“Militant terrorism” is much more complex than was once believed. Recent developments in the phenomenon, especially in terms of infrastructure, sphere of operations and the proliferation of militant organisations, have made it clear that previous explanations had been too simplified and generalised. The more the phenomenon grew, the more it became intertwined with political equations, balance of power calculations, and conflicts over rival interests and spheres influence and, as a consequence, the more it became a factor in the region’s proxy wars. If the foregoing is not a sufficient indication of the complexity, reality adds to the brew huge doses of sectarian strife, and ethnic and regional disputes, all of which involve questions of ideology, culture and degrees of social awareness.
The hard reality of all that complexity feeds a pessimistic outlook for the future, and it helps little that events to date do not offer definitive answers to the question of how to untangle the plethora of factors and processes related to the phenomenon. Although some steps have been taken to engage seriously with the question of militant terrorism, they are focused on countering the immediate and pressing threat without aiming further to completely defeat and/or uproot the phenomenon. More ominously, the fact that solutions to many of the region’s ongoing conflicts remain out of reach and elusive means that more roles and activities are in store for militant terrorism in the future.
The US-led coalition that was formed in October 2014 to combat terrorism — or the anti-Islamic State group (IS) coalition, as it was known — was a response to a rush of developments were rapidly propelling Syria and Iraq towards an abyss of uncontrollable fluidity. Some months before this, in June 2014, IS had stormed across the Syrian-Iraqi border, seized control of three Iraqi provinces, which it added to the three Syrian provinces it already controlled, and declared the founding of IS. The significance of that name, which replaced the terrorist organisation’s previous names, and the area of the territory it controlled, which was larger than Jordan, formed the primary impetus for the international coalition’s drive to destroy the terrorist organisation’s capacities and regain a certain degree of control.
The next two years brought an array of different events and developments, but as 2015 and 2016 came and went there remained an important constant: the lack of clarity in how that drive was conducted. Observers, counterterrorism experts and strategy designers agreed that this factor was lacking in Washington’s mentality and its approach to the war. They were at a loss as to how to explain the US’s responses to developments on the ground in Syria that, at one point, president Barack Obama felt compelled to give a lengthy interview to The Atlantic in order to defend his policies and his strategy, such as it was. The title of the interview — “The Obama Doctrine” — acquired a certain fame in its own right.
Nevertheless, the questions he attempted to address remained the source of considerable confusion and speculation. The step to shift the Syrian grassroots protests from a “peaceful movement” to the chaos of “armed conflict” occurred right under Washington’s nose and with the blessing of and distribution of roles between Turkey and certain Gulf countries. Nor did that step stop at this already dangerous phase. It proved the quick and decisive key to the mutation of “militant terrorism” into its new modern edition in the form of small standing armies with sophisticated capacities.
We can only begin to imagine the quantity of significant details related to the interwoven political, military and intelligence roles that played a part in producing this transformation and the unprecedentedly generous flows of money and arms to those organisations/militias. Even before this, there was the need to meet the demand for the manpower that would be moulded into the “combatants” for these “armies”. That need gave rise to a recruitment drive that would generate an intensive transnational movement of volunteers and recruits drawn from numerous countries in the region.
Just this small portion of the overall details rocked the regional security equations because it broadened the circles of linkage with the centre of that mission in Syria. North Africa was a region that was thrust into the vicious cycle. In Libya, for example, militant training and indoctrination camps mushroomed. The trainees were drawn from neighbouring countries and, when ready, they would be shipped by sea or air to the Turkish middleman and transported to the Anatolian border with Syria. With the cognisance of Turkish National Intelligence (MIT), the recruits would be distributed among the “organisations” which, in turn, were waiting to see what their quotas of “combatants” would be so that they could calculate the scope of their activities. The agency that supervised and controlled these movements was located in another border zone, in Jordan. This was the Military Intelligence Operations Room, or MOC for short. Operating secretly at first until leaks of its existence brought it out into the open, MOC was run by the US, the UK, France, Jordan and some Gulf countries. Through their joint decisions and agreements, they regulated the pace of military engagements and managed the areas under their mission’s control.
Such a huge effort with all those lines and circles of linkage would not have the luxury to monopolise the Syrian arena so that it could produce its desired effect. It quickly triggered a counter-effort on the part of Iran, Hizbullah and then Russia, which joined the side of the Bashar Al-Assad regime. Now “militant terrorism” had two great windows of opportunity for uncontainable expansion. The first took a sectarian dimension in the form of the Shia versus Sunni polarisation. The second projected the “proxy war” concept and mechanism onto battlefields that had become increasingly difficult to delineate and define. The “battle” could now strike distant Yemen or spill over into neighbouring Lebanon.
The mechanism, itself, required that the “Shia side” resort to the same weapons. So “militant organisations” began to pour into Syria by the dozen in order to halt the collapse of the regime. Their counterparts coalesced in Iraq after ISIS spread across the western “Sunni” third of that country. At a higher level, the conflict proved an invaluable gift to Russia, which returned to the region with all its political and military clout and quickly began to catch up in the race over interests and spheres of influence.
The snowball effect in those years extended beyond the boom experienced by internationally recognised terrorist organisations against the backdrop of the Syrian and Iraqi crises. Other militant entities received tremendous boosts that would, perhaps inadvertently, serve to promote these entities’ own ends in the contexts of their particular struggles. For taxonomical purposes, we can rank three of these entities under the heading of “Shia” (Hizbullah, the Popular Mobilisation Units in Iraq and the Ansar Allah Al-Houthi movement in Yemen) and two of them beneath the heading “ethnic” (the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq and the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces). It is hardly a secret that these armed entities are up to their ears in the tasks and functions of proxy wars. But more dangerous is their huge growth in numerical strength and arms, and the profound potential impact of this on the maps of political and military conflict.
The question of this potential impact is too large and complex to treat in the space available here. Nevertheless, as we stand on the threshold of 2018, we can touch on some of the acute problems generated by the unprecedented spurts of growth experienced by the abovementioned entities. In Yemen, they have succeeded in undermining the political process and pushing that country to the brink of Somalisation. Their surplus force in Iraq propelled towards a total secession of the Kurdish north until that bid was checked, at least temporarily, with the aid of another militant entity (the Popular Mobilisation Units). Northern Syria appears poised to impose a version of the Iraqi model on any Syrian settlement plan. The majority of that region is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces and the US bases there. It is hard to picture that predominantly Kurdish region submitting again to the centralised authority of Damascus. The extent of the military, political and intelligence control that Hizbullah has acquired in Lebanon is sufficient to predict that the balances in that country will not readjust themselves soon.
Turning to the “collateral” crises, we find a number of alarmingly complex and acute problems. A major one of these problems is the largest refugee and displacement crisis ever experienced in this region (with over 10 million refugees and another 10 million displaced persons). Aggravating this crisis are large and systematic ethnic cleansing, demographic engineering and population transfer operations that are occurring on a daily basis against the backdrop of the dust of battle in Syria and Iraq. These have already begun to sow the seeds of future conflicts that will wreak their sectarian, regional and ethnic havoc the moment that the guns fell silent under the settlements reached in the current conflicts. As for Yemen, from which sophisticated ballistic missiles shoot towards neighbouring Gulf states, for nearly a year now it has succumbed to a comprehensive onslaught of famine and epidemic diseases.
The overall picture at this juncture between two years depicts a region marching into a quicksand of problems and threats of unprecedented scope and complexity. Terrorism and extremism loom foremost, without a doubt. But the growth in arms accumulations and a feverish desire to create avenues in which to put them to use aggravates the danger. Meanwhile, the pending demographic problems and the deterioration in the levels of regional and domestic security in the countries of central concern combine to intensify the fog that shrouds the future. What is certain is that a large and rapid surge of collective effort is needed in order to douse the fires and cool down the climates in order to pave the way to as just settlements as possible to the current conflicts. Then further efforts will be required to give preponderance to the factors of security and stability in order to extricate the region from the stifling cycle of conflict and steer it towards safer shores, out of reach from that treacherous net that is forever ready to entangle those who lag behind or who stray off course from the right direction.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly