Fighting Islamic Terror in a Multipolar and Asymmetric World

Events in November – the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai and the mass killings in Paris – should make it abundantly clear that we are no longer living in a world where conflicts between major states are the primary threats to the security of ordinary citizens.  The world of the 21st century has arrived.  Today international relations are not only multipolar, engaging older powers such as the United States, France, and Britain; emerging powers such as the BRICS countries; and regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and the Persian Gulf states.  They are also asymmetric, as non-state actors such as the Islamic State, Hezbollah, and Kurdish militias challenge these nations with their own military campaigns.

These asymmetric campaigns have produced recurrent murders and massacres throughout the world in the last 15 years, such as the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., the 2004 train bombing in Spain, the 2008 mass shootings in Mumbai, India, and this year’s killings of hundreds by terrorist acts in Xinjiang, China and the Sinai and Paris attacks. It should be evident that for NATO, Russia, China and many other states the most fear and death is being spread by a common enemy, namely Islamic extremists.

Logic would dictate that the nations facing this threats, from NATO to the BRICS, would work together to end this chronic and growing danger to their security, and coordinate their efforts against a common enemy.  While there are many Islamist groups using terror tactics, so that it might seem difficult to identify that common enemy, today there is a clear leader of global Islamist violence, and that is Daesh, also known as ISIL or the Islamic State (IS).   IS has made clear that its enemies include Russia and its Syrian ally, the US and its Iraqi and Kurdish allies, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and now France as well.   So why do all of these nations not bring their collective might to bear against Daesh and end its threat to their security?

The answer is that collective efforts have been paralyzed by an older mind-set, carried over from the cold war.  The BRICS nations – a collective formed for the very purpose of creating an alternative framework to the club of western nations – creates the impression that Russia, India, and China, as well as India and South Africa, have some common interests that are apart from the interests of the nations of Europe and North America.  At the same time, NATO – a military formation designed to provide for the security of Western Europe from an attack from Eastern Europe – continues to focus on expanding its membership within Europe rather than building a truly global alliance against the global threats now faced by its members.

Driven by this older mind-set, in the last few years when crises of mutual interest have arisen, such as the collapse of governments in Ukraine and Syria, instead of western and eastern nations dealing with these events by peaceful joint efforts and negotiations, confrontations have arisen based on the perception that western Europe and Russia, or the United States and China, are mutual threats to each other. In Ukraine, Russia moved to “liberate” Crimea and support military action by militias in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Western nations then responded with sanctions and both sides have escalated a propaganda war designed to depict the other as an evil adversary.

In Syria, instead of an international effort to impose a settlement on the various warring factions that have torn that country apart, and to drive ISI out of its positions, Russia and Iran have acted to support “their” ally Bashar al-Assad, as if supporting a murderous dictator who uses barrel bombs and chemical weapons against his own cities will strengthen their international position.  Yet Assad and his allies have made little effort to attack Daesh, instead focusing their attention on the various other opposition groups in Syria who pose a more immediate threat to Assad’s rule.  Indeed, Assad is positioning himself to benefit from a sustained Daesh presence in eastern Syria, which he can use to justify any barbarity used to preserve his regime.

Meanwhile, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States have all insisted that Assad’s departure must be part of any settlement plan, but made only token efforts to achieve that goal.  The result is that no coordinated actions against Daesh are taking place at all.  Instead Turkey turns a blind eye to much of Daesh’s activities, preferring to let Daesh fight against the Kurdish militias that Turkey judges to be a greater threat to its sovereignty.  Saudi Arabia has become pre-occupied with the Yemeni civil war, while the US aims to withdraw its forces from Iraq and to avoid being drawn into a ground campaign in Syria.  While each of these may make tactical sense in terms of short-term national interests, they have worked to undermine any sensible and effective strategy against the greater long-term threat of the Islamic State.

The recent attacks against Russia in the Sinai and against Paris now seem to call for eastern and western nations to set aside preoccupations with their own relative strength and prestige, with winning land or scoring propaganda points at each other’s expense.  How foolish countries will look in a few years if they continue to act as if controlling a few more bits of territory – whether in Crimea or the South China Sea or the coast of Syria – is more important for their security than ending the global threat of Islamic terror.

Somehow these cold-war mindsets have re-emerged and supplanted what had seemed to be a growing consensus just a few years ago.  In that consensus – which perhaps reached its high point in 2011 with U.N. support for actions to prevent Muamar Ghaddafi of Libya from inflicting a genocide on the residents of Benghazi – major countries would settle any disputes over territory or trade by negotiations that complied with international treaties and would be adjudicated by international law; and threats to the security of ordinary people, whether arising from civil or international conflicts, would draw a firm response from the United Nations with military interventions designed to separate combatants and impose a peace until diplomats could render a longer-term solution.

This consensus started to fall apart when NATO forces not only protected Benghazi, but supported the uprising that toppled Ghaddafi from power.  This was interpreted by Russia and China as the West again acting to impose its view (as in Iraq) that dictators could be justifiably deposed by outside intervention (never mind that in its Soviet days Russia had done the same in Cuba and Afghanistan).  Then when the Yanukovich regime in Ukraine ran into trouble, and was deserted by its own police and armed forces, this too was seen as a Western effort to take over key territory that had to be opposed.  Before long, most countries adopted an “every nation for themselves” approach, marked by pursuit of narrow selfish interests and deep distrust of others.

Thus Turkey, which is likely the next state that IS would like to dismember, has been extremely reluctant to join allied campaigns against IS.  Instead, it has preferred to focus on its long-standing conflict with domestic and neighboring Kurdish forces even when those forces have proved the most effective of any troops campaigning against the Islamic State.  Iran as well has refused to move toward a reconciliation with the United States.  Even as it was agreeing to an international compact to halt its progress toward nuclear weapons, it issued stern statements warning against any let down of its guard against the “Great Satan” – that is, the United States.  For its part, the United States would like to support an international coalition against IS.  However, unable to find any partners willing to set aside their conflicting goals to agree on a counter-IS strategy, the U.S. simply issues empty threats and statements, and bombs a few targets from the air, while its inconsistencies and inability to change things on the ground only further increases the distrust felt for it by other actors.

At this point, Russia and France – as the two countries that have most recently suffered from ISIS’s attacks – should together call an international diplomatic conference to develop a grand strategy against IS.  This conference must include leaders from all countries of the Middle East including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, all countries of NATO, and China (which if it aspires to a leading role in global affairs cannot stand aside).  India, Australia, Japan, Pakistan, the Philippines and other countries that have fought against Islamic terrorists in the Middle East or abroad should be invited as well.  A global strategy that draws on all of these nations should develop a plan for creating a transitional and successor regime in Syria, a national unity government in Iraq, and a military campaign to drive ISIS out of Syria and Iraq and destroy its ability to control territory and stable revenues.  These plans should be submitted to the United Nations for security council approval, and action under the mantle of UN leadership.

It is sometimes said that if an alien attack suddenly threated the world, the nations of the planet would set aside their differences and fight against the common enemy.  Sadly, the evidence of the last few years suggests otherwise.  It seems many nations would be all too glad to cooperate with the aliens if the latter promised to first vanquish their political rivals on earth.

Earth’s nations today face several truly global threats – IS being the most immediate, but climate change also being a common global crisis, and international migration swiftly becoming another.  A truly global effort to vanquish IS and reduce the threat of Islamic terror campaigns is essential today.  Such an effort could also lay the groundwork for a united response to other global security issues, and thus for a much brighter future for all nations.





About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
This entry was posted in The Middle East Revolts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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