As Turkish troops move in to Syria, the risks are great – including for Turkey itself



Turkish armoured vehicles drive down a road during a military operation in Kurdish areas of northern Syria.
AAP/EPA/STR

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

Turkey did not waste much time in launching an attack on Syrian soil just days after US President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw US forces from northern Syria. As this development opens a new chapter in Syria, Turkey maybe unwittingly sinking deeper into that country’s civil war.

This is not the first time president Trump has mentioned withdrawal from Syria – he voiced it in April 2018.

Alleged gas attacks by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s incumbent government followed, which resulted in the US continuing its stay in Syria despite its reluctant president.

The US government has always been tentative with its Syrian policy, which was openly exploited by Russia in its bid to support the Assad government’s grip on power in the embattled country.




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Trump decision to withdraw troops from Syria opens way for dangerous Middle East power play


It is also not the first time Turkey has talked about a military presence in Syria. In January 2018, it sent troops to north-western Syria, establishing its control over lands to the west of the Euphrates river. Turkey has increased its military build up on the Syrian border ever since.

The US contained any further Turkish advances by making it clear Turkey was not welcome to the east of the river, especially when the US needed the support of Kurdish forces in ending Islamic States’s presence in Syria.

Why does Turkey want to increase its military presence in Syria?

There are three main reasons Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eager to send more troops in to northern Syria east of the Euphrates river.

The first is the prospect of free Kurdish states near its borders inspiring the sizeable Kurdish populations in the south east of Turkey to seek similar aspirations. Northern Iraq is slowly moving towards independence. If Kurds in northern Syria were to establish an autonomous region, it would only be a matter of time before the same demands were raised in Turkey.

Fearing this development, Erdogan has pursued an increasingly tough policy on Kurdish political activities in Turkey. The leader of pro-Kurdish party HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, has been in jail for almost three years.

Turkey’s second concern is the reported 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey since the conflict began in 2011. Although they were initially welcomed with open arms, there is growing discontent in the Turkish media and society, with many calling for their return.

Opposition parties have been critical of the Erdogan government’s inability to effectively manage the refugee crisis, which was one of the key issues that led to Erdogan’s loss in this year’s Istanbul elections.

Erdogan plans to create a safe zone in Northern Syria, establish new settlements within this region and slowly move Arab Syrian refugees back to Syria. This will change the demographics of the region and undermine Kurdish dominance.

Erdogan’s third aim is to make a political investment for future elections. This may be the most important reason, as Erdogan first mentioned a military offensive in Syria soon after his local government election loss in June 2019.

The Turkish leader needs the coalition with MHP, the nationalist party, to maintain his grip on power and enhance his chance of re-election. He needs a war to unify his electorate, please his coalition partner and silence the growing critical voices in the midst of a worsening Turkish economy.

Erdogan made strong hints in August he would send troops to northern Syria against the US-allied YPG, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group. He was most likely testing international, especially US, reaction. The US responded by offering a joint operation in the region.

It appears Erdogan thought the US involvement was limiting his goals and wasting his time. Perhaps he reasoned the timing was right to make a bold move when Trump was politically weakened by an impeachment inquiry.

It seems Erdogan’s strategy worked. Trump agreed to withdraw from Syria on the condition Turkey took responsibility for handling thousands of IS prisoners and their families in camps.

Trump added a threat to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if it was to do anything considered “off-limits”. But the move was still a green light for Turkey to send troops to Syria.

What is likely to happen now?

Trump’s announcement does not mean the US is pulling out of Syria completely. It’s likely the US will continue to have a presence in eastern Syria to watch developments closely and intervene if the situation deteriorates.

A total pull-out would further weaken Trump. He would not want to risk the already-waning Republican party’s support over concerns about a resurgence of IS in Syria.

Russia seems to be pleased with the developments. Putin knows the US withdrawal means greater Russian influence and shores up the Assad government. Since Erdogan does everything with full Russian endorsement, their close collaboration gives Russia leverage in its political and diplomatic struggle with the NATO.




Read more:
Further strikes on Syria unlikely – but Trump is always the wild card


One possibility is that Turkish forces do not face much resistance. They would then only advance to a limited region, with their stated aim of establishing a safe zone and returning Syrian refugees back to Syria. This may contain the situation without further escalation.

Another possibility is that the US abandoning its protection of the Kurdish YPG forces in northern Syria will have a cascading effects. A sizeable portion of Kurdish civilians may be displaced, and some may flee in advance, fearing the worst.

The Kurdish YPG forces may initially avoid open conflict with the advancing Turkish forces, and look for new alliances in Syria. The most likely candidate for this is Assad, who may see an opportunity to bring the Kurdish populations and regions under his control.

If an Assad-Kurdish partnership eventuates, Turkish forces may be drawn into the war within Syria.

Kurdish populations in Turkey may then become involved, threatening Turkey with what it fears the most – a Kurdish insurrection within its own borders.The Conversation

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Trump decision to withdraw troops from Syria opens way for dangerous Middle East power play



Turkish and US troops on patrol in northern Syria. President Donald Trump has announced he plans to withdraw US troops from the region, paving the way for great destabilisation.
AAP/EPA/Sedat Suna

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

US President Donald Trump’s precipitate announcement he was withdrawing American forces from northeast Syria to enable Turkey to assert its authority along the border risks wider regional bloodshed – and further destabilisation of one of the world’s most volatile corners.

If implemented against a furious pushback from his own side of politics, the Trump decision threatens a region-wide conflagration. These are the stakes.

Trump has given contradictory signals before on the same issue. It remains to be seen whether he gives ground again after what appears to have been a hasty, certainly ill-considered, decision following a phone conversation with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Now under enormous stress from his own side, Trump is resorting to bombast. He tweeted:

Leading the charge against the Trump decision is his close ally, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. He has threatened to introduce a Senate resolution opposing the administration’s decision, describing the move as a “stain on America’s honour”.

Like plucking a thread from a finely woven Turkish rug, the administration’s announcement effectively to abandon a Kurdish militia could lead to a complete unravelling of that part of the Middle East in which various forces have collided since the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011.




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America’s Kurdish allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia arm (known as the YPG), would be at the mercy of a Turkish thrust across the Syrian border into territory the Kurds now control.

Turkey has made no secret of its intention to create what it is calling “safe zones” up to 30 kilometres inside the border in northeast Syria. This would enable it to relocate tens of thousands of Syrian refugees among the 3.6 million on Turkish soil.

In the face of such a Turkish move, the YPG would be hard put to hold sway against both Turkey’s military and Islamic State fighters seeking to take advantage of militia weakness in the absence of US support on the ground and in the air.

The ABC reports that something like 70,000 members of Islamic State or their supporters are being held in camps in SDF-controlled territory. Around 60 people of Australian origin, including children, are in this situation.

Thousands of IS militants are being held in prison camps in SDF-controlled territory. These fighters have already sought to stage mass breakouts from prison facilities.

Turkey views the YPG militia as cross-border allies of Kurdish separatists – and it regards the Kurdish separatists as terrorists.

The situation along the Turkish-Syria border is, by any standards, an explosive mix.

At the same time, Syrian forces of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, would inevitably be poised to take advantage of chaos and regain territory lost in the civil war. This is a highly destabilising scenario.

In other words, Trump’s announcement could hardly portend a more worrisome outcome in a part of the world riven by years of conflict.

The US announcement also sends a disturbing signal to the wider Middle East that the Trump administration is intent on pulling back from its commitments in an unstable region.

Confidence in American steadfastness is already precarious due to Trump’s repeated statement that America wants to remove itself from “endless” wars in the Middle East.

In a Twitter message early this week that amplified a White House announcement, Trump said it was time for the US to withdraw from “these ridiculous Endless Wars”.

Trump also attacked European allies over their failure to take back their nationals among IS fighters held in SDF-run detention centres in northeast Syria. Some 10,000 prisoners are being detained.

This is a situation ripe for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The latter is seeking to reassert itself in a region it regards as its own sphere of influence. Moscow’s support for Damascus is part of this regional power play.




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These are telling moments. Signs of an apparent American lack of commitment might well encourage Iran and Russia, as well as Islamic militants such as IS and al-Qaeda. These groups have been biding their time.

None of America’s regional friends, including Gulf states and Israel, will draw any comfort at all from the Trump decision – if implemented – to head for the exit.

By any standards, this is a mess of Trump’s own making.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Preventing foreign fighters from returning home could be dangerous to national security



Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is pushing to have new security laws passed by parliament as quickly as possible.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Greg Barton, Deakin University

A key element in the success of countering terrorism in Australia has been a series of new and amended pieces of legislation – at least 75 – developed to respond to an evolving threat.

This includes legislation produced in October 2014 (Section 119.2 and 119.3 of the Criminal Code) that declared areas of Iraq and Syria, including the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State (IS) caliphate, illegal for Australian citizens to enter. Anyone who has lived in this territory and seeks to return to Australia will have to prove they were not assisting IS or face prosecution and a possible punishment of up to 25 years in prison.

Innovative pieces of legislation like the proposed Temporary Exclusion Orders (TEO) bill introduced by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton are difficult to argue with. Existing national security laws already place Australia in a much stronger position than any other Western nation when it comes to managing the prosecution and detention of returning IS fighters.

Nevertheless, there is a limit to what legislation itself can do. Moreover, for every possible advantage, there are also possible disadvantages that need to be weighed up.

There is not a whole lot more the new TEO bill can be reasonably expected to achieve. And as the weight of legislation increases, there are reasonable questions to be asked about checks and balances and proportionate implementation.

In other words, the devil is very much in the detail.

Questions that need answering

Three questions need to be asked:

  • First, what is the actual need for this bill? And what is the likelihood the proposed legislation can meet this need?

  • Second, what are the potential downsides that might come with enacting this legislation?

  • Third, in the light of the first two questions, what then should be done?

There is no question, that with at least 80 individuals who have fought with IS now in a position to possibly return, any legislative tool that can help manage this risk is worth considering.

Specifically, there is clearly a benefit to being able to delay somebody’s return by at least two years, and through a process of extensions perhaps many more years. There is also an advantage, when they do return, of being able to legally impose conditions on who they meet with and where they go.




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There’s no clear need for Peter Dutton’s new bill excluding citizens from Australia


The government has pointed out that around 40 Australians have already returned from Syria and Iraq under suspicion of being involved with terrorist groups. To have been able to delay and then manage the return of these 40 fighters clearly would have been very useful.

But what has not been explained by the government is that these 40 individuals came back to Australia more than six years ago, and only a couple have so far been successfully prosecuted.

If the need was so urgent, why wasn’t a temporary exclusion order introduced in late 2014 when we first began to process a raft of counter-terrorism bills and amendments? Or in 2015 when the UK introduced similar legislation?

First line of defence

There is, in fact, no immediate crisis, and undue haste in passing further security legislation should be avoided because it is very dangerous to national security.

If TEOs are applied excessively, and without sufficient discrimination, a number of risks arise. Individuals currently detained in overcrowded detention centres in Syria or Iraq might be released if their repatriation to Australia is delayed by years.

Or, they could be broken out of detention by IS insurgents, who remain deadly and numerous. This happened on dozens of occasions when IS needed to replenish its ranks.

Allowing our citizens to be somebody else’s problem, out of sight and out of mind, does not actually make the security risk to Australians go away. Leaving them offshore leaves open the very real possibility that they will eventually slip away into the terrorist underground or rejoin the IS insurgency.




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How Indonesia is dealing with the new threat posed by returning Islamic State fighters


Should they do so, they immediately become a risk through their ability to influence others online and via social media.

It is likely that TEOs will be also applied to women and children we really should be repatriating. This would pass the buck to others to look after and secure these women and children, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are already overstretched and unable to deal with the burden of indefinitely detaining those who have fled the decaying IS caliphate.

There is also a real risk this legislation, much like other bills that allow Dutton to strip somebody of their citizenship on the grounds they potentially have access to alternative citizenship, could undermine confidence and trust within key communities in Australia.

As then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said after the murder of Sydney police accountant Curtis Cheng by a 15-year-old recruited by IS supporters in 2015, our first line of defence in fighting groups like Islamic State is the Muslim community.

Intelligence is key to countering terrorism and working with communities and families to encourage people to speak up when they see something of concern. To the extent that trust and confidence are eroded, national security will be directly diminished.

Amendments that could help

So what should be done?

Speaking last week at his farewell dinner, outgoing Labor Senator Doug Cameron spelled out the larger issues that need to be addressed.

Our existing oversight is inferior and, in my view, almost non-existent. This is unacceptable and we should ensure our inferior parliamentary oversight of security agencies is changed and oversight is enhanced.

Cameron is not the only one to express concerns. This bill was first introduced into the 45th Parliament. The Liberal-dominated Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) produced an extensive review and a detailed report on the bill.




Read more:
Why is it so difficult to prosecute returning fighters?


Labor Senator Kristina Keneally, a member of the PJCIS, has since complained that the government had

rejected four of the PJCIS recommendations in whole, rejected six in part and ignored one.

This, despite the fact that these recommendations came as a result of the considered reasoning of senior figures from both the Liberals and Labor.

One of the key amendments recommenced by the PJCIS is that the minister of home affairs should only be empowered to order a temporary exclusion order if he or she

reasonably suspects the person is, or has been, involved in terrorism-related activities outside Australia

And that a TEO should only be made

if it would substantially assist in preventing the provision of support for, or the facilitation of, a terrorist act.

The principle of being able to impose TEOs certainly bears consideration. While this is no “silver bullet”, there is a case for passing the bill after including the amendments thoughtfully proposed by the PJCIS.

Without a better system of oversight, we risk undermining community trust and confidence by setting in place policy that leads to dire consequences and diminishes our national security.

Now is not the time to make haste at the expense of national security, as well as the very values that define us as Australians.The Conversation

Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Sri Lanka terror attack. Here’s what that means


Greg Barton, Deakin University

In the wake of any tragedy, it should be enough to grieve and stand in solidarity with those who mourn. With a massive toll – about 250 dead, according to revised government figures – it feels disrespectful to the people of Sri Lanka to be dissecting what went wrong even as the dead are being buried.

But the reality is that most, if not all, of these lives need not have been taken. We owe it to them and their loved ones to make sense of what happened and work towards doing all that can be done to ensure it does not happen again.

The Easter attacks represent one of the most lethal and serious terrorist operations since the September 11 attacks in the US, outside of attacks within active conflict zones. And this in a now peaceful country, which for all its history of civil war and ethno-nationalist terrorism in decades past has never had a problem with jihadi radical Islamist terrorism.

A return to deadlier, more coordinated strikes

The long-anticipated claim of responsibility for the attacks was made by the Islamic State (IS) on Tuesday night. This could help explain how one local cell based around a single extended family circle of hateful extremists not previously known for terrorism could execute such a massive attack. It was larger even than IS’s previous truck-bomb attacks in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The attacks follow a familiar, if now rarely seen, IS operandi of coordinated suicide bombings. The targeting of Catholic churches, which made little sense initially in the context of the domestic social issues at the heart of the country’s recent civil war, fit an all-too-familiar pattern of IS attacks on Christians, along with fellow Muslims.




Read more:
Who are Sri Lanka’s Christians?


The fact that 40 or more Sri Lankans travelled to Syria to fight with IS could help explain how the terror network was able to build vital personal links in the very small community of Sri Lankan Islamist extremists so it could subcontract its attack plans to them. At this point, the precise involvement of returnees from Syria and foreign IS supporters in the bombings remains under investigation.

The Easter weekend attacks more resemble the al-Qaeda attacks of the 2000s than they do recent attacks of IS. Like the 2000 attack of the USS Cole in Yemen, the September attacks in New York and Washington, the 2002 bombings in Bali, the 2003 truck bombs in Istanbul, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the 2005 tube and bus bombings in London, the Sri Lanka bombings involved multiple attackers acting in concert. With the exception of September 11, all of these also involved improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The Sri Lanka bombings exceeded all but the September 11 attacks in sophistication and deadliness, despite the fact the perpetrators were previously known only for acts of hateful vandalism.

Over the past decade, al-Qaeda has been unable to carry out significant attacks outside of conflict zones. It has also become increasingly focused on “reputation management” and has tended to avoid indiscriminate mass killings, all the whilst growing its global network of affiliates.




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Out of the ashes of Afghanistan and Iraq: the rise and rise of Islamic State


The emergence of IS saw the tempo and scale of terrorist attacks transformed. Most attacks took place in conflict zones (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, southern Philippines).

A number of significant attacks were conducted well beyond the battlefield. There were at least four such attacks in 2014, 16 in 2015, 22 in 2016, 18 in 2017, and 10 in 2018. The vast majority of these attacks were conducted by lone actors.

Why was it that, outside of conflict zones, not just al-Qaeda but even IS at the height of its powers focused largely on lone-actor attacks?

It is probably not for want of trying. The reason is that most larger, more ambitious plots were tripped-up by intelligence intercepts. This is especially the case in stable democracies, including our neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia.

Why Sri Lanka?

The other big question is how one of the deadliest terrorist attacks ever was able to be executed in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka was a soft target. Having successfully defeated the Tamil Tiger rebel group a decade ago through military might, Sri Lanka has become complacent. It has not seen a pressing need to develop police and non-military intelligence capacity to counter terrorism.




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War is over, but not Sri Lanka’s climate of violence and threats


At the same time, it has struggled with good governance and political stability. Just six months ago, it faced a major constitutional crisis when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his deputy, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and attempted to replace him with the former prime minister and president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The attempt failed, but in the stand-off that ensued, Wickremesinghe, and ministers loyal to him, were excluded from intelligence briefings. In particular, they say that they were left unaware of the multiple warnings issued by the Indian intelligence service, RAW, to the authorities in Colombo about the extremist figures who played a key role in the Easter attacks.

Thus, despite several discoveries earlier this year of large amounts of explosives stored in remote rural locations on the island, and multiple warnings from the Indians, including final alerts just hours before Sunday’s attacks, the government and security community were left distracted and caught off-guard.

Between “fighting the last war” and fighting each other, they deluded themselves that there was no imminent terrorist threat.

What other countries are vulnerable?

If the massive attacks in Sri Lanka over Easter serve to remind us that IS is very far from being a spent force, the question is where this energetic and well-resourced network will strike next.

For all that it achieved in Sri Lanka, IS is unlikely to be able to build an enduring presence there. So long as the Sri Lankan government and people emerge from this trauma with renewed commitment to unity – and with elections at the end of the year, this is far from certain – the “perfect storm” conditions exploited by IS are unlikely to be repeated.

So where else is IS likely to find opportunity? India and Bangladesh continue to present opportunities, as does much of Central Asia. In our region, it is Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines that we should be most worried about.

Malaysia has emerged stronger and more stable from its swing-back to democracy but continues to be worryingly in denial about the extent to which it is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, downplaying the very good work done over many years by the Special Branch of the Royal National Malaysian Police.




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Defeated in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State is rebuilding in countries like Indonesia


Thailand and the Philippines remain less politically stable, and rather more brittle than they care too acknowledge. And both tend to delude themselves into thinking that the problems of their southern extremes will never manifest in a terror attack in Bangkok or Manila, respectively.

The people of Sri Lanka have paid far too high price for the lessons of the Easter weekend attacks to be ignored or forgotten.The Conversation

Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sri Lanka has a history of conflict, but the recent attacks appear different


Damien Kingsbury, Deakin University

Sri Lanka has long been subject to extremist violence. Easter Sunday’s coordinated bomb blasts, which killed almost 300 and injured hundreds more, are the latest in a long history of ethno-religious tragedies.

While no one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, 24 people have been arrested. Three police were killed in their capture.

The Sri Lankan government has blamed the attacks on the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a radical Islamist group known for vandalising Buddhist statues.

These attacks are different from previous ethno-religious violence in Sri Lanka. By fomenting generalised religious hatred, they appear to have more in common with Al-Qaeda, which has sought specific political change.




Read more:
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For many, the bomb blasts immediately recalled Sri Lanka’s ethnic civil war. The war was fought between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) and the Sri Lanka government from 1983 until 2009.

In its final weeks, around 40,000 mostly Tamil civilians were killed, bringing the war’s total toll to more than 100,000 from a population of around 20 million.

The Tamil Tigers were completely destroyed in 2009. Many Tigers, including their leader, were summarily executed. There remains much bitterness among Tamils towards the ethnic majority Sinhalese, but there is no appetite for renewing a war that ended so disastrously.

A history of unrest

Ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka were high prior to independence in 1948, and stoked by the 1956 election of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party under Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike.

Bandaranaike proclaimed himself “defender of the besieged Sinhalese culture”, and oversaw the introduction of the Sinhala Only Act. The act privileged the country’s majority Sinhalese population and their religion of Buddhism over the minority Hindu and Muslim Tamils. The fallout from this legislation forced Bandaranaike to backtrack, but he was assassinated in 1959 by an extremist Buddhist monk for doing so.

Inter-ethnic tensions continued with outbursts of mob violence. In 1962, there was an attempted military coup, and in 1964, around 600,000 third and fourth generation “Indian” Tamils were forcibly removed to India.

In 1972, and again in 1987, the predominantly Sinhalese Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party (JVP) launched insurrections that were bloodily suppressed. Clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils in 1983 led to an attack on a Sri Lankan army convoy. This sparked the “Black July” Sinhalese rampage against ethnic Tamils, leaving at least 3,000 dead and marking the start of the inter-ethnic civil war.

The war was noted for its bitterness, with the Tamil Tigers using suicide bombing as a tactical weapon, as well as for targeted political assassinations. India intervened in the war in 1987. In retribution, a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.




Read more:
Violent Buddhist extremists are targeting Muslims in Sri Lanka


Extremist violence isn’t new

Sri Lanka’s Muslims are predominantly ethnic Tamils and make up about 10% of the population. They have been at the margins of these more recent conflicts – excluded as Tamil speakers, but at odds with the more numerous Hindu Tamils. However, they also have long been subject to Sinhalese persecution, with anti-Muslim riots dating back at least as far as the early 20th century.

As the Tamil Tiger war progressed, Sinhalese Buddhism became more radicalised. Some Sinhalese claimed that all of Sri Lanka should be exclusively Buddhist. With the Tamil Tigers defeated, Sri Lanka’s non-Buddhist communities were again persecuted. This culminated in 2013 with a Buddhist attack on a mosque. Anti-Muslim riots in 2014 resulted in a ten day state of emergency. Last year, there were more anti-Muslim riots. Buddhist monks have also disrupted Christian church services.




Read more:
Explainer: Why Sri Lanka is sliding into political turmoil, and what could happen next


Sri Lanka’s history of extremist violence, then, is far from new. Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism has been the driver of much of this conflict. It may be that the Colombo East bombings are a reaction to recent ethnic persecution.

But if so, this raises the question of why Christian churches and upmarket hotels were bombed, rather than symbols of the Sinhalese Buddhist community. One can speculate about the logic of radicalisation and its possible manifestations. It is possible that, if Islamist-inspired, the bombings were not a direct retaliation for last year’s anti-Muslim riots, but part of a wider jihadi agenda.

It is instructive that, when the suspected terrorists were arrested and weapons found, three police were shot dead. Clearly, whoever was responsible was well trained, and there have been suggestions of international links. This contributes to speculation of returned Islamic State fighters having joined NTJ.

The Sri Lankan government was slow to release details of those believed responsible, as it knows ethnic and religious tensions are easy to spark. Identification of responsibility could well provide fuel for another round of inter-ethnic bloodletting.

If NTJ links are proven, or if the more radical elements of the Buddhist community are persuaded by wider speculation, it is likely Sri Lanka’s Tamil Muslims will bear the brunt of their reprisals. It is in this manner that Sri Lanka’s wheel of ethno-religious conflict turns.The Conversation

Damien Kingsbury, Professor, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Iraq’s brutal crackdown on suspected Islamic State supporters could trigger civil war



File 20190206 174857 lq01ke.jpeg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Family members of Sunni men and boys in Iraq accused of supporting ISIS hold up pictures of their arrested relatives.
AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo

Eric Keels, University of Tennessee and Angela D. Nichols, Florida Atlantic University

Large portions of the Islamic State in Iraq have been either killed, captured or forced underground over the past three years.

Eleven years after the U.S. invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, triggering a war between Islamic State militants and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, Iraq has finally achieved some measure of stability.

But the Iraqi government isn’t taking any chances that this terrorist organization, commonly known as “IS,” could regroup.

Over 19,000 Iraqis suspected of collaborating with IS have been detained in Iraq since the beginning of 2013, according to Human Rights Watch. Most of them are Sunni Muslims, according to reporting by Ben Taub of the New Yorker. Sunnis are members of the sect of Islam from which IS predominantly recruits.

Suspected terrorists are often tortured into offering confessions that justify death sentences at trial. According to Amnesty International, common forms of torture include “beatings on the head and body with metal rods and cables, suspension in stress positions by the arms or legs, electric shocks, and threats of rape of female relatives.”

The government’s crackdown on Sunnis – even those with no evidence of ties with Islamic militants – sends a troubling signal about Iraq’s prospects for peace.

Our research into conflict zones shows that when post-war governments use violence against citizens, it greatly increases the risk of renewed civil war.

Repression following civil wars

The period after an armed conflict is fragile.

Citizens traumatized by violence wish fervently for peace. Defeated armed factions may have their sights set on revenge.

The post-war government’s priority, meanwhile, is to consolidate its control over the country. Sometimes, leaders use violent repression to ensure their grip on power.

It is a risky strategy.

We studied 63 countries where civil war occurred between 1976 and 2005, including El Salvador, Sierra Leone and Sudan. The results, which were published in the academic journal Conflict, Security and Development in January, show a 95 percent increase of another civil war in places where governments engaged in the kind of torture, political imprisonment, killings and disappearances that Iraq’s government is now undertaking.

The Iraqi Special Forces shoots at an Islamic State militant drone, December 2016.
AP Photo/Manu Brabo

Civil war is most likely to break out in former conflict zones if civilians believe they will be targeted by the state regardless of whether or not they actually support an insurgency.

Often, our results show, people respond to indiscriminate clampdowns by arming themselves. That is easy to do in conflict zones, which are home to many former rebels with extensive battlefield training and access to weapons, including both active militant groups and the remnants of vanquished insurgencies.

Assessing the risk of renewed war in Iraq

Sadly, Iraq has been down this road before.

In 2007, the U.S. military surge sent more than 20,000 additional American troops into combat in Iraq to help the government of Nuri al-Maliki – which came to power after Hussein’s demise – fight Al-Qaida and other Islamic militants.

The U.S. enlisted Sunni insurgents to help them find, capture or kill Al-Qaida operatives during this period of the Iraq war, which is often called “the surge.”

That decision inflamed the centuries-old sectarian divide between Iraq’s two dominant religious groups, Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi leads a Shia-dominated government.
ACMCU/Twitter, CC BY

During former Iraqi President Hussein’s rule, Sunni Muslims controlled the country, and his government actively repressed Shia citizens. Since Hussein’s ouster, however, Iraq’s government has been run by Shia Muslims.

After the U.S. withdrew its troops in 2011, the U.S.-backed al-Maliki government began a brutal campaign to consolidate its authority. From 2012 to 2013, he expelled all Sunni officials from Iraq’s government and silenced opponents using torture, political imprisonment, killings and disappearances.

At the time, our study of renewed fighting in conflict zones had just begun. The preliminary findings made us concerned that al-Maliki’s use of violence to assert control over Iraq could restart the civil war by pushing angry Sunnis into the arms of militant groups.

Unfortunately, we were right.

Starting in 2014, the Islamic State began moving swiftly from Syria – where it was based – to conquer major cities across neighboring western Iraq.

Iraqi Sunnis, who were excluded from politics after Hussein’s overthrow and fearful of government repression, did little to stop the incursion. Islamic militants increased their recruitment among Iraqi Sunnis by promising a return to Sunni dominance in Iraq.

Many Sunnis took up arms against their own government not because they supported IS’s goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East but because they hated al-Maliki’s administration.

By June 2014, the Islamic State had captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, just 250 miles north of Baghdad. It took three years of fighting and the combined force of Iraqi, U.S. and Kurdish troops, as well as Iranian-backed militias, to rid the country of this terrorist organization.

In September 2017, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Abadi claimed victory over IS in Iraq. The international community turned its focus toward Syria, where Islamic militants were continuing their war on citizens and the government.

What’s next for Iraq

Still, the Islamic State remains a persistent and legitimate threat to both Syria and Iraq, with some 30,000 active fighters in the region. Its commanders have reportedly buried large stockpiles of munitions in Iraq in preparation for renewed war.

American intelligence officials have warned against President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, saying it will give IS more freedom to regroup there and in Iraq.

The Iraqi government’s crackdown on Sunnis is, in part, an effort to eliminate this threat, since IS could draw renewed support from disaffected Sunni Iraqis across the border.

But many observers think Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi is also exacting revenge on Sunnis for previously joining IS in armed warfare against Iraq’s government.

Rather than prevent more fighting, our research suggests, Iraq’s clampdown on Sunnis may spark another civil war.The Conversation

Eric Keels, Research Associate at One Earth Future Foundation & Research Fellow at the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy, University of Tennessee and Angela D. Nichols, Assistant Professor, Florida Atlantic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Syrian war is not over, it’s just on a new trajectory: here’s what you need to know


File 20190205 86224 ksozds.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel will keep vying for power in Syria long after the US is gone.
from shutterstock.com

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

December 2018 marked a significant shift in the Syrian conflict. The end-of-year events put the country on a new trajectory, one in which President Bashar al-Assad looks towards consolidating his power and Islamic State (IS) sees a chance to perpetuate its existence.

Turkey’s role

Kick-starting the development was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement he would start a military operation east of the Euphrates River – an area controlled by the US supported and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The US and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces control the area to the east of the Euphrates River.
Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the eight-year conflict, Assad and his main backer, Russia, have not militarily engaged with the Kurds. Assad and Russia didn’t see the Kurds as terrorists or insurgents, but as protectors of their territory against IS and other jihadist forces.

But Turkey sees the Kurdish zone as an existential threat. Turkey has legitimate fears: if the Kurdish region in Syria becomes independent, it can unite with the Kurdish region in northern Iraq and eventually claim the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey.

Turkey’s intended military operation east of the Euphrates is yet to eventuate. But the announcement was a bold move, made more real by the large military build-up on the Turkish-Syrian border. It put pressure on the US administration and US President Donald Trump to make a call on Syria: either stand firm against Turkey and further stretch already tense relations, or pull out of Syria to abrogate responsibility.

Trump chose the second option. He swiftly declared the US would pull out from Syria altogether – and sell Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Turkey to prevent its attempt to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defence system.

The removal of US troops came with a Trump-style announcement on Twitter: “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!”

US policy

Since April 2018, Trump had made clear his desire to leave Syria. Ten days after declaring his intention, an episode of chemical attacks forced Trump’s hand into staying in Syria and retaliating. This time, though, either the pressure from Turkey worked or Trump saw it as a perfect time to execute his intent to leave.

Under the Obama administration, US foreign policy with regards to Syria was to remain there until IS was destroyed completely, Iran and its associated entities removed and a political solution achieved in line with the UN-led Geneva peace talks. Trump claimed the first goal was complete and saw it as sufficient grounds to pull out.




Read more:
Further strikes on Syria unlikely – but Trump is always the wild card


Then, on December 21 2018, Trump announced Defence Secretary James Mattis would retire at the end of February 2019. The Washington Post reported Mattis vehemently objected to, and clashed with Trump over, the Syrian withdrawal. In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote: “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours”.

Differences have marked US policy on Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Trump further added to the confusion, and his erratic decision-making also demonstrates his frustration with his own administration.

Russia’s game

The global fear, of course, is that the US withdrawal will leave Russia as the region’s military and political kingpin, with Iran and Turkey as its partners.




Read more:
Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that Russia respects Turkey’s national interests in Syria. He added Turkey was willing to compromise and work together to improve the situation and fight against terrorism. Turkey appears to have accepted Russian objectives in Syria in return for Russia’s green light to do what Turkey deems best for its national interests in the Kurdish region.

One Russian objective is to ensure Assad remains Syria’s president. Russia may allow Turkey to host limited operations in the Kurdish region, not only to hold a compromise with Turkey, but also to eventually pressure Kurdish forces into cooperating with Russia and accepting the Assad regime.

Russia is playing out a careful strategy – pleasing Turkey, but not at the expense of Assad’s sovereignty in Syria. Erdogan was a staunch adversary of Assad in the early years of the conflict. Russia counts on Erdogan’s recognition of Assad to influence other Sunni majority states to cross over to the Russian-Assad camp.

Russia’s strategy is to please Turkey, but only to the extent that it doesn’t threaten Assad’s hold on power in Syria.
from shutterstock.com

The Turkish foreign minister has said Turkey may consider working with Assad if Syria holds democratic elections. Of course, Assad will only agree to elections if he is assured of a win.

The United Arab Emirates announced a reopening of its embassy in Damascus, which was followed by Bahrain stating it had never cut its diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration. Although Saudi Arabia denied it, there are media reports that the Saudi foreign ministry is establishing diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration.

These are indications the main players in the region are preparing to recognise and work with the Assad government.

An important step in Turkey’s recognition of Assad came in a meeting on January 23 between Putin and Erdogan. Putin reminded Erdogan of the 1998 Adana Pact between Turkey and Syria. The pact began a period of previously unprecedented bilateral links between Turkey and Syria until 2011, when the current conflict flared.

Erdogan acknowledged the 1998 pact was still in operation, meaning Turkey and the Assad administration could work together against terrorism.

Trump may also see no problem with the eventuality. There was no mention of Assad when he claimed victory in Syria, indicating he does not care whether Assad remains in power or not.

Islamic State

The overarching concern is that the US pulling out of Syria would bring back IS. The group has lost large territories and the major cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The last town under IS control, Hajin, fell to coalition forces in December 2018. Despite these wins, it’s too soon to claim the end for IS.

Trump has a solution to this too: outsourcing. In a Tweet on December 24, he announced Turkish President Erdogan will “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria”. This is highly unlikely as Turkey’s main concern is the Kurdish region in northern Syria where IS is not likely to pose any threat.

Given Russia and Assad will be the main forces in Syria, their policies will determine the future of IS.

Assad would not want IS to jeopardise his own government. At the same time, Assad’s claim for legitimacy throughout the civil war was his fight against terrorism, embodied by IS. If IS were to exist in some shape and form, it would benefit Assad in the crucial years of consolidating his power. This may lead to Assad appearing to crack down on IS while not entirely eradicating them.




Read more:
James Mattis: what defence secretary’s resignation means for Syria, Afghanistan and NATO, as Trump leans in to Putin


IS will also try hard to survive. It still has a large number of seasoned commanders and fighters who can unleash guerrilla warfare. IS also has operatives peppered throughout Syria to launch suicide bombing attacks in Syrian cities, similar to what they have been doing in Iraq.

Israel, meanwhile, has been quietly hitting Iranian targets in Syria since May 2018. Israeli air strikes intensified in January 2019 and occurred in broad daylight. In acknowledging the strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s “permanent policy” was to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

We could see more altercations between Israel and Iran in 2019, now that the US has abandoned the objective of countering Iran’s presence in Syria.

The Syrian conflict is not over. It’s just on a new trajectory. The US withdrawal is sure to leave a power vacuum, which will quickly be filled by other regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Israel under the watchful eye of Russia.The Conversation

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

They shall not die in vain: how the Islamic State honours its fallen soldiers – and how Australians do the same



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The obituary of Jihadi John in Dabiq magazine.
Clarion Project

Mark Alfano, Delft University of Technology

The belief that we must not let our soldiers “die in vain” dates back to ancient Athens. During the Peloponnesian War, Pericles delivered a funeral oration in which he urged his compatriots to see themselves in the heroism of recently deceased fighters. Honouring these heroes, he argued, required continuing the struggle with Sparta. The living could prove themselves worthy of the sacrifice of the dead only by fighting for what they fought for and embodying the virtues (such as courage) they embodied.

In modern times, political scientists have argued that it is “important to say of those who died in war that they did not die in vain”. This notion was echoed by US President George W. Bush when he suggested that the people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks “did not die in vain”.

And, just like Pericles, Bush suggested the best way to prove that deaths in the so-called war on terror were not in vain was to continue the conflict. In this way, war becomes an end in itself. The fighting may never cease because there is always one more soldier to honour, one more civilian casualty to avenge.

Through a glass, darkly

The way people talk about the dead and the traits they hope to manifest by way of honouring them tell us what counts as a virtue in their community. In my previous research, I’ve show that different communities celebrate their dead in different ways. Most of my work has focused on civilians, but I recently began to investigate what is said about combatants killed in action.

One interesting and troubling comparison is between the obituaries of Western soldiers who have been killed in the Middle East and those of Islamic State fighters.




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Here’s a little quiz: which of the following traits are associated with IS “martyrs” and which with Australians recently killed in action in Afghanistan, Iraq and nearby countries?

  • dedicated
  • steadfast
  • respected
  • patient
  • humorous
  • brave
  • a leader
  • humble
  • inspiring
  • loyal

The truth is that most of these traits are associated with both populations. To establish this, I coded every obituary published by the Islamic State in its two online magazines, Dabiq and Rumiyah, along with a matching sample of obituaries published in Vale by the Australian Department of Defence.

I then mapped out the patterns of co-occurrence among traits to see which virtues are associated with combatants in each community. Here’s what the Australian Department of Defence and IS have to say about their war dead:

Australia conflict obituaries.

ISIS conflict obituaries.

Both the IS and the Australian data are available for examination. What these texts tell us is that ISIS and the Australian government speak of their dead in similar ways. And both use the occasion of martial grief to motivate the continuation of conflict. In so doing, they place death in the context of an ongoing narrative or trajectory that points to further violence as the only acceptable option.

There are, of course, some differences. Australian soldiers are more likely to be remembered as professional, easygoing and larrikin. IS fighters are more likely to be remembered as ascetic, deceitful and harsh (towards enemies – not in general). Their obituaries tend to refer to religious concepts such as aqidah (adherence to correct creed), manhaj (theological insight), and taqwah (pious humility).

These terms refer to values of the local community just as much as “larrikin” does for Australians. And IS fighters are praised not just for their religious or theological virtues but also for traits we find more familiar and congenial. Even someone as the bloody-minded as “Jihadi John” (Mohammed Emwazi) was praised in his obituary for his sense of humour.

Moreover, just as the obituaries published in Dabiq and Rumiyah tend to call others to continue the struggle, so the obituaries published in Vale often include and even conclude with calls to action. In one, the deceased soldier’s commanding officer declares:

We will honour his sacrifice by finishing what he helped us to start.

In another, the decedent’s family concludes that he “would want his colleagues to keep fighting the cause”.

From monuments to memorials

The philosopher Arthur Danto has suggested we “erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget”. Monuments express a community’s pride and commitment to victory; memorials express a community’s remorse and commitment to redress.

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Monuments to those who die in battle also encourage and sometimes demand the interminable renewal of conflict. Even if it makes us queasy to recognise our shared humanity with killers as deeply evil as Jihadi John, perhaps a shift from monumentalising our war dead to memorialising them is necessary. Otherwise, we stand the risk of becoming what we rightly despise.

Mark Alfano, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Delft University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.