The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) – now grandiosely renamed simply the Islamic State and declared a “caliphate” – raises a series of the most perplexing questions to have emerged in the Middle East in recent decades. At least as extreme as the most radical incarnations of Al Qaeda, this Salafist-jihadist group now controls a swath of territory approximately the size of Belgium across northeastern Syria and western Iraq. In the process, they have gained control of several key oil installations and major cities, including Mosul. Worse, their expansion appears virtually unchecked, and every setback they suffer seems offset by a new advance.
But who, exactly, are they? It’s not a question of identifying the individual local and foreign fighters who have been drawn into their midst. The real question that is so pressing, yet few are asking, and even fewer trying to answer, is: who is backing this group? It’s true that ISIS has effectively functioned as a well-oiled crime syndicate for many years. But it’s hard to imagine that foreign backing – private if not governmental – hasn’t been a key factor in their ascendance.
It might be argued that at this stage ISIS has achieved financial independence, given the resources they have commandeered, especially in petroleum. But it doesn’t explain how they got to this stage in the first place, and who helped them do that and why. Anyone who believes that backing ISIS was a radical but either necessary or clever idea is bound to rue the day, if they haven’t yet.
In Syria, they charged, in effect, to the rescue of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, and are one of the most important factors keeping him in power in those parts of the country he most values. After all, if the choice is between the rule of a monstrous gang of lunatics who smash Sunni mosques and shrines, as well as those of other faiths and denominations and ancient artifacts; chase religious minorities out of the areas under their control; impose the most misogynistic and draconian restrictions against women; and enforce barbaric systems of “justice,” on the one hand, versus a vicious but well-understood mafia regime, the latter suddenly looks less intolerable.
It’s as if no one is really all that bothered by it in practice, no matter what they say. And that might be the scariest thing of all
In Iraq, anyone who thought using the black banner of ISIS to terrify Shiites and others was a brilliant strategy to get rid of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and reassert Sunni prerogatives in their own areas made a criminal mistake. Maliki will probably go, but given the behavior of ISIS in Mosul and elsewhere, two key illusions must have been shattered: first, that they are simply a front for many other groups who will dispose of them when they have achieved their aims, and second that their presence is an overall benefit for the Sunni cause in Iraq. In fact, they are quite out of control and are a catastrophe, as all the people under their rule are quickly discovering.
The landscape of history is littered with monsters whose creators hoped they would do some small service and go away, but who ultimately proved more dangerous to their authors than anyone else. Who those authors are, precisely, isn’t clear. Syria and Iran have clearly benefited from ISIS’s rise, but in the long run the group does pose a major threat to them. As for most of the Arab states and the state system, ISIS is a terminal cancer. It is starting to intrude into Lebanon and possibly Jordan. It lurks on the borders of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
As Arab state disintegration and systemic failure continues to metastasize, ISIS and similar groups are a mortal peril. They not only bring death and destruction, mayhem and chaos, and the worst kind of vicious obscurantist rule imaginable, they threaten to replace the existing state system with substate actors that are autonomous criminal gangs ruling over little fiefdoms – the Hezbollah and Hamas model writ large and spreading fast, but in a much more savage and extreme form. The Arab world has entered into a growing phase of terrorist warlordism. It’s a calamity hitherto unimaginable.
And, of course, it’s a major threat to countries beyond the region, as well. ISIS has attracted countless foreign fighters, fanatical Muslims or converts from around the world, who have gathered in Syria and Iraq only to become even further radicalized, and worse, battle-trained and hardened. They can easily return to their home countries primed for mayhem, even though ISIS shows no interest at present in international terrorism. Instead, they have decided to seize and control territory and create their own de facto state. If anything, that’s even more terrifying. And, in time and if they can consolidate their rule in those areas, international terrorism is potentially a logical move for them. Even if it isn’t, there’s nothing to prevent their protégés from turning to it.
So the deepest question is: why isn’t anybody doing anything serious about this mind-boggling peril? At present only Kurdish fighters, with some Iraqi government support, are really taking on ISIS on the ground. They don’t appear to be receiving much international or regional support. The Arab states purport to be alarmed, but in practice their response to the creation of the ISIS mini-, petro- and terrorist-state in their midst has been a shrug of the shoulders. If that’s unfair, it is at least undeniable they haven’t mobilized quickly to take action.
The latest ISIS advance apparently left them in control of Iraq’s largest dam, with the ability to flood major cities, potentially including Baghdad. Meanwhile Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities flee for their lives. Tsk, tsk. Ho-hum. Oh well.
The international community appears equally inexplicably sanguine. The latest American response to ISIS is to order American air carriers to fly over 30,000 feet if they’re crossing Iraqi airspace. That’ll learn ’em! ISIS’s successes are completely disproportionate to their size: an estimated 8,000-20,000 fighters in Iraq, as opposed to at least 30,000 other Iraqi Sunni insurgents, not to mention the Iraqi army (such as it is) or Kurdish guerrillas. This is simply not an overwhelming force. It may be driven, fanatical and well-organized, as well as well-funded whether from crime or foreign backers, but if it were confronted by a serious armed response it could certainly be broken.
The biggest question now, therefore, is: why is no one, either regionally or internationally, moving to do that? Is everyone – or anyone, for that matter – content with the growing power of ISIS? Do governments really believe there is nothing to be done? Don’t they understand that they could be next, in one way or another? Perhaps even more mysterious than the genesis and support-base of ISIS is the lackadaisical response to it. It’s as if no one is really all that bothered by it in practice, no matter what they say. And that might be the scariest thing of all. Will a small but determined and well-organized band of crazed terrorists really be allowed to reshape the Arab world largely unopposed? Because that’s exactly what’s happening now.
The Turkish Gambit
The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon. One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.
The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria. Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps. The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.
Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian. After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families. About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.
How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question. Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently? For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.
There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter. Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes.
Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability. If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point. Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal: access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.
Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon. It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke. It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood. The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.
A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power. The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson. So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006. Now they are feared by Israeli troops.
To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump. Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past. It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving. If you go in, you will have to police the area. Don’t ask us to help you.” Is that subject to misinterpretation? It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office.
For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions. Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included. Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire. On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May. Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith. The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can. Where are they headed? Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.
Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences.
Author’s Note: This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org
Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?
On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.
It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.
Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.
Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.
Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.
It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.
Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around
Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.
Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.
But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.
The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.
The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.
It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.
The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.
It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.
Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK
Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.
Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.
The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.
If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.
The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.
The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.
The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”
The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.
Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”
Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.
The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.
A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.
The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.
In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.
Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.
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