The murderous attacks on French civilians enjoying a night out in Paris were proof, were any needed, that the war in Syria and Iraq will not be contained there.
The deaths and the propaganda victory from the Islamic State jihadist group will intensify pressure on world capitals to find a resolution to the conflict.
But they will also exacerbate political disputes over how to deal with the refugee influx, the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and military intervention on the ground.
And this comes against the backdrop of an intensified counter-terrorism campaign on the streets of Europe which could alienate Muslim minorities and stir anti-refugee sentiment.
“It’s not a war of ideas anymore,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer now with security consultancy the Soufan Group, of Europe’s struggle with extremism.
Initial signs point to the attack being exactly of the kind experts have been warning of for years: European Islamists radicalized in Syria and returning home.
“That it happened was not a surprise. You cannot have this kind of situation lasting for years and not have this kind of attack,” Skinner told AFP.
French security forces have a good reputation in counter-terrorism — “world class,” Skinner said — but even they missed a seven-strong cell planning a complex attack.
“It’s inevitable, and it’s going to happen again,” he said.
Middle East analyst Salman Shaikh, the former head of the Brookings Doha Center and founder of his own consultancy, spoke to French officials just hours before the attacks.
France, he said, has been the most firm among Western countries in backing the “principled” stance that Assad, the main author of Syria’s misfortunes, must stand aside.
Against that view is the one pushed by Assad’s ally Russia, that the regime is a bulwark against the Islamic State and must remain in place while a political solution is sought.
After Friday’s massacre, claimed by the IS group, Paris and Washington are under new pressure to compromise with those who see Damascus as the lesser of two evils.
“It may have some effect,” Shaikh told AFP from Paris. “I don’t think so, because the French have been quite resolute. They don’t want to follow the Russian narrative.
“Syria can’t be contained, so we have to resolve it, not just militarily but also politically,” he said.
Shaikh echoed Western leaders who argue IS will be defeated only when Sunni Arabs alienated by Assad’s brutality have space to join the fight against the jihadists.
“Daesh won’t really be on the back foot until Syria’s … opposition rebel groups unite against them,” Shaikh said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
“At the moment they are just trying to resist or survive the Russian attacks against them.”
Whether by coincidence or design, the Paris attacks were launched on the eve of talks in Vienna among 17 countries to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
– Notorious mouthpiece –
Had the assault not taken place, the debate would have come against the backdrop of two victories for the US-led coalition against the Islamic State — the fall of the Iraqi town of Sinjar to Kurdish forces and the death in Syria of notorious IS mouthpiece “Jihadi John.”
Saturday brought another tactical victory when the Pentagon announced that the IS leader — an Iraqi — in Libya had been killed in an air strike.
But instead, European powers attended the talks amid a terrifying new security environment in which lone wolf jihadists and organized IS cells could strike at any time.
The apparent IS bombing of a Russian passenger jet leaving a Sinai resort on October 31 — along with bomb attacks in Beirut and Ankara — also underline how the war in Iraq and Syria has spilled over and is spreading.
Already, US and European anti-immigration politicians have begun citing the attacks as a reason to block the flow of refugees from Syria.
Refugee advocates insist Syrians are fleeing violence, not seeking to spread it, while the best way to counter jihadist propaganda is to show Western compassion.
– ‘Many tragedies to come’ –
For Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) any counter-terror campaign will win only tactical victories so long as wars in the Islamic world continue.
“The struggle to change this reality will, at best, be a long, long struggle, and there will be many tragedies like Paris to come,” he said in a CSIS op-ed published Saturday.
“Real victory can only be won by years of reform within the Islamic world, and outside aid that does as much as possible to help create governments that rule through success, rather than through repression.”
The polarized debate will only increase tensions ahead of tests such as France’s regional elections next month, which could see victories for the anti-immigrant Front National.
“It’s a gift from the extremist gods to have this happen at this time,” Skinner said, warning the attack and the French response could mark a turning point in European society.
“This is exactly what the terrorists wanted. They didn’t want us talking about Sinjar or the death of their spokesman Jihadi John,” he told AFP.
Skinner warned that European capitals would now be forced to debate issues of security and immigration policy and make “huge societal changes under duress.”
Such forced decisions are often wrong-headed, but the threat is real and attacks will continue. “It’s not an existential threat, but it’s a serious threat,” he said.