SPECIAL REPORT: The EU is weighing a proposal to impose a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around a swathe of territory the size of the UK, that is controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.
Four million civilians are thought to be living under ISIS rule, often in dire humanitarian conditions, exacerbated by ethnic, religious and gender-based persecution.
Such vulnerable communities are only reached by a small band of NGO intermediaries at present.
“One proposal we are working on is for a cordon sanitaire around areas where communities are trapped by ISIS,” an EU official told EurActiv. “It would also allow us to control the flow of support that goes in to ISIS in these areas.”
The apparent beheading of a second US journalist by ISIS on 4 September was felt as “an electric shock” in Brussels, the source said, accelerating policymaking wheels, and pushing the regional crisis up the political agenda.
Humanitarian access to communities under IS control was already “super-limited and difficult and we don’t have many implementers of projects who are prepared to take this risk,” the official added. “We are very active in trying to channel aid to opposition-controlled areas but those under control of ISIS is much more complicated.”
The Commission’s EEAS foreign policy wing is working with member states on a comprehensive regional strategy to address the threat posed by ISIS - and Sunni extremism more generally. While this is focused on counter-terrorism measures, it contains humanitarian elements, too.
EU states will not officially talk to IS, which is also known as IS and ISIL, but some engage in dialogue through intermediaries to ensure humanitarian aid deliveries, and in the hope of gaining usable intelligence.
The UK government’s Department for International Development (DfID) is happy for NGOs that they fund to talk to ISIS about practical matters, such as ensuring safe passage.
DfID will even give advice and guidance to aid agencies on how to proceed. But payments to ISIS are considered “more problematic” and counter-terrorism legislation is strictly enforced.
Brussels too keeps an arms length from aid delivery operations in ISIS-controlled Syria.
“The EU has no relation with ISIL and will not establish any contact with this entity which is enlisted in the UN Al Qaeda list,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told EurActiv.
Some of the bloc’s regional partners still have access to areas controlled by armed groups affiliated to IS and worked in an “extremely complex environment,” Mann said. But the EU will not do so directly.
The Islamic State group is the richest terrorist group in the world, with a reported value of $2 billion garnered from black market contraband, racketeering, and crude oil trading to clients including the Assad regime, against whom the Jihadist group fights.
In just two weeks in June, the UN reported that ISIS had killed 757 Iraqi civilians as it advanced across three provinces in the country.
The threat of kidnap also hangs over Westerners who come into close proximity with ISIS. The third hostage threatened with execution in recent ISIS videos – a Briton named David Haines – is reportedly a humanitarian worker, and several agencies have withdrawn their non-essential staff from the region.
“To what extent should the EU should work with ISIS?” Vanders asked. “When you talk about the EU as a humanitarian actor it abides by the same principles as us, so the answer should basically be the same.”
A veteran UN aid official in the region who asked not to be named said that in broad terms, NGOs were right to try to access IS-controlled territory but that nuance was important.
“Those conversations (with ISIS) are very delicate and I’m sure that the NGOs are being very careful about how they are taking place, to make sure they are not misconstrued, and for their safety,” the official said.
“In Somalia and other places, eventually conversations do take place to allow access to the immediate beneficiaries of humanitarian aid. But in the context of development partners, it is a very tricky issue,” the source added.
“No-one in policy-making circles here believes that ISIS can be defeated in the short-term,” an EU source said. “It is going to be a long process.”