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Opinion

Lack of US, Western intervention in Syria helps jihadists

Hillary Clinton heads to Doha, Qatar next week to push for a shakeup in the Syrian opposition. The West must step up its game by providing advanced weapons to Syrian rebels. Fears of such weapons aiding jihadist fighters are overblown, even as Western hesitancy strengthens jihadists.

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While radicalism is growing among the Syrian opposition, the trend is still reversible. But first, policymakers in the West must concede to one inconvenient truth: Failure to intervene in Syria is very likely to open the floodgates of instability to the entire region. As Syria continues to destabilize, the jihadist infiltration which took the spotlight in Jordan last month will surely become the norm for key Western allies in the region, including Turkey, Israel, and even Saudi Arabia.

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In order to bring down the Assad regime while preserving the possibility of a democratic transition, the West must undermine the influence of jihadist rebels. Beyond working to identify reliable, moderate leaders in the rebel movement and providing communications equipment, it must advance the prestige and fighting capability of moderate militias by providing advanced weaponry. Militia units joining the fight will be much more likely to shave their beards and forgo jihadist symbols if it means acquiring much needed surface-to-air stinger missiles to halt relentless air raids on their communities. 

It’s a risk for decisionmakers in the West. But at the current pace, rebels are likely to acquire such weapons sooner or later, whether they are stinger missiles distributed under US control or heat-seaking SA-7s smuggled out of Libya by Al Qaeda-linked smugglers.

Next week, Secretary Clinton travels to Doha for a last-ditch effort to unite the Syrian opposition. She must present a new approach, and follow through with action. The US must show Syrian rebels that America is a viable alternative to jihadists. And the US must restore its leadership prestige to its allies across the Arab world.

Washington must also improve assistance to its allies on each of Syria’s borders, and help them stem the infiltration of foreign fighters, including the use of drone patrols and intelligence cooperation. US Special Forces units that are stationed in Jordan to keep an eye on Assad’s chemical weapons must be put to work curbing jihadist infiltration alongside an increasingly desperate Jordanian security apparatus.

Last, the US must pressure Gulf states to crack down on those in their midst who are funding jihadists, proving that the West is serious about taking a lead role in solving what has become the most crucial pan-Arab issue since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

It’s a tall order indeed, particularly as both US presidential candidates seem hesitant to involve a war-weary America in another conflict in the region. But as the jihadists of the Middle East are bound to demonstrate, failure to properly end the conflict in Syria soon will pave the way for more conflicts to come.

The US doesn’t need to enter a ground or air war in Syria. But it must significantly step up its game. Starting now.

Daniel Nisman is an intelligence manager and senior analyst at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in Tel Aviv. You can follow him on Twitter @dannynis.

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