Clash of civilizations or clash of interests?


Following the atrocities in Paris perpetrated by the jihadists of the Islamic State, the spectre of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and “the West”, predicted in 1993 by Samuel Huntington spread vehemently. It is crystal clear that terrorism attacks, such as those in Paris, promote tensions between Muslims and non Muslims and that now more than ever all European governments need to avoid viewing Muslims presence in Europe as a threat to security, which is exactly what the Islamic State wants.

But going beyond the realm of theories of integration and intercultural dialogue to that of current affairs, are we really facing a clash of civilizations or the “war on terror” pursues political interests?

After the Paris attacks, the French President, François Hollande, declared that France is at war against the Islamic State and asked for the intervention of European Member States. France invoked the article 42.7, a never-before-used clause of the EU’s Lisbon treaty triggering mutual defence among the 28 Member States, and asked the rest of Europe to give “aid and assistance by all the means in their power” to a member country that is “the victim of armed aggression on its territory.”

There is no doubt that France, which is fighthing on the lines alongside the Americans in the Middle East, now is paying the price of its foreign policy in the region. Nevertheless, until now, no other state has treated ISIS as a strategic threat in the world. Many countries are already operating militarily against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq , even though each of them, from the US to Russia, actually pursues objectives other than the vaunted desire to destroy the ” Caliphate “.

Thus, the conflict has little to do with religion or culture and much to do with geopolitics and the balance of powers in a highly sensitive region of the world. And it is not surprising that, on the international chessboard, there are enemies more important than the Islamic State.

Bashar al Assad, whose resignation is still the main issue of contention, is the main enemy of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian President is  actively supported by Russia, since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in terms of both logistical and political support, most strikingly at the UN Security Council. Recently, Russia began its own military campaign in Syria to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by targeting the opposition and not primarily Islamic State targets. But, Russia also fears the spillover of Islamic State onto its own soil, and so fighting the militant group is a domestic security consideration for Russia as well. Thus it comes as no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin is highly interested in Assad’s staying in power.

For what concerns the Turkish government, Erdogan’s priority is very clear: fighting the Kurdish separatism. So far, the Kurdish forces of the YPG (Democratic Union party) in Syria, and PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ party) in Iraq and Turkey have effectively fought the Islamic State on the ground. Their involvement in the armed struggle against the Caliphate, have contributed to grow their legitimacy  as well as their autonomy in liberated territories in Northern Syria. Therefore, Ankara is deeply worried about the Syrian Kurds, whose advance has also been helped by airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition, to go on to form their own state as Syria disintegrates after more than four years of war.

For Saudi Arabia, the real enemy is not ISIS, which represents a form of radicalization of Sunni fundamentalism, but is Iran, the historical rival for the egemony in the region, and its allies in Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad.  Furthermore, one of the main worries is the way in which most of the worst Islamic extremism and terrorism of the past two decades has tracked back, through funding and religious influence, ultimately, to Saudi Arabia and Gulf states.

Teheran is an ally of Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the conflict started in 2011. Recently, Western attitudes to Iran have shifted, as the process of negotiation over the Iranian nuclear have gone forward, bringing Teheran back to the negotiating table. The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, particularly wants to present his country as a key regional player with an influential role in determining the fate of Syria and the fight against ISIS, a common enemy. To this aim  Rouhani argued that the West should prioritise the fight against ISIS and step aside from the position that the Syrian leader, considered by them to be a part of the problem, must leave. Also for Iran, ISIS represents a threat, especially when we consider Teheran’s relations with Iraq, a significant regional actor  with a majority Shi’i state and with a central government friendly to Iran. Preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity is a strategic asset for Iran to keep its area of influence, given that the rest of the region is predominantly Sunni, and traditionally falls within the sphere of influence of Saudi Arabia.

In this context, after the Friday night’s terrorist attack in Paris, President Obama declared that efforts against terrorism will be redoubled, but he rejected growing clamour for a US-led ground invasion of Syria, defending his strategy of trying to contain Islamic State extremists rather than treating them as a conventional enemy. Nevertheless,on the occasion of the G20 in Antalya, the shift in the relationship between Russia and “the West” seemed to be moving closer to face of a common threat from Islamist terror. Furthermore, diplomatic efforts are complicated by a picture, in which Russia and Iran will fight the Islamic State, with different  regional interests from the USA. That is completely understandable, if we consider that one of the traditional goals of Western and U.S. policy in the Middle East has been to limit the Soviet Union’s and now Russia’s influence in the region, especially when supporting Iran.

But, in this complicated framework, what has been the role of the European Union? European governments have to admit that their non-engagement policy in Syria has failed, as such as interventions in Iraq and Libya did. Both policies had the effect of breeding Islamic State terrorist cells in several European countries. Politically, the recent decision of Brussels to enable the article 42.7 is a very important, but a comprehensive strategy still missing. Defeating the Islamic State in the Middle East is necessary condition to hit the Islamic terrorism in Europe; to this aim, EU foreign policy should emerge from its “unwillingness” and finally deals with hard policy, which includes difficult policy decisions: the end of ambiguity on its supposed allies, the choice of adversaries and the reasonable compromises.

At the end of the day, there are clashes, but these are not between civilisations, but between irreconcilable agendas, strategies and policies.

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