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opinion

Jeffrey Simpson

The Islamic State, against which the United States and assorted real or erstwhile allies have now declared war, in a manner of speaking, beheaded American and British captives to general and genuine revulsion.

Their beheadings, and various fire-breathing statements against infidels in the West from the IS, suggest the war in which we are now embarked is fundamentally about us. It is not.

The Islamic State, its ambitions and enemies, is more about fierce conflicts within Islam, among rulers of various Islamic sects and countries, power struggles in the region, and of course doctrinal battles, rhetorical and military, about the meaning of Islam.

The West, once again, has stepped into these minefields without having properly identified the nature of the struggle, the ends sought by military intervention and the means necessary to bring those ends about. Nor has it considered that to "degrade and destroy" the IS, the words chosen by U.S. President Barack Obama (cheered on by the Harper government), it will be necessary to align ourselves with groups in the region whose militancy and tactics are only slightly less unsavoury than those of the IS.

The old adage that the enemy of my enemy must be my friend will apply if the IS can be repulsed, the organization having conquered considerable swaths of Iraq and Syria. Western countries are unwilling to put "boots on the ground," only special operations units and "advisers," and to provide military and other equipment to those groups in the region actually willing to fight for territory.

Air power, which the U.S. has in abundance, cannot win this conflict. It, like the rest of the U.S. military, is excellent at destruction but cannot build anything. Building requires the reconstitution of two broken states – Syria and Iraq – both of which would seem shattered beyond repair.

In Syria, the forlorn hope is advanced that "moderate" Sunni elements can be encouraged to accomplish two tasks simultaneously: take on and defeat IS while also taking on and replacing the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The West has been betting on these forces for some time without actually putting much money on them in the form of military assistance.

Whatever "moderate" elements existed were supplanted some time ago by a variety of much more militant Sunni factions, none of them very savoury, the worst of which was the IS, all desirous of replacing President al-Assad's Alawite clique, Alawites being an offshoot of the Shiites.

Russia is understandably not popular these days, but it was Russia that warned early on in the Syria uprising that outside intervention leading to the weakening of the al-Assad regime would lead to chaos. The West chose, however, to declare that he and his evil regime must go, and sided with what it naively believed to be democratic liberators, another example of superimposing our liberal aspirations on an entirely different kind of conflict.

Now, the real choice is not between some dwindling Syrian "moderates" and the government but among all sorts of Sunni factions, the al-Assad regime and the IS. And even this formulation misstates reality, since the West's ability to frame any real choice in Syria is limited. Other players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Iran, all much closer geographically and religiously to the conflict, have themselves varying interests and strategies that may or may not line up with those of the West.

In Iraq, it is hoped a new government will represent the interests of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, thereby bringing coherence to government and to a military effort against the IS. Among the fighters will be various Shia militias who once reviled the United States and who are encouraged by Iran, with which the U.S. has strained relations to say the least. Once Shia militias that operate outside the ambit of the Iraq army join the fray, Sunnis in Iraq will be frightened of the Shia militias' ultimate intentions, and be more inclined than ever to seek refuge within the IS.

All of which is to say, with reference to only a few of the complications, that it would appear Canada is joining a mission it barely understands, except at the highest level of government rhetoric whose intensity will outstrip once again the country's actual contribution.

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