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If Daesh is to be defeated, the carnage in Syria must end

As 2016 comes to a close and Jan. 20 — inauguration day — draws nearer, analysts in the US and observers in the Middle East are eager to sketch out the contours of the incoming Donald Trump administration’s foreign policy. Generally speaking, foreign policy was not a focal point of the presidential election. Since winning, Trump has not spoken in great detail about his vision for how the US will conduct its foreign affairs.
However, recent reports in American media and a speech by Trump last week suggest that “defeating” the terrorist group Daesh appears to be top of his priorities. While he will find that many countries in the region share his determination to destroy this reprehensible militant group — with Saudi Arabia top of a long list — it is important to have a full appreciation of the context in which Daesh emerged.
Its cells and affiliates have taken advantage of political vacuums in war-torn countries. To destroy Daesh, the conflicts in which it has flourished must also end. Ending violence in Iraq and Libya is vital, but more than any other conflict, it is the war in Syria that has allowed Daesh to grow into the monstrosity it is now.
One could make a compelling argument that the conflict with the most far-reaching ramifications for the future political trajectory of the Middle East is the civil war in Syria. The violence there has led to the deaths of an estimated 400,000 people and displaced some 11 million people — almost half of Syria’s entire population — who have either been internally displaced or forced to become refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.
With the entry of Russia into the war last year, and of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Iranian forces and officers, and militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the conflict has become global. Adding to this combustible mix is an estimated 20,000 foreign fighters, many of whom have chosen to fight with Daesh.
As long as the deaths continue to mount and the beleaguered people of Syria continue to suffer at the hands of Bashar Assad’s regime and its allies on one hand, and Daesh and other militant groups on the other, the region will not enjoy anything resembling peace and prosperity. Daesh might have its roots in the instability and violence that followed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it was founded, flourished and metastasized in Syria. Its formation and growth correlate closely with the intensification of fighting in that conflict. It is also not a coincidence that the group named Raqqa its so-called capital. Just as importantly, the overwhelming majority of foreign fighters have gone to Syria.
Some of us warned as early as January 2012 — five years ago — that Syria could become the destination of choice for thousands of militants from across the Arab world and beyond. Some of those militants have gone back to their countries of origin, or have traveled to other countries to wreak havoc. For this, we can thank Assad and his henchmen.
His documented brutality against the Sunni-majority population of Syria furnished Daesh with a treasure trove of recruitment material. To the detriment of the international community, Assad’s brutal suppression of what was initially a peaceful protest movement has enabled Daesh to construct a jihadi narrative that proved more compelling than that devised during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, or the US occupation of Iraq. Defeating Daesh has proven difficult. To succeed, the Trump administration will need the assistance of close US allies in the region, especially Saudi Arabia. Due to its stature in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia is uniquely positioned to discredit Daesh on religious grounds.
At the same time, the conflict that has breathed life into this Al-Qaeda offshoot after it suffered serious setbacks in 2011 must be resolved if Daesh is to lose its ability to recruit and deceive men and women not just from the Arab world but from across the world.
Syria has even become the battle cry for militants carrying out terrorist attacks in countries that in some cases are not involved in the conflict in any fashion.
At the same time, Iraq — where Daesh’s predecessor came to be — must make a determined effort to build a unified country that embraces its various religious, sectarian and ethnic communities.
The wide perception that the policies of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Malki deliberately marginalized the country’s Sunni minority was exploited by Daesh, and enabled it to control major swathes of land across the Iraqi-Syrian border, including the city of Mosul. Much as in Syria, Daesh exploits perceptions of injustice, marginalization and sectarianism. Daesh has likewise taken advantage of the political vacuum and instability.
At a speech in the state of North Carolina recently, Trump vowed to defeat terrorism and “destroy” Daesh, and do so quickly. Intensifying the military campaign against its strongholds in Syria and Iraq is a must.
However, to ensure that Daesh or some other incarnation does not rise from the dead as Al-Qaeda did in 2011, the bloodshed in Syria must come to an end. Daesh is a parasite that feeds on the bloodshed in Syria. The sooner that conflict ends, the quicker it will be defeated.
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He is also a consultant to the Saudi embassy in Washington, but does not represent it or speak on its behalf. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others.