How should we deal with the Islamic State?

nationalThe terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November opened the eyes of those who still refused to see the following fact: France is engaged in an internal and external war against the Islamic State. But one question remains: what should we do?

The Paris terrorist attacks demonstrated that France is now inextricably tangled in the geopolitical crisis triggered by the Islamic State group. What’s more, the fact that there is large Muslim population in our country means that internal stability and our very institutions are directly targeted by this new form of international terrorism.

The Islamic State may well be a proto-state, but it governs a territory. And it commands terrorists outside of its borders: some of the terrorists came from Syria, as confirmed by a report written by the Swiss Prosecutor General’s Office, recently published in the press.

Its considerable financial means come from local racketeering, the sale of oil, and the smuggling of art works. Its stock of weapons – from Iraq – is equal to that of neighbouring states and the danger is that one day it could obtain chemical weapons. The aim of the Islamic State is to create a Middle Eastern “caliphate” which will then be expanded to include every Muslim country.

Of course, its troops have recently suffered defeats on the ground, notably against Kurdish and Iraqi troops. But it clearly continues with a double strategy. An offensive strategy of territorial expansion, which is currently focused on Libya and which, ultimately, will target Saudi Arabia, which is currently fragile and remains ambiguous vis-à-vis the Islamic State.

There is also a defensive strategy aimed at preventing any foreign intervention on its territory. This first took the form of an asymmetric war, which was at the origin of the Islamic State, lead by former Sunni Muslim Iraqi soldiers who led a revolt following the American and British occupation of the country. This was a victory for them as they had thwarted American plans for Iraq, with almost every single American soldier leaving the country before it regained stability.

A terrorism that takes on many forms

This asymmetric war then took on the form of international terrorism. The attack on a Madrid train station (in Atocha – 190 people killed) in 2004 triggered the electoral defeat of the conservative President Aznar and led to the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. As for the Paris attacks on the 13th November, they isolated France within the EU, many members of which believed that Paris would have been better advised not carry out air-strikes on Islamic State positions.

This is precisely the desired aim: pressurise Paris into abandoning military intervention. Added to this is the fact the Islamic State can only profit from Europe’s state of shock faced with the mass influx of refugees and the radicalisation of certain young Muslims who will leave the country to join the ranks of the Islamic State terrorists.

This form of terrorism is therefore multifaceted: in its indigenous form, it finds its human resources in our suburbs; in its international form, the Islamic State uses terrorism to blur the national boundaries by terrorising the local population, using rigourous logic and theological arguments to discredit the opposition and, through repeated attacks and repression, gaining the support of certain populations.

What can we do ?

Faced with the Islamic State, two priorities must guide French efforts : domestic security and the stabilisation of not only the Middle East but also North Africa and the Sahel. For the whole of the Sunni Muslim world is at stake, and we must take this together as a whole. The situation has become so bad that the option of non-intervention advocated by some (which was probably the best option for Iraq in 2003 and which, without any doubt, would have been the best option for Libya in 2011) is now an inadequate response to the threat posed by the Islamic State.

We must, therefore, concentrate our forces and divide those of our adversary. From the French point of view, the most urgent priority is to find allies. We need to acknowledge that our strategic interests coincide with those of Russia and Egypt but are at odds with those of Saudi Arabia and Turkey and are different from those of the United States, which still believes that its main opponents in the region are Russia and Iran.

In the Sahel region of Africa, France cannot disregard cooperation with Algeria, even if relations are complicated. The risk is to repeat the same sort of mistake made during the Cold War by making the war against the Islamic State the focal point of relations. There are local opposition movements that can be exploited, whether it be between Sunni groups or regarding the Kurds. The situation needs to be assessed in a strictly objective fashion.

Action abroad and action at home

The fact that this conflict takes on a form hitherto unseen means that there must be a precise coordination between action taken abroad and action taken at home.

Abroad, we must concentrate on the main enemy – and it is not Bashar Al-Assad! – and divide any other enemies.

First: target the vulnerable resources of the Islamic State (the transportation of oil, the sale of stolen art works, international financial transactions).

Secondly: rely on the support of Shia units in the region in order to drive back Islamic State on the ground, as the Kurds will refuse to intervene beyond the limits of their territory. In addition, the Kurds further complicate Western relations with Turkey, a Sunni power which is becoming increasingly “Ottoman”.

At home, a draconian but precise anti-terrorist policy is vital: this policy must prevent any Muslim solidarity with the terrorists, while taking into account both the foreign and domestic aspects of the strategy.

For the moment, Paris can work on two specific problems: stop the systematic opposition to Assad (we have already discretely began to do this) and look again at the Tuareg issue which existed before the problem of Islamic extremism in Mali.

A balanced policy

Looking ahead, how could the situation develop ? We know that the United States and its allies, in particular Saudi Arabia, are determined to create a Sunni state in the Middle East. On the other side, Iran (Russia’s ally) and Iraq together with the different Shia groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, intend to form a Shia confederation, geographically smaller in size than that of its rivals. Indeed, Iranian plans are regional in nature, whereas the Sunni project stretches from the Atlantic to Central Asia.

Aiming for a balance between these two key groups is in the interest of France even if, as is likely, the borders inherited from the First World War and the end of the Ottoman Empire will not survive the crisis. Moreover, with the help of Russia and Egypt, the second strand of this differentiated strategy should aim at allowing religious minorities – notably Christians, the Druzes and the Alawites – to stay along the Mediterranean coast, within range of aircraft carriers, in states such as Lebanon and Syria, and both countries should be encouraged to ensure that they come to no harm.

As for the United States, they will continue to guarantee Israeli security in the last resort. But as long as Jerusalem does not accept a state solution to the Palestinian issue, any attempt at reconstruction or stabilisation of the Middle East will fail sooner or later.

Regarding the growing threat to Libya by the Islamic State group, the solution is the same as that for the Sahel region: cooperate with Egypt and the North African countries whose leaders are directly threatened by the Islamic extremists.

The road will be long and difficult. It will demand a constant review of the organisation of the security services and armed forces, by finally admitting the much contested notion that security and defence are inextricably linked.

Translated from French

The original author was Georges-Henri Soutou, Professor of Contemporary History at Sorbonne University, Paris.


See also: Interview with the author (source TV Libertés)

English subtitles available


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