As always after a major terrorist attack on the West, the right question to ask after the slaughter in Paris is: what were the strategic aims behind the attack? This requires getting your head around the concept that terrorists have rational strategies, but once you have done that the motives behind the attacks are easy to figure out. It also becomes clear that the motives have changed.
The 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001 followed the classical terrorist strategy of trying to trick the target government into over-reacting in ways that ultimately serve the terrorists’ interests. Al-Qaeda’s goal was to sucker the United States into invading Muslim countries.
Al Qaeda was a revolutionary organisation whose purpose was to overthrow existing Arab governments and take power in the Arab countries, which it would then reshape in accord with its extreme Islamist ideology. The trouble was that Islamist movements were not doing very well in building mass support in the Arab world, and you need mass support if you want to make a revolution.
Osama bin Laden’s innovation was to switch the terrorist attacks from Arab governments to Western ones, in the hope of luring them into invasions that would radicalise large number of Arabs and drive them into the arms of the Islamists. His hopes were fulfilled by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Once the Western troops went in, there was a steep decline in terrorist attacks on Western countries. Al-Qaeda wanted Western troops to stay in the Middle East and radicalise the local populations, so it made no sense to wage a terrorist campaign that might make Western countries pull their troops out again.
The resistance in Iraq grew quickly and and attracted Islamist fighters from many other Arab countries. The organisation originally known as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” underwent several name changes, to “Islamic State in Iraq” in 2006; then to “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” – ISIS for short – in 2013, and finally to simply “Islamic State” in 2014. But the key personnel
and the long-term goals remained the same throughout.
The man who now calls himself the “Caliph” of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Bahdadi, first joined “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” and started fighting the US occupation forces in Iraq in 2004. But along the way the strategy changed, for ISIS eventually grew so strong that it conquered the extensive territories in Syria and Iraq that now make up Islamic State. Popular revolutions were no longer needed. The core strategy now is simply conquest.
In that case, why are Islamic State and Al-Qaeda still attacking Western targets? One reason is because the jihadi world is now split between two rival jihadi franchises that are competing for supporters.
The split happened in 2013, when ISIS, having launched a very successful branch operation in Syria known as the Nusra Front, tried to bring it back under the control of the parent organisation.
The Syrian branch resisted, and appealed to Al-Qaeda, the franchise manager of both jihadi groups, for support. Al-Qaeda backed the Syrians, whereupon ISIS broke its links with Al-Qaeda and set up as a direct competitor.
ISIS and the Nusra Front then fought a three-month war in early 2014 that killed several thousand militants and left the former in control of most of eastern Syria. Soon afterwards ISIS overran most of western Iraq and renamed itself Islamic State.
Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Nusra Front, are currently observing a ceasefire in Syria, but the two brands are still in a bitter struggle for the loyalty of jihadi groups elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Spectacular terrorist operations against Western targets appeal to both franchises because they are a powerful recruiting tool in jihadi circles. But Islamic State has a further motive: it actually wants Western attacks on it to cease.
It’s a real state now, with borders and an army and a more or less functional economy. It doesn’t want Western forces interfering with its efforts to consolidate and expand that state, and it hopes that terrorist attacks on the West may force them to pull out.
France is a prime target because French aircraft are part of the Western-led coalition bombing Islamic State, and because it’s relatively easy to recruit terrorists from France’s large, impoverished and alienated Muslim minority. Russia has also become a priority target since its aircraft started bombing jihadi troops in Syria, and the recent crash of a Russian airliner in Sinai may be due to a bomb planted by Islamic State.
So the outlook is for more terrorist attacks wherever Islamic State (and, to a lesser extent, Al-Qaeda) can find willing volunteers. Western countries with smaller and better integrated Muslim communities are less vulnerable than France, but they are targets too.
Putting foreign ground troops into Syria would only make matters worse, so the least bad option for all the countries concerned is to ride the terrorist campaign out. Horrendous though the attacks are, they pose a very small risk to the average citizen of these countries. Statistically speaking, it’s still more dangerous to cross the street, let alone climb a ladder.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10, 11 and 12. (“The split…world”)
P.S. Who takes their passport along on a sucide mission? There is a strong possibility that the Syrian refugee’s passport found at the scene of the Paris attacks was taken there to cause a huge backlash against Syrian refugees entering Europe, and thus further alienate European Muslims from their own governments.
It all happened very fast, in the end. On Monday Russian President Vladimir Putin was at the United Nations in New York saying that the United States was making “an enormous mistake” in not backing Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in his war against Islamist rebels, notably including “Islamic State” (or ISIS, as it used to be known).
On Tuesday the upper chamber of the Russian parliament unanimously voted to let President Putin use military force in Syria to fight “terrorism”, in response to a request from the Syrian government.
And on Wednesday morning the Russian warplanes started bombing rebel targets in Syria. Moscow gave the US embassy on Iraq one hour’s notice, requesting that US and “coalition” warplanes (which are also bombing Islamic State targets in Syria) to avoid the airspace where the Russian bombers were in action.
And Donald Trump, bless his heart, said “You know, Russia wants to get ISIS, right? We want to get ISIS. Russia is in Syria — maybe we should let them do it? Let them do it.”
And for once, Trump is right. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
If you want to stop ISIS, you have to do it with troops, and the only ground troops fighting ISIS in Syria are the Syrian army and the Kurds along the northern border with Turkey. But the US has been duped by Turkey into betraying the Kurds, and it will not use its airpower to help the Syrian army, which is now on the ropes.
That’s why Palmyra fell to Islamic State forces in May. Despite all the other American airstrikes against ISIS forces in Syria, it made not one to help the Syrian forces when they were desperately defending the historic city, and so they eventually had to retreat. It was more important to Washington not to be seen helping Assad than to save the city.
This is a fine moral position, as Assad’s regime is a deeply unattractive dictatorship. Indeed, the great majority of the 4 million Syrians who have fled the country were fleeing the regime’s violence, not that of ISIS. But if you don’t want the Islamist extremists to take over the country (and maybe Lebanon and Jordan as well), and you’re not willing to put troops on the ground yourself, who else would you help?
Washington’s fantasy solution to this problem has been to create a ‘third force’ of rebels who will somehow defeat Islamic State while diplomacy somehow removes Assad. But the other big rebel organisations in Syria, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, are also Islamists, little different from ISIS in their ideology and goals. In fact al-Nusra is a breakaway faction of ISIS, now affiliated with al-Qaeda. (Remember al-Qaeda? Chaps who did the 9/11 attacks?)
If Assad goes down, it is Islamic State, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham who will take over Syria, not the pathetic little band of fighters being trained by the United States in Turkey. In fact the first group of them to cross back into Syria were immediately annihilated by ISIS, who had probably been tipped off by America’s not very loyal ally, the Turkish government.
If the Russians believed that the United States was willing to do the heavy lifting needed to defeat the Islamists and save the Assad regime, they would probably be more than happy to stand back and let America do it. It was the American invasion of Iraq, after all, that created ISIS, and almost all of Islamic State’s leaders are veterans of the resistance in Iraq.
But Putin hears only high-minded rhetoric utterly detached from reality when he listens to Barack Obama. Russia has a large Muslim minority at home, and it is very much closer to the Middle East than the United States is. So if the Americans won’t do what is necessary, he will.
Putin does not make the same meaningless distinctions between Islamic State and the other Islamist groups that the United States insists on. The first Russian air strikes were on territory held by al-Nusra, not Islamic State. But the Russians will hit ISIS too. In fact, the first big operation will probably be an attack by a re-equipped Syrian army to retake Palmyra, heavily backed by Russian air power.
Putin has said that he will not commit Russian ground forces to combat in Syria, for the Russian public doesn’t want to see its soldiers involved in another war against Islamists after their miserable experience in Afghanistan in 1979-89. But the resolution in the Duma didn’t make any promises about that, and we may yet see Russian ground troops fighting in Syria too.
Whether Putin’s intervention will be enough to save Assad remains to be seen. The carping commments in the Western media about how he wants to distract attention from Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian civil war and restore Russia’s position as a great power are true enough – indeed, he is probably shutting down the fighting in Ukraine mainly to clear the decks for Syria – but that is not his primary motive.
He is just doing what needs to be done.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“If…will”; and “Putin has…too”)
US Secretary of State John Kerry has just phoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warning him not to “escalate the conflict” by increasing Moscow’s military support for the beleaguered Syrian regime. He stamped his foot quite hard, telling Lavrov that his government’s actions could “lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-Isil coalition operating in Syria.”
What the Russians have actually done, so far, is to send an advance military team to Damascus of the sort that is normally deployed to prepare for the arrival of a much larger military force. They have also sent an air traffic control centre and housing units for its personnel to a Syrian airbase.
It suggests that Moscow is getting ready to go in to save President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It has given Assad diplomatic support, financial aid and some weapons over the course of the four-year-old Syrian civil war, but it will take more than that to save him now. That would include at least an airlift of heavy weapons, but maybe also direct Russian air support for Assad’s exhausted troops.
They need it. Since the fanatical fighters of “Islamic State” (or Isil, as the US State Department calls it) captured Palmyra in central Syria in May, they have advanced steadily westward from their new base.
One month ago they captured the mostly Christian town of al-Qaratayn, north-east of Damascus. (The inhabitants fled, of course). And now IS forces are within 30 km. of the M5, the key highway that links Damascus with the other parts of Syria that remain under government control.
The jihadis captured Palmyra, by the way, because the “anti-Isil coalition” – the US Air Force, in practice – did not drop a single bomb in its defence. It made at least a thousand air strikes to save Kobani, the Kurdish city on the border with Turkey that was besieged by IS fighters, because the Kurds were US allies. Whereas Palmyra was defended by Assad’s soldiers, so the US let Islamic State have it.
One can imagine Kerry’s (and Obama’s) horror at the idea that by defending Palmyra they would be seen as protecting Assad’s brutal regime, but if Islamic State troops manage to cut the M5 it will be seen as a sign of the regime’s impending defeat. At that point, up to half the people who still live in government-controlled areas – around 17 million – may panic and start trying to get out of Syria.
They would obviously include the religious minorities (Christians, Alawites, Druze), some 5 million people who have good reason to fear slavery, rape and murder at the hands of Islamic State. The millions of Sunni Muslims who have served the Syrian government and its army would also be at risk. So let’s say 4 or 5 million more refugees pouring out across Syria’s borders, to join the 4 million who have already fled.
What they left behind would be a Syria entirely controlled by the extremists. The only remaining question would be whether the jihadis roll on through behind the refugees, overrunning Lebanon and Jordan as well, or whether they fall to fighting among themselves.
All three major Islamist groups – Islamic State (which Turkey and Saudi Arabia no longer support), and the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham (which they still do) – are virtually identical in their ideology and their ultimate goals. However, they have some tactical differences, and Islamic State and al-Nusra fought a quite serious turf war last year, so maybe they will get distracted again. But even if they do, Syria will be gone.
This is what the Russians see coming, and they may be willing to try to stop it. When asked on Friday if Moscow intended to get involved directly in the Syrian fighting, Russian President Vladimir Putin would only say that the question was “premature”. Nobody, including the Russians, likes Assad’s regime, but it is the least bad remaining option.
Indeed, it is the only alternative left to a jihadi victory. Most of the “moderate” anti-regime rebels went home or fled abroad years ago, unable to match the jihadis in firepower, in money or in frightfulness. The notion that the US can now create a moderate “third force” able to defeat both the jihadis and the Assad regime is a shameful face-saving fantasy
Moscow used diplomacy to save the Obama administration from itself two years ago, when Washington was getting ready to bomb Assad’s forces in response to a (possibly spurious) allegation that they had used poison gas on civilians. The only way Russia can avert disaster this time, however, is to put its own air force into the fight – and maybe its own ground troops too.
If it does, the key question will then be whether the United States lets Russia do the job that it is too fastidious to do itself, or whether it gives in to the clamour of its Turkish and Saudi allies – and they would be clamouring – to “stand up” to the Russian intervention.
Since the United States doesn’t actually have a coherent strategy of its own, it’s impossible to predict how it will respond. For all Kerry’s bluster, they don’t know yet in Washington either.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10 . (“The jihadis…it”; and “All…gone”)
Last Friday, Turkey joined the war against Islamic State (IS), the terrorist-run entity that now controls eastern Syria and western Iraq. After four years of leaving the border open for supplies and recruits to reach IS, the Turkish government sent planes to bomb three IS targets in Syria.
At the same time, Ankara ended a four-year ban on its anti-IS “coalition” allies using the huge Incirlik airbase near the Syrian border. There was rejoicing in Washington, since coalition aircraft (mostly American) will now be much closer to IS targets in Syria, and Turkey will also presumably close its border with Syria at last. But there may be less to this change than meets the eye.
On Saturday, Turkey broke a two-year ceasefire with the PKK, a Kurdish revolutionary group that fought a 30-year war to establish a separate state in the Kurdish-majority southeast of Turkey. In fact, since then Turkey has carried out considerably more air strikes against the PKK than it has against IS.
The Turkish army has even shelled territory controlled by the PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK, although the PYD has managed to drive IS troops out of most of the Kurdish areas of northern Syria.
So which war is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan really planning to fight, the one against Islamic State or his own private war with the Kurds? And why now?
The only person who knows the answers is Erdoğan, and he’s not saying. But you can work it out if you try.
Erdoğan has spent more than a decade subverting a secular and democratic system and establishing his own unchallengeable power. At first he was responding to real popular demands for equal civil rights for religious people and for an improvement in living standards. He delivered on his promises, and won three successive elections by increasing majorities.
But he reduced the once-free mass media to subservience, undermined the independence of the judiciary, and staged show trials of his opponents. He also allowed his own political associates to engage in massive corruption.
As his power grew, moreover, he began to indulge his obsessions. He is a deeply conservative Sunni Muslim who shares the widespread Sunni belief that Shia Muslims are not just heretics, but heretics whose power is a growing threat.
From the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, therefore, Erdoğan supported the Sunni rebels against the regime of Bashar al Assad, which is dominated by the country’s Alawite (Shia) minority – and he didn’t much mind if the Sunni rebels were head-cutting extremists like Islamic State or not. That’s why the Turkish-Syrian border stayed open, and the coalition didn’t get access to Turkish airbases.
At the same time, Erdoğan opened peace negotiations with the PKK, because conservative Kurds who voted for his party on religious grounds were an important part of his electoral base. But then his party lost its majority in parliament in last month’s election (7 June).
What cost him his majority was the new People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which seduced most of his Kurdish voters away. It’s liberal, pluralistic, all the things that Erdoğan isn’t. But conservative Kurds had already got the religious freedoms they wanted, and the HDP was also advocating equal political rights for the Kurdish minority. Of course they switched their votes.
So now, if Erdogan wants to form a coalition government (or even win a new election), he needs the support of the hard right – but they are ultra-nationalists who loathe his willingness to make deals with the Kurds. To win them over, therefore, he has started bombing the PKK.
He might be re-starting a Turkish-Kurdish civil war (the last one killed 40,000 people), but that’s a risk he’s willing to take. And on the side he has dropped a few bombs on Islamic State to make the Americans happy.
Erdoğan’s problem with Washington was that it finally had the goods on him. A US Special Forces raid in Syria last May killed Abu Sayyaf, the IS official in charge of selling black-market oil from IS-controlled wells into Turkey. The American troops came away with hundreds of flash drives and documents that proved that Turkish officials were deeply involved in the trade, which has been IS’s main source of revenue.
Turkey has now bombed a few IS targets to show willing – but if you look at the videos, the Turkish planes are launching missiles at single buildings out in open fields, not exactly where you’d expect IS to have weapons stores and command centres. It’s as if the Turkish forces were ordered to hit targets that wouldn’t do any real damage. But least the coalition gets to use Incirlik.
Is Erdoğan still in cahoots with IS? Maybe. Is he actively supporting the other big Islamist group, the Nusra Front, which dominates the battle in western Syria? Yes he is, quite openly, and the difference between these two terrorist groups is only skin-deep. So if you’re expecting a radical change in the military situation in Syria – don’t. Assad is still losing slowly, the Islamist extremists are still winning, and Turkey is still playing a double game.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 16. (“The Turkish…Syria”; “The only…try”; and “Turkey…Incirlik”)