April 15, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: From Training Camps to Training States
• The number of people fighting for non-state actors in Iraq and Syria—running the anti-Assad spectrum from the Free Syrian Army to extremist groups like the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as the pro-Assad irregulars—is well over 100,000
• In Syria, these fighters are being sorted into increasingly extreme camps, and while it is possible relatively more moderate groups might win the civil war, the presence of so many extremist fighters will compromise any lasting end to the conflict
• The number of people who have received basic military training from Western-supported rebels, designated terrorist organizations, or other militant groups dwarfs the estimated 10,000-20,000 people trained in al-Qaeda basic training camps in Afghanistan between 1996-2001, according to the 9/11 Commission Report
• The concern is that the ideology of bin Ladinism that dominated the Afghan training camps now dominates what has become two training states and laboratories of combat.
At some point, the current phase of the Syrian civil war will end—through force of arms or by negotiated settlement—though such a resolution has proved elusive for over four years. What happens next will likely prove to be more difficult, in part given the sheer number of armed individuals who have received military training in the midst of a rising tide of violent extremism.
The unfortunate phenomenon of injecting military training into a vacuum of central authority and violent extremism is not unprecedented, but has never been seen at the current scale. The international coalition targeted Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks because al-Qaeda had established training camps in the country. There were the basic military camps through which perhaps 10,000-20,000 people crossed, and more specialized terrorism camps from which a much smaller number of fighters graduated. The lack of true central authority in post-2001 Afghanistan enabled those fighters who remained there, as well as the indigenous Taliban fighters—many of whom went through training camps in the 1980s—to keep the country in a permanent state of chaos, despite the immense cost and effort that went into rebuilding it.
Syria and Iraq are awash with groups with hard-earned experience in irregular and even somewhat traditional combat. The situation in Iraq is relatively straightforward only when compared to Syria, with the Islamic State being the main non-state insurgent actor; there are over 1,000 rebel groups fighting in Syria, with varying levels of proficiency and degrees of moderation or extremism. When the Islamic State is eventually pushed out of its holdings, it will still exist but will revert to its origins as an insurgent terrorist organization, with no shortage of young men with military training and experience. This creates a negative feedback loop such as the one observed during and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when al-Qaeda in Iraq experienced fighters went underground in order to strike out stronger when conditions allowed.
It is in Syria that the legacy of trained fighters—combined with the indoctrination of the ideology of the never-ending fight—will be the most challenging in the coming years. Even the most optimistic scenarios concerning the resolution of the Syrian civil war don’t adequately answer the question: “how does this end?” A not-so insignificant reason why the question remains unanswered is that no one can confidently assess the impact of so many armed fighters spread among so many disparate groups with no central authority strong enough to exert meaningful but not dictatorial control.
There is a big difference between a terrorism camp, like the ones targeted in the first days of the coalition airstrikes in Syria against the so-called ‘Khorasan Group,” and a military training camp that provides basic proficiency and familiarity with small arms and infantry tactics. Yet the impact of the latter will prove far more problematic to Syria (and to a lesser degree, Iraq), since the baseline level of extremism has risen to match the ferocity and longevity of the fighting. Of course not every individual who goes through training camps across Syria is an extremist, but even a small percentage of such a large number will haunt peace efforts for years to come.
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