François Hollande, President of the French Republic, has been very clear that Daesh committed an act of war against France last Friday. Given that France has been committing acts of war against Daesh by flying 200 air support missions against Daesh combatants since September of 2014, this is a rhetorical flourish. Once you’ve been fighting the war for a year ‘act of war’ is business as usual.

A French carrier aircraft, ready to launch from a French aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf eight months before the Paris attacks

On the blocks, ready to launch: A French Navy Rafale fighter jet sits on the deck of the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle conducting operations against Daesh from the Persian Gulf on 22 February, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/PATRICK BAZ)

It profits us not one bit to dwell on the irregularity of the attack. It does us no good to dwell on the religious background of the attackers. What is relevant is that this outlaw state that calls itself the Caliphate has attacked France.

Today’s problem with Daesh is not that it’s a pack of terrorists. Today’s problem with Daesh is that it is a state which is acting against other states. The Daesh attacks against France and Lebanon in the past few days, the apparent attack against Russia last week; were irregular in form: they did not involve tanks or fighter-bombers or any of the other ways that regular armed forces deal death. That the attacking state used irregular means and attacked noncombatants is of some relevance, but not the main idea. Using destruction and death to achieve a political aim is, by nature, nothing but war; and it is important to make war wisely.

It is exceedingly likely that France will invoke Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty, which requires all NATO countries to treat the Daesh attack on France as an attack on all of us. Because several NATO countries are already fighting Daesh this might require an escalation in our attacks. However, without a clear, realistic picture of a future Middle East to fight for, it is difficult to justify anything more than our current, limited level of warfare against Daesh.

After fighting in Iraq for a decade to create a unified democracy and seeing that dream turn to dust; after supporting insurgents against Syria’s Assad regime and seeing Bashar Assad reigning in Damascus over a country turned to ashes; we cannot be expected to increase our level of commitment without a realistic vision of strategic success. It doesn’t matter how angry we are.

Giving them what they want

Daesh knows what kind of operation they want us to conduct. They want us to fight an apocalyptic battle. They want us to insert a significant force into northern Syria with as many Americans as possible, and fight (and possibly even win) a battle near the town of Dabiq, about a third of the way from the Turkish border to Aleppo. The location is significant because of the Sixteenth Century battle fought there between the Constantinople-based Ottoman Empire and the Cairo-based Mameluke sultanate. (The Caliph in Constantinople won.)

Provoking France and its NATO allies to conduct this Syrian Armageddon is not an unrealistic strategy. Military theorists can tell you that a well-prepared defence hugely multiplies the combat power of a defender. Drawing NATO in to fight against a well-prepared defence could result in immense damage to an attacking force. Even if Daesh were slaughtered to a one, they would have achieved a desirable transition to Paradise.

This is not to say that we should not give Daesh the Battle of Dabiq that they dream of. We could offer a win-win: they want us to come and fight them, and we hanker after an opportunity to muller their vicious, destructive, misogynistic little statelet. We could cheerfully expend our own soldiers and their wild warriors, confident of a tactical victory.

France has a paratroop brigade ideally suited to robust intervention operations. Given support from NATO allies, or an astonishingly full commitment by the French government, France could step into Syria and cause immense damage to Daesh for a period of about six months. Because France values national pride highly and Paris higher still, this is a potential course of action.

Make no mistake, a French force with a significant land component could cause immense damage to Daesh fighters. In the process a certain amount of collateral damage would be inevitable: death and destruction are impossible to control completely. Even modern armies are not invulnerable; and the cost in French and NATO lives could easily exceed the death toll in Paris last week.

To what purpose

The question is, what would be the purpose? Would Daesh be deterred from acting against NATO countries ever again? Would Daesh be exterminated to a one, never to recruit again? Would the Daeshlets of Sinai and Libya and Nigeria forswear their fealty to the Caliphate?

None of these is likely.

Would we conduct a well-financed, well-thought-out rebuilding of western Iraq and eastern Syria to repair all the ills of the Syrian Civil War and our own hamfisted operations over ten years? We (including the French) didn’t manage that in Libya four years ago. It’s unlikely now.

Is it worth our killing and dying to restore the sacred border between Syria and Iraq, drawn a century ago by Sir Mark Sykes and M. François Georges-Picot? To once again divide the Sunni tribes of Syria from the Sunni tribes of Iraq?

After a decade of sacrificing blood and billions of bucks to prop up the territorial integrity of the former Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq in the recent Iraq War; the prospect hardly ignites passion. American passion isn’t inflamed, and American boots (apart from a few special forces troopers) won’t be hitting the ground to make for numerous targets.

After all, the one thing that would be guaranteed to stop the Iranians fighting Daesh would be Americans doing the same thing.

The only thing that justifies any significant destruction of life, not to mention national resources, on France’s and NATO’s part is setting out and achieving a realistic strategic vision for the places currently blighted by Daesh, notably Syria and Iraq. Only then can we make strategy that governs our actions to guide us to those goals.

Spelling it out

What outcome can we reasonably commit ourselves to achieving? Here is a realistic set of scenarios for a future, post-Daesh Middle East:

Future Syria:

  • acknowledged to be an Iranian proxy firmly within a Russian sphere of influence (no change);
  • ruled by a moustachioed dictator with a dubious human rights record who is not Bashar Assad;
  • which is not hospitable to anti-Turkish insurgents;
  • but is above all stable;
  • possibly shorn of its eastern Sunni Arab provinces (Zor and Raqqah) .

Future Iraq:

  • three self-governing entities united in name only: Kurdistan and Shi’a Iraq (both with democratic processes and significant but different Iranian influence) and Sunni Iraq (economically dependent on Persian Gulf states).
  • Religious minorities like the Chaldaean Christians will live safely only in Kurdistan.

Future Iran:

  • one of a club of major powers in the Middle East, but not dominant;
  • able to influence neighbours, but not manipulate them (apart from Syria and Lebanon);
  • able to be a good neighbour to some countries and make outrageously murderous statements about others (no change).

Future Lebanon:

  • a government which rules wherever Hizbollah permits it to;
  • subject to Iranian rule by proxy everywhere else.

Future Israel:

  • realistically never again to consider giving up the Golan Heights;
  • possibly ready at some point in the next 20 years to elect a government willing to accept general Palestinian self-rule.

Future Palestine (including both Gaza and the West Bank):

  • like Sunni Iraq a more or less tribal entity notable for its contrast between religious orthodoxy and secularism, supported by Persian Gulf and European Union money;
  • still not the sort of state it wants to be, but not quite a failed state either.

Future Jordan:

  • no longer hosting millions of Syrian refugees
  • continuing to be a Palestinian state; but
  • at long last recognising the Hashemites as their own.

Future Egypt:

  • continuing military dictatorship with occasional insurgent episodes resulting in occasional episodes of outstandingly brutal repression (no change); but
  • in full control of the Sinai Peninsula.

None of that is thrilling. It doesn’t mean that anyone in the region or in NATO or in Moscow will be eager to ‘pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe .…’ as Jack Kennedy put it. It will not inflame the passion of Europeans or Americans or Egyptians; but it won’t need to. Achieving these aims will not require a huge army to spend a generation in the region, or great sacrifice on the part of the comfortable West.

The best way to achieve these scenarios (or, possibly, conceivably, something better) is to oppose Daesh efforts to attack its many enemies nearby (like Kurdistan) in the middle distance (like Israel and Egypt) and further away (like France, Britain and Russia); disrupt Daesh economically; ensure that radicalised Westerners who return from Daesh are deprogrammed well; and cut Daesh off from cash flows.

Perhaps most important, we must permit tribal chiefs to bring their people back into the fold of civilisation without forcing them to bend the knee to the Alawi autocrat in Damascus or the Shi’i government in Baghdad. Our wistful pretence for a century that French-made Syria and British-made Iraq could overcome their religious and tribal DNA has to be replaced with an entity (perhaps a state) that turns the territory now controlled by Daesh, the cradle of Western civilisation, into something that the Sunni chiefs can support without force.

Chuck my scenarios into the shredder if you like, and formulate your own vision for the Middle East; but at all costs demand that before your leaders take any action that will deal death and destruction, they tell you their vision and tell it to you clearly. Demand that they project that strategic vision with a bright light. Any other way to make war on Daesh would be foolishly stumbling around in the Middle Eastern dark. Again.