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Epohi Interview with Jadaliyya Co-Editor Ziad Abu-Rish on the Emergence of ISIS and Regional Ramifications

[The following interview with Jadaliyya Co-Editor Ziad Abu-Rish was published in Greek on 26 October 2014 in Epohi, a weekly newspaper produced in Greece since 1988. Epohi primarily focuses on Greek politics withn an emphasis on issues of interest to the Greek left. The interviewer, Adamos Zachariades, is head editor of the newspaper whose own research and writing interests center on the history of Cyrpus and contemproary politics in Greece and Cyprus.]

Adamos Zachariades (AZ): How do you explain the rise of ISIS in the Middle East?

Ziad Abu-Rish (ZA): There is still a lot about ISIS that we do not know, such as how their networks function both within a country and across countries. However, what is clear is that there are three sets of factors without which any account of the emergence of ISIS is incomplete. The first and most central of these are the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and in particular the concomitant destruction of the country. By “destruction of Iraq,” I do not simply mean the process of “regime change.” Rather, I mean the dismantling of the Iraqi state itself—most notably through the process of de-Ba‘thification—and the political, social, and humanitarian costs of that dismantling. In other words, the US invasion and occupation of Iraq were the condition of possibility for the rise of ISIS as we know it today. In addition, another important juncture was the policies and practices of US counter-insurgency, its attendant local alliance making, and the subsequent rise of Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister of Iraq. This second set of dynamics further entrenched the centralization of formal power in Iraq within a small clique, the deployment of sectarianism as a method of rule, and the rhetoric of a war on terror to buttress both. Finally, there is the zero-sum game approach of two sets of actors in the Syrian civil war. On the one hand, there was the Syrian regime and its brutal internal suppression of what was initially a legitimate uprising against dictatorship. On the other hand, there was the policy of regional powers—with the acquiesce of international powers—to deploy all available means to seek regime change in Syria, irrespective of the cost to the Syrian population or the Syrian state—most notably the short-sighted policies premised on sectarianizing and militarizing the uprising along with a laissez-faire flow of arms and personal into Syria.

AZ: Why is the city of Kobane important for Turkey and what would be the impact of a possible fall?

ZA: Beyond the dire situation of Syria in general and Kobane’s inhabitants in particular, Kobane highlights the intersection of Turkish politics toward the Kurdish Question and toward the Asad regime. On the one hand, both the city of Kobane and the broader Kobane region represent a critical node on the Syrian-Turkish border. In fact, Turkish border patrol and the Turkish army are currently gunshots away from ISIS fighters. On the other hand, Kobane has a significant Kurdish population (viewed by many as a Kurdish area), where the dominant political forces of the region can be said to have a semi-neutral understanding with the Asad regime. These groups are, for strategic purposes that space does not permit me to elaborate on, uninterested in directly opposing Asad at this juncture. However, the Turkish government has made open and direct opposition to the Asad regime—among other demands—a condition for allowing its border to be used for the movement of Kurdish fighters in both directions vis-à-vis Kobane. This is precisely why Kurdish activists in Turkey staged protests, as they view the current Turkish policy vis-à-vis Kobane as an anti-Kurdish position—which it is, because those Kurdish political groups in Kobane have refused to adopt Turkey’s stance toward the Asad regime. Turkey certainly has security concerns vis-à-vis ISIS potentially taking control of the Syrian-Turkish border area. However, for a number of reasons, the Turkish government is currently elevating its balance of power calculations vis-à-vis the Asad regime and Kurdish groups inside Syria above those of security vis-à-vis ISIS.

The obvious problem is that this “game” is playing out at very high stakes: the fate of Kobane and its population. What is important to keep in mind is that the Kurdish political groups in Kobane are currently attempting to hold out against ISIS, perhaps hoping the Turkish government abandons its current position (most likely to occur only under pressure from the United States). But in this equation, the Kurdish political forces in Kobane have more to lose than Turkey, which highlights both the existential stakes of the situation and also sheds light on why they might risk that existential threat. On the one hand, these Kurdish groups risk being completely eliminated should ISIS take the city completely. On the other hand, these very same political groups understand that their route to autonomy in Syria, unlike that of Kurdish groups in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, runs through some type of understanding with the Asad regime—for the time being at least—rather than as a function of direct opposition it.

AZ: How possible is an independent Kurdish state in the current conditions?

ZA: It would appear that a sovereign independent Kurdish state is just as likely now as it was in 2012 and before. That is not to say that it is impossible. However, such a state formation/building project does not appear to have any international/regional backing, let alone an internal consensus among the various relevant Kurdish political forces.

AZ: Israel seems to be isolated. What is the impact of the recent developments for Palestine?

ZA: Israel is certainly further isolated in the eyes of international public opinion after its devastating onslaught of the Gaza Strip this past summer, despite its continued unconditional political, military, and economic support from the US government. This is clearly indicated by the growing support for the international boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel and some of the concrete measures taken by European politicians to limit or prohibit trade in settlement-produced goods. However, it is important to note that the most recent version of the US response to the rise of ISIS is being framed in terms of a war on terror (irrespective of how we might critique the war on terror on principle or in terms of tactics). It is precisely this framework that Israel is seeking to project for itself in its continued occupation and settlement of the 1967 Palestinian territories, its blockage and siege of the Gaza Strip, and its episodic indiscriminate whole-sale destruction of civilian population centers. This is not a new situation, but rather a return to the status-quo ante of the post-2001 world. Put differently, and not just for sake of the Question of Palestine, we need to really interrogate and challenge the re-emergence of the discourse on terrorism and a war on terrorism. If anything, we are at a juncture once again in which US imperialism, Israeli settler-colonialism, and Arab authoritarianism are all claiming to be fighting wars on terror, with little concern for the lives of populations under their rule, and certainly with no real or genuine commitment to ending terrorism in all its forms (state and non-state, as well as anti- and pro-US).

[Click here to access the interview in Greek]

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