By John V. Whitbeck
FOR French President François Hollande, the attacks in Paris on November 13, carried out by French and Belgian citizens, changed everything.
His prior, oft-repeated mantra that “Assad must go” was consigned to the memory hole, defeating and destroying the Islamic State became France’s urgent priority and he set out to pull together a “grand coalition” of all concerned states to achieve the defeat and destruction of the Islamic State – a worthy goal if it were possible.
However, Mr. Hollande’s peripatetic travels last week and his meetings with David Cameron, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Matteo Renzi and Vladimir Putin have made clear that the attacks in Paris have not changed the priorities of the other states that might be concerned.
For the Sunni Gulf states, the priorities remain regime change in Syria (regardless of what might replace the regime), keeping Shiite Iran down and fighting perceived “Iranian proxies” (most notably now in Yemen).
For Turkey, the priorities remain regime change in Syria (regardless of what might replace the regime) and keeping the Kurds down, both in Turkey and in Syria.
For the United States and the United Kingdom, the priorities remain regime change in Syria (regardless of what might replace the regime), keeping Russia down and keeping the Sunni Gulf states happy.
For Russia and Iran, the priorities remain preventing another successful Western regime change in the region (after the Western “successes” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) and preserving the Syrian state, their long-time ally, and its state structures (with or without Bashar al-Assad).
For other countries without strong views on the merits or demerits of regime change in Syria, the Islamic State does not appear to be cause for undue concern. Their governments may also recognise that even modest or token involvement against the Islamic State would, without having any constructive impact, raise the risk of retaliation against their own people – perhaps, as in Paris, by “their own people”.
For many Sunnis living in the Islamic State, its harsh, austere and often savagely brutal rule appears preferable to restored rule by what are widely perceived by Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis to be Shiite-dominated or even Iranian-dominated governments.
Since it is widely recognised that aerial bombardments alone cannot defeat and destroy the Islamic State, since Western “boots on the ground” would be an avidly sought boon to the Islamic State and since the Sunni states of the region, which should logically fear the
Islamic State more than any other states elsewhere, currently show no interest whatsoever in deploying their own ground forces against fellow Sunnis, what are Western states to do?
Perhaps, rather than succumbing to hysterical calls for yet more and intensified violence in the Muslim world (regardless of the consequences) and intensified restrictions on civil liberties at home (certain to stimulate more conversions to jihadi militancy while diminishing the quality of life for all), Western states should relax, accept that the Islamic State is an ugly reality that is here to stay (at least for some considerable time), accept that containment is the best that can be hoped for and achieved in the near term (and that containment can best be achieved by the Iraqi and Syrian governments and their own military forces) and sit back and wait for the Islamic State’s aura of excitement to wear off, for it to become a failed state like so many other regional states in which the West has previously intervened and for the peoples of the region to sort out their own problems in their own way.
While it would clearly be desirable for the Islamic State to cease to exist sooner rather than later, that could only be achieved by a massive commitment of ground forces by the Sunni states of the region, and that would only become conceivable if Western states were to cease to claim “leadership” or “ownership” of the “war” against the Islamic State and to cease to ensure through their aerial bombardments the effective containment of the Islamic State which permits the Sunni states of the region to sit back, rest easy and commit their resources to pursuing other priorities which they deem more important and pressing.
Since, through its ill-conceived experiments on the Muslim world, the West has played the role of Dr. Frankenstein in creating the monster now called the Islamic State, it can be argued that the West has a moral responsibility to do everything in its power to right its wrongs in the region.
It would take a level of wisdom and courage rarely attained by Western politicians to recognise that, in the current circumstances and notwithstanding their moral responsibility, Western states can now achieve more by doing less and to act accordingly.
John V. Whitbeck is a Paris-based international lawyer who writes frequently on the Middle East