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25 September 2014

Assad’s men and the rebels agree on one thing: Islamic State is a danger to them all

The war in Syria is made of several smaller wars that sometimes run in parallel and sometimes cross over, like railway junctions on the express to hell.

By Jeremy Bowen

On the way to Syria I saw Pope Francis on the TV. He was at Italy’s huge war cemetery, Redipuglia, where 100,000 Italian soldiers killed in the First World War are buried. Sixty thousand of them are not named. The Pope was commemorating the events of the summer of 1914; humanity, he said, needed to weep for all the victims of war.

No surprise for a pope to say that. But then he suggested human beings had not learned their lesson. “Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction.”

A third world war? Maybe the Pope is right. Right now in the Middle East there is war wherever you look. In recent times I have reported from Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad and Gaza. Everywhere was at war.

I haven’t had time to get to Libya this year, which is already a failed state by most definitions. It is being sliced and diced by tribal and Islamist militias. In Yemen, separatists have advanced to the gates of the capital. In Egypt, the government, now elected but directly descended from the violent military coup that seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood last year, is fighting a jihadist insurgency in Sinai. The latest war in Gaza will not bring in a long-lasting ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Lebanon is feeling the heat from the war in Syria. Syria’s war has spilled over into Iraq, creating a bigger explosion by mixing with its home-grown sectarian violence.


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Damascus is always a little surreal. Much of the city functions and is not damaged. Lives have been transformed, broken and ended by the war, but the shops are open and yellow taxis cram the streets. The sounds of war are so familiar that most people no longer look up when they hear a military jet screaming its way towards another air strike on the rebels in the suburbs.

But if you go to the edge of the area held by the regime, you can see the damage, and in places it is colossal. Block after block has been flattened. Sometimes we are able to cross over into rebel-held territory. Most of the civilians have gone. Streets are piled high with rubble. Buildings are so tattered by shelling that they could be made of paper. In recent weeks Syrian government troops have been on the offensive, trying to take back suburbs that have been held by armed rebels since they had began appearing openly on the streets some time around the New Year of 2012. The rebels are hitting back. As I’ve been writing this, four rockets came in near our hotel, which is also the main UN headquarters.

Many of the armed men I have met who are fighting the regime around Damascus have some of the trappings of Islamist fighters – headbands with extracts from the Quran, beards, and so on – but they have all been Syrians, not foreigners, and they have said that they want an Islamic state on the lines of Turkey, not Arabia 1,400 years ago. A commander I met on my last trip across the lines said that if Islamic State came to Damascus the IS fighters would want to kill them all.


The rise of Islamic State is sending the wars in Syria and Iraq into a new, even uglier phase. The way life used to be seems distant now. The Syrian end of the war that began with an uprising by demonstrators is a tangled and deadly mess of rivalries and alliances. The war is made of several smaller wars that sometimes run in parallel, and sometimes cross over, like railway junctions
on the express to hell. The response to IS led by the US will graft another layer of war on to the ones that already exist.

The horrific execution videos put out by the Islamists seem designed to provoke a military response from the west. Their calculation seems to be that western bombs mean more recruits in the west as well as in Muslim countries. IS might be right, if the military operations being planned by the Americans and their allies end up being seen as the latest battle in a western war on Muslims.

The Paris conference on 15 September was designed to add legitimacy to an American-led campaign by enlisting Sunni Muslim countries. British officials who have been giving anonymous quotes to newspapers expressed a hope that the Saudis, or the Emiratis, might even use some of the warplanes they have bought at huge expense from Britain and America to help with the bombing.

Even if they did that, and I think they will be very reluctant, raids would be no less of a recruiting sergeant for the jihadists. Military force is part of the answer against men as murderous as the foot soldiers of Islamic State. But so is making them look less attractive to disaffected and alienated youths. One way to do this might be by working much harder to end those parts of the war in Syria that do not include IS. Enemies here agree that the group is a danger to them all. So get them all talking about ways to stop IS. Some co-operation on the battlefield might even lead to other kinds of deals.


When I looked at the news this summer while I was on the road in the Middle East, most of the top stories came from this part of the world, or from Ukraine. They reported crimes, massacres and destruction, to use the words of the Pope.

I hope he was wrong about the piecemeal start to the Third World War. But I cannot forget that nobody realised how bad the big wars of the 20th century would be as they slid into them. And by the time they realised, it was much too late. 

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor and the author of “The Arab Uprisings” (Simon & Schuster, £8.99)

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