Among the many challenges the contemporary world collectively faces today, a significant one is that of combating radicalism and terrorism. Borne out of the frustrations and inequalities of the capitalist, post-national world, the spectre of terrorism has been haunting many nations for the past couple of decades. Even now, when trillions have been spent on responses both hard and soft, there seems to be no end in sight. Perhaps, much like the nation-state order post World War Two, the ever-present threat of terrorism will come to define the post 9/11 world for much of our lives.
The US has so far been leading the anti-terrorism brigade with unmatched gusto but the signs of battle fatigue have started to creep in. However, the US does seem to be learning from its past mistakes. After starting unending conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq — countries that are demonstrably worse post-intervention — the US later sought to keep a rather reserved outlook on its military engagements, and has shied away from putting boots on the ground in Libya and Syria. But this latter approach has not resulted in beneficial outcomes for the US either and, as per reports emerging out of the White House last week, President Obama is mulling over putting more US troops in Syria and Iraq.
The move is being dubbed as the ‘Three R’s’ strategy; the idea is to take back the important cities of Raqqa and Ramadi — accounting for the first two R’s — and then focusing on raids to kill and capture Islamic State (IS) members. The creation of no-fly or buffer zones has been deemed prohibitively expensive at a time when the US is looking to retrace, not advance, its steps internationally but, owing to increased demands for action in Syria from both domestic and foreign quarters, the US will end up getting further involved in the Middle East.
The pressure on the US to take action has exponentially increased in the wake of the influx of Russian troops in Syria to help the ruling regime fight off IS. On the face of it, Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking a re-affirmation of Russia-Syria ties and providing military assistance to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, in order to protect Russia’s vested interests in the country. However, deep down, the move is largely a sideshow created in order to divert attention away from the economic and political stagnation infecting Russia domestically.
The move to engage in Syria, furthermore, is a clear break from Obama’s commitment to ending the US’ ongoing wars and rolling back on its military presence abroad. But because of disastrous strategies in yesteryears, the option of completely isolating the US from the Middle East imbroglio now remains largely untenable. When it comes to US policies of late in the Middle East, the US has been made to do with a stalemate that largely favours the asymmetric status quo in Iraq and Syria. Despite its best attempts so far, the US has been unable to create a satisfactory opening for tilting the equilibrium in its favour. Resultantly, the response to the Syrian crisis — political as well as human — has been largely incoherent and devoid of even short-term victories.
But perhaps the biggest problem with this recent haphazard strategy is that it does not align with the interests of any of the US’ allies in the region. Achieving consensus over a coordinated Syrian counter-terror strategy with Russia, Iran, Turkey and Syria is of paramount importance for the US but the chances of doing so remain thin. If you want to get a feel for how severely compromised the situation is, just take a look at Syria on the map of the Middle East.
Towards the north, Turkey — along with its Kurdish contingents — is actively involved in the aerial campaign against IS But if the US chooses to intervene, there is a possibility that the Kurds fighting against IS in Syria and Iraq will demand greater political rights in return, a possibility that will cause tremors in Turkey. The push in favour of the Kurds might not solve the ongoing problems in Turkey but, moreover, in such a situation the US will stand to lose Turkish support as well.
Eastwards, the state apparatus in Iraq is in tatters, a consequence of which has been the swift rise of IS. Still further east, Iran is one of the few countries that actively supports the regime of Bashar Al Assad. That in itself would not have been too big a concern for the US had the hegemon not closed a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme recently. The landmark deal marks a change in Iran-US relations and opens avenues for furthering cooperation between the two countries. But asking Iran to end its support to Bashar will cause rifts in the newly established bonhomie between the two states, and may lead to disastrous consequences.
In all likelihood, putting troops on the ground in Syria will bring the US face-to-face with Russia in a charged environment. Additionally, it will create tensions with Turkey, and it may also lead to the deterioration of Iran-US ties in the long run, thereby providing the Iranians significant incentives to continue with their nuclear programme in violation of the agreed deal.
The fact of the matter is that limited interventions and targeted strikes will not be able to make the terrorist juggernaut lose its steam. Despite American presence and a trained Afghan security force, the Taliban were able to take the Afghan city of Kunduz with lightning speed a few weeks ago and intense fighting has been raging on in Afghanistan since then. But while there may not be coherent solutions on the horizon, it would at least do a world of good to the decision-makers if they treat their anti-terrorism endeavours as long-run operations, characterised not by an on-off engagement but a longer commitment towards actively supporting peaceful, tolerant citizens in the affected states. That, however, will have to come at the cost of neglecting domestic concerns, and it is for this reason that the Syrian quagmire will become the newest addition to the long list of tragedies in this century so far.
The author is a freelance columnist with degrees in political science and international relations