Politics·Analysis

Paris attacks: Only 2 equally bad options for taking on ISIS

In the past, Middle East strongmen have had their own particular ruthlessness for taking on militant opponents like ISIS, Neil MacDonald writes. But Western democracies, despite their rhetoric, have no stomach for that kind of fight.

Western democracies have shown little stomach to engage ISIS on its own ruthless terms

Barack Obama, seen with François Hollande in June of this year, said the U.S. will support France in any way in the "fight against terrorism and extremism," but the options for confronting ISIS are horrible, writes Neil MacDonald. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Last February, after ISIS burned a Jordanian fighter pilot alive in a cage, then uploaded video of his last frantic agonies onto the internet, King Abdullah of Jordan made some ferocious threats.

He actually sounded just like French President François Hollande, who is now promising a "merciless" war to destroy the barbarians after the outrage in Paris on Friday.

Abdullah predicted a "severe" and "relentless" response that, his spokesman added, would be "heard by the world at large."

Abdullah then executed two extremists who had already been sentenced to death, one of them a female suicide bomber whose explosive belt had failed. Someone, in other words, who wasn't even supposed to be alive.

He also ordered airstrikes against ISIS, which is something his pilots had already been doing for some time anyway (and which the burned pilot had been engaged in when he was shot down).

If the ISIS hordes even noticed Abdullah's severe retaliation, it didn't seem to bother them much. 

One suspects they aren't terribly intimidated by Hollande's threats, either. France doesn't even have the death penalty, and Hollande's renewed airstrikes over the weekend, like King Abdullah's, are more of the same.

Now, had Abdullah instead sent the Jordanian Legion, a formidable military force, across his nation's borders with Iraq and Syria and ordered it to fulfil the threat he had reportedly made behind closed doors in Washington, ISIS might have taken more notice.

According to members of Congress who met privately with the king at the time, Abdullah quoted Clint Eastwood's character in the movie Unforgiven, who declares, "Any son of a bitch takes a shot at me, I'm not only going to kill him, I'm going to kill his wife and all his friends and burn his damn house down."

'Hama rules'

That approach is known to students of the Middle East as the Hama rules, named after the strategy adopted by former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad back in 1980.

After surviving an assassination attempt by the militant Muslim Brotherhood, Assad sent out death squads with orders to slaughter every Brotherhood member held in Syria's prisons, of which there were hundreds.

And he was just getting started. His security forces initiated a lethal crackdown that culminated in February 1982 when Syrian tanks and artillery units arrived in Hama, a Brotherhood stronghold.

Over the next few weeks, the army destroyed entire sections of the city, killed tens of thousands of people, and bulldozed the rubble flat.

Hafez al-Assad never had another problem with the Brotherhood. 

His son Bashar, the ophthalmologist now ruling in Damascus, seemed to be enacting his own version of the Hama rules (this time using poison gas) to quell the rebellion against his regime until the U.S. stepped in three years ago, threatening to topple him with military force.

Assad Jr. gave up his chemical weapons, protesting that Washington was simply aiding terrorists by weakening him.

Today, the people who run Washington's security apparatus probably secretly wish they had let Assad proceed.

Because ISIS now controls huge chunks of both Iraq and Syria, and Hama rules, otherwise known as war crimes, aren't really an option for the democracies in the American-led coalition battling ISIS.

Neither, it seems, is sending in ground armies to annihilate ISIS, something nobody, including King Abdullah or Francois Hollande, looks inclined to do.

Which effectively leaves Western leaders with two options: either continue the current half-baked campaign of airstrikes and military assistance indefinitely, or just disengage and leave.

The cost of humanity

Neither option is a good one. One of them would cost us our humanity.

Everyone knows airstrikes will not decide this fight. And the U.S.-led campaign to arm and train "moderate" rebels in Syria and troops in Iraq has been an embarrassment, to put it mildly.

Generally, whenever ISIS or its affiliated extremists have shown up, America's proxies have cut and run, often leaving their U.S.-provided guns and hardware for the enemy to scoop up.

But disengaging and letting the Middle East sort itself out would involve a hideous price for the populations on the ground.

ISIS operates by its own grotesque set of the Hama rules, and the massacres that would without question follow an ISIS expansion would validate Pope Francis's observation that what we are seeing today is a piecemeal version of World War III.

For Washington and Paris and London and Ottawa and all the other coalition members, this is a horrible set of options.

There is no Solomonic solution available, and, to make it worse, the brutal truth is that America's so-called coalition of the willing, which invaded Iraq on a false pretext, effectively created ISIS (which, unsurprisingly, has several of Saddam Hussein's former generals among its commanders).

The West sowed dragons' teeth, which grew into armed fanatics now bent on taking the battle back to the West. And ahead of them, massive rivers of miserable refugees are trudging toward Western soil.

We can pray for Paris to our hearts' content, and light up monuments in the colours of the French flag, and trade peace sign memes of the Eiffel Tower. But what Western militarism created cannot be sung or wished away.

As journalist Charles Pierce wrote in Esquire magazine the day after the Paris slaughter: "The retribution will be swift and harsh, as will the inevitable reaction, and as will the retribution for the reaction."

Hafez al-Assad and his Baathist colleague Saddam Hussein were both monsters. But compared to what the West unleashed on itself, they seem, in retrospect, like incarnations of stability.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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