Europe's stand against Islamic State is all about the home front

Europeans were solidly against intervention in the Middle East just a few months ago. Now they are lining up behind the US-led operations against the Islamic State in Iraq – in large part because they see the group as a domestic threat.

Parliamentary Recording Unit/AP
David Cameron speaks during a debate to decide on approval for air strikes in Iraq, in the Houses of Parliament, London.

The decision of four European countries to join France in battling the Islamic State in Iraq does not mean Europe is suddenly turning hawkish. All five countries, including the United Kingdom, have stopped short of striking Syria, and their decision to join the US-led coalition translates more into political weight than military power.

But the engagements of Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark last week underscore public revulsion by IS tactics and the fear that they could come “home” – something that is overcoming generalized European reluctance to engage militarily.

“Countries in Europe primarily view this as a homeland security issue more than a foreign intervention,” says Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar on European policy in the Middle East, at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. He says five willing European nations in support is a higher number than he expected, especially given criticism among some Europeans that airstrikes alone only begin to address the real threat of IS.

British lawmakers, after being recalled for a special session Friday, voted 524 to 43 to join the coalition to strike IS in Iraq. British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Britain staying out of things – as it did in the strike against Syria that was discussed last summer – was not an option. "This is about psychopathic terrorists that are trying to kill us and we do have to realize that, whether we like it or not, they have already declared war on us," he said.

Belgian lawmakers also voted overwhelmingly, 114 to 2, to join the coalition. And Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt announced that her country would send four planes and 250 pilots to support the fight in Iraq, saying that “no one should be ducking in this case.”  Earlier in the week the Netherlands said it would join as well.

Europe's concerns

Each of these countries feels directly threatened by IS. France, with Europe’s biggest Muslim community, and Britain have seen the most European nationals leave to fight in Syria and Iraq. Belgium has seen the only attack perpetrated so far by a suspect who fought in Syria, when four people were killed in May at a Jewish museum in Brussels. In general, Europe’s Muslim community is less assimilated than their American counterparts, and Mr. Pierini says that Europe fears not just the direct threat of jihadis, but their larger destabilizing effect on the social fabric of Muslim communities.

Because of this, publics have backed their government’s decision to intervene, especially as the threat has felt closer. A British public opinion poll by YouGov on intervention was split in August, with 37 percent in favor and 36 percent opposed to intervention. But the support surged to 53 percent after the beheadings of Western hostages, including a British aid worker.

In France, an IFOP poll on Friday showed that 69 percent approve of French intervention in Iraq, a 16-point jump in one week after the beheading of Herve Gourdel, the French tourist beheaded by an IS-affiliated group in Algeria. In fact, this intervention has garnered one of the highest approval rates for any French intervention in 20-plus years, according to IFOP’s figures. In 2003, support for intervening in Iraq was just 19 percent.

A recent Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of Americans support the US intervention in Syria and Iraq.

Spurred to action

Thus far, none of these countries has said they will join the US and Arab countries in striking Syria, in large part because Europe is afraid of bolstering the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A public backlash is likely if the conflict becomes protracted, and if land forces are ever needed.

But Europe is more “interventionist” than it was just a few months ago due to both the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the strife in the Middle East, says Philippe Droz-Vincent, an international relations expert at Sciences-Po Grenoble.

While Germany has said it won’t participate in airstrikes, it broke from its long noninterventionist policies when it armed Kurds in Iraq this summer. And in large part because of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash over Ukraine, which killed 196 Dutch citizens, King Willem-Alexander said that the Netherlands would earmark more money for the military – a reversal of Europe's demilitarization trend. "The MH17 disaster and the situation in Ukraine and the Middle East illustrate that in today's world everything is connected," the king said.

France has been leading the way in Iraq; on Sept. 19, it became the first to fight alongside the US. But Mr. Droz-Vincent is concerned that there is no strategy in place beyond airstrikes. It is not yet clear how the coalition intends to deal with the root causes fueling IS, including the resilience of the Assad regime, he says.

Nonetheless, the immediate "fight against barbarity," he says, has put the French and US, at least for now, on the same page.

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