November – The Competition Grounds

November 12th Beirut, 13th Paris, 24th Mali. The fast moving modern world we live in makes it impossible to write something without having that work outdated in a matter of 12 hours or so. On 12th November the British media was hailing the death of Jihadi John, our greatest nightmare, the lone fundamentalist among thousand. How premature our celebrations were. The month of November has seen much death and destruction, but it has also seen the rapid transformation of the Syria conflict from a battle against the Caliphate, to a competition ground for the great powers with the backdrop of reducing US hegemony. Syria is becoming a theatre for major powers to show just how big their sabre is and who can rattle it stronger.

This month has proven outright that the Western strategy in the fight against terrorism is flawed. What clearer indication that bombings and invasions have failed than a crumbling Libya, a continuing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq, and an outright political mess in Syria, all this topped off by major terrorist attacks in France and Brussel’s in a state of lockdown as fear grips the heart of those who believed they were safe. Saleh Abdesalem, one of the perpetrators of the Paris attackers, was 12 years old when 9/11 took place. That’s 14 years of counter-terrorism campaigns, anti-radicalisation movements and surveillance which failed to stop the Paris terror attack.

The focus on the Middle East and Syria has taken away our attention from what may be the greatest feeding ground for fundamentalism in the near future: Africa. Groups like Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab have existed for years in areas where great poverty exist and an indifference exists from those who have the power to stimulate change. This hotbed of fundamentalism will come back to haunt us as escalating violence will terrorise and destabilise certain parts of Africa, but like most issues these days it will only come to light when the issue hits home, it will only matter when a radical from there conducts an attack on the West.

The war on terror has also led to a reduction in the flexibility of American action. “Boots on the ground” policies have made Americans more reluctant to engage in military action even when there is more potential for its need; as a result the United States is compelled to less flexible tactical response options. The strategy to deal with global terror must be multi-dimensional and firstly recognise that I.S. utilises terror as a tactic and is not a grand strategy; this is a new kind of enemy and one that must be understood before it is dealt with. Secondly the strategy must recognise that I.S. and terrorist organisations stretch beyond Syria and Iraq’s borders, and those regions we neglect now will be the Syria’s of the future. Thirdly, diplomacy must be conducted intelligently; evidently, I.S. has supporters and allies as stated by David Phillips of Columbia University, few states have ever been enemies with the entire world. The new strategy must thus conduct intelligent diplomacy and recognise political realities rather than political dreams in a serious attempt to isolate I.S.. Fourthly the new strategy must offer the populations of affected areas an image of good governance, whether this is a stable, democratic Kurdish state in Iraq or an alternative vision for stability in the Middle East, a suitable alternative to I.S. must be viewable by the populations of failed states and conflict zones.

Recognising that the traditional counter-terrorist tactics will not achieve the desired results is the first step in dealing with global terror. The window of opportunity to deal with the issue is becoming smaller as the conflict in Syria transforms from a global battle against fundamentalism to a battleground for the great powers in a region facing disengagement of US hegemony. With the downing of the Russian jet on 24th November the Syria conflict quickens its transformation. The conflict is now allowing Russia and Turkey to compete in their war of rhetoric and what will become a fully-fledged proxy war as attitudes in both nations harden, on Russia’s side they will further refuse to allow any compromise on their pro-Assad stance, and Turkey will be even more forceful in trying to avoid Russia succeeding in their aims. In addition to this competition, Syria also offers Western powers a chance to react against terrorism in a way which pleases angry populations as France’s air strikes against I.S. following the Paris attacks demonstrate. Western analysts claim that the Russia-Turkey confrontation is occurring on the backdrop of Russia striking the Turkoman ethnic minority in Syria, and Turkey, with a less than acceptable record on its dealings with ethnic minorities, is taking steps to prevent this. Despite this we should not forget the short history of the Syrian war such as in 2012 when a Turkish F4 flew into Syria claiming “temporary overflights are common”. When the plane was shot down, NATO and Turkey both expressed major discontent.

Ultimately, the longer the war continues the more dangerous the consequence, the longer the war continues the greater the battleground between the powers will develop. In an age of nuclear deterrence and international institutions it is becoming difficult for aggressive nations to play their power politics in normal diplomatic theatres. As a result, a conflict like Syria is becoming a battleground for aggressive states, desperate to save face and project great strength such as Russia and Turkey. In time, other powers will join this international theatre of sword rattling contributing to the loss of international security and stability as co-operation projects like the “Turkey stream” pipeline are ignored in favour of competition and greater military spending. Furthermore, I.S. will become a greater player in this competition and its survival may become necessary for certain belligerents in a proxy war. Ultimately I.S. is at least on a superficial level, an enemy of all, and thus this is the chance for all to co-operate against this threat and establish a more peaceful international order. Instead, the world is choosing polarisation and competition over co-operation, welcome to the development of power-politics competition grounds rather than cooperation grounds, welcome to Syria, a place where life used to exist.

— Vahe Boghosian

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