While pacifism is naïve, the Don’t Bomb Syria campaign may have a point when it comes to how best to defeat Daesh (Islamic State) – Daesh cannot simply be bombed away.
By Sarah Schneider*
The breakdown of social and civil continuity is the major factor which allowed Daesh to rise to power. “Syria was a godsend for ISIL,” and it’s precisely the genocide that not only reversed the victory of Iraq over al-Qaeda, but “led to the radicalization and disillusionment of those populations, which opened the door for the jihadi groups to hijack those movements” While the ideology previously existed, left over from al-Qaeda, the environment Syria provided gave Daesh a significant recruitment platform, and gave their radical interpretation of Islam justification for radical social change. The dysfunctional nature of the region that allowed this rise signifies the fundamental reason why a military campaign will not solve the region’s broken dynamics. Consequently a number of assumptions must be refuted and clarified, in order to understand how to improve UK [foreign] policy as to actually defeat Daesh.
Daesh is not a conventional enemy
Current UK policy involves balancing humanitarian aid with military support for coalition forces, through strikes and providing training to ‘friendly’ forces, yet how different is this approach to that taken in Iraq? How different is this policy to the very one that led to the establishment of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) from the defeat of al-Qaeda? Daesh is not a conventional enemy – while comparisons have been made to Nazi Germany , the war against Daesh is wholly different from the battles that took place during WWII. Furthermore, Daesh holds a loose interpretation of religion that can be considered more of a political ideology, which is held by many around the world, therefore easier to recruit, more difficult to fight. It is precisely their desire for religious and political legitimacy that is so dangerously been manifested in policies, that combat it as a conventional enemy to justify our fears. While a threat, Daesh is not a battle to be won on a battlefront; altering this assumption is the first step. The UK holds enough power  with its allies to sway coalition forces into considering a more pragmatic approach that adopts more contemporary warfare tactics. Furthermore, more non-violent military operations should take place, such as operations to increase access to information within IS-held territory, in order to recruit support from inside. “The population under IS control has… rebelled more than once in both Syria and Iraq, suggesting that significant opposition exists.”
Bombing plays into Daesh’s objectives
Gilles Kepel establishes al-Qaeda’s 9/11 motivations as “to provoke a similarly gigantic repression of the Afghan civilian population and to build universal solidarity among Muslims in reaction to the victimization and suffering of their Afghan brothers.” The best example of this kind of solidarity occurred for the US-sponsored Mujahideen  during the Soviet-Afghan war, and following a loss in US backing after the war, and without means to rebuild Afghanistan, the Taliban formed.
Daesh want to establish a caliphate state for which they need Muslim support. All efforts to prove their legitimacy are intended to appeal specifically to marginalized Muslims. Therefore, Daesh’s principal goal is to create forces that alienate and marginalize Muslims whom their recruitment can then appeal to – their means of terror attacks and threats effectively illicit fear-based, thereby successful results. In joining the coalition fight after the Paris attacks, we have offered victory to terrorists. “The interesting thing about terrorism is that the real success of an attack depends not on terrorists, but their victims.” Regardless of how successfully carried out an attack is, the kind of response we have determines its success. ‘Unsuccessful’ attacks this year were illustrated by various responses to the Paris attacks, like of Müncheners gathering at their train station New Year’s Eve or Canada and France pledging to allow in over 25,000 refugees. Terrorists were successful however, in reactions elicited by GOP candidates calling for religion tests upon entry to the US, and among other mistakes, the decision by the House of Lords to use the Paris attacks as justification for joining the war in Syria  – while security threats should always be taken seriously, the decision was result of disproportionate fear-mongering.
Military presence isn’t entirely ineffective – the coalition forces have made moderate strides,  and their offensive is keeping Daesh somewhat busy with regional challenges, therefore less concerned with launching foreign attacks. However, every person killed under pretenses of collateral damage provides an opportunity for Daesh to radicalize grieving relatives, and while steps can be taken to limit collateral damage , it cannot be eliminated. Furthermore, the far-right voices in many countries mobilizing people’s fear are reacting exactly in the way Daesh had hoped  – associating all refugees with terrorists, all Muslims with terrorists, perpetrating hate-crimes, and acting as political forces that pressure against progressive immigration policies, creating an environment for Muslims in Western countries that has largely generated growing foreign recruitment and the newer phenomenon of independent terror attacks (e.g. San Bernadino). In order to combat this, attitudes must first change.
Bombing will not destroy radical ideologies, only eliminate radical leaders
Currently the UK government’s involvement as part of the coalition forces entails providing £59.5 million in humanitarian aid to those in Iraq fleeing IS , Royal Air Force aircrafts in action supporting the Iraqi Government, and ‘British Tornados and surveillance aircraft helping with intelligence gathering and logistics.’ While the government maintains, “This is not about British combat troops on the ground. It is about working with others to extinguish this terrorist threat,” its missing the point. The terrorist threat will not be extinguished through military means – eliminating radical leaders and enough fighters to procure a surrender is neither feasible, nor will it eliminate the actual threat – ideology. This ideology will continue to manifest itself in any conflict involving a breakdown in social and civil relations, perpetuating an ‘Islamic State 2.0’ even if the current organization is defeated. Daesh’s political ideology, which gains traction by appealing to the marginalized – while dangerous political ideologies such as Neonazism still exist in the modern day, they fail to gain traction because they are not positioned in a region with the extreme instability and suffering they can exploit for recruitment. While such a comparison suggests a hopeless cycle, the way to eliminate the traction this radical ideology garners is not to solve instability in the Middle East, but instead to focus on eliminating the marginalization terrorist attacks incite. This would include delegitimizing Daesh’s religious appeal by encouraging more religious clerics to expose its fallacies, changing our reaction to terror attacks altogether to encourage more tolerance (thereby delegitimizing the power their terror attacks have), and working more effectively with communities to address their grievances.
What’s naïve about the Stop The War coalition (Don’t Bomb Syria campaign) is their reasoning that military action is never the answer. The problematic trend of recent decades to resort to war as the only option, without considering alternatives, is impulsive and ignorant. Military action however, if limited and aimed, still has its advantages. “Bombing and drone strikes have their place if properly targeted, but no aircraft has ever held ground.“ While Daesh can’t be defeated by military action alone, some limited form of intelligence-based military action is necessary, especially special forces, in order to eliminate the organization’s leaders. Military action must be supported by efforts on several different fronts, and it must be stressed that if Daesh is defeated, reconstruction efforts must be collectively supported through investment by coalition forces. Social and civil breakdown is the main factor that leaves a region vulnerable to radical extremist groups, and allows such groups to rise to power (e.g. Taliban). As such, once Daesh is not longer in control of territory, reconstructing the social tissue of the community must be the priority. Rebuilding the country, especially schools, until the country is relatively self-sufficient, is crucial for preventing future terrorist organizations.
*Sarah Schneider is an undergraduate at the University of Exeter studying International Relations with Arabic and Russian. In addition to that, she remains active in student politics as Liberation Councillor in the students’ union, president of the refugee society STAR Exeter, and as a free speech campaign representative and policy editor for #Right2Debate. You can follow Sarah on Twitter – @SarahSchneidr
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.
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- Quilliam Guest Post, ‘The Psychology of ISIS: A Brief Analysis of How It Functions as a Group’, Quilliam Blog, June 3, 2015, http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/blog/the-psychology-of-isis-a-brief-analysis-of-how-it-functions-as-a-group/.
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- Omar Ashour, ‘Why Does the Islamic State Endure and Expand?’,IAI Papers 52, no. 15 (December 2015), accessed February 4, 2016, http://www.iai.it/en/pubblicazioni/why-does-islamic-state-endure-and-expand. 3.
- Gilles Kepel and Anthony F Roberts, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, 4th ed. (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006), 4.
- George Crile, Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History (Lahore: Vanguard Books, 2003).
- Nicolas Hénin, ‘I Was Held Hostage by Isis. They Fear Our Unity More than Our Airstrikes’, The Guardian (The Guardian), November 16, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/16/isis-bombs-hostage-syria-islamic-state-paris-attacks.
- BBC, ‘Syria Air Strikes: MPs Authorise UK Action against Islamic State’,BBC UK Politics (BBC News), December 3, 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-34989302.
- Paul Wood, ‘The Truth about Islamic State: It’s in Crisis’, The Spectator January 9, 2016, accessed January 27, 2016, http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/01/the-truth-about-islamic-state-its-in-crisis/.
- Sean OMelveny, ‘US Choice to Drop Leaflets in Syria Contrasts with Russian Way of War’, Military.com (n.p.), November 19, 2015, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2015/11/19/us-choice-to-drop-leaflets-in-syria-contrasts-russian-way-war.html.
- Patrick Goodenough, ‘Syrian Oil Tanker Drivers Warned before US Bombs Fell’, CNS News (CNS News), November 19, 2015, http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/patrick-goodenough/syrian-oil-tanker-drivers-warned-us-bombs-fell.
- Quilliam Foundation, The Need for a Clear and Consistent Counter-Extremism Strategy Headed by an Expert to Steer the Prime Minister’s Taskforce (London, 2013)
- ‘Daesh: UK Government Response’, accessed February 2, 2016, https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/daesh/about.
- Jonathan Russell and Alex Theodosiou, Counter-Extremism: A Decade on from 7/7 (London: Quilliam Foundation, 2015), http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/counter-extremism-a-decade-on-from-7-7.pdf.
- ‘About Stop the War’, accessed February 10, 2016, http://www.stopwar.org.uk/index.php/about.
- Anonymous, ‘How to Defeat Isis, by a Retired British Commander’,The Spectator (The Spectator), November 28, 2015, http://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/11/how-to-defeat-isis-by-a-retired-british-commander/.