The Price of the West's Hestitation in Syria

After the Paris attacks, it's clear that 'containing' ISIS hasn't worked.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
An Indian Muslim man holds a banner during a protest against ISIS and the Paris attacks, in New Delhi, India, November 18, 2015.
An Indian Muslim man holds a banner during a protest against ISIS and the Paris attacks, in New Delhi, India, November 18, 2015.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A week after the terror attacks in Paris, the campaign against the Islamic State is finally starting to look like a global one. It is still a clumsy, arduous process with many participants, and lacks coordination and deliberation. But now, for the first time, that campaign seems to consist of more than just the determined declarations of leaders.

The Russian and French warplanes took turns heavily bombing the northeastern city of Raqqa, the declared capital of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. While the American airstrikes were relatively surgical in order to limit civilian casualties, Moscow and Paris are not too bothered by such matters. According to unofficial reports, the attacks have forced the leadership of the organization to flee Raqqa.

Europe is in a panic. A battle broke out between police and suicide terrorists in the suburbs of Paris; in Germany a soccer game was canceled out of fear that a bomb had been planted; and the whole continent has been rife with numerous false alarms about terror attacks.

The French police have demonstrated greater initiative and aggressiveness in the suburbs where the Islamic extremists are concentrated, and the joint hunt with Belgium aimed at arresting all those involved in the attacks continues. The fear, along with the doubts about the strength of the steps needed, remind one of America after the 9/11 attacks — even though the numbers involved are not at all similar (132 compared to some 3,000). For now, it seems the balance has clearly swung in the direction of much harsher action, even at the price of deviating from the sacred principles of French democracy. But in the long term, the patient and continuous actions of the legal system and intelligence agencies, rather than rhetoric, will determine the results.

Israel is wise in not trying to push its way into the control room where the leaders are waging the fight against ISIS, but is making do with passing on intelligence information and providing advice on security matters. But the expanding campaign against ISIS does have its own impact on Israel. It once again pushes the Palestinian issue off the agenda, making it something that the international community has no interest in at the moment.

Masked police officers walk in a street of Saint-Denis, near Paris. Wednesday, November 18, 2015.Credit: AP

It also strengthens Iran’s position inside the supposed “good” camp, because ISIS is also an enemy of the Iranians, and because the focus on the organization reduces the pressure on the Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s ally. The recent attacks by ISIS may possibly signal a change in direction regarding Israeli targets as well, which could focus on the country’s borders, mostly from the Sinai and southern Golan Heights, where ISIS affiliates are active.

Despite the shock waves of the Paris attacks, it is doubtful they will lead to an American ground offensive against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The Obama administration continues to search for cheap wars that will allow the United States to attack from far away, from the air, without sacrificing the lives of American soldiers.

It’s possible that the Paris attacks were actually the price not for the West’s involvement in Syria — as the gunmen in the concert hall claimed during their rampage — but rather the result of the West’s hesitation in Syria.

Leaving the stage to Assad and his partners on one side, and to ISIS and Nusra Front zealots on the other, has sentenced Syrians to hell, which in the end was bound to spill over into Europe, too. If there was only a third way, such as aiding the more moderate Sunni forces in their war against Assad, it seems that that chance has been lost. When the senior officers of the Free Syrian Army, a relatively pragmatic group, came to Washington to ask for aid in their war against Assad, the Obama administration refused to make any commitments.

Now, the main action in Syria that is bearing fruit is the aerial support the Americans are providing for Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in the north. But this effort is much too localized and based on only a single ethnic militia. Therefore, it will likely be incapable of truly changing the picture on the ground in any fundamental way throughout the country. French President Francois Hollande has drawn most of the criticism for the intelligence failures that enabled the attacks in Paris, but U.S. President Barack Obama picked a particularly unfortunate time to declare — just before the attacks in Paris — that the international coalition had succeeded in “containing” ISIS.

The difficulties of the coalition hesitantly coalescing against ISIS are related to the organization being simultaneously an entity that holds territory, an economy, and also deeply held convictions. The chaos in Europe, along with the horrors of the wars in the Arab world, serve ISIS well in its efforts to recruit new volunteers among the Muslims, citizens and immigrants alike, in Europe.

When Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001, he asked to see the directive the cabinet had given to the Israel Defense Forces at the beginning of the second intifada, which had begun about six months earlier. Today’s IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who served as the military secretary for both Sharon and his predecessor Ehud Barak, said later that the document had seven sections. Sharon went over it very carefully, and changed only one word: Instead of “reducing” the violence, he wrote “ending” it. The international community will not need to do more than just “contain” the threat from ISIS, even though the challenge they face now seems more complex than that Israel faced over a decade ago.

Can you bomb back into the dark ages an organization that openly declares that is exactly the period it wants to return to? A British commentator noted this week that the recommendations on how to fight ISIS sounded to him like a debate over what is the best way to fight fog.

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