Ruslan Trad, chairman of the Forum for Arab Culture:
What is happening in Syria is already affecting Europe
Panic, fear and hatred are the principal weapon of the jihadists, which so far have been successful in meeting their objectives
Maria Papazova, Maria Kadiiska
4 December, 2015
Close-up: Ruslan Trad was born in Sofia of Syrian descent. He is founder and chairman of the Forum for Arab Culture NGO. He has lectured at New Bulgarian University, Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski and the Diplomatic Institute with the Bulgarian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. He is part of the team of the blog of Foreign Policy Bulgaria and writes comments for the blog of Goethe Institut.- Mr Trad, the Pope compared the terror attacks to a third world war. Obama, Hollande and Cameron declared that there will be retaliation to this bloody act. Are we to expect the formation of a large-scale coalition for airstrikes on ISIS?- The French president blamed publicly Islamic State for the attack on 13 November by claiming it was an act of war. The French response to the attacks differs a lot from the one we witnessed by Spain after the terror acts in 2004. Instead of withdrawing their troops from the international coalition against IS, the French are likely to renew and probably enlarge the scale of their efforts as a revenge of sorts. The question is whether the reactions against the jihadists will be solely military or political as well? This is an important question because Islamic State takes advantage of the political situation and the lack of relevance to commit their acts and finally to consolidate their positions. It has to be reminded that immediately before the Paris attacks on 13 November, the jihadists lost territories in Iraq that were extremely important to them – in the region of Sinjar, where the Kurdish forces cut off the connection between Mosul and Raqqa. What I want to say is that France is already participating in the coalition that launched its operations a year ago, when Islamic State took over territories in Syria and Iraq. Overall, France is mostly oriented toward the Sahel region in Africa, but nevertheless supported the endeavours of the US-led coalition in Syria and Iraq by stationing six fighter jets in bases in the United Arab Emirates and another six in Jordan. On 4 November France announced it was sending the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to enforce airstrikes on IS in Syria and Iraq. To date, French fighters have completed more than 1,200 missions against jihadist targets in Iraq and only two in Syria. In all likelihood, after the attacks in Paris France will enhance its military airborne operations over Syria but they have to be careful. At present Syrian skies teem with fighters from several countries, including Russia, and it is probable that the French might redirect their efforts toward airstrikes on jihadist targets in Libya, for example.- Is it possible that Russia joins an operation of that scale? Can we interpret Putin’s words that way?- Maybe, although Russia’s targets in Syria differ from those of NATO. Negotiations to that end have been held several times, but what we have for now is an agreement between US and Russia that will guarantee a schedule of the airstrikes so as to avoid the presence of fighters in the Syrian skies. Currently, Russia carries out airstrikes on a daily basis, but few of them hit targets related to Islamic State, and that is an issue that still keeps the positions of NATO and Moscow apart.- Why did the Islamists choose Paris? Are the French an easy target or the jihadists simply wanted to hurt the symbol of liberty?- It is tempting to look for symbolism in the choice of target and to speak in beautiful words. True indeed, Paris is a city associated with democracy, new trends and rich cultural life. But Paris is also the capital of France – a country with very powerful positions in western Africa despite the end of the colonial era, and a country that carries out operations against extremist fractions on a regular basis. France has a lot of enemies because of some of its past and present policies, debates on which are still tabooed in Paris. For some time there have been tensions in French society, and with the onset of the international coalition against Islamic State fears of acts of revenge on French territory increased, and for a good reason – jihadists will try by all means to hit countries participating actively in airstrikes on their targets. Islamic State attacks western interests because it is able to do so. Whenever it suffers losses on the battlefield, this group carries out attacks one way or another against the West, which until now did not seem to notice the ongoing war in Syria. We could say that what is happening in Syria is already affecting Europe. - Was it a matter of coincidence that news of the possible killing of IS executioner ‘Jihadi John’ came at the same time as the terror acts?- I think, yes. At first some analysts linked the attacks in Paris with the killing of the notorious jihadist, but such a connection is dubious. On 13 November we witnessed a very carefully planned mission that included simultaneous attacks on several targets in Paris. In other words, this is a very well devised plan that could not have been developed in a day or two. I would not be surprised if some of the attackers had been followed by the French authorities, but the latter had failed to give a timely response. - London and Rome are stunned by rumours of their being the next targets. Are there indications of such preparations on the part of Islamic State?- London and Rome are also potential targets, and immediately after the attacks on 13 November the British authorities apprehended an armed French citizen at Gatwick Airport. There have been comments on jihadist forums of the two cities in question being the next targets and there are indications of such preparations. The United Kingdom tries to keep aside from the main events in Europe and the Middle East, but this cannot last forever. Sometimes British politicians close their eyes, and David Cameron has been giving pompous speeches accusing Islam, the Muslims and the wave of refugees. This is a wrong direction, a wrong focus and mistakes are being made yet again. It is easy to talk about refugees and Islam – we even blame them for our poor lives. But there is something larger here – we are talking about policies dating back several decades. The UK is an active participant in strikes against jihadists although it does not give too much voice to that, while at the same time it uses extremely anti-refugee rhetoric. Similar to the situation in France, British Muslim communities are being excluded from the decision-making process related to the integration, ghettoisation and inclusion. These processes leave aside entire communities which feel increasingly isolated, leading to encapsulation and finally – to aggression. The problems, such as the perception of the stranger and who after all is a citizen of these countries, are still pertinent in Italy, UK and France. It is obvious that the situation is a lot different than at the turn of the 20th century, and that the population is mixed and realities are no longer the same. New policies are needed, and a new attitude to the new problems, which has to be relevant in order to meet the needs of the society and the state at the same time. Groups such as Islamic State take advantage of these omissions, of the rise of far-right groups and the lack of relevant behaviour. Unfortunately, we can see a lot of failures in the policies conducted by London and Rome. The special services in the UK and Italy have to be on the alert for such signals. We have to keep in mind the fact that terror groups today do not carry out their attacks in the same way or on the same targets. We witnessed that in Paris the attackers were very inventive in their actions.- Will the use of the refugee wave for transferring Islamists to Europe close down new borders?- Islamists are probably trying to infiltrate refugee camps, but this is hard to do. We shall be wrong if we are convinced that refugees serve as instruments of Islamists. This is the kind of opinion of which far-right movements and the militants for the closing down of borders take advantage. But this is not true in terms of facts. Yes, they did find a Syrian passport next to the body of one of the attackers in Paris and it is likely that he had come via Greece. But we don’t have other evidence and it is easy to speculate. Unfortunately, the latest developments may lead to the closing down of borders – France did it, and so did Belgium, Sweden closed down its borders temporarily, Germany is hinting at that, and Hungary did so a few months ago. Panic, fear and hatred are the main weapon of the jihadists and so far they have been successful in meeting their objectives.- Will Europeans change their way of thinking? Was Friday, 13 November, the end of Europe as we knew it?- The events of the present hour teach us lessons we have to learn. The question is whether we read these lessons correctly. There is a great danger that Europe may vacillate toward retaliation and hatred – violence feeds on itself and the cycle may be set in motion if there is an atmosphere of fear and panic. We already witnessed arson in the refugee camp in Calais immediately after the attacks in Paris, and there have been acts of arson in Sweden too, and urges by far-right for attacks. Fortunately, the sound thinking Europeans are a majority – we also witnessed a great number of calls for calm and reconsideration. It is obvious that there is a problem. It is obvious that something is wrong with the policies and that society is changing and a change is coming. International politics has to change. That is why we have to rely on those principles that have survived all kinds of hardship for over 300 years – the European principles that lie at the foundation of European societies. Any other action would be in favour of terrorism and would lead to a cycle of violence.