Rachel Utley: Leaders left to ponder route to defeating IS and world terror

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THE Paris terror attacks were quickly condemned by French President François Hollande as an “act of war”. “In the face of war, the country must take the appropriate decision,” he said before adding that France would show “no mercy” towards those responsible.

France’s initial reactions have been swift. At home, this includes a raft of anti-terror raids. Overseas, it concerns France’s largest air-strikes to date against “Islamic State” (IS) in Syria.

Having claimed responsibility for Friday’s attacks, IS positions in its stronghold of Raqqa have been directly targeted, with 20 bombs hitting a variety of targets including a command post, recruitment centre, training camp and arms depot.

Since Friday, the shock and horror of the French people and its government, across religious, cultural and political divides, has been palpable.

Quick responses in these circumstances may well be understandable, even legitimate. By acting against the self-declared perpetrators of the attacks, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius maintains that France has been acting in self-defence.

However, these responses are unlikely to address the multiple causes of the terrorism, and are unlikely to alleviate those domestic problems, which have contributed to the attractiveness of France as a target for terror in recent months and years. Nor are they likely to allay the political difficulties that beset Hollande and his government.

While French air strikes may be of limited value in degrading IS capability in its Iraqi and Syrian strongholds, air strikes by any state alone may have limited utility beyond the symbolic.

They may also prove counter-productive within a French society, where the emphasis upon the secular state has assisted in the radicalising many young French Muslims.

The rhetorical and military responses deployed this weekend are unlikely to assuage this radicalisation, which may involve 10,000 French citizens, including about half of the 3,000 European citizens already fighting for IS.

While these challenges are problematic for France, they are no less acute for Britain.

Sylvie Bermann, the French Ambassador to the UK, has said that British help would be appreciated in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. And if President Hollande were to invoke Nato’s Article 5 – the collective defence clause that says an attack on one is an attack on all – then Britain will come under further pressure to become more involved.

This will be a challenge for David Cameron, despite his insistence that British security depends upon “degrading and ultimately destroying IS whether it’s in Iraq or Syria”.

First, British intelligence may need to move beyond its concern with the ‘lone wolf scenario’, whether individuals based in the UK or returning from the Middle East, and consider the threat posed by larger-scale terrorist operations such as the one in Paris.

The failure of intelligence forces in Europe to anticipate the attacks in Paris has bolstered the British Government’s decision to hire another 1,900 intelligence personnel for GCHQ, MI5 and MI6.

Secondly, there are legislative hurdles. Terrorist actions require communication and co-ordination, and so David Cameron has indicated that the Government might accelerate the Parliamentary timetable for the Investigatory Powers Bill, dubbed by its critics as a ‘snoopers’ charter’.

Although there may now be more support for granting the police and intelligence services greater access to internet communications, securing passage of the Bill will not be straightforward, and many of its opponents remain implacable.

Third, there are political obstacles. David Cameron would like to extend the scope of the RAF’s bombing from Iraq to Syria but he faces Parliamentary resistance, even within his own party, while public opinion may be equally stubborn to shift.

Alternatively, the British Government might renew its pleas to the US or Russia for more bombing of IS facilities in Syria, but it has very little leverage over either party as long as it is not directly involved.

Britain might have more influence if Nato were willing to intervene, but even if the allies could agree upon an intervention plan, implementing it would prove problematic.

Quite apart from its legality, which would depend upon Russian actions in the UN Security Council, any Nato involvement is unlikely to involve allied ‘boots on the ground’.

As the US has already found the quest for moderate and reliable Sunni forces elusive, the only ground forces capable of challenging IS in its hinterland would be those of President Bashar al-Assad, an ally hitherto considered beyond the pale by British and American governments.

Terrorists may have struck Paris, this time, but the reverberations touch Britain too, and well beyond, as was presumably intended.

Dr Rachel E. Utley and Professor Edward M. Spiers are academics at the University of Leeds who specialise in international affairs.