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Posts tagged ‘Al Qaeda’

Rebel Public Relations and Military Intervention in Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Last week Erica Chenoweth highlighted an interesting McClatchy story reporting that CIA officials warned Hezbollah, through Lebanese government intermediaries, of an immanent al Qaeda attack on political targets in southern Lebanon. Reportedly American intelligence was able to listen in on encrypted calls detailing the planned attacks — “America might hate the NSA right now, but they were able to actually hear the calls and warn us what was said,” a Lebanese intelligence official remarks — and tip off Hezbollah, allowing the Iranian-backed group to arrest the conspirators. Perhaps ironically, al Qaeda’s reported motivation for the planned attack was Hezbollah and its Iranian patron’s support of the Assad government in Syria, who both the United States and al Qaeda wish to see ousted.

Even more thought-provoking is a pair of quotes from a Lebanese laborer and Hezbollah commander:

“We all think that the (Syrian rebels) are al Qaida and backed by the CIA and Israel,” said Abu Ibrahim, a 53-year-old day laborer from Haret Hriek, which hosts Hezbollah’s main complex of offices and homes for officials. “So why would they help us? Maybe they’re realizing how crazy their friends in Syria are.”

The Hezbollah commander said he thought the warning was more pragmatic.

“The Americans are starting to realize how bad their friends in Syria are, so they’re trying to get out of this mistake,” he said. “They also think that if a bomb goes off in Dahiya, we will blame America and target Americans in Lebanon. That will never happen, but they’re scared of this monster they created.”’

First, it’s entirely possible that the commander’s opinion doesn’t represent Hezbollah or the Assad regime’s strategic thinking and is simply spin. It is reasonable to suspect that publicly benefiting from the CIA’s superior intelligence in their own backyard is deeply embarrassing to Hezbollah — in a potentially deft bit of ass-covering the commander is earlier quoted claiming that Hezbollah had previous knowledge of the attack — giving it an incentive to save face by claiming that the CIA’s links to Syrian rebels is even more embarrassing. Similarly, individual Hezbollah members likely view the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels in the harshest terms possible, an ideological bias that potentially leads them to unreasonably underestimate the opposition’s ability to gain international support.

But this does raise an interesting puzzle: Does the Assad government and its allies truly believe that American support for the Syrian opposition will necessarily decline as international perceptions of the rebels dim?

Importantly, it is extremely difficult for even specialists to try and divine what informs the Assad regime’s thinking, and I certainly don’t have the expertise to do so. Additionally, even if the Assad regime does believe that the rebels will eventually alienate potential international backers, it is difficult to say that this would induce it to behave any differently than it would otherwise. The belief that serious international aid to the rebels is not forthcoming could make the regime even less likely to consider a negotiated solution to end the conflict, but the regime also has a strong incentive to outlast the rebellion anyway, so it is unreasonable to suspect that this belief would have any practical affect on its behavior.

That said, there are reasons to find this theory credible. The strongest is that we have already observed it in action. The opposition has been unable to prevent news of gruesome atrocities and violent political fragmentation from reaching Western media, as recent high-profile coverage of a rebel commander accused of ritual cannibalism shows. As Fred Kaplan wrote in a Friday column, Britain is already backing away from its previous push to supply the rebels with arms, citing “the reports that the Syrian rebels were killing one another with more gusto than they were killing soldiers of the Syrian regime.” Similarly, support among the American public for intervening in the conflict has fallen over time, an aversion at least partially due to opposition infighting and the popular conception that the opposition is dominated by radicals.

As the bloody conflict in Syria drags on, the rebels’ reputation is likely to grow more internationally tarnished. This is unsurprising, on multiple levels. Most obviously, the rebels entered the conflict with a largely ‘clean slate’ and a longer war simply gives them more time to commit high-profile atrocities, which anti-Assad foreign fighters and opportunists appear prone to committing. Secondly, as the war continues it has grown more ideological, increasingly morphing into a general sectarian conflict. Irrespective of ideology, as the war’s horrors continue combatants on both sides can be expected to grow more radical, a radicalization process on clear display in a BBC interview with the rebel commander accused of eating a regime soldier’s heart:

“In the beginning, when we captured an Alawite fighter, we would feed him, make him feel comfortable. We used to tell him we were brothers. But then they started raping our women, slaughtering children with knives.”

Of course, this same logic applies to the regime, whose artillery, armor, and airpower allow it to threaten greater atrocities than the opposition. But importantly, international public opinion is less important to the regime than the rebels. The regime entered the war as an international pariah, and its Russian and Chinese support in the UNSC appears to only be risked by much graver atrocities than it has so far perpetrated. Similarly, the conflict’s status quo favors the regime, especially in diplomatically: the Assad government already receives more practical support from its international allies than the opposition. The rebels, however, appear unlikely to favorably shift the conflict’s balance unless they are able to gain further international support. As instances of rebel atrocities unavoidably grow, they become another barrier to a prospective international military intervention on their side.

This logic is particularly important because, despite its fragmentation, the anti-Assad opposition is to some degree viewed as a unified body by its prospective international patrons. Despite Iran and Hezbollah’s increasing entry into the conflict America has no core national interests at stake in Syria, and the Obama administration has framed its interest in the conflict on humanitarian grounds. While the American public may not care about foreign policy, the administration is not likely to pursue a military intervention into the conflict with public opinion firmly against it, and atrocities committed by some rebels affect public perception of them all. Lionel Beehner recently wrote that ‘more violence means less support for intervention,’ but this can be more precisely stated as more evenly-distributed violence means less support for intervention, because violence — and accompanying atrocities — suggests that both sides “are just as bad” in the public consciousness. Whether this is true or not, this perception is a barrier to elected leaders looking to intervene in the Syrian conflict.

How America Strengthens al Qaeda’s Brand

By Taylor Marvin

Stephen Walt raises an interesting, if uncontroversial, point about international terrorism:

Uncontroversial, because this is a widely-appreciated and mourned fact of US foreign policy decisionmaking. The American public rightly associates the name “al Qaeda” with the specter of 9/11, and an inherent threat of devastating violence. This is, of course, understandable. There are at any moment dozens of violent organizations that oppose the United States, and it’s unreasonable to expect the non-professional electorate to keep the goals and relative capabilities of these various groups straight. Al Qaeda, a instantly recognizable name, will always stand out among alien-named jihadi organizations — while a only small percentage of American know how to pronounce “the base” in Arabic, I’d wager more do than any other Arabic phrase.

But just because this association is understandable doesn’t mean mean it isn’t an overreaction. As is frequently noted, modern al Qaeda represents a loose ideological association of regional affiliates rather than an single operationally-unified organization. “If you’re focusing just on North Africa, al Qaeda is a brand name as much as an organization,” then-Secretary Clinton said in testimony last month regarding the September 2012 Benghazi attack. This is certainly true — al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the rebranded Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, does not share the al Qaeda of 2001’s global reach, demonstrated operational capabilities, and ideological determination to strike US targets. While it is unclear if AQIM possesses the operational requirements to mount attacks inside the US, it is certainly less motivated to do so than bin Laden’s al Qaeda, which was ideologically driven by bin Laden’s opposition to US military basing in Saudi Arabia. In a late January press conference, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little stated he was “unaware of any specific or credible information at this time that points to an AQIM threat against the homeland,” but made certain to reemphasize that the US considers this admittedly unlikely threat significant, noting “we take al Qaeda wherever they are very seriously.” This is an implicit admission that AQIM is viewed as a serious terrorist threat because of its al Qaeda moniker, rather than any operational aspect of the organization itself.

Jihadi groups that share a broad ideological link with bin Laden’s organization adopt the al Qaeda moniker because it is respected and legitimizing. Around the world the al Qaeda name is associated with both demonstrated lethality and ideological devotion, and, despite the last decade’s damage to the al Qaeda brand among Muslims, Islamist groups that co-opt the name gain a veneer of dangerous efficacy. To recruitment-minded jihadi groups this legitimizing veneer is operationally valuable.

But the legitimizing power of the al Qaeda brand is partially due to the US’ determination to eliminate it. Among groups that oppose the US — even tangentially, like AQIM — strong opposition from the US is an important signaling device. “See,” it says, “we’re so real the US really wants us dead.” Among Islamist or Islamist-aligned violent groups, the legitimizing effect of determined, public US opposition is an important marker of ideological and operational seriousness.

But it’s important to understand these two effects — jihadis adopt the al Qaeda name because the US fears it, Americans see al Qaeda everywhere and thus fear it more — feed off each other. The name al Qaeda will be a legitimizing force co-opted by violent Islamist groups as long as Americans perceive the term in any context as a grave threat. As long as Americans perceive the spread of the al Qaeda name as evidence the organization is growing more lethal, rather than simply geographically and ideologically disseminated, they will continue to fear it.

Copycat jihadi organizations won’t drop the name al Qaeda precisely because “our perception of the terrorist threat” is tied to its prevalence. As long as US policymakers are unable to publicly distinguish between different brands of al Qaeda in a way digestible by the American electorate the cycle will continue.