Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Of course it can. Yet it needs to find out how. And the starting point must be Europe itself, beginning with how it responds to the November 13 Paris attacks.
The EU is more powerful on all accounts than IS.Tweet This
The EU is more powerful on all accounts, including militarily, than the so-called Islamic State. That’s why the Islamist group is using terrorism as an asymmetric means, whose psychological effects—sowing fear and blind anger—are much worse than the actual destruction it reaps. Crucially, the Islamic State’s aim is to determine the rules of the game and make the West react in an us-versus-them way that would ultimately strengthen the group’s cause.
Therefore, repeating the post-9/11 war on terror in both its internal and its external dimensions would be a great mistake. What worries the Islamic State most is that over 44 million Muslims could live peacefully in Europe and that those fleeing persecution at home might be treated with dignity there. That is indeed the link between migration and terrorism.
Rather than stigmatize its Muslim population and turn its back on refugees, Europe should rally all its citizens around its most precious way of life. That will rob the Islamic State of its discourse and make the group easier to defeat through an international coalition with UN backing.
Yes, it can. However, defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State only partly means military action in Middle East. Primarily, it means change at the domestic level.
The Islamic State can be defeated only by an international coalition.Tweet This
On the ground, the Islamic State can be defeated only by an international coalition, including Russia and the states in the region and legitimized by a UN Security Council resolution. Stabilizing the area—Syria, Libya, and Iraq—must be the priority, leaving aside any pretense of leadership change. Western credibility would also be enhanced if the West acknowledged its own mistakes and stopped pretending that democracy can be exported with weapons or externally induced revolutions.
At the domestic level, most of the terrorists who perpetrated recent attacks in Europe were homegrown, raising serious questions about Europe’s capacity to integrate immigrants into its societies. The problem is not the inability of the intelligence services to access encrypted communications, but rather Europe’s inability to circulate and use data. Internal security cannot be dealt with at the national level, or terrorists will continue to be set free once caught. The European Parliament, historically against data sharing, also has to decide on its priorities.
Finally, halting the sale of weapons to countries that then sell them back to the Islamic State would help, too.
The self-styled Islamic State, also known as Daesh, may well self-destruct as a result of its own headlong flight. A broad international coalition composed of both regional actors and global players may speed up that outcome. Individual European states are actively contributing to that process.
Europe as a collective is playing a tragic disappearing act.Tweet This
But Europe as a collective is playing a tragic disappearing act. No symbolic EU-sponsored gathering took place in Brussels following the November 13 Paris attacks, unlike the beautiful shows of solidarity at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate or in London’s Trafalgar Square. Maybe this is because the EU bubble, unlike Daesh, doesn’t exist during weekends.
Worse, there was no general movement by France’s partners in the EU Council to suggest invoking the solidarity clause, which specifically mentions terrorism, or the mutual-assistance clause of the EU’s treaties. That was much unlike the spontaneous collective offer by NATO’s members to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty on the evening after the September 11, 2001, attacks for the benefit of the United States.
Eventually, on November 16, French President François Hollande sought EU support. It’s not that France has a vital need for material assistance, any more than the United States needed Article 5. France’s president and commander in chief wasn’t going to wait for EU approval to decide that the “security pact takes precedence over the stability pact,” in a reference to the union’s budget rules. But it would have been politically important for the EU to suggest this beforehand.
Finally, a number of EU members and a large swath of European public opinion seized the opportunity to transform the refugee crisis into a security issue, hastening the demise of free movement within the Schengen passport-free area.
Europe on its own cannot defeat the so-called Islamic State. And it certainly cannot defeat this terrorist group through military intervention alone. In attacking Paris on November 13, the Islamic State aimed at dragging France and its allies into increased military intervention in Syria. The group has done this knowing that such an intervention would not result in its defeat; on the contrary, the more countries that get involved in Syria, the more the Islamic State attracts recruits by propagating its narrative of defending Islam against apostate aggressors.
Europe on its own cannot defeat the Islamic State.Tweet This
The only way that Europe can defeat the Islamic State is if there is a settlement to the Syrian conflict. The group is highly aware of this and is trying to block the prospects of a political settlement. The Paris attacks happened just before a second round of peace talks in Vienna, shifting the focus of the discussions from political transition to security. But the key to political transition in Syria is not in the hands of Europe. Only the United States can push this process forward, with Europe playing a supporting role. This is yet to happen.
As long as there is no serious effort on part of the U.S. administration to seek a viable end to the Syrian conflict, Washington’s European allies will remain vulnerable to Islamic State attacks.
The November 13 Paris attacks were an act of war against the collective West, and as such they require the West’s collective response—Europe can’t do it alone. Any strategy aimed at defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State has to include a ground campaign to destroy the safe haven that Islamist supremacists have established in Syria and Iraq. This campaign should be led by local actors—Kurds, Egyptians, and Jordanians—with U.S. and European forces embedded down to the brigade level to provide the resources necessary to swiftly accomplish the task.
The #Parisattacks were an act of war against the collective West.Tweet This
The postoperation phase should also be led and implemented by local actors, with Europe and the United States providing support but not becoming the face of the reconstruction effort, as in the past. Finally, the West should lower its level of ambition about what is achievable during the stabilization phase when it comes to systemic reform, opting instead for the rudiments of stability and territorial control within broadly accepted international norms.
For Europe to move decisively against the Islamic State, European leaders would need to generate consensus on such a strategy, within both the EU and NATO, and then rally public opinion and allocate the military resources necessary to implement it. As things now stand, Europe is simply not mobilized politically to do this, notwithstanding the shock delivered by the Paris attacks.
Hence the likely scenario will be increased retaliatory air strikes in Syria and Iraq, greater intelligence cooperation in Europe as well as with the United States and Russia, and more police and law enforcement resources deployed in Europe to hunt down terrorist cells.
Views expressed here are the author’s own.
Alone? No, Europe cannot defeat the self-styled Islamic State alone. Europe does not have the military capacity, the right strategy, or enough cunning or ferocity. Europe lacks the political will and the brutal soul necessary for bribing, corrupting, buying, and selling allies and enemies on the field in Syria and Iraq.
Can the Islamic State be defeated without Europe? Hardly.Tweet This
Can the Islamic State be defeated without Europe? Hardly. The United States will wait until a new president enters office in January 2017 to see what can be done. U.S. General Michael Nagata spoke a bitter truth when he said, “We have not defeated the idea [of the Islamic State]. We do not even understand the idea.”
As far as Russian President Vladimir Putin is concerned, his macho posture was immediately deflated after a Russian plane was brought down in a suspected bombing over the Sinai desert on October 31. Russian intelligence clashed with British Prime Minister David Cameron by denying there was any evidence the disaster was masterminded by terrorists and implying Europe was rushing to conclusions for political goals. After the November 13 Paris attacks, Moscow meekly reported that traces of explosive had been found on the crashed plane’s fuselage. Putin changed tack to join in the sorrow after Paris but seemed weak and confused.
So no, Europe will not crush the Islamic State on its own. Yes, Europe should be an indispensable partner in a military and political coalition that should include the United States, Russia (up to a point), and Middle Eastern allies—but this international grand alliance is nowhere to be seen today. Its troops, generals, diplomats, flags, war chests, and plans are all up in the air. On the field in fall 2015, the Islamic State is the master.
Certain European countries—particularly France and the United Kingdom—could take active political and military measures to frustrate and even degrade the so-called Islamic State’s strategic objectives, both geopolitical and ideological. This extremist movement is so antithetical to European values that it must be defeated; indeed, it must be systematically ground to powder and blown into the wind.
To start with, London should join Paris and Washington by launching air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria. Equally, all three capitals should do more to encourage or support local allies or proxies hostile to Islamic State in deploying more ground forces to reverse this criminal association’s territorial aggrandizement across the Mesopotamian region.
European countries should not become mesmerized by the Islamic State.Tweet This
Yet, despite the horrendousness of the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamist extremists in Paris on November 13, European countries should not become mesmerized by the Islamic State, as it is not the only opponent they face. To the East, Russia continues to rumble away in Ukraine, where it seeks to revise and rewrite the European post–Cold War continental settlement, imposing in its place a Russian-backed (dis)order. As such, any solution in Syria and Iraq must not come at the expense of European attempts to constrain Russian action in the Eastern neighborhood. Strengthening Moscow’s hand in the Middle East, either actively or passively, may even encourage the Russians to become bolder elsewhere.
Threats and challenges in the EU’s Eastern and Southern neighborhoods are coming home to roost. Decades of underinvestment in European armed forces must now be corrected, while Europeans should become more intolerant of the intolerant while simultaneously bolstering their will to power. Without these changes, the Islamic State, along with Russia, will continue to make advances, at the expense of civilization itself.
The author writes here strictly in a personal capacity.
Of course Europe can defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Yet Europeans must have clearly in mind that it is the continent’s open societies they seek to defend. Europe can best do this by strengthening European cooperation, at home and on the global stage.
#Defense is key if Europeans are to be taken seriously.Tweet This
In the short term, military action against the Islamic State must continue but will produce results only in the context of a broader solution to the Syrian conflict. This must include a transition away from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Defense is a key last resort if Europeans are to be taken seriously at the negotiating table. No soft power without hard power.
French President François Hollande demonstrated that he was counting on EU military support when he invoked the EU’s mutual-assistance clause. It is a shame that years have gone by without a concrete EU action plan on the table or a substantial coordinating role for the EU. Frankly, the threat the Islamic State poses is not new. The people running from Iraq and Syria have been fleeing the horrors there for years now.
Europeans cannot acknowledge the gravity of threats in the neighborhood only when these dangers impact Europe’s own populations, societies, and territories. The line between domestic and international polices is already blurred, and now the EU’s policies must reflect that: an integrated approach is needed.
Also in Europe’s own societies, Europeans need to fight extremism and combat radicalization. There is a lot of room for better cooperation in Europe. Yet knee-jerk responses that single out groups or erode freedoms and rights for all will come back as a boomerang.
The self-styled Islamic State is a symptom; the disease is the war in Syria. If Europe wants to cure the disease, it needs to bring the United States on board for a solution that goes beyond containing the Islamic State. Both would have to be ready to commit considerable resources to build a far-reaching coalition including all or most outside sponsors and to use all means, including military, to end the war in Syria.
The Islamic State is a symptom; the disease is the war in #Syria.Tweet This
The West would need to take the lead in drawing demarcation lines, enforcing them, and fighting a dirty ground war against the battle-hardened terrorists of the Islamic State. The West would have to design and enforce a power-sharing agreement between the major forces. And the West would have to commit for at least a decade.
The alternative is that this war drags on and continues to destabilize the region and swamp Europe with refugees. And that Islamic State–held territory remains a magnet and a training ground for terrorists who seek to strike in Europe.
There is no indication that the West is ready to make such a serious effort to end the war in Syria. Neither the Americans nor the Europeans—with the exception of the French—are ready to commit. They will continue to try to shield themselves from the negative consequences of the war, a task that will become increasingly difficult.
Europe has been at war with the so-called Islamic State for some time but has only now fully realized it. Other European leaders should follow French President François Hollande’s declaration of war with specific military actions. If the Europeans heed the threats of the Islamic State against the countries that are fighting it in Syria and Iraq, then they will lose the war and will not avoid the consequences in their countries.
There is no alternative to boots on the ground in #Syria and #Iraq.Tweet This
These attacks were directed not just against France but against Europe as a whole and the United States. Calls for solidarity and for remembrance of the dead are not enough and should not be a substitute for action. As so often in the past, U.S. President Barack Obama has missed the gravity of the threat and has taken ground troops off the table. This is a fatal mistake. The Islamic State is a territorially based nonstate actor. If its territorial base is not taken away from it, the group will continue to grow and increase its campaign in Europe and the United States. There is no alternative to putting European and U.S. boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq in overwhelming numbers.
Unlike former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein during the Iraq War, the current enemy has directly attacked a NATO member state and has every intention of escalating these attacks. Hollande is correct to call for a ruthless and unforgiving campaign. Many in Europe and the United States will warn about the balance between security and civil liberties, but unless security is restored, civil liberties will have little meaning.
To defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State—or, indeed, any other enemy—it is first important to unpack what that enemy is.
The Islamic State is a protostate straddling Iraq and Syria. It stemmed from the vacuum left after the dismantling of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s regime and flourished in the ungoverned spaces of Syria that were trapped in a violent cycle of civil war.
The Islamic State is also a terrorist network operating across a wide geographical area: from the Levant to the Gulf, from North Africa to sub-Saharan Africa, and from the EU through the Western Balkans, Turkey, Russia, and the Caucasus across Central Asia into Western China.
And the Islamic State is an idea, the latest and most brutal incarnation of Sunni Wahhabi jihadism, whose political roots can be traced back to the founding of the Saudi state and which morphed into its current form after the successive experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Islamic State as a protostate can in principle be defeated—or at the very least contained—through military action and an inclusive political process in Syria that brings together the regime and the non–Islamic State opposition alongside all relevant regional and international powers. While there are unlikely to be European boots on the ground in Syria, air involvement is likely to be stepped up to this effect.
The most dangerous enemy of all is the Islamic State as an idea.Tweet This
The Islamic State as a terrorist network can be defeated or contained through greater intelligence cooperation, at the heart of beefed-up EU counterterrorism policies.
However, the most difficult and dangerous enemy of all is the Islamic State as an idea. Here, the EU can and should play its part through counterradicalization policies but above all by remaining true to its values. And yet the idea can only be credibly defeated in and by the Sunni Muslim world, above all by those Sunni countries that have officially adhered to Wahhabism as their state religion. It is with these countries—Saudi Arabia in the lead—that the EU and its member states ought to seriously review their stance.
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