Speaking last Thursday, Colin P. Clarke, an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation who focuses his research on insurgency, counterinsurgency, and a range of other national and international security issues, addressed a sold-out crowd at the Duquesne Club on a topic at the forefront of many people’s minds since the terror attacks in Paris earlier this month: “Making Sense of Syria: ISIS, Russia and What Comes Next.”
ISIS is one of several terms referring to the so-called Islamic State, which controls territory in Syria and Iraq.
At least one of the Paris terrorists was carrying a Syrian passport, which has led authorities to believe he may have entered Europe as a refugee.
“I’m for letting Syrians into this county,” Clarke stressed during a question and answer session that followed a presentation about the complexity of the political situation and the chaos in Syria.
Those who caution against the admission of Syrians into the United States, he added, “are driving a wedge between Muslims and the West,” and are creating a “good recruiting tool for” the Islamic State.
A majority of governors, all but one of them Republican, as well as several GOP presidential candidates have blasted the Obama administration for moving forward with plans to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees. Many of the Jewish organizational bodies, including the Orthodox Union, have come out in favor of the resettlement strategy.
While Clarke “would like to know more about the vetting process” of those wishing to emigrate to America, he said he wished “our political leaders would base their statements on analysis and not emotion.”
But Clarke’s view may place him among the minority when it comes to the Syrian refugee issue. An NBC News/Survey Monkey poll released last week, just days after the attacks in Paris, showed a majority of Americans — 56 percent — are against allowing the immigration of those fleeing violence in Syria and other countries. Only 41 percent are in favor of resettlement.
Last Thursday, 47 Democrats in the House of Representatives joined with Republicans in passing a bill that would create new barriers for Syrian and Iraqi refugees trying to enter the United States. The bill was passed by a 289-137 vote, enough to override a presidential veto.
The bill would add stricter requirements before refugees can be admitted to the United States, including FBI background checks, and mandates that the heads of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, in addition to the director of national intelligence, personally certify that each refugee who would be allowed into the country does not pose a security threat. The effect of the new law would be to suspend the entry of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the United States for months or years.
The bill now moves to the Senate for approval.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is among those leaders who would welcome Syrian refugees.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has likewise said that the refugees would be welcome in Pittsburgh. Following an address at Rodef Shalom Congregation last week to members of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, the Democrat likened the current Syrian situation to that of the Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.
“The stories that happened in the 1930s about boats that had to turn around and many of those people not escaping concentration camps is history we should learn by,” Peduto said. “The world has since regretted those decisions. We shouldn’t make those decisions twice.”
In addition to speaking about the refugees, at the World Affairs Council meeting, Clarke explained that sending American ground troops to Syria, as some have called for, would have little impact in stopping the Islamic State due to the way the terrorist group operates.
“The president has pretty much said he’s against sending in ground troops,” Clarke said. “It’s a lot to ask of our countrymen. And I am not convinced it will make a difference. As for the mitigation strategy, the president said, ‘Okay. I send ground troops to Syria, but then the next attack is planned from Yemen.’ We can’t just go chasing these guys all over with our military. We’ll go broke.”
Rather, the most effective tools to combat the Islamic State, according to Clarke, would be focusing intelligence efforts on encryption and procuring bank data about the movement of funds.
“We need to work on leveraging these kinds of experts,” he said.
Clarke admitted that he did not know how to engage relatively stable Arab states to do more to calm the bedlam in Syria.
“The Saudis are busy in Yemen,” he said, “and they are to blame for a lot of this, for promoting this ideology. The government is afraid of a backlash at home. It’s a zero-sum gain between the Sunnis and the Shiites.
“It’s a religious civil war,” he added. “I don’t know what could motivate them to do more.”
Adam Reinherz contributed to this report. Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.