December 1, 2015 by Harnessing Chaos
The following is a case against bombing Syria I made based on recent relevant histories, most of which have been discussed on this blog before.
Undoubtedly, ideological reasons help explain the rise to groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, most obviously the influence of Wahabbism and the apocalyptic theology of ISIS. But we should be wary at leaving our explanations at the level of the influence of a violent ideology alone. Indeed, it is not as straightforward as one simple ideology (there were, for instance, additional Marxist and hard-Right influences on related thought from the early/mid-twentieth century). No doubt there are plenty of devotees to the idea of a caliphate but even when participants show more obvious signs of ‘Islamic’ influences, it is clear that pinpointing some pure, violent Salafist ideology that causes terror is not easy. The infamous case of two recruits ordering Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies would suggest that, in this instance (and others), that things are not so straightforward, s would the number of ex-Baathists involved, as would interviews with imprisoned ISIS fighters where reasons include the need to feed families or make money and where prisoners actually have minimal knowledge of the details of Islam or at least Islam professed by ISIS. Lydia Wilson’s summary of interviews with imprisoned ISIS fighters is worth reading and available here.
Bizarre though it may be, it also seems that the idea of romance and adventure, alongside disillusionment and boredom, have played a part in attracting Western fighters. In France, the appeal of groups like ISIS is further set against the backdrop of North African immigration where attitudes have historically been more ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ but groups have simultaneously faced racism and categorisation as outsiders. In this context, ideas associated with ISIS have again had an appeal among those feeling disenfranchised, irrespective of whether they were Muslims devoted to the beliefs they profess (apparently not, in certain key cases, a phenomenon of ‘hypocrisy’ found in other examples of terrorism). This is not, obviously, a justification for the actions of the Paris murderers (or 7/7 or Sept 11 murderers) but all this is a reminder that we need to think seriously about the kinds of issues that need to be addressed and targetted if we want to prevent as many atrocities as possible.
We might ask ourselves, then, why such versions of Islam emerged to prominence so recently and were not widespread 50 years ago. There are plenty of reasons for this, as I’ve already touched upon, including: the decline of secular nationalism; the sharp rise in slums across North Africa and the Middle East, including an educated and literate middle class; and the specific issues in the Arabian peninsula with a potent mix of stark wealth inequalities, cheap immigrant labour, the sensitivities surrounding Mecca, and Wahhabism (see further the excellent essay by Michael Watts in this volume). As with the issue of Palestine, it only takes the perception of injustice to fuel anger, irrespective of whether a potential bomber or fighter has been the direct recipient of such stark inequalities. There are, of course, a whole host of local issues from Afghanistan to Tunisia which would have to be factored in. Closer to home, we might think about how such perceptions feed into all the complexities involved in immigration and assimilation in, for instance, the UK and France.
And we should not dismiss the complex impact of foreign policy. The initial western support for ‘fundamentalist’ groups that would become, e.g., al-Qaeda would fill the vacuum left by the decline of secular nationalism. The historic support for various murderous dictators (from Saddam to Mubarak) and responses to the Arab Spring did not help matters, and certainly did not and does not help any ethical case for interventions today. The sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s were devastating. The aftermath of the Iraq war only added to the devastation, from socio-economic collapse and the de-Baathification of Iraq to Abu Ghraib and the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah. Interviews with prisoners also show the constant anger towards the invasion of Iraq and the damage it caused. Drone attacks have not always had their desired consequences, to put it mildly. The recent bombing of Libya led only to more chaos. We cannot pretend that the past does not matter.
These reasons, including perceptions about western intervention that surround them, are also vital for understanding why people join or support such brutal and murderous groups like ISIS. Propaganda videos have stressed such factors (and exaggerated them), no doubt because they have some effectiveness in recruiting. If Libya and Iraq are anything to go by, bombing Syria—with the presumably inevitable civilian deaths that will follow—will only be another reason for perpetuating anti-Western hostilities and chaos in Syria. No doubt Britain will remain a target irrespective of bombing Syria (though perhaps more so because of it, should it go ahead). But I do not see how Britain will be any safer because of it; on the contrary. And if more people are murdered in France, Britain, or anywhere else because of beliefs associated with ISIS, what will their deaths be for?
Not bombing is an alternative in and of itself. But clearly major, further alternative solutions are needed for the numerous crises across the Middle East and terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere. It might involve things like dealing with the origins of the financial support for ISIS for a start. It might mean radically rethinking economic and strategic relations with certain states. It might mean seriously supporting democratic movements across the Middle East and North Africa. It might also involve new ways of engaging those disaffected communities and individuals in France and the UK. Yet even these huge issues are mere starting points. A solution will require difficult long-term geopolitical thinking that would no doubt stand at odds with the typical immediate response of ‘bomb them’. But bombing in this instance serves no obvious purpose in stopping the emergence of groups as horrific as ISIS and, if recent history is anything to go by, is more likely to make the situation worse and kill more civilians in the process.
We need to ask ourselves, Why will bombing do something good this time? Why has bombing been so problematic in the case of Iraq? Why is ‘bombing’ always the go to solution? Of course, bombing can work, though such results are often a result of luck, though the luck is more typically bad for civilians. Do these 70,000 (non-Assad) ‘moderates’ really exist in such numbers? Or will it mean more civilians die, more chaos in an already chaotic area, and more hatred generated towards the UK?
Good piece and one needed.
Is there any reason you have not mentioned CIA and Western intelligence’s funding and support for Islamic extremists to further foreign policy aims including challenging Soviet (and now Russian) power, China’s Central Asian reach, and strong independent states in the Middle East?
It has been documented from Afghanistan to China to Chechnya to Syria and is possibly the single most important factor well beyond those outlined.
The chaos we see is not the failure of our policy; it is the desired outcome.
Thanks. I agree about the significance of western support and it’s what I meant by “The initial support for ‘fundamentalist’ groups”. I’ll change the wording to make it clearer.
I think bombing achieves several objectives:
it helps contain ISIS;
it provides support to the people on the ground who will ultimately have to do the defeating, if ISIS is to be defeated;
it shows in a real way where western countries stand, while recognising that the ultimate responsibility for overcoming ISIS is with those communities it has infected; and
it places the responsibility for an air bombardment in the hands of (generally) thoughtful and careful countries that will minimise civilian casualties as much as possible. You won’t see the same care taken by, for example, Russian air power.
Air bombardment is simply an arm of the offensive war on ISIS that has its place. Its effectiveness is not overstated and it’s only a small part of the solution. The elimination of ISIS – and Al Qaeda/Nusra for that matter, and Islamism generally – is a long term project that will take generations. But the air war is one of the short term stop-gap measures that we can actually contribute.
I’m not sure that’s clear. The 70,000 ‘moderates’ have not been satisfactorily established. If we are to use analogies, bombing in Libya only led to chaos. The way this has been rushed through does not suggest much care has been taken. We still need to ask why the sources of ISIS support and funding have not been targetted. There’s every chance that bombing will only further the cause of ISIS
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It is possibly the least effective way to combat ISIS with the cutting off of trade, funding and arming the most effective. All of these options are being carried out by our regional allies, however.
I mean, all of the above (trading, funding, arming) are being continued by our regional allies.
Yes, I see now
[…] is also mask the complexity histories of the emergence of ISIS, some of which were outlined in the previous post. Whatever the reasons for this masking, violence is once again grounded in, and justified by, a […]