February 12, 2016

The Second Fall of Rome?

Displaced people, who fled the violence from Islamic State-controlled area of al-Bab, carry their belongings in the Syrian village of Akda as they attempt to cross into Turkey, January 23, 2016. Turkey's border guards prevented the displaced people from approaching their country's border, activists said.
Displaced people, who fled the violence from Islamic State-controlled area of al-Bab, carry their belongings in the Syrian village of Akda as they attempt to cross into Turkey, January 23, 2016. Turkey's border guards prevented the displaced people from approaching their country's border, activists said.

The West usually does not learn anything from overthrowing dictators.

The fact that the world is once again in chaos and on the verge of war that threatens to encompass several countries should not come as a surprise to anyone who has bothered to read history books. Although inhumane and despised by most, it is a state as normal as breathing, or winter following autumn. Since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, a symbolic milestone of the beginning of the modern world order, dozens of major wars have shaken the balance of the whole world on a more or less regular basis. The Seven Years’ War (1754–63), the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1802), the War of 1812 (1812–15), the Spanish–American War (1898), World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War (1959–74), the Yom Kippur War (1973), the Soviet–Afghan War (1979–89), the First Gulf War (1990–1), the Balkan Civil War (1991–2001), and the campaigns in Afghanistan (since 2001) and Iraq (2003–11) are only some examples of armed conflicts which have involved two or more parties.
Thus, war between different nations is a rather common means of communication, not an exceptional or individual case. Thousands of books have been written about the reasons behind war but it must be recognised that each war boils down to the human need to feel safe and increase one’s influence. The first need is a basis for survival, an instinctive characteristic, and the second supports the first because it enables the means for survival to be guaranteed in a world with limited resources. All rulers and nations who do not act in the interests of guaranteeing their security and increasing their power are inevitably doomed. This definition could be disputed, and human values such as the universal right to life, equality etc. could be brought to the table, but the fundamental principles always remain the same—one’s own security and power prevail over those of others, to guarantee the means for survival.
As humankind is not smart without learning from experience, entire countries may go to war because they perceive it as inevitable. The egos and personal ambitions of rulers play a major role. Often, those going to war are limited by their short-sightedness about the consequences, especially regarding indirect collateral impact, which might turn warfare that was predicted to be profitable into a disastrous affair in the long term. A common example of this is Nazi Germany’s ambition to conquer the world, which ended the ideological existence of a single German nation due to its being an unrealistic goal and impracticable strategy. It could be argued that the majority of Germans survived and life in Germany continues according to present-day democratic rules, but what is more important—a mere physical existence or the spiritual freedom to live by your beliefs? And who is to decide what the right values are?
Germany’s case is not an incidental choice, because similar comparisons can be made by observing current conflicts. Samuel Huntington was probably right when he predicted in 1992 that major wars in the future would be fought between civilisations where entire cultures and religions clashed mercilessly. Today, this conflict is running its inevitable course. Huntington suggested eight major groups of civilisations, and the important representatives of three of them are currently in serious conflict with each other: the Christian West, radical Islam and Orthodox Russia. Although entire civilisations are not yet part of the conflict, the risk of this is high.
It is a fact that living standards and ideologies differ greatly in all civilisations. Distinct differences in well-being and beliefs contribute to conflict. But nothing is more provocative than one civilisation attempting to make another resemble it without even concealing this desire. This is a direct attack against the other’s worldview and beliefs, creating hatred. It is a short walk from hatred to violence.
Inability to understand—or, rather, ignorance of—the workings of another culture or religion causes foolish mistakes in communication that have serious consequences. This, however, is also a natural shortcoming of human nature—we do not want to learn from others’ experience.


The Western countries are in a confrontation with extensive Islamic radicalism and, at the same time, Russia considers NATO one of its biggest security threats. It is a confusing situation where the West and Russia have a mutual enemy in the extreme Islamic movement, the so-called Islamic State (Daesh). Meanwhile, both cultures are building up military forces against each other on Europe’s borders. But no one wants to wage two wars concurrently, so to resolve one problem it is necessary to form an alliance of some kind with the lesser enemy, in this case the de facto alliance between the West and Russia against Daesh.
The current warfare in the Middle East is, however, only a self-defence reaction, not yet a meaningful solution-oriented action. Put simply, a mess has been made and it needs to be cleaned up. Several important factors will seriously hinder the search for a decisive and feasible solution for some time to come and, unfortunately, this only increases the chaos and threat to the Western cultural sphere in particular. Before we look at the obstacles and possible solutions, we must understand where the irrevocable mistakes were made.
Professor Martin van Creveld, a highly renowned historian and strategist, harshly criticises the inability of (especially) the US to see beyond its own cultural sphere. Worse still, the Americans have a habit of intervening in the processes of other civilisations without comprehending the consequences. The US has been a world superpower for decades and because of this the Americans are probably convinced of the rightness of their course and the righteousness of their voluntary commitment to make the rest of the world a democratic and better place. This began in the 1980s, when the US supported the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviets. It worked, and the Russians were finally forced to retreat, but the “freedom fighters” born from this support spread around the world and started to popularise terror tactics. Some joined the Taliban, others Al-Qaeda, etc.
The next big mistake was to attack Iraq in the name of democracy in 2003. Saddam Hussein was certainly loathsome and a tyrant, but he was not a religious fanatic or an international terrorist any more than the next head of state. His exile and later execution really contributed to the growth of terrorist movements. One might think that the West should have learned something from this, but no—intervention in Libya and the overthrow and killing of dictator Muammar Gaddafi came next. In the resulting chaos and interregnum, Daesh is now having a field day. But this did not ring the alarm bell either and Syria was the next state that needed to be “democratised”. Its dictator, Bashar al-Assad, was not the model of a democratic head of state, so a revolution had to be initiated and “liberal” rebels had to be supported. It took three years for Washington to get the wake-up call and realise how the Sunni-led fanatic terrorist movement Daesh had spread to Iraq and North Africa.

A Quality Opponent

Unfortunately, Daesh is not a bunch of uneducated savages, at least not on the leadership level. They are well organised, and develop on the basis of a strong and common ideology, and the divided Western cultures have nothing with which to counter this. The greatest strength of Daesh is unity and belief in the worldwide caliphate that will come with Judgement Day. According to research by Graeme Wood, editor of The Atlantic, those who think Daesh is not religious are mistaken—it is in fact very religious. Their doctrine and beliefs derive from so-called pure Islam—the texts of the Prophet in the early days of Islam, which include instructions and rules that are extremely cruel when compared to the modern world order. Killing or enslaving apostates is a duty, not a choice, and the goal is to establish a caliphate without borders and conquer Rome to take revenge on Christians for the Crusades—although, in this ideology, Rome is only a symbolic target, and the goal today is to wipe the whole of Western civilisation from the face of the Earth.
Daesh cannot recognise any territorial borders and does not negotiate. The only aim is to subordinate the whole world order to Sharia law. This ambition, insane to our minds, is probably how Daesh can recruit thousands of new members and supporters from their current region and all over the world.
Their recruitment process is professional and diverse. One of their main tools is social media, where most people today spend their time. Another device is creating opposition between Muslims and Western societies, and this is nourished by acts of terrorism in European and US cities. The hatred of the native population aimed at Muslims is one of the most powerful motivators that helps to lure so-called “modern” Muslims to join the Daesh cause because they are left with no other alternative. Blood is always thicker than water.
Gruesome public executions could naïvely be considered signs of savagery and senselessness but are, in fact, carefully calculated tactics. Theory and practice have shown throughout history that mass terror forces opponents to change their minds for fear of the same fate. The same tactic has been applied in nearly every revolution in history. According to the theory of the Bolsheviks’ Red Terror, nearly 10% of the population, preferably its more educated members, had to be executed as publicly as possible to destroy the will of the rest to resist. Daesh seems to follow a similar philosophy.
Their military strength cannot be underestimated either; instead, the battles that have occurred have demonstrated deep strategic thinking and a quality approach. It is a known fact that military operations are led by several of Saddam Hussein’s former best officers. This explains numerous surprise victories over the Iraqi army and might be the reason thousands of air strikes against Daesh do not cause any significant physical damage. Instead, the long-distance war of the allies seems to increase the popularity of Daesh among young rebellious Muslims and contributes to the recruitment campaign.


AFP/ScanpixToday Western civilisation faces an enemy many times bigger than it was at the onset of the infamous “Global War on Terrorism”. Even though the air forces of the US and its allies have carried out nearly 10,000 air strikes against Daesh in Iraq and Syria—in which, allegedly, up to 25,000 “terrorists” have been killed—their number does not seem to decrease but rather increases. Inevitably, thousands of civilians, who might not have the same understanding of life as Daesh, are killed and injured. Along with economic and social chaos, people fear for their survival in the future and it is only human that they start looking for more stable environments. This is instinctive and completely reasonable from the individual’s perspective, but destructive to the refugees’ former habitat, and it forces the stability of the whole world into a downward spiral.
The German chancellor’s call for refugees to escape to Europe from the atrocities of war contains several threats that have not been thought through. There has been talk of cultural conflicts in Europe and the accompanying economic problems, but the effects of migration on the territories that the refugees are leaving en masse has barely been discussed. What hope do these regions have of re-establishing stable societies if everyone the least bit active, and presumably more educated, leaves? Let us imagine that the US announces that it is prepared to accept every able-bodied Estonian with their family; buy their plane ticket; and provide accommodation, a work permit and support until they find a job. What consequences would this have for the future of Estonia? There is no need to discuss this black scenario, as we can all imagine it. But this is exactly the kind of effect created by encouraging refugees to resettle in Europe. Who would stay to make the environment liveable again?
Hope is not a method. It would be naïve to hope that members of Daesh will tire and start farming if they are not quick and successful enough in fulfilling their ambitions. And it would also be naïve to think that another quick military campaign by the Western countries would crush the enemy and establish democracy, so that masses of refugees could happily return home. It is just about acceptable to put one’s foot in it for a second time, but to do so for a fourth and fifth time is a pathological perversion.

How to Proceed?

At the moment, it seems that the West does not have a common and reasonable plan to stop Daesh from spreading; we cannot even speak of eradicating it. A bombing campaign has been running for more than a year, and Russia recently joined in supposedly to increase its effectiveness. But no war has ever been won by air strikes alone—an idea cannot be blown away. Training and armament programmes for non-radical rebels have not had the expected results, and the new additional advisory help for the Iraqi army seems only to increase its success in fighting Daesh locally and seasonally. “Something” is being done but there is no clear and feasible strategy. The current course and focus is a limited war that probably does not even guarantee stopping Daesh from spreading, let alone destroying it.
Every war is expensive and requires much money. Daesh has declared itself a state and is acting like one in the territory it holds. An attempt to develop the domestic economy (through entrepreneurship and a tax system) provides some income but most of the money for recruitment, fighting, controlling territory and expansion comes from outside. First and foremost, all those taps should be turned off, but the West is not very vocal and active in this respect. Money is the primary fuel of every battle—arms manufacturers want to make a profit, fighters want to get paid, and the administration needs to support the population if it wants to keep the people on its side.
Sources of Daesh cash are known but, instead of cutting them off decisively, their existence is often not even acknowledged. It is an open secret that Daesh’s oil, which is their main source of income, moves mainly through Turkey to buyers who would be easily identifiable; several rich families in Saudi Arabia, the Americans’ biggest ally in the region, regularly support Daesh with millions, and the group also has strong affiliations with international crime that helps to move large quantities of drugs and to launder money. These are only some of the main sources of funding that all function thanks to exports that the West could limit to a significantly greater extent than is actually happening. By allowing Daesh to continue to make money, we also enable them to recruit, buy weapons and expand, which makes the whole rhetorical battle waged so far meaningless. These are systems largely controlled by the West and in its sphere of influence, but shutting them down would probably be more painful than a new war campaign costing thousands of lives. These are the real dilemmas of the “civilised society”.
Peter Van Buren, a former US diplomat who spent a year in Iraq during the conflict, advises that the bombing should stop and the seemingly natural wish to send Western forces after Daesh be forgotten. Local forces need to deal with their own environment, and the interference of the West ruins the natural balance even more and creates learned helplessness in the locals. Each culture must be able to regulate itself. If the basis of a country’s stability is a dictator who contradicts our values, then it is best for that cultural sphere. The naïvety of the West and interference with the local environment does not bring happiness and well-being to the locals but eventually poisons the entire environment, which, in turn, creates dangerous aftershocks in our own countries in the form of refugees and terrorist attacks. There are no universal rights and values in the world—each civilisation has its own. How to restore the equilibrium and make it last is another question entirely.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.