Manitoba·Opinion

Paris attackers can't be bombed into submission, says Steven Zhou

It's foolish to think that aerial bombardment can help bring back the old, pre-ISIS Middle East. That option has been tried over and over again, and not once has it produced the intended results.

Accepting refugees disarms militants' recruiting strategy, columnist writes

A Syrian refugee child poses for a photograph at the border town of Arsal, in the eastern Bekaa Valley, in March 2014. Welcoming refugees to Canada disrupts extremists' recruiting efforts, Steven Zhou says. (Hassan Abdallah/Reuters)

Ending Canada's participation in the campaign to bomb ISIS in Syria and Iraq, along with pledging to accept 25,000 refugees fleeing that region's chaos, probably seemed like low-hanging fruit to Justin Trudeau before terrorists tore through Paris on Friday, leaving more than 130 people dead. The prime minister is vowing to stay the course on both counts despite pressure from critics who still think that military violence is the one, indispensable solution to ending Muslim extremism.

The thought of ISIS extremists masquerading as needy refugees to unleash havoc in Western countries has somehow made its way into Canadian political consciousness, thanks to voices like that of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who has publicly asked the feds to suspend plans to accept Syrian refugees. The unquestioned link made by Wall and others connecting refugees with potential terrorism, along with blind faith in military power as the primary means to ending violent extremism, represent rather elegantly the most basic assumptions of the post-9/11 era.

That a terrorist would go through the trouble of pretending to be a needy refugee and travel long distances with others who lack some of life's most basic needs just to carry out an act of terror defies much of what history reveals. There are simpler ways to be a terrorist. And while looking backwards in time is really the only way to contextualize the present, most avoid doing so because today's tragedies seem so much more immediate. Nonetheless, failure to learn from history (even recent history) is why 14 years of perpetual war in the Middle East, along with the rapid expansion of domestic policing/surveillance measures, still characterize the main body of Western counter-terrorism frameworks.

If the past decade-and-a-half has taught the world anything, it's that the increasingly complicated politics of the Middle East makes it virtually impossible for any "coalition of allies" to impose its geopolitical will upon it. George W. Bush and Co. couldn't do it immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, and it'd be foolish to think that aerial bombardment today can help bring back the old, pre-ISIS Middle East. That option has been tried over and over again since 9/11. Not once has it produced the intended results. Instead, the region is more fractured than ever and extremists are exploiting the chaos.

Alternative to tyranny, war

ISIS can be seen as the cumulative result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the bloody deadlock in Syria, all of which breathed new life into regional Sunni extremism. The Islamic State's precursor is al-Qaeda in Iraq, born after the 2003 invasion, when the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, based in Iraq, pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Both men are now dead, but their legacies are very much alive. Aerial bombardment, full-scale invasions, occupations and non-stop assassinations may be intended to mitigate the structure of those legacies, but in reality, they've only helped facilitate the evolution of violent extremism in the Middle East. What used to be disorganized terrorists became part of an anti-American insurgency. Then, as the region continued to destabilize after the Arab Spring uprisings, ISIS became a reality.

Trudeau deserves credit for showing resolve when it comes to keeping Canada out of a strategy that hasn't ever really worked. Instead of pursuing a position of semi-discriminate bombing, countries interested in weakening ISIS can start by sucking the life out of the stories and narratives that terrorists rely on to grow and recruit. These stories hijack Muslim grievances by pointing at the gigantic hole that the West has blown through the Middle East, the miserable conditions that resulted from countless Western interventions and the West's apparent disdain for Islam and Muslims. ISIS can then portray itself as the light at the end of the tunnel, the hope for a region devastated by chronic instability, full of illegitimate regimes (often put in place and backed by the West).

The acceptance of refugees can play a big role in destabilizing this narrative. By showing that ISIS really isn't the only viable alternative to living under tyranny and war, Canada can help deflate the urge to pursue extremism. Those who want to deny or impede this option risk the exacerbation of an already dangerous situation.

Steven Zhou is a Toronto writer.

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