On Friday, November 13, the city of Paris was laid siege by a small band of terrorists from the Islamic State who raided a theater, a concert hall, a soccer stadium and other venues using AK-47s and suicide bombs to. No final tally has been released and many victims remain hospitalized, but at least 129 are known to have died. In terms of death toll, it’s the worst attack in France since World War II.
In addition to the French massacre, ISIL is responsible for downing a Russian airplane carrying 224 tourists to Egypt. The day before the Paris attack ISIL detonated bombs in Beirut, Lebanon, claiming dozens more lives. These attacks are in addition to many smaller ones, the group’s destruction of culture, and the atrocities committed against women, hostages and apostates in ISIL-controlled territory.
After the attacks, French President Francoise Hollande called for the eradication of the Islamic State and declared France at war. France has since launched several air strikes against the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria, which has served as a capital since roughly 2013. Among the targets were an Islamic State “command post, jihadist recruitment center and weapons and ammunition depot,” as well as a “terrorist training camp.”
Urban areas, including museums, clinics and a stadium, were also reported to have been bombed. Activist Khaled al-Homsi, based in Palmyra, Syria, tweeted a plea to the French government, saying, “To the people & government in #France, #Raqqa City residents are not all #ISIS,” and urging France not to attack targets at random. Russia launched an even more intensive barrage of cruise missiles at Raqqa on Tuesday.
Currently, the Islamic State lays claim to territory covering a wide swath of land in Iraq and Syria. Until now, France has largely avoided striking in Syria to avoid the appearance of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russian troops have been in Syria since September. Al-Assad is tenuously holding onto power as rebel movements, including the Islamic State, bubble up in Syria. With Russia and Iran in his corner, Western powers are tiptoeing around choosing sides.
Millions of refugees have left Syria since the civil war and a terrible drought began tearing the country apart. In the wake of the Paris attacks, those refugees – already facing discrimination and inhospitality – have seen public opinion sour on them even further, particularly in the US.
Even as Hollande pledged to allow 30,000 more Syrian refugees into France, at least 15 US governors are saying they’d refuse to accept them. Donald Trump has discussed the idea of closing down mosques. Ohio Governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich proposed the creation of a new government agency devoted to spreading Judeo-Christian values around the world. Most extreme of all, Ted Cruz proclaimed that ISIL “will not be deterred by targeted airstrikes with zero tolerance for civilian casualties.”
This thinly veiled suggestion that we not fuss over killing civilians is a call for terrorism in its own right. Not only is targeting civilians part of the FBI’s very definition of terrorism, it’s what led directly to the creation of extremist groups like the Islamic State in the first place. The near-total destruction of Iraq and the interference of Western powers in the Middle East have provided the impetus for deadly extremism to foster.
While no civilian casualties have been reported, Raqqa itself is devastated. Russian bombs did the most damage, say reporters, including the destruction of all Raqqa’s hospitals and a major bridge. Zero civilian casualties should be a goal, but even this kind of campaign creates refugees. One activist on the ground in Raqqa said, “What the world needs to know is that we live under ISIL control on the ground, and constant air strikes from the sky. We are trapped.”
Hollande’s response seems poised to repeat many of the same mistakes that were made by the Bush Administration in reaction to 9/11. After closing French borders, Hollande proposed amending the French constitution to give the executive office greater leeway in executing its war on terror. With his newfound powers, Bush strengthened the NSA and pushed the PATRIOT Act on Americans. It’s not yet clear what Hollande intends to do specifically.
At this point, the solution to the problem of the Islamic State is war. They are a deeply committed, violent cult, with tens of thousands of followers who are willing to die for their beliefs. But bombing raids from outside powers have led to the situation we’re in. There are better ways to combat ISIL than stooping to their level of wanton destruction.
We must engage and mobilize allies in the region, which includes pretty much everyone who isn’t ISIL. Turkey, Israel and Iran are all on our side and between them represent almost $40 billion of military spending. Let us not split hairs over disagreements which are lesser than our shared hatred of ISIL.
As for the problem of Islamic fundamentalism generally, the best thing to do to tamper down violence in the region is to stop stoking it by our bombings, nation-building and support for dictators. We must also support in every way we can the burgeoning progressive and feminist movements which are being oppressed in many Islamic theocracies. Big groups of Muslims are opposed to the Islamic State and are eager to join the modern, liberal world. We must not allow our bombs to fall on them.