The only way to counter terror is to address the cause of instability — Assad’s attacks on civilians — and to maintain a smart U.S. presence.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
- End all attacks on Syrian civilians, which have triggered mass population displacement and built disillusionment ripe for exploitation by extremist recruiters.
- Continue supporting U.S. local anti-ISIS partner forces through the Department of Defense (DOD) Train-and-Equip program, and consider including Syria-based al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed militia forces in their mandate.
- Unfreeze and increase assistance for Syrian civil society, local governance, and reconstruction in areas liberated from ISIS, doing so in ways that respect local dynamics and that allow refugees and IDPs to return home.
- Expose Russian propaganda campaigns meant to discredit and justify attacks on nonpartisan humanitarian workers, e.g. the White Helmets.
- Designate the largest Iranian-backed militias on the ground in Syria as terrorists, including Asaib al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah Nujaba (H.R. 4238).
Syria’s war has created instability in which extremist groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah have taken root. Despite claims that they are fighting terrorism, the Assad regime and Russia are actually using terrorism as a justification to punish innocent populations and recapture areas outside their control. The United States must work with its allies to roll back terrorist groups. It must also dedicate resources to stabilizing post-ISIS areas so that Syrians can return home and begin the process of rebuilding the country.
While the U.S. and its allies have cleared ISIS from significant territory in east and north Syria, the fight is not over. There is a chance ISIS could reemerge if the U.S. does not wisely maintain its presence or fulfill promises around stabilization aid. Assad and Russia have never seriously fought ISIS in any part of Syria. When ISIS was pushed from Raqqa and eastern Syria, U.S. officials recognized that the Assad regime allowed ISIS fighters to cross through its territory “with impunity,” while just 14 percent of Russian airstrikes even targeted the group. The U.S. cannot rely on Russia or Assad to deliver a lasting defeat of ISIS in Syria.
Al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria is extremely dangerous for the United States. Its exploitation of suffering and draconian rule have caused a huge backlash from civil society and opposition groups. Average Syrians in Al-Qaeda areas have launched a major campaign to drive out the jihadist group from the country. To undermine Al-Qaeda efforts, the United States should learn from the successful “surge” model in Iraq, where it supported moderate forces to defeat extremists. Empowering local governance, civil society, and vetted forces in the fight against Al-Qaeda will assist indigenous efforts to deny them safe haven.
Regime and Russian airstrikes have provided air cover for the territorial expansion of terror groups like Hezbollah and their proxy allies. These groups, which according to the White House comprise at least 80 percent of Assad’s ground presence, are the main vehicle for Assad to reclaim areas for the regime. As they overtake areas, they further consolidate a Iranian landbridge that can be used to move weapons and personnel throughout the region to threaten our allies.
While the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah have been sanctioned as terrorists, key Iranian-backed militias that are filling ISIS’ shoes in eastern Syria have not. These militias have targeted U.S. soldiers in Iraq and are now creating military bases from which they have openly threatened to attack the United States and its allies Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Further, sectarian narratives propagated by these Iranian-backed groups fuel ISIS and Al-Qaeda recruitment.