Amongst expressions of grief and sympathy for victims of the terror attack on Paris on the 13th of this month, talk soon turned to Syria. French President Francois Hollande called for more attacks against ISIS bases in the war-torn country almost as soon as he had left the Stade de France, and media outlets were quick to report that a Syrian passport had been found close to one of the attackers; this transpired to have been faked. Will the Paris attacks become a turning point for the country’s future, and if so, what do they mean for different groups?
The Assad Regime
Immediately after the attacks, the Assad regime was quick to point to French government policies which may have caused them. Thus far in the conflict, Hollande’s government has called for the dictator to be toppled as part of a broader solution to the Syria crisis. Now, after two terrorist attacks on French soil in a single calendar year, Assad can reassert his claim that it is him or the jihadist abyss.
This argument has sustained many a Middle Eastern dictator over the past decades, and will no doubt have been strengthened by the idea of violence spreading beyond the region. Despite his unpopularity, Assad has hung on to a degree of power for four years, and is still seen as Syria’s official leader by important actors such as Russia and Iran. Having got away with oppression and torture for years even before the outbreak of the Civil War, he probably has few concerns about being held to account for his government’s brutality.
ISIS and other self-proclaimed “Jihadist” Groups
From a propaganda point of view, Paris will be seen as a boon to groups promoting extreme and perverted versions of “Islam”; so too will the West’s response. Increased air strikes can be portrayed to these groups’ followers as proof that their enemy is unjust and cowardly, relying on military might to bomb indiscriminately while shying away from engagement on the ground. Of course, anything Western governments do can be twisted to their ideology, so this should not be of very great consideration. In the long term, these groups’ futures may look something like the current situation of the Taliban in Afghanistan – weakened, but still able to take advantage of national instability and make minor gains. However, the fact that ISIS has constructed itself as much more international than the Taliban, with far less respect for existing nation state borders, may allow some members to hunker down outside Syria with the hope of returning at an opportune moment.
“Increased air strikes can be portrayed to these groups’ followers as proof that their enemy is unjust and cowardly”
Non-Islamist Opposition Groups to the Assad Regime
Despite having initiated protests against Assad’s government in 2011, the constituency broadly described as the “moderate opposition” seem to have lost relevance in the eyes of outside observers. The fact Russia’s recently intensified bombing raids are alleged to have targeted them at least as much as ISIS suggests that certain parties would like to see them quietly erased from the story and excluded from future reconciliation efforts. However, many in this broad group have a lot of potential to participate in the rebuilding of Syrian society. Although we cannot know that the non-Islamist opposition has not committed crimes similar to those of the Assad regime and the “Jihadists”, they must be taken into account in any military and or diplomatic solution.
In both Syria and Iraq, militias lead by members of the Kurdish ethnic minority have proved themselves formidable opponents to both Assad and Islamic extremists. They have also remained relatively inclusive despite their ethno political designation, allowing Arabs, Yazidis and foreign volunteers to fight alongside them. However, Kurdish groups remain in a rather complicated, even contradictory position with regards to the wider political situation. As a self-defined nation without an internationally recognised state, they have no formal representation in the UN or other major global organisations. It will therefore be interesting to see how they position themselves within the international struggle to end the Syrian Civil War. The outcome of this conflict will doubtless represent a turning point in Kurdish ambitions towards statehood, and therefore in the histories of the surrounding nation states.
“They have no formal representation in the UN or other major global organisations”
Syrians – those who are not actively involved in combat or political activism
You would be forgiven for supposing that no “ordinary” civilians were left in Syria – the so-called “refugee crisis” in Europe makes it seem as though anyone with no interest in fighting must have fled by now. In fact, the UNHCR estimates that 6,500,000 individuals are internally displaced, with only half able to access aid and support. The events in Paris, though dreadful, would likely pale in comparison with what some of these innocent victims of the struggle for power in Syria have witnessed. For them, those attacks just mean another bomb and another search for another temporary shelter.