New Age Islam Edit Bureau
11 Dec. 2015
The crisis enveloping Europe
By M. K. Narayanan
To defeat or to contain Islamic State?
By Stanly Johny
The crisis enveloping Europe
By M. K. Narayanan
The combination of geo-economics and geopolitics is today fuelling a degree of paranoia. Many in Europe see the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris as the precursor to a fresh wave of violence across the continent
The world has been looking to the COP-21 (2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference) with great anticipation, hoping that the outcomes would pave the way for an equitable agreement that would satisfactorily address the issue of global warming and achieve the prescribed target of limiting the rise in global temperatures to less than 2° Celsius. The jury is still out on what COP-21 will ultimately achieve.
There was, however, an uninvited guest present in many of the same salons in Paris, where the climate change meetings have been held. Like Banquo’s ghost, terrorism was an overwhelming presence, never absent from the thoughts of both leaders and other participants attending the COP-21. The incidents where there were five shootings and two bombings by gunmen and suicide bombers belonging to the Islamic State (IS) on predetermined targets in Paris on November 13, and resulting in 130 fatalities and injuries to over 200 more people, have left France in a state of shock. Worse, they have left an indelible imprint on the French ethos. This is now beginning to reverberate across most of Europe. The meticulous planning, the calibrated nature of the attacks and the use of modern communication equipment by the perpetrators have jolted France and Europe. Governments across Europe are being compelled to review and change their laissez-faire procedures and security doctrines.
Jolted by Paris
If any one single act could make Europe truly understand the meaning of German philosopher general Carl von Clausewitz’s phrase, that “war is an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will” (substitute the word terrorism for war), then it was the November 13 attacks in Paris. It has had serious repercussions in neighbouring Belgium, which shut down for a while. Meanwhile, an entire continent has developed a siege mentality.
This was clearly evident during a meeting that I attended of erstwhile senior policymakers in Europe, held exactly a week after the terrorist attacks in Paris. What was apparent during the discussions was that Europe had changed. As Europe weeps over this, and is outraged by the barbaric acts of premeditated violence, indignation over the terrorist attacks, together with the uncontrolled flow of migrants/refugees into the continent from West Asia and other regions, is beginning to cast a shadow over the character of Europe, especially its approach to humanitarian and other causes.
Europe has been wrestling with economic issues since the 2007-2008 economic crisis and financial meltdown. It had, consequently, put geo-economics on top of its agenda. Even as the existential crisis regarding the future of the Euro-zone is still to be resolved, and Europe is yet to fully recover from the great debt crisis, it now confronts a range of newer threats. This has required the return of geopolitics. The combination of geo-economics and geopolitics is today fuelling a degree of paranoia. Many in Europe see the November 13 terrorist attacks as the precursor to a fresh wave of violence across Europe.
Beginning 2015, Europe, including France, has witnessed terror attacks with increasing regularity. Since 2008, the death toll in violent conflict has gone up in geometrical progression. It is in this milieu that Europe is confronted with the greatest influx of refugees since the end of the Second World War. Europe seems overwhelmed as a result. One immediate result is that it has led to a divided European Union. It has also given an impetus to right-wing nationalist forces in many countries. The Schengen concept is under grave threat.
Living with terror
Europe, though, is no stranger to terrorism or terrorist attacks. The Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the 17 November in Greece and other terror groups that operated in France, the United Kingdom and Spain during the latter half of the 20th century had all wrought a great deal of fear. The 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games ranks among the most diabolical events in the annals of terrorism anywhere. Nevertheless, European strategic experts tend to think that the latest events signal a turning point in the history of Europe.
It is not merely that every one of them had underestimated the threat posed by the IS — or their capacity to strike far beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq, extending further into West Asia and now into Europe. Further, they had misjudged the fallout of the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars, which had now metastasised into Lebanon, into Jordan, into Turkey and now into Europe, with thousands of refugees likely to seek asylum in Europe in the coming years. The real fear is that the combination of pressures had the potential to create a situation leading to the disintegration of a united Europe.
As the crisis in Europe deepens, concerns are also being voiced at the same time over the implications of French President François Hollande’s “Declaration of War” against the IS. Europe tends to be divided between those who want the state to be armed with greater powers and those who fear that indiscriminate “war talk” may lead to a crackdown domestically on any contrarian voices.
The employment and the use of extraordinary powers under the plea that the nation and its institutions are under grave and immediate threat have serious connotations for Europe’s future according to the champions of civil liberty and keepers of the European way of life. Following the terror attacks in Paris, the passing of a statute in peacetime granting the French President emergency powers is seen as far too draconian a measure, which they believe is likely to have unforeseen consequences. France’s example, they think, would in turn be emulated by other European states.
Emergency measures vs civil freedoms
The chasm between those who are pressing for changes in the statute and also in policies and those others who want the existing safeguards to be preserved to retain France’s European character is increasing with each passing day. This has added to the sense of impending crisis. What is considered certain by most is that European intelligence agencies will be invested with greater powers for surveillance and to carry out more intrusive attacks. At present, those who insist on the importance of safeguarding civil freedoms are clearly in the minority.
As Europe flounders on how to deal with a cornucopia of new problems, it is worth considering whether the developments in Europe will have an impact on global governance. Coexistence among people of different regions and the compact among those belonging to different religions across the planet — something that Europeans, in particular, are said to greatly treasure — is coming under threat. This may well turn into a major geopolitical issue.
Many, and this includes those not only in Europe, express fear that the Muslim world is coming apart, enabling extreme radicalist elements like the IS to flourish. Sustaining a reasonably open and tolerant state in such circumstances, they believe, has become difficult. Most European leaders, as of now, hew to the view that an open attitude at this juncture may be too much to ask for.
(M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.)
To defeat or to contain Islamic State?
By Stanly Johny
Is the IS really invincible as its supporters claim? By deciding not to send ground troops to ‘Syraq’, Barack Obama has denied the IS prophecy, for now. But by not coming up with a comprehensive strategy to fight the group, the U.S. and its allies are actually helping the ‘Caliphate’ flourish
Over the past few months, the Islamic State (IS) has carried out a number of terror attacks outside Syria and Iraq, the core of its influence. Within the last two months, it bombed Ankara and Beirut, downed a Russian airliner over Sinai, carried out coordinated strikes across Paris and killed a provincial governor in Yemen. These attacks were also a message to radicalised IS supporters elsewhere to carry out lone wolf attacks, like the one in San Bernardino, California, recently, where a couple, reportedly inspired by IS ideology, shot dead 14 people and injured over 20. The group has vowed to organise more attacks in the West, in an apparent admission of its changing strategy, which till now was focussed on the ground battles in “Syraq”.
Unlike al-Qaeda, the IS has never been a hit-and-run jihadist group. The political ambitions of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of IS, had not been lost on anyone. Since late 2013, it fought for territories in Syria and Iraq, and steadily expanded its reach, capitalising on the power vacuum created in these two countries by the wars, led and sponsored by the West and their regional allies. This strategy paid off initially. The IS now controls territories as large as Great Britain and comprising some 10 million people. But of late, under counter-attack from different militia groups such as the Peshmerga, Hezbollah and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the IS’s expansionary project has come under enormous pressure.
Limits of expansion
When Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city, fell to the hands of the IS in June 2014, the supporters of the jihadist group claimed that it was only a matter of time before Baghdadi’s men started marching towards Baghdad. It actually moved forces towards the Iraqi capital, capturing many towns such as Hawija and Rawa. Earlier this year, they captured Ramadi, 120 km west of Baghdad. Parts of Fallujah, about 70 km west of Baghdad, have been under their control since January 2014. Still, they couldn’t breach the defence of Baghdad erected by the Iraqi troops and Shia militias trained by Iran, let alone marching towards Shia-populated southern Iraq. They also lost some of the captured cities such as Kirkuk, Tikrit and, more recently, parts of Ramadi. Stopped at central Iraq, the IS tried to move towards Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, only 80 km east of its power base, Mosul. But its advances were successfully thwarted by the Peshmergas, the militia of Iraqi Kurdistan, who were provided air cover by American jets. It is worth noting that U.S. President Barack Obama ordered air strikes against the IS only after the jihadists started targeting Erbil. The U.S. has a consulate in Erbil. The Iraqi Kurdistan has, historically, enjoyed good ties with Washington. It also has huge, untapped energy potential.
In the west of the “Caliphate”, the IS’s plan was naturally to move towards Damascus and unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It reached Palmyra in May when government troops, under attack on many fronts including the U.S. and Arab-sponsored rebels, withdrew under strain. But in the past six months, the IS has not only not made any substantial advances towards the west, but has also come under heavy attacks by Russian warplanes as well as a rejuvenated Assadian army in the ancient Syrian city. Capturing Damascus remains a distant dream.
On the north-eastern border of the “Caliphate”, the Syrian-Turkish border areas, the jihadists came under heavy ground attacks from Kurdish rebels. One of the effective strategic decisions Mr. Assad made in the early stages of the civil war was to withdraw government troops from the Kurdish areas, where rebels have long been fighting for autonomy. The IS might have calculated that without the presence of the government army, the Kurdish towns on the border would easily fall to its hands. But what happened was the opposite.
The PKK and its Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), gloriously resisted the IS’s attacks. The jihadists briefly laid siege to Kobane, a small city on the Syrian side of the border, in September 2014, but were thrown out by the YPG guerrillas after a long bloody battle over weeks that nearly destroyed the city. Later, in June this year, the YPG guerrillas seized Tal Abyad, another border town, dealing a significant blow to the IS as the city was a supply line to Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the “Caliphate”. These setbacks on the ground have forced the group to retreat, from one of offence to that of the defence of the “Caliphate” on the ground.
Hegemony of terror
From the beginning of the war, the IS has created a spectacle of violence that it claimed is legitimised by religious texts, and thereby inspiring tens of thousands of radicalised youth from around the world. The extreme violence it used against its victims served both as a publicity tool and a strategic weapon to terrorise its enemies. The IS knew that there is no balance of power between its military strength and that of its adversaries. But then it wanted to create a hegemony of terror in order to open a war front at the psychological level. This strategy worked in the beginning — the IS continued to attract radicalised youth from around the world and made military advances on the ground — but came under strain as its territorial expansion was halted. Also, the group doesn’t have many more high-profile hostages the beheading or the burning alive of whom could have served its publicity and strategic purposes. So, to keep the terror project afloat, it started massacring civilians in faraway regions. It could trigger chaos in other societies, help the rise of xenophobic forces elsewhere and find more foreign recruits.
Besides, there is an ideological angle to its terror strikes in western cities. The IS’s online propaganda claims, referring to religious scriptures, that an apocalyptic war with the “Romans” (Christians) is inevitable, after which Islam would be victorious. The scripture the group refers to describes Dâbiq, a village in northern Syria which is now under the control of the group, as the location of the fateful showdown between Christians and Muslims; the IS has named its online magazine after this village. To declare the fulfilment of its prophecy, the IS wants to drag western troops into the battlefields in “Syraq”, which would strengthen its narrative of the religious war, and attract more “soldiers” from around the world.
The new strategy appears to be working through a “core and periphery theory”. The “Caliphate” is the core which should be defended and tightly controlled. If it cannot expand the core, attack the periphery, which is the rest of the world. This is a new phase of the global jihadist movement. Al-Qaeda more or less waged an asymmetric war against the rest of the world. It didn’t have a state or a proto-state. It was either at the mercy of other states — the Taliban in Afghanistan — or operating undercover or from hideouts in the Arabian Peninsula, Mali, etc. But the IS has built a proto-state in the territories it controls where it could plan terror attacks and coordinate with its jihadists living in other parts of the world to carry them out.
How far will Baghdadi and his men go? Is the IS really invincible as its supporters claim? By deciding not to send ground troops to “Syraq”, Mr. Obama has denied the IS prophecy for now. But by not coming up with a comprehensive strategy to fight the group, the U.S. and its allies are actually helping the “Caliphate” flourish. True, four of the five UN Security Council members are now bombing the IS in Syria. But air strikes alone won’t defeat terrorist/insurgent groups. None of the forces that halted the IS’s expansion on the ground is ready to take the battle into the core, mainly because the primary goal is to defend individual interests. For example, as far as the embattled Syrian regime is concerned, the goal is its survival, not the defeat of the IS. For the Kurds (both Syrian and Iraqi), the chief objective is to stop the IS’s advances into their territories, not to capture Sunni-Arab lands which they know would be counterproductive in the future. For the Iraqi army, the main interest lies in protecting the Shia-dominated areas in the south.
What makes matters more complicated is the geopolitics of West Asia. Regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey may not want a further expansion of the IS, but it is debatable whether they want the total defeat of the group. From the perspective of Saudi/Turkish realpolitik, the IS has weakened the “strategic depth of the Shia Iran”. If the Saudis wanted the IS to be defeated, they would have given up their opposition towards the Assad regime a long time ago and pushed for a united anti-IS front. If Turkey wanted the IS’s defeat, it would not have bombed the Kurdish rebels who were actually fighting a successful battle against the jihadists, let alone downing a Russian jet. The Americans were jolted into action only when their interests in Iraqi Kurdistan came under threat.
So, the real question is not whether the IS is invincible; it is whether the world powers want the group to be defeated, or to be just contained.