By Olivier Roy
November 16, 2015
As President François Hollande of France has declared, the country is at war with the Islamic State. France considers the Islamist group, also known as ISIS, to be its greatest enemy today. It fights it on the front lines alongside the Americans in the Middle East, and as the sole Western nation in the Sahel. It has committed to this battle, first started in Mali in 2013, a share of its armed forces much greater than has the United States.
On Friday night, France paid the price for this. Messages expressing solidarity have since poured in from all over the Western world. Yet France stands oddly alone: Until now, no other state has treated ISIS as the greatest strategic threat to the world today.
The main actors in the Middle East deem other enemies to be more important. Bashar al-Assad’s main adversary is the Syrian opposition — now also the main target of Russia, which supports him. Mr. Assad would indeed benefit from there being nothing between him and ISIS: That would allow him to cast himself as the last bastion against Islamist terrorism, and to reclaim in the eyes of the West the legitimacy he lost by so violently repressing his own people.
The Turkish government is very clear: Its main enemy is Kurdish separatism. And a victory of Syrian Kurds over ISIS might allow the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., to gain a sanctuary, and resume its armed struggle against Turkey.
The Kurds, be they Syrian or Iraqi, seek not to crush ISIS so much as to defend their newfound borders. They hope the Arab world will become more divided than ever. They want to seize Sinjar because it is in a Kurdish area. But they won’t attack Mosul, because that would be playing into Baghdad’s hands.
For the Kurds of Iraq, the main danger is seeing a strong central government emerge in Baghdad, for it could challenge the de facto independence of Iraqi Kurdistan today. ISIS stands in the way of the creation of any such power.
The Shiites of Iraq, no matter what pressure they face from America, do not seem ready to die to reclaim Falluja. They will defend sectarian borders, and will never let Baghdad fall. But they are in no hurry to bring the Sunni minority back into Iraq’s political mainstream; if they did, they would have to share power with it.
For the Saudis, the main enemy isn’t ISIS, which represents a form of Sunni radicalism they have always supported. So they do nothing against it, their main enemy being Iran.
The Iranians, for their part, want to contain ISIS but not necessarily to destroy it: Its very existence prevents the return of the kind of Arab Sunni coalition that gave them such trouble during their war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
Then there is Israel, which can only be pleased to see Hezbollah fighting Arabs, Syria collapsing, Iran mired in an uncertain war and everyone forgetting the Palestinian cause.
In short, no regional player is willing to send out its forces, bayonets at the ready, to reclaim land from ISIS. Then again, unlike after 9/11, neither are the Americans. The United States’ strategy today relies on waging a war from afar, based on aerial strikes; Washington does not have the political will to send ground troops. Containment will have to do, and so, too, will killing terrorists by way of bombs and drones.
But war is not won without infantry.
France is perhaps alone in wanting and trying to annihilate ISIS. Only it doesn’t have the means to wage such a war on two fronts, in both the Sahel and the Middle East.
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Yet if France lacks the means to live up to its ambitions, fortunately for its sake, so does ISIS. Much as with Al Qaeda earlier, the successes of ISIS increasingly amount to its grabbing headlines and the attention of social media. The ISIS system has already hit its limits.
It had two prongs: lightning-quick territorial expansion, and shock and awe. ISIS is hardly an Islamic “state,” if only because, unlike the Taliban, it claims no specific territory or boundaries. It is more like a caliphate, forever in conquest mode — occupying new lands, rallying Muslims from around the world — like the Muslim expansionist movement during Islam’s first century. This feature has attracted thousands of volunteers, drawn by the idea of fighting for global Islam rather than for a piece of the Middle East.
But ISIS’ reach is bounded; there are no more areas in which it can extend by claiming to be a defender of Sunni Arab populations. To the north, there are Kurds; to the east, Iraqi Shiites; to the west, Alawites, now protected by the Russians. And all are resisting it. To the south, neither the Lebanese, who worry about the influx of Syrian refugees, nor the Jordanians, who are still reeling from the horrid execution of one of their pilots, nor the Palestinians have succumbed to any fascination for ISIS. Stalled in the Middle East, ISIS is rushing headlong into globalized terrorism.
The attack against Hezbollah in Beirut, the attack against the Russians in Sharm el Sheikh and the attacks in Paris had the same goal: terror. But just as the execution of the Jordanian pilot sparked patriotism among even the heterogeneous population of Jordan, the attacks in Paris will turn the battle against ISIS into a national cause. ISIS will hit the same wall as Al Qaeda: Globalized terrorism is no more effective, strategically, than conducting aerial bombings without forces on the ground. Much like Al Qaeda, ISIS has no support among the Muslim people living in Europe. It recruits only at the margins.
The question now is how to translate into action the outrage sparked by Friday’s attacks in Paris. A massive ground operation by Western forces, like the one conducted in Afghanistan in 2001, seems out of the question, if only because an international intervention would get mired in endless local conflicts. A coordinated offensive by local powers seems unlikely, given the differences among their goals and ulterior motives: It would require striking a political agreement among regional actors, starting with Saudi Arabia and Iran.
So the road ahead is long, unless ISIS suddenly collapses under the vanity of its own expansionist aspirations or tensions between its foreign recruits and local Arab populations. In any event, ISIS is its own worst enemy.
Olivier Roy is a professor at the European University Institute in Florence and the author of “Globalized Islam”
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