As Pentagon Takes Heat over Syria Options, Europe Worries About Jihadists Returning From War Zone

Patrick Goodenough | August 6, 2013 | 4:32am EDT
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Syrian rebels gather in Homs province in this 2012 file photo. (AP Photo, File)

( – At a time when some U.S. lawmakers charge that Pentagon top brass are overly reticent about U.S. military options in Syria, the mood in the European Union appears to be swinging against intervention, with less talk about arming rebels and more concern over potential jihadist blowback in Europe.

Three months ago, Britain and France led a successful effort to allow an E.U. arms embargo on Syria to expire, making it possible for any member-state that wished to do so to begin sending weapons to the anti-Assad opposition with effect from August 1.

But that date came and went last week with no movement in that direction – indeed British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier admitted in a BBC interview that his government had decided not to supply weapons, conceding that the regime’s military position has strengthened in recent months and acknowledging that the rebel ranks included “a lot of bad guys.”

Cameron’s apparent reversal came after lawmakers, including many in his Conservative Party, passed a debate motion by 114 votes to one stating that “this House believes no lethal support should be provided to anti-government forces in Syria without the explicit prior consent of parliament.”

Rather than announcements on arming rebels, a different Syria-related concern arose Aug. 1 on the European political agenda. Nine E.U. member-states, including Britain and France, jointly appealed to E.U. lawmakers to support a procedure that would allow authorities to collect information on airline passengers, pointing to the Syrian conflict as the reason.

A statement from the interior ministers of France and Belgium, who coordinated the joint appeal, referred to “the worrying phenomenon of E.U. citizens traveling to Syria to participate in combat, often alongside terrorist organizations.”

If the E.U. instituted that proposed airline “passenger name record” (PNR) system, it said, relevant authorities would be able to track their movement, to prevent those who “might be tempted to risk their lives by going to the area of conflict but also, if necessary, to prevent the commission of terrorist attacks on European soil.”

Citing privacy concerns, E.U. lawmakers last April rejected the PNR proposal, which would require airlines to submit data on airline passengers, including contact details and billing information.

A parliamentary committee is now reconsidering the text, and the nine governments urged it to view it favorably, calling the PNR “one of the most effective tools to monitor these people, both when they go to Syria or other areas of conflict, but also when they return to their country.”

A security think tank reported last April that hundreds of European Muslims have traveled to Syria to fight with rebel groups and that some could pose a security threat when they return home. Among the rebels are radical jihadist organizations including al-Qaeda affiliates.

The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization report said as many as 600 Europeans had gone to Syria, with Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands among the countries of origin.

Citing Syria-linked radicalization and associated potential terror threat, the Dutch government’s National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV) last March raised the country’s threat level from “limited” to “substantial” – defined as meaning “there is a realistic possibility that an attack will take place in the Netherlands.”

“An important factor in the current threat assessment is the threat posed by Dutch jihadists travelling to Syria and then returning to the Netherlands,” the NCTV said in a update last month. “Although not everyone returning from a jihadist conflict zone poses a threat, these people are not only bringing back radical ideas; they are also traumatized and fully prepared to use violence.”

On Monday the NCTV confirmed that the “substantial” threat level assessment remains in place.

‘Disingenuous and exaggerated’

Meanwhile in the U.S., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey continues to take flak over his recent evaluation of potential military options for intervention in Syria.

In response to questions from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and committee member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Dempsey in a letter last month outlined five possible options – train and advise the opposition; conduct limited air and missile strikes against military targets; enforce a no-fly zone over Syria; set up buffer zones, probably adjacent to the borders with Turkey and Jordan; and act to destroy or seize control of the regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

Cost estimates for those measures ranged from an initial $500 million a year for training and advising rebels, to $1 billion or more a month for the other options, said the letter, which also warned of numerous risks, including the empowering of extremists.

McCain has been outspoken in his support for intervention in Syria, and after the Senate last Friday voted to confirm Dempsey for a second term he issued a hard-hitting statement explaining why he voted against approving the nomination.

“In my many years, I have seen a lot of military commanders overstate what is needed to conduct military action for one reason or another,” McCain said. “But, regarding Syria, rarely have I seen an effort as disingenuous and exaggerated as what General Dempsey has proposed.”

He took issue in particular with Dempsey’s assessment regarding stand-off strikes against regime targets. Dempsey said that option would require hundreds of aircraft, ships and support assets, incur costs that – depending on duration – “would be in the billions,” and carried risks including possible retaliatory attacks and probable “collateral damage” to Syrian civilians.

McCain asserted that “what General Dempsey described would be needed to conduct ‘limited stand-off strikes’ is completely disingenuous as to both the problem and the solution.”

Fresh implied criticism came on Monday from Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who released a letter he sent to Dempsey questioning his assessment of the limited strike option and requesting additional information.

“While I do not profess to be a military expert, it is clear that this analysis does not fully reflect an even more limited option that some have advocated, which would involve cruise missile or other stand-off weapon strikes on regime-controlled air bases,” Engel wrote.

A YouGov poll in June found 48 percent opposition among Americans to U.S. air strikes in Syria, compared to 19 percent in favor. The polls also recorded 53 percent opposed to arming Syrian rebels, compared to 19 percent in favor.

A Pew poll around the same time found that opposition to arming Syrian rebels has grown: 70 percent of respondents said they were against the idea, up from 63 percent in March 2012, while the proportion of those in favor stood at 20 percent, down from 29 percent in March last year.

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