It took 10 days to shift a quiet and reluctant European Union and its 28 Member States from a closed-minded fortress to a group reflecting on the realities of its environment. Ensuing the terrorist attacks in France and the foiled ones in Belgium, the war narratives are emerging in Europe. In the case of France, the political class – in and out of power – has been hammering the same narrative: ‘France is at war.’ At war against radical islamists in Mali, in the Sahel, in Iraq and Syria, and just comes back from Afghanistan. All these foreign military interventions orchestrated by France since 2012 – aside of Afghanistan a multilateral military effort – had gone unnoticed by a French citizenry uninterested about French foreign and military policies as well as geopolitical realities.
Europe at War?
The week after the Charlie Hebdo attack, ‘France is at war’ has become the mainstream narrative of most French politicians. French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, and Minister of Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, among others have all talked of war. During his allocution before the National Assembly, Manuel Valls declared “Yes France is engaged in a war, against terrorism, against jihadism and radical islamism” (“Oui la France est en guerre, contre le terrorisme, le djihadisme et l’islamisme extrémiste (…)). Additionally, the taboo in France has been broken, the political elite is finally underscoring on daily basis that French and European citizens ought to be ready to see an increase of terrorist attacks inside the Union. The linkage between the two points, increase of terrorist attacks and the war narrative, is France high level activity in fighting radical islamic groups around Africa and the Middle East. France among the other EU Member States ought to understand the dichotomy of the current fight: on the one hand, the fight against radical ideologies within the EU is not going to end anytime soon and will require serious societal-political debate; while on the other, stopping the rise of ISIL will not end the rise of extremism in Europe.
In the case of France and Belgium, the alleged terrorists have received training in Syria at some point. Both countries hold the largest muslim communities in Europe (in proportion to their overall population); both countries have faced recent attacks such as the killing at a jewish museum in Brussels and the killings orchestrated by Mohammed Merah against Jewish individuals in the South-West of France. Both countries have failed in their models of integration as a segment of their Arab youth has become radicalized or at least sensitized to the radical islamist cause.
Additionally, more and more individuals – most of them are indeed European citizens – are coming back to their homelands after receiving a military training in Syria and/or Iraq (look here at the excellent interactive map by Radio Free Europe). The numbers fluctuate in the case of France from 700+ (as described below) to roughly 1000 in January 2015. Ultimately, EU Member States are confronting a complex challenge connecting foreign war endeavor and homeland terrorism-radicalization of a segment of Muslims communities.
With the increasing numbers of European citizens fighting in Syria/Iraq under the ISIL umbrella, should the Euro-Atlantic community wage war in Syria and Iraq against ISIL?
The war narrative in France is interesting for one simple reason: Is France trying to get domestic support to a military intervention in Syria? Or is France trying to mobilize its European allies and the US for a military intervention in Syria? The current bombings over Iraq and Syria led by France (principally over Iraq) and the US seem insufficient in maintaining the rise of ISIL. As argued in a recent ECFR analysis, “months into the armed strikes, it is clear that the existing approach can only go so far. Western political leaders, thrown into a state of panic by the mesmerised media coverage of the beheadings of Western hostages, launched extensive military action against IS that has been heavily dominated by the US, in spite of the participation of regional actors who spend tens of billions of dollars on weapons each year.”
Scenarios to Addressing the Root Causes of ISIL:
Ultimately, in the aftermaths of the January terrorist attacks, how could the EU address the realities of the threat?
First, mobilization of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO may be the way to go for the military phase at first followed by a credible CSDP mission of state-building. The NATO-CSDP couple did work in the Balkans and has stabilized the region since the late 1990s (read here a volume on the Security Sector Reform). Certainly some states in the Balkans are more stable than others; and problems of corruptions, lack of rule of law, and other societal and economic problems remain a reality. Nevertheless, it is a more stable region than ensuing the fall of the Soviet Union. In the case of Syria and Iraq, both NATO-CSDP could be the instrument to first, use credible military forces on the ground and in the air, followed by a long-term reconstruction process overtaken by the CSDP. Inside the EU, the question of a credible CSDP mandate and operation will be a tough one to get. Large EU Member States, like the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, may be reluctant to invest large amount of money, to provide credible military capabilities and soldiers. France and Poland cannot be the only two large Member States providing the bulk of the CSDP mission. The destruction/containment of ISIL is not an end in itself; but it is the re-construction and eventual creation of nation-states in the region. The reality is that 15 years later, starting with the 1998 bombing campaign over Kosovo, the CSDP and NATO are still present in the Balkans. Europeans and Americans must be consciously willing to commit to several decades of reconstruction in the Middle East.
Second, Russia and Turkey are the key to the future of the region. Russia was the state protecting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad when France and the US were ready to sanction Syria following the use of sarin gas against civilians. President Obama did not
want to start another war in the Middle East and was certainly satisfy to find the best-worst short-term option in his playbook, an international supervision and destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal. Since then Russia and the West have not been agreeing on the course of event in the region. Russia ought to understand that the current situation in the Levant is not aligned with its interests. The second key player is Turkey. Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been reluctant to use military force against ISIL. Turkish army is deployed at the borders with Syria monitoring the ongoing war in Syria. Both players are crucial for the future: Russia in order to get a military operation with international legitimacy, a Resolution by the UN Security Council; and Turkey, as a neighboring state and NATO member in leading the war effort in Syria.
Third, Arab States, especially Qatar, Saoudi Arabia, Iran, ought to play a credible role as well. Their contributions is greater than simple financial and military supports, it holds strong religious and symbolic dimensions. The involvement of Arab States would demonstrates that the war against ISIL is not a clash of civilization between the West and the Arab world as it has been framed, but rather as a war between radical islamism and the world. Without the inclusion and the assistance of these three regional powerhouses, the fight against ISIL will not be fully realistic, at least in the aftermaths of the military phase.
A New Regional Order?
The Arab Spring has transformed the balance of power at domestic and regional levels all around the Mediterranean. The EU, Russia, the US, Arab States may all have diverging political systems, religious beliefs, perceptions of the world, but the reality of the threat is undeniable and common. The long term solution is not military, but political. Behind the walls of its imagined fortress, the EU has thought that it would be immune of all troubles if it just ignores the threats and challenges knocking at its doors. The EU’s neighborhoods are on fire causing mass migrations, rise of terrorism, all sorts of illegal activities and political instabilities. European capitals must now address the problem, ISIL, as it is not only destabilizing the Mediterranean region, but now European societies. It is Europe’s fight. Europe should decide to take the lead on this one.