The Politics of the Anti-ISIS Coalition

September 23, 2014 § 4 Comments

Now that U.S.-led airstrikes – or according to the UAE’s press release, UAE-led airstrikes – have begun against ISIS positions in Syria, it seems we have an actual coalition to size up. Participating in one way or another were the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, with Qatar the only one of the six to not actually drop bombs or shoot cruise missiles. One of these things is obviously not like the others, and that is Qatar. Aside from the fact that Qatar’s participation is going to remain limited to logistics and support, Qatar’s inclusion in this group is striking given that the four other Arab states represent one distinct camp in the Middle East, while Qatar represents another. There has been lots of talk the past few years about a Middle Eastern cold war taking place between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but there is a separate battle taking place between what I’ll call status quo Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. and revisionist Sunni states Qatar and Turkey. The latter are trying to upend the current regional order, and have thus spent lots of capital – both actual and rhetorical – supporting Muslim Brotherhood groups and other actors opposed to the current regional configuration. It is interesting to see Qatar openly participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, and it is likely a response to the charges that Qatar is tied to terrorism and has been funding shady jihadi and Islamist rebels. Qatar wants to demonstrate that it is not aiding ISIS, and this is the best way of going about that.

Far more intriguing is who is not part of this coalition, and that would be the other member of the Sunni revisionist camp. Along with Jordan, Turkey is the country most threatened by ISIS given its long border with Syria and the growing number of Turks being recruited as ISIS fighters. Turkey’s hostages have just been released by ISIS, so the biggest reason for Turkey’s hesitation has been removed, and yet Turkey is adamantly not joining the coalition. Aaron Stein has a good rundown today of what Turkey is doing behind the scenes to help out, but there are still reasons why Turkey is not going to publicly join the fight. The big one is that Turkey isn’t actually for a particular outcome; it only knows what it doesn’t want. It does not want Bashar al-Assad to benefit from any moves taken to degrade ISIS, but it also does not want ISIS to permanently control territory in Syria, but it also does not want the Kurds to benefit from ISIS being rolled back. Where Turkey runs into trouble is that not one of these outcomes can be realized in its entirety without limiting the success of the other outcomes. Eliminating ISIS will benefit Assad and the Kurds, while removing Assad creates a vacuum that will be filled by ISIS and/or the Kurds, and limiting any gains by the Kurds necessarily means that ISIS is maintaining its strength in northern Syria. Turkey wants a combination of goals that cannot be filled simultaneously, and yet it does not want to or cannot choose between which ones should be shunted aside.

The irony here is that by not throwing the full force of its weight behind getting rid of ISIS, it is risking a bigger domestic problem with Turkey’s Kurds, some of whom are crossing the border to fight with Kurdish forces against ISIS. Turkish Kurds blame Ankara for allowing ISIS to fester and even empowering the group with its previous see-no-evil-hear-no-evil border policy, and thus the more half-hearted the Turkish government behaves with regard to getting rid of ISIS, the harder any Kurdish peace process and any effort to fully integrate Kurds into Turkey will become. In trying to appease ISIS by not taking a public role in the fight against the group – and thereby attempting to head off any jihadi terrorism inside of Turkey’s borders – Turkey is going to reignite an entirely different type of domestic problem. It is also foolhardy to believe that ISIS is a fire that won’t burn Turkey if the country steps away from the issue. At some point, ISIS violence is bound to come to Turkey whether Ankara participates as a full in open partner in the fight against the group or not, and when that happens, the vendetta against Assad and the worries about Kurdish nationalism are going to seem myopic.

The other regional player absent – although this is altogether unsurprising – is Iran. John Kerry and others have expressed hopes that the U.S. and Iran can cooperate together against ISIS given that the group presents a common threat. While I don’t rule out an eventual U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement (although I am skeptical), there is never going to be open Iranian cooperation with the U.S. on any shared goal such as the fight against ISIS, despite the optimism running rampant today following Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive in New York. Iran is an ideological state, meaning that it references explicitly ideological claims or a programmatic mission in justifying political action and allows those claims or mission to constrain its range of actions. Ideological states behave very differently from non-ideological states because ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, and so fealty to the state ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. To the extent that the ideology is institutionalized, its protection becomes vital, as a blow to the ideology is a blow to the state’s legitimacy among its citizens. The ideology also becomes the most important feature of the regime’s legacy, and no true guardians of the state ideology want to be responsible for its downfall or delegitimization. A large element of the Iranian regime’s ideology is opposition to the U.S.; it is the reason that the regime has harped on this point for decades on end. When you base your legitimacy and appeal in large part on resisting American imperial power, turning on a dime and openly helping the U.S. achieve an active military victory carries far-reaching consequences domestically. It harms your legitimacy and raison d’être, and thus puts your continued rule in peril. Iran wants to see ISIS gone as badly as we do, if not more so, and ISIS presents a more proximate threat to Iran than to us. Despite this, Iran cannot be seen as helping the U.S. in any way on this, and simply lining up interests in this case is an analytical mistake as ideological considerations trump all when you are dealing with highly ideological regimes. The same way that the U.S. would never have cooperated with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War to defeat a common enemy – despite being able to come to agreement on arms control negotiations – because of an ideological commitment to being anti-Communist, Iran will not cooperate with the U.S. against ISIS. Those naively hoping that ISIS is going to create a bond between the U.S. and Iran are mistaken.

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ISIS and Ideology

September 11, 2014 § 14 Comments

I am no expert on ISIS and I won’t pretend to be. I don’t know what their true capabilities are, whether they are a function of U.S. troops invading Iraq or a function of U.S. troops leaving Iraq, or whether they would exist if we had armed less extreme Syrian opposition groups at the outset of the Syrian civil war. I do know, however, that President Obama’s statement last night that we will “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS can only partially be true. The U.S. can certainly degrade ISIS’s capabilities based on the military plan Obama laid out, and perhaps it can even defeat the group itself by some metric of victory. But ISIS is not a prime mover; it is a symptom. At its core, ISIS is an ideology, and even if the group comprised of jihadi fighters is defeated, it will simply be reincarnated with a different name because ideologies – with very rare exception – do not die on the battlefield. They die when their utility is proven worthless or when they lose out to a superior idea. Unfortunately for the U.S., airstrikes and logistical support for Iraqi and Kurdish troops is not going to translate into a defeat for the ideology that is motivating ISIS.

One of my newest pet peeves is referring to ISIS as nihilistic. ISIS is actually the very opposite of nihilistic; it does not believe that life has no meaning or purpose, but in fact has a very concrete belief in what the purpose and meaning of life might be. Its wanton disregard for human life is not the same thing as nihilism, and it absolutely believes in something. The fact that it believes in its purpose and mission so vehemently is why any military victory over it will be hollow. Political ideologies offer a criticism of existing society contrasted with a vision of a “good” society and propose the means by which attainment of a “good” society will be achieved. Just because ISIS’s vision of a “good” society does not resemble anything we would recognize as good does not make it nihilistic. Ideologies are ideal types that involve some programatic element, which in ISIS’s case is establishing a caliphate over a large section of the Middle East, so while it is a bloodthirsty and brutal movement, nihilistic it is not. It is rather highly ideologically motivated, to a point that harkens back to an age when political and religious ideologies were far more paramount in global politics.

The reason ideology is so dangerous is because it can be overwhelming and impossible to stamp out. Ideology is a powerful force, and those steeped in an ideology can come to exude a level of commitment that transcends other interests. First order values and beliefs cause an ideology’s followers to act in order for those beliefs to be realized, and a military defeat does not render those values and beliefs invalid in the eyes of the ideology’s adherents. The guardians and enforcers of an ideology, who have built a political order upon an ideological foundation, should not be expected to simply let their ideology, which they have fought to impose and which has guided their decisions, lapse just because they lose to a superior fighting force. Ideology exerts such a powerful influence because it imbues a regime’s actions with spiritual or existential authority in addition to secular authority, and while this is true of secular ideologies, it is all the more true of religious ideologies such as that espoused by ISIS. Leaders and citizens make themselves over in the image of the ideology, creating no space for dissent from ideological norms. The process is designed to penetrate individual consciousness and alter perception so that a situation where the ideology does not reign supreme is unimaginable. If ISIS is beaten by some combination of the U.S. Air Force and the Iraqi army, it doesn’t alter this fundamental dynamic of belief in ideological supremacy. The heirs to ISIS will not concede ideological defeat along with military defeat, which is what makes the fight against radical jihadi groups so difficult.

Furthermore, ISIS’s ideology is a revolutionary one seeking to overturn the status quo and to constantly expand, which makes it particularly susceptible to living on beyond the elimination of its primary advocate. Much like Voldemort’s life force after he attempts to kill Harry Potter as a baby, ISIS’s ideology will not die just because its host body is decimated. It will lurk around until another group seizes upon it and resurrects it, and much like ISIS seems to be even worse than al-Qaida, whatever replaces ISIS is likely to be more radical still. The problem with Obama’s speech yesterday was that it set an expectation that cannot be fulfilled. Yes, ISIS itself may be driven from the scene, but the overall problem is not one that is going to go away following airstrikes or even ground forces.

The stubborn nature of ideological survival is not unique to ISIS, religious ideology, or jihadism. If you want to see the power of ideology in a different, less violent context, look at what is happening in Scotland, where the simple ideas of nationalism and independence have a good chance of subsuming what is in Scotland’s economic and security interests. There seems to be little question that Scotland’s economy will be better off as part of the larger economy of the United Kingdom, and certainly it will be less able to weather financial shocks should it become independent. I also cannot envision a scenario in which Scotland’s national security is made safer by removing itself from the protection of the second largest army in the EU and a nuclear power. Yet, ideas are powerful stuff, and the notion of Scottish independence exerts a hold on many people that falls outside the bounds of economic rationality.

Now, none of this is to suggest in any way that the U.S. is engaged in a clash of civilizations, or that the U.S. cannot be safe until Islamism – whatever that might constitute – is defeated. It is rather a way of pointing out that our expectations need to be recalibrated, and that beating ISIS into submission is not going to be the end of the problem. Groups like ISIS are going to keep emerging until those most susceptible to buying into the idea of jihadism are won over by a more compelling idea. I don’t know what the U.S. can do, if anything, to hasten that process along, but airstrikes aren’t going to be enough.

Turkey’s Iran Quandary

September 3, 2014 § 11 Comments

Taking a step back and looking at the Turkish-Iranian relationship, it strikes me that it is following a similar pattern to the one Turkey had with Syria until 2011. The Turkish relationship with Syria was based largely on economic ties, and Ankara played down any political factors that might cause tension in the name of trade and economic growth. When Bashar al-Assad’s murderous behavior became more pronounced as the Syrian civil war heated up, Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu operated on a mistaken assumption that they could softly manage the problem and convince Assad to change his ways. They presumed that in the same way that they saw economic growth and trade as a factor outweighing everything else, Assad would view things the same way. Assad had far larger and more pressing concerns, however, and after promising to Davutoğlu’s face not to kill civilians, he promptly continued his massacring of Syrians, which led Erdoğan to blow a gasket after feeling personally betrayed and adopt a policy of getting rid of Assad at any cost. This in turn caused the rapid downward spiral of Turkish foreign policy, which has largely collapsed due to the government’s Syria policy – a policy that was neither well thought out or well planned, and one which the Turkish government concocted on the fly. It chose to ignore all sorts of warning signs and then turned on a dime, all to devastating effect.

The variables with Iran are different, but the basic dynamic is similar. Turkey has cultivated a friendly and cordial relationship with Iran despite a host of structural reasons to be wary of its erstwhile regional rival and in the face of a coordinated Western effort to keep Iran isolated until concerns over Iran’s nuclear program are resolved. Turkey has made a concerted effort to improve ties with Iran for economic reasons, and in fact the two countries activated a deal last month to reduce trade tariffs with a stated objective of raising annual bilateral trade to $30 billion by the end of 2015, which would double the trade volume from 2013. I have written in the past about the power imbalance between the two due to Turkey’s over reliance on Iranian oil and gas, which is one of the primary reasons Turkey was such a willing partner in helping Iran evade sanctions by swapping gold for gas. The desire to boost commercial trade with Iran has only grown with the loss of Syria as a trade conduit, and thus Turkey has pressed forward on working to expand economic ties with Iran despite an effort among its NATO partners to isolate Tehran economically.

Like with Syria, the rial signs in Ankara’s eyes have blinded it to some larger geopolitical truths. Turkey and Iran have a shared interest in stamping out the threat from ISIL, and they have each played a big role in keeping Hamas alive and boosting its standing in relation to the Palestinian Authority, but otherwise they are operating at cross-purposes. While Erdoğan has stated his conviction that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power is for civilian purposes only, Turkey has a longstanding policy of opposition to an Iranian nuclear bomb. Turkey and Iran are on opposite sides of the ledger in the struggle for hegemony in the region, with Iran wanting to limit the influence of a connected Sunni bloc and Turkey teaming with Qatar to boost Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist movements. As a NATO member and EU aspirant, Turkey is ostensibly in the Western camp while Iran is decidedly not. On Syria and Iraq, which have been the two most pressing hot spots in the region, Iran has strongly backed both Assad and Nuri al-Maliki, while Turkey has turned a blind eye for two years to groups like ISIL all in the name of ending Assad’s rule and clashed with Maliki repeatedly and consistently while he was at the helm in Baghdad. In short, you have two populous non-Arab states with the largest militaries in the region who differ on nearly every policy issue of consequence and who have historically each tried to control the Middle East, and yet Turkey has treated Iran with all due deference.

I have no insider insights into the status of the P5+1 talks with Iran, but given the frantic NATO/EU focus on Ukraine and the emergent ISIL problem occupying the White House’s attention, this would be the perfect time for a revisionist state such as Iran to take advantage of the chaos and take a harder line in talks or restart elements of its nuclear program. The spotlight at the moment is elsewhere, and given the previous extension of the deadline following the interim Geneva agreement, Iran would not be out of line in assuming that the U.S.’s priority is to get a deal even if it means letting up on issues such as enrichment. The upshot of this is that with other foreign policy problems eclipsing Iran’s nuclear program and an improved economic situation following the loosening of sanctions, Iran’s position is improving, which should worry Turkey deeply in a wider regional context. There is no question that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu both pine for the days of Ottoman power and would like to restore Turkey to what they see as its rightful role as regional leader, and a stronger Iran is not something that will help this project.

Turkey’s Iran policy up until now has been assume, like it did with Syria, that it can ignore the problems on the horizon and simply manage an ascendant Iran on its own. As with Syria, this has the potential to blow up in Ankara’s face in a big way, particularly once Iran no longer needs Turkey as an escape hatch out of its economic isolation. Whereas Turkey is reliant on Iran for its energy needs because it has no other viable suppliers yet, Iran is only reliant on Turkish capital and investment so long as it is under sanctions. Ankara’s assumption that Iran is always going to be a relatively friendly and cooperative neighbor flies in the face of the way regional powers operate, particularly when there is a power vacuum in the region in question. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu thought that they could manage Assad and that they could ignore ISIL outright, and that both problems would eventually melt away. They were wrong on both counts, and if Turkey keeps on treating Iran with kid gloves rather than realizing the threat that a powerful Iran presents to Turkish interests, it is ultimately going to end up with yet another foreign policy problem that it could have fended off with some foresight earlier in the process.

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