Syria’s war created instability in which extremist groups such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah have taken root. Despite all their claims that they are fighting terrorism, the Assad regime and Russia are instead using terror as a justification to recapture territory outside their control.
We must pursue policies that tackle all forms of violent extremism.
While the anti-ISIS coalition has cleared significant territory of ISIS in east and north Syria, the fight is not over.
Assad and Russia have never seriously fought ISIS in any part of Syria. When ISIS was pushed from Raqqa and other coalition theaters, U.S. officials recognized that the Assad regime allowed ISIS fighters to cross through its territory “with impunity.” To ensure a lasting defeat of ISIS, we must not rely on Russia or Assad to deliver them from Syria. Instead, we should empower civil society and local security forces so that ISIS and other terror groups will not have space to operate.
While the beneficiaries of Department of Defense’s anti-ISIS program, the Syrian Democratic Forces, include mostly Kurdish and Arab fighters, there remain vetted Free Syrian Army groups that operate under the Train-and-Equip program. As the mission to defeat ISIS draws to a close, the U.S. should continue to work with indigenous partner forces and expand their mission also to include fighting al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed forces in Syria.
Al-Qaeda in Syria, which operates under the name Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, remains a major threat, especially in Idlib province. In order to draw new recruits, it has capitalized on disillusionment resulting from the world’s unwillingness to stop Assad’s attacks.
Even though Al-Qaeda maintains a presence in Syria, its attempts to impose harsh rule have caused a huge counter-reaction from civil society and opposition groups. Moderate people under AQ control have launched a huge uprising to drive out this jihadist group from the country.
To undermine Al-Qaeda efforts, the United States should learn from the successful model of the surge in Iraq where support to moderate forces led to the defeat of extremist groups. Empowering local governance, civil society, and vetted armed opposition forces in their fight against al-Qaeda will assist homegrown efforts by Syrians to deny them any base to operate.
Regime and Russian airstrikes have empowered groups like Hezbollah and their proxy allies fighting for the regime to consolidate gains in their land-grabbing efforts. These activities have allowed Iran to form a landbridge to the Mediterranean that it can exploit to threaten U.S. allies.
Militias sponsored by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have filled the vacuum in southwest Syria and have expanded rapidly in areas formerly held by ISIS. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster estimates that 80 percent of pro-Assad forces — approximately 60,000 fighters — are Iranian-backed militia fighters. These militias are creating military bases and have openly threatened to attack the United States and its allies Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. There can be no solution in Syria without countering Iranian activities. Furthermore, sectarian cleansing operations undertaken by these militias fan the flames of extremism.
- Continue support to U.S.-vetted partner forces in the Department of Defense Train-and-Equip program for Syria to counter ISIS while expanding the counter-terrorism mandate to include fighting al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed militia forces in Syria.
- Increase support civil society programming, local governance support, and reconstruction assistance to areas liberated from ISIS in ways that are sensitive to local dynamics.
- Study the long-term strategic concerns of Iranian proxy presence in Syria, as raised in the National Intelligence Estimate on Iranian Proxies Act (H.R. 4012).
- Designate the the largest Iranian-backed militias operating on the ground in Syria as terrorist organizations including Asaib al-Haq (AAH) and Harakat Hezbollah Nujaba (HHN), as suggested in the Iranian Proxies Terrorist Sanctions Act (H.R. 4238). These groups fight on behalf of the Assad regime and are not designated as terrorists, even though they operate under U.S. terror-designated entities like the IRGC-Quds Force and have previously targeted U.S. forces.