What the Paris attacks mean for Syria

What the Paris attacks mean for Syria

Just over a week after coordinated ISIS attacks in Paris, the dynamics of the Syrian war are poised for change. Militarily, change will only come modestly but confidence-building measures between France, Russia, and the U.S. may help forge a diplomatic pathway forward.

Following the November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris, it has become clear that 130 people were killed at the hands of the Islamic State (IS).

With the group headquartered in Syria and largely interpreted as a byproduct of the civil war that has destabilized the country since 2011, the attacks have rearranged the dynamics of the conflict by reorienting Western attention towards finding a solution.

As a result, changes both modest and more appreciable have begun to take shape towards dismantling the dual threats of IS and the war in Syria. Whether these changes yield further risk or a meaningful shift in conflict dynamics is dependent on the willingness of international powers particularly France, Russia, and the United States to find common ground in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Modest Change, Modest Opportunity in the Military Realm

As a direct result of the Islamic State’s attacks on Paris, the military situation in Syria has and will continue to evolve. These changes will, however, likely only present a modest erosion of the military and security risks that both Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and ISIS present.

Prior to the attacks, the Syrian conflict had taken on an international dimension through pro-Assad military provisions and airstrikes — primarily from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah — as well as the U.S.-led training, arming, and airstrikes against ISIS and in favor of anti-Assad rebels.

Though France joined the U.S. airstrikes in September, it had thus far mainly focused its bombers on ISIS forces in Iraq. After Paris, that has begun to see a rapid change. French military operations have now shifted to Syria — from where it is believed ISIS first organized the attacks — in an intensification that French President François Hollande has already initiated and intends to expand.

France is now inclined to focus the majority of its anti-terrorism efforts towards the Islamic State in Syria, expanding upon airstrikes against its operational capital in Raqqa to target key assets like IS-operated oil pipelines. France’s only aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, has also been repositioned in the Mediterranean and has tripled the number of French fighter jets now active in Syria.

This effort will expand upon the degradation of IS capabilities provided by U.S. airstrikes, though the focus on striking in Syria as opposed to Iraq may have minimal difference in terms of its impact. It is primarily the sheer increase in airstrikes that will increase the damage inflicted.

The strikes may also extend the half-life of Assad’s regime and enable Russia and Iran to refocus their efforts on destroying the U.S.-armed Syrian rebels — a consequence that both the U.S. and France are becoming increasingly willing to endure at the expense of the Islamic State.

Finally, the expanded effort might also force France to shift resources away from its primary anti-terrorism theater in North African nations like Mali, a potentially destabilizing move in particular consideration of the recent terrorist attacks in Bamako.

For its part, Washington has already asserted its intention to leave the U.S. strategy unchanged, though the impact of the Syrian air campaign will nonetheless be magnified by increased French involvement. At the same time, the effectiveness of these joint airstrikes will continue to fall short of their potential as long as they are not accompanied by conventional troops that can cultivate ideal conditions on the ground — a move that all Western nations have firmly ruled out.

One method that France and the Western coalition might eventually use to escape this quandary is through a collaborative effort with the highly active Moscow, with whom the West has operationally avoided in Syria in spite of its expanded airstrikes and rumored ground campaign.

The Paris attacks, when combined with the recently successful ISIS effort to bring down a commercial Russian airliner, may finally provide the common ground for the West and Russia to begin pursuing tempered military cooperation against the radical Islamic group.

Such an offer is just as likely to first be favored by France as it is by Russia, which has a dual interest in eliminating IS while also potentially gaining leverage for the removal of Western-imposed sanctions. Recognizing this, President Hollande has now expressed interest in forging a partnership with Moscow, and though no agreement has been formally cast, President Putin has called upon the Russian Navy to view French ships in the Mediterranean as “allies.”

Regardless of whether rumors of Russian boots on the ground are valid, Russia is more inclined than France — and especially the United States — to eventually launch a ground campaign. A French-led initiative for military collaboration with Russia now will significantly increase the effectiveness of efforts against ISIS in the future. It will also help contribute to a more conducive environment for Syrian political transition.

Greater Significance in Diplomatic Prospects

Such a relationship is foreseeable and, in some sense, already being developed — but is unlikely to operate beyond a limited capacity in the short-term due to the differences in Russian and French interests. Thus, while these military developments are notable, little progress will be made in the overall international military effort in Syria until the complicated mix of competing interests, intentions and desired solutions is resolved through diplomacy.

The same post-Paris common ground that may bring France and the West together in military cooperation with Russia may also enable them to achieve a more significant diplomatic progress. Already, the attacks have served as a unifying force in bringing the “Vienna Group” — which includes the U.S., Russia, and France — to agree to commence discussions on a ceasefire between Assad and opposition forces by January 2016, though it is yet unclear how previous disagreements will be resolved.

The persistent diplomatic roadblock between the West and Russia on Syria has been with regard to the ultimate fate of Assad. Russia sees a valuable Middle Eastern ally in Assad, who enables it to advance its interests in an increasingly important region historically dominated by Western influence. While Moscow has insisted on the continuation of the Assad regime, the West has required a regime transition as an non-negotiable outcome of the Syrian conflict.

Now, after the terrorist attacks in Paris, French strategy may be on the precipice of a shift regarding the immediacy of addressing Assad. In a recent statement, President Hollande avoided mention of Assad by stating simply that “the enemy is ISIS.”

Though France’s official calculus is presently unclear, Paris may now be more inclined to agree to a diplomatic solution with Moscow that allows for the continuation of the Assad regime in exchange for a greater capacity to eliminate ISIS. Such a deal would work by instilling a cease-fire over the Civil War, simplifying the tangle of interests and removing the barrier to collaboration against IS brought by conflicting alliances with pro- and anti-Assad groups.

A French shift away from the uncompromising removal of Assad is reasonable in the short-term, but also faces complications that still need resolved. For one, the shift would place the United States, which has continued to vocally advocate for the unequivocal removal of Assad, in an uncomfortable position that may well stall such a deal immediately.

In addition, extremist factions in Syria may oppose a cease-fire entirely and make implementation difficult, and the question of which Syrian groups should be negotiated with is yet another likely source of dispute.

In short, though the international atmosphere for solving the closely related military and diplomatic aspects of IS and Syria has improved in the wake of the Paris attacks, a resolution still remains fairly elusive.

France, set to meet with both Washington and Moscow in the coming week, will now seek to capitalize on the modified dynamics surrounding the issue and make progress towards unity against the Islamic State.

About Author

Ian Armstrong

Ian Armstrong is Commissioning Editor and Senior Analyst at GRI. He also serves as the Geostrategy and Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Previously, Ian assisted in research at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Scottish Parliament, and Hudson Institute's Center for Political-Military Analysis, where he has focused on non-proliferation and international energy. Ian's analysis has been featured at prominent outlets such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, Foreign Policy Association, CBS News, and RealClearEnergy.