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After Paris – the Futility of the Blame Game

November 17, 2015

Rouget de Lisle, composer of the Marseillaise, sings it for the first time

I have few words to say about Paris beyond what has already been said, except that it is one of my favourite cities, and that France is a country I love deeply.

Many commentators far smarter than me have written enough wise and moving words about the dead and the wounded, and about the perpetrators and their motivation.

But if there’s just one though I keep coming back to whenever I read about the tragedy in Syria, Iraq, Beirut and Paris, it’s this: at what stage do past events cease to be opportunities to find culprits and turn into history? At what stage do we move from blaming to understanding?

After the last guilty man or woman dies, would be one answer. Which is why we continue to pursue Nazi war criminals, arrest a soldier on suspicion of murder committed in Northern Ireland thirty years ago and agitate for those who got us into the Iraq war in 2003 to go on trial for war crimes. Which is also why some of the relatives of Mohammed Emwazi’s victims would rather he had lived to face trial for the crimes of which he was accused.

To an extent the line is artificial. Blame is the brother of hatred, and hatred runs deep. Christians still blame Jews for the death of Jesus. Shiites still rail at the Caliph Yazid ibn Muawiya for the killing of Imam Hussain. And in Northern Ireland, more than three hundred years after the Battle of the Boyne, King Billy is still a symbol of oppression among the Catholic minority of the Six Counties. Crusades and a hundred other events etched into the memories of those who live around the battlegrounds continue to feed ancestral grudges today.

As for the origins of ISIS, you will find far more people who take to Twitter and point the finger of blame at a list of states and individuals than those who say enough – that was then, this is now; we have to deal with the present and the future rather than endlessly ruminate on the causes.

Worse still is the tendency to draw lessons from dubious historical parallels. Because of the adverse consequences of our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, some of us say that we shouldn’t be contemplating action on the ground against ISIS. Just as those who urged us not to resist Hitler’s empire-building did so because they didn’t wish to see a repeat of World War I.

Those who most energetically point the finger often seem to be the ones reluctant to propose a way forward. For many Western voices it seems to be enough to use blame to confirm a world view. It’s all the fault of American or British imperialism, globalisation, capitalism, the banks, the super-rich, the military-industrial complex, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Monsanto and so on. And in the Middle East, the same people who blame America for all their ills, are the one who happily chat on their IPhones, drive their Ford pick-ups and watch Hollywood movies. Far easier to blame than take responsibility.

Jeremy Corbyn, the recently-elected leader of the Labour party, has never been kindly disposed towards America, its actions and motives during his political career. He is saying that we should try and achieve peace in what’s left of Syria before turning our attention on ISIS. That’s all very well, but with fifty factions vying for influence, with the international players that have a stake in the future of Syria all looking for different outcomes, a settlement will, to put it mildly, require a miraculous alignment of interests. Until that miracle comes to pass, how will Corbyn’s position resonate with the voters if ISIS manages to mount a Paris-style attack in the UK?

For what it’s worth, I agree with those who say that in the short term boots on the ground will be required to eliminate ISIS. In terms of capability the most effective boots would most likely be Western. But if the result is further casualties and further bitterness against the West, the destruction of Baghdadi’s gang will ultimately be futile. One insurgency will simply be replaced by another. And “victory” in Syria and Iraq will not make the radicalised citizens of France, Britain and Belgium go away. They will switch their allegiance to the next group.

So what’s the solution? There are plenty of opinions, but the problem is that nobody really knows, because the recipe of circumstances and interests that produced ISIS can’t easily be mapped onto similar events from the past. In this case, experience is no guide to the future. And this is also why those who try to deconstruct the situation are far more comfortable finding scapegoats than coming up with a coherent way forward.

For sure, defeating ISIS in Syria, Iraq and other areas where their tentacles are spreading would buy time to create some form of lasting settlement in the region, just as the suppression of Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the Anbar Awakening provided an opportunity for Iraq to organise itself into a non-sectarian state – something that it lamentably failed to do under Nouri al-Maliki.

It would also deprive its followers in the West of a focal point for their efforts. The terror threat would not go away, but groups operating in Western countries would have to become relatively autonomous. Whether that would make them easier to track down is debatable, but if Iraq and Syria no longer served as a training ground for jihadis, the effectiveness of the home-grown groups would probably decline.

In terms of tactics, it’s pretty obvious to this observer with no military training that bombs can certainly degrade. But recent experience shows that they can’t, as Barack Obama suggested, destroy ISIS. And if a coalition of Middle Eastern forces can’t be assembled to provide the boots on the ground that can take the territory without further exacerbating sectarian divides (and that’s a big ask, hence the widespread opinion among Arab commentators that only “moderate” Sunnis can defeat the Sunni extremists), then increased use of special forces might tip the balance.

It’s almost impossible to function as a “state” – which ISIS aspires to do – if you have no control of your airspace, if your leaders are continually in hiding from the bombs and drones. Even more difficult if your institutions can be targeted at will and without notice by helicopters disgorging highly-trained special forces. Just as ISIS thrives at home and abroad on surprise attacks, the same tactics used against it would surely have a telling effect. These days Western opinion tends to be less squeamish about special forces rather than the use of conventional ground troops. The big question is whether there are sufficient intelligence sources on the ground to ensure that the raiders hit the right targets without causing mass casualties among the innocents. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi suggests that those sources do exist. In sufficient numbers? That remains to be seen.

The British prime minister David Cameron tells us that the UK government plans to recruit a large number of additional security services operatives. I suppose the announcement is designed to make us all feel a little safer. But in reality the effect of hiring a couple of thousand extra staff will make little difference for at least a couple of years. After all, these people need to be recruited and then trained.

Of equal significance  – again in the longer term – are the government’s plans to invest a further £1.9 billion in cybersecurity, and a similar amount to be spent on equipping the British special forces. Although Cameron announced that the SAS will have a role in defending the country against Paris-style attacks, the money will surely enhance their ability to operate abroad.

Whether or not special forces play an increasing part in the conflict, in the absence of a political solution that leads to an effective military response to ISIS, the benighted lands of Syria and Iraq will continue to be the stage for trial and error on all sides.

Back at home, we in the UK, France, Belgium and all other countries potentially under attack will need to treasure our common values, societies, institutions and way of life, and reflect on what life would be like without them rather than focus only on their imperfections. And if we can’t help those amongst us who hate them to change their minds, then the consequences will be unpredictable, and probably dire.

I for one don’t want to live in an Islamic State under the black flag. But neither do I want to live in a police state. Ultimately, we have to make sure that we don’t have to choose between the two.


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