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Ending the ‘endless wars’?

By S Mubashir Noor

The world fears the worst every time a US president utters the phrase “mission accomplished.” From Afghanistan to Syria to Libya and Yemen, the American enterprise of “chasing monsters abroad” has thrown the entire Middle East into a perpetual state of chaos.

Washington sent US special forces to Syria in 2015 to eject President Bashar al-Assad for acting as an Iranian proxy, but instead set the stage for the international terrorist group Daesh by arming the so-called “moderate rebels” battling his regime. In mid-January, however, US President Donald Trump declared he had had enough, and it was time to bring an “end to endless wars.” Despite stiff opposition from foreign allies and a slew of senior official resignations following his decision to slash the number of US soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Syria, Trump is sticking to his guns.

“America first,” he repeats defiantly as the next presidential election draws nearer.

There is little doubt the exit of a key adversary will reduce the need for carnage by the other players, namely Russia and Iran. Yet predicting the region will somehow return to normalcy may be a far-fetched dream. For starters, neither Saudi Arabia nor Israel plan to sit around twiddling their thumbs as Iranian influences spreads across the region.

Moreover, Daesh may be on the run in Syria and Iraq but it is far from defeated. And in Afghanistan, events have conspired to re-elevate the insurgent Taliban into a potent political force without which there can be no lasting peace. Senior state officials from both Washington and Moscow are in constant contact with the group’s top leadership to roadmap its inevitable return to government.

Washington must also accept that Iran and Russia have greater motivation to remain vigilant against Daesh returning to previous levels of power, as they will be first in the firing line should that occur

Yet beyond the broad contours of the ideological, cultural and historical divides that define these flash-points, there remain bit players that could greatly influence the outcome of peace-making efforts.

Taliban renegades who formed Daesh in Afghanistan, for instance, and continue to menace the parent movement, will somehow need to be coaxed back into the mainstream for any ceasefire to hold.

Likewise, Kurdish militias constituting the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that fought at the vanguard against Daesh as part of the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and lost thousands of fighters in the process, must be allowed a seat on the post-war negotiation table before Syria or indeed Iraq can stabilize.

Trump recognizes this, and recently threatened to “economically devastate” Turkey if it launched a military campaign against the group. Turkey calls the YPG “terrorists” allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who it holds responsible for the state of unrest in its southern province and the spate of deadly suicide bombings a few years ago.

Beyond the hyperbole, Trump is acutely aware that the protracted presence of American forces in the Middle East fans the “foreign invader” narrative successfully peddled by the Taliban in Afghanistan to keep its insurgency well stocked with recruits.

And although he has agreed to the Turkish proposal of a “safe zone” in northern Syria, the degree of American involvement in securing this area in the long-term remains moot.

More importantly, is Daesh well and truly defeated? Some experts argue otherwise, claiming remnants of the group have simply changed tack to hostage-taking and hit-and-run attacks while they bide their time.

This analysis sounds eerily like the Taliban after a massive US-led invasion toppled them in the months following the September 2001 terror attacks.

Over time, with the democratic government failing to paper over the power vacuum created in Afghanistan, they slowly regained their strength. In fact, American military sources reveal the group presently controls alarmingly large swathes of territory outside the capital, Kabul.

The Syrian Kurds have little to lose if Trump cannot guarantee their safety once American forces ship out. And his urgency to militarily exit the Middle East has dashed their hopes for regional autonomy like Iraqi Kurdistan as reward for helping the West defeat Daesh. That said, the YPG is now a well-armed and trained unit, which ironically will invite more bloodshed.

But what can Trump do to turn around this public relations nightmare? Russia’s unexpected entry into the Middle Eastern war theatre in late 2015 to prop up ally Assad and help Iran wrest back Daesh-held territory has upgraded President Vladimir Putin to the status of a local saviour.

Also, it is imperative to recognize the longer Syria remains chaotic and the US-backed Iraqi government wrangles with the political actors threatening to topple it, such as the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the better Daesh’s chances of making a comeback.

The post-2001 Taliban blueprint is indeed tailor-made for Daesh: find notes of socio-religious discord and strum them for all they are worth. Then, over time, begin re-erecting the dead “caliphate” by conquering small population centres before moving up to high-stakes targets.

Which is why, given the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) remains gridlocked by the hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the YPG and its allied militias will remain pivotal toward ensuring the virus of militant fanaticism does not resurface in the region. Likewise, the West, instead of demonizing Assad, should consider him a valuable partner in keeping the lid on homegrown terror.

Washington must also accept that Iran and Russia have greater motivation to remain vigilant against Daesh returning to previous levels of power, as they will be first in the firing line should that occur.

In short, ending the “endless wars” will require major compromises. All regional and international stakeholders must set aside their differences to deploy some manner of rules-based truce. For failure to do so leaves space for non-state antagonists like Daesh and Al-Qaeda to keep fuelling the flames of war.