Monday, November 16, 2015

Retaliation for Paris attacks may not be the best plan

In the wake of the horrendous Islamic State (IS) bombings and shootings in Paris over the weekend, the responses of various countries are beginning to be articulated.
Predictably enough, some of the strongest words are coming from France itself, with President Fran├žois Hollande calling the attacks an "act of war", and vowing in no uncertain terms to completely destroy the IS (or Daesh, as the organization is increasingly called, using the loose Arabic acronym of the organization, which coincidentally also sounds like the Arabic words for "one who sows discord" and "one who crushes something underfoot").
This is fighting talk indeed from the French, but it really is not as simple as that - if it were, it would already have been done. And I can't help thinking that M. Hollande is reacting exactly how IS want him to.
This was an act of terrorism, not an act of war. Despite the name, Islamic State, as even they would probably admit, is not even a real state against which a war can be waged. It is a scattered force of guerrilla warriors, and its aim is not to take over France, but to establish a Muslim caliphate in northern Syria and northwestern Iraq in which they can enforce their own version of conservative Islamic traditions (see my earlier piece on understanding jihadi groups).
So, attacking France does not serve any immediate purpose for IS, but it is presumably part of the "shock-and-awe" tactics it employs to drum up supporters, as well as an attempt to discourage countries, like France, who are actively fighting against them in Syria.
If France dramatically ups the ante in Syria, the death toll will rise substantially, including the collateral damage to the local population which will undoubtedly accompany it. And, given the terrain and the organization of IS, the chances of comprehensively destroying them are slight in the extreme (see this article for just one analysis of how hard it might be to deal comprehensively with IS). Death, torture, genocide and martyrdom are all part of the IS game plan, and boosting the number of martyrs will only serve to strengthen the resolve of the survivors, as well as to increase the likelihood of more retaliatory attacks in the West.
Now, I don't have a good solution to the situation, but I am pretty sure that all-out war will achieve little but a drastically increased death toll. If anything, the solution probably has to involve carving up Syria and Iraq in some way (the current set-up, established after the Second World War, is really not working well).
Luckily, Canada no longer has the belligerent Stephen Harper at the helm, as I am reasonably sure his reaction would have been very similar to President Hollande's, which would only have the effect of putting the whole country at an increased risk of retaliation while actually achieving very little. New Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, is still committed to taking the Canadian contingent of fighter jets (the 6 ageing CF-18 Hornets are hardly crucial to the allied military campaign) out of Syria and Iraq, in favour of a more behind-the-scenes role in local military training and humanitarian aid, although the timeline for the pull-out is still flexible. He was just voted into power with a strong mandate to do just that, so realistically what else can he do? Mr. Trudeau has since reiterated that the Paris attacks have not changed that commitment.
I have actually been a bit surprised by the extent of the militaristic tub-thumping in the Canadian press since the bombings. Most of it smacks to me of knee-jerk reaction, whereas what we actually need, now more than ever, is calm and considered decision-making, difficult though that might be in the heat of the outrage that most people are feeling. I don't see withdrawing our CF-18s as a blow to Canada's credibility on the world stage, as I have often seen it characterized, but as replacing something that Canada does not do very well with something we apparently do do well (i.e. military training). There is even some evidence suggesting that the air war in Syria may be actually strengthening IS and fuelling a surge in their recruits, as it feeds their narrative of a Western crusade against Islam. That alone would be a good reason to maintain the Canadian pull-out from the bombing mission.
Trudeau is also still committed to Canada's taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees. Despite some vociferous opposition since the French attacks (Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall being one of the most outspoken), this also still seems like the right thing to do. Yes, security screening is needed - that was always the plan - but I don't see any need to change that plan in the light of events in France. IS has been outspoken in its condemnation of Syrians fleeing to Europe as refugees, and it would like nothing better than for Western countries to shut their doors to Syrian refugees, as some 16 Republican US states and a few European countries are currently vowing.
There are rumours (still unconfirmed as far as I know) that one of the Paris attackers may have been a Syrian who entered France under the current EC refugee program. But it is still far from clear whether the passport found was planted, stolen, forged or genuine, or indeed whether it belonged to an attacker or a victim (why would a jihadist have his passport with him on an action of this kind?). Certainly, there is no reason to suppose that the refugees looking to move to Canada are doing so for nefarious purposes, any more than has been the case in years past. The refugees are those fleeing Syria, not those sympathetic to IS ideals, and anyway the vast majority of the Paris attackers were long-time residents and citizens of France and Belgium.
As for the idiots who set fire to a mosque in Peterborough, Ontario, recently, apparently in retaliation for the Paris attacks, I have no idea what they were thinking, and they deserve everything that is coming to them. Islamic State is very little to do with Islam as most people understand and practise it, so making innocent Canadian Muslims suffer makes absolutely no sense. They are already fearful enough of revenge attacks as it is.

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