Martin Fleischer Discusses ISIS and Extremism at European Parliament

News | November 21, 2014

Ambassador Martin Fleischer, EWI Vice President of Regional Security and Director of its Brussels office, discusses ISIS and the rise of extremism during the Kangaroo Group Lunch Debate held at the European Parliament on November 11. 

See full transcript, below. 

Syria and the Fight Against ISIS

A contribution by Ambassador Martin Fleischer
The EastWest Institute


It’s an honor for EWI to contribute—in the framework of the Kangaroo Group’s working group on space, security and defense—to the esteemed members of the European Parliaments’ deliberation on the challenges posed by the rise of ISIS.

EWI has a long record of work in the Middle East and on issues such as violent extremism, especially with its seminal publication Countering Violent Extremism: Lessons from the Abrahamic Faith. In fact, EWI’s work between East and West began in the early 1980s with its late founder John Edwin Mroz’s Track 2 negotiations between Yasser Arafat and the Reagan administration.

Nowadays, EWI’s Parliamentarian Network for Conflict Prevention, of which MEP Gahler and Gomes are members, engages increasingly in the Middle East, with a conference planned for next week in Rabat, Morocco, bringing together parliamentarians from the United States and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region on finding common ways to advance the role of women political leaders in peace and security issues.

On the issue of ISIS:

The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which renamed itself the Islamic State (IS) earlier this year, has eroded the borders of both Iraq and Syria, and represents an immediate and significant threat to the surrounding region. ISIS also represents an evolving threat to Europe, the United States and global security in the form of international terrorism enabled by the group’s thousands of foreign fighters and its abundance of cash and military resources.

The seriousness of the ISIS-issue is, to take an example from my home country, demonstrated by the recent decision of the German government to deliver arms to the Kurdish Peshmerga—a rupture with one of the basic principles of German foreign and security policy, i.e. not to export military equipment to zones of armed conflict.

An environment of chaos and great suffering has allowed ISIS to emerge. The civil war in Syria, now in its fourth year, has created on of the largest humanitarian crisis the world has faced in decades. Some 9 million Syrians have fled their homes, and 3 million are now refugees, making them the world’s largest refugee population and placing a tremendous burden on neighboring countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

In the absence of support from the international community in the face of Assad’s brutal tactics, disaffected Sunni Arabs—even those who do not necessarily share its ideology—embraced ISIS as the answer to what they perceived as Shi’a repression. In Iraq, the Sunni Muslim minority's frustration with the government of former Prime Minister Maliki has provided a fertile ground for the proliferation of the extremist group. Despite major differences in the conflicts in both countries, both Iraq and Syria provided two major ingredients for the growth of violent extremism: suffering and frustration of the population on the one hand, and the lack of effective, legitimate governance on the other.

EWI sees five fields of action where the international community could make a difference in countering the threat of ISIS:

  1. Forging an inclusive political alliance for a political solution in Syria—inclusive means with Iran and with Russia. That may sound ambitious or even illusory, seeing these countries’ support for Assad. But let me recall the Kosovo conflict where EU and G8, under the German presidency, finally succeeded to get Russia back into the boat and de-block the UN Security Council. And Iran sends willing signals to take a more responsible role in security matters, such as its recent tabling of the UN resolution “world against violence and extremism.” EWI undertakes outreach to Iran, encouraging it to constructively work toward regional security, e.g. of Afghanistan (by the way, the danger is real that post 2014-Afghanistan could face similar challenges as Iraq after the withdrawal of foreign troops).
  2. Combating ISIS propaganda and messaging: a combination of theology and political ideology makes ISIS relevant, different and in a position to offer a message that resonates with frustrated youth. The U.S., EU and 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. Impeding the flow of foreign fighters joining ISIS: Over 12,000 foreign fighters from around the world are fighting with Sunni extremist groups in the now contiguous territories that span from Syria to Western and Northern Iraq. Of those, approximately 3,000 are foreign fighters with Western passports who are gaining valuable battlefield experience. Additional creativity, persistence and planning are needed in transit and home countries to counter this threat.
  4. Stopping ISIS financing and funding: ISIS’ principal sources of finance are derived from its control and sale of oil, kidnap for ransom, extortion networks, criminal activities and donations from external individuals. There is a need for a unified strategy focused on disrupting ISIS revenue streams, restricting ISIS access to the international financial system and targeting ISIS leaders, facilitators and supporters with sanctions. Here again, the UN would be not be the easiest but the most effective framework.
  5. Addressing humanitarian crises in the region: The Syrian civil war has sparked one of the greatest population exoduses in modern history, with more than 3 million Syrians fleeing to neighboring 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 donor strategy must address how to protect minorities, alleviate the suffering of refugees and help stabilize the countries most affected by their influx.

All these issues can only be successfully addressed through an internationally agreed political strategy and, as indicated above, only with the backing both by countries of the region and by the UN Security Council. Seeing that Russia and China have their own problems with certain (though differently defined) kinds of violent extremism, it will be difficult and challenging, but not impossible to find common ground. The rise of ISIS may come in handy for some countries’ short-term interests, but in the long run it presents a threat to everybody.

The text above is a transcript, edited by Raymond Karam, of Mr. Fleischer’s contribution to the Kangaroo Group Lunch Debate on November 11, 2014, held in the European Parliament.

For more analysis of the Islamic State, read EWI Professorial Fellow Greg Austin's piece in New Europe