Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Chickens come home to roost

French policy towards Syria over the last five years has contributed to the rise of Islamic State, which carried out last week’s attacks in Paris, writes Bassem Hassan

Al-Ahram Weekly

It has been a busy two weeks for the cells of the Islamic State (IS) group. On 31 October, a Russian passenger plane crashed shortly after taking off from Sharm El-Sheikh on its way to St. Petersburg. Soon after, IS claimed responsibility for downing the Airbus 321 and for the 224 resulting casualties.

On 12 November, two IS members carried out a dual suicide attack on a busy street in the southern suburbs of Beirut, murdering at least 40 persons.

Not to be eclipsed by their brethren in Arab countries, IS’s cells in Europe launched a number of coordinated attacks in the French capital on the following evening, leading to French President François Hollande being whisked away from the Stade de France outside Paris. where his country was playing a friendly game against its old rival, Germany.

From Hollande’s immediate reaction to the news of the tragedy one can get the feeling that he had believed that jihadist groups such as IS would exclude French citizens from their list of targets and would focus only on “Russian crusaders” and “Shia infidels.”

It seems that Hollande might have mistakenly drawn the conclusion that French attacks on the Syrian regime and his more than cordial relation with two main sponsors of the jihadist groups in Syria, namely Qatar and Saudi Arabia, would spare French cities such carnage.

Despite his calls for unity in the aftermath of the attacks, the French president will probably not mind the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment they will certainly unleash in France and throughout Europe. He may even hope that the French far right’s Islamophobia will deflect attention away from his government’s responsibility for these attacks.

After all, these attacks were not carried out by one or two lone wolves, like the attack on the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier this year. Carrying out several almost-simultaneous attacks in a major European capital must have been preceded by plenty of planning that, surprisingly, went unnoticed by the French and other European security services.

However, the French government’s responsibility is not limited to what can only be described as a huge security breach. French policy towards Syria over the last five years has contributed significantly to the rise and expansion of IS and other jihadist groups.

By portraying the conflict between Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his opponents as a confrontation between a dictator representing a minority and a pro-democracy movement standing for the majority of Syrians, French officials have bestowed legitimacy on the jihadist groups’ ideology in many Muslims’ eyes, both within and outside Europe.

The widespread use of terms with sectarian connotations in their statements have further played into the hands of these groups and cemented their image as the defenders of the faith among Muslims.

France has been relentlessly pursuing an anti-Al-Assad policy, despite the fact that “the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al-Qaida in Iraq, which later evolved into IS] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria,” as a report by the United States Department of Defence put it in August 2012.

This leading role for the jihadist groups was not a recent development. As the same report explains, “AQI supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning both ideologically and through the media. . . . [Furthermore,] AQI conducted a number of operations in several Syrian cities under the name of Jaish Al-Nusra [which later became Jabhat Al-Nusra].”

 The report goes on to reveal that this information did not make Western countries, including France, and their regional allies, Turkey and the Gulf states, reconsider their approach to the crisis in Syria. Rather, according to the report, these states wanted to see the establishment of “a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria . . . in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of Shia expansion” in the region.

As a result, they got what they wished for, and probably even more than they had bargained for. Today, IS controls large parts of both Syria and Iraq. It has affiliates in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Yemen and even France.

Those in France are probably from among the European jihadists produced by mosques and Islamic centres funded primarily by Saudi Arabia to promote its Wahhabist understanding of Islam. Various European governments, including that led by Hollande, turned a blind eye while hundreds of these jihadists travelled to Syria to join IS and similar groups. Now they have started coming back home.

It is clear that the French government has been pursuing a vigorous anti-Al-Assad policy while fully aware that this was serving the jihadist groups. Similarly, France has been supportive, even if quietly, of the Saudi-led war on Yemen. So far, this war has resulted in the destruction of the country and the death and maiming of thousands of Yemenis.

Most importantly, it has enabled Al-Qaida and IS to establish strongholds in the southern part of the country, including Yemen’s main port Aden. But the developments in Yemen haven’t seemed to disturb the French government, which is pursuing business and weapons deals with its Saudi counterpart.

If this is indicative of future French policies towards Syria and the ongoing conflicts in the region, then it is unlikely that Hollande will change his position, the deaths of more than 125 French citizens notwithstanding.

He will probably continue to value partnerships with the likes of the Saudi and Qatari governments more than the lives of those killed by the jihadist groups, including those from among his own people. This will be consistent with an established Western tradition of courting jihadist groups and their sponsors, even after the snake begins to devour the snake charmer.

The use of the services of jihadist groups in Syria by the US, despite the 9/11 terrorist attacks is illustrative of this tradition. Western governments might even use the attacks in Paris and any similar future attacks as excuses to increase their military intervention in Syria to topple its government.

As history has shown, most recently in Libya and Iraq, this would be a recipe for disaster. All people of good conscience should do their utmost to prevent from happening.

The writer is a political analyst.

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