The Cold Realism of the Post-Paris War on Terror

The time for supporting democratic regime change across the Muslim world is over. It's accept Assad and his like, or embrace the chaos.


Like then-President George W. Bush’s declaration of a war on terror after 9/11, French President François Hollande declared France to be at war following the appalling attacks of Nov. 13 by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. While the Paris attack provides a fresh impetus for the West to defeat the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism, it also shows how profoundly the post-9/11 war on terror has failed. After all, haven’t jihadi networks massively proliferated since 2001, leaving Western capitals and cities across the Muslim world perpetually on edge, poised for the next fresh carnage? Post-Paris, the war on terror won’t be part of a neoconservative project to remake the world in our own image, but a Burkean conservative posture that accepts the devils we know.

The fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the litmus test of this proposition: He’s a murderous butcher, but only his ground forces can realistically retake much of the ISIS-controlled territory. They haven’t been able to until now, because Western and Gulf states have backed a kaleidoscopic variety of rebels seeking to oust Assad, tying down much of the Syrian military. The fact that much of the territory lost by the Assad regime has wound up in the hands of ISIS and hard-line Islamists has created a climate of moral relativism, where neither Assad nor ISIS make for an attractive option. But this moral relativism has led to inaction and tragedy. Call it the Hamlet non-strategy.

But the Paris attacks will impose a cold strategic clarity. Whatever the objective threat, the West cannot tolerate the humiliation of terrorist attacks from an enemy that, so far, it has merely sought (and failed) to contain. For all the self-congratulatory talk of “historic” progress at the recent diplomatic talks in Vienna, a “political solution” cannot fix the problem of ISIS and hard-line Islamists — for neither Washington nor Moscow would ever accept a negotiated peace with them. The territory they hold must be cleared and held by infantry. But whose infantry? The Kurds can retake only so much ground, given their limited resources and lack of desire to expand substantially beyond ethnically Kurdish areas. Non-Kurdish rebels are small in number and fragmented. And in many cases their “moderate” credentials are dubious, at best.

That leaves the West, Russia, or the Assad regime and its Iranian proxies. There’s no chance the United States, France, or NATO wants to hold ground on its own, or back Assad. So scratch the first option from that shortlist. Handing the moral and military quagmire over to the Russians — who will, in turn, back the Syrian Army — begins to seem like the only option.

Moreover, the anger and anguish of Paris comes on the heels of a refugee crisis of such magnitude and consequence for Europe’s fate that it makes dealing with the Greek debt crisis look like child’s play. The overwhelming urge to impose stability in Syria will mean that moral relativism transforms into moral necessity: eliminate ISIS before all else. Perhaps Russia will agree to allow Assad to transition out of power following the defeat of the Islamic State, in return for sanctions relief. We’ll see. The bottom line is that while the West can hardly support Assad, in the aftermath of Paris, his transition suddenly becomes a secondary matter.

This reality already seems to have sunk in. France appears to be at least agnostic towards Russian strikes in Syria, and may even be coordinating with Moscow. Speaking in Vienna the day after the Paris attacks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that “it is time to deprive the terrorists of any single kilometer in which to hide.” Translation: We’re going to finish off ISIS, and tacitly accept Assad. For now.

Thus, Assad’s fate is a weathervane for the future of the wider war on terror. Syria has, in three respects, turned into the graveyard of the post-9/11 phase of this conflict.

For one thing, U.S. policy towards Syria begins to dispel the notion that the war on terror is part of a broader freedom-promotion agenda. In his address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, then-President Bush defined the war on terror as a moralizing revolutionary project. The refrain was still alive six years later. “This war is more than a clash of arms — it is a decisive ideological struggle,” Bush said in his 2007 State of the Union address. “The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East to build free societies and share in the rights of all humanity.”

And what is Washington’s bipartisan answer to this “great question of our day,” from the perspective of 2015? A decisive “no,” unless you think that the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regime in Cairo, which holds up to 40,000 political prisoners in its torture-ridden jails, is allowing Egyptians to share in the “rights of all humanity.” Or, perhaps, that our trusted ally Saudi Arabia doesn’t actually have a rancid human rights record after all. Or that the atrocities being committed against Sunnis by Baghdad’s Shiite militias in Iraq aren’t really happening. In truth, the freedom agenda was always gilded with hypocrisy, given that the Bush administration doubled down on its support to repressive regimes after 9/11, from Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt to Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan. Now, we’re simply regressing to the mean.

Syria makes plain that we don’t, actually, have an alternative to Assad. Yes, the Syrian strongman himself may well ultimately be “transitioned” out of power, but his repressive regime will stay intact. Whatever Assad’s personal fate, dissolving his regime means removing any vestige of state order that remains in Syria, and replacing it with even more chaos. And surely we’ve learned by now that things can always get worse. Syria merely confirms the lesson the West should have learned from Iraq: that the freedom agenda in the Muslim world is dead.

Second, we now know that the notion that regime change leads to a better democratic or a humanitarian outcome is decidedly false. From Iraq, where the West tried a heavy footprint strategy, to Libya, where it opted for a light one, the idea that Europe or the United States can actually execute democratic change by force has been exposed as a fallacy. In Iraq, $2 trillion dollars, over 4,000 dead Americans, and over 200,000 dead Iraqis created a country run by an Iranian puppet who turned out to be a vicious sectarian maniac. In Libya, we simply have chaos, with much of the state run by hard-line Islamists. Those who say the United States should have intervened in 2011 to topple Assad are left having to explain either how they could have rallied U.S. public support for an Iraq-like occupation and rebuilding of Syria, or, in the absence of that, how Syria would have avoided Libya’s fate.

The role of intervention, post-Paris, will be exactly the reverse of the post-9/11 model. Interventions will occur, but only to back fragile governments — not unseat them — without attaching any guarantees of future democratic transformations. France’s successful intervention against al Qaeda in Mali in 2013 is a good example of this model.

Finally, we should no longer doubt that gaps in fragile states in the Muslim world will be filled by anything other than hard-line Islamists. Sure, there were always terrorist networks like al Qaeda that could set up bases in ungoverned space. But 14 years later, we see how the information revolution has massively catalyzed the formation of jihadist networks. The speed with which ISIS has risen, proselytized, and formed franchises all over the world, cannot be explained without accounting for the interconnectivity of contemporary communication. In Afghanistan and Iraq, radical Islamic terrorists took years to build up cells; in Libya, hard-line Islamists were part of the rebellion from the outset. The result in today’s networked age is that every potential armed opposition movement in the Muslim world now becomes a potential jihadi branch. The West can’t risk that.

Here, too, Syria represents the culmination of this trend. The moderate rebels of 2011 stood no chance of survival against the hard liners who managed to rapidly mobilize foreign fighters and take over the majority of the insurgency. The result is that, post-Paris, Western capitals will be skeptical of regime change of any sort. It will be clear that when intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign (albeit repressive) states becomes a vehicle for democratic change, that vehicle will probably be hijacked by radical Islamists, and will arrive at a substantially worse political destination than intended.

The post-Paris war on terror will affirm the West’s commitment to fighting radical Islamic terrorism, but, in the process, it will reject the idiom of revolutionary, moralizing democratic change inherited from President Bush. Syria was the end of the line for that approach. This new phase will assume that terrorists are nonstate actors, and will take the view that if you have an international system built around strong sovereign states — no matter how brutal or unconcerned with human rights — life becomes much harder for nonstate armed groups, including terrorists. This is simply a reflection of the new realities we face, not a celebration of that shift.

Of course, privileging the idea of strong sovereign states above all else is simply another way of re-stating the basic principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other sovereign states, a principle that dates back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and echoed in the U.N. Charter. In this sense, there is strong historical precedent for what we will see post-Paris: revolutionary moments that tend to spin out of control, leading to mass violence that requires a return to prioritizing stability over all else.

It’s worth recalling that the very word “massacre” comes to us from the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 as depicted in Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan play, The Massacre at Paris. This savage episode of religious terror on the streets of Paris, sparked by a Catholic move against Protestants, was but one episode in a century of open-ended religious warfare in Europe, in which confessionally divided states sought to fashion each other’s internal affairs in their own image. To Catholic monarchs, protestant Queen Elizabeth I was the Saddam Hussein of her day, illegitimate leader of a rogue state, excommunicated by Pope Pius V as “the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime,” and targeted for regime change by Spanish King Phillip II’s Armada of 1588. This was but one strand of a chaotic web of ideologically driven interventions and counterinterventions, with an epicenter of violence in Germany and the Netherlands.

This was a path to social disaster. In Germany alone, religious wars from the mid-16th century to 1648 killed over a third of the population. The Westphalian system of nonintervention provided an exit from Europe’s “forever wars” of religion, because it abolished appeals to a higher moral or religious justification that trumped state sovereignty. But Europe arrived at that point only after a war so vicious that it convinced all parties to accept stability as an end in itself, and Thomas Hobbes devised the modern concept of the state in the Leviathan in 1651, published three years after the Westphalian settlement of 1648.

It has been fashionable to attack the state since the early 1990s, when liberal interventionists could make claims about the “responsibility to protect.” These claims made sense during the twilight of the pre-networked age. Meanwhile, the neo-conservatives were able to make hypothetical claims about democratic regime change that look ridiculous after the nightmare of Iraq. That world is now gone, and the state will reassert itself with a vengeance — that’s what Paris means.




Emile Simpson is a former British Army officer and the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola