Chasing Our Tails: An Essay on Terrorism and Western Intervention in Syria


Have you ever wondered why we say ‘ignorance is bliss’? It seems an odd thing to say when you consider the real strength of Western (and by that I mean Hellenic-Judeo-Christian) thinking has been the triumph of rationality as the most celebrated and treasured of virtues. Particularly from the Enlightenment onwards, Western thinking has prioritised secular knowledge above all else, and this has driven progress in governance, science and philosophy at rate unprecedented in human history. Ignorance and rationality would appear to be diametrically opposed to one another; so why would a state of ignorance be ‘blissful’?

Ignorance is blissful because it allows a person’s opinions and outlook on life to be utterly unconstrained by the burden of having to think and, more importantly, making the effort to understand ideas and concepts that they come across. The problem with knowledge is that it generally makes you aware of how much more there is to know; whether about the world, or a specific problem, the closer you inspect something, the more components you realise it has. By the time you engage in critical thinking, you also begin to appreciate these components appear differently when viewed from another perspective. Transposed onto terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, one quickly garners an appreciation of just how stupid simple solutions really are.

Terrorism is complex, asymmetric warfare at its most virulent and, facilitated by globalisation, has emerged as a genuine transnational threat in which it is utterly unencumbered by the traditional barriers of the State and geography. Disparate sub-national groups from around the globe can operate semi-autonomously to bypass governance structures and express and promote their political agenda. Terrorism, by definition, inherently promotes its objectives through the use and threat of violence. Islam is complex – it is one and half thousand years old, is practiced by 1.6 billion people across the globe and practiced in hundreds of languages, not to mention divided by an antagonistic schism. If you think Islamic terrorism can be solved simply, that is fine – you are entitled to that opinion, but I reserve the right to ridicule you mercilessly for the ignorant stupidity and intellectual torpor you insist with sharing with the rest of us.

If you really want to promote Western values, start by having an educated and informed opinion. Here is mine:

The situation in Syria is not all that dissimilar from the issues we have been seeing in the region, particularly since the end of the Cold War; it is one deeply rooted in the history of Western intervention in the region, and has one core issue that it shares with every other Islamic fundamentalist conflict zone that have emerged since 1950. Be it the Iranian Revolution, the assassination of Sadat, the Mujahedeen and Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, ISIS, the Syrian Civil War, the Arab Spring and sectarian violence in Iraq, they all share one common denominator – virulent religious fundamentalism that has emerged where the State has restricted or destroyed the capacity for secular opposition. Put simply, whether it be Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Iran etc, modern Islamic terrorism has arisen where dictatorships have prevented the expression of political opposition over long periods of time.

But why is that? Of course, it is not as simple as saying that because terrorism has emerged in autocratic states it is therefore caused by the autocratic state; there is an underlying fundamental rational behind this line of thinking.

Terrorism emerges in autocratic states because dictatorships inherently cannot tolerate dissidence and differences of opinion when it comes to the operation and use of power. Subsequently, people who oppose dictatorships politically; questioning authority publically, become the subject of state reprisal – often imprisoned, tortured, killed or exiled. Secular opposition becomes impossible and, over time, largely extinct. However, in highly religious countries, dictatorships understand that, for most of the population, there is a higher reverence for religion than for state. For the sake of their own self-preservation, dictatorships have to engage, and get the tacit approval of, religious hierarchies. This often manifests in a social context where the political domain is tightly controlled and suppressed, yet the religious sphere is largely granted autonomy in return for enhancing the sovereign legitimacy of the dictator.

However, opposition does not go away. People who oppose their governments will find means to do so, even if public and secular opposition is eliminated; and they do this within the cover of religion. Over time, oppressed people begin basing their opposition to their governments not in secular terms, but rather from the inspiration of religious doctrine. Applied to the Middle East, dissidents and disillusioned youths gravitated towards madrasses and other religious organisations. This indoctrination process becomes more extreme over time – as moderates are eliminated by government forces, similar to a process of evolution, the extremists survive because they are less concerned with modifying existing social and political structures. Killing them doesn’t work because it exists as proof to the illegitimacy of the State, and garners support for those who propose more radical solutions, justified by more radical and twisted interpretations of the Quran. Throw in poverty, and you have a toxic concoction of extremism and desperation stuck in a pressure cooker. Jihad becomes inevitable; it becomes logical.

Where does the West fit into this? How did we become the targets of organisations like Al Qaeda and ISIS?

The answer to that is actually quite simple – because we have supported most of the regimes involved in this radicalisation process. Since colonisation, Western countries, in particular Britain and the United States, have undermined nationalist regimes that have threatened their commercial interests and have provided financial and military aid to regimes of commercial and strategic importance. Democracy was often not even a secondary concern, but rather a hindrance to Western objectives in the region. Using Iran as an example, in 1953 the CIA backed a coup de tat of the democratically elected nationalist government because it proposed to nationalise its oil reserves. The Shah was installed and democracy was obliterated whilst the oil interests of Anglo-American were protected. Over the following three decades opposition became centred on radical interpretations of Shi’a Islam, culminating in the 1979 Iranian Revolution that installed the fundamentalist regime that controls Iran and threatens the stability of the region to this day. This process has been largely repeated in most Middle Eastern countries, with the exception of the fact that most countries have retained their dictatorships.

This brings us back to Syria.

Syria has been controlled by the Assad family and their Alawite allies since 1970, operating as a despotic dictatorship with strong military rule. Although never a Western ally, following the emergence of Sunni-extremist terrorism in the region after the Cold War, the stability of the regime and its opposition to Sunni fundamentalism meant that it enjoyed a degree of Western backing until the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War.

Dealing with Syria and dealing with ISIS cannot be separated – they are an interrelated issue and any solution has significant repercussions throughout the Middle East. As Henry Kissinger says, both nature and international relations deplore vacuums, hence the destruction of one creates a significant vacuum for the other to fill. Alawites are Shi’a, and the regime enjoys significant support from Iran and, to an extent, Russia, which has largely aligned itself with the Shi’a groups in the region. The West is aligned with the Sunni dictatorships in the region – particularly in the Gulf, because these control strategic stakes in oil production.

So, how does this hinder the West dealing with ISIS?

The first thing to remember is that is Islam is divided by a schism between Sunni and Shi’a, and there is a great deal of historical antagonism between the two sects. The allegiances and security arrangements in the region are largely organised around these two sects, and there is a great historical fear amongst Sunni nations like Saudi Arabia about the threat of Shi’a Iran. The Iraq-Iran war from 1979-89 was largely fought as a proxy between the two sects, with Saddam Hussein viewed as a protector of Sunni interests in the region and acting as a bulwark against Iran. As such, a victory to Assad is intolerable to the West’s Sunni Allies because it would be viewed as a strengthening of Iran and a tilt in the regional balance of power. Further, Assad staying power would potentially give Russia another foothold in the region, a situation which would not be acceptable for Western security interests. Throw in the fact that Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people, and suddenly you also have to consider the legitimacy of the international system if Assad were permitted to stay in power. Quite simply, the West cannot allow Assad to remain in power.

So Assad is overthrown- then what?

Well, this is where it gets more complicated, because the opposition to Assad in the Civil War is not homogenous. Rather, it is a variety of different groups with different interests. Having said that, at this point in the conflict there is a fairly significant proportion of opposition that are Islamic fundamentalists (of which ISIS is one). The moderates that led the Arab Spring have mostly been eliminated – either killed, imprisoned or in exile overseas, and the delay in Western intervention in the conflict means that even the secular groups that remain have been infiltrated by fundamentalist groups. Indeed, Robert Fisk suggests that the Free Syrian Army is nothing more than a moniker to disguise the fact that secular opposition in the Civil War is now mostly disparate and ineffectual.

Quite simply, putting ground troops into Syria at this stage is not an option. In the absence of having a clear successor to the Assad regime, a foreign occupation runs the risk of being a repeat of the decade-long debacle we experienced in the country on Syria’s Eastern border, Iraq. ISIS did not emerge overnight – much like Al Qaeda and the Mujahedeen in Soviet-Afghan War, it had its genesis in the Sunni insurgency during the Iraq War. Much like the invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein was rushed and ill-considered in the context, foreign occupation of Syria runs the risk of unleashing a Sunni insurgency that would do nothing but exacerbate Islamic extremism in the region.

Can we rely on our Sunni allies for support?

Not really. Going back to the process of extremist indoctrination above, you have to consider the political context of our regional allies. Most of them are despotic dictatorships or client states of such dictatorships, and are heavily dependent on religion for the veneer of legitimacy. For example, Saudi Arabia is a Wahabi theocratic state based on strict interpretations of Sharia law, ruled by the Saudi royal family who maintain power by ensuring that they have the support of the religious bodies. Much like the process described above, the country has been the hotbed of Sunni fundamentalists, or more specifically Salafist Jihadis. ISIS, like the Iraqi insurgency, the Mujahedeen and Al Qaeda before it, have all enjoyed significant participation and support from Saudi Arabians (like Osama Bin Laden). Because it relies on such fundamentalist Wahabiism for its support and legitimacy domestically, Saudi Arabia cannot be seen to ardently support efforts against ISIS because ISIS is a manifestation of regional Sunni expansion its Wahabiists preach at home.

Saudi Arabia’s problem with domestic extremists has long been ignored in Western politics – and in a way it commits us to them even further. The prospect of the world’s largest producer of oil being overthrown by Islamic extremists is intolerable strategically, and yet the regime has relied upon Wahabiism for its legitimacy since its inception. Insofar the Western approach has been to supply the Saudi’s with superior military technology and training, with some of the largest weapons deals being between the United States and the Saudis. Subsequently, there is little danger of a successful revolution in Saudi Arabia, but it also requires the State to ensure it does not depart too widely from Wahabi doctrine or risk initiating a broader insurrection. Consequently however, there is a diaspora of Saudi Arabian jihidis propagating Sunni jihads conflicts across the Middle East.

To characterise it, the West is running out of options in the region – it is committed to removing Assad, but can’t do so without a replacement regime. It has to defeat ISIS, but its’ regional allies are the genesis and source of its proponents. Quite simply, it has Russia and Shi’a Iran on one side, waiting to fill the vacuum of Assad’s departure, whilst it’s Sunni allies cannot politically afford to side with the West against Sunni fundamentalists, as it would undermine the legitimacy of their own dictatorships.

I have just written four pages on the problem in Syria. Do you still think it is a simple problem easily dealt with by putting ground troops in?


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Fascinated by philosophy and history, this blog is an outlet for my frustrations of living in a world seemingly dominated by accepted ignorance on one side, and entangled in the intellectual atrophy of post-modernity on the other.

One thought on “Chasing Our Tails: An Essay on Terrorism and Western Intervention in Syria

  1. Jonno I do not disagree with what you have written but why does the Islamic faith resort to terrorism in other parts of the world. In Asia they are responsible for many deaths each year, some 2000 plus in Southern Thailand, not sure of the numbers in “Burma ” probably more. They are not being attacked or even “opposed ” yet they continue to kill innocent families, bomb police stations, use IED’s to blow up army vehicles and so on. These are daily occurrences but are not reported at all in the world press. So not all Muslims are terrorist but it seems that Muslims will become terrorists if they believe it is necessary to achieve their own goals


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