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Can Total War in the Middle East Be Prevented?

[Aleppo after aerial bombardments in 2012. Image via Wikimedia Commons.] [Aleppo after aerial bombardments in 2012. Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

Three weeks ago, Russia started to directly intervene in Syria. The proxy war between Russia and Iran on the one hand, and the United States and Saudi Arabia on the other, threatens to turn into an actual war. Having lost control over its “victories” in the last fourteen years, the United States would rather keep this a proxy war. Nevertheless, it is not clear how long it can permit Russian galloping in what was once simply and only America’s backyard. Russia, long denied a major role in the Middle East, aggressively inserts itself in the equation. A crony capitalism that has no hope of catching up with the West through peaceful means chooses to raise the stakes.

It is not solely Russia that is pushing the situation toward a total war. Apparently entertaining themselves quite a bit in Yemen, the Saudis and Qataris are eager to join the game in Syria, dragging Turkey along with them. However, they are fooling themselves if they think they will find wedding parties in that country ravaged by the whole world. They will rather encounter a battle-hardened army—not children, brides, and grooms.

Even if the Russian raids are able to decisively cripple ISIS, this will only displace and postpone the crisis. Some are already observing that Russian-hit jihadis are returning to their home countries. These might remain as sleeper cells in the next few months, but they will eventually spread bloodshed throughout the region, most likely starting with Turkey. 

While the breakout of the third intifada appears to be a process internal to the Israeli occupation, recent lone wolf attacks express (and reproduce) the overall desperation that stifles the whole region. As the Occupation (and its international allies) has buried or marginalized what remains of left-nationalist and Islamist resistance, only hopeless and suicidal acts can proliferate, definitively marking this phase off from the first two intifadas. Increased regime aggressiveness, as well as the now “leaderless” and ideology-less resistance, seem likely to further push the region into an all-out war, which would be self-destructive on all sides, just like the new phase of the Occupation-Palestinian conflict itself.
 

The Dawn of “Neo-Fascist” Salafism 

It is possible that the current crisis, incited by Russia’s intervention, can be thwarted (through astute diplomacy and perhaps a few threatening moves). At this point, even Putin’s intention does not seem to be a total war, but rather securing a few satisfactory gains in the turbulent region. However, the longer-term trends and sociological dynamics that push the region toward an all-out war are more difficult to counter. If not Russia’s maneuvers today, some other intervention will probably congeal these dynamics into a sustained war. Putin and others might think they are playing chess, but the pieces are not amenable to control.

The most crucial dynamic is Islamism’s global metamorphosis into Salafi-jihadism. With all hopes in Islamic revolution (as represented by Iran) and Islamic liberalism (as represented by Turkey) exhausted, far-right conservative Islam (Saudi Arabia and its satellites) remains the only working model in the Muslim world. However, as the Gulf regimes are also unable to export their model in any meaningful sense of the term, they are dragged into self-destruction by the only effective, spirited force of leadership in existing Islam—Salafi-jihadis.

Salafi-jihadi mobilization has resulted in the Spanish Civil War of the twenty-first century: the war in northern Syria (Western Kurdistan or Rojava). In this upside-down version of that tragedy, the Salafi-jihadis have drawn the international crowds, more than the Left. Nobody in the global mainstream has sustained sympathy for the Marxists and anarchists who join the Kurds to fight them. When fashionable bursts fade out, a few intellectuals protest the neglect of the Kurdish “Rojava revolution,” to no avail. The “end of ideology” hype, that irresponsible celebration of loss of all hope in collective causes, has come to haunt (conservative-cherished) stability and order themselves. Today, unlike during the Spanish Civil War, there isn’t one single idea that would encourage massive numbers of people to risk their lives against fascism. There are local exceptions, like the idea of the Kurdish nation/people/“freedom movement,” which has created the (so far) only platform that has slowed down ISIS on the ground. But none of them match the global aspirations of Salafi-jihadism.

We have not only states and business classes but also intellectuals to thank for this erosion. The Soviet Union and China have squandered humanity’s collective hopes. Business classes (together with their regimes and civil societies) have actively strangled collectivism. But the globally prominent intellectuals of the last four decades have played no secondary role, as they propagated nothing but cynicism and suspicion. While right-wing and centrist intellectuals simply stamped on collective hopes and ideas, many on the Left more coolly “deconstructed” them. However, we can also clearly see that they have succeeded in bringing about not the end of ideology as such, but only that of left-wing ideologies. Salafism can obviously energize many people to fight and die for a cause. We do not know, at this point, whether the new Right in the West will also be able to amass ideological resources to match its brethren.

The second major dynamic, which reinforces the first, is the birth of a fascistic regime in Turkey. Without the rise of this regime, the Salafi-jihadi revival would remain a restricted force. The new Turkish regime not only supported and armed the warriors, but still enables them today to generalize their war to the whole region, perhaps the whole world. The costs of a fascist regime in one of the imperialist chain’s weak links should not be underestimated. Italy’s and Germany’s semi-failed imperial hopes were among the precipitators of the Second World War. Fascist movements and regimes create crises the resolutions of which cannot remain within the boundaries of single countries. Turkey’s imperial frustrations in Syria promise to be as disastrous, perhaps more so. 

When Islamist-turned-fascist mobs chanted their desire to crush the Gezi protesters in 2013, nobody took them very seriously. These mobs, now further encouraged by the rise of ISIS, engage in expanded proto-fascist action in 2015: mass burnings of opposition party buildings, during which hundreds march with nationalist and Islamist slogans; mass attacks against Kurdish activists and other opposition figures; mass extermination of Kurdish and leftist activists. More recently, these more-dedicated activists were joined by larger crowds: thousands of soccer fans chanted in favor of the bloody Ankara massacre during a game in the Turkish town of Konya.

An earlier massacre (in Suruç) had reignited the Kurdish civil war, which had been put on hold for a decade. It seems that, by inciting violent mass mobilization in western Turkey too, the regime consciously incites a broader civil war: not just between the regime and the Kurds, but between the regime and all of its opponents. Most of the opposition has so far resisted its invitations, but this is no solution either: the regime and its paramilitaries will kill and destroy with impunity, whether the opposition resorts to arms or not. For this very reason, some leftists have started to call for a civil war. A recent article, for example, has forcefully argued that peace activism (and more broadly, peaceful activism, including civil disobedience) has reached its limits in Turkey. Leftists, however, would certainly lose such a war, given the massive and international mobilization in favor of the regime (not to mention the military and police forces that are also at its disposal). In sum, the regime wants to leave only two real choices to the opposition: silence or civil war. It will use either situation to further militarize the whole Middle East.

It is the confluence between (the failures of) American imperialism, (the possibility of) a fully fascist regime, and (what was once a fringe wing of) the Islamist movement that creates an almost irreversible total-war tendency. Salafi-jihadism, which used to be in the minority even among Salafis, was good for only one thing: winning wars against communists and other “evils.” Yet, as Afghanistan showed, Salafi-jihadis could not even militarily hold the territories they won. The rise of al-Qa‘ida further exacerbated these strengths and weaknesses. Salafi-jihadism seemed to be the ideology of lonely, isolated heroes, rather than of the masses. This is not to say it was insignificant, as it was always a globally effective movement, fueled not only by Islamic texts but also by hyper-modern dynamics, some of them overlapping with the contradictory rise of middle-class politics the whole world is witnessing today. Salafi-jihadism is one of the ways in which educated, Western/ized, and qualified people assert their “specialness” when faced with a capitalism that respects them less and less. There is an uncanny resemblance between the “networked,” cell- (rather than mass-) based mobilizing structures of post-1968 anarchism and left-wing communism, and that of Salafi-jihadism (and between some of their recruits as well). 

This individualistic, almost anti-authoritarian exclusivity was mitigated after total state collapse in Iraq, as a result of which top-rank generals joined the Salafi-jihadi ranks. The American invasion in 2003 is the real turning point for the history of Islamism. The failed attempt to redraw the map of the Middle East kicked off dynamics that will perhaps result in the redrawing of the whole world map. When George W. Bush declared he was at war with the “Islamofascists,” there really were none. His putative primary enemy, bin Laden, was of no caliber to either mobilize the masses or build a regime. It is dubious whether he even had the desire to do so. Fascists, if we want to use the word correctly rather than sensationally, are defined by their ability to do both. Fascism is the proper name for the mass-mobilizing and state-building wing of the Right; we cannot (or should not) use it for all versions of the fringe Right (otherwise, the term would equally apply to Bush himself). Splits from al-Qa‘ida started to cultivate this ability (and even the desire) only after they were nudged by the Turkish regime and benefited from regime failures in Iraq and Syria. It was only with the rise of Turkey and fall of its neighbors that Salafi-jihadis became mass mobilizers and state builders.

Today, ISIS is not only able to hold territory, but can even build the beginnings of a welfare state. Still, state-building capacity does not necessarily imply hegemony (the leadership of Muslims based on their willing consent). Until a certain point, it appeared that ISIS ruled through fear and coercion only. But this was certainly deceptive, as from very early on Iraqi and Turkish leaders celebrated it as the uprising of Sunni Muslims against Shi‘i Islam. Yet could this really go beyond a vague sympathy based on a shared hatred of the Shi‘a? Wouldn’t the extreme puritanism of the Salafis ultimately turn off the majority of Muslims, especially in Sufi-dominated Turkey?

The pro-ISIS bombing chants in Konya are a solid indicator that this barrier has been broken. The Islamists of Konya, a town associated with Mawlawi Sufism in the Western imagination, have no problem with enemies of Sufism as long as they target the Turkish regime’s enemies. The ideological contours of the emergent fascist-Salafism are not clear for the moment, but it seems certain that the Turks will find a way of synthesizing the European fascist tradition, Anatolian “tolerant” Islam, and Salafi-jihadism. This exact configuration might not travel untransformed to the rest of the Muslim world, but what it promises to Salafi-jihadism is a mass following for the first time in its history.

As significant is ISIS’s ability to organize in a smaller Turkish town called Adıyaman. Like most Anatolian heartland regions, Adıyaman is quite conservative. There is a sizable Alevi minority, as in some other regions. Islamists have never been as strong in this town as they have been in Konya. What is most distinctive about Adıyaman is a Nakshibandi community (Menzil), which has spread to the rest of Turkey from this town. One of the most popular Sufi communities in Turkey, Menzil had such a strong spiritual aura at one point that tons of buses would take alcohol-consuming believers from major Turkish towns to Adıyaman to see its sheikh. It was believed that establishing a spiritual connection (the Sufi rabita) with him through a one-on-one encounter would cleanse the soul, the mind, and the body from alcohol. This reliance on the very person of the Sufi sheikh is the exact kind of belief that Salafis perceive as anti-Islamic idolatry. Moreover, rather than being associated with Islamism or radicalism, Menzil usually appeals to conservatives, fascists, and ex-fascists. The spread of Salafi-jihadism in Adıyaman—a Sufi bastion, which also happens to be an ethnic-nationalist fortress—is indeed quite surprising. Transnationalism and anti-Sufism, almost dictionary-definition components of Salafism, seem to be “sublated” here into a new synthesis, in which particular doses of nationalism and Sufism have become acceptable. If ISIS has been able to organize, popularize, and spread Salafi-jihadism in Adıyaman, then it can do it anywhere else. So-called Turkish Islam (with its alleged toleration and moderation) has not stopped ISIS here, and it won’t stop it elsewhere. 

How did neo-fascist Salafism build this ideological appeal in Turkey? Is this sustainable? Turkey has a deep-rooted fascist tradition, inspired directly by European fascism and Nazism (though also loosely based on Islam and other local traditions). Partially because it is the most deeply westernized country in the region, its fascist tradition (even if the ideology of only a minority) towers over any other Middle Eastern counterparts. The relative quietism of the mainstream right-wing nationalist party in the last three decades (as opposed to its successful militancy in the 1960s and 1970s), Salafi-jihadis’ war with the Kurds, and the governing Islamic party’s appeals to nationalist themes have resulted in a flooding of Islamist ranks with Turkish fascists in the last couple of years. While this could turn out to be a contingent amalgamation (just like the apparently solid, but ultimately ephemeral merger of Islamists with liberals in the 2000s), it has already deeply transformed Turkey. Fascists could never come to power in Turkey on their own, but the Islamic regime (and overall Salafization) has allowed the mainstreaming of their cadres, ideas, and methods. 

It is still conceivable (if somewhat unlikely) that world powers would quickly intervene and remove ISIS from the map. It is much less likely that they can reverse these sociological dynamics. Salafi-jihadis have not only learned how to engage in serious state building, but are working toward building visions that can energize broad Muslim masses. No longer restricted to the Che Guevaras of Islam, their mass following and leadership signals a thorough cultural and political transformation of the Muslim world.

Since the consolidation of the new fascistic regime in Turkey is a precondition for the longer-term, sustained transformation of Salafi-jihadism into a full-fledged, global fascist movement, the prevention of further regime entrenchment in Turkey is necessary. What can stop the total fascistization of Turkey? Inciting Western mediation is not a fruitful approach. Western governments have produced the current situation. Just like the liberal and conservative West watched the Nazis rise to power (and occasionally cooperated with them), Western governments will work with this regime until it engages in total war. As the Middle Eastern regimes (most specifically, the Turkish) turn more and more murderous, Western leaders will just throw their hands in the air and say, “What can we do?”

That is precisely the point. There is nothing they (as the people who cooperated with and in some cases helped the formation of these regimes) can do. Nothing short of regime changes in the primary world powers would result in meaningful revisions in their Middle Eastern policies. Nevertheless, the consequences of total fascistization are going to be so dire that any action to slow it down should be welcomed. Ultimately, however, we should realize that not much help is going to come from the mainstream West, a persistently major contributor to the trends covered here.

This is not a banal, inward looking point about the need to righteously rely on local rather than “alien” dynamics, since—just like the problem—the solution can be nothing but transnational (with durable local and national roots). It is rather an insistent reminder of the West’s responsibility in creating the situation, as much as of its regimes’ complete lack of capacity to resolve it (as things stand now).
 

A Lose-Lose War

If oppositional movements and organizations in the region do not radically revise their orientations and methods, neither war nor peace can be won. An all-out war would be a lose-lose one for everyone. There would only be minor victors. Kurds might be one of them. Thirsty for nationhood for more than a century, they are finally consolidating into a nation. But the nation they would build in such a hell would not see peace and prosperity. Salafi-jihadis would most probably grow in influence and might even build long-lasting states. However, if their Syrian record is any indication, the extremely authoritarian-totalitarian states they would build could create more Islamophobia in the entire world (and possibly even lead to mass conversions of Muslims to other religions, agnosticism, and atheism). Notwithstanding predictions that they will ultimately normalize (just like the Iranian Revolution and nineteenth-century Wahhabism did when they consolidated into states), Salafi-jihadis are much more likely to precipitate the already unfolding collapse of the world order. On that note, even Western power centers would not be able to cherish the redrawing of the map that would result from an all-out war. Unlike post-World War I, they would not be able to control the outcome. They lost their capacity to control a decade ago.

Rebuilding hope and collectivism in the years ahead could change the fate of the region, even if the coming total war wrecks the Middle East. We would have just ourselves to blame if Salafi-jihadism singularly remains the soul of a soulless world after the approaching catastrophe.

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