We have recently seen some of the most intense fighting in Syria since the civil war started five and half years ago. Aleppo has been under heavy bombardment. The attack on Raqqa has just begun, and in Iraq the long-planned campaign to retake Mosul is under way.
It is the fight against the terrorist organisation ISIL that will be the main subject of this address. However, we should remember that the Syria conflict started with people demanding freedom and their leader’s readiness to use brute force to stop them. This conflict has now lasted almost as long as the Second World War. It has cost thousands of lives and caused millions of people to flee their homes. Fundamental principles of international humanitarian law are constantly being violated. The repercussions are being felt not only in Syria and the region, but also in Europe and the rest of the world. The country is being destroyed, and we are witnessing mass flight, radicalisation, terrorist attacks and the failure of the international community to take action.
The fight against ISIL is part of a global fight against violent extremism. We have a duty and a moral responsibility to fight ISIL and extremism. I would like to thank you for this opportunity to give an account of Norway’s efforts in the fight against ISIL. This address will discuss:
- How ISIL has gained a foothold in Syria and Iraq;
- Our humanitarian efforts in the region;
- Norway’s contribution to the global coalition against ISIL, including our military contribution;
- And finally, the political developments in the region and the main challenges ahead.
The conflict in Syria started as a popular uprising against the current regime nearly six years ago. Today, Syria has become a battleground for power struggles between regional players.
On one side, we have the Syrian regime, supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
On the other, we have a number of opposition groups and militant rebel forces that are supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, among others. These are actors that have different interests, and may even be in conflict with one another.
The balance of power between them is in constant flux. This all makes the situation unclear and challenging.
The civil war in Syria has created a window of opportunity for radical groups like ISIL. ISIL has exploited the conflict in Syria to gain control of parts of the country, primarily in the east. Meanwhile, the parties to the brutal civil war are operating in other parts of Syria and fighting ISIL is not their main concern. The fight against ISIL in the eastern parts of Syria and in Iraq is therefore quite distinct from the fighting elsewhere in Syria.
ISIL has evolved in a region that has been destabilised by poor governance, political oppression and sectarian tensions. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have contributed to creating the largest flow of migrants and refugees to Europe in recent times.
It is estimated that around 300 000 people may have been killed in the Syrian conflict, but it is not possible to establish the exact figures.
We have recently been following the campaign to free Mosul, ISIL’s most important stronghold in Iraq. It was in Mosul that the leader of ISIL announced the creation of the so-called caliphate more than two years ago.
Since then, the civilian population have lived under ISIL’s reign of terror. We have heard reports of horrific abuses.
The Yazidi girl Nadia Murad’s harrowing account of how she was taken captive and abused by ISIL rebels for several months is one example. Many women and children are still being held captive in Iraq and Syria. Civilians in Mosul are being used as human shields.
ISIL spreads terror, fear, intolerance and hatred. They have no mercy – for anyone. They use people both as a means to an end and as direct targets in their campaign of violence.
The humanitarian crisis in the region is acute. It is difficult to imagine the suffering being endured by the civilian population.
In Iraq, there are still around 3.4 million people who have fled from ISIL. More than 10 million people need humanitarian assistance.
After ISIL began to lose ground in April 2015, more than 900 000 internally displaced people in Iraq have returned to their homes, according to the UN. Their journeys home have been fraught with danger. ISIL has laid mines and explosives on roads and in residential areas, schools and hospitals.
The UN estimates that the number of people in need of emergency aid in Syria will reach 13.5 million by the end of 2016. Of these, 6 million are children, and 6.5 million are internally displaced. In addition, more than 4.8 million Syrians have already fled the country. The figures are overwhelming, and it is easy to lose sight of all the individuals behind them.
In 2016, the Government has provided a total of NOK 300 million for humanitarian efforts in Iraq. High priority is given to mine clearance. So far this year, mine clearance efforts supported by Norway in the country have made it possible for 2 100 people to gain access to their homes.
Norway also supports several organisations that are helping victims of gender-based violence, including Yazidi women and children.
Norway is playing a leading role in the global humanitarian efforts in Syria. We are the fifth largest humanitarian donor country to Syria and the neighbouring countries. We are providing NOK 10 billion over a four-year period. So far we have disbursed or signed contracts for more than 90 % of our contribution for 2016.
Norway was one of the initiators of an international donor conference for Syria, which was held in February. It mobilised a total of USD 12 billion, which is a historically high figure. But we must do more. More countries need to contribute. Meanwhile, the initiators have been working systematically to ensure that the funds pledged are actually disbursed.
International donors have committed themselves to providing a total of USD 6.3 billion in 2016. This is 5 % more than was originally pledged. Figures from October show that around USD 4.7 has been disbursed so far this year.
We must prevent a generation of Syrian children from growing up without an education. Education is crucial for rebuilding societies destroyed by war. One important outcome from the Syria conference is enhanced cooperation with Syria’s neighbouring countries on education for Syrian refugees. I met some of the Syrian refugee children when I visited Lebanon and Jordan last year. The stories they had to tell were heartbreaking. We must help to ensure that these children have a future.
Norway promised to earmark 15 % of its humanitarian aid to Syria and the neighbouring countries for education. We have exceeded this target, and around 20 % is now earmarked for education. This funding is channelled through UNICEF, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children, and has helped to ensure schooling for 360 000 Syrian refugee children aged 5-17 in Jordan and Lebanon.
In line with humanitarian principles, we and our partners give priority to providing help where it is most needed. Our partners are working in complex and difficult conditions. In order to gain access to the civilian population, it is often necessary to negotiate with the regime or with armed groups that control the area where aid is needed. As a humanitarian actor, it is important to be impartial: our role is to help the civilian population affected by the conflict, regardless of where they are and where they come from.
This is an extremely challenging task when the situation is as politically charged as it is in Syria.
In order to reach the areas where the needs are greatest, our humanitarian partners are dependent on having contact with the parties to the conflict. This does not mean that they support any of them. This is a matter of fundamental humanitarian principles, which Norway defends and promotes in all settings – not least in Syria and Iraq.
All the parties to the conflict have a duty to comply with the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law. We cannot accept targeted attacks on hospitals and schools, such as those we have seen for some time in Syria. It is unacceptable that health workers are targeted as they carry out their life-saving work, and that pupils and teachers are killed in attacks on schools.
Those guilty of war crimes must be held accountable. Norway has supported organisations that document violations of international humanitarian law in Syria.
This documentation can later be used in legal processes at national or supranational level.
Norway is one of the countries that has requested the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
The UN Security Council has made it quite clear: the international community must take all necessary steps to put an end to the destruction caused by ISIL. Norway has responded to the call to take part in this effort.
Over the last two years, the Government has contributed to the fight against ISIL on many fronts. Our main contribution has been through the international coalition to counter ISIL, which was formed in 2014. This is a broad coalition of 67 countries and organisations, involving both Western countries and countries in the region.
The coalition is following five lines of effort:
- Stopping ISIL’s financing and funding,
- Impeding the flow of foreign fighters,
- Providing military support,
- Countering ISIL’s propaganda, and
- Stabilising liberated areas.
I will now give an account of our contribution to these efforts.
Let me begin with the effort to stop the flow of financing and funding.
Illegal sales of oil and taxation of the energy sector have, for a long time, been ISIL’s main source of income. ISIL has been able to attract foreign fighters with promises of high pay levels and good conditions.
By means of carefully targeted attacks, the coalition has reduced ISIL’s access to financing. Norwegian experts are involved in the analysis of ISIL’s sources of financing, especially those relating to the oil and energy sector. The aim is to continually improve the methods for blocking ISIL’s sources of income.
As ISIL loses control of territory, its sources of income are being significantly reduced. It is therefore to be expected that ISIL will find other forms of terrorist financing.
In December 2015, Norway stood together with 67 other countries behind the UN Security Council resolution to expand sanctions against individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities that support ISIL. Norwegian regulations require Norwegian actors, especially banks, to play their part in this important work.
Let me give a more detailed account of Norway’s military efforts.
I would like to start by underlining that whenever Norwegian troops are deployed abroad, this has to be in accordance with the rule of law.
Our military presence in Iraq, and that of our allies, is in response to a request from Iraq for assistance in defending the country against attacks carried out by ISIL. We are contributing as part of a broad coalition, with the consent of the Iraqi authorities.
The basis in international law for the use of military force against ISIL on Syrian territory is the right to collective self-defence of Iraq, under Article 51 of the UN Charter.
Moreover, UN Security Council resolution 2249 recognises that ISIL constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security. The resolution thus provides support for a legal basis under international law for the use of force, based on Iraq’s right to self-defence.
Over the last two years, a Norwegian military training team has trained security forces in the Kurdish areas of Iraq with a view to developing their capability to support the fight against ISIL. We are also providing medical personnel for the coalition’s hospital in Erbil.
The military training programme in northern Iraq has had good results. There is now less need for training in basic military skills at the training centre in Erbil. We will therefore reduce our efforts at the centre, as the Storting has already been informed.
However, the Iraqi forces still need support at other locations than Erbil. The Government will consider requests for military assistance from the Iraqi authorities and the coalition in the usual way, which includes consulting the Storting.
The Iraqi authorities have also asked to cooperate with NATO on capacity-building, but the finer points of any such cooperation have not yet been settled.
In May, the Government decided to step up its military efforts in the fight against ISIL. It was decided that an additional contingent of around 60 soldiers would provide training, advice and operational support to local Syrian groups fighting against ISIL. The Norwegian forces are based in Jordan, and are now participating in Operation Inherent Resolve.
The Norwegian forces have a mandate to train, advise and provide operational support on Syrian territory if this is called for by the concept of operations.
The situation in the areas where the Norwegian forces are operating is changing fast. This is a difficult operation in challenging and chaotic conditions. We are following developments closely, and the Norwegian forces are assessing the situation on an ongoing basis in order to carry out their assignment effectively and in line with the mandate they have been given.
The local groups that are receiving assistance from Norway have to undergo a vetting process. This is demanding work that has to be carried out on a continuous basis. That is one reason why we are sending some of our most experienced soldiers to carry out this work. Nevertheless, let me underline that we can never have any absolute guarantees as to where the loyalties of the various local groups will lie in the future.
A key condition for the support is that their operations are directed against ISIL, and that it does not undermine the ongoing process to achieve a political solution in Syria.
Mechanisms have been established at the operational level between the coalition and other relevant groups that are fighting ISIL, to make sure that the various actors do not come into conflict with each other.
The Norwegian troops are under coalition command, as is normally the case when our forces participate in international operations. However, Norwegian control is maintained, in that we still have the overall command of the troops. We have Norwegian staff officers in all relevant headquarters and at all levels of command. As always, the Norwegian force commander holds the national ‘red card’. This ensures that none of our contingents will be used in a way that conflicts with their national mandate.
The soldiers we send are well prepared and have extensive experience of working on this kind of mission. Norway’s contribution is highly valued by our allies in the coalition.
In the interests of the security of the Norwegian forces and other forces, I cannot go into any detail on the operation the Norwegian forces are taking part in. The Government gives priority to briefing the Enlarged Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence as fully as possible, and will continue to do so.
The military efforts against ISIL have had considerable success over the last year. The coalition, various militias and Kurdish forces have helped Iraq to take back strategically important towns and cities, regions and supply lines from ISIL.
With assistance from the coalition, Iraqi forces and their allies are currently engaged in an operation to recapture Mosul. But this may take a long time.
With the help of the coalition, local forces have driven ISIL out of key areas of Syria. ISIL has lost the territory it controlled along the Turkish border. This means that its supply of resources and personnel has largely been cut off.
However, ISIL still controls the Syrian city of Raqqa, the capital of its self-declared caliphate. Efforts to isolate ISIL there have just begun, and are still in their initial phase.
Even though ISIL is being pushed back and is losing territory, we must still be prepared for a protracted fight. This will require using a variety of means, of which the military efforts are just one.
Gradually, as ISIL loses its foothold in important cities such as Mosul and Raqqa, we must expect the group to place even more emphasis on terrorist operations. ISIL will probably shift its focus increasingly from what we might call the ‘physical caliphate’ to the ‘virtual caliphate’. This may also involve more terrorist attacks outside its core areas of activity in Syria and Iraq.
I would also like to talk in more detail about Norway’s contributions to stabilisation projects.
The armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq have destroyed much of the social structures of these countries. Syria was a middle-income country. Now, half of the population is living in extreme poverty.
Humanitarian efforts are absolutely vital for the civilian population in Iraq and in Syria. At the same time, we must ensure that the people of these countries are able to build a future for themselves, in a secure environment. That is the only way to achieve stable societies, and it will take a long time – perhaps generations.
The Government is strengthening its focus on stabilisation projects, both in Iraq and in Syria. Next year, we will almost double our contribution to stabilisation efforts, to a total of NOK 400 million. Where humanitarian aid is being used for long-term projects, it will be based on the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence.
In the first instance, the prospects of achieving stabilisation are greater in Iraq than in Syria.
Norwegian funding for stabilisation projects in Iraq is primarily being channelled through UNDP. It is being used to strengthen local employment opportunities, police services, and health and education services. We are also helping to rebuild infrastructure and increase food security.
The Norwegian authorities are cooperating with the Iraqi authorities on providing entrepreneurship training for young people and the unemployed. Between January and November 2015, 793 new companies were established as a result of this project. We are helping to give young Iraqis a sense of hope, as well as the tools they need to build a better future.
Rebuilding local communities in Syria is particularly challenging, as the prospects of a political solution to the conflict are currently slim. Together with the rest of the international donor community, Norway is working to expand cooperation with the UN and other suitable partners on projects that are more far-reaching than short-term humanitarian aid.
Norway is also contributing to the coalition’s efforts to enhance knowledge about foreign terrorist fighters in the region, and to prevent them from joining ISIL. ISIL’s destructive ideology is still gaining ground in certain groups in Europe.
ISIL has built up a targeted and sophisticated propaganda apparatus that actively uses social media to recruit new members. It is estimated that between 15 000 and 25 000 foreign terrorist fighters from around 80 countries have travelled to Syria and Iraq since 2014 to fight on ISIL’s side. The numbers are uncertain.
Some of these foreign terrorist fighters are Norwegian. We have also seen that terrorists without any experience as foreign terrorist fighters, but inspired by the concept of jihad, have carried out attacks in Europe.
The coalition has weakened ISIL’s propaganda apparatus, and the organisation is losing much of its appeal. Norway is taking part in these efforts. We are particularly seeking to support those who are presenting alternatives to ISIL’s ideology of hatred.
We see that the coalition’s efforts are paying off. ISIL’s morale has been knocked. Military defeats, cuts in pay as sources of income are reduced, growing corruption and brutal working conditions all make it less attractive for prospective foreign terrorist fighters to join ISIL.
It has also become more difficult for prospective recruits to enter Syria and Iraq. Moreover, we and our allied countries have been exchanging information and have gained a better overview of foreign terrorist fighters and their movements.
Many foreign terrorist fighters become radicalised in their countries of origin. In Norway, the Norwegian Police Security Service continues to view extreme Islamism as the most serious terror threat against Norway. It is therefore crucial that we give priority to prevention – both at the national level and internationally.
In 2014, Norway co-sponsored Security Council resolution 2178, on measures to address the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters.
The fight against ISIL must be seen in the wider context of the long-term efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism. Civil society groups, young people and women are all playing a key role in this work.
In 2015, Norway took the initiative for the establishment of a youth network against violent extremism. Through this network, 650 young people from over 100 countries have so far been engaged in efforts to prevent recruitment to violent extremist groups. We also took the initiative to establish a global alliance for women’s organisations that are supporting efforts at the local level, for example in Syria and Iraq.
At the opening of the UN General Assembly in September, I hosted a meeting on preventing and countering violent extremism. We discussed how we can enhance cooperation between authorities and civil society groups in this area. The meeting resulted in the launch of a global mechanism for substantive consultations, which will help us to work together to find new solutions and measures.
Here in Norway, the Government has attached importance to ensuring a legal basis for criminalising travel abroad as a foreign fighter. This spring, the Storting adopted amendments to the Penal Code that make participating in military activities in an armed conflict abroad a punishable offence in Norway.
In 2015, the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) launched a national investigation of returned foreign fighters. So far, PST has charged 26 returned foreign fighters, and a number of them have been convicted and imprisoned. Since 2015, the number of foreign fighters travelling from Norway has fallen dramatically, as has the number who have returned to Norway.
The Government will continue its work to prevent ISIL and other extremist groups from gaining a foothold in Norway. The Government’s Action Plan against Radicalisation and Violent Extremism will be of key importance in this work.
It is vital to start preventive efforts at an early stage. Researchers and civil society groups are providing input on an ongoing basis to a national dialogue on the further development of the action plan.
We have enhanced the capacity of the police, teachers and health workers in this context. A number of municipalities have drawn up local action plans with the aim of identifying signs of radicalisation in local communities at an earlier stage.
This autumn and winter, systematic efforts are being made to further develop the measures set out in the Government’s action plan.
I will now turn to the political challenges ahead.
The conflicts in the region are adding to the appeal that ISIL clearly still has. These conflicts can only be resolved by political means.
Developments in the region are posing a challenge to NATO, especially along its southern flank. Russia’s military engagement in Syria gives particular cause for concern. It is supporting the Syrian regime’s brutal attacks on its own population. In addition, we are once again seeing that Russian military power is creating more uncertainty and unpredictability in an already tense security situation.
The deadlock in the Security Council is worrying. Norway has a fundamental interest in a world order based on respect for international law and the principles laid down in the UN Charter.
We are dependent on the UN fulfilling its responsibility to maintain international peace and security. This responsibility lies first and foremost with the permanent members of the Security Council.
The members of the UN Security Council, together with the regional players who can influence the parties on the ground, must do what they can to find a Syrian-led political solution. The US and Russia have a crucial role to play.
The UN has long been seeking to get political negotiations off the ground, but it was not until this spring that the parties came to the negotiating table.
Over the last year, the US and Russia have tried to negotiate two ceasefire agreements. There was a cessation of hostilities for a few weeks in the spring, which only resulted in some small steps forward. Since then there have been many setbacks.
Norway actively supports the UN’s efforts to reach a political solution in Syria. I am convinced that any solution reached for Syria will be more comprehensive and durable if women and civil society are involved in the process.
We have therefore worked to ensure that women’s groups and other civil society groups are able to contribute to the negotiation processes. Several civil society groups provided input to the negotiations in Geneva.
For Iraq too, the only way to achieve lasting stability is through an inclusive political process. The growth of ISIL in Iraq is due to many years of conflict, misrule and a leadership that is split along sectarian lines. It is important that the Iraqi authorities pave the way for inclusive political solutions and national reconciliation.
It is especially important to include the marginalised Sunni Arab population. Otherwise, ISIL and other extremist groups will again find opportunities to gain ground.
It is vital that all groups in Iraq are willing to put disagreements, struggles for power and questions of blame aside. In this sense, the liberation of Mosul will be a test of their willingness and ability to find common solutions for Iraq.
The international community has made considerable progress in the fight against ISIL. ISIL has been weakened. It has lost more than half the territory it previously controlled in Iraq, and a quarter of the territory it controlled in Syria. It has largely been driven out of its last major stronghold in Libya, Sirte.
Nevertheless, ISIL is still a considerable security threat.
During the last two years, ISIL has carried out brutal terrorist attacks in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. We must be prepared for the fact that ISIL will continue to inspire, contribute to, and carry out attacks against the West. We have already seen that ISIL is compensating for its loss of territory by engaging in more acts of terrorism.
Norway is an important ally in the fight against ISIL. And we will continue to be.
We will make military, economic and political contributions. We will also maintain the leading role we have been playing in the humanitarian field. Where possible we will contribute to long-term preventive efforts through various stabilisation measures.
As you are well aware, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Norway in 2016 has been low. The Government’s proposal for the latest revision of the budget for 2016 is based on a reduction of ODA-approved in-donor country refugee costs compared with the costs set out in the previous revision of the budget. We expect that it will be possible to reallocate most of these funds to humanitarian aid and other assistance in these vulnerable areas.
However, our efforts will be fruitless unless a political solution is found in Syria. And unless there is an inclusive political process in Iraq.
The UN has a far-reaching mandate in terms of preparing the ground for a peaceful solution in Syria. But the UN cannot fulfil this mandate without support from the international community.
The fight against ISIL demands a great deal of us. It is creating new global security challenges and dilemmas, and the need to make tough decisions. Our military engagement in the fight against ISIL may make us more vulnerable to attack here in Norway, and Norwegians taking part on the ground are also putting themselves at risk.
The fight against ISIL and violent extremism is a long-term investment in our common security. This is not a fight we have chosen, but it is one that we cannot run away from.