Should the West stop intervening in the Middle East?

Is Western military intervention in the Middle East only provoking more radicalism? Or have we passed the point of no return? Nahlah Ayed asks.

Is military intervention only provoking more radicalism, or have we passed the point of no return?

Smoke and flames rise over the Syrian town of Kobani after an air strike by U.S.-led forces seeking to dislodge the Islamist group ISIS from its weeks-long siege of the town on the Turkish-Syrian border. (Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters)

Is it right for Western nations to intervene abroad using military force? There are few questions in our time that are as incendiary.

There are also few questions where both a yes and no answer can lead to comparably catastrophic consequences.

No need to look beyond Iraq for a particularly tragic example. A misguided intervention there not only set a war-torn country on a destructive path, it also played its part in creating the space for extremist organizations to thrive and recruit supporters, including alienated, radicalized youth from the West willing to sow destruction at home.

But the question of intervention still comes up repeatedly, and one way or another the tough choices are made.

Canada, for one, chose not to participate in George W. Bush's Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. But it did sign on for Libya in 2011, sending in a squadron of six F-18s as part of a NATO-led coalition.

And now Canada's planes are back again in the region, to join the U.S.-led campaign against the murderous group known as ISIS, which has created a so-called Islamic state straddling Syria and Iraq, and which at least partly grew out of the mess in Iraq — and, indirectly, Libya.

Back up three years, what would you have done?

How to respond when the rebels of Benghazi, freedom fighters as the West saw them, begged the world to come to their aid, as forces loyal to the notorious Moammar Gadhafi regime, bent on a bloodbath, closed in.

Many world leaders, including Canada's Stephen Harper, agreed that leaving these Libyans prey to a regime that had long oppressed them simply wasn't an option.

These leaders also felt that an oil-rich nation such as Libya couldn't be left to tear itself apart.

Mission creep

At the time, the case for intervening in Libya appeared compelling. What the participants may not have known was how it would later limit their ability to intervene in even more compelling situations, such as Syria's civil war.

The stated mission in Libya was to create and enforce a no-fly zone to protect civilians from the regime's air attacks.

But it went beyond that. And it ultimately encouraged the revolutionaries and led directly to regime change. Three years ago this week saw the gruesome, desert execution of Gadhafi.

Most Western capitals were happy to see the last of him, and so was much of the Middle East, even if it was done with the help of the much-despised "foreign intervention."

Shades of the War Measures Act in 1970, armed RCMP officers guard the front of Langevin Block on Parliament Hilll following Wednesday's shooting of a Canadian soldier. (Chris Wattie / Reuters)

So none of the Western participants were particularly threatened for taking part. There were no calls for attacks abroad in retaliation.

But Russia was outraged. President Vladimir Putin called it a "planned murder." Among the litany of Putin grudges against NATO and the West, this would rank close to the top.

That mistrust would harden Putin's position, and make it virtually impossible for the West to intervene in the affairs of his remaining allies.

No need to look further than his staunch support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Russia always supported Syria’s Baathist regime, but the Libya experience meant Putin's support for Assad would be total, even in the face of all the death, displacement and destruction — including the use of chemical weapons.

So the options for the West — save for engaging in a proxy war by helping anti-Assad forces — were narrowed from the start. Even Barack Obama's "red line" on the use of chemical weapons failed to lead to intervention, because Moscow stood in the way.

"Once chemical weapons were used with impunity, and there was still no confrontation, the conflict reached the point of no return," said Payam Akhavan, a renowned Canadian human rights lawyer.

“Now there is a situation that will destabilize the region for many years," he says, because of the extremists forces that have emerged. He called the unwillingness to intervene a “gross failure of leadership.”

In short, the Syrian civil war has cost tens of thousands of lives, and the resulting mess ultimately made it possible for ISIS to flourish.

Soon, the question for the Western powers became, should war be declared on ISIS in the so-called Islamic state it claims to have created?

The answer has been a resounding yes. Some 60-plus countries have signed up. And that has been effectively used by ISIS and its supporters to argue that the West continues to wage war against Islam.

In an audio recording last month, a spokesman called for attacks on members of the anti-ISIS coalition, specifically mentioning Canada. This week, just as Canada's CF-18s left to join the fight, we saw two attacks on Canadian soldiers on home soil, with at least one of them directly inspired by ISIS recruiting.

A trail of radicalization

No Western country has been immune from the radicalization that the so-called war on terror has left in its wake. Even Canada saw its first high-profile examples in Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej, two young friends from London, Ont., who joined in an Islamist-led plot against foreigners at an oil refinery in the Algerian desert a year ago.

Today, a number of Canadians are known to be fighting with ISIS in Syria; many more trying to get there, and others presumably are inspired and might act at home. Some 500 Britons have also left to join ISIS. Belgium apparently boasts the highest per capita number of citizens who now call the Islamic State home.

All of these adherents make the same argument: That attacks on the West are justified because the West insists on intervening in their affairs. They consider it war.

Earlier this week in Libya, a fighter from the armed group Operation Dawn fires on rival group the Zintan brigade, on the outskirtsof Kklh, southwest of Tripoli. (Reuters)

Should that dissuade Canada or other nations from intervening?

A few countries over from ISIS's so-called Islamic state, Libya is a right mess, thanks in part to the armed rebels NATO helped, but who now refuse to disarm, and constantly clash with each other and the new government.

Awkwardly, Canada's F-18s could soon be targeting some of those same rebels they helped out in Libya, who turned out to be natural recruits for ISIS.

Within view of those cockpits will also be parts of Syria where innocent people are being killed with impunity by Assad's loyalists. For them, there has been no intervention nor will there be.

Much of Iraq, the birthplace of the precursor to ISIS, remains wracked with violence.

Of course, today's harsh realities feel graver than what could have been had there been no intervention. We don't know how many more would have died in Benghazi. How many more disappeared in Baghdad.

So, is it right for Western nations to intervene abroad using military force? Especially in a region that has a long history of being allergic to it?

Could there have been a better way?

Though all these options are debatable, we are now almost beyond the question. The West has intervened, and is intervening, and the pushback has now touched Canada at home.

Agree or not, we have entered an indeterminate period of turbulence.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.