The other day I saw an item on a Dutch news show called Nieuwsuur, with Dutch senator and former military advisor to the UN Secretary-General Frank van Kappen that really struck me. I am usually one of the first to downgrade a statement being presented as an enormous threat to “life as we know it” and am always telling people to hurry up and relax already. This interview however, really gave me a sense of urgency I have never felt before. Not only because this man did not strike me as a populist fear mongerer, but also because it confirmed an uneasy feeling I have had for quite some time now and couldn’t really explain.
I have always been a politically interested person. Always read the news in the mornings and tried to be informed on the big issues in the world. Lately though, the news has left me highly frustrated and annoyed. Problems seem to be getting bigger and solutions more out of reach. I even admit to skipping the news all together on some days. Mr van Koppen was able to hold my attention though. His urgent message was somehow easier to swallow, and opened my eyes to the worrisome position of Europe and the turmoil growing all around it
For those of you who understand Dutch, I recommend you to watch the interview, which can be found here. For the rest of you, I will summarize what it was about and share some of the quotes that I translated.
The item starts with Obama announcing that the US wil send 300 military advisors to Iraq to help organize the Iraqi army resistance against the aggressively advancing ISIS. Frank van Kappen is asked to explain Obama’s dilemmas and what good 300 US military men can do in such an explosive situation. He speaks of the precarious balance Obama needs to keep to avoid being viewed as the “airforce of the shias” and with that, losing any support he had amongst the Sunni and other muslim groups.
Seeking to solve these issues diplomatically, steers them onto another tight rope. Van Kappen says:
What we need is a connecting figure that can unite the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. You need a unifying figure for that. El Maliki has proven he is not the figure. The problem is that you not only need to find someone that CAN [but] he would have to leave first, and that is not up to Obama.[…]
If you want to do this, you will have to talk to the neighboring countries as well. The Saudis, the Qatari, the Iranians; they all have their cards in the game. You need time for this kind of thing, time that he may not have because if ISIS runs over Baghdad, or if the Iraqi army falls apart […] there would be no more time for diplomacy to run its course. […]
I think that is the scenario he dreads, which is the reason why he wants to strengthen the effectiveness of the Iraqi army by providing them with good advisers.
Even though the Iraqi government is the one calling on the US for military help to help fight this threat, it is evident that “helping out” will always be an uphill battle for the Americans and never an open armed reception. Just days after Obama’s press conference, iranian ayatollah Khamenei reacted alarmed by rapid territorial gains made in Iraq by the militants of the Isis. At the same time though chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces ruled out working with the US to battle back ISIS.
Besides Iran, Iraq also shares a long border with Syria- which has its own major issues to deal with at the moment-, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. As Anthony Cordesman says on the CNN website, in an analysis of how to respond to the ISIS threat:
This highlights the risk Sunni Islamist extremists with past ties to al Qaeda will create an extremist enclave in both Iraq and Syria. This could make any hope of a serious moderate rebel force emerging in Syria impossible. It could create an extremist sanctuary that could threaten Jordan and the other Arab Gulf states, make the conflict between Sunni and Shiite even worse, and push the Iraqi regime closer to Iran in self-defense.
Van Kappen’s deep voice and calm demeanor helped level out the potential panic one could feel, coming to grips with the idea that we seem to be completely surrounded by madness, or as he puts it:
We are in the middle of some major shifts in power all around Europe. If you would look at the map today, you would see Europe is surrounded by instability, probably long term instability.
That is, from the Ukraine, to the Middle East, which is an area of vital importance to us, but also Nothern africa. If you see what is happening in Northern Africa, with Boko Haram and Al Shabab, these are all parties with ideas affiliated to the principles of ISIS. You can see that it’s not just northern Africa either, but that it is crawling south and that it almost touches the areas of instability in the area of the African great lakes. If that happens, then Europe is effectively surrounded by a ring of instability. That means that we haven’t seen the beginning of the flows of refugees that will reach us. All sorts of uncontrolled refugeestreams with all the consequences that go with it.
But also the economical consequences must be taken into account. If the Middle East falls into a large regional conflict, well then we will have to sail around the cape with our oil and there will be a situation that will be truly unpleasant. I am very worried about this and I wonder if it has the attention it deserves, on a political level.
I notice that we all look to the United States. The USA has the lead, but you can see that the Americans are weary of war. They really don’t feel for it and Europe, well, Europe can’t hit a dent in a pack of butter [Dutch expression]. We have a lot of soft power but we have absolutely no hard power. And soft power with no hard power to back it up has never startled anybody. So we are sitting here, looking at the Americans, but the Americans have had enough. However, you can’t afford to do nothing because it is a situation that is dangerous to an extent, – for the world as a whole, but especially for Europe- that we can not stand there with our backs turned to it.
We really will have to start thinking about what we are going to do about this….
Hmm…. I’m thinking about it alright, and I wonder if we have already reached that point of no return. I already feel the fear around me here in the Netherlands. The fear is intertwined with xenophobia and fueled by populists like Geert Wilders, which makes it all confused, but it doesn’t mean there is no threat to begin with. Where are we headed? In what way are these changes going to affect our day-to-day lives? Is there anything I can do, or is it really all up to the suits on the highest level of government? Not sure if that is more or less worrisome… It does take the matter out of my hands though. Any thoughts?