Paris attack ‘unlikely to affect Syria policy’

Analyst tells Al Jazeera France will not scale down its military action against ISIL after the killings in the capital.

paris attack
The coordinated attacks across Paris have killed more than 120 and injured scores more [Thibault Camus/AP]

Doha, Qatar – France has been left reeling after a series of coordinated attacks across Paris left at least 120 people dead and scores more critically injured.

The bomb and gun attacks in the French capital on Friday evening targeted restaurants, an arts centre, a shopping centre, and the Stade de France, where the French football team were playing Germany.

Friday’s killings are the latest tragedy the country has experienced this year, with initial suspicions focusing on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

Fear and confusion in Paris after deadly attacks

In January, the headquarters of the magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked by two men claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda. That attack was followed quickly by an assault on a Kosher supermarket, which left five dead, including the attacker.

Some users on social media sites have attempted to create a link between the attack and the current influx of refugees entering despite there being no suspicion at this point that the attackers had posed as refugees.

France has been at the forefront of Europe’s military response to the rise of ISIL in Syria and Iraq, and has been pushing for solutions to the refugee crisis.

Al Jazeera spoke to Remi Piet, an assistant professor of international affairs at Qatar University, about the potential consequences of the attack, and how it was able to happen in the first place.

Al Jazeera: There are reports that at least one of the attackers mentioned Syria during the course of the attack. If a link is proven, will France double down on its intervention in the country or scale down its involvement?

Remi Piet: It’s likely that the link will be proven because we heard one of the attackers shouting: “This is for Syria”.

There was also a similar plot that was dismantled in August, where a French citizen who had come back from Syria three months earlier, confessed that his plan was to attack a concert hall in Paris.

The method is the same, so it’s likely the attacks are connected.

It’s not shocking because of France’s position on Syria. France has always been at the forefront of the conflict and has been involved from its start when it took a strong position against Bashar al-Assad’s government, and also later against Daesh [ISIL] on the ground and that will continue.

Al Jazeera: With regards to Assad, will this attack change the stance France has adopted?

Piet: The French position has always been that the first thing that should happen is for President Assad to step down. I don’t think anything will change.

The first thing you have to do when you’re facing terrorist actions is to show this will have absolutely no impact on your policies.

I think we’ll see the kind of reaction we saw after Charlie Hebdo, a rallying behind the values that make up French identity, but obviously no impact on foreign policy.

I don’t see Hollande, towards the end of his presidency, changing his terms of engagement [at this stage].

Al Jazeera: This is not the first attack in France this year: there was Charlie Hebdo, the Jewish supermarket, and the incident in an Amsterdam-Paris train. How come the intelligence services failed to prevent Friday’s assault?

Piet: There have been several attempted plots, but the problem here is that it’s not the traditional terrorism that we’ve seen for the past 20-30 years. Those [plots] were done in cells, involving large numbers of people and linked to terrorist networks.

Usually you want to protect hard targets – the Elysee Palace, Jewish schools, for example – but here we’re talking about a restaurant [and] a concert hall. It’s not easy to secure those places and put a police officer in every single place.

Al Jazeera: So what steps can intelligence agencies take to prevent this from happening again?

Piet: In terms of intelligence, there must be better cooperation between European countries, and also Turkey, to find out who the people who went to Syria are, and who is coming back.

There has to also be a better understanding of the structure of terrorist cells. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, it was possible to see they were coming from the same cell.

The problem is it’s pretty hard to convict people based on past suspicions. You can’t put them in jail until they’ve done something wrong.

IN PICTURES: Paris under attack

There are people are on watchlists, there is intelligence-sharing, but that’s obviously not enough.

How to step up, how to prevent the unpreventable, that’s something we have to talk about.

Al Jazeera: In terms of backlash, people on social media have been linking the Paris attacks to the flow of refugees into Europe. What impact will this have?

Piet: Any link to the refugees coming from Syria is an error because refugees are the first victims of Daesh [ISIL], and France is a country that hasn’t, relatively, welcomed many refugees.

In France, there are set to be regional elections in no more than two weeks. The main candidates, including Marine Le Pen, have suspended their campaigns for the moment. We’re seeing across-the-board support for Hollande and his tackling of the crisis, and different political parties have avoided trying to seek out populist gain.

Religious bodies have been extremely strong in condemning the attacks, especially the Muslim councils. 

I think the French population understands that this is not a simple case of a religion or a large group of people that are responsible for these things, but instead, individuals who moved into these terrorist groups.

Follow Shafik Mandhai on Twitter: @ShafikFM

Source: Al Jazeera