In the calm that followed the Cold War, the US embarked on a policy of state building and stabilization in regions of chaos, sectarian violence and terrorism, exemplified best by our presence in Afghanistan and until recently, Iraq. The results of these efforts, including the ten-year Iraq War, are dismal, as evidenced by the rise of ISIS in Iraq and the current Syrian Civil War.
Conflict in Syria isn’t new. Its history, like that of many Middle Eastern nations, is littered with coups led by men defined by varying degrees of evil. Syria’s current leader, Bashar al-Assad, part of a Shi’ite group called the Alawites, probably falls closer to the Darth Vader end of this spectrum.
However, before we rush to give further assistance to the Free Syrian Army, a supposedly moderate rebel group whom we’ve already been training and arming, America should pause and reflect on the validity of the logic that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ While ISIS is obviously no friend of America, all groups involved in this conflict have links to terrorist organizations or are literally classified as such by the UN and US. The Free Syrian Army’s fighters have strong links to al-Qaeda, a Sunni terrorist organization, and have worked directly in conjunction with an actual branch of al-Qaeda — a friendship born out of hatred of the Shia allegiance of Assad’s regime and Hezbollah.
It’s this sectarian hatred, exacerbated in the modern era by a legacy of Western neo-imperialism, that drives this war. The growth of ISIS and the civil war in Syria are merely symptoms of the much deeper and larger religious conflict. We cannot intervene in the region without putting ourselves at the heart of an ideological clash — a battle of wills that cannot be resolved with more American money, munitions, or lives.
The history of ISIS itself attests to this: its first manifestation was in Iraq as a forerunner to Al-Qaeda called the Islamic State in Iraq. However, after American intervention in the region, the religious extremism popularized by Al-Qaeda was driven underground, only to pop up again as ISIS after we left.
Like the Sunni-Shia conflict itself, these groups mutate and adapt to the changing political and military landscape of the region. President Obama himself has admitted that despite our success in destroying al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan, their “threat has evolved,” evidenced by the group’s growing presence in Yemen, Somalia and Mali. While most Sunni and Shia Muslims would probably prefer to coexist in peace, these militants are the ones waving the guns (many of which we produced and pumped into the region incidentally) and they will continue to scuttle over the bodies of dead civilians until their dying day.
It might be true that without intervention, ISIS and other extremist groups will gain greater control and influence in the region and pose a more imminent terrorist threat to the United States in the coming years. Civil war, violence, and humanitarian atrocities will undoubtedly follow. However, only in the depths of this struggle can an effective movement against sectarian violence and the groups that incite it grow within the Middle East itself. We cannot impose an ideology upon people and soldiers that are not committed to it — the recent desertions in the Iraqi Army shortly after our withdrawal prove this. The long term eradication of ISIS and its peers depends primarily on change emanating from within.
Further intervention will simply prolong this process. If we control the growth of ISIS in Syria, the location and pretext for the conflict will change along with the terrorist organizations that drive it. The US will inevitably commit to some protracted process of state stabilization in Syria, similar to the one we supposedly completed in Iraq in 2011. The process of intervention and state building will implicitly align US interests with one side of the sectarian divide, Shia or Sunni. These efforts will be co-opted and eventually eroded by protests and violence of the sort we’re now seeing in post-withdrawal Iraq. In another ten or twenty years, we’ll be here again — but with less money, less influence, and a lot more blood on our hands. Ultimately, Syria and the people of the Middle East have a problem they can only solve themselves.
Claudia Wharton, a junior studying history, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.