Several major attacks over the past two weeks, most prominently the carefully coordinated, murderous one in Paris on Friday, provide an indication of what’s at stake in Syria and Iraq. Radical Sunni terror organizations - the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), Al-Qaida, and their various offshoots - are being targeted in both Syria and Iraq from several directions.
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Although the losses they’ve suffered on the ground in Syria have been minor until now, these groups are being forced to deal with a number of enemies at once. Not only are they being confronted by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but also by an international coalition being led by the United States, which is bombing ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq; another coalition led by Russia, which is bombing most of the rebel groups in Syria from the air and is now trying to initiate a ground invasion in northern Syria; and lastly the armed Kurdish militias, which recently scored an important local victory in Sinjar, in northern Iraq.
Under these circumstances, all the players seem to be doubling their bets. ISIS or its collaborators first blew up a Russian tourist plane over the Sinai Peninsula on October 31, then carried out suicide attacks in Dahiya, the Shi’ite district of Beirut, on November 12, and the next day attacked in Paris, giving this revenge campaign a new dimension.
Until now, ISIS leaders, in contrast to their Al-Qaida rivals, have focused on fighting in the Middle East, conducting methodical massacres of their Shi’ite rivals as they also try to topple regimes in the region. Attacks in the West indirectly attributed to ISIS were until now carried out by “lone wolves” claiming that they’d been inspired by ISIS. The previous attacks in France in January, on the journal Charlie Hebdo, and the kosher grocery in Paris, were the work of a small cell working at the behest of an Al-Qaida branch in Yemen, which led to a copycat attack by someone expressing solidarity with ISIS.
This time, apparently for the first time, ISIS acted as a global jihad group, hitting Western targets in a planned and deliberate fashion. The attack, timed for Friday the 13th, was a simultaneous, coordinated attack against no less than seven different targets. One can assume it took several months to gather intelligence on the targets, obtain weapons and train the terrorists in their use. It brings to mind the attack on Mumbai in 2008, in which the local Chabad house was also attacked, and the major Al-Qaida attacks in Madrid in 2004 and in London a year later.
Like the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels last year and the Toulouse attacks in 2012, the connection to the turmoil in the Arab world and the war in Syria is clear. Together with the attack in the Sinai, ISIS has murdered more than 350 Europeans in less than two weeks. Whether carried out by Al-Qaida or ISIS, the message is the same: Westerners have no safe place. Even on their home courts, they will pay for their governments’ intervention in the Middle East.
More than 500 French citizens are now fighting in Syria, and another 250 citizens have returned from there. A man who until recently headed a French intelligence agency told a group from Israel last month that the jihadists who return to Europe are “the cowards, the ones whose courage failed them and who couldn’t continue to fight in Syria. So the groups send them home, with instructions to conduct attacks in Europe.”
The fact that the French, like other European nations, have been aware of this risk for the last few years, only highlights the terrible intelligence failure that allowed Friday’s attacks to happen. Such a complex operation isn’t supposed to take place, let alone succeed, under the noses of the French intelligence agencies. The series of attacks in France since January have been deadlier than anything Israel has suffered at the hand of Palestinian terrorists in recent years.
The background of the terrorists acting in Paris is becoming clearer as the hours pass. Among them were a Syrian citizen, an Egyptian citizen, and three Muslims with Belgian citizenship. There will now be a manhunt for accomplices throughout Europe, but it’s equally possible that the chase will end in a gunfight with local police, as it did after the attacks in Toulouse and the Charlie Hebdo attack. Security will have to be beefed up all over Europe, and at all airports, whose vulnerability, at least in the Third World, was illustrated by the explosion on the plane flying out of Sharm el-Sheikh. The fact that the targets were not Jewish ones this time is no assurance about the future. Since the attacks in January, France has been deploying thousands of policemen and soldiers to protect Jewish sites and institutions.
Europe is in shock over the events in Paris. Like the wave of Middle Eastern refugees that has been breaking on the continent’s shores since the summer, the attacks demonstrate the inability to separate what goes on there from what goes on here. And as occurred after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Europe will agonize over its priorities. What’s more important? Protecting privacy or the obligation of governments to protect their populations from terror activity?
It’s likely that the pendulum will now swing toward giving more far-reaching powers to the security services, as occurred in the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks. At the same time, hostility toward the Muslim migrants in Europe will almost certainly increase, particularly toward those trying to flee the horror of the wars in Syria and Iraq.
As often happens, dubious characters are trying to gain sympathy as a result of all these disasters. After the Dahiya attacks Hezbollah accused its enemies of barbaric crimes against humanity, without even pausing for a moment to ponder the irony of the organization that brought the world suicide bombers finally getting a taste of its own medicine. Both Hamas and the Assad regime issued messages of support and shock following the attacks in France, and hastened to compare those massacres to their own suffering, at the hands of Israel and the Sunni rebels, respectively.
Israeli spokesman also made comparisons between the attacks in Paris and here in Israel. It’s doubtful that the Europeans will see it that way, despite all that they’ve suffered at the hands of Islamic terrorists in recent years.
On the other hand, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suddenly seems small in the shadow of these other events. Perhaps we will no longer hear the fallacious argument that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – which indeed needs to be resolved – will automatically resolve the other problems in the Middle East and put an end to terror attacks in the West.
The big winner now is Syrian President Assad. The biggest mass murderer in the Middle East in the past decade can now feel safer than ever in his post. The Russian campaign in Syria, despite the difficulties it has encountered, has stabilized his line of defense against the rebels, who only a few months ago seemed poised to depose him. For more than a year, the American and European efforts in Syria have been directed not against Assad, but against ISIS, his worst enemy. Now that effort is likely to intensify further.
It’s doubtful, therefore, that anyone in the near future will be trying to topple Assad. If ISIS didn’t exist, the Syrian dictator would have had to invent it.