Syria, more particularly its civil war and leaderless violent vacuum that has given ISIS space to flourish, is at the top of the world’s to do list.
Europe’s great Syria divide just got wider. It is no longer about tiresome logistical arrangements for floods of refugees while preserving European cultural values. Now, it is about “war” as the French president declared in the hours after the attacks on Paris. The front line appears to have moved to every European city.
Until Friday the 13th — a portentous day-date combination according to Western superstition — Syria simply meant a distant, if troubling, conflict zone. Now, it is seen as an urgent and existential threat to Europe.
There are three main reasons that the Syrian question has become an intense series of interrogation marks for Europe and the West. One of the terrorists in Paris’s Bataclan concert hall, where about 90 people were slaughtered, is said to have shouted: “This is for Syria.” It is thought to have been a reference to the role of French warplanes in attacking Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Syria and Iraq, as part of the US-led campaign.
Second, the audacious explicitness with which the ISIS statement identified the real target of the Paris attacks. The venues — a stadium, a Cambodian restaurant, a shopping mall and a concert hall — were symbols of what the ISIS statement described as the “filthy streets and alleys [of] the capital of prostitution and vice”. Distant loathing is one thing but the menace becomes frighteningly close and real if a brutal extremist group that holds territory in Syria and Iraq can mount a non-specific attack on a country less than 4,000 km away.
Third, the passport of a Syrian refugee found on or near the body of a suicide bomber. The passport was registered to a Syrian refugee known to have travelled from Turkey to the Greek islands in October. The revelation hit Europe’s news radar with explosive force. It was not immediately clear whether the passport was planted, stolen, forged or genuine but the news dispersed the shrapnel of suspicion far and wide about jihadists among asylum-seekers from the Middle East.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the implications are clear. Syria, more particularly its civil war and the leaderless violent vacuum that has given ISIS space to flourish, is at the top of the world’s to do list.
Can anything be done? If it were so easy, wouldn’t it have been done by now? Would forceful and sustained action make Europe safe once more?
These are difficult questions but it is possible to offer succinct answers. So, here goes: Yes, something can be done. No, the lack of action so far does not mean incrementalism is the only possible course. No, forceful action in Syria will not necessarily make Europe safe. Terrorism is as much about emotional triggers as physical measures.
The truth is that whatever the eventual truth about the identities and ideological affiliation of the Paris killers, terrorism in Europe has not, until now, been led or created by refugees. It has been perpetrated by home-grown, Europe-born and -bred jihadis, people who went to school in Europe and felt impelled to turn against the country and culture that nurtured them.
Those responsible for London’s 7/7 attacks were raised in the United Kingdom. The Kouachi brothers, who were responsible for the Charlie Hebdo killings in January, were born and raised in Paris. As was Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who attacked a Jewish supermarket in Paris in apparent coordination with the Kouachis. It is striking that the international manhunt launched for Salah Abdeslam after the Paris attacks, identified the 26-year-old as a French national who was born in Brussels.
So, what’s been going wrong?
Without wanting to excuse criminality of any sort, France has long had a problem with integrating its Muslim minority and has done little about it. I reported on the 2005 suburban race riots in France, when the alienation of second- and third-generation immigrants exploded in anger against the police in the banlieues, the unlovely suburbs around Paris.
I remember a well-educated South Asian Muslim from the former French colony of Pondicherry. He spoke fluent French and had always held French nationality and he told me in despair: “The ghetto is the public face of France’s policy towards immigrants. Here they dump coloured people, different people and dirt-poor or disabled whites. No one who lives in one can ever hope to do anything in life.”
He lived near Clichy-sous-Bois, one of the notorious areas where the riots began. All around Paris — in Grigny, Aubervilliers, Sarcelles, La Courneuve, Le Bourget, Aulnay-sous-Bois — immigrants (not all of them Muslim) chafed and seethed at life in what they considered to be concentration camps.
That is where France should start the fightback.