Possible US Approach to Syria, Through the Afghanistan Lens: The Next Withdrawal is a Blessing from Which We Should Benefit
Reem Issa – Saad Saeb Reem Issa – Saad Saeb

Possible US Approach to Syria, Through the Afghanistan Lens: The Next Withdrawal is a Blessing from Which We Should Benefit

Two weeks following what was considered a “sudden withdrawal” by the US from Afghanistan, readings and analyses of the situation are still pouring in. We will look here only at one dimension of the issue, and that is the one relating to the movement of terrorist or extremist elements (or as the mainstream western media likes to call them “jihadists”), in general and from a Syrian perspective.

Methodology of reading events

Before going into the details, it is important to stress the importance of studying and recalling comparative history, and not reading the events at hand in a “historical vacuum”, to be able to consider the various possibilities of where things can and might go, so we can also prepare ourselves and not be “surprised” and go into a state of shock that leaves us paralyzed by events that should not be surprising.
Another important thing to keep in mind, besides history and context, while trying to understand any situation or event, is to always assume that nearly nothing, at least of this magnitude, is an extempore and/or one person’s random decision. Particularly, when a certain event happens more than once, it is important to start looking for certain patterns and laws according to which events occur.

Three “unsurprisingly” similar examples

While some continue to insist on acting “surprised” by the US withdrawal, our assessment is that the US withdrawal was calculated, including all the chaos that is hoped will follow. This is certainly not the first time the US has done this, and it is not the last time it will try to use this tactic. Examples from history are plentiful, including US withdrawal from Vietnam at the end of March 1973, even though then US president Richard Nixon had implied that the US would intervene militarily if North Vietnam would attack again, and including assurances that came a few days the withdrawal. Only for the withdrawal to take place “suddenly” thereafter, to the scenes of Saigon which might as well be the black and white copy of the colorful scene of American planes in the Kabul airport in 2021.
Likewise, in 1984 the US marines withdrew “suddenly” from Lebanon a week after a meeting between Rumsfeld – in his capacity as a special advisor to Reagan – with then Lebanese president Amin Gemayel, in which Rumsfeld reassured Gemayel that the US will continue to “support Lebanon”. (See Donald Rumsfeld 2011 memoir, “Known and Unknown”, in which he discussed these events).
In the three aforementioned situations, there are at least the following common things:
1- Military intervention in a foreign country without international authorization.
2- Supporting a portion of the population and elites against others and promoting a state of internal strife.
3- Securing contracts for the military-industrial complex accompanied by major plundering operations and claiming that the money spent towards this complex are “aid” for the concerned country in which the military intervention is taking place.
4- “Betraying” the allies and “suddenly” withdrawing and leaving them to their fate.

Afghanistan and extremists

Going back to today’s events in Afghanistan, we present here at least three main ideas, which we are not going to call “preliminary conclusions” because nothing is definitive yet.
First: As we mentioned above, amid the chaos that followed the US withdrawal, here we will only focus on one aspect relating to the movement of extremist elements, not only in Afghanistan but globally.
Looking at the way the US withdrew from Afghanistan a few weeks ago, one seemingly desired outcome was for the resulting sequence of events to detonate the situation and, knowing that Taliban will easily take over, turn Afghanistan into an extremism center to which extremists from all the over the world flock. Going back to history, it seems that what the US aspires to is to reproduce the situation in Afghanistan itself in the 1980s, where the US supported a guerilla war against the USSR through extremists it called “freedom fighters”, among them Osama Bin Laden.
Media outlets and think tanks, especially those in Washington, are dedicating a lot of space to this idea. An article titled “The Taliban Is Back, and the World’s Jihadis Are Coming”, published by the Washington Institute on August 18, noted that the “Taliban triumph in Afghanistan has given a new lease on life to the world’s Islamic extremists” and that “jihadists [found] sanctuary in Afghanistan and [used] it as a base for attack when the Taliban last held power”.
The same article says: “the Taliban have continued to maintain relations with Al Qaeda… The local affiliate of [ISIS]…took a battering from the US and Afghan militaries two years ago, but now, in a far friendlier environment, it can spring back into activity and draw supporters who have gone to ground in Syria and Iraq”.
In another article, also published by the Washington Institute and on the same day, titled “Return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: The Jihadist State of Play”, the author talks about how Taliban’s “victory is already boosting elements within the jihadist movement and may once again spur foreign fighter traffic to Afghanistan”, then adds “Other potential returnees include AQ members who transferred from Afghanistan to Syria over the past decade to assist with the organization’s local branches—first Jabhat al-Nusra, and later Huras al-Din after former affiliate HTS decided to forsake its parent and concentrate on becoming an independent local power. HTS essentially declawed Huras al-Din in June 2020, so those in the latter group who have historical ties to AQ’s Afghan network are rumored to be seeking a return there”.
These are just two of many examples, not including the media outlets that have published many articles on the same subject, including the widely-read The New Yorker, which published a week ago an article titled “Afghanistan, again, becomes a cradle for jihadism – and Al Qaeda” and Al-Monitor a few days ago “Taliban takeover may push Syrian jihadis toward Afghanistan”.
Likewise, US-based so-called region “experts” have touched on the topic, including “Syria expert” Charles Lister who works with the Middle East Institute, who tweeted yesterday “The scale & sustainability of foreign fighter flows will always be heavily determined by ease of travel — and #Afghanistan has many, well-established options. More importantly, the aura of #Afghanistan for jihadis is arguably unrivalled — especially now, given recent events”.
In short, the US media tool in particular, in this situation, is playing the role of instigating “migration” of extremists, not from Syria and Iraq towards Afghanistan, but rather from different parts of the world towards Afghanistan, perhaps particularly in search of reviving a new “Afghan Arab” phenomenon.
Second: Somewhat related to the first point, it seems the desired outcome of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan turning into an extremists’ capital can be somewhat miscalculated. The initial indicators out of Afghanistan thus far show at least two factors likely to prevent that from happening. The first factor is that the neighboring countries in addition to Russia and China have not been sleeping over the last two decades and are not “surprised” now. These countries had opened communication channels and working with Taliban to preempt the aforementioned outcome desired by the US. The second factor, which is somewhat the result of the efforts by these countries, and the result of the Afghani reality and its development, is that Taliban is not a homogenous group, and is in fact a movement in the practical sense, that is, it is composed of different currents with varying agendas and ideologies.
Third: Whether or not extremists do flock towards Afghanistan, and particularly those remaining in Syria, there is an intentional exaggeration of the matter, the reasons for which we will discuss more below. What makes this exaggeration disproportionate and unwarranted is mainly because the number of those elements in Syria would have insignificant influence in a place like Afghanistan. Meaning, the massive coverage of the issue of HTS (al-Nusra) and members of other extremist groups present in Syria “migrating en masse to Afghanistan” according to western media, is greatly disproportional to their potential number or contribution to the “battle” in Afghanistan. Therefore, our assessment is that the purpose of this exaggeration is to ensure that Afghanistan is identified as the new migration destination (in the global sense as we mentioned above) or new assembly site for extremists from all over the world, and whatever extremists still remain in Syria have no real weight in this process.


Why this media focus on “migration” from Syria?

Considering the above, we need to think about how the US might try to approach Syria. Again, we cannot look at this from the narrow angle of just the Afghanistan events, but in light of history, particularly that of the US, and in light of US actions in Syria at least over the last 10 years. Based on this, we might expect at least two things that the US might do with regards to Syria:
First: The US will use this advertising of Afghanistan as the new destination for extremists, especially from Syria, as evidence of the imaginary process of cleansing al-Nusra of its extremism. The efforts of whitewashing al-Nusra by the US have been going on for years (there are many past Kassioun articles that discuss this), but it might very well be advertised as the last step in “Syrianizing al-Nusra”. The US will try to do this, regardless of whether or not the foreign fighters in al-Nusra (and other extremist groups in Syria) actually leave. The idea is for the US to exaggerate portraying Afghanistan as the new epicenter of extremism, so that it is assumed that any extremist element anywhere in the world will end up there, whether or not that actually happens. The US can then indicate that al-Nusra is finally a “Syrian side”, with which everyone can openly work, including being part of the political process. This will necessarily be accompanied by continued reminders and efforts to display the very new and shiny “Syrian” al-Nusra, which will require continued work by the media, thinks tanks, and especially “Syria experts” who have not spared any chance to make their contribution.
We have seen some of these efforts over the last two weeks in the context of Afghanistan, including by another US-based and “Israeli” so-called “Syria expert” Elizabeth Tsurkov, who tweeted a week ago “Unlike the Taliban, HTS has given up banning smoking, it has not banned smartphones, does not force mobile phone operators to shut off their networks at night, has not banned polio vaccination (as Taliban did in 2018). Jihadist groups vary in how their govern”.
Tsurkov’s tweet was in the context of supporting another “Syria expert”, Dareen Khalifa, who works with the International Crisis Group and who is purely coincidentally one of their researchers who met with al-Joulani last year in Idlib and wrote a report that was one of the most prominent attempts to whitewash al-Nusra. Khalifa’s tweet referenced by Tsurkov was “In Idlib Islamists in charge are autocratic but (in contrast to Taliban track record) haven’t imposed harshest interpretations of Sharia, nor banned women from education, nor forced them to veil their faces. It’s a low bar but these nuances entail major differences in people’s lives”.
Naturally, for us as Syrians, what makes al-Nusra not Syrian is not merely the presence of foreign elements in it, but because its vision and project are neither Syrian nor patriotic. Instead, al-Nusra has a sectarian, extremist, and exclusionary agenda, that is impossible to converge with any of the other Syrian sides in a comprehensive national project.
Second: Considering what the US is doing with regards to al-Nusra, in addition to the northeast, where their behavior is cranking up tensions to the highest levels, and the enthusiasm they are showing towards the tensions in southern Syria; considering all these tension levels, they are establishing (from an American point of view) the ideal conditions for a “sudden withdrawal” from Syria.

A US withdrawal is a blessing from which we should benefit

The supposed and desired goal of such “sudden withdrawal” would be to send the country into a downspiral of severe chaos that may lead to a massive detonation that sets off the country and region for decades to come.
However, since only a foolish person who has absolutely no knowledge of history would be the only one surprised by a US withdrawal from Syria, we have the ability to prepare as best as we can for such a scenario and defuse any possible detonation fuses. We also have the ability to benefit as much as possible from the blessing of getting rid of the American plague from our land, because their withdrawal, if we are able to turn it into a trigger for the comprehensive political solution and the real implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254, will be a true blessing for the country and the people.

(Arabic version)

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 August 2021 22:38