November 19, 2015
Closing the door to migrants fleeing the war in Syria after attacks in Paris would be the “worst solution,” Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French philosopher and best-selling author, said at the Atlantic Council on Nov. 19.

“Even if it is proved that some of the attackers of last Friday in Paris came as refugees under the disguise of seeking political asylum, the worst reply would be to break with our traditional hospitality,” Lévy said.

In fact, Lévy said, the terrorist attacks in Paris had made it even more important for Europe and the United States to welcome migrants “if they embrace the values of citizenship, the values of open society, the values of freedom, we are open to them and they are our brothers.”

This is a lesson the United States has given to the world for decades, and it would be “too sad if Europe today took the other path,” he added.

In the United States, many Republican Governors have opposed federal plans to resettle Syrian migrants in their states, and some Republican presidential candidates have said the United States must only take in Christian refugees.

US President Barack Obama has called such rhetoric a “potent recruitment tool” for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

In the US House of Representatives, Republicans and Democrats rebuffed Obama on Nov. 19 by passing legislation that would suspend a program to resettle refugees from Syria and Iraq in the United States.

Earlier in the day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the growing backlash against migrants after the discovery of a Syrian passport near the scene of a suicide bombing in Paris on Nov. 13 and confirmation that one of the attackers had entered Europe as part of a wave of hundreds of thousands of migrants.

An “increasingly prejudiced and exclusionist attitude” toward migrants will “only deepen the human crisis,” Erdoğan said in his keynote address at the Atlantic Council’s Energy & Economic Summit in Istanbul.

Lévy compared the feeling among the French after the attacks in Paris — “one of strength and of vulnerability” — to how Americans felt after al Qaeda attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

The response to ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, has to be a “common one,” said Lévy. “We have to react together or we will be defeated together.”

Lévy said he felt a great sadness because he cannot help thinking that “we are entering in a new, dangerous, and tragic world … Maybe with a very difficult solution to find.”

“The danger is ISIS, it is not Russia,” he added.

Russia versus Putin

Lévy described Russia as a great country with a great people. The problem, he said, lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his policies that are a “clear and expressed and explicit threat on the European values.”

Putin is driven by more than just nostalgia for the Soviet Union, said Lévy. He has a clear conception of the world, which is “meant to be addressed against our values.”

“There is a sort of uncertain, vague, badly defined feeling of threat which is like a black cloud above our heads — us Europeans, you Americans — which we have to face with as much lucidity, as much cold blood, and with as much firmness as possible,” he added.

Over the summer, Russia started to play an overt role in the war in Syria by bombing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s enemies. Russia’s intervention in Syria is viewed by some, including Lévy, as a ploy to distract the world’s attention from what has been a losing battle for Russia in eastern Ukraine.

In a conversation moderated by Steven Lee Myers, a New York Times journalist and author of “The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin,” Lévy described Putin as political player. “He’s not stupid enough to engage in Syria without thinking of Ukraine,” he said.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March of 2014 and has since supported separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Putin’s priority, even today, is clearly Ukraine, said Lévy. “Putin has an ambition for his country … this ambition has to do more with Europe than with the Middle East.”

Besides Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Lévy said he saw in Putin’s meetings with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the height of the Greek debt crisis over the summer, and his friendship with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, an effort to weaken Europe’s core.

In Europe, far-right leaders such as Orbán have embraced Putinism. These leaders happen to have at the center of their agenda a refusal of Europe and what the European project means, said Lévy.

In France, it is no surprise that Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party, expresses an admiration for Putin because he says out loud what they have to keep largely silent under French law, said Lévy.

Fighting ISIS

Lévy hoped Russia can be a partner in the US-led war against ISIS in Syria.

“Can Putin help? I hope it with all my heart,” he said. Everyone is welcome in the war against ISIS, he added.

Nevertheless, Lévy doubted whether Russia could in fact be an honest partner in the alliance against ISIS. These doubts stem from Putin’s role in reinforcing Assad’s embattled regime.

“We cannot say that the track record of Vladimir Putin is in favor of a sincere and genuine participation to this common fight against ISIS,” he said.

It is the Kurdish peshmerga fighters who have proven a more reliable ally in the fight against ISIS. The peshmerga have shown that ISIS can be defeated in battle and is a “paper tiger,” said Lévy. The peshmerga have defeated ISIS in a string of important battles, including for the cities of Kobane, Kirkuk, and, more recently, Sinjar.

“If Mr. Obama, and Mr. Hollande, and Mr. Cameron and others, and Arab countries decide, ISIS will be very quickly defeated,” Lévy said, referring to British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande. This effort could include helping the Kurds in a decisive way and increasing the numbers of Western Special Forces inside Syria, he added.

‘No regrets’

In 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, Lévy had supported an effort to oust the Libyan dictator. Four years later, with Libya in a state of chaos, two rival governments, militias running amok, and ISIS putting down roots an audience member asked Lévy whether he believed ousting entrenched leaders is still a good idea.

In Libya, the result of intervention may be the growth of two ISIS cells, and a few thousand dead, but in Syria the results of non-intervention are more than 260,000 dead and ISIS in control of vast swathes of the country, said Lévy.

“The result of nonintervention is much worse than the result of intervention – the balance is infinitely worse,” he added.

Lévy said the Western-led coalition that stepped in to prevent the massacre of Libyans by Gadhafi’s forces in the eastern city of Benghazi had made just one mistake after the dictator was killed in the custody of militias: it decided that the job was over and everyone could go home.

“There was a responsibility to pursue. There was a duty of nation building which has not been fulfilled,” said Lévy. But as for the intervention in Libya, “there is nothing to regret.”

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

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