Fifteen years after the US “war on terror” was launched in response to the devastating 9/11 attacks, the Middle East landscape is marked by greater radicalism and more pronounced instability.
The most graphic example of this is the rise of ISIS, its control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq in accord with its dark vision of Islam, and more recently its export of terrorism to Europe. But it is not only ISIS and civil war in Syria and Iraq that makes the region more volatile and ominous.
Libya and Yemen are mired in seemingly unending bloodletting.
Egypt, a country upon which great hopes were pinned during the Arab Spring of 2011, lurched from the replacement of president Hosni Mubarak by Islamist fundamentalists to their ouster by the repressive regime of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, which faces its own insurgency in the Sinai.
Meanwhile, Jordan’s fragile domestic balance is threatened by the influx of more than 630,000 registered refugees from the fighting in Syria – about one-10th of Jordan’s population. The civil wars in Yemen and Syria have evolved into broader regional conflicts involving outside powers, most notably Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Closer to home, although relative calm prevails in Israel and the West Bank compared with 2001’s second intifada, Hamas – which was an opposition force back then – is now entrenched as the ruler of the Gaza mini-state, while the Palestinian areas are wracked by their own internal divide. The status quo of a lack of hope for a negotiated settlement has become a seemingly permanent aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Things are worse,” says Gabriel Ben-Dor, a Middle East specialist at the University of Haifa. “ISIS is far worse than al-Qaida. And there has been a process of degeneration of the political culture in the region.
“We’ve seen the collapse of regimes, endemic civil wars, lack of stability, lack of trust in leadership, and lack of a stable political culture needed to sustain the kind of states needed in the modern world. The terrorism part is a symptom of this general process of degeneration.”
If one looks just at the results, clearly things have gone wrong in the struggle against radicalism. And although not all of the above can be traced back to Washington’s response to 9/11, including the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, critics of US decision- making over the last 15 years say that US policy misperceptions and miscalculations and the lack of a coherent strategy have plagued the region.
“Ultimately, if you want to defeat terrorism you have to look at the long-term situation in the Middle East, which is the source of much of the terrorism,’’ says Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Washington-based think tank. “The fact that there hasn’t been a long-term strategy that has been effective 15 years later is something that should scare us.”
“We don’t know how to fight terrorism,” adds Hamid, the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.
“We don’t even know what it means to fight terror. We don’t agree on the definition, the starting point, the assumptions. That means we are in for a very rough ride for a very long time to come.”
In the view of Hamid and other scholars, the invasion of Iraq – two years after the invasion of Afghanistan in an initial response to the al-Qaida attacks – would not have happened without 9/11. “It’s hard for me to see that we would have gone through with massive intervention in Iraq without 9/11,” he said.
“Psychologically, it had its effect on Bush and other people around him.
That Americans were supportive early and that most of the Washington establishment supported the war was due to 9/11 and how it affected the American psyche.”
In the view of Julien Barnes-Dacey, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the disastrous consequences of invading Iraq are very much still with us today.
“The invasion of Iraq, despite the horrors of the Saddam regime, unleashed a range of destructive forces that have played out in escalating fashion ever since whether it be the fueling of sectarian confrontation, state failure or broader regional war of the Saudis versus the Iranians,” said Barnes-Dacey. “All of these can be traced back to the 2003 invasion, and that in turn is directly linked to 9/11 in terms of how the Bush administration chose to respond.”
Hindsight is easy, but it is now abundantly clear that not enough forethought was given to the consequences of creating a vacuum by removing Saddam Hussein’s rule, or the fallout from unleashing Iraq’s sectarian animosities and marginalizing the country’s Sunni population.
The invasion and accompanying policies were followed by al-Qaida Iraq’s spearheading of a devastating insurgency.
The group later morphed into Islamic State.
ISIS shares al-Qaida’s zeal for warring against targets seen as enemies of Islam, but it represents a new type of threat in terms of its project of holding onto territory and governing its population in accord with its severe interpretation of Shari’a law.
The failure of the Iraq intervention, in turn, has had fateful implications for the conflict in neighboring Syria, causing the US to be unwilling to risk even a more limited intervention there despite the enormous and unrelenting death toll, which the UN put at 400,000 in April.
The US “lacks the resolve, the determination, the willingness to pay the price of engaging and in a sense they are also indifferent,” says Ben-Dor.
“They don’t really care enough to commit the necessary resources.Syria is a good example of this."
“I don’t necessarily mean sending hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground, but the US should have been more assertive in restraining Assad from doing what he’s doing, in retaliating in response to the use of chemical weapons, and in engineering a lasting settlement by supporting the democratic and liberal forces in a more meaningful way,” he said, adding that perhaps a US air campaign against regime military targets should have been launched.
Hamid says the problem is that the US has failed to calibrate the right response in Syria, and has gone from one extreme to the other as a result of the Iraq debacle. “The military interventionism of Bush has been disastrous, but Obama’s non-interventionism is also disastrous,” he said, adding that he believes the best response is a middle ground of targeting the Assad regime’s military infrastructure through air strikes, establishing no-fly zones, and deploying a more significant number of special operations forces on the ground, but not tens of thousands of troops.
But defeating radicalism and terrorism is much more than military responses and here, too, the US has thus far failed, Hamid says. “We have to be willing to put tens of billions of dollars to helping rebuild Middle East societies that have become a swamp of violence, dysfunction and civil conflict.
“What we’ve learned is that terrorism draws strength from contexts where there are vacuums of governance, where there is chaos. We see that in Syria, Libya and Yemen. We have to be willing to address not just ‘that’s a terrorist, let’s kill them,’ but how do we help establish better, more effective and more legitimate governance in the Middle East. This is not easy, and requires us to have a conversation about nation building.”
But Barnes-Dacey thinks it may be too late to fix the mistakes of post 9/11 policy and the fallout from the Iraq invasion. And he believes any intervention in Syria would only make matters worse. “The lessons of Western interventions across the Middle East over the last 20 years prove again and again that they only help fuel extremists rather than address them in a meaningful way.
“The situation is so complex, it is hard to envision that the West could have charted a way to stabilization rather than further escalation and confrontation. Military intervention would have drawn the West into a broader conflict.”
As far as the region as a whole is concerned, Barnes-Dacey is not optimistic: “The genie has been let out of the bottle, and it is beyond US control now,” he says. “Bringing stability is going to be an immense task going forward. The ability of the US to roll things back is extremely limited.”