Who Are the Allies Against ISIS?
Not surprisingly, virtually every politician in France now sounds a bit like the National Front. The French are not reacting as they did following the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killings last January, that is holding grand self-congratulatory marches bathed in “let’s all get along ” rhetoric combined with quasi-official efforts to place Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration party beyond the pale of the Republican consensus. This time it’s different: there is little multi-culti liberal response anywhere, and no one believes even slightly that the murdered concert and restaurant goers of the Republique neighborhood were going out of their way to insult Muslims.
One indicator of the difference is that Marine Le Pen was invited to meet with Hollande at the Elysee on Sunday along with leaders of France’s other major parties. More or less all of the political leaders in France are taking a hard line–on ISIS–which the socialist president Hollande had called to be combated with a “war without pity,” and share the general recognition that Muslim radicalism is a problem in France. It’s difficult to gauge what this means for electoral politics—I would think the more France’s other parties approach the rhetoric and attitudes of the National Front, the FN’s electoral prospects worsen—but who knows. Nevertheless no one in France now seems to think that Marine Le Pen’s party is terribly wrong about the need for France to control its borders, or the danger of Muslim extremism, or the need to slow down immigration. Quelle surprise!
Though what President Hollande will actually do is obviously not clear, I would wager it would go well beyond the inevitable air strikes, which have already begun. But beyond the operational questions—do you send troops to Syria? do you expel radical Muslims? do you begin to treat some of them them as potential combatants and not fellow citizens?—there is the question of who your allies are.
Here one concrete suggestion comes from Nicolas Sarkozy, former president of France and the most likely standard bearer of the center-right in France’s 2017 presidential contest. Sarkozy said that it was time to treat Russia as a full-fledged ally in the fight against ISIS and Islamic extremism. Sarkozy has never been an enthusiast for banishing Moscow from Europe, a position he held even when some European leaders were working themselves into an anti-Putin frenzy over Crimea. This has been Le Pen’s position as well, and it has a logic, given that the Russians are the most potent military force fighting ISIS at this time. Of course it implies putting on the shelf for a moment the probably fanciful notion that there can be created a viable Syrian “Third Force” that is neither pro-Assad nor jihadist. There may be one at some future point, but the moment to defeat ISIS is now.
Another shift in the underlying global diplomatic plates concerns Saudi Arabia. The twittersphere this weekend was full of references to Esquire’s Charles Pierce article on the “one way to defeat ISIS” which noted that practically all the funding for Islamic terrorism came from the Sunni gulf petrostates, especially Saudi Arabia. Hillary Clinton was quoted (from a 2009 Wikileaks document) as saying that Saudi Arabia was the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” In claiming this, she was repeating the consensus of Western intelligence estimates. Islam is as diverse as every global religion, and can be both the foundation of a culture of science and learning or ignorance and death. But the Wahabbi strain, developed in the 18th century in Saudi Arabia, tilts towards the latter. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, most of the money funding ISIS is Saudi. Probably the West ought to draw some conclusions from those facts as it considers who are its potential allies, and who are its enemies.
The other side of that coin is that the Shi’ite groups, including Iran, are at least provisionally on our side. It’s not clear at this point whether treating Iran as a friend is akin to aligning with Stalin against Hitler in World War II, or whether Iran will fulfill its destiny of becoming something much better than a Shi’ite dictatorship. I’d bet on the latter, but even if I’m wrong, I’d have thought aligning with Stalin in 1942 was the correct thing.
Israel—have you noticed how seldom Israel’s name comes up when one thinks of who are useful Mideast allies in the battle against ISIS?—no doubt feels differently. The very day an ISIS suicide bomber hit a Hezbollah neighborhood in Beirut, killing 40, The Israel Project sent out one of its cheerful emails boasting that Israeli planes had just struck Hezbollah targets in Syria. Hezbollah, one might remember, is basically the only Arab force which has fought consistently against ISIS. (The Kurds are not Arab.) Forgive me for not being entirely clear which side Israel is on.
When I first wrote Saturday, finding myself thinking that the attacks on Paris had put the West in a position where there was little choice but war, I wondered of course, as did some readers, whether, overly caught up in anger and emotion, I had taken leave of my senses. But a war against ISIS is not a war of choice—not like overthrowing Saddam, or Qaddafi. For Europe, I think, it’s a war of survival, and as long as the United States is linked to Europe by treaty, I think we should be, are obliged to be, good allies. I was pleased today to see that Graham Fuller, a veteran scholar and intelligence analyst and 100 times more knowledgeable about the Mideast than I am, is more or less on the same wavelength. In what I believe is the most cogent analysis of the ISIS I’ve seen thus far, Fuller writes
ISIS, with its horrific attack on purely civilian targets in Paris, has established new realities about its nature, capabilities and intentions. The need for its elimination can now no longer be in doubt. It is not that Parisian lives are more important than others, but Paris changes the game. . .[ISIS] has now overturned the analyses of most observers, including myself, who tended to view it as primarily regionally and territorially-focused, intent on (non-viable) state-building, Caliphate formation, targeting regional enemies rather than operating on a broader world stage. Now recent bombings in Beirut, the destruction of a Russian airliner midair, and the vicious attacks in Paris have now raised level of threat to new heights.
What is yet unclear is how much the Paris action was the brainchild of a centralized command structure operating out of the ISIS capital in Syria, or an action by local “franchise” organizations or “wild-cat” operations inspired by ISIS to act locally.
Whatever the case, these series of events now call out for broader and deeper international action. ISIS must be eliminated.
Fuller writes as someone who realized fully the folly of invading Iraq, and that previous American interventions laid the groundwork for ISIS. Nevertheless, now the folly would be not intervening. The action against it must be genuinely international—Fuller recommends not an American action, or a NATO one, but one sanctioned by the United Nations, a genuine international coalition. No doubt Saudi Arabia would be skeptical, and probably Israel too. Let them stand up and be counted for ISIS, then! My guess is that rather than objecting, they would prefer to go along.
In any case, a few months ago, I agreed with Steve Walt that ISIS was a regional problem that could probably be contained. I don’t any longer. Fuller’s view has changed, and I’m curious to see whether Steve’s has as well.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.