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Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Our Mideast mission implausible Add to ...

Take a deep breath. Adjust your glasses. Read on. See if you can make any sense from the following list.

The Islamic State. The Free Syrian Army. The Syria Revolutionaries Front. The Hazm Movement. The Yarmouk Brigade. The Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union. The Mujahedeen Army. The Asalaw-wa-al-Tanmiya Front. The Noureddin al-Zengi Battalions. The Ahl al-Athar Brigade. The Shields of the Revolution Council. The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement. The Tawhid Brigade. The Army of Islam. Jabhat al-Nusra. The Jaysh al-Sham. The Sham al-Islam Movement. The Jund al-Sham. The Muhajerin wa-Ansar Alliance.

All clear? This is a partial list of combatant groups in the Syrian civil war, or whatever that conflict has become. Add to this list the forces of President Bashar al-Assad – forces that in many cases are actually controlled by warlords, rather than the government – and then ask: Who are Western powers, including Canada, fighting? With what means? Are the means proportionate to the objectives? And what are those objectives, for what Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called a “necessary and noble” mission?

Syria is a seething cauldron of endemic violence, sectarian strife, religious rivalries, Islamic-style eschatology, foreign agendas, legendary animosities and generalized fear. Since March, 2011, the conflict has claimed more than 190,000 lives, left hundreds of thousands more wounded, and displaced nearly half of the country’s 22 million people, including many hundreds of thousands who have fled to neighbouring countries.

Into this cauldron, where it had previously refused to go, the United States and some of its allies are now dropping bombs, hoping (against much experience elsewhere in the region) to pinpoint one adversary for destruction – the Islamic State, the nastiest of all of the Sunni factions but not the only nasty one. Today, Mr. Harper will reveal how and why Canada will enter this cauldron.

Without any idea how, the bombing powers seek to assemble a “moderate” alternative to both the Islamic State and Mr. al-Bashar’s government. These so-called “moderates” were routed some time ago. Reassembling, equipping and motivating them such that they take on two enemies at once is the stuff of chalkboard illusion, since it ignores the cleavages between Sunnis, Shiites and Alawites that the civil war has exposed, among other realities.

The least that can be said for this mission is that everyone associated with it knows – or should know – that air power alone cannot win a victory, presuming the bombing powers can define “victory.” There will have to be political coalitions and new military forces on the ground that could somehow defeat the militants and the government while creating some semblance of an effective government for a devastated country.

If this task were not implausible enough, the same will be required in Iraq, a country well-known for its hideous violence, massive corruption and sectarian rivalries.

The rise of the Islamic State is a direct result of the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime and its replacement with the Shia-dominated government of former president Nouri al-Maliki. Mr. al-Maliki, a middling functionary-turned-henchman, alienated and frightened his country’s Sunni minority, pushing many of them to support militant groups for self-defence.

The Iraqi army, recipient of so much American aid and training, turned tail when confronted by the Islamic State. This broken and demoralized institution is supposed to be the bombing powers’ best hope for “boots on the ground.” But a survey of Iraqi forces for the U.S. Joint Chiefs found only half the brigades to be “reputable partners.” According to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, many brigades “were so tied to Shia abuses, corruption, ghost soldiers and incompetent officers that they needed either to be disbanded or purged and rebuilt from the ground up.” All this, and more, would take a minimum of three years.

Which is to say that no one in the bombing countries should assume anything but a campaign lasting many years, with very imprecise ambitions and shifting targets. The campaign would require war in two countries simultaneously, political reconciliation of a kind not seen in either, unprecedented co-operation from and among outside players (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States), and an understanding of the societies of those countries that the bombing countries do not possess.

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