In politics, as in war, success belongs to those who can seize the initiative.
After the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris, France has decided to intensify its military air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. French President Francois Hollande took the posture of a war leader, thus rendering harder any criticism by the French opposition.
Although French citizens are deeply shocked by the attacks, they have displayed a dignified response. Such attacks confirmed that everyone could be a victim of terrorism in their daily life: while going to a restaurant, a musical concert, or a football match.
However, they did not give in to the demons of division: They did not equate terrorists with Muslims (many victims of the attacks were Muslim) and affirmed their determination not to change their lifestyle.
We must now get used to the terrorist threat. This means that one should not succumb to denial or paranoia. There is indeed a terrorist risk, but as much as there are other risks (sickness, accidents) that call for vigilance and preventive measures, while going on with life as usual.
How do we overcome ISIL? To answer this question, we face a double contradiction. On the one hand, we know that we cannot defeat ISIL without a military intervention on the ground. But, on the other hand, we also know that a ground intervention initiated by the West, the Russians or the Iranians would only strengthen ISIL.
The question is how to intervene on the ground without giving ISIL an opportunity to depict this intervention as a Western plot against the Sunnis and a return of the Crusader era.
The only way out is to get the Sunni countries, the Gulf countries, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey to intervene, since they have more legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis.
France’s position vis-a-vis Bashar al-Assad does not derive from a moral motivation … it has more to do with realpolitik.
But we are still far from reaching a consensus on this point. The ground military intervention can only be the prerogative of Sunni countries that not only have the military means, but are also ready to act and coordinate among themselves. Everyone now identifies ISIL as the main enemy, be it the Russians, the French, the Iranians, the Gulf countries, Egypt, Jordan or the Turks.
However, there is a secondary issue that impedes the reaching of a consensus. While all parties consent on diagnosing the disease, when it comes to the treatment, no consensus has been reached.
The Kurdish question is a central issue for the Turks, who favour a containment of the Kurds to abort any attempts/risks of secession. In their view, this is a more important issue than defeating ISIL.
Rising power of Iran
The Saudis, on the other hand, fear the rising power of Iran in the region, as they consider it an expansionist nation. They also fear that the agreement on the nuclear deal with Tehran secures the means with which it can further its regional ambitions.
The Iranians themselves want to continue to control Iraq, to exercise influence on Syria and have access to Lebanon since Hezbollah is deemed as the only exported success of their revolution. They do not plead for the reintegration of Sunnis in Iran’s politics. Nevertheless, this is what weakens ISIL. The Russians want to keep Bashar al-Assad in power. And the French want to defeat ISIL but get rid of Assad.
France’s position vis-a-vis Bashar al-Assad does not derive from a moral motivation (such as refusing to deal with someone who has blood on his hands); it has more to do with realpolitik.
Like the US, the French consider the Syrian president as the best recruiter for ISIL, and so long as Assad remains in power, ISIL will continue to be regarded by a segment of the Syrian population as an alternative to his rule.
In order to put those differences aside, diplomatic consultations must accelerate. If all the concerned parties manage to reach a consensus on the fact that ISIL is the arch-enemy that requires putting aside all other points of contention, only then does a victory over ISIL become possible.
ISIL has committed a serious mistake by attacking Russia, France, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt as well as Mali, and threatened other countries. In doing so, it has strengthened those countries’ will to destroy it. But if ISIL’s endgame was to establish a caliphate between Syria and Iran, maybe it could have found a modus vivendi with other countries, thus becoming a manageable threat to the Gulf states, given their military superiority.
Even if the Western countries are repulsed by ISIL’s barbarity, they still have to accept the fact that this organisation actually runs large swaths of territory. Within this context, some US geopolitical experts began to argue that, in the past, Western democracies had dealt with the regimes of Stalin and Mao, who were responsible for more deaths than Assad. After all, the Americans were accommodating of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan before the September 11, 2001 attacks.
But by engaging in a direct onslaught against several countries, ISIL became an unacceptable threat. Was ISIL’s calculation based on the fact that the countries under attack would have too many differences to form a coalition?
Or that the ideological fervour of the new jihadist recruits could surpass ISIL’s losses as a result of the air strikes? This calculation is likely to fail. For now, the countries concerned haven’t fallen into the trap.
There has not been a surge of Islamophobia in Europe as ISIL had hoped. There was no – and there will be no – Western military “boots on the ground” intervention.
What remains to be done is the formation of a broader political and military coalition to defeat ISIL. The members of this coalition must agree to set aside their differences because ISIL is the most urgent threat to confront. And for military means to be effective, they must ultimately serve a political solution.
Pascal Boniface is founding director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) in Paris.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
This article was written in French by Pascal Boniface and translated into English by Ali Saad.