Has EU lost its ‘carrot’?

Lesia Dubenko graduated from Lund University with a Master’s in European Affairs and now is a journalist in Ukraine

The EU’s foreign policy has previously developed by offering benefits. But with troubles in Poland and Hungary and ambiguous expansion policy, will Brussels open a new page in its ‘carrots and sticks’ approach?


The EU likes to see itself as exceptional — originally a trade project, it has turned into a union with benefits, incorporating the former Communist states and exercising regional influence. This image does sell well. Just recently the Western Balkan countries, including Serbia and Montenegro, showed enthusiasm after the EU declared 2025 as a potential membership date for these states, if they meet the conditions.

In a similar enthusiastic manner the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during his Davos speech had also expressed hope that the EU will announce the prospect of Ukraine’s accession in 2021, appealing to reforms and necessity to maintain societal stability.

The EU does realise that for Ukraine, which has been reinforcing its internal and external policy on the ‘European dream’ since the Maidan events in 2014, the membership is no less important than for the problematic ex-Yugoslavian region. But at the same time it cannot help but take time to self-reflect, as to what awaits it and how to proceed. More so, as it has now become clear that its regional influence is being weakened both inside and outside.

Thus, after the Soviet Union collapsed many, in the academic and political circles alike, had been entertaining the idea of the world moving into the post-modernist realm — a non-military, trade-prevailing international relations’ mode — with the EU acting as a role-model of prosperity and democracy re-ferred to as a ‘normative’ power. In this world, the EU imagined itself to be able to change others simply because of its attractive image and know-how.

However, the Balkan Wars, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the intervention in Eastern Ukraine, the subsequent reliance on the U.S. military help and the arrival of the nationalistic Donald Trump in the Oval office all shattered its post-modernist aspirations showing that tanks remain as popular as trade deals.

One could very well argue that the post-modernist ideas were short-lived and partially naive to begin with. Yet the true and bitter awakening occurred when EU countries, which had long been granted the membership ‘carrot’, suddenly defied the Union’s key liberal principles.

In turn, Brussels unexpectedly found itself using ‘sticks’ towards not just the resisting third-countries, but also towards its members with the European Com-mission triggering the Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Poland. The often explosive ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt fanned the flames tweeting: “The European Union was built to guarantee our citizens’ freedom, democracy and the rule of law. If the Hungarian and Polish governments want to build closed and illiberal societies, they must do it outside the EU.”

‘Sticks’ only time?

Were Poland and Hungary to be outside the EU, they would have simple been reminded that there is a ‘carrot’ worth abandoning its old illiberal, autocracy-inspired ways for — the membership. Yet, both states are already in — and they are surprisingly prepared for the ‘sticks’. The Hungarian Prime-Minister Viktor Orban, who is feeling increasingly comfortable acting as the Union’s enfant terrible, received support from the Hungarian Parliament to block the European Commission’s initiative regarding Warsaw, while the Polish President Andrzej Duda is showing modest interest in Brussels’ actions altogether.

Moreover, both countries are embracing everything that the EU stands against — nationalistic, de-secularised, semi-authoritarian narratives with unequivocal historical ‘truth’. Thus, Poland has recently approved the highly controversial historical law aimed to penalise those claiming that the Poles cooperated with the Nazis.

But what about the third-countries? Once the European Parliament adopted the Eastern Partnership Plus it became clear that the European Commission President Mr. Juncker’s rather undiplomatic, yet blunt statement that ‘Ukraine for the moment is neither in the EU nor NATO’ reflects the EU’s position on further expansion in the East. The document which has fairly been described as a failure contains various aspects of intensifying cooperation with countries, like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova without, however, a clear membership prospect, a ‘carrot’, for the countries involved.

Instead of presenting that prospect, the EU has resorted to a ‘stick’, threatening to deprive Ukrainians of the long-awaited visas’ lift, if Mr. Poroshenko fails to establish the Anti-Corruption Court promptly. With the Ukrainian Parliament hesitating to adopt the law, and collapse of Ukrainian-Polish cooperation due to ‘irreconcilable differences’ in historical views, the Ukrainian near-future is looking full of ‘sticks’. And given its fragile society, appetite for illicit power con-centration, entrenched corruption, Kiev will eventually search for other, more immediate opportunities.

Like Serbia is already doing. The Balkan countries with their rich Yugoslavian years’ experience of balancing between the capitalist West and the communist East perfected by Josip Broz Tito and hunger for nationalist rhetoric are a dangerous lot. The EU is well aware of it and has now reintroduced the member-ship prospect both for Belgrade, Podgorica and others to win over growing China’s and Russia’s influence in the region.

The fear is clear: the EU recalls the atrocities of the Balkan Wars and the Union’s then powerless position and justly expects that sooner or later these countries will once again try to establish a ‘better’ citizen. In this case, Mr. Verhofstadt rightly underpins that the “EU must do everything in its power to fore-stall that scenario.”

However, will this ‘carrot’ — the most powerful one that the EU has its in arsenal — prove to be effective?

So far Belgrade, despite nurturing membership, is immensely irritated with the Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn’s refusal to make concessions regarding recognition of Kosovo’s independence. While the EU might believe that this is the right thing to do to protect, it will, however, see an inevitable rise of public dissatisfaction that the Serbian government. It will have to turn a blind eye, or find a clever way to deceive its European partners by employing dubious yet ubiquitous practice of promising everything to everyone.

Should Serbia resort to the latter and guarantee its electorate that once in the EU, it will ‘sort everything out’ by copying the neighbouring Hungary’s model of cooperating with Russia and building another semi-authoritarian state with its own history narrative, what ‘sticks’ will Brussels employ? Does it really have levers to stop this national and religious grandeur which is already happening in Central Europe?

The answers are strikingly ambivalent and leave Brussels with a tricky task of not just finding new ‘carrots’ both for the EU members and the aspirants, but also contemplating the effectiveness of this policy altogether.

Much like with the dreams of the world discarding tanks in favour of trade deals, the EU’s notion of serving as an unequivocal role-model who can pressure others is being slowly rejected in its own home, supporting the view of a German academic Hanns W. Maull who already in 2005 predicted that the membership’s value both for those inside and for those outside will decline over time.

And while the EU still realises that it has an appeal — whether for an overly-enthusiastic Ukraine, sceptic yet still European Serbs, or Mr. Orban who wants to stay but on his terms — it is also continuously being challenged.

The next big question now is can the Union turn a new page in its ‘carrots and sticks’ policy? Or will it eventually resort to the ‘sticks’ policy suppressing problems both inside and in its backyard, only to find them re-emerging with greater intensity?


Photo Credit – reetdachfan/Pixabay – https://pixabay.com/en/eu-european-union-flags-strasbourg-712739/

The Westphalian system in crisis: The rise of neo-tribalism

By Linda Schlegel – Linda holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College London

The relatively stable post-Cold War international order and the steady growth of internationalization and political, economic and social globalization have increasingly led to challenges in the last two decades. The terror attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 were the opening event to a new era in international politics challenging the foundation our global order rests upon: The Westphalian system. After the peace of Westphalia in 1648, previously unheard principles were developed to govern the relations between different territorial entities. The state became the only legitimate and primary actor in political affairs, defined by sovereignty within clear boundaries. The principle of legality – the belief that all states are equal and only winning war can put one above the other – became the basis of international cooperation and conflict. Based on the Westphalian principles, nations and nationalism became important guiding forces domestically as well as in relations to other states. Populations were perceived as belonging together naturally not only by language or culture, but by birth into a national community.

While states remained the primary actors in international affairs, the Westphalian system did not remain static since its first implementation. The Charter of the United Nations as well as the Charter of Human Rights limit the absolute sovereignty nation states had been granted with. Regional organizations, most notably the European Union, present a voluntary evolution from a focus on individual states only collaborating militarily towards a group of states joined by broader economic, social and ideological considerations. The nation state embedded in supranational entities is still the most important actor and reference point, but the system of global cooperation and internationalization of societies is increasingly challenged practically as well as conceptually by both domestic and international actors. Right-wing populist groups, separatist movements, Brexit, Trump’s ‘make America great again’ movement, the rise of transnational jihadist actors and the resentments against foreigners that became evident during the refugee crisis are symptoms of larger cognitive shifts in parts of the population.

One way to conceptualize the current turmoil within the global system is to see it as a move towards neo-tribalism. Before the rise of nationalism, humans were organized socially along tribal lines consisting of groups united by language, religion, blood and belief. The Westphalian system did not necessarily abolish tribal tendencies but expanded this tribal group to a whole national community. However, the main narrative was still largely one of people united by blood, language, culture and now, national heritage. Over time, however, global mass migration and the resulting multi-cultural societies, globalization of pop culture and shifts towards supra-national governing organizations such as the EU have eroded traditional differentiations between nation states and put traditional modes of identity construction based on us versus them dichotomies under scrutiny.  Migrants are now part of Western societies in large numbers and their children and grandchildren are legally members of the national community. As these developments are threatening traditional identities, some call for and work towards the resurrection of tribal ties, to blood or religion, as a counter force to the globalized world we live in. The tribe, with it’s clear boundaries of who belongs to it and who does not, is an increasingly attractive reference point for those lost in the globalized conglomerate of relations.

In his book Talking to the Enemy, Scott Atran postulates that “people don’t simply kill and die for a cause, they kill and die for each other. The growing number of extremists, whether they are motivated by right-wing or jihadist ideology, attest to this statement. Both religious fundamentalist and right-wing tendencies can be seen as a resurgence of tribalism and exaggerated love for an in-group based on traditional notions of belonging. The survival of the race or nation presents, in essence, a tribal mindset, although it needs to be noted that different right-wing groups are increasingly connected across national boundaries and collaborate with each other. Paradoxically, we increasingly witness a ‘globalized neo-tribalism’, which pays tribute to the modern root of the movement. ISIS, for example, presents a globalized notion of a tribe. The defining characteristic of membership is the Muslim faith, not the nationality, ethnicity, culture or language. It is solely defined by religious belief, which makes it possible to incorporate a diverse group of individuals in the in-group. Islamist neo-tribalism shifts the boundaries of belonging from blood to faith, thereby honoring the globalization that enabled its rise. ISIS is both a boundary-free tribe everyone is free to join and an entity strictly distinguishing itself from every out-group and is therefore a truly neo-tribal movement.

Neo-tribalism presents a systemic challenge to the forces that governed international relations for hundreds of years. It is a symptom of broader shifts in the social, economic and political connections and our increasingly individualized yet international societies devoid of traditional anchor points. The shifts we are currently experiencing are partially based on the human need for stability and clear conceptual boundaries of identity the current political situation is unable to provide. This systemic problem of our globalized community is not something that is likely to resolve itself. Counter-extremism measures aimed at contradicting ideologies and detecting already radicalized individuals will not be enough. Government and civil society actors alike need to not only reactively counter extremist tendencies, but tackle root causes of why these tendencies arise. Practically, we need to ask: How can the feeling of belonging humans crave be developed in diverse societies? How can we buffer the negative psychological effects of individualization? How can collective identities be formed? How can the negative impacts of globalization be lessened? Conceptually, we need to ask: How can we incorporate non-state actors into our understanding of international politics? Can democracy be tribalized? Can we create dual-identities based on the need for tribal security and internationalization? One thing is certain, if the Westphalian system is to survive, it needs to adapt to the current conditions and resist countering extreme and populist attempts with similar narratives.



Photo Credit: Pixabay – http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Borders-Travel-Geography-Europe-Map-Land-Germany-945237

PS21 Event Writeup – ‘Imagining Britain in 2030’

What will Britain look like by 2030? How will Brexit have played out or will the process be still ongoing? Will Great Britain’s map have changed or will greater devolution have resulted in a tweaking of borders? What kind of government might be in power?

A panel of experts gathered to discuss these questions and more at Juju’s Bar and Stage. The discussion, titled ‘Imagining Britain in 2030’ was moderated by Peter Apps, Reuters Global Affairs Columnist.

Paul Swinney, Head of Policy and Research at the Centre for Cities started off the discussion speaking on the reality of future changes to the world of work, such as the rise of the robots, will play out across the country. This threat of job losses is nothing new – technologies developed over the last century, such as electric street lamps and washing machines for example, have destroyed work for lamplighters and laundry workers. Despite this, new jobs and careers have emerged to replace these lost jobs. But there is a clear geography to these changes – cities further north are more vulnerable than southern cities to this latest wave of change, both in terms of being more exposed to job losses, and the likelihood is that new jobs created in northern cities will be lower skilled, reflecting recent history. And so Swinney’s predictions for 2030 were for the economic and political divides (signified by the Brexit vote) to get wider.

Kathryn Corrick, founder of Corrick, Wales & Partners, stressed the level of technological change over the century so far and the sense of dislocation it had sometimes created. She saw a clear need for policymakers to think about the future to prevent missteps, especially looking forward into data protection laws and augmented reality. She further saw an age in which experts might become trusted again and devolution strengthened, perhaps through new forms of digital democracy. Perceptions of ‘Britishness’ were in flux, she said, and policymakers needed to become better at listening to people across the country if it was to overcome its challenges.

Jonn Elledge, editor at the New Stateman’s Citimetric website said Britain was on the edge of becoming two nations with very different politics. One was multicultural, urbanised and attracting educated young people, while suffering social strains, particularly around the supply of housing. The other, based around both smaller towns and failing post-industrial cities, was losing jobs and people, and increasingly politically angry. The economic divide had become even more significant than Germany’s, where part of the country was under Communist rule up until 1989. Elledge’s proposal as a potential solution for this problem was a serious debate about the moving of the capital away from London – although he doubted it would ever happen. Furthermore, he saw stronger local government as a strategy to move forward.

Jade Azim, Young Labour blogger, shifted the conversation towards the emerging generation of young millennials. This group was struggling to find opportunities, but more importantly did not believe it would ever be able to afford their own major capital investments, particularly housing, risking becoming a permanent rentier class. Azim said that this would eventually break the correlation between property/wealth and conservatism, becoming the first median voter to rent rather than own properties and thus rewriting the political map. This demographic was also developing its very own tastes and wants, she said, prioritising experience over property. Azim saw a change in the meaning of working class – and that the way social stratifications are measured now needing to change if we want to understand class as a concept. In the future addressing of inequalities will be an essential step, Azim stated.

Rayhan Haque, Policy Adviser on future of work issues said by 2030 we will have abolished tuition fees in the UK, as the current system was unfair for students. He also predicted that by 2030 there will have been a Labour government which would have lowered the voting age to 16, making a no fees system permanent and substantially shifting the power of the electorate towards young people. More generally speaking, he argued education needs to ensure strong basic skills for students, and a more skills focused curriculum to allow young people to become emotionally intelligent and gain skills essential for the job market. Haque suggested lowering immigration heavily was a false economy that would do great damage to our economy and society and that by 2030 more people would be willing to support a more liberal system or freedom of movement.

Freelance writer Amna Saleem said Britain sometimes risked appearing like a country that ‘peaked in high school’ and whose hankering after the past made adapting to the future much harder. She said by 2030, inclusion and diversity should not be seen as extraordinary – and individuals should not find themselves so often defined by just one or two characteristics. The Brexit referendum, she said, risked narrowing nationalism in a potentially toxic way, with people turning against her as a Scottish-Pakistani woman. She further advocated for more empathy and the willingness to share power as needed measures for greater equality.

The discussion was fast-paced, lively and always entertaining. It presented many problems, but also offered up solutions. There was a lot to worry about, Peter Apps said in conclusion. But given the in many ways even more concerning political trends in the US and continental Europe, he suggested, the worst case scenarios for Britain in 2030 were at least marginally less bleak than for many other countries.

PS21’s ‘Imagining 2030’ series will reconvene on the 13th March at Juju’s Bar and Stage to imagine the World in 2030. Details here.

PS21 Event Writeup – ‘What next for Iran’

Given the recent protests in the Islamic Republic and the controversies regarding its nuclear deal, the Islamic Republic finds itself at a crossroads. PS21 gathered in Whitehall to discuss what happens next.

Dina Esfandiary, Fellow at King’s College London, noted the occurrence of riots in Iran was in itself nothing new, however she identified differences from previous unrest: the protests were widespread and the protesters themselves had become bolder with slogans directly attacking the Supreme Leader.

A key difference lies in the government reaction. Unlike during the 2009 post-election protests, the government was willing to at least partially legitimise the demonstrations through acknowledging their demands. This time, the complaints were largely over economic grievances rather than political.

Esfandiary did not see this as an advance towards democratisation but rather as a new tactic of the system: reforms to stay in power, realising that the riot response from 2009 will not be accepted anymore.

Forward looking, Esfandiary sees growing discontent in the Republic, as well as worsening relations with Gulf Arab states (except for Qatar) which will not result in a direct war but will play out through regional rivalries and conflicts.

Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, Research Fellow at RUSI, presented a more detailed insight into the Iran nuclear deal and the uncertainty surrounding it since October 2017.

Tabrizi referred to a “conversation shift” that had taken place over the past few weeks between the Europeans and the US. European governments are trying to figure out a way to address the concerns raised by the Trump by the deadline of May 12th, when the US might not renew sanctions waivers, but doing so without antagonising Iran is a tall order.

For Iran the connection between the deal and the economic state of the country were crucial, as this was the basis that President Rouhani ran his campaign on. The uncertainty which characterises the future of the deal following Trump’s election thus also affects the economic situation of the country, Tabrizi stated.

PS21 Event Writeup – ‘What to watch in Russia’

PS21 kicked off this year’s event schedule with a panel discussion on ‘What to watch in Russia’ on the 23rd January. As panellist Mathieu Boulègue put it; ‘Russia is everywhere’. PS21 invited the panel to share their predictions of the world’s largest country. With the forthcoming presidential elections in March, the FIFA World Cup and Russia’s growing taste of information warfare, there was plenty to talk about.

Alex Kokcharov, Russia Analyst at IHS Markit, foretold a predictable Putin election victory, despite the potential for growing protest and civil unrest. In Human Rights terms, his forecast was for increased repression, as well as the use of targeted fear as a political tool. He also expects increased international isolation, with a potential exit from the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights -. The latter move could open the door for Russia to reintroduce the death penalty for certain crimes, as neighbouring Belarus has already done.

While Putin remains firmly ensconced in power aged 65, growing numbers within the Russian establishment and elsewhere are beginning to look beyond his rule. This is driving increasing rivalry within Russia’s political, economic and government elites. That may make Russian politics gradually more unpredictable in the years and decades to come.

If Putin’s power does begin to slip, it is possible – although not inevitable – that Moscow might become increasingly aggressive in its foreign policy. In the last 5 years, Putin has shifted his political focus from the middle class to poorer working class demographics in the regions who have generally responded positively to his now more nationalistic, socially conservative approach.

Mathieu Boulègue, Research Fellow at Chatham House, categorised Russia in the following terms: a ‘spoiler’ of the international system, a ‘meddler’ in elections and at worst, a ‘warmonger’. He identified key trends in Russian foreign policy, which he based his predictions on. These depict Russia as a more assertive force that is no longer hesitant to make use of its military power. From a social perspective, he stressed that should we see a revolution in Russia, it would come from the periphery, and not originate from the centre.

Western states were still far from clear on how to manage the new dynamics of relations with Russia, he added.

‘Virtual jihad’: What is the role of terrorist organizations in online-radicalization?

By Linda Schlegel – Linda holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College London

Photo Credit: User: Colin https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Colin/Objects#/media/File:Backlit_keyboard.jpg

In recent years, Europe has seen a stark increase in so-called homegrown terrorist attacks attributed to or claimed by the so-called Islamic State (IS). From Nice to Berlin and London, individuals, who had little or no formal connection to ‘official’ terrorist groups and seemingly radicalized at least partially online, perpetrated attacks in the name of jihad. While academia and politics still debate definitional issues around the concept of radicalization and whether or not radicalization can take place purely in the virtual sphere, a continuous discussion around these issues and their implications are necessary to better understand the present threat. One of the questions arising from increased online presence and possible online-radicalization is what role hierarchical terrorist organizations play today. In a time of ‘virtual jihad’, where everyone can access everything online, how important are formal organizations for understanding the threat of homegrown jihadist terrorism?

There are two general approaches to studying radicalization: top-down and bottom-up. The so-called Hoffman-Sageman debate between historian Bruce Hoffman and psychologist Marc Sageman mirrors the dichotomy between the two approaches. Hoffman postulates that radicalization and recruitment are driven by designated ‘staff’ within terrorist organizations and that hierarchical organizations are the main driving force between terroristic violence. To him, radicalization is a top-down mechanism with a strong role played by formally organized groups actively recruiting new members. Sageman, on the other hand, sees bottom-up processes between individual members as the main driver for radicalization. His ‘bunch of guys’ theory states that small groups of friends radicalize together by social-psychological processes of mutual reinforcement and without any connection to a formal organization or movement. Only after they radicalize do these small groups seek a link to a larger group, which makes radicalization a bottom-up process. This dispute originated in disagreement about radicalization of Al-Qaida members in the early 2000s, but can help frame today’s debate about the role terrorist organizations play for online-radicalization.

Sageman – passive organizations, active peers

The internet facilitates bottom-up radicalization processes by creating Sageman’s ‘bunch of guys’ in the virtual sphere. Increased connectivity enables interactivity on a truly global scale and within real-time. It is not necessary anymore to wait for weekly meetings or phone calls, it is possible to communicate with fellow supporters of jihadist ideology at any time. Interactivity can, over time, help to form bonds between the users and help facilitate the development of a community spirit. The peer group Sageman observed offline can also form online.

In addition, one of the properties of social media – the echo chamber or filter bubble– can aid the normalization of propaganda and violence within a given online community. Similar to sound being reflected in a cave, social media platforms show users only what they and their network ‘liked’ or ‘followed’ without outside content ever penetrating these ideological bubbles. A sense of commonality is fostered and the legitimacy of claims is increased, because seemingly everybody displays the same views. The normalization of violence as legitimate is the outcome of continued exposure and the validation by the virtual peer group for this type of behavior and world view.

Hoffman – active organizations

Online-radicalization, however, does not work without the appropriate content peers can disseminate into the echo chamber and discuss. Although some users create their own content, IS and other organizations engage in professional content creation and produce a highly sophisticated propaganda output, which is then shared and commented on by users. It is no misdemeanor to speak of an Islamic State media branch with professional staff and deep knowledge about the psychological stimulation of potential new recruits. Charlie Winter, for example, has identified six key themes IS continuously uses throughout its propaganda efforts: brutality, mercy, victimhood, war, belonging and utopianism. These are used deliberately and continuously throughout the IS propaganda output ensuring consistency of the message communicated to followers. The themes are aimed at arousing emotions, increasing empathy with fellow Muslims and function as a call for action as much as a holistic narrative of the conflict. Currently IS propaganda output has diminished greatly and almost exclusively focuses on the war theme, but IS has shown its sophisticated narrative development in previous years.

In addition, organizations utilize preachers and recruiters to actively facilitate a top-down radicalization development. Preachers function as accessible authority figures, who break-down the propaganda into more digestible pieces and contextualize the often short propaganda messages in longer video explanations. As social media also provides the opportunity for direct contact, recruits feel personally connected and involved with the preachers they watch and therefore with the content they distribute. Recruiters are actively involved in spotting potential recruits, contacting them and leading them through their radicalization. This has become easier and more secure in the age of social media, which provides not only the possibility to form strong personal communicational bonds with someone at the other end of the globe, but also to remain relatively anonymous in doing so, which decreases the risk of detection.

The role of terrorist organizations has changed, but not diminished in the age of social media. Radicalization and recruitment increasingly take place within the virtual sphere through social media applications and are aided by the echo chamber property of the internet. Peer groups form online, transcending previous restraints of time and space and making a global ‘bunch of guys’ possible. However, formal organizations are not simply passive onlookers uninvolved in the peer group dynamics, but actively seek to facilitate radicalization. Propaganda material is produced in a highly professional manner only formalized structures can provide and designated staff such as preachers and recruiters actively identify and engage with new recruits. Radicalization in times of virtual jihad is driven by both bottom-up group processes and top-down mechanisms of active engagement by the organization itself.

This post is a summary of a longer essay published by the author and @tillbaaken here.

Linda Schlegel holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society (distinction) from King’s College London and is a Junior Analyst at Global Risk Insight.

Iraq and Kurdistan: Untying the Gordian Knot

Peshmerga forces outside Kirkuk in 2014. Photo credits: By Boris Niehaus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33574038

By Gautham Ashok. Gautham holds an MA in International Conflict Studies from King’s College London.

Just as the dust is slowly settling on a nine-month long campaign to drive the Islamic State (IS) out of Iraq, the troubled country is lurching toward another war. According to the latest reports, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have taken control of the main military airbase in the disputed city of Kirkuk in the north of the country. The airport and surrounding areas were until yesterday manned by Kurdish forces. The ISF have also taken control of a vital oil field. The move comes amid escalated tension between the central government in Baghdad and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil over a controversial Independence referendum. Ironically, both sides have been trained and equipped by the United States.



The referendum over Kurdish Independence from Iraq held on September 25th was unilaterally and extra legally called by the dominant party in Northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The referendum was held both in the official provinces in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, but more problematically also in disputed areas. These areas have historically been claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil. In any event, 92% of those who participated in the referendum voted for Independence from Iraq. Baghdad responded by asking the KRG to annul the results, a demand which was immediately rejected.

Following the vote, nationalist fervor in Kurdish areas reached fever pitch, as Baghdad’s assertions over the illegal vote became more and more stern. The past week has seen volatile rallying by both sides over their respective flags. Baghdad also implemented measures designed to isolate the region, by banning all international flights in and out of Kurdistan, and calling for a halt in crude oil sales from the region. The looming clash will most likely be centered in the long-contested city of Kirkuk.

Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which was ratified in 2005 following the US-led invasion of the country and the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, mandates a three-step process for determining the status of Kirkuk and the surrounding areas. Firstly, the area would have to be “normalized”, following which a census would be held. Post these steps, a referendum would be conducted to decide if citizens of Kirkuk and the adjacent areas would prefer to accede to Iraqi union under Baghdad or join the autonomous region of Kurdistan under Erbil. Due to political turbulence, sectarian conflict and economic troubles, this referendum has yet to materialize.

More recently, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters seized control of Kirkuk and the surrounding oil rich areas in 2014, following the collapse of the Iraqi Army during the initial phases of the IS assault. By capturing Kirkuk and the nearby oil fields, the Kurds prevented IS from controlling a major revenue source. The brutality of the caliphate, and prospective state failure forced Baghdad and Erbil to work together to rout out the Jihadist threat. Now that IS, has been driven out of Iraq, Baghdad desires a return to the pre-2014 status quo i.e. joint administration of the region. Erbil has thus far refused to surrender any of the gains made in 2014.


A Game of Dominoes

In the case of civil war breaking out between Baghdad and Erbil, the conflict would have major implications in a region already dealing with a resurgent Al Qaeda, a wounded IS and a severe refugee crisis. If fighting does break out, Turkey and Iran would both enter the fray. Both nations vigorously oppose any notion of a Kurdish nation state on their borders. Iran and Turkey also house sizeable numbers of Kurdish citizens, any conflict will escalate the chances of internal strife in their own domain. Moreover, Tehran holds considerable sway over the Shia majority government in Baghdad, and Iranian militias have been at the forefront of the fight against IS.

In this event, the Kurds will likely appeal for aid from their main ally, the US. In Washington, right wing think tanks have already started pushing the Trump administration to use the Kurds as a bulwark against the “Iranian backed government of Iraq.” If the Trump administration does heed Erbil’s call, then Washington’s position in the region will likely become even more entrenched. Kurdistan does not have an air force, and will have to rely on US airpower to repel any major advances by the Iraqi government. Such an expansion in US – Kurdish ties will most likely irk Ankara, and thereby push Turkey into a deeper alliance with Iran and Russia. Relations between Ankara and Washington are already frosty, following Turkey’s decision to suspend processing new visa applications from the US.

With regards to Kirkuk itself, recent history indicates that the Iraqi Security Forces will likely enter the city easily, but will eventually be bogged down by a likely urban insurgency. Bellicose statements and inflamed rhetoric by any of the involved parties, will likely reduce chances of compromise and peace and produce more victimization on all sides. The human cost of such a war will likely be huge, lessening the chances of democracy and instead leading to less security and more radicalization in the future.


PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.



Britain’s sorry return to imperial ignorance

By Tim Abington. Tim is currently pursuing an undegraduate degree in International Relations at the University of Birmingham. 

The partition of India is of one of Britain’s most monumental colonial blunders. It is an overwhelming testament to the horror that can be caused by a state’s lack of foresight; lack of knowledge and lack of understanding.

So it is somewhat ironic that in the same year as the atrocities’ 70th anniversary, one of Britain’s greatest assets in tackling ‘imperial ignorance’ is to lose yet another chunk of funding. 

Savings targets in one country, sectarian violence in another

The BBC Monitoring service seeks out, identifies and analyses information from foreign (and often obscure) news outlets across the globe with an aim of providing its beneficiaries (including both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) with ‘a wider understanding of the world’.

Government funding for the service ended in 2013, a decision that at the time was criticised as woefully short sighted and ill-thought out. This year the service is to lose a further £4 million.

The results of Britain’s past ignorance have already left the globe with social scars and sectarian violence, it appears that there is a determination to add to them in a bid to meet savings targets.

It was on these pages a year ago that Cat Tully argued for long-term thinking in the face of uncertainty. It has been the more subtle signals acquired from a BBC Monitoring analysis of foreign local media, that have provided the knowledge that allowed the FCO to respond.

Despite providing this critical service, the financial pressure that has been piled on under the guise of ‘efficiency savings’ continues into a fifth year.

A steady, slow decline in UK influence abroad

The news that Britain had fallen in its position on the Soft Power index was unfortunately, unsurprising. Two years ago the UK led this particular index, it fell first to the United States and it has now been usurped by the French Republic.

HM Government appears to have an apparent determination to continue this trend of decline.

In 2016 the index publishers, Portland Communications, noted that the FCO had recorded funding losses of 41% in the department’s budget since 2010. The British Council, another vanguard of British influence across the globe recorded similar funding cuts, a loss of a quarter of its budget.

There have been convincing cases (indeed, several have been put forward by PS21 panelists) that have dismissed soft power as a purely academic pursuit. After all, it is machine guns and mortars that win wars, not foreign language television shows.

Yet, the face of conventional warfare has changed. Several years ago a missile fired across the airspace of a key American ally would most likely have justified retaliation beyond a strongly worded condemnation.

Moreover, the world (at the time of writing) has not yet descended into thermonuclear warfare, leaving media outlets and foreign services the main frontmen for a nation’s interests abroad.

Shots across the bows, gun boats and cannonfire are no longer what determines a nation’s influence. Gone are the days where an imperial empire could use a man-of-war to force a treaty upon a minor state.

In June the UK suffered an embarrassing and humiliating defeat at the United Nations.  By a margin of 94 to 15 countries, delegates supported a Mauritian-backed resolution to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legal status of the Chagos Islands. 22 EU member states, including France and Germany, abstained.

Although it was an impressive victory for the tiny nation, the outcome of the United Nations resolution is far from certain, given the UK’s opposition to the involvement of the ICJ. But it must act as a warning. An indication that Britain can no longer assume to be secure in its international standing abroad.

Today, any article touching on UK international relations can not fail to mention Brexit at least once. Prior to the Brexit vote, such a result would have been unprecedented. Mauritius’ total GDP is less than Birmingham, Bradford or even Brighton. The loss of the support of fellow Europeans in the debating chamber will inevitably create more embarrassment for Britain.

Never has it been more necessary to reinforce the image of the UK abroad.

It has been scorned by Europe, belittled by the BRICs and is now becoming irrelevant across much of the globe. Britain must re-envisage the way it operates abroad. As conventional ‘big gun’ warfare begins to decline, different forms of influence are required for the UK to remain at the top table. Soft power offers a way for Britain to continue to operate globally; it must not try and undermine it in the name of austerity.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.


Why Al-Qaeda has lost support amongst Western jihadists

The scene at Saadallah Al-Jabiri Square in Aleppo after the attacks in 2012, attributed to Al-Nusra. Photo credits: Zyzzzzzy – http://www.flickr.com/photos/81399520@N00/8049978198, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21884168

By Jakob Guhl. Jakob completed his undergraduate studies with a BA in Political Science and Religious Studies from Goethe University Frankfurt. Currently, he is pursuing his postgraduate studies at King’s College London, with a focus on jihadism and home-grown radicalisation in the West.


For over a decade following the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda captured the public imagination in many Western countries unlike any other terrorist organization. But despite the optimism following the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011, al-Qaeda continued to exist. Since the declaration of its caliphate however, ISIS seems to have eclipsed al-Qaeda as the most infamous and headline-garnering jihadist organization. So has al-Qaeda lost the arms race for the hearts and minds of potential jihadists? The answer very much depends on the layer of the organization and possible audience of support one focuses on.

Al-Qaeda does not constitute a unified organization. Instead, we can differentiate in between at least four layers that are associated with the network: 1) core al-Qaeda 2) regional affiliates 3) directed networks 4) undirected networks. The distinction in between these layers may not always be clear- cut. Core al-Qaeda (1) for example has sent a group of veteran members to Syria in order to influence the operations of its former regional affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah (2) and AQAP (2) claimed that the brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo-shooting (3 or 4) acted in its name. Al-Qaeda’s exact scope may also change over time. Over the last years, previously unaffiliated groups have joined (al-Shabaab, AQI, AQIM), and hitherto affiliated groups have parted ways (Jabhat Fatah al- Sham, ISIS) with al-Qaeda. Furthermore, al-Qaeda has established regional franchises like al- Nusrah and AQIS by itself.

To its own disappointment, al-Qaeda has never enjoyed great support amongst the global Muslim population and mainstream Islamic scholars, which were shocked by its indiscriminate targeting of non-combatants. This led al-Qaeda to re-evaluate its strategic approach and focus on local conflicts in Muslim-majority countries instead of striking the “far enemy” in the West. By appealing to the political desires of local populations and presenting themselves as the more “moderate” jihadist alternatives to ISIS, al-Qaeda affiliates have managed to gain ground, especially in Syria and Yemen. Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has even managed to unite different factions anti-Assad opposition that broadly share its ideology under the banner of Hayat Tahrir al- Sham, which includes former members of Ahrar al-Sham. If anything al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates have gained strength and local trust.

However, if we look at the support from Salafi-jihadists in Western Europe and North America, the picture changes. Al-Qaeda failed to capitalize on the increased levels of radicalisation unleashed by the civil wars in Syria and Iraq. Even though its regional affiliates did attract foreign fighters from the West, most of the estimated 4,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq joined its competitor ISIS.

In addition, attacks committed under the direct order of or inspired by al-Qaeda have declined further in their frequency and severity over the last few years during a time in which attacks organised or at least claimed by ISIS have risen. But why has al-Qaeda lost support amongst potential western recruits to its cause? While there is not a singular factor we can point to, there are multiple organisational, strategic and ideological reasons for AQ’s relative demise amongst westerners.

Let us turn to the organisational factors first. It has often been assumed that terrorist networks without strong hierarchies have organizational features that make it tough for states to effectively confront them. Al-Qaeda’s development after 9/11 may be a counter-example to this hypothesis. Core al-Qaeda’s capacities to carry out major attacks in the West have been significantly reduced by the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the continued counterterrorism efforts of the United States. Most subsequent plots and attacks had therefore to be planned and carried out autonomously by local admirers, who were not able to establish contact to the leaders of the organization. Operations by such autonomous groups are very difficult to prevent. On the flip side, the impact of small cells remains limited, because they lack strategic direction and their attacks does not serve any attainable long-term political goals. Their violence becomes vacuous.

Next we need to look at how the strategic decisions al-Qaeda has made have disconnected the group from their western admirers. Over the last few years, al-Qaeda has shifted its strategic approach away from the “far enemy” towards participation in local struggles in Muslim-majority countries through its regional affiliates. A combination of three factors can explain this change: firstly, offensive U.S. counterterrorism efforts put a lot of pressure on core al-Qaeda. Secondly, the American intelligence services simultaneously improved at preventing terrorist plots. Thirdly, the group recognized that its strategy during the 1990’s and 2000’s failed to win over Muslim populations. This led core al-Qaeda to place more importance on local conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Mali, in which regional AQ-franchises adopted comparatively more moderate tactics to win over the hearts and minds of the local populations. In a certain sense, core al-Qaeda sacrificed part of its global appeal in order to rebuild its strength by establishing more stable and sustainable bases. For western jihadists, it might have become more difficult to fully align with movements who seemed to be primarily concerned with national issues and not the global struggle.

A last explanation for al-Qaeda’s relative decline among support from Western jihadists concerns the ideological differences between itself and ISIS and the way they have been communicated. Terrorist groups thrive on narratives. Establishing a caliphate while gaining immense amounts of territory in a very short time provided ISIS with a powerful narrative. ISIS appeared to be confident, strong and victorious while al-Qaeda did not seem able to provide a powerful counter-narrative. Furthermore, ISIS communicated its message in a more accessible fashion by relying on social media, well-produced videos and stylish online magazines, while AQAP’s famous online magazine “Inspire” deteriorated in the quality of its articles and was also not published as often following the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in 2011. While al-Qaeda still put out sophisticated theological treatises, ISIS internet propaganda appealed to and specifically targeted a broader, less selective profile of volunteers. ISIS also came to be seen as the more radical, violent and apocalyptic group than suddenly “moderate” al-Qaeda. which may also have made al-Qaeda become less attractive for rebellious youth aspiring to join the cause.

When looking at al-Qaeda’s current support base, an ambivalent picture emerges. On the level of European jihadists, al-Qaeda has lost support in terms of groups committing directed or undirected attacks. Furthermore, the network has not been able to recruit as many jihadist foreign fighters from Europe as its rival ISIS. Regional affiliates of al-Qaeda however continue to be a major factors in local conflicts. Today, it has become clear that the jihadist movement is bigger than al-Qaeda and can easily survive al-Qaeda’s declining support amongst western jihadists. It will be interesting to see whether core al-Qaeda can re-establish a “safe haven” in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the American troops exit from Afghanistan. Without direction from a strong core al-Qaeda it does not seem like the group could inspire much support from potential western recruits in the future. With the current demise of ISIS’ caliphate and al-Qaeda’s preliminary success in establishing safe operational bases, it is however conceivable that al-Qaeda will present the more dangerous long- term terrorist threat to the West. Not much is left from the powerful narrative ISIS was able to present in 2014. Whether or not that might help al-Qaeda to regain its popularity among Western jihadists remains to be seen.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

“Imagining war in 2030” PS21 event writeup

The future of warfare may be coming faster than we think.

That, at least, felt like the conclusion of Tuesday’s panel on “Imagining War in 2030”, organized by the Project for the Study of the 21st Century and the British Army Intrapreneurs’ Network [BrAIN]. With dozens of military and civilian attendees packed into a relatively airless conference room in Whitehall, a panel of leading experts sketched out what looks to be a period of massive technical, geopolitical and deeply unpredictable change.

Royal United Services Institute Futures and Technology fellow Elizabeth Quintana sketched out some of the technical breakthroughs coming down the line as nations invest in new cyber, electromagnetic and growing technologies as well as hypersonic and other weaponry. Russia, she told the audience, already had a semi-autonomous humanoid robot that could fire a gun and which they intend to send to space.

Former Director Special Forces and Commander Field Army Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb outlined how the pace of change was now proceeding much faster than anyone had anticipated. The year 2030 might be only 13 years away, but breakthroughs in quantum computing, artificial intelligence and other fields were all producing breakthroughs at considerable speed. They would produce potentially massive societal and other changes, and government and military institutions were not currently keeping pace.

Kings College London lecturer and former Foreign and Commonwealth Office official Samir Puri outlined how he had seen some of these changes in action as an OSCE observer in Ukraine. Different nations would demonstrate their geopolitical ambitions in different ways in the years to come, he suggested, pointing out that while a host of states including Britain, Iran, Russia and others have their own imperial memories, they were of very different empires and shaped very different regional and global aspirations.

But not everything would change, he cautioned – it was entirely possible the US and its allies would still be embroiled in the Afghanistan war at the end of the next decade.

Balancing technology, structures, career paths

Unsurprisingly, there were a range of different views on how the military and other institutions should and could adapt to such an unpredictable future. Some questioned to what extent traditional military “pyramid” shaped hierarchies could possibly adapt [although Lieutenant General Lamb argued that while flatter hierarchies have their strengths, outright conflict required much greater resilience than they could offer].

While traditional Western militaries concentrated on traditional war fighting [phase 1 operations and upwards, in UK military terminology], many of the West’s adversaries were becoming much more adept at operating below that threshold, within “phase zero” operations. That trend was only likely to intensify in the years to come, he argued.

Most attendees felt that keeping pace with current changes in cyber and other domains was proving challenging enough, but relatively near-future breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and machine learning was felt set to provide even greater changes. While current drone warfare has actually proved very “human intensive” given the number of intelligence and other individuals involved in targeting and assessment, there will be inevitable moves towards artificial intelligence performing some if not many of those tasks. Where lines are drawn – particularly on the decisions to take human life – will be highly contested, and non-Western potential foes may be much more willing than ourselves to take such steps. [”The Russians tend to trust machines more than they trust people,” said Elizabeth Quintana, pointing to a trend she traced back to Soviet times].

Integration and flexibility would be key to handling these new trends. Lamb said he expected a special forces team of the near future would also be integrated with robotic/artificial intelligence capabilities – although what exactly that would look like was another matter.

Some attendees questioned whether the modern British Military was truly flexible enough to keep track of such new trends – although there was clearly plenty of enthusiasm for doing so.

Building the systems and processes for that would be key. As US military historian Thomas Ricks [himself paraphrasing US General Omar Bradley] once said, while might talks tactics, professionals talk logistics, real insiders focus on career structures to determine what really gets done.

Taking the debate forward

This event was the first of several planned by PS21 to explore the world of 2030 [you can read a range of pieces exploring that world on the PS21 website here]. We will also be holding further events with BrAIN later this year and into 2018.

Check out upcoming PS21 events here.


Wired.com interviews US analyst Peter Singer on the future of warfare

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist and executive Director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century. He is also a reservist in the British Army and member of the UK Labour Party. You can follow him on Twitter here

From ‘good boy’ to terrorist: What is the appeal of ISIS?

Westminster, 23 March 2017. Photo credits: Prioryman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

By Linda Schlegel. Linda is a trainee at the Council of Europe.

The so-called Islamic State has dominated and continues to dominate headlines with the recent Barcelona attacks, for which it claimed responsibility. Although the question of what makes someone become a terrorist has been discussed since the rise of left-wing terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of ISIS has intensified the discourse surrounding the processes of radicalization. The attackers were young and seemingly well-integrated immigrants of Moroccan descent and did not suffer from objective economic hardships. Yet they made the decision to kill and die for jihad. What drives those, who have lived in the West for all their lives or for a very long period of their lives, to sacrifice themselves for an organization that predominantly fights to gain territory in Iraq and Syria. What could make a young man murder innocent civilians and commit suicide for an imagined ideal of the caliphate or the ummah, the global community of Muslims? Governments and civil society also ask what can be done to prevent so-called ‘homegrown’ radicalization and decrease susceptibility to radical ideas.

Charlie Winter, Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), has written extensively on Islamic State propaganda and identified 6 key themes in their narrative: brutality, mercy, victimhood, war, utopianism and belonging. In contrast to popular belief, IS propaganda is not merely a depiction of violence and brutality such as beheadings, but includes a sophisticated understanding of which different types of narratives may drive people to seek a new, radical self-image in the name of defending the caliphate. Space does not allow for a discussion of all themes here, but the narrative of ‘belonging’ may be especially important to understand in the context of homegrown radicalization. In theory, one should feel loyalty and a sense of belonging to the country one has grown up in, but homegrown radicalization questions this assumption and the ability of Western governments to help form collective identification with the nation they are representing.

Social isolation has been shown to impact our psychological well-being, our mental health and our behaviour towards ourselves and others. Multiple theories of radicalization also involve isolation or the perceived lack of embeddedness in society at large as one of the facilitating conditions, which might make individuals more susceptible to radical ideas. ISIS propaganda is partially designed to appeal to this group of dis-embedded young people and to fill the emotional void of a lack of belonging. In the context of nationalism, Benedict Anderson has shown that we construct collective identities based on so-called imagined communities. They are imagined, because we cannot possible know every member of that community, yet we feel a connection with them based on, for example, a common nationality. For jihadists, the imagined community is not the nation, but the ummah, the global community of Muslims. ISIS constructs this community as the only community for Muslims and based on this shared identification seeks to justify violence against anyone not belonging to this group.

There is a general trend caused by the forces of globalization to, on the one hand, make almost global identification with popular culture the norm and, on the other hand, to facilitate a tendency to identify with very restricted yet transnational communities such as the ummah. Anthropologist Scott Atran writes in his book Talking to the Enemy “together with a flat and fluid world, a more tribal, fragmentized and divisive world emerges as people search for social identity and greater sense of purpose“. ISIS provides precisely this sense of social identity and purpose to fight for the group one identifies with. The propaganda is aimed at creating the image of a global brotherhood of Muslims, which stand together and fight for a holy cause against the dark forces of the West. A classical Manichean narrative, which portrays ISIS as the champion of justice and other forces such as Western states or Middle Eastern governments as the embodiment of evil. All of us seek purpose in our lives and social isolation can call previous meaning-providing structures into question. Isolated individuals are therefore vulnerable to a narrative that emphasizes belonging and purpose simultaneously.

Because socially isolated individuals may be drawn to a strong narrative of collective belonging, both governments and civil society need to engage not only in counter-messaging, but in the construction of inclusive narratives and realities to decrease the number of people ISIS propaganda may appeal to. Aside from measures to include individuals through employment, volunteering, housing and other opportunities necessary to feel embeddedness and belonging, governments should initiate a discussion on collective identity. What does it mean to be British/Spanish/German in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society? It is not enough to ensure that everyone abides the law, civil inclusion must also have an emotional component of identification with the greater collective. As humans, we seek this feeling of belonging and togetherness and if it is put into question, the likelihood that we seek it outside of the national context, increases. It is a very difficult task for governments and needs to be done carefully in order not to appear to force a pre-made national identity upon the population. Identity building works best if facilitated by institutions, but driven bottom-up by those facing the diversity in their communities every day. The fight against terrorism has and will continue to dominate the political sphere, but governments are well advised to take community building, trust enhancing and identity building ‘soft power’ measures seriously in order to counter the emotional identity appeal groups such as ISIS display. In doing so, they do not only strengthen the health of the nation overall, but contribute to the long-term decline in recruitment power due to the ‘belonging’ component Winter identified.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Imagining 2030: Post-ISIS Middle East

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia

By Linda Schlegel. Linda is currently pursuing an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society at King’s College London.

While the ideological appeal of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) remains high as exemplified by the recent attacks throughout the United Kingdom, the group’s territorial base is constantly shrinking. It is too early to proclaim the end of the caliphate or the defeat of ISIS. After all, Al-Qaeda was believed to have vanished into nothing more than a ghost of the past, yet it continues to operate, albeit with changed organizational character. ISIS, just like Al-Qaeda, will not just vanish even if all territory held by the group was liberated. One does not simply defeat terrorism by physical force. ISIS as an idea and an ideal will continue to live on far beyond its physical manifestation.

Nevertheless, governments and civil society actors can and should prepare for the possibility of a Middle East with a much weaker presence from ISIS, and develop long-term solutions beyond the immediate military defeat of the group. The challenges in the region are manifold and the interests of powerful states such as the US, China and Russia make negotiations often conflictual rather than cordial. Many issues beyond ISIS will remain, such as the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Iran’s influence in the region or the post-war troubles in both Afghanistan and Iraq. One problem all parties will be facing equally, however, is the reintegration of those, who lived and fought under ISIS.

At its peak, ISIS controlled territory with over 10 million inhabitants. Current numbers are hard to estimate as territorial boundaries are constantly changing and the situation in Syria makes it impossible for the United Nations and other organizations to adequately assess the population size and the number of victims. Whatever the current numbers may be, it is clear that millions of people, who lived under ISIS rule will have to be re-integrated into their societies after the decline of the group. Returning foreign fighters are a problem by themselves with regards to re-integration in their home societies, but the problem will be even more pronounced in the Middle East and exacerbated by returning refugees. It is not feasible to incarcerate all those, who were forced to fight for ISIS and much less those, who perpetrated unlawful acts to simply survive under the extremist group. But how can one re-build a country where returning refugees live next to someone, who was part of an ISIS fighter group? How can the international community assist the people in Syria and Iraq to adequately deal with this situation? There are many different issues to be taken into consideration, but two possible measures are discussed below: a truth commission and de-radicalization.

The first question on the path to re-integration is whom to integrate and whom to imprison. ISIS territories, however, are currently unmonitored and it will be extremely difficult to trace crimes and violent acts to their specific perpetrators in retrospect. Therefore, a possible first step ought to be, the establishment of a truth commission. The international community has experience with this endeavour, for example in the case of South Africa after apartheid or Rwanda after the genocide. While high-ranking leaders of ISIS are likely to be tried in tribunals for crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations, low-level members of the organization are unlikely to be tried in this setting. A truth commission is a useful way of dealing with the foot soldiers before re-integrating them. It is useful for different reasons.

Firstly, it establishes an account of what happened, which is necessary in order to map-out atrocities committed. In chaotic situations such as under the rule of a terrorist organization, truth cannot be established, but in the aftermath actions can be traced back by a commission. Secondly, truth commissions are reconciliatory in nature. Rather than exercising a punishment, truth commissions place an emphasis on establishing an account of what happened and thereby aiding the process of closure for victims. They are also aimed at bringing victims and perpetrators together and to carefully re-establish relations, which is especially important considering that people of both groups need to be able to live together in order to re-build the country.

The second step needs to be some form of de-radicalization program for those, who were exposed to ISIS propaganda and may have come to accept some of it as their own world view. While Islamist groups will come and go, the long-term goal of the international community should be to counter the extremist ideology these groups spread. This may be especially relevant for children, who lived under ISIS rule and have been exposed to a high degree of ideological material and indoctrination. In many areas controlled by ISIS, TVs and other entertainment equipment were destroyed and substituted with public preaching and even military training for children of all ages. These children do not only need a de-radicalization program, but are likely to need counselling as well in order to put their experiences with ISIS in perspective and to help them overcome what they have been taught. While it is important to focus on the future and ensure that the children of Aleppo and other Syrian cities do not become a ‘lost generation’ by adequately caring for their psychological needs post their experience with extremism, it is just as important for a reconstruction of a society to de-radicalize adults.

As a first step, behavioural de-radicalization should be the goal; that is, giving up violent behaviour and the willingness to use violence to advance a political or religious agenda. This is the most important aspect to starting re-integration and the ideological component, the cognitive de-radicalization, can then be achieved in a long-term process through culture specific de-radicalization programs. Culture-specific, traditional measures to tackle local issues in the aftermath of conflict have proven to be successful, for example in the Gacaca trials in Rwanda. Many countries have experience with de-radicalization programs, for example in prisons, and this knowledge should be utilized to support Syrians in the restructuring of society.

ISIS cannot be proclaimed dead and perhaps never will be, but it is declining and therefore measures to re-stabilize the region post-ISIS can and should be discussed. There are many issues to be negotiated, economically, politically and socially, but developing an account of what happened as well as establishing some form of re-integrative program for local ISIS members are necessary steps towards a free and peaceful future for Syria. If the international community fails to support these steps, the countries affected will remain the cradle of terrorism and conflict regardless of whether ISIS will continue to exist or not.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.