By Divya Kumar Soti*
As the horrors and plot of 13/11 Paris Attack unfold, its comparison with 26/11 Mumbai carnage becomes unavoidable given the striking similarities in the nature of soft targets chosen by the plotters. But there are stark distinguishing features too. 26/11 Mumbai attacks were basically a Foreign Intelligence Service sponsored act of proxy war against India where terrorists were directed at every step by their Pakistan-based handlers to carry-out prolonged scenes of horror through arson and firing occurring after short intervals. 26/11 was a hit and sit operation, but where terrorists were ultimately neutralized by the Indian Security forces. 13/11 Paris attacks were based on the strategy of quick massacre where terrorists either blew themselves up or absconded. From what we know now, leaving one, most of the attackers blew themselves up as soon as they came into contact with French Security Forces and two of them fled the sight only to be apprehended and killed in a raid a few days after this deadly November night.
While 9/11 attacks changed the geopolitics of the world, 26/11 did not. From the western viewpoint, Pakistan continues to be a useful, rather indispensable, rogue state which was to be financed to manage Afghanistan, Jihadism and its nukes were to be saved from any material punishment which may be inflicted by India in retaliation of its war by means of terror. The aftermath of 26/11 in which the West continued to maintain its double-standard on terrorism has some lessons, foremost being that international community’s response to terrorism is guided by hardcore geopolitics and not by the gravity of human tragedy. What takes place matters, but where these tragedies unfold matters more.
Terror threat to Europe emanates from the upturning of Middle-Eastern order which the European colonial powers themselves began indulging in after the dissolution of Ottoman Empire at the end of First World War, giving it final shape during the Cold War. This order or system in the Middle East compartmentalized and forced a hand on the forces of Islamist Imperialism which throughout the history have always tried to burst out of this region, and placed dictatorial regimes as air tight lids over these compartments. Another feature of this system was that it was rooted in the imbalance of power between Sunnis and Shias. In that it somehow tried to preserve the historical Sunni hegemony over Middle East. During its tenure, this order ensured stability for the outside world as Islamist threat to Europe and Africa remained distant.
Now, this order stands destroyed due to various geopolitical events: 2003 Iraq invasion, Arab Spring and re-emergence of the Shia Power led by Iran. Islamic State, al-Nusra and lot of other such groups are basically projections of proxy reaction by Sunni monarchies to the rise of Shia Power in Iraq and Syria. While this new “Shia Arc” could have envisaged a new order rooted in the balance of Shia-Sunni Power in the Middle East, it remains unacceptable to Sunni Islamists in Arab world as such a balance never existed since medieval times and does not merit their contemplation. But the rise of Shia Power is a reality now and more likely an irreversible phenomenon.
Then there is a Russian twist to the whole saga. In the last few years, Putin’s Russia has made formidable strategic gains in Eurasia and after consolidating itself in Ukraine has emerged as a strong power arbitrator in Syria and Iraq. Seen from NATO’s point of view, after deploying Area-Denial-Weapon-Systems, turning East European skies into a vulnerable space for NATO Aircrafts, Russia has burst out of Eurasian heartland expanding its naval presence the Eastern Mediterranean and now its air power stands deployed in Syria encircling the NATO Missile Defense Batteries deployed in Turkey.
Entry of Russia into the Syrian Conflict in support of Shia Assad has created a policy dilemma for US as well as Europe. The approach of US and its European allies had been to declare Assad and Islamic state equally bad while leaving out some other militant groups terming them as moderates. Ironically, some US and European commentators took this narrative to such a high pitch that groups like Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front started to look moderate in comparison to IS.
Putin figured out this absurdity and took a leap into the Syrian Conflict. Russia’s stance has been to club IS and many other Islamist groups in the elimination category as it plans to sustain the Assad regime. Before 13/11 Paris attacks, traditional specter of Russian strategic expansion loomed large on European capitals and Islamic State suddenly looked like a by-the-way enemy. Recently, the French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had criticized the Russian intervention in Syria in unequivocal terms saying the Russian intervention was only aimed at saving Assad and is not going after the IS.
But now the carnage on Paris streets has pushed the traditional fear of Russian advance to the backburner. President Putin, who had to cut short his visit during the last year’s G-20 summit in Brisbane as he found himself cornered, was setting the narrative on Middle East and Global War on Terror at this year’s G-20 gathering which happened in the immediate aftermath of Paris attacks.
While the G-20 meeting progressed, marking a complete policy shift, President Hollande told the French Parliament: “In Syria, we’re looking for the political solution to the problem, which is not Bashar Assad. Our enemy in Syria is ISIL.” Prior to that in Vienna where foreign ministers of 20 stakeholder nations met a day after Paris attacks to discuss Syrian Peace Process, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sounded assertive about Russia proposed transition plan and classification Syrian Islamist Groups. He said that there is “no justification for us not doing much more to defeat ISIS and al Nusra and the like”.
He was unequivocal in identifying the problem in Syrian conflict which according to him is not about Assad and that ISIS is the enemy, a view which now stands echoed in the new French policy. On the other hand, Secretary Kerry sounded ambiguous and confused on the classification of the groups fighting in Syria and their motivations: “It can’t end as long as Bashar Assad is there. That’s the perception of the people waging the War.”
Whatever may be the outcome of this proposed transition process, Shia power in both Iraq and Syria stands rescued from succumbing to the all round onslaught which means that Sunni monarchies will continue to finance jihadist groups in these countries and that terrorism may continue to spill out of this region particularly to Europe, North and West Africa.
While all this happens, the debate in US continues to be focused on stopping Russia. The US wants to go back into its classic isolationist mode but circumstances do not permit it this comfort. Steering through this confusion, it hopes to direct the events in Middle East through calculative use of air power and financing the proxies. Further, Washington is reeling under pressure from the Sunni Arab Allies like Saudi Arabia as well as Israel on the other hand to check Iran. As G-20 leaders in Turkey brainstormed over stabilizing the Middle East, the US cleared the sale of more than $1 billion worth of smart air ammunition to Saudis which they will probably use against Houthi Shias in Yemen.
In such circumstances, where the distinction between ‘good and bad terrorists’ may no longer catch the global interest, the classification of ‘useful’ terrorists vis-à-vis those that are not so useful will continue to be employed on the Syrian battlefront.
*Divya Kumar Soti is a national security and strategic affairs expert based in Delhi. He can be reached at: [email protected]