It will require boots on the ground to free Raqqa

It is not impossible that a change of plans could deliver a blow to ISIL. But if Assad continues to be in power, other ISILs will emerge, argues Alan Philps

French warplanes bombing an ISIL site in Raqqa, Syria. AFP photo
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Breathless commentators have been reporting from Paris that last Friday night’s massacres have “changed everything”, ushering in an era where the possibilities of terrorism are limitless. While this might be an understandable as an emotional response, we have in fact seen almost all the elements already.

The 2008 attack by Pakistani militants on Mumbai was the template for the marauding attack in Paris, designed to confuse security forces with multiple simultaneous targets. That local, native-born Muslims could attack their own capital was demonstrated in the London bombings of 2005. That it happened in Paris was no surprise to the French security services, well aware of the permanent intifada waged by communities from North Africa who feel unusually discriminated against in housing, education and jobs.

As for the broader context, this is not the first time that terrorists have tried to deter a European country from fighting in Muslim lands: the 2004 Madrid train bombings led to the Spanish government withdrawing from Iraq, though that deployment had always been deeply unpopular.

And as for ISIL’s bombing of a St Petersburg-bound aircraft full of holidaymakers over Sinai, Russia lost two aircraft blown up simultaneously by Chechen suicide bombers as long ago as 2004.

So there is much that is familiar. But there are also many differences.

The first is that this comes at a time of weakness and division in Europe, barely recovering from the euro crisis and struggling to cope with a huge influx of migrants from Syria, Iraq and other war zones.

The Syrian war, which Europe had tried to turn a blind eye to, has proved to be close geographically – far easier to access than, say, Pakistan – and brought closer by modern communications.

But more significant is the change in western thinking which has become clear over the past week.

The needle on the dial of European and American policymaking is no longer stuck at the point of strategic paralysis. Now it is pointing towards bold military intervention.

What diplomats had hoped to resolve by talking is becoming militarised. This is due in no small part to Vladimir Putin, who changed the calculus by putting aircraft on active service and troops on the ground. It seems only a matter of time before ISIL’s safe haven of Raqqa, in eastern Syria, is obliterated.

It has already suffered horrendous damage from air attacks by the US, France and their allies. Now Russia, using “dumb bombs”, is reported to have hit hospitals. The problem is that Raqqa is not what the military call a target-rich environment. There is not much to bomb that is worth the cost of a million dollar cruise missile.

ISIL’s “capital” is not going to be conquered without an army on the ground.

Given the blowback from previous examples of western intervention in Iraq and Libya, there is a strong argument for foreign armies to stay well away.

That would certainly have been the accepted wisdom in the past. But now the Syria debate is becoming increasingly militarised.

European governments, which lived or died by their economic policy, are now required to provide their citizens with hard security, a change exemplified by Mr Hollande’s transformation from wobbling “jelly” – his previous nickname – to avenger in chief.

In military circles, the view is that a show of force and a sharp defeat inflicted on ISIL’s headquarters on the Euphrates would turn the tide of the war.

But which is the army that is going to achieve this?

Western military thinking is increasingly influenced by Russia’s pro-Assad leanings: the idea is to arrange a ceasefire between the Syrian regime and its non-ISIL opposition forces, freeing the army to crush the jihadists, aided by its Iranian-allied militias.

Then it would be time for a political negotiation to find a successor to Bashar Al Assad who could prevent Syria lapsing into Iraq-style state collapse.

From a military point of view, this sequential planning makes sense: you cannot win a war when you are fighting both Mr Al Assad and ISIL at the same time. You have to choose one as a priority.

But from a political standpoint, there is little chance of Mr Al Assad stepping aside once the international community had blessed his army to destroy ISIL, a force he helped to create by releasing hardened jihadists from jail. Given that more Syrians are fleeing the barrel bombs of the regime than the head-choppers of ISIL, this would be a shameful alliance.

A second option is a coalition of Sunni armies to fight ISIL. But which countries would volunteer troops to fight a battle so long as there is a chance Mr Al Assad could emerge the winner?

A seemingly tried and tested alternative would be to empower the Kurdish militias, which have notched up success against ISIL with US air support.

But the Kurds fight to control territory they consider their own – though often it is bitterly contested with the Arabs. They would not fight so hard outside their homeland.

The most serious objection is that Turkey would not condone an advance of the Syrian Kurdish militias, who are allied with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an underground force which has been fighting the Turkish state for decades.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has accepted the existence of a Kurdish quasi-state in the mountains of northern Iraq because it can exist only as a dependent of Turkey. A parcel of northern Syria along the Turkish border controlled by PKK-allied Kurds could be an existential threat to Turkey, by attracting its disaffected Kurdish minority. ISIL may be a murderous organisation, but it has no power to pull up the roots of the Turkish state.

The requirements for a successful operation to liberate Raqqa – unity of purpose among the combatants and a clear, achievable goal for when the fighting stops – are still not present.

It is not impossible that some mixture of these plans could deliver a body blow to ISIL. But if the Al Assad regime is still there at the end, other ISILs will surely emerge.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps