ISIS, A Serious Threat to European Union

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Behzad Ahmadi Lafuraki

The terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has conquered relatively large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq from the Syrian city of Al-Raqqah to areas close to the Iraqi capital city of Baghdad. As a result of its remarkable conquest, the ISIS has actually transformed from a terrorist group into a terrorist army and has become so self-confident that its leader [Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi] has appeared in public to declare the establishment of his caliphate. Despite the above facts, the reaction shown by the European Union to extensive military attacks in Iraq by the ISIS terrorist forces has been somehow belated and even that reaction did not go beyond mere condemnation of the group’s terrorist acts. In fact, only two weeks after the ISIS militants started their advance in Iraq, foreign ministers of the European Union (EU) met in Luxembourg and vehemently condemned terrorist actions of the ISIS. They also voiced their deep concern about the possibility of a human catastrophe in Iraq and called for an increase in humanitarian aid to the Arab country from 5 to 12 million Euros. The question is ‘will the European Union’s current temporary indifference and its inaction in the face of the ISIS actions really serve the interests of the EU member states?’

A review of the positions adopted by leaders of the European countries will reveal that European leaders apparently believe that: 1. The current crisis in Iraq is a product of the United States’ policies and should be resolved by Washington; 2. The crisis in Iraq arises from ethnic conflicts and the government of [the incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] Al-Maliki has added fuel to it through its incorrect performance; 3. The crisis in Iraq, like the crisis in Syria, is also a result of continued proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which try to establish their dominance as regional hegemonic powers; 4. The threat posed to the EU by the ISIS is more of a terrorist threat; and finally, 5. The European Union has only limited influence on the developments in Iraq and cannot do much about the situation in this country.

However, a careful study of the current situation with due attention to its future consequences will show that the EU is faced with a host of problems and threats from the militants belonging to the ISIS as follows:

1. The terrorist threat emanating from extremist Islam: The positions and actions taken by the European leaders clearly show that most of them are well aware of the terrorist threat posed to their countries by the ISIS. The remarks made by Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s Counter-terrorism Coordinator, about the imminent threat posed to the EU by the ISIS, as well as similar remarks made by the British Prime Minister David Cameron, are good evidence to prove this claim. However, it should be noted that there are many dimensions to the terrorist threat that will be posed to the European Union by the ISIS. Firstly, the spread of the ISIS influence in the region is, per se, a serious blow to the West’s global war on terror, which is led by the United States. At present, the ISIS has succeeded to draw support from many other terrorist groups, including the African branch of Al-Qaeda, the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda and some members of the Al-Nusra Front in Syria, and this has helped the ISIS to further expand the spectrum of its terrorist threats. Secondly, the ISIS continues to threaten the West with direct attacks (as shown by the group’s statement in January 2014). Thirdly, the return of the European members of the ISIS to their home countries in Europe will not only help them to spread their jihadist ideas in sensitive parts of Europe, including the Balkans, but can also speed up the emergence of terror cells in various European countries.

2. Human catastrophe: As a recent statement by foreign ministers of the European Union indicated, the human catastrophe caused by the barbaric onslaught of the ISIS has become more acute after neighboring countries of Iraq closed their borders to refugees. As a result, the situation has led to a real human tragedy in the Middle East when considered together with the situation in the neighboring Syria. The movement of these refugees toward the southern borders of Europe will pose a serious threat to member states of the European Union as well.

3. Widespread instability in the Middle East region: There is no doubt that the success of the ISIS in creating a permanent semi-governmental entity will speed up the final demise of Sykes-Picot Agreement. In addition to other factors, the ISIS has been able to undermine the concept of government in the Middle East. On the other hand, efforts made by ethnic groups to pursue their own interests under these conditions, like what is going on in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, will greatly exacerbate the instability in the region. There is no doubt that European countries will not remain immune to this growing wave of instability.

4. Energy security:  Although a large part of Iraq’s daily production of 3.24 million barrels of crude oil takes place in the southern parts of the country and that part has been so far immune to the ISIS attacks (a day before the ISIS attacked the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, every barrel of oil was sold for 104.73 dollars, but one day after the attack, the price rose to 109.09 dollars per barrel). But continuation of instability in Iraq and across the region will undoubtedly have a rapid effect on global energy markets. 

According to the above facts, the European Union cannot remain indifferent to what is going on in Iraq and, as put by the German Foreign Minister [Frank-Walter] Steinmeier, only play a minor role in relation to Iraq’s developments. If the United States does not believe in taking decisive action to Iraq it is because Washington has practically proved following developments in Libya that it sees no vital interests in the Middle East anymore and has also left the European Union in charge of the security of its neighborhood countries in MENA region. Therefore, the European leaders have no choice, but to find a replacement for the void created by the United States. Although the ISIS is currently focused on Iraq and the region, the group will sooner or later pose a serious threat to Europe and it would be to the best interest of the European countries if they opted to counter this terrorist current as of now. In other words, fighting the ISIS within the geographical borders of this group will be considerably less costly for Europe.

Without a doubt, the root causes for the rapid growth of the ISIS should be sought in the Syrian crisis. As a result, finding a final solution to that crisis should be part and parcel of any attempt made to prevent further advances of this group. Therefore, the EU should play a truly constructive and serious role in the resolution of Syria crisis as a key to fighting the ISIS elsewhere. To play this role, the EU would not have to directly intervene in these countries because the past experience of US-led interventions by the Western countries in the region, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya, including sending aid to the armed opposition in Syria, has had no other result but increasing instability and insecurity and further growth of such terrorist groups as the ISIS. Instead of direct intervention, the European Union can help with the formation of new regional arrangements and suitable placement of regional players in those arrangements. Having close and effective relations with all the players in the region and conducting consultations with them about further steps to be taken are prerequisites for achieving this goal. Other measures that should be taken by European countries include adopting a smart approach and opposing secessionist measures, including efforts made to give independence to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and making efforts to get various positions of political players in the Middle East close together. Finally, European countries can learn a lesson from their past mistakes in Syria and expand the scope of negotiations between Iran and the European Union over such issues as the crisis in Syria, regional security, regional stability and security of energy supply. By taking these measures, the EU will be able to prove that it can still play a very important and effective role in containing the existing crisis that results from the ISIS’ craving for power.

*Behzad Ahmadi Lafuraki is the director of international relations at Tehran International Studies & Research Institute and analyst of EU and NATO affairs.

Key Words: European Union, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Iraq, United States’ Policies, Nouri Al-Maliki, Extremist Islam, Middle East Region, Gilles de Kerchove, Ahmadi Lafuraki

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*Photo Credit: Bloomberg Business Week

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