To ask the question is not to "justify" terrorism. If terrorism is to be conquered, it has to be understood. Merely condemning terrorism is not in itself an answer. Who are these terrorists? Why have they become terrorists? How has the weapon of terrorism become so effective? What are the reasons behind the upsurge of terrorism? All these are not only legitimate questions to ask but also necessary to comprehend the phenomenon and thereby move towards removing the menace root and branch. To imagine that terrorism will end by more intensively bombing the IS headquarters in Raqqa is to hopelessly underestimate the magnitude and complexity of the issues involved.
Why, in the first place, is France in the vanguard of matters Syrian? Surely it is not irrelevant that in the carving up of the Arab territories of the Turkish Empire following the fall of the Ottomans at the end of the First World War, France succeeded in securing Syria as its mandated territory. Ever since, and even following the post-WWII termination of the League of Nations mandate, France has regarded itself as having a special responsibility for matters Syrian - whether the Syrians wish it or not. Since Iraq was mandated to Britain, and not to France, perhaps this explains why France kept out of the Iraq invasion while Blair's Britain leaped into the fray. Contrariwise, it was France that forced itself into the vanguard on simultaneously promoting regime change in Syria while-air bombing the IS.
It is the confusion caused by pursuing these twin objectives simultaneously that has resulted in both Bashar al-Assad remaining in power and the IS expanding its vicious presence. With France declaring war against the IS in Syria, it has, of course, opened itself to IS retaliation in France. Causes have consequences, and consequences have causes. To take account of this cycle of causes and consequences is not to condone murderous terrorist attacks on innocent civilians but to suggest that the killing of civilian non-combatants in aerial strikes from 30,000 feet above the ground does run the risk of the militarily weaker opponent (in this case, the IS) killing civilian non-combatants on the ground in attacks of terror.
I am neither sympathetic to, nor empathetic with, those who caused the mayhem in Paris on the night of 13 November. I am only attempting to understand what happened and why it happened. There are those who shrug off the deaths of thousands in intensive air-bombing as "collateral damage" when those killed are nameless innocents in less-known lands, but are enraged when hundreds are killed in more well-known cities like New York and Paris. I prefer to search for reality than limiting myself to loud lamentation.
This was the approach adopted by The Hindu in its Sunday special editorial the day after the Paris attack. Normally, there is no editorial page in the newspaper on Sundays, but on Sunday, 15 November their editorial team made an exception and produced a most thoughtful piece that I recommend in full to all readers of this column. The key points were:
- France "started bombing IS targets in Syria"
- "Paris was in the forefront of the countries that backed different rebel groups in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad"
- "France has been hosting a group of Syrian opposition leaders since the outbreak of the civil war in that country"
- "France should seriously ask itself why radical groups are finding recruits from its soil"
- "The collapse of French multiculturalism and an increasingly narrow interpretation of secularism in France have only added to the radicalization of youth in that country"
And arising out of this listing of fundamental causes (which is not exhaustive as it does not touch upon the Sunni-Shia divide that was opened up by the overthrow of the secular Saddam regime, and is being aggravated by Sunni and Shia governments in West Asia backing different factions of the rebels and terrorists), the editorial draws the following conclusions regarding the steps to be taken to end the jihadist take-over and establish a durable order:
- France (and the West more generally) "should rework its foreign policy towards West Asia that has largely been counter-productive"
- "Broaden the state concepts of secularism to rebuild the national consciousness that would bring all sections of French society into the national mainstream"
- Not "cave in to the rightist anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim groups" and "tighten the loose ends of its security and intelligence networks"
Admirably succinct - and doable. And what would be the purpose of acting so practically and pragmatically? To respond to the "alarm bells ringing in world capitals" owing to "the rapid rise of this group (IS) which is more of a death cult than a terrorist organization".
And while pointing to these fault lines in policy and their possible remedies, the editorial is unsparing in underlining that "the jihadist groups that kill ordinary citizens often blame the victims' governments to justify the ghastly acts they commit. But in reality they drive a project that is rooted in extreme violence and hatred". The editorial then adds: "But that doesn't mean the French government should be spared from criticism".
This approach was implicitly endorsed when G-20 met in Antalya, Turkey, in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attack. They concentrated their minds wonderfully on fighting for a common objective - finishing off the IS - without getting distracted, as France and its allies had been doing, by other objectives like regime change. The credit must primarily go to President Vladimir Putin who had earlier ordered Russian air strikes without seeking regime change. Antalya took matters a giant step forward when it was decided to coordinate action through the UN so as to bring the war against the IS within the bounds of legitimacy under international law.
The trouble with popular, high-pitched TV denunciation is that while it is long on grandstanding against terror, it is short on giving time and space for a serious consideration of the complex issues involved (the striking exception being NDTV). Jingoism could yet lead to Indian jawans getting caught up with boots on the ground in the latest war of terrorism. It was a disaster that was averted at the last minute during the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq. Our principal concern should be to work for peace and the restoration of stability in West Asia, in cooperation with the international community, as we were famed to do in the Nehru era in Korea, Indo-China and Suez. Now we are drifting towards the "final burial of Nonalignment" as the foreign policy expert Prof. C. Rajamohan has admiringly proclaimed. That is why it bears emphasizing that while we may police the peace, we must not let ourselves get caught in the coils of war.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.