Thursday, September 17, 2015

Tip-toeing Toward the Quagmire

France will begin bombing in Syria soon. Thus far its military intervention against Daesh, or ISIS, has been limited to Iraqi territory, largely for fear of aiding the Assad regime in Syria. Why has Hollande suddenly changed his mind on that point?

One reason is obvious: the massive influx of Syrian refugees is a problem that Europe cannot handle. To humanitarians, the initial--and rather heartening--German welcome transformed Chancellor Merkel overnight from the villain of the Greek drama to the heroine of the refugee crisis. But in the eyes of many fearful Europeans, her kindness sent the wrong message, encouraging even more Syrians to leave. And European governments showed no great eagerness to help the Germans out by accepting assigned quotas of immigrants. Now even the Germans have backtracked, more rapidly than one would have thought possible.

Hollande therefore seems prepared to take the risk of attacking Daesh in Syria in order to stop the migration at its source. The more quickly ISIS is eliminated, he seems to believe, the more likely potential refugees will be to judge the risks of emigration greater than the risks of staying put. But this calculation runs up against the perverse logic that has bedeviled Syrian policy from the beginning. Any move against Daesh strengthens Assad, whom no one wants to maintain in power--no one, that is, except the Russians and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who apparently supports the Russian position. (A rundown of the attitudes of various French politicians toward the escalation in Syria can be found here.)

Indeed, it is questionable at this point whether any intervention by outsiders can stanch the flow of refugees from Syria. The social fabric has been destroyed by years of civil war. The skilled, the educated, anyone with means and many without--all have fled the war zones. It is hard to see what can be built on such ruins. And Assad's forces have claimed more victims than Daesh, even if the latter's ideology is more rebarbative in Western eyes.

Still, I think that the severity of the refugee crisis will push Europe toward a more forceful intervention, of which the French bombing is only the first step. Villepin may be right to say that military intervention failed to do much good in Iraq and Libya and undoubtedly contributed to the godawful mess in Syria, but the refugees will create domestic pressures on Europe to intervene, and it is an ominous sign that four prominent members of Les Républicains, including one presidential candidate (Le Maire, who may seem mild-mannered but is bidding fair to become the French John McCain with his aggressive stance on the Middle East), favor sending in ground troops. I am not at all sure that we will not see European boots on the ground in the very near future, under President Hollande.