As the UK government dives into another perpetual war in the Middle East, this time in Syria, it is worth remembering the catastrophic mistakes of the past. Is David Cameron heading towards opening another Pandora’s Box, such as we saw with the fall of Gaddafi in Libya or the deposition of Saddam Hussein in Iraq? There is no question that almost everyone around the world would like to see ISIS weaken, but achieving longevity in any political reconciliation requires the engagement of the people who are directly threatened by ISIS and its uncompromising ideology — the people who live next door to ISIS — and not just the countries that are miles or oceans away.
Playing into the Enemy’s Hands
One thing on which people from all spectrums agree: the Syrian civil war is a complex issue. If we are serious about destroying ISIS, we must destroy the conditions that helped create it. It is worth remembering that airstrikes have been going on in Syria for almost a year now, yet ISIS is growing stronger, according to the Americans’ own assessment. More importantly, ISIS itself has declared publicly that one of their main objectives is to eliminate the “grey zone” and create deep divisions along ethnic lines in our society. They want those of us in the West to send in our military and start another prolonged campaign in their region, because by doing so there is a good chance we will kill innocent civilians. Make no mistake: if the UK joins the military campaign in Syria, more civilians will die; many of them are already speaking out against more bombing. When innocent people die in “collateral” damage caused by Western bombs, those who survive will naturally start thinking of revenge. This is known as blowback, a reaction that has been reoccurring since the inception of the War on Terror. For David Cameron to believe that the UK could go in again with a handful of Tornado bombers and eliminate the ISIS problem is fanciful and naive. The conflict in Syria is ultimately going to be a local predicament for local actors to deal with. It is not a theatre for any outside power — especially a Western one, given our bitter historical track record when it comes to the Middle East. Let’s not forget there is no credible strategy behind this military proposal; just an emotional reflex, which hardly qualifies as statesmanship. This is not a war solvable with greater firepower — it’s a war that will be won with greater cultural understanding.
News Flash: War is an Obstacle to Peace
We should bear in mind that ISIS is not the Third Reich; this is not an incredibly powerful military machine. The Islamic State might have at most twenty thousand fighters that it has been able to deploy into stateless areas. And many of these areas are stateless partly because we destroyed their governing institutions by shortsighted interventionist policies that interfered with their natural political progression.
At this point it is clear that Bashar al-Assad cannot regain control of his entire country. It also appears in the current structure that the rebel forces cannot topple him very easily. When conditions on the ground point to such a stalemate and both sides begin to realize that the prospects of absolute victory are elusive, then it might be possible to convince the sides to come to some kind of political or power-sharing arrangement. This unfortunately requires the United States and the European Union to abandon their objective of overthrowing Assad completely. This has been the American position for four years now and it is a major obstacle to diplomatic settlement. I am no great fan of the Assad regime but it seems to me that if you genuinely want to end innocent civilian killing, and preserve the very institutions vital to preventing the rise of groups like ISIS, ending the war is the only solution.
Civil Conflicts are Breeding Grounds for Extremism
What politicians have to recognize is that when you prolong a civil conflict, you increase the possibility that violent and extreme organizations will gain power. The progression of radicalization within the Syrian opposition is already evident. These groups thrive in conditions of prolonged violence. It is not going to be good for anyone in the region to have Syria become a failed state that might be a breeding ground for extremist groups. The idea that it is in our interest to add more fuel to the conflict by conducting more airstrikes (which would hardly get us closer to a meaningful political settlement) strikes me as shortsighted.
There is no doubt that reaching a political solution could be very difficult, particularly given the multi-level divisions that exist in Syria today, but the best solution for the Syrian people would be to end the Syrian civil war as rapidly as possible. To do that will require a deal brokered by a number of countries including Russia, Iran, Turkey and other interested parties. It bothers me that the UK government has been thinking more about military responses than creative and imaginative solutions on the diplomatic front.
Gambling with Lives
In a sense we are playing with the lives of the Syrian people by refusing to get serious about diplomacy. Even the Obama administration admits that using far superior American military force really isn’t going to accomplish very much. There are no guarantees that a diplomatic approach would work either, but it seems to me that it’s at least as likely to succeed as the course we are going down now.
By emphasizing diplomacy and negotiation to simplify this complex situation, even if it fails to deliver the ideal outcome, the United Kingdom can show the rest of the world, including the Arab states, that it is not simply trigger happy. Furthermore, a strategy like this could help reveal that other countries such as Russia or Saudi Arabia are the ones that are the real barriers to a peaceful political solution. The UK might actually extract some political credibility with shades of statecraft by following this alternate path.
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