Can Europe defeat ISIS? Should it?

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We already are in pre-war mode. Every news item seems to be about some high-level meeting on considering the possible ways to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or it has to do with terrorist activity that is, in one way or another, related to the subject. The titular questions are neither simple nor are they direct. There are multiple factors that need to be accounted for, including issues that pertain to domestic affairs, while the West’s practice of “exporting” democracy by means of bullets and missiles has had a dismal track record.

We comment on some of these issues one by one.

Societal considerations

Based on the available evidence, the persons who carried out the attacks in Paris were European citizens, mostly French. The question that arises is how come Europeans are fighting other Europeans to the point of wanting their total annihilation? Which brings concomitant questions such as:

  • What is the profile of those people, in terms of household income, education, quality of life, participation in the commons, etc.?
  • Do they belong to marginalised or segregated communities?
  • Do they come from ghettoes?
  • Are they adequately represented in politics?
  • What are the causes of such instances of exclusion?

Evidence-based answers to these can provide for a policy mix that is not outright militaristic. If indeed there are weaknesses in the capacity of certain European states to integrate some communities into society at-large, then the efforts on that front need to be intensified, improved, and be better funded. No group of people should [have to] live a parallel life within the broader social milieu, while no given region should be condemned to permanent underdevelopment and poverty.

Historical path and the qualities of ISIS

The ISIS group did not come out of the blue. The region has a history of strife and instability, while the “West” has been involved in one way or another in wars that have contributed to the present state of affairs. Whether these are instances of neo-colonialism or genuine efforts to preserve global peace is beyond the point. Even good intentions can pave the way for a suboptimal or outright undesirable result.

When Western forces were overthrowing Saddam Hussein they were not merely bringing down a dictator. They were creating a power vacuum that, in retrospect, they were not prepared to fill in with credible and viable state structures coupled with the necessary economic impetus for bringing the country into the global order. Jihad fighters were able to grow their ranks underground and to gather support from those who never saw the appeal of the post-Hussein regime. The civil war in Syria, now in its fifth year, also opened up opportunities for the Islamic State to expand and consolidate its power.

ISIS is not merely an “asymmetric threat” in terms of being a network of individuals willing to carry out homegrown terrorist attacks. Their intention is indeed that of creating a state by focusing on the first feature of one: territoriality. ISIS has control over a certain area and would like to proceed with territorial expansion. In this sense, it is a state in the making, a proto-state.

But ISIS is not just a proto-state. It is the evolution of a certain worldview, of using a radical interpretation of religion to justify acts of violence or war. Jihad is not a person or group thereof. It is an idea; and ideas are immune to gunfire. Here too there is a long history, with most recent cases prior to those of Paris being 9/11 and the war on terror that ensued. As The Atlantic has a long and detailed coverage of the matter, I will not elaborate on the issue. The historical trajectory notwithstanding, the fact that such a worldview can gain a grip on the imagination of European or Western citizens is something that should concern policy-makers.

While being a proto-state and an idea, ISIS is also operating as an asymmetric threat, resorting to the use of conventional weaponry against civilian targets. The Paris attacks were not carried out by “lone wolves” but by an organised network. With the attackers being European citizens, the task of preventing a terrorist act is neither simple nor straightforward. While intelligence agencies may be able to stamp out any fighter coming from Iraq or Syria, it is not clear how they may hamper the efforts of potential homegrown radicals who, inspired by jihadist propaganda, may resort to violence without having left European soil. Also, this network does not seem to be limited to any particular country, as shown by the recent bombing of a Russian plane over Sinai, making the anticipation of a terrorist threat ever more demanding.

Who is Europe?

France is at war, as declared by its President in a speech following the Paris attacks. But France was already involved in wars prior to this incident. While we will now be witnessing the policy response following the activation of Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union (about all EU Member States providing support), the fact remains that the EU does not have an existing military capacity. There is no European army, no fully fledged European foreign policy, no European defence policy.

The reaction of France is understandable and appropriate for coping with the immense challenge. Still, the rest of the EU cannot be limited to a passive role of following the French. The fact—perhaps the bitter truth—is that the EU is ill prepared for fighting a war. It lacks both the capacity and the overarching vision. The case of Libya should remind us that overthrowing a tyrant is not the solution to a problem. It needs to be pursued within the broader framework of a state-building and development process that involves local populations. The EU does not have such a plan, nor will it be able to concoct anything meaningful over the near term.

So who exactly is Europe? Is it the largely inadequate EU, or perhaps the European continent, including Russia, in a coalition that seems quite unlikely or unsustainable?

France did not activate Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Perhaps they first need to gather support from the international community. At any rate, it would be highly unlikely for France to eschew NATO. Besides, Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union (the one France invoked) makes it crystal clear that European defence is dependent on the North Atlantic Alliance. Here is the exact wording:

Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.

Soft power must be prioritised

President Obama’s message following the latest G20 meeting was specifically intended for this kind of debate of military intervention against ISIS (emphasis is my own):

And keep in mind that we have the finest military in the world and we have the finest military minds in the world, and I’ve been meeting with them intensively for years now, discussing these various options, and it is not just my view but the view of my closest military and civilian advisors that that would be a mistake — not because our military could not march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out ISIL, but because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before, which is, if you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremes, that they resurface — unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.

I think the US President is particularly prudent on this point. Not only is a singularly militaristic action inadequate, it fails to account for the lessons learned from recent experiences in misguided efforts to export democracy by means of coercion.

Besides, the Islamic State operates in a region that is highly unstable. The Syrian conflict involves many factions. Troops on the ground would require logistical support and the kind of stability necessary for carrying out their operations. They would also need local allies. This is not about doubting the capacity of NATO powers to just blow things up. Of that we are certain. What is more demanding is to avoid creating yet another failed state or, worse, to engage in a war of attrition similar to those of the previous decade that will be nothing more than the precursor of another round of instability and conflict.

Diplomacy and international law need to take precedence. All peaceful means must be used to their fullest potential. The Syrian conflict has to be brought to its end, with all opposing sides agreeing on a solution of their own, with the necessary support from the international community.

Europeans and their allies ought to put aside their own preferences for what kind of regime should exist in Syria. Bashar al-Assad may be brutal, tyrannical, or whatever. Still, it should not be up to foreigners to Syria to decide on the matter and impose on that country a puppet ruler of theirs. Assad will remain in power or not depending on the agreement between the opposing camps.

The international community should be there to show understanding and solidarity; to support the transition from civil war to stability, and then from stability to development. This false ideal of imposing western-style democracy on peoples has been the source of all sorts of trouble.

Peace in Syria is a prerequisite to any attack against ISIS. Yet non-military power does not end with the resolution of the Syrian conflict. There have to be concerted efforts to deprive the Islamic State of its sources of income. This requires genuine cooperation with the other countries in the region.

And as was noted above, European (and Western) states have to recognise their own shortcomings in integrating people into their own society. The radicalised interpretation of religion has to be countered with concrete efforts to prove to those vulnerable groups that “European values” or “democracy” are something more than fancy words on paper; something for everyone, not the accoutrements of the luxurious living of white people or non-muslims.

Educators, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, economists, and other civilians working in concert can contribute much more to the efforts against religious fundamentalism than any one military operation.

War as the ultimate option

We are being dragged into a securitarian or militaristic narrative without having considered either the most suitable modalities of the response to the threat posed by ISIS or indeed the consequences of using military might for the region affected as well as for our own internal politics.

Dogmatic pacifism is a false proposition and so is reactive, emotionally-driven warmongering. War has to be treated as the last and least desirable option. It has to be the culmination of an extensive and multifaceted strategy for using all means available to address the domestic, historical, and ideological roots of the problem. And war has to be considered in light of a longer-term plan to guarantee the political, social, economic, and environmental sustainability of the regions affected.

It is all too often that the West resorts to the use of military might. It seldom is the case that civilian means are prioritised or that the ramifications of coercion are envisaged and pre-emptively tackled.

As far as the EU is concerned, it is clear that further steps in the integration process are necessary to make the Union more robust to terrorist attacks. It also is evident that the EU is neither prepared nor capable of waging a war against the Islamic State. Moreover, a hasty effort to involve the EU in this will mean that a far-reaching nexus of ad hoc measures and instruments will be put in place. These always are of a dubious character, while their democratic quality is wanting.

Defeating ISIS requires more than guns and bombs. It starts from home with the full integration of marginalised or segregated communities into the body politic. It then has to follow the path of diplomacy and international law. From there it must proceed with depriving the Islamic State of its revenue streams. Only if everything else fails must war be considered. Such a military effort had better be supported by the international community and be part of a process for rebuilding the region with the well-being of its peoples in mind.