Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror by Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a keenly aware and thoroughly informed policy analyst whose knowledge and anti-war viewpoint adds depth and insight to our understanding of U.S. international relations and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. I was introduced to her work through an interview with her shown on C-Span. Her point of view is an important one to consider when contemplating any kind of intervention overseas. What she does in this wonderfully concise primer on ISIS and the war in Syria is clearly outline the steps that led us to our current position, pointing out opportunities we could have [should have] made different choices in our involvement in the region.

Bennis sheds light on angles of the conflict I had not considered, putting the information together in a way that highlights possible motivations that are at odds with stated government ideals, oil and guns being the most clearly outlined in her spotlight. I had not realized, for instance, that the low price of oil was a motivating factor for Russia and Middle East countries and their involvement in the Syrian crisis, or that Saudi Arabia was trying to pressure Putin to abandon support for the Assad regime by using its own position of dominance in the oil market.

Added to her analysis, however, are scattered digs at U.S. policy that are arguable: the U.S. launched “a few” airstrikes against ISIS around Kobane [Syria] and “eventually” persuaded Turkey to allow a few carefully vetted units of the Peshmerga to cross the border from Iraq to help defend the city. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the time stressed U.S. efforts were focused on bringing a coalition to the table to rebuild the morale and capacity of the Iraqi army…not focusing the plight of Kurdish civilians in Syria. Some folks may think it lamentable that we cannot, like god, manage all things all the time. Bennis’ snide comments about what we were trying to manage rather than what we were not diminishes her argument, especially in the case of using bombs to protect.

Towards the end of the book, Bennis makes her case for nonviolent responses to aggression, using instead diplomatic and economic tools to tame the enemies of peace. This is a direction I have been mulling over for some time, and was disappointed to read such ideas are consistently rejected at the highest levels, perhaps because there appears to be no cadre of people within the government willing to speak against the current ethos. The U.S. can be said to lead in this way at least: countries around the world are distrustful of each other’s motives, especially those whose smaller economies make them pawns in the hands of the behemoths.

Bennis’ method has the advantage of being very clear: no U.S. aid, trade, money, or weapons to those who violate the rights of their citizens and/or the sovereignty of other countries. I quite like the idea, though it would mean that arms dealers and other companies would have to actually work to the benefit of our nation rather than the other way around.

It is no good being cynical since it serves no one. It has taken a great deal of violent death to bring us to the point where we can admit that bombing ISIS seems only to spread the contagion of a medieval world view. One has to think about what might work. Military efforts, no matter what kind of precision weapons we use, are a very crude and wasteful way to solve problems. I am concerned that the U.S. somehow thinks itself blameless in the aggression we are experiencing now. Perhaps it is time to incorporate a new approach.

Bennis makes some important points not found elsewhere:

• The U.S.-instigated Sunni Awakening plan in Iraq was to pay Sunni outliers to fight with, rather than against, the occupation and U.S.-backed government in Iraq. About that time Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) changed its name to Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). When the U.S. government was being withdrawn, responsibility for payments to Sunni leaders was passed to the Iraqi government, which did not continue the practice. Sunni leaders became restless, often eventually defecting to ISI, renamed ISIS after its emergence in Syria in 2011.

• ISIS is using grotesque murders posted on the internet to outrage and thus lure Western governments into war in the Middle East, thus spurring recruitment for their resistance.

• It is important to recognize the breath of public support and involvement in the Arab Spring uprisings. Media coverage focused on blue jeaned young people posting on Facebook via cellphone, but the bulk of the movement was broadly-based not-entirely-secular workers, rural residents, older people motivated at least partly by faith.

• The Arab Spring movement in Syria began as a nonviolent protest with the recognition that once the movement takes up arms, the moral legitimacy and wide base of mass support would be lost. Bennis reprints statements issued at the time which shows the reluctance of such groups to accept American airstrikes in retaliation for chemical attacks, knowing that civilians would be the most affected once again.

• Bennis credits Graeme Wood writing in the Atlantic for pointing out that ISIS attached great significance to their capture of the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. The Prophet reportedly said the armies of Rome will set up camp in Dabiq and the armies of Islam will meet them there and the crusader armies will burn. ISIS wants to provoke an attack by its enemies on its own turf. Judging by what we are hearing from the Republican candidates for the presidency, it seems to be working.

• The invaluable thing Bennis does for us is remind us what it takes to expand a nonviolent movement: it is a huge undertaking to change people’s minds and show ways it can succeed in making our international relations better. One suggestion made by a group of Syrian women was that, instead of bombs, we bring aid (food, cooking pots, etc) and set up essential services. In addition, we have to negotiate with all parties to the violence, and attempt local, regional and finally, national ceasefires. Clearly not an easy undertaking, and certainly a longish time-frame. (Gad, I can't even picture it. Do aid workers have defensive weapons at least?) Anyway, I would love to see what a difference this strategy would make, if only...

Bennis' book is published by Olive Branch Press under the aegis of Interlink Publishing. More reading on ISIS:
Black Flags by Joby Warrick
The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn
Too Weak, Too Strong: Russia in Syria (essay in London Review of Books) by Patrick Cockburn
The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction by Charles R. Lister
ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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