Under siege, IS struck at the heart of Europe: Sisci

The Paris terrorist attacks have clearly exposed the weakness of the Islamic State (IS) that now controls an area the size of the UK  between Syria and Iraq. On the surface, the brutal atrocities were an attempt by IS to intimidate France and Europe and scare them from intervening in the Middle East.

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The attacks also echo the 9/11 terror attacks in the US. But what happened in Paris on Nov. 13 is different from al-Qaeda’s attack on New York.

The US 14 years ago wasn’t involved in Afghanistan, nor did it want to be. Al-Qaeda was feeling its strength, and wanted to prove it by launching a ‘holy war’ on the West, targeting its most powerful nation — America.

This time, IS is under siege, attacked by the Kurds, who are supported by the Americans, the Russians, who are backing Syrian forces loyal to Assad and volunteers from Iran.

As American, Russian and French planes keep methodically pounding IS targets following the Paris carnage,  the terror group finds itself on the receiving end. Even Turkish forces are targeting them and more countries seem determined to join the fight against terror.

What probably emboldened IS to launch the Paris attacks was Moscow’s indecisiveness to act after intelligence reports from the US and Israel pointed to IS’ hand in downing Russia’s civilian Metrojet Airbus 321-200 in Egypt’s Sinai desert on Oct. 31, killing all 224 aboard.

For days, Russia kept shifting its opinion on the crash’s cause until it eventually came out with a statement that the crash was possibly an IS operation.

Moscow had its own reasons for the delay in disclosing the IS role in the plane crash. If it admits that the crash was due to a terrorist attack, it would be pressured to send more troops to Syria. The upshot would be a major war which would drain its resources the way Afghanistan did in the 1970s.

Moreover, such a large offensive would provoke IS to unleash terror attacks in Russia that are similar to the one just staged in Paris.

Moscow had fought against terrorists during the war in Chechnya. However, this was an issue linked to national integrity as the Chechens wanted to secede from Russia. 

If Russia fails to react more strongly to IS after determining the cause of the plane crash, it will look weak — putting it in an even worse policy predicament.

Perhaps in this situation, the best thing for Moscow to do is wait with an eye to what France and Europe do in the wake of the latest attacks by Islamic State.

Russia’s indecisiveness following the passenger plane bombing may also have convinced IS that it could launch an attack on France. The attack would have coincided with France’s plan to dispatch an aircraft carrier group to Syria.

Losing ground and desperate on all fronts, IS wanted to prove to the world that it is a formidable threat even as it faced the threat of being wiped out militarily in Syria and Iraq.  It wanted to strike at the heart of Europe and evoke a hopefully disorderly reaction from Europe that would help its cause.

IS’ recent behavior also reflects the fact that its roots are different from those of Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda thrived because for years nobody in the West took it seriously.

Two senior colonels in the Chinese Army, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, however, had identified the great danger posed by Al Qaeda in their 1999 book War Beyond Limits.

After 9/11, Al Qaeda was easily taken out in Afghanistan, in an atmosphere of total political isolation. If America had halted its intervention after Afghanistan and not gone into Iraq, or intelligently altered its manner of intervention, events might have taken a completely different turn. Under such alternative scenarios, Islamic State might not have come into existence.

Unlike al-Qaeda, IS thrived amid conflicting political agendas among various regional players. Until the late 1970s, prior to the  Iranian Revolution through the mid Cold War years, Turkey and Iran sided with Israel on de facto basis. The Arab countries, supported by the the erstwhile USSR, opposed Israel, which was backed by the US.

More than 30 years later and following two decades of Western influence over Middle Eastern politics, the situation has changed radically. Turkey and Iran have an anti-Israeli agenda. Both basically want to recover their former imperial legacies in the region. The Iranians fund and arm Shiites and non-Sunnis in the region, who act as proxies for Tehran’s ambitions.

This offensive was also prodded by the not-so-veiled threat that a Jasmine revolution, after toppling the Assad regime in Syria, would move on to Tehran. Logically, Iran thought it would be best to fight the Jasmine revolution in Syria rather than in its backyard.

Turkey has, in parallel, donned the robe of grand caliph of the Sunnis, and by holding back the Iranians, aims at carving out a new sphere of regional influence.

The Arab countries, though at odds with one another, collaborate with Israel, which offers them protection against Turkish or Iranian threats. Under this scenario, the Palestinians often become a flash point that Iranians or Turks use to kindle their own agendas.

The US is less interested in the region’s oil that was for decades a focus of its attention, and is pulling out of the region. But Russia has returned to this same game board. It has done so to score points on the confused Ukrainian table, to contain the Iranians (supporting Assad and his rump state in Syria), and to preserve its naval bases on the Mediterranean.

IS was able to carve a convenient political turf out of this multifaceted terrain. But if a regional political agreement were to be struck, IS would disappear.  Such an agreement would accomplish what no bombing campaign could possibly achieve.

There is also a Chinese angle to all this — and not just from the perspective of the distant new Chinese Silk Road.

The Middle Eastern fire stokes resentment and hatred in the restive Chinese region of Xinjiang. Here, just a few days ago, some terrorists, also inspired by recent events in that far away region, went on a rampage killing over 50, according to reports that have emerged in the last few hours.

This shows that events in the Middle East and Chinese Central Asia are now intertwined.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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