Since 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“.
Zelin 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?