Senator Ted Cruz says that in Syria, the United States military should not “serve as al-Qaeda’s air force.” He’s right.
So if Obama strikes Syria, he’d better strike al-Qaeda, too.
Al-Qaeda has two major strategic objectives: to get control of a nation-state and to get control of weapons of mass destruction. President Obama’s inaction in Syria has brought them closer to accomplishing both objectives.
After announcing that Assad must go in August 2011, Obama dithered for two years. This created a power vacuum, which al-Qaeda has filled — pouring weapons and fighters into Syria, and carving out new safe havens where it controls territory and operates with impunity.
If the United States were to employ military force sufficient to topple Assad, there is now a danger that such an attack could help al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic radicals come to power in Damascus. This may be one reason why the administration is proposing limited, rather than decapitating, strikes against Assad.
But Assad does not have to fall for the terrorists to get their hands on his chemical stockpiles. He simply needs to be weakened enough that he cannot protect them. Al-Qaeda has successfully overrun government prisons in Iraq and military airfields in northern Syria. What is to stop them from overrunning Assad’s chemical weapons facilities? The United States has a vital national interest in making sure that does not happen.
This means it would be irresponsible to strike and weaken the Syrian regime without striking and weakening al-Qaeda at the same time. If we act, we’d better hit them both.
First, striking al-Qaeda in Syria is militarily feasible. The jihadists in Syria are not mixed in with the secular, pro-Western rebels of the Free Syrian Army. They control distinct territory. This makes it easier to target al-Qaeda without accidentally taking out the “good” rebels. Moreover, our military knows how to do it. We regularly strike al-Qaeda camps and leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and East Africa using drones. Why not in Syria as well? Obama brags that he has “relentlessly targeted al-Qaeda’s leadership” and personally draws up “kill lists.” So why not target senior al-Qaeda leaders like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Khalid al-Suri and Abu Muhammad al-Julani — all of whom are operating in the safe havens created by Obama’s inaction in Syria?
Second, striking al-Qaeda in Syria would be lawful. We are already at war with al-Qaeda and its associated forces around the world, and Congress has authorized the use of military force against al-Qaeda. The two al-Qaeda factions fighting in Syria — Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda in Iraq — are officially designated foreign terrorist organizations. They can be targeted. If we are about to violate Syria’s sovereignty by striking the Assad regime, then we certainly don’t need that regime’s blessing to hit al-Qaeda targets in its territory as well.
Third, striking al-Qaeda in Syria would strengthen the rebels we want to win. It would dramatically reduce the danger of Islamists coming to power, thus freeing us to unleash more devastating strikes against Assad. And by hitting their primary rivals for power, it would make it easier for the Free Syrian Army to march on Damascus and set up a moderate pro-Western government in Assad’s place.
Fourth, striking al-Qaeda would make military action an easier sell to the American people. Many Americans don’t understand the need to hit Assad, but they do understand the need to take out al-Qaeda. While Americans may not want to take military action to stop Assad from using chemical weapons against his people, military action to prevent al-Qaeda from getting those weapons and using them against us would be an entirely different story.
By targeting not just the Assad regime but radical Islamists in Syria, we would strike a blow against al-Qaeda — removing an emerging terrorist safe haven and reducing the danger that they would acquire weapons of mass destruction. A combined strike would also make it more likely that whatever government replaces Assad’s regime in Syria is pro-American — removing Iran’s primary ally in the region and giving us a new ally in opposing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In his National Defense University speech earlier this year, Obama pledged to ensure “that al-Qaeda can never again establish a safe haven to launch attacks against us or our allies.” But thanks to his feckless policies, al-Qaeda is establishing just such a safe haven in Syria right now.
A U.S. strike against Assad would help al-Qaeda, bringing it closer to its goals of gaining power and weapons of mass destruction — unless, of course, we strike al-Qaeda too.
If Obama is not willing to target both the regime and the terrorists in Syria, then Congress should not approve military action.