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Is It Really Possible to Keep Assad and Defeat Terrorism in Syria?

Could Assad be left alone, or worse, assisted, until Syria is rid of terrorists then we turn towards him to force him out?

Let us examine this assumption in a fair way in the hope that we add something to the current debate on the next administration’s strategy in Syria.

In this context, it may be helpful to get back to what General Michel Flynn wrote in 2009 in assessing the situation in Afghanistan at that time. In a story written by James Kitfield and published in Politico October 16 the position of the General was brutally clear.

“Flynn concluded that U.S. and allied forces were overly focused on killing terrorists and insurgents. He published his findings publicly in a think tank report without clearing it with his superiors.. Flynn and his co-author concluded that “eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy. Having focused the overwhelming majority of its collection efforts and analytical brain-power on insurgent groups, the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate.”

And again, “Al Qaeda’s core leadership might have been decimated in Pakistan, but its close affiliates were drawing strength from instability spreading across the Middle East and Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring upheavals that began in 2011. That dynamic had worrisome parallels to the conditions in Afghanistan in the 1990s that originally spawned Al Qaeda. Flynn had DIA analysts distill that intelligence into a PowerPoint slide that showed that the number of radical Islamist terrorist groups had nearly doubled between 2004 and 2013, and occupied a far larger global footprint”.

What Flynn was saying is that the coupling of a violent ideology and conductive social environment is the real problem, not the terrorists physically as they exist today.

Those who know anything about the Middle East and terrorism cannot agree more with the General.

Let us then, for the sake of the conversation, assume that President Trump and President Putin were able to kill a large number of terrorists but did nothing to at least change the social dynamics which generated the hosting environment of all this violence and extremism. Will the result be any different from Afghanistan or Iraq?

Thousands of terrorists were killed everywhere in the expansive region from Somalia to Pakistan. Yet, Flynn did not only see that this does not solve the problem or stop the expansion of terrorism and radicalism, but had the courage also to say so when the political power was saying the opposite.

If we compare Flynn’s piercing conclusion to the situation in Syria now we may have a grasp of why separating the Assad regime’s practices from the problem of terrorists in Syria is the wrong premises to construct a strategy.

Assad already killed almost half a million Syrians and caused eight million Syrians to be homeless. If anyone raises the flag of fighting this regime, thousands will gather around this flag even if it was a radical violent one. No sane Syrian can ever forget or forgive Assad for the crimes he committed against Syria. And if Trump-Putin bombed this flag, another one will be raised in its place, same as what already happened in Iraq when US forces defeated the Zarqawi organization only to see the Baghdadi group taking its place.

Fighting the ideological dimension of the problem of terrorism in the Middle East is much more complicated than killing the terrorists. We have repeatedly elaborated our views on how to make progress on this track. But certainly, changing the social-political environment that encouraged the proliferation of violence and radicalism is a valid point of start.

The main question here goes as follows: But why should not we work with Assad until we get rid of the terrorists then we turn to get rid of Assad?

And the answer is: You cannot get rid of terrorism in Syria if you divide the mission in the mathematical consecutively one after the other.

There is only one way to defeat the terrorists: When the hosting environment rejects them, fights them and kills them. The hosting environment here is the population. And the Syrian people, as we already said, will never forget or forgive Assad for destroying their country in order to keep his chair.

Furthermore, if the Syrian opposition, terrorists and none-terrorists, were militarily defeated, we will simply see a replay of Iraq after the surge of 2006. Nouri Al Maliki continued and intensified the same policies that gave us Zarqawi to give us, by 2013, ISIL. Can anyone guarantee that Assad will go? Can anyone guarantee that none of his lieutenants will not rule the country all the while applying and exacerbating the policies that led to what we see now in Syria?

Let us then put the key effective approach differently.

If the two leaders, Trump and Putin, declare that Assad should go and a new Syria, democratic, pluralist and mindful of human rights emerge instead, we will see thousands of Syrians ready to move actively to implement this plan.

But such a plan will never be accepted by President Putin or by the terrorists who do not recognize the nation-state to start with. Nevertheless, this should not stop the new US administration from laying down its vision of the future Syria and supporting all Syrians who are ready to fight to implement it.

Inspiring the Syrians with a different future for their country, free of Assad and of terrorism, is the first effective step to defeat all kinds of terrorists by their own social environment much as the Iraqi Sunni tribes did when they fought side by side with US forces. What happened after was a scandal indeed, as the Americans pulled out rapidly and left their Iraqi Sunni allies to Maliki. This need not be repeated in Syria; the US will not be required to deploy any forces there. Instead, it will indicate its serious support for a solution able to sort out by itself the opposition groups into those who support a democratic and pluralist nation state and those who refuse these principles.  

But how can we know in advance what every opposition group will do once Assad is gone?

We answered this question before. But here again some basic ideas: If a decentralized Syria emerges, this will lead to major opposition groups controlling certain areas at the condition of cleansing those areas of terrorists and building local governing structures in their respective regions. The way each group will rule its region will explain what each adopts as views of its role and the future of the whole country.

The plan of solving the Syrian crisis should therefore be based on three simultaneous steps: Declaring a specific vision concerning the Future Syria-Supporting the none-terrorist opposition groups-A de-centralized Syria as a transitional period to sort out the opposition groups in order to define terrorists less arbitrarily than we see now.

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