On September 11 2001, the United-States suffered an attack by the Sunni extremist group Al Qaeda which claimed almost 3000 civilian victims. The “9-11” terrorist attacks precipitated the United States into launching a ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWoT), which, 14 years later few would argue was a resounding success. The Americans first got rid of the Taliban in Afghanistan (despite having armed them in the past in order to fight against Russian forces) and then Saddam Hussein in Iraq (despite having armed him during the Iran-Iraq war). They also increased worldwide surveillance and from time to time arrested terrorist suspects with impunity.
Yet, at the same time, the United States, and more broadly the West as a whole, has not revised their alliance with Wahhabi Saudi Arabia (despite of the strong connections between the 9/11 attackers and the Arab Kingdom). Furthermore, they have done very little to stop the growth of nascent Islamic terrorist organisations such as Boko Haram or Al Shabaab and have failed to prevent further terrorist attacks against Western and non-Western civilians. Finally, the biggest oversight of the GWoT has arguably been the inability to ideologically defeat the jihadi movements, which continue to attract endless streams of ‘wannabe jihadists’ (many from the West, as well) to the Middle East to join the ranks of Al Qaeda and, more recently, the phenomenon that is Daesh.
The United States’ action has instead revolved around rhetorical condemnation and economic sanctions against what Bush infamously called the “axis of Evil”, a loosely used expression defining a group of rogue nations led by the “super-villains” Iran and North Korea but also encompassing Communist Cuba and to a certain extent any of their allies: Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah, Venezuela, etc. Additionally, because of the Ukrainian crisis, some have even argued that Russia should now also be added to the list.
The latest attempt by the West to show its ongoing commitment to fight terrorism has been the ongoing aerial bombardment against Daesh and Al Qaeda affiliated groups who, fourteen years after the beginning of the GWoT, now control a vast territory almost stretching from Baghdad to Damascus. However, after one year of military action, the anti-terrorist coalition led by Western nations such as the United States, France, the UK and several Arab countries, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has not in any way weakened the terrorist organisations.
Recently, on September 30 2015, Russian warplanes launched their first day of their bombing campaign in Syria. The ostensible aim of the campaign is the targeting of terrorist groups in Syria in order to prop up Assad’s seemingly vulnerable regime. Importantly, Russia and their Syrian allies have adopted a broader criteria for who are the terrorists as the “moderate” opposition rebel groups backed by the West and the Gulf States have been targeted alongside Daesh and Al Qaeda affiliated groups.
A few days after the beginning of the Russian intervention, President Assad warned of the potential destruction of the Middle-East if Syria was to fall into the hands of the opposition while showing his optimism in the military potential of a new alliance against the terrorists. He described this genuine alliance against terrorism as a “coalition” made up of Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran (and in effect also many Shia militias, including the powerful Hezbollah).
We are therefore now faced with a complex geopolitical situation involving two opposite coalitions both fighting “terrorism”. Ironically, one of these two coalitions is significantly comprised of nations which were part of the Axis of Evil when the United States’ GWoT first started. The case of Iraq is the most complex and paradoxical one since it is the only nation which is an actual partner to both coalitions. More ironically still, this new coalition is arguably more likely to offer a swifter military response to the growing threat posed by Daesh and other terrorist organisations.
Already, their actions and stronger military commitment prove that their resolve to fight against Daesh has a stronger foundation than the West-Gulf alliance (which in effect is a West-Sunni alliance). Of course, such commitment by this new coalition to fight jihadism in the region is deeply rooted in self-interest and irreconcilable ideological differences with the terrorist organisations which are not shared by the West-Gulf alliance. Indeed, the West-Gulf coalition has stronger affinities and shared interests with Sunni rebel groups and are even still supporting some of them in Syria.
We could easily argue that Western governments are actually engaging in military action against Daesh and Al Qaeda in order to prove to their constituencies that they are doing “something” about the threat while in reality aiming to reinforce their economic and political ties with the wealthy Gulf monarchies by siding with them against Assad and Shia forces. It should be recalled that Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar share the same anti-Shia Wahhabi ideology as Daesh and Al Qaeda.
The Russians on the other hand probably interpret the Syrian crisis as an opportunity. Indeed, Russia’s longstanding political, military and economic ties with Iran and Syria have presented an opportunity to reassert its influence in the region, a region which Vali Nasr argues is undergoing a Shia revival. Additionally, Russia’s own terrorist insecurities (particularly regarding Chechen insurgency) and its disdain with what it sees as the double-standards of Western action has led it to becoming emboldened in not only Syria but more broadly in its self-perceived sphere of influence (Ukraine, an example of this). Thus, despite Putin’s altruistic rhetoric for Russia’s Syrian action in his United Nations speech, Russia’s action should be seen a shrewd calculation aimed at improving its ‘great power’ position.
The Shias (and their religious minority allies) involved in this action, on the other hand, are more ideologically motivated than Russia’s blatant opportunism. For them, the war against Sunni extremists is largely a war of self-defence against the threat of religious cleansing at the hands of Daesh and Al Qaeda. Iran, Shia Iraq and Assad, therefore, assume the role of de-facto protectors of religious minorities in the region and pride themselves of the good relations and alliances between Shia militias and Christians from Beirut to Baghdad. The fact that Damascus is home to the Shrine of Zaynab, sister of the revered Imam Hussain, the woman responsible for the survival of the Shia message is another key factor influencing the Shia zeal to defend Damascus.
In conclusion, it is argued that the new alliance against terrorism, even if it is lacking the military might of the United States, is geared towards waging a more genuine all-out war against terrorists in the region. Although this determination to fight Daesh and Al Qaeda affiliates is not driven by selflessness but by clear material and ideological incentives, particularly in comparison to the West-Gulf coalition, it could nevertheless succeed where the GWoT has failed to date. Thus, it is ironic that in this new phase, the so-called rogue nations comprising the Axis of Evil in conjunction with a purportedly anti-Western Russia, are now on the frontline in the war against terrorism.
Nicolas Pirsoul is a PhD candidate in Politics & International Relations at the University of Auckland. His research interests include issues around identity politics, indigenous recognition, democracy and Middle Eastern politics.