By Mustafa Gurbuz
Kurdish struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS) may turn to be the new “normal,” as the war endures longer than expected. A critical aspect of the war on ISIS is a steady stream of foreign fighters. Mobilizing 16,000 foreign fighters in Syria, ISIS draws 1,000 volunteers a month, a rate so far unprecedented in any major civil war of recent decades.
US airdrops have not proven to be effective in deterring potential recruits around the globe.
The US involvement perhaps may even have complicated the overall foreign fighter phenomenon for all sides in the conflict. On the one hand, the narrative of “imperialist occupation” would further appeal to some radicalized Muslim youth; on the other hand, the PKK/PYD recruitment from the Kurdish diaspora has begun to emerge.
As Joost Lagendijk, a former member of the European Parliament, pointed out in his recent speech at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, European officials are also concerned about radicalization of Kurdish youth in Europe.
Last week, a Canadian-born immigrant to Israel became the first non-Kurdish foreign woman to join the YPG forces battling ISIS in Syria. Still, the foreign fighters against ISIS remain negligible, especially compared to ISIS.
The roots of the Muslim foreign fighter phenomenon go back to the Afghan Mujahedeen war against the Soviet Union. Populist pan-Islamism was based on the global network of charities, mostly drawing recruits from the Hijaz region of Saudi Arabia. The Afghan war enabled pan-Islamist activists to flourish across borders.
Between 1980 and 1992, thousands of foreign fighters joined the ranks of the Mujahedeen, including citizens of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, most Arab countries, Indonesia, Philippines, some European countries and the Unites States. The cost of joining was not so high, compared to Syria today. Only about 5 percent of foreign fighters lost their lives and average tours in late the 1980s were so short that some volunteers were called jihad “tourists.”
Since the United States and Saudi Arabia provided considerable financial and military support to the Mujahedeen, some analysts rushed to argue that al-Qaeda was a US-Saudi creation that turned against its benefactors after the Cold War.
This “blowback” perspective may be useful in highlighting the complex nature of the problem. Yet, there is no substantial evidence of systematic support to foreign fighters, most of whom were known as “Arab Afghans.” What may be worth greater attention, as suggested by Thomas Hegghammer, are the Saudi elites who were competing for pan-Islamist propaganda, for fear of being perceived as unsympathetic toward suffering Muslims abroad. “At the heart of the story of the transnationalization of jihad,” maintains Hegghammer, is “a process of elite competition.”
That sounds like what is happening between Turkey and ISIS: there is no substantial evidence of systematic support, but a discursive affinity, emerging from a fear of being perceived as unsympathetic toward suffering Sunnis.
Discursive competition with radicals, however, is a challenge by itself.
“Hope the murtad (apostate) Turkish government re-considers its policy,” said an ISIS militant on Turkey’s cut-off of Euphrates’ water supplies to Raqqa. “If not, we will conquer Istanbul!”
The ISIS declaration of the AKP government as “apostate” came in July 2014, long before Ankara’s decision to join the US-led coalition. At that time, only 62 per cent of the AKP supporters perceived ISIS as a “terrorist” organization, according to the Metropol survey agency. Now, for ISIS fighters, there are plenty of reasons to consider the AKP as an “apostate,” the key word in Daesh terminology to target Muslim competitors.
Considering the fact that Tunisia has sent 3,000 foreign fighters to Syria -- exceeding all countries including Saudi Arabia -- the question of foreign fighters deserves scrutiny more than ever.
What attracts Tunisian youth in large numbers? Is it the grievances of the Syrian opposition? Or is it their own grievances under state repression and persecution? Perhaps both, by people believing the two to be tied together. For those feeling “relative deprivation” in the most extreme, globalization offers opportunities. But it is often plagued with failed states and new conflict zones.
In the Middle East and North Africa, ISIS and al-Qaeda draw Sunni-Shia lines for decades to come. So do al-Shabab and Boko Haram in continental Africa, along the Muslim-Christian divide.
As modern state borders are redrawn, a tempest of fear dominates the air. Thomas Friedman’s recent quote from Mohammad Sadeq al-Hosseini, a former adviser to Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, is noteworthy: “We in the axis of resistance are the new sultans of the Mediterranean and the Gulf. We in Tehran, Damascus, (Hezbollah’s) southern suburb of Beirut, Baghdad and Sana will shape the map of the region. We are the new sultans of the Red Sea as well.”
Friedman calls Kurdistan, Jordan, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Oman “islands of decency” which need to be protected from the Sunni-Shia frontline. As long as failed states exist, however, indecency of no man’s lands will enable foreign fighters to pursue their career, moving from one zone to another.
MUSTAFA GURBUZ is a policy fellow at the Center for Global Policy at George Mason University and a research fellow at Rethink Institute in Washington, DC. He is the author of Transforming Ethnic Conflict: Rival Kurdish Movements in Turkey (Forthcoming, Amsterdam University Press).