A candlelight vigil in Prague in memory of last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, 14 November 2015
“If they assume killing our men and women and children and burning our homes and markets will shake our will and determination, they are wrong.” These are the recent and outraged words of a leader at war, engaged in what many view as a struggle to the death with a genocidal foe bent on precipitating apocalypse. Just last week, its suicide bombers killed scores of men, women, and children indiscriminately in once bustling city streets. Yet this is not French President Francois Hollande, but rather Hassan Nasrallah, the reclusive leader of Hezbollah, and the city is not Paris, but rather its Middle Eastern counterpart, Beirut.
Meanwhile, the leader of another country recently struck by Islamic State (IS) is seeking new emergency measures – constitutional amendments, warrantless search and seizures, and increased military and surveillance funding – in the name of counterterrorism. Rather than the policies of the increasingly autocratic Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or the unabashedly dictatorial Egyptian President, Fateh al-Sisi, they belong to President Hollande himself.
That an infamous terrorist-cum-political leader from the Middle East and a sitting French president have reason to speak in nearly identical fashion regarding a common adversary, and that the French plan of action reads like a blueprint ripped from a blackboard in Istanbul or Cairo, should give any observer pause. The geopolitical fallout of the Paris attacks will take months to settle, and is already inducing a sea change in Western policy toward the Syrian civil war. Yet before a thoroughly shocked and awed Western public rallies around its collective military might, it would do well to internalize three lessons from the devastation wrought in Paris.
“Never Send to Know for Whom the Bell Tolls; It Tolls for Thee”
The Western world is awash with blue, white, and red – its iconic buildings and social media profiles bathed in the translucent glow of the French tricolor. The West has been struck at its heart, the City of Light invaded by an army of darkness. As after 9/11, the West is preparing to close ranks, steeling itself for a conflict whose only certainty will be the painful costs in blood and treasure. With declamations of Liberté, égalité, fraternité!, millions have proclaimed their support for the Fifth Republic. And yet, some are left wondering: What of the cedar tree?
To speak of themes like equality and brotherhood, and to call the Paris assault an “attack on all humanity,” while barely acknowledging the carnage caused by IS in more culturally distant lands like Lebanon, is to show a bizarre form of emotional dissonance. Since October 10, similar attacks conducted by IS have claimed over 502 innocent lives, injuring nearly 1,000 more: an Ankara peace rally; a Metrojet flight laden with Russian tourists out of Sharm el-Sheikh; a market and a mosque in Beirut; and now the neighborhoods of Paris. Turkey, Russia, Lebanon, and France have all felt the newfound global lethality of IS, but only the Parisians have felt the support of whole nations.
Here is the first lesson for a Western public looking for answers and a path forward: When it comes to victims of the IS onslaught, universalize empathy and trivialize no tragedy. Incidents like those in Paris and Beirut, Ankara and the Sinai, may have unique geopolitical dimensions, but the human costs, irrespective of the victims’ nationalities, are the same. Was a Hezbollah stronghold devastated because of that group’s alignment with the Syrian government, or did one selfless father tackle a suicide bomber and prevent dozens of additional deaths? Was Paris struck because of France’s role in the US-led coalition in Syria, or were 132 innocents, most under 30 years of age, lost to indescribable carnage on a peaceful Friday night?
The answer in each case, unequivocally, is both – and the same holds true for the Ankara and Metrojet tragedies. Expressions of grief and support are hollow when proffered selectively and unintentionally deepen the divides between the peoples facing IS, much to the latter’s gain.
L’État, C’est Moi: al-Baghdadi’s Coming Storm
The targeted states are linked not only by their victimhood and the brutality of the methods employed against them, but also by the methodical manner in which they were struck in such rapid succession. These attacks, which were likely connected, signal a shift in IS’s strategy in response to unsustainable attrition.
IS is beginning to feel the pain of mounting losses in manpower and the steady creep of anti-IS forces in northern Syria and western Iraq. This series of brazen attacks, unlikely to end any time soon, was likely planned months in advance. Paris was a highly professional assault on the order of the Mumbai attack, and is indicative of careful preparation and the involvement of higher authorities within IS.
Lone wolves, for their part, tend not to suddenly happen upon multiple suicide vests, a cache of AK-47s, and a coterie of fellow human bombs and logistical support staff, just as relationships with airport security and local nationals do not develop overnight. While it is possible that these attacks were all the work of local IS cells operating independently or with only the tacit support of Raqqa, that would be oddly coincidental.
Until now, for all the talk of IS being a terrorist organization, it has behaved far more like a proto-state than an outfit like al-Qaeda. Yet since its failure to seize Kobane, its cult of the offensive has fallen flat and it has suffered a steady series of quiet defeats across Syria and Iraq. If this trend holds, then IS will continue to shift more attention and resources to terrorism and its vaunted “coming storm” rather than conventional warfare. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, IS also excels at indiscriminate mass murder.
Après Assad, le Déluge?
The Western public must not let the emotions of the previous week run amok. To turn away refugees, to indulge in chauvinistic oratory, and most consequentially, to plunge forward into an intensified military campaign with no regard for post-conflict political restructuring will not make the West any safer. After all, winning the conventional war was never in serious doubt. Winning the peace, however, is a daunting task that no policymaker contemplates without beads of sweat forming on his or her brow.
What must be understood, despite the clamor for al-Baghdadi’s head, is that nearly every player in the Syrian civil war is vying for future negotiating position – and the only groups seeking unconditional military victory are IS and the enraged masses of the West. The real question is what will happen in the years after the guns go silent, rather than who can wield theirs with greater efficacy in the present moment.
Many baffled Americans, for example, cannot fathom why the US military has only just begun bombing fixed Syrian oil infrastructure, given that it provides IS with millions in monthly revenue. Indeed, completely eliminating this revenue stream for IS makes tactical sense. But what sources of revenue are to be left to those Syrian survivors at the war’s end? What will a new national economy be built upon – stitching together tents for IDP’s and returnees? To defeat IS militarily now, with no thought given to post-war exigencies, is to invite attack from IS’s inevitable successor amidst the smoking ruins of Syria.
Je Suis Paris, Ana Beirut
“There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex and sensitive times,” Facebook explained after being criticized for rolling out its “Safety Check” feature for Paris but not for other sites of recent terrorism. Facebook’s statement, though tone-deaf in many ways, is instructive in at least one. The West must not regard these attacks as a Cofer Black turning point in the war against IS, only to repeat the failures of the War on Terror ad nauseam.
This is the moment to look upon the heavily beaten path littered with yesteryear’s hapless overreactions like so much garbage in the streets of Beirut and chart a new way forward. People in the West must recognize suffering beyond what they feel themselves, calmly assess an implacable nemesis and make sense of its actions, and demand more than reactionary military intervention in response. If Paris and Beirut prove to be half as instructive as they were viscerally appalling, then these three lessons may yet be taken to heart.
Chris Newton is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, pursuing a one-year fellowship with AVSI Foundation in Juba, South Sudan.