December 5, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: A Most Difficult Calculus: Intervention in the Syrian Equation


As of early December 2012, the most difficult calculus in current foreign policy mathematics remains unsolved: the problem of how to responsibly address — and ultimately resolve — the Syrian equation while using a shifting constant of what constitutes a red line in terms of foreign intervention. Although there are a seemingly infinite number of reasons for and against foreign intervention in Syria, there is also a consistent inconsistency in all the equations, and that is a lack of a defined red line as it relates to the establishment of a terrorist sanctuary. (Note: The term "red line" in the geopolitical sense refers to an event or decision involving an entity — such as a country or non-state actor — that indicates an acceptable limit or critical point has been reached that warrants or even triggers a responsive action on the part of another entity. It has often been referenced in recent months with regard to the progress reached in Iran's purported nuclear weapons program.)

This definition has previously served as a cornerstone for the policies that has kept tens of thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan for 11 years, prompted sustained and significant air support in Libya, and has forced international action in the deserts of northern African and the Sahel region. These actions, whatever their other relative merits or flaws, were based in large part on the repeated assessment that a country must not be allowed to become, in effect, a country-sized terror camp or a laboratory for extremists to perfect their tactics and then export them back to their countries of origin. The intention here is not to issue a call for or against intervention but rather emphasize the need for greater clarity. With such a definitive vision, the international community clearly knows why it does (or doesn't) pursue a specific policy initiative; it also better equips policymakers to construct meaningful — and sustainable — plans based on that clarity.


Critical Factors in the Geopolitical Calculus

Much has understandably been made of the worst-case scenario involving the Assad regime and its potential employment of chemical weapons against the opposition, something the U.S government has referred to as a "red line" in terms of what it will or will not countenance. But lurking behind the recent headlines is an inconsistency when it comes to countenancing Syria becoming a regional crucible, a trial by fire for extremists both foreign and domestic (something that has already occurred). This week's announcement of a disrupted terrorist plot against significant targets in Amman, Jordan — by terrorists trained in what is now a country-sized terror training camp called Syria — is only the latest and most dramatic of signal points along the indisputable trend line of Syria acting as a regional accelerant for its reliably flammable extremists. In September, French officials arrested Algerian nationals who had partaken of some of the extremist menu now being offered in free-fire Syria in order to create violent instability back home. This alone used to be considered a red line.

Critical factors in the calculus swirling around Iraq in 2004-2008 was that the country had become a magnet for extremists. In response, it was seen as preferable to fight them there vice on the streets of America and Europe. Policymakers defended the continued presence of troops — and even the large escalation of troops in what became known as the Surge — by saying Iraq had become a training ground for terrorists and that it was the height of irresponsibility to leave the arena while foreign jihadists were gaining hard-earned experience. Given that there were 100,000 plus foreign troops already in Iraq at the time, perhaps we shouldn't necessarily use that constant in the Syrian equation, but it bears remembering.

Perhaps what is more pertinent to our equation is the continued presence of thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan, almost exclusively with the mission of preventing that country from again becoming a sanctuary for terrorism that could be exported abroad (and especially to the West). This is the reason why international forces didn't simply declare victory in December 2001 and save billions of dollars and thousands of lives. The attacks on September 11th, 2001, remain a compelling, if not totally convincing argument, for the continued presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, yet a similar consideration remains absent from the mathematics of Syria. And this holds true even though Syria is inexorably becoming a more centrally-located sanctuary for terrorism than Afghanistan. The calculus simply doesn't work with Syria because the constant of a red line as it relates to the establishment of a terror sanctuary is absent.

Libya might serve as a more appropriate example, with its history as an Arab despot in a crucial area. One of the arguments for intervention was that Libya couldn't be allowed to become that region's Afghanistan, given the likely presence of chemical and heavy weapons. While the air support was undoubtably instrumental in forcing the fall of the Gaddafi regime, the resulting instability (and the killing of four Americans at the consulate in Benghazi) calls into question the arithmetic used in that equation. The instability and heavy weaponry that has flowed from Libya into Mali and the Sahel region further calls into question the validity of the sanctuary constant. The impetus for a solution in Libya has led to a more amorphous calculus equation in the deserts of northern African, that of what is an unacceptable sanctuary.


The Importance of Knowing What Syria is…and What it's Not

So the Syrian equation remains unsolved — despite clear indications the conflict is serving as a crucible for additional regional conflict — because the variable of terrorist sanctuary has not been consistently applied for reasons that might be correct but certainly not acknowledged. It's not enough, when solving this equation, to imply that each situation is different and that there is no constant in foreign policy. While this might be true, it does nothing to help solve the equation. It is rather important to define the constants or variables with which we solve our problems, and to know why we act as we do. In this regard, it must be made manifest that Syria is most certainly not Afghanistan nor is it Libya or Mali. It is equally important, however, that we should clearly define why it is not Afghanistan, Libya, or Mali, or we will most assuredly end up with a wrong answer.



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