The West’s war with ISIS, or how to dress an open fracture

Degrading ISIS won’t end the violence in the Middle East. A more fundamental change is required.
By: /
March 30, 2015
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Professor at Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

So you broke your arm while mountain biking. The bones jut out from the torn skin. Blood and dirt muddy the wound. And gosh, it hurts. You are rushed to the hospital where kind nurses and doctors check you out. They stem the bleeding, disinfect the gash, put a dressing on top and seat you in a hallway. But they don’t touch the bone or close the wound. From time to time, they lift the gauze — ouch — look sadly at the purplish flesh and shards sticking out, and put some more alcohol on top of the mess – ouch again. Then they give you a pathetic smile, tap your shoulder – the other one – and promise to come back to check again in a few hours.

Welcome to the West's fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Welcome to the dressing of open fractures.

A multiple open fracture is an apt metaphor for today's Middle East. The conflict within Islam between Shias and Sunnis dominates the mess, but tensions exist within those camps — mostly between Arabs and Persians among Shias, and between Turks and Arabs among Sunnis. Add to this mix Israel, the Palestinians, the Kurds, Syria’s and Lebanon's Christians (among many others) and you can't wonder why the wound is infected.

The West is lost in this game. Right now, explicitly or not, the U.S. is siding with Saudi Arabia's Sunnis in their fight against Iran-supported Houthis in Yemen, and with Iraqi Kurds but also Iran-supported Assad and Iraqi Shia militias against Sunni ISIS. Canada only looks less confused because one can't take as many sides with just six planes and 60 some odd commandos.

Things need not be that way. Solely dressing the open fracture is a recipe for never-ending and pointless suffering. A badly broken arm doesn't heal itself. The region's bone structure, its borders and state makeup, needs to change. In Libya, Syria and Iraq, the Franco-British political contraptions of yore only survived "thanks" to the cruel rule of barbarous dictators. It is above all the breakdown of that system that underlies the murderous mess that we are now witnessing, not the messianic concoctions of ISIS' half-baked theologians.

The shape of what needs to emerge is unclear, but a fully sovereign Kurdish state must be part of it, as must a Sunni homeland in Western Iraq and Eastern Syria. The West must put these changes on the table. Only then, for instance, could one hope to fully stabilize (a smaller) Iraq and stem popular Sunni support for ISIS or its successors.

Obviously, turning civil into international conflicts may not look like a great path to peace, but ever since the Second World War the world has actually proven much more adept at managing inter-state conflicts than civil wars. Conversely, the shared obsession with keeping together even the most absurd countries has fed civil war upon civil war.

In the Middle East — as in Somalia and Africa's Great Lake region, and arguably in Eastern Ukraine too — the long-held taboo over meddling with frontiers must be jettisoned, as it was in the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, Central Asia and, 60 years ago, throughout Europe. In the most troubled parts of the world, the frontiers are not right and people are dying in droves because of it. Peace, democracy, the rule of law and human rights are only as sound and stable as the fundamental political arrangements that underlie them. When those arrangements are not consistent with political realities, they must be changed.

Orthopaedists have blunter tools than plastic surgeons. But when your bike ride down the mountain turns ugly, you want the blunt guys to work on you first.