Atatürk's Republic

Following Turkish News, Politics, Arts and Culture

IS is not the Anti-State

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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  The world needs to start treating IS as a territorial-based organization; a proto- nation-state where ethnicity has been replaced by religion as the national identity marker.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

Zenonas Tziarras: The Geopolitical Impact of ISIS: Actors, Factors, and Balances of Power in the Middle East

Carnegie Europe: What on Earth is Turkey up to?

Michael Koplow: The Politics of the Anti-ISIS Coalition

Aaron Stein: Turkey and the US led anti-IS coalition: Ankara is doing more than People Think

Nathan Brown: Avoiding old mistakes in the new game of Islamic politics

Marc Champion: Turkey’s Complicated Position on Islamic State

Henri J. Barkey: How the Islamic State took Turkey Hostage

William McCants: State of Confusion: ISIS’ Strategy and How to Counter It (Did not read this piece prior to writing the above, but has a similar thesis to my post)

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

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  1. […] Claire Sadar ruft auf Atatürk’s Republic die Türkei dazu auf, den (syrischen) Kurden echte Hilfe anzubieten. Die Türkei solle ihre […]


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