Ok, I know I said I had nothing useful to say about Daesh. And I really don’t. But Olivier Roy does, and this article is one of the best I’ve read since the attacks on Friday.
Roy has basically two points to make. First, France has no real regional allies in their fight against Daesh – and neither would the US if we joined them.
You would think Bashar Assad would be an obvious ally in this particular fight. TAC‘s founding editor even thinks we should explicitly align ourselves with Assad, Russia and Iran in order to crush Daesh. But is that what Assad even wants?
Bashar al-Assad’s main adversary is the Syrian opposition — now also the main target of Russia, which supports him. Mr. Assad would indeed benefit from there being nothing between him and ISIS: That would allow him to cast himself as the last bastion against Islamist terrorism, and to reclaim in the eyes of the West the legitimacy he lost by so violently repressing his own people.
And we’ve already seen that Russia’s efforts to shore up Assad have been aimed primarily at the Syrian opposition groups that are not affiliated with Daesh.
Iraq’s Shiites face a similar calculus, as does Iran:
The Shiites of Iraq, no matter what pressure they face from America, do not seem ready to die to reclaim Falluja. They will defend sectarian borders, and will never let Baghdad fall. But they are in no hurry to bring the Sunni minority back into Iraq’s political mainstream; if they did, they would have to share power with it. . . .
The Iranians, for their part, want to contain ISIS but not necessarily to destroy it: Its very existence prevents the return of the kind of Arab Sunni coalition that gave them such trouble during their war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
I would add, in addition, that if an explicit Shiite offensive would be a great recruitment tool for Daesh in the Arabian Peninsula, in Africa and in South Asia. Trying to win a sectarian civil war without picking sides has proved impossible – but what makes us think that by picking sides we’ll suddenly be able to win? The last time we tried a gambit like that was in our support for Croatia’s Operation Storm which – not coincidentally – led to the ethnic cleansing of basically the entire Serb population (as many as 200,000 people) from the reconquered region.
What about the Turks? They are Sunnis, and they surely don’t want the chaos in Syria to spread further into Anatolia?
The Turkish government is very clear: Its main enemy is Kurdish separatism. And a victory of Syrian Kurds over ISIS might allow the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., to gain a sanctuary, and resume its armed struggle against Turkey.
Well, then – surely our Kurdish allies will be of assistance?
The Kurds, be they Syrian or Iraqi, seek not to crush ISIS so much as to defend their newfound borders. They hope the Arab world will become more divided than ever. They want to seize Sinjar because it is in a Kurdish area. But they won’t attack Mosul, because that would be playing into Baghdad’s hands.
For the Kurds of Iraq, the main danger is seeing a strong central government emerge in Baghdad, for it could challenge the de facto independence of Iraqi Kurdistan today. ISIS stands in the way of the creation of any such power.
I’m noticing a pattern. Should I even bother to ask about the Saudis? Or the Israelis?
For the Saudis, the main enemy isn’t ISIS, which represents a form of Sunni radicalism they have always supported. So they do nothing against it, their main enemy being Iran. . . .
Then there is Israel, which can only be pleased to see Hezbollah fighting Arabs, Syria collapsing, Iran mired in an uncertain war and everyone forgetting the Palestinian cause.
The conclusion sounds ominous.
In short, no regional player is willing to send out its forces, bayonets at the ready, to reclaim land from ISIS. Then again, unlike after 9/11, neither are the Americans. The United States’ strategy today relies on waging a war from afar, based on aerial strikes; Washington does not have the political will to send ground troops. Containment will have to do, and so, too, will killing terrorists by way of bombs and drones.
But war is not won without infantry.
Indeed, America has been conducting a pretty vigorous air war against Daesh for a year with at best equivocal results. Nobody is gung-ho for an American invasion, and our forays into Afghanistan and Iraq should not fill anyone with confidence in the likelihood of such an endeavor’s success.
But Roy goes on to argue, in so many words, that the spectacular attacks by on France, Russia and Lebanon conducted by Daesh are a sign of weakness rather than strength:
Much as with Al Qaeda earlier, the successes of ISIS increasingly amount to its grabbing headlines and the attention of social media. The ISIS system has already hit its limits.
It had two prongs: lightning-quick territorial expansion, and shock and awe. ISIS is hardly an Islamic “state,” if only because, unlike the Taliban, it claims no specific territory or boundaries. It is more like a caliphate, forever in conquest mode — occupying new lands, rallying Muslims from around the world — like the Muslim expansionist movement during Islam’s first century. This feature has attracted thousands of volunteers, drawn by the idea of fighting for global Islam rather than for a piece of the Middle East.
But ISIS’ reach is bounded; there are no more areas in which it can extend by claiming to be a defender of Sunni Arab populations. To the north, there are Kurds; to the east, Iraqi Shiites; to the west, Alawites, now protected by the Russians. And all are resisting it. To the south, neither the Lebanese, who worry about the influx of Syrian refugees, nor the Jordanians, who are still reeling from the horrid execution of one of their pilots, nor the Palestinians have succumbed to any fascination for ISIS. Stalled in the Middle East, ISIS is rushing headlong into globalized terrorism.
The attack against Hezbollah in Beirut, the attack against the Russians in Sharm el Sheikh and the attacks in Paris had the same goal: terror. But just as the execution of the Jordanian pilot sparked patriotism among even the heterogeneous population of Jordan, the attacks in Paris will turn the battle against ISIS into a national cause. ISIS will hit the same wall as Al Qaeda: Globalized terrorism is no more effective, strategically, than conducting aerial bombings without forces on the ground. Much like Al Qaeda, ISIS has no support among the Muslim people living in Europe. It recruits only at the margins.
That would seem to suggest that TAC‘s Philip Giraldi has a point in calling for a law-enforcement approach and basically waiting Daesh out. The trouble is, terrorists can escalate their attacks faster than they burn themselves out. We saw that with al Qaeda, which conducted an escalating sequence of attacks through 9-11. With infinite time, patience and resilience, a law-enforcement approach could well work even if there is no progress on solving the “root causes” of a phenomenon like Daesh. But neither France nor the United States has that luxury. We also under the constraint of political reality, and that reality demands translating outrage into action. If that action is not a massive effort to defeat Daesh militarily in Syria and Iraq, then what?
The other direction, recommended by Andrew Bacevich, is to play defense, and insulate America (and Europe) from the consequences of Middle East chaos. The trouble is that what this means in practice is rarely well thought out. Clearly, a more security-conscious approach to the refugee situation is in the offing. And I’m on record as saying that we should approach the refugee crisis with a view to facilitating repatriation after the current multi-sided civil war is done, rather than permanently resettling millions in Europe or further afield. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that letting huge refugee populations build up on the borders of Europe will somehow lead to greater stability and an end to migration flows.
Similar complications bedevil efforts to combat radicalization. Roy pooh-poohs the success of Daesh on social media, but social media have, in fact, dramatically changed the contours of any ideological fight. It is more possible than ever before to find a like-minded community of extremists and more possible than ever to insulate oneself from countervailing influences. We’re seeing this dynamic play out domestically with home-grown massacres on our campuses; Daesh and other terrorist groups take the same phenomenon to the next level. Besides which, Western governments and America in particular have exceptionally poor credibility in conducting this kind of ideological campaign. It’s ultimately one that needs to be led and organized by Muslims, and that will only be undermined by American involvement. But the Muslim states in the best position to provide financial support to such an endeavor are on the other side.
Which raises the problem of patronage for radical groups, coming overwhelmingly from the Gulf states that America is charged with defending. It is very easy to be sympathetic to calls from the likes of Charles Pierce to recognize that these states are functionally our enemies, and treat them accordingly. I would love to see America extricate ourselves from our involvement in the abominable war on Yemen, and to take a firmer line with the Saudis generally. But I’m also aware that people who know the Arabian Peninsula far better than I believe the better part of valor lies in not exacerbating the vulnerability of the House of Saud and risking chaos in the heartland of Islam. Our allies have gotten all too good at wielding the weapon of vulnerability against us – but that doesn’t mean the weapon isn’t real.
The question now is how to translate into action the outrage sparked by Friday’s attacks in Paris. A massive ground operation by Western forces, like the one conducted in Afghanistan in 2001, seems out of the question, if only because an international intervention would get mired in endless local conflicts. A coordinated offensive by local powers seems unlikely, given the differences among their goals and ulterior motives: It would require striking a political agreement among regional actors, starting with Saudi Arabia and Iran.
So the road ahead is long, unless ISIS suddenly collapses under the vanity of its own expansionist aspirations or tensions between its foreign recruits and local Arab populations. In any event, ISIS is its own worst enemy.
I agree that coordination among local powers seems unlikely, but it would be nice if we occasionally tried diplomacy. It’s hard to believe that regional coordination between the likes of Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia is more likely to take place if we simply walked away. But perhaps it would: we are rather out of practice at facilitating the finding of common ground and common interests.
At all events, while the Administration’s approach may not be literally the least-bad of bad options, I take comfort in the fact that we’re led by someone who seems cognizant of the exceptionally thorny nature of the problem we’re dealing with.
Tagged Andrew Bacevich
, Bashar Assad
, Charles Pierce
, foreign policy
, hearts and minds
, Islamic State
, Kevin Drum
, Leon Hadar
, Obama Administration
, Olivier Roy
, Philip Giraldi
, radical Islam
, social media
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