International leaders gathered in Vienna, Austria, Saturday to resume talks about a path toward peace in Syria, perhaps further motivated by the terrorist attacks that killed 127 in Paris Friday evening.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday that the Paris attacks “underlined the need to end the 4½ year old [Syria] conflict,” adding the attacks “have encouraged us today to do even harder work to make progress and to help resolve the crises we face.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also agreed that the Paris attacks removed any “justification for us not doing much more to defeat” the self-styled Islamic State (IS).
But US and Russian leaders remain divided over the best course of action in Syria and the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The US sides with most European countries, including France, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, that a “political transition,” namely the removal of President Assad, is the most effective solution to the conflict.
On the other hand, Russia and Iran support the Assad regime, arguing that he is a “necessary bulwark against terror groups in Syria.”
“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 [due to the attacks],” Remi Piet, assistant professor of international affairs at Qatar University, said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “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.”
IS controls several areas in Syria and Iraq, but as opposition forces move in and slowly reclaim land, such as Sinjar, Iraq, reclaimed by Kurdish fighters Friday, IS may be more inclined to lash out at civilian targets.
IS, which claimed credit for the Paris attacks, appears to be following a similar pattern to that of Al Qaeda, targeting civilians to instill fear and to overshadow setbacks on the battlefield.
US officials maintain that they will continue to shrink IS territory, in an effort to slowly undermine the terrorist group’s supposed power, as well as target leaders of IS, also known as ISIS and ISIL. “Jihadi John,” the masked IS member seen in several beheading videos, was killed Friday by joint US-British forces in a drone strike.
“This is significant, of course, because Jihadi John was somewhat of an ISIL celebrity, if you will,” said Col. Steven Warren, spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, in a video briefing from Baghdad Friday. “So there is certainly I think a significant blow to the prestige of ISIL, but Jihadi John wasn’t a major tactical figure.”
Recent events also question whether stronger direct military intervention in Syria is necessary. The Wall Street Journal reported opinions were divided as to “whether the attacks, and the inadequacy of the international community’s approach to Syria, must inevitably mean a more direct military intervention.”
But NATO and French officials say there is “little appetite” for increased military involvement following the attacks, and it’s unlikely a formal NATO meeting will be called.
The US, on the other hand, has began to show interest in military action with President Barack Obama’s Oct. 30 announcement of deployment of up to 50 special-operations forces to Syria. The US forces will “assist Syrian rebel units spearheading what the Pentagon says would be a new military offensive against the militant group, marking a sharp escalation in the level of direct US involvement on the ground inside Syria.”
Prior to the Paris attacks, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he would be open to further troop deployment if the initial group proves successful. It’s unclear whether the Paris attacks will prompt swifter action.
Though there is no clear path of action, the attacks did appear to offer increased motivation for world leaders to come to consensus. Jerry Hendrix, a military analyst at the Center for a New American Security said, “This could be a catalyst event that galvanizes the international community to take action.”