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Issue #1712      November 25, 2015

Win the war? No, put an end to it

France’s capital has been struck at its heart by the war that devastates the Near and Middle East and turns Syria into a theatre of confrontation with far-reaching regional and international reverberations. “An act of war,” our president declared on Friday night. And in real fact the power of these quasi-simultaneous aggressions in several places in and around Paris, the determination to kill as many people as possible, blindly, indiscriminately, and the attackers’ recourse – for the first time in France – to suicide missions – all these confer upon this terrorist coup the characteristics of a military operation in an asymmetrical conflict.

But considered separately, it does not call for a “war against terrorism”, a vague notion that fails to designate both the adversary and the causes of the conflict, and may lead to all kinds of competitive bidding. In a special edition, the weekly l’Express raised a martial question “How shall we win the war?” A similar incitement to the escalation of military intervention is also – and unsurprisingly – manifest in Nicolas Sarkozy’s declaration. The real question, to which French diplomacy has so far given no convincing answer, is not how to win the war but how to put an end to it.

Following September 11, 2001, and taking advantage of the deep shock caused by the attacks, George W Bush succeeded in bringing world opinion round to the invasion of Afghanistan in the name of war on terrorism. And again in 2003 to the war on Iraq, except that this time France spoke against it at the UN Security Council. The region has since never found a way out of chaos.

The current situation is indeed the end-result of Bush’s adventurism. The lesson seems to have been of little use to French leaders, who can think of nothing better than more air strikes. “We are at war,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls grimly repeated on the TV channel TF1, “and more terrorist attacks are to be expected.” In other words the prime minister promoted powerlessness.

The massacres in Paris have made it impossible for the French diplomacy to hold to their former line. Supposing that in August 2013, the French proposal to bomb Bashar el Assad’s army – following a suspicion that chemical substances had been used – had not jointly been vetoed by the US and Great Britain, Damascus would no doubt be now under Jihadist control. It is easy to imagine what the consequences would be.

The reason for the confusing French position on this point seems to be a concession to Saudi Arabia, a country deeply involved in the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. And Saudi Arabia shows up another ambiguity on the French side: how can France ever take a convincing stand against ISIL while claiming to be the main ally, and provider of fighter planes, to the Gulf monarchies whose ideological leanings to ISIL are a matter of public knowledge? Besides, in its relations with Riyadh, Paris proves overly discreet about the human rights issue (women’s rights included).

The chaos through which the Middle-East is labouring, and which causes the exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing ISIL’s barbarous rule is the result of 15 years of Western interventionism. If France did not follow Bush into Iraq, the debit side in Sarkozy’s record is the destruction of Libya.

It is high time we broke away with power politics and stopped sidelining the UN. These attacks, like those that killed 129 in Paris, are for the greater part linked to a historical process that increased with the interventions in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in Libya – all of which only added fuel to the fire, as Dominique de Villepin, former French foreign minister, contends. He denounces the climate of competitive bidding and thunderous calls for war. “What can a ‘total war’ mean? An all-out fight to destroy a terrorist organisation is sure to spread the contamination even further.” So Villepin warns us against falling into the trap set by those who fomented the attacks.

The main lesson to be drawn from the present tragic events is certainly not to allow ourselves to be enlisted in new adventures, but to upgrade the UN’s role in the process of restoration and reconstruction.

Translated by Isabelle Métral


Next article – Russia warns Turkey and Qatar

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