Over the last two weeks, Obama administration officials have signaled – sometimes intentionally, sometimes not – that a worst-case scenario is emerging in Syria.

Peace talks are deadlocked, if not dead. An emboldened President Bashar al-Assad is missing deadlines to turn over chemical weapons. And jihadists who have fought in Syria are carrying out attacks in Egypt and aspire to strike the United States as well.

James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told members of Congress last week that Jabhat al Nusra, an al-Qaida-aligned jihadist group in Syria, “does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.” American and Egyptian officials expressed alarm this week at signs that Egyptian jihadists who fought in Syria have returned home to mount an insurgency.

Critics of Obama administration policy in Syria argue that none of this should come as a surprise. For years, they have predicted that Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers would fight tenaciously; that jihadists would flock to Syria; and that the region would be buffeted by refugee flows, rising sectarianism and radicalized fighters returning home.

“A lot of things that the pro-interventionist crowd had argued two years ago have come to pass,” said Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution expert who called for an intervention in 2012. “The argument was that radicalism will rise.”

Hamid said it was impossible to know whether an intervention would have stabilized Syria. Or made things worse. Citing Clapper’s assessment, Hamid contended that the current American approach is not working.


In his testimony last week, Clapper said that U.S. intelligence had picked up indications of “training complexes” within Syria “to train people to go back to their countries and conduct terrorist acts, so this is a huge concern.”

Clapper said that 7,000 foreigners from 50 countries – “many of them from Europe and the Mideast” – are fighting in Syria. He compared jihadist controlled parts of northern Syria to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, where foreign and local militants have sheltered since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

“What’s going on there may be in some respects a new FATA,” Clapper said. “And the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very worrisome.”

Clapper has been accused of exaggerating terrorist threats. But Secretary of State John Kerry also recently expressed concern about the threat Syria represents.

At a private meeting with members of Congress on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich, Kerry said “the al-Qaida threat is real, it is getting out of hand,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., later told reporters. “He openly talked about supporting arming the rebels. He openly talked about forming a coalition against al-Qaida because it’s a direct threat.”

State Department officials denied that Kerry raised arming the rebels or described the current policy as a failure. They said he was engaging members of Congress and getting their ideas on what to do in Syria.


Noah Bonsey, an expert on Syria for the International Crisis Group, said the administration has few options in Syria. The Assad regime’s refusal to negotiate at last month’s peace talks was a sign of its growing confidence.

“Geneva made abundantly clear that the regime is not prepared to compromise on anything at all, no matter how small,” he said in a telephone interview. “They believe themselves to be winning and they perceive themselves as seeing no real pressure, certainly not from Iran and probably not from Russia.”

Bonsey said one step the United States could take would be getting the regional powers backing the rebels to have a more unified approach. The rebels themselves are fractious, he said, but the tendency of the U.S., Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to back different opposition groups exacerbates those divisions.

“The first step remains working with the opposition’s regional allies,” he said. “Providing carrots and sticks that can encourage a move toward pragmatism which can make them a more effective force – against (jihadists) and the regime.”

Bonsey said this week’s announcement that Obama will visit Saudi Arabia in March could be a step toward a more unified effort.

But a central question – the central question – regarding Syria remains in dispute. Does Syria now represent a direct national security threat to the United States? Hamid, who called for intervention in the past, said it does.


“You can’t have it both ways,” he said. “They’re saying now that fighters are going to be trained in Syria and come back to the U.S. Either Syria is aiding al-Qaida’s rise or it’s not. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t have an impact on American national security interests.”

Steven A. Cook, a Mideast expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that jihadists in Syria are now a threat. But he said the best way to deal with them was through regional allies, not direct American action.

“The question is how we go about countering them,” Cook said in an email. “I suspect that we are already doing things with friendly countries – Turkey, Jordan, others – to counter Nusra without a full-blown intervention in Syria.”

The majority of Americans agree with Cook. Polls continue to show sweeping opposition to greater American involvement, including arming more moderate Syrian rebels.

No matter what the level of carnage in Syria or the region, expect little change in Washington’s approach, experts said. The only event that will alter the American political calculus is if Syria-based jihadists somehow carry out an attack on the U.S. homeland.

Maine native David Rohde is a reporter for Reuters, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

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