Best Defense

Iraq & Syria: Not security problems, but political problems with security symptoms

We need to take a step back and recognize that the terrorist breeding grounds of Syria and Iraq are not a security problem. Iraq and Syria are a political problem that is causing a security problem.

A rebel fighter aims his weapon as he stands amidst snow during clashes with Syrian pro-government forces in the Salaheddin neighbourhood of Syria's northern city of Aleppo on December 11, 2013.  Gulf Arab states called for the withdrawal of "all foreign forces" from Syria, where Iran-backed Shiite militias from Iraq and Lebanon are supporting regime troops against mostly-Sunni rebels. AFP PHOTO/ZAKARIYA AL-KAFI        (Photo credit should read ZAKARIYA AL-KAFI/AFP/Getty Images)
A rebel fighter aims his weapon as he stands amidst snow during clashes with Syrian pro-government forces in the Salaheddin neighbourhood of Syria's northern city of Aleppo on December 11, 2013. Gulf Arab states called for the withdrawal of "all foreign forces" from Syria, where Iran-backed Shiite militias from Iraq and Lebanon are supporting regime troops against mostly-Sunni rebels. AFP PHOTO/ZAKARIYA AL-KAFI (Photo credit should read ZAKARIYA AL-KAFI/AFP/Getty Images)

 

By Jill Carroll
Best Defense guest columnist

We need to take a step back and recognize that the terrorist breeding grounds of Syria and Iraq are not a security problem. Iraq and Syria are a political problem that is causing a security problem.

Until the political grievances of average Sunnis are addressed, we will simply be adjusting tactics to manage a conflict instead of developing a strategy to stop it.

So what were Sunnis so aggrieved about from 2011-2013 that it could result in the horrific wars of today?

Sunnis in Iraq fear their Shiite-majority government and, worse, the Shiite militias controlled by Iran and the Iraqi police. In Syria, average people, mainly Sunnis, wanted to throw off the yoke of an oppressive regime with a history of mass murder of Sunnis and favoring citizens that are adherents to an offshoot of Shia Islam. In short, Sunnis wanted a government and security forces that treated them fairly and humanely.

But Syrian and Iraqi government crackdowns in 2011, 2012, and 2013 in response to Sunni protests in Iraq and mass protests in Syria gave radicals a toehold among average Sunnis who turned to them for protection and a means to forcefully air their grievances. That toehold, of course, has grown wildly out of control.

The only real solution to the war and instability in Syria and Iraq will be a political one that resolves those Sunni grievances. Destroying a terrorist organization is not about killing off its members. Supporters of a terrorist organization are not a finite resource as long as the political reasons for their violence still resonate with existing and new supporters, as we have seen with the Islamic State organization. Even if the organization vanished tomorrow, other radical groups would simply fill the void because the underlying weakness and predatory nature of the authorities in Iraq and Syria that allowed IS to emerge and gain strength have not been addressed.

This doesn’t mean anyone should attempt to satisfy the extremist political grievances of IS or other radicals. Instead the grievances of average Sunnis should be addressed to win away those who tacitly support IS and give a powerful incentive to those rightfully too afraid to rise against it.

Even on the battlefield, the myopic U.S. focus on addressing our security concerns and discounting the importance of the political roots of the fighting contributed to the failure of train and equip programs. Nearly all rebel groups in Syria are primarily focused on the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al Assad after a long war that has come at a deep personal cost for native Syrian fighters. But the U.S. insisted it would only help rebels who vowed to attack the Islamic State. While many rebel groups are rivals or enemies of the Islamic State, they also recognize that it is an effective force against Assad. Spending energy attacking IS diverts one’s own resources from the fight against Assad and would weaken a fellow partner, however despised, in the fight as well. When examined from this political perspective it is no wonder that only a handful of rebels were suitably aligned with U.S. interests to enter the Pentagon’s train and equip program and even less of a surprise that the few that made it back to the battlefield were immediately set upon by other rebel forces.

It seems there is precious little discussion at the policy level of how to address the very difficult questions of how to keep Sunnis safe, employed and able to live productive lives in Syria and Iraq. Perhaps the American focus on tactics remains because a strategy to address the underlying political problems would be an exponentially larger undertaking.

Russia’s increased involvement only makes this uphill battle harder. Russia clearly has no interest in addressing political grievances. And of course there’s only so much outside forces, especially from the West, can do to solve the political problems of the Middle East.

Facing such obstacles one can see why American policymakers might opt to simply contain the chaos in Syria and destabilization in Iraq and let it ride itself out. The problem is that approach dooms millions of innocent and long-suffering people to the horrors of the Islamic State, barrel bombs from the Assad regime and arson and killings of Sunnis in Iraq by Shiite militias. That’s also taking a gamble that the festering terrorism and radicalism incubated in the chaos of the situation can be fully contained. And of course it gives Russia an opportunity to increase its influence in the Middle East not to mention creating a refugee crisis in the region that has now spread to Europe.

Until the horrors of Syria and Iraq are treated as an expression of political grievances, we should prepare for even more instability in the Middle East and the long-term existence of terrorist breeding and training grounds.

Jill Carroll was a freelance journalist in the Middle East from 2002-2007, including two and a half years in Iraq. She is now pursuing a Master of Arts in Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Photo credit: Zakariya Al-Kafi/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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