(Photo via Mother Jones)
The city of Kobani is falling in front of our eyes. The black flags of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been slowly spreading above the buildings of this unfortunate Kurdish town in northern Syria. Sooner or later the resistance of the Kurdish fighters that are currently heroically trying to defend Kobani will crumble against an avalanche of medieval barbarism from ISIS, which is doubly fortified with modern weaponry. The tragedy of Kobani may seem irrelevant in the wider context of the turbulent Middle East, however, it highlights clearly the flawed thinking process of many in the Arab world, and alarmingly also in Turkey.
Compare the muted response to the beheading of female Kurdish fighters, or the rape and forced marriages of Yazidi women by ISIS fighters to the loud, angry responses that have ___ rightly___ erupted following the recent Israeli aggression in Gaza. The baffling silence is even more problematic when both Muslim regimes and the public, unanimously agree that ISIS does not represent Islam and that its sick actions are non-Islamic. Imagine if Israel beheaded three female Palestinian suicide bombers? The reactions would probably exceed any expectations, from flooding the streets of Western cities with thousands of protestors to even violent attacks against Israeli targets around the globe. Understandable? Yes the innocent loss of lives and siege of Gaza are despicable, but why not the same depth of anger for Kurds? The answers lies within our selfish duplicity, we care only about fellow Arabs, but we rail against others when they do not care about us.
Lack of empathy to minorities
The reasons behind our selectivity and bias lies deep in the post-colonial nationalism and Islamism that has spread throughout the Middle East since the mid part of the twentieth century. Arabism advocated a one united Arab world, a melting pot that ethnic minorities must embrace. Islamists, on the other hand, advocated the “Ummah,” a utopian Muslim union that other religious groups must submit to it. In the search for these elusive collective identities, minorities (whether ethnic or religious) were often viewed with suspicion. Any desire for separatism or federalism was considered as an assault against the common vision.
When Saddam Hussein shelled Kurds with chemical weapons in Halabja, there were Arab apologists who portrayed Kurds as agents of foreign powers that partly contributed to their own misery. It was the same with the Syrian Kurds, who are portrayed, particularly in Turkish pro-government media, as terrorists, or supporters of the Assad regime. This continues despite the Kurds having a long record of rebelling against Assad since 2004. This dehumanization of minorities, like the Kurds, is an attempt to temper responsibilities toward any atrocities conducted under the names of our religion or our States.
Flirting with Islamist groups has a long history in the Middle East. Time and time again, regimes and leaders have wrongly assumed that it is easy and cost-free to use Islamists as a cheap tool to fulfill their goals and ambitions. Time and time again, this assumption has proven to be very costly and bloody. Sadat in Egypt released many Islamists from prison in a tactical move in his fight against Nasserism. Then they later turned against him and assassinated him in 1981. Recently, Arab Gulf States like Qatar and Saudi Arabia saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to remove hostile regimes like Assad in Syria. They naively assumed that funding radical Jihadists would finish Assad. It did not work, because the Gulf Sheiks underestimated the depth of support that Iran and Hezbollah were willing to give to the Assad regime. Instead of defeating Assad, Qatar and others helped creating radical monsters such as ISIS. Kobani is just one of many tragic repercussions of the endemic political myopia that deluded autocrats into playing with the fire of radicalism. The role of Qatar is now exposed, but the young Emir of Qatar is fortunate, he is still enjoying his luxurious palace in Doha, unlike poor Syrians (Kurds and Arabs) sleeping in rough tents as refugees in Turkey, which is a result of his reckless decisions.
Erdogan’s Turkey is as guilty as many in the Arab world of all the above hypocrisies. His overt anger about Gaza and the coup in Egypt contradicts his dismissive attitude to the plight of Kurds in Kobani. Until recently, Turkey ___ despite formal denial ___ has given tacit support to anti-Assad groups including the ISIS. The Turkish leadership also does not see the fight in Kobani as a tragedy, but as a political opportunity to settle old scores with Kurdish guerrillas like the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK),or at least the group Syrian branch, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.
Nonetheless, Ankara’s biggest mistake is its assumption that toppling the Assad regime will end radicalism and solve the tragedy of Syria. That was probably a valid argument in early 2012, before the radicalization and fragmentation of the Syrian revolution, but it is not valid now. The collapse of the Syrian regime now will only trigger more infighting between anti-Assad militias and groups. The post-Assad bloodbath can easily make all the previous atrocities seem mild. Even if this scenario does not happen, a debilitated, drained Syria will be a new, ugly version of Libya without oil, with unimaginable implications on Turkey‘s national security. Such a version of Syria will not just inherit the necessary responsibilities for its allies, nor handle Assad’s remnants, or even address Hezbollah’s revenge. Has Erdogan even given any thought about the day after Assad? Probably not. He is so fixated about defeating the Syrian president that he cannot see beyond it.
The key success of ISIS does not lie in its brutality or barbarism, but in its deep understanding of the above ills found in both Arabs and Turks. They fully understand that selective anger will shelter them from massive outrage, and how the indifference to minorities will allow them to exploits Kurds with impunity. ISIS is the parasite that thrives on the ills, selfishness and political myopia of the Middle East. Make no mistake: ISIS understands both Arabs and Turks better than they understand themselves.
My interview with BBC World Service about the above piece.