The attacks in Ankara, Sinai, Beirut and Paris, all claimed by ISIS, highlight a step change in the group’s strategy, taking its barbarism overseas and into the skies. This might suggest an increased potency but equally some argue it highlights that, as it is being squeezed in its Syrian and Iraqi heartlands, ISIS is lashing out. Despite all the overblown rhetoric about World War III and existential threats, ISIS is weak and those arrayed against it are strong when united and determined.
Out of every series of disasters there is an opportunity. Hitherto, the key international and regional actors have failed to coalesce either around an anti-ISIS strategy or solutions for Syria. This might be changing. Defeating ISIS and solving Syria are becoming more pressing issues for the major actors. Russian and French strikes on ISIS highlight a shared desire to hit back. Putin cannot afford to be engulfed by Syria and is likely to ditch President Assad if it means he can exit the crisis whilst retaining Russia’s pre-eminent status. Iran has for the first time ever signed up the Geneva communiqué of June 2012 that envisages a transition. Europe has backed France but also knows the refugee crisis will not go away unless Syria is resolved. Two rounds of talks in Vienna show that an international consensus on the way forward is inching closer with a tentative perhaps unrealistic timetable for transition and elections. Solving the conflict will be the biggest possible blow to those in Raqqa. Despite all the overblown rhetoric about World War III and existential threats, ISIS is weak and those arrayed against it are strong when united and determined.
A feature of the Syria crisis is that the merest hint of political progress has been met by an increase of violence. The danger is that the attacks in Paris and other cities could also derail these fledgling diplomatic moves. The reactions to these may determine success or failure. So how should the international community go forward not backward?
The blood had barely dried on the streets of the French capital before calls for full-scale war and destruction were being heard. Calmer heads must come to the fore.
So many Parisians have reacted with dignity and resilience. They are not being cowed by the murderers at all. This reminds me of the atmosphere at the attacks in London in 2005. Despite endless provocations and attacks over the recent years, Lebanon has not been spit apart as many feared. This united collective defiance is precisely what ISIS does not want to see, this is what these people want to break.
That said, vile anti-Muslim attacks have happened. Add to these, pretty much every comment by American Republic Presidential candidates and Governors on the Paris attacks will please the ISIS hordes. All efforts must be made to deter and prevent the huge quadrupling of attacks on Muslims and mosques in the sixth months after January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks.
ISIS wants to be at war. As Peter Neumann from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation has stated: “I fear that if you start talking about war, you are almost playing into the hands of ISIS, because of course ISIS believes of course it is at war and it wants its enemies to be at war.” As he said, ISIS wants the choice to be solely – “I’m with the West or I’m with IS.”
Escalating attacks on ISIS in Syria and Iraq can only achieve so much especially when only from the air. The military route is all too well travelled and its shortcomings have been all too well exposed in the past. ISIS has very much invited these attacks – indeed it is counting on them. Ground troops are needed but ideally from the region. But any military advances will mean nothing if functioning state institutions are not established in area areas taken and security restored. ISIS is banking on its enemies relying on Assad for help and in the process alienating huge swathes of the Syrian population who will feel betrayed.
We have to expect more attacks in Europe but see these as a sign of rank desperation. Intelligence and security cooperation has to be upgraded. Addition human and financial resources are being promised. Aviation security has to be tightened. Contrary to Donald Trump’s call for arms, far from allowing all of Europe to rack up a vast arsenal of AK47s and handguns, tighter controls on access to weapons will be needed. Questions need to be asked as to why it is possible to acquire gins so easily in Molenbeek. According to one expert “with 500-1000 euros you can get a military weapon in half an hour.”
Turning on the Syrian refugees and blaming them is another trap ISIS has laid in front of Europe and the US. ISIS loathed the fact that Syrians fled to Europe and did not seek sanctuary inside their ‘Caliphate.’ Be in no doubt that ISIS did abuse the refugee routes into Europe, precisely to advance Trojan horse fear mongering. Far right and ultranationalist parties in Europe have all too predictably played ISIS’s tune. The fear must be that, even if ISIS does not achieve this goal with the Paris attacks, future atrocities will likewise be designed to create a greater backlash against Syrian refugees. Europe must not ditch its humanity when dealing those who have left everything, many of whom are already victims of ISIS.
Muslim communities in Europe will be another target with ISIS seeking to exploit any grievances. Feelings of exclusion are precisely what ISIS and Al-Qaeda have profited from. Muslims have much to lose and will need to work hard within their communities to keep extremism at bay. The authorities have to engage with such communities more effectively adopting an attitude of partnership not suspicion. We need to find ways of increasing decent employment opportunities in such areas as Molenbeek in Belgium, where these attacks seem to have been planned. Too many leaders in Europe and the United States are not prepared to enter into a meaningful working relationship with Muslim communities and for many bashing Muslims is a vote winner. Well it is a vote winner of sorts for ISIS too.
Across the world Muslims are watching how Europe reacts. So are ISIS recruiters. Politicians would be best advised to remind their constituents, some of whom are genuinely scared, that Muslims have been the greatest victims of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Highlight how ISIS violates Islamic principles and values every single day.
Point out that Muslims are fully pledged citizens and the overwhelming majority are genuinely patriotic. A 2011 survey in Britain showed that patriotic feelings averaged higher in Muslim communities than in the overall population. The huge outpourings of solidarity with Paris must be replicated when non-western cities are similarly blighted. They are not lesser victims.
The best antidote to ISIS and Al-Qaeda is our unity and our values. Ditch either of these and they start to win. Stand firm and these merchants of death have no chance.
This article by Chris Doyle of CAABU, the Council for Arab British Understanding, was originally published by Al Arabiya