Countering Violent Extremism: EWI Expert Roundtable Discusses Strategies to Counter ISIS in Iraq and Syria

News | December 17, 2014

The EastWest Institute’s Brussels Center hosted a two-day roundtable consultation on “Countering Violent Extremism in Iraq and Syria: A Regional Approach” on November 13-14, 2014. Senior policy makers, academics and experts from the Middle East and Europe met to develop policy recommendations for countering violent extremism and for initiating a political strategy to address the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). 

Participants in the first panel, titled: “A Regional Cooperation to Address the Threat of ISIS” underlined the joint opposition of all stakeholders towards ISIS’ spread and its brutality. Participants pointed that the vacuum of authority, governance, and leadership in both Syria and Iraq—as different as the situation in these two countries may be—allowed ISIS to establish its hold in the territory spanning the border between the two countries. The alienation and subsequent marginalization and exclusion of the Iraqi Sunni community, and the failure of regional and international actors to respond appropriately to the crisis in Syria, were identified as having further fueled the group’s rise.

The current airstrikes of the “Global Coalition against ISIL,” while containing the group’s expansion militarily, were seen as at most a short-term approach in the absence of a political process that  addresses the sectarian conflict in Iraq and the lack of  apolitical solution to end the civil war in Syria. Participants acknowledged the possible negative repercussions of a prolonged military campaign that will allow ISIS to mobilize additional forces and recruits and provide the group with a perceived legitimacy resulting from its direct confrontation with the West.

While it seems necessary to contain ISIS on the battlefield, participants emphasized the need to challenge the group on an ideological level, in order to prevent it from abusing religion for its own political and territorial aims. Participants also noted that ISIS’ idea of an Islamic State that provides an alternative to the current state order has proven popular with disenfranchised and marginalized youths in the region. Additionally, ISIS has also succeeded in attracting a growing number of recruits from Western countries—an issue that deserves further studies.

Participants highlighted the importance of exploiting the convergence of interest of all regional actors in defeating ISIS, as well as the necessity of bringing all regional actors to the table to contribute to a political process, including those who have a record of supporting radical movements. For that, it is essential to understand the individual security interests of the neighboring states involved and try to find common ground. 

Participants specifically addressed the role of Turkey, noting that the reluctance of Ankara to fight ISIS militarily stems from the understandable fear of further endangering Turkey and creating more enemies in the region. ISIS has already declared Istanbul as a target for attack. A lack of defined political objectives within the coalition, especially for a solution for Syrian conflict,is also keeping Turkey on the sidelines. Furthermore, the role of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the fight against ISIS is alarming to Turkey, as it sees it acquiring weapons and expertise that the group could possibly use against the Turkish state.

The second panel, “Iran’s Foreign Policy and its Role in the Middle East,” reflected on the interests and goals that drive Iran’s policies in Iraq and Syria. The discussion emphasized that Iran is increasingly a rational actor with clear interests and objectives, regionally and internationally. ISIS presents a new challenge for Tehran, which threatens the territorial integrity of its ally in Baghdad and of the region as a whole.

Participants discussed Iran’s role in contributing to the current situation by having supported former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki without pressuring him into adopting a more inclusive approach to governance. There was consensus that Tehran has now, however, taking a constructive role in supporting the new government of Haydar Al-Abadi, which is making strides in overcoming the sectarian divide. This influence that Iran exerts over Baghdad emphasizes the need to engage Iran in any joint regional political process aimed at countering ISIS. Participants highlighted Iran’s pragmatic current foreign policy, one that is not limited to groups or states with a particular religious belief.

Participants underlined that for Iran, the history of armed conflict with Iraq has made Iraq’s stability a foreign policy and a national security consideration of highest priority. Tehran also places a great importance on the holy Shia cites in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala and wants to ensure a secure environment that will allow Iranian pilgrims to freely visit.  

Participants accredited Iran’s efforts in denouncing violence and extremism by sponsoring the "World Against Violence and Violent Extremism” (WAVE) resolution in the UN General Assembly and hosting the WAVE Conference in Tehran in December 2014.

The discussion showcased the necessity of engaging Iran on a regional and international level. The influence Iran holds in Iraq and Syria, as well as the common interest of Iran, the United States, the EU and the Gulf States in wanting to defeat ISIS provides ample common ground for better regional cooperation.

Participants acknowledged that a permanent and satisfactory agreement, limiting Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon, would allow for better cooperation between western countries, Arab states, and Iran to fight extremism and resolve other regional conflicts.

The third panel, “Europe, The EU, And Countering Violent Extremism: Internal and External Challenges,” involved representatives of various EU organs, and dealt with the current EU approach vis-à-vis the rise of ISIS, the cooperation with states in the region and the two-way flow of ISIS fighters.  

Participants acknowledged the unique threat that ISIS presents for the EU as it is the first instance a terrorist organization is in control of a substantial amount of territory in the vicinity of the European Union. Recent estimates show that 3,000 foreign fighters have traveled from Europe to join ISIS forces.

Participants highlighted the fact that European Union anti-terrorism efforts have been extended significantly both internally and externally. Increased measures have been put into effect, such as early identification of potential extremist individuals and the prevention of their travel. As the Internet is used as a major recruiting tool by ISIS aiming at European youths, EU coordination with Internet companies has increased, and more efforts are being made to detect suspicious travel to Syria and Iraq.

Participants urged that efforts by the EU must not come at the expense of human rights and civil liberties and that those measures should be coordinated with the countries of the region, in the form of intelligence sharing and through Intergovernmental Organizations like Interpol.

Participants acknowledged that Europe and the international community have to shoulder part of the blame for the rise of violent extremism, referring to inaction towards the crisis in Syria and the actions, and the unresolved nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which all contribute to the rise of extremism in the region.  The European Union and the international community must support a regional dialogue involving local communities with the aim to counter ISIS. 

The fourth session, “Security and Governance in a Fragile Environment: Lessons from Iraq 2003–2014,” pinpointed the failures that have been caused by domestic mismanagement and bad governance, and by the unhelpful role a number of regional and international actors played in Iraq since 2003.

Participants acknowledged that the time after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought with it an erosion of the Iraqi national identity and an exacerbation of sectarianism domestic tensions, triggering a process of re-tribalization and drastic weakening of a national identity. The subsequent Iraqi governments have failed to unite Iraqis and instead “clung to sect-centered elitism,” leading to great polarization and disenfranchisement, especially within the Iraqi Sunni population. Several factors led to the rise of ISIS: the lack of authority of the Iraqi central government in certain areas beyond the borders of Baghdad, especially in Sunni majority provinces; the amount of corruption in the Iraqi central governments machinery, coupled with the security vacuum left by the hasty withdrawal of US troops; and the general failure of the state.

Participants analyzed the role of the Iraqi central government under former Prime Minister Maliki, pointing out the fact that Maliki centralized power and weakened Iraq’s better working political institutions, politicized the armed forces for his own goals, and he subsequently ostracized opponents and local communities beyond Baghdad. These failures in governance, and not necessarily Sunni Iraqi’s affinity to the religious and ideological message of ISIS, led many to view the rise of ISIS as a rebellion against a government in Baghdad that they consider to be illegitimate.


Local and National

  1. Encourage inclusive governance and Sunni outreach in Iraq. A domestic political process in Iraq that addresses legitimate grievances of the Iraqi Sunni population, Kurds, and other Iraqi minorities is imperative to fight the root causes of the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS.
  2. Support reconciliation measurements in both Iraq and Syria.  With the enablement of the international community and regional actors, local reconciliation processes must be fostered, with the aim of finding a way forward for various parties to the conflict and crafting a unified agenda to countering extremist threats by groups like ISIS. The international community in that regard can provide logistics and know-how while leaving the local actors to take ownership of the process. (Regarding the need for political strategy for Syria see also section “International” below.)


  1. Foster an inclusive regional dialogue to address the threat of extremism. There needs to be an inclusive regional dialogue, including an inter-Arab and Arab-Iranian-Turkish dialogue to address the threat of extremist groups in the region. These talks should address broader geopolitical challenges in the region that are fuelling extremist ideology and ways for reducing tensions. Such a process would be most successful with international legitimacy and consensus, especially from the United States, the Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council and the European Union.
  2. Challenge ISIS on the battlefield on ideas. The military campaign against ISIS must be complemented by challenging the group on an ideological level, in order to refute the ISIS philosophy, the violence it has perpetrated and halt its recruitment. Regional, especially Muslim, allies need to coordinate a global response to this ideology on university campuses, mosques, media outlets, the Internet, prisons, social media, and refugee camps.
  3. Explore the potential of cross-border Sunni dialogue. Regional Sunni partners in Jordan and the Gulf states should undertake outreach to the Sunni tribes in western Iraq in an effort to re-engineer a program similar to the Sons of Iraq program. Baghdad’s Sunni outreach can only be done effectively in cooperation with regional partners, particularly Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The United States and the international community should carefully weigh the risks and opportunities of providing military and non-military support to select tribes if they prove willing to counter ISIS.
  4. Increase intelligence sharing between regional and international actors. Although the United States has a wide range of networked relationships with key Middle East intelligence services, such as with Jordan, Turkey and Saudi-Arabia, the scope and speed of ISIS’s rise came as a surprise. Effective counterterrorism efforts throughout the Middle East require a target-oriented exchange of intelligence that goes beyond these established networks.


  1. Address humanitarian crises in the region.  The Syrian civil war has sparked one the greatest population exoduses in modern history, with more than 3 million Syrians fleeing to neighbouring countries. Inside Syria, some 6.5 million people are estimated to be displaced. The rise of ISIS has brought additional misery to minority groups in both Syria and Iraq. A coherent strategy must address how to protect minorities, alleviate the suffering of refugees, and help stabilize the countries most affected by their influx.
  2. Enable reliable and capable regional partners to take the fight directly to ISIS. The United States is providing the greatest support for forces fighting ISIS. NATO and other U.S. allies should together develop a strategy to help the region counter ISIS with technical support and military assistance. This should include specific commitments to provide support to the Iraqi government, Kurdish forces and third-way opposition alternatives to the Assad regime and ISIS in Syria. At the same time, lessons learnt in the past must be taken into account in order not to “nourish false friends”.
  3. Rebuild the regional and international foundations to mediate a solution to the Syrian conflict. Although peace talks in Geneva failed in early 2014, conditions should be set for a political transition in Syria. The international community should work to reinvigorate a regional contact group on the Syrian conflict to start building a foundation for new peace talks.
  4. Engage the United Nations Security Council to drain the financing sources of ISIS. The UNSC should establish a Sanctions Committee against ISIS, such as the one existent to implement sanctions against Al-Qaida and individuals affiliated with it and formerly against the Taliban. UNSC financial sanctions should be put in place against individuals and organizations providing or allowing direct support to ISIS.
  5. Enhance law enforcement and intelligence fusion efforts to identify and counter ISIS and other terrorist fighters holding Western passports. This should build on existing U.S.-European efforts in coordination with the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL). More than 12,000 foreign fighters are estimated to have flocked to Iraq and Syria; the dangers of extremists coming home to continue the fight with acts of terrorism cannot be ignored. Western countries should partner with allies in the Middle East and local communities on counter-radicalization efforts.
  6. Engage local communities in counter-radicalization efforts. Local communities have an important role to play in counter-extremist and de-radicalization strategies in the West. Efforts should be made that counter-terrorism strategies do not further alienate and marginalize the already vulnerable elements of society who are often targets of recruitment by extremist groups.