If at First You Don’t Succeed, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Again: Western Delusion and Syria

Editor’s Note: this was initially published on October 30th, before the attacks in Paris, so some references to summits are out-of-date, but the analysis still stands. 

This isn’t working, is it? Ever since the US was enticed into the Syrian Civil War two years ago, once again under the delusion that it can ‘fix’ the Middle East, the conflict has only grown more chaotic, convoluted and deadly. It’s a familiar narrative; from 2002, when President Bush identified Iran, Iraq and Syria as part of an “axis of evil”, American, and very often British, military forces have with impunity entered Middle Eastern states under the pretext of defending the national interest, only to withdraw years later leaving in their wake a great many dead and displaced. This author believes that if the concerned Western forces are to save Syria from total state-failure they must recognise, firstly, the failings of similar recent forays into the Middle East and, secondly, the singularity of the Syrian conflict.

Previous failings in the Middle East

According to neoconservative thinkers, Bush’s wars to effect regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as his ‘war on terror’, were predominantly carried out for two reasons: 1) in reflex to the 9/11 attacks and 2) out of moral responsibility, the origins of which go back as far as Benjamin Franklin – “America’s cause is the cause of all mankind.” I argue that the two reasons are, in fact, one and the same. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration espoused – not incorrectly – that the threat posed by Islamist terrorism was potentially as great a danger as the threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They made it their prerogative, therefore, to remould the domestic environment of the Middle East, to create a culture that wasn’t conducive to the rise of Islamist groups.

It was actions of both the past – a deeply-embedded relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia – and future – post-Saddam US action in Iraq – that were to undermine this goal.

In 2013 a study by the European Parliament identified ‘Wahhabi networks’ as the world’s greatest terrorist threat. Wahhabism, an inherently puritanical strain of Sunni Islam, is the ideological engine that drives Islamic State (IS) and, formerly, al-Qaeda. It is also the ideology upon which the Saudi state was founded two and half centuries ago and which continues to legitimise the Saudi royal family. This means that the long-standing Saudi-US relationship, predicated on the former’s vast oil reserves, effectively served as a ‘protector’ of Wahhabism and provided Saudi Arabia with the means to spread its ideals. Indeed, the same European Parliament report estimates that Saudi businessmen and charities have “invested more than $10 billion to promote its Wahhabi agenda.” More recently, the same rich donors, as well as others from Kuwait and Qatar, have provided IS with direct funding.

Then, last week Tony Blair, in anticipation of the long-awaited publication of the Chilcot report, admitted that Western intervention in Iraq had contributed to the emergence of IS. What he refers to is the haphazard US-driven dismantlement of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party or ‘de-Ba’athification’. This entailed the complete dissolution of Iraq’s military and intelligence infrastructure, including, not just the dismissal of army servicemen, but in many cases barring them from ever returning to work in the public sector. In retrospect, the recklessness of the move is clear: the American transitional government in Iraq authorised the firing of hundreds of thousands of militarily-proficient Sunni Muslims, at once destroying livelihoods and reigniting tensions with the Shia majority. Predictably, many of the Sunnis in question went on to join insurgency groups.

The uniqueness of the Syrian conflict

From a Western perspective, the aim of the Syrian conflict is clear: it is an amalgamation of previous forays into the Middle East where they look to both depose a despotic leader and contain an Islamist threat.

However, intervening in Syria in 2015 is a different beast to intervening in Afghanistan in 2001 or Iraq in 2003. The war is an almighty entanglement of state and non-state actors with conflicting objectives and sensibilities that once again the West cannot hope to fully grasp. Look, for example, at the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who are simultaneously backed by the US in their fight against IS and fighting against Turkey who in turn are US allies in the battle to remove Assad. The conflict is rife with such contradictions and muddled loyalties in which current interests are being played out across historical fault lines.

The nature of the images being broadcast daily of the refugee crisis and of Islamic State’s continued assault on civilisation tends to awaken in us a primal response, one that yearns for the quickest possible end to the conflict so the state-building process can begin. Let’s the rip the plaster off quick! We have done this in past, taking shortcuts to hasten the process and believing that things must be entirely knocked down in order to be rebuilt from the ground up. It is high time we learned from our past errors with aforementioned states and Libya and recognised that violence only begets violence: as long as the West continues to bomb the Middle East from above the conflict will only continue to expand. There are currently no US troops present in Syria and, putting to one side the bombing of IS, their military support for Syrian rebel forces has been restricted to the provision of arms and military training. Even this though, which is welcome departure from the deliriously cavalier interventionism of the Bush administration, has caused problems as some of the rebels they armed surrendered their weapons once inside Syria.

What is required is a plan and, given the complexity of the war, a great deal of patience. Somewhat surprisingly, there are signs that such a move could be possible as Iran was this week invited to join diplomatic talks over the future of Syria, something the UK and US have previously rejected. This is the only way forward: an inclusive discussion between Europe, Iran, Russia, the US and the remarkably passive Gulf states on how the conflict can be resolved and the country rebuilt.

Josef Williamson

Defence and Diplomacy Editor

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