The terrorist attacks in Brussels will have an imminent impact on Europe’s approach to the myriad crises stemming from the Middle East.
People light candles at a memorial set up outside the stock exchange in Brussels on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Photo: AP
Multiple explosions rocked Brussels’ airport, Zaventem, and Brussels’ subway on the morning of March 22, leaving over 30 people dead and over 150 injured.
The horror and shock of these attacks is compounded by their timing: they transpired despite the fact that Europe is on the highest terror alert in years. After the Paris attacks last November, security and anti-terror measures have been increased across Europe, and it is discouraging that terrorists were able to perpetrate yet another attack on a European capital within less than five months.
Terror in the heart of Europe will bring serious consequences for the continent, its approach to terrorism and related issues like the refugee crisis, the security of EU borders, the Syrian crisis and instability in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Anti-refugee feelings in Europe
The attack on Brussels plays straight into the fear rhetoric peddled by Middle East refugee-skeptics. The refugee crisis, which has become a critical issue for the European Union and has spurred a hot debate over EU borders and freedom of movement, is likely to be affected first. The anti-refugee sentiment will likely rise, reinforced by tighter security measures. While European capitals express their solidarity with Belgium and outrage at the attacks, the security alert has already been raised across Europe.
For some time, there have been numerous reports warning that uncontrolled refugee flow from the Middle East to Europe threatens EU security. The central argument is that jihadists are free to infiltrate Europe under the guise of refugee status and live among Europeans preparing terror attacks.
According to a report released by the Soufan Group, an international strategic consultancy firm, about 470 fighters from Belgium joined the ranks of jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, while over 5,000 European foreign fighters have joined extremist groups there.
Therefore, it is possible that anti-refugee feelings in Europe will continue to rise and the EU will try to adapt more cautious policy towards migrants from the Middle East.
— Ali H. Soufan (@Ali_H_Soufan) March 22, 2016
Furthermore, armed with the knowledge of what such xenophobic fear can fuel, terrorists might pursue that very reaction from Europe – to cause the rise of anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiments in Europe to spur more chaos and instability within the European Union.
The EU’s anti-terror approach
The attack on Brussels will invariably affect the way Europeans think about and shape their security. The second largest terrorist attack in five months in a European capital on such sensitive infrastructure, the airport and subway, greatly increases the likelihood of persuading EU members to re-consider their strategy to the fight against terrorism in the Middle East.
The terrorist attack on Brussels can be extrapolated as an attack against every European city: no one can feel safe now; even at a time of harsh security measures, such barbaric attacks were conducted, almost flaunting the very security measures imposed to prevent them from happening.
After last autumn, the terror attacks in Paris motivated France to enhance its fight against terror in Syria and Iraq; it responded by deploying its naval forces off the Syrian cost and launching airstrikes against terrorist targets.
Not surprisingly, French President Francois Hollande was the first European leader to publicly express his solidarity with Belgium and concerns after the explosions rocked Brussels. “Through terrorist attacks in Brussels the whole Europe has been hit,” Hollande said, urging the entire continent to take the necessary steps against the imminent threat. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said, "We are at war. We have been subjected for the last few months in Europe to acts of war."
As with Paris, the Brussels attack has the power to again unify the EU members and bring them to ramp-up their policy against the situations in Syria and Iraq to try to stem the flow of violence on European soil.
It is worth noticing Moscow’s reaction: After condemning the attacks and offering condolences, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, stated that the current practices of double standards applied by certain countries in the fight against terrorism have regrettable outcomes. “One can’t divide terrorists into good and bad, one cannot support terrorists in one region (like North Caucasus and the Middle East) and expect that they won’t come into other parts of the world,” she said.
In such circumstances, Russia is likely to use the moment and bolster its attempts to create a full-scale anti-terrorist coalition with Europeans while bridging the differences in the fight against jihadists in Syria. As the first such attempt to establish anti-ISIS coalition with France after Paris attacks failed, today is a tactical moment to repeat such move.
— Government of Russia (@GovernmentRF) March 22, 2016
This time, Europe is more likely to tilt towards closer cooperation with Russia on Syria against jihadist groups there. The EU just experienced the second terror attack in five months which makes it more vulnerable and more inclined towards reassessing its policy towards cooperating with Russia.
The EU-Turkey rift over migrants and terrorists
In the light of the finally inked deal between the EU and Turkey on prevention on the refugee and migration movements stemming from the Syrian war, Ankara will no doubt use the attacks in Brussels to negotiate a more strategically advantageous deal with the EU.
Turkey might demand more money in assistance and more preferable terms for its citizens to travel to the EU. It may also use the attacks to criticize European reluctance to fight terrorism factions in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Syrian Kurds whom Ankara considers responsible for the recent terrorist attacks in Turkey.
On March 18, 2016, Erdogan delivered a speech in which he overly expressed his disagreement with the EU approach to the fight against terrorist groups and dealing with migrants. “There is no reason for the bomb, which exploded in Ankara, not to explode in Brussels, where an opportunity to show off in the heart of the city to supporters of the terror organization is presented, or in any city in Europe. Despite this clear reality, European countries are paying no attention, as if they are dancing in a minefield. You can never know when you are stepping on a mine. But it is clear that this is an inevitable end,” he said, referring to the PKK and the March 13 terror attack in Ankara, which killed at least 35 people.
Just over a week later, the March 22 terrorist attacks in Brussels exploded amidst one of Europe’s toughest periods — dealing with fallout and consequences of the financial crisis, refugee crisis, and emerging centrifugal processes within itself. This pull between internal cohesion and external threats is why today’s attack on Brussels will either unite Europe and help it to come through the hard times or weaken it further.