Transatlantic Take

Europe’s Fight against ISIS: A New Security Leadership?

May 12, 2015
Steven Keil
Derek Chollet
4 min read
Photo credit: SubstanceTproductions /

WASHINGTON—Late last month, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle steamed into the Persian Gulf to join the fight against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While little noticed in the United States, the de Gaulle’s arrival significantly enhances what France is bringing to the fight. Already a key contributor to the anti-ISIS coalition, France’s carrier-based operations will significantly reduce the flight time of aircraft striking targets in Iraq. When the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, visited the carrier with his French counterpart last week, French officials said that as many as 15 Rafale fighter jets take off from the de Gaulle each day to conduct combat missions.

The presence of France’s flagship carrier in the Gulf has a special resonance, especially when considering the bitterness between the United States and France over the Iraq War a decade ago. And French participation in the campaign against ISIS reflects a much-welcomed — and for many in Washington, underappreciated — trend. For years, senior U.S. officials and experts have traveled to European capitals and followed a well-known script to ask for greater burden-sharing in security and defense. To be sure, many of these concerns remain. European defense budgets remain underfunded, too many commitments go unfulfilled, and the capabilities gap continues to widen. U.S. leadership remains indispensable, and it is still responsible for the lion’s share of the effort against ISIS in Iraq (roughly 75 percent of strikes as of early January).

But the characterization of Europe as irrevocably pacifist or weak is more cartoon than reality. In fact, with so many European countries being willing to make meaningful military contributions in the fight against ISIS, we seem to be witnessing a new, more muscular European security leadership. This trend has unfolded quietly during the past several years, with new signs of willingness in Europe to take risks and act decisively. Four years ago this month, France and the United Kingdom joined the United States to lead the charge to impose a no-fly zone in Libya, and many other European countries (such as Denmark, the Netherlands, and Italy) made vital contributions to the campaign. In 2013, the French led the effort to stem the unraveling of Mali, keeping the fragile country out of extremists’ hands. And today, in Afghanistan, roughly 5,000 European troops maintain a presence to help train, advise, and assist the Afghan government.

When the ISIS menace exploded last summer in Iraq, European leaders stepped up without any pressure or cajoling from Washington. Many of them took political risks to get involved, going to their parliaments to get support. Today, France, the U.K., the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark are taking part in direct airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. Germany sent 40 paratroopers to conduct weapons training in Iraq last fall, and Kurdish fighters are also being trained in southern Germany. The U.K., Spain, Portugal, and Italy have also sent or committed troops for the training effort. France, Germany, the U.K., the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, and Albania have provided direct military assistance, while many others have provided monetary support. The specific, and particularly significant, shift in Germany’s posture was underscored by Chancellor Angela Merkel last August when she stated that “it’s no option for us to simply stand aside.”

Of course, such military resolve has exposed serious shortcomings. In Libya, Europeans needed the United States to destroy air defense systems and attack radar and communications, and they ran short of precision munitions a few weeks into the campaign (which is why today, both U.S. and European militaries are taking steps to ensure they have sufficient stockpiles). In Mali, French forces needed help refueling their own aircraft and had to turn to the United States to supply and sustain their efforts. And against ISIS, few European militaries can conduct direct strike operations — they all rely on the United States for targeting — and no European country is striking targets in Syria.

What is perhaps most challenging is that the campaign against ISIS will not end anytime soon. The real test over time will be in sustaining European capabilities, resources, and public support, which will be impossible if Europe turns inward. As Dempsey said this week during a visit to Iraq, what is needed is strategic patience. To maximize effectiveness and efficiency, transatlantic partners need to focus on enhancing and integrating capabilities, particularly in target acquisition.

Europe’s role in the anti-ISIS coalition, even if modest, shows that it understands the threats to its security and is ready to run risks to act against them. At a moment when so much of the transatlantic conversation has been consumed by the Ukraine crisis (and the differences over whether to provide Ukraine with lethal assistance), Europe’s willingness to engage militarily in the Middle East often gets overlooked. So credit is due. But while Europe has stepped up so far, will it be willing and able to sustain it?