Debating hard power against IS

Debating hard power against IS
Comment: An ideology cannot be destroyed with missiles, and the geopolitical point-scoring between global powers is not an attempt to help Syrians, writes Naveed Ahmad.
7 min read
09 Nov, 2015
Relying on military might to contain IS is a myth debunked by history [Getty]

Washington has announced it will send Special Forces to help Syrian opposition rebels fight the Islamic State group. Russia has already deployed air, naval and ground troops and hardware in Syria on the pretext of attacking IS.

But it's not just the erstwhile cold war rivals flexing muscles against "extremists" - other regional powers have been attacking them.

Australia - a geographically remote but self-styled global power - started air raids against the Islamic State group last month. France also sees the conflict as an opportunity to reassert itself in the Levant region. None of the world's powers attack Assad regime bases to stop the barrages of barrel bombst.

Putin's Russia has used IS as a pretext to perpetuate its vested military interests historically pegged in its Tartus naval outpost.

IS is a unique target, uniting foes such as Iran, UAE, Russia and the United States. On the ground, there has been little impact from the countless sorties by multinational fighter jets. It is bizarre that each interested power has its own definition of IS - and thus its own exaggerated projection of capability.

Meanwhile, Germany has received a quarter of a million refugees, predominantly from Syria. The plight of exiles is linked with safety at home. The Syrian regime remains the main reason for displacement - yet remains unchallenged.

The Russian Duma's sanctioning of Putin's military hardware deployment on Syrian soil in the name of a holy war, to capture more territory for the Alawite-led regime, is already showing catastrophic consequences for the Syrians as well as the rest of the Middle East.

There's negligible debate as to why Assad's loyal troops, Iran's military advisers, its armed-to-the-teeth proxy Hezbollah and other pro-regime militias don't fight IS.

At least for now, the US and Russia both are on the same side, with their allies scattered across the globe. While the Assad regime is relatively easy to replace, world powers have no assured capability and capacity to wipe out a heavily armed, rich and resilient terror group by mere air strikes.

Whenever it happened, Russia - which already has troops fighting in Syria along with the Iranian regulars - would dictate its terms, leaving little room for Turkey or the rest of its western allies.

The campaign against IS is not unique in human history. But the outcome seems far from the desired. With Russia entering the foray, any hope for resolution diminishes. Moscow's memory serves no better than that of the United States.

     Now the warmongers are testing their egos and technologies in a highly inflammable Middle East

Its misadventure of epic proportions left Afghanistan and the region in ruins. Now the warmongers are testing their egos and technologies in a highly inflammable Middle East.

With the breakup of the USSR emerged the hope for relative peace across the world. The collapse of the Soviet Union triggered the erosion of Yugoslavia, bringing forth cultural and religious fault-lines within various ethnic groups, forced to live under one flag for decades.

The massacre reminded the world of atrocities committed in the Second World War. While Afghanistan's warlords were roiled in a bitter power struggle, neighbouring Pakistan became the venue for a Shia-Sunni proxy war inspired and sponsored by oil-rich Iran and some rich Gulf sheikhs respectively.

Samuel P Huntington's prediction of The Clash of Civilizations was proving true to its word: cultural and religious identities were the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world.

The Arab rulers could largely avert popular revolts. However, the rigid authoritarianism - which had eventually driven away Islamic-minded Arab citizens - was catalytic in the creation of al-Qaeda.

Following the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda and its rivals used Islam to justify their manoeuvres for the entire decade. Come 2011, Tunisia breaks free of its dictator, triggering winds of change across North Africa and the Middle East.

Today, turmoil has engulfed Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain.

Either there is a struggle between Muslim Brotherhood-inspired political Islam or bloody conflict between puritan Wahhabis and militant Shia.

The west has joined hands with Syria's tyrant and theocratic Iran to militarily annihilate the Islamic State group, which gets sizeable manpower from the very same countries.

From post-USSR Afghanistan to today's Iraq and Syria, there has been no serious outcome of peace efforts. The conflicts are conveniently fuelled with sophisticated deadly cargo.

The instruments of conflict prevention, management and resolution seem contained to academic discourse in think-tanks and conferences. Afghanistan, which bled profusely in the power vacuum created after Soviet troops left, continues to be humiliated every day by a defiant Taliban as NATO completes its withdrawal.

The Taliban's capture of the northwestern Kunduz province is a stark reminder of the past and an omen of times ahead.

The conflict in Afghanistan remains far from managed - not to talk of being resolved.

Syria saw futile attempts by two top UN diplomats - Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi - before the phenomenon of Islamic State unfolded in 2013. As in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, the Middle Eastern nation sunk into deeper chaos on a pattern well-known.

The conflict zones of the world are at the mercy of war fighting machinery, as peace-making instruments have become blunted and obsolete. The United Nations Security Council has repeatedly proven to be little more than a debating forum.

The veto privilege of Russia and China has helped Assad survive and resort to chemical weapons and barrel bombs with impunity.

The bloodshed in Syria, rise of IS and the lack of conflict resolution mechanisms to deal with each of those menaces symbolises the moral and diplomatic bankruptcy of the global system.

If the global powers can't help deliver on Syrian aspirations for dignity and prosperity by annihilating Assad's war machinery and establishment, IS can't be eliminated through remote-controlled precision bombs.

In July, Kabul held talks with the Taliban in the presence of representatives from half a dozen nations - including the US and China. Global and regional powers took 15 years to digest the idea of talking to the militia.

There are still countries such as India, which favour a greater use of force against the Taliban. Delhi, for example, is looking for an opening in the region to flex its military muscle and manifest the hard power accumulated over the past two decades.

Australia and France have little else to prove through their campaign against IS but their hard power and global power aspiration.

     The IS propaganda machinery remains sophisticated and smartly matched to its beliefs and ambitions

So far, IS could not be maimed, and no peace plan has been drawn up. The influence of IS has spread across North Africa in one direction and Afghanistan and Central Asia on the other. Its propaganda machinery remains sophisticated and smartly matched to its beliefs and ambitions.

The war has never been a promise of peace. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, from the IRA operating in Great Britain to FARC rebels in Columbia, political engagements through negotiations have been the way forward.

However, displays of military might have always preceded any peace overtures from either side. After wasting billions of dollars in Afghanistan, the US not only de-listed the Taliban from its list of terrorist outfits, but also agreed to its opening a political office in Doha, Qatar, as a "confidence-building gesture" ahead of talks.

In the interest of the Syrian and Iraqi people and to avoid further radicalisation of disfranchised amd isolated youth in Europe and the Middle East, the time has come to rethink bombing campaigns - and chalk out a strategy for non-violent engagement.

The anti-IS campaign is marred in secrecy, similar to US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas. Instead, a more transparent and trust-building step could be the release of videos and identities of targeted aerial operations and the alleged culprits killed.

Lack of such mechanisms only lead to manipulation of the truth and the radicalisation of locals, while the victims - terrorists or otherwise - are glorified.

The Syrian people and the rest of the world needs a legal investigation into Assad's use of chemical weapons, as well as the massacres and genocides committed using the state apparatus and missionary proxies of allies.

Abandoning the parallel political entity - the Syrian National Coalition - leaves everything to the militant groups. A similar power play led to catastrophe in Afghanistan not long ago.

Warlords have rarely proven to be great politicians - especially in situations as vastly complex as in Syria.

The issue of talking to IS has become politically incorrect amid the desire of world powers to assert their clout and hard power alike.

Such talks would not be a sign of weakness, but still none seem ready to become a true statesman in a world marked by short-term political capital. The more time the global political elite takes to mend its act on dealing with IS, the better it will be for their nemesis.

If military solutions alone are to be pursued, then the West and the Gulf will have to keep its doors open for refugees, and banks flexible to depleting financials.

Naveed Ahmad is a Doha-based investigative journalist and academic with special focus on diplomacy, security and energy issues. Twitter: @naveed360

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.