Report

Paris Attacks Boost Washington’s War Against the Islamic State

U.S. allies had been dropping out of the ISIS fight for months, but the carnage in Paris has countries from Britain to France to the Netherlands ramping up their war plans.

The Eiffel Tower is illuminated in Red, White and Blue in honour of the victims of Friday's terrorist attacks on November 16, 2015 in Paris, France. Countries across Europe joined France today to observe a one minute-silence in an expression of solidarity with the victims of the terrorist attacks, which left at least 129 people dead and hundreds more injured.
The Eiffel Tower is illuminated in Red, White and Blue in honour of the victims of Friday's terrorist attacks on November 16, 2015 in Paris, France. Countries across Europe joined France today to observe a one minute-silence in an expression of solidarity with the victims of the terrorist attacks, which left at least 129 people dead and hundreds more injured.

The Islamic State’s deadly attacks in Paris were meant to strike at a country at the heart of the U.S.-led coalition battling the militants in Iraq and Syria. Now that alliance is striking back.

Support for the coalition’s 1-year-old mission had waned in recent months as allies grounded their planes and turned their attention to other crises affecting them. That’s now changing, with European and Arab nations saying the Paris attacks were a grim reminder that the threat of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, isn’t limited to Iraq and Syria — and that the fight against the group would go on a long time and require as broad an alliance as possible.

“It must be clear to everybody that the fight against ISIL is a fight that cannot be done just by the United States or France,” Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert told Foreign Policy in an interview at the Dutch ambassador’s residence in Washington. “All of us are in this because the threat is real, not only within the region but also elsewhere.”

Hennis-Plasschaert said the Netherlands, which has been bombing targets in Iraq while also training Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers, is now considering sending F-16s to Syria for bombing missions there as well. Sweden, Hungary, Albania, Kuwait, and Turkey have also pledged additional resources to the fight, and they’re far from alone.

On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would ask his parliament for approval to conduct airstrikes in Syria for the first time. He also offered French fighter jets air-to-air refueling services and permission to use British air bases in Cyprus to launch attacks against the Islamic State.

The French government, meanwhile, promised to intensify airstrikes against the militant group in Iraq and Syria, while the French military launched its first missions from the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. The newly deployed vessel carries 26 fighter jets.

In Denmark, Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen said the country’s F-16 jets, which had been bombing targets in Iraq earlier this year, should return to the theater next year with an expanded mandate to bomb the Islamic State in Syria as well.

The new pledges of military support, if honored, would reverse what had been a worrying trend for some U.S. officials. Prior to the attacks in Paris, eight Western and Arab allies had carried out 5 percent of the 2,700 airstrikes in Syria that took place since the operation began and about 30 percent of the 5,100 airstrikes in Iraq, according to the New York Times. Although U.S. officials wanted to avoid the appearance of an American-dominated war against the Islamic State, Washington’s outsized role became even more pronounced as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan reallocated their firepower to fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Strikes by Bahrain have also fallen off sharply.

Hennis-Plasschaert acknowledged that coalition support had fallen off prior to the terrorist attacks in Paris, but her aides said the Netherlands will make sustaining support for the anti-Islamic State coalition a priority when the country takes over the European Union presidency in January.

“How many wake-up calls does one need to act and join forces?” she said. “I sincerely hope that it will not fade away again. That will be very dangerous.”

John Allen, who stepped down earlier this month as the presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter the Islamic State, said the West wouldn’t be able to defeat the extremist group if allies drop out. The Paris attacks, he added, would strengthen the alliance.

“There will be bumps in the road,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum, a gathering of government leaders, academics, and journalists in Canada. “There will be dynamics that will sometimes appear to strike a blow at cohesion, but I think it’s pretty solid now and I think the cohesion of the coalition actually emerges stronger in the aftermath of Paris than it was before.”

One of those bumps came last month when Canada’s Liberal Party swept to power in an election campaign that promised to end Ottawa’s combat operations in the air war against the Islamic State, among numerous other more prominent domestic policy issues. Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to maintain that pledge, Canada’s new national defense minister, Harjit Sajjan, told Foreign Policy that his country would look to expand Canadian efforts against the Islamic State in other ways, such as training and assisting Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi security forces.

“The air component is just one small piece of this mission. We have to look even beyond that,” he said in Halifax. “Right now, what we feel is [that] we don’t have enough boots on the ground. We have to be able to train the Iraqi Army … and we’re also training the Peshmerga.”

Allen acknowledged that internal politics can be an unpredictable challenge for a coalition made up of more than 60 sovereign governments, but said Canada’s decision to make up for its lack of airstrikes by stepping up training and advising was a positive outcome.

“Canada has made a decision to recover its tactical aviation, but it’s also looking for other ways it can be helpful to the coalition,” he said. “That’s a very healthy outcome.”

In some ways, the group with the most at stake is the Kurdish Peshmerga forces battling the Islamic State in northern Iraq, which have been Canada’s closest partners in the anti-Islamic State effort. On Saturday, Kurdish Foreign Relations Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir met with Sajjan in Halifax to emphasize the importance of Canadian assistance. While he failed to change Canada’s position on airstrikes, he said Sajjan understood the need for sustained on-the-ground assistance.

“We are here to tell them thank you for what has been done so far, but we need to continue until this threat is over,” Bakir told FP. “We would like … continued support in other areas: in providing weapons, ammunition, training and capacity building, and providing support for protection from the use of chemical weapons and biological weapons.”

“We believe this is a shared responsibility,” he added. “Yes, we are defending our land, but we are also fighting for the values that we all in the free world believe in.”

Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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