ISIS Caliphate Imploding but Major Battles Remain
Recent terror attacks in Berlin, Baghdad and Istanbul demonstrate that defeating ISIS militarily is only half the battle.
In the past year ISIS has lost much of its territory in Iraq and Libya. But without concerted external support for political and economic stabilization, both countries risk quick descents into renewed conflict, threatening Europe with increased refugee flows and terror attacks, says a new report from ECFR.
With the US set to disengage from the region under a Trump presidency, the EU and its member states must therefore step up their support with a long term commitment of energy and resources.
In Iraq the battle for Mosul represents a key turning point in the military fight against ISIS. The anti-ISIS fight has been aided by unprecedented cooperation between Iraq’s federal forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, the state-sponsored Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and other groups. But each has its own vision for the post-ISIS order and internal conflict is likely to escalate once ISIS is defeated.
In this context European actors should quickly step up efforts towards deeper representative power-sharing in Iraq, including moves towards decentralization of power across the country. Also key will be addressing long-standing grievances related to corruption, political and economic marginalization of Sunni minorities and the abuse of the national security services. In this context, European backing for locally-directed reconstruction and security sector reform could play an important role.
In Libya ISIS’ territorial control ended with the liberation of Sirte in December 2016. But the ongoing power struggle between the UN-backed Presidential Council headed by Faiez Serraj (supported by the US, UK and Italy) and the Libyan National Army led by rogue General Khalifa Haftar (supported by Egypt, UAE and Russia) is likely to feed continued conflict. It could also lead to a collapse of the economy, which would create fertile ground for jihadism.
While a complete stabilisation of Libya is currently beyond reach, the EU and its member states should aim at freezing the current conflict by opening up channels of communication between the parties, strengthening the unity government, and rebuilding the devastated cities of Sirte and Benghazi. Europeans should also prioritise an economic deal to avert a humanitarian crisis and state implosion. These goals are key in order to cement recent gains against ISIS and prevent the resurgence of jihadism in the country.
The fate of Iraq and Libya lie in local hands. But European actors, through more meaningful political and economic commitments, can make a substantial contribution to sustainable stabilization efforts.
The challenge will be made more difficult by domestic European distractions, as well as the likely divergent priorities of the Trump administration and regional players. But the problems of migration flows and security will not disappear once ISIS does. If Europe is serious about tackling these issues, now is the time for it to step up its political and economic engagement in the region.