Dealing with ISIL

21 February 2015
The US is constantly trying to promote the impression that there is indeed a broad and solid coalition determined to “degrade and defeat” ISIL. The reality is somewhat different. For the time being all we have is a group of countries carrying out air strikes against ISIL targets. Some of these are Western countries not only participating in air strikes but also extending military assistance to ground forces, namely the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga. Others are regional countries participating in air strikes without much enthusiasm. These are keeping a low profile about their involvement because they fear a backlash at home. Their ambivalence may become more obvious if and when Baghdad starts a ground offensive. Nevertheless, their participation in such an offensive is essential to ensuring the broad, multi-faith nature of the coalition.

ISIL is not a regular army but a guerilla force with some heavy weaponry. Since a ground offensive will be the second and “defeat phase” of the military campaign, towns and villages where ISIL fighters set up their defenses will be hit. There will be street combats. All of this will inevitably result in civilian losses. This carries the risk of further alienating the Sunni population of Iraq. Baghdad would therefore be well-advised to exercise utmost caution and rein in the Shia militia.

Aware that the military campaign against ISIL needs to be complemented by other long-term measures to prevent the threat from metastasizing, the US convened the Washington Summit on Countering Violent Extremism

On 18 February 2015, President Obama addressed the closing session of the Summit. Once again he referred to the misperception that ISIL speaks for people of Muslim faith, that Islam is somehow inherently violent, that there is some sort of a clash of civilizations.
As a first challenge he underlined the need to discredit the ideology of ISIL and its likes. He said:
“… The reality — which, again, many Muslim leaders have spoken to — is that there’s a strain of thought that doesn’t embrace ISIL’s tactics, doesn’t embrace violence, but does buy into the notion that the Muslim world has suffered historical grievances — sometimes that’s accurate — does buy into the belief that so many of the ills in the Middle East flow from a history of colonialism or conspiracy; does buy into the idea that Islam is incompatible with modernity or tolerance, or that it’s been polluted by Western values…
“… So just as leaders like myself reject the notion that terrorists like ISIL genuinely represent Islam, Muslim leaders need to do more to discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam, that there’s an inherent clash in civilizations. Everybody has to speak up very clearly that no matter what the grievance, violence against innocents doesn’t defend Islam or Muslims, it damages Islam and Muslims…”

As a second challenge, he dwelt upon the need to eliminate the soil out of which terrorism grows. In this connection he stressed good governance and the imperative to deal with economic and political grievances, corruption and culture of bribe. In conclusion he said that the essential ingredient to real and lasting stability and progress is not less democracy but more democracy.

If political leaders in the Middle East were to look at what President Obama said, they would endorse his reference to “sometimes accurate” historical grievances but pass over what he said on current political and economic resentments and the need for more democracy. Because, the former suits their narrative and the latter does not. As a matter of fact, the region has never had its share of democracy. And what emerged from the few elections held in Arab Spring countries as the leading contender for power was the Muslim Brotherhood, no great inspiration for the future.

Turkey’s political leadership is wary of the downturn in our relations with the US. They must be looking at Washington’s cooperation with President Sisi’s Egypt. They must have heard the praise heaped upon late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as a moderate reformer.
And, they should be asking “what went wrong?”

President Obama has made it clear long ago that the US will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with his administration on America’s core interests. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are in this category. Whereas Turkey, though not perfect, was seen as a vibrant, secular democracy as stated by Obama during his address to the Turkish Parliament on 6 April 2009. Since then, however, Turkey’s democratic transition has become a disappointment. A letdown in a mutually beneficial relationship with a future causes more frustration than a blunder in a relationship dictated by circumstances.

That is what went wrong.

So Turkey has two options:

The first is to resume the endeavor to become a vibrant, secular democracy; pursue a non-ideological foreign policy; thus gain world’s esteem and inspire the Middle East.

The second is to pursue the current path and eventually become a country with which the US may at times work on America’s core interests.

Of course, doing none of the above is also an option…

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About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions he held in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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