The West should let the Middle East settle its own differences

17 November 2015
The bitter truth is there is no plausible way we can defeat jihadists with military force

Fighting endless wars in a vast region deeply hostile to western military interventions is surely the wrong way to proceed, argues Tom Switzer.

A pilot in the cockpit of a jet

In the wake of the horrific events in Paris, we are again told that terrorist attacks won't weaken our resolve to defeat the jihadists in the Middle East. Appeasement, our leaders remind us, wins no reprieve. There is no choice but to up the ante and win the war against terror. But before such views become the orthodoxy, it is worth pausing to reflect on how we came to this moment.

The bloody loss of so many innocent lives inspires a shared commitment to strike back at the perpetrators – all the more so when we are dealing with Islamic State fanatics, who have committed the most ghastly crimes, from videotaped beheadings to ritualised rape, in the process of conquering and occupying large swaths of Iraqi and Syrian territory.

Add to this the recent bombing of the Russian airline that claimed 224 lives and the weekend carnage in France that claimed about 130 more, and it's no wonder Australians, like our fellow Americans, Brits and French, strongly support escalating the military campaign against IS.

But there are dangers in political consensus. It entrenches a particular conventional wisdom and stifles honest debate. "Where all think alike, no one thinks very much," warned the famous US columnist Walter Lippmann. This is especially dangerous when the prevailing dogma is wrong, which is the case here.

Since the campaign against IS began in August 2014, no government official in Washington, Australia, Britain and France has publicly questioned whether our intervention in Iraq and Syria is making a bad situation worse. But it is precisely the question our leaders should raise, lest our response to Paris lives up to Einstein's theory of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

The bitter truth is there is no plausible way we can defeat the jihadists with military force. Indeed, our policies since September 11, 2001, far from draining the swamps of terror, have replenished them.

Take, for instance, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a secular regime that had no links to al-Qaeda terrorists. The toppling of Saddam Hussein was hailed as a victory for democracy, but the demise of that tyrant attracted jihadists like flies to a dying animal.

How so? First, toppling the minority Sunnis from power in Baghdad and replacing them with the majority Shiite upended the sectarian imbalance that had been in place for generations. The latter were bent on revenge against their tormenters, while the former felt their only recourse was to tolerate, even support the Sunni insurgency that has morphed into a plethora of Sunni jihadist groups, which includes IS. Of course, that simmering cauldron of sectarian malevolence has now spread into Syria.

The US occupation is the second reason for the rise of the jihadists in Iraq. Many Iraqis resented the presence of US troops in their homeland and were determined to drive them out. Terrorism was the only weapon in their arsenal.

Or take the Obama administration's campaign to "degrade and destroy" IS during the past 14 months. Not only do the air strikes have limited effects on IS, they reaffirm the potent Sunni narrative since 2003 that the West is in cahoots with Shiite regimes. In essence, Obama's policies are sure to backfire.

What happened in Paris represented one shot in what could prove to be a long, painful battle that we cannot win with the sword. It was tragic for sure, but also predictable. The French have discovered what some of us have predicted since the outset of the US-led campaign: rather than stemming terrorism, the air strikes in Iraq and Syria are creating new Sunni  jihadists in the region and abroad.

Make no mistake: Paris was a direct response to this war. According to Professor Robert Pape, a terrorism expert at the University of Chicago, the clear majority of culprits in the more than 2100 documented cases of suicide bombings from 1980 to 2009 were motivated by foreign intervention in the Middle East, not ideological or religious conviction. For example, the 2004 Madrid and 2005 London bombings were in response to the 2003 Iraq invasion. And the recent downing of the Russian airline over the Sinai was in response to President Vladimir Putin's air strikes in Syria.

The upshot is that although its principal foes remain the Shiite/Alawite-dominated regimes in Baghdad and Damascus, IS remains committed to targeting innocent civilians from those states that have launched attacks against it: Turkey, Russia and now France. Australia is hardly immune.

IS, however, is not an existential threat. It controls mainly desert in north-west Iraq and south-east Syria. Its gross domestic product is roughly the equivalent of Barbados or Eritrea. It has no navy, air force or ballistic missiles. Its army amounts to about 40,000 soldiers. It is not, contrary to what Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop said, more menacing than Soviet communism during the Cold War. Underestimating terrorism is a mistake, but so too is endowing jihadists with far more capability than they have.

The question facing world leaders is not whether to react to the terror threat. It is how to react. Fighting endless wars in a vast region deeply hostile to western military interventions is surely the wrong way to proceed. The smart strategy is for the West to slowly but steadily disengage militarily from the Middle East and allow the people in that region to settle their own differences.

In the meantime, our foremost weapons for dealing with the terrorist threat – which is real – are tough border protection, homeland security and anti-terror laws that allow electronic surveillance to track terrorists at home and abroad. In this case, the best offence is a good defence.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre and host of Between the Lines on the ABC's Radio National. This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald