In the turmoil of the moment, French President Francois Hollande probably should be forgiven for calling the terrorist attacks of last Friday in Paris “an act of war.” It’s the kind of grandiose nonsense politicians say. Really, calling these massacres “war” is like referring to shooting fish in a barrel as “sport.”
Is he a “warrior” who turns his Kalashnikovs on a concert hall full of unarmed teenagers? How is this person any different than the sociopath who machine-gunned movie viewers in Colorado, or the pervert who calmly murdered 77 students in Norway, or the numerous shooters who are taking young lives in American schools? The claim that these crimes deserve esteem because they are done in the name of an ideology or a religion is laughable. The bullets and bombs in Paris sprayed death at random. No target of military significance was touched. No perceived symbol of religious insult like Charlie Hebdo was in the cross-hairs. The attacks hit no architectural icon of imperial domination, like the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. The only ideology that these acts expressed, if they expressed any, was anarchism and nihilism.
It does not dignify the cowards who carried out these killings that they took their own lives by triggering their suicide vests. If suicide made heroes or martyrs then Hitler was one. Almost all the school shooters in the U.S. also killed themselves. Their self-destruction was not heroism or martyrdom. It was an evasion of responsibility. If they had to stand before a tribunal, they would ultimately be overcome with shame.
But perhaps, in the larger picture, Hollande is not so far off, after all, to call this kind of encounter “war.” We have people sitting at computer screens in air-conditioned offices in Nevada committing mass murder of wedding parties by drone on the other side of the earth, and we call that “war.” We have pilots whose main fear is fuel shortage or mechanical failure flying bombing runs to obliterate unarmed villages and clearly marked hospitals. Our close allies and arms customers the Saudis, who behead more people each year than Daesh, drop an enormous tonnage of explosives on civilian targets in Yemen every week. Others have done and are doing the same. And all of that, and more, our press calls “war,” even though most of the time no one is shooting back.
Perhaps Hollande is right. The deliberate military massacre of civilians has been an integral part of war for as long as I’ve been alive. The Nazi bombardment of Rotterdam and of Guernica, the V-2 attacks on London were early examples. After overcoming initial scruples, the Allies answered with massive bombing of civilian populations in Hamburg, Essen, Dresden, and other cities. And what was the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki except an extreme act of terrorism against the civilian population?
So this is what war has come down to. Cowards with AK47s v. cowards with drones. There will be no quick end to this kind of conflict because it is all too easy for both sides. We can always build more drones. Daesh can easily recruit another eight or ten small-time criminals and misfits willing to end their meaningless lives in a media spotlight to the applause of the Salafist cheering squads.
Where is this going? France and the US and possibly others will retaliate with further and heavier air strikes, as they have begun to do with attacks on Raqqa. The pressure will grow to expand these strikes, to reduce the whole town to rubble, much as Hafez al-Assad did to crush the Islamist rebellion in Hama in 1982. But it’s probably too late for that. Daesh is far more deeply rooted and better organized. It is a devil’s medley of Salafist jihadism with Iraqi Baath party professionalism. It draws popular support from a Sunni minority ousted by the U.S. invasion and victimized by the Shia-based Baghdad regime that the U.S. installed and supports.
Of all the strategic stupidities committed by the U.S. in the Mideast, the invasion of Iraq stands as the poster child. Joe Biden is the author of an infamous paper advocating as war goal the breakup of Iraq into three countries: Shia, Sunni, and Kurd. Well, that has largely occurred. But the Shia section, which still controls Baghdad, is now virtually a satellite of neighboring Iran. The Sunni section has evolved into Daesh. Only the Kurds are still allies if not agents of U.S. policy, but at the price of renewed war with neighboring Turkey. Washington has spent trillions and killed hundred of thousands strengthening its old enemies and manufacturing new ones.
While the ideological message of the 11/13 Paris attacks is null and void, the provocative political intent is clear enough. Petty criminals and cowards are pawns in big and bold ambitions. Daesh reads French and probably also American politics as the ongoing slide of a fake liberalism and a hypocritical democracy into bankruptcy. It seeks to accelerate what it sees as the inevitable takeover of state power by the right wing. In this regard, Daesh is a kin of certain ultra-leftist fractions in the old Leninist movements who believed that “worse is better.” With the xenophobic and quasi-fascist right wing in power (so goes the reasoning) the substantial Islamist minority in France will become radicalized and will massively support Daesh. But much more important, Daesh calculates that the right-wing regime will muster the political will to do what neither Hollande nor Obama intend, namely to send large numbers of ground troops (back) into the Mideast theatre.
Neither side can win the current war of cowards. The 11/13 terrorist acts were inconsolable tragedies for the families and friends of the victims, but they are trivial scratches for France as a whole. France lost more than 25 times as many lives in traffic collisions in 2013. Neither this act nor its expected sequels will bring France to its knees. Similarly, as U.S. military experts have admitted, Daesh cannot be defeated by air power alone. Hence the political vortex toward returning “boots on the ground.”
That would be a real war, not an exchange of massacres as at present. It would bring opposing troops within mortar and rifle range of one another. There would be fighting from house to house, the setting of booby traps and the throwing of grenades. It would be Fallujah and Vietnam all over again. And that is precisely the kind of confrontation that Daesh is confident it can win. The 11/13 attacks were a piece of bloody bait to draw the Western powers into a Mideast ground war.
It looks like both Paris and Washington get this, at the moment. That’s why we hear the new emphasis on motivating “allies” and “local forces.” They understand that they need to win on the ground, but they want others to donate the necessary blood and treasure. The candidates are three: Iran and its Shia militias in Iraq, the Kurds, and a hypothetical Sunni force loyal to the Iraqi regime. But there are problems. There is not and will not be a meaningful Sunni force loyal to the Iraqi regime until there is regime change in Baghdad. Does the U.S. have the will and the power to make that happen? Secondly, the Kurds are being bombarded and hamstrung by the Turks. The U.S. has to lean on the Turkish regime to back off the Kurds and fight Daesh instead. Does the U.S. have the will and the power to lean hard on Turkey? Finally, there is the Shia militia allied with and largely controlled by Iran — by all accounts the only fighting force in the area with the capacity and scale to match Daesh. Does the U.S. have the will to throw its support to Iran and its allies (including Syria and Hezbollah) and to push back against the chief state sponsor of Salafist terror, Saudi Arabia? The answer to all three questions would have to be yes, before the strategy of relying on “local boots” to defeat Daesh has a chance.
If the U.S. will not or cannot bring about regime change in Baghdad, lean hard on the Turks and the Saudis, and make a wartime alliance with Iran and Iran’s allies, then this war of cowards will probably continue. The chances are good that a similar provocation will take place in the U.S. some time before the 2016 presidential election. It’s not unthinkable that such an event will bring into the White House a candidate pledged to send American ground troops back into Iraq. If that happens, Daesh will have won its greatest victory.