After Paris, Europe needs to face reality in the Middle East

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The world has witnessed several ghastly terrorist attacks in the past month. All are believed to have been carried out by a militant Islamist movement that calls itself Islamic State, or by its affiliates, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

On October 10, two suicide bombers killed 102 peace demonstrators and injured more than 400 in front of the central railway station in Ankara, the Turkish capital. On October 31, a Russian airliner with 224 people on board disintegrated over the Sinai Peninsula, almost certainly as a result of a bomb explosion in its cargo hold. On November 12, a suicide bomb attack killed 43 and wounded 239 in a Hezbollah-controlled neighbourhood in southern Beirut.

And on the following day, the massacre in Paris took place.

Islamic State took advantage of a political vacuum in the territories of two failed states, Iraq and Syria, to establish what resembles a territorial state of its own in 2014. Iraq and Syria have been artificial creations from the beginning. Great Britain and France established these entities after the First World War, in accordance with their particular interests. Islamic State evolved from a mere terrorist group into a cruel semi-state with expansionist ambitions. It has succeeded in demolishing the already rickety geopolitical structure of the Middle East and North Africa.

Since the start of Syria’s civil war, the West’s principal objective has been to remove President Bashar al-Assad on the grounds that his regime was guilty of atrocities. Selected groups opposed to the Assad regime, some of them radical and turning terrorist, have been supported with money and equipment. After Islamic State surfaced, the Western focus became twofold: to eliminate Mr Assad and to fight the terrorist state. All peace discussions have stumbled on the West’s refusal to give the Damascus regime a place at the table.

In neighbouring Iraq, government forces have performed dismally against Islamic State, despite receiving ample air support and equipment from the United States and its allies. With the exception of Iraq’s Shia militia, the armed forces of that artificial state are not motivated to fight. As of now, the only determined combatants with a record of success against Islamic State are the Kurds.

Until now, Western policy has been to avoid committing ground troops. After Russia intervened directly by commencing air strikes on September 30 against Syrian targets, the situation changed. The US is inching closer towards a decision to put boots on the ground. Turkey is also taking a stronger stand against Islamic State, despite its simultaneous counterinsurgency campaign against the Kurds. France dispatched its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the Persian Gulf to intensify its air campaign.

The Paris massacre shocked Europe, perhaps more so than any atrocity since 9/11. France considers itself now at war, which may trigger a Nato reaction under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, as happened after the September 2001 attacks on the US. Security measures and screening procedures, already intrusive in many countries, are being hastily beefed up.

What does the Islamic State hope to accomplish by such attacks? One can only guess at this point. Supposedly, the terror state is under growing military pressure now that Turkey and Russia have stepped up their involvement in the fight. The Islamists probably do not have much to lose.

Each of their attacks sends ripples of fear far beyond the targeted countries. Security is tightened at huge cost in money and political energy, to the detriment of privacy and other liberties. Europe’s core values, which the terrorists detest, are getting crimped. Tension between Europeans and immigrants is deepening, creating conditions for more conflicts and instability. This is exactly what the terrorists hoped to see.

How, then, should Europe respond? The present outpouring of solidarity is important. One only hopes that it proves lasting and goes beyond mere words. The military and political campaign against Islamic State must continue unabated. At home, however, Europe must keep its nerve. While facing such an enemy, it is best to appear unimpressed and self-confident. Staging witch hunts and curbing civil liberties only plays into the terrorists’ hands.

The carnage in Paris should definitely serve as a wake-up call for Western leaders. Europe and the US urgently need more realistic policies towards the Middle East. There is no point in saying ‘Assad must go’ unless we have a plausible plan to achieve such a goal – and only if we know how to prevent even worse turmoil if another regime in the region is toppled.

The futility of trying to preserve failed artificial states such as Syria and Iraq must finally be acknowledged. Superficial fixes, such as the quasi-democratic government imposed on Iraq (or the similar solution now being proposed for Syria), will only prolong the suffering. The Middle East has to reinvent and reorganise itself. The best way to help is to stop trying to restore the ill-fitting boundaries imposed on the region a century ago.

If stability does not return on a truly sustainable basis to the Middle East, terrorism will continue to extract its horrible toll. Europe cannot wall itself off from these attacks, no matter how many security measures it takes.

Related statements:

Success needs compromise in Syrian peace talks

The demise of Iraq

Syria's al-Assad - an option among several evils

Rescuing Iraq plays into the hands of ISIS

Related reports:

Why Europe should show it has a Middle East Foreign Policy

Syria's predictable slide into civil war

Rampant corruption and sectarian interests are destroying Iraq

How ISIS is shifting relationships in the Middle East

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