The world’s reactions to the tragic events in Paris run the gamut of human emotion – sorrow, fear, anger, love, vengeance. The reactions also force the unceasing debate over what caused or didn’t prevent such horror. Policy makers throughout the world promise a new level of resolve. But in the unspoken thoughts of most, the question still nags, “How can this be stopped?” The understanding of potential outcomes is the only way to answer this question.
The place to start is with ISIS’s objectives. A few months back, sweeping the Internet was a map of ISIS’s five year plan to conquer parts of Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The fanciful propaganda covered more territory than the Ottoman Caliphate at its height in the late 1600s. Was that map realistic? Of course not.
But ISIS does strive for establishment of a caliphate (an Islamic state run by a caliph – considered as undisputed, absolute head of the world’s entire Muslim community) that is intended to cover parts or all of modern day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and Libya – a region where Salafism (the ultra-conservative orthodox movement within Sunni Islam) has sway on Islamic believers.
The caliphate would eliminate internal influences contrary to Salafism. At odds are democracy, women’s rights, free speech, tolerance of sexual preference and religious freedom. Judaism, Christianity, and Shia Islam would not be tolerated. Further, the caliphate’s system of justice would be medieval – torture, beheadings, floggings, amputations, and stoning.
The total population of the region wanted by ISIS is approximately 200 million. Within this number are 170 million Sunni Islamic with an estimated one-third leaning toward a Salafist revival. Outside the region are approximately 50 million Salafi followers with larger communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Bangladesh, and smaller communities spread throughout the world. A new Islamic State would literally be Mecca for this “pure” form of Islam while also proclaiming itself to be the seat of Islamic theology for the world’s 1.5 billion Islamic believers.
In 2014 the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) estimated that Salafism is the fastest growing Islamic faction in the world. Why is this so? Many theories abound but it is safe to say that any revivalist movement seeks a return to the “good days” in response to dissatisfaction with the way things are. And revivalists always blame non-believers and outsiders as the root causes for their difficulties. Think Hitler and his revival of the Aryan race. With the current economic and societal difficulties in the ISIS targeted region, it has not been hard to find new followers. Estimates of ISIS’s fighters in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts are anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000. Comparatively, coercing and swaying the German population of 80 million was accomplished by Hitler’s core cadre of 50,000 fervent Nazis.
How could ISIS gain control? The answer is by attracting enough followers to overthrow the current regimes. This is the dilemma the West and the regimes face. If the regimes can’t turn the regional economic tide or if the West attempts to rid ISIS with another Iraqi type war, further destabilization will happen. It is feared that either, or both, will swell the ranks of the Sunni extremists by forcing the previously uncommitted into the arms of ISIS. Then, the event that cannot be tolerated would follow – the advent of the Islamic State.
Matters get even more complicated when the region’s resources – oil – are added into the mix. Oil reserves outside the Middle East have expanded significantly in recent years. The abundance of oil and its drop in price have resulted in a massive revenue loss for the region, a distress greater than that already caused by the nearly decade-long global slowdown. But yet, the world cannot be freed from its addiction to the supply of cheap oil from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, UAE and Qatar. At this point, the ties to the Middle East are still inseverable.
So the world continues to walk on eggshells. In Vienna on the day following the Paris attacks, the U.S., Russia, the U.N., and other nations announced support for an eighteen month peace process in Syria – a cease fire, the drafting of a national constitution and free elections in 2017. It sounds good, but problems with the plan include the uncertainty that the Assad regime would give up power, the fact that the opposition rebels have made no announcement of their support, the exclusion from the ceasefire of conflicts with ISIS and Al Qaeda, and the conspicuous silence of Saudi Arabia and Iran – two leading nations backing opposite sides of the war. A member of the National Coalition, Syria’s main political opposition, separately expressed doubt that the deal would work because it leaves significant issues unaddressed.
Leaders of the G-20 also gathered in Turkey announcing they would redouble their efforts as a result of the Paris tragedy, striking at the financing and recruitment of jihadi terrorists. But ISIS continues to be flush with cash, equipment and new recruits. Past attempts have failed miserably, making the worth of new resolve dubious.
There have also been calls from the greater Muslim world to put an end to this violence. But most of these have been from outside the region, have fallen on deaf ears, and are from sources with very little influence on the events within the Middle East.
As the world tries to catch up to ISIS’s next move, the Paris attacks, the downing of a Russian commercial jetliner over the Sinai, and suicide bombings in Lebanon and Iraq, indicate ISIS is already changing its tactics. Its ruthlessness is spreading abroad, beyond its footholds in Syria and Iraq, and rivaling al Qaeda with more efficient asymmetrical warfare. A Western face-off and eradication of ISIS head on in Iraq and Syria is now probably not an option or its effectiveness would be questionable. Further, does the West have the willpower or the current ability to commit the necessary manpower and resources to resolve the issue completely? Anything less, would result with blowback of the likes witnessed from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
So for now, the West is left with plugging its borders and attempting, as best as possible, to uncover terrorist plots before they happen. The problem with defensive-only strategies is that they tend to eventually fail or can only go so far before destroying from within that which is being defended.
No doubt ISIS is confident and believes it has checkmate within its grasp, meaning that it is only a matter of time before they get larger support in the region. Without a drastic reversal of the economic and social strains now being experienced in the Middle East, order within the regimes will continue to deteriorate. Meanwhile, the West’s trigger finger is twitching in response to continued terrorists attacks. How much longer can the center hold?
The stakes will continue to mount in the war against the Sunni extremists and as tragedy becomes increasingly more widespread, larger frustration will replace the acceptance of the world as it now exists. And when the level of frustration crosses some undefined line, measures will be taken to change the intolerable course the world has wandered upon. Knowing that the line has finally been crossed is when the world becomes willing to pay the price to resolve the chaos. Regrettably, greater the delay in crossing that line, greater becomes the final tab. This is what history teaches us.
Christopher Petitt is the author of the soon-to-be-released book, The Crucible of Global War: And the Sequence that is Leading Back to It. It will be available for sale at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com and for order at bookstores everywhere November 18.