In 2016, the Islamic State (ISIS) lost vast territories in Iraq, Syria and Libya under a military onslaught from the United States-led Global Coalition against the group. While this is very positive news, without a clear political strategy to manage post-ISIS efforts, especially Iraq and Libya could quickly become breeding grounds for conflict and extremism, which would put even more pressure on European security and migration flows. Given the ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria, this risk is especially high for Iraq but the potential for renewed conflict in both countries is boosted by power rivalries between competing armed political and militia factions.
In recent years, the international community has learned that the efforts to counter terrorism without stabilization simply do not work. Without an ongoing international action to tackle the underlying political and economic conditions that gave rise to ISIS, a new wave of extremism and conflict will surely follow. Now, when the new US administration will likely invest less energy than its predecessors in boosting political stability in the region, the European Union should step in to fill the blank place.
According to analysts, Iraq will need increased efforts to further decentralization, pursue representative power-sharing, manage reconstruction and security sector reform as well as fill potential gaps in US-Iran channels. The EU will have to come up with a feasible timeline to gradually shift its humanitarian aid programs to economic development programs and promote job creation and long-term investment. European states will also push for greater transparency on government spending and oil exports.
In Libya, the EU should focus more on broadening the local and international coalition and supporting the UN-backed political agreement. Brussels should also increase economic recovery efforts on the reconstruction of Sirte and Benghazi, support deep reconciliation efforts among numerous factions, pursue military de-escalation and further scale up humanitarian assistance to Sirte and Benghazi, including de-mining. Further efforts should focus on the economy, including decentralization, and the conclusion of an economic deal to keep the country united.
So far, the Global Coalition against ISIS has focused disproportionately on the military dimension, although the prior international interventions, most notably the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 Libya intervention, show that flashing out an idea of how the post-conflict political process should come very soon after the military strategy is rolled out. Both cases also demonstrate that the post-conflict political process should be locally owned if it is to succeed, although the ISIS’ subsequent spread to Libya after its takeover of Mosul demonstrates that the West must also rely on regional political engagement.