Confronting ISIS

How do we respond to terrorism and other geopolitical threats?

The constant clamour over Muslim extremism since 9/11 makes it hard to recall the days when terrorism and revolution were practically interchangeable terms. The “r-word” has always retained some tenuous ­connection with hardcore left-wing politics in a connotative way, and groups such as Germany’s Baader Meinhof gang (later the Red Army Faction) of the 1970s and ’80s were just left-wing groups that insisted on the violent expression of revolutionary ideals. Today’s terrorists appear on television and elsewhere as dark-bearded men who harbour medieval beliefs that involve terms such as jihad and sharia. Plenty of demeaning epithets spring to mind when describing such militants, but revolutionary is not really one of them.

But what could be more revolutionary than indiscriminate militarism? Terrorists use undiscerning violence to political ends. So-called Islamic State and al Qaeda, two of 21st-century terrorism’s most notable names, peddle narratives that are ultimately about ridding the world of its undesirable status quo in order to usher in a new set of “Islamic” norms. The creation and exacerbation of conflict through indiscriminate violence are, at least in this case, a political act. They are a political act aimed at dismantling current concentrations of power in favour of newer ones, and Muslim terrorism (among other things) in the post-9/11 era shows that the term “revolutionary” deserves a wider association beyond the left.

The immediate creation of a free and stable society through revolutionary means is, as history shows, perhaps the most difficult of all political objectives. ISIS’s ultimate goal is not a free and stable society, but its ability to accumulate a landmass the size of Texas comes at the expense of Syria and Iraq’s territorial integrity. They swept away the old forces that controlled that land and implemented themselves in their stead.

From China to Cuba to 18th-century France, revolutionary success of the political kind has been followed in one way or another by more violence or by eventual despotism. ISIS exercises both violence and despotism to expand and sustain itself.

And yet, with great irony, the world’s response to revolutionary Muslim terrorism has consisted of similarly revolutionary elements. The overthrow of Afghanistan and Iraq’s governments not long after 9/11 also aimed to usher in a new era in the Middle East. The neoconservatives inside George Bush’s administration wanted to project American military power in a way that remade the region into an image to their liking. Both Afghanistan and Iraq now suffer from chronic post-invasion instability, and both interventions have failed to match the lofty rhetoric bandied about by the United States while marketing the two ­invasions.

Further interventions in countries such as Libya and Syria after the Arab Spring, which took off in Tunisia in 2011, have brought about similar results. And now that a truly despotic pseudo-state has taken root despite several western intrusions into the region, continuous rhetoric of even more forceful intervention inspires less confidence than it does memories of previous failures. But if violent intervention is not the answer to defeating ISIS and its compatriots, what is? The rise of ISIS has accompanied the disintegration of both Iraq and Syria as sovereign states. Much of what has unfolded in this region lately has been covered by the news media with minimal historical context. Yet it is history that must be consulted in order for the rest of the international community to figure out a way forward with respect to dealing with Islamic State.

This is the main focus of Gwynn Dyer’s Don’t Panic: ISIS, Terror and Today’s Middle East. Dyer is a noted Canadian journalist and military historian who has taught at Sandhurst, a British version of West Point, and has served in the Canadian, American and British navies. His book is a highly readable crash course on the history of political Islam, or Islamism, of the past few decades, and how such a history, punctuated by the tragedy of 9/11, relates to Muslim terrorism (jihadism) and the mess that is today’s Middle East.

Thus the conclusion that Dyer reaches is a historically informed one and one that acknowledges the often bleak lessons taught by the past: “You don’t get the choices that you would like to have; you get the choices that are on the table,” he writes. Dyer’s analysis of ISIS and its regional impact emphasizes the terrorist group’s geopolitical relationship with Syria’s ongoing civil war, pitting dictator Bashar al-Assad against a largely disparate militant opposition. Dyer traces the rise of ISIS primarily to the instability in Syria, which created a kind of vacuum into which the region’s Sunni jihadists could march into and find purpose after President Barack Obama began a military drawdown in the region.

What complicates matters for analysts such as Dyer is that much of the opposition against Assad is, according to him, by now violently Islamist. He notes, as have many other journalists who have covered the region’s latest instability, that the most organized aspects of the anti-Assad “coalition” are in fact groups with terrorist roots. ISIS was once known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which enjoyed a period of prominence in Iraq after the 2003 invasion but was about to fade away until the Arab Spring hit Syria and the regime decided to bomb peaceful protestors, thus turning the whole situation into an armed insurrection and eventually a civil war. Remnants of AQI then joined the fight against Assad who, along with much of his administration, belong to the Alawite sect of Shia Islam, a branch of the religion that ISIS and al Qaeda view as heretical.

The proliferation of the jihadist opposition in Syria eventually played a major role in perpetuating the forces that ultimately gave rise to ISIS. So for Dyer, “anything that the West does to curb the activities of Islamic State in Syria automatically increases the survival chances of the brutal Assad regime,” which has by now killed hundreds of thousands of people. This unfortunate dynamic presents itself to Dyer in a way that, as he sees it, now forces the West to pick among evils. And although the Assad regime is responsible for perpetrating what can be accounted for as a major crime against humanity against his own people, Dyer concludes that its survival is critical if the West wants to prevent an Islamist takeover of Syria and beyond.

This is undoubtedly a controversial conclusion, but Dyer shows that he has a basis for his reasoning. By going through several decades of history in the region, he concludes that past events support his prediction that ISIS and its disparate jihadi allies in the region will fill the vacuum that the Assad regime leaves should the dictator be toppled by the opposition, with help from the West. It seems that the United States and its allies are aware of this possibility as well, and have framed their air strikes as a campaign against ISIS and extremism first and foremost, while Syria continues to bleed out in the background.

Dyer’s assumption that the Assad regime’s fall means the instant proliferation of ISIS is a view hotly debated among scholars and policy makers alike, as is his assumption that the vast majority of anti-Assad fighters are terrorists. But veteran journalists such as Patrick Cockburn of the UK’s Independent, who are on the ground in Syria, have also made the same observations and conclude that no military solution can be adopted to solve either ISIS or the bloody situation in Syria.

To Dyer, this means that the West should minimize its intervention in the entire situation, and pursue a diplomatic and political resolution that seeks an end to Syria’s conflict in a way that preserves the Assad regime. Assad can stay for a while longer or not, but his regime must hold for now against the expansionist aspirations of the Islamic State. This means that negotiations and diplomacy must take the place of further armed intervention and insurrection.

Prior to the Syrian civil war, there was the Syrian revolution, which is what the world called the armed uprising against Assad in the early days of the insurrection. But as time went on and both sides started to fight indiscriminately, a stalemate was reached in the context of a civil war. No clear winner can be seen to emerge either now or in the future, and a military solution seems more and more unlikely to end the violence.

According to Ernie Regehr’s new book, Disarming Conflict: Why Peace Cannot Be Won on the Battlefield, the reality in Syria is a good example of why modern warfare has little to no effectiveness when it comes to resolving geopolitical matters. Wars are no longer fought on specified battlefields where clear winners and losers emerge at the end of an engagement. Modern technology has made war more, not less, brutal, despite the supposed precision of drone strikes and guided missiles. This new reality gives political violence a life of its own and war stops being just an extension of politics.

Regehr is perhaps one of Canada’s foremost experts in security and disarmament, having conducted field research in Africa and elsewhere. He co-founded Project Ploughshares, a peace research organization based in Waterloo, Ontario, that focuses on the negative implications of war as a means of attaining stability. Disarming Conflict provides one of the most succinct and persuasive cases for the mitigation and drawing down of modern warfare, not just for its brutality and destructiveness, but for its inability to fulfill its own deluded purpose.

This is because war is incapable of “transcending its own social/political context.” Thus, “the conditions that produced war in the first place remain when the fighting finally ends, only more so.” One cannot help but turn to today’s Middle East to see contemporary examples of Regehr’s thesis. The revolutionary political violence employed by both state and non-state actors in the post-9/11 “war on terror” has all the rhetoric that is meant to transcend present fears and anxieties. But these fears and anxieties reflect reality. It turns out that despite the technical sophistication of modern weaponry, bullets and bombs alone remain incapable of transcending such reality.

The revolutionary violence that characterized the 2003 invasion of Iraq was supposed to usher in a democracy by transcending the national and regional reality by force. Instead, it created an Iraq that can hardly be called a state. The same can be said for many countries in the Middle East now, affected in one way or another by the 9/11 wars or by the Arab Spring. Parts of Iraq and Syria are under ISIS control. Libya and Yemen have no effective government and other than Tunisia, despotism of one kind or another characterizes the ruling forces of these countries. Outside intervention intended to prevent massive bloodshed and to bring about peace usually ended up failing on both counts. This, notes Regehr, shows war’s broad ineffectiveness as a way of bringing about ideal social realities.

The same goes for ISIS, which has become the dominant focus of western allied intervention in the Middle East. The narrative of curbing the Assad regime has given way to defeating ISIS through air strikes and training for local Iraqi troops. Regehr’s analysis is inherently suspicious of such a plan, especially when the envisioned goals include eliminating the dominant military force in charge of a landmass bigger than the United Kingdom. Diplomatic efforts to end violence perpetuated by all sides is the alternative. ISIS will be left more or less untouched, but both Dyer and Regehr see air strikes as highly limited in bringing about political change on the ground. Until the situation in Syria is sorted out, ISIS will continue to be sustained by the regional conditions that brought about its existence in the first place.

Both books are necessary reads for observers who take caution as one of the major lessons of global interventionist politics in the past 25 years or so. Both Dyer and Regehr draw on a great deal of history to support their case, although in the case of Dyer, a broad history of jihadism is a bit haphazard and truncated at times as he tries to trace the ideological roots of ISIS, al Qaeda and other likeminded groups back to fundamentalist ideologues in Nasserite Egypt such as Sayyed Qutub.

Yet one wonders just how much of ISIS’s motives arise out of ideology and not necessity. Are ideas really the potent progenitors of action or a matter of mere convenience? This is an ongoing debate within post-9/11 politics that does not get extended attention in either book. What is obvious, though, is that the modern world has, in the 21st century, come up against a wall of sorts. Visions and plans for new sociopolitical realities in a particular country can no longer be brought about through the application of military force. This is the realization that Regehr argues, and, according to him, should prompt an examination of why substantial cognitive dissonance exists between reality and the “reality” in the minds of policy makers.

Present-day politics lacks this kind of self-­reflection, and this inability to criticize the status quo is often reflected in the way things are explained or explained away for people with respect to what is actually happening overseas. The threats are often exaggerated in an ahistorical, non-evidence based way, and the state’s promises and ideas often go unexamined. At the very least, Dyer and Regehr’s work are critiques of this contemporary ahistoricism and a necessary antidote to the disastrous consequences of forgetting.