Image credit: SSgt. Daniel St. Pierre, US Army, Wikipedia Commons
The recent murders of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya have brought a forgotten conflict back on the radar of international affairs and provided a grim awakening to the many who thought (and hoped) that the threat of ISIS could be kept within the confines of Syria and Iraq. Yet the reason for the expansion of the Islamic State in North Africa is almost contrary to the circumstances which allowed it to strive in Syria and Iraq in the first place. In Syria, the absence of intervention in 2013 and the ensuing chaos allowed ISIS to develop, strengthen, and broaden its rule of terror. In Libya, the 2011 NATO intervention and subsequent chaos led to a bloody conflict and a power vacuum which has now allowed ISIS to expand into North Africa and even control an entire city, Derna--an event which was severely underreported considering its ominous significance. So when it comes to intervening in the Middle East and North Africa, can it really be summed up to "damned if you do, damned if you don't"?
It was not meant to be like this. When the United Nations adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in 2005, it was supposed to allow countries to intervene in parts of the world where crimes of humanity were being committed. Fast forward to the summer of 2013 when between 281 and 1,729 civilians were killed in a Damascus suburb after the area was hit by rockets containing sarin gas. Despite international uproar, military intervention under the R2P doctrine did not happen--Russia and China voted against resolutions allowing any action in Syria. Even domestic opposition proved to be crippling for some governments: for example, the failure of interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq led a majority of British lawmakers to vote against Prime Minister Cameron's plan to bomb Syria alongside other coalition members.
And this is the crux of the problem: the absence of intervention following alleged crimes against humanity was seen as a complete disregard for civilian lives, leading thousands to join extremist groups which have now morphed into ISIS. Disenchantment and disillusion create despair; despair creates extremism. The very people who were hoping for a Western intervention that would topple the Syrian regime have now turned against the West. The irony here is of course that the lethal and financial aid provided by the United States, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to Syrian rebels is now partly being used by ISIS to control more territory by the day.
Two years earlier, a NATO-coordinated and UN-approved coalition of countries intervened in Libya in order to establish a no-fly zone and attack the country's armed forces, which would prevent further crimes against humanity. But reluctance from the international community to be committed to a multi-year "stabilization force" (which does not fall under R2P) and fears of a "second Iraq" led to the intervention ending as quickly as it had started, leaving the country prone to factional violence. The result? Continued unrest, an absence of central power, the radicalization of certain parts of the country, and now a call from Italy for a UN-led peace-keeping force in Libya--something experts have deemed very unlikely to happen.
When it comes to what should be done next, a good dose of pragmatism and realpolitik is--unfortunately--needed. Few would argue that ISIS, with its indescribable degree of violence, is not a major threat to the Middle East and North Africa. In times like these, the international community has a moral responsibility to identify the most serious menace and act accordingly. If that involves changing our attitude with previous foes such as Bashar al-Assad, so be it. The UN has apparently adhered to that point of view, with its envoy for Syria recently declaring that al-Assad must be part of the solution for easing violence in Syria. The recent $5.9 billion purchase of 24 French Rafale fighter jets by Egypt was important because the country provides relative stability in an otherwise unstable region, and the transaction went ahead despite many Western countries viewing al-Sisi's regime as authoritarian.
Watching the horrendous beheading videos broadcast by ISIS, it is difficult not to feel a blind rage that, if acted upon, would lead to thousands of troops being deployed to wage an open war against the caliphate. However, the dangers of escalation are real--and any intervention in the region would certainly fulfil ISIS' propaganda goals. The provocative videos addressing the United States, Britain, and France, are made to draw those countries (and others) into a violent battle. And of course, let us remember that it is previous incompetence in Iraq that created an arena and an audience for al-Baghdadi and his followers. Once again, disillusion and despair created extremism.
In hindsight, allowing the weakening of the al-Assad regime through the arming of rebels, along with the absence of concern for the deteriorating situation in Libya was a major miscalculation. Allowing al-Assad to be a part of a diplomatic solution (which would, let's be honest, amount to giving him and his regime a free pass on alleged war crimes) is a necessary evil. Supporting a Libyan unity government that could involve the Muslim Brotherhood is also a necessary evil. The crucial objective here is to squeeze out the power vacuum in both countries.
For now, intervention in Syria and Iraq is not desirable. Continuing to undermine ISIS through air strikes and proxy ground fighting is not a quick fix, but it could prove to be surprisingly efficient when it comes to defeating the caliphate's propaganda: with each failed bid to expand, ISIS looks less and less credible when it claims it is a God-chosen state. By acting this way, the world will ensure that ISIS will be the main actor in its own demise, and it might, one day, allow us to portray the caliphate as a long-forgotten failed experiment.
In the meantime, the international community must act with pragmatism, as painful and hypocritical as that may be. It is likely that in the future, it will once again be faced with the obligation of deciding whether to intervene in a conflict in the Middle East or North Africa. Unfortunately, there is no universal, "one size fits all" answer to the dilemma. Let us hope that lessons of the past and present will allow us to make the right decision.