Paul Rogers: Paris is a game-changer, but we must not rush to war

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The Isis attack in Paris was carefully planned by a large team of three groups with at least eight men prepared to die.

THE Isis attack in Paris was carefully planned by a large team of three groups with at least eight men prepared to die.

The operation had three components, each with a different purpose. The Stade de France attack was small-scale but large impact, though perhaps intended to be worse. It offered a modern national sporting icon, the occasion of a match with Germany and the presence of the French president among the fans.

The Bataclan theatre was hosting a popular US rock band, ensuring a very international audience, and the café and bar attacks would result in persistent fear across a popular district of Paris and well beyond.

The international impact will be huge – greater than London’s 7/7 bombs, Madrid’s Atocha rail terminal attack and even the Sari nightclub attack in Bali. It is on a similar scale to the even more complex and long-lasting Mumbai attack that had a profound impact in India but less so beyond. For western states you have to go back to 9/11 for a greater impact.

It has three purposes. One is to demonstrate that in the wake of the downing of the Russian holiday jet and the recent bombing in Beirut, Isis has now gone truly international in a way we have not seen since the actions of those al-Qaida-linked groups in the years after 9/11.

The second is to further damage inter-communal relations, not just in Paris but across Western Europe and beyond. An accelerating Islamophobia suits Isis in its quest to attract more recruits from recent diasporas and more established migrant communities, now feeling thoroughly insecure and greatly worried and even fearful of the hardening of attitudes towards them.

The third is to provoke and incite France and other states to intensify the war against Isis – in Syria, Iraq and anywhere else that it, or its affiliates, make progress. Isis wants war – it presents itself as the true guardian of Islam under attack from the “Crusader West”. It is a pernicious and dangerous message, but it is currently aided in this by the progressive withdrawal of all Middle Eastern states from active involvement in the air strikes against Isis in Syria.

The air war in Syria at the start of this year was led by the United States but also involved France, Australia, Canada, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (and Jordan, but in recent months the four Arab states have ceased bombing. Furthermore, Justin Trudeau’s new government in Canada is withdrawing all CF-18 strike aircraft from Syria and Iraq and Australia is reported to have paused its operations in Syria since the Russians started separate air attacks (almost all against non-Isis anti-Assad rebels). That leaves just the US and France, so Isis can easily claim a “crusader onslaught” in Syria at least.

Furthermore, Isis is not in retreat despite the sustained air assault of the last 15 months, with close to 10,000 targets hit. In the first 11 months of the air war, to July, the US-led coalition killed 15,000 Isis supporters. By October that had risen to 20,000, yet a Pentagon source said that the total number of Isis fighters was unchanged at around 30,000. Extraordinarily, US intelligence sources even admit that there has been a surge in recruits to Isis in spite of the air war and the losses. In September last year 15,000 recruits were reported to have joined from 80 countries but a year later the figure had risen to 30,000 from 100 countries.

Put bluntly, Isis is actually being strengthened by the air war, and we should assume it wants more, even to the extent of a ground war. It vigorously and insistently peddles this message of Islam under attack and though it is disliked and hated by the great majority of Muslims worldwide it strikes enough of a chord with a small minority to serve the Isis aim of creating this purist if brutal Caliphate.

It is possible that French and British political leaders and others will respond with care and forethought, rather than rushing into a more intensive war, but it is not likely – there is simply not the appetite to face up to the problems of the last 14 years, in spite of the efforts of a minority of analysts to point to the realities of that period.

Afghanistan now faces a growing Taliban presence involving widespread control of many rural areas, Libya is a chaotic mess of competing militias and a growing Islamist presence, and Iraq has seen more than 30,000 civilians killed since the beginning of last year alone and now has substantial parts under Isis control.

Across the whole of the Middle East and North Africa there have been close to 300,000 people killed, hundreds of thousands injured and many millions of people forced from their homes. Add the chaos and suffering in Syria and the spread of Isis ideas in Afghanistan, the Caucasus and North and East Africa and we have the vision of a terrible failure by western politicians, regional leaders and the wider world.

Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University and author of Irregular War: Isis and new threats from the margins, to be published by IB Tauris in the New Year.