Events have been developing rapidly since Friday’s multi-pronged terror attack in Paris. As in all events of this magnitude, it requires vigilance to separate rhetoric from action, propaganda from fact.
Iraqi claims that its intelligence services warned France of an impending attack appears overstated. There was a warning, but it lacked specificity, giving French authorities no details on location or timing. As one French official said, they get warnings like this all the time, but they are too vague to be actionable.
So the French can’t be blamed for not springing into action at the Iraqi alert. The aftermath, on the other hand, has already had its embarrassments. The manhunt for the perpetrators has reported seven arrests and more are expected. In the meantime, security officials have admitted that several persons believed to have been part of the plot slipped through the fingers of the police; notably, Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old born in Brussels who was stopped, checked and let go at a checkpoint near the Belgian border after the attacks.
French President Francois Hollande called it “an act of war” on the part of Islamic State, and on Sunday night France retaliated with “massive” air strikes on the Islamic State group’s de-facto capital in Syria.
How massive is massive? Well, if you were sitting in or near the jihadi training camp or the munitions dump in Raqqa, where the bombs fell, it must have seemed massive enough.
But in the context of the war with Islamic State, 12 aircraft including 10 fighter jets dropping 20 bombs may strain the understanding of “massive.” Even if it was the biggest air strike carried out by France since extending its bombing campaign against ISIS to Syria in September, in the broader scheme of things it is not so impressive.
The bombing campaign of the U.S., Russia and France has been going on for months, and the results have not been encouraging, especially in light of the attacks in Paris. Obviously, this is only the first retaliatory operation, and France and its allies will continue to hit back determinedly.
Ultimately, it is for France to decide its course of action in this moment of national crisis: Whether to commit significant ground forces or to limit itself to air operations and perhaps some commando units, like the American special forces; whether to change its asylum policy — and if so, to what extent — to stem the threat from within.
But whatever course they take, it would be advisable not to raise false hopes and expectations. If we have learned one thing since September 11, it is that the war on terror will not be quick or easy.
In an interview that aired just hours before the Paris attacks, President Barack Obama said Islamic State had been “contained,” referring to a stepping up of drone-strike assassinations and battlefield successes by Iraqi Kurd fighters in northern Iraq.
The events in France undercut any such claim, even if, as deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes explained, the president was relating “very specifically to the question of ISIS’s geographic expansion in Iraq and Syria.”
“Having a safe haven is the biggest force multiplier that a group can have; it gives them space and time to plan and to accumulate resources for external operations,” said Thomas Hegghammer, a fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. “To say they are contained, as in hermetically sealed, is clearly not true.”
As for the allied bombing runs, the limited ability of such operations to affect the situation on the ground shows itself once again.
Despite daily air strikes, “the sophistication, ambition and geographic reach of ISIS has grown more quickly than we anticipated,” Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and National Security Agency, said.
“The American air campaign against ISIS more resembles a fine Irish mist than it does a thunderstorm. And it’s got to look a lot more like a thunderstorm now.”
The attacks have forced a grim reassessment. Experts have been quoted saying that the long haul will be very costly: some say it would take 150,000 U.S. troops, could drag on for decades and cost trillions of dollars.
Needless to say, the U.S., which has been moving for several years in the opposite direction, disengaging from Iraq and Afghanistan, will be reluctant to reverse field and involve itself much more deeply in this struggle.
Yet, the abovementioned cost estimates are really just another way of saying that nobody knows. Just as Western experts misjudged the resilience of ISIS and despite constant surveillance were unable to predict or pre-empt Friday’s attack, it is possible that its ultimate downfall may not be as far distant as they are saying.
It would help to bear in mind the example of the Soviet Union. The consensus at the highest echelons of government was that the Cold War was virtually a permanent situation, one that could continue for another hundred years. To the astonishment of all, its end came after only 70 years, and in a bloodless revolution.
We can only daven that, b’ezras Hashem, the end of ISIS will come sooner rather than later, and with a minimum of sacrifice.