Peace for Paris pic.twitter.com/ryf6XB2d80
— jean jullien (@jean_jullien) November 13, 2015
Today, terrorists attacked Paris. In a series of well-orchestrated assaults, they killed over 153 people in a series of locations including restaurants, a concert hall and the soccer stadium, in which the French president was watching a match between the French national team and Germany. It is one of the worst such attacks in decades in France and possibly the worst terror attack in the west since 9/11. There is little doubt that for France, today is 9/11. The breadth of the attacks, the coördination required to execute them, the lethal weaponry used, the well-trained commandos who mounted the assault, and the massive death toll–all will combine to leave an indelible impact on the nation. There will also be cries for accountability: how could a sophisticated national security apparatus have allowed a squad of terrorists to infiltrate a massive cache of weapons into one of the most likely terror targets in Europe? How did these terrorists plan and orchestrate this attack under the noses of security forces who have already faced multiple earlier attacks?
I only hope that France will not make the massive error that this country made in response to its 9/11. This AP headline does not bode well in that regard: Hollande says attacks were ‘an act of war.’ I hope it will not fall prey to the same nostrums offered by Bush and Cheney. For the war on terror was one of the worst policy choices made by a U.S. president since the Vietnam War. It sent us down the road to two wars over more than a decade, which cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers and the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis, and others (Yemen, Somalia, etc.). Luckily for the French, they have neither the resources nor the military capability of getting themselves into as much trouble as we have. But that doesn’t mean that bad choices made now won’t have even worse consequences for France over the coming years. Given a series of terror attacks mounted by Islamists over the past five years or more in Paris, Toulouse and elsewhere, it appears likely that the perpetrators were Islamists. Though no one appears yet to know whether they are affiliated with ISIS, al Qaeda or another movement. Further, survivors of the concert attack heard the killers shouting Allah Akbar and heard them speaking about conditions in Syria and Iraq. With many caveats, I’d hazard a guess that if the killers were Islamists, they were likely affiliated with ISIS. It is this group which has been put on the defensive by allied attacks over the past six months. Today brought news that Kurdish forces had recaptured a town which had been a major symbol of ISIS’ original advance, Sinjar. Observers have begun talking about an assault on the movement’s headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa; and a possible military assault on Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, one which ISIS captured with embarrassing ease at the outset of its campaign. These victories would not have been thinkable a year or two ago as ISIS scored its shocking series of successes and swept through hundreds of miles of Iraqi and Syrian territory. As Russia and Iran stabilize what had been a tenuous hold by Syria’s Pres. Bashar Assad on power and territory, and other Islamist groups in Syria fight back against ISIS, the latter is, if not on the run, then on the defensive. That may be why, I believe, it chose to mount an attack on a Russian civilian airliner over the Egyptian Sinai (though I also believe that local Islamist rebels likely provided local logistical help in penetrating the airport). That attack left 224 Russian travelers dead.
After Russia sent troops, war planes and advanced weaponry to Syria to bolster Assad in his fight against the Islamist rebels, it seems almost axiomatic that the latter would seek to strike back. Attacking a Russian target in Egypt would kill two birds with one stone: it would avenge Russian attacks in Syria and the Egyptian military’s massacres against the Muslim Brotherhood. An ISIS strike against France also makes sense from this point of view: France is one of the allied powers seeking to roll back ISIS gains in Syria and Iraq. It also has the largest Muslim population in the west, which offers fertile ground for recruitment.
What terror seeks is to provoke hatred- and thus, they will recruit the hated ones, the marginal, the desperate into their ranks. — Guillermo del Toro (@RealGDT) November 14, 2015
How will France and other western nations respond? There can be no doubt that there will be renewed resolve to eradicate ISIS. It is likely that there will be successes in such a campaign. They may identify the masterminds of this plot and kill them as they did Osama bin Laden and other key al Qaeda leaders.
But it seems just as likely that as al Qaeda morphed into ISIS, that ISIS will morph into yet another Islamist movement whose mission will be avenging the alleged crimes by western nations against Muslims and Islam. No counter-terror campaign can eradicate an idea once it takes root so deeply in an entire population. You can’t defeat a grudge and the deep emotional scars that it leaves. You can beat it and bomb it and drive it underground or back into someone’s heart. But you can’t eradicate it.
I come back to an idea I’ve expressed here often, far too often it seems (given how many terror attacks I’ve mourned here): counter-terror is a tactic, not a strategy. It is a stopgap. A placeholder given the lack of a real constructive policy of engagement. If we want the Middle East to stop producing terrorists, we must offer hope and change to those most disaffected. As an aside, the tweet above was published by Guillermo del Toro, the Hollywood director, in response to the terror attack. His father was kidnapped, threatened with death, and later freed after paying a heavy ransom.
We must do everything we did not do during the Arab Spring. Then, we stood back and watched in awe as the youth toppled the old men: the generals and tyrants. Then, when the Old Guard struck back we stood by and did nothing. We’ve now reengaged with killers like al-Sisi and the Saudi royals who aided in the massacres of majority Shias in Bahrain and now in Yemen. We offered no message, no hope, no example.
There is one possible small bright spot. Pres. Obama has presented a constructive option in relations with Iran. The nuclear deal could be a stepping-stone toward a fuller process of détente with that country. Negotiations could, if things go in the right direction, bring understandings about broader issues including Syria and Lebanon. But only if the U.S. can bring Israel to heel and compel compromises that that country’s rightist leadership will resist mightily.
There must be a third choice between the Islamist suicide bomber and the western drone strike. A choice that affirms hard bargaining, mutual compromise, and negotiated solutions.
Finally, there is a terribly irony that no western journalist will point out: yesterday, ISIS planted two bombs in a Beirut neighborhood that is a Hezbollah stronghold. 43 Lebanese died. Neither is this the first or second or even third such explosion orchestrated by ISIS against Lebanese. Will anyone in the west weep as much for these dead Arab victims as they are justly weeping for the dead Parisians? Whose dead are worth more? Or are Arab dead worth anything??
Apologies: My web host’s server went down earlier today for just over an hour. I apologize for the inconvenience any of you may’ve suffered who tried and failed to access the site.