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Don’t underestimate terrorism’s endurance

Published: January 9, 2014

If we had believed that the death of Osama bin Laden ended the terrorist threat to world peace that had been posed by al-Qaida, developments in the Middle East have shown we were wrong.

And the decision in Washington to stay out of the conflict in Syria, while welcomed by most Americans, has had troubling consequences, as Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury suggested in an interview last week.

“I think we are witnessing a turning point, and it could be one of the worst in all our history,” Khoury told The New York Times. “The West is not there, and we are in the hands of two regional powers, the Saudis and Iranians, each of which is fanatical in its own way. I don’t see how they can reach any entente, any rational solution.”

Americans understand that as long as the Middle East remains politically and militarily volatile, the rest of the world must remain poised to cope with the threat of terrorism.

But that doesn’t argue for “boots on the ground” (as the saying goes). Support of any kind for one side in the region will inevitably invite anger — and perhaps acts of terrorism — against the United States from the other.

What is now clearly a civil war in Syria initially generated considerable American sympathy for the rebels, who typically (and correctly) were portrayed as risking their lives to dislodge the longtime leadership of Bashar al-Assad, a dictator who is strongly supported by one branch of the nation’s Islamic population at the expense of the other.

That portrayal of the rebels no longer is relevant. Now it isn’t simply a case of freedom lovers fighting to unseat a dictator because, on an alarming scale, their effort has been joined by divisive extremist elements linked to al-Qaida.

And now there is open warfare between the original rebels and the al-Qaida jihadists. Across northern Syria last weekend there was a rebel uprising against the newcomers representing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), one of the most powerful al-Qaida-related organizations operating in the area.

The ISIS fighters care more about imposing their own branch (Sunni) of Islam on the Shiites in Syria and elsewhere than in the cause of the original fighters.

These same extremists are also fighting in neighboring Lebanon and in Iraq, where they pose a serious risk to the mostly Shiite government elected after the end of the American-led war that doomed the regime of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who had often brutalized Iraq’s Shiites.

Last week these extremists captured two cities west of Baghdad. American troops had lost 1,300 lives when they defeated insurgencies in these two cities, Fallujah and Ramadi. Now they’re in enemy hands.

While visiting Israel Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is ready to help Iraq fight these enemies in every way it can, but he ruled out the return of American forces. That presumably leaves American weapons as the aid he has in mind.

Interestingly, Iran has now offered to also send military aid to the Shiite government in Iraq, an offer that presumably will find favor in Washington. However, critics warn that the offer, in fact, may be designed to distract the West from the fact that Iran continues to support its own jihadists in the region.

The worsening situation in Iraq may be instructive for the Obama administration as it contemplates the pending withdrawal of all American combat forces from Afghanistan later this year.

“It’s not in America’s interests to have troops in the middle of every conflict in the Middle East, or to be permanently involved in open-ended wars in the Middle East,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser, observed the other day.

Rhodes may be right, but keeping our troops at home does not guarantee peace any more than killing bin Laden ended the threat of terrorism. We must remain vigilant, as uncomfortable as that may be.