Tuesday

26th Sep 2017

Over the blue horizon

  • The Mediterranean Sea around Italy. Syria, Iraq, and Gaza aside, 2014 also witnessed: sectarian violence in Lebanon; Egypt ordering mass-scale hangings of opposition prisoners; violent anarchy in Libya (Photo: mediterranean)

On 24 May 2014, a lone man opened fire at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, a short bus ride from the EU institutions, killing four people.

On 14 September, a nameless two-year old girl was rescued by the Greek coastguard near Crete after floating in the sea for three days.

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Both are fragments of conflicts on the other side of the Mediterranean which got worse in 2014 and which will cause new problems for European counter-terrorist officers, defence chiefs, humanitarian workers, and diplomats in the year to come.

The Brussels gunman was a “foreign fighter”.

Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year old French national, was arrested carrying a gun wrapped in the flag of Isis, one of the Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria. He had spent 2013 training in Syria before using his French passport to get back into the EU’s borderless Schengen Zone.

Foreign fighters

The Syrian civil war has been going on for three years. It entered a new phase in 2014 when Isis seized control of large parts of Iraq, including revenue-generating oil facilities, and threatened to take the Kurdish capital Erbil and Baghdad. By the end of the year, Isis flags were spotted in Libya.

It also saw greater numbers of European Muslims - foreign fighters - attracted by Isis’ brutal vision of an Islamic Caliphate.

The US estimates there were between 2,000 and 3,000 of them in the region in November, many from Belgium, France, and the UK.

Meanwhile, the two-year old girl is thought to have come from Syria or Gaza.

She was one of about 500 people trying to cross the Mediterranean to claim asylum in Europe, most of whom had come from Gaza. Their boat sank when human traffickers rammed it, drowning almost everybody.

Sea-crossings

African, Asian, and Arabic refugees have been attempting the sea crossing for a long time.

The number of people who died trying this year passed 3,000, compared to 700 in 2013, despite EU and Italian search and rescue operations.

The number of Syrians keeps growing because almost 4 million people have now fled the country.

But the exodous of Palestinians from Gaza is a new element. It follows an Israeli land incursion in summer, which killed more than 2,000 people, and comes amid ever-harder living conditions due to Israel's blockade.

If Isis became a strategic threat in Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict also became more complicated with Israeli plans for new settlements which, if constructed, will mean there can be no two-state solution.

Palestinian statehood

The Isis surge prompted Barack Obama to order air-strikes in Iraq and Syria. Unlike the 2003 Iraq war, the US did it as part of a coalition of 60 states, including the main EU and Arab powers.

But the US leader warned at a Nato summit that the nature of Isis, which is an ideology as well as a movement, means it will take “years” to stop.

The hardening Israeli position also prompted an EU reaction: threats of mini-sanctions, such as labeling of settler goods in European shops, and a wave of non-binding motions in European parliaments calling for recognition of Palestinian statehood.

But diplomats say European frustration will amount to nothing unless the US, Israel’s security sponsor, tries to restart Arab-Israeli peace talks.

Commenting on this year’s developments in Europe's southern neighbourhood, one senior EU contact said: “There’s only one thing you can count on in the Middle East: It always gets worse”.

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