How do you destroy a hated group that thrives on hatred, or declare war without playing into your enemy’s clash-of-civilizations recruitment strategy?
As the world reels in the wake of a choreographed massacre targeting the bourgeois-bohème heart of Paris that left 129 people dead and more than 350 injured, world leaders have vowed to fight the so-called Islamic State with renewed resolve.
It isn’t clear, however, what exactly that fight will entail.
France launched “massive” airstrikesagainst ISIS’s self-proclaimed Syrian capital of Raqqa over the weekend.
U.S. President Barack Obama defended his strategy thus far and said he plans to intensify U.S. airstrikes on ISIS targets.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stuck to his pledge to pull Canada out of that same bombing mission, but said he’ll increase the resources Canada’s putting into training Iraqi forces to fight the Islamic State. Details to be fleshed out.
Behind all this bluster is a kind of fatalistic uncertainty and a multitude of terrible choices.
“I find [these reactions] characteristic of a global community, an international coalition, that’s not really coherent,” said Kamran Bokhary, a University of Ottawa specialist in countering violent extremism and author of Political Islam in the Age of Democratization.
“There’s a lot of talk. Everybody says, ‘Let’s go defeat ISIS!’ The question is, how? And that’s where everybody differs.”
“No one has a plan that’s viable,” he said.
Whose boots on which ground?
Chances are ISIS won’t be defeated through airstrikes alone. Done judiciously they probably wouldn’t be thorough enough; done thoroughly the civilian casualties would be unconscionable.
“At some point, someone will need to go in and clear the areas under ISIS control,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University’s Resilience Research Centre.
But whose troops should be tasked with taking out a sophisticated terror network that controls cities, territories, oil fields? What should their mandate be? Who should help them?
One major problem is that disparate actors have divergent motivations. Just getting the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran (and its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah), Iraq, the United Arab Emirates to agree on a framework, let alone to act on it in concert, would be a herculean task.
“National interests trump everything else,” Bokhari said.
Maybe it’s Turkey.
Maybe it’s some combination of Kurdish Pesh Merga and Syrian rebel forces, although Bokhari’s skeptical as to whether any of the latter are legitimately “moderate.”
In all likelihood it would mean the U.S. and others admit they’re going to have to live with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — a man who, human rights groups say, has gassed, barrel-bombed and starved his own people and has the blood of tens of thousands of civilians on his hands. A man Obama and others thought was on his way out four years ago.
“We could end up with the status quote we had in 2011,” Amarasingam said.
Can Canada pull out?
Trudeau has been adamant he plans to end Canada’s combat mission in Iraq by March.
Amarasingam isn’t so sure.
“I don’t think Trudeau will be able to pull out entirely,” he said.
“And if he does, I don’t know if it’s a smart thing to do. I don’t think what Syria needs now is disengagement.”
Even if Canada does end its bombing participation, said the RAND Corporation’s Linda Robinson, they’ll likely have plenty to do in other spheres — perhaps most critically in aiding whatever ground forces eventually go after ISIS.
“The U.S. will miss Canada’s role in that airstrike kinetic fight but it will welcome anything,” she said.
“I think Canada has a huge competence in these other arenas.”
‘They have laid a trap’
Friday’s bloodshed in Paris, Thursday’s bombing in Beirut and the previous week’s ISIS-instigated downing of a Russian jet all come as ISIS suffers military losses in both Syria and Iraq — the latter thanks in part to the bombing mission Canada’s vowed to end.
That’s no accident, Robinson said.
“[ISIS] has shown a very clear pattern: When attacked in one place, they pivot and launch another attack elsewhere,” she said.
“I think we have really crossed a rubicon with the attack in Paris.”
And it’s tricky for global response not to play right into ISIS’s hands.
“The greater the hostility toward Muslims in Europe and the deeper the West becomes involved in military action in the Middle East, the closer ISIS comes to its goal of creating and managing chaos,” Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid wrote Monday in the New York Review of Books.
“ISIS is taking advantage of Europe’s refugee crisis, and encouraging hostility and suspicion toward those legitimately seeking refuge in order to further drive a wedge between Muslims and European non-Muslims.”
Paris is a good place to do it: In addition to the City of Light, France is home to one of Europe’s largest Muslim populations.
But it’s also been bad at integrating them fully: They disproportionately populate the poorer banlieues around Paris; they figure disproportionately in France’s incarcerated population.
Disaffected young people, French by birth and citizenship but culturally segregated, have proven a fertile recruiting ground for ISIS and its ilk.
While many — including Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and a host of U.S. governors — cited the Paris attacks as reason to cancel or delay plans to resettle Syrian refugees, the people positively identified as perpetrators of Friday’s carnage have all been born in Europe. Same goes for the people behind the Charlie Hebdo killings and the 2005 Madrid bombing.
“ISIS insidiously struck Paris. They knew exactly what they were doing,” Bokhari said.
“They gamed this thing out very shrewdly and in a very sinister way.”
Friday’s attacks have emboldened right-wing nationalists in France and elsewhere and have pressured left-leaning French President Francois Hollande to appear tough on terrorists.
“That’s exactly what ISIS wants: You crack down on your Muslim communities in France and elsewhere in Europe. That creates more problems: It reinforces the conspiracy theory among Muslims that the West is out to get them,” he said.
“They have laid a trap.”
The battle for hearts and minds at home
It was clear on Monday just how well that trap had been laid, as politicians in both Canada and the United States suggested delaying or cancelling plans to resettle Syrian refugees, and Obama found himself having to denounce a suggestion from a U.S. presidential candidate that the country conduct a “religion test” to ensure any refugees it accepts are Christians.
“There has to be a consensus that, look, we’re not fighting Islam. We’re not fighting Muslims. We are fighting something that is perverting Islam,” Bokhari said.
He thinks that will be easier in North America than in Europe, where ethno-nationalism tends to be stronger.
“The trick in terms of making sure the bad guys stay out … really that will work only if we can not alienate our Muslim citizens.”
Much of the challenge for Canada and its allies, said Amarasingam, will be in working with communities to give young people in search of religious-political activism a healthier outlet.
“They need to empower communities at a very local level to work with these youth religiously, in the family, socially,” he said.
The RCMP has been mandated to do precisely this. It didn’t return requests from Global News Monday for comment.
And yes, Amarasingam says, that may mean discussing “jihad” — a religious term co-opted by terrorists.
“To have more honest discussions about what’s important to them, that can be part of the solution.”
As for refugees, no one would fault Canada or the U.S. for only taking in as many people as they can integrate, Bokhari said.
But keeping out refugees out of fear they’re terrorists?
“Then we’re basically handing victory to ISIS,” he said.
“They did this to affect the whole debate on refugees.”