I spent the week after the Paris attacks wondering, Why must the US response be military? France is justified in avenging itself against ISIS, but the United States should be cautious in responding to this particular instance of violent jihad.
When have we heard more hysterical commentary than during this past week, a week of incomplete sentences and excited spluttering? Ironically, only the President remained calm; only his remarks regarding ISIS’s threat to the US made sense; and, perhaps for that reason, the media and political establishment have excoriated him and deprecated the administration resoundingly.
Meanwhile, a perfect storm is picking up speed in Syria, where a civil war broke out four and a half years ago, in response to a citizens’ uprising against Bashar al-Assad during the multi-national Arab Spring. I remember seeing an interview with some moderate rebels then: they were dismayed at the US’s failure to help them and predicted that disillusionment would encourage the growth of anti-Western extremism. And so it has.
Since that ‘simpler’ time, Syria has become the theater where at least three wars are raging simultaneously. First, there is the increasingly sectarian civil war aimed at deposing the intractable Assad. Second, a war within a war is being waged, as the stateless guerrilla group ISIS attempts, in Syria and elsewhere, to establish a retrograde caliphate that it justifies in the name of Islamic purity. Finally, the Syrian war is a proxy war, with numerous other powers overtly or covertly aiding the principal combatants, attempting to further their own interests by investing in the triumph of one or the other side. The outside players include Iran, Russia, and the Lebanese-based group Hezbollah on the Syrian government’s side, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US, the UK, and France on the opposition side. (For more on the war’s history, see this BBC News summary; also this map of Middle-Eastern involvement at The Maghreb and Orient Courier.)
The opposition has the weaker hand, because its principal aim is to bring down the Assad regime; yet no one can imagine who could bring order to Syria if Assad were gone. The so-called ‘moderate’ rebels fighting for democracy have long since been overwhelmed by militants from all over the world, and especially by Sunni forces fighting to bring down Assad’s Alawites and attain a theocratic victory. Westerners who think this war is still primarily about democracy and self-determination have it wrong. Re-establishing civil order will involve either the installation of a puppet government with a new strongman or a return to the status quo ante bellum.
Tactically, the conflict has morphed into a type of total war that is difficult to categorize, though, sadly, many of its most brutal elements (chemical warfare, the bombing of civilian populations) have occurred in modern wars before. The tactics of the Islamic State (which of course is a fantastical misnomer, as the force does not constitute a state at all), however, are novel in that they combine Western-oriented terrorism with transnational guerrilla warfare aimed at further creating anarchy in and beyond the territory that ISIS is intent on overtaking.
The New York Times published an excellent graphic feature highlighting how ISIS’s terror activities complement their geographically focused war aims. Precisely because ISIS is not a state, it wishes to promote anarchy as well as to break up the influence of the West and exorcise the Western narrative that has shaped and justified our involvement in the affairs of many Muslim-populated societies.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, the pressure is on the Obama administration to step up the fight against ISIS in Syria, to send ground troops and commit more air and fire power to a multi-sided conflict already fraught with too many antagonistic parties. The pressure is all the greater given that the presidential race is in full swing. Republican candidates, eager to talk tough, are vying to out-do one another with fantastical visions of military aggression whose virtues are merely quantitative.
President Obama did a good job last week of reminding everyone that ISIS is not a state but a more amorphous and unconventional enemy. At a press conference during the G20 summit in Turkey, the president astutely rejected the idea of being further drawn into a conventional war, reminding his listeners that conventional tactics will not work against this unconventional enemy.
We play into the ISIL narrative when we act as if they’re a state, and we use routine military tactics that are designed to fight a state that is attacking another state. That’s not what’s going on here.
These are killers with fantasies of glory who are very savvy when it comes to social media, and are able to infiltrate the minds of not just Iraqis or Syrians, but disaffected individuals around the world. And when they activate those individuals, those individuals can do a lot of damage. And so we have to take the approach of being rigorous on our counterterrorism efforts, and consistently improve and figure out how we can get more information, how we can infiltrate these networks, how we can reduce their operational space, even as we also try to shrink the amount of territory they control to defeat their narrative.
The gravest threat that ISIS poses to the US is the incitement of terror. Here’s hoping that Americans can resist the drumbeat and refrain from over-reaching in the Middle East, instead choosing to devote themselves to the twin causes of domestic safety and peace.