The Islamic State (IS) has developed a grim PR strategy: When there's bad news, bury it with sudden, ultra-violent attacks. It's a tactic the group has used before on several occasions, and they apparently turned to it again on Friday by launching a brutal, unprecedented assault on Paris.
Early on Friday, the US announced the probable death by drone of celebrity IS executioner Mohammed Emwazi, better known as "Jihadi John." Later, the group suffered two stunning and far more significant military defeats: The loss of the strategic city of Sinjar to Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and of the vital town of al-Hawl in northeastern Syria to Kurdish-led fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Both victories deny IS easy road access between Raqqa and Mosul, their two major urban centers.
The day ended with multiple gunmen outfitted with suicide bombs attacking restaurants, a concert hall, and a sports stadium at locations across the French capital, killing at least 128 people and injuring 300. IS issued a statement on Saturday morning claiming responsibility.
At this stage in the war, with the combination of overwhelming US air power and effective local ground forces beginning to show significant results, it actually seems easier for IS to carry out a mass terrorist attack in the center of a major Western capital than it is for them to win a military victory on the ground in either Syria or Iraq.
The Paris attack, like the bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai peninsula that IS has also claimed, is a remarkable inversion of roles in IS' feud with its progenitor, al Qaeda. IS has sold itself on its ability to take and hold ground in the Middle East, scorning old-school al Qaeda for its reliance on occasional but meaningless spectacular attacks in the West.
'The Islamic State strikes Western interests because it can, and because it's hurting on the battlefield.'
But now IS is beginning to crumble on all fronts in both Syria and Iraq, while al Qaeda's Syrian arm Jabhat al-Nusra has devoted its energies to quiet state-building efforts in the regions it controls
The meticulous coordination and sophistication of the attacks in Paris indicate the plot was hatched well in advance, but perhaps initiated as a sudden response to the group's military setbacks. The purpose of the attacks is likely twofold: Partly to strike fear into Westerners, and also partly to reassure its core constituency of supporters — including those in the West — that the group's setbacks are merely a blip.
Even before IS claimed responsibility for the Paris attack, unofficial IS propaganda accounts exulted in the killings, breaking a sulky silence over the group's military defeats in its heartlands.
It's too soon to say what the diplomatic and political ramifications of the attacks will be. French President Francois Hollande described them as "an act of war," and deserving "a pitiless response," laying the groundwork for a broad response, perhaps even setting the stage for an invocation of NATO's Article 5 on collective response to attack for an escalation of military action against IS.
Yet it is unclear — short of committing ground troops — how much more action France can sustain against the group. French jets, including those launched from the country's sole aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, are striking IS targets in both Syria and Iraq. Most recently, France has taken part in a concerted effort with the United States to degrade IS' oil processing capabilities, an attempt to starve the group of both funds and fuel to send vehicles into battle.
As a second-tier military power, like the UK, France has limited means to unilaterally escalate its engagement in the war against Islamic State, not least considering the vast resources the country has committed to retaining military dominance in much of Africa. Irrespective of whether or not French voters will back boots on the ground in the Middle East, France's ability to commit troops in significant numbers without significant NATO or US backing is doubtful. The scale of the assault could boost UK Prime Minister David Cameron's argument for his country's deepened military involvement in airstrikes on IS in Syria and Iraq.
Perhaps a more likely outcome is significant French backing of the two most effective armed groups fighting IS in Syria and Iraq: The Kurdish Peshmerga and the Kurdish YPG and its subordinate Arab military allies, recently rechristened the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in an attempt to sell their mission to Western voters. As in Libya, the combination of French Special Forces acting both as forward air controllers and military trainers would likely boost these groups' effectiveness in the major ground battles currently planned, including an assault on Raqqa, the de facto IS capital, which the SDF is currently working toward.
IS and its freelance internet supporters in the West are currently claiming that the Paris attack is a response to French military involvement in the war against IS. This is disingenuous: IS took western hostages years before the western powers ever took up arms against the group, with the intention of executing them for propaganda purposes, as they eventually did. Long before the US government committed itself to striking the group, official IS accounts effectively dared America to act, threatening the US directly as part of its millenarian vision to embroil the whole world in war.
The Islamic State strikes Western interests because it can, and because it's hurting on the battlefield. The Western world ignored the war on Syria as long as it could. Now Paris — and the rest of the Western world by extension — will see the funerals that are held, the ensuing protests, and troops in full combat gear patrolling the streets.
The war in Syria has come to the heart of Western civilization, and attacks like this will continue until the international community finally commits to ending the conflict once and for all.
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