By David Gardner
As assault on French capital shows Isis opening a bloody new front, impetus could build for Syria deal
The horror of Friday night’s jihadist carnage across Paris has brutally brought home to Europe that the fight against Isis is never going to be confined to the killing fields of Syria and Iraq — even as it spells out in blood the shortcomings of western policy and now Russian intervention.
“The impact of the war bleeds into all of our nations,” said John Kerry, US secretary of state, at a diplomatic summit in Vienna to explore a transition out of the Syrian conflict. “It is time for the bleeding in Syria to stop.”
Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, added that he sensed the moment had arrived for “an effective international coalition” to fight Isis. As things stand, that looks premature.
More than four and a half years into a Syrian war that has cost a conservatively estimated 300,000 lives and displaced half the population, and a year and a half after Isis declared its cross-border caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the international response to this global jihadist threat adds up to a lot less than the sum of its many moving parts.
At best, it may be said that Isis was until now mostly being contained within its core territory in north and eastern Syria and north and western Iraq. The totalitarian savagery of these Sunni supremacists, furthermore, has meant that when they try to break into nearby Kurdish or Shia areas they usually get beaten back.
Such setbacks are probably part of the explanation for the spate of Isis-claimed attacks further afield, from the Russian airliner apparently brought down over the Sinai desert by a bomb on October 31, killing all 224 on board, to last Thursday’s suicide bombings in Beirut, killing 43 in a Hizbollah stronghold in the Shia southern suburbs. And now, further away still, the Paris slaughter, which by yesterday had claimed 132 lives.
In Paris the jihadis made explicit they were retaliating against France’s intervention in Syria and Iraq. One of the murderers of the (so far) 89 rock fans killed at the Bataclan concert hall was heard saying this was a taste of what Syrians and Iraqis endured daily. In its claim of responsibility for the killing, Isis warned that “the smell of death won’t leave their [French] noses as long as they partake in their crusader campaign”.
Revenge is also thought to be part of the explanation for the Beirut and Sinai bombings. The decisive 2013 intervention in Syria by the Iran-backed, Lebanese Shia paramilitaries of Hizbollah is one of the reasons Bashar al-Assad is still in power, albeit as president of a shrinking rump state. Russia, the Assad regime’s main ally apart from Iran, stormed into the region in September. It has preferentially targeted non-Isis rebels threatening the Assads.
But Isis presents itself as the only effective Sunni sword against the Iran-backed Shia axis stretching from Baghdad to Beirut and into the Gulf. President Vladimir Putin, by placing himself at the head of this axis, has put Russia in Isis’s line of fire — even if his first concern has been to hit rebel forces fighting both the regime and the caliphate.
Expanding the armoury
But Friday’s attacks in Paris present a deadly new weapon in the Isis armoury. Unlike, say, August’s near miss, when a lone Islamist gunman was overpowered on a train in northern France, or even January’s jihadi killing spree at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris, this assault was highly co-ordinated. It most resembles the shooting and bombing attack on Mumbai in November 2008 by the Pakistan-based Lashkar e-Taiba, which killed 174.
The Isis decision to act now must have a tactical logic. There is speculation it was hitting back after last week’s US air strike on Raqqa — the jihadis’ stronghold in Syria — which killed four leaders including Mohammed Emwazi, the infamous Kuwaiti-born British national known as “Jihadi John”.
More probably, some Arab and western analysts think, Isis is acting pre-emptively amid signs the US is preparing an offensive against Raqqa, with its air force planning to support mainly Syrian Kurdish militia on the ground. The Pentagon last month confirmed air drops of 50 tonnes of ammunition to the Kurds — rebranded as a Syrian Arab coalition with the addition of Arab tribal fighters and Assyrian Christian militia — as well as the arrival at Turkey’s Incirlik air base of US A10 Warthogs, ground support planes with ferocious battlefield firepower. While the push against Raqqa has not yet started, an attack on Sinjar by Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces backed by US warplanes has already cut the east-west supply lines between Raqqa and Mosul, the Iraqi city Isis over-ran in 2014.
Yet it is a paradox of the Isis modus operandi that its vicious assault on Paris may be intended as a diversionary attack and — at the same time — a provocation designed to lure more “crusaders” into its Levantine lair; to intensify the war, at home and abroad, but on its own terms. This is not a new tactic.
In their analysis, this worked when former US president George W Bush responded to the al-Qaeda attack by invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni tyranny. The US-led occupation and Shia majority government that succeeded Saddam became jihadi recruiting sergeants, spawning the precursor of Isis, which has fused with the residual power structure of the former ruling Ba’ath party.
Even if the vast majority of Sunni Muslims are hostile to Isis, the jihadis still have two big pools of potential recruits: despairing refugees on Syria’s borders and disaffected Muslims in Europe. Little in the current approach of air strikes by the US-led coalition or Russia-led axis appears to address either problem.
Even if the vast majority of Sunni Muslims are hostile to Isis, the jihadis still have two big pools of potential recruits
In addition to the millions of refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, there are 7m-8m internally displaced people inside Syria who are running out of places to go, especially now Russian bombing is eliminating the remaining middle ground between the Assad regime and Isis. Despair and a sense of betrayal could drive some of them towards Isis. But that is not the jihadis’ only possible reserve army.
France is the biggest source of European volunteers to Isis — nearly 600, European and Arab security officials cautiously estimate, almost half of whom are believed to have returned home. The jihadi foreign legion serves different purposes. Often radicalised by the internet, there is the homegrown, lone wolf attacker of opportunist targets. In Syria, Iraq and Lebanon Isis has often used foreign suicide bombers as a spearhead to clear a bloody path for its fighters. And now there is the Mumbai- and Paris-style suicide bombing assault on foreign capitals.
The jihadis paint Islam as both at-risk and resurgent, everywhere under infidel assault yet never better prepared than under the new caliphate to fight victoriously back. Whereas al-Qaeda traded on cultural despair and longing for past glory, Isis is creating a mystique as an adamantine Sunni force that can stand up to the crusader west as well as the Shia idolaters — seen as a diabolic alliance after international powers led by the US reached the nuclear restraints deal with Shia Iran this summer.
It is a paradox of the Isis modus operandi that its assault may be intended as a diversionary attack — and a provocation
The millenarian propaganda of Isis transcends geography and time, emphasises the coming of a messiah (the Mahdi), the global triumph of Islam and the end of days — all preceded in apocalyptic tradition by harbingers like the destruction of Syria. The idea of Syrian skies crowded with crusader warplanes fits its narrative like a glove.
Tall order in Vienna
The diplomats in Vienna, therefore, have a lot of ground to bridge, even if Messrs Kerry and Lavrov seem to see the Paris attacks as a possible catalyst of unity.
The Vienna talks made rhetorical progress on trying to protect civilians inside Syria, above all from Assad regime barrel bombs that drive them towards Isis or across the borders. The EU is also coming up with more funds to help with the shelter and healthcare of refugees in neighbouring countries, and education for what otherwise will become a lost generation. Everyone agrees Isis is the clear and present threat, but not everyone acts in consequence. Russia continues to target non-Isis rebels backed by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Turkey, a Nato ally and EU candidate with a neo-Islamist government, fears not so much Isis as the possibility that US and EU support for Kurds in Syria and Iraq will induce restive Turkish Kurds to break up Turkey.
Yet Vienna seems the best hope that external actors now steering by narrow interest and spinning compasses in Syria may, after Paris, conclude the stakes are too high not to agree. Agreement would need some consensus on the future of the Assad clan — which Russia and Iran regard as legitimate rulers and the US, France and UK still, with weakening resolve, regard as a main provoker of Sunni jihadism.
The trick, a senior Turkish official says, is to learn from Iraq — where the occupation dismantled the Ba’athist state — and preserve Syrian institutions such as the army alongside mainstream rebel forces, which together could take on Isis.
“We distinguish between the Assad family and the state,” the official said. “We have a list of 30 to 40 people inside this regime who do not have blood on their hands, and can be part of Syria’s future.”
Syria’s future, the Paris attacks show, also plays out in Europe.