CATF Reports Feb. 21, 2017, 11:55am


On February 14th, a hearing by the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade – part of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs –  titled “Defeating Terrorism in Syria: A New Way Forward”, focused on recent developments in the war-torn country and a refreshed  conversation surrounding the U.S. policy approach to counterterrorism. Hassan Hassan, distinguished author and senior fellow at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy advocated for a more farsighted strategic approach, as he outlined new options available to the U.S., which he asserted did not exist two years ago. Hassan cited ISIS’ pattern of eradicating jihadist groups and disarming the local population after seizing Syrian territory as a window of opportunity for the U.S.-led coalition to fill a void once those areas are liberated from the Islamic State’s grip. He recommended capitalizing on our existing ground presence and echoed previous recommendations of a counterterrorism strategy leveraging this “de facto American sphere of influence” – a reality currently accepted by the regime and Russia – by establishing safe zones in areas where the U.S. and its allies are fighting the Islamic State. Such a strategy should be viewed as baseline, Hassan states, upon which the U.S. should capitalize on pre-existing resources, power and success it has already gained Syria, including through its military initiative “Operation Inherent Resolve to defeat ISIS. Otherwise, Hassan argued these recently liberated areas become vulnerable to the Assad regime and exposed to subsequent terrorist actors, especially Al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups. Hassan additionally noted that having an effective policy in place that leverages our ground presence would help quell conflict with U.S. allies like Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria.

Hassan supplemented his argument by encouraging a compartmentalized approach of the Syrian crisis as the foundation for a successful and viable solution. Rather than viewing the country through a “one solution fits all” lens, he outlined four distinct conflict quadrants to more appropriately reflect the “fragmented” nature of the struggle. The first quadrant is ISIS’ caliphate terrain, comprised of various areas along the southwest near the Iraq border and northern cities near Turkey. Hassan described the three groups fighting ISIS in this quadrant as the Kurds and U.S.-led coalition, Turkey and the Assad regime. The “relatively quiet” rebel-held areas in the south comprise the second quadrant, where terrorist groups are mostly contained, and Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are united in their regional front to block extremist influence. Al-Qaeda largely monopolizes the third quadrant in northwestern Aleppo, Hama and Homs, where its drive to enforce its ideology is trumped by its opposition against the Assad regime. Lastly, Hassan noted the fourth quadrant contains almost 40% country in areas controlled by the regime. Hassan argues that approaching the Syrian crisis in the context of its varying “conflict dynamics” will help drive more tailored solutions, especially in those vulnerable areas that are realistic for the U.S. to help salvage.

Following Mr. Hassan’s testimony, Frederic C. Hof, Director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, proposed a starkly different strategic approach. Hof argued that a longstanding end to the terrorist reign in Syria is not possible as long as the Assad regime holds power. As such, he recommended reviving the Geneva Communique, a document drafted in 2012 by a number of Foreign Ministers in the U.N.-organized Action Group for Syria, which provided a six-point plan to help guide a path towards peace and political settlement that would meet the expectations of Syrian citizens. However, Hof noted the challenging circumstances posed by Russian and Iranian involvement and their backing of the Assad regime as leaving an uncertain path towards success. His near-term recommendation, until a political transition per the Geneva Communique can be reached, ultimately involves neutralizing ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham militarily, “in a way that does not strengthen a regime whose behavior pumps oxygen [back] into the lungs of ISIS and JFS”.

Melissa Dalton, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the International Security Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), was the final witness to offer insight at the hearing. Dalton acknowledged the increasingly complex operational dynamics inside the country, especially given Assad’s considerable backing from allies like Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. She also noted that Syria has been “cleaved” into four different parts of fragmented territory controlled by various forces like the Assad regime, Sunni Arab tribes, opposition groups backed by the U.S., Turkey and Gulf states, and Israel and Jordan-backed opposition forces. While Dalton stated that many of the strategic counterterrorism options have been pursued under President Obama, her strategy recommendations invoked a number of U.S. statecraft tools, including diplomatic initiatives, economic measures and military operations, with the ultimate goal to weaken ISIS and other terrorist actors, negotiate a political solution, and “consolidate security gains by knitting together local security, governance, and developments in the four segments of Syria”.

The U.S. policy approach towards the Syrian civil war under the Obama administration strongly opposed military action against Assad’s regime, largely to avoid engaging in Middle East conflict and the investment of military resources and ground troops required to do so. Obama’s military aid program worked with U.S. regional allies to provide arms and training to moderate rebel factions, yet his administration concluded involvement in the Syrian crisis lacked “legal basis” and would ultimately be a “strategic mistake”. While the policy direction under the new Trump administration has yet to be determined, Trump has previously expressed support for the concept of safe zones, in part as an alternative for refugees fleeing the country. On February 17th, countries opposed to the Assad regime convened in advance of the U.N.-based Geneva peace talks scheduled to resume on February 20th, both of which are timely opportunities for a unified dialogue on the most effective approach the fragile Syrian crisis.

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