ISIS in Iraq, a European problem?

Photograph: Reuters
Photograph: Reuters

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has become in a matter of weeks the enemy number one to US interest and security in the region and at home. Is it the case for Europe? Apparently not.

ISIS, a radical Sunni Muslim terrorist group, emerging from Al-Qaeda has grown during the years of violence and vicious war in Syria. ISIS recently started its progression in controlling territories in the northern parts of Syria and progressively advancing in Iraq, where they are now at the gates of Baghdad (see the Iraq updates by the Institute for the Study of War). Since its progression in Iraq, ISIS has received the support from Iraqi Sunni Muslims, who have felt oppressed by the Shiite-led Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki.

_75551169_iraq_isis_control_624map_v5The US has been monitoring the situation closely in Iraq considering the quick progression of ISIS taking successively and strategically Iraqi cities; one of the most important being Mosul. ISIS is now surrounding the capital Baghdad and fighting in order to control the country’s largest oil refinery at Baiji. The Obama administration has been reflecting in providing military assistance for now two weeks. Several military options have been on the table, even though many experts (here  and there) disagree with a military route. On the one hand, it could be air strike (option favored by the Hawkish side of Congress), but intelligence on the ground is required, which is a problem for the US at this moment; second, sending military advisers (more on the topic) to Iraq to help the Iraqi military in fighting the rebels.

So far the Europeans have remained quiet on the topic; at least until June 23, 2014, where EU foreign ministers are supposed to address the topic during a regular meeting in Luxembourg. In France, the only allusion to ISIS, so called EIIL in French (Etat Islamique d’Irak et du Levant), was the recent arrest in France of French nationals coming back from Syria. The fear in France has been more about dealing with the rise of homegrown terrorists, like Mohammed Merah, rather than fighting the establishment of a Caliphate in the Middle East as envisioned by ISIS. In Britain, Prime Minister Cameron has been addressing the ISIS problem through the eventual re-opening of British embassy in Iran and negotiation on strengthening cooperation with Iran and providing humanitarian assistance to Iraqi civilians.

The Europeans have remained silent about ISIS in terms of threat to the Union and mainland; talks of eventual participation to the new round of military interventions in Iraq are non existent on the public sphere. However, it was during a Joint Statement released by the League of Arab States (LAS) and the EU on June 11, 2014, they both declared:

The League of Arab States (LAS) and the European Union (EU) express their deep concern about the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, in particular in the Mosul area. They condemn in the strongest terms the recent wave of terrorist attacks, which have caused many casualties and have led many thousands to flee their homes. […] 
At this difficult moment for Iraq, the EU and the LAS call upon all Iraqi democratic forces to work together on the basis of the Iraqi Constitution, to overcome this challenge to the security of Iraq and to honour the will of Iraqi citizens to be governed on the basis of a democratic process, as expressed by their participation in the recent national elections. In particular, the LAS and the EU call on the Government of Iraq and the Government of the Kurdistan region to combine their political and military forces in order to restore security to Mosul and Nineveh. They encourage all other democratic elements of society to support such efforts.

If the threat of a total destabilization of the region due to the war in Syria, sectarian violence in Iraq, and eventually – worst case scenario – of a creation of a state controlled by ISIS is seen by the US as a matter of national security, why isn’t it the case for Europeans? Let’s be clear, it is undeniably a matter of national security to all EU Member States and the Union. A state ran by a terrorist network would become a ground base for training terrorists, the same way Afghanistan once was prior 2001. Additionally, if violence continues to grow in this volatile and strategic region, several issues aside from terrorism will rise from it and destabilize the neighborhood and beyond: mass migration (which can’t barely be contained by Southern EU Member States), increase of refugee flows into neighboring countries, eventual spill over into a civil war, arms and human trafficking, shift in regional balance of power, and naturally a rise in oil prices. Ultimately, what are the main reasons behind such absolute silence in most European capitals about eventually assisting the US – militarily or not – in this new Iraqi chapter?

First, the 2003 war in Iraq was perceived by a majority of European citizens and heads of states and governments as illegitimate and morally wrong. The UK, Italy, Spain and some other European nations joined the Coalition of the Willing that led to the fall of Saddam Hussein and opened the gates of a decade long war. The war in Iraq has caused continuous instability and the rise to power of a regime led by Prime Minister al-Maliki. In most European circle, Iraq is an American problem; Iraq is a reminiscent of the Bush’s years.

Second, the current Iraqi regime run by Prime Minister Maliki, supported by the US, has been a driver of the current crisis. He has continued to foster sectarian tensions between Sunnis et Shiites in Iraq. As a Shiite, “Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has systematically excluded moderate Sunni politicians from power,” argued Daniel Byman “making that community far more sympathetic to extremists who paint him as an Iranian-controlled anti-Sunni fanatic.” The Maliki government has been extremely corrupted, has continuously favored the Shiites, and politicized the army. He has failed to meet “promise to foster national dialogue and reconciliation in a country devastated by more than a decade of war, foreign occupation, and conflict.” To many Iraqis, what President Obama calls the national Iraqi army, is in fact perceived as an armed militia – better trained and armed than others – belonging to Maliki’ side. Ultimately, the long-term solution will have to be a political one, which may require Maliki to step down. Europeans are once again unwilling to be part of solving the political problem, which seems another lengthy process.

Third, since the 2008 financial crisis causing to the Eurocrisis, European citizens have been reluctant to consider foreign affairs as a priority. In recent years, only France has been an active security player leading the coalition in Libya (2011), launching a military operations in Mali (2012) and in Central African Republic (2013). Additionally, France was in favor of airstrikes against the Al-Assad regime in Syria

Source: GMF, Transaltantic Trends 2013, p. 32
Source: GMF, Transaltantic Trends 2013, p. 32

following the use of sarin gas, until President Obama signed a diplomatic deal with his Russian homologue, Vladimir Putin. The United Kingdom was not even going to join the Western coalition against the al-Assad regime as the House of the Commons voted against Britain’s participation in military intervention in Syria. When it comes to Germany, Angela Merkel has continued to follow the German strategy of perpetual reluctance towards foreign interventions (as it has been the case in Libya, Mali and CAR). The Syrian crisis exemplifies the European reluctance to utilize military forces even if it aligns with European interests, norms and values. In the case of Iraq, it would be surprising to see European leaders calling for an eventual assistance to the US. It would be a political suicide for any European leaders.

Fourth, EU foreign ministers may agree on avoiding the military route for the Union, but instead use humanitarian assistance has an option. The EU is one of the largest world donors, and a tailored assistance to Iraqi civilians could provide some help to minorities. The EU may want to re-address its Syrian strategy as well. The war in Syria has now lasted for over 3 years, cost the lives of 100,000 civilians, 4 million internal displacements and 2 million refugees. The EU has so far provided alone €843 million and combined with EU Member States around €1.3 billion in humanitarian assistance (emergency relief, food assistance, water, sanitation, shelter, logistics, protection and more). A reassessment of the EU’s humanitarian assistance in Syria may be required in light of the evolution of the crisis in Iraq and Syria.

At the end of the day, President Obama was not planning to go back, militarily speaking, to the Middle East. His two presidencies have been based on the strategy to scale back from Iraq and Afghanistan and pivot to Asia. The Middle East has remained an important file on Obama’s desk. The US is now facing a tough challenge as one could argue that no-EU Member States will assist and join an American entreprise. If the Obama administration decides to fight on the side of the Maliki government, then it would be seen as if the US were backing a corrupt and sectarian government. If the Obama administration decides to go it alone though airstrikes against ISIS forces, it would be perceived as another case of American imperialism in the region. Both options are lose-lose for the Obama administration, and they would be fantastic tools of propaganda and recruitment for ISIS. Additionally, the French intervention in Mali has demonstrated that military actions tend “to suppress rather than eradicate groups benefiting from a power vacuum across the region.

The disintegration of Iraq is an eventuality and the Euro-Atlantic community shall consider such alternative. For now, it seems that the US will have to take care of it alone. The ghosts of 2003 may be floating around the Iraqi crisis, nevertheless, it is important for EU Member States to recognize the degree of the threat. Europeans cannot wait on the sideline once again.

(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

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