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Are we asking the wrong questions about Daesh?

April 20, 2017 at 10:37 pm

Before he launched his apparently ineffective airstrikes against Syria’s Sharyat Airbase, US President Donald Trump had a very different view of the conflict in Syria. It was a much simpler view. Daesh represented the ultimate evil, and anyone who could help bring about the group’s demise was on the right side of the war.

Back then Trump just cared about “killing terrorists”. He even praised Saddam Hussain for his ability to do so. Moreover, he stepped up the US’ attacks on Mosul and Yemen, killing more and more civilians in the process.

It stands to reason then that the Commander-in-Chief wanted to be friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin and even considered Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad a potential ally. Perhaps – through his lens – he looked at the terror and devastation created by their combined campaigns as the right kind of terror. Perhaps – in Trump’s view – the massive body count generated by the Assad regime and its backers was just proof that this dictator too was “really good at killing terrorists”.

The road to Damascus?

It appears, however, that President Trump has attained something of an epiphany. In the aftermath of a horrific Sarin gas attack, and over a “beautiful chocolate cake”, the president launched his cruise missiles at Sharyat. Though as a recent article in Foreign Affairs aptly explains, it did not bring with it much clarity:

The strike sent an ambiguous signal about how the United States evaluated the chemical weapons attack, and it did not clarify how the United States would respond to similar actions in the future.

Instead, in the days since the strike, US officials appear to be back peddling. Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, went to Moscow and – according to media reports – let it be known that the US has little interest in an extended mission against the regime. Rather, the US’ main priority has shifted back to the war on Daesh.

The war on Daesh

But this assertion only brings with it even more confusion. If the priority was always the defeat of Daesh – and not, for example, humanitarian intervention – then what can explain such a doglegged policy? What does it even mean to defeat Daesh? Would victory mean the killing of anyone who is currently involved in the organisation or is it a much bigger goal of trying to transform conditions in Syria/Iraq to make terrorism itself a less attractive option?

Discussions with global security experts and those with specialist knowledge of Daesh highlighted that the apparently narrower view of a “victory” against Daesh – which would mean the military destruction of the organisation – would be insufficient, and could even, perhaps be counterproductive.

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Dr Jamie Allinson, a lecturer at University of Edinburgh, who recently wrote an article on the background to Daesh called “Disaster Islamism”, argues that Daesh represents a very particular kind of response to the long term unfolding disasters beginning way back with the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. There are similarities, Allinson argues, with the way in which other forces elsewhere have sought to take advantage of ruptures in the status quo to further their own goals, often brutally.

The people of Iraq and Syria are certainly suffering from disaster, albeit a political and man-made one. For the Iraqis, the disaster consists of imperialist invasion and ensuing civil war; for the Syrians it is Assad’s extraordinarily destructive counter-revolution and the tactics of all-out siege, starvation and bombardment it has employed.

Two visions of Islam in the West

Allinson argues that Daesh’s “Islamism” is perhaps its most incidental characteristic, which hints at one of the most important points to interrogate in terms of the way we view the entire conflict. In fact, this conclusion suggests that Allinson holds a worldview of this conflict that is entirely at odds with the way in which it is discussed by the media in general, and seems to be represented by Trump’s rhetoric and actions.

Indeed, according to Trump’s first appointee as National Security Advisor – retired general Michael Flynn – Islam is a “political ideology” that “hides behind the notion that it is a religion”. According to this view, Daesh probably represents Islam in its purest form and defeating it is only another step in an endless, civilisational struggle akin to the Cold War.

But we should be clear, the second view of Islam is absurd. It takes no account of the numerous potential interpretations of religious doctrine, nor the basic fact that human beings are not automatons and that it is possible for anyone to make choices about how they interpret religious doctrine, or any form of information for that matter. Simply put, this second vison of Daesh-as-Islam, or Islam-as-Daesh, is roughly equivalent to equating the whole of Judeo-Christian thought civilisation with the actions of the Klu Klux Klan, or Kahanism.

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The second view of Daesh is that the organisation represents something more akin to a globalised and extremely horrific form of anti-social behaviour. This view looks at the problem in the same way we look at some criminal activity on the domestic front, in that we see some violence, crime and anti-social activities as products of societal neglect and or maltreatment. In short, this view looks at Daesh’s activities through the lens of deprivation of need.

Instead, as Research Associate in Global Security & Politics at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, Jacqueline Lopour, notes:

One thing I wish I could convince sceptics of is: ISIS [Daesh] is not Islam, Islam is not ISIS. They’re completely different. Islam is a religion of peace. So conflating the two in this way which is so black and white is not productive and, frankly, just not right.

This is, by no means, to let Daesh off the hook. They’re still mass murderers and terrorists and there are no excuses for the kinds of war crimes that they’ve committed. Moreover, it does not discount the fact that some of their membership may simply be sociopaths who would look for any excuse to act in such a way.

Rather the virtue of looking at the group through this lens is that it helps broaden our view to take into account a range of factors that may be highly relevant. Of course, these factors may include both legitimate and/or illegitimate grievances, which means that it is still important to use our judgement in terms of analysis. But the key issue here is that we have to at least begin by asking the right kinds of questions.

The future

However, perhaps the problem presented by the existence of Daesh is much bigger and more complex than it might, at first, appear.

While for Allinson the occurrence of Daesh is an example of how some people regroup and restore some kind of structure to their lives in the context of an obliterated society. Yet it is only one example of potentially many. Though none are more terrible or terrifying than Daesh, one could potentially group together the emergence of anti-political populism in the form of Trumpism, Brexit, the French National Front etc. etc. under the same heading. They all represent attempts to reorder society along radically different lines in the context of a faulting global system, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen [Rémi Noyon/Flickr]

National Front leader Marine Le Pen [Rémi Noyon/Flickr]

As yet the impact of these phenomena have been limited. Trump’s populism has been tempered somewhat by some of the other institutions of power at play in American politics (be they the “deep state”, the judiciary or the media establishment), the impact of Brexit has not yet been fully felt and Marine Le Pen is unlikely to triumph in the end because of France’s two-round electoral system.

But should the post-Second World War global order – the neo-liberal consensus of free markets and US-led Western dominance – continue to stutter, perhaps with further degradation of the EU or in response to a major attack on the US homeland, then the situation could change rapidly, and for the worse.

In Iraq and Syria, on the other hand, as Jacqueline Lopour explains, the disaster is already here and it’s not going away anytime soon. Instead, she draws a parallel to the situation in Afghanistan where, despite decades of war, there is no clear victory in sight for anyone. The existence of a similar such grey zone in Syria over a long period of time would allow various pockets to exist where different actors – some of them very unpleasant – will persist. And in a globalised world, it is unlikely that they will continue to draw on the same kinds of motivations that inspire Daesh’s recruits today. Moreover, they will also be able to use similar globalised networks of transport and communication to prosecute acts of terror far and wide.

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It short, while as a political/military entity in its current form, Daesh’s days seem to be numbered, but because the broader context that produced it has not changed substantially, the group’s demise will not represent the end of the problem.

Instead, this is not a time for new “security solutions” but a time to rethink the problem. While we might have the kind of firepower necessary to deal with Daesh in the short term, there is no sign yet that the bigger picture has been fleshed out. But this may be because we have not been asking the right kinds of questions.

We should start.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.