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CIAO Focus, October 2014: Syria's Foreign Jihadists

On Wednesday night, President Barak Obama announced his policy for taking on Islamic State, a Jihadist insurgency that now controls large swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria.  While reassuring Americans that he would not send in ground troops, the president vowed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State “through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy”, which sounded to some like an open ended commitment with murky objectives.   A war weary U.S. public has remained steadfastly opposed to redeploying troops to Iraq, but in the wake of the gruesome beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, most Americans now favor taking punitive action against Islamic State if it is limited to airstrikes.

Exploiting growing sectarian antagonisms in war torn Syria and Iraq, Islamic State launched an aggressive offensive in June effectively eradicating the border between the two countries, taking control of Mosul in Iraq and establishing a de facto government in the Syrian city of Raqqa.   The group, which is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has imposed strict sharia law in the areas it has conquered with the ultimate aim of creating an Islamic caliphate which would additionally include Jordan, Lebanon and a liberated Palestine.

Obama has so far authorized $25 million in aid to bolster the Iraqi army which remains weak and demoralized since its defeat by Islamic State insurgents in the battle for Mosul.  Continued U.S. military assistance is contingent on the newly formed government in Baghdad mending fences with disaffected Kurds and Sunnis in the hopes of forming a united front against Islamic State.   The United States has already been working with Kurdish peshmerga units in the north to retake areas that have been cleared of Islamic State militants by American airstrikes.

The U.S. military has already carried out 150 airstrikes which have been effective in driving back the insurgents in some parts of Iraq.  Obama hopes to build on this success by increasing the number of airstrikes in Iraq and expanding the air campaign into Syria while depending on disparate local groups as well as forces from neighboring countries to fight the ground war needed to defeat Islamic State.

Defeating the insurgents in Iraq will be daunting enough (that country doesn’t even have a defense minister yet), but carrying out airstrikes in Syria could get politically complicated as well.  The president is asking Congress for $500 billion to train and arm moderate rebels in Syria but refuses to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad which is also fighting Islamic State.  If the rebels of the Free Syrian Army are successful in weakening Islamic State with foreign ground and U.S. air support, then Assad would be the major benefactor of that outcome.   And Obama has said that Assad has to go.  In addition, the Americans will need authorization from the Syrian government to carry out the airstrikes within its borders but are not likely to get it without first negotiating with Assad.

--Robert Sedgwick, Editor, CIAO


From the CIAO Database:

Foreign Fighters in Syria

Stories of Foreign Fighter Migration to Syria (CTC Sentinel, Vol. 7 Issue 8)

The "Home Game" Counting Violent Extremism within NATO

Foreign Fighters from North Africa in Syria and Iraq

The Middle East and North Africa: Change and Upheaval 2014


Outside Sources: *

Foreign Fighters in Syria: How Great a Danger?" with Dr. Daniel Byman (Video)

ISIS and Foreign Fighters: Cutting off the Global Pipeline (Council on Foreign Relations)

It ain’t half hot here, mum (The Economist)

Iraq and Syria: Who are the foreign fighters? (BBC World News)

Homeward Bound?
Don't Hype the Threat of Returning Jihadists (Brookings Institution)

* Outside links are not maintained. For broken outside links, CIAO recommends the Way Back Machine.