The Syrian Puzzle

Experts suggest plans to aid Syrian rebels, debate jihadist infiltration


After Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) called for U.S. airstrikes to support rebels in Syria at the American Enterprise Institute on Monday, a group of panelists criticized the Obama administration’s lack of action in the region, but was divided on how to strengthen the rebels and combat Assad’s use of Jihadi terrorists.

Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian human rights and pro-democracy activist, strongly agreed with “the remarks of Senator John McCain,” calling them “spot on.” Mentioning Obama’s reluctance to get involved before Election Day, Abdulhamid said, “I’m not really sure that there’s going to be a Syria after the elections.”

“The time to act is now,” he insisted. The decision America faces, according to Abdulhamid, is not “intervention or no intervention,” but “intervention or intervention-light.”

David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute, also agreed with McCain while adding a plan of his own. He denounced the “toothless UN resolution” issued by Kofi Annan in March. While Annan said that Assad’s rule is “up for the Syrian people to decide,” Schenker explained, “The Assad regime is not going to participate in its own decline.”

He also mentioned a “radicalization” on the ground. With the current disorder, many Syrians “will become Islamists,” further destabilizing the country, he said.

Criticizing the Obama Administration for lacking a “plan B” for intervention, Schenker mentioned Assad’s plan B: ethnic cleansing. Massacres hasten civil war, which Assad would welcome as a path to keep America “out of the way,” Schenker said.

Schenker called for the United States to get “boots on the ground—not boots on the ground in Syria, but boots on the ground in Turkey.” He would send top military officials to Turkey to organize the Free Syrian Army as they take ground from Assad.

Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism fellow at the New America Foundation and a research fellow at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, disagreed. “I’m skeptical that military action can have the effects we’d all like to see,” he said.

Fishman contrasted the Syrian conflict with the situations in Libya, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq. “The stakes are much higher,” he explained. “I think there is a very important risk of mission creep.” If the United States leads airstrikes to protect safe zones, as suggested by McCain, the mission may expand to include U.S.-backed regime change, he said.

Fishman also said that a “growing Jihadi group” of Islamic extremists is worsening the situation by making Assad’s position “more entrenched.” While the Free Syrian Army wishes to overthrow Assad’s regime in order to secure a free government, Fishman said, “The jihadis want to overthrow it because they believe the folks in that government are apostates.”

“The situation in Syria with jihadis is worse than the situation in Libya. Period,” he said.

Assad pays jihadists in order to keep the area destabilized, according to Abdulhamid. He agreed with Schenker: American generals should train the Free Syrian Army “into a security force.”

Lee Smith, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, raised additional questions.

“The big concern for the Alawites is local Sunnis, not jihadis,” he said. He also claimed, “this civil war basically started when the Alawis came to power in 1966,” not in the past year.

When Fishman mentioned that “Russia and China are the big bugaboos” in Jihadi discourse, Abdulhamid argued that the Assad regime calls the shots for the Jihadists. He said that they “are not independent actors on this stage.”

In a joint statement on Monday, President Barack Obama and Premier Vladimir Putin said, “We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future.”

Russian support for Assad’s regime was not mentioned in the statement.

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