By Yoan Vivas-Barajas
The last few weeks have redirected the conversation about terrorism, and the Islamic State has reinforced itself as public enemy number one. ISIS has been playing a defensive role, protecting its territorial expansion across the Middle East while spreading its sphere of influence across the globe. However, the recent attack on Paris illustrates a shift in strategy towards an offensive campaign, promising to refocus public attention on the destructive potential of what many consider to be rogue extremists. The Islamic State has spread its jihadist ideology far past the digital realms of Twitter (with thousand of active accounts) and into the hearts of cities around the globe, including Paris, Beirut (Lebanon), and Ankara (Turkey). The question then remains: are the United States and its NATO allies capable of effectively combating terrorism as it so rapidly evolves?
Another ground war with the Middle East seems increasingly likely in the wake of the recent surge in terrorist activity. However, bolstering popular and financial support for such a war will almost certainly be an uphill battle. 25 years of European defense budget cuts are reason enough to be concerned about their military unpreparedness. With the European continent recovering from the worst fiscal crisis since the global financial meltdown of 2008, defense spending has dropped severely. The bailouts of the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) have absorbed large portions of the EU’s budget, and therefore hindered military expenditures. As a result, NATO is not as strong as it should be. NATO agreements dictate that each member country should contribute at least 2 percent of their total GDP to defense spending. Only the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, Greece, and Estonia will likely fulfill this requirement this year.
In 2014, pressed by the Ukrainian political crisis, NATO members agreed to augment defense spending. This agreement did not seem to hold any influence at the time, but may now after the attack on European soil. The attack on Paris has called for a reassessment of how the United States and its allies will contain and eradicate the spread of Islamic State influence. Previous military efforts in Syria have largely excluded Russian intervention, a sort of punishment for the military aggression displayed by the Kremlin in Ukraine. However, French President Francois Hollande has cancelled plans to cut military spending in order to combat ISIS; France is now spearheading the effort to ally with Russia in a joint military campaign to eradicate ISIS. Russian President Vladimir Putin went from pariah to powerbroker in the ISIS narrative in a matter of days. After it was confirmed that a group affiliated with the Islamic State downed a Russian airliner flying over Egypt, Putin vowed to avenge the deaths of the 224 people on board. With augmenting Russian intervention in the Middle East, NATO will appear weak if they don’t act with the same potency.
The Syrian refugee crisis has also revealed the declining effectiveness of the United States and NATO. The four million Syrians seeking asylum have drawn concerns regarding the potential risk to national security. While it is evident that the Syrian refugees are fleeing terrorist threats at home, it is also clear that ineffective administration of these refugees could create an opportunity for future terrorist threats. If governments encourage anti-refugee sentiment, they may thereby breed anti-Western sentiment, which could pave the road for jihadist radicalization and eventual recruitment by ISIS.
Aside from practicing a policy of containment, the United States and its allies are also attempting to cripple funds being channeled to the Islamic State. The terrorist organization reaps approximately $500 million in oil revenue per year. Western efforts have been largely focused on deploying air strikes, targeting oil fields and other parts of petroleum infrastructure that fuel the Islamic State. However, the Islamic State has more than one source of income. U.S. officials have documented that the Islamic State has large assets besides their oil reserve. They are experts at fundraising by demanding ransom from the families of hostages; they also have an intricate sex-slave system and sizable amounts of fertile land. However, the NATO military has not focused its attention on preventing kidnapping, eradicating the sex slave network, or foolishly conducting airstrikes on farm fields.
The Islamic State has rooted itself deep in Middle Eastern soil. Intervention of the scope and scale required to effectively eradicate the Islamic State would be difficult to carry out. Both European and American citizens are dismayed by further ground campaigns as a result of their destabilizing effects in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the West’s cynical perception of Russia and hesitation to ally with them, it is inadvertently giving more regional influence to Putin. The West’s efforts to cut the funding the Islamic State receives via oil revenues have proved ineffective, as the Islamic State has other means of securing income. Meanwhile, the West has been unable to secure its own funds required to propel its own military influence in the region. As a result of financial and strategic ineffectiveness and the absence of a Western-led ground war, ISIS will likely continue to expand its idea of uniting Arab nations and creating a large hegemonic power in the region that could spread its extremists ideology far beyond the Middle East.