By Barry Moody
The horrific attacks in Paris have given new impetus to the struggle against extremism, but they also highlight the failures and limitations of Western policy.
After the November 13 attacks, President François Hollande said France was at war with Islamic State (ISIS) and demanded a stronger international alliance to crush it.
However, this is a “war” in which France, like the United States and other members of an international coalition, is using only a fraction of its military power. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the French air force dropped 20 bombs in what it called a “massive” attack on the ISIS Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.
While these and subsequent air strikes symbolized resolve and revenge, they are no great escalation in a year-long offensive by the United States and its allies in which more than 8,200 air strikes have targeted the militants in Syria and Iraq.
Yet Islamic State is far from defeated either in the large swathes of Syria and Iraq it still controls or in its evident capacity to mount spectacular attacks elsewhere.
In fact progress against the militants in the Middle East may push them towards more attacks in Europe. Inevitable civilian casualties in aerial bombing and drone strikes run the risk of boosting recruitment by radicalizing more Muslims.
No appetite for ground war
Defeating ISIS on the ground would nevertheless be a major step forward, by cutting off its access to huge revenues from oil and other sources and reducing its propaganda appeal. However, military analysts agree that it cannot be defeated without boots on the ground.
While the brutality of the Paris attacks may have changed the minds of some, including some previous staunch opponents of military intervention, there seems little appetite in Washington or elsewhere for being sucked into a new quagmire.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq and its botched aftermath, far from defeating terrorism as was promised, boosted the threat by favoring the Shi’ite majority and alienating the long-dominant Sunni Muslims, including army officers now suspected of being key to ISIS military prowess.
Ironically, it was also the costly and bloody struggle against insurgents after the swift toppling of Saddam Hussein that has made Western powers so reluctant to commit troops now.
Lacking the will to deploy troops, the Western emphasis is on proxy forces backed by air power.
Opening for Putin
The Iraqi army, reconstructed at huge cost by Washington but weakened by sectarian divisions and corruption, has suffered a series of embarrassing defeats by ISIS. The only effective force in the field appears to be Kurdish fighters, who scored a major strategic victory by retaking the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar as the Paris attacks unfolded.
However it seems dubious that they can go on to rout ISIS alone, and their interest is likely limited to retaking Kurdish territory.
Meanwhile, U.S. dithering over Syria created an opening for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched air strikes to support his ally President Bashar al-Assad — strikes that Western governments say targeted moderate opposition groups more than ISIS.
The downing of a Russian airliner over Egypt last month may have persuaded Putin that he needs to build bridges with the West and concentrate on ISIS, despite his anger over the Turkish downing of a Russian bomber this week.
Nevertheless, Putin has changed the game in the Middle East, winning new influence and undermining the Western argument that Assad’s removal is a prerequisite for a Syrian settlement.
Voices have been raised in France and elsewhere suggesting a choice must be made between what the U.S.-led coalition considers as two evils, in the same way that Stalin was wooed into an alliance against Hitler in World War Two.
Barry Moody was Middle East Editor at Reuters for seven years during a career as one of the news service’s most experienced foreign correspondents and managers. He led coverage of the 2003 Iraq war and was also Africa Editor for 10 years. Most recently he ran editorial operations in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal at the height of the euro zone debt crisis. His other postings included Asia, Australasia and the United States.