Europe and the Islamic State: Venturing down the wrong track

Slowly and circumspectly, after weeks of hesitation over how to react to the ‘Islamic State’ phenomenon, European governments are now setting off down the wrong path.

Europeans, it seems, have a knack for picking the wrong fights. Criticised for their sluggish and ineffectual response to the recent crises in Mali and the Central African Republic, five European Union member states – first France, and then Britain, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands – have elected to join the United States-led air campaign against the Islamic State (IS). Fortunately, others have stayed away. In a manner both predictable and predicted, the military option has not only proved costly and ineffective, but has actually increased the threat to Europe – while making it impossible to deploy more intelligent policy responses.

It has not helped that the danger represented by IS has been grossly over-hyped. Back in August of last year, a degree of Western panic was understandable. The jihadis scored a spectacular success with the capture of Mosul and their subsequent advance on the areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Black flags streaming from their vehicles, they no doubt felt themselves the direct descendants of the holy warriors who exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, carrying all before them.

But Martin Dempsey, America’s top general, really should have known better than to lend credibility to the group’s fantasy of taking over Lebanon and Israel by pronouncing that “if they achieve that vision, it would fundamentally alter the face of the Middle East”. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius similarly contributed to the group’s own propaganda by declaring, “It’s a threat to the whole region, to Europe, and to the world.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron joined the chorus, announcing that “ISIL poses a direct and deadly threat to Britain”. He noted the “thousands of square miles of territory” that IS controls, “sweeping aside much of the boundary between Iraq and Syria”. Yet anyone who has travelled the region knows that the thousands of square miles of territory between Damascus and Baghdad are mainly stony wilderness, except for a few impoverished towns strung out along the Euphrates (Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor in Syria, Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq) and that the boundary between Syria and Iraq was largely a geographer’s figment even before the two states started falling apart.

Of course, the group is well funded and armed, especially after the terrorised Iraqi army gifted IS its own inventory along with Mosul. But some determined resistance by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Iraqi Shia militias, with the help of a handful of US airstrikes, stopped IS’s dramatic advance in its tracks. Since then, the battle for Kobani – an otherwise insignificant town on the Syrian/Turkish border – has further deflated the IS aura of invincibility. And the ferocity and fanaticism of IS members have now left them surrounded by enemies on every hand. There was no justification for David Cameron to conjure the spectre of “a terrorist caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean” in the British parliamentary debate.

Some perspective is needed, even while the dangers that IS presents are acknowledged. Neither Iraq nor Syria can be whole again until the group is defeated. But its main threat is ideological: the group’s self-proclaimed role as champion of Islam is enormously attractive for psychopaths, extremists, opportunists, and those who harbour resentments against the West and/or the West’s perceived allies in the region.

For European countries, the risk is that their own Muslim citizens may be recruited and trained by IS, and then return home to carry out terrorist acts. The Saudis (uncomfortably aware of their own ideological vulnerability as “Guardians of the Two Holy Mosques”) have naturally urged the West to worry and to get involved. But US President Barack Obama has rightly pointed out that the US cannot “take the place of Arab partners in securing their region”. The Americans did well to obtain the participation of five Arab states in the first wave of air attacks on IS in Syria. As others have stepped forward, Europeans should have had the sense to hold back.

The European reflex to act as America’s wingman is deeply ingrained. But Afghanistan should serve as a reminder that to have Europe tagging along uncritically behind the US may ultimately benefit neither party. And it is not as though the US has any shortage of military capability in the Iraqi theatre (to which Europeans are so far confining themselves) – by mid-November 2014, the European contribution to the campaign in Iraq was a marginal 15 percent of the 500-odd airstrikes. Europeans should not have felt bound to contribute in the same currency as the US.

The US, after all, has different domestic politics, and fewer vulnerabilities. Americans may be glad to be out of debilitating land wars in Asia, but they still dislike the feeling that there are limits to American power. They expect their presidents to lead, and to kill America’s enemies. Recognising this, Obama has dropped the title “Global War on Terror” but not the substance. If this enflames Muslim sentiment, too bad: America is secure behind its oceans.

For Europeans, the calculus is very different. They cannot be sanguine about a “clash of civilisations”, not least since Islam is an integral part of their own societies. And if they are smart, they will also realise that it is not the much-discussed “ungoverned spaces” that sustain Islamic extremists – alas, there are enough of those already across the Middle East – but rather the narrative of revenge for Western oppression. Western intervention is a great recruiting sergeant; as the head of the FBI has duly confirmed, IS has been attracting new fighters since the US began its airstrikes. The effect is being amplified as the Europeans join in.

Intemperate domestic reaction in Western societies will have a similar negative effect – such as when a prominent British politician casually called for the reversal of the centuries-old “presumption of innocence” in English law in the case of British citizens returning from Syria. Assuming that those who have been to Syria to provide aid, or even to fight Bashar al-Assad, must be a security threat to the United Kingdom only feeds the extremists’ propaganda. Even security officials have doubts: in the words of one former MI6 intelligence director, “a one size fits all, throw everyone in jail approach is perhaps not wise”. The threat needs taking very seriously, but European countries have survived a range of terrorist campaigns over the years without such a counter-productive over-reaction.

What is done is done, and the involvement, albeit peripheral, of a number of European governments in the air campaign will be hard to end. But those involved should hasten slowly, limiting their action both in scope and time, and leaving the conspicuous military action to the US and to those regional states that are much more nearly affected. There are plenty of other things that they can do. Germany, for example, has settled for arming the Kurds. IS has exacerbated what was already a humanitarian crisis accompanying the Syrian civil war, and although Europeans have been generous in their aid, they have failed to exploit this fact in the critical propaganda war. Though Italian and French leaders have made the trip in recent weeks, it beggars belief that no EU leader has presented himself, or herself, in Erbil with further help for the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by IS.

Diplomatically, too, there is much to be done. IS is an ill wind, but it has already blown good in Baghdad, sweeping out Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and in the wider region, encouraging a cautious Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. IS’s unique ability to bring everyone else together might even hold out hope for Syria too. Since no solution there is possible without the Iranians, and since the US will not openly engage them, there is an important gap there that European diplomacy might be able to fill.

At the end of October 2014, the British Foreign Office issue a generalised warning of a heightened terrorist threat to Britons anywhere in the world. Thus, in the terms in which the UK government and their European partners in the air campaign have chosen to frame the crisis – the “fight against terrorism” – military intervention has been a spectacular own-goal. IS, and the wider chaos in the Middle East, cannot be handled except by the regional powers. The best that Europeans can do is to work to get them to realise and accept their responsibility. The military gestures of outsiders only blur that reality and endanger their own citizens.

This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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