The Myth of Sisyphus and military interventions


In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was one of the most astute and clever mortals who managed to deceive the gods several times and thus prolong his life. As a rebel, he earned the anger of the gods who condemned him after his death to an eternal task of rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, and when he was about to achieve the objective, the stone would inevitably roll down from the top, invalidating all the work done. The destiny of Sisyphus is a punishment for thinking he was smarter than the gods and the expression ’’ Sisyphus labor’’ is used to define work that is hard, repetitive and doomed to failure — as has been the successive interventions of the West in the Middle East since the 80’s.

In 1979, United States started funding guerrillas fighting against the newly established pro Soviet Afghan government. The goal was to precipitate an invasion by the Soviet Union and to force them to fight a costly, long and unachievable war as it was the Vietnam War to the United States. The operation was successful with regard to the Soviet Union who fought a long and costly war, however, another problem arose. The groups that the US, other European and Arab countries had supported for years were not exactly allies to the Western world. They were radical Islamists that fought each other after the war. This infighting led to the birth of radical groups like Taliban or Al Qaeda of Osama Bin Laden.

Although there is no concrete evidence of US support to Al Qaeda, it is undeniable that these rebels formed good portions of radical groups that flourished with western aid.

In 2001 the US and its allies launched an offensive against the Afghan Taliban government for supporting and harbouring Islamists who were a threat to Western security. Although the invasions have caused the government’s fall, currently the strength of Taliban is growing rapidly, thus enabling them to control dozens of districts in the country and carry out many terrorist attacks.

In 2003, two years after the tragic September 11 attacks, The United States and other European countries had launched a massive offensive in Iraq where there was a government, that while authoritarian, guaranteed stability of the country. The legacy of this offensive is the destruction of the country, civil war and the emergence of radical groups such as ISIS that actually control portions of the territory.

However, even the western military intervention in Libya supporting rebels who were against their government wasn’t a complete success. Libya is in a brutal and bloody civil war between different rival groups that control different parts of the country. Although the Gaddafi government was authoritarian and there were violations of human rights, the simple fact is, that four years later, the situation is no less violent.

In 2015 the offensive launched by Saudi Arabia in Yemen backed by the US and Britain is proving to be a dead end and it seems to strengthen Al Qaeda in the region, which causes a serious problem for the internal security of Europe and the United States.

All these interventions are causing more and more problems and not necessarily achieving their goals. Support for The ‘Mujahideen’ in the 80’s helped strengthen organisations like al Qaeda and the Taliban which later came to power in Afghanistan and fought against the United States. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 succeeded to topple the Taliban government but currently there are more Taliban’s then they were after the beginning of the invasion. The War in Iraq was based on the assertion that the government harboured terrorists and posed an immediate threat to the west. However, terrorists are currently in control and govern parts of Iraq and therefore, have the power and access to conduct terrorist attacks in Europe. The direct intervention in Libya was based on the defense of human rights but now, Libya is a war-zone controlled in some parts by Jihadists. In Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition to defeat the ‘Houthis’ supported by the United States and United Kingdom is strengthening Al Qaeda in the region. Whatever the objective of all these interventions is, it’s not being achieved and each intervention destabilizes the region in such a way that it involuntarily creates new problems for which the response is a new intervention.

The sooner Europe and the United States realize that these interventions are no more than Syshipus labor, because they’re always doing the same thing without great results which leads to another intervention; the sooner a different foreign policy strategy will be adopted.

I’m not calling for isolationist policies or even pacifism, as sometimes the use of force is necessary but the fact is that the latest operations in the cited countries have been a failure and have been unable to achieve the objectives.

The United States and Europe can and should support democratic countries in the Middle East or countries that make progress with regards to Human Rights. However it makes no sense to support Islamist rebels. Far from being an anti-American or even against NATO, the issue here is redefining the way the West intervenes. We need a realistic foreign policy, not a utopian one where the West will be constantly intervening.

The ISIS situation presents an array of new challenges to the West. Undoubtedly, ISIS has to be destroyed but we need to go beyond to start solving the problem of radical Islam. Just bombing ISIS is not enough because other radicals will take the place of the current ones. According to the Soufan Group, a consultancy firm, the number of ISIS foreign fighters doubled since 2014 (year of the beginning of the military interventions against ISIS) this displays how necessary it has become & the urgent need to go beyond and to fight radicalisation & religious extremism.

In addition to physically destroying ISIS, it is also necessary to combat the “radical Islam” ideologically, which implies giving voice to moderate Muslims, not segregate them like nationalists want, close schools and mosques that promote a literal and radical interpretation of the Qur’an in Europe, supporting countries with progress in promoting human rights & democracy, financially penalising individuals and countries that promote Islamic radicalism.

Only attacking terrorism geographically is like Sisyphus taking the rock to the top of the mountain and inevitably failing again. The West will never defeat ISIS this way; they might be able to recover ground but they will continue to exist, just like Al Qaeda or the Taliban. To defeat Islamic terrorism it needs to go beyond that. This war is not ordinary because is not just about territories, it’s mainly about values and ideology.

André Branco Pereira, Law Student