Whose war is it?

Photographer: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

The Right Kind of War on Terrorism

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Big terror attacks have a way of forcing governments into action, and so it is already proving with Friday night's slaughter in Paris. The question -- and not just for France -- is what action.

It is so easy to get this wrong, as the U.S. proved with its "war on terror" in Iraq after the Sept. 11 attacks. This isn't about the words. French President Francois Hollande said Friday's highly organized, multifronted terrorist operation was an act of war, and it surely was. It's about what the words are used for.

Before Hollande decides what "pitiless" response to make against Islamic State, he needs to clarify two questions: What war? And against whom is Islamic State waging it?

The natural response is to conclude that Islamic State has declared war on France. But Islamic State is first of all fighting other Muslims, who don't share its beliefs. France, and indeed Europe as a whole, are embroiled in that war because they are home to many millions of Muslims, because they oppose Islamic State militarily and represent what Islamic State abhors -- religious tolerance, modernity and stability. The group has others in its sights for other reasons, but for Europe these will do.

This is a war of ideas even more than it is one of bombs and Islamic State knows it. As the French Middle East scholar Gilles Kepel said in an interview with Le Monde on Saturday, its goal is to stir up civil conflict in Europe, driving the continent's Muslims to support them. Al-Qaeda's goal was the same, set out in Abu Musab al-Suri’s infamous Call to Global Islamic Resistance, back in 2005. That is to be achieved by provoking discrimination and even pogroms against Muslims.

Already before Friday's attack, the European right -- from Marine Le Pen's National Front party in France, to Germany's Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West)  movement -- was demanding a zero-tolerance policy toward admitting Syrian refugees, the resurrection of Europe's internal borders and deportations. They had been energized by the refugee crisis and their demands will now grow more confident, given that at least one attacker had a Syrian passport and appears to have slipped into Europe as a refugee.

Poland's new Europe Minister, from the right-wing Law and Justice Party, called on Saturday for his country to resurrect its national borders and rescind its commitment to resettle 7,000 Syrian refugees.

But Islamic State's most potent enemy in Europe is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Syrian refugees arriving in Germany call their "compassionate mother." Pegida, by contrast, is an unwitting ally in Islamic State's effort to stir up inter-communal hate, never mind the neo-Nazis who already are setting refugee dormitories on fire.

So if the answer within Europe is to make allies of mainstream Muslim communities, so that more report suspicious behavior and extremist recruitment to the police, and fewer are so alienated they feel tempted by the jihadis' Medieval message, what about in Syria?

One action already triggered by the attacks is an agreement between world powers on a timetable for reaching a political settlement in Syria. This required the U.S. and other Western countries to compromise: The timetable does not require Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Russia also gave ground, because the list of terrorist organizations to be excluded from any cease-fire is limited to just Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise.

This is progress. Syria's war can only end if the outside powers fueling it agree whom to fight. Islamic State must be destroyed in Syria and Iraq -- it is the organization's success in surviving the combined air power of the U.S. and its coalition allies that makes it glamorous and attractive to young recruits. That will require a greater military effort. But it has to be done as part of a broader plan to help moderate Muslims reject Islamic State and other extremists.

Non-jihadi Sunni Syrians have already come to resent the U.S. and its European allies, and with good reason. They did not intervene militarily in Syria; did not arm and train militias before jihadis filled the resulting vacuum; did not create no-fly zones, or destroy Assad's air force so he could no longer drop barrel bombs on them. Nor did Europe -- with the exception of the U.K. -- step up to the challenge of funding the international effort to feed, house and school Syria's 4 million refugees.

The damage caused by these failures needs to be reversed, as difficult as that will be. The answer to the refugee crisis is not to seal borders, creating large scale Calais-style "Jungles" across the continent that would serve as breeding grounds for resentment and jihadism. It is, at last, to create a large-scale resettlement program from the refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, making it clear that those who go through the vetting process abroad will have a much higher chance of securing asylum in Europe than those who arrive in boats.

Every piece of this agenda swims against the tide of Europe's current politics, so I suspect the wrong choice will be made at every possible opportunity. If so, we are in for a long and nasty form of war.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net