Strategists will tell you that it is a mistake to fight the battle your enemies want you to fight. You should impose your strategy on them, not let them impose theirs on you. These lessons apply to the struggle with the leaders of ISIS. We have applied pressure upon them in Syria; they have replied with atrocious attacks in Ankara, Beirut, and now Paris. They are trying to provoke an apocalyptic confrontation with the Crusader infidels. We should deny them this opportunity.
ISIS wants to convince the world of the West’s indifference to the suffering of Muslims; so we should demonstrate the opposite. ISIS wants to drag Syria ever further into the inferno; so ending the Syrian war should become the first priority of the Obama administration’s final year in office. Already Secretary of State John Kerry has brought together the Russians, Iranians, and Saudis to develop the outlines of a transition in Syria. Sooner rather than later, no matter how difficult this may prove, the meetings in Vienna will have to include representatives of the Syrian regime and non-ISIS Syrian fighters. The goal would be to establish a cease-fire between the regime and its opponents, so that the fight against ISIS can be waged to a conclusion and displaced Syrians can return home. Destroying the ISIS project to establish a caliphate will not put an end to jihadi nihilism, but it will decisively erode ISIS’s ideological allure.
A successful campaign against nihilism will have to resist nihilism itself. If, as Gilles Kepel, a French specialist on Islam, has argued, ISIS is trying to provoke civil war in France, then the French state must not deploy tactics that will lose it the loyalty of its most vulnerable and susceptible citizens.1 Detention without trial, mass deportations, harsh physical interrogations, sealing borders, ending free circulation of people in Europe: all these tactics—proposed by the right-wing demagogue Marine Le Pen—will tempt French and other European authorities, but they are disastrous as a strategy. A successful campaign against Islamic extremism should deepen, not undermine, allegiance toward liberté, égalité, fraternité, especially among Muslim citizens.
ISIS strategy also seeks to make Europeans think of refugees as potential security threats rather than the victims that they are. It is of some importance that ISIS not succeed in its aim of spreading strategic disinformation. It has had some success. Before the Paris attacks, the Swedish government reinstated border controls. After the attacks, the Polish…
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