Making Mosul Great Again

The writing is on the wall. In a matter of days, the rejuvenated Iraqi Army will begin its long-awaited assault on Mosul and the political struggle for the soul of northern Iraq will commence. What’s not apparent to many observers is that the military seizure of this ancient city of 1 million people is assured; Mosul will fall. If the capture of Mosul goes “well”, the Government of Iraq will be in a strong position to broker a stable political balance in the north. But if the assault bogs down, all interested parties will begin hedging their bets about the future. Either way, Mosul will fall, and when it does, the divergent interests of Turkey, Iran, the United States, and Russia will come into play making this historic city the lynchpin in a global struggle over the future of the Middle East.

Strategic Mosul

The 2014 fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forced both Washington and Tehran to make strategic decisions. The Iraqi Army’s defeat in the north left only a thin line of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters between ISIL and the Kurdish capital in Irbil. If ISIL had managed to take Irbil they would have shattered the Kurdish diaspora into four distinct parts, forced its people into exile in Iran and Turkey, and obliterated the federated nature of the modern state of Iraq. With no consensus and no army, Iraq would have been helpless to prevent victorious ISIL formations from moving swiftly down the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in a final, decisive assault on Baghdad. There is little doubt that Iran would have intervened to prevent this, a circumstance that would quickly provoke a massive Saudi response leading to state-on-state Shia vs. Sunni warfare.

Strategic Mosul
This map shows what the situation could have been after ISIL seized Mosul in 2014. If ISIL had taken Irbil, the Kurds would have been exiled and Baghdad threatened.

Faced with this abysmal possibility, both the United States and Iran acted quickly. America rushed to rebuild the Iraqi Army and initiated an air war against ISIL that continues to this day. Iran moved to bolster President Assad’s forces in Syria and to mobilize the Shia population in Iraq. Disagreeing with Tehran on the acceptability of the Assad regime but seeking ways to cooperate against ISIL, the Obama Administration made a series of compromises on Iran’s nuclear program. Sensing an opportunity, Russia started its own war in Syria and made good on long delayed deliveries of advanced anti-aircraft systems to Tehran. Freed from American sanctions and safe under the umbrella of Russian top cover, the Iranian mullahs had a green light to continue their nuclear program and intervene openly in both Iraq and Syria.

Ottoman Style

Outmaneuvered and seeking to relieve pressure on Iraq, the United States pushed Kurdish allies in Syria to attack west from their stronghold near the Iraqi border. When the US-backed Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) — which Turkey considers the military wing of its mortal enemy, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) — crossed the Euphrates river and seized Manbij in August 2016, Turkey responded by invading the Syrian border town of Jarabulus, destroying its ISIL garrison, and threatening the SDF flank. Though militarily insignificant, the seizure of Jarabulus sent a defiant message to the United States that Turkey would not accept a unified Kurdish homeland on its border. The lack of a US policy on the future of the Kurds has continued to paralyze American decision making for months and shapes the scheme of maneuver for the upcoming assault on Mosul.

Having embarked on a policy of direct intervention, Turkey is now exerting itself militarily across the region. President Erdogan, seemingly without consulting his advisors, announced in September that the Turkish Army would take part in any effort to seize ISIL’s capital Raqqah, particularly if that effort involves the SDF. Turkish military involvement would complicate coordination of the operation and vastly increase the risk of fighting between Kurds and Turks during and after the battle. Implementing this would be so difficult that the move seems designed to prevent the battle from ever taking place. Erdogan is now doing much the same with regard to Mosul, threatening to invade Iraq if Shia militias are employed to isolate the city or if the Peshmerga enters its outskirts. Ominously, he makes sectarian arguments to justify his threats.

Power Play

The Russians continue to take advantage of the situation, playing to Erdogan’s narrative of fear and working to patch up a relationship strained by the November 2015 shoot down of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish Air Force. American paralysis and Turkish concerns about the SDF gave Russia and Syria space to abrogate a shaky cessation of hostilities in September, achieving tactical surprise in eastern Aleppo and making a Kurdish move against Raqqah even less likely. At this point, a Kurdish deal with ISIL to protect the SDF southern flank is not hard to imagine; a development that would enrage Turkey and stiffen ISIL’s defense of Mosul. If the Iraqi assault on Mosul bogs down and Russia and Syria manage to achieve a breakthrough in Aleppo at the same time, we could see a general Turkish offensive all along its border from Mosul to Manbij supported in the west by a Syrian seizure of Raqqah. This could isolate the SDF and leave Russia, Turkey, and Iran masters of most of Kurdistan.

The United States is left with few good options. Its hopes for Mosul rely upon the effectiveness of a reconstituted Iraqi Army which is performing miraculously well but will have to operate without help from the Peshmerga that must remain outside the city. The Iraqi Army however, a largely Shia force, is not ideal an ideal tool to control what has long been a Sunni outpost. This lends a great deal of urgency to creation of a more suitable constabulary that can stabilize the great city; what US planners call the “Wide Area Security Force”. Given that some front line Iraqi units are operating below 50% strength due to combat losses, recruitment will be only the first challenge.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s relationship with its western allies is now in tatters. The failed coup in Turkey allowed President Erdogan to consolidate his power and resulted in the ongoing purge of the Turkish military. That purge, and the Obama Administration’s refusal to extradite the coup’s alleged mastermind, Fethullah Gulen, has hamstrung the relationship between the US and Turkish militaries at a time when cooperation against ISIL is at a premium. The crowded airspace over northern Syria and Iraq illustrates how dangerous this disconnect can be: the Turkish Air Force remains off the Coalition’s order of battle and is therefore dangerously uncoordinated. American diplomats, eager to keep Turkey out of the Mosul fight, are limited to leveraging NATO to shape Turkish actions in Iraq; an unlikely and inefficient political approach that in better times would have been easily managed at the military to miliary level.

In the coming days, there will be a convergence of interests in Mosul, the scope of which has not been seen since 750 AD when the Abbasids defeated Marwan II near there, effectively ending the Umayyad dynasty and casting the Muslim world into a cycle of vengeance. To an extent, the fortunes of an army of Iraqi replacements will determine the future stability of Iraq, Turkey’s relationship with NATO and the United States, and the scope of Russian and Iranian influence in the Middle East. Though none could have foreseen the dramatic political events that have brought us to this point, we can all agree that they have made Mosul great again.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC 

Tangled Conflict: Thailand

The Western media does not understand the bombings in Thailand.

On August 12, 2016, a series of thirteen bombs killed four Thai nationals and injured 35 people in the popular tourist towns of Hua Hin, Surat Thani, Phuket, and Trang. Thai officials claim this is a continuation of the Islamic separatist question in Thailand’s deep south, though the investigation is still underway. A quick search of articles about the bombings in Thailand will provide a myriad of articles that suggest the bombing is an indicator of an unpopular military regime or that Muslim extremism has spread throughout Southern Thailand. In reality, the bombings are just a small bump on the long road of conflict between ethnically-Malay Muslims of the Greater Pattani Region of southern Thailand and the Thai — Buddhist — controlled national government. 

In a narrow sense, the bombings highlight a regional displeasure with the 2016 constitution referendum vote. More broadly, however, they emphasize the international community’s neglect of the substantive issue, specifically Thai ethnic policy that some researchers suggest has contributed to the deaths of nearly 7,000 people since 2004. The media, in search of a reason for the bombings that confirms Western bias against Islam, disregards the complicated geographical and historical context which drives this conflict. Thai ethnic policy, responsible for the creation of the Thai nation-state and its successful independence from Western colonialism, is paradoxically also the catalyst for unrest. 

Context is Everything

Although the attacks threaten to affect one of Southeast Asia’s largest economies, Thailand’s greater problem is one of national unity. The Thai government believes the cohesion of the country rests on the strength of a national identity to unify the varied ethnic groups in peripheral regions where ancient historical relationships determined cultural identity. Until the 1850s, many people living within the boundaries of Thailand (or Siam) did not identify themselves as Siamese but rather by the identities of former kingdoms or villages. For example, some in the present North Region still identify with the Lanna Kingdom, while the Khmer Empire still influences the present East Region. Religion and mother-tongue, derived from these kingdoms, further shapes that dynamic.

The Greater Pattani Region’s Center-Periphery Geography. Photo Credit: Author via Google Earth.

Like the other peripheral regions, the Greater Pattani Region is culturally and ethnically distinct from its Thai/Siamese neighbor to the north. In Greater Pattani, 83% of the population speaks Pattani-Malay (Yawi), while only 13% speak the Central Thai Dialect. The religious distinction of Greater Pattani is even more acute, with 94% of the population identifying as Muslim, forming an Islamic island in an overwhelmingly Buddhist Thailand. Historically a Muslim Sultanate, the Pattani Region paid tribute to the Siamese Ayutthaya Kingdom (1350-1767). The Pattani Sultanate maintained relative autonomy due to center-to-periphery distance from Ayutthaya and the Nakhon Si Thammarat mountains that physically isolate the region from the rest of Thailand. The series of Burmese-Siamese wars from 1547-1701 allowed the Pattani Sultanate to accumulate prestige and wealth as a regional trade center until the Chakri Dynasty of Siam subordinated the Sultanate in the 1700s.

European colonization drastically changed the political environment in Southeast Asia by the late 1800s. Fearing external influence, the Thai government, under King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), instituted a civic reform in 1906 that delimited provinces and districts and replaced local leaders with central government representatives that spoke only Thai. This reform sought to unify Thailand’s own ethnic identity through enforced standards of linguistic, educational, and religious behavior; standards that further alienated Greater Pattani. Though many Pattani-Muslims hoped to represent themselves in the newly-created Thai National Assembly, their participation was deterred by policies that required Muslim officials to have Thai names, prohibited their Muslim attire, enforced a nationalist curriculum in all school systems, and subjugated Islamic courts to provincial governors.

Missing the Target

The bloodless revolution of 1932 ended 700 years of absolute monarchical rule in Thailand, but was a missed opportunity for integration. Several social activist groups including Gabongan Melayu Pattani Raya — GAMPAR — (1944) and the Pattani People’s Movement — PPM — (1947) came into being in the politically turbulent aftermath of the Second World War. Tensions worsened in 1948 when approximately 1,000 Pattani-Muslims attacked Thai National Police forces at Dusun Nyor, Narathiwat resulting in the death of 400 attackers and 30 police officers. As Thai ethnic policy remained firm, Pattani-Muslims created more separatist groups including the Betubuhan Perpaduan Pembebasan Pattani (PULO) in 1968 and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) in 1974, both of which relied upon violent attacks and assassinations to advance their separatist agendas.

Seeking to quell the violence from separatist groups, Prime Minister Prem Thinsulanond instituted a number of social programs, including the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC) in 1981. Though these measures provided an outlet for grievances and were largely successful, local administrators heavily abused and misappropriated funding. In 2004, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a northerner, terminated the SBPAC claiming the southern insurgency had mostly dissipated. SBPAC’s closure however undermined what leaders of the Pattani Region viewed as a social compact between them and the Prem administration.

The Greater Pattani Region and Major Counterinsurgency Incidents. Photo Credit: Author via Google Earth.
The Greater Pattani Region and Major Counterinsurgency Incidents. Photo Credit: Author via Google Earth.

A cycle of violence ensued. In January 2004, 30 Pattani-Muslim separatists attacked a Royal Thai Army (RTA) post killing four soldiers and stealing a large quantity of weapons. In response, Prime Minister Thaksin declared martial law and deployed 3,000 Soldiers that were ill-prepared for operating in the unique ethnic and linguistic landscape. Four months later, they raided the Krue Se Mosque in Pattani killing 32 suspected insurgents. Not long after, security forces killed seven demonstrators in Tak Bai. Seventy-eight others were crushed and suffocated during transportation to detention. The Prime Minister inflamed tensions when he controversially claimed their deaths were due partly to fasting during Ramadan. Insurgents responded in kind, beheading a Buddhist deputy village chief in Narathiwat and conducting other retaliatory attacks that encouraged the government to steadily increase troop numbers. Today, despite a twelve-year counterinsurgency campaign, 60,000 RTA troops and police now occupy the region of 11,000 square kilometers. Assassinations, ambushes, and improvised explosive device attacks occur regularly with no end in sight.
Thai Soldiers protecting civilians during a  bombing in Pattani, 2011.

Prospects for Reconciliation

Despite displeasure towards government policies, relatively high voter-turnout rates suggest southerners still yearn to be part of the democratic process. Unsurprisingly, Greater Pattani presented the strongest opposition to the draft constitution in Thailand’s August 6, 2016 vote. In Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat, most citizens opposed the new constitution due to concerns about Article 67, which allows the state to “promote and support education and propagation of principles to protect Buddhism”. For many Pattani-Muslims, this signaled a perpetuation of oppressive policies that began in the early 1900s. Reconciliation hinges on southern participation in the Thai National Assembly and reassurance or compromise regarding Article 67 of the Constitution.

A solution to this situation is not obvious and requires concerted effort to ensure that any accommodations for the south are in keeping with national interests. The Thai government must thoughtfully consider any concessions, such as granting autonomous status to  Greater Pattani, that might result in the North and East Regions petitioning for similar concessions. A more successful approach may be the decentralization of the national government in order to allow the provinces greater opportunity to represent themselves — a major policy shift for a government with a strong preference for centralization. Proof of democratic commitment, and consequently Pattani reconciliation, hangs in the balance until the 2017 election. Until the Thai government takes deliberate but delicate steps to disentangle the conflict, flashes of violence will continue to disrupt development and discourage tourism and external investment.

A New Weapon in the South Atlantic

In 1982, a continuing dispute over a few small, sparsely populated islands in the South Atlantic became the catalyst for a brief war between Argentina and the United Kingdom, resulting in a decisive British victory.  Paying tribute to the long and complicated history of these islands, Museo Las Malvinas (Malvinas Museum) is located on the grounds of the former Naval Officer Mechanic School and is now one of the newest and most prized museums in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. Since its opening, the museum watchtower has maintained vigil over the main highway running through Buenos Aires, proudly displaying the word “Sovereignty”, and reminding commuters of Argentina’s enduring ambition to govern these otherwise undistinguished islands in the South Atlantic.

According to the March 2016 United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), the Falklands/Malvinas lie within Argentina’s maritime borders. Thirty-four years after fighting to keep the islands, the British see this as a new threat to their continuing sovereignty over the islands and their surrounding waters. Learning from past mistakes, Argentina has introduced a new weapon in the struggle over the South Atlantic –not a machine of war, but a potentially more terrifying and effective tool: lawyers.

Argentina's claimed territory around the islands. UNCLCS acknowledged that the islands are within Argentina's EEZ in March 2016. Photo Credit:
Argentina’s claimed maritime territory in the South Atlantic.                                                                           Photo Credit:


The struggle for sovereignty of the islands is nearly two centuries old. English Captain John Strong discovered the islands in 1690 and the first British settlement followed in 1766. For decades  British control of the islands waxed and waned during multiple international wars, no easy feat as the Falklands/Malvinas are located a daunting 7,939 miles from London and a mere 415 miles east of the Argentine city of Rio Gallegos. Finally in 1833, after several disputes with the fledgling Argentine Confederation, the British solidified control and have maintained their hold on the islands despite the expense of supporting the territory over such a vast distance. With only 2932 English residents, the Falklands/Malvinas are one of the most expensive foreign territories per capita in the world.

The pursuit of sovereignty over the Falklands/Malvinas was a costly decision for Argentina’s military dictatorship. In 1982, daily strikes by labor unions and anti-government supporters were a result of the loss of confidence in the leadership of Lt. General Leopoldo Galtieri who had assumed command of the junta after a 1976 coup that deposed President Isabel Perón. Unemployment rates were skyrocketing, and the inflation rate ballooned to more than 600 percent.  In an effort to distract the population from the collapsing economy and to restore national pride and support for the government, Galtieri ordered the invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas on 2 April 1982.

The initial days of fighting saw great success for the Argentine military. The first 4,000 soldiers arriving on the islands met minimal resistance and quickly took control, raising their flag over the captial city, Port Stanley. Their victory ignited strong nationalism, pride, and support for the military by ordinary Argentines that flooded the streets of every city in the country. The military government fostered this sentiment by publishing propaganda and positive reports promoting the success of their military. Triumphant claims —“Estamos Ganando” (We Are Winning) graced the covers of newspapers and magazines nationwide.

Across the Atlantic, the British government rapidly prepared a response force to take back the islands. Less than three weeks after the initial invasion, the UK launched a counterattack with more than 120 ships, 160 aircraft, and multiple Special Air Service (SAS) and commando units. The British quickly gained the initiative, and by 14 June 1982 the 3-month war was over. In the end, a little more than two months of combat resulted in the deaths of 648 Argentine, 255 British service members, and three civilians. Most of the Argentine casualties –and the fighting spirit of the Argentine Navy– lay at the bottom of the Atlantic with the ARA Belgrano, sunk by a British torpedo.  The islands have remained securely in Britain’s hands ever since.

Black Gold

A few months after the war, the international community legitimized the British presence in the South Atlantic. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of Sea established the limits of the continental shelf and solidified British rights to the water and resources surrounding the Falklands/Malvinas. In 1998, after tentative discoveries 20 years earlier, the British began drilling the first offshore oil wells, discovering large reserves in the area with two fields, Sea Lion and Isobel Elaine, thought to hold half a billion barrels of recoverable oil each. These, and many other repositories around the islands, have the potential to make the tiny population there one of the richest communities per capita in the world.

The discovery of oil intensified debate on both sides of the Atlantic but the situation on the ground remains quite complex. Though a majority of Argentines believe that the Falklands/Malvinas belong to Argentina, multiple referenda reveal the actual residents of the islands want to remain under the British crown. Citing concerns about stability and security, the British maintain a substantial military presence that includes strike aircraft, warships, and more than 1,300 service members. The Argentine government sees the presence of such a large and active military force as a threat and has argued this point continuously and unsuccessfully to the international community.

UNCLCS decision of March 2016 includes the islands within Argentina's maritime borders. Photo Credit :
UNCLCS decision of March 2016 includes the islands within Argentina’s maritime borders. Photo Credit :

Changing the Game

In 2015, Argentina began to use a different approach that avoids direct confrontation with Britain. Filing a petition with the United Nations, the Argentine leadership decided to pursue international arbitration to prove the islands reside within the maritime territory of Argentina. In March 2016, after more than nine months of debate, the CLCS extended the maritime territory of Argentina by 35%. By doing so, the UN acknowledged Argentina’s claims that the Falklands/Malvinas lie within its maritime territory.

Victorious on the battlefield and secure on the basic question of governance of the islands, Britain now faces an unusual challenge to its supremacy in the South Atlantic –an internationally-arbitrated legal battle over resources. Historically committed to international cooperation and the rule of law, the UK would face significant challenges should it choose to ignore the UN, especially as doing so would set a precedent for other states looking to circumvent international arbitration.

Argentina may not yet have achieved the lofty goal of “Sovereignty” as displayed atop the watchtower at the Las Malvinas Museum, but it has found traction in pursuing a legal resolution to the territorial dispute. Now more than ever, the Falklands/Malvinas are an economically and strategically significant territory for the UK, and it is unlikely Britain will let the islands go easily. However, after nearly two centuries of struggle, the balance of power relationship in the South Atlantic may finally shift to favor Argentina thanks to a new tactic that neutralizes the otherwise superior power of the British. Perhaps the pen is truly mightier than the sword.

Jon NielsenCPT Jonathan Nielsen is a U.S. Army Infantry Officer with combat experience in multiple countries in the Middle East and extensive multinational training experience. He is currently attending the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires as part of the George and Carol Olmsted Scholar Program. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense,  or the Olmsted Foundation.

The Spark to Redefine “Europe”

The results of today’s referendum in the United Kingdom present an unprecedented situation for a strained European Union. For the first time in its history, a member state voted to leave the Union. In an organization that grew exponentially, the exit of a powerful contributor will force remaining nations to make some tough choices. The UK will also need to make some hard decisions about how to move forward outside of “Europe”. Needless to say, the Brexit will not be an easy process for anyone.

The UK has historically played balancing role on the continent, but this referendum represents a decisive departure from Britain’s neighbors and a vote of no-confidence in the European Union. Eurosceptic voters of the UK have many reasons to want to sever ties with Brussels: the aftermath of the economic dysfunction made manifest by the near-miss of the Grexit, the inconsistent and frantic response to the refugee crisis, and the resurgence of a bold and unpredictable Russia. British voters, however narrowly, ultimately lost faith with the European Project.

In choosing to leave the union, the UK has lost its privileged position as one of the leaders of a modern, unified Europe. Great Britain had a unique position in the Union as one of the only states with a balance of political, economic, and military might – a position it built over the decades through active diplomatic and economic engagement in continental affairs. It was arguably the most independent of EU members, enjoying many of the benefits of Union membership without the risks of the Euro, or the borderless society of the Schengen Agreement. Britain’s options for influencing the continent are now weakened, and the benefits of Union membership lost –a unilateral disarmament of what was once a formidable diplomatic and economic arsenal.

Centrifugal Force

Europe had a lot to lose from a British exit. Strong and independent Britain played a stabilizing role: ensuring no single country –namely France or Germany– could push a unilateral direction upon the EU. It was a role only the UK could play. Italy and Spain are prone to economic and political instability; the Low Countries and Scandinavia, though economically formidable, do not have the clout or muscle needed to balance their larger neighbors; and the Višegrad economies of Eastern Europe are too new, many with elected governments more interested in moving away from Europe than towards it. Germany is the de facto leader of the EU, which is a source of great discord among the smaller, more economically-vulnerable nations that do not appreciate Chancellor Merkel’s heavy-handed style or the historical aftertaste of German leadership.

Though division within the EU is not new, the departure of its great offshore stabilizer starts the political centrifuge spinning. Right-wing leaders in France, and the Netherlands are already demanding independence referendums of their own. Spain’s call for dual-sovereignty of Gibraltar is a sign that some disputes between the UK and other EU member states may reemerge after being held dormant by a spirit of intra-Union cooperation. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, prominent leaders in many of the EU’s major nations called for their nations to follow Britain’s lead.

Not surprisingly, independent-minded regions within European nation-states will also ride the winds of change to clamor more loudly for their independence. In a bizarre twist, Scotland may have voted to remain in the EU, but may not want to stay in a non-EU Britain. No doubt Basques and Catalans in Spain will watch closely if a second independence referendum takes place in Scotland, and aspiring EU members in the Balkans are unlikely to tolerate a long and painful application process while the more developed countries are voting to leave.

The Brexit may well be the spark that brings about the dissolution of the European Union. Its erosion and potential breakup would deprive its member states of a useful venue for cooperation to solve common problems; an international political situation closer to 1914 than 2016. At a time when transnational issues are more relevant than national ones, it is not at all clear why European leaders are divesting themselves of international tools to deal with them. Europe should take a moment to reflect on its fractured past.

Opportunity in Discord

As noted European diplomat, Victor Angelo recently predicted: Europe will survive Brexit. What is not clear is whether the EU or the UK will survive their divorce intact. Perhaps the Union grew too quickly, haphazardly attempting to unify the continent in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, pushing “Europe’s” borders ever outward. In this manner, Brussels hardwired weaknesses into the future unity of the European Union.

But, as I’ve said before, there is opportunity in crisis. Challenges can break a weak union or strengthen a strong one. Perhaps this is the kind of shock Europe needs to wake up and implement further democratization and a unified fiscal policy towards a federal union. Any other course could doom the entire project to failure, and erase all the good Europeans have built, together.

Nick Avila Associate Blogmaster, Navisio Global. Brexit.LT Nick Avila is a U.S. Naval Officer and Olmsted Scholar in Belgrade, Serbia. He received his B.A. in History with a focus on American Diplomacy from Amherst College in 2008. He is an MH-60S helicopter pilot by trade and has military experience from two deployments in the western Pacific to include operations in Guam, Japan, and Australia. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the US Navy or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.

With or Without the EU: Brexit and Security

On 23 June 2016, the voters of the United Kingdom will decide the fate of their country’s relationship with the European Union. “Brexit” — a blend of “British” and “exit” mirrors Greece’s aborted “Grexit”, and is a term fraught with volatility and prone to demagoguery and abuse in public discourse.

One major issue is the net effect of European Union (EU) membership on the security situation in the United Kingdom. The question is not whether Britain is better off with or without the EU, but whether its security situation will change in any meaningful way. Despite conventional wisdom, Brexit will probably not have a significant impact on Britain’s national security at all, for better or worse.

Realistic Brexit Fears?

A host of personalities, politicians, and experts of all stripes have commented about Brexit’s consequences, both for the UK and the EU. Sir Richard Dearlove, former Director General of MI6, believes the impact would be minimal, and that Europe gets more from the UK than the UK receives from Europe. Sir Dearlove bases his position upon the demonstrated utility of the UK’s bilateral security relationships worldwide which eliminate dependence on EU institutions. On the other hand, the Director of Europol, Rob Wainwright, a former British law enforcement officer, claims Brexit would make it harder for the UK to protect its citizens from terrorism by adding, rather than removing barriers for cooperation. Unfortunately, declarations on both sides correspond more with domestic political interests and a desire to shape public opinion than with reality, leaving the British population confused about the real pros and cons of EU membership on their security.

Sensing this, Prime Minister David Cameron addressed the United Kingdom’s strength and security as a EU member state during a 9 May speech at the British Museum in London. He highlighted four reasons the UK should remain in the EU: to lead from a position of strength in Europe, to maintain a spirit of collaboration with European neighbors, to develop closer security cooperation between member states, and because he believes the EU amplifies Britain’s power by allowing it to influence other EU countries. This special position enables the UK to achieve its strategic goals by placing its interests among the top of EU priorities.

Though his points were important, Prime Minister Cameron probably exaggerated the benefits of EU membership in order to make his case. He presented his arguments with sensationalism, repeatedly suggesting Brexit would automatically weaken defenses against terrorist networks such as Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). He claimed that some useful tools like the European Arrest Warrant, the Schengen Information System, and membership in Europol, would be unavailable should Britain leave. These statements certainly misled some to believe Brexit will prevent extradition from EU countries or prohibit British access to EU information and intelligence despite numerous examples of effective cooperation of this type with non-EU nations.

To Brexit or not to Brexit?
Britons struggle to decide where their country stands in relation to the rest of Europe. Photo Credit: Patrick Chappatte, International New York Times.

Cooperation Outside the EU

International cooperation in law enforcement and security is based on solid bilateral relations between states. International organizations augment this cooperation with capabilities that may be unavailable to some members. This occurs in both a regional context, via EU agencies like Europol or Frontex, but also globally, with Interpol or various United Nations agencies. These organizations provide mechanisms for diverse cooperation agreements ranging from operational ones that include the exchange of personal data, to technical or strategic agreements with third parties that provide benefits for “full members” of the organization.

These organizations do not limit these benefits just to their member nations. Europol, for example, has cooperation agreements with eighteen non-EU states including the United States of America, Switzerland, and Australia, among others. Most of these important partners have full access to available data of an operational or strategic nature. For example, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is a participant in the Europol Focal Point Travellers agreement, a sensitive program that collects and distributes intelligence from participants in order to facilitate the search for “foreign fighters”. Leaving the EU would not affect such programs nor weaken cooperation between British and European security organizations.

The Sky is Not Falling

All UK citizens, including Northern Irish and Commonwealth citizens over eighteen who are resident in the UK, and UK nationals living abroad but who have been on the electoral register in the UK in the past 15 years, will be eligible to vote in the referendum. These voters will determine the destiny of one of the strongest players in international security. Yet, when the referendum is held on 23 June, citizens of the UK should be aware that leaving the EU will not have the impact on their internal security that some of their leaders claim.

Though leaving the EU is arguably not helpful for Britain’s continued security against terrorism and organised crime, the UK’s strong bilateral relationships on security affairs will not be diminished and would continue to operate effectively. What is important for Britons, is that no matter how they vote later this month, their country’s strong relationships with its neighbors and other international organizations is the real source of Britain’s security and will continue regardless of the nature of its relationship with the EU.


Victor Perez Sañudo is a Spanish Law Enforcement officer with more than two decades of professional experience in international cooperation working for the UN, NATO, EU and OSCE. Victor has been Project Manager in relevant EU projects for law enforcement agencies, like the European Explosive Ordnance Disposal Network (EEODN) and the EU Bomb Data System (EBDS) among others.


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