The need for a Syrian awakening to defeat terrorism
By: Raghida Dergham
Does the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group constitute a radical shift in the history and the future of the Arab region, or is it a transient phenomenon, no matter how formidable it seems with its strength and its performance in the battlefields of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon today? Obviously, trying to answer this question unleashes various theories regarding anything from the composition of this group to its ultimate fate.
Regardless, it is necessary for every “nurturing environment” in any Arab region to scrutinize the options available to it and to various players concerned with the emergence of ISIS and similar groups – be they supporters or opponents thereof. ISIS and similar groups could indeed be a transient phenomenon, but they are terrifyingly nihilistic and violent and they pursue an ideology that sanctions crimes against humanity.
ISIS is convenient for those trying to divert attention away from the atrocities committed by others, and it is useful – temporarily – for those who take advantage of its brutality to destabilize and subvert. Interestingly, ISIS in Syria is not quite the same as ISIS in Iraq, while the ISIS that reached Lebanon is more Syrian than Iraqi, in terms of its background and ambitions.
Some believe that ISIS’s choice of the Bekaa town of Arsal to declare its arrival in Lebanon, with a view to instigate sectarian strife, was “superficial.”
These people indicate that Arsal is a Sunni town whose surroundings are Shiite, and that the incidents in Arsal have turned the entire public against the militants, especially after they clashed with the army and after Syrian refugees took part in the fighting alongside ISIS and al-Nusra Front against the people of Arsal who had sheltered them in their homes.
What is needed is a kind of “Sahawat” or “Awakening” similar to the movement that we saw in Fallujah in Iraq
According to the people behind this view, the plan for Sunni-Shiite strife has no fertile ground in Lebanon. In effect, the fighting in Arsal this week “exposed” the plans for causing strife. Thus, ISIS and its ilk failed from the outset in Lebanon, because the Lebanese configuration itself is in such a way that every community is incapable of defending itself on its own. In other words, everyone protects everyone, and this is the most important recipe against partition and permanent strife.
Others see the issue from a political rather than a sectarian standpoint. They believe that there is a need to make a distinction between the “war on terror” and involving the Lebanese army in the war against ISIS, al-Nusra Front, and other Syrian opposition groups in support of Bashar al-Assad and his allies fighting in Syria, led by Hezbollah.
The proponents of this view refuse in principle implicating the Lebanese army in the war with ISIS and similar groups, because the army cannot win the battle on its own. However, if the Lebanese army were forced to coordinate with Hezbollah to achieve victory, then this would be a prelude to its collapse.
Uprising against ISIS
Hezbollah, in their view, is behind the decision to push the Lebanese army into the battle between the regime in Damascus and its opponents – of various affiliations and projects. The Lebanese people rose up automatically in support of the army against terrorism, which has been linked to ISIS and al-Nusra Front in particular, especially since ISIS declares all non-Sunnis to be apostates who may be killed. As Lebanon is basically made up of minorities, the Lebanese rose up against ISIS.
But after the relative calm, questions emerged that go beyond the emotional and patriotic furor. Many have asked: Is this a war against the terrorism that has come to terrorize us, or is it a war to support Bashar al-Assad in his battle against the Syrian opposition?
The majority of the Lebanese do not want to be drawn into the Syrian war, regardless of whether it is designated as a war on terror, or whether it is practically part of the war on the Syrian opposition. Many of them blame Hezbollah, for having entered as party to the war in Syria in support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which it justified under the pretext of waging a preemptive war on terrorism to prevent its spread to Lebanon. But this is reminiscent of what George W. Bush said when he waged his war on terror in Iraq, to fight terrorists there away from American cities.
Walking the walk
President Bush put what he had in mind into practice, diverting the war on terror away from the American people in American cities in the direction of the people of Iraq and the nurturing environment for terrorism in the Arab and Islamic nations.
But Hezbollah is no George W. Bush. Its preemptive wars in Syria cannot be compared to American preemptive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Therefore, the pretext of taking part in the war in Syria to prevent terrorism in Lebanon was flawed from the outset. Now, ISIS has arrived in Arsal; but how did this happen?
There is a theory that purports that the entry of ISIS and al-Nusra Front to Arsal is proof of Hezbollah’s military decline if not structural weakness after it overstretched itself in Syria with its involvement in the war there. The proponents of this theory believe that ISIS’s arrival in Arsal took place despite attempts by Hezbollah to repel it in Qalamoun and other Syrian regions.
The counter-theory argues that Hezbollah decided not to intercept ISIS and al-Nusra Front on their way to Lebanon, in implementation of a strategy to implicate Lebanon in the war on terror of which the regime of Bashar al-Assad has appointed itself as the leader on behalf of the West, in order to obtain the latter’s sympathy and support, instead of attempting to remove it and hold it accountable sooner or later.
Regardless of whether the theory is valid or not, the question everywhere is this: What is ISIS? Who is funding, supporting, and leading ISIS? Who created the group to begin with, who does it work for, and how is it achieving such victories? This fixation on ISIS is itself striking, as it has become the “rage” to talk about ISIS amid near complete neglect of what is happening in Syria and the fierce war still raging there.
The ISIS façade
I believe ISIS is realistically and practically the creation of the regime in Damascus, which had released its current leaders from prison – after using them in the Iraq war and jailing them after they served their purpose.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) moved gradually toward the condemnation of the arrival of ISIS and al-Nusra Front in Lebanon, which was intended to draw Lebanon into the Syrian war or to take revenge against Hezbollah’s actions in the Syrian war. Ultimately, the FSA condemned what happened and stressed its support for Lebanon’s unity.
However, the branching off of the Syrian opposition remains at the heart of the reasons for the failure of the peaceful Syrian uprising, having abetted terrorist ideologies.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon with their enormous numbers exceeding a quarter of Lebanon’s population and the one million mark, have become a “ticking bomb,” not only for demographic, humanitarian and employment-related reasons, but also because there are those among those refugees who have decided to “reward” the Lebanese people by joining the ranks of ISIS and al-Nusra Front, and fighting the Lebanese army and killing the people of the town that gave them shelter.
Certainly, the proportion of such individuals is small, but they nonetheless have a huge impact. These people have undermined trust in Syrian refugees, as did their peers who blocked roads in large numbers when they came out to vote for President Bashar al-Assad, in their capacity as “refugees” in Lebanon.
If they are refugees, then they have to abide by the international laws that restrict their activities as refugees in the host country and community. If the Syrian opposition is conscientious and serious, and understands its responsibilities, then it must seriously think whether Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere are engaging in political activity, spontaneous or organized, in a way that leads to resentment against them instead of sympathy for them.
In other words, defeating terrorist groups that are infiltrating the political opposition and commandeering them to serve their own destructive ideological goals requires, without a doubt, the participation of both the official and popular Syrian opposition in the efforts against these groups.
A new awakening
What is therefore needed is a kind of “Sahawat” or “Awakening” similar to the movement that we saw in Fallujah in Iraq, which managed to defeat al-Qaeda and similar groups there thanks to the cooperation and solidarity of the tribes and the nurturing environment for the efforts against those who brought terrorism to their local community.
Replicating the “Awakening” model in Lebanon requires more than the participation of the peaceful Syrian opposition and the Syrian refugees in Lebanon in the effort against the involvement of ISIS and al-Nusra Front in Lebanon – either to retaliate against Hezbollah or in accordance with a plan by the regime in Damascus and Hezbollah to lure them in to Lebanon.
Second, the model also requires Lebanese Sunnis to come out together and seriously behind a conscious strategy to distinguish between opposition to Hezbollah’s attempt to implicate Lebanon in Syria by refusing to abide by the principle of “self-dissociation” from the conflict in Syria, and accepting any role by ISIS no matter what, with some Sunnis considering that stopping Hezbollah requires bringing in ISIS here and there.
Third, it will not be possible to defeat ISIS and similar groups in Lebanon unless Hezbollah reverses its policies in Syria. Involving the Lebanese army in the battle against ISIS will not bring victory against the latter. The Lebanese people will not accept to be part of the Syrian regime’s war on the Syrian opposition, whether through the gateway of ISIS or al-Nusra Front, if their arrival in Lebanon is the result of Hezbollah luring them or Hezbollah’s weakness.
ISIS will be a transient phenomenon if the conditions are met to defeat it, and if the regional powers adopt the kind of measures they know well against their citizens fighting for or funding ISIS, and those who secretly support it believing it to be the answer to Iran in Iraq and Syria, or to Hezbollah.
The measures and positions taken by the Gulf countries against the terrorism of ISIS and other groups is no longer enough. There is an urgent need for harsher measures against citizens duped into supporting ISIS in some countries. The time has come for the Gulf countries to put an end to their proxy wars, either to take revenge against regimes or in fulfillment of a certain ideology.
Internationally, there is a lot to be said. The issue is complex, regardless of how much everyone is conveniently invoking the misleading title of the “war on terror.” To be sure, that war seems to exclude state terrorism, and to focus instead on non-state actors. Those who are part of the war on terror have used Iraq as its main battlefield, destroying the country in the process, and are now doing the same in Syria, with the result being the tearing apart of another country. The talk here is not just about those who are waging wars against terrorism, but also those who use terrorism as a means to their destructive ends.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women’s Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University’s Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.