States like Iraq and Syria have disintegrated, Christians and the State of Israel are attacked, Turkey supports the ISIS-terrorists. Historian Daniel Pipes discusses the Middle East challenge. [N.B. This interview took place on July 21, 2014.]
How can we explain the sudden appearance of ISIS in Iraq and its seemingly easy victories?
Many factors help explain this shocking development: Syrian and Iraqi government repression of their Sunni populations; the brilliant leadership of ISIS; Turkish and Qatari support; and the illegitimacy of a state created by the United States and its allies. Beyond these specifics, the Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs and Kurds of Iraq all feel greater allegiance to each of their own communities than to the central government, which has struggled with weak allegiances since its creation in the aftermath of World War I and now, finally, is splitting apart.
Isn’t it surprising that a large part of Iraq’s Sunni population should choose the most extreme jihadi force as its voice, especially given its secular past under the Ba’ath regime?
Yes, it is surprising – and that is one of many recent surprises. It’s also quite predictable that the Sunni population, once it learns what life is like under ISIS, will reject it. It now finds Islamism attractive; wait till it experiences more of it. The most spectacular example of this realization was Egypt in the years 2012-13, but we’ve also seen this phenomenon in Tunisia, Libya, Sudan and Iran.
What role does the Turkish government play in this conflict?
It’s the primary backer of ISIS. Without Turkish support, ISIS would not be where it is. Qatar is important, too, as a major source of financial support, but Turkey provides more than that: arms, refuge, training and medical assistance. There are even reports of retired Turkish soldiers serving in ISIS.
But why should the Turkish government have any interest at all in encouraging problems along its own border?
Erdoğan had such close personal relations with Bashar al-Assad that he and his wife vacationed with the Assads. When the troubles began in early 2011, Erdoğan gave Assad (good) advice on how to respond. But Assad rejected Erdoğan’s views and Erdoğan, who has a volatile personality, responded with great anger. Since then, Erdoğan has done everything to bring down the Assad regime, including support for ISIS.
So it all boils down to the vanity of one man?
In large part, yes. Erdoğan dominates Turkish politics. Especially since the elections of 2011, he has done whatever he wishes.
Do you think that President Obama – or, for that matter, anyone else who holds power – has a plan to stop the jihadi forces in Iraq and Syria?
I see no plan. Western governments are sending arms, hoping that these go to the better – or less worse – elements in Syria, but that hardly constitutes a plan.
Some people recommend arming the Kurds, the most secular and moderate power in Syria. Is this option being considered in Washington?
Yes, it is a good idea and has been around for some years. But it has never been official American policy and would require a major shift.
In Europe, South and Central Asia and Africa borders have been altered, and new states have emerged during the last 25 years. Should US and European politicians acknowledge that the map of the Middle East could be reshaped, too?
The Middle East is being reshaped. There is no Syria, there is no Iraq, and there is virtually no border between Lebanon and Iran. Kurdish autonomous regions exist in both northern Iraq and north-eastern Syria. Western policy must indeed adjust to the new realities on the ground.
Why is it so difficult to acknowledge reality?
Governments typically act conservatively and prefer stability over change of any kind. It was the same with the Soviet Union; famously, George H. W. Bush gave a speech in Kiev in 1991, urging the Ukrainians not to leave the Soviet Union. Keeping things stable is a natural response.
But in the case of Yugoslavia, Germany and the European Union even encouraged the secession of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991. In 1999, NATO went to war for an independent Kosovo.
Yes, but those are the exceptions, due in part to the fact that that instability took place within Europe. Syria and Iraq could also become exceptions, but there is no reason to expect this change.
How likely is it that the Kurds in Iraq – and maybe Syria – will gain some kind of statehood?
It’s likely. Kurds are virtually independent in Iraq and have emerged in Syria, with those in Turkey following behind. One day, even the Kurds of Iran might become independent.
The emergence of Kurdistan has far-reaching regional implications. This is the first major change of Middle Eastern borders since the aftermath of World War I. The Middle East was largely asleep until 1914, then came a decade of extraordinary changes which, in many ways, the Middle East is still working out: the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour Declaration, the San Remo Agreement, and the creation of almost every single modern state. All this unfinished business from nearly a century ago is now finally being addressed.
When the issue of a Kurdish state was raised in the past, it was usually dismissed on the ground that Turkey would never allow it. Now Turkey is reaching out to Kurds in Iraq. A few weeks ago, Kurdish oil was transferred for the first time through a Turkish pipeline to the Mediterranean. Why this change of policy?
Ankara has indeed experienced a fundamental shift in its views. Its guiding policy had been to discourage any sign of Kurdish nationalism, anywhere, fearing this would resonate in Turkey and hold the dangerous potential to dissolve the Turkish state as we know it. This outlook changed recently for several reasons: tensions between Ankara and Baghdad; efforts by the Turkish AK Party to win Kurdish electoral support; and the Turkish understanding of the advantages of friendly and submissive autonomous Kurdish polities in Iraq and Syria.
Saudi-Arabia has just deployed 30.000 soldiers on its border with Iraq. Is there a threat of spill-over?
Yes. Although the Saudi kingdom’s legitimacy rests on the Qur’an and a particularly severe understanding of Islam, ISIS rejects the Saudi monarchy as insufficiently Islamic. Therefore, ISIS poses a threat to Saudi legitimacy, to its control of the Islamic holy sites, to its oil resources – indeed, to everything Saudi. I would go further: as eager as is ISIS to control Syria and Iraq, Medina and Mecca represent its ultimate goals.
Could the suppressed Shia community in Saudi Arabia try to exploit this situation to create further trouble for the Saudi king?
That would surprise me. Regardless of how unhappy the circumstances of Shiites are in Saudi Arabia, the prospect of ISIS rule is far worse. I don’t think this is the moment for them to rebel against the Saudi monarchy.
In Turkey, PM Erdoğan is running in the presidential elections. In theory, the President holds less power than the Prime Minister. Does that mean he will become less powerful?
It has been clear that if Erdoğan becomes president he will not be content with the traditional, limited powers of that office. Furthermore, we can assume he will exert control over his prime ministerial successor. This shift of positions does not end Erdoğan’s autocracy but in fact will extend it in new form. The Putin-Medvedev analogy is useful; just as Putin dominated Russia regardless of his specific position, so will Erdoğan in Turkey.
There is talk about a rift or even a “war” between Erdoğan and the Islamist Gülen movement.
Yes, a political war is now underway. The two cooperated closely for about 12 years, complementing each other. Erdoğan and the AKP focused on politics, while Gülen dealt with culture, education, the media, the security services, and the police. This worked well until 2010, when they became less concerned about the potential for a military coup; at that time, the first differences between them became publicly evident. Since then the two sides have become serious enemies. They agree on most issues but are rivals for power. Erdoğan finds himself primarily under attack not from secularists, the military, liberals, or Kurds — but from his old partner, Gülen. They could well continue their conflict until one of them is destroyed.
But looking at other Middle Eastern or Asian countries, we find that groups whose leaders are in exile rarely become a threat to the regime (with the exception of Khomeini). How can the Gülen movement be so powerful, given that Gülen resides in Pennsylvania?
Gülen made his career in Turkey until he fled to the United States in 1998, but he retains an enormous following there, perhaps five million strong. More than that, his Hizmet movement has great influence in the security services and police. There is no comparable organization anywhere; it’s unique.
The supposedly final round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 is underway. How would you sum up what has been reached so far?
The Iranians have been successful in convincing the P5+1 to accept its most important demands. And now they are making even greater demands, including 190.000 centrifuges. They’ve come to demand so much that even the accommodating P5+1 are reluctant to accede to Iranian demands. It’s unclear exactly what is guiding these demands,. They may well have concluded that the West is so weak that it will accept even this extreme condition.
The once vibrant Christian communities in Iraq and Syria are facing extinction. Has there been a discussion in Washington regarding what may be done about this?
The American public and its representatives in Congress are extremely concerned about this; the Obama administration is much less so. A Republican president would deal far more aggressively with this problem.
Hamas has started a new terror war against Israel. Why now?
Those are reasonable explanations. There are others too: War wins support in Gaza. Hamas wants to make trouble for Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. It wishes to create tensions in Israel, especially in an effort to inspire Israeli Arabs to rise up. (Remember that the current violence started with the kidnappings of three Israeli teenagers and only one day later Hamas started to send its current round of missiles on Israel.) Hamas may also wish to receive more money from Iran and to recruit more suicide bombers.
We should note that this is not a historically normal war. Traditionally, the key was military victory but that is not the case here. It’s obvious that Israel will win on the battlefield. Therefore, that’s not the main issue, which instead is political: Does Israel use just means? Does it use proportional force? Does it behave properly under international law? Does it follow the rules of war? The focus is no longer on winning or losing but on the perception of how the fighting takes place. This is where Hamas hopes to win: It seeks to provoke Israelis to kill innocent women and children, bystanders, and civilians, so that the criticism of Israel will grow: resolutions of the United Nations, European Union sanctions, demonstrations on Western streets, and so forth. It’s all about winning the political –or, if you will, the public relations war.
How can Israel win the war for the safety of its citizens and make sure that Hamas and Islamic Jihad can no longer fire any rockets? Is such a peaceful scenario even conceivable?
Yes, it is — if Israel retakes complete control of Gaza and returns to the status quo ante before the Gaza-Jericho agreement of 1994. The Israel Defense Forces can achieve this but the Israeli political leadership does not wish to. It prefers to rule over less of Gaza, not more of it. It doesn’t want to occupy, to get further involved, to be responsible for the security and feeding of a hostile population. Thus, returning to Gaza is about the last thing Israelis look forward to doing.
What is the solution to the war Hamas has initiated?
My preferred solution is for the Egyptian government to resume responsibility for Gaza, as was the case from 1949 to 1967. Second best is for Egypt it hermetically to seal Gaza’s borders, preventing all armaments from going to Hamas.
Reprinted with author’s permission.