Syria conflict ‘incubator of extremism,’ Burns tells Senators

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The Syrian civil war has become an “incubator of extremism” and a “magnet” for foreign fighters, and poses growing risks to U.S. interests and allies, U.S. officials told frustrated lawmakers Thursday. The three year old conflict is also likely to go on for a long time, they assessed, as it pulls in foreign fighters from both sides of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, and both Bashar al-Assad and his opponents believe they can win.

“The hard reality is that the grinding Syrian civil war is now an incubator of extremism, on both sides of the sectarian divide.” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, at a hearing on the Syrian civil war that led off with the deepening US-Russian rift over Ukraine.

“We face a number of serious risks to our interests as a result,” Burns said. “The risk to the homeland from global jihadist groups…the risk to the stability of our regional partners….and the risk to the Syrian people, whose suffering constitutes the greatest humanitarian crisis of this new century.”

That grim assessment may portend the U.S. deepening its support for Syrian opposition fighters now battling both Al Qaeda-linked groups and Assad, and stepped up U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, in coordination with regional partners and European allies alarmed by the threat posed by jihadi fighters returning from Syria.

Syria “has become the preeminent location for independent or al-Qaida-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom we assess may seek to conduct external attacks,” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), testified (.pdf).

US policy on Syria is to counter extremists, boost moderates, and shore up Syria’s embattled neighbors and population with aid to withstand the protracted conflict, Burns told lawmakers.

“First, we are working to isolate and degrade terrorist networks in Syria,” Burns said. “It also means stepping up efforts to strengthen the moderate opposition, without which progress toward a negotiated transition of leadership through the Geneva process or any other diplomatic effort is impossible.”

With the Syrian opposition battling a two-front war against Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), it has lost some ground, reducing pressure on Assad and his patrons to make concessions on a political transition at the Geneva talks, while  seemingly increasing US willingness to coordinate increased assistance to opposition forces.

“Strengthened moderate forces are critical both to accelerate the demise of the Asad regime, and to help Syrians build a counterweight to the extremists,” Burns said.

Lawmakers on the panel expressed frustration and exasperation that the situation in Syria has deteriorated so drastically over time, with some suggesting it was partly a result of over-cautiousness and inaction by the Obama administration.

“What does the administration expect to do to change the equation on the ground in Syria now that it’s become what it is,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), ranking Republican on the foreign relations panel, asked Burns. He said that Secretary of State John Kerry had suggested to him and other lawmakers at a meeting last month that the US was on the verge of announcing a more assertive US policy on Syria.

“We certainly are looking at a range of options, [some of which I] can’t discuss in this setting,” Burns said. “We are looking actively at other ways we can support the moderate opposition, [working in coordination with others]… All of us understand what’s at stake here, what we and our partners do.”

But administration statements that it is stepping up support to Syrian opposition fighters is something that some lawmakers said they had heard before, only for the conflict to intensify and the death toll to mount, while straining the fragile stability of neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.

“100,000 people ago we were hearing this,” an exasperated Corker said, referring to the mounting death toll in Syria’s three year conflict, now estimated to be as high as 140,000 people.

The conflict is unlikely to end soon, the NCTC’s Olsen said, as both sides are digging in for a protracted fight.

With hostilities “between Sunni and Shia…intensifying in Syria and spilling into neighboring countries,” it increases “the likelihood of a protracted conflict in Syria, as both seek military advantage,” Olsen said. “Both the Syrian regime and the opposition believe that they can achieve a military victory in the ongoing conflict.”

“As long as Assad exists, the civil war will get worse,” Burns said. “This is going to require an ‘all of the above’ effort.”

Roundup: US vet charged with fighting with al-Qaida in Syria

  • US Army vet Eric Harroun charged with fighting with al Qaida in Syria, conspiring to use WMD.
  • Obama fears US-led Syria intervention would “devour’’ rest of presidency.
  • Tom Friedman cautions against US mission creep in Syria.
  • Arms shipments rise to Syria rebels.
  • Cyprus sentences Hezbollah operative to four years prison for plot to kill Israelis. Continue reading

Why has so much been revealed about how US/Saudi intel foiled the AQAP bomb plot?

Details are still emerging about the alleged role of an undercover mole in foiling a plot by Al Qaida’s Yemen branch to bomb a US-bound airliner.

But along with the details about the US-Saudi intelligence coup comes the question: why would American officials be seemingly so forthcoming with the methods involved in the highly sensitive counter-terrorism operation, given the threat posed by Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is hardly over.

Among the details that have emerged in gripping reports from the Associated Press, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times among others the past two days: that an apparently Saudi intelligence mole infiltrated AQAP, volunteered for the suicide mission; delivered the sophisticated, metal-free bomb composed of military-grade explosives and sewn into underwear, to the US via the Saudis/UAE;  provided information that allowed the US to target AQAP’s chief of external operations Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso in a drone strike Sunday; and that the Saudis may have several other informants in place inside the terror organization’s Yemen branch.

“Of dozens of AQAP fighters with Saudi backgrounds, ‘at least five or eight of them are undercover’ working for the Saudi service at any point,” the Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing a Middle Eastern official. “’The Saudis have always had a network’ of sources in Yemen, the official said. ‘Now they are expanding its objectives.’”

Former FBI terrorism analyst Matthew Levitt suggested that US officials probably decided to offer more details on the foiled plot only after it was clear the press already had them and was going to report them.

“My instinct is they said as much as they did because it was going to be exposed [in the press] … and they wanted to get ahead of it,” Levitt, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me in an interview Wednesday.

The FBI has opened a leak investigation into the disclosures to the press about the foiled AQAP plot, the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Perez reported Wednesday: “A person familiar with the investigation said the probe, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has been under way for days.”

Levitt said the rather extensive details exposed in press reports, especially concerning the alleged role of Saudi intelligence in infiltrating AQAP, is liable to cause the CIA some real headaches or worse in placating allied Arab intelligence services, which tend to be very discreet.

“I have had calls from people expressing that this is not going to please foreign parters; ‘loose lips sink ships’ and all that,” he said.

Once the operation was going to be exposed in the press, however, he mused, Washington may have resigned itself to “spinning it so that we can inflate ourselves as much as we can,” in the eyes of AQAP, in order to stoke paranoia, fissures and insecurity in the group, he said.

Recently released documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound show that bin Laden thought the US had capabilities beyond what it may have, he noted–microchips, etc..

“It’s clear the enemy does think we are capable,” Levitt said. “At a certain point, we may want to encourage that.”

As to the infiltration operation that reportedly led to the US acquiring AQAP’s latest bomb prototype and to the killing in a drone strike of Quso, Levitt said the achievement “is pretty big.” And he added, we still don’t know all the details of what the US has learned from the operation.

UPDATE: More on this from the Boston Globe’s Juliette Kayyem, a former DHS official, who wonders if a turf battle over control of US CT policy in Yemen explains the leaks:

…What’s worse, the story may not have been the result of a deliberate decision by the Obama administration, but rather prompted by leaks from lower-level officials. That would be a symptom of bureaucratic competition for leadership of the next phase of the fight against Al Qaeda. ….

 

Now, there should be an independent investigation of who, at what agency, was so loose-lipped about a covert mission, and the White House should embrace it. If the leaker was at the CIA, he or she has not only tarnished the agency, but undermined some of the most important tactics that can be used against a flexible enemy.

Turf battles are common, especially in times of transition from one government strategy to another. But rarely do turf battles make someone so easily forget who the real enemy is.

(Photo of Saudi fugitive Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri as seen from a Yemeni police handbook of the most wanted terror suspects. A Saudi bombmaker believed to be working with al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing is suspected of designing the bombs used in at least three attempts to bomb US-bound airliners. REUTERS/Yemeni Police/Handout.)