.....the toppling of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria is the largest threat to United States national security and may help al-Qaeda acquire chemical weapons.
Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, [outgoing] CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell said the prospect of the Syrian government being replaced by al-Qaeda his biggest worry [sic].
Morell’s statement is especially surprising considering America’s official position on the Syrian civil war. US President Barack Obama and his officials have repeatedly called Assad a "dictator" who is responsible for more than 92,000 lives lost in a bloody conflict between government forces and rebels - some of whom are openly affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Should the current regime collapse without a stable government to step up to the plate, Morell said the warheads being held by Assad may end up in the hands of America’s adversaries.
The US remains embarked on a plan that would aid Syrian rebels by way of supplying them with arms. With al-Qaeda extremists entwined in that same war against Assad, however, one wrong turn could cause the US to accidentally equip its most feared enemy.The original Wall Street Journal version, "CIA Official Calls Syria Top Threat to U.S. Security" might be difficult to access due to their paywall, but the link is here, just for the record. Use your favorite method for getting around the paywall.if you're interested in reading the article.
Although the entire WSJ article is fascinating (Morell also talks about Iran and North Korea), here are a couple of snippets that leaped out at me:
Mr. Morell's stark assessment shows how much the U.S. has at stake as it reluctantly prepares to arm Syrian rebels in the coming weeks while continuing to confront an al Qaeda that has dispersed across the globe. His forecast is all the more worrisome because it comes from a top official who other officials say is skeptical of current administration plans to arm the rebels.Also,
He [Morell] said there are now more foreign fighters flowing into Syria each month to take up arms with al Qaeda-affiliated groups, than there were going to Iraq to fight with al Qaeda at the height of the war there.
The Syrian government's weapons, Mr. Morell said, "are going to be up for grabs and up for sale" as they were in Libya. The violence in Syria has the potential to spill over into Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.And finally,
With al Qaeda, Mr. Morell said, the threat has morphed into one in which there is less of a risk of a strike on the scale of the 2001 attacks but a greater likelihood that diplomatic posts would be attacked.
Both the U.S. and al Qaeda have had their share of victories over the past decade. The U.S. has "significantly degraded" the group's capabilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said. He didn't discuss the CIA's role in killing off so many al Qaeda leaders through drone attacks.
"Al Qaeda has had its own victory as well," he said. "The dispersal of al Qaeda is their victory."
Not only has the group spread its ideology and geographic reach, he said, but it also has a less rigid command and control structure and less religious fidelity than in the past. That makes it more difficult for the U.S. to identify threats ahead of time.
"If we don't keep the pressure on them, they will reconstitute," he said. "I worry about complacency in the face of that."You're entitled to your own opinion as to whether this "dispersal" of al Qaeda is an American foreign policy bug or a feature. Regardless, the United States has this distressing habit of invading countries/facilitating revolutions/giving material aid to rebel groups in the Middle East and Central Asia. Then - surprise! - our mortal enemies, al-Qaeda, rushes into the void, wreaks complete havoc and leaves utter devastation throughout the region, which, you guessed it, often results in blowback to the United States. Who in their wildest dreams could imagine that happening, over, and over, and over again? This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but think of the obvious examples of what's happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, and Libya.
I don't quite know what to think of Morrell's remarks. He could be bringing some major policy disagreements into the open. However, his statement about the "dispersal" of al-Qaeda makes me think that he might be pushing a meme that the U.S. doesn't want (wink, wink) a weakened and chaotic Muslim Middle East.
In the meantime I'll be getting out a fresh scorecard, sharpening up my pencils, and keeping track of which U.S. actors are on which side of the Syria/al-Qaeda game.