January 14, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: No Easy Way Out

• The Paris attacks have brought more attention to the role of countering violent extremism (CVE) and countering radicalism, which is sensible but incomplete in terms of truly reducing the threat posed by foreign fighters and home-grown extremists

• There is simply no way to ‘CVE’ a way out of this extremist problem as long as Syria and Iraq remain such powerful vortices pulling in fighters from across the globe, as well as inciting and recruiting vulnerable members of an entire generation

• Even the best of programs (which communities around the world desperately need) can’t counter the explosive and corrosive effects of the never-ending and highly-visible conflicts in Syria and Iraq

• Unfortunately, the best way to end the extremism arising from the conflict is to actually end the conflict, an obvious answer that has defied implementation for almost four years (and longer in Iraq).


The reckoning of foreign fighters and those radicalized by the years of non-stop extreme conflict in the Middle East came to another city, with Paris joining what is already a long list of cities recently traumatized by the new generation of violent extremists. The Paris attacks have added more urgency to the need for better Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs. Indeed, the U.S. government has announced it will hold a CVE conference on homegrown terrorism next month. There is little doubt that communities around the world need effective programs to help prevent and reduce extremism. Unfortunately, there is also little doubt that there is no way to ‘CVE’ a way out of what is an increasing threat because the drivers of these threats remain completely unresolved. Syria and Iraq (as well as other conflicts) are overwhelming even the best of programs, and continue to both attract foreign fighters and incite and radicalize those who stay at home.

Trying to counter violent extremism while wars in Syria and Iraq continue to rage and worsen is akin to fighting a kitchen fire with a towel while leaving the gas stove on. The amount of heat generated by these conflicts is too much for any program seeking to calm tensions. This isn’t to say these programs are in vain; they are immensely valuable and important, and their successes are badly needed. Rather, this is to say that depending on these programs to address the hatred and violence radiating from Syria and Iraq is both asking too much of these programs and ignoring the obvious but insanely difficult solution.

The best way to end the extremism arising from these persistent conflicts is to finally end the conflicts. While violent extremism and armed conflict will always be around, the war in Syria is unprecedented in its ability to generate foreign fighters and home-grown radicals. An estimated 18,000 people have gone to Syria to fight, with a small but unknown percentage of those potentially returning home to continue to fight. Thousands more anonymous individuals (and some well known to police) are progressing down the extremist path to violence, accompanied by the non-stop imagery and rhetoric and the manufactured justifications for violence emanating out of Syria.

Resolving the Syrian civil war is a categorical imperative. The geopolitical costs of achieving such a negotiated resolution will pale to the human costs of not doing so. The damage already done is catastrophic in all categories, with countries geographically far removed from the conflict now witnessing but a fraction of the instability and fear that is consuming parts of Syria and Iraq. The single best way to undertake a truly global effort at CVE—and the single best way to greatly diminish the Islamic State in the process—is to bring about a resolution to the war in Syria.


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