The brutal, co-ordinated attacks in Paris show that Islamic State (IS) retains its potency abroad. But will it actually change anything in the effort to combat the group? And will it impact on Australia’s commitment to coalition military operations in Iraq and Syria?
Pressure on the home front
Why did these attacks happen now? Although IS has barked considerably at the West since its declaration of statehood in 2014, its efforts to launch or inspire serious militant operations outside the Middle East and North Africa have produced lacklustre results.
This is in part due to limited resources, but also thanks to IS’s true strategic focus: expanding and consolidating territories between Iraq and Syria. While it says it is working towards uniting the likes of Australians, French, Chinese and Yemenis under a single national banner, IS’s immediate goals are far less grandiose.
IS remains constrained by its status as a landlocked, revolutionary group. It has an estimated 30,000 fighters and an economy around one-fifth the size of Tasmania’s. To top it all off, IS is surrounded by belligerents and has zero allies outside its own nebulous network.
This is not to mention the setbacks IS has encountered since the beginning of coalition operations last year. Although it has endured in the face of strikes from Western, Arab, Russian, Iranian and Turkish aircraft – as well as the consolidation and pushback from reinvigorated Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish forces – it has lost around 10% of its territorial holdings since the beginning of 2015.
The logic behind France
Within this context, the Paris attacks begin to make some degree of sense. History can tell us a lot here. When insurgent groups feel growing pressure on their home front, they often lash out externally. Al-Shabaab’s 2013 attack on Kenya’s Westgate mall was a direct response to the group’s loss of ground in Somalia thanks to the efforts of the African Union coalition, AMISOM.
Similarly, the gruesome sieges of a school in Beslan and the Dubrovka theatre by Chechen militants were due to Russian military operations in the North Caucus region that had destroyed much of the insurgent opposition.
While the precise motivations for these actions varied, they all responded to the growing pressures mounted by external forces against local insurgent groups. In each case, the act of terror was designed to reinvigorate the perpetrator’s image, draw renewed support from sympathisers, and instil fear in the societies of countries identified as major threats.
Given IS’s ideology and its general similarity in make-up and goals to such groups, terrorist attacks were always likely to occur as the group declined. With just the last two weeks seeing the probable downing of a Russian civilian jet over Sinai, the bombing of Hezbollah territory in Beirut, and now the Paris attacks, it seems IS has now entered such a phase.
It is unlikely to signal IS’s death throes. But, it certainly indicates that its commanders are becoming less confident of their position.
What do the Paris attacks mean for Australian interests?
Such acts reiterate that there can be a blood cost for participation in the anti-IS coalition. While Australia’s role largely remains one of support and symbolism, this still leaves it open for potential blowback.
In contrast to France, however, Australia is in a far better security position. As an isolated continent, Australia lacks shared borders, has a smaller population and less domestic economic issues than France. While this doesn’t completely mitigate the potential for terrorism in Australia, it certain lessens its likelihood.
Anti-immigration advocates will undoubtedly capitalise upon and emphasise the importance of the religion of the Parisian militants as demonstrative of their fears. But even if one of the attackers turns out to be a refugee, this will remain an extreme outlier from the norm and should not tarnish the legitimacy of those seeking to flee the horrors of Syria.
The stiff upper lip
As international relations scholar Stephen Walt has written, the most effective strategy for curbing IS likely remains encouraging and supporting frontline states and groups – Iraq, Syria, Turkey, the Kurds and Jordan – to become more proactive in fighting the group and resolving the Syrian crisis.
Aside from autonomous airstrikes, much of the coalition effort has been aimed at precisely this approach, to one degree or another.
While Paris was a tragedy, IS’s goal is to provoke a rash response that will play into its hands and aid its recruitment strategies. The best response to combat IS remains stoically staying the course and ultimately seeking to resolve the wider governance failure that underlies the Syrian war – an objective that will help prevent the emergence of similar groups in the future.