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Identity Issues and Alliance Dilemmas in the Middle East

04 Nov 2014
Short Read by Peter Knoope

In Turkey, IS supporters and parts of the Kurdish population have clashed in violent confrontations. This is happening at the same moment that Kurdish groups in Brussels, Germany and the Netherlands request more support for their struggle against IS in Iraq and Syria. In some cases protesters have entered or occupied Parliament buildings. The Middle East conflict is effectively exported into Turkey and into Western Europe. This shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Whether we like it or not there are groups of people in many countries, including Western Europe and Turkey, who are attracted to, or support the IS agenda. We have identified them as potential jihadists and have defined these groups and individuals as a risk to society. Our prime response has mainly been repressive and hostile, thereby alienating them from the rest of society. Rather than deterring them, this approach has actually raised their profile and attractiveness for those who already feel outsiders in society. IS supporters have announced that if European governments intervene in the Middle East they will conduct revenge attacks inside the European space. This has increased threat levels and security measures in some European countries. Apparently these threats are taken seriously in at least some states. To what extent the IS supporters are capable or effectively ready to execute such threats is yet to be seen. But even if unrealistic the impact is already tangible.

The next step may very well be crucial and a crossroad that could lead Europe into long-term involvement in a complex conflict. A conflict that does not respect borders. This very fact raises questions about empowerment, strategic choices and tactics. There are many ingredients to the present day situation that matter. But some are of great importance with respect to understanding an important motivational factor, and in understanding the alliance dilemmas that the West is facing:

  1. Kurds have long felt isolated and ignored by the international community. Their long term ambition is clear: a sovereign, independent Kurdish state in former Kurdistan. This ambition is opposed by almost all governments, in the region and beyond. Whilst the short term agenda of the Peshmerga and the Turkish Kurds may coincide with the international agenda, the long term agendas differ fundamentally.
  2. Kurdish groups in Turkey, Iraq and Syria have suffered from many political developments and incidents in the last decades. One of them is the listing of PKK as a terrorist organisation, under strong international political pressure from Ankara. Others include the unresolved Kirkuk debate and the massacre committed by Saddam Hussein. These incidents account for the deep frustration and anger that transcends the present day concerns in Iraq and/or Syria.
  3.  Alongside the individuals and groups in the Western world that feel sympathy for and find recognition in the IS agenda, there are also many who feel represented by the Kurdish agenda in those same Western countries. Diasporas, spontaneous and induced, have spread over the entire western world. The interconnectivity of these diasporas may be bigger than some may wish to acknowledge. This means that mobilising support and support-structures for both sides is a real possibility.

Put together, these ingredients have created a situation where the reasons given by those who support either IS or the Kurdish people, are strikingly similar. `We are confronted with violence`, `we need to stand up for our rights`, `we are humiliated and neglected`, `the only alternative is to act`, `I cannot be silent or absent when my people need my support`. There seem to be very strong and mobilising identity issues among both parties, who feel that there is a reason to live and die for in Iraq, Syria and potentially in Turkey and Europe.

How to deal with these issues? The Western dilemma is obvious and boils down to the question of empowerment and indirect involvement. And with that comes the eternal question of short term empowerment and long term impact. Given that the long term agenda on both sides is unacceptable to Western governments, that the long term implications of empowering one of the parties in a conflict over the other is often disastrous, that both sides are using the same language to mobilise forces, and most of all, that identity is a major driver, should we not consider all these issues? All the more so, because Europe, because of its own internal social fabric, cannot isolate itself from the consequences of its actions.

IS has committed the most gruesome acts. It has publicly provoked Western governments´ reactions through the most outrageous inhumane acts. It has shown to its followers that it dares to openly revenge Guantanamo Bay, the drones, the killing of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian Territories and all those other humiliations that individuals, that identify with the cause and the victims of those occasions, strongly internalise. For its followers IS stands for actor vs victim; identity vs humiliation.

I would not be surprised if the Kurdish cause stands for similar, if not exactly the same, values. Kurds are mobilising around long-nourished values of identity and long term ambition, that had always been denied and frustrated.  They are asking for arms to finally stand up for their right to determine their own future and to define their own social, cultural and economic society.

The dilemma is huge. IS is committing acts that cannot be left unanswered. The western world also needs to act. That also is an identity issue. When `our` journalists and ´our´ aid workers are publicly dehumanised `we` need to respond. But the ´how-question´ is relevant. Instead of looking into the real issue of identity, perceptions of humiliation and victimisation, we choose to empower one side in the equation, to ignore the potential side-effects and to ignore the basic differences of opinion regarding the long term agendas. This choice may very well backlash in the future. More importantly, it may trigger an involvement of our urban youth into the conflict. Importing the conflict from the Middle East, with all its complexities, may very well become a fact of life in the European society.

Handling these issues wisely requires an eye for long-term impact. The West needs to have the courage to look at its own as well as the others´ motivations, the underlying identity issues, the frustrations, the long term implications and the implicit promises. History teaches us as much.