After 129 people were massacred in Paris, calls have resounded around the globe for more aggressive military action against the Islamic State extremist group that took responsibility for Friday’s attacks.
French President Francois Hollande called the bombing and shooting spree an “act of war,” and stepped up French airstrikes in Syria, striking ISIS in its self-declared capital of Raqqa.
On the other side of the Atlantic, several Republican presidential candidates have called for more forceful U.S. military action against the group, but have focused more on rhetoric than policy specifics. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush vowed he would “eradicate ISIS from the face of the Earth.” Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) said the U.S. should invoke NATO’s collective defense principle, requiring that the alliance respond if any of its members come under attack. Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) argued that “targeted airstrikes with zero tolerance for civilian casualties” would not deter the group.
Meanwhile, Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and former Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) reprised their earlier calls for the U.S. to send troops into Syria and Iraq. "There is no substitute for a ground component in this war," Graham said.
These calls have been rejected by President Barack Obama, who insists his strategy -- supporting local forces to retake territory from the Islamic State and pursuing a political solution to the conflict in Syria -- is working. His administration has promised to increase pressure on the group by sticking to, but intensifying, this strategy.
Meanwhile, experts on the Syrian conflict caution that intensifying airstrikes and sending ground troops could exact a heavy price on civilians in Syria, and are not a fix-all solution to Islamic State terror in any case.
Here are some of the major risks involved in escalating military action in Syria:
More Civilian Deaths
At least 250,000 Syrians have been killed in more than four years of civil war.
Syrian civilians already had to contend with hundreds of rebel groups fighting over their land. They have been bombed, indiscriminately, by the regime of President Bashar Assad for over four years. Since then, a U.S.-led coalition has launched airstrikes on Islamic State militants in the country, and the Russian military has begun a bombing campaign against a broader array of Assad opponents.
More bombs risk more civilian casualties, even with the most cautious militaries in the world. While death counts are particularly hard to verify in Syria, independent monitoring group Airwars said at least 653 civilians have died in international coalition airstrikes; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 185 civilians were killed in Russian bombardments in Syria during October.
So people living in Raqqa, where Russia and France have upped airstrikes in recent days, are living in fear. Islamic State militants have moved into residential neighborhoods and banned residents from leaving the city, The Associated Press reported.
Over 4 million Syrian refugees have fled the country. Most of them have settled in neighboring countries, including Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but hundreds of thousands have journeyed to Europe seeking asylum there. European nations have struggled to come up with a coherent response to the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
Most Syrians refugees in Germany who were surveyed by one charity said they fled out of fear of their lives, and would not be able to return until Assad leaves office.
More airstrikes mean more people fleeing for safety. Renewed fighting since the Russian airstrikes began has displaced at least 120,000 people in Syria in just one month, according to the United Nations.
Fuel ISIS Propaganda
The Islamic State feeds off the death and destruction in Syria. It has exploited the chaos in the country to carve out a territorial base and extract revenue from the population and resources of the country. The group attracts recruits by claiming to be waging a religious war against Assad and Western nations.
Some analysts warn that the Republican politicians’ invocation of religion and culture just helps bolster ISIS' propaganda.
"You hear Republicans saying clash of civilizations and civilizational war, and they don’t realize that’s exactly what ISIS wants us to be saying," Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The WorldPost earlier.
“One can almost see the Islamic State’s top ideologues and propagandists celebrating,” journalist Ali Gharib wrote in the Guardian.
Prolong The Conflict
Experts say the Islamic State’s atrocities serve the specific purpose of drawing more nations into Syria’s war. This satisfies the group’s apocalyptic vision, helps attract foreign recruits and keeps the war going.
“The more countries that get involved with more competing agendas, the more complicated this conflict becomes and the harder it is to resolve. I think this is a deliberate part of their strategy,” J.M. Berger, terrorism expert and nonresident fellow at Brookings, told PRI’s The World. “We can’t get anyone to agree to what happens to Assad. And that is a huge asset for ISIS, because as long as we can’t agree on what to do about Assad, then we can’t really resolve the ISIS problem.”
The fate of Assad hung over the Syria peace talks held in Vienna last weekend, despite U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s hopeful assessment that a ceasefire could be reached within weeks. Syrian opposition groups, who were not at the meeting in Austria, insist that Assad must go immediately. Assad allies Russia and Iran argue he should stay in office. The U.S. and most European nations had initially demanded Assad stand down, but many have softened their stance in recent months.
Push The Group Underground
Further, even if the group is pushed out of their territorial base, this may not be their end. They could shift strategy, becoming more of an underground network with international reach, more akin to al Qaeda, some analysts warn.
“If we do somehow put together a military coalition that goes in [and] takes away the territory of ISIS, we’re essentially freeing up tens of thousands of fighters to become terrorists instead,” Berger told PRI.
Experts say a military strategy alone is not enough. Tackling ISIS must include a strong focus on "countering violent extremism" in order to stem the flow of recruits, Richard Clarke, a top counterterrorism official under former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told The Huffington Post earlier.
"Get into the target audience and teach them at an early age that this stuff is wrong: social media, training in mosques, training and youth organizations," he said. "Unless you do that, unless you beat them at the recruitment game, then you will constantly and forever be fighting counterterrorism."
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