Is Syria Now a Direct Threat to the U.S.?

The jihadist-influenced militancy nurtured by the civil war appears to be spreading—just as diplomacy in Geneva falters.
A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. (Hamid Khatib/Reuters)

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 at a virtual standstill. An emboldened President Bashar al-Assad has missed two deadlines to turn over his deadliest chemical weapons. And radical extremists who have fought in Syria are carrying out attacks in Egypt and allegedly aspire to strike the United States as well.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told members of Congress last week that Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-aligned group in Syria, "does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland." American and Egyptian officials expressed alarm this week at signs that Egyptians 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; militants would flock to Syria; and the region would be destabilized 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 military intervention in 2012. "The argument was that radicalism will rise."

It is impossible to know whether a Libya-like intervention would have ended the conflict in Syria or exacerbated it. But citing recent statements from administration officials, Hamid argued that the current American approach is not working.

In his testimony last week, Clapper said that American intelligence agencies 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."

The retired Air Force general estimated that more than 7,000 foreigners from 50 countries—"many of them from Europe and the Mideast"—are fighting in Syria. He compared rebel-controlled parts of northern Syria to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, or FATA, 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."

In the past, Clapper has been accused of exaggerating terrorist threats and making misleading statements about the scope of American surveillance activities. But Clapper is not the only senior official expressing concern about the rising militant presence in Syria.

At a private meeting with members of Congress at the Munich Security Conference last week, Secretary of State John Kerry said that "the al-Qaeda threat is real, it is getting out of hand," Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham later told reporters. "He openly talked about supporting arming the rebels. He openly talked about forming a coalition against al-Qaeda because it's a direct threat." State Department officials said that Graham and other members of Congress who disclosed the private meeting distorted Kerry's statements. They denied that Kerry raised arming the rebels or described the current policy as a failure.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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