The Grand Theatre of War
Following the French 9/11, the War on Terror is poised to shift into a higher gear. In fact, things were already in motion when Russia started bombing ISIS strongholds and oilfields. Reeling from criticism of its 'Leading From Behind' strategy, the US administration has been undermining Russian strikes for not hurting ISIS and for high collateral damage. The Paris Attacks, therefore, helped the Coalition better argue the inefficacy of the Russian campaign. The real concern, of course, was that Russia's campaign was only strengthening the Assad regime.
Unlike NATO, Putin's administration does not accept the western premise that ousting Assad is a prerequisite, or even a necessity, for defeating ISIS, or for lasting peace in Syria. Many Eastern societies identify the Syrian War with broader Arab-Sunni attempts to undermine and overthrow the (Shi'a) Alawite dynasty (empowered by the post-WW1 French Mandate of Syria). Identifying Assad as the root of Evil is a western narrative and one that somewhat ignores the region's history, tribes, politics, religion and culture. Indeed even in the War on Terror experience, regime toppling in the Middle East has only triggered and/or intensified sectarian conflicts. Western leaders have been caught out of their depth by schisms and violence that ensued after the fall of Saddam or Gaddafi. So, there is ample reason to doubt the appropriateness of 'regime-change' as the best strategy option in Syria.
The Syrian War has already waged on for four years, claimed over 250,000 lives, drawn at least 10 countries into its unholy vortex, and now threatens to embroil the world in more bloodshed. Politicisation of the Paris Attacks and the reprised NATO-Russia cold war represent a precarious stage in this multifaceted, international nightmare involving Assad, the Syrian army, other pro-Assad forces, Syrian rebels, al-Qaeda affiliates and refugees. A CNN analyst estimated that there are 27 different parties and factions with varying degrees of capacity and loyalty present within Syria. Add to that the latest scourge of ISIS. For much of the four years, NATO members appeared unwilling to put boots on the ground in Syria. Ally regimes in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey were deemed enough to deal with Assad and later, ISIS. But things changed after the Paris Attacks.
Media narratives quickly and inextricably fused the Paris Attacks and the Syrian War into a single storyline. Politicians began advancing various pet agendas: expansion of surveillance, closing of borders, banning of encryption and closure of/spying on mosques, all accompanied by a deluge of xenophobic sentiments. The tired, ineffectual and exorbitant War on Terror was recalibrated to target ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Diplomatic and political undercurrents intensified too, driving what will probably be the next phase in the War on Terror. This time, there will be no repetitions of past mistakes: namely, declaring an 'illegal' war against an unrelated country, using the sanctity of 3000-odd lives lost on 9/11 as justification. On the contrary, WoT-2 seeks to establish a much broader consensus and institutionalise an indefinite State of War. To this end, Romania and Spain are leading an effort to set up an Anti-Terrorism Court. While that is an excellent idea, confusion remains regarding how to define Terrorism. The bone of contention has to do with whether actions by 'militaries' and/or 'freedom-fighters' can be labelled as Terrorism. The discerning reader will appreciate the conceptual and operational latitude and control retained through subjective and politically charged words like 'freedom-fighter'. The court, by dint of its status, will be able to dictate who is a terrorist and who is not. Such arbitrary arbitration power, combined with an adjustable war-machine, may end up serving the interests of those who wield it.
There are also reports of efforts underway to set up, under the United Nations, a supranational agency with sweeping powers to counter terrorism. It is envisaged that an international terrorism intelligence and police force with universal jurisdiction can be developed to execute the ruling of the court. Readers may note that this proposed structure closely resembles that of a sovereign government. The objective of such institutionalisation is to discredit and delegitimise 'any' enemy; or more precisely, to claim exclusive rights to evaluate and determine the legitimacy of political claims all over the planet. Excuse the conspiracy-theory loan phrase, but that constitutes nothing less than a New World Order.
Changes to the War on Terror essentially represent a strengthening and legitimising of the military campaign, but fail to reflect a more nuanced understanding of the root causes of Terrorism. Cautions against Interventionism and brute force have gone unheeded. Lessons on funding and arming amorphous, fluid groups of rebels in countries have not been learnt either. The dire social-cost of cultivating 'Xenophobia' as political cover for military expeditions are still ignored or trivialised in media discourse. So, as it was with al-Qaeda, the West has again found itself fighting an enemy that it helped incubate and flourish. And as was done with Iraq after the original 9/11, Syria (and its refugees) is being pinpointed as the root of all evil; even though the Paris attackers were not Syrian.
World War I was once thought of as 'the War to End All Wars'. But the hypothesis that “violence can be extinguished with greater violence” has since been thoroughly disproved and should have no place in modern statecraft. Yet it is the bedrock of anti-terrorism. Conversely, there has been little attempt to confront the Gulf States about funding, arming and supporting extremists. Israel's continued provocations have also been shoved under the rug. There is simply no evidence to suggest extremist organisations have been thoroughly tracked, isolated, infiltrated, hacked, harassed, starved or, in any meaningful way, weakened.
Each of the World Wars was triggered by relatively minor incidents, in the backdrop of larger, philosophical conflicts and global economic downturns. These conditions have come to prevail again. Further, the attacks in Paris, Beirut and Mali, US-French aerial and naval strikes and the Turkey-Russia standoff constitute a dangerous escalation. President Obama recently spelt out that Russia was now effectively in a coalition of two, with Iran. Everyday, the Syrian sky is abuzz with Russian, French, American and Turkish fighter jets and bombers; the coast is lined with warships and submarines. Syria is now a pressure chamber burgeoning with mutual resentment, dreams of war-time profiteering and fantastic firepower. If all parties are not united on the goal – the defeat of ISIS – this may turn out to be a long, drawn out conflict, with no end in sight.
The writer is a strategy and communications consultant.