By Ammar Younas
ISIS has been defeated and fight is almost over. Now it is impossible for Russia and Iran to leave Syria on its own. Russian has its military and strategic interests including its Naval and Air bases in Tartus and Khmeimim in Syria. Iran had become more influential in the region especially after American invention on Iraq but now will try not to take any risk in Syria and will strive to become regional hegemony. Stability in Syria will also bring more Iranian influence in the Middle East because Syria is the main Iranian supply route for its Lebanese militia “Hezbollah” in Lebanon.
Once again, USA is in trouble to explore new ways to buffer the influence of Iran and Russia in the Middle East. President Trump’s “America First” vision seems compromised. His first foreign trip was to Middle East and many international experts are relating this to the blockade of Qatar and current corruption crackdown in Saudi Arabic. Scenarios in Middle East are painting a cunning image of Saudi Arabic and USA. It is unclear that how USA will respond to such multifaceted challenges. One of the US tactics can be to engage Russian and Iran in other regions on different levels especially in South Asia and Central Asia.US still has an upper hand in these regions when it comes to soft politics and cultural diplomacy. Whereas ISIS will adopt a similar strategy as adopted by Taliban in Afghanistan. When USA withdrew its support for Talibans, they divided into different smaller groups and started operating from different regions.
Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute, traces ISIS’s genealogy, in his new book “A Theory of ISIS: Political Violence and Transformation of the Global Order” revealed that how the group has transcended Osama Bin Laden’s original scheme of Al Qaeda and mutated into an unprecedented hybrid between post-colonial violence, post-modernity and post-globalization. Reacting to the “under-theorization and under-conceptualization” of ISIS, he argues that “a thoroughgoing political history perspective on the question of violence” is needed to account for the group’s evolution functioning at multiple and complex levels. ISIS is an ideology, which cannot be destroyed. ISIS has sympathizers in all parts of the world and the post-war strategy for ISIS can be to run its operations from different parts of the world. Central Asian terrorist organizations and their tendency to supply fighters for ISIS provide an empirical evidence for the Professor Mahmoud’s study.
Central Asia links all their issues related with the fragile Foreign policies to the economic and political grievances, ignoring the factor that there are other important variables constantly being neglected. When it comes to the question of radicalization, many Kyrgyz people think that Kyrgyzstan is not Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, which are more prone to the extremism and contributed more numbers in ISIS army. But Kyrgyzstan forgets that if it is not Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, it is also not Kazakhstan who suffered “Aktobe shootings” in 2016 by Islamic Extremists leaving 7 victims dead and 37 injured. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan has porous borders with Afghanistan through which drugs and terrorism will keep penetrating. Taliban has not been weakened in Afghanistan whereas Pakistan has become very successful in tackling Taliban by doing two successful military operations against them in its Northern areas and stabilizing its relations with USA, Iran and China.
Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan have suffered from deaths of its citizens fighting for ISIS. Tajikistan’s president accepted that around 300 Tajik fighters have been killed in Syria and this number is greater than Kazakh and Kyrgyz fighters which are less than a hundred. Uzbekistan has around 13000 people in its jails facing allegations of connections with terrorist organizations whereas Turkmenistan has around 350 fighters fighting in Syria. All these numbers of Central Asian ISIS fighters are relatively higher than many other regions.
I don’t think that religion in not a motivational factor for ISIS fighters as claimed by many surveys done by NGOs and academic intuitions in Central Asia. I think that religion is an important factor but not the only one. It is often accompanied by frustration caused by poverty and lack of trust in public institutions especially in the judicial system or law enforcement agencies which are infected by corrupt bureaucracy. There is a huge gap between liberals and conservatives in Central Asia and people tend to reside on the extremes of right-left spectrum. Central Asia has many things to offers for both of these groups. Leftists find satisfaction in Western life style which they refer as a need of liberal, progressive, democratic and globalized world whereas rightists find glamour in religious life style for bourgeoisie or spiritual satisfaction. Youngsters often feel humiliation when they come in direct contact with liberals who often make them feel shame by attaching on their beliefs referring them as primitive. Central Asian Media exaggerate issues by its biased reporting on crimes committed by people with religious affiliations and adds fuel to this humiliation. And authoritarian regimes also tend to take the sides of leftists. For example, recently Kazakh parliament passed a bill to deprive Kazakhs of citizenship should they be convicted of various crimes, mostly related to terrorism. Frustration increases due to suffering coming from socioeconomic crisis and post-communist syndromes. Whole Central Asia follows this similar pattern of factors which contribute in radicalization of people.
USA and EU including other International NGOs seem are very outspoken about their contributions towards advocacy, educational and community development programs in Central Asia but I think that it is being assumed by rightists as Western propaganda. It is interesting to know that ISIS didn’t pay much attention to its propaganda or marketing in Central Asia. Russian speaking Chechen fighters, previously operating religious extremist groups and glitzy image of ISIS attracted more recruits for the ISIS. Although the fighters from Central Asia have an edge of simplicity in European visa processes which make their mobility easier than fighters coming from other regions. But recent ISIS rhetoric demanding from fighters to stay in their home countries and to operate by using their local networks will be a huge threat to Central Asia in coming years. Central Asian governments and media should scrutinize their policies about domestic security which include adopting a more cultural sensitive approach in reporting and having sympathy towards the emotions of rightists. Above all, time has come for each of the Central Asian country to not to compare it with other countries and focus on its own security considering their own context.
Ammar Younas is a Pakistani scholar currently based in Beirut, Lebanon. He studied Medicine, Law and International Relations in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.