Opinion: What role should the West play in the Middle East?

The ‘jihadist turn’ of the Syrian Civil War has brought into focus a familiar set of Western neuroses.  Terror, security, militant Islam, the unparalleled (or so we are told) horrors of ISIS; all are invoked as justifications for a renewed campaign of military intervention in the Middle East.  These claims are of course closely related to the steady stream of information we receive that implies the grave danger Islam poses to us, here, in the West.  Foiled terror plots, raised threat levels, stories of British boys (and girls) in the ranks of the jihadists – even episodes of Homeland – all help to manufacture a general sense that Islam is a pervasive threat that must be challenged by any means necessary.  And, of course, this general sense appears fully confirmed by events such as Wednesday’s tragic shootings in Ottawa, Canada – even before we know the full story.

This closed system of reasoning has, predictably enough, led to a series of military assaults on ISIS.  The USA has been joined by a ‘core coalition’ in targeting ISIS from the air; to this must be added a more covert set of commitments, including providing arms and training to groups fighting ISIS on the ground.  This commitment to training opposition groups has been characterised in some Western media as placing ‘boots on the ground’, leading to accusations of mission creep.

These moves towards full-scale intervention have been matched step for step by a mobilisation of the anti-interventionist left.  These are the voices claiming that ISIS represents the inevitable corollary of past interventions.  On this account, there are no successful military interventions: ISIS, as with other jihadist groups, has emerged from the power vacuum created by Western forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

This argument has led once again to calls for total disengagement from the region.  Indeed, it has been claimed that in bombing ISIS the West is following the group’s script ‘to the letter’, inviting sympathetic Muslims to join its self-proclaimed struggle against Western imperialism in the region.

This position recognises the real impact that the war on terror has had on Muslims in Western countries.  This has taken many forms – from police harassment, attacks in the media, in the street and on mosques, to the mobilisation of the far right.  Islamophobia is real, horrific and has to be tackled immediately.  But does this mean we should immediately disengage from the Middle East?

The problem with the anti-interventionist analysis is its idea of the West as puppet-master in the region.   In spite of its airbases, drone strikes and close relationships with key actors in the region – notably Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey – the United States simply cannot exercise full control of the Middle East.  If we take the example of Syria, the site of ISIS’s emergence, it’s clear that the state of relative anarchy that emerged has emerged since 2011 cannot be straightforwardly ascribed to American meddling in regional affairs.

The civil war in Syria has in fact come to express the tensions between the major regional powers: Iran, which backs the regime, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have backed opposition groups – some secular, most jihadist.   Whilst we can decry US support for the questionable governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and must recognise the importance of this support to these and other states in the region, we have to resist the temptation to view these as puppet states; as mere mouthpieces for the West (and in particular the US).

For instance, we should consider the instrumental roles of Saudi Arabia and Turkey in supporting ISIS.  It is clear now that a number of rich Saudis (if not the government itself) have funded the group generously, while for its part Turkey appears to have given the group a remarkably easy ride.  It remains unclear what terms ISIS extracted from the Turkish government in exchange for the release of the 46 Turkish hostages it kidnapped in Mosul in June; at the least it seems to have persuaded Turkey not to join the US-led coalition.  Syrian Kurds have made repeated allegations that Turkey has allowed ISIS to cross its long border with Syria unmolested.  As well as allowing trade, and new recruits to enter ISIS territory, the Kurds claim that Turkish negligence has allowed ISIS to launch surprise attacks from Turkey – notably in the battle of Kobane.

For the Saudis the frontlines of Syria are, for now, essentially abstract expressions of their struggle against Iranian influence in the region.  But for neighbouring Turkey, the conflict is real and urgent.  At no point has this been more evident than during the recent struggle for control of Kobane.  For weeks the Turkish government has refused to allow weapons, aid and Kurdish soldiers to cross its border and join the battle against ISIS.  In fact, just two weeks ago the Turks launched air strikes of their own.  Their target?  The PKK, the Turkey-based ally of the forces defending Kobane from ISIS.

For Turkey, then, the war in Syria is not solely waged against the Assad regime, or against jihadists that threaten to undermine its own security (though this must be considered).  For Turkey this is a continuation of its war with the PKK, and its Syrian allies, the YPG/YPJ.  This explains Turkey’s willingness to sacrifice Kobane before fighting back ISIS to establish a buffer zone in northern Syria.  As it has slowly became clear that Kobane is not about to fall, Turkey has come under increased pressure from the US to support the embattled Kurds against ISIS.

This pressure – along with violent clashes between Kurdish youths and the Turkish police – has led to a softening of Turkey’s stance.  Last week it agreed to allow 200 Peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan through its territory and into Kobane.  But this has drawn further criticism from Syrian Kurds, who want reinforcement to come from their PKK allies, rather than the pro-Western (and pro-Turkey) Iraqi Kurds.

Once again the forces defending Kobane are trapped between the vicious assault of ISIS and the power games of Turkey.  This is where the West must be pragmatic rather than dogmatic.  Of course we should recognise the role of military intervention in the emergence of jihadist movements: this recognition necessitates a wholesale recalibration of our relationship with the Middle East.  But to pretend that we can enact such a recalibration by simply averting our eyes and covering our ears is irresponsible.  YPG/YPJ fighters in Kobane know that they will receive no assistance from Turkey.  Instead they are pleading to the West for the appropriate weapons and – yes – airstrikes required to defeat ISIS.  This would be the perfect intervention: targeted support to help a cohesive, secular, inclusive, non-sectarian force clear up a mess we helped create.

At the same time as we resist the arrogance of western governments, who think they can bomb the region into shape, we must also resist the binarism of the anti-interventionist left, which thinks that all force is colonial force.  Part of our recalibration of our relationship with the Middle East should include engagement with actual communities in the region, rather than puppet governments and sectarian tyrants – the Saudis, Iraq’s Maliki administration, Abbas and the PLO, Erdoğan in Turkey.  This starts now, in Kobane.

By Patrick Fleming

Patrick Fleming is a freelance journalist and researcher, based in London.  You can find him on Twitter @patrickjfleming.

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Categories: Middle East

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