Syria and Iraq: In Search of a Strategy

02/17/2015 04:59 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015
AP

A State of Perpetual Insecurity

The international community continues to witness the perpetual violence of terrorist groups such as Daesh, also called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL, ISIS or IS), the beheading machine pretending to be a state. With Daesh, crime now has a political face that has pushed the envelope past anything heretofore imaginable, from selling women and children into slavery, brazen slaughter and desecration of human corpses, to burning alive a captured pilot, to cannibalism (eating the liver of a dead soldier).

The horror of terrorism is not limited geographically. As the tragic event at Charlie Hebdo demonstrates, terrorism can strike in the very heart of democratic Europe, and probably in every corner of the globe, at any moment. Like a biological epidemic, it can cross borders and trespass on the relative freedom of more socially open lands also. Terrorism is a cancer born of a myriad unresolved economic, ethno-cultural, and political/geopolitical contradictions within society -- especially those societies devoid of any democratic heritage, mostly in the Arab-Islamic Middle East and South East Asia. Like cancer, it spreads unchecked by democratic and legal institutions in certain countries. In the immediate, it must be limited and, where possible, excised by military force. In the long run, however, eradicating it will necessitate an ideological and cultural battle.

President Obama defined the strategy for the U.S.-led war against Daesh: "Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL."

Secretary of State John Kerry has declared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee something more: "The military action ends when we have ended the capacity of ISIL to engage in broad-based terrorist activity that threatens the state of Iraq, threatens the United States, threatens the region. That's our goal."

U.S. Secretary of Defense Nominee Ashton Carter, during questioning by the Senate Armed Services Committee, told senators that the U.S. military campaign in the Middle East must ensure a "lasting defeat" of Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. "It's important that when they get defeated, they stay defeated."

However, the ranks of Daesh and its ideological kin such as al Qaeda are replenished as fast as the bombing by the U.S.-led coalition can wipe them out. They recruit not only locally, but also from a world basin of exported Jihadi. According to the Washington Post, the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria has surged since October 2014, both in quantity and quality.

Daesh, al Qaeda and similar groups are the ideological products, and to some degree geopolitical tools, of some U.S. allies in the region, as noted by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in his controversial discourse at Harvard. Biden said de facto that Turkey, eager to see the regime in Syria deposed, had assisted foreign Jihadi fighters, and in so doing had fueled sectarianism. He made similar comments about Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- two Arab nations in Obama's coalition.

Francis Ricciardone, the former American Ambassador in Turkey, more clearly stated that the Turkish government co-operated with al Qaeda in Syria.

The neo-Caliphate ambitions of these Jihadi groups reflect a deeply entrenched residual nostalgia linked to the deepest soul of certain Arab-Islamic societies and states that, often, lack any democratic heritage or even the modern sense of what a "State" is. Their terrorism is ideological, and weapons alone cannot destroy an ideology. While their expansion may be stunted and their infrastructure degraded by force, the goal finally must be to facilitate an emerging middle class throughout the region by means of cultural, ideological and socio-economic reforms.

Military force alone has never eliminated ideological terror groups. Did we not hear how the Taliban were defeated by the U.S.-led coalition and the Northern Alliance? And yet, the Taliban unfortunately continue to operate, to dire effect. Perhaps, then, with respect to Daesh and its ilk, it is more reasonable to consider force as a tactic to degrade them, contain them; while to ultimately destroy them it will take a strategy to invalidate them ideologically and culturally.

Some Tactical Steps

(a) Recognition and engagement with the institutions of the regimes currently in place, regardless of their current political order. Failure to even minimally recognize national sovereignty is a trap that would de facto validate Daesh ideology and the caliphate myth.

(b) Relentless military pressure to effectively limit the expansion of terrorist acts. This requires close coordination between air and ground forces: Without boots on the ground, bombing is far less accurate and effective, putting civilians at risk as well. After the Afghan and Iraqi experiences, it would appear that the current U.S. political context does not favor putting U.S. troops on the ground. However, Iran already has allied local militias active in both Iraq and Syria. This means the needed coordination between air power (the U.S. Air Force) and ground forces could be possible, but that the two countries continue to behave as rivals. There exists the possibility of a change, however, if an agreement can be achieved on the controversial Iranian Nuclear Project, then perhaps a coordinated air/ground effort could emerge, to the detriment of Daesh and the great benefit of civilization. Perhaps Iran's government can realize there are far greater "Satans" than the U.S., and the U.S. establishment can begin to consider Iran in its historical existential arc.

(c) A regional conference under the auspices and supervision of the UN Security Council, with leadership roles for the U.S., Europe, China, Russia, and important participation by Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. All four countries, with their different agendas and varying geopolitical interests, are currently menaced in different degrees by Daesh, al Qaeda and their ideology. Inviting Turkey and Saudi Arabia (and the related Kingdoms of Qatar, Kuwait, and the Arab Emirates) to participate might encourage them to clamp down more aggressively on the flow of Jihadis (as well as the financial support for them) passing through their borders toward Syria and Iraq. Egypt and its powerful military institutions could also contribute to stability. The most necessary step is convincing Iran to play a major role, by coordinating the operation of the forces sympathetic to it with other actors such as the U.S., bringing them under the aegis of the UN. Iran is a powerful presence by its geography, military force, history and civil society's influence.

(d) Supporting the Iraqi government, especially militarily, while pressuring it to move beyond sectarianism and to enact major reforms promoting more inclusiveness. Even though the Iran-linked militias are not now coordinated with the Air Force of the International Coalition led by the U.S., there is clearly a de facto understanding during such military operations, as shown in the liberated Iraqi city of Amerli.

Although a large swath of Iraqi territory including Mosul is still occupied by Daesh, coordination between the Iraqi government and the international actors sooner or later will break the back of the terrorist organization, at least militarily.

Yet the terrorists, if defeated in Iraq, could simply find refuge in Syria, where the civil war makes the situation more complicated. Here, the operations of the U.S.-led coalition are not coordinated with the Syrian regime and the opposition forces are factionalized and fractured, fighting each other internally, which weakness leaves a giant opening for the extremists.

(e) Negotiations with current Syrian institutions. No one but the Syrians themselves can put an end to their civil war. Given the divided opposition dominated by extremists and the risk of Jihadis returning home to wreak havoc, including in Europe and the U.S., the immediate priority is general security. Although the current regime's security apparatus, especially the Army, is ruthless, it nevertheless has established institutions, while the opposition is divided and dominated by factions that are equally barbaric.

The most important actors in Syria are Iran and its related Lebanese (Hezbollah) and Iraqi militias, although Russia also has an important role to play if it can resolve the dangerous Ukraine crisis. Here too, therefore, an agreement between the U.S. and Iran could be transformational; success depends for the moment entirely on the political will of presidents Obama and Rouhani. If an agreement on the Iranian nuclear project is concluded, it could open the way to collaborate on other regional issues, while empowering civil society movements within Iran and clearing the way for an internal political evolution there.

These steps would serve to degrade Daesh, al Qaeda, and myriad similar groups. They are tactical actions to stabilize the immediate situation and improve security. However, the long-term cultural/ideological assault on extremism will require additional strategic undertakings:

Some Strategic Plans

(a) Under the Aegis of International Institutions, Institute cultural and democratic reforms in Arab-Islamic countries, which currently suffer from deep social and economic inequality, and lack an understanding of the historical advantages of democracy. Supporting civil society throughout Arabia means helping a middle class to emerge as the foundation of the rule of law and civil rights. This is possible through pressure on the ruling classes -- the aristocracy and the military elite -- by helping them to see that the shapeless masses with no prospects for self-betterment become easy prey for extremist religious penetration. People deprived of any prospects on Earth will hope for prosperity in myth.

This hope unites large parts of Arab-Islamic societies in the Middle East, North Africa, Central and South East Asia and elsewhere. This is not a clash of civilizations, but a battle within human civilization itself. Islam is neither a country, nor the politics of a country; it is a religion, and like any other religion, under certain socio-economic circumstances it could be leveraged by terrorists for their own, non-religious ends. As such, Islamophobia serves only to reinforce the ideology of terrorist groups seeking to divide human civilization into sectarian tribes.

(b) Encourage Turkey to look toward Europe. If the European democracies are not able to accept Turkey, it indicates they are still unable to extend their tolerance beyond racial, religious, ethnic, cultural and geographical considerations. If Turkey is not absorbed by Europe and infused with a modern approach to politics, its drowsy neo-Ottoman soul could re-emerge, dreaming of long-lost empire, and look ever more fondly eastward inside the neo-caliphate ideologies, with their politics of Sectarianism. This is partly the approach of the new Turkish Muslim Brotherhood elite. With Kurds almost one third of its population, a Turkish adherence to the EU with full participation by the Kurds in a non-Sectarian manner is the only way to provide stability and security over the long term.

(c) Resolution of the Palestine-Israel issue. Until and unless a just and permanent solution is created, the issue remains explosive, and every social-cultural, historical and ethnic dispute in the region is attributed to it in some degree. Palestinians need a viable and secure country, and Israel, a constitution, defined border and security for all its citizens including Palestinians. The international community and the Israeli strategic establishment know that a sectarian state is incompatible with democracy, nor can a democratic state institutionalize discrimination against its citizens. The persistence of the dispute impedes resolution of every other problem, magnetizing all populations of the region towards extremism. It is up to the international community -- the U.S. and Europe especially, but also China and Russia -- to find a solution, which could possibly be based on assigning the administration of both Israel and Palestine to the EU or the UN.