Fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have occupied large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, threatening the stability in the Middle East, terrorizing local communities and committing atrocities against ethnic and religious minorities. A broad international coalition, which include Belgium and Singapore has been formed to counter ISIS. With close to 12,000 fighters from around the globe joining ISIS – including significant numbers from Europe and Southeast Asia – countries are looking into the issue of radicalization in their societies, how they can stop citizens from joining ISIS, and what to do with those who return.
H.E. Didier Reynders (Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium) spoke about the fight against ISIS, and how policies can be crafted to address the issue of foreign fighters beyond the scope of military action. This event took place on 26 November (Wed), 4.30pm – 5.30 pm at the SIIA premises, 60A Orchard Road, #04-03, Tower 1, The Atrium@Orchard.
This event was also covered by Channel NewsAsia. The video can be viewed at http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/belgium-can-learn-from/1495340.html
Event Report by Charles Chia
Singapore and Belgium as Partners in the International Coalition Fighting ISIS:
What are the Conditions for Success?
Public Lecture by H.E. Didier Reynders, Belgian DPM and Minister of Foreign Affairs
The EU Centre in Singapore and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs co-hosted the Belgian delegation, led by Deputy Prime Minister His Excellency Didier Reynders, to a closed-door roundtable discussion with prominent scholars and researchers in the field of counter-terrorism and political violence. Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, the newly-appointed Executive Vice Chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and former ASEAN Secretary-General, chaired the roundtable.
This was followed by a public lecture on the role of Belgium and Singapore in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). H.E. Reynders began the standing room-only lecture with a background of Belgium’s role in the counter-terrorism struggle. Belgium joined the international coalition against ISIS (which now numbers 60 countries) with an understanding that everything was interlinked. He emphasised that this was not a war against Islam or even Sunni Islam, and ISIS was not just a threat to Iraq and Syria, but a threat to common humanity. He reiterated that this was not a war of the crusaders and Jews as sometimes portrayed. The majority of ISIS victims are moderate Muslims, while Christians and Yazidis and other religious minorities faced persecution.
H.E. Reynders noted that the military operation is only a small part of the broader strategy. It is equally important to look into the financial mechanisms to limit and stop the funding to ISIS and its allies. Moreover, arms control had to be strengthened to prevent the smuggling of weapons to the conflict zone. Strong relationships with Turkey and other regional neighbours had to be built upon and international information sharing in intelligence and terrorist financing increased.
ISIS has been able to prosper at multiple levels and it was crucial to identify why. Sunnis Muslims had been excluded in the Iraqi political process and this backdrop facilitated the rise of ISIS and gave it an attractive appeal. H.E. Reynders noted that it was worrying to hear that things have not yet changed in a meaningful way on the ground. He noted that the Syrian opposition to Assad was manipulated by external parties to divide itself, resulting in the fragmentation of groups and weakening of the moderate military opposition. ISIS also managed to push through their radical agendas amidst international paralysis caused partly by Russia’s veto power.
H.E. Reynders stated that Belgium supports UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura’s proposal for the creation of a freeze zone in Aleppo which was an important first step to a more inclusive political settlement in the country. He stressed that it was urgent to rebuild trust and hope, as well as to address the fears which minorities have.
H.E. Reynders observed that Jordan and Lebanon were particularly fractured by ISIS and these countries remains fragile. 30 per cent of Lebanon’s population are now Syrian refugees and this has created an economic imbalance amid growing tension. Lebanon has thus attempted to avoid further fragmentation by limiting the number of refugees. Belgium could not support this limitation in principle as it is against international law but H.E. Reynders acknowledged the difficulties faced by Lebanon and the need to do more to assist these neighbouring states.
Turning to the phenomenon of foreign fighters, H.E. Reynders highlighted the diverse sources of these fighters – including from Russia, Bosnia, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Belgium and Singapore shared a similar assessment that mere military might would not resolve the conflict – a political solution is necessary to tackle the violence. H.E. Reynders spoke approvingly of the passing of resolution 2178 (2014) by the United Nations Security Council in September. He supported the exchange of best practices and the need to understand the underlying motivations of these fighters, and each country would have to find its own answer. The fight against the radical ideology will take time, perhaps more than a generation as youth needed to have a positive vision of society.
H.E. Reynders was a personal witness to the threat of ISIS as he was in the neighbourhood at the time of the shooting in the Jewish museum in Brussels by a returned French fighter from Syria. He said that preventive action was critical and that Belgium will continue to investigate and monitor foreign fighters that have left and came back. 170 Belgians are thought to be in Syria, 40 had been killed while another 100 have returned to Belgium. A new unit has been set up to counter radicalisation with local strategies aided by local actors in civil society; counter-narratives and information documents have also been developed to propose ways for Belgians to help Syria without heading there to fight. The radicalisation of some individuals while in detention should also be analysed and monitored.
H.E. Reynders concluded in noting that Singapore’s example in combating Islamic radicalism was interesting. He appealed to the audience’s responsibility as human beings to contribute to the cohesion and tolerance of societies, explaining that peace agreements and projects were not enough and that local and community actions need to be strengthened for people to live better together.
The Q&A segment saw brief discussions on the role of Russia, social media intelligence and the broader socio-historical context of Middle East intervention. H.E. Reynders argued that Belgium was trying its best to fight against hate speech without sacrificing freedom of speech. Legal frameworks needed to have limits. Belgium currently holds the Presidency of the Council of Europe and is using its position to push for monitoring and action on ISIS. The integration of Muslims in Europe and Belgium has not been a perfect success but substantial progress has been made. H.E. Reynders highlighted that ASEAN has similar issues but there is mutual respect and neighbours try to live together in peace. H.E. Reynders admitted he did not have all the answers on how to solve the issues. While history explains part of what is happening now, he once more stressed that common humanity and our interdependence calls for our actions to respond to what is happening around us.
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