25 November 2015
Europe must forge partnerships in the Middle East – but with citizens, not authoritarians that style themselves as forces against terrorism.

Jane Kinninmont

Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


Muizz Street in Cairo. Photo by Getty Images.
Muizz Street in Cairo. Photo by Getty Images.


As European policymakers weigh their options for responding to the Paris attacks, there is growing recognition that, whether or not additional countries join the international air campaign against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), effectively tackling the group will require a larger political solution to the civil war in Syria. More broadly, the ability of ISIS to expand and recruit in the Middle East needs to be seen in the context of three larger phenomena affecting the region – with an impact on the wider world.

The first is the rise of non-state actors, which has gone hand in hand with the weakening of centralized state authority in several countries in the region. The Arab uprisings of 2011 were a symptom, rather than a cause, of this loss of authority. Longer term demographic and economic changes have placed the political systems of key Arab states under strain. In the 20th century, these states established highly centralized authoritarian models of political and economic governance, which typically concentrated power and wealth in the hands of a minority in the capital city. In recent years, formerly peripheral groups have challenged the dominant elites in many Arab countries. In several countries, intra-elite divisions (for instance, over political succession, or between the leader and parts of the security services) made the ruling establishment unable to face down these challengers, but at the same time, the legacy of authoritarianism left institutions too politicized and weak to permit a peaceful transition.

Thus in Syria, Yemen and Libya, the future of the state itself is being contested, with supporters of the old regime now just one side in a civil war. State sovereignty has been further compromised by foreign intervention by multiple regional and international actors. And in Iraq, of course, the state was largely dismantled by the 2003 regime change, while the post-2003 governments, dominated by the former dispossessed, have repeated old patterns of exclusion and brutality. The failures of states to provide their people with resources, protection and legitimate authority leaves space for non-state actors to gain legitimacy – especially if, like ISIS, they provide welfare, services and some semblance of order, even if justice is summary and brutal. The need for resources also blurs the line between some of the non-state political actors and criminal networks.

The second phenomenon is a related upsurge in political violence, which often takes place along identity-based lines, although ethnic and sectarian violence typically also involves underlying conflicts over power and resources. Both state and non-state actors are involved in political violence, and the violence meted out by states, intended to punish and deter non-state challengers, sometimes contributes to radicalization, destroying confidence in peaceful politics and creating dynamics of revenge. Syria is the clearest example of this, but the violent practices of security services elsewhere – for instance in both Iraq and Egypt – are also deeply problematic. Thus, while only a minority actively supports ISIS, the group benefits from a wider constituency inclined to see it as the lesser of two evils.

The third phenomenon is the contestation of globalization. ISIS, like Al-Qaeda before it, is not an anti-globalisation or anti-modernity group, but is fighting the notion of globalization-as-Westernization, and trying to spread its own alternative and total vision to a global Muslim audience (while alienating many of them and calling them, too, infidels). There is also an element of seeking to globalize regional conflicts, in order to bring the costs of war back to Western countries’ home fronts, and to blur the line between combatants and civilians.

A new approach to security

This third element is the one that European governments will be most concerned by, as it links the ’external’ conflicts in the Middle East with internal conflicts inside European societies over the integration or exclusion of minority communities, Thus, responding to the Paris attacks also ties into the existing debates within Europe over multiculturalism, models of secularism and the way in which security forces interact with communities who are deemed particularly at risk – bearing in mind the lessons since 9/11 about the risks of stereotyping and alienating European Muslim communities, who are the people the security forces most need to work with. There are also opportunities to work with regional religious leaders as well as diaspora communities for ‘soft power’ de-radicalization efforts, in consultation with the community leaders involved in parallel projects in Tunisia, Morocco and elsewhere.

The involvement of Europeans in ISIS indicates the difficulty of containing the ideas of ISIS within national or regional boundaries. Efforts to combat it likewise need to be international. But European governments need to avoid simply allying with every MENA government that styles itself as a force against terrorism. This is a bandwagon that virtually every state is jumping on, whether Syria or Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Iran, and even non-state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, the need is more difficult, and more complex, but more likely to be successful: to envisage a new approach to security that focuses on the security of citizens more than of governments, whether they are in Europe or in the Middle East.

In the immediate term that means being clear in the Syria talks that European countries may negotiate with Assad but will never see him as a partner in fighting terrorism, given the radicalizing effects of his own government’s policy; helping the Iraqi prime minister to curb the worst tendencies of his own security forces and allied militias, including both technical assistance and political pressure to end impunity, as well as pressing Iran to support such efforts; and calibrating relations with Egypt more carefully. Moreover, while anti-immigration parties in Europe will call for a tougher line on refugees and migration, blaming refugees for attacks carried out by Europeans does not address the problem, and reinforces the sense among people in the Middle East that they are seen as sources of threat and not as partners.

Most people in the Arab or broader Muslim worlds do not support ISIS or Al-Qaeda – Muslim civilians are their main victims. Tackling terrorism will be more effective if it is done on the basis of a commonality of interests, while recognizing that such attacks are not just about ideological opposition to a Western ‘way of life’, but reflect a larger political context.

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