Leadership and Democracy LabWestern Social Science

After 72 Hours: Exploring the Implications of the ISIS Attacks in Paris

After 72 Hours: Exploring the Implications of the ISIS Attacks in Paris

Monday November 16, 2015

By: Patrick Sackville and Eric de Roos

The series of attacks last week in Paris perpetrated by individuals linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) shook the world to its core. For those who study and analyze international terrorism, Paris is the most recent of what appears to be an expansion of ISIS’ operational capabilities. Attacks in Yemen, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and Lebanon over the last few months, have made clear the group is both committed and capable of orchestrating significant international attacks. 

Yet, it has taken the attacks on Paris to bring this issue home for many. Particularly in the West, people can often sympathize with victims of terrorism in far-off countries, but the attacks in Paris, a city famous for its ubiquitous culture, tourism, and history, have forced them empathize. Although it is too early even for cautious predictions of what the exact fallout of the attacks will be, make no mistake that the events in Paris stand to profoundly impact how many Western nations will shape their policies toward ISIS.

French President Francois Hollande has immediately offered a stalwart response, stating that the attacks are “an act of war,” and will be met by “a war which will be pitiless.” Already involved in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, it can be reasonably expected that this means France will increase their combat role. France’s lone aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, had been previously scheduled to sail toward Syria on November 18 to participate in strikes against ISIS. Whether escalation will result simply in increased air strikes, or a commitment of ground troops in Iraq or Syria, remains to be seen. Only two weeks ago, the U.S. committed special operations troops on the ground in Syria. It is not inconceivable that France, or even some of its allies, may follow suit.

France’s allies may look to NATO to help coordinate a response against ISIS. Already, there has been speculation that France may invoke Article 5 of NATO. Article 5 is NATO’s clause of collective self-defence among its members; essentially the principle that an attack against one is an attack against all. The only time in NATO’s history Article 5 has been invoked was by the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks. Alternatively, France could invoke NATO’s Article 4, a less-serious call for a security consultation among its members – which Turkey invoked in 2014 in the wake of attacks by ISIS. Invoking either Article 4 or 5 will bring NATO closer into the fight against ISIS, whether some of its members want to or not.

At a maximum level, an international reaction to the Paris attacks could precipitate significant geopolitical implications. As it will be observed, over the coming days and weeks, any meaningful action taken against ISIS must engage with complex and interconnected ISIS-Assad power dynamics occurring in Syria. The Syrian Civil War is arguably the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, “with over a quarter million killed, roughly the same number wounded or missing, and over 11 million people displaced from their homes.” Today, Syria is the largest battlefield and generator of Sunni-Shia sectarianism in world history, with already dramatic implications for the growing reach of terrorism.

Since 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has waged war against Sunni moderate, Islamist, and jihadist groups, such as ISIS. As the country has been decimated by conflict and hemorrhaged waves of emigrants, neighboring states have carved out spheres of influence often based on sectarian agendas that fuel the destruction of Syrian society. As it stands, Iran and Russia provide support for Assad’s regime; while Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates support the Sunni-dominated opposition.

Consequent of these power relationships, any determined effort to destroy ISIS either supports or interferes with the direct or indirect geopolitical interests of global and regional powers. Yes, the interconnected and complex nature of the Syrian Civil War had made it the elephant in the room for years, only now, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, being described as a “rare moment of diplomatic opportunity” by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

At a minimum level, the events and aftermath of the Paris attacks will cause governments to confirm, review, or defend their policies regarding the admittance and settlement of Syrian refugees.

First and foremost, governments navigating the optics of refugee asylum and settlement initiatives now face an even greater uphill political battle. Too, in real terms, the downside security risk associated with screening and managing migrant flows further complicated by an overarching austerity environment presents a significant challenge to would-be host nations.

Geographically, members of the EU will continue to face the brunt of Syrian migration, and the horrific events in Paris will deepen the rift between nations on how best to manage Europe’s refugee crisis. In the UK, expect this tragedy to underline and validate the government’s prior position that the security risks associated with accepting refugees are too great. For refugee destinations like Germany and France, an anti-refugee position would undoubtedly create spillover effects throughout the EU. For countries of first-entry, like Greece, Italy, and Hungary, where public resources are strained and tensions between local populations and refugees already run high, increased resistance to resettlement by countries like Germany and France will elevate the potential for serious conflict to occur. With the potential fallout of the Paris attacks far-reaching, one can only hope that governments around the world act urgently but prudently in meeting the threat of ISIS.