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Homepage > Publication Type > Speeches & Interviews > A Different Look at the War on Terror: Reason for Some Middle East Optimism?

A Different Look at the War on Terror: Reason for Some Middle East Optimism?

Jon Greenwald  |  30 Mar 2016

This is a transcript of a presentation given by Crisis Group's Vice-President of Research & Publications Jon Greenwald to the Wyoming Seminary Preparatory School in Kingston, Pennsylvania.

I have tried to draw you here this evening with the suggestion that I can give you at least a slightly optimistic view of the war on terrorism and the Middle East. We all have been reading and watching the news from Brussels about the terrible attack in that city, so it may seem an odd time to say that there is any basis for optimism regarding terrorism, much less the overall situation in a region with the unprecedented turmoil of today’s Middle East. So in the nature of truth in advertising, I should admit to having had an optimistic, but not always justified view of things in the Middle East for a long time.

When I was still a student at Harvard Law School, I spent a considerable part of the summer of 1967 travelling about Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, each of which was early in the process of adjusting to the Six-Day War with which that summer began. Armed with a “please give our correspondent whatever help you can” letter, I was writing dispatches for The Times. If pressed by an interlocutor, I did admit that it was the Scranton, not New York Times. It was a fascinating experience, and I had one breakthrough article that made the front page. The headline was “Our correspondent meets Jordanian farmer who remembers ‘friendly’ Scranton”.

When it was time to return to Cambridge for my final year at Harvard, I told my faculty adviser that I would like to write the major independent research project required for graduation on “The International Law Aspects of Jerusalem and the West Bank”. My adviser said that was an excellent topic, and I should proceed. I then told him I had one concern. It was September, and my thesis was not due until the following May. “The UN Security Council is negotiating a settlement this fall”, I said. “Perhaps it will all be over by the time my paper is done”. The adviser, a wise and experienced practitioner as well as scholar who twenty years before had administered the Marshall Plan in Europe, looked at me for a few moments and said gently: “I don’t think you need worry about that, Mr. Greenwald”. I will not take it amiss if in the second part of our evening you have some tough questions for me.

The first thing I want to suggest to you is that we should stop talking about a war against terrorism. I realise there is strong concern about terrorism, even in some quarters a concern that approaches panic. It’s understandable. We have seen terrible things. I lived and worked in Brussels for eight years. I have been in the airport departure hall and the metro station that were attacked scores of times. I know there is also fascination about terrorism, particularly about its major current perpetrator, the so-called Islamic State – which for convenience I will refer to as IS – and its project of a vast caliphate. It is a fascination akin in some ways to observing a strange beast in a jungle, a phenomenon that we feel doesn’t belong to our normal life and our value system.

But we need to keep terrorism in perspective. IS is not a great power; it does not possess a great idea that can sweep all before it. It is a movement that commands the dedication of some tens of thousand committed fighters, but its terrorism is basically a tactic employed by a relatively weak entity because it lacks sufficient strength to fight in a conventional manner, except in a limited way and in relatively isolated geographic areas far from our homeland.

The United States does not face an existential threat from IS or its terror tactic. No country in Europe faces such an existential threat. The European Union does have a serious problem to which I will return later, but its individual states are all strong enough to cope with terrorism.

That does not mean terrorists will cause no further pain and loss. There will be more horrific events. But we need to keep even these in perspective. We Americans face a greater risk of death or dismemberment every day as we drive our highways or go about normal existence in a country where guns are so numerous that almost every day seems to bring a new story of random shootings. These matters that we are accustomed to dealing with involve greater risks for our safety and well-being than terrorism does.

So the first basis for some optimism, I suggest, is that there is no reason to adopt measures that could threaten many of the values we hold dearest. For all the horror and suffering IS and its terror cause, we can handle its threat if we act in a strong, but measured way.

Now why, you may ask, should this include stopping talk of a war against terrorism? We do need to confront IS and movements like it. But using the rhetoric of war gives IS undeserved status, as if it were a great power. And it leads to a mindset that inevitably emphasises military means that are not likely to achieve the results we wish.

That may seem a contradiction. I have said IS is relatively weak. The United States has enormous force at its disposal. One might think, and more than one political candidate in the current political season has suggested this, that a powerful application of traditional military means would take care of the problem. A proper strategy against IS and its terror does need a military component. If that is the dominant component, however, and particularly if the military force is primarily American, there is a good chance that whatever losses are inflicted will be at least matched by the strengthened appeal the enemy would acquire in consequence: both new recruits and new political support, particularly in the Middle East.

 In other words, the military component of a promising strategy should complement a predominately political approach, not the other way around. And if it is not to create undesirable reactions in the Middle East, it should be substantially non-American and non-Western. The reason lies in the nature of the opponent and the nature of the larger challenge in the Middle East. Let me digress here and mention an extensive analytical report my organisation, Crisis Group, published this month. I commend it to anyone who wishes to read in-depth analysis about the phenomenon of violent extremist groups, such as IS, and about the deadly conflicts in which they are prominent.

IS takes advantage of the region’s chaos, a chaos that owes much to the upset created by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the collapse of the weak institutions of both the Iraqi and Syrian states. It takes advantage of the growing tribalism that has resulted from this collapse and the bitter sectarian dispute between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, especially of the Sunni community’s fear it is at risk of subjugation by the rival community. It benefits from the related anxiety that Iran is becoming the dominant power in the region and the perception that Sunnis need a protector against a largely Shia government in Baghdad and an Alawite – near-Shia – regime in Damascus.

In this situation, IS appears to many Sunnis the best available protector. It also shows itself to be remarkably sophisticated at using the new power of social media. Its predecessors, for example the al-Qaeda jihadists who gave U.S. troops so much trouble during the occupation of Iraq, were never as successful in rallying local support or attracting so many young Muslims from other parts of the world. A part of this success is because IS has been able to exploit the weaknesses of the Baghdad and Damascus governments to seize significant territory, thus giving surface plausibility to its claim to be on the way to realising the dream of a new, pure Islamic caliphate.

But IS, like earlier radical jihadist movements, has not shown ability to gain genuine, lasting support from a substantial population through the quality of its governance. Indeed, there are indications that IS, due to its brutality and rigid ideology, disillusions many of those it initially attracts. Without the threat of domination by hostile Shia elements or Western powers that appear to frightened Sunnis to be aligned with such elements, much of IS’s on-the-ground support would disappear.

The lesson is that IS, like other violent jihadist movements, benefits more from problems that it can exploit than from problems it can create. I call this grounds for optimism because it means that if the more traditional conflict-resolution problems within and between the states of the Middle East can be solved, there is good reason to expect the influence of IS to wane. Of course, that reason for optimism also carries serious limitations. Resolving those problems is very hard. Each case is complicated and unique, though there are certain similarities.

 Iraq is where IS began and from where most of its leadership is derived. The Sunni community there has felt disadvantaged and persecuted by a largely Shia government, supported by Shia militias that at times have been nearly as vicious as IS and that are backed in turn by the Shia government of Iran. Such support as IS has enjoyed in Iraq is because it is seen as the most effective champion by many in this frightened community. To turn the situation around and so undermine IS strength, the need above all is to encourage in Baghdad a more inclusive government that Sunnis consider a partner, not a persecutor. Washington has preached this for years, but the lesson has not been fully absorbed in Baghdad.

As you know, some territory has been recaptured from IS in recent months. Unfortunately, the successes have been achieved essentially by destroying the regained cities and towns. There is hope that a wiser, more inclusive Baghdad government may eventually win the gratitude of their populations by a generous reconstruction policy. The record to date, however, suggests this is by no means a certainty.

Even more than Iraq, Syria has become the centre of the struggle. It is in the fifth year of a multi-sided civil war involving the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad; poorly coordinated non-jihadist, Sunni rebels; a militarily-stronger group of jihadist rebels; and, finally, Kurds, who oppose the regime, but have their own agenda. The regime is supported in particular by Russia, Iran and Iran’s close Lebanese ally, the Hizbollah movement. Non-jihadist rebels have varying degrees of support from the United States, Turkey and some other states. IS is the most prominent jihadist element. The Kurds receive some American assistance but are regarded with hostility by Turkey, which views any success they achieve as likely to add to the problem it faces at home from a Kurdish insurgency that has been conducted for decades by a group known as the PKK.

It is an horrific war. Hundreds of thousands have died, twelve million have been displaced, many as refugees into, especially, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Television is showing us the chaotic spillover to Europe. In theory, almost all the other combatants oppose IS. Practice, however, is more complicated. IS is the prime enemy only for the United States. Many Sunnis consider the jihadists useful fighters against the regime. Turkey’s greater fear is too much Kurdish success, though Kurds are some of the most effective fighters against IS. For the regime, IS appears to be a lesser threat than the non-jihadist rebels, at least for now. Assad can use its battlefield prominence to give superficial justification to his claim that he is a bulwark against terrorism, and he knows that their nature limits the jihadists’ potential to forge a broad coalition with staying power.

No side has a genuine path to military victory. It is virtually impossible to foresee how sufficient anti-regime cohesion can be developed. Any effort to end the war with a regime victory would surely mean that opposition would continue and most likely coalesce around its most radical elements, to the benefit of IS. A diplomatic solution is the only way out of the quagmire. For that to be feasible, agreement is needed first among the outside powers.

Such a consensus is easier to describe than achieve and implement. It must be based upon realisation no one can achieve everything they want, that each must compromise. The practical goal for the United States would be a settlement that deprives IS of much of its on-ground support. Washington would be unrealistic, however, to expect a political settlement that produces a geopolitical defeat for Russia and/or Iran. Russia would need to gain at least prestige for contributing to a settlement and so regain Middle East influence and recognition that it is a serious, if no longer super power. Iran needs to retain direct access to its Lebanese ally and a government in Damascus that is at least not its enemy, but it cannot expect to retain the same influence in Syria that it has long enjoyed. Turkey could reasonably expect a settlement that weakens an IS that has shown increasing ability to attack it with terror bombings in its great cities. It could not reasonably expect to dismantle all the battlefield gains made by Syrian Kurds. Saudi Arabia and Iran must accept that no settlement will produce the victory against the other that each has been seeking in proxy conflicts across the Middle East.

If the outside powers can reach a compromise consensus, the next step would be to tell the regime and the various opposition groups they support that this is what must be implemented. Like those powers, the domestic Syrian parties to the conflict would each have to recognise the necessity of compromise. This might mean that significant regime elements would have to have a share – not a dominating one – in the future power arrangement. It would also surely require Assad to step down sooner rather than later; otherwise it would be difficult to imagine the war ending. Only IS, because of its extremism that goes well beyond Syria, would be outside the circle of such an agreement. The deal must leave the new Syrian disposition free and more able to concentrate militarily and politically on marginalising it, then bearing the main responsibility for driving it out.

To describe the many conditions is to suggest how complex any negotiation would be. Military measures would come into play in order to develop leverage at the table, but, again, in a supplementary, not primary way. Why do I say, however, that at least a little optimism is justified that such a delicate balancing act just might be possible?

First of all, everyone can now see that something must be done. The humanitarian cost has become intolerable. The risk of destabilisation due to the refugee burden is growing by the day in neighbouring countries, in particular Jordan and Lebanon but also in Turkey, which hosts well over two million Syrians at the same time as it experiences IS terror attacks and a worsening military confrontation with its domestic Kurdish insurgency. The spillover to Europe is likewise at a dangerous point. And Russia’s bold actions show the U.S. that if it does not try harder for a settlement, it will appear weak and indecisive, with consequences that could go beyond the Middle East.

The period in which outside powers believed they could afford to allow the situation to worsen has ended. Discussions among the major outside powers reflect a greater sense of urgency. Importantly, this sober recognition may extend to Moscow. President Putin’s recent announcement that most of the forces he introduced to Syria late last year are to be withdrawn and statements by Russian officials that appear to warn the regime that it must explore a political settlement suggest there are grounds for believing that a new phase – perhaps a first genuine phase – of diplomatic exploration is beginning.   

While Iraq and Syria are the twin centers of the Middle East’s difficulties, there are problems nearly everywhere. Libya is the poster case for the dangers of over-reliance on military power to solve problems in the region. During the Arab Spring, the United States forged a coalition with European and Arab allies to prevent a potential massacre of opposition elements by Muammar Qadhafi’s troops in the city of Benghazi. That was a reasonable, limited use of military force, given the threat and Qaddafi’s history. The mistake was then to ignore the African Union’s proposals to explore a political compromise. Diplomacy was put aside and only military measures pursued. No one can know whether a settlement was achievable, but the effort was not made. A bad ruler was deposed, his regime destroyed, but such institutions as a fragile state had were also destroyed. We are still struggling to help Libya establish new and better ones.

The country suffers from having two groups that claim to be its legitimate government and multiple armed groups that continue to struggle for power. Its economy is crippled. In the resulting chaos, IS has been making great strides. It now controls substantial territory, such that one can begin to speak of Libya as a third location for the caliphate the movement seeks to establish.

Nevertheless, there are also signs of progress. With UN mediation, the two competing governments have reached an agreement, though it is too soon to know if it will stick. The main lesson, however, is that it is risky to use military force before there is a clear plan and reasonable expectation for implementing that plan after fighting ends. As we consider how much military intervention against IS is prudent, it suggests as a guiding principle that military action should not be allowed to get ahead of a carefully thought-through political strategy.

Yemen is another illustration of the Middle East’s dysfunction. It is such a poor country that it has difficulty in peacetime to provide enough food and water for its people. But there is no peace. Several years ago, in its version of the Arab Spring, it seemed to be at the beginning of a more democratic moment. A long-ruling, unpopular president was forced from office. As in several parts of the region, however, that promising moment degenerated into chaos and conflict. Last year, when UN-mediated negotiations stalemated, a movement known as the Huthis seized the capital and drove the new president into exile. Saudi Arabia saw this as an Iranian threat, formed a coalition of Sunni states and intervened militarily.

It is another complex situation. The U.S. has given political and some military aid to the Saudis, though there is little evidence Iran directs the Huthis. Such military help as Iran may be giving is much less than what Saudi Arabia is doing on the other side. The competing alliances involve somersaults of political loyalties. For example, the Huthis, longtime enemies of the president who lost his office early in the Arab Spring, now work with him against the Saudi coalition and the president who went into exile. For our purposes this evening, however, it is perhaps most relevant that the fighting between the Huthi and Saudi alliances opened the way for both IS and a local al-Qaeda offshoot to take advantage. It is another example that such movements make more advances by exploiting chaos rather than by originating it.

There is in Yemen also a glimmer of hope, because there is pressure on behalf of a ceasefire and UN-mediated efforts to return the parties to the negotiating table. But as in Syria, it is clear that if there is to be success, Saudi Arabia and Iran must both dial back on their proxy war.

We may want to discuss other significant topics in more detail in the question-and-answer phase. One is Iran, especially the nuclear agreement. I consider that deal a highly positive development in its own terms, with potential eventually to make additional contributions, but its immediate impact on some of the matters we have been discussing has not always been positive.

Another is Israel. A few days before the terrorist attacks in Paris, I had lunch with the French ambassador. Much of his career has been about the Middle East. After discussing its crises in detail, he said over coffee, “you notice I have not mentioned Israel at all”. Like him, I haven’t spoken of Israel or its confrontation with the Palestinians. In one sense, that is positive. It suggests Israel is, for now at least, more bystander than direct party in the hottest troubles. But clearly it has a stake in what is done about those crises. The Israeli-Palestinian issue still needs to be resolved if the Middle East is ever to have a stable peace.

But before we get to questions, I want to say something about Europe, which is now on the Middle East’s front line. What happened in Paris and Brussels, the scenes of desperate refugees attempting to reach Europe and election results in a number of European states that show growing strength of far right parties all demonstrate that the chaos of the Middle East and particularly the terrorism that is a part of that chaos pose a serious threat to the continent.

I should preface these remarks with an admission, or perhaps it is an expression of faith. I believe that what has been happening in Europe since the end of World War II is one of the great revolutions in history. I mean the construction of a European Union dedicated to peace, prosperity and human rights in the part of the world that gave birth to the worst wars humanity has known. It is not a headline-grabbing revolution, but if it fails, if the European Union were to break apart, it would be very much a tragedy not only for Europeans but also for the security of the United States.

Even before the worsening Middle East situation and the rise of violent jihadist movements that benefit from that situation, the European Union was in a rough patch. Some member states felt too much sovereignty and national identity was being lost in the effort to build an ever-closer union. Those feelings tend to be strongest in London, which has never been fully comfortable with the realisation that while it can be highly influential within Europe, its time as an independent great power is over. They are also strong in parts of Eastern Europe, which do not always fully accept that treasured post-communist national freedoms are to an extent limited by commitments to Brussels. And they are strong in some of the smaller, less prosperous states like Greece, which have difficulty living up to the requirements of the common currency.

The pressures from refugees and terrorism have merged with those misgivings to create a crisis of confidence in and about the European Union. The most urgent manifestations of this are in Great Britain, which will vote in June on whether to remain in the Union, and in the unilateral response of many governments to the flood of refugees.

I have said terrorism is not an existential threat to the United States or to Europe, but as a literally explosive element in this mix of problems, it just may be an existential threat, not to the further existence of individual European states but to the structure of the European Union and to the ideals for which it stands and to which it has already given life.

Much of the anger in European politics today is directed at Germany, specifically at its chancellor, Angela Merkel. She is charged with foolishly both encouraging the refugees by welcoming them to Germany and doing so without consulting first with the other member states. It is true she has not always been politically prudent, but she has acted as one might expect and want the daughter of a pastor to act in a crisis that is deeply humanitarian. And she has acted as the conscience of Europe. That in itself is remarkable and deserves special notice. That it can be said of Germany is itself an indication of how much progress Europe has made in three generations.

There is a serious question what this will mean for politics in Germany. Several weeks ago Mrs. Merkel’s party suffered setbacks in three state elections. A new party, Alternative for Germany, did well. Like similar parties in a number of European countries, it offers populism and national self-sufficiency as its proposed corrective to the general direction of liberal, humanitarian European social politics. Some observers suggest that Merkel’s positions may cost her party power in Berlin and herself the chancellorship. It is at least true that there is as much concern among substantial segments of the German population as there is elsewhere in Europe.

My wife and I were in Berlin for a week at the end of February. Berlin is Germany’s capital, of course, and it is affected by the refugee crisis. The old Tempelhof Airport, which includes one of Europe’s largest buildings, is now housing refugees, as are many sport halls. Tensions over refugees are higher in other parts of the country, but we were deeply impressed that all the old friends with whom we met that week were volunteering to help. Some were teaching refugees to speak German. Some were assisting with their administrative and bureaucratic requirements. The outpouring of volunteer help we witnessed gave Gaby and me a good feeling that Germany will master this element of the European crisis.

But there is a broader debate in Europe today. Will European states be more secure if they withdraw behind their own borders, cut themselves off increasingly from their neighbours in order to rely upon their national resources? Or will they be safer if they cooperate more closely, more intensely with their fellow member states?

The answer to this fundamental political question will substantially determine the European Union’s future. It is posed most directly in Great Britain, because its voters will take a momentous decision in two months. Last week a retired head of British intelligence, MI6, argued that Britain would be safer going its own way. My belief is that the current perfect storm of crises – over monetary stability, migration, terrorism – demonstrates that European states need each other, need greater cooperation and coordination, need in other words a strong European Union more than ever.

We shall see in the next few months how this debate comes out. My expectation is based partially on history. The European Union’s advance has never been in a straight line. The big decisions for stronger union have always been taken in the difficult times, not the easy ones. The logic of the European Union again demands tough choices, and I believe they will be made wisely, as in the past – major steps, such as establishing for the first time serious legal and physical protection of the Union’s borders, a new, comprehensive ability to exchange and act upon intelligence with respect to the security of the member states, new fiscal and monetary powers to guard against a future Greek crisis and so forth.

So there you have my several interlocking justifications for moderate optimism about terrorism and the Middle East. The situation in Syria, the disruption created by IS, the humanitarian and security challenge refugees present in Europe all have become so grave that they have removed any possible justification for looking the other way, for justifying drift or delay.

There are less positive scenarios, of course. Nations can feel overwhelmed by crisis, become paralysed or be led astray by demagogues. I have a more positive view of the capacities of democratic nations. I believe that faced with genuine emergency – and this is such a time – they will face up to the requirement for policies that are prudent but also sufficiently bold to meet needs.

If so, if we keep our cool and our perspective about the threats; if we recognise the need to prevent military policy from outracing political strategy, work hard at seeking diplomatic settlements for the conflicts at the core of the troubles and remain true to our values, we can and will get through this difficult period. But I included a question mark in the title of this address. Now I want to hear from you.

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