In his recent interview with The New Yorker, U.S. President Barack Obama drew a striking comparison between the Los Angeles Lakers and al Qaeda. “[I]f a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms,” he said, “that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Similarly, he went on to explain, there is a “distinction between the capacity and reach of [and Osama] bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”
This flap could not have been timelier. The al Qaeda of yesterday is gone. What is left is a collection of many different splinter organizations, some of which have their own — and profoundly local — agendas. The U.S. response to each should be, as Obama put it, “defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”
The implications of such an approach are far-reaching, but they need to be directly and immediately applied in Syria. Today, two different al Qaeda affiliates, the al-Nusra front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are battling each other in Syria’s Raqqa province. Perhaps Oliver North might argue that it is incumbent on the United States to take out both groups. But a more nuanced take would lead the president to ask key questions before taking precipitate action. Does the United States have a stake in the outcome of an intra–al Qaeda struggle? Should it adopt a position of “A pox on both their houses”? Or is one affiliate less threatening than the other, and therefore worth ignoring for tactical reasons?
As if these issues were not complex enough, there is another: the United States should consider whether the fight against al Qaeda is always the strategic priority in the Middle East. It might at times get in the way of other goals, including the efforts to contain Iran and Syria, themselves state sponsors of terrorism with considerable blood on their hands. For example, an exclusive focus on al Qaeda in Syria could leave Iran relatively better off, which could be equally detrimental to the long-term interests of the United States.
The need for operational flexibility became especially acute last week, when it emerged that a leading member of Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most effective rebel groups battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, had close ties to al Qaeda. The man, Abu Khalid al-Suri, published a statement praising bin Laden and al Qaeda’s current chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri. By advertising his fealty to those men, Suri provided tangible evidence that, as has long been rumored, al Qaeda and Ahrar al-Sham are joined at the hip. If past experience is any guide, Suri’s statement will undoubtedly generate pressure for the United States to designate Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist organization.
Before doing so, however, Obama should follow his own plea for discernment.
First, Ahrar al-Sham and its partners in the Islamic Front, Syria’s largest rebel coalition, are at war with ISIS, which is a far bigger concern for the United States. ISIS has the strongest track record of supporting global jihad, and it has American blood on its hands from its war against U.S. forces in Iraq. ISIS is an indiscriminate killer of Syrian civilians and, finally, it is the primary conduit through which the conflict in Syria is spreading to al-Anbar in Iraq. The Islamic Front, including Ahrar al-Sham, represents the best hope in Syria for defeating ISIS.
Second, designating Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist group would destroy what little chance the United States has of building relationships with the other militias in the Islamic Front. Those relationships will be important for ensuring that the Front treats Syrian civilians well during the war and after, should Assad ever be toppled. Making a direct enemy of Ahrar al-Sham would also make it extremely difficult for U.S. nongovernmental organizations to move aid through territory controlled by it and the Islamic Front, because U.S. law prohibits working with terrorist organizations.
Finally, Ahrar al-Sham’s leader, Hassan Abboud, has never endorsed bin Laden’s vision of a global jihad. His struggle is limited to Syria. Designating his group as a terrorist organization might backfire by pushing it completely into al Qaeda’s camp. (Indeed, Suri’s statement itself might be indicative of an internal debate about whether to hew closely to Nusra, ISIS’s rival claimant to al Qaeda’s mantle in Syria.)
Some will say that the United States’ hands are in a bind; public confirmation that an al Qaeda operative is a senior leader in one of the Islamic Front’s most important factions is hard to overlook. But Obama has more discretion when it comes to designating terrorist organizations than one might think.
Consider, for example, the precedent of Afghanistan, where the United States refrained for years after 9/11 from designating any part of the Taliban as a terrorist group, even as it harbored al Qaeda and took up arms against the United States. It was only in recent years that Obama designated the Haqqani Network, which had direct ties to bin Laden, as a terrorist group. To this day, the Taliban’s other major components, the Quetta Shura and the Hekmatyar network, have not been designated.
None of this is to suggest that the United States should sit idly by and allow Ahrar al-Sham to grow unchecked. Its obvious sympathies to al Qaeda certainly augur ill for the future. But so do many other aspects of the Syrian conflict, including the role of Iran and Hezbollah and the murderous policies of the Assad regime. Rather, the designation of foreign terrorist groups should be seen as a tactic in the service of a larger strategy — a tool in the hands of a discriminating president.
This piece originally appeared on ForeignAffairs.com.