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Trouble in Europe’s Neighborhood: Rise of ISIS

By Stephanie Linares, Transatlantic Security Analyst


The emergence and subsequent spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has dealt a severe blow to Western – in particular American – counterterrorism policies and increasingly poses a threat to the EU. ISIS, a predominantly Sunni jihadist group committed to establishing an Islamic state, has gained territory in Iraq and Syria and is so confident in its progress that its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, openly appeared in public to declare the establishment of his caliphate in late June.  While EU member states are providing humanitarian and military aid to combat ISIS, the EU can significantly strengthen its European Neighborhood Policy to help address this and other sources of extremism in the Middle East and North Africa.

For the EU, the return of European members of jihadist groups to their home countries and the immigration of refugees who spread extremist ideology, and  even bolster the emergence of terror cells in various European nations – particularly in already-contentious regions such as the Balkans – pose significant threats. At least 320 German citizens and over 2,000 other individuals from other European nations are believed to have traveled Syria to join the ongoing conflict. Adding to these concerns is the expected influx of refugees from ISIS conflict zones into the EU, which could further spread extremist ideology and trigger a massive humanitarian crisis. The potential for economically damaging increases in oil prices presents another, though less salient, risk to the EU.

The rise of ISIS also poses a more indirect threat to the EU via North Africa, where it is attracting recruits from Al-Qaeda affiliates. Security expert and retired Colonel Omar Ben Jana warns of the danger posed by ISIS, noting that in the past, extremists returning to Algeria from Afghanistan fueled terrorism in that country for years. The entry of ISIS into the region is a “reality and not just a scenario,”  and even the chairman of the Algeria-Africa Committee of Peace and Reconciliation, Ahmad Mizab, said that collective action by African countries against this threat is needed in the Maghreb  to ensure its security. This is true not only for North Africa, but for the EU as well given its close proximity.

The key to defeating ISIS lies in Syria, where the organization is based and does not fear Western intervention. The ISIS continues to gain ground in the country and remains a central rebel group opposing President Bashar al-Assad even as it battles the Free Syrian Army – an anti-Assad group which has enjoyed backing of the EU, U.S., Britain, Turkey and Gulf states. The Free Syrian Army claims to be the only group capable of defeating the ISIS and the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra while also bringing about democratic change in the country – a reasonable assertion if it were to receive enough external support, given the more moderate character of the group. But the EU, as well as the U.S., have ruled out the level of intervention needed to accomplish this, largely due to the perceived risk of intensifying what has become a proxy war.

As a result of this geopolitical stalemate in Syria, funneling humanitarian and military aid to actors in Iraq will not, on its own, lead to the defeat of ISIS.  While doing so is necessary and should continue, the EU can and must also reinvigorate another tool it uses to influence states at its southern and eastern borders – its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). The ENP offers incentives such as financial support, economic integration and access to EU markets in exchange for structural reforms that promote democracy, the rule of law and market economies. However, recent years of economic hardship throughout the EU and deteriorating relations with Russia have left resources for the ENP increasingly inadequate, particularly in the post-Arab Spring Middle East and North Africa. Additionally, the most salient criticisms of the ENP in this context include the inconsistent enforcement of conditionality and that it is mainly designed for long-term engagement in a stable environment – making it a poor fit for the fast-paced changes currently taking place in the EU’s neighborhood.

As the EU’s new leadership assumes office late this year, they have an opportunity to address these weaknesses and significantly boost the resources committed to the ENP. Additionally, as Stefan Lehne at Carnegie Europe argues, the ENP should be placed under the sole authority of the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and receive stronger political backing from member states. With these steps, the EU would have the means to dramatically boost its influence over actors engaged in the Syrian Civil War and other developments in the Middle East and North Africa that are breeding extremist groups like ISIS – developments that cannot always be addressed through more direct intervention but increasingly threaten European and transatlantic security.


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