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November 16, 2015

The Paris Attacks: Now What?

A few sort of connected thoughts...

We're in a new and deadly phase of the fight against ISIS. While ISIS has inspired many "lone wolf" attacks, their focus had been somewhat different than al-Qaeda's. Where AQ focused on these sort of spectacular, mass casualty attacks in the west, ISIS had a different focus.

Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)

...

The caliphate, Cerantonio told me, is not just a political entity but also a vehicle for salvation. Islamic State propaganda regularly reports the pledges of baya’a (allegiance) rolling in from jihadist groups across the Muslim world. Cerantonio quoted a Prophetic saying, that to die without pledging allegiance is to die jahil (ignorant) and therefore die a “death of disbelief.” Consider how Muslims (or, for that matter, Christians) imagine God deals with the souls of people who die without learning about the one true religion. They are neither obviously saved nor definitively condemned. Similarly, Cerantonio said, the Muslim who acknowledges one omnipotent god and prays, but who dies without pledging himself to a valid caliph and incurring the obligations of that oath, has failed to live a fully Islamic life.

Clearly with the downing of a Russian passenger jet, the bombings in Beirut and Baghdad, a thwarted attack in Turkey and the Paris operation, ISIS has opened another front in its war on modernity.

So why the change in tactics? One possible answer (beyond the obvious fact they are blood thirsty savages).

Before the fight for the Kurdish town of Kobani last year, the caliphate had an aura of invincibility, and people from around the world were rushing to envelop themselves in the black flag of messianic victory. But in that battle, which lasted for months, Kurdish paramilitaries backed by U.S. airpower fought well, while ISIS—at least as far as Abu Khaled characterizes it—needlessly sent thousands to their slaughter, without any tactical, much less strategic, forethought. The jihadist army had lost between 4,000 and 5,000 fighters, most of them non-Syrians.

“Double this number are wounded and can’t fight anymore,” Abu Khaled told me. “They lost a leg or a hand.” Immigrants, then, are requisitioned as cannon fodder? He nodded. In September of last year, at the apogee of ISIS’s foreign recruitment surge, he says the influx of foreigners amazed even those welcoming them in. “We had like 3,000 foreign fighters who arrived every day to join ISIS. I mean, every day. And now we don’t have even like 50 or 60.”

Now this is one media story from a Syrian who purports to have fought with ISIS and then left the group. Clearly some skepticism is in order. Still it's an interesting thought. ISIS needs to score "victories" to be the "strong horse" that all the losers want to join. The caliphate is like a shark, it needs to keep moving and eating to survive. Without a constant stream of victories, it looses legitimacy and appeal.

It's going to be a vicious cycle if true...defeats in Iraq and Syria lead to the need for more spectacular attacks in the west to entice future cannon fodder to the Mideast.

While it's necessary to understand the "whys" of ISIS the real issue is what we in the west do. And there things get...tricky.

Naturally, and correctly, there are calls for increased military action. Obama however doesn't seem interested.

Still, he'll be gone in just over a year but it's very likely ISIS will still be there. That means evaluating the candidates on their approach to this fight is important.

As I've said before, I'm a skeptic when it comes to more US led interventions. My issue isn't with the idea of fighting ISIS (we must) but that how and to what ends matters.


In short, is victory the destruction of ISIS or does it require the toppling of Assad as well?

No one doubts Assad is a bad actor who along with his henchmen deserve two bullets between the eyes and a shallow, unmarked grave. But…yes, there’s another but….what replaces him? Many will say “moderate opposition forces”. To me that translates to, “Unicorns and friendly pixies”. None of those things exist. One need only look at Afghanistan and Iraq to see that our ability to pick “moderate” leaders leaves much to be desired. And if you subscribe to the “rubble doesn’t cause trouble” school of thought simply look at Libya to see what removing a dictator and walking away leads to.

But let’s for a moment suppose the nation builders find some group to put at the top of the shell of the former Syrian state. Then what? They have no money, no governing structure, no way to provide basic services, and no security apparatus. Are we occupying Syria for some number of years while it rebuilds? Is there reason to believe Syrians are going to be any happier to have Americans occupying their country than the Iraqis were? Are we to believe that even with the destruction of ISIS there won’t be an insurgency that includes plenty of foreign fighters?

To me this is the key fault line. Are you willing to fight a war to beat ISIS without "liberating" Syria from Assad? If so, I'm in. If not, we'll be creating bigger problems than we solve. Namely, the American people are not likely to sign on for "a multi generational" occupation and rebuilding of Syria that we are unlikely to be able to accomplish. If you demand that as the price of fighting ISIS, you won't get the chance to fight ISIS.

And how are we to prosecute this new war? Will it be a WWII destruction mission or counter insurgency mission where "courageous restraint" will be the order of the day? Again, sign me up for the former but not the latter.

Of course the idea of tying to fight ISIS while removing Assad has become even more ludicrous since I wrote that post in February. When you hear candidates talk about removing him, ask yourself, "how are you going to get the Russians to throw him under the bus?

So while Assad's regime is happy to do business with ISiS and use them as a shield against regime change, there's not much we can do about it.

We have to accept certain realities. The US has done business with far worse regimes than the Syrian Baathists in the name of fighting an even worse enemy (think Stalin and Hitler in WWII), we can suck it up and crush ISIS while working with Assad and the Russians.

The other key domestic issue will be the resettlement of Syrians in the US. While most of the attackers seem to be French or Belgium, at least one of them entered Europe as part of the flood of refugees.

Marco Rubio has gone from saying he'd be open to refugees if they could be screened to saying no to them. It was always clear they couldn't be safely screened and more importantly even if they passed the screening, they'd still represent a huge pool of potential recruits.

He's now caught up to Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal in opposing Syrian resettlement in the US. At least he's learning. Or he's just good at judging the political winds.

Obama however seems to be incapable of that and is sticking by his plan to take in thousands of Syrians.

Will the Paris bombing have any impact on the GOP nomination fight? My guess is, not much. We tend to forget these things pretty quickly these days. Of course another attack, especially one (God forbid) in the US, might but it would depend on timing.

To the extent it does have an impact I think it helps the governors in the race (Christie, Bush, Kasich and Jindal). Executive experience in times of crisis might look better in light of the idea we could be electing a war time President next year.

I think the Senators (Rubio, Cruz and Rand) are hurt because they lack that experience. Suddenly the idea of picking a young, untested guy no matter how well he talks on the issues could seem risky. Someone pointed to JFK as a counter example to this. The differences are important though. Kennedy was a change in generation not a follow on to a failed President of the same new generation. Also, Kennedy unlike anyone running was a war hero. Correctly or not that gave him some stature on military matters that none of the current crop can call on.

As for Carson, he should be hurt by this but his support seems impervious to such things and likely will continue to be.

Trump is the wild card here. If "kill the bastards" becomes a major issue, Trump for all his Trumpness could benefit from a "let the crazy guy have a shot at it" sentiment. Part of his appeal has been a willingness and ability to do and say things regular candidate can't and won't. So if you want a guy who might go nuts on Trump outside the usual bounds of policy, Trump might be appealing.

In the end though it's very likely there will be much talk and very little action. We'll see people change their Twitter and facebook avis to the French flag and in a week or so they'll have Thanksgiving themes. We'll fall back into our blissful sleep and go back to pretending childish college students are the real victims of everything.

Rinse-Lather-Repeat.

It's the way of the world.

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posted by DrewM. at 10:32 AM

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