New Age Islam Edit Bureau
30 November 2015
• Once upon a Tsar and a Sultan: Putin vs. Erdogan
By Hisham Melhem
• France's anti-terror measures are unconstitutional
By Antoine Bueno
• Turkeyís diplomatic fight
• Why is ISIS so resilient?
By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
• Defeating ISIS requires a shift in international policy
By Lina Khatib
Once upon a Tsar and a Sultan: Putin vs. Erdogan
By Hisham Melhem
29 November 2015
When a Turkish jet fighter shot down a Russian warplane on Tuesday over the Syrian-Turkish borders, the multifaceted four and a half year-old war in Syria entered a new darker phase. Those dangerous deadly few moments were another reminder to the warring parties that one of their enduring enemies is the law of unintended consequences. Tension between the once sworn enemies was rising ever since Russia intervened militarily two months ago to support the teetering Assad regime, thus exploiting the vacuum created in part by the failure of the Obama administration to effectively influence the ebb and flow on the battlefields directly and through its allies and to provide strong leadership to shape and reconcile the competing interests of its regional allies in Syria.
Given the conflicting objectives of Russia and Turkey in Syria, their regional and international alliances, and their bitter history, the incident brought to the surface not only their decades-long enmity during the Cold War, but also the centuries-long bloody hostility between their predecessors, the Russian and the Ottoman Empires. Over the centuries Ottoman Sultans and Russian Tsars dispatched armies and navies against each other’s and fought long and horrendous wars on different fronts, by themselves and as part of alliances, exchanging territories mostly in Russia’s favor, sacking cities, engaging in mass killings, uprooting populations and etching in the collective memories of their peoples enduring impressions of rejection, hostility and demonization. In the last few days, part of this heavy and ugly inheritance has been resurrected by Russians and Turks who stormed social media and other parts of the virtual world, exchanging invective and insults, dusting off old stereotypes and reminding each others of their past moments of humiliations and triumphs. It did not help matters that the two autocratic leaders at the helm in Moscow, Vladimir Putin and in Ankara, (which replaced the old Sublime Port in Istanbul) Recep Tayyip Erdogan fancy themselves, act and are seen by some of their supporters as a Tsar and a Sultan conducting quixotic campaigns seeking partial imperial restoration.
The aerial clash between Turkey and Russia, coming after ISIS took its terror to the heart of Paris, Sinai and Beirut, makes the ever-changing and fluid Syrian battlefields more complex, more confusing and very likely to prolong the war and entrench the Assad regime at least for the foreseeable future. For sure the United States and France will continue to talk about the ‘Vienna process’ for a political resolution to the conflict but their immediate priority is to fight ISIS not the Syrian regime, an objective Russia shares partially.(Iran and its Shiite auxiliaries can only welcome such an ISIS-focused campaign by the U.S. and its allies.) The brunt of Russia’s bombing campaign is felt by the moderate Syrian forces fighting the Assad regime, as well as the Chechen militants fighting with al-Nusra and other radical groups. Russia, as Putin and his senior advisors have been saying will attempt to punish Turkey economically and commercially, although this will not be cost free for Russia’s economy, given the significant amount of trade between the two countries. Putin’s aggressive foreign policy moves, from Georgia, to Ukraine to Syria are not usually tempered by economic calculus. Putin’s irredentist ambitions in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and in Central Asia harken back to Tsarist Russia, which also tried over generations of conflict with the Ottoman Empire to enlarge its control and sphere of influence around the Black Sea basin and to move Southward to the warm waters of the Mediterranean.
But there will be a military aspect to Putin’s wrath. Already Russia’s air force has been pounding the Turkmen forces believed responsible for killing one of the two Russian pilots who ejected from the doomed warplane, in addition to a Russian Marine killed in the rescue operation. In fact, Russia’s raids on the Turkmen forces, operating reportedly with Ankara’s blessing and arms close to the Turkish borders against the Assad regime, led to Turkish complaints long before the downing of the Russian bomber. After Tuesday’s incident Russia reportedly intensified its bombing raids also against the Free Syrian Army units and other Islamist forces operating in the area, as well as providing air cover for the advancing Assad army.
Russia, while saying officially that it will not go to war with Turkey over the incident, and insisting on an official apology and compensation from Ankara, is trying to intimidate Turkey’s military and by extension the NATO alliance by deploying its most advanced air-defense missile system to a Syrian air base in Latakia, 30 miles south of the Turkish border. With a range of up to 250 miles, the S-400 covers a large swath of Southern Turkey, all of Cyprus and Lebanon, most of Syria and the northern half of Israel. This new system will complicate the American led air campaign against ISIS in Syria, and the Israeli Air Force’s flights and occasional bombings raids in Southern Syria. The U.S. is likely to be forced to revisit its technical ‘deconfliction’ understanding with the Russians to avoid accidents in Syria’s crowded air space.
Conflicting interests and strategies
The tension between Russia and Turkey which will mar their relations for some time to come, even if both Presidents are brought together by French President Francois Hollande who is very eager to cooperate with any power willing to help him fight ISIS. This tension, in addition to France’s immediate objective of ‘destroying’ ISIS, an impossible goal without powerful ground troops, will further complicate and delay the search for the elusive political resolution, which was even bogged down before Tuesday’s clash.
There are serious disagreements among the international and regional powers and the Syrian opposition groups willing to enter into a political process, over the nature of the transitional period to a post-Assad political order, and over the fate of Assad and his cronies during the transition, how to reach and monitor the cease fires, and what to do meanwhile with the hard core militants like al-Nusra Front not to mention ISIS. In the absence of a comprehensive strategy that includes building a coalition of Syrian forces supported politically and materially by the U.S. and its European and regional allies to confront both ISIS and the Syrian regime simultaneously the quest for a political resolution will lead to an endless wilderness. Most civil wars are ended either with a decisive and relatively quick military victory (American and Spanish civil wars) or when the warring parties become exhausted after a protracted conflict were they on their own or with outside parties reach a resolution that reflects the military balance on the ground in which one party emerges as more dominant if not overwhelmingly victorious to impose its writ. Unfortunately the warring parties in Syria are not there yet.
The Russian military intervention which led to the tension with Turkey, along with ISIS taking its terror to the world made the Syria war the most complex and bewildering civil war in recent memory. Consider the following: Three of the five permanent members of the United Nation Security Council are waging wars against different combatants. The United States and France are bombing ISIS targets and leaders. Russia is in Syria to fight the enemies of the Assad regime, and to put it bluntly to kill Chechen fighters in Syria instead of waiting for them to return to Chechnya in the Russian Federation. The two major non-Arab regional powers; Iran and Turkey are engaged in the war and have been competing for years to shape the future of Syria (and Iraq). Iran is doing so directly by deploying advisors and elite forces and through its Shiite auxiliaries, mainly Hezbollah and by providing arms to the Syrian regime. Iran’s intervention has saved the Assad regime from demise. Turkey has been providing arms to anti-Assad forces, including unfortunately hard core Jihadists, and through its porous borders the worst blood thirsty foreign fighters found their way to join ISIS in Syria. Turkey’s priorities in Syria include preventing the Kurds there from establishing a contiguous autonomous region that could eventually secede, in addition to toppling Assad and playing a major economic role in rebuilding (and influencing) Syria. Both Iran and Turkey have intensified their efforts to shape the future of Iraq by exploiting geography, sectarian and ethnic divisions and the economic interests of various Iraqi groups. The third major non-Arab regional power, Israel has limited its role to occasional military raids into Syria, mostly to interdict and destroy arms shipment to Hezbollah and/or to hit Hezbollah leaders operating close to its borders.
Coalitions without strategies
Both the United States and the Russian Federation are leading competing coalitions in Syria. For more than a year President Obama’s coalition has waged an air campaign against ISIS with limited success. President Putin is essentially leading a coalition that includes Iran, Iraq and what is left of the Syrian regime. After the Paris attack, Putin was hoping to recruit French President Hollande in his own coalition. In fact Putin is projecting Russia (and himself) as the leading international power against terrorism. Ever since Putin’s intervention in Syria, Ukraine has receded as a pressing issue for the European Union which was very busy and burdened by the challenge of the (mostly) Syrian refugee crisis, and where Putin succeeded in creating a rift among European countries about the future of Assad in Syria with German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling publicly for negotiations with the Syrian President. As a wingman in the air war against ISIS, President Hollande, has to decide soon whether to fly behind Obama or Putin.
Once upon a Tsar and a Sultan
Both President Erdogan and Putin are historic, if negative, leaders. Erdogan is the most consequential Turkish leader since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Turkish Republic in 1923. Erdogan, in power since 2003 as Prime Minister and President, has been chipping away at Turkey’s secular polity while reviving its Islamic identity and causing in the process deep political polarization in Turkish society. He has presided over a period of economic growth, during which Turkey ‘returned’ economically and politically to its old Ottoman provinces in the Levant and Mesopotamia. Erdogan’s disturbing and growing autocratic tendencies and practices (hence the Ottoman Sultan label) are causing deep anxieties in Turkish society and polity to the point where serious Turkish analysts are warning that he may be leading the country towards civil strife and dangerous regional entanglements.
President Putin has a lot in common with Erdogan. He sees himself as the leader who will reestablish Mother Russia’s standing in the world as a major power. He has yet to reconcile himself with the collapse of the Soviet Union, although the power he wants to resurrect is that of Orthodox and Slavic Russia. Just as Erdogan is harken back to what was once the seat of the Ottoman Muslim Empire in Istanbul, Putin harks back to Tsarist Russia with its distinct Slavic culture, the same Mother Russia that defeated Napoleon, and later Hitler, (Russian Nationalism defeated the Third Reich, not communism) built the magnificent city of Saint Petersburg and gave the world the Bolshoi, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.
This Russia has played a historic role in the ‘Holy Land’ and the greater region south of Russia that is called now the Middle East sees itself as destined once again to play a similar role. It was a brazen act on Putin’s part to exploit the Russian Orthodox Church by getting its leaders to bless his war in Syria as a ‘holy war.’ Ironically both Putin and Erdogan are the implicit claimants of two out of the four Empires, the other two being the Austria-Hungary and German Empires that collapsed after WWI, the bloodiest war in human history until that time. Both the Tsar and the Sultan are watching and trying to shape what was left of the brittle political order that emerged in the Levant and Mesopotamia following the end of the age of Empires that barely survived a century.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya.
France's anti-terror measures are unconstitutional
By Antoine Bueno
29 Nov 2015
The immediate reaction of French President Francois Hollande to the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 was to declare a state of emergency; for the fifth time in France's history and the first time since the riots in the suburbs in 2005.
The state of emergency extends the powers of the administrative police, and the number of acts that don't need to be authorised by the judiciary. The government can now temporarily shut down theatres, bars and other places of gathering and restrict freedom of movement and the right to hold public meetings. Theoretically, demonstrations are now forbidden in Paris.
The state of emergency also allows police to make warrantless searches whether in the day or night in places of residence. So far, about 800 such searches have been ordered.
It allows suspected individuals to be placed under house arrest. This means, those individuals must remain in their homes for a maximum of 12 hours per day. For the rest of the day, they may have to clock out in police stations. So far, 266 house arrests have been enforced.
Upgraded and extended
This and other measures will be in place until the state of emergency is lifted.
To prolong the state of emergency after 12 days, the government must pass a law through parliament. This law was promulgated last week to prolong the state of emergency by three months. It will now be in effect until February 26, 2016.
Interestingly, this law also modernised - or upgraded - the state of emergency, for example, expanding warrantless searches to vehicles and electronic devices.
To guide its investigations, the intelligence services have in their possession the famous "S files". These files contain detailed information (name, photos and how dangerous the individual could be under arrest) on most individuals suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. They are categorised according to threat and type: for example, S14 defines those known to be in, or returned from, Syria or Iraq.
So why would all this require a constitutional revision?
The law on which the state of emergency is based dates back to 1955. But the Constitution itself was drafted in 1958.
Therefore, it can legitimately be asked whether the state of emergency is consistent with the constitution. In other words, could acts of police and restrictions of liberties based on a law passed in 1955 be considered unconstitutional? This would be bad news for the fight against terrorism, and of course, the French government.
For this reason, the purpose of the constitutional changes is to integrate the law of 1955 into the constitution. However, it could also be an occasion to slip in other anti-terrorism measures, such as the stripping of citizenship from individuals convicted of terrorism. This has not yet happened, and it is not clear whether it will.
Natural born protesters
France is a nation of natural born protesters. Since the French revolution of 1789, the French people like to imagine themselves as rebellious, not unlike the Gallic villagers of the comic strip Asterix. They are a people who may have failed to resist during World War II but who have broken all world records of the number of strikes and demonstrations.
However, no strong voices have so far been raised to denounce these anti-terrorism measures as destructive to cherished French values and freedom.
Most French citizens are now aware that the measures taken by the government are necessary at two levels: police security and legal security.
Most French citizens also understand that the measures are not designed to target or marginalise a specific community, ie, the French Muslims, who continue to enjoy the same rights and liberties as every other citizen, as long as they are not involved in terrorist activities.
A poll by Ifop and Le Figaro showed 84 percent ready to accept "controls and a certain limitation of liberty in order to guarantee better security".
According to another poll conducted by Le Parisien, 53 percent of French people approve the revision of the Constitution to enlarge the exceptional powers of the president. Some 84 percent of French agree to facilitate the self-defence of policemen. And an overwhelming 91 percent of the French agree with the stripping of nationality from French-born dual nationals engaged in jihadist activities.
In the contrary, the question to ask is: Will these measures be sufficient to defeat terror? They'll surely help speed up investigations and possibly thwart new attacks. Unfortunately, they may not prevent all attacks in the future.
For this reason, some have already advocated for stronger decisions such as putting the "S files" into "administrative detention" or establishing a French Guantanamo Bay.
Ultimately, however, the French government's measures are part of the wider war against terrorism - a war which must be waged in conjunction with the international community.
Antoine Bueno is a writer and a jurist at the French Senate.
Turkeyís diplomatic fight
By ANA PALACIO
30 November 2015
The downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey risks opening a new front in the violence engulfing Syria, thereby dashing the hopes for a rapprochement between Russia and the West that had arisen in the wake of the Paris massacre.
Given the nightmare scenario of something far worse, it is more important than ever that the European Union do all that it can to reinvigorate its ties with Turkey. Prior to the attacks in Paris, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had seemed to be holding all the cards in the bilateral relationship. European leaders, faced with an escalating refugee crisis, agreed last month to pursue a joint action plan, which demanded that Turkey help stem the tide of migrants into Europe, in exchange for EU funds, visa liberalization and most relevant, renewed negotiations on Turkeyís EU accession. Shortly after that decision, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed her previous opposition to Turkish membership in the EU, calling it an ìopen-ended issueî during a visit to Istanbul.
All of this served Erdogan well in the run-up to Turkeyís Nov. 1 general election. The action plan and Merkelís visit were viewed within Turkey as de facto endorsements of Erdogan; the EU even delayed the release of a critical ìprogress reportî on Turkeyís accession negotiations until after the vote. In the end, Erdoganís Justice and Development Party (AKP) regained its comfortable parliamentary majority.
The G-20 Summit in Antalya, held on Nov. 15-16, was to cement Erdoganís triumphant return to the world stage, ending a period of relative isolation by the West.
Then, as so often happens, events intervened. The tragedy in Paris sidelined Turkey at its own summit, derailing Erdoganís international comeback. Instead, the focus was on US President Barack Obama, Putin and French President Francois Hollande acting from Paris.
Now, Erdogan faces a different strategic outlook, particularly with Russia-Turkey relations under greater strain than at any time since the Cold Warís end. With the world now more determined than ever to defeat Daesh, the major powers are seeking immediately available forces. For the time being, that means, on the one hand, the Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurdish Peopleís Protection Units, which oppose President Bashar Assadís regime, and, on the other hand, the pro-regime forces backed by Russia, as well as Iran and its proxies, particularly Hezbollah. From a Turkish perspective, both are unacceptable.
Meanwhile, Turkey faces a direct threat from Daesh, exemplified by the twin suicide bombings that killed more than 100 people in Ankara last month. Turkish authorities have since foiled another attack, planned for the same day as those in Paris.
Finally, following Russiaís annexation of Crimea in 2014, which drove a wedge between the Kremlin and the West, Turkey had carved out a strategically advantageous position between the two sides. But Turkey now finds itself increasingly isolated from both camps, owing to its downing of the Russian fighter and its staunch opposition to Assad, whom both American and European leaders increasingly believe will have to play some role in any political settlement.
As France shuns NATO as the centerpiece of an international response to Daesh, Turkeyís zero-tolerance approach to encroachments on its airspace has put NATO-Russian relations under dangerous strain. It is in easing those tensions that the EU has an important role to play.
While Turkey still has leverage vis-‡-vis the EU, owing to the continued flow of refugees toward Europe, both sides are now approaching the partnership from positions of genuine need. Neither side can afford further complication of the already volatile situation.
On the EU side, it is important to acknowledge Turkish sensitivities regarding Kurdish forces. This means establishing credible safeguards to prevent potential safe zones in northern Syria, essential to stemming refugee flows and beginning to stabilize the country, from threatening Turkeyís internal security. European leaders ó along with the US ó must weigh in to avoid an escalation between Turkey and Russia. And they must do a better job of reassuring the Turkish government that, despite Assadís possible inclusion in Syriaís initial transition, he has no long-term future as the countryís leader.
For its part, Turkey needs to broaden its perspective. The developments on its southern border concern far more than the Kurdish question; they have far-reaching implications for regional stability. The AKPís election victory offers a chance for the government to shift its attention back toward resolving the broader problems in its neighborhood ó that is, to act like a true regional leader, instead of pursuing a narrow, self-serving agenda.
To address todayís most urgent challenges, Turkey and the EU must commit to building a genuine partnership, based on common interests, in particular security interests, rather than a transactional arrangement that addresses issues ‡ la carte. This necessarily includes a good-faith approach to negotiations on Turkeyís accession to the EU.
In the wake of Turkeyís fraying relations with Russia, the decision to proceed with the planned EU-Turkey Summit is an important one. Now more than ever, the EU and Turkey have a responsibility to act together, before an already appalling situation gets even worse.
ANA PALACIO is former foreign minister of Spain.
Why is ISIS so resilient?
By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Sunday, 29 November 2015
When I visited Syria in 2013 for a report for the U.S. Army War College on the Resurgence of al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq, ISIS was one of the new insignificant groups. My main focus was on Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s official group in Syria. I was therefore surprised that within a year ISIS had emerged with such power, ferocity and organisational prowess.
If you could say nothing else about ISIS, you’d have to concede that the group has managed to surprise us, and continues to do so. It may be on the back-foot in the Levant now, a fact that has coincided with renewed terror attacks in other countries (in Egypt and France to name just the two we hear most about in the media), but that it should have risen to the power and status it has, and that it manages to hold on to it when it looks like the entire world is at war with it, could seem like a rather impressive achievement. Especially in the eyes of young Muslim alienated from modern society, for example.
But ISIS is benefiting from a rather peculiar confluence of circumstances that is keeping it afloat: the fact that no Western power wants to put boots on the ground. The fact that the Assad regime would rather fight the Free Syrian Army, or indeed any other moderate rebel group, than fight ISIS. And Russia is doing the exact same thing. The fact that Turkey would rather fight the Kurds, so the Kurds now have to fight on two fronts.
But probably what helps the most is the fact that ISIS is not what we in the West think it is. It is not a rag-tag army of beardy preachers and deluded Western teenagers. The entire ISIS top leadership is made up of former Baathist army and intelligence officers and senior administrators from Saddam Hussain’s regime. These people have largely replicated the organisation and the operation of Saddam’s state. After the Bush’s disastrous de-Baathification policy many former Saddamites realised that the only way they can have any hope of returning to power is through militant Islam which will also give them an air of legitimacy. There was after all little appetitive for a return to Baathism. They know how to govern and know how to terrorise a population into submission when necessary. Indeed, an Israeli General I recently met told me he was convinced that Baghdadi, the ‘Caliph’, was selected by the Baathists rather than the other way around.
Our enterprising aspiring mujahedeen, the young Jihadists that leave the West to join the “glorious Revolution”, on the other hand, have been described as nothing more than ‘useful idiots’ to do their bidding. They have very little value outside the propaganda value. They are not military trained, usually unfit and out of shape, and can’t speak the language. Which is why they spend all day doing social media and propaganda videos, or are sent by the ISIS leadership on suicide missions – primarily missions against other Muslim groups in the region, with whom as outsiders they could have no prior affiliation or sympathy. Their propaganda role is also the reason why they live in relatively plush conditions compared with the local Arab fighters. In the caliphate, all Muslims are equal before their God, it’s just that some are more equal than others.
The perverse aspect of all of this is that this rather extraordinary set of circumstances should be a rather unstable state of affairs. If any one of the major power players in the conflict shifted strategy to actually focus on ISIS and engage with it properly, the situation would shift dramatically. Or indeed, if the Western recruits or the seasoned Arab fighters just got fed up with the other group and some kind of open conflict emerged, the propaganda machine of ISIS would be completely decimated, and it would fall soon after. But nobody seems that intent on actually tackling ISIS head on. And nobody seems capable of driving a wedge between the really rather disparate groups that make the ISIS alliance. In this, our leaders in the West have demonstrated a failure of imagination and of competence on the scale of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And now, all they can come up with is more aerial bombardment of areas with large civilian populations. Because clearly that will make the 10 million or so Sunni Muslims who live in ISIS territory see things our way. What should surprise us is not that ISIS has gotten to where it is today. It is that the rest of us, the West, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Gulf states and everyone else involved have been so seemingly incompetent at engaging with the conflict.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim
Defeating ISIS requires a shift in international policy
By Lina Khatib
Sunday, 29 November 2015
The Paris attacks were the most audacious act in Europe by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), signaling the dawn of a new era in which nowhere is immune from terrorist threats. However, they have not sparked a significant shift in policy by the international community. On the contrary, the global reaction to the Paris attacks is playing right into ISIS’s hands.
The group’s strategy prior to its advance in Mosul in 2014 was offense-based, built on gaining territory. This was used as concrete evidence for ISIS’s slogan “lasting and expanding.” After the Mosul advance, many observers continued to measure the group’s success in terms of territorial gains. The slowing down of its physical expansion was erroneously thought of as a sign of weakness. The reality is that ISIS was simply entering a new phase.
Its beheading of two American hostages, just as it declared the establishment of a caliphate in June 2014, signaled a major shift in strategy as it began engaging in defensive warfare. The beheadings were meant to drive U.S. military intervention. Defensive warfare has been proven to be more favorable than offensive warfare to small groups fighting asymmetrical war. ISIS built its military strategy accordingly.
Expansion came to have another meaning, that of global presence, not territorial gain. Opportunistic attacks around the world began, and were aimed at driving support for ISIS as it showed its sympathizers that it had global reach. This was not just about image but also recruitment - now that it had captured enough territory to create a state, it needed fighters and residents to form its population.
ISIS’s military calculations have been based on meticulous study of the West’s reaction to, and handling of, similar scenarios in the context of the Middle East since Sept. 11, 2001. It became clear to ISIS leaders that the West could be easily drawn into a war based on retaliation, not on comprehensive strategy.
This happened in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, and played out in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, with terrorist acts by Al-Qaida driving military reactions by the United States and its allies that only fueled the conflicts instead of ending them.
The scars of the Iraq experience were a main driver behind the policies of the Barack Obama administration in the United States, as the president attempted to avoid repeating the same scenario in other Middle Eastern countries.
ISIS leaders understood this, and gambled that the United States and its allies would try to avoid getting involved in the Syrian conflict, only to be dragged into it rather hastily when they were pushed to do so. The gamble was that after what happened in Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion, no Western county would want to commit boots on the ground in the Middle East again, meaning that any military reaction by the West would not be sufficient to defeat ISIS.
The U.S.-led international coalition that has been engaged in airstrikes against the group since Sept. 2014 confirmed to ISIS the accuracy of its projection. It had been well prepared for airstrikes, hiding its leaders underground and intermingling its fighters within the civilian populations in Syria and Iraq. The strikes were used by ISIS to prove its narrative that it was defending Muslim lands against the aggression of “crusades, infidels and apostates.”
Through the Paris attacks, the group aimed to give the French no choice but to retaliate through similar military intervention. With other Western countries now considering following suit, the ISIS is succeeding in using popular anger and fear in Europe for its own benefit.
Countries feel pressured to show their people that they are doing something about the group, either to avenge them or defend them. They turn inward, driving their attention to domestic security, while also feeling the pressure to act externally. This translates into the kind of external military action that is at best symbolic and at worst not thought through.
The U.N. Security Council resolution against ISIS that was unanimously agreed in the aftermath of the Paris attacks is another example of how everyone is feeling the pressure but lacking a viable strategy to implement. It also further affirms to ISIS supporters worldwide that anyone who is not part of the organization is a legitimate enemy.
The formula is simple: Attack the enemy to showcase influence. Gain new members. Drive the enemy toward hasty military retaliation. Gain new members. The international community has a real common enemy in the form of ISIS, but it is time to stop being reactionary in how this threat is dealt with. The more countries focus on security, the further away they turn from politics. The further they are from politics, the more ISIS benefits.
Cause and effect
It is tempting to see the group as the problem, but it is in fact the symptom. The underlying problem is the continuation of the Syrian conflict. ISIS leaders know this, and benefit from the lack of strategy on the part of the international community to end the Syrian crisis. They watched in glee as the Vienna talks, which were meant to be about starting a political negotiation process over Syria, turned to matters of security instead.
Military action alone will not defeat ISIS. It must be coupled with a political plan that addresses the root cause behind its existence. Otherwise the international community’s well-meaning reactions and interventions will only to serve to feed the beast.
Lina Khatib is a Senior Research Associate, Arab Reform Initiative. Khatib was director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Previously, she was the co-founding head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Her research interests include the international relations of the Middle East, Islamist groups, political transitions, and foreign policy. She has also published widely on public diplomacy, political communication, and political participation in the Middle East. Khatib has published seven books, including Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle (I. B. Tauris, 2013), Taking to the Streets: The Transformation of Arab Activism (co-edited with Ellen Lust, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), and The Hizbullah Phenomenon: Politics and Communication (co-authored with Dina Matar and Atef Alshaer, Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2014). Her published journal articles include “Qatar’s Foreign Policy: The Limits of Pragmatism,” “Public Diplomacy 2.0,” and “Hizbullah’s Political Strategy.” Since 2008, Khatib has been a founding co-editor of the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication and a research associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. From 2010 to 2012, she was a nonresident research fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy. She lectured at the University of London from 2003 to 2010.
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