Except for the migrant crisis in Europe -- in part an unintended consequence of US and Western mistakes in the Middle East -- I have avoided writing about the horrendously complicated crisis in that region, as it is often beyond my comprehension. But I don’t see how I can avoid writing about the tragic ISIS massacre in Paris on Friday evening.
It strikes me as a game changer in the West and in the region. I think it is possible that ISIS has emulated the Taliban in pre-9/11 Afghanistan and hastened its own demise with this brutal and savage act. Why, we should all ask, does it take tragedies like the Paris massacre (or for that matter that of 9/11 itself) to recognise the full extent of evil and take action to defeat it?
The Taliban in those days blithely ignored US warnings that if al-Qaeda were to direct an attack on the United States from Afghanistan, there would be hell to pay. I delivered some of these messages myself and reported their insouciant reaction. Obviously, they didn’t believe us. Some might argue that the fact that the Taliban have come back in the last few years to control about 20% of Afghan territory and be a serious threat to the current government is just compensation.
But just think: Giving al-Qaeda carte blanche, when they were establishing their governance (no matter what you think of it) and were within a whisker of controlling all of Afghanistan, has cost them many years and lives and, even now, there is no certainty of what role, if any, they will play in the Afghan future.
The general analytic consensus, at least in the US, seemed to be that ISIS would, sooner or later, self-destruct, and that the challenges and dangers it posed were in the region. Some analysts believe that ISIS got lucky as the intractable Syrian civil war gave it the opportunity to seize large swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria, and this territorial windfall allowed it to establish of the so-called “caliphate.”
ISIS’s initial strategy was believed to view the expansion of the “caliphate” to be a very long-term objective -- over many years (at least as long as the first Islamic Caliphate) which would encompass ultimately an area between Spain and the Philippines. But its short term aim, many analysts believed, was to control the territory it took military possession of in 2014, and defend it against a push back from the neighbours and hostile countries in the region. President Obama has reflected this analysis, earlier calling ISIS the JV (junior varsity) jihadi squad and speaking of it recently as being “contained.”
It was thought that ISIS, unlike its main jihadi rival, al-Qaeda, was not intent on “far enemies,” but on those near at hand. For al-Qaeda, the objective is to drive the West out of Muslim lands by attacking them in Muslim lands where they intervene, or in their own homelands, viz 9/11, the attacks in Madrid, in London, and elsewhere. ISIS, in its previous forms as well as until now, appeared to reject that objective, preferring to go after perceived “near enemies” and “apostates” (like Shias) close at hand.
Even though attacks it has directed (or at least taken credit for) over the past few weeks, and may have seemed to go beyond this (perhaps warning signals to the West), the attacks on Hezbollah Shias in Lebanon and on Russian tourists in Egypt were explained wishfully away as within the purview of near enemies. But the trend was unsettling, and the Paris attack shows that ISIS strategy was drifting towards this much more dangerous new mode.
Is it overconfidence and lack of understanding of the possible consequences that caused this radical shift into a strategy that could lead to a more rapid defeat? The almost-immediate claim of responsibility bespeaks of overconfidence.
But this is tempered by the fact that ISIS is under some duress, has just lost territory in the north of its so-called “caliphate” -- as Kurdish and Yazidi forces assisted by US air strikes have taken Sinjar -- and is suffering economic reverses as its oil windfalls dry up, or are taken out by coalition air strikes.
And it seems that the Iraqi army, greatly helped if not led by the Kurds -- and again with US assistance -- is beginning to close in on Mosul, where the population is suffering under ISIS control. It is likely that this is the major motivation of the change in strategy.
A second factor is that ISIS clearly has lost its recruiting edge following months of stasis with no territorial gains -- in fact some losses -- and not much else to brag about, and is probably seeing the number of its fighters dropping.
It needed something to burnish anew its image among those susceptible to its recruiting propaganda. Perverse as it may seem, the brutish Paris attack may enhance its appeal among that lot of alienated and twisted individuals.
Also, it is likely that there is now a mindset of making the far enemies, primarily the West, pay for the battering that the “caliphate” has taken in the past six to nine months.
Hence the killing of the Russian tourists, the killing of Shias in Lebanon to get back at Iran -- an avowed enemy of ISIS -- and now the killing in France -- a major player in the Western alliance, and of course, through the Sykes-Picot agreement, one of the progenitors of the division of Mesopotamia which is at the heart of the problem.
Also, many of the Western fighters that have been attracted to ISIS have come from France, and there is a disaffected element of the Muslim population in France, primarily of Algerian origin, that buys into ISIS propaganda. So, finding willing young radicalised Muslims, possibly trained by ISIS, to do its dirty work in France would not be difficult.
A final factor is possibly to sew more discord and confusion among ISIS’ Western opponents. If, for example, Western nations fall out over the migrant problem -- which may get worse now that security concerns about migrants are rising -- that will enhance ISIS’ “Islam vs the West” narrative. This could worsen if Europe handles the migrant problem in ways that lend credence to the right-wing, nativist European political parties that are already salivating over the gains they see possible by playing the anti-immigrant fear card after the Paris attack.
The response must be an escalation of the effort to defeat ISIS and undo their “caliphate.”
Its ability to strike the West has been demonstrated, and it is now -- and has been for two years -- the largest source of the disorder and chaos in the Middle East. I understand that there is still a view among Western leaders that the Syria civil war has to be dealt with first.
While the negotiations for a Syrian ceasefire should go on, I note that the first meeting would not take place until January. We should not wait until then to up the ante. A revised and reinvigorated anti-ISIS effort should be international in character, not be led by the US or NATO.
The Paris attack will test Western political leaders severely and in ways they have not been tested in many years. Whether they are up to it in this era of partisanship that pervades Western politics is a question I prefer not to try to answer.