Opinion and Editorial

Armageddon can wait

Mahir Ali (Counter ?Point)
Filed on September 3, 2014

Global threat is used to deflect attention from domestic woes

Barack Obama’s recent confession that his country did not so far have a strategy as far as the so-called ISIS is concerned has been pilloried as a gaffe. It could, however, also be seen as the plain truth.

The United States did not really have a strategy a decade or so ago either, when the administration of George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, evidently expecting that the various pieces would magically fall into place once Saddam Hussein was toppled. The tactic represented a disastrous combination of hubris and ignorance.

The extent to which the subsequent implosions and explosions in the region are a direct consequence of that particular debacle is arguable, but there can be little doubt that the big picture would have been decidedly different, and in all probability considerably less unpleasant, in the absence of that monumental neoconservative folly.

Of course, what’s done cannot be undone, and the present crisis demands a resolute response. It’s by no means undesirable, however, for that response to take account of all that has gone wrong in the recent past.

Obama has come under attack, for instance, for hesitating to strike Syria in the early days of the revolt against the Bashar Al Assad dictatorship, and thereby purportedly facilitating the expansion of Islamist outfits such as ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra. Too many of the critics are inclined, however, to ignore in this context the consequences of Nato’s role in Libya.

Washington allowed itself to be catapulted into that conflict, partly on the basis of Paris and London’s aggressive enthusiasm, and Nato’s mission was a success in terms of achieving the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. But Libya today is being torn apart by rival militias, many of them distinguishable not so much by ideology as by tribal affiliations.

Under similar circumstances, would the outcome the Syria have been remarkably different? Who can claim with any confidence that Assad’s early overthrow would have prevented Islamist forces from sooner or later gaining the upper hand?

The US has lately been thinking aloud about launching airstrikes in Syria with the ostensible aim of undermining ISIS rather than Assad, based on the assumption that Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s troops cannot be quelled by focusing on Iraq alone. That may be so, but there is the wider question of whether they can effectively be tackled at all mainly through air assaults.

There have evidently been some tactical successes in Iraq in this respect, beginning with the besieged Yazidis stranded on Sinjar Mountain — most of whom appear to have made it to relative safety in Iraqi Kurdistan, although the reported numbers are open to question. Then there was the recapture of Mosul Dam, and most recently the apparent rescue of Amerli.

In the latter instance, the US airstrikes were effectively in aid of Shia militias spearheading the assault against ISIS — the same militias, with links to Iran, that not many years ago were dedicated to undermining the American occupation of Iraq. “Should such military actions continue,” The New York Times noted on Monday, “they could signal a dramatic shift for the United States and Iran, which have long vied for control in Iraq.”

Naturally, neither Washington nor Tehran is keen to emphasise this aspect of the emerging situation. Matters are further complicated by the fact that some of the militias betray a penchant for sectarian brutality that, although no match for the revolting atrocities that ISIS is so keen to broadcast, nonetheless provides cause for concern.

The United Nations this week decided to investigate “acts of inhumanity on an unimaginable scale” by ISIS, as well as atrocities by Iraqi government forces. Whether or not such an investigation serves any practical purpose in the murkily unfolding circumstances, the ostensible even-handedness of the approach is interesting.

Meanwhile, there has been considerable concern across several nations in Europe as well as in the US and Australia over young Muslim citizens’ tendency towards jihadist adventurism, with thousands — the numbers are again uncertain — travelling to Syria or Iraq as Islamist volunteers.

This is hardly a novel trend — it can be traced back at least to Afghanistan in the 1980s. The worries over it are understandable, although there is thus far no clear evidence of returnees planning domestic acts of terrorism. It is at the same time difficult to altogether dispense with the notion that projecting ISIS as an unprecedented global threat helps some Western governments to deflect attention from domestic woes.

The ISIS threat should not be underestimated, but exaggerations can have the perverse effect of increasing its cachet both within and outside the region. Nobody has a clear idea of precisely how this story will unfold, let alone end. But there’s not much value in pretending it portends some kind of Armageddon.

The Western insistence on “no boots on the ground” is open to interpretation as insufficient commitment or even cowardice. But in fact it’s a welcome augury, not least in the light of recent experience. When, since the Second World War, have Western boots on the ground produced positive consequences in the Middle East (or, for that matter, anywhere else)?

The ideal response to the regional dilemmas of the moment would be an unprecedented level of cooperation, coordination and collaboration between Middle Eastern states, notwithstanding longstanding rivalries in some cases. That, unfortunately, cannot be described as an imminent prospect, despite the tentative emergence of intriguing alliances. But there’s never been a better time for it.

Mahir Ali is a journalist based in Sydney

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