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Counterterrorism in a Time of Great Power Rivalry

| Oct. 02, 2017

Since 11 September 2001 the United States has been able to drive the global counterterrorism agenda as it saw necessary. The shock of that day stirred official Washington and the American public in a way not seen for decades. With an undeniable mandate to protect its citizens and interests, in short order the American government designed and implemented an aggressive global counterterrorism strategy. Where possible and necessary, Washington marshalled coalitions of the willing to assist. When willing or capable partners were not available, Washington was prepared to operate alone. While there was never universal, global support for all the things Washington did in the name of its struggle to find, fix and finish Al-Qa’ida and its off-shoots, almost every state on the planet gave the United States a free pass to operate as it wished. Many did this because they shared Washington’s view of the terrorist threat. Others did so because they recognized that as the remaining global superpower, the United States was likely going to proceed, with or without them.

No state in modern times had as free a hand to act as the United States enjoyed from late 2001 to approximately 2015. With the rarest of exceptions, whatever Washington wished to do to further its stated purpose to eliminate terrorist threats, the United States did. These included not only specific counterterrorist missions which spanned the entirety of the planet but grew to include regime change Iraq, Libya and Syria. Whatever the wisdom of eliminating those first two governments, it is undeniable the United States and its allies were able to do so with no serious opposition. Those days are over. The global environment has permanently shifted. The open rivalry with Moscow and growing competition with China are going to increase the potential costs on U.S. counterterrorism activity and outright restrain it in others.

Russia, from its point of view, has tired of going along with Washington’s foreign policy visions which Moscow seems to believe no longer bring many benefits to it. Russia’s actions in the Ukraine and Middle East clearly highlight this change. Moscow’s 2015 decision to openly intervene on the side of the Damascus regime was the first direct and strategically meaningful opposition the United States faced on any significant counterterrorism issue in the post 9/11 world. Washington believed the Syrian regime had to be replaced because Bashar Asad’s actions contributed to increased sectarian tensions and exacerbated the conditions which would give rise to the growth of terrorist groups. Working on this belief, the U.S. took steps to assemble a coalition of partners to make this happen.

Taking a significantly different tact, the Russian government justified its intervention by claiming that the imperfect stability the Asad regime offered was better than the potential chaos to follow should Bashar Asad go the way of Qahdaffi. Whatever the real intent, the effect of this decision was jarring. For the first time in a generation U.S. national security officials found themselves in a genuine rivalry with a near equal. Russia’s support to the Bashar Asad regime extinguished any plans the U.S. and its allies had to remove the Damascus regime on their own terms and time-table.

While the United States took a nuanced view about which groups in the Syrian armed opposition were extremists (or likely to morph into a transnational terrorist threat), Moscow’s view was as simple as it was stark: anyone in armed opposition to the regime in Damascus was going to be considered a terrorist and treated accordingly. This had an immediate effect on the battlefield.

With Russian support, the Syrian government, backed by Hizballah and Iran, systematically dismantled the armed opposition, starting first with the groups Washington and its allies considered to be moderate. An outsider could be forgiven for believing Moscow’s immediate war aim was to dismantle any group which might be a reasonable candidate for Western aid or recognition, prioritizing those groups for elimination even above the most extreme elements in the Syrian theatre. In this Russia was successful. As these less extreme groups were systematically diminished, the Western nations opposed to the Asad regime were increasingly left with a bleak choice. They could chose to support the most extreme elements in Syria, something no Western nation was ever going to do, or reluctantly tolerate the continued existence of the Damascus regime and instead focus their efforts to destroy the most radical remaining factions, of which the most notorious was ISIL. It was unclear in this last instance if Moscow would give any meaningful support to this part of the campaign plan or simply stand back and allow the United States to carry the majority of this fight to ISIL and its variants. Whether or not Moscow effectively participates in this part of the campaign or not, its stated war aim has been achieved: the Asad regime or some Alawite variant of it is likely to remain in place in Damascus for some time.

Looking ahead, Russia’s successful intervention on behalf of the Asad regime complicates U.S. counterterrorism policy in several enduring ways. First, Lebanese Hizballah has been strengthened. At the least Russia’s co-beligerant status with Hizballah benefits this group which is long considered by Washington to be the most capable terrorist organization in the world. Though Hizballah does not currently engage in direct hostilities to specifically target the United States, it champions Shia militancy in numerous locations and shows no signs of stopping. These supported groups do actively target important U.S. allies. Second, Iran’s special security services, to include the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), have been given a significant boost in morale and status due to their role in helping the Asad regime survive. Even more capable than Hizballah, the IRGC takes a leading role in militarizing disaffected Shia around the globe and in the Middle East in particular. They help contribute to the increasing sectarianism which is plaguing the Muslim world.

Third, and perhaps most important of all, this successful Russian intervention likely brings to a close the post- 9/11 monopoly on global counterterrorism policy Washington enjoyed. While there was always more U.S. consultation with partners than outsiders might appreciate, it is true to say that generally speaking what Washington wanted it got in the counterterrorism arena. Russia’s success in Syria allows it to exert considerable influence in a realm that had previously been the near sole domain of Washington and its closest allies, and Russia will likely continue to advocate for counterterrorism solutions and strategies that do not always align with those of Washington. This is going to be especially true when it comes to Moscow and Washington’s contrasting views on efficacy of regime change/regime pressure as a counterterrorism tool. Some partner nations, which before might have been expected to immediately adopt or support U.S. counterterrorism policies, may now opt to pause before acting to consider Russia’s views as well.

While there will remain areas of counterterrorism policy where the United States and Russia will agree, the Russians have staked out a place at the table they have not had in a generation. What had been the near sole domain of Washington’s national security class will now become at least partially shared space with Moscow.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Hudson, Bernard .“Counterterrorism in a Time of Great Power Rivalry.” Real Clear Politics, October 2, 2017.