The changes in United States military strategy since the "war on terror" was at its height are echoed by the evolution of al-Qaida and its ideas. The consequences are being felt in Syria.
The month just ended, July 2012, was the worst for violent attacks in Iraq for two years. The bare details tell the story. Over 325 people were killed, including 241 civilians, forty-four soldiers and forty-one police; 697 people were injured, including 480 civilians, ninety-five soldiers and 122 police; there were attacks on twenty-seven of the thirty-one days of the month; on a single day, 23 July, coordinated attacks across the country took the life of 103 people.
Yet at the height of the war, in the middle years of the last decade, the situation was far worse. At that time tthousands of people were dying in violent incidents each month: partly due to actions of the United States-led coalition, but much more to the communal violence that had escalated after the initial insurgency evolved in 2003-04 and which the coalition had failed abjectly to control.
These two phases of violence in Iraq belong to a continuum in which the legacy of the "war on terror" includes grave problems of which the current upsurge of violence in Iraq is just one.
A revised strategy
A report published in June 2011 by the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University - entitled The Costs of War - assessed the cost, human and financial, of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: at least 225,000 people killed, 7.8 million refugees, and a total monetary cost likely to be close to $4 trillion. As it became clear that the wars were in conventional terms unwinnable, the US was forced to withdraw from Iraq and chose (under Barack Obama's presidency since January 2009) to start a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The strategic consequences include a heavy blow to the United States's belief that it could sustain its security and interests overseas with hundreds of thousands of "boots on the ground". That approach may well reappear in the future, but for the moment there is a strong presumption against large-scale expeditionary warfare.
What has replaced it is a far greater emphasis on maintaining security of interests by other means - especially what may be termed "remote control". These include reconnaissance, use of armed-drones, increased deployment of special forces, a blurring of the distinction between civil diplomacy and selective military action, and heavier reliance on privatised security forces (see "America's new wars and militarised diplomacy", 31 May 2012).
By these means, the United States, and indeed many of its Nato allies, now see a way forward. This represents both a response to the serial failures of the "war on terror" and a means to maintain control in a world of myriad perceived threats. The change of strategy and tactics is not in itself so surprising; far less recognised, though, is that oppositional movements - especially the dispersed al-Qaida franchise - have also mutated.
A changing movement
This is apparent in three developments. The first is the spread of the idea of revolutionary jihad to new regions. Al-Qaida itself may now be a shadow of what it was, with but a small coterie of committed followers on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border, but its ideas have taken root elsewhere. This is clearly seen in Yemen and Somalia, and in Iraq, where much of the renewed violence comes from radical Sunni groups linked to "Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia".
The dissemination of ideology and outlook is even more evident with regard to Boko Haram in Nigeria and Ansar Dine in northern Mali. Taken together, these groups amount to a transition phase for the al-Qaida movement.
The second development is the recent growth of a strong Islamist paramilitary element in the Syrian opposition. In mid-2011 some analysts argued that if the "Arab awakening" ended in a democratic transition this would be bad news for al-Qaida, since the group had intended a very different outcome - the violent terminatation of its "near enemy's" regimes in the region. Other analysts, however, argued that attempts to strangle the awakening could provide new opportunities for radical Islamists. So it is proving in Syria.
A paramilitary cohort (at least 1,000-strong) with high levels of organisation and training is now operating in Syria, and in combat presents a very tough challenge to the forces of Bashar al-Assad's Alawi-based regime. A recent example is the seizing of a Turkey-Syria border-post by a group of 150 fighter, who reportedly came from Algeria, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and even Chechnya (see Peter Lee "Syrian wheel of fortune Spins China's way", Asia Times, 30 July 2012).
Several other reports suggest that foreign Islamist groups are becoming a major issue for the Syrian opposition, in that they may both be very effective and yet owe little allegiance to the internal Syrian movement. Moreover, if the Assad regime falls they will be well-placed to influence what happens next in a potentially chaotic situation (see Neil MacFarquhar & Hwaida Saad, "As Syrian War Drags On, Jihadists Take Bigger Role", New York Times, 29 July 2012).
The third development is the remarkable extent of operations by radical Islamists across the world, especially those involving suicide (or "martyr") actions. In this respect an impressive new source of public-domain intelligence and a must-read for those concerned with peace-and-conflict issues is Open Briefing, which this week published a digest of paramilitary attacks and related actions in June 2012 (compiled by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point). The range stretches from Pakistan and Afghanistan through Iraq and Yemen to Somalia, Nigeria, Algeria and Kenya. Many of these assaults involved martyr actions. It seems, now, that the rapid developments in Syria may be adding to the list.
The next phase
In itself, this does not mean that a united, coherent and competent al-Qaida movement is making a worldwide comeback after its losses of recent years. What it does indicate is that a transition is taking place among its affiliates in a number of countries that may involve only the loosest coordination.
In its own way, this trend is a mirror-image of the changes in western military practice. The deployment of boots on the ground didn't work as expected, and was succeeded by remote control. The paramilitary nexus's equivalent is that the idea of a single global movement has proved to have little purchase, but the underlying idea has survived and adapted to a changing world.
Perhaps most significant of all is that the "war on terror", especially in Iraq, gave rise to a new generation of determined young men with urban-insurgency experience against highly trained and well-armed western soldiers. That may now be manifesting itself in Syria. What happens in the coming months in Syria may give a much clearer picture of how post-al-Qaida movements may evolve.