The West must be cautious not to invigorate the monster it helped create with military action in Syria.
In light of the recent attacks in France, and the death of Chinese and Norwegian hostages, all claimed by ISIL, US national conversations are concentrating more directly and substantively on foreign relations and security.
Lindsey Graham has advocated for sending 10,000 troops into Syria, and the current administration has intensified its airstrike efforts on ISIL military targets and supply lines while surging support for the Kurdish opposition within Syria.
Some would suggest that the US should empower its allies in the Middle East such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Gulf States – which have been heavily lobbying recently for a military cohesion with the US akin to the US-Saudi Arabian arrangement.
Before the US formulates its collective opinion on this front, a similar question to what should have resounded vociferously before the Iraq War must be posed about intervention in Syria: What is the goal of a multilateral force beyond the eradication of the most current, coordinated, and powerful form of fanaticism? And the corollary questions: Even if the major parties involved could actually agree on a post-war arrangement of a Syrian government, which currently seems unlikely, could a military effort produce a successful democracy? Is it possible to force democracy?
Fanaticism is inflated and unified by a common enemy. These extremist organizations draw on their own population, which then inspires diaspora. It is possible that fanatical groups can be temporarily defeated by external might in the near future, but external force inevitably leads to a double dose of malignancy in the more distant future. First, external forces more poignantly envenom extremists while also adding to their domestic appeal. Second, the vilification of that which is foreign becomes tantamount to the survival and continued growth of such groups. It would appear that the wrong kind of influence is nothing more than kindling and logs for the fire.
Boko Haram is sometimes translated as “Western influence is a sin”. Boko Haram formed after the British colonized what is now Nigeria, forced Western-Christian teachings on the people, and finally withdrew in 1960. Having sent Nigeria into chaos, militant fundamentalist Muslims latched onto a hatred for their former conquerors to establish and galvanize their faction.
After Russia and the West played hegemonic chess with Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda eventually formed from the ashes of the Soviet Union occupation and was later bolstered by various wars in the Balkans and Chechnya, and from incursions by the US. Their short-term goal has always been to clear Westerners, and especially Americans, from Muslim lands particularly by way of global jihad against Western militaries and economies.
The US invasion of Iraq exacerbated the power and notoriety of the relatively small Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad group in Jordan. Initially opposing the Jordanian monarchy and the Shia Muslims in the Levant (Syria and Iraq), this group eventually allied with bin Laden, absorbed more terrorist cells during the American occupation and bloated to its currently appalling form, ISIL.
Therefore it appears that annihilating evil by military might seems most likely to result in the installment of a still greater evil. So how do we sidestep this self-defeating practice when battling ISIL?
If the major opposition is pragmatic, domestic and familiar, fanatical movements gasp in their empty rhetoric, ultimately asphyxiating on falling recruitment and dilating languor. A RAND study covering 648 terrorist groups from 1968-2006 showed that 268 ceased operations within that time. Of the defunct groups, 83% were ended by local political actions, local police and local intelligence agencies while only 7% were stopped by military force. Therefore terrorist organizations are best rooted out and thwarted by opposing moderate groups from within the country or region of their base operation.
Al-Nusra Front, the once unified terrorist organization, has recently fractured over power struggles with ISIL proving that even internal fanatical forces with similar goals can have calamitous effects on each other.
History has left detailed instructions for identifying the differences between a terrorist uprising, a civil war, and a rebellion heavily supported by a foreign government. It has also left instructions on what shouldn’t be done in foreign nations under specific types of duress. No matter how intricate the issues, how high the stakes, or how lofty the end goals, we find that a seemingly sophisticated answer emanates from an elementary school lesson: If a bully hits you, do you really think hitting him back will dissuade him from further violence?
The West must tiptoe carefully in Syria while attacking ISIL for purely defensive means, or it could easily slip among the complex warring systems on the Syrian ground thereby invigorating the monster it helped create.