The Paris Response: Answering Urgent Questions in the Anti-ISIS Fight


James F. Jeffrey, Matthew Levitt, Fabrice Balanche, and Anna Borshchevskaya


As the United States and its allies search for the most effective responses to the latest ISIS atrocity, four Washington Institute experts weigh in on key questions concerning refugee policy, increased Turkish participation in the war, the Islamic State’s tactical shift toward international terrorism, and Russia’s poor fit as an ally against the group.

Why is Turkey staying out of the anti-ISIS fight, and how can Washington persuade it to be more helpful?

Turkey is a reluctant warrior against the self-styled “Islamic State” (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) for at least three reasons. First, while it sees ISIS as a threat, it is more concerned with two other priorities: countering Kurdish nationalism of the sort advocated by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian sister organization the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and ousting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Second, while Ankara does not directly support ISIS, it has turned a blind eye to some of its activities, including in Turkey, and it allows freedom of movement to individuals transiting its territory to fight Assad regardless of which group they might belong to. Third, Ankara is attempting to use the prospect of more forceful action against ISIS (beyond opening bases to U.S. operations and conducting a few desultory airstrikes) as leverage to gain Washington’s acquiescence on the Turkish no-fly-zone idea in northern Syria, and to pressure the PYD to be more aggressive against Assad and less expansionist in Arab areas near the border with Turkey.

There is no pressure that can change President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s position on this issue. If the United States and its allies want a more active Turkey, then they must at least partially accommodate Ankara. That means taking more care in empowering the PYD and adopting a tougher position on Assad, most likely to include a no-fly zone. Ironically, Washington is reliant on the PYD not only because it refuses to commit U.S. ground troops, but also because it has not been able to enlist serious Turkish participation in the fight. The more Turkey can be persuaded to oppose ISIS actively, the less the United States will need to rely on the PYD. The opposite is also true, however — the more Washington embraces the Syrian Kurds, the more reluctant Turkey will be to enable such an alliance.

— James F. Jeffrey


Does ISIS truly want to create an Islamic State, and would it leave the West alone if the West left it alone?

Unlike previous ISIS-inspired plots, the Paris attacks were “prepared and planned elsewhere, with outside involvement.” That alone is a significant tactical shift for ISIS, and one that cannot be explained away as a response to gains made by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq — such attacks take much longer to prepare, and they were surely already in the works when ISIS suffered its most recent setbacks. Moreover, the attacks did not take place in a vacuum — they followed a series of other international terrorist strikes claimed by ISIS in Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt.

Yet while the recent foreign plots were a new step for the group, they should not have been unexpected. ISIS describes its goals as “enduring and expanding,” but that is not all it seeks to accomplish. Its ideology is explicitly apocalyptic, looking to draw “the Romans” (i.e. the infidel West) into a dramatic battle that will presage Judgement Day. Prophecies about an end-of-days battle in the Syrian town of Dabiq permeate ISIS statements and literature. The group’s English-language magazine is even called Dabiq; as its editors explain, “The area will play a historical role in the battles leading up to the conquests of Constantinople, then Rome.” The prophecies to which ISIS adheres demand conquest not just in the Middle East, but all over the world. As Will McCants explains in his excellent book The ISIS Apocalypse, “The Islamic State has stoked the apocalyptic fire,” fanning the flames of a dangerous ideology that respects no boundaries.

— Matthew Levitt


What happens if Europe turns up the heat on Syrian refugees?

Since the Paris attacks, several countries have decided to suspend the reception of Syrian refugees or allow entry to Christians alone, who are unlikely to be creatures of ISIS. This measure is partly an excuse to avoid taking their share of responsibility for the Syrian drama. If the decision stands and becomes a universal policy in Europe, it would engender feelings of hopelessness among many refugees that could in turn spur a huge wave of radicalization, particularly among those who fought the Assad regime.

In my many interviews with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan over the past two years, I noticed their strong bitterness against Western countries: “You have pushed us to lift against Bashar al-Assad, you have promised us military help, but nothing came, as when Assad crossed the redline. Because we have trusted, we lost everything: we cannot come back to Syria, we are stuck in this miserable camp in Lebanon where we have no future.”

Indeed, humanitarian aid is falling, and Lebanese authorities are exerting stronger pressure on refugees to return to Syria. Heading for Europe is often their only hope, even if the quest takes years. The complete closure of European borders would strike many Syrian refugees as a new betrayal by the West. “You have betrayed us, and only ISIS can help us regain our dignity”: that is how most of my interviews ended in 2014, and one year later the situation is worse for the refugees.

— Fabrice Balanche


How useful is Russia in combating ISIS?

Numerous reports indicate that the vast majority of Russia’s airstrikes have not been directed against ISIS targets. Rather, Moscow’s Syria intervention has exacerbated the flow of refugees fleeing Assad, emboldened ISIS by helping to eliminate its opponents (including those backed by the West), and disheartened U.S. regional allies in the absence of a coherent Western response.

Vladimir Putin’s consistent support for Assad since 2011 also contributed to the growth of ISIS. According to an extensive July report by Elena Milashina of Novaya Gazeta, one of the few remaining independent newspapers in Russia, the Kremlin’s special services have controlled the flow of Islamist radicals from Russia into Syria since 2011, and sometimes even assisted their entry. Other reports and private conversations with experts support this report. Rather than help solve the problem, Russia’s Federal Security Service preferred to hand it off to others. As a result, terrorist attacks in Russia and elsewhere will likely increase once these fighters return home. Meanwhile, Russia’s policies in the North Caucasus have done little to reduce the pool of potential recruits for ISIS and other terrorist groups. In the past, Putin has not shied away from supporting Islamists abroad. For instance, he did not object when Assad allowed radical Islamists to transit Syria into Iraq.

It is in Russia’s interest to genuinely fight ISIS, especially given the instability in the North Caucasus, but Putin’s primary concern is to stay in power and divide the West. He is using the tragic Paris events as an opportunity to push the West to accept his agenda. A true global leader considers international security rather than pushing his own narrow interests at the expense of others, including his own people. In this context, Putin’s Russia is a poor ally in the fight against ISIS.

— Anna Borshchevskaya

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