Choose weapons of peace over the rhetoric of war
We have to do what it takes to eliminate Islamist violence, a source of barbaric crimes
The barbaric murder of Alan Henning is a fresh call for more efficiency in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis). There is a great deal of confusion in this war. France is leading loudly and the US is leading from behind. Iran is on the side of both of them but they are not on Iran’s. One of the allies strikes Syria, the other would rather not. There is confusion over what is said, what is done and what is wished.
What is said? We are waging a “global war on terror”, a catchphrase coined 13 years ago by George W Bush. These are not just words but seeds, spreading the logic of force around the globe. The whole Muslim world is strained by local conflicts, from the Philippines to Nigeria, from the Chinese Xinjiang to the Russian Caucasus. Starting a war on terror means melting all local fronts into a single global enemy.
Moreover, the images the enemy sees are not the same as those we watch here. People in the Middle East have wounded memories and resent the double standards of western sympathy – the Syrians, for instance, whom the west let down a year ago. This is a war that provides legitimacy, credibility and visibility to fanatics around the globe. Each enemy who falls inspires 10 more to join.
What is done is another thing: a military operation in which political objectives are jumbled up with military means, perception is everything, and our hands are tied. Hands tied by a zero risk war – since Vietnam, western publics no longer tolerate casualties. Hands tied by the asymmetry of the war, in which every battle, even the smallest, becomes a decisive one if it is lost by the strongest. (Kobane today; Deraa tomorrow?) Hands tied by short-sighted strategies, in which a quick military victory gives way to a lasting political entanglement that presages the next war.
What is wished? Security. But that is the point: there is no security without peace. Every war creates collateral damages and entrenches hatred. What will we say now to countries that have been criticised for the ruthless treatment of Islamist movements – Israel, China in Xinjiang or Russia in Chechnya? When will it no longer seem necessary to intervene? After a war in Nigeria? In Southeast Asia? In Libya again?
We cannot afford an endless war of fragile truces punctuated by brutal outbursts that leads, little by little, to a clash of civilisations. The destinies of Europe and the Middle East are intertwined. The crisis in the Middle East also tears apart 20m European Muslims. We face risks at home, and also for our populations abroad, such as the 200,000 French who live around the Mediterranean.
The west bears its share of responsibility for the Middle East’s troubles. For 40 years inconsistent policies, especially in Washington, have fuelled war between nationalist dictatorships and Islamist movements. By pursuing security through the use of force, we will loose our principles and our identity. We will live in perpetual fear of the others. Peace is the chance we owe ourselves.
We have to do what it takes to achieve what we wish, the elimination of Islamist violence, a source of barbaric crimes. Not only by stopping Isis but also by destroying its political roots.
This means choosing efficiency over ideology. Neither blind pacifism, nor warmongering, will do. We can be led to use force, with clear and limited objectives: destroying the oil wells held by Isis, cutting off its revenues; giving air support to Kurdish, Iraqi or Free Syrian troops fighting Isis on the ground.
But the core strategy remains political, and it cannot wait. It requires the unity of the Arab nation states. It can still be restored by inclusive national dialogues, offering recognition to minorities. But for how long? The Sunni Arabs in Iraq, who accept the rule of Isis because they feel even more threatened by the Shia militias backed by a sectarian government, need to be won back.
The second imperative is responsibility. The regional war can only be solved by the region’s countries. The Sunni states, in particular from the heavily armed Gulf Cooperation Council, have to lead the war, with the west’s support. Not the other way round, as it is today.
The third imperative is reconciliation. In the Middle East, we have to promote local peace, in one place at a time, to achieve a regional peace tomorrow. Peace between Turkey and the Kurds. Peace between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Peace of course between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is central to the Shia/Sunni confrontation. To achieve this, a permanent regional conference with all actors is needed. The weapons of peace can be more powerful than the war on terror. They call for political will, vision and initiative.
6th October 2014, Financial Times