Because most people think of Islamic State, al-Qaeda and their ilk as being crazies motivated solely by hatred, they are not puzzled by recent terrorist attacks on the West like those in Paris, Brussels and Los Angeles. Like the villains in comic books, the terrorists are simply evil, and no further explanation is needed. But in the real world, being violent and fanatical does not make you stupid.
The small group of Arab Islamists who started fighting the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 were by 2014 the rulers of a new country of some five million people that they call Islamic State, which suggests that they are clever people who pursue rational strategies. And yet they go on backing terrorist attacks in the West, which no longer seems like a rational strategy.
It was a perfectly sensible strategy once. By the year 2000 the Islamist revolutionaries of the Arab world were close to despair. They had been trying to overthrow the dictators and kings who ruled the Arab countries for a quarter-century, and there was blood all over the walls – around 300,000 Arabs were killed in the struggles between the Islamists and the regimes in 1975-2000 – but they had not managed to overthrow a single regime.
Their main strategy was always terrorism, simply because they lacked the resources for anything more ambitious. In theory their terrorist attacks should have driven the regimes into extreme repression, which (again in theory) should have alienated the population and driven them into the arms of the revolutionaries. Then the people, led by the Islamists and united in their wrath, would rise up and drive the oppressors from power.
The Islamists had a few early successes – the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981 – but their strategy did not work. The Arab regimes did indeed become more oppressive, but the revolutionaries did not get mass support. Their doctrines were too weird, and their behaviour too extreme. So by the late 1990s the Islamists were looking for a different strategy.
It was Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, who came up with a new strategy: attack the West. The ultimate goal was still to come to power in the Arab world, but rather than revolution in the streets the Islamists would now win power by leading a successful guerilla resistance movement against an invasion by infidel foreigners.
Bin Laden had hit on this strategy because he had fought in Afghanistan as a volunteer, and that was exactly how the game played out there. The Russians invaded in 1979; Islamist extremists took over the resistance movement; after a long and bloody war the Russians went home in 1989; and the Afghan Islamists (the Taliban) then took power because they were the heroes who had driven the infidel foreigners out.
To relive this triumph required getting some other infidel army to invade a Muslim country, and the obvious choice was the United States. Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in 2001 gave Americans the necessary motivation, and two US invasions followed in rapid succession, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The mass-casualty terrorist attacks against Western targets continued for a long time (Madrid, Bali, London, etc.), presumably in order to give Western countries a reason to keep their troops in the Middle East. But the attacks gradually diminished as Al-Qaeda’s fighters in Iraq came closer to their goal of creating their own state: that would clearly be easier to do if most of the Western troops had already gone home.
The creation of Islamic State and the proclamation of the “Caliphate” in 2014 was the culmination of this long struggle, and it should have ended Islamist terror attacks on the West. Now they have a real state, they are seeking to expand in Syria and Iraq by military force, and the last thing they need is Western troops around to make matters more difficult. So why didn’t the attacks on Western countries stop?
The only plausible explanation is the great split in the Islamist movement in 2014, when Islamic State broke away from Al-Qaeda. Since then there has been a ferocious competition between them both for recruits, and for the loyalty of Islamist organisations across the Muslim world. (The main Islamist organisations in both Egypt and Nigeria have switched their allegiance from Al-Qaeda to Islamic State in the past two years).
In this competition, the best and cheapest way of showing that your organisation is tougher, more dedicated, more efficient than the other lot is to kill Westerners in spectacular terrorist attacks. So, for example, Al-Qaeda sponsored the “Charlie Hebdo” attack in Paris in February, 2015, and Islamic State replied with the much bigger attack in Paris last November.
There is no strategic cost in these attacks, since Western and Russian forces are already bombing both Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s local franchise in Syria, the Nusra Front. The material cost of the attacks is negligible: neither organisation is devoting even one percent of its resources to them. So they will continue for a while, and the West will just have to deal with them as they occur.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Their main…strategy”)
“The Russians had a more realistic analysis of the situation than practically anybody else,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, the former United Nations Special Envoy to Syria. “Everyone should have listened to the Russians a little bit more than they did.”
Brahimi was referring to the Russian offer in 2012 to end the growing civil war in Syria by forcing the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to leave power. The Russian proposal went before the UN Security Council, but the United States, Britain and France were so convinced that Assad was about to fall anyway that they turned it down. Why let the Russians take the credit?
So Assad is still in power, several hundred thousand more Syrians have died, and millions more have fled. But Brahimi’s comments are still relevant, because the Russians are still right.
Finally, very reluctantly, the United States is coming around to the long-standing Russian position that the secular Baathist regime in Syria must survive, as part of some compromise peace deal that everybody except the Islamist extremists will accept (although nobody will love it).
Such a deal back in 2012 would have involved the departure from power of Bashar al-Assad himself, and it could still do so today. He’s mostly just a figurehead anyway. He was living in England, studying to be an optometrist, until the death of his elder brother made him the inevitable heir to the presidency that his father, Hafez al-Assad, had held for thirty years.
It’s the Baathist regime’s secular character that makes it so important. Its leadership is certainly dominated by the Alawite (Shia) minority, but it has much broader popular support because all Syria’s non-Muslim minorities, Christian and Druze, see it as their only protection from Islamist extremists. Many Sunni Muslims, especially in the cities, see it the same way. They also see it as the one Arab government in the region that has always defied Israel.
The deal that the Russians could have delivered in 2012 would have ditched Bashar al-Assad but left the Baathist regime in place, while compelling it to broaden its base, dilute Alawite influence, and stop torturing and murdering its opponents. An over-confident West rejected that deal, while its local “allies”, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, gave weapons and money to the Islamist rebels who aimed to replace the Baathists with a Sunni Muslim theocracy
Fast forward to 2015, and by mid-summer the Islamist forces, mainly Islamic State and al-Qaeda, control more than a third of Syria’s territory. The exhausted Syrian army is retreating every time it is attacked (Palmyra, Idlib, etc.), and it’s clear to Moscow that all of Syria will fall to the Islamists unless Russia intervenes militarily. So it does.
When the Russian air force started attacking the Syrian rebels on 30 September last year, Western propaganda went into high gear to condemn it. Russian President Vladimir Putin “doesn’t distinguish between ISIL (Islamic State) and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr Assad go,” said US president Barack Obama. “From (the Russian perspective) they’re all terrorists – and that’s a recipe for disaster.”
All America’s sidekicks said the same thing. “These (Russian) military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more radicalisation and extremism,” said France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and Britain in a joint statement on 2 October.
The Russians simply ignored the Western propaganda and went on bombing until they had stopped the Islamist advances and stabilised the front. Then they proposed a ceasefire.
The brutal truth is that there is no “moderate Sunni opposition” in Syria any more. Almost all of the remaining “moderate” groups have been forced into alliances with al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Nusra Front, and the deal that the Russians might have brokered in 2012 is no longer available. The ceasefire they proposed in late 2015 deliberately left the Islamist groups out – and the United States (better late than never) went along with it.
That ceasefire has now been in effect for more than three months, and although there are many violations it has significantly lowered the level of violence in Syria. In the longer term, the Russians might be able to produce sufficient changes in the Baathist regime (including Assad’s departure) that some of the non-Islamist fighting groups might break their alliances with al-Qaeda and accept an amnesty from Damascus.
Maybe even the Islamist-controlled areas can be re-conquered eventually. Or maybe not: it’s a bit late for a peace settlement that preserves Syria’s territorial integrity. But at least the US State Department has finally abandoned the fantasy of a “moderate” rebel force that could defeat both the regime and the Islamist rebels in Syria, and instead is going along with the Russian strategy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has wisely given US Secretary of State John Kerry equal billing in the ceasefire initiative, and there has been no crowing in Moscow about the Americans finally seeing the light.
Great states never admit mistakes, so there will be no apology from Washington for all the anti-Russian propaganda of the past year. But it is enough that the US government has actually changed its tune, and that there is a little bit of hope for Syria.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 10 and 14. (“Such…years”; “All…October”; and “Maybe…strategy”)
Early next week (April 4), the deal made between the European Union and Turkey to stem the flood of refugees into the EU goes into effect. It will promptly blow up in everybody’s face, for three reasons.
First problem: the EU won’t be able to “process” the arriving migrants as fast as new ones arrive. Migrants are arriving on the Greek islands of Chios and Lesbos at the rate of almost 2,000 per day, and as the weather improves even larger numbers will attempt the short sea crossing from Turkey.
Up to now the migrants have quickly been moved on to the mainland of Greece, but the Turkish-EU deal means that new arrivals will now pile up on the islands in detention camps while awaiting a decision on their asylum claims. Living conditions will become intolerable and there will be protests, some of them violent.
The EU has authorised a force of 4,000 security and migration officials and translators to register the new arrivals and investigate their claims for asylum. Even if these officials had all arrived on the islands (most haven’t), they wouldn’t be enough. It takes time to interview the claimants, write up the claims, make decisions to accept or reject them, and even allow appeals – and meanwhile another 2,000 will be arriving each day.
Second problem: within one or two weeks the time will come for the first rejected asylum claimants to be sent back to Turkey. Having spent all their money and endured great hardships to get this far, they will not go back willingly. It will require physical force to get some of them on the planes or boats that will take them back – enough force that there will be real casualties.
Third problem: by June, as part of this deal, Turkish citizens will have the right to visa-free travel to the European Union. Around one-fifth of Turkey’s population, some 15-20 million people, are Kurds. Since last summer, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, having broken a two-year ceasefire with the separatists of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), has been waging a pitiless war against them in the towns and cities of the southeast.
Some parts of Kurdish-majority cities in Turkey now resemble the war-ravaged cities of Syria. The Kurds, as Turkish citizens, will be able to enter most EU countries not as refugees but as tourists – and it would be very surprising if several million of them do not avail themselves of the opportunity. But the EU’s goal in this deal was to stop the mass migration, not to change it from Syrian Arabs to Turkish Kurds.
In practice, things will never get that far. Long before the EU negotiators agree on the details of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens the deal will collapse – because it will automatically be cancelled if the number of returnees reaches 72,000. That’s slightly more than one month’s worth of migrants at the current rate of supply.
The goal behind this weirdly dysfunctional deal was twofold: to cut the total number of migrants drastically – more than a million made it into the EU last year – and at the same time to end the deaths that happen during the sea crossing: 460 drownings out of the 143,000 who tried to cross so far this year. But it simply will not work.
The only way to really seal a frontier is to kill people who try to cross it illegally. After first few hundred deaths most people get the message and stop trying. (The Iron Curtain worked pretty well, for example.) But the EU isn’t ready to do that yet – so how can it discourage migrants from making the crossing?
What if we ship almost all those who make it to the Greek islands back to Turkey, but promise to take one legitimate Syrian refugee out of the camps in Turkey for every Syrian we send back? The Turks will go along with it if we give them $3.3 billion now, promise them another $3.3 billion later, and allow visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens. The deal is win-win all round. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, there are around two-and-a-half million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and most of them are not even in camps. If they have a good legal claim for asylum, why should they wait in the queue? And if they are not Syrian – Iraqi or Afghan refugees or African migrants – where is their incentive not to get in a boat and try their luck?
To its credit, the EU has not yet deployed the ultimate argument: that refugees are already safe in Turkey, a country that is still technically a democracy with the rule of law, and therefore have no right to go asylum-shopping in greener pastures elsewhere. But after this new deal collapses, it will almost certainly come to that in the end.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“The EU…day”; and “In practice…supply”)
He wasn’t standing on an aircraft carrier with a banner saying “Mission Accomplished” behind him, but Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was a lot more credible than former US president George W. Bush when he declared his country’s military intervention in the Middle East a success. And most of the Russian forces in Syria are going home after only five months, not the eight years that American troops stayed in Iraq.
“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” said Putin on 14 March. And it has indeed been a remarkably intelligent and successful intervention.
The Russians said right from the start that it would be a limited operation both in scope and in time, and that their goal was not to help the Assad regime reconquer Syria but to restore the military stalemate in the civil war as the necessary preliminary to a ceasefire and peace talks. And that is exactly what they did.
Western media were surprised by Putin’s announcement on Monday, but only because they had come to believe their own governments’ propaganda. If you have convinced yourself that the evil Russians are backing the evil Syrian regime in order to extend its evil rule, and that the preferred Russian tactic is the deliberate bombing of hospitals and schools, then you are bound to be bewildered when reality intrudes.
The real reason for the Russian air campaign in Syria was not to “reestablish Russia as a major player” in the great power game, or to demonstrate the effectiveness of their new-generation weapons to potential buyers overseas, or to maintain their access to a small naval base on the Syrian coast. All these petty explanations were offered by Western politicians and journalists who diligently ignored the obvious reason for the intervention.
Last summer, the Syrian army was at the breaking point. If it cracked then the whole Assad regime would go under, and all of Syria would fall under the control of the Islamist extremists of the loathsome “Islamic State” and of the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda. (By 2015 the “good” rebels fighting Assad were only a small fraction of the opposition forces.)
A triumphant and vastly expanded “Islamic State” was definitely not in the national interest of Russia, which has an 8 percent Muslim minority and is not that far away from Syria. So the Russian air force was sent in to save Assad from defeat – but not to win him a decisive victory.
Even with Russian air support, the Syrian army was too weak to destroy all the rebel forces and retake the whole country. Moscow just wanted to make sure that the Islamists didn’t win, and to push the other rebels back far enough to make them understand that they couldn’t win either. Then it would call for a ceasefire and a peace conference that specifically excluded the Islamists.
Russian aircraft carried out more than 9,000 combat sorties in five months, according to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, and helped the Syrian army to regain control over 10,000 sq. km. of lost territory. That done, Moscow started pushing hard for ceasefire talks between the Assad regime and the non-Islamist rebels.
Both sides needed to be pushed, so Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov enlisted the aid of US Foreign Secretary John Kerry to put pressure on the rebels. Meanwhile he started twisting the arm of Bashar al-Assad, who sometimes fantasised aloud that with enough Russian help he might one day reunite Syria by force – and Lavrov’s main tool of persuasion was the prospective withdrawal of the Russian air force.
Each great power delivered its Syrian partners to the ceasefire talks, and the ceasefire was agreed two weeks ago. Both great powers agreed that the two parts of Syria controlled by the Islamists (al-Nusra in northwest Syria, “Islamic State” in the east) would be excluded from the talks, and would remain legitimate targets for attack.
And both parties also agree that Assad will not be allowed to stonewall and simply refuse to discuss the question of his own departure from power as part of a compromise peace settlement. That is why Moscow has made an early announcement of Russia’s troop withdrawal (without any published timetable): to make Assad understand Moscow’s real position.
Russia doesn’t care whether Assad stays in power personally in Syria, although they would clearly like to see a friendly government in Damascus that continues the long-standing alliance with Moscow. In fact, they see Assad as a brutal and inflexible man who should be replaced by a more acceptable figure when it is safe to do so.
But it will probably not be safe to do that until the Islamist-controlled territories are isolated, blockaded and besieged, so Assad will remain in power for a while yet.
It has been an elegant diplomatic operation backed by a very precise and effective military strategy. There is still a chance that it could all go wrong, but the Russians may have actually given Syria a chance for a decent future.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Western…intervention”)