The decision announced Monday by French president François Hollande to conduct reconnaissance flights designed to support strikes against Islamic State within Syrian territory is a sensible one.
We cannot continue indefinitely to strike at jihadists in Iraq while stopping, absurdly, at the border of the neighboring state.
We cannot pretend to wage war against these barbarians without borders while avoiding their command centers and logistical bases – let alone the camps where they recruit and train decapitators to be sent abroad, notably to Europe – which are nearly all located on the other side of the now meaningless border that formerly separated the two Ba’athist states.
Above all, the French president’s decision removes a suspicion that could not fail to nag at anyone witnessing, as I myself did last week when traveling a segment of the extended front along which the Kurds of Iraq are standing up to barbarity, such a large coalition of armed forces stalled at the gates of the territory held by IS.
A French legislator voiced that suspicion last week when he wondered out loud, to universal astonishment, whether the existence of that murderous entity was not, ultimately, a “stabilizing element” in the region.
The idea is abhorrent.
But it echoes an argument that one hears, though in more measured terms, on the lips of not a few supposed “anti-terrorism experts.”
The essence of the argument was this: We would be better off with a well-contained, closed fundamentalist state surrounded by armies that would prevent it from expanding any further.
Which amounted to accepting a sort of reservation or recycling center for jihadists – with the assumption that this would be preferable to eradicating the cancer at its source but allowing it to metastasize throughout the region and beyond.
Well, that impoverished argument is now a dead letter.
And the great merit of the current strategic turn is that it frees us from an ambiguity the victims of which have been the tortured Christians, the Yezidis forced into slavery or massacred, and the hundreds of thousands of Sunnis who reject this dark order and whose exodus to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and, increasingly, Europe is – this cannot be said often enough – the direct result, not of misguided Western wars that have destabilized the Middle East, as the populist propagandists and their ilk never tire of telling us, but rather of our non-war, of our nonintervention, and of the mad head-inthe- sand policy under which, for more than four years, the Western powers, the Turks and the Arab world have left to fester a situation that could only lead to the worst possible outcome for all of us.
That said, the change of direction signified by Hollande’s decision will have full meaning and effect only if it is accompanied by three corollaries of which the French president is, I believe, more aware than anyone but of the value of which he will have to convince his peers – and soon.
The first condition, which, though obvious, will not be the easiest to put into effect, concerns the civilian populations that IS uses, no less in Syria than in Iraq, as human shields. Every effort must be made to spare them and to avoid prolonging or amplifying their nightmare.
The second concerns the Kurds, who are, in both Iraq and Syria, the only force valiant enough to have stood up to the soldiers of the caliphate, whose mediocre military performance I have described elsewhere (Wall Street Journal, September 3). They are the reluctant boots on the ground, without which air strikes (it is quite true) will never be sufficient. They are there, from Kirkuk to Kobani, freedom fighters who are our natural allies in a battle that we finally seem to be taking seriously. But we must equip them, and keep equipping them, with the means they need, all of the means, to help us defend the values of civilization and, indeed, of life itself.
And there is a third condition, perhaps the most important, one that President Hollande was right to emphasize. And that is to do everything possible to avoid the impression that strikes against IS appear in any way as an endorsement, however passive, of a Syrian regime about which we must never forget these things: (i) that it has on its conscience the minor detail of 260,000 deaths and three million refugees; (ii) that, as a consequence, it is overwhelmingly responsible for the predicament of the tens of thousands of families streaming in ever greater numbers toward the cities of Europe; and (iii) that it can never be, officially or objectively, even at arm’s length, an ally in the struggle against a jihadist force that it has cynically encouraged, reinforced with psychopaths released from the prisons of Damascus, and spared whenever it was aiming its guns at democratic and secular adversaries.
The path is a narrow one – that much is clear.
Much narrower than on that Saturday in August 2013, before IS existed, when the moderate Syrian opposition was still strong enough to be a possible alternative to the gathering disorder, and when Barack Obama’s bewildering about-face stopped dead in its tracks the military operation that was to be launched after Bashar Assad blithely crossed the famous “red line” defined by the use of chemical weapons. That operation, had it gone forward, would have saved many lives and avoided untold suffering. But the narrow path before us is the only path.
And France will do herself