A cordon sanitaire in West Asia

First Published: 2015-08-24

Given the limited military options to contain ISIS, how to prevent its jihadism from spreading?

In my earlier columns ("The new Jihadist threat", June 2014, and "Born in blood", August 2014) I had described how the state system created in the old Mesopotamia by the Versailles treaties was unravelling. With the relentless march of ISIS through Iraq and Syria, the Sykes-Picot agreement, the basis for the new political geography of Mesopotamia, lies in tatters, as proclaimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed Caliph of ISIS through his digital caliphate. (See Abdel Bari Atwan, The Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate.) What are the likely outcomes, and how can the rest of the world deal with the blowback arising from this unravelling? These are the two questions I deal with in this column.

David Fromkin in his A Peace to End all Peace identifies the flawed assumption in the Versailles settlement that the modern system of politics invented in Europe "characterised by the division of the earth into independent secular states based on national citizenship" could be implanted in the West Asia. What was not recognised (even today) is that "at least one of these assumptions, the modern belief in secular civil government, is an alien creed in a region most of whose inhabitants for more than a thousand years have avowed faith in a Holy Law that governs all life including government and politics".

This is confirmed by the latest attempts to establish liberal democracies in West Asia. A detailed study of the electoral outcomes after the Arab Spring by Shadi Hamid (Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracies in a new Middle East, OUP, 2014) finds that in democratic elections political Islam has a dominant resonance. Given Islam’s failure to separate the private from the public sphere as in liberal democracies, the devout – who are the main foot soldiers of political Islam – want to enforce sharia laws which are a gross infringement of personal liberties. So elections lead to illiberal democracies, and the supporters of liberal democracy are left with the Hobson’s choice of supporting either illiberal democracy, or a form of liberal authoritarianism first pioneered by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assads in Syria, Gaddafi in Libya, and now President al-Sisi in Egypt.

Moreover, in an echo of Europe’s 17th-century Thirty Year War of religion, the rise of ISIS and the proxy battles between the theocratic regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia, are leading to another battle of Karbala. Meanwhile a de facto partition of Iraq into a Kurdistan (promised but not implemented in 1921), a Shia Iranian protectorate east and south of Baghdad, and the Sunni heartland controlled by ISIS is already in place. Meanwhile the civil war in Syria, between Bashar al-Assad, ISIS (which is absorbing the other jihadis) and the Syrian Kurds continues. This has led to millions of refugees, with many of the liberal professionals amongst them fleeing across the Mediterranean to seek asylum in the EU (see Gaspard Koenig, FT, 7 August, 2015).

Given these outcomes and the growing failure of the US War on Terror, what can be done to douse or contain these flames from Mesopotamia? President Barack Obama, whilst abjuring US "boots on the ground", had claimed that he was arming moderate rebel groups in Syria, who, with US air power, would be able to destroy ISIS. He is now faced by the defection of the main moderate group trained by the US – Division 30 – to the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. ("US-trained Syria rebels do a deal with al-Qaeda", Daily Telegraph, 17 August 2015).

Turkey, which had earlier supported jihadists in Syria to topple Mr Assad, has recently agreed to target ISIS. But, reversing its peace process with the Kurds, it has also targeted their Turkish wing PKK. It seems President Erdogan is keener on the latter than the former. He perhaps hopes that in a likely snap election by attacking the Kurds he can delegitimize support for the Kurdish-led HDP, which took away his AK party’s majority in the last election, and thus preventing him from changing the constitution to gain absolute power. He is likely to be an unreliable ally against ISIS.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states were till recently the main financiers and suppliers of manpower to the Sunni jihadists (see Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of the Islamic State). They have recently changed their tune as their ISIS Wahhabi fellow-travellers have turned their guns on them as not being true to their creed, and announced their intention of marching on Mecca and Medina. The military competence of the Saudis after their battle against the Houthi’s in Yemen is seriously in doubt.

This leaves one other US military option: to hire a mercenary army to confront ISIS. As Sean McFate (The Modern Mercenary, OUP, 2014) has shown, the US has already used mercenaries called "contractors" in its military operations; in Iraq they were half of the military workforce, and 70 per cent in Afghanistan. In Liberia, the US State Department hired the private military company DynCorp International to demobilise Charles Taylor’s predatory army to create a new army for Liberia. Given the untrustworthiness of the Iraqi army created by the US, whose 30,000 soldiers fled from Mosul when faced by only 500 ISIS fighters, recreating it would be a lost cause. Better to create a new private army based in Kurdistan where the peshmerga have successfully fought ISIS. But would the idealistic President Obama and a reluctant Congress be able to do this?

Given the unlikely success of any of these options, it will be necessary to stem the blowback from Mesopotamia. The concern is ISIS’ success in recruiting foreign jihadists from the Muslim diaspora around the world, who on their return to their homelands could perform terrorist attacks. Moreover, the failed state of Libya has become a staging post for human traffickers to move large numbers of migrants from the Sahel and North Africa to southern Europe. With ISIS’ growing foothold in the region, this could also be a route ISIS could take to plant its jihadists in Europe.

A possible answer to contain this blowback is a cordon sanitaire: a term usually used to control disease epidemics. But it was also used by the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau in March 1919, when he urged the newly independent border states that had seceded from Soviet Russia to form a defensive union and thus quarantine the spread of communism to Western Europe. A similar cordon sanitaire enforced by NATO may now be needed to contain the Islamism spreading from West Asia. It should begin with Libya, with no one being allowed in or out, but permitting non-military trade. This could, in case the other military options prove infeasible, be extended to cover Syria, Lebanon, non-Kurdish parts of Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. For, though US allies, both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have been shown over the years to be supporters/financiers of terrorists. Such a cordon would allow the sectarian passions in the region to play out, till like the warriors in the Thirty Years War they accept a Peace of Westphalia and join the modern world.

First published at the Business Standard and posted here with the kind permission of the author.


Deepak Lal is the James S. Coleman Professor Emeritus of International Development Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, professor emeritus of political economy at University College London, and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He was a member of the Indian Foreign Service (1963-66) and has served as a consultant to the Indian Planning Commission, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, various UN agencies, South Korea, and Sri Lanka. From 1984 to 1987 he was research administrator at the World Bank. Lal is the author of a number of books, including The Poverty of Development Economics; The Hindu Equilibrium; Against Dirigisme; The Political Economy of Poverty, Equity and Growth; Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Factor Endowments, Culture, and Politics on Long-Run Economic Performance; and Reviving the Invisible Hand: The Case for Classical Liberalism in the 21st Century.

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