As many as twenty-four countries gathered on February 2 last to finally decide how, to what extent and where to start opposing the Daesh/Isis expansion to Syria-Iraq and particularly to Libya.
Those countries included Turkey, accused by various sources of being part of the problem and not of the solution, as well as Saudi Arabia, which has never hidden its support for some Islamist factions in Syria and Iraq having connections with the Caliphate.
They also included Qatar, the Emirate which directly supports – in opposition to Saudi Arabia – the Muslim Brotherhood and some groups of the insurgency against President Assad in Syria.
Also the United States, however, supported and sometimes trained the Syrian group linked to Al Qaeda, the Jabat Al Nusra Front, with a view to combating Isis, as also recommended by General Petraeus, mindful of his surge in Iraq against Al Qaeda, organized with the mobilization of Al Anbar Sunni tribes.
Using the enemy against the enemy is an old formula of the 15th century alchemy and ruses, but I fear that strategic thinking is another thing.
Furthermore, according to some reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Hillary Clinton – when she was Secretary of State – was supposed to have supported and armed Qaedist and Muslim Brotherhood to combat Isis-Daesh both in Libya and in the crisis region stretching from Iraq to the Syrian coast.
Therefore, within the narrow scope of the war waged against the Caliphate, the meeting held on February 2 last at the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs – officially called “Ministerial Meeting of the Global Coalition against Daesh/Isis in the Small Group format” – is not a “coalition of the willing“, but rather a coalition of those who do not want to take actions or which take them so late as to jeopardize any action taken to oppose Isis/Daesh both in Libya and Syria.
In fact, the meeting was not attended by the country which has really taken decisions in the region threatened by Al Baghdadi, namely Russia, which has so far launched thousands of air strikes against the Caliphate, thus reducing its territorial size significantly.
The same holds true for Assad’s Syrian Baathist regime, with the Syrian Arab Army strengthened by the Russian contribution, or even for China which, while refusing to participate in any coalition, supports with weapons, equipment and intelligence the Russian effort that has so far avoided Al Baghdadi’ strategic point: reaching the Mediterranean coast and directly threatening the Atlantic Alliance and the “moderate” Arab countries.
Moreover, the US-led operation Inherent Resolve has so far launched over 20,300 attacks on Isis targets.
Hence why is Daesh/Isis still a terrible threat? Obviously because its territory is limited to the minimum required to manage the operations and also because the Caliph Al Baghdadi has been extraordinarily good at handling complex and differentiated relations between his Islamic supporters.
He has played the enemy with the friend and his enemies with each other.
“Allah (himself) does mock at them, and he leaves them alone in their inordinacy, blindly wandering on” (Surah Al-Baqarah, The Cow, verse 15)
Nevertheless the Caliph Al Baghdadi’s Islamic State has already lost about 14% of its original territory, mainly thanks to the Russian-Syrian and Iranian-Iraqi actions, but still rules essential cities for the passage of fighters, means and resources throughout the region: Mosul, Sinjar, Qaim, a large part of Fallujah, the suburbs of Ramadi and the refineries of Baiji.
Turkey has only waged its regional war, especially against the PKK Kurds, sometimes covertly by supporting the Caliphate so as to combat the Kurds and has then managed some Islamist groups with a view to opposing Russia.
In that region, every country has waged the war it liked most.
In fact, the Turkish leaders’ goal is the de facto annexation of the Syrian Sunni area which accounts for 74% of the population and, starting from there, the hegemonic reunification of Central Asia, by using the many Turkmen minorities , up to reaching China’s borders.
A return to the past of the Turkish civilization – turning from a tribe moving from Northeast Asia towards the sea and the region of the old Argonauts’ Golden Fleece into a civilization returning from the Mediterranean to its Asian roots.
Many years ago Carl Schmitt had that insight while thinking of rebuilding the great land empires against the North American and British “thalassocracies”.
Conversely, Saudi Arabia’s goal is to destroy a regime such as the Baathist and Alawite one, linked to Iran. Hence Saudi Arabia wants to regionalize and isolate Iran from the Mediterranean – since Iran has not a necessary buffer like Syria, which is useful to control and manage all oil and non-oil trade originating from Iran towards the Mediterranean and the European Union.
And to think that it was the wisdom of Louis Massignon, a distinguished Arabist and agent of the Deuxiéme Bureau, the Second Bureau of the General Staff (France’s external military intelligence agency) to favor the Alawites (also known, in ancient times, as nusayri, Islamic Gnostics influenced by early Christianity) and to support the quasi-Shi’ite Alawites in managing power in Syria, obviously to prevent the Sunni dominance.
And while Iran and its allies follow, for various reasons, the “party of Ali”, the Shi’a, and Saudi Arabia is closed to the north by a Yemen now run by the Houthi, who are also Shi’ites – while in the Eastern provinces of the Wahhabi Kingdom and in Bahrain the Shi’ite uprising of the workers of the largest Saudi Arabia’s oil fields and gas deposits will break out – on the other side of the Persian Gulf, Iran will manage the uprising thus becoming the absolute master of the Shatt el Arab.
For the Islamic Republic of Iran, managing the maritime, military and economic passageway of the sea crossing where over 70% of world seaborne trade transits is a vital objective. It is the culmination of a no longer regional – and even directly religious – hegemony.
Furthermore, together with the P5+1, the United States have accepted the military Denuclearization Plan of Iran, the Russian pivotal ally in the Middle East.
However, regardless of the actual substance of the JCPOA treaty reached by the P5+1 with Iran, this should make the United States think that the strategic equation of the region must be changed.
This means using Iran to oppose the jihadists and achieve a strategic rebalancing with Saudi Arabia, in exchange for a “new deal” with Israel and the creation of a corridor of alliances between the Iranian Shi’ites, Russia, China and the other nations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Instead of being tied down to “the Saudi lobby”, the United States could start playing at many tables, thus having greater strategic autonomy and putting stronger pressure on the Greater Middle East.
Hence a large containment action, which would ease tensions in that strategic region and put in place – in addition to SCO – a new possible loose alliance linked to the European Union and the United States.
This is the only way to better manage the next land and maritime Silk Way designed by President Xi Jinping.
But our ruling classes are still hostages to what the 17th century libertines called “the old thinking” and swing between a global strategy of generic economic agreements and the return of the old Cold War, while the global jihad is knocking at our doors and, indeed, has already cruelly entered our homes.
Hence is there someone who can really think of using “moderate” Islamists in the new Cold War? And to what end, given the expansion of China and its economic dominance?
Apart from the Russian Federation and the Sunni countries, in addition to Iran, which actively supports, also with ground forces, Assad’s regime and Russia itself, none of the twenty-four countries gathered at the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs has clear ideas on what to really do against Daesh/Isis both in Syria and Libya.
Obviously the United States want to avoid the Russian mainmise on the Syrian-Iraqi region, but this logically means that they must somehow support a few Islamist groups that claim they are fighting against the Caliphate. Tertium non datur.
It is worth recalling that some US military trainers were precisely those who set up – with moderate “Islamists” somehow linked to the Muslim Brotherhood – the real “Kominform” of the jihad, a sort of 30th Brigade which, in a first phase, after its passage from Jordan, refused to fight against the Al-Qaeda faction in Syria. Later on some members of the Brigade even defected to Isis, starting from Turkey. Hence the result was exactly the opposite of the one initially planned.
Basically the United States do not want a Syrian-Iraqi area where Russia can “give cards” and master the game in view of a new bilateral confrontation between the United States and Russia. But, apart from the old needs of the “military-industrial complex” that also President Eisenhower feared, what is the strategic logic of a new world bipolar structure, with China which is going to be the first global economy?
In fact the US Forces in Europe are increasing in number (by several thousands) and efficiency, so as to “strengthen” the Eastern European countries’ resistance against Russian influence.
A dangerous bipartition of European security, which is either unitary or does not exist.
But here the strategic equation becomes trivial: either Russia is opposed at global level – and hence the Caliphate’s wound in Syria and Iraq is left open – or a new type of relationship between NATO and the Russian Federation is redefined so as to have a political project and sufficient human and material resources to eradicate the jihad from Syria and Libya.
Once again, tertium non datur.
It is also worth recalling that the magnitude of terrorist attacks will certainly increase, along with their apparent randomness and their distribution throughout the world.
It is a war for infra-Islamic hegemony between the jihad and the Koranic “apostate” areas, but the end point is also domination over Western countries and over their immigrant populations, as well as over the “infidels.”
And we must not forget that this is the real stake.
In the case of Libya, we are faced once again with an almost total lack of strategic and geopolitical vision.
Meanwhile, the various Libyan factions have no interest in coming together to then accept military aid from Italy, Great Britain, Holland, the United States and France.
Indeed, it is now likely for the tripartite territory of post-Gaddafi’s Libya to remain what it is today: Fezzan, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and the areas of the Toubu and the Tuaregh, with further internal differentiations.
It is true that some Europeans maintain we could intervene also without the official request for a joint Libyan government, but obviously our alliance with one single Libyan force on the field would automatically mean that the others are at war against us.
As is well-known, the Parliament of Tobruk – which is the only internationally recognized one – has not accepted the list of Ministers proposed by Al Serraj, the candidate as Prime Minister of the “national unity government”.
The official excuse regards the excessive length of the list of Ministers – as many as thirty-two – but the essence and the substance of the political conflict is different.
It regards the tough opposition of General Khalifa Haftar, the Head of Operation Dignity and Supreme Commander of the Army of the same Parliament in Tobruk.
Meanwhile Caliph Al Baghdadi’s “sword jihad” is organizing itself along the coast; it targets oil infrastructure and therefore aims at biting the jugular vein of the European system.
It does so through oil and, in particular, the jihad strategic point is the management of the over ten million migrants who will leave Mesopotamia to come to Europe according to the pace and time-schedule set by the jihadists.
And Turkey will demand a high price by using its three million refugees as an indirect strategic weapon against the European Union, the Middle East and Libya.
A demographic bomb intended, at first, to destroy the EU Welfare State and later to destabilize our democracies.
Obviously, behind the superficial idea of a “surgical” action in Libya, there is mainly the EU governments’ desire to reduce the tension and concern of their publics, still worried by the para-terrorist attacks in Paris and in many other nations: just think of the 635 women in Cologne who reported to the police the rape attempts and the other offenses perpetrated by over a thousand Maghreb Arabs.
But “feelings” and psychology do not define a strategy.
And the jihadists in Libya already range between 2,800 and 3,500 – including 1,600 in the Sirte region, in the Libyan “oil crescent”.
The Daesh/Isis members are not so many, but quite enough to trigger off a mesh of power similar to the Syrian-Iraqi one: the management of some cities and points of contact between them, without expanding on a desert territory which is useless to retain.
The Caliph Al Baghdadi is the Islamist and jihadist revival of Lawrence of Arabia: the British lieutenant was not interested in land. For him the desert was to be militarily intended as sea: only the lines and routes, and not the entire and huge expanse of water, are to be controlled.
I would define the Isis/Daesh war as an interdiction war – hence the issue does not lie in “eating” the territory away, but in developing a strategy and a tactic which are equal and opposite.
We must organize the resistance and protection of the cities that Isis needs to conquer, as well as the very tough management of connection and communication lines, and finally make the enemy drown into the void stretching between our nerve centers and their lines.
Furthermore, considering that the Isis/Daesh strategy is asymmetrical and “hybrid”, we, too, should do the same.
We can and we must use against Daesh/Isis what is improperly called “terrorism” (which is, in fact, the jihad) so as to destabilize it, intimidate and frighten its militants and especially eradicate its covers among civilians, as well as finally restrict the terrorists’ scope of action.
Wars en dentelles or the old cry of the French captains during the Thirty Years’ War, Messieurs les Anglais, tirez les premiers!, are no longer possible.
I dare not even imagine what will be written on the Rules of Engagement (ROE) of a possible Euro-American action on the Libyan territory.
I am reminded of the Italian ROE in the first phase of our engagement in Afghanistan, which seemed written by Monsignor della Casa, the author of the famous treatise Il Galateo overo de’ costumi.
As experienced by Russia during its actions in Ukraine, in modern warfare we cannot make too many differences between civilians and the military, between soldiers and uniformed officers and guerrillas, between psywar actions and real war operations.
Moreover, what should Western troops do in Libya?
Should they curb or wipe out the excessive power of Isis, which can rely on de facto alliances which would remain in place, like the one with “Libyan Dawn”, which is also the enemy of General Haftar’s forces?
Should they carry out the usual UN “State-building” activity, although many local people do not want a State but only their political system? Furthermore, who would participate in this State-building activity?
The forces which are now fighting each other bloodily or the usual “moderate jihadists” revived for the occasion?
Should our troops perhaps organize the protection of cities from ISIS (which is not only a military, but also a political problem) or the protection of oil infrastructure, without considering the network of people traffickers?
In short, there is a fact which has become clear: the West can no longer wage war, hence it will never be able to achieve real peace.
And here we are at war on a ground and with actions defined by our enemy – an opponent we have left basically undisturbed for three years.
Therefore the strategic asymmetry plays completely against us.
And I do not even rule out the possibility that some of the governments which want to take action have already thought of negotiating with some Libyan Islamist forces, with a view to avoiding the worst and minimizing the presence of our military in the country.
Giancarlo Elia Valori (@GEliaValori)
Honorable of the Académie des Sciences of the Institut de France