Confronting ISIL: Why bombing is doomed to fail

The West’s experience in the Middle East is that military intervention doesn’t counter terror; so wh

Opponents of such counterproductive actions are dismissed as knee-jerk anti-interventionists, writes Shabi [EPA]

It may have got what it wanted, the group that says we must call it “Islamic State”. As it aired videos showing the unconscionable, gruesome beheadings of two US journalists and a British aid worker, the response from the leaders of those respective countries came right on cue.

Using the sort of rhetoric that so typified the “war on terror” years, US President Barack Obama vowed to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) “by any means necessary”, while the CIA warned of a surge in ISIL numbers. And, presumably mindful of the growing public support for military intervention, Vice President Joe Biden added his own action movie flourish by declaring the intent to chase the group to the “gates of hell”.

So once again, just like the last time western forces pointlessly and disastrously bombed an Arab or Muslim country (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya; take your pick), we are being presented with the same old arguments. You know by now how this script goes: We have no choice; military involvement is the least bad option; we must “do something” against such an evil force of terror.

Knee-jerk anti-interventionists

Opponents of such recklessly counterproductive actions are dismissed as knee-jerk anti-interventionists – as though military action is the only possible form of intervention.

And, as a final flourish, terrible and entirely predictable outcomes are brushed off as necessary “unintended consequences“.

Amassing another coalition of the willing – which Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the US Institute for Policy Studies, has described as another “coalition of the killing” – the US is pursuing military action in Iraq to counter ISIL. Meanwhile, Obama just got a green light from the US House of Representatives to arm and train Syrian moderates – whoever those may be – as part of the same fight.

It should be obvious by now that if such bombing campaigns have an effect, it is to make things much worse. What western leaders portray as valiant efforts to rid the world of evil forces such as ISIL just don’t play the same way in the region. In Iraq, for instance, western military intervention is viewed as support for the authoritarian, sectarian and West-approved leadership, whose persecution and air strikes are so bad that many Sunnis are prepared to put up with ISIL, for now, as preferable.

Western military intervention thus gives ISIL its recruitment fuel of choice: A war with a self-interested external enemy around which to galvanise support.

Meanwhile, arming supposed “moderates” in Syria is equally delusional: Even self-declared moderates have on the ground, allied with the currently dominant ISIL in the fight against dictator Bashar al-Assad, and even these so-called moderates have carried out beheadings and other brutalities. A cursory glance around the region shows exactly what happens when the West arms groups that somehow fit the “moderate” descriptive; as one writer most succinctly puts it: “The terrorists fighting us now? We just finished training them.”

More sensible approach

Indeed, this situation is so bad that many have suggested a more sensible approach would be to impose a regional arms embargo. And if there is a need for a West-sanctioned flow of anything into the region, it is obviously of humanitarian aid, not guns.

Western leaders talk the talk about diplomacy and political solutions, both of which are far more likely than anything else to ultimately stem support for groups such as ISIL. But when it actually comes  to engaging in such endeavours – well, it’s a different story. For instance, “diplomacy” at the moment involves side-lining Iran, a major regional player, with vital influence over rulers in both Syria and Iraq.

But the nation’s involvement at a Paris summit on the issue on September 15 was nonetheless deemed “not appropriate” by US secretary of State John Kerry. It later turned out that this was because Saudi Arabia had threatened to “boycott” the summit if Iran came, too – and the US decided to go along with that, even though its clear that both Saudi Arabia and Iran have a common interest in containing ISIL. Small wonder, then, that Iran finds the US building a Sunni-dense alliance against ISIL as somewhat “suspicious”.

Russia, another key player with influence over the regime in Syria, is found distasteful for different reasons, but similarly excluded. This is despite Russia’s repeated warnings over ISIL – the country has its own reasons to fear the spread of this terror group. For the ringleaders of this new coalition, it is as though “diplomacy” simply means cherry-picking the people you find it easy to talk to, and ignoring everybody else.

So there are different forms of intervention available, alternatives to repeated air strikes that end up devastating ordinary lives and causing long-term chaos. The question isn’t a handwringing: “What else can we do?” The question is why we aren’t pursuing any options that don’t involve dropping more bombs on the Middle East.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.