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ISIS surge in Iraq is the modern-day equivalent of the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam

Just as the crisis in Ukraine compels NATO and European Union leaders to focus on the resurgence of defence challenges to their east, developments to Europe’s south raise very different and no less serious challenges for security and transatlantic strategy. Increasingly confrontational relations with Russia, and the deepening chaos in Iraq and Syria, suggest that Europe’s double exposure is likely to be with us for some time, writes Ian Lesser.

International affairs are shaped by long-term trends, but also by sudden shocks that change the political-military calculus, such as the Russian takeover of Crimea. The dramatic break-out in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, allowing it to occupy broad swathes of Iraqi territory, and bringing its self-proclaimed Caliphate to within striking distance of Baghdad, is surely another. ISIS may not hold on to these gains — the forces arrayed against them are formidable, at least on paper. But their offensive has altered the strategic calculus on all sides in a manner reminiscent of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968. That offensive, ultimately a defeat for North Vietnamese forces, pointed to the fragility of the security order in South Vietnam, and opened a new phase in the US political debate over the Vietnam War. The rapid rise to prominence of ISIS as a factor in security in Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region as a whole, could be a similar turning point. It will have significant implications for European security, and for Washington as a partner in European defence.

Although the ISIS phenomenon may be transient, the deepening chaos from the Gulf to West Africa is not. Islamism is still a political force to be reckoned with in light of the unfinished revolutions across MENA, and radical Islamism is clearly a leading force to be reckoned with. Jihadists may not ultimately win, but they are fuelling regional chaos, and this chaos provides an opening for separatists and other sources of opposition to states and regimes. This phenomenon is also evident in and around Mali and in Nigeria.

For Europe and the United States, this is not simply a problem of crisis management, but rather a longer-term challenge of instability within and across regions. Energy security is part of the equation. The question of Europe’s exposure to energy supply interruptions in the east has rightly attracted the attention of policymakers. Less discussed, but very meaningful for Portugal and Spain in particular, is the pronounced dependence of these countries on gas imports from Algeria, where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has targeted energy infrastructure and foreign energy workers.

The consequences of this protracted chaos are unlikely to be contained within the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The spill-overs from the chaos to Europe’s south are already evident. Recent months have seen unprecedented refugee flows, especially across Turkey’s borders, and at key points around the Mediterranean. Economic migrants to Europe are rapidly being overtaken by crisis-driven asylum seekers.

To this must be added the much less benign problem of foreign fighters travelling from or through Europe to wage jihad in Syria and Iraq. These movements are now well enough established to form a pattern of circulation, with veteran fighters returning to Western Europe and the Maghreb. Some of these individuals will be sufficiently radicalised to continue the fight in their home countries. The May 2014 attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels is a tragic example of this phenomenon, and an indication of the potential for terrorism of this kind. Turkey is the leading conduit for fighters travelling to Syria, and shutting down this flow is rightly a leading issue in relations between Ankara and its transatlantic partners.

Beyond terrorism per se, the conflicts on Europe’s southern periphery also create the conditions for rampant criminality and trafficking of all kinds — a persistent war economy with tangible consequences for societies on both sides of the Mediterranean. Notwithstanding the serious tensions with Russia around the Baltic and the Black Sea, these spill-overs are arguably the most pressing security challenge facing EU and NATO members today.

All these risks emanating from the Mediterranean and its hinterlands are not divisible, and this has important meaning for the future of EU and NATO strategy. Turkey and the countries of southern Europe may be the most directly exposed, but the effects can and will be felt across Europe, without regard to geography. The risks are highly diverse, and highly diffuse. To the extent that the EU seeks to re-energise its foreign and security policy under new leadership in Brussels, security engagement in areas Europe can actually reach, on Europe’s Mediterranean doorstep, should be a natural priority. For NATO, the September summit will be an opportunity to address the Alliance’s double exposure: east and south. And for Washington, at a time of multiple strategic demands and uncertain enthusiasm for power projection, it is worth recalling that much of the United States’ security presence around the Mediterranean and the Middle East is really about protecting our shared interest in European security.

Ian Lesser is executive director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Transatlantic Center in Brussels, and Senior Director for Foreign and Security Policy at GMF, which first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series.

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