This may be obvious to most readers, but I feel it needs to be restated: al-Qaeda and ISIS are not anti-imperialist movements in any meaningful sense of the phrase. They are primarily religiously-motivated chauvinists that are responsible for countless genocidal atrocities against non-Muslims, Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims who do not share their ideology. One could even say that the two groups and the larger Salafi movement are “right-wing” in the same way the Hindutva in India is. It would be an error on the part of the left to view last night’s act of mass murder in Paris attacks as some sort of “just desserts” for the West’s long history of imperial plunder in the Middle East. This is because (in addition to the obviously horrible moral reasoning) the same Sunni chauvinist ideology responsible for the Paris slaughter has historically been used by the West to contain and combat communism, Arab nationalism and rival governments.
This does not mean that the attacks should be seen as totally unintentional “blowback” either. As we can see from the immediate effects on public opinion in the Western world, the attacks will end up strengthening the political position of the militarists, anti-immigration forces, and national security-obsessed authoritarians. This will indeed result in policies that will further empower groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, but not precisely for the same reasons some left-commentators think.
The day before the Paris attacks, a predominantly Shia Muslim neighborhood in Lebanon was attacked by ISIS suicide bombers. The Western media downplayed the murderous nature of the attacks and victim-blamed the innocent civilians murdered by calling the neighborhood a “Hezbollah stronghold .” For the Middle East, Hezbollah is a relatively principled anti-imperialist movement that has a mass base among the impoverished Shia of Lebanon while making appeals for cross-sectarian solidarity among Sunnis and Christians . It also remains consistently opposed to Israeli aggression against Lebanon and Palestine. This is perhaps why it was not been viewed as a tragedy by the Western media when suicide bombers murdered civilians that were simply perceived as sympathizers with the group. When the mask slips like this we see ISIS is viewed by the ruling class as a tool for the West to combat counter-hegemonic movements.
Today the Western powers are bombing targets in Iraq and Syria with the purported goal of defeating ISIS. There are many reasons to view this effort cynically since the US still remains publicly committed to overthrowing the Syrian government (“our position has long been and it remains that Assad has no role in Syria’s political future ”) and has sought to arm anti-Assad forces , many of them Sunni chauvinists themselves , as a means of fighting ISIS. Before ISIS emerged as a distinct force to be reckoned with, the US government and its regional proxies armed the opposition to Assad and destabilized the country . This is probably what lead to ISIS seizing so much territory in Syria and Iraq in the first place. There is recent confirmation that arms the US claimed it intended to give to moderate rebels has ended up in the hands of al-Nusra Front , which is al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise.
I believe that the best means for the Western world to end this carnage is to butt out of the region altogether and let the governments of Syria and Iraq deal with al-Qaeda and ISIS on their own terms and allow them to seek assistance from Iran and Russia if they feel they need it. The US specifically needs to inform its local allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey that it is no longer seeking regime-change in Syria and that sending arms to the rebels is ultimately a futile endeavor. The West ultimately cannot be trusted to broker a just peace in the region considering its long history of exploitation, backing of reactionary governments and movements and outright acts of aggression. Any legitimate grievances the domestic populations of Syria and Iraq have with their governments must be addressed without the specter of Western intervention or Gulf state-funded fanaticism.