A new year gives us the opportunity to soberly re-evaluate the ongoing crises of our world and one of the most pronounced areas of instability is the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. People like myself who argue against Western intervention in order to undermine ISIS’ narrative of Christian crusaders need to provide a coherent alternative. I think this is possible. At this point in time a lasting political solution to the Syrian crisis look unlikely but those of us who advocate a diplomatic end to the war need to think laterally.
In the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan James Kirk gains notoriety at the Starfleet Academy after he manages to win against the Kobayashi Maru training exercise, even though it was designed to be unbeatable. The reason he was successful was that Kirk reprogrammed the simulator so that a winnable scenario existed. This is, essentially, what I believe the approach of Western leaders to Syria should be.
Although the Assad government has had some successes in the last month, there is a real possibility that ISIS fighters cede territory to the Syrian army in order to strengthen their positions elsewhere. By changing the wider geopolitical situation powers in the region will be better positioned to take action against ISIS and force a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Further, shifting forces around the region will allow the West to pull back thus undermining ISIS’ narrative. This piece shall look at how three regional powers- Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia- can ideologically challenge ISIS as well as militarily confronting them.
Turkey and the Kurds
Turkey, due to its membership of NATO, is a key Western ally but has become a loose canon in recent years engaging in risky behaviour like press censorship and angry exchanges with Russia. However something that has been rumbling on for a number of years has been the country’s war against the Kurds. If the West wants to change the way the Middle East is currently set up, achieving peace between Turkey and the Kurds should be top of the list.
Since 1978 the Turkish military has been fighting against the Peshmerga and paramilitary groups like the PKK and the KFF. The dispute is centred around the independence of Kurdistan, a region of the Middle East home to the Kurdish people that spans part of modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Although much of the recent political developments have been around the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Turks believe that this will fuel secessionist feelings in the south-east of Turkey. Because of this ongoing conflict the Turkish military has split its focus between bombing the Syrian military, ISIS, and the Kurds. The West has an ally that is undermining all the forces in the region, thus continuing the stalemate. Western leaders need to act to make peace between the Turkish government and the Kurds, because the continued bloodshed does nothing to end the war in Syria.
Peace has remained elusive despite a number of attempts by different negotiating teams however defeating ISIS requires new ideas. I personally believe the answer can be found in Cyprus. In 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus in order to undermine a coup d’état that the Turks argued violated the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee. After this initial invasion in July, the Turks reinforced their troops in August which captured around 40% of the island. A ceasefire was signed later that month and the UN Buffer Zone in Cyprus was set up. The Green Line, as it is also commonly known as, divided the island into the Republic of Cyprus and the largely unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The Green Line acts as a demilitarised zone that is policed by UN peacekeepers, and because of this settlement the situation has remained largely peaceful over the last 40 years.
A similar DMZ around Turkish Kurdistan staffed by Blue Berets would force the two sides to focus on a common enemy. The Turkish military would be physically prevented from attacking pro-secessionist paramilitaries and as such would be forced to focus on other targets, the top of this list being ISIS. Also, paramilitaries would no longer have to divert forces way from the front-line battle against ISIS and the Pershmerga wouldn’t have to guard against Turkish air strikes.
One could argue that a DMZ wouldn’t end the Turkish-Kurdish conflict as the two groups could choose to fight their battles in a different location. What’s to stop the Turks bombing the Kurds in Syria? I would argue that a DMZ would be part of an overall ceasefire, but that it would remain in place it was later violated. If a ceasefire was signed but then broken the people in Turkish Kurdistan would remain protected by UN forces, and as such civilian casualties would be comparably small to a situation without a DMZ. This protection of Turkish Kurds would remain a constructive foundation for future negotiations.
The situation in Cyprus has remained peaceful because there was the political will in Athens, Ankara, and at the UN to see a diplomatic resolution. This political will is not present in regards to the Kurds but if the West leaned on Turkey and forced them to negotiate, I believe, for a number of reasons, that Turkey will be forced to accept a peace agreement.
Firstly Turkey have previously shown that they would uphold UN actions initiated by the Security Council as illustrated by the ongoing peacekeeping mission in Cyprus. Although Erdoğan is not exactly keen on peace with the Kurds, his options are somewhat limited. Russia and Turkey aren’t on good terms, and if Europe and the US lean on Turkey to strike a deal Erdoğan would have to negotiate one. Erdoğan ‘s refusal to do so would leave Turkey with fractious tensions with Russia and alienated within NATO. It’s worth pointing out, however, that Erdoğan and Putin’s relationship has become warmer in the last few months. This being the case, if the West wants to lean on Turkey to negotiate with the Kurds, it has to be before Turkey and Russia become on friendly terms.
Secondly, if Blue Berets surround Turkish Kurdistan to prevent open conflict, Erdoğan couldn’t risk an international incident. When Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet last year the world held its breath as a NATO country had had a skirmish with Russia. If however the Blue Berets were in part European and American soldiers, Turkey couldn’t couldn’t hide behind NATO. Imagine if an American soldier who was defending the Kurds was shot by the Turkish military. By the time the American press found out that NATO ally had killed a member of the military, Turkey would be out of NATO in a heartbeat. Erdoğan may have many a reckless streak within him but I honestly don’t believe he’d risk doing something so stupid, especially if the UN was watching.
The third and final reason why I believe this would work is that a peace treaty need not arbitrate between territorial claims. If a peace treaty was signed Turkish Kurdistan would not be required to secede, and nor would Iraqi Kurdistan be recognised as a sovereign state. A peace treaty would be exactly that, an end to war.
Obviously if such an agreement were to be struck it would have to be supported by the three governments involved- Turkey, Kurdistan, and Iraq- but I contend that they would if the wider strategy to fight ISIS was shared with them. If this was demonstrated as a way of alleviating military burdens so resources and personnel could be deployed against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Blue Berets would patrol the DMZ in Turkey, and this would free up the Turkish military on one side and the Pershmerga and paramilitary groups like the PKK on the other to reinforce their positions against ISIS. Western pressure would get Turkey to the table, but it may be more difficult to convince Ankara to take such a deal, even if Baghdad and Erbil were on side. In terms of potential roadblocks to peace, this is definitely one that could continue the current geopolitical situation but I don’t believe this justifies inaction on the part of the West.
Iran in from the Cold
Since 1979 the United States and Iran have been at loggerheads. The history of the Iranian Revolution is both fascinating and paints the US in a negative light, but moving forward the US needs to change its posture to the self-declared Islamic Republic. Iran is heavily involved in the battle against ISIS in a few ways: Iranian army special forces are providing military support to Shia militias in Syria; the IRIAF is bombing ISIS positions in both Iraq and Syria; and the Quds Force is conducting covert operations against ISIS fighters primarily in the Iraqi territory between Mosul and Baghdad. Further, the Iranian state has been funding terrorist groups like Hezbollah for a number of years, and these groups have been fighting ISIS and al-Nusra in urban areas ranging from Damascus in the South to Aleppo in the North. Any change in the political dynamics of the region will necessarily involve Iran.
Following the Iran nuclear deal the United States and other major countries unfroze Iranian assets and essentially began reintegrating the Islamic Republic back into the international system. I contend that this process needs to go much further. Not only should the country no longer be marginalised within international institutions, Iran should be supported to develop cooperative relations with non-Shia states in the region. The West should put its diplomats to use promoting cooperation between Iran and Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE etc. as this would strengthen Iran’s economy and shift power away from traditional power brokers. In addition to regional cooperation, Iran is uniquely placed geographically to work with emerging economies like China, India, and Russia, as well as countries in Central Asia like Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.
The other international act the West could promote to strengthen Iran’s geopolitical situation is a UN naval peacekeeping mission around the Arabian Peninsula. If the UN mandated that naval forces from countries around the world were present to prevent conflict from the Persian Gulf all the way around to the Red Sea there could be no threat to Iranian exports and this would encourage FDI into the Islamic Republic.
As well as the high politics of diplomacy, I would suggest that another important way the West can tackle the scourge of Islamic extremism is to covertly fund moderate Islamic scholars. In the case of Iran this would mean supporting Shia groups opposed to the Ayatollah within Iran as well as promoting the cause of liberal Muslims in Lebanon and Iraq. This would promote a more tolerant strain of Islam and could provide a more stable settlement after ISIS is repelled. Further by illustrating how the altruistic Western foreign policy can be, the narrative of the Supreme Leadership Authority is undermined and Iranian civil society would become more sympathetic to non-theocratic government.
The more astute among you would be correct to point out that given ISIS are Sunni extremists, the fostering of moderate Shia ideas wouldn’t help in the fight against ISIS. This is true to a large extent, but they are key in the aftermath of conflict. If ISIS is pushed out of Shia areas, the ideological foundation of moderate Shia Islam must be there to prevent a different brand of extremism from rising up. I will return to this idea in the context of Sunni Islam in a later section.
Changing the balance of power in the Middle East does not require the West to blindly support the regime itself or the groups that it sponsors. In my view it would be foolish to financially or militarily build up groups like Hezbollah to fight against ISIS because this risks a repeat of the Operation Cyclone blowback. Although Hezbollah would not attack Western nations like al-Qaeda has done in the past, the United States would not accept any diplomatic solution that involved strengthening an open opponent of Israel. Also, call me blue-eyed idealist but I don’t think that one can argue in favour of a foreign policy based on justice and human rights whilst advocating the sponsoring terrorist groups.
Opponents of this plan may then ask why build up Iran at all if they are a state-sponsor of terrorism. Given the Saudi Arabian government’s penchant for funding Islamists I suspect that opponents of this proposal may need to re-evaluate existing Western nations’ policies anyway, but irrespective of the current situation the concern remains valid. My contention is that all financial aid to Iran would be conditional on specific projects and thus the West wouldn’t be supporting any extremist groups.
The West’s aid could also be conditional on the Islamic Republic abandoning it’s financial backing for these terrorist and paramilitary groups, and given the financial upside to stopping this funding I believe that the Iranian leadership would seriously consider this offer. If Western funds were used to invest in Iranian social infrastructure like schools, universities, and hospitals, groups like Hezbollah would lose support from Iranian civil society. As such the continuation of funding would have political consequences for the Supreme Leader that would be risky to say the least.
Everything I have spoken about the context of Iran hasn’t really focussed on the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria but the wider regional dynamics. This has been deliberate because by changing the locus of power in the Middle East and making Iran into a more influential player, the Islamic Republic will be more able to assist the Iraqi government both militarily and financially. If Iran remains left out in the cold, the funding of terrorist groups will continue and this risks creating an unstable situation when Syria and Iraq attempt to rebuild themselves. Further, if investment was targeted in specific projects, Western aid would improve socio-economic conditions inside Iran and this would undermine the popularity of the Supreme Leader’s ideology.
The Elephant in the Room
None of what I have so far recommended can truly be impactful if one other country remains a key Western ally. Saudi Arabia is a theocracy that is just as brutal as ISIS in many ways and promotes an ideology that fuels the continuing insurgency of many groups. If the Kingdom remains a key regional player the world shall be fighting Sunni extremism in perpetuity. Not only should the West cut off funding to the Kingdom it should seek to marginalise the country in every forum in the world and assist the current government’s opponents.
The first thing that must be done in regards to Saudi Arabia is their marginalisation on the international state. This will be difficult as many Muslim-majority countries have good relations with the Saudi regime because their state contains two of the three holiest sites in Islam. However, coordinated actions within international institutions can isolate the Kingdom.
Suspension of Saudi Arabia from the UN General Assembly, condemnation from the UN Security Council, pressure on countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council and so on can draw worldwide attention to the abuses of the Saudi state, particularly in the context of sponsoring Sunni extremism. If Saudi Arabia was isolated internationally, this would be reported by news organisations around the world which may even inspire people inside the Kingdom to demand political reforms.
The second key way the West can undermine the Saudi state is by providing its opponents with the means to transform their own societies. Just as I advocated investment in Iran to undermine the Supreme Leader’s government, the West needs to play a proactive role in supporting women’s rights groups, LGBT rights groups, trade unions, journalists etc. to create a more pluralistic and accepting civil society in Saudi Arabia. If the Saudi government continue to enforce an ultra-conservative brand of Islam on the people, nothing will change unless the people change their opinions. The West should maintain it’s investment in Saudi Arabia, but they are supporting the wrong side. Rather than fund the Saudi government’s military, the West should support those who oppose the Kingdom’s authoritarian government, and groups around the world who resist Saudi oppression.
The next geopolitical decision the West can make to influence the fight against ISIS without directly engaging the group in Iraq and Syria is to withdraw from the Yemeni Civil War. At the moment the Western nations are providing military and financial aid to forces allied to Saudi Arabia and opposed to Iran. My suggestion isn’t to switch sides in the war because that would involve supporting the Houthi rebels which took power in a coup, but to remain agnostic on the situation. By ending combat operations the Saudi government would have to spend more of its own resources on fighting the conflict with a failure to do so effectively strengthening pro-Iranian forces.
The other dimension to Saudi power is black gold. It is not surprising that of all the countries in the Arab World, Saudi Arabia is both a key ally of the West and the second largest oil producer in the world. If Western nations transitioned away from fossil fuels, especially oil, Saudi influence would be declined and the West could more effectively criticise Saudi policy. Saudi Arabia has a huge financial reserve that has been built up over the years because of the high price of oil and strategic work of the Kingdom within OPEC.
If the global demand for oil drops, the Saudi government’s current oil output would also have to drop in order to maintain current price levels. With less oil on the world market, nation-states would seek more reliable supplies of energy. This process has a certain circularity, and the loser would be the Saudi government. The obvious benefit of this policy would be that it would enhance geopolitical interests whilst simultaneously combating climate change, but the economic problems of the Saudi state would begin a process of politicisation of the masses, and people would begin agitating for change.
This would also be an indirect way of imposing sanctions of Saudi Arabia. If the West wants to save face and not impose sanctions on the Kingdom for its appalling human rights abuses, removing Western economies’ reliance on oil would be a key way of changing the power dynamics of the Middle East. Iran, Kuwait, the UAE and others would also all be undermined by Western actions to switch away from fossil fuels. A shift towards energy independence, and a particular focus on renewable energy, would put the Middle East into a state of flux whereby countries would have to enact drastic reforms to keep their populations onside or reveal their latent authoritarianism to people across the world.
Given that Saudi Arabia are also engaged militarily against ISIS it may be curious to some that I suggest severing all ties with the country. Whilst it is true the Kingdom has been bombing ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria for a number of months, it must be stressed that they have also been promoting the very same ideology. In Western countries that permit Islamic schools, many of the textbooks used promote Wahhabism either directly or strict social conservatism particularly in regards to religious minorities, LGBT people, and women.
Furthermore, the Kingdom refused to take in many of the refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict and instead offered to build mosques in refugee camps. On the surface this seems like a nice gesture, as the overwhelming majority of the refugees fleeing Syria were Muslims, however the imams preaching in these mosques would have been Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia, and thus one of the ideological foundations of ISIS would be spread among the Syrian diaspora. If the West wants to actually defeat groups like ISIS it cannot stand by and allow a country that shares a huge ideological connection with these terrorist actors to spread this doctrine throughout the world.
A counter argument that could be levied is that although there is some overlap between the beliefs of ISIS and Saudi Arabia, isolating the country would create instability that could be exploited by groups like ISIS. This is fair as ISIS arose out of the chaos of Iraq after Western intervention, but I believe that the measures I have outlined above would prevent ISIS from gaining ground.
At no point in what I have outlined above have I stated that the Saudi monarchy should be deposed, or even that it should become a constitutional monarchy. Everything I have been addressing has been about rooting out the ideology the country is based upon. If the Saudi Royal Family decided that it would be politically expedient for themselves to adopt more moderate social policies, any dissent by ultra-conservative elements in Saudi society would be rooted out by the government.
Further, if the country was isolated from the international community in the same way as Iran, the Saudi government would have to at least negotiate with major powers. These demands could be mandating the country embrace gender equality, religious pluralism, and/or reduce its oil output and transition towards sustainable energy. By accepting any of these suggestions the Kingdom would be irrevocably changed and ISIS would be stopped from gaining a foothold.
Finally, if the Saudi government ended restrictions on civil society groups the country would have an engaged population that required the improvement of socio-economic conditions. Terrorism is caused by a number of different things and if living standards improve alongside the removal of the Wahhabi ideology, sympathy towards groups like ISIS would decline and any attempts by the group to curry favour with the Saudi populace would be met with hostility.
Defeating ISIS and terrorist groups of their ilk cannot be done by mindlessly bombing countries to smithereens. In my view the West cannot be seen by ISIS as actively engaged in mortal combat in the Islamic World as this reinforces their narrative of the Western Christian infidels killing Muslims. The West must play a supporting role in the conflict but must also work behind the scenes to change the balance of power in the Middle East. Creating a buffer around Turkish Kurdistan would force the two sides to refocus their forces on ISIS and provide a forum for future co-operation.
Bringing Iran in from the cold would allow the Islamic Republic to play more active role in assisting the Iraqi government and challenge Saudi hegemony. Isolating Saudi Arabia would undermine the ideological foundations of ISIS and would prevent extremists from pointing out the hypocrisy of Western countries. Military action against ISIS cannot succeed unless there is a concerted effort to root out the foundational ideology of these groups. This is where the West can be most effective in the battle against Sunni extremism.