December 18, 2015 • Opinion •
Western media widely reported that the 13th November terrorist assault in Paris was an attack on life’s innocent pleasures. While this may be true, this is by far not the whole story, and it is time for Europe to call a spade a spade: if this is not a clash of civilizations, it is most definitely an ideological struggle and a war of values. Europeans need to be very clear about the type of societies they intend to promote and defend. Our societies are underpinned by values of tolerance, respect, rights and duties as well as the rule of law, and have through an often difficult process managed to find a balance between temporal and spiritual power. This balance must be preserved, and Islam cannot claim any specific or exceptional status. The European Union needs to be steadfast in upholding individual rights but it also needs to be unequivocal as to the duties that go with those rights and what is expected from anybody living in the Union.
Following the attacks, President Hollande declared a state of emergency, vastly expanding the powers of French security services. While special powers may be necessary, France and other European states should be careful not to introduce measures that could fundamentally roll back civil liberties and change the democratic and rule of law fabric of our societies. Vigilance is needed against a broad dragnet approach that risks targeting innocent people and wrongly focusing on the Muslim community generally. Lessons should be learnt from the U.S. experience with the Patriot Act. The legacy of the aftermath of 9/11 in the U.S. should be top of mind for European policy makers, as they try to adapt Europe’s legal arsenal to the new threat the continent faces. Of particular interest are the sunset provisions that American legislators introduced to ensure that extraordinary measures linked to extraordinary circumstances couldn’t go on endlessly. While new measures will inevitably restrict fundamental freedoms, they need to imbed safeguards such as judicial review, sunset clauses and regular parliamentary oversight.
Dealing with the repercussions of the Paris attacks will also mean taking a hard look at France and Europe’s alliances abroad. For decades, France prided herself on her “politique arabe”. More recently, the country has associated itself closely with the Sunni Gulf monarchies and Riyadh in particular. Paris’ policies in the region seemed largely driven by the billions the House of Saud was willing to shower on French corporations. Business and geopolitical interests led the country to ignore the less palatable facets of its main regional ally: a country with arguably the worst record in the world when it comes to religious freedom and women’s rights, while financing preachers, mosques and madrassas to spread Wahhabi ideology internationally.
Following the November 13th attacks, there can be no more pretending. In this respect, Saudi Arabia and Qatar most particularly must be confronted. If official support for Daesh cannot be directly linked to these two states, the jihadis’ ideological roots are to be found in Wahhabism, the reading of Islam so closely intertwined with the governing structures of the Kingdom and the Emirate. The West has continuously refused to acknowledge that the radical theology emanating from the Sunni monarchies has been the ideological fuel and primary sponsor of Islamist culture, spreading hatred and a transformative influence from the Maghreb to Pakistan or the streets of Paris and Molenbeek. France, Europe, the United States must act in concert to pressure the Gulf monarchies to reconsider their policies and at last change tack. Until then, battles will be won but the war will be lost as long as the loam from which the jihadis feed isn’t dried up. France, Europe, the West need to recognise this, and act accordingly, starting with bringing an end to Saudi funding for mosques or training of the Imams in the West. If these states want to be considered and treated as partners and allies, then they need to behave as such or face consequences that the West will have to be willing to impose.
France and Europe’s already complicated relationship with Turkey also needs to be reappraised in light of recent events. As a NATO member and candidate to the European Union, Turkey needs to be clear in its choices, which is the least that can be said of the supportive policies pursued by President Erdogan vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood or other radical Sunni groups, including Daesh. Despite official Turkish denial, Ankara’s Islamist government has clearly considered Daesh as a “useful enemy” in the war against what it sees its main adversaries—Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Kurdish militants inside and outside its borders.
Turkey’s border with Syria has for years been used as a gateway for would-be jihadi and as a major weapon supply route for Daesh. European and U.S. officials have repeatedly urged President Erdogan to act to stop foreign fighters, to crack down on Turkish middlemen taking part in the oil-smuggling trade or to block the trucks loaded with ammunition and explosives that rumble across the border. All to no avail until now. Turkey, as NATO’s closest outpost to the conflict in Syria, was considered by Washington to be such a critical ally that it allowed for President Erdogan to leave Western requests unanswered and use the fight against terrorism as a blanket cover to hit at the country’s restive Kurds as much as any jihadi group in Syria. However, the crisis in Russian-Turkish relations generated by the downing of a Russian warplane may actually change things, providing Washington, Brussels and Paris with some leverage. NATO reassurances and renewed engagement and support from the EU should be conditioned to Turkey better securing its border with Syria and plugging the flow of fighters and oil once and for all.
Seen from Moscow, the Paris attacks presented a unique occasion to end the country’s diplomatic isolation. Russia’s immediate reaction of support, illustrated by President Putin order to Russia’s armed forces to co-ordinate with the French military as “allies”, was well received across to the political board in Paris. Many saw the Russians as the only power able and willing to commit significant assets to the fight, when the EU’s response to President Hollande’s triggering of the mutual defense clause of the Treaty on European Union has been found wanting by most in Paris.
However, Russia should not be led to believe it can trade its way out of sanctions imposed on it for its behavior in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine as a “reward” for its support against Daesh. One should remember why sanctions were imposed in the first place: the forceful changing of a country’s borders as a means for dealing with disagreements and the use of military force against a neighbour. A clear path forward for the lifting of sanctions exists, and it is the full implementation of the Minsk II agreement. The EU’s sanctions should therefore not be lifted until then, and no linkage can be made between cooperation in Syria and the roll back of sanctions on Ukraine. Having said that, should the West, or France at any rate, deprive itself from working with Russia if that can help to more quickly bring about the demise of Daesh? The answer is an emphatic “NO”. And if working more closely with Russia in Syria can also help rebuild trust and support the full implementation of the Minsk II agreement, we would be fools not to follow through on that opportunity.
In Teheran, “the terrorist attacks in Paris came as manna from heaven” (1), justifying the country’s rhetoric that combating Daesh is more important than combating Assad. Some in Paris imagine replacing the Gulf Sunni alliance by closer ties to Iran, seemingly forgetting that the struggle between the “moderates and the conservatives” in Teheran is far from over. Iran also remains one of the main supporters to groups such as Hezbollah and a major destabilising force in the region. Simply switching from an alliance with the leading Sunni power to the largest Shia one will only alienate the huge majority of Sunni Muslims living in the region, reinforcing radical Sunni groups like Daesh without offering a strong and legitimate alternative to build from. However, and whatever Washington may think, Paris should follow Ambassador Richard Holbrooke lessons from the Balkans and Afghanistan: engaging all the relevant parties to the conflict, as the only way to ensure a chance of success, since it is clear that no purely military solution against Daesh will suffice. And those parties include Russia and Iran.
The Paris attacks are a turning point: Europe’s way of life and security have been dramatically challenged. It should be the start of a collective security awakening for the EU. And because what happened in Paris could have happened anywhere in Europe, because Syria is so close and connected to Europe, that fight needs to be seen as European – not just a French one. But in light of Europe’s apparent inability to take decisions and act, we can only hope the French can lead and federate a European response, without compromising European values.
(1) Ali Alfoneh, in “How Paris attacks have strengthened Iran’s position over Syria”, The Guardian, 19th November 2015.