The root causes of extremism need to be tackled
Until Russian military intervention in the Syrian conflict, rebel advances against the forces of Bashar al-Assad raised the possibility that Moscow and Iran might be prepared to sacrifice Assad in return for a settlement that safeguarded their strategic interests. That would have cleared the way for focus on the fight against the common enemy, the jihadist Islamic State (IS). But Russian bombing missions apparently targeting Assad's enemies rather than IS, and now cruise missile strikes launched nearly 1,500km away in the Caspian Sea have turned that into wishful thinking by the West.
Following talks between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia may now be on board in the fight against IS and its rise beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq in the past year. But the two sides continue to disagree on the Assad regime. The US and its allies say it has to go, but Russia is stepping up military support, including the provision of military helicopters for operations by government forces.
Worryingly, violations of neighbouring Nato member Turkey's airspace by Russian warplanes have not only deepened suspicions and mutual distrust between Moscow and the West over Russia's role in Syria, but highlight the potential for clashes with allied forces in crowded Syrian skies.
Moscow's intervention, in a role similar to that of the US and its allies in support of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds who are fighting IS militants, is clearly aimed at tilting the balance back to a level playing field. This opens the prospect of even more prolonged conflict while there remain no boots on the ground.
Not only is aerial bombardment unlikely to dislodge IS, it will do nothing to tackle the origins of violent jihadism that is proving a magnet to disaffected youth across the globe. The debate focuses on how to neutralise it rather than on root causes. These are to be found anywhere where there are policies that marginalise significant segments of society, putting security ahead of human rights, and in harsh repression of citizens and their religious beliefs to safeguard the interests of some autocratic states countenanced by the West.
Ultimately, the appeal of IS has to be defeated far from its Syrian-Iraqi stronghold, among socially disenfranchised and stigmatised youth vulnerable to puritan, intolerant interpretations of Islam. The root causes of jihadism lie in lack of social and economic opportunity, in exclusionary policies and in denial of participation in pluralist processes.