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Combating al-Qaeda in Syria: A Strategy for the Next Administration

In 2017, the conflict in Syria will reach its seventh year of violence. In the past six years, we have witnessed at least 450,000 deaths in Syria.

In 2017, the conflict in Syria will reach its seventh year of violence. In the past six years, we have witnessed at least 450,000 deaths in Syria, with close to 17,000 casualties in 2016 alone. The attempted ceasefire agreements to end the bloodshed have failed up to this point, serving primarily as a way for the government of Bashar al-Assad to advance its priorities with the support of powerful members of the international community, most prominently Russia and Iran. Assad’s failure to address the sociopolitical and existential demands of Syrians, and the continued massacre of his people, have given al-Qaeda a way to claim Syria as its newest and most important safe haven for the organization’s radical Islamist ideology.

The United States and its international partners have overwhelmingly focused on waging its counter-terrorism mission in Syria against the Islamic State, primarily utilizing kinetic means to challenge the broader socio-political movement of Salafi-jihadism in Syria. As a result of the strong emphasis placed by the administration of President Barack Obama on the counter-Islamic State campaign, al-Qaeda and its enablers in the Syrian opposition movement have benefited, slowly and steadily shaping the sociopolitical norms of many areas of opposition-controlled northwest Syria. As a new administration assumes office in the United States, Syria will remain the crucial arena for its global counter-terrorism strategy, and will require non-kinetic as well as kinetic activities to counter the Salafi-Jihadi movement that is taken deep root in the heart of the Middle East.

The Combating al-Qaeda in Syria Strategy Group was formed in July 2016 by Nicholas A. Heras, the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Over the past six months, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy has sponsored this integral working group of young Syria, Middle East, and U.S. national security experts to analyze the challenge presented by al-Qaeda in Syria.

Al-Qaeda’s strategy in Syria in not limited to one group such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. It has always sought to maintain connections with multiple organizations, some composed mainly of Syrians and others composed mainly of foreign fighters, to become the vanguard of the Syrian revolutionary movement. To address al-Qaeda’s strategy, our report seeks to build out a long-term approach to combating al-Qaeda in Syria that addresses the environmental conditions that provide opportunities for it and its extremist allies to set enduring roots in the local communities and grow. We emphasize that it is not enough to defeat al-Qaeda on the battlefield inside of Syria, and that the United States will need to be play a stronger role to support civil society in opposition-controlled areas of Syria to be resilient against al-Qaeda. This strategy prioritizes support for civil society as a necessary element in addressing the roots of the problem. An exclusively military approach will be neither effective nor sustainable, as al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria is only a symptom of the problems plaguing the country.

We humbly recognize that this report by no means provides an all-encompassing panacea for the crisis, nor does it cover all the multiple players that influence the situation in Syria. This report reflects the deliberations and conclusions of the strategy group, but also reflects the difficulty the U.S. faces in achieving desired outcomes amidst the violent and complex conditions in Syria. This report therefore includes a Red Team analysis of its own recommendations in order to highlight the most serious risks that could require an alteration to the recommended strategy.

We also acknowledge that the situation in Syria remains highly volatile and continues to change. This Strategy Group will maintain its analysis of the Syrian conflict and note further updates for the future. However, what we have laid out, at the minimum, are priority recommendations to address the al-Qaeda threat to prevent further deterioration in Syria, and hopefully lay the groundwork for a sustainable post-conflict phase.

This report could not have happened without the work and dedication of each member of the group, who worked relentlessly to produce our findings and recommendations. I am particularly grateful for Nick Heras, who served as the Strategy Group’s strategic director, for his patience, rigor, and ability to recognize all the different views expressed by the group. I would also like to thank the Atlantic Council, the Middle East Institute, the Institute for the Study of War, the Center for a New American Security, and People Demand Change LLP for their support of and confidence in this endeavor.
We are all also very grateful to our sources on the ground and in the policy world for granting us their time to provide crucial information and discuss our ideas.

This report should be a starting point for continuing the conversation on the evolving situation in Syria, with the hope of preventing further violence, curbing the threat of al-Qaeda, and ultimately saving lives.


Nancy Okail
Executive Director
The Tahrir Instiute for Middle East policy

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