By Patricia DeGennaro
Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia (and their Gulf partners), Israel, Turkey, France, the U.S., and Russia each have some military involvement in Syria, soon to be followed by the United Kingdom. Needless to say, there are a lot of players in the Middle East and an abundance of interests, all at the expense of millions of innocent civilians whose governments and Western allies seem to prefer war to peace.
The world changes and with it so do geography and geopolitics. Although the globe seemed to be stable during the Cold War, underneath that facade, it was anything but. Authoritarian rulers marginalized, suppressed, or exterminated groups they didn’t like. Arms were distributed by the superpowers like candy to children. Leaders across the globe were overthrown in order to replace them with those “more friendly” to Western interests despite the harm to the masses.
What has changed post–Cold War? Now, a greater number of countries have leverage to act with or without the permission of the larger hegemons. No longer are two powers able to cut up the globe and control states based on the communist–versus-capitalist ideological narrative. There is state and non-state competition, and plenty of it.
As a result, groups like the Islamic State are being born every day, both within states as well as across borders, unhappy with how governance is being implemented. They are demanding anything from more freedom to more regulation. They are based on religious affiliations, economic wealth, and gender preference. All are challenging the Westphalian system in which decisions about global behavior are made by the elites of western nations for all societies. The Islamic State in particular is following this trend by challenging Western order with indiscriminate brutality, free speech with martial law, and treasured life with violent death. Its disgruntled recruits stem from the vast corners of the globe. Many who despise current day inequality, hegemony, and what they see as an economically futile future are joining the ranks.
In the midst is a vast humanitarian crisis of unseen and unimaginable proportions impacting international stability both regionally and globally. Non-state and state actors are no longer waiting for permission from the U.S. or the former Soviets, they are making their own moves and feeding the frenzy in the process. While the U.S. continues to use bombing to encourage obedience, Egypt, Israel, Russia, and the Gulf coalition led by Saudi Arabia have taken it upon themselves to replicate the practice of reckless military intervention. As they say in the HBO show “Game of Thrones,” “winter is coming,” and with almost every population reeling from some type of battle, it sure feels that way.
I strongly believe that the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 were a wake up call. That day was a stark reminder that this world of ours can no longer be separated or segregated. More importantly, the world cannot afford ongoing war. No nation has control over all events or people within its borders. We are interconnected, globalized if you will, and it is high time we understand that our actions provoke others to respond – positively or negatively – and that countries may try to control external influences but they cannot. With the vast accessibility of the Internet, the movement of goods and services, and the ease of travel, people can easily reach each other from the opposite corners of the Earth, making it harder to squash ideals and voices demanding democratic participation instead of tyranny. Bomb after bomb shows governments are just not listening.
On 9/11, there was a fork in the road. One path led us to embrace one world with a focus on maintaining a collective peace, while the other led us to devastating war — and so war it is and has been since that day. In turn, we have not seen the violence dissipate; it has only increased. Safety and freedom in the midst of this environment are a farce.
The U.S. vowed to “destroy” al–Qaida. Ironically al-Qaida’s international reach has morphed with an entity now called the Islamic State, an organization that has now gone global as well as erratic in its goal of destruction. The Taliban is back with a vengeance. And Syria is getting pummeled by Western powers playing very dangerous and illegal war games on Syrian sovereign territory, attacking an entity they are not eliminating, but only making stronger. After 15 years, it is pretty clear to me that the U.S. policy of relying on war against enemies and extremists alike is just not working.
Negative reinforcement never does work. It’s not like the West is doing anyone any favors by letting the citizens of Syria think, “Oh, I love them because they dropped a 500–ton bomb on my family, but the good news is they got the terrorist,” or “Boy, I’m so thankful for that beating, I’m sure it’ll make me a better person,” or “I’m so glad my country and so many of my people were shot, raped, destroyed … [insert appropriate ‘benevolent’ Western superpower], thank you. Now I can live in rubble with PTSD and no future… because that’s freedom, right?” Seriously.
Will anyone find a better way to address adversaries or the roots of extremism? Apparently not. After the horrific events in France, the world will not re-think its policy that focuses on “bombing to win.” Instead, it will encourage more nations to participate. Now the U.K. has committed to join the fight and France will reinforce its presence. Syria’s airspace will only become more crowded. Turkey has already taken the liberty to shoot down a Russian warplane – the plane’s violation of Turkish airspace is currently under debate – and this is exactly what will continue to happen. Personally, I’m surprised this is the first time it did. Where and when will all this fatal posturing end?
The Syria and Islamic State crisis absolutely needs a fundamental, comprehensive international approach, but it needs one that goes beyond war. In this context, nations must find a way to aid the endless stream of refugees coming to Europe so animosity toward the West does not continue to grow. If countries can send billions of weapons, they can afford billions in aid for life instead of death. These people need immediate shelter, food, water, and heath services—not more munitions dropped on them.
Failing to implement humanitarian initiatives and refusing to welcome to safety those fleeing from war only reinforces Western inhumanity in the eyes of others. Frankly, American rants about Muslims and terrorism ring deaf to war–torn ears, and separating people due to race, religion, or anything else is blatantly contrary not only to the U.S. constitution, but also to the popular proclamation that the U.S. has superior values to those of other nations. Coincidently, this response to those fleeing Western bombs only opens more doors to Islamic State recruitment. It makes the Islamic State stronger and the world less secure by the day.
President Obama is correct; the answer is to cut off the Islamic State’s lifelines. I know the U.S. and others are attempting to do so. In addition, however, the more powerful nations must commit to strengthening the government of Syria and engaging it, not deposing it. Change in leadership can be brought about later by the Syrian people. It is an illusion that the world only recognizes “traditional” warfare and Western rules of engagement. Therefore, the idea that force always works is false. More troops are not the answer; the focus on war and weapons only continues to perpetuate itself.
Engagement, diplomacy, and implementing sound and consistent international policy in tandem with the needs of world communities are what must be done. The Islamic State and other ideological extremists are committed to convincing their followers that the world is headed toward Armageddon. More war just feeds into that notion and allows people to join in violence, because in their minds, this is the end. It is up to us all to demonstrate otherwise.
Patricia DeGennaro is a senior fellow at World Policy Institute, an adjunct professor of international security at NYU and an advisor to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]