Critics of the United States’ hands-off approach to Syria’s civil war have long warned that the costs of doing little to shape the conflict’s outcome would one day outweigh the risks of doing more. The first tipping point in the Obama administration’s own calculus was the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb in August that killed an estimated 1,400 men, women and children. Though it was very nearly thwarted by Congress, President Obama’s threat of military retaliation for the crossing of that redline is the reason U.N.-backed weapons inspectors are now in Syria securing that nation’s vast stockpile of chemical weapons
Even as Secretary of State John Kerry pushed for new talks to end Syria’s civil war this week in London, facts on the ground were changing once again and weighting the ledger towards more assertive U.S. involvement: namely, the planting of the black flag of Al Qaeda in northern Syria by powerful affiliates, especially the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra Front. The emergence of the Al Qaeda affiliates as the most powerful of the rebel groups fighting the Syrian regime has already greatly complicated U.S. efforts to arm and train more moderate, secular rebel factions. It will also cast a long shadow over the proposed negotiations in Geneva as early as next month. Most importantly, the establishment of a mini-Al Qaeda caliphate bordering numerous U.S. allies, in the heart of an increasingly volatile Middle East, puts the groups on an almost inevitable collision course with the United States.
“The number of foreign fighters and committed Al Qaeda jihadists who have poured into northern Syria is in excess of 10,000, which exceeds the numbers we saw in either Iraq or Afghanistan,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said this week at the Foreign Policy Initiative’s annual forum in Washington. “And we should be very concerned that they are already feeling comfortable enough in their new sanctuary to talk about launching ‘external operations.’”
That dynamic is eerily reminiscent of Al Qaeda’s growing strength in Taliban-held Afghanistan in the 1990s, he said, before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “We decided then that the United States would never again allow Al Qaeda uncontested sanctuary,” said Rogers. “Now in Syria we’re confronting what is potentially the largest terrorist safe haven we’ve ever seen.”