John McLaughlin spent 32 years at the CIA focusing on counter-terrorism, serving as Deputy Director and Acting Director. He retired in 2004 and now spends his time teaching, traveling and advising governments on terrorist threats. McLaughlin will be a regular contributor to OZY. Here’s what he has to say about the conflict in Syria, and the near-term consequences for the region and the world.
1. Spillover Effect: Just like Afghanistan in the 1980s or Iraq in the last decade, foreign fighters have flowed into Syria and are likely to return home and wreak havoc when the Syrian conflict eventually ends. They come from as far away as Australia, Bangladesh and Britain and as close as Jordan, Iraq and North Africa. Estimates of their numbers vary, but they could comprise as much as 8-10 percent of the rebel force. These fighters are getting field experience and training in all the classic techniques of insurgency and terrorism. Moreover, they will be especially skilled in urban warfare, and with urbanization rapidly increasing in the many of their homelands, this has to be a top concern.
2. Middle East Explosion? Compounding the concern, these foreign fighters will be returning to particularly vulnerable spots, with “new” governments and continuing ethnic and religious strife. They won’t be going back to static environments like Mubarak’s Egypt, Qaddafi’s Libya or Ben Ali’s Tunisia; instead, they will be heading to countries in transition or turmoil, likely to be stressed in the coming years by burgeoning populations demanding services. They will have ample opportunity to link up with like-minded extremists and attempt to push those societies in more extreme directions.
The Syria conflict, if not resolved, could also create conditions leading to a redrawing of borders in the Middle East. It’s worth recalling that with only a few exceptions, such as Egypt and Iran, most of the countries in the region are post-WWI creations that tumbled out of collapsing empires. Moreover, if borders are to be adjusted, this will not be handled by colonial diplomats, as in the past; it will probably be a matter of armed dispute involving many of the factions now fighting in Syria.
3. Syria Is Also At Risk: Even if the conflict does not spill over Syria’s borders, don’t expect a smooth transition to another form of government if Assad falls. The Syrian government is staffed by the hated Alawite minority, and administration will not simply continue under different rulers like it did to a certain degree in the East European transformations of the 1990s, or even, more recently, Iraq. More likely, sectarian war would continue with a large risk of a bloodbath focused on the Alawites, who will have every incentive to head for the exits.
4. Al-Qaeda Putting Down Roots: Al-Qaeda’s hopes of securing its own patch of territory one day have probably been furthered by the Syrian troubles. In a sectarian-war-continues scenario, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra will have a strong incentive to sink roots into whatever territory it can grab – something that already appears to be happening in Raqqa province in Northern Syria. That can rapidly become a safe haven for operational planning and training for future operations in the region and beyond – a goal the AQ leadership has ardently pursued since the U.S. kicked it out of Afghanistan a dozen years ago.
Meanwhile, various reports suggest that Jabhat al-Nusra and other Al Qaeda affiliates have begun absorbing lessons from their past failures to win over populations where they temporarily held sway. They are starting to give higher priority to providing needed social services, ranging from food to trash collection. If this becomes a trend, they will be harder to root out when they gain influence over territory in places like Syria or North Africa.
5. Putin Left Holding the Bag?: The Russia chemical weapons deal may not be as bad for Obama as some have portrayed it. To be sure, Putin got the jump on us and seized the initiative to pull Washington and Moscow together behind a plan for getting rid of Assad’s CW. But the President and Secretary Kerry have rightly kept the threat of military action on the table over Putin’s objections. And Putin now “owns” a plan to disarm Assad and will have to accept a large chunk of the blame if that falls apart – either because of its inherent difficulty or because of obstacles that Russia itself throws onto the path.
The first major sign of whether any of this will work should come this weekend or early next week when Syria submits a “declaration” that is supposed to detail the magnitude and location of its CW facilities and stockpile. This is usually the most contentious early phase of any arms control effort; it’s the first sign of whether you can trust the other side to be truthful and accurate.
Why you should care
When the former deputy director of the CIA talks about Syria, it’s time to listen up.