In the wake of the Paris attacks, a rethinking of modern Europe’s most cherished ideals

REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol
People paying tribute to victims outside Le Carillon restaurant, one of the attack sites in Paris, on Monday.

It didn’t take long for France to answer the terror attacks in Paris with a major airstrike Sunday against Islamic State targets in Syria. But if this is a war — as France says it is — it will be a long one, probably accompanied by a reconsideration of some of modern Europe’s most cherished ideals.

The shootings and bombings in Paris on Friday signaled a dramatic shift in tactics from the Islamic State’s previous goal of securing territory in Iraq and Syria. In the two weeks before the Paris attack, it also claims to have brought down a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula and sent suicide bombers to a Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Beirut

Together, those attacks killed nearly 400 people. And they make the Islamic State’s new strategy look a lot like Al Qaeda’s old efforts to sow terror. If so, we probably are in for a variant of the long military and intelligence campaign to degrade Osama bin Laden’s organization. In the meantime, there will be enormous pressure to step back from the EU’s goal of greater unity and open borders. 

France’s decision to strike back hard at the Islamic State is not surprising after two major terror attacks in Paris this year. But the campaign to defeat the extremist movement suffers from the same lack of clarity and coordination that has prevented any overall effort to end the Syrian conflict.

This new terror tactic adds one more layer of complexity: While Bin Laden had lieutenants such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, it is unclear who might have emerged to play that vital role for the Islamic State. 

One way to combat such attacks is to capture or kill those operational experts. But first, you have to identify them.

And even while the Paris attack adds urgency to diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria, it also feeds Russian arguments that the world should rally around President Bashar Assad as a bulwark against the Islamic State. The U.S. and its allies, who want to roll back the Islamic State and remove Assad, argue that if Russia really believes that, it should stop its military strikes against other anti-Assad insurgent groups.   

Diplomats might find a way around that disagreement. It won’t be quick, though.

You could see evidence in the past week of small successes in a campaign to chip away at the Islamic State: an offensive by a Kurdish militia backed by U.S. air power that severed a road linking the extremists in Syria and Iraq, an air strike in Syria on Thursday that is believed to have killed one of its most notorious executioners known as  “Jihadi John,” and another Saturday in Libya said to have killed the extremists’ chief of operations there. 

It took years of such limited actions to degrade Al Qaeda. And this analysis by Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt, written before the Paris attacks, cautions against the unintended consequences.

The Islamic State’s enemies can and will strike back against terror attacks. But Walt counsels a patient effort to contain its ambitions as a revolutionary state in order to ensure that efforts to destroy it don’t simply make it stronger. 

While it participates in that long war, Europe is confronting hard questions about security, immigration and resurgent national sentiment. The debate was well under way before the Paris attack, but is now taking on new urgency.

Just the day before the attack, Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council, warned that time was running out to save the so-called Schengen agreement, the 20-year-old arrangement that allows passport-free travel among about two dozen European countries.

A number of countries have reimposed temporary border restrictions because of this year’s flood of refugees. Then, reports emerged that one of the Paris attackers carried a Syrian passport indicating he had slipped into Europe this fall with the refugees and crossed several borders.

Whether that passport was genuine or turns out to be a fake, the reaction was immediate. Officials of Poland’s incoming government, for instance, said a plan to impose a quota of refugees on EU countries was dead, and that Poland must have full control of its borders.

At minimum, anti-immigration and anti-EU politicians in France and elsewhere stand to gain after the attack. France faces regional elections in just three weeks, and it’s logical to think that the Paris attack will improve the prospects of Marine Le Pen’s far-right party.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron was already facing a rebellion in his Conservative party over a proposal for renegotiating the country’s ties to the European Union that critics consider much too weak.

Cameron has promised a vote in the next couple of years on whether to stay in the EU or leave, and foes in his own party plan to make clear this week that they want much less of European unity.

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, labeled “the indispensable European” in an Economist cover story earlier this month, is feeling the heat. 

Merkel has claimed the moral high ground, committing her country to taking in hundreds of thousands of Syrians and other refugees this year and pressing other European countries to do much more. She is by far the most powerful politician in Europe — but not powerful enough to avoid questions about whether even she can survive

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/16/2015 - 10:14 am.

    While assuredly just at the beginning of a more intensive French involvement in the conflict in the Middle East, it should be noted that the attack by France consisted of 10 planes with 20 bombs dropped–certainly not in the scale of “massive”. The US and other coalition forces (such as they are) have sent 8000 planes on missions with 28,000 bombs dropped in the last year or so.

    The bombs are the easiest response, the harder one is doing the work of identifying and stopping those who are leading the radical elements–in Syria, Iraq AND European countries. Those require the use of techniques that the modern world regards as offensive and invasive of rights. France has never been very light-footed about those rights, so expect a fairly heavy hand in France and other European countries.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 11/16/2015 - 11:40 am.


    The geopolitics of the middle east are staggering. Loyalties can shift with the wind and determining who are the good and bad guys can be difficult. The US can not continue to fight these wars indefinitely. The wear and tear of war on personnel and equipment is enormous even without having ground troops in places like Syria. US military recruitment is down our military is showing signs of fatigue. There are no easy answers and we won’t bomb our enemies into submission.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 11/16/2015 - 12:32 pm.

    Of course things will change in France. They had armed terrorists come to the heart of their city and kill innocent people. The killings were then celebrated by terrorist countries and the radical Muslim crowd. As long as you are facing an enemy that thinks nothing of killing innocent people in a city hundreds of miles away from the battle field, you have a problem not easily solved. There is no concrete strategy on eliminating the ISIS threat either here in the USA, the Mid East or in Europe….. Our collective strategy appears to be ignore them and hope they will go away or be thankful they didn’t pick your country to attack.

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