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Paris might have been Berlin, London or Rome. Europe has something of the feel of a continent under siege. On its eastern edge, governments have been overwhelmed by the numbers arriving from Syria, Afghanistan and many troubled points beyond. The Paris atrocity, the murderous work of the self-styled Islamic State, has seen Syria’s brutal civil war transferred almost casually to the heart of one of Europe’s great cities.
The refugees making their way across the Balkans to Germany and Sweden are running from violent sectarian chaos. The murders in Paris show once again how easily this violence can reach deep into the European continent. After this year’s attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket perhaps the latest crimes should not have been a surprise. The sense of shock this weekend is no less for that.
Most likely, there will be more such moments. The hard fact is that we live in an age of systemic disorder. As we might have learned from New York, Madrid, London and Mumbai there is no hiding place from upheavals elsewhere. In much of the Middle East the state system bequeathed a century ago by Europe’s departing imperial powers has broken down. In this part of the world, terrible shootings and bombings such as those in Paris have become almost a commonplace. Globalisation, identity politics and technology have provided the transmission mechanisms to spread the terror across borders and continents.
French president François Hollande called the murders an act of war. They were certainly that. But this is not a war as we usually would understand it. Isis has seized territory in Iraq and Syria, but its potency lies in the fact that it is as much an idea and ideology as organisation. In Europe it wants to provoke an anti-Islamic backlash that will feed it with more recruits from indigenous Muslims. These latest murders, Isis said, were retribution for French bombing of their fighters in Iraq and Syria. That was part of it, but no one in Europe should imagine they could exempt themselves by washing their hands of the Middle East.
The immediate demand is for answers and action. Could the plot have been uncovered; did the intelligence services miss something; how important was the complicity of French citizens mentioned by Mr Hollande? At least one of the killers carried a Syrian passport. Were others radicalised in France before being trained for this atrocity in the jihadis war against Syria’s Bashar Al Assad? Is it time for France to reset the balance between personal liberty and collective security? What about the promises after Charlie Hebdo to offer a better future to France’s Muslims?
One impulse — sensibly forsworn by Mr Hollande — will say it is time for Europe to throw up the barricades. Leave it to regional powers to fight it out. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, after all, have given life to Isis by incorporating the Syrian civil war into the struggle for dominance between Sunnis and Shia. Let them suffer the consequences. As for Russia, well Vladimir Putin has already paid for its intervention with the downing over Egypt — almost certainly the work of an Isis-affiliated group — of a Russian civilian jet carrying more than 200 tourists.
In this respect, the Paris attacks are a gift to Europe’s xenophobes. The risk is that the far right, already prospering by peddling anti-Muslim identity politics, succeed in drawing false connections between migration and terror. The us-versus-them politics of parties such France’s far-right National Front makes the scantiest of distinction between violent jihadis and peaceful Islam. In this twisted mindset every Muslim refugee is a potential terrorist. What should frighten Europeans is that the National Front’s Marine Le Pen is seen as a credible candidate in the contest for the French presidency in 2017.
An opposing response will say that it is time to “double-up”. By permitting Isis to hold territory, the west has given it the opportunity to turn a local organisation into a global ideology. Isis can now claim the allegiance of tens of thousands of so-called foreign fighters — many if not most of them from Europe — and affiliates reaching across the Middle East and Maghreb to the Sahel. I was at a security conference in Beijing last month. Top of the agenda? The boost provided by Isis to Islamist extremism across Asia.
The case for a more ruthless assault on Isis is a powerful one. Destruction of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria will not wipe it out — just as al-Qaeda survived the US march into Afghanistan — but you have to start somewhere. This time, though, the west must remember what it forgot after the attacks of September 11 2001. There are no military solutions.
Ending the Syrian civil war, and thus depriving Isis of its organising mission, requires a political agreement. Most probably it will be an ugly one. Almost certainly, it will require western leaders to retreat from past rhetoric. But Europeans will feel safer in their cities only when there is a settlement of sorts in Iraq and Syria.
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