(W)Archives: An Al Qaeda Strategist’s Lessons for the U.S. in Syria

May 16, 2014

With the rebellion against Assad in tatters, one of its chief strategists looked back on the movement’s failures. His findings were both profound and timeworn from similarly doomed uprisings around the globe. Among them: the rebels did not have a comprehensive plan or strategy; they were divided by ideology and especially the role of Islam; rebel leaders outside the country were disconnected from events on the ground and therefore unhelpful; rebels inside Syria were too dependent on neighboring states with divergent agendas for training, strategy, and support; the rebellion focused on growing numerically rather than building a core cadre of capable fighters; and the rebels failed to unite Arabs and Kurds in common cause.

But these reflections – “Lessons Learned about the Armed Jihad Ordeal in Syria” – are not about the current civil war. They were written some 30 years earlier by the jihadi strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, who played a key role in the so-called Fighting Vanguard, the leading jihadi group in the uprising against Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad. The document was captured in Afghanistan by U.S. forces shortly after the initial invasion in 2001.

Al-Suri’s look back accomplishes three basic tasks: assessing the failings of the rebellion as a whole, examining the weaknesses of the Fighting Vanguard as a subset of the rebellion, and drawing basic lessons for future jihadis. But for this edition of (W)Archives, rather than leave those lessons for the jihadis alone, we will mine al-Suri’s document for lessons that can guide U.S. policy toward Syria.

Lesson One: Quality Over Quantity

Al-Suri laments that after the Fighting Vanguard suffered initial defeats at the hands of Assad’s forces in 1979, the “leadership [opened] the doors to any one (sic) who was willing to join.” That ecumenical approach, which was echoed twenty-five years later by al-Qaeda in Iraq, meant that recruits were not well schooled in military tactics or, more importantly, in a common ideology and culture. For al-Suri, this lack of “Islamic commitment and perseverance” meant that fighters would often slip away after initial failure rather than commit to rebellion for the long-term.

While al-Suri’s definition of “Islamic commitment” should not be on the U.S.’ list of criteria for allies to support in Syria, his basic admonition that small and elite is a better way to get things done in Syria is a good one for Washington policymakers—and for many of the same reasons that Suri describes. Coalitions in Syria are inherently fragile, and incompetence is at least as dangerous as ill-intent. The United States needs allies it can support on the ground in Syria, but they should be a small number of well-trained and very well-vetted fighters. A, broad rebel coalition reliable enough to be supported financially and with military hardware remains an intellectual unicorn, not worth chasing.

Lesson Two: Beware the Expatriates

Al-Suri expounds at length on the problems of expatriate Syrians who claimed to support the rebellion but, in practice, wound up contributing minimal value. This was, in large measure, because they did not understand developments on the ground and could not deliver resources the way states could. In his words,

Any revolution that claims jihad and chooses a confrontational military path with a despot regime like the one in Syria, yet limits its preparations to political programming printed on high gloss paper and occasional communiqués addressed to the Arab summits, Moslem (sic), and international institutions, will lose effectiveness over time and evolves into a group of political refugees waging useless public relations campaigns none of which reaches the concerned masses on the inside.

As the United States has learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, relying on expats for managing the political machinations of a complex insurgency is deeply problematic. The United States needs to engage militants in Syria directly. This will require certain risks that the United States is loath to accept in a post-Benghazi world, but leadership on the ground will make the most important decisions, for better or worse, and the U.S. needs to be at the table.

Lesson Three: Do Not Rely On Arab States (or their efforts to control their proxies)

Al-Suri laments rebel dependence on various Arab states because “neighboring regimes were temporary allies with their own interests and agendas, they dealt with us and treated us accordingly; these regimes feared Islam and imprisoned its faithful members.” This is not particularly surprising to any student of Machiavelli (which al-Suri certainly is), but it illustrates the danger of outsourcing foreign policy hopes and goals, even to friends with aligned interests.

The United States needs to continue reminding Arab states of the inevitable backlash from the Syrian jihad. Jihadis have certainly learned the lesson not to trust Arab states, but that has not stopped them from working together over the past three years. Qatar in particular has sponsored a range of militant groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, which hosted Ayman al-Zawahiri’s designated representative in Syria until he was assassinated earlier this year. The United States cannot depend on Arab states any more than al-Suri did. In fact, it should be preparing for those alliances to crumble (even more than they have) and for today’s jihadis to lash out at their would-be supporters.

Lesson Four: Beware External Attacks

Al-Suri wishes that the Syrian rebels in the early 1980s had been more effective striking targets outside of Syria, which is worrisome because it is likely that today’s most virulent jihadi groups in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, are both capable of such strikes. Will they make a similar calculation? Al-Suri argues that various Arab states did not support the rebellion because Assad offered stability—and he would have liked to shake Arab consciousness using directed military attacks. Or as he put it, “In short the lack of military operations on the outside prevented us from deterring the enemy and his friends and supporters.”

Al-Suri’s rationale here is pretty thin; it is not at all clear that terrorist attacks outside Syria would have had the effect he desired. Indeed, terrorist attacks today are just as likely to create a backlash against the rebellion as bend popular support to its will …and yet, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have at times enabled migration of jihadis to Syria in part out of a desire to avoid internal upheaval. But whereas al-Suri fantasized about attacks abroad, such a strike today would likely be counterproductive, at least in the medium-term, by creating a very strong backlash by security services.  An exception in this regard is Jordan, which, despite having a strong intelligence and security apparatus, faces enormous pressure from the inflow of refugees. A massive reaction from security forces against a threat might actually incite broader violence.

Lesson Five:International Coordination is Key to Limiting International Terrorism

One major reason al-Suri was unable to build militant organizations for external attacks was the collaboration of “security services between Jordan, Iraq, Syria and other Moslem countries was evident, and by studying our organizations they were able to wage effective campaigns against similar Islamic organizations in the neighboring countries.”

While contemporary militant groups in Syria have their secrets, the current rebellion is the most transparent in history, both because militants have turned to the Internet and social media to recruit and solicit funds and because those militants are working with foreign states. Maintaining international collaboration and information sharing about the external spread of Syria’s militants is absolutely critical.

Lesson Six: A Divided Rebellion in Syria Will Fail

Al-Suri’s primary complaint regarded the divisions between militant groups operating in Syria. For him,

the true mujahideen were spread among numerous bickering organizations, and thus lost their effectiveness in leading the faithful into one direction; it even went farther than that, friction, hatred and partisan bickering lead (sic) to conflict between the faithful youth –who had the same goals– all because the various leaders had differing and contradictory objectives.

This lament has now been echoed countless times on web forums, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts by various supporters of contemporary Syrian rebels, ranging from secular champions to jihadis. And that chatter is nothing compared to the open warfare between ISIS and other militants inside Syria. But the point is no less salient because it is ubiquitous: the rebels in Syria will not win unless they work together.

The urge to unite jihadi factions must of course be balanced against the danger posed by certain factions, especially JaN and ISIS. Even al-Suri, while arguing for cooperation across different militant networks, reminds of the jihadi tendency toward absolutism, saying, “Loyalty to truth and justice is the first duty to be observed if we were to establish an exemplary jihad path,” which is of course the ideological caveat that ISIS has used to justify mass murder.

The most important lesson from al-Suri’s recollection of the first rebellion against an Assad dictator in Syria is that what is contemporary is rarely new. The complexity and variation of the current fight in Syria, including the growth of new and dangerous jihadi groups, is undoubtedly disturbing, but it is hardly unprecedented. Sort of like a rebellion that is its own worst nightmare.


Brian Fishman is a War on the Rocks Contributor and a Fellow at the New America Foundation.