Late last month an American from Florida blew himself up in a suicide attack in Syria.
Here’s the good news: Moner Mohammad Abusalha’s truck bomb was aimed at Syrian government forces, not at some building in New York City. The bad news: As many as 70 Americans and 3,000 Europeans are among more than 7,000 foreigners from 50 countries fighting with Syrian rebel groups linked to al-Qaida. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says these groups are already training people “to go back to their (home) countries.”
The worse news: Jihadis have taken over a vast swath of territory stretching from eastern Syria deep into Iraq, where they control the city of Fallujah and are exploding dozens of suicide bombs monthly. Their so-called Islamic Emirate in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is poised to export more extremists to the West and Middle East than Afghanistan and Pakistan did in past decades. And the administration has no apparent plan to respond.
Let me be clear: The best response would not require sending U.S. planes or troops. It would require helping Syrians (and Iraqis) fight back against the jihadis — as some moderate Syrian rebels are already doing. But these groups are also fighting the Syrian regime and they don’t have sufficient resources for their dual struggle.
Inexplicably, the White House still can’t decide whether to give these rebels the help they need.
Moderate Syrian rebels — yes, there still are such — warned for the past three years about the threat from radical Syrian Islamist groups flush with money and arms from rich Gulf Arabs. But the administration failed to give the moderates the weapons and support they needed.
This lack of on-the-ground pressure made it easy for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers to reject any political compromise at failed Geneva negotiations. To underscore the point, Assad arranged his “re-election” last week.
The White House policy paralysis has stymied top diplomats such as Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, who recently quit in frustration. He sees no sign so far that the administration is prepared to ramp up aid sufficiently to be meaningful.
“Had we done that a couple of years ago,” he told the PBS “NewsHour” last week, “the al-Qaida groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates.”
I asked him in an interview whether he thought it was too late to push back ISIL, which has declared an Islamic emirate in eastern Syria and western Iraq, or Jabhat al-Nusra, the group to which the American truck bomber belonged.
“It’s much harder now, but not too late,” he replied.
In 2012 and 2013, he says, Syrian moderates were reluctant to criticize ISIL because they were fighting the same enemy, Assad. But now, he says, “There is active combat between them. ISIL has been thrown out of Aleppo.” In places where the moderates have had access to adequate supplies, he says, they have prevailed.
This means a much more committed level of funds and weapons is required than what the administration has offered. As for the fear that weapons might fall into the wrong hands, Ford says, “I do trust the vetting process. There are ways to increase accountability.” U.S. officials have plenty of information on which groups are reliable.
I agree. Take the case of ground-to-air missiles — so vital to stop Assad’s planes from dropping the barrel bombs that slaughter civilians and inspire foreign jihadis to travel to Syria. There are ways to track these missiles, or even send in observers from Sunni Muslim countries to monitor them. “You can find out what these groups are doing,” says Ford. “They will comply with the conditions we put down.”
But what of the argument that the United States needs dictator Assad in power to counter the jihadis?
“Syria is a failed state,” Ford shoots back. “There is an absence of a serious governmental authority able to crack down on terrorist groups in the east or the south.”
Even more to the point, he adds, Assad has never shown any interest in cracking down on terrorists. In the mid-2000s, he facilitated the movement of jihadis into Iraq, where they killed thousands, and formed the backbone of al-Qaida in Iraq, the precursor to ISIL. Now, despite his incessant bombing of Sunni civilians, Assad’s planes never target ISIL training camps in eastern Syria. They never make any effort to interdict the suicide bombers who are killing thousands, again, in Iraq.
The only way to end the jihadi threat is to change the dynamics on the Syrian ground, persuading Moscow and Tehran — and Assad — that they must compromise at the bargaining table. Moderate Syrian rebels and tribes must be given the tools to confront the jihadis — and the regime.
Again, this does not mean deploying U.S. troops (it’s frustrating when President Obama keeps raising this straw man). This is about aiding Syrians who want to fight the jihadis who want to harm us, too.
“It’s not a lost cause,” Ford insists. Not if Obama will finally make the decision to commit the necessary support to moderate Syrian rebels, rather than wait for a suicide bomber to return from Syria to Washington.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.