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A Turning Point in the Anti-Terror War in the Middle East?

Oct 11 , 2016
  • Wang Zhen

    Director of Security Studies Program, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

The radical militant group Islamic State apparently has been losing ground on the Syrian battlefields since 2015. Attempting to reverse this situation, the IS and its die-hard followers launched a series of terror attacks in Europe and regions surrounding Syria, but their efforts didn’t change their fortunes on the Syrian battlegrounds. Turkey, after the abortive military coup on July 15, adjusted its policies towards the IS and Syria, which might prove to be decisive against the jihadists.

Turkey and Syria share a border of more than 800 kilometers, which, after the eruption of the Syrian crisis in 2011, has become the “lifeline” for the Syrian opposition and the jihadist groups such as the IS. Hundreds of thousands of jihadists from other countries all over the world joined the war by crossing the Turkish-Syrian border. Massive amounts of cash and strategic supplies generated by black-market oil trading were also secretly moving across the border into Syria to fuel the war. Turkish military facilities close to the border were also used by Western countries as springboards to strike against IS strongholds in Syria.

When the so-called Arab Spring broke out, Turkey’s policy priority was to overthrow the al-Assad government in Syria. To this end, the Erdogan government adopted an ambiguous stance towards the IS, and ignored the calls from Western countries to close its borders with Syria. Turkey didn’t even categorize the IS members as “terrorists” or “radicals”, arguing that it would be impossible to distinguish between religious figures traveling in Turkey and Muslims coming to join the jihadist war. According to some western media reports, some Turkish officials also took part in the black market activities in the Turkish-Syrian border regions. During the peak time of the illegal oil trading, Turkey reportedly bought about 4,000 tons of oil every day from the IS, providing an illicit monthly revenue of $15 million from oil-smuggling activities for the IS group.

In the second half of 2016 following a series of terror attacks, the Turkish government adjusted its policies towards the IS. After defeating the coup attempt on July 15, the Erdogan administration’s policy priority began to focus on the stability of its own rule, and for this purpose, Erdogan stepped up strikes against the IS and the Kurdish forces, vowing to eliminate the jihadist forces scattered in the Turkish border regions. By cutting off external revenues and resources, the Turkish government dealt what looks like a fatal blow to the IS, and inevitably accelerated the pace of the IS collapse on the Syrian and Iraqi battlegrounds.

The fact that the IS has been losing ground in Syria, however, by no means spells a victory in the war against terror in the Middle East. It simply means that the threats and challenges that the international community has to face are changing.

First, when the IS group suffers losses in Syria and Iraq, its forces quickly disperse into the neighboring regions and continue to cause havoc in places such as Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Second, whether the result is the Islamic State’s losses of its bases in Syria and Iraq or the end of the Syrian civil war, one serious upcoming problem will be the return of the so-called Mujahedeen. According to estimates by the Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security intelligence services provider, the number of foreign fighters still active in Iraq and Syria at the beginning of this year was between 27,000 and 31,000, who came from about 90 countries and regions. In terms of their size and scope, they outperformed the foreign mujahideen fighters during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s. When the anti-Soviet war ended, most of the foreign mujahideen fighters found themselves homeless, and wandered around the world seeking new jihadist causes. Osama bin Laden was one of them.

Third, even if the IS loses the areas under its control in Syria, the jihad ideology that the IS has been preaching would not quickly disappear; it still has many disciples and followers across the world, and “lone-wolf-styled” terrorists attacks could not be ruled out.

As the IS loses ground in Syria and Iraq, another problem -- the Kurdish issue -- is re-emerging. There are now more than 30 million Kurdish people, living mainly in countries such as Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia. Of all major peoples in the Middle East, the Kurds are the only who have failed to establish their own country since World War II, but they have never abandoned their dream and in the last few years have renewed their fight for independence. In the war against the IS, the Kurdish people have been the main ground forces that the Western countries have relied on, and therefore they have won huge amount of equipment, training and financial assistance from the West. Naturally, the areas now under their control have been greatly expanded, and the will and capability of the Kurds to seek independence have been augmented. If their political demands could not be met, possible eruption of new armed conflicts would only be a matter of time. With all this taken into consideration, the recent clashes among the Kurdish forces in Turkey and Syria may be indicative that something undesirable is coming.

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