The central question confronting the world about ISIS is this: can the pivotal players in the Mideast forge a political solution? Without it, extremist Islam is going to burn them all, like fascism and communism did in the last century.

Failure to craft a political solution will doom the world to repeat past historical missteps.

If the Germans had not supported Lenin in 1916 and eventually brought him to Russia to start a revolution that took Moscow out of World War I, communism could have never grown out of its infancy.

Germany wasn’t the first to play this game. If the English and the French had not paid and sustained Mussolini in the 1914, helping to keep Italy in World War I, fascism would never have been invented.

Also, if the Japanese had not invaded China and diverted the attention of the ruling nationalists of the KMT, Mao would have been less than a footnote in world history. And yes, if the US had not decided to support the militant mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, who were promoting women’s rights and literacy, we would not have Al Qaeda or ISIS.

ISIS militant burns cigarette cartons and other prohibited religious items
ISIS militant burns cigarette cartons and other religiously prohibited items

One of the lessons that emerges from all this is that fundamentalist movements grow out of geopolitical necessity. History is full of faiths and extreme ideologies that simply die out without the right geopolitical conditions and support. This has been true since ancient times. Islam itself may have been able to branch out of Christianity because the Zoroastrian Persian Empire fell in the 7th century to the Arab onslaught, whereas the Christian Byzantines resisted. Hence, the Arabs, following a new Jewish heresy, might have wanted to mark their difference with their Byzantine brethren and get closer to their new Persian subjects, who were strongly pushed to convert from their old faith to Islam. Zoroastrians, with no Jewish heritage, were not tolerated in the early Arab Empire, while Jews and Christians, also following the Bible, were.

It is clear, in fact, that extreme Islam is the new radical ideology stirring up the deprived masses of our times, like communism and fascism in 20th century. Like a century ago, many countries see an advantage in playing with this new kind of fire, thinking naively that its blaze can be cautiously contained.

Turkey can use Islamic State to dream of bringing back an Ottoman Sunni caliphate in the Arab world and repress the restive Kurds; the Saudis and their minions and rival sheiks in the Gulf similarly may hope ISIS will push back the Shiite-Iranian threat; while all fear that if ISIS is beaten, the Shiite surge creeping into the Sunni world could be irresistible, as would the ambition of a new Persian Empire grounded in Shiite Islam.

Old animosities

On top of this, there is the old geopolitical animosity between Turkey and Russia, also grounded in religion. When the Byzantine Empire (Orthodox Christian) ended in 1453, Muslim-Turkish Sultan Mehmed II took the title Emperor of the Romans, while at exactly the same time the Czar (also Orthodox Christian), married to a Byzantine heiress, claimed for Moscow the title of a Third Rome. Both were forgetting that the Orthodox Church in Byzantium had preferred the Muslims to the Latin Christians who plundered the capital two centuries before.

And there are even more ancient hostilities between Persians and Arabs and Persians and Turks, with roots in the old Zoroastrian faith and the idea of high priests, the magi or the ayatollah, ruling over the state and religion. All has condensed in new pushes and pulls since the fall a century ago of the old multi- ethnic tolerant Turkish Empire. The Arab Middle East has also been lured and seduced by the competing and at times complementing the forces of socialist-nationalism and extreme Wahhabism[1].

Here, ancient lore has transformed itself into modern history. After their revolution in the late 1970s, the Iranian Shiites were able to export their revolution abroad. Shiite organizations in the Arab world became a conduit of Iranian foreign policy, similar to what the USSR had been doing with communist movements worldwide for many decades. Shiites abroad received money, training, as well as religious and military instruction from Tehran. Therefore, Iran has an important and direct influence over Shiites abroad, be they Palestinians or Syrians. So, terrorists of Shiite descent can be dealt with also by talking with Tehran, which may have a strong or weak link to them.

The situation is similar to what the Pakistani secret service’s relationship with the early mujahideen. The same people fought for the liberation of Kashmir, “occupied” by India, a task considered fundamental to Pakistani identity, and fought against the Russian and American “invaders” in Afghanistan. Pakistan then had a grip on them, however erratic, because in the state ideology, it may have been right to stop attacks in Afghanistan but certainly not in Indian Kashmir.

The situation is different with Sunni uprisings. Al Qaeda was groomed to fight infidels, be they Russian or American. But after the end of the their was against the Soviets, they were cut loose both by their American early “contractors” and by their Saudi and Gulf sponsors. There was no systematic follow up as the Iranians or the Soviets did with Shiites and communists respectively. This makes jihadists harder to contain, even more so now that more than one Sunni power supports them in their latest incarnation, ISIS.

ISIS plays one against the other

ISIS is in fact possibly talking to the Turks, the Saudis, and a number of Gulf states, skillfully playing one against the other. Yet it is not the only Sunni entity on the ground. If it goes away, others may easily replace it. Until a clear political structure emerges in the region, agreed on by all neighboring powers, there will be no peace in this part of the world and no safety for terrorist attacks worldwide. In fact as soon as ISIS is beaten on the ground it will try, as it did with the Paris terror attacks, to divert attention by launching terrorist attacks elsewhere.

Here, a common denominator for some local geopolitical players may well be to bleed the Russians. In Afghanistan, they were bled to death, and this started the process of dissolution of the USSR. The Americans were also badly hurt, and the trillions wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan are a big part of their 2008 financial crisis.

The US’ recent decision to avoid deeper involvement in the region comes from the successful exploitation of shale oil, which makes Gulf oil not strategically important, and the realization that sometimes no solution can be the best solution, just like in North Korea, which although “not solved,” did not explode like Iraq or Afghanistan.

The real problem is with Russia. It would be an act of magic for Moscow to successfully broker a deal between the many contestants. This would also imply some agreement with the Turks and the Americans (who, like the Israelis, are still there although not “so” there). Another reason this has occurred is because Moscow has other issues with these players besides Syria. Russia wanted to preserve its only naval facilities in the Mediterranean, in Syrian port of Tarsus; it wanted to “contain” the Iranians, who are the only force propping up Assad in Syria; and it wanted to have a bargaining chip to get something in Ukraine.

If it doesn’t reach its objectives soon, Russia might have to decide whether to more or less bleed in Syria or lose face by withdrawing. Both are unpleasant scenarios, only partly compensated for by the fact that France and other Europeans are in the same boat following the Paris attacks.

The French and the Europeans may have more clout to push the Turks and the other Sunni states against ISIS, to smash it or to bring it under some sort of control to prevent new terrorist attacks. The Turks can also use the deal to get closer to the EU, reinforcing its existing standing as an important NATO country. But if this deal does not happen soon, the situation could well continue to fester for years, slowly weakening the whole Mediterranean area, and thus also Europe and Russia.

This bring us to another crucial political junction where the consequences reach both sides of the Eurasian land mass, as happened centuries before with the bridged provided by the old Silk Road.

Europe is at a crossroad. It must find an agreement that it can push collectively on Turkey and the Middle East and which can set up a unified anti terrorist police to fight extremists roaming between states without frontiers. If it cannot do so, Europe risks breaking up. Extreme Muslim terrorism is a European phenomenon, militants use different police controls in different countries to move easily across borders. Without a unified anti-terrorist police, Europe militants will strike again and states will have to reintroduce border controls, something that could tear the EU apart. Conversely, if an anti-terrorist police is set up the EU will be a step closer to political unity. At the moment, France has decided to move alone on the issue.

The impact on China

This developing scenario may also impact, in the long term, on Chinese perspectives on their “One Belt, One Road” strategy. In this context, the Nov. 15 meeting between Turkish and Chinese presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Xi Jinping was key. Although nothing concrete emerged from the meeting and suspicions abound on both sides due to the warmth Turkey holds for fellow-turcophone Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region, it signaled Beijing’s willingness to engage.

In fact, while the “One Belt, One Road” initiative has made inroads in Central Asia, it is stuck in Xinjiang, where local people are under heavy security and have become almost collectively the hotbed of violent resistance against Beijing’s rule. Without peace and the active participation of the local people, there can’t be real development in Xinjiang, and links with Central Asia will have a hard time trickling to the rest of China.

Hundreds — or  perhaps thousands—of Uyghurs now live within the confines of the Islamic State and are receiving military training that they’re eager to employ in their fight against Beijing. It is vital for China to stop ISIS as a source of inspiration and support for restive Uighurs, but China realizes this can’t be done by fighting against Turkey.

Then, for all its complications, the present hazy Middle Eastern situation provides a good opportunity for China to begin to learn the ropes of international politics. This is significant as it occurs just when China is launching its reform of its military, a crucial component in China’s thinking on foreign policy.

Its huge significance is evident by the redrawing of the military regions, which have always helped to rule the internal politics of China. These will go from seven to only four. The launch of a new military structure also means the beginning of new strategic ideas internally and externally, perhaps starting with the delicate situation in the Middle East.


[1] See also Charles Gave in

Francesco Sisci is a Senior Research Associate of China Renmin University. The author of Asia Times’ Sinograph column, he was also Asia Editor for the Italian daily La Stampa and Beijing correspondent for Il Sole di 24 Ore, and has written for numerous Italian and international publications. He was the first foreigner admitted to the graduate program of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, he is the author of eight books on China and a frequent commentator on CCTV.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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