Zachary Wolfraim is a PhD researcher in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, where he focuses on the role of narratives in shaping foreign policy behaviour. He previously worked as a consultant in NATO Headquarters on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. You can follow him at @Zachwol.
After the attacks of November 13 President Hollande vowed a ‘pitiless’ war against ISIS and committed additional French resources in order to wage war against the organisation. While other Western nations have supported an increased aerial bombing campaign against ISIS, the development of any kind of actual solution to the crisis on the ground has been missing. The response thus far has largely focused on tackling symptomatic problems stemming from previous inaction in Syria. For the time being, the war being waged is from the air and through the airwaves.
On a different but related front, Russian activity in Syria poses yet another challenge in light of recent events with Turkey. Since 2014 Russia has been probing the fringes of NATO and testing Western responses, exemplified by the invasion of Ukraine. The latest incident threatens to once again expose fault lines in the Alliance and potentially test member states commitment to Article V. With Russia, as with ISIS, the West has been caught on the back foot, continuously forced to respond to events rather than leading them.
There has been ongoing discussion of the importance of the narrative or the ‘strategic narrative’ of the conflicts in Syria and with Russia and how, in many ways, the West has been outmaneuvered by adversaries that have been far more effective in communicating its message. Indeed, if we build on Lawrence Freedman’s contention that a strategic narrative is deliberately constructed in order to shape behaviours and achieve a desired end-state, taking Iraq and Afghanistan as other recent examples; Western countries have been pretty miserable on this score.
Since 9/11 it has been hard to pin down a singular, compelling narrative that has defined Western military interventions, in part due to the lack of overarching strategy that established their objectives. An inconclusive decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has left the electorates of Western countries wary of further interventions built on tenuous or conflicting strategic goals. The narrative of the previous campaigns changed frequently over the years ranging from regime change to counter terrorism to state building and so on; ultimately leaving the reasons for these interventions clouded and unclear. The failure of strategic thinking has engrained a deep level of scepticism towards Western military interventions creating a vacuum into which other actors such as ISIS and Russia could create compelling and effective counter-narratives.
ISIS has thus far proven itself relatively adept at being able to utilise social media as a method by which to project its message to receptive followers as well as create avenues for recruitment. In part, this is due to the fact that they have a clear end-state. Similarly, Russia has had a much clearer vision about what it aims to achieve strategically, specifically, the restoration of Russia’s international power and clear influence over the countries in its immediate neighbourhood. As Anne Applebaum observed, it has effectively used historical tactics in conjunction with its media to threaten and intimidate its neighbours. Similarly, Russian media outlets and Putin have cast Russia as a victim of relentless Western oppression that has sought to deny Russia its place in the world.
Countering the narratives coming from both ISIS and Russia remain challenging in large part due to the current state of conflict and whether it is possible to articulate a strategic narrative in the absence of Western strategy. In Syria, the US has stated the dual aim of seeing the Assad regime removed from power while also ‘degrading and destroying’ ISIS. European members of the coalition have largely focused on bombing ISIS with less to say about Assad. Indeed, the British debate expanding its air campaign over Syria framed the mission more in terms of the duty to allies and to ideals rather than outlining any clear conditions for ‘victory.’
Similarly with Russia, NATO and its member states need to continue to exert pressure on Russia, given the continued unrest in Eastern Ukraine. Similarly, Russian intervention in Syria has also raised the possibility of an inadvertent military contact between NATO and Russia similar to the previous Turkish incident. NATO member states and other Western states’ need to avoid their previous tepid response to Russia’s annexation of another state’s territory and be able to quickly seize the narrative while simultaneously forcefully countering competing ones.
Fundamentally, it is impossible to articulate an effective strategic narrative without an ultimate achievable goal. In this environment it becomes a serious challenge to adequately articulate a strategic narrative of success, let alone sufficiently ‘sell’ the public on the need for overseas intervention. Social media and the Internet are particular areas which need to be better understood and utilised, as this is the main area where counter-narratives are likely to emerge.
This should not be read as a rejection of overseas diplomatic or military action, but instead a call to reframe how we discuss, rationalise and ultimately, narrate these operations. Moreover, it is a plea for a clear-headed, proactive approach to strategy coupled with effective leadership. In doing so Western governments’ can take practical steps against state and non-state adversaries while also articulating what they aim to achieve through these actions and how these actions fit into wider narratives about these states.
Given the rapidly changing media landscape, adaptation is necessary. Strategy and narrative can no longer be treated as separate elements; neglecting one can now effectively condemn the other.
 See Lawrence Freedman, The Transformation of Strategic Affairs, IISS Adelphi Paper 379, Routledge: London, 2006.
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