“The Paris attacks will impose a cold strategic clarity”

A relevant piece discusses the need for a reaffirmation of realism following the chaos of Syria, “Like then-President George W. Bush’s declaration of a war on terror after 9/11, French President François Hollande declared France to be at war following the appalling attacks of Nov. 13 by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. While the Paris attack provides a fresh impetus for the West to defeat the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism, it also shows how profoundly the post-9/11 war on terror has failed. After all, haven’t jihadi networks massively proliferated since 2001, leaving Western capitals and cities across the Muslim world perpetually on edge, poised for the next fresh carnage?”

The article goes on to argue correctly “The fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the litmus test of this proposition: He’s a murderous butcher, but only his ground forces can realistically retake much of the ISIS-controlled territory. They haven’t been able to until now, because Western and Gulf states have backed a kaleidoscopic variety of rebels seeking to oust Assad, tying down much of the Syrian military. The fact that much of the territory lost by the Assad regime has wound up in the hands of ISIS and hard-line Islamists has created a climate of moral relativism, where neither Assad nor ISIS make for an attractive option. But this moral relativism has led to inaction and tragedy. Call it the Hamlet non-strategy”.

Crucially the author argues that “the Paris attacks will impose a cold strategic clarity. Whatever the objective threat, the West cannot tolerate the humiliation of terrorist attacks from an enemy that, so far, it has merely sought (and failed) to contain. For all the self-congratulatory talk of “historic” progress at the recent diplomatic talks in Vienna, a “political solution” cannot fix the problem of ISIS and hard-line Islamists — for neither Washington nor Moscow would ever accept a negotiated peace with them. The territory they hold must be cleared and held by infantry. But whose infantry? The Kurds can retake only so much ground, given their limited resources and lack of desire to expand substantially beyond ethnically Kurdish areas. Non-Kurdish rebels are small in number and fragmented. And in many cases their “moderate” credentials are dubious, at best”.

He argues that “That leaves the West, Russia, or the Assad regime and its Iranian proxies. There’s no chance the United States, France, or NATO wants to hold ground on its own, or back Assad. So scratch the first option from that shortlist. Handing the moral and military quagmire over to the Russians — who will, in turn, back the Syrian Army — begins to seem like the only option. Moreover, the anger and anguish of Paris comes on the heels of a refugee crisis of such magnitude and consequence for Europe’s fate that it makes dealing with the Greek debt crisis look like child’s play. The overwhelming urge to impose stability in Syria will mean that moral relativism transforms into moral necessity: eliminate ISIS before all else. Perhaps Russia will agree to allow Assad to transition out of power following the defeat of the Islamic State, in return for sanctions relief. We’ll see. The bottom line is that while the West can hardly support Assad, in the aftermath of Paris, his transition suddenly becomes a secondary matter”.

Interestingly he writes that “This reality already seems to have sunk in. France appears to be at least agnostic towards Russian strikes in Syria, and may even be coordinating with Moscow. Speaking in Vienna the day after the Paris attacks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that “it is time to deprive the terrorists of any single kilometer in which to hide.” Translation: We’re going to finish off ISIS, and tacitly accept Assad. For now”.

Indeed this is the only real problem with this view. It is only about the short term. It omits the fact that Assad has no credibility and his rule will not be long or perhaps even very stable. The result is that Syria may have to be partitioned into smaller states. This more long term strategy will only mean working with Assad for as long as it takes to destroy ISIS.

He adds “Syria makes plain that we don’t, actually, have an alternative to Assad. Yes, the Syrian strongman himself may well ultimately be “transitioned” out of power, but his repressive regime will stay intact. Whatever Assad’s personal fate, dissolving his regime means removing any vestige of state order that remains in Syria, and replacing it with even more chaos. And surely we’ve learned by now that things can always get worse. Syria merely confirms the lesson the West should have learned from Iraq: that the freedom agenda in the Muslim world is dead”.

He mentions that “The role of intervention, post-Paris, will be exactly the reverse of the post-9/11 model. Interventions will occur, but only to back fragile governments — not unseat them — without attaching any guarantees of future democratic transformations. France’s successful intervention against al Qaeda in Mali in 2013 is a good example of this model”.

He ends “Finally, we should no longer doubt that gaps in fragile states in the Muslim world will be filled by anything other than hard-line Islamists. Sure, there were always terrorist networks like al Qaeda that could set up bases in ungoverned space. But 14 years later, we see how the information revolution has massively catalyzed the formation of jihadist networks. The speed with which ISIS has risen, proselytized, and formed franchises all over the world, cannot be explained without accounting for the interconnectivity of contemporary communication. In Afghanistan and Iraq, radical Islamic terrorists took years to build up cells; in Libya, hard-line Islamists were part of the rebellion from the outset. The result in today’s networked age is that every potential armed opposition movement in the Muslim world now becomes a potential jihadi branch. The West can’t risk that”.

He concludes “The post-Paris war on terror will affirm the West’s commitment to fighting radical Islamic terrorism, but, in the process, it will reject the idiom of revolutionary, moralizing democratic change inherited from President Bush. Syria was the end of the line for that approach. This new phase will assume that terrorists are nonstate actors, and will take the view that if you have an international system built around strong sovereign states — no matter how brutal or unconcerned with human rights — life becomes much harder for nonstate armed groups, including terrorists. This is simply a reflection of the new realities we face, not a celebration of that shift. Of course, privileging the idea of strong sovereign states above all else is simply another way of re-stating the basic principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other sovereign states, a principle that dates back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and echoed in the U.N. Charter. In this sense, there is strong historical precedent for what we will see post-Paris: revolutionary moments that tend to spin out of control, leading to mass violence that requires a return to prioritizing stability over all else”.



One Response to ““The Paris attacks will impose a cold strategic clarity””

  1. Order and Tradition Says:

    […] the Iraq War or Libyan War), Cruz is suggesting we follow Kirkpatrick’s advice in supporting unpleasant “authoritarian” leaders. With more than a few intellectual contortions, Kirkpatrick’s references to Somoza and the Shah […]

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