Archive for September 2014
The Islamic State, or IS, is a non-state actor which has quickly managed to invade and occupy large swaths of territory straddling the border of two established nation states. It declared its allegiance not to a political or military leader but to self-declared Caliph, a religious leader. IS is unflinchingly brutal in method of war and is a grave threat to the security of all the states in the region. However it is not, as some have claimed, proof that the concept of the nation-state has failed in the Middle East. The organization’s name change from ISIS to the Islamic State was not an arbitrary rebranding. The world needs to start treating IS as a territorial-based organization; a proto- nation-state where ethnicity has been replaced by religion as the national identity marker.
The current manifestation of the group can be roughly compared to the Taliban in Afghanistan . Unfortunately, IS has also learned from many of the mistakes of the Taliban made while attempting to govern Afghanistan. IS has imposed brutal rule based on its own interpretation of Islamic texts while simultaneously installing a bureaucracy, institutions and law-and-order in an area that has enjoyed few of these luxuries since the Syrian civil war began. IS has also broken from the Taliban model in centralizing its religious leadership. The spiritual leader of the group has declared himself the Caliph of all Muslims, the successor to the prophet Mohammad. Despite its declared universal religious and political ambitions (some members of the group have asserted that the group has ambitions to expand its reach as far as Istanbul) the realities of holding and controlling territory has begun, as Jeremy Shapiro of Brookings puts it, to change both the governors and the governed. In short, IS is following the Weberian model and transitioning from a charismatic, revolutionary organization into a routinized, centralized and bureaucratized state.
Establishing itself as a national instead of transnational, revolutionary organization makes IS less of a threat to Western states, but not necessarily to bordering states like Turkey. Therefore, while containment might be a reasonable strategy for the US, it is in Turkey’s best interest for IS to be “degraded and destroyed.” The establishment of the IS proto-nation, as opposed to a decentralized terrorist organization, makes it more vulnerable to traditional tactics for weakening a pariah government. IS’s ability to govern the territory it has seized must be interrupted by restricting the group’s access to capital, new recruits, resources and infrastructure. Turkey has already taken steps in this direction, cracking down on oil smuggling, a major sources of revenue for the group, and the movement of foreign would-be jihadists. Despite the fact that it is reluctant to do so, Turkey needs to allow the international community to help it further monitor the movement of people and goods across its borders. The efficacy of cutting off of supplies to governments via sanctions and trade restrictions for purposes of weakening governments is highly debatable. In this case however, as the IS government let alone state has barely been established and its popularity is strongly tied to its ability to provide services and stability, their likelihood of making an impact is much greater.
Even if Turkey does not get involved militarily (the domestic political price of doing so is likely prohibitively high) for its own long term benefit it needs to do everything it can to support countries who are willing to carry out military operations. Turkey also needs to get over its unreasonable fears of Kurdish autonomy in Syria and do more to support the multiple Kurdish groups that are bearing the brunt of IS’s assaults. Though directly supplying weapons is again politically out of the question, Turkey needs to be open to providing desperately needed non-military supplies as well as allowing Kurds to enter or re-enter Syria and Iraq in order to fight IS. Supporting the Kurds is critical for both halting the expansion of IS as well as maintaining the PKK ceasefire within Turkey. Many Kurds and members of the PKK in particular believe Turkey is favoring and supporting IS to the detriment of the Kurds. Whether or not this is true (and most experts agree that Turkey is not supporting IS) PKK leadership is threatening to break the current ceasefire and take up arms against Turkey once again. This would be disastrous for both Turks and Kurds and the Turkish government needs to do everything it can to (re)make peace with Kurds both in and outside its borders.
IS’s location straddling the former border of two states will most likely work against its ability to hold and govern its proto-state. The Taliban were largely left to themselves, and therefore was able to control Afghanistan for a decade despite its unpopularity, until the September 11 attacks because their brutal state was confined inside the established borders of one nation-state. As weak as it is, Iraq’s central government still exists and is still committed to the territorial integrity of the Iraqi nation-state. IS would have to conquer all of Iraq or convince the Iraqi government into agreeing to a truce, both of which still look unlikely at this point. On the Syrian side, Assad would probably be fine with IS taking over rebel held territory as long as his government was allow to hold onto its much-shrunken kingdom. However, it is unlikely that the multiple rebel groups will all agree make a similar concession and will continue to fight to hold on to the territory they control as well as to regain the territory held by IS.
There are no easy solutions for dealing with IS, it will take a combination of military strategies as well as continued international cooperation and coordination over a lengthy period of time. See the links below for additional useful discussions of the problem of IS from a Mid-East analyst perspective, some of which I drew on for my discussion above.
Brookings: What is ISIS’ strategy?
David Motadel: The Ancestors of ISIS
Carnegie Europe: What on Earth is Turkey up to?
Michael Koplow: The Politics of the Anti-ISIS Coalition
Marc Champion: Turkey’s Complicated Position on Islamic State
Henri J. Barkey: How the Islamic State took Turkey Hostage
Also see these excellent background stories:
Piotr Zalewski: Why Islamic State Wants to Conquer a Kurdish Border Town
Piotr Zalewski: How Islamic State Wages War
David D. Kirkpatrick: ISIS’ Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed
New York Times: Turkey Inching Toward Alliance With U.S. in Syria Conflict
Some very harsh light has been cast on Turkey and its malignant neglect of its ISIS problem over the past week. Turkey joined the US led coalition against ISIS only to almost immediately backtrack. Whether or not this was the right decision for Turkey to make, and in the long term I believe it is not, is complex and the subject for another blog post. In addition, investigative reports, in Newsweek by A. Christie Miller and Alev Scott and in the New York Times today by Ceylan Yeginsu, have made it clear that ISIS has successfully convinced thousands of vulnerable Turks and Turkish Kurds to join their nascent state. Miller, Scott and Yeginsu’s reporting has not only proven that Turkey’s boarders remain dangerously porous but also reveal that despite Turkey’s notorious internet censorship and surveillance the Turkish government has neither been able to identify potential ISIS recruits nor stop ISIS propaganda. Why Turkey has not stopped virtual ISIS infiltration is again the subject for another blog post.
Turkey’s undoubtedly serious ISIS problem has diverted attention from the fact that is still also facing a serious, and continually growing, refugee crisis. In addition to the more than a million Syrian refugees already residing in Turkey, ISIS’s rampage through northern Iraq has driven yet another wave of refugees into Turkey, the Yazidis.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey are outside of the highly lauded refugee camps, living mostly in Turkey’s southern cities or in Istanbul. Syrian refugees have swelled the population of cities like Reyhanli, Killis and Gaziantep. Despite the largely welcoming attitude of the Turkish population toward the refugees, recently tensions have been rising. In August there were violent anti-Syrian protests in Istanbul and riots targeting Syrians went on for several days after a Turkish landlord was murdered by his Syrian tenant in Gaziantep. In order to try to prevent even more Syrians from entering the country, Turkey has encouraged the building of refugee camps just inside the Syrian border. The conditions in these camps are decidedly worse than the camps located inside of Turkey.
After Kurdish fighters pushed back the ISIS invaders which had displaced and killed thousands of Yazidis, members of this religious minority began fleeing over Turkey’s southeastern border. Official estimates put the number of Yazidi refugees at 16,000. Camps are being set up for this new refugee group but like the Syrians many find themselves living either in ad-hoc shelters or in camps inside Iraq.
Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority whose religious beliefs are widely misunderstood. Yazidis follow a syncretic religion that is based on pre-Islamic, Pre-Christian Zoroastrian beliefs. They speak Kurdish dialects and most (but not all) consider themselves to be ethnic Kurds. Muslim Kurds for their part appear to embrace Yazidis as their ethnic kin, fighting heroically to allow trapped Yazidis to escape from the barren Sinjar mountain and even training Yazidis who volunteered to fight against ISIS. Kurds inside Turkey have gathered donations and personally delivered necessities to Yazidi refugees.
The Turkish government is already overwhelmed trying to manage the Syrian refugees inside its borders. It needs a new strategy in order to effectively manage and accommodate a vulnerable refugee group like the Yazidis. I wrote an unpublished policy paper last fall addressing the issue of Turkey could better accommodate other ethno-minority refugees, specifically the Alawite and Alevi refugees from Syria. The data is somewhat dated, but the essential argument I make still stands. In brief, I assert in this paper that the most productive and efficient plan of action for Turkey regarding minority urban refugees is to work with Turkey’s own indigenous Alevi and Alawite minority communities to provide services to these refugee groups. This proposal is doubly beneficial. It not only addresses the problem of these under-served refugee groups who are hesitant to ask for assistance directly from the Turkish government but also, in working together to address the needs of refugees, it also would build trust between the Turkish government and its long marginalized Alevi and Alawite citizens.
This proposed plan of action can be directly translated for the current situation of Yazidis, who have taken refuge in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast provinces. Kurdish municipalities and individuals have been providing aid independently but do not have the resources to deal with a crisis of this scale in the long term. The Turkish central government on the other hand has the resources but not the contacts on the ground. In order to address this crisis effectively, the two need to work together. Additionally, the Turkish-Kurdish peace process, while not yet broken, has stagnated. Partnering with local Kurdish authorities and civil society organizations to asses and address the needs of this latest group of refugees would be just the kind of good-will initiative that the peace process so desperately needs right now. The Turkish government needs to set aside its phobia of everything Kurdish (read: anything with the remote possibility of being affiliated with the PKK) and directly engage with all willing partners in order to both manage this crisis and demonstrate that there can be a lasting peace between Turks and Kurds.
However, I can almost without a doubt predict that Turkey will continue its current plan of action, or lack there of, regarding both Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Over the past year Turkish efforts to address both Sunni and minority Syrian refugees have flatlined. The only discernible change stems from disconcerting reports that urban refugees, particularly those begging on the streets, have been rounded up and sent to camps against their will. I have yet to see any investigative reports regarding these camps, if they do indeed exist. I certainly hope that when the current crisis cools down that both the Turkish government and the media will realize that the Syrian refugee crisis is turning into a permanent population displacement. Sending refugees to camps is not a long term solution, no matter how good the conditions in said camps may be. Major policy changes, such as issuing work permits for refugees, need to be paired with creative grass-roots based solutions in order to prevent Turkey’s refugee population from becoming a major, and likely long-term, social, economic and political burden.