As a citizen of the Middle East my general take on the Western led coalition waging war against ISIS is the following: It is not your war.This is a war foreign armies can’t win, and it could have catastrophic consequences for the members of the coalition on the long run.
The West is not a target – for now
First, I agree that the Western countries have the right to defend themselves against possible threats threatening their people or sovereignty. But I assert that the war against terrorism is not necessary to achieve this goal. In order to ensure safety and peace within Western borders other measures could be taken, for example, security efforts in airports to prevent the join/return of ISIS western fighters, and here international cooperation could be useful. Blocking the imports of oil and the export of weapon to ISIS is another western arrangement that could help limit ISIS’s future regional power. It is important to stress the fact that ISIS and Nusra are not at the moment targeting the Western countries in their bloody struggle to create a new political reality on the ground. During the Gaza war, ISIS declared, that they wouldn’t target Israel before they are done executing more important battles. Nusra declared a similar announcement few weeks ago, including a warning to the Western coalition to not target their bases; Nusra spokesman said that their fight is not supposed to be with the Western countries. Both ISIS and Nusra, have other enemies. Defeating the Arab regimes is the first priority for them. Since the eighties, this was the definitional and existential ideology for most of the Islamic extremists’ organizations and individuals across the Islamic majority territories.
The unsuccessful record of the “war on terror”
Next, I think that Western led coalition won’t win the war against ISIS on the long run. It goes without saying that the military actions will have some immediate effective results on the ground like; reducing the mass killing of the civil groups and different minorities that ISIS has been targeting, limiting the further expansion of ISIS borders and stopping a situated ISIS state from being further established. But ISIS is much more than geographical borders or official buildings. Its structure is not dependant on the few official services that they control, or even the oil facilities that they profit from. This state has been virtually present in the region Islamic extremists’ literature and aspirations since decades.
Few examples that have illustrated this point are already present in the region;Taliban did not vanish after ten years of war against terrorism. Ben Laden was killed, but others are still keen on continuing the struggle for jihad. Al-Qaida has been massively weakened, but its ideas and direct followers are more spread than ever. Hamas, with a relatively similar ideology, is still ruling Gaza after two Israeli wars against it and are currently building a popular youth/teens army to fight future wars against Israel. Finally Hezbollah has since it unveiled its weapons against the Israeli army developed into a key player with veto rights in the Lebanese fragile state politics. So far, no Western-led war against terrorism has resulted in a clear victory, none of the battles against these achieved any form of closure.
The ignored context of the Middle East
Few indicators show that the level of the war against ISIS is meant to stay on the superficial level only. NATO´s war against Yugoslavia in 1990s was legitimized by genocide and crime against humanity. The justification of the war against ISIS could easily be based on the same grounds, as ISIS is clearly committing comparable crimes. The clear difference between the two wars is that the war in Yugoslavia unlike the present war against ISIS, and unlike the past wars against terrorism, the war against Yugoslavia was successful in reaching most of its strategic goals. The reason of the lack of efficiency in Western wars against terrorism, ongoing and past ones, lays in the region´s deep ethnic and sectarian historical unsolved conflicts, which are totally different than the general European nationality context. The idea of the national state is not popular in the Arab world yet.Among other ignored factors is the absence of democratically elected governments that have the ability to truthfully govern states, organize and prioritize political decisions and enforce them. Political developments in the region are not followed, coordinated or governed by one strong key player/organization like NATO or EU or a federal system like the USA. Also, Islamist religious popular culture tends to entail values that encourage violence instead of values of acceptance and tolerance and enlightenment that European culture has developed in the last centuries. And the frustrating present for the youth of the region that is stemming from a disappointing recent past and an uncertain future is another factor that will limit any Western military action to only achieve the very minimum of its goals. Finally, any economic siege won’t be any effective in the face of a secret -gulf prince- generous donor, where real money can be used depending on the absolute whims with no official or public monitoring.
In other words, the political, societal, cultural and economical situation, that is interfering and effecting ISIS humanly structure and ideology, is too complicated and divergent to be solved by a military action.
Explain this war to a Syrian refugee
The moral justification to wage this war is in my opinion relatively weak. Although ISIS committed and is still committing horrible crimes against humanity, ISIS in not the only actor behaving like this in the very same geographical area. The Syrian regime has been committing crimes like these, and on an even larger scale and more systematically over the past three years. A quarter million civilians died in what is called the Syrian civil war, but this has until this day not constituted an excuse to initiate any military action in Syria.
How can the US convince the Syrians and the rest of the International community that slaughtering a few western men is a more convincing excuse to wage a war than the protection of the many thousands of Syrians that died and the millions that lost their homes?! No strong moral justification can justify the war against ISIS now and not a war against Assad three years ago. There are plenty of strategic, power-related and political reasons though, but try to explain that to a Syrian refugee.
Part of the problem and not the solution
Furthermore, the Western war against Muslim extremists is part of the problem and not part of the solution. This war gives forgotten youth a new meaning to their lives, and a reason to collectively die for.
The continuous wars generate even more violence and give Islamist extremists’ organizations the justification they need to recruit new member using holy motivations like; war against Islam, resistance against the new crusaders.
An extremist killed by Western forces is more likely to cause the radicalization of young Muslims than an extremist killed by local governmental forces.
The conceptualization of “the war on terror”
The concept “war against terrorism” is a wrong conceptualization of the confrontation going on. The West really needs to come up with a new concept describing this confrontation. It goes without saying that terrorists groups are not sought to gain legitimacy or capabilities to build a state and gain support of locals, but ISIS does.
You cannot conceptualize this support as a support for terrorism. Terrorism is not a point of view that hundreds of thousands identify with, or can potentially identify with as in the ISIS case. Religiously, the differences between the religious beliefs of ISIS and millions of Sunni conservative Arabs are only differences in the interpretations of a few Quran verses. This organization/state has been and will be a part of the Arab/Muslim culture, in the near past, the far past, and at least, in the near future. The differences between the ideology of ISIS and the ideology of other Islamic organizations that won the elections in some of the Middle East countries over the past three years are not that big in general. In fact the concepts and rhetoric of ISIS and sole Islamist organizations that has ruled some Arab spring countries are closer than the rhetoric and concepts of traditional Arab rulers. The Islamic Jihadist ideology of fighting and overthrowing their local regimes has not changed since the 1980s, and it got a strong push forward from the more moderate Islamic current supporters, because of the failure of the Arab spring democratic experience, that affected the the Islamic current greatly.
Arabs needs to face the reality of that a big percentage of the Middle Eastern and middle Asian populations do not mind living under a government that is similar to ISIS, just without all the violence accompanied. ISIS´s interpretation of Islam is not a surprise; the books and texts that hold these interpretations are spread physically and in the minds of many people all over the region. ISIS represents a significant percentage of the people of these lands, and fighting it should be conceptualized as a fight against the representative of these people, and not a war on ISIS alone.
Not your war, ours!
For the aforementioned reasons, I think that this Western led coalition against ISIS is not a necessity to any country outside the region, it won’t reach a clear victory, its effectiveness will always be superficial, its moral justification is relatively weak, and it is part of the problem not part of the solution, and is definitely misconceptualized. Obviously, this war is not against an obvious enemy. The enemy is living in our countries, cities, streets and homes. To win this war we have to create an awakening project that constitutes a real alternative to the extreme Islamists version. We should lay effective tactics based on our own real power to confront Islamists in election polls, in order to retry to establish democracy again.We shouldn’t devote all efforts to sustain the status quo politically and socially. We should expand our strategic cards to more than oil and USA coalitions .
The war against ISIS and Nusra and similar organizations is our war. And to win this war we have to follow certain steps; first, we will have to neutralize the moderates, and reform the thought that our own fellow citizens, families, neighbors and colleges are following to prevent them from being attracted to extremists’ thoughts. Next, we will have to create a new formula for our regimes that is different from the survival one that we have now, an equation that carries answers to central ideological questions to avoid falling into Islamic extremists’ historical clichés. If we can’t prevent the youth of our countries to turn into ISIS fighters, then we are losing the fight anyway. The last step is that we have to change our political ruling strategy to contain all ideas in an open political system. But for now, Arab youth killed by jet missiles are a loss on all levels, and to all players, nationally and internationally, except to the Islamic extremist ideas and its future expansion.