A Vacuum Waiting for a Leader

By Jeremy Salt

“To achieved all that you have the power, ability or strength to do and to be unable to do more.” —  Cambridge Dictionaries Online definition of ‘to shoot your bolt.’

That the US and its allies are ultimately responsible for the rise of the so-called Islamic State is irrefutably true. They destroyed Iraq and Libya and they have gone a long way to destroying Syria, and they must be held responsible for the consequences of their actions, which include the rise of the Islamic State. Because of what they have done, IS now controls large parts of Syria and Iraq, almost to the gates of Baghdad. In Libya it has taken over Derna, Benghazi and Sirte, Muammar Al Qadhafi’s model city on the shores of the Mediterranean, which ‘NATO’ (the US, Britain and France) air forces bombed relentlessly for months. From the beginning Qadhafi warned that the destruction of his government – the destruction of his country as it turned out – would benefit only Al Qaida, and so it has turned out.

The politicians behind the destruction of Iraq – Blair, Bush, Colin Powell, Rumsfeld and others – are still running around as if it had nothing do with them. George Bush plays golf and rides horses on his ranch at Crawford and Blair collects money for himself and his ‘Faith Foundation’. Now we have the generation responsible for the destruction of Libya: Obama, Hollande, Sarkozy and the kings, sheikhs and amirs of the Gulf States. The International Criminal Court, quick to prosecute Slobodan Milosevic and avid in its pursuit of African dictators and Saif al Islam al Qadhafi, the son of Muammar, merely for speaking against NATO’s ‘rebel’ proxies, averts its eyes when it comes to European and American politicians who trample on international law and start wars which end in the death or dispossession of millions of people (naturally the exemptions include Israel). Syria has brought about a slight change of cast: Hollande instead of Sarkozy, Hague out of the picture, with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan taking a pivotal role in the attack on that country.

The question arising is not only who turned much of the Middle East into a rubbish dump littered with destroyed countries, shattered towns and cities and the bodies of millions of people but who is going to take the lead in cleaning it up. Noone wants to take it on and one has to wonder why. What is the truth of government attitudes towards the IS? Does its usefulness in the campaign against the ‘axis of resistance’ (Iran, Syria and Hizbullah) explain their ambivalence, and does their ambivalence explain why none of them seem interested in really confronting it?

Only Italy is calling for a full-scale campaign, not against the IS as such but only against its Libyan wilayet (province), because of the fear that it is about to descend on southern Europe. The shocking events of recent weeks – the immolation of the Jordanian pilot and the decapitation of 21 Coptic workers in Libya – jolted Jordanian and Egypt into a bout of retaliation which has now subsided. Neither King Abdullah or President Sisi wants to take it any further, partly because none of their western allies want to take it any further either.

Obama has secured open-ended congressional support to send in ground troops and Britain is talking of finding a political solution, which gives it time to do nothing while pretending do to something. Many IS fighters have been killed in aerial attacks but only the tiniest fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims is needed to keep it up and running indefinitely. It is clear that aerial bombing is not going to do the job and that if the solution is to be military, a very large number of ground troops will be needed.

An alternative is negotiations. Could the IS be talked out of rounding up Christians, Kurds and anyone else who gets in its way and machine-gunning them to death, cutting their heads off or burning them alive? What if the US sends John Kerry to Mosul to talk to the caliph, in much the same way as Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich to negotiate with the baddest bad boy of the 1930s? Would there be any chance of the caliph dropping his apocalyptic world view in return for the promise of US economic aid, recognition of borders and acceptance into the world of nation states? Most probably as much chance of an elephant turning into a goldfish. By the time Chamberlain sat down to talk to Hitler it was much too late. Hitler could possibly have been stopped years before when he sent German troops into the Rhineland (just as the IS probably could have been stopped had there been an immediate response when it took over Al Raqqa or Mosul). He probably could have been stopped had Britain and France been willing to enter into a collective security pact with the Soviet Union. They were not, for the simple reason that they regarded Hitler as an asset in the struggle against communism and the growing power of the Soviet State. It was the respectful Herr Hitler then and not the mad carpet-chewing dictator of a few years later.

The flow-on effect of the war in Vietnam and direct US intervention in Cambodia gave rise to Pol Pot and his extermination of intellectuals towards the end of reducing his country to ‘Year Zero’. His rise was not intended either but was the outcome of bungled policies. Now we have other wars and other apparently unintended or unforeseen consequences. The caliph is on a roll. He has amassed territory and support from across the region and outside it. Young men are flocking to fight under his banner from around the world. He has thrust the most shocking atrocities in the faces of regional and outside governments and they have looked the other way. He has a program and knows what he is doing so why should he stop now?

Let’s assume for a moment – just for a moment – that the US and its western and regional Middle Eastern allies really are serious about dealing with the IS but simply can’t agree on a common course of action. For a moment let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. If force is not viable and negotiations are unpalatable in the first place and unlikely to succeed in the second, what other approaches might work? What about winning hearts and minds? Perhaps the IS can be undermined from below, by dealing with the impoverishment, unemployment and alienation that are assumed to be driving young people into its ranks. The ghost of Samuel Huntington hangs over this line of thought. Huntington followed Bernard Lewis in arguing that nothing the ‘west’ had done, not Palestine (the ‘licenced grievance’ according to Lewis) and not two centuries of invasion, occupation, death and destruction) explained Muslim anger and resentment. Their emphasis is on good intentions and the delivery of good things, three-piecesuits, Packard cars and democracy. According to this reading of history, Muslim/Arab anger and hatred is totally inexplicable outside some deeply rooted collective psychosis born of the inability of Arabs/Muslims to solve their own problems. Of course, ‘we’ will continue to help but basically, solutions lies with them and not us.

In the Huntington/Lewis view, if Arabs/Muslims are angry because it is they have suffered defeat at the hands of a morally and materially superior civilization, or because they are unemployed or because they can’t adapt to modern ways of thinking. The list of reasons for explaining their inability to cope with ‘their’ problems is endless. This is a monstrous copout, of course, letting the collective ‘west’ off the hook for the consequences of its own actions over the past two centuries.

The same semi-sociological reasoning is now being applied by some to the IS. It is true to say there is no point in simply dismissing them as a bunch of psychopaths. Many of them clearly are, unless people who cut the heads off other people are not to be described as psychopaths, but since when has being a psychopath been a barrier to success in business or politics, so why not in business and politics of a different kind?

What the ‘west’ – governments and media – are finding it hard to get their heads around is that many young men are not fighting under the banner of the IS because they are alienated or unemployed but because they believe in its mission – because they are young and because they are idealistic. They would hardly be the first human beings prepared to commit the most terrible crimes for what they consider to be a good reason. In the Middle East, they look around and what do they see? Corrupt governments, bribed and suborned by the west; countries invaded and destroyed time after time by western armies; and tormented Palestine, the greatest blow to Muslim and Arab consciousness in history. What else can clean up this mess but a purging fire, destroying all in its way?

The end – a Middle East purified of all evils – justifies the means: at the hands of the ‘west’ the region has experienced savagery packaged as ‘civilization’, and only a greater level of savagery can overcome it. This is the central idea that drives the IS. There can be no compassion, no forgiveness, no redemption outside the narrow confines of IS ideology and no acceptance of anything or anyone that cannot fit within the narrowest and most punitive interpretation of Islam. It will not work in the long run because the Shia, Kurds and Christians will fight against this new order to the last drop of blood knowing that if they don’t their blood is going to be shed anyway. It will not work in the long run because while the Sunni mainstream can identify with the problem it cannot identify with the solution. But the long run and the short term are abstracts: in the here and now it is working and what should be done about it?

The US has just about shot its bolt in the Middle East. It is playing its own game to the detriment of the entire region. While it is ultimately responsible for creating this unholy mess, someone else is needed to take the lead in cleaning it up – but who? Iran is Shia, non-Arab and would be blocked from playing such a role by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia anyway. The two obvious candidates are Turkey and Egypt, both of which are directly threatened by the IS. For years Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ahmet Davutoglu have been promoting Turkey as a leader of the Middle East and at a time when regional leadership is needed more than ever, one would think their chance had come. Yet when real leadership is needed, Turkey is showing no enthusiasm to step forward. It has shied away from confronting the IS, refusing to commit itself to the western-led campaign (such as it is) unless and until its western allies commit themselves to the simultaneous destruction of the Syrian government. As the US, the UN and European governments, changing tack, are acknowledging that Bashar al Assad must be part of the solution, Turkey has a reason for never committing itself to their campaign.

Like Turkey, Egypt has a large army but beyond the raids it has carried out on Libya and the suppression of takfiri action in Sinai it is showing no interest in going any further. A joint political and military command to deal with a common problem is out of the question. Erdogan still regards Muhammad Morsi as the legitimate president of Egypt and has given sanctuary and comfort to the now proscribed Muslim Brotherhood.

These regional rivalries are the sea in which the Islamic State is swimming. The US is talking of a plan to retake Mosul by summer with a combined force of 25,000 Iraqi and peshmerga soldiers. It won’t work because the Kurds are not committed to defending an Arab city and because a far greater force would be needed to overwhelm IS just in Mosul. It has dug in and is preparing to defend itself. Anyway, an army seriously bent on conquest/liberation doesn’t signal its intentions months ahead of time, so one has to ask why the US is telegraphing its punches.

A serious military response to IS would have to involve a very large number of troops moving forward simultaneously on Mosul and Al Raqqa, in Syria, where Turkey also wants the Syrian government destroyed, where the US talks of a political situation even while preparing to train thousands of armed men beyond Syria’s borders to pour into the campaign to destroy Bashar al Assad and his government. It is talking of 5000 men but as a far greater number would be needed to tip the balance, this would have to be regarded as the thin end of the wedge. What would be the real target of US ground intervention in Syria, anyway, the IS or the Syrian government? The muddle here is extraordinary and even if IS in Iraq and Syria can be neutralized that still leaves Libya and a metastasizing movement across the Middle East.

Turkey’s evacuation of the Shah Suleyman tomb in Syria and the removal of relics to a new site close to the predominantly Kurdish enclave of Ayn al Arab/Kobane highlights the ambivalence in the Turkish attitude to the IS. Turkish commentators are concluding that this operation could not have been carried out without the cooperation of the Syrian Kurds and the IS. Video showed Turkish military vehicles including tank transporters passing along a road under a fluttering IS flag. Syria was not asked for its permission, naturally, but only informed of what the Turkish government intended to do. The legality of the 1921 Franco-Turkish treaty – a treaty signed between the new Turkish government in Ankara and an occupying power – and the ‘right’ of the Turkish government to take over other territory in Syria are questions that are hardly being raised. The Turkish flag has already been planted on this new plot of land. What role it might play in the campaign to bring down the Syrian government remains to be seen.

The nationalist emphasis by opposition parties, trying to score points against the government, is on the retreat from territory regarded as belonging to Turkey. The national Turkish interest in the perpetuation of this destructive war is a question that is not even being asked. Syria has been half destroyed and Turkey seriously damaged in a number of ways. Where is the benefit to anyone here, except Israel and the US? Is there is someone who can step forward – who is prepared to step forward – and take the lead in sorting out this confusing, hopeless, immoral and sordid mess and putting the interests of the Syrian people and the region at large ahead of their own?

Apparently not.

- Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.


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