Shortsightedness and the War on Terror

I have come to the conclusion that Westerners – and Western governments – are not very patient.  It is not clear, as least not to me, whether this is due to our 24/7 news cycle, the constant availability of, and distraction from, social media, or the very nature of our capitalist society where results are measured quarterly and not necessarily long term.  In any event, rushing to do things seldom ends well and that is certainly true when it comes to the “War on Terror”.

We know that terrorism is real and that we need to do something both to prevent current actors from killing as well as develop programmes to divert those thinking of becoming violent extremists  from ending up so.  While we could argue forever whether the attention and resources devoted to countering terrorism is disproportionate to the actual threat, it would be hard to support the position that doing nothing is sufficient.

Terrorism is a complicated phenomenon, however, whether we are looking at homegrown radicalisation to violence or the inner workings of terrorist groups.  Research has shown categorically that overarching descriptions and easy solutions are not available – not that this does not stop some from promoting overly simplistic remedies (interestingly, from my perspective, these unhelpful cures are usually provided by people who never worked in counter terrorism).

So what do we make of our collective efforts to deal a death’s blow to Islamic State?  Again, it is important that this barbaric group be stopped, not so much to prevent attacks in places like Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, but in places like Syria and Iraq where the numbers of victims are orders of magnitude greater than they are in the West.  But what if our actions are ill-considered and only serve to eliminate one of many threats in the region, leaving the terrain open for something worse?

It worries me to read opinion pieces like a recent article by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who was allowed to see firsthand what the US and its allies are doing against IS.  Mr. Ignatius wrote that the US has had a hell of a time locating reliable partners in the region and has had to manouever the various ethnic and religious obstacles all too present there.  But  what struck me was his ending sentence, which I reproduce here: “The strategy has an unstated theme: Destroy the Islamic State now; worry about the future of Syria later.”

Is this what we are doing in Syria? Granted, the situation is devilishly byzantine and it is not clear what if anything can be done to resolve the human catastrophe that has befallen the country.  Do we oust Assad?  Do we keep him since the alternatives may be worse?  Do we work with the Russians?  The Turks?  The Kurds?  Anyone who says that there is an obvious solution is lying.

And yet focusing exclusively on destroying IS and “worrying about Syria later” will likely lead to more chaos, more bloodshed and possibly a much more dire situation down the road (which may be a much shorter road than people realise).  No one has a crystal ball but it is fairly clear that Syria is in for years, if not decades, of reconstruction, both at the level of infrastructure but moreso at the level of society.  Should we not be devoting resources to these challenges now rather than react in a panic later?

One could argue in fact that the threat from a permanently unstable Syria dwarfs that represented by IS: I happen to think so.  As bad as IS is, we need to remind ourselves that it does not pose an existential threat to anyone: not us in the West, nor Syria nor Iraq.  We may be zeroing in on the lesser danger.

A few years ago the West was fixated on getting rid of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi: look where Libya is now.  We could extend the analogy further to Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) and Egypt under Mubarak.  Our attention is narrowly focused on the current shiny object and we ignore the bigger – and much more dangerous – picture.

I do not have any answers to this morass and I don’t think anyone does.  I just think that we need to shift our efforts from hammering at the most obvious nail to taking the larger scenario into consideration when we decide what action to take (or not take as the case may be).  I sincerely hope that my Cassandra-like premonitions about Syria are wrong: I fear they are not.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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