By Roberto Savio*
In the aftermath of the massacre in Paris on November 13, media throughout the world are calling for unity of the West and intensification of military action against the Islamic State (IS).
Of course, the Paris slaughter can only cause horror and mourning. But why can some very young people act so atrociously … and is it not also time to consider the responsibilities of the West in the rise of IS terrorism?
Among the many reflections that can be made on its roots, three stand out.
The first is that relations between the Arab world and the West carry with them the burden of an uneasy past.
In 1916, during the First World War, an agreement was made to divide the Ottoman Empire among France, Britain, Russia and Italy. The disappearance of the Russian Empire, and the opposition of Kemal Ataturk who was able to keep Turkey independent, left France and Britain to partition the rest.
Artificial countries were carved out at the negotiating table, and thus Syria and Iraq – to name just two of the countries at the centre of today’s scenario – were created. In the process, the negotiators, François Georges-Picot for France and Sir Mark Sykes for Britain, “forgot” to give some land to the Kurds, sowing the seeds for another modern-day problem, and rulers were installed in the new countries who were not legitimated by popular support and who never started a process of modernisation and democracy.
Then, in a brutally compressed nutshell, we come to today, with the growth of education and the arrival of Internet. Millions of educated and unemployed youth have always felt that the West had a great historical responsibility for their lives without a future and the Arab Spring of 2010-2012 brought more frustration.
In Egypt, dictator Hosni Mubarak, was replaced by another, Abdelfatah Al-Sisi, with the acquiescence of the West. And Tunisia, the only surviving democracy, received little real support.
It is important to note that the West tends to ignore the fact that what is happening today is due to three interventions: in Iraq, Syria and Libya. All three were intended to bring about a change of regime, and eliminate unsavoury dictators Hussein, Assad and Gaddafi – all in the name of democracy and freedom. But there were never any follow-up plans and the vacuum left by the dictators is obvious to all but the blind.
Meanwhile, the IS did not appear on the scene unnoticed.
A startling declaration came in July this year (and totally unreported elsewhere) in an Al Jazeera interview with Michael Flynn, a former head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Flynn said that, in 2007, neo-conservatives convinced then U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney to support initiatives to topple the Assad regime by creating a hedge between Syria and Hezbollah by backing the establishment of a “Salafist principality” in Eastern Syria. This would also play favourably for Israel.
Salafism, a radical and extreme branch of Sunnism, is the official religion of Saudi Arabia, which has spent large sums on exporting Salafism – and the IS is an offshoot of Salafism. What is astonishing is that in 2012, when the IS was beginning to appear, Flynn sent a report to the White House. Its lack of response, he said, was not they just turned a blind eye, it was “a willful decision” to let this happen.
It is a repetition of how Bin Laden was used in the war against the Russians in Afghanistan. But we should know now that it is impossible to ride fanaticism.
Anyhow, it is a fact that the West did not start to act against the IS until very late. And this fight is just a small point in the overall Syria mess, which is a proxy war, in which the enemies of the West – the Kurds, Hezbollah, the Iranians – are carrying out the real fight against the IS. And the allies of the West – Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and Turkey – are in fact not fighting the IS, but only Assad, while the Russian intervention was to prod the Assad regime, with very little action against the IS.
Perhaps Paris will change that, because Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot appear to be ignoring the IS, especially after Russia admitted that the IS blew up a Russian plane at the end of October. But, until now, the West has not really taken military action against the 50,000 fighters that the IS is estimated to have … unless aerial bombing is considered a serious action. It is also important to note that on Arab streets the unanimous view is that the IS could not exist without the tolerance of the West. While this is only a rumour, it helps to fuel the resentment.
We should not forget that the goal of the IS is to depose all kings and dictators and create a Salafist caliphate which will redistribute all the wealth from the Gulf to every country … and it was originally very much an internal affair of the Sunnite and Shiite Muslim world.
U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden put things clearly in public remarks on October 2014, when he said: “Our allies in the region … were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tonnes of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadism coming from other parts of the world.”
A second reflection concerns the Muslims in Europe, who are becoming increasingly linked to the IS.
France has a special situation, with 6 million Muslims, close to the population of Norway. Ten years ago, the same ghettos of Paris, which are now the main IS recruiting fields, were shaken by a sudden revolt which lasted 20 days, with over 10,000 cars burned.
All reports from the ghettos speak of unemployed youth shunned by French society. They are the second or third generation of immigrants who felt themselves to be French, but unlike their fathers have a crisis of identity and future, and see in the Caliphate revenge and dignity. There is unanimity that since the revolts of 10 years ago, frustration has only increased, and the same can be said of many young Muslim people all over Europe.
The recent simultaneous action in Paris by at least three groups, with several kamikazes coming from outside France, shows what we can expect in the future. And terrorism for the IS is mainly a recruitment technique. Every action increases the prestige of the Caliphate, and brings more frustrated European Muslims into its fold. Why has nobody written that it is now estimated that at least 50 percent of IS fighters come from abroad, when originally they were just Iraqis and Syrians?
The third reflection is that the West is now tragically in a no-win situation.
If it intervenes really militarily, it will deepen the conviction that it is the real enemy of the Arab world, Sunnites and Shiites alike. It can easily put the IS down militarily, but to solve the frustration and the spirit of revenge which is behind terrorism is quite another matter. The Paris massacre will put a stronger wedge between European Muslims and the European population, with further radicalisation which is also an IS calculation.
But if the West does not intervene, events such as Paris are politically impossible to ignore. The New York Times has just published an article by Michael Goodwin, an important neoconservative, calling on U.S. President Barack Obama to resign. A similar call from the opposition for the government to resign has been heard in several European countries and calls for an integrated European army are coming from several corners, among them Italian Minister of Defence Roberta Pinotti.
So, in conclusion, who is going to benefit from Paris?
First and foremost, all xenophobic and right-wing parties in Europe, which are also now able to “justify” their call for closing Europe to refugees. The new Polish Prime Minister-designate, Beata Szydlo, has already declared that, in the light of the Paris attacks, Poland cannot accept EU quotas for asylum seekers.
The popularity of the likes of Matteo Salvini (leader of Italy’s Lega Nord party), Marine Le Pen (leader of France’s National Front) and Pegida (Germany’s anti-Islamic movement) is increasing.
No doubt the inevitable animosity against Muslims will strengthen the appeal of the IS. So polarisation will increase, instead of tolerance, dialogue and inclusion: violence begets more violence.
It looks like we will be going from a time of greed into one of fear … and that, together with the growing impact of global warming, is increasingly being felt beyond rhetoric and easy declarations. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 November 2015]
*Roberto Savio is publisher of Other News, editorial adviser to IDN and adviser to Global Cooperation Council. He is also co-founder of Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and its President Emeritus. This is a revised version of an article published on Other News on November 17.