Events can have an unpleasant knack of rendering previous forthrightly held opinions not merely obsolete, but downright foolish. This blog has previously written about the Syrian civil war and America’s strategic alliances in the Middle East, topics that are most certainly germane to the heinous attacks in Paris on Friday evening. When writing this post, I firstly asked myself whether I needed to re-examine my previous writings, and if necessary, even recant some of it. The re-examination took place, but – and it doesn’t give me any particular pleasure to say this, for the reputation and vanity of a blowhard commentator is of consequence to nobody, especially when the issue at hand is so serious – I wasn’t moved to forswear the thrust of either post.
The coordinated murderous mayhem unleashed by “three co-ordinated teams” was an event that demands appropriate responses from citizens and policymakers alike. In the case of citizens, it means not succumbing to fear. For leaders, it means discontinuing the wrong-headed approaches, including the creation of a lawless vacuum in Iraq following the despicable invasion of that country, which have only succeeded in empowering Islamist terrorism for the last 15 years. It is also a time for introspection. For the latter reason, I am usually reluctant to commentate so quickly after an event, because many details take time to come out in the wash, and they often further require rumination before clear sense of a forward purpose presents itself. However, certain broad convictions about the Middle East and what is now a fraught situation in Europe have, if anything, been affirmed by this terror attack.
Given the priority that should now be given to mourning, it may not be the right time during these weeks to talk of the failure of France (and indeed other European countries) to successfully integrate its Muslim population, though it is an unavoidable issue that has to be understood and resolved sometime. Preferably non-violently, though who would be confident of that now? We could further talk about many of the world’s problems related to Islamism and how they are interconnected, from Indonesia to Nigeria. And we could explore further the nature of terrorism, which has many sources, and which is by no means confined to Islamism. And there is also the acknowledgement that our own leaders are by no means whiter than white. But in the immediate aftermath, some salient issues suffice.
One is that, however confused some people might have been about the hierarchy of priorities in the Syrian civil war, there can be little dispute now that the defeat of Isis/Isil/Daesh takes pre-eminence. The question of how is the one we need to resolve, and quickly. The appropriate civilian response is unity, and to refrain from demonising whole communities. For Western state actors, this (admittedly uninfluential) voice suggests that, if we were serious, we would enter a coalition involving everybody who seeks the same objective of vanquishing Daesh, and prioritise that above other geopolitical objectives.
How then should we prosecute attacks against Daesh? Just prior to Friday night’s terror, Mohammed Emwazi (aka Jihadi John) was killed by a drone strike. One can hardly mourn his passing, however preferable it is for due process to apply to murderers, and for those of us hostile to the use of drones to carry out aerial assaults it was a moment to reconsider our position. I must confess I briefly wavered, and felt compelled to commend at least this one drone strike that hit its target. However, the use of drones has two fatal weaknesses – the frequent propensity for killing innocent bystanders, and the unmistakeable sense that it ensures subsequent blowback (though, obviously, given that the Paris attacks were obviously the work of long term planning, there isn’t a direct connection with Emwazi’s elimination). Related to the second is a potentially terrifying third drawback to using drones – that someday jihadis will acquire their own.
The futility of air strikes is best illustrated by pointing out that they have been underway for considerable time already, and they have done nothing to arrest the rise of Daesh and other assorted jihadi groups. Ultimately, territory must be seized and held by ground forces. Air power is only useful insofar it assists operations on the ground. Western power might also have greater utility in the main through the offer of matériel to regional armies rather than the deployment of personnel, in addition to the use of its ‘good offices’ to pursue every diplomatic avenue available.
But perhaps the most important question to ask concerns the source of the Wahhabism that drives (and funds) so much fundamentalist depravity. Or put another way, what will it take for the United States and those other Western states close to Saudi Arabia, such as Britain, to re-examine their relationship with the House of Saud, and indeed the other Gulf monarchies? An alliance that is now so suffused with mutual commercial interests is not one that is going to be picked apart overnight, but if Daesh continues to prosper and outrages like that in Paris over the weekend become more commonplace, a strategic overhaul that is already necessary will surely be unavoidable.