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Things to consider when intervening in Syria

Christoph Ricking / groDecember 6, 2015

International military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have led to some of the worst possible outcomes. Will the United States and Europe repeat their past mistakes in their war on the "Islamic State"?

Libyen Militär Intervention NEU
Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Monteforte

Scenes from September 11, 2001, vaguely resemble those of November 13, 2015: Terrorists carry out an unthinkable attack in a country that had not expected one. Anger ensues after the shock and horror, and subsequently a war on terror is declared.

Just over 14 years after the attacks on the twin towers in New York City, after large-scale wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and after the rise of "Islamic State" (IS), peace and an end to terrorism have hardly come about.

"Political decision-makers are evidently not willing to learn from mistakes made in the past," said Michael Lüders, a political scientist and Islam scholar. He is referring to military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. International missions in the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa have not fostered stability, but instead sped up the deterioration of the nations affected.

Exploitable power vacuums

In the early stages of the relevant conflicts, intervention often appeared successful. "It usually achieved the set military goals very quickly: the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya," said Jochen Hippler, of the Institute for Development and Peace at Germany's University of Duisburg-Essen.

"Iraq is an example of a how a brutal dictatorship became a global breeding ground for terrorism," Hippler said. The power vacuum that had been left in Iraq and now the destabilization of Syria have led to the formation of IS, and now IS is also finding a home in Libya.

After the attacks in Paris last month, many indicators show that the international community in general and Europe and the United States in particular are repeating mistakes made in recent years.

France has stepped up its airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. President Francois Hollande wants to defeat IS on a military level and is campaigning from Moscow to Washington for a strong coalition against the organization. An overwhelming majority in the House of Commons approved Britain's participation in the airstrikes in Syria. Germany also wants to contribute to the anti-IS forces. At the beginning of the week, Germany's cabinet decided to send Tornado reconnaissance jets to Syria.

'Falling into a trap'

The political scientist Lüders warned against the deployment of ground troops in Syria: "It will not achieve any objectives because IS is following a clear strategy of compelling Western states to take part in ground operations in which they cannot succeed." Lüders said a regular army had never managed to defeat guerrilla troops.

"Even though the IS is pursuing an obvious strategy, the West is falling into a trap," Lüders said. He said the best thing that could happen is that international forces prevent IS from expanding its sphere of influence - "and airstrikes have achieved a substantial part of this goal."

Military operations would quickly reach their limits in the battle against IS. It is particularly important that large groups of the population in Syria and Iraq become involved, said Wolfgang Richter, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. And, he said, there would need to be a Sunni-led alternative to groups such as IS, rather than governments heavily influenced by foreign interests.

It looks like plans for a political solution are in the making. In mid-November in Vienna, 17 states agreed to negotiate a truce between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and moderate rebel groups. By the middle of next year, a transitional government comprising the old regime and opposition forces will be installed under the auspices of the United Nations. Elections are to follow 18 months later, and the millions of Syrians who have fled abroad would be allowed to vote. That would be a step in the right direction in the battle against IS.

Syria conference
Foreign ministers led by US Secretary of State John Kerry try to forge a Syria peace dealImage: Reuters/L. Foeger