Talk (Video & Text) delivered at the conference “EU Foreign Policy and Humanitarian Aid: Developments in the Middle East”, on October 16, 2015. Organized by The European Parliament Offices in Cyprus & Greece, The Representation of the European Commission in Cyprus & the Diplomatic Academy of the University of Nicosia.
A lot can be said and speculated about the roots and the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. It is, however, undeniable that its military advances and territorial gains in Iraq and Syria have had a great impact on the politics of the greater Middle East and beyond. Its presence, operations and organizational character have changed the geo-political landscape of the region and the strategic calculations of many states around it and across the world. At the same time it gave new meaning and significance to transnational asymmetrical security threats.
Between Terrorism and Insurgency
It is true that ISIS is not a usual case of a terrorist organization or insurgency, neither in military nor political terms. An insurgency is normally defined and understood as a movement that seeks to change the status quo for its own benefit through a host of tactics, such as violence and subversion. It is also distinguished from terrorism, which is seen as a tactic meant to achieve political aims by instilling fear through the use or threat of use of force on non-combatants. Although the content of both terms is up for debate, one could argue that ISIS is a case of insurgency.
It is clearly trying to overthrow the regional status quo and it first targeted combatants – both in Syria and Iraq. In addition, ISIS uses terrorist tactics and asymmetrical warfare (e.g. suicide bombings, beheadings, public mass executions, crucifixions, abductions), even as it has developed an increasingly well-equipped and sophisticated conventional army – not to mention its social media and technology-savvy members. To further complicate things, there is no rational basis on which one could negotiate with ISIS, for their vision is not so much territorial as it is ideological; they pursue a fundamentally different regional and global order with political, social, economic, and religious structures that would completely replace the existing ones, at all costs.
The Middle East
The methods and tactics employed by ISIS and its level of sophistication are indicative of the spectrum of threats it could pose. In a setting where the Americans had already withdrawn from Iraq leaving behind a weak state, where Iran had strengthened its regional foothold, and where the Arab Uprisings had started to shake the Middle East, ISIS found the opportunity to fill some of the power vacuum and pursue its own goals.
Its presence posed a direct threat to the Iraqi and Syrian sovereignty initially and, by extension, to the national security of neighboring states such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. At the same time, ISIS’s targeting of non-Muslim and non-Sunni religious and ethnic groups such as Shias, Yezidis, Kurds and Christians exacerbated the already tensed sectarian dynamics of the region. Certain minorities in Iraq and Syria have been threatened with extinction, while the humanitarian crisis that broke-out with the internally displaced and the waves of refugees reached great proportions.
On a different level, the advances of ISIS forced a number of actors to take action. Beyond the United States-led and the recently announced Russia-led anti-ISIS coalition, Iran, Hezbollah, Kurds and other Shia militia groups have been fighting ISIS in one way or the other. In the case of Syria in particular, ISIS played a decisive role in changing the domestic balances of power between opposition and regime forces. It has contributed to the military erosion of Bashar al Assad’s regime and military, while at the same time threatened various international interests in Syria, thereby prompting for example Turkey and especially Russia to follow a more pro-active strategy.
In turn, the intensified and more decisive involvement of states that had already been directly or indirectly engaged in the conflict, highlighted the great divergence in geostrategic interests and escalated the conflict further. Moreover, the numerous militia groups that emerged as a reaction to ISIS – be they Shia, Sunni, Christian, Leftist, etc. – complicate the geopolitics of the Middle East and pose challenges to its future as they may potentially make their own political or territorial claims in Iraq and Syria that could in turn lead to new rounds of conflict.
At this point, it can be argued that the Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish movement in the region more generally benefited the most from the rise of ISIS. To be sure, it has not been an easy battle for the Kurds either. But because of the conflict, they managed to make territorial gains in Iraq as well as effectively internationalize their claims, drawing Western and other support; not least because of their crucial role in the fight against ISIS. Among others, this development has had a great impact on Turkey as well.
Because of the policy followed by its government since 2011 and its location on the frontline of the war, Turkey has been one of the countries affected the most. Today, it hosts approximately 2 million refugees many of whom left their countries because of ISIS. As a result, Turkey’s economy has been facing serious problems even as multiple security threats arose. For example, the influx of refugees rendered the Turkish-Syrian border even more porous, allowing the entrance of ISIS elements into the country and, by extension, the strengthening of already existing extremist clusters and networks of recruitment.
Further, the advances of ISIS exacerbated Turkey’s Kurdish problem which had already gained increased importance in the midst of the Syrian conflict, due to the empowerment of the Syrian Kurds. The battle for Kobane (a Syrian, Kurdish-majority town at the Turkey-Syria border) where the Kurds along with other groups managed to withstand an ISIS siege and finally win, proved to be a pivotal event in terms of the importance of events in Syria for Turkish society and politics. The government’s reluctance to help the Syrian Kurds sparked nation-wide Kurdish protests and at places conflict between Kurds and state security forces. In this light, ISIS contributed to the elevation of the Kurdish issue and the Syrian war more generally to a problem domestic to Turkey. Not only in terms of the country’s national security and territorial integrity, but also in terms of the growing polarization in Turkish society.
After the Suruç bombing last July which was claimed by ISIS, and the Ankara bombings on October 10 – probably conducted by ISIS as well – it is clear that the latter has become integral to Turkey’s politics and public debate. The government is being heavily criticized that it has followed a reckless policy towards Syria and the Kurds, driving things to where they are today, and that it has failed to prevent these incidents and provide security to its citizens. It is likely that ISIS seeks to instill fear, confusion and unrest in Turkey hoping that the country’s capability to target ISIS domestically and externally will be limited. In this sense, and somewhat paradoxically, the future of Turkey will not only depend, for example, on democratic and economic performance but also on the government’s ability to deal with the threat of ISIS and the Syrian conflict in general.
On another note, Turkey’s military power, geostrategic location and participation in NATO have increased the importance of its regional role in the eyes of Western countries. Similarly, Turkey’s instrumental contribution to the management of the refugee crisis can potentially work in Turkey’s favor with regard to its multileveled relations with the EU and the US. And yet, its often unclear stance on vital issues and questionable support to the West may impede such a development.
The Threat of ISIS – Beyond ISIS
To conclude, it is important to look ISIS not only as the organization or movement that it is, but also as a social and political phenomenon which is a product of the broader transitions taking place in the international system – e.g. the erosion of nation-states, the evolution of technology, shifting balances of power, processes of and resistance to Globalization, etc. Further, the ISIS threat itself may be relatively easy to defeat once regional and international powers commit to waging a full scale war against it – which of course will not be simple. Yet the real challenge of ISIS lies in the fact that it has already created a precedent which could inspire other ideologically-similar individuals or groups around the globe –as it has already managed – to pursue the same goals, through the same means. As such, apart from the conventional military threat ISIS is also posing a significant asymmetrical one. And though this threat will be more difficult to manage, nothing is impossible if the right measures are taken. Just, inclusive, and equality-oriented social policies, which will provide security and economic development in the Middle East and abroad can be part of the solution.
The presentation has drawn on other works by the same author. See, for example:
– The Iraqi Crisis and its Geopolitical Implications
– Countering ISIS: A Different Kind of Insurgency
– Assessing the ISIS threat one Year Later
– Shifting the Balance against ISIS, or Why Turkey Changed its Mind