A few thoughts on the multiple terrorist attacks on Friday evening in Paris.
* Some news reports state that it took three hours for police to enter the scene at the rock concert hall where terrorists with assault rifles killed and wounded a majority of the victims of this attack. Law enforcement learned that the rules are different in hostage situations where there is an active shooter sometime around the time of the Columbine shooting in Colorado. The French need to learn that lesson now. This is the one respect in which the official response in France can be seriously faulted.
* It is striking that most of the attacks last Friday and back in January, were concentrated in just one or two Parisian neighborhoods, presumably due to their symbolic power.
* It is too early for police gathered evidence to reliably confirm that this attack was actually conducted by ISIS, but since ISIS claimed responsibility after the fact, it is legitimate to strike back against ISIS whether its claim of responsibility was true or not.
* The French military's experience fighting Islamist insurgents in Algeria, insurgents in Mali, and Boko Haram in the African Sahel, should serve it well should it choose to go beyond its bombing raid on the ISIS capitol on Sunday to some sort of ground campaign against ISIS.
* Some analysts are arguing that the strikes in Paris may be a response to military defeats in Iraq. It is an interesting theory, but I'm not convinced. There have also been hints, for all intents and purposes no more credible than rumors yet, that the train terrorist attack thwarted by off duty U.S. servicemen may have been planned by the same person or group that conducted the latest round of terrorist attacks, and perhaps also the earlier round of attacks in January.
* The terrorists in the latest massacre have spurred France to action and made it afraid in a way that it hadn't been until now. But, ultimately, this massacre was a bee sting to a nation that is still secure and powerful and has integrated much of its Muslim population into its society. One of the "good guy" martyrs in the January attacks was a French Muslim cop. Yes, at least one attacker this time was a Syrian refugee and others had been foreign fighters in Syria. Others were French citizens, but only a small number of insurgents lurk among a million or more loyal French Muslim citizens of recent immigrant heritage.
* The risk of mistakes from rash action here to France are greater than the risk of taking only more thoughtful action. France has suffered a horrible tragedy, but even including the deaths and injuries it has suffered from terrorism in its crime statistics, it has still experienced much less homicide and violence than gun drenched Americans suffer in every ordinary year. This is true despite the fact that its politics of general strikes, and extreme union tactics, are much more extreme and violent than American politics (or perhaps, the certainty that violence won't cross critical thresholds makes other street political action possible).
* France can't predict and stop every terrorist incident. But, snatches of intelligence released in the news suggest that it isn't totally oblivious to the real risks either. It has room to improve its anti-terrorist efforts while maintaining a human and democratic free society, even if it can never be perfectly successful. But, it isn't starting from nothing either. France needs to remember the importance of preserving its soft power, which the U.S. has too often forgotten to do in its long running war on terrorism.
The Middle East and Its Neighbors
* Neither Syria nor Iraq have capable without outside assistance of asserting de facto control over large swaths of their own territories, despite the inferior military equipment of ISIS. They haven't even managed to do so with a coalition of powers led by the U.S. providing airstrikes and recent Russian intervention on behalf of the Baathist regime on the ground and from the air.
* Half of the population of Syria has been displaced, and many millions are refugees - some nearby in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, others making their way to Europe and beyond. Thousands of refugees have died on the way, with losses particular high among those trying to travel by boat across the Mediterranean.
* Also, keep in mind that before its civil war, Syria had been home to millions of Sunni Arab refugees, mostly from predominantly Shiite areas of Iraq. Many of them are now twice displaced.
* Who can fault the refugees for fleeing this horrible situation? On one side they have ISIS. On the other they have an undemocratically selected rump Baathist regime that has used chemical weapons on its people, indiscriminately bombed its own cities and towns with airplanes, and dumped crude "barrel bombs" from helicopters on marketplaces full of its own people. Only a reign of terror has allowed the regime to hold onto what it continues to control. Food supplies are scarce.
* In part, the economies of Jordan and Lebanon may in the end be helped as much as hurt by the influx of newcomers. Human capital matters more than physical capital.
* A significant share of Syria's territory is held by neither the rump Baathist regime nor ISIS. The varied rebel forces holding this territory are not as bad as ISIS, but some of them are only a little better.
* The most optimistic development in the situation has been the development of grass roots civil society organizations doing their best to meet local needs in the face of insurmountable armed opposition from multiple sides. Purported governments in exile formed from leaders of early rebel movements seem largely irrelevant at this point, however.
* The first of the Arab Spring revolutions, in Tunisia, seems to have resulted in a fragile but improved democratic government.
Libya's regime was deposed with our help in a campaign of bombing orchestrated by Hillary Clinton, but the nation is divided between competing successor regimes and order has not been fully restored.
Egypt had a revolution and a brief elected government, but an Army coup, fearful of the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood backed winning coalition has put itself and its puppet back in charge. It increasingly looks like a Russian aircraft crash leaving Egypt was bombed by ISIS.
To some extent our actions, particularly in Libya, led on Syrians to revolt too, although Russian opposition to outside intervention played a major part as well.
* Yemen's ugly and mostly ignored civil war had little to do with Arab Spring and it was a fragile democracy for a while, but its civil war is ongoing and all of the sides hate the U.S. In hindsight, unifying North Yemen and South Yemen was a horrible idea that sowed the seeds of the current horrible civil war there.
* Saudi Arabia and the other Arabian oil monarchies are officially anti-ISIS. But, there is good reason to suspect that non-regime factions in these affluent societies are fueling ISIS and other Islamic radical movements worldwide from the 9-11 attackers, to the Taliban in Afghanistan, to foreign fighters and funds that keep ISIS and other affiliates of it worldwide afloat. Saudi Arabian involvement in Yemen's civil war has perpetrated indiscriminate attacks that have killed many civilians there and its motives in that conflict should be questioned.
* Iran has played the turmoil well. The U.S. has neutered its Afghan neighbor to the East and its Iraqi neighbor to the West. It has secured eased sanctions with a deal on its nuclear program. U.S. actions segregated Iraq religiously leaving most of the Iraqi territory on the Iranian border firmly in the hand of provinces which have much smaller non-Shiite minorities and rump Iraq controlled by a civilian government that is a good friend of Iran. Rise of ISIS is not unrelated to the religious and ethnic segregation that occurred as a result of U.S. occupation of Iraq following the Iraq War which fanned extremism and ethnic nationalism there, and ISIS has shifted focus away from Iran's wrongdoings. Iran's homegrown political system has also emerged from years of international sanctions as a resilient Islamic democracy, which while not up to Western standards of human rights and electoral fairness, is still a state where elections do matter, rather than a dictatorship or one party state. Its theocratic leadership has filled the role of a transitional constitutional monarch, with real power and a final say over key issues, but delegating considerable power to elected civilian leaders.
Iran has also quietly backed the Baathist regime in Syria, by encouraging fights among other factions there, and continued to back its anti-Israeli militias in Lebanon.
* Turkey hasn't necessarily improved its situation, but has managed to maintain domestic order and avoid mistakes that could have left it worse off. On the whole it is managing the situation as well as could be expected.
* If there are any "good guys" in the conflict who can fairly be said to share of goals for the most part for the region, it is the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds and the Yazidi people whose genocide our intervention prevented with Kurdish assistance. Despite Turkish discomfort with their Kurdish minority, and rump Iraq and rump Syria's insistence on preserving the pre-conflict status quo, the Kurds are long overdue for payback for their efforts and have among the most functional civilian self-governments in the region, as well as being one of the most "liberal" Islamic ethnic groups in the region by Western standards. Why should U.S. diplomats insist that the Kurds remain subjected to the ineffectual, openly Shiite biased, and Iran-aligned rump Iraqi government whose military prowess has been pathetic as well, as opposed to being a sovereign states which is how they are acting in fact?
A Kurdish national homeland in the region would be a bastion of stability, democracy and tolerance compared to its neighbors (apart from Turkey). And, unlike most of the other factions in the Middle East, the Kurds aren't obsessed with anti-Israeli or anti-American fervor.
* Israeli-Palestinian conflicts have gone on as usual, with periods of more and less intense conflict and no end in sight, despite all of the static in the region.
* Afghanistan is still at war with the Taliban, fourteen years after the U.S. intervened decisively in the Afghan civil war that it has almost won against it. The related insurgency in Pakistan's frontier provinces is also still ongoing. The U.S. installed regime in Afghanistan seems capable of holding onto control, but it has a fragile grip and is still fighting a low level civil war than flares up occasionally in parts of the country. Those areas where the regime remains in control aren't always much to write home about, but the Taliban controlled area and the places where the fighting remains hot seem to be much worse.
* The refugee situation has made the Syrian civil war "Europe's problem" whether it likes it or not.
* In some ways Europe is well equipped to receive Muslim immigrants. As a result of the Holocaust, most of Europe's Jews were either killed or fled to Israel or the U.S. Most countries in Europe are secular leaning but historically Christian with significant Muslim minorities already. In Germany, Muslim minorities are heavily Turkish. In France, there are many Algerian Muslims. In the U.K., there are many Pakistani Muslims. Spain and Italy already had significant numbers of North Africans. Even Scandinavia has taken in a significant minority of Muslim immigrants. Integrating a large new wave of Muslim immigrants into their societies is not an entirely new problem for them.
* Countries like the U.K. and Germany are spending on the order of $1,000 per month per refugee per year to meet their needs, and there have been serious discussions of ways to shift the burden that nations closest to the border are facing. Winter is coming and the need may increase. European countries have mostly stepped up to the moral challenge of making a serious effort to treat refugees humanely, despite the growing unpopularity of this stance.
* Europe is also much more dependent upon Middle Eastern oil than the U.S. is, especially now that Russian intervention in the Ukraine has caused the rest of Europe to rule out reliance of Russian resources.
The Big Historical Arc
* Arab Spring has increasingly looked more like Europe in 1848, a round of European revolutions against monarchs that failed. All of the Middle Eastern and North African monarchies remain secure with dissent there promptly crushed, even Jordan which is burdened with something like half a million refugees. The only revolution that has tentatively left its people better off was the first in Tunisia. Egypt has gone sidewise. Libya has as much bad news as good and is neither a win nor a loss. Syria was a disaster.
* The post-World War I settlement that defined the boundaries of the modern Middle Eastern nation states, as modified by the post-World War II creation of Israel, is in a state of piecemeal, but seemingly inevitable collapse.
* It is time for the U.S. to abandon the increasingly untenable dream of maintaining that settlement and time instead to imagine a new, more robust and stable alternative that can secure the backing of the people of the Middle East as they are today.
* The West has the military and economic might to obliterate ISIS, Boko Haram, and many other Islamist radical groups around the world, and to force Syria's war criminal led Baathist regime to capitulate and step down. It has not yet decided that it is worth the cost in blood and treasure and a long term, locally resented colonial commitment to do so. But, it is important to recognize that lack of fortitude, focused commitment to the cause, and ruthlessness is central to the reason that these groups can be effective enough to survive. The costs may not be worth the benefits of doing so, because ultimately, no situation will be stable until it is accepted as legitimate by the local citizens.