Panic and confusion
November 27, 2015
The sheer speed at which events in Europe and the Middle East are unfolding, let alone their magnitude, is disorientating. It is fair to say, from a European perspective, that within the space of six months, the world has been turned upside down.
After all, less than half a year ago, the issue of immigration into Europe focused on the efforts of Africans to reach Italy and Spain, via Libya, Morocco and other trans-Mediterranean routes. But this summer, mass immigration on a far greater scale abruptly erupted out of Western Asia, via Turkey and through the Balkans.
In the geo-political sphere, during the course of 2014 Europe and the world was forced to contend with the emergence of an overtly aggressive Russia. Unbelievingly, the European countries watched as Russia invaded and annexed the Crimea and conducted a proxy war in Ukraine. Shockingly, the Cold War had re-emerged a generation after the demise of the Soviet Union and with it, the need to confront the old-new Russia was thrust onto reluctant and largely-unprepared European countries. Their reactions were understandably mixed and confused, given their very varied histories vis-à-vis Russia, ranging from the fear and loathing of the Baltic States and Poland, to the distant indifference of the Iberian peninsula countries.
In all of this, the weaknesses and the very partial nature of the European Union were cruelly exposed. The attempt to achieve a common foreign policy, via the installation of an EU president and ‘foreign minister’ has crumbled, as each nation has been confronted with what it views as existential issues demanding the defence of its national interests. This was painfully apparent in the Balkans and Eastern Europe during this past summer, as country after country engaged in frantic efforts to block, or at least divert, the flow of migrants – while the main EU countries, squabbled openly and loudly over the desirable policy to adopt toward the immigrants themselves and their source, namely the Syrian civil war and the wider Middle Eastern upheaval.
But now it is not only the refugees from that upheaval that are reaching Europe, but the very upheaval itself, in the form of Sunni jihadist terror. Arguably, that is not new and certainly there have been numerous terrorist attacks in Western European countries over the years. But no-one contends that the multiple attacks in Paris on November 13 were anything other than a game-changer for Europe – and for the US as well. The sense that everyone is now at risk everywhere is universal and almost palpable.
Thus it may be said that last week, in the wake of that terrible Friday night, the European public swung almost literally overnight from complacency to near-panic. Despite the amateurish incompetence displayed by the attackers, the results spoke for themselves. Indeed, had one or more of the terrorists who blew themselves up OUTSIDE the Stade de France actually succeeded in getting in and successfully carrying out his mission, normal life in Paris, France and much of Europe would surely still be severely disrupted even now. As it is, the mere threat of an attack was sufficient for the Belgians to shut down their capital city for four days and only to gradually lift the self-imposed siege thereafter.
But at least last week it was clear to everyone who was who. The innocent were totally innocent and the guilty were paragons of inhumanity. This week’s events have been far more confusing – not just to the man in the street but, it seems, to most politicians and even many military people.
Just when it looked as though the Paris outrages were going to forge a unified front between the West – or Western Europe, if the Americans forced the French and Germans to choose between them and the Russians – and Russia, the Turks shot down a Russian fighter over Syria. In so doing, they luridly illustrated the extraordinary complexity of the Syrian situation.
The Russians are determined to support and save the Assad regime and to destroy – not contain, a la Obama – ISIS. The Turks want Assad gone and there are people and entities within Turkey (not the government) that support ISIS. Turkish and American planes fly from the same base, the former to bomb the Kurds, who are fighting ISIS, the latter to bomb ISIS. The French also want to bomb ISIS and the British feel they should join in.
But in the New Middle East, 2015 model, it is President Putin who makes the rules, and it is his agenda for Syria that takes precedence. That agenda is first crush the rebels, including ISIS, but also numerous other groups, some of which the US supports and equips, then proceed to a political settlement which does not include regime change and which may not even include replacing Assad personally.
As in any investment, there are those who are committed – Russia – and those who are merely involved – America. In the wake of Paris, France wants to upgrade from involved to committed, but that requires accepting Russian primacy and, implicitly, the Russian agenda. America refuses to commit, and thereby marginalising itself.
But the dividing line is really much more basic: those countries that are genuinely determined to prevent ISIS visiting them, recognise that the only way to do so is by physically eradicating ISIS’s caliphate – with the Syrians, Hezbollah and the Iranians doing most of the dirty work on the ground. The US has not reached that recognition, nor will it – unless and until ISIS visits it, too.