‘Divide and conquer’ is a mantra that needs no introduction. Throughout history, in many forms, the idea of splitting a unified enemy to weaken and ultimately destroy them has been used time and again. Kingdoms, empires, nations, armies – all have fallen before the effective application of that single concept. So why are Western politicians, and indeed their constituents – us – allowing the Islamic State and other extremist groups to utilize it with such devastating effect?
There seems to be a general failure to recognize that the goal of the horrendous, mass-casualty attacks orchestrated by IS in Paris in November, as well as the more recent bombings in Brussels and Lahore, was not the killing of civilians. Terrorist attacks are not military actions – their physical effect is not their primary goal. The increasing tensions being exploited by extremists of both sides, whether Islamists in the Middle East and elsewhere or Donald Trump and his ilk in the West, are exactly what such attacks are intended to create.
The European refugee crisis resulting, primarily, from the Syrian civil war has only made it easier to inflame tensions along perceived cultural fault lines. The invasion of Afghanistan by the US and its allies in the wake of the September 11 attacks was not a failure for Al Qaeda; it was a grand strategic success, a realization of the beginning of a drawn-out existential confrontation between their twisted idea of Islam and the godless Western foe. The Paris attacks, and the subsequent terror alerts and other attacks inspired or spawned by them, are the same strategy being employed in a different setting, and Europe is by and large sleepwalking right into the same trap.
Islamophobic and anti-immigration populist figures have been ascendant in politics on both sides of the Atlantic, whether Trump and his idiotic cries for a ban on all Muslims travelling to the United States and a database of all existing Muslims in the country, or the likes of Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland and its opposition to any imposed quotas for EU states to admit refugees. Kaczynski himself has claimed that Muslim migrants threaten Poland’s ‘Catholic way of life’ and PiS has been identified as belonging to the same block of Central European governments as Slovakia and Hungary in opposing the relocation of migrants.
These attitudes, apart from a deplorable lack of basic humanitarian instinct, fail on a strategic level to appreciate the nature of the enemy Europe faces in Islamic State. The welcoming of huge numbers of refugees, particularly by Germany, was a catastrophe for IS as it completely neutralized their ideological narrative of Europeans, and non-Muslims in general, as existential enemies to be abhorred and destroyed. Welcoming and resettling refugees takes money, time and compassion, all things that many members of the European community seem unwilling to provide, but they will all be needed in the long term to defeat as asymmetrical an enemy as Islamic State. Despite the opposition of many European governments, and the lack of a cohesive and rapid strategy from the EU itself to deal with the crisis, refugees have time and again been welcomed by individual countries, towns or groups of European citizens. The damage this does to the extremist narrative is huge and should not be underestimated.
This is not to say that military means are unnecessary or even unwarranted, but they must be employed logically, with clear goals identified at strategic, operational and tactical levels. They must also be employed as part of a broader campaign including asymmetrical efforts in intelligence-gathering, coalition-building and regional political dialogue to ensure that not only are groups such as IS and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front defeated in the field, but they can never again find fertile enough ground to re-emerge as destabilizing entities. In short, it is not possible to defeat such foes by bombing parts of Syria ‘over there’ and putting up fences on borders ‘over here.’
As with all conflicts, strategy is key, both understanding that of your enemies and having a coherent one of your own. Unfortunately for the West, the overarching picture which emerges from a cursory glance at the major events of the Syrian crisis is one in which it is reactive, with little initiative of its own. The refugee crisis caught Europe off guard, and it is nowhere near over. The rise of Islamic State, traceable in its immediate form to well back into the Western occupation of Iraq and the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq, also seemed to come as a shock, despite the protestations of strategists, academics and others that such an entity was an almost inevitable consequence of Bush-era Western involvement in the region. Strategic foresight is sadly lacking, at least where high-level decision making is concerned, and if this is not remedied then the next major catastrophe, whatever it may be, will catch the West equally off balance.
The refugee crisis now threatens to tear apart many of the fundamental bases of the EU, including the Schengen Zone of free movement and the very membership of the UK in the bloc. Across the Atlantic the debauched populism of the US primaries shows how, as so many times throughout history, it is easy for ruthless politicians to score points by creating a narrative of ‘them versus us.’ This plays right into the hands of extremists on both sides, and only weakens any hopes for moderate politics and informed, rational decision-making to triumph as the driving force of the next few years. Putting up fences on the borders of the Balkans will not stop refugees arriving as long as Syria continues to be torn apart, any more than Donald Trump’s call for a wall on the Mexican border will stop immigration there. The trend towards a less-divided world, so optimistically viewed at the end of the Cold War, is at risk of an alarming and rapid reversal.
The fact remains that the battle against IS, the refugee crisis, increasing Russian aggression under Putin’s regime and the very political and social unity of Europe are all inherently interlinked. Understanding this fact, and then understanding how and why it is the case, is crucial to formulating any workable and effective strategy for a long-term solution to the humanitarian misery which continues to develop unchecked. No campaign is truly winnable purely by force, whether that force is from a warplane or a razor-wire fence. Divisions need to be bridged, not barricaded, and where bombs do need dropping – and sometimes they do – they need to be part of a much more holistic approach than we are currently seeing. Perhaps if welcoming and supporting refugees was viewed more often as a strategy against jihadist extremists there would be less antipathy towards the legions of displaced persons currently languishing on borders around Europe.
I will end this post with some simple facts.
Over 3000 Yazidi women and girls are still being held in sexual slavery by Islamic State, under a twisted theological regime which elevates rape as spiritually beneficial. In 2015 more than 3770 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration. To put the European crisis into context countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have already taken in huge numbers of migrants from Syria and Iraq –over 685,000 in Jordan alone by mid-2015, swamping a country with a population of 6.6 million.
These are all inherently interlinked, and the failure to recognize this when formulating policies will only allow all of them to worsen. Terrorism, war, migration and human rights violations all feed into and off of one another. Both individual countries and regional blocs like the EU would do well to consider this when formulating policies and strategies if they genuinely want to mitigate their effects on themselves and those helplessly caught in the maelstrom of these events.