Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘Turkey’

IS: The Limits of Conventional Wisdom

Would Islamic State have attacked Paris twice this year killing almost 150 people if France weren’t bombing it in Iraq and Syria?

Would IS have blown up an airliner killing 229 Russian tourists and aircrew, if Moscow had not intervened in Syria?

Would IS have bombed Shi’ite suburbs of Beirut killing at least 43 if Hezbollah was not fighting alongside President Assad’s forces?

Would IS have launched attacks in Turkey killing 134 peace protesters if Ankara had not turned against it over Syria?

I’m not asking these questions to imply the victims of these attacks somehow brought it on themselves.

I’m asking because as President Hollande said this week his country is “at war” with IS – it has been since it started air strikes against its forces last year – and in a war you are likely to get attacked.

I’m also asking because when IS – or ISIL or ISIS or Daesh – hit world headlines by seizing Iraq’s second city, Mosul, last year, the conventional wisdom among the experts and analysts was that IS was a different kind of threat from al Qaeda – whose signature is mass casualty terrorist attacks anywhere it finds a target, like the 9/11 attacks in the US or the Bali bombing.

It may have emerged out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but the argument went that ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – was what it said on the tin – an organisation dedicated to carving out a state from those two countries.

It followed from there that IS was fighting a more conventional style war with the aim of capturing territory. Sure it used terror against its enemies by publicising on social media the atrocities it carried out when it occupied towns and took prisoners – be they regular Iraqi troops or Yezidi women and girls – but it was not interested in attacking targets further afield.

If this was a correct reading of IS then, we now know only too well it isn’t anymore.

It is tempting to see IS attacks outside Syria and Iraq as a direct response to the intervention of foreign forces against it that began after the fall of Mosul and its advances across the border in Syria.

But one of the first such incidents linked to IS was the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 – before the fall of Mosul and several months before the US-led campaign against it began.

Whatever motivated the change in tactics by IS, the conventional wisdom has been proved to be very wrong.

With the escalation of terrorist strikes and the shock of its assault in the heart of a major western capital, the focus is on how to eradicate the Islamist group.

Here another piece of conventional wisdom comes in – that destroying Islamic State in Syria and Iraq can be achieved, but only by using large numbers of ground troops.

Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by US air strikes have had some success and recently retook the town of Sinjar. But the Iraqi army and its Shia militia allies have made heavy weather of retaking Ramadi and the much-awaited offensive to retake Mosul is still to get underway. They clearly need reinforcements though where they may come from is not clear.

But is this wisdom also flawed?

Is there the danger the defeat of IS in Syria and Iraq would see it resorting to more mass casualty attacks in the region and beyond?

Remember, after 9/11, the overthrow of its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan didn’t prevent al Qaeda and its followers around the world carrying out further terrorist attacks, including Europe’s worst to date: the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed more than 190 people as they travelled to work.

The challenge many European countries face is that they have quite a few young Muslim citizens who are attracted to Islamist ideology.

This seems to be because they are deeply alienated from mainstream society and deeply angry about what they see as their countries’ policies towards the Muslim world.

But being attracted to the ideology and carrying out acts of terrorist violence for the cause are two different things.

What makes some people take to bombing and shooting their fellow citizens is not yet well enough understood. The studies that have been done suggest it’s a complex combination of societal and psychological factors as well as ideology.

Whatever the precise triggers, European countries, like France and Britain, are grappling with a volatile mix – the legacy of their imperial past in the Middle East and North Africa added to recent policies in the region which have angered substantial numbers of alienated young Muslim men and women.

The final ingredient – the detonator – seems to be the appeal of groups like IS offering what to these young people may appear a romantic cause of fighting to restore a glorious past – in this case the Caliphate.

So alongside more effective security measures and increased vigilance from ordinary people, to stop further attacks European countries need to take a deep breath, not overreact to Paris, and try to address the causes of Islamist violence.

So far the prospects don’t look good.

The French and British governments are both proposing changes that will enhance powers that will restrict people’s freedom.

Yet, French politicians and commentators have echoed their counterparts in Britain and other countries that have suffered Islamist-inspired violence by saying the terrorists’ target is the European way of life. So, surely the worst response would be to resort to unreasonable restrictions on people’s rights and freedoms in the name of defeating IS?

If this is partly an ideological struggle, that would be conceding valuable ground.

 

Russia: Anything You Can Do ….

Watching Russia’s military intervention in Syria unfold has taken me back to my secondary school days when we put on the musical Annie Get Your Gun.

You may remember it from its best-known song “Anything you can do” and with the Russians carrying our air strikes in support of Syrian ground forces and using cruise missiles launched from ships in the far-off Caspian Sea, Moscow seems to be sending that same message to Washington

Where the US used its air power to help the Kosovo Liberation Army against Serbian forces in 1999 and give the Northern Alliance the edge against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and where the US Navy used cruise missiles against Iraq, Serbia and Libya, the Russians seem to be using their Syria campaign to put down a marker and demonstrate the US and its NATO allies aren’t the only ones who have such capabilities.

And it is not just in military prowess that President Putin is showing he can do at least some of the things the US and NATO have pretty much had a monopoly on up to now.

More significantly, Moscow is showing that when the US decided to disregard the niceties of international law and the rules-based international system it did so much to establish after 1945, it set a dangerous precedent others would follow.

There has been quite a bit of commentary in western outlets about how Russia’s actions expose the relative decline of US power and also President Obama’s unwillingness to exercise the considerable power the US undoubtedly still possesses.

Russia’s Syria intervention is being seen as evidence that Putin is taking advantage of the unwillingness and inability of the US to lead and we are now living in a G-Zero world where power is exercised – by those who have it – in the pursuit of national interests rather than the common good.

But this analysis is missing some key points.

While it’s true US power is in relative decline and Obama has been reticent in using the conventional military on a large-scale – though not drones and special forces – the US itself is partly responsible for undermining the international order it criticises Russia for flouting.

From the 1989 invasion of Panama, through its disregard for the UN in the 1999 assault on Serbia, to Iraq in 2003, the Americans showed that when rules got in the way of what they wanted to do, they would be bent or just ignored – hence, former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s self-serving formulation of the Kosovo intervention as “not legal but … right”.

The US response to Russian criticism over its manipulation of international law has been to argue each case is unique or “sui generis” and to insist it hasn’t set a precedent.

Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t get to decide what sets a precedent and what doesn’t. And since 2007, Putin seems to have decided that while continuing to publicly argue for the primacy of international law, Russia would use American conduct to justify its own actions.

When it went to war with Georgia in 2008 over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and subsequently recognised their independence from Tbilisi, Russia justified its action as humanitarian intervention and cited what the US and NATO had done in Kosovo.

Putin’s justification for annexing Crimea also cited previous western actions.

In entering the Syrian conflict, Putin’s case is more clear cut under international law given he was invited in by President Assad, who heads what is still recognised by the UN as the government of Syria, though we are yet to see if the conduct of the Russian campaign conforms to the laws of war.

If the world is to bolster the international system and establish a semblance of stability, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, where let’s not forget a Saudi-led Gulf alliance has also taken a leaf out of the US book by intervening in Yemen’s civil war (and I’m surprised Moscow hasn’t cited this yet as another precedent for its actions in Syria), then a starting point would be to return to diplomacy over Syria.

An international system based on rules, rather then “might is right”, requires that all the international players, especially the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, swallow their pride and sit down together to thrash out a political solution that isolates the extremists of Islamic State and al-Nusra and ends Syria’s war and the suffering of its people.

With Russia escalating its attacks, NATO making angry noises at Moscow and Saudi Arabia talking about increasing support for the rebels, as things stand it doesn’t look like they’re willing to do this, so we continue on down the rocky road to a G-Zero world.

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