Where Europe Stands in the Fight Against ISIS


The November 13 attacks in Paris initiated a much-needed national security review by European governments. The attack, taken together with the ongoing migrant crisis, has sharpened perceptions of vulnerability to terrorist attacks across the EU. Europe’s proximity to the Middle East has not been so problematic since the early twentieth century decolonization of the region, which led to the creation of the state of Israel, the Sykes-Picot agreement, and the Algerian war. After signs from French President Hollande that the attacks, and subsequent attempted attacks, would spark a re-evaluation of European roles in the fight against ISIS and military investment more broadly, some of the momentum has faded, largely due to the unresolved conflict in Syria. This backgrounder reviews the contributions of key European allies to anti-ISIS efforts and how they have changed as a result of the Paris attacks.

France (military spending as percent of GDP, 1.8)

  • After the United States, France has been the most active militarily and politically in the fight against terrorism. French domestic and foreign action has taken place in three waves: first, as part of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition starting in September 2014; second, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, and finally after the Paris attacks in November 2015. France’s tough legislative push began in September 2014, when the National Assembly and Senate adopted a bill, locally dubbed the “French Patriot Act,” that included: 1) a travel ban on individuals suspected of planning acts of terrorism, 2) enabling authorities to block websites that glorify or instruct such acts; and 3) punishment for individuals on the basis of assumed terrorism. The first French strikes commenced shortly thereafter in Iraq under the name Opération Chammal. Until the Paris attack, France led only 3% of strikes in Iraq using six Mirage and six Rafale jets stationed in the UAE and Jordan.  Since November 2015, France has stepped up the number of strikes to just below 100 per month, putting them at around 7% of strikes in Iraq.

  • France began limited air strikes in Syria in September 2015, the only European country to do so until the UK’s December vote to participate. Although data is scarce, the combined contribution of U.S. allies to strikes in Syria is about 6% according to airwars.org.

  • Since the November 13th attacks in Paris, France has redeployed the Charles de Gaulle carrier and its 26 fighter jets against ISIS, significantly increasing its action in Syria and specifically targeting Raqqa, the defacto ISIS capital. French President François Hollande’s controversial vision of leading an international coalition against ISIS encompassing the U.S., Russia, Iran, and the Assad government, has led to a new drive to expand the military. The government plans to recruit 40,000 new military reservists by 2019 to serve on a part-time basis for at least three years.
  • The attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015 justified a tougher set of domestic security laws. France passed a new surveillance law in May 2015 that allowed authorities to collect metadata on calls without first obtaining a warrant, a key difference from the U.S. Patriot Act, which is limited by judicial oversight. The bill also allows domestic agencies to surveil and install cameras in the homes of suspects. France had planned a reduction in security personnel but reversed its decision in light of the attack. Under Operation Sentinal, France has expanded domestic security personnel to 10,000 to protect 682 sensitive sites inside the country.
  • France will also suspend a cut in defense personnel until 2019 and is actively strengthening the military’s operational wing as well as its cybersecurity and intelligence services. The country claims that 5,000 new staff will be employed for the police and paramilitary gendarmes.
  • France has been lobbying other European countries, particularly Germany, to increase intelligence sharing as a counter-terrorism strategy. France and Belgium have already upgraded joint intelligence and policing measures.
  • France is under pressure from the EU to cut its budget deficit, which it now claims it won’t be able to do under additional national security spending. The desire to increase their budget deficit likely motivated France to invoke the Lisbon Treaty over Article V of NATO after the November 13 attack, thus validating France’s claim that defense is a national and European priority that trumps fiscal discipline.

Great Britain (military spending as percent of GDP, 2.1)

  • The UK’s actions in the Middle East were until recently restrained by Parliament. David Cameron was slow to bring authorization of strikes against ISIS in Syria after his failure to achieve enough votes to authorize strikes against Assad in 2013.  During this time the RAF flew non-strike missions, such as surveillance missions, in Syria.  However, the November 2015 Paris attacks helped to mobilize some support within the opposition Labour party, propelling the vote 397-223 in favor of expanding airstrikes to Syria after a 10.5 hour debate in Parliament. Recently, David Cameron spoke with Vladimir Putin, agreeing to cooperate in the fight against ISIS, although he indicated his government’s belief that Assad must be removed from power.
  • Since the Paris attacks, the UK has offered France the use of RAF Akrotiri airbase in Cyprus, a site 300km from Syrian territory for refueling and emergency runway. Britain has eight Tornado fighter-bombers at its base in Cyprus, and after Parliamentary authorization, eight more RAF bombers were said to be taking off from Britain to reach the base. U.K. bases are also looking to add additional aircraft, increasing the number of missions British pilots can fly over Syria and Iraq daily.
  • More broadly, the UK has sought to arrest the decline in its defense posture of recent years with the publication of its Strategic Defense and Security Review last month. Most analysts agree that this is a step in the right direction for the UK, but the policy still depends on implementation.
  • The UK participated in the U.S.-led coalition of 2014 in Iraq, but contributed only 6% of airstrikes there—a contribution second only to the United States. Perhaps this fact best demonstrates how poor Europe’s contribution has been overall.

Germany (military spending as percent of GDP, 1.2)

  • Germany’s response to the November 13 attack reveals a growing trend away from its strict policy of non-offensive military action, a move starting with its participation in the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan in 2001. Germany’s contribution to the anti-IS coalition includes six Tornado fighter jets for reconnaissance purposes, refueling aircraft, a frigate and, most notably, up to 1,200 troops—what would be its biggest postwar deployment to date. The measure, put forward by the current government, received strong support in the Bundestag with a vote of 445-146. Germany’s participation in the 2014 coalition included supplying some arms and training to Kurdish fighters.
  • In March 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel asked parliament to increase defense spending by 6.5% over the next five years. According to reports, she hopes this additional spending will encourage the U.S. to increase its engagement in Europe’s nearby security challenges. In January 2016, she began a push for even greater defense allocations, citing the attack in Paris and the recent deaths of ten German tourists in Istanbul.
  • In September 2014, Germany passed a law banning the distribution of propaganda material promoting IS, the display of the group’s symbols, or participating in activities connected with the group. The ruling has allowed Germany to prosecute citizens who incite domestic support for the group or travel to Syria and Iraq to support them.

Italy (military spending as percent of GDP, 1.0)

  • Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has been more reluctant to commit troops to the anti-ISIS coalition in the wake of the Paris attacks. Instead, he has vowed to boost domestic security and invest in cultural measures as a counter to ISIS’ ideology. In meetings with Hollande, Renzi emphasized the threat posed by Libya, but again denied the possibility of an intervention. Last month however Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni indicated that Italy may be willing to play an increased role in Libya after a ministerial-level meeting in Rome takes place in early February 2016 to discuss developments in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Italy’s willingness appears to hinge on the existence of some acting government in Libya.
  • This month Italy agreed to allow American drones to strike ISIS in Libya from their Naval Air Station Sigonella on the island of Sicily. However, Italy demands that the U.S. restricts its actions to those purely for defense, for example protecting U.S. special operations in the country. The U.S. is lobbying Italy to allow offensive strikes against ISIS training camps.
  • Italy has participated in the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq since September 2014. Its contribution consists of four Tornado fighter jets, a fleet of unarmed drones, and a KC767 refueling aircraft, all of which are operated by 140 pilots and ground staff from an airbase in Kuwait.

Netherlands (military spending as percent of GDP, 1.2)

  • The Dutch have participated in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq since October 2014. They have 260 personnel and six F-16 fighters, playing the fourth largest role in Iraqi airstrikes after the U.S., UK, and France. To date, they have contributed to 5% of strikes in Iraq. The parliament recently voted to expand airstrikes to Syria.

Denmark (military spending as percent of GDP, 1.2)

  • Like the Netherlands, Denmark has played an outsized role in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, which it joined in October 2014.  The seven Danish F-16 squadron carried out 547 missions over northern Iraq during its 12-month mission, dropping an estimated 503 bombs, according to Danish government data.
  • The country had not planned to redeploy the F-16 squadron to the Middle East until the second or third quarter of 2016 after their deployment in Iraq until September 2015. The Paris attacks changed this timetable, and the squadron could now be redeployed in the first quarter of 2016. The Danish foreign minister is seeking parliamentary approval to expand its operations to include Syria.

Belgium (military spending as percent of GDP, 0.9)

  • Like France, Denmark and the Netherlands, Belgium also participated in airstrikes against Iraq in October 2014. With two F-16 based in Jordan, Belgium contributed to 5.2% of allied strikes and 1.6% of strikes in total in Iraq. Belgium was the first country to officially declare the end of its support for the coalition in July 2015.

Turkey (military spending as percent of GDP, 1.7)

  • Turkey joined the anti-ISIS coalition in June 2015 but has proved an unreliable partner for the U.S. and its Western allies. Less than one percent of the airstrikes it has flown since August targeted ISIS and the rest targeted the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Now, Turkey appears to be actively working at direct odds with U.S. anti-ISIS strategy, having attacked Kurdish groups in Syria—the same groups that the United States recently armed and counts among its “capable partners” who will serve as part of the new efforts announced by Secretary Ash Carter.
  • However, recent ISIS attacks inside Turkey, such as a bomb killing 28 in Ankara, the bombing of a PKK rally, and a suicide attack in Istanbul that killed 10 German tourists, have contributed to an uptick in strikes against insurgents.
  • Turkey has also been accused of regularly supplying weapons and funds to anti-Assad fighters—many of them now ISIS fighters—and allowing foreign fighters to join their ranks by permitting their transit through Turkey.
  • Finally Russian operations inside Syria and its volatile relationship with Turkey—after the country shot down a Russian fighter jet that entered its airspace—have made the situation more complex. Both Russia and Turkey accuse the other of aiding and abetting ISIS. Turkey also claimed Russia was behind the Istanbul suicide attack. And Russia’s military support of Syria’s Assad further antagonizes Turkey, as does the growing role of Iran in the Middle East.

Poland (military spending as percent of GDP, 2.2)

  • The recently elected Law and Justice (PiS) Party has announced significant increases in Poland’s military and the scale of its defense spending in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.  It has also asked for much greater NATO presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, which could have resources implications for the ISIS fight.
  • The new government has resisted pressure from the EU to accept refugee quotas from the Middle East.
  • While focused primarily on Russia, the government is considering a greater role in the fight against ISIS.