Do we even know how to defeat ISIS?

What should wise governments do?


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“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
Mahatma Gandhi

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CALGARY, Alta. Nov 19, 2015/ Troy Media/ – We all feel anger and sadness about the recent terrorist atrocities in Paris and the Middle East. But a lot more heat than light is currently being shed on a very complex problem. At the very least, a multi-pronged response is needed, rather than just the knee-jerk revenge bombing answer. Remember, the war in Syria is three-sided and we oppose two of them. Should we bomb them both, even though they are fighting each other?

Nicolas Hénin, French author of Jihad Academy: The Rise of Islamic State, who spent 10 months as an ISIS hostage, writes:

In Syria I learned that Islamic State longs to provoke retaliation. We should not fall into the trap. . . .

And yet more bombs will be our response. . . . But everything I know tells me this is a mistake. . . . Within 48 hours of the atrocity, fighter planes conducted their most spectacular munitions raid yet in Syria, dropping more than 20 bombs on Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold. . . .

While we are trying to destroy ISIS, what of the 500,000 civilians still living and trapped in Raqqa? What of their safety? What of the very real prospect that by failing to think this through, we turn many of them into extremists? The priority must be to protect these people, not to take more bombs to Syria.

Canada withdrew from the air war after the election of Justin Trudeau. I desperately want France to do the same . . . The fact is . . . ISIS has trapped us. They came to Paris . . . knowing all too well that the attack would force us to keep bombing or even to intensify these counterproductive attacks. That is what is happening.

The parents of the Belgian “mastermind” of the attacks are from Morocco. Apparently the terrorist cell (some of whom were Belgian born) was based in Molenbeek, a neighbourhood in Brussels. It’s said to be the Western world’s biggest per capita producer of fighters for the Islamic state attacks.

Of course, we can’t bomb it, and even if we insist on bombing in Syria and Iraq it appears that ground forces will be needed too. But numerous examples show the difficulty of using traditional armed forces to fight a guerrilla-style opponent: think of Vietnam and Afghanistan (USSR and our post-9/11 debacle).

Unless the United Nations decides to support conventional ground forces under their aegis, we’re left wondering how Canada should contribute to a ground war. Troops? Given previous failed efforts, Western countries are understandably unenthused about this. Supply weapons? Not to Assad, or to ISIS – we rightly loathe them both – but to Kurdish freedom fighters? Turkey cannot be too happy about current efforts in that direction. It sees Kurds as terrorists.

Given the Taliban’s later use of American-supplied weapons to the mujahedeen when the USSR invaded Afghanistan used to kill our troops after 9/11, supplying munitions could be dangerous. ISIS is already using captured American weapons. In fact, “entire CIA-backed rebel units, including fighters numbering in the “low hundreds” who went through the training program, have changed sides by joining forces with Islamist brigades, quit the fight or gone missing.” (Wall Street Journal, Jan. 2015)

Of course, Canadian training cadres can be increased. Trudeau is considering this and it sounds pretty good. But it’s also highly risky. They’ll have a bull’s eye on their backs – recall the number of trainers in other countries who have been shot by their charges – so perhaps providing weapons or training will rebound against us.

Although the leaders of ISIS are evil, they are not stupid. Before reacting to the atrocity the way they expect and appear to want, we should try to analyze their goals and then design a strategy which frustrates rather than furthers them.

So what would wise governments do?

First, training seems the best military option, although fraught with pitfalls.

Second, Henin, quoted at length above, suggests “no-fly zones – zones closed to Russians, the regime, the coalition. The Syrian people need security or they themselves will turn to groups such as Isis.”

Third, governments should ignore panicky responses like Saskatchewan’s Premier Brad Wall calling for the suspension of the Liberal’s refugee resettlement program. Sacrifice the hopes of 25,000 Syrians for a better life lest a handful of potential terrorists sneak through?

That’s not my Canada. But it’s the Canada that ISIS wants.

Fourth, let’s get the computer hackers and financial experts busy on interdicting the sources of ISIS funding.

Fifth, consider Jeff Fox’s  advice (Jeff is co-founder of Conflict to Peace International Consulting and has spent the last five years working in the Middle East and other conflict regions with the National Democratic Institute): “Instead of asking how we stop individual acts of terror, we should be asking how we create a lasting peace. . . . The Middle East is a hotbed of extremism and terrorism because we have collectively failed to address the issues of injustice, inequality, marginalization, intolerance and economic strife. . . . we must take a new approach that focuses on the causes of terrorism rather than the acts of terror.”

Marginalization and alienation are continually identified as radicalizing factors for young Muslims in Europe. In fact, a report prepared for France’s Prime Minister claimed that nearly 30 per cent of jihadis are converts to Islam and often from racially distinct ghettos. Western countries should therefore think deeply about how to respect and integrate non-Caucasians into our society. And maybe Canada’s comparative success in this regard can teach Europe and Middle Eastern countries something.

Every citizen of western democracies can play a part by living these values. Too many bigots are crawling out of the shadows to set fires in mosques, scrawl hateful graffiti, or assault defenceless visible minorities on the street. Such people, by their mindless reaction, are inadvertent recruiting agents for the terrorists.

Sixth, we should recognize that draconian security measures which threaten our freedoms can do more harm than good. Destroying our way of life is not the way to save it. We have to create a sophisticated balance between security and liberty and realize that, no matter how repressive our measures, completely eliminating the terrorist threat is impossible.

Finally, Canada should reconsider our all-too-friendly ties with coercive and reactionary Middle Eastern regimes like Saudi Arabia, whose radical Wahhabism and financial support for terrorist organizations by its royals threaten the entire region. (Apparently atheists are terrorists to them.)

I’m still trying to puzzle this out, but it’s clear we need well-thought-out, not knee-jerk or revenge-based, responses to this complicated problem.

Phil Elder is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Planning Law with the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary. Phil is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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