Please close Europe’s borders to migrants from Syria and the rest of the Middle East. Please stoke up Islamophobia. Please bomb Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq as a sign of your immediate defiance. Please avoid making any comprehensive or long-term agreement between the various new coalition allies to bring an end to the civil war in Syria or to improve the lives of Iraqis even in areas liberated from Islamic State.
That, according to analysts from Europe and from the Gulf countries is the ideal four-point plan to delight the strategists of Daesh, the so-called Islamic State, following the Paris atrocities of November 13th. This is how to make them feel that they have triumphed. Wake Up Europe has been attending a major conference in Bahrain on November 28-29, organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the London-based independent think-tank about defence and security. And that was the sobering conclusion that your correspondent heard.
It made perfect sense. According to the experts here, including Lina Khatib of the Arab Reform Initiative, a Paris-based think-tank, Charlie Winter of Georgia State University in the US, and Nelly Lahoud, senior fellow for Political Islamism at IISS in Bahrain, Daesh needs to be understood as a long-term, generational project.
It is not susceptible to quick military intimidation. It is driven in particular by a desire to display its global influence and its ability to generate Islamophobia in the West, in competition with the old and now seemingly less effective and less ruthless jihadis of Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.
Daesh’s leaders, who spend much of their time in hiding, are said to be meticulous planners, patient when initiatives do not at first succeed. They are in recruitment mode. They are brainwashing children towards their ideology, in the areas of Iraq and Syria that they control. They want to attract technocrats as well as fighters, as they want to build the apparatus of the state they claim to be. By contrast with Al-Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban, most of their money is thought to be coming from their territories in Iraq and Syria, through oil sales, taxation and extortion, rather than from rogue elements in Saudi Arabia or the other Gulf States.
That is why the West’s response since November 13th is seen as playing straight into Daesh’s hands. The rhetoric against admitting refugees to Europe gets ever louder. Almost certainly, the Paris killers deliberately planted false indications that among their number were people who had entered Europe hidden by the flow of asylum-seekers from Syria, in order to provoke a backlash. Which is what we are seeing, in the imminent success of the anti-immigrant Front National in France in regional elections next week and in the rhetoric from EU leaders including President of the European Council Donald Tusk, of Poland, about the need to stem the flow of migrants.
Britain’s House of Commons vote on Wednesday December 2nd over whether to authorize British air strikes in Syria, as part of the western-led coalition, needs to be assessed in this broader context. True, the vote is specifically about air strikes because that is the part of any British response that requires specific Parliamentary approval. But the bigger question should concern not the air strikes as such but the broader strategy that they need to form part of.
When pressed to define a better response, or that broader strategy, analysts at the conference in Bahrain admittedly struggle to do so. Their responses are a variant of the old Irish story about a farmer being asked for directions: “I wouldn’t start from here”, they more or less say. But for all the difficulty in being coherent and finding true long-term solutions, there are several consistent and entirely plausible themes:
- Keep Europe’s policy on migrants based on values and on asylum rights, not on fear and prejudice. In other words, keep it open, and put a lot more money into building a proper EU border force and processing centres. The deal being negotiated with Turkey to provide cash and benefits to Turkey in return for controlling migrant flows will help only if it is part of such a concerted and unified approach.
- Form a coalition of Western countries and neighbours to seek some sort of a solution in Syria, one that holds the chance of producing a government acceptable to opposition groups and to moderate supporters of the Assad regime, which is a prerequisite for restoring a properly functioning Syrian Army.
- Provide aid, directly and through the Iraqi government, to improve the lives of people in areas that have been liberated from Islamic State/Daesh, so as to build support for Daesh’s permanent removal. Currently, those in liberated areas tend to become worse off once Daesh goes.
- Get America fully involved, alongside France, the UK and others, rather than its current semi-detached stance. Like it or not, without American leadership, no resolution will be deemed credible.
- Military intervention may be necessary, since reducing Daesh’s territorial control would also reduce its financial resources and its prestige, but it is unlikely to succeed for long unless it includes ground troops and is accompanied by an agreement among neighbours and the West about what happens next.
Whatever happens, we have to assume that there will be further terrorist outrages in European and probably American cities, in the coming years. But we must not let those outrages lead us to abandon the open, liberal values that the terrorists are attacking. We may crave security. But it would be self-defeating to try to gain it by giving up our liberty.
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