In a potent symbol of the West's inability to halt the advance of Islamic State (IS), the extremist Sunni Muslims have raised their black flag over parts of Kobani, on Syria's border with Turkey.
Kobani is the third largest Kurdish town in Syria. For three weeks, the US-led coalition watched helplessly as IS advanced on it, seizing 70 villages on the way and driving out 300,000 people.
The numerous US air strikes had little effect. “It’s like bombing an ants’ nest,” says Hubert Védrine, the former French foreign minister and international consultant. “You kill a lot of them but afterwards there are ants everywhere.”
US intelligence estimates IS has only 30,000 fighters, yet it has occupied more than one third of Syria and Iraq. The shock of IS's apparently imminent victory in Kobani may be less than when Iraq's second city, Mosul, fell on June 10th. But the line of Turkish tanks and international television cameras within sight of IS fighters drove home this reality: Islamic State has reached the gates of Nato.
IS is already inside Europe, in the form of thousands of European citizens who aspire to join the extremists, or who have returned home after fighting in the Levant. One returnee, the Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche, is accused of torturing hostages in Syria, and has been charged with shooting dead four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels last May.
France’s large Muslim population helps to explain why it has taken the lead in Europe on fighting IS. President François Hollande visited Baghdad and Erbil last month, convened an international conference in Paris and was the first of several European leaders to order air strikes against IS targets in Iraq.
Jean-Pierre Filiu, a leading expert on jihadism, was a French diplomat in Syria and is now professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po. The coalition “has no strategy and no clear objectives, while IS has a strategy,” Filiu says. “In any conflict, when one side has a strategic vision and the other doesn’t, it’s obvious who will win. Saying you will destroy IS is wishful thinking. You can never achieve that through air strikes.”
Bombing has not worked in Iraq, where IS has progressed in recent days in Anbar province, Filiu says. Western governments have excluded the possibility of deploying ground troops in Iraq or Syria.
The coalition is fraught with contradictions. With the exception of Washington, Western governments continue to respect the border between Syria and Iraq, and have limited their operations to northern Iraq.
“It’s in Syria that the contradictions are most flagrant,” says Védrine. “We’re committed to fighting IS, but we haven’t committed to overthrowing [Syrian president Bashar] Assad. That would require a considerable military commitment, because Syrian democratic forces are so weak. Are we capable of waging the battle of Damascus against Assad’s forces, after crushing IS? It would be a huge war, and the West isn’t capable of it.”
A different option, Védrine continues, has been excluded for ethical reasons. “With a heavy heart, we could resign ourselves to the fact that Assad, unfortunately, is still there. We know our actions [against IS] are helping him. We could try to negotiate a calendar for the evolution of his regime, in a spirit of realpolitik . . . One should have the courage to consider it.”
Several French politicians, including the centrist François Bayrou and the far right-wing National Front leader Marine Le Pen, consider Assad to be the lesser of evils. As revealed by Le Monde newspaper, France's internal intelligence service, the DGSI, last spring attempted to re-establish contact with Assad's Mokhabarat , in the hope of gleaning information about French citizens fighting with IS.
US president Barack Obama made a terrible mistake when he backed away from bombing the Assad regime in 2013, says Filiu, echoing statements by President Hollande. Filiu suspects Washington, and intelligence agencies in general, of complacency towards Assad. “The Americans have not once struck a target that is contrary to the interests of Assad,” he says.
Filiu published Je vous écris d'Alep last year, after living for a time in Aleppo with Syrian opposition groups who are struggling to survive. They have the advantage of being Sunni Muslim Arabs, and of knowing the terrain. "They're the best combatants in the region, against IS and against Assad," he says. "Either we re-invent the wheel, re-occupy Syria, with the results you can imagine, or we trust the people on the ground."
Védrine is nearly as pessimistic as Filiu. “We can’t conquer IS solely by US air strikes in Syria, and no one will undertake the daring realpolitik solution,” he says. “So we’re going to bog down somewhere between the two.”
French analysts emphasise the necessity of achieving political settlements in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi Shia must share power with the Sunnis, and Syria must be endowed with a viable system of government.
“The coalition is losing on both the military and political fronts,” says Filiu. “Its actions cannot achieve any significant victories against IS. They feed IS propaganda about a Western crusade, and create vocations among would-be fighters.”