become abundantly clear how terrorism continues to exert a totally disproportionate effect upon foreign policy agendas. So even for the many well-meaning policymakers—of which there are many—the extent to which a truly holistic strategy for dealing with a situation like the one in Syria can be developed is always going to be a challenge. Terrorism looks like it will always trump other issues, even when terrorism is itself so clearly a symptom of a crisis for which the root causes continue to be left unaddressed. In the Syrian case, we seem to have totally forgotten how deeply involved the Assad regime and its military intelligence service were in facilitating Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State in Iraq’s operations against American troops between 2003 and 2010. I’m not exaggerating when I say that dozens, if not hundreds, of American soldiers would likely still be alive today had it not been for Assad’s outrageous collusion with the Islamic State’s predecessors in Iraq. And yet today, we hear some policymakers in Washington suggesting that Assad was never our enemy? And that perhaps he’s the best suited counter-terrorism partner we could find?
Lastly, and this remains one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the past five or so years: In conflict situations, there is no better avenue for challenging assumptions and breaking down barriers than through dialogue and face-to-face contact. I was involved in a prominent, multinationally-backed process of intra-Syrian dialogue between late-2013 and September 2016. It showed me time and time again the impact of putting people from opposite “sides” in the same room, in neutral spaces, and with neutral mediators, to talk through issues of mutual concern. I saw Syrian Salafist armed opposition leaders sit alongside Alawi sheikhs, alongside the Christian business elite, alongside female political activists, alongside the country’s tribal leaderships, and everyone else in between. Notwithstanding an inevitable dose of grandstanding, it was remarkable to see how quickly people from diametrically opposite ends of the spectrum could find a middle-ground. In these neutral environments, many of these people’s differences became much smaller than they’d originally thought, and all proved willing to compromise on the record, to come to mutual agreements. Syrians became Syrians together, and a shared sense of national identity did in the end remain.
Clearly, moving such dialogue from Track 1.5 to Track 1 makes every little issue much more political and difficult to compromise over. However, in a time when the word “partition” is mentioned more and more often, those experiences will remain in the forefront of my mind when I assess the future of Syria.