Hezbollah, Syria

Where Will All the Jihadis Go?

jihadisSince the signing of the US-Iran nuclear agreement, several curious news items have stoked speculation that some of the major players in the Syrian crisis may be coming around to a more accommodating negotiating posture, in advance of the Geneva peace conference scheduled for January 22, 2014.

On December 3, Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah told a Lebanese TV station that the US-Iran deal would have major regional implications, revealing that his organization had been in touch with Qatar and Turkey. Nasrallah also claimed that Qatar was looking to moderate its stance on the Syrian crisis and re-establish contact with Assad, or so he’d been told by a government envoy. Qatar immediately denied Nasrallah’s claims.

On the same day, a piece in The New York Times by Bobby Worth and Eric Schmitt quoted Ryan C. Crocker (the former US ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Kuwait, ironically dubbed “Sunshine” by President G.W. Bush because of his darkly sober strategic assessments) as saying:

We need to start talking to the Assad regime again [about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern]… It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.

This prescription echoed sentiments Crocker expressed last summer to the effect that Assad would eventual prevail in the conflict “yard by bloody yard,” because the regime built by his father in the wake of the Hama massacre in 1982 was designed precisely for a conflict like the one it is fighting today. Betting on Assad’s demise is a fruitless and destructive option, he hinted sunnily; it would be wiser to pursue a policy of containment and negotiation with a vastly weakened regime.

This new accomodationist turn — let’s call it the Sunshine school — is ascendant in the east as well. A useful report from Al-Monitor documents similar statements from the Iraqi and Qatari foreign ministries, as well as U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The reason for the shifting consensus has less to do with a new appreciation of Assad’s solidity than an anxiety about the huge disaster that is the foreign fighter presence in Syria. Along these lines, I’d highly recommend reading two recent pieces: (1) an interview with Aaron Zelin at Syria in Crisis, a great blog edited by Aron Lund at the Carnegie Middle East Center; (2) a strong article by Thomas Hegghammer for Foreign Policy Mideast Channel on “Syria’s Foreign Fighters

free-syrian-army-fightersZelin puts the number of Sunni foreign fighters (since the beginning of the conflict, not at any given moment) at 5,000-10,000. They’ve come from “over 60 countries” in the Arab world, Europe, the US, Africa, and elsewhere. Zelin believes there has been a similar number of foreigner troops fighting on the regime side, drawn from Hezbollah, IRGC, and Iraqi Shiite militias such as the Hezbollah Battalions, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization, the Abu-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, the Sayyid al-Shuhada Battalions, the Zulfiqar Brigade, the Ammar ibn Yasser Brigade, the Imam al-Hasan al-Mujtaba Brigade, the Martyr Mohamed Baqir al-Sadr Forces, and the Khorasani Vanguard Company. (Stay tuned for a post offering ideas to jihadi commanders casting about for new turath-flavored names to give to their nascent battallions…)

Why are there are so many foreign jihadis in Syria? This is the question Thomas Hegghammer addresses, arguing that the short answer is because it’s so easy to get there. Unlike the situation in Iraq during the second Gulf war, there is no effort among powerful European, American, and Arab intelligence agencies and militaries to prevent jihadis from entering Syria. The borders are basically open. This has led to a situation likened by Ryan Crocker to an enormous wild fire in the Pacific Northwest:

I’m from the West and every now and then we get monster forest fires out there. You can’t put them out. All you can do is contain them. The fire breaks and let them burn themselves out. That’s kind of like Syria. We can’t stop that war. What we can do, or should do, is everything possible that we can to keep it from spreading into Iraq and into Lebanon and it’s already done a little bit of both.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Let’s assume for the moment that the accommodationist hints we’ve seen in the press since early December actually betoken something optimistic about the upcoming Geneva talks. In other words, let’s say the Obama administration has one more trick up their sleeve, and that the Iran nuclear deal contains a yet-to-be-revealed agreement on a “transition” that will help to contain Syria’s horrible civil war. Assad agrees to stay on until the elections of 2014 at which point he will “decide not to run again”. A general amnesty is issued. A new constitution is cooked up. Everyone declares victory. The bids from Gulf-based reconstruction firms start flooding in. You get the idea…

In such a case, where will all the jihadis go? It would be nice to believe that they’d wither on the vine once their funding sources dried up, but the folks I speak to who’ve been paying close attention to such logistical issues suggest that the picture is considerably muddier. The funding sources are mostly private and will be difficult to police and curtail without a multi-year GWOT-style campaign, which no Western power has the inclination or resources to commit to.

So again: where will the jihadis go?

Discussion

33 thoughts on “Where Will All the Jihadis Go?

  1. Which is why it’s most likely that Russia will bring the West around to the view that it’s best to eliminate them all where they already are….

    Posted by Samn! | December 11, 2013, 5:46 pm
  2. Oklahoma?

    Posted by mlynxqualey | December 11, 2013, 7:50 pm
  3. Iraq, Lebanon and Azerbaijan…Or we can ferry them all to Sharm el Sheikh. The question you never raise is where do the hardened blood thirsty HA/Iraqi Shiite fighters would go?

    Posted by danny | December 11, 2013, 8:02 pm
  4. Hilarious, MLQ.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 11, 2013, 8:12 pm
  5. The short answer is they’ll go home. Some may move on to places like Somalia, Pakistan or Yemen, but as in the past, after Afghanistan, for instance, they’ll mostly go back home. It will be interesting to see how Western countries treat returnees, but as has previously been the case, they’ll trickle back to Libya and Tunisia or Egypt, and will probably escape prison in the former two but not Egypt. In any case, each country will end up with a small, hard core of battle hardened, experienced jihadists.

    Posted by sean | December 11, 2013, 8:50 pm
  6. The assumption this discussion is based on is not realistic to the extreme. Geneva 2,3,4 etc. is not going to lead to any peaceful compromise. But if you want to base a discussion on a counterfactual then the sky is the limit. The jihadis will convert to Judaism and make aliyah to Israel.

    The first step in addressing this issue seriously is understanding that the foreign jihadis are just a symptom of a much bigger problem. The foreigners are well integrated into “brigades” with many more locals who share a similar ideology. So the relevant question is how to get these jihadi brigades to stop fighting. Once they do, it will really not matter much what happens to the foreign fighters in them.

    If you want a stable solution you either defeat the jihadi brigades militarily or co-opt them into the solution meaning it is worth their while not to fight. For example, you can give them a couple of fiefdoms like for example Hamas have in Gaza or what they currently have in Raqqa. The question again is not how you make any specific fighter leave, since even if the foreigners leave, the ideology stays and there a more than enough locals who buy into it. It is a combination of deterrence and power/economic incentives. Very hard to get right and it will take years to arrive at the correct formula.

    Posted by AIG | December 12, 2013, 12:10 pm
  7. Everywhere rule-of-law and freedom doesn’t exist.

    In the ME, that means everywhere except Israel.

    Worldwide, that means everywhere there are ripe targets and poor internal security.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 12, 2013, 12:14 pm
  8. Danny, the iraqi Shia fighters will go home. Blood thirsty? They aren’t the ones looking to blow up the world and invade all and sundry.

    The Jihadis will keep fighting from the country side of NE Syria, hitting isolated govt outposts and then claiming victory.

    Posted by Want The D? | December 12, 2013, 12:37 pm
  9. AIG said: “The assumption this discussion is based on is not realistic to the extreme. Geneva 2,3,4 etc. is not going to lead to any peaceful compromise. But if you want to base a discussion on a counterfactual then the sky is the limit. The jihadis will convert to Judaism and make aliyah to Israel.”

    Forgive my pedantry, but counterfactuals require the antecedent to be demonstrably false, which it isn’t here. You probably are talking about a remote conditional rather than a counterfactual. I agree that the possibility that Geneva leads to a peaceful compromise is indeed remote, and one of the reasons that’s the case is because of all the foreign fighters (on both sides) in the country. This was the point of the post.

    AIG said: “The foreigners are well integrated into “brigades” with many more locals who share a similar ideology. So the relevant question is how to get these jihadi brigades to stop fighting. Once they do, it will really not matter much what happens to the foreign fighters in them.”

    Based on what Zelin and others are saying, it sounds to me like many of the brigades are not integrated units. Plus, the ones that have a mix of locals and foreigners may not be unified in their ultimate purpose. Fighters might be distinguished by their stake in the conflict: is it primarily political or theological? There may be large numbers of Syrian rebels who would abide by a truce if they were given incentives (and co-opted, as you say), but the foreigners aren’t interested in fiefdoms.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 12, 2013, 1:11 pm
  10. This is what Zelin about the Sunni foreigners:
    “Most Sunni foreign fighters join the hardline Islamist factions, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or the Nusra Front, and to a much lesser extent other Salafi groups like Ahrar al-Sham.”

    Are these organizations not mostly made up of local fighters? They must be since they are much larger than the numbers of foreigners Zelin estimates have taken part in the fighting.

    Posted by AIG | December 12, 2013, 2:17 pm
  11. AIG,

    My understanding is that the Syrians in the hardline Islamist groups like Nusra or ISIS are mainly jihadis who had previously fought in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are Syrian, yes, but that category is not as salient to them as their Sunni Muslim identity. What unites the brigades, as you say, is ideology, but it’s an ideology that is transnational in character.

    My point is that many if not most of the Syrians in groups like ISIS and JN aren’t likely to be co-opted by some kind of political or economic incentives. I regard them as “foreign” as the others, in this regard.

    The situation is different with the FSA and other armed rebels who want to see Assad gone, but aren’t committed to restoring the caliphate.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 12, 2013, 2:42 pm
  12. The better question is where will the FSA go?

    We know Idriss is on the run probably heading towards Doha.

    Exactly one year ago former leader for the SNC Moaz Khatib implored the United States to reconsider its blacklisting of Jabhat Al Nusra. The FSA and all their cronies alike declared that “we are all Jabhat al Nusra”

    Posted by tamer k | December 12, 2013, 2:44 pm
  13. QN,

    “My point is that many if not most of the Syrians in groups like ISIS and JN aren’t likely to be co-opted by some kind of political or economic incentives. I regard them as “foreign” as the others, in this regard.”

    I don’t think this is the case. Two examples come to mind. The Islamists control some oil fields and are selling oil to the regime so that they can use the proceeds to arm themselves but also to help the local population and gain support. Another example is Raqqa. There is clearly an attempt there to put in place an Islamic regime. Why wouldn’t these groups agree to some arrangement to consolidate their local gains?

    It has happened over and over again. I return to the Hamas example. Their actions show that they are more interested in controlling Gaza than fighting Israel. The Islamists use the “hudna” concept. They will not be making peace with Assad, it is only a “hudna” with fighting to continue sometime in the future.

    I think it is quite likely that the Islamists can be co-opted. Why do you think they can’t be?

    Posted by AIG | December 12, 2013, 2:52 pm
  14. This is, if you recall, the reading provided by my Hizbullah buddy, Abbas. Once again you agree.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 12, 2013, 3:08 pm
  15. AIG,

    Sorry to jump in but

    Have the Islamists been co-opted in Iraq? In Pakistan? In Afghanistan?

    Hamas is not an appropriate example, it isn’t part of Hamas’ ethos to slit the throats of every Allawite, Christian, Shiite and non religious Sunni.

    The FSA thought they could piggy back on the military prowess of Al Qaeda and consolidate the latter’s military gains into political gains for the “western” backed FSA.

    The Jihadis aren’t going anywhere, for the land of the sham is home to them now.

    Posted by tamer k | December 12, 2013, 3:10 pm
  16. QN,

    “This is, if you recall, the reading provided by my Hizbullah buddy, Abbas. Once again you agree.”

    I don’t recall, but I take your word for it. What else did we agree on?

    Posted by AIG | December 12, 2013, 4:18 pm
  17. Tamer,

    What was the “Sunni awakening” if not exactly that in Iraq? In Pakistan the government has certainly co-opted many of the tribal leaders. Of course there are Al-Qaida types that won’t be co-opted. There are groups like that in Gaza also. But only a fraction of the Islamists are Al-Qaida. In fact the FSA is now asking the “moderate” Islamists to help it fight Al-Qaida in Syria.

    Posted by AIG | December 12, 2013, 4:24 pm
  18. I don’t see a difference between “moderate islamists” and Al Qaeda. Their doctrine is superficially different but they are one of the same.

    “In fact the FSA is now asking the “moderate” Islamists to help it fight Al-Qaida in Syria.”

    The FSA was Jabhat Nusra’s #1 supporter and defender last year in Morocco look at where they are now.

    It doesn’t sound like the “moderate” Islamists are doing anything to help the FSA, in fact they are just taking over what is soon to be an extinct organization. A war cannot be fought from the hotels of Istanbul.

    http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/12/syria-fsa-islamic-front-geneva-ii-jarba.html

    FSA shot itself in the foot by not entering into negotiations with the Baath regime earlier when they had the upper hand. The acquiesced, nurtured, supported and defended groups with Al Qaeda’s ideology and they are paying the price.

    These groups strength does not lie in numbers, 5000 or 10000, it lies in their ideology, their ruthlessness, their car bombs, their videos of eating internal organs and beheading “apostates”

    Bashar is at his strongest point ever, western military attacks averted, divided opposition, winning the propaganda war (now a fight against Al Qaeda and not about a fight for freedom).

    He knows not one party represents the “opposition”, this simple fact is his greatest strength.

    I believe Bashar doesn’t care on whether or not he goes to Geneva or what the Geneva conference outcome maybe. The opposition because it is divided and cut into more ways than one has delivered victory to him.
    There isn’t a party in the opposition that can deliver peace, hudna, cease fire or whatever you want to call it, and the world won’t expect him to make peace with the Al Qaeda or “moderate” Islamist kooks. Not yet anyways

    +1 Russia/Iran
    -1 KSA/QATAR/TURKEY

    Posted by tamer k | December 12, 2013, 7:00 pm
  19. Tamer K, did the FSA ever really have the option of entering into negotiations with the regime? The FSA’s promise to its followers and to its backers was that it was going to get rid of the regime. And who was there in the regime to talk to? The rare government figures who occasionally made conciliatory noises (where are you now, Faruq al-Sharaa?) were quickly marginalized, sidelined or dismissed. Early on the ruling establishment was determined to turn the uprising into a fight to the death, and in this they succeeded. Now that they are sort-of “winning,” the regime may be in the mood to try dictating terms; but what kind of negotiation option did the FSA have earlier? (These aren’t rhetorical questions; I’m genuinely interested in knowing more about the background to your comment.)

    Posted by Jim Reilly | December 12, 2013, 8:53 pm
  20. Civil war…Winning and losing…Dream on Tamer. You are on the losing side along with the murderous regime of Assad and his HA/Iraqi mercenaries! Seriously do you really believe in Nassrallah’s nervous declarations? Long…Long attrition on its way.

    Posted by danny | December 12, 2013, 9:02 pm
  21. QN: if we look at similar civil war with so many spoilers using jihad, the tendency is for a political compromise that tries to be more hospitable to opposition representation and international monitoring. Usually theae compromises assume that with the withdrawal of upper level support and funding, these fighters will fade away and find themselves unemployed. Another option is usually DDR, but that would be difficult in the case of the plethora of armed groups and non-native jihadists.

    The most probable solution, not supported by me of course, in my opinion is to recruit them to fight HeZbollah and weaken it.

    Posted by adelnehmeh | December 12, 2013, 10:03 pm
  22. The Golan?

    Speculation based on the assumptions that Assad will be leaving soon are a tad rash. Pragmatists alarmed at recent events are coming around to the notion that it’s better to have the most effective forces fighting the jihadis continue to do so.

    The natural extrapolation is wink and nod @ the party of god’s warriors acting as the tip of the Syrian spear.

    Posted by lally | December 12, 2013, 11:18 pm
  23. Jim,

    did the FSA ever really have the option of entering into negotiations with the regime?

    No they didn’t want to negotiate, remember for the first year and a half they were predicting the fall of the regime every other week as they were gaining ground, myself included. FSA/SNC controlled the message they were winning the propaganda war and had the sympathy of the majority.

    Both sides did not have an interest to go to talks, Assad needed to consolidate his base as he was quickly losing ground, and the SNC/FSA had no reason to negotiate since they were riding the coattails of their new army aka Jabhat al Nusra.

    FSA leaders were showering praise on the Al Qaeda faction late 2011, 2012 about how they were leading the push against Assad and that they were the most effective fighting force on the ground.

    The SNC/FSA “outsourced” their revolution to Al Qaeda affiliated groups and to the gulf countries. December 10th 2012 Moaz Khatib was imploring the United States to reconsider its blacklisting of Jabhat Al Nusra.

    1 year later Jabra is making a speech to the GCC, that Assad himself is supporting these same Al Qaeda groups they were defending a year earlier.

    In the first year or so Assad was very careful not to criticize Saudi or the other gulf countries, he was hoping for a backdoor settlement. His rhetoric changed and now it is common for Assad to directly attack the gulf rulers and their “takfiri” jihadists.

    Maybe I wasn’t clear, Assad has lost a lot of territory and is no where near consolidating power in the next couple of years in this war of attrition. But the writing is on the wall, FSA and “moderate” fighting groups going to become the exception to the rule very soon. Meaning, the war has changed the big players are the spectrum of Islamist groups who all want some type of sharia inspired country

    Posted by tamer k | December 13, 2013, 5:28 am
  24. Danny,

    Yes I believe every word Nasrallah says. Labayka ya Nasrallah, when is his next speech I’ll have to Tivo it.

    http://dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Dec-13/240934-assad-win-may-be-syrias-best-option-ex-cia-chief.ashx#axzz2mfRjyD89

    Posted by tamer k | December 13, 2013, 5:36 am
  25. NATO member Turkey opening up its borders to Al Qaeda and company is the best thing to ever happen to Assad.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-12-12/time-to-pick-a-new-syria-policy.html

    Posted by tamer k | December 13, 2013, 5:44 am
  26. Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
    Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
    Where have all the flowers gone?
    Young girls have picked them everyone.
    Oh, when will they ever learn?
    Oh, when will they ever learn? 
    Where have all the young girls gone, long time passing?Where have all the young girls gone, long time ago?
    Where have all the young girls gone?
    Gone for husbands everyone.
    Oh, when will they ever learn?
    Oh, when will they ever learn?
    Where have all the husbands gone, long time passing?Where have all the husbands gone, long time ago?
    Where have all the husbands gone?
    Gone for jihad and baathism everyone.
    Oh, when will they ever learn?
    Oh, when will they ever learn? 
    Where have all the jihadists and baathists gone, long time passing?
    Where have all the jihadists and baathists gone, long time ago?
    Where have all the jihadists and baathists gone?
    Gone to graveyards, everyone.
    Oh, when will they ever learn?
    Oh, when will they ever learn? 
    Where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
    Where have all the graveyards gone?
    Gone to flowers, everyone.
    Oh, when will they ever learn?
    Oh, when will they ever learn? 
    Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
    Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
    Where have all the flowers gone?
    Young girls have picked them everyone.
    Oh, when will they ever learn?
    Oh, when will they ever learn?

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 13, 2013, 2:24 pm
  27. The jihadis will be killed in loco and everybody will be happy, most of all the gulf states.

    Posted by max | December 15, 2013, 10:50 am
  28. As for the foreign fighters, I believe some will return home. Others will seek the next open border, a good chance that border is Iraq. A few will trickle back into places in Lebanon like Tripoli and Ain al-Helwa.

    The big question on my mind is what will happen to the Syrian jihadi groups like Nusra, ISIS members from Syria, and even the less extreme Jaish al-Islam who have accrued considerable influence in places like Raqqa, Deir ez-Zour, and Azaz?

    Even in Aleppo, there are sections of the city now policed by harsh, fundamentalist Sharia law.

    Posted by Andrew | December 15, 2013, 2:16 pm
  29. Not going anywhere, Al Qaeda/Islamic front here to stay for a long while

    http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/zahran-alloush/

    Posted by tamer k | December 15, 2013, 10:37 pm
  30. I’ve been pretty quiet lately as there’s really nothing worth commenting on. But this piece of news was enough to make me chuckle and want to comment:

    Caretaker Transportation and Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi announced on Monday his resignation from government in light of recent corruption allegations.
    http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/110051-aridi-resigns-from-cabinet-after-being-questioned-on-corruption-linked-to-floods

    Can a CARETAKER minister, already part of a resigned cabinet, resign from his post as CARETAKER?
    And if he does, does he continue to run the day to day affairs of the ministry as “Caretaker Caretaker-minister”? Or caretaker-squared?

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | December 16, 2013, 1:48 pm
  31. If they’re not killed, they’ll either stay or go back home. And the latter scares me as I live in a country that has sent several dozen confirmed jihadists to Syria. People conceive of us a peaceful nation, but we recently had a suicide bombing that luckily went awry. All over Europa rhetoric is heating up, and people have been killed for speaking their mind. This will continue, I fear, and probably worsen. Self-censorship, already witnessed, might increase. The threat is to democracy.

    All because of a few dozen lunatics.

    Posted by Pas Cool | December 16, 2013, 3:17 pm
  32. BV,

    WJ answered your math question. :P
    It’s an impossible equation as Aridi does not exist! He is owned by the party; ergo no resignation. Whew. I thought we were in for a lame duck; lame duck…

    Posted by danny | December 17, 2013, 10:07 am

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