War on Terror II: End of Days

5 mins. to read
War on Terror II: End of Days

Wednesday’s headline in The Sun was a classic: SHOT DOWN…AND WORLD HOLDS BREATH. I love The Sun. For its honesty, its clarity, its steadfast solidarity with the old English working class; its directness and, very often, its sheer vulgarity.

I had heard the BBC that morning and I’d read The Times. But the most detailed account of the shooting down of a Russian SU-24 bomber by a Turkish (American-supplied) F-16 Falcon on 24 November over Syria cost just 40p.

Funny, because I was just about to pen something about the strategic game plan of the so-called Islamic State. Which is focussed on Turkey: and how Turkey is the key-stone of the stately arch that is Christian West on one side and Muslim East on the other.

I’d been reading the American writer and academic Graeme Wood on IS.

The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current Jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character…the End of Days is a leitmotif…[i]

IS, whose “fighters” on a personal level are “goofy and stupid”[ii], according to film-maker Deeyah Khan, have an elaborate Apocalyptic theology based on a particularly lurid vision of the Islamic tradition of the End of Days.

They believe, based on certain Hadith, that the armies of Rome will meet the armies of Islam in Northern Syria for the final battle. The precise location will be the city (more a village today) of Dabiq, near Aleppo. In fact, when Daqib was captured by IS last year, they were triumphant. They even named their “national” magazine, Dabiq.

After its victory over Rome (NATO?), the Caliphate’s armies will advance to Constantinople-Istanbul. They will rule the territory we call Turkey until such time as the Anti-Messiah arises in Iran. I’ll spare you what happens next in this millennial eschatology: the point is that IS regards its next target as Turkey. By the way, much of this fits in with what Iran’s Shi’a mullahs believe: they yearn for the return of the Last Imam (Mahdi), who will finally crush the un-believers (IS?).

Practical Western professionals reading this will shrug. But if we understand the ideology we can better understand the behaviour of the players. It’s not wholly surprising that the Turks, who were the victims of a massive bomb in Ankara on 11 October in which at least 100 people died (claimed by IS), are exercised. But Turkey’s straight fight with Islamic State is complicated by the violent quagmire in Syria.

Turkey supports pro-Turkish elements in Syria which are in arms against President Bashar al-Assad. Specifically, Turkey supports the Syrian Turcoman community who have linguistic and ethnic ties with the Turks. There are some in Turkey who would like to reclaim territory in Syria (and Iraq e.g. Mosul) which Turkey lost in 1918-19 with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s President Erdogan is probably smart enough to realise that the big powers are not going to let this happen. But the Turks can exert enough influence on pro-Turkish elements within Syria (and Iraq) to forestall another enemy: the Kurds.

Now the Kurds, let us remember, are implacable enemies of IS, and are the only grouping that has maintained consistent military pressure on IS throughout. The autonomous Kurdish region of Northern Iraq has given asylum to, amongst others, persecuted Yasidis. The Americans and the British consider the Kurds to be good eggs.

For the Turks, however, the nightmare scenario is that the Kurds overrun the territory now held by IS and declare a Kurdish homeland. This would be an open invitation to Kurds in Turkey (of which there are, according to the CIA, 14.5 million) to affiliate themselves. It would mean Turkey losing huge swathes of its territory, and civil war.

So Turkey is at war with IS and IS’s acutest enemy the Kurds (not forgetting Assad’s Alawite sect as well). And (keep awake here) the Russians are now at war with IS and those Syrian insurrectionists who oppose al-Assad – including the Turcoman rebels. If Turkey and Russia both wish to exterminate IS, they have very different notions of what Syria might look like after it is gone.

The Russian bomber which was shot down on Tuesday had been bombing Turcoman (anti-Assad) targets. One of the Russian pilots who bailed out was slaughtered by Turcoman rebel gunmen. Turkey claims that the Russian aircraft violated its territory, and this is probably technically correct: the aircraft seems to have overflown a slither of Turkish territory which digs into Syria. Given that it was travelling at nearly 1,000 kilometres per hour, it could only have been in Turkish airspace for a matter of seconds.

When President Putin said that the shooting-down was “pre-meditated” he is almost certainly right. The Turks have been bristling with resentment against Russia for some time. First, they have encountered incursions of their Black Sea airspace by Russian fighters based in new military airfields in Crimea. Second, they are alarmed that the Russians have armed the Kurds. Third, they are aggrieved by the bombing of their Turcoman cousins.

Frankly, I am worried about Turkey – a country I love. Ten year ago it was becoming more European by the month; now it is turning slowly, under Erdogan, into a more cosmopolitan Saudi Arabia. But Erdogan is clever: he has realised that Turkey’s best hope is to stop Russia and the West from getting too friendly. One air-to-air missile and he has got his way.

As I wrote recently, in a rational world, NATO would be working alongside Russia to annihilate IS. Yet, on 25 November, President Obama announced that “Turkey has a right…to defend its airspace”. This will have been taken badly by the Russians, who will indeed get their revenge in good time. For me, Turkey is now a definite SELL.

Those nerdy IS “fighters”, dreaming of the End of Days, must be rubbing their hands with glee.

[i] See What ISIS Really Wants, Atlantic Magazine, available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

[ii] See interview in the Evening Standard, Monday, 23 November 2015.

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