The Middle East After the “Caliphate”: How Can Stability Be Brought Back? A Caliphate after the "Caliphate"?
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall (Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia)
List of speakers

A new phase of the Middle East crisis is beginning before our eyes. One of the most important questions that has followed the defeat of ISIS (banned in Russia) as a territorial entity is: what can be done with the militants from the defeated radical groups? Should they be judged within the framework of international courts or sent back to the countries in which they are citizens? What can be done with their wives and children, many of whom were born during the war? On 22 March 2019, Valdai Club experts discussed these and other issues during a discussion moderated by Timofei Bordachev, programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Yerlan Karin, Chairman of the Kazakhstan Council on Foreign Relations, gave a speech in which he presented the main findings of research into radicalism in Central Asia, primarily in Kazakhstan, as well as the results of monitoring regarding the participation of people from this region in ISIS and other radical groups.

According to him, in the Islamist groups operating in Syria and Iraq include fighters from Russia, the Russian Caucasus and Central Asia, who together account for one third of their total number. Earlier, radical Islamist groups were headed by immigrants from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, but the next generation of leaders will be predominantly comprised of radicals from the CIS countries and Central Asia.

“Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that ISIS as an organisation is already defeated,” the speaker said. Battles, however, are still underway, and it’s still premature to talk about a complete defeat. The very format of the group has changed: if earlier it was a question of territorial struggle, now we are talking about the activities of isolated cells. There are still up to 10,000 militants in Syria and Iraq, a third of whom are foreigners.

The main problem now is where all these people will go or be sent after the defeat. ”

On the one hand, there are initiatives to establish an international tribunal, but on the other, individual countries often make their own decisions: Belgium, for example, made it clear that it would not accept children older than 10 years old, since it would not be possible to adapt them to normal life. In any event, the debate over who can be taken back is still underway. According to Karin, one often has to accept the impossibility of such a return, because it will increase the threat to national security and may create hotbeds of radicalisation at home. 

Karin drew attention to another question: so far men are being considered the main issue regarding the radical groups, while the matter of women and children remains unaddressed. “The situation in Syria is distinguished by the fact that whole families travelled there, both from European countries - for example, Belgium or France - and from our region. Moreover, many cases showed that the radicalisation period was significantly reduced - some women accepted Islam in 2013, and by 2014 they'd already left for Syria. Now there is the problem of the rehabilitation of these people. You need to think about a comprehensive rehabilitation program. Our task is to prevent the further nationalisation of radical Islamism. ”

Vasily Kuznetsov, head of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, agreed with the Karin's assessment that the new generation of Islamist leaders will be dominated by people from the post-Soviet space. According to him, although for Islamists all over the world Syria and Iraq obviously have sacral significance, the question is whether the emergence of formations similar to the ISIS “Caliphate” is possible. According to the expert, it is quite possible: “The same “Caliphate” can arise everywhere where certain conditions appear - for example, civil wars, the weakening of the state, and interstate conflicts.”

The image of ISIS in Arab countries has undermined confidence in radical politics. “Young people are afraid to join such projects,” Kuznetsov said. - They were often supported by Tunisians, but the popularity of this movement in Tunisian society has decreased greatly. People went there, guided by romantic ideas and imagining ISIS as a kind of alternative to Europe, a kind of paradise or promised land. Today, this is not the case; therefore, it’s not worth talking about creating another such an organisation in the Arab world. You can pay attention to other regions - to Southeast Asia and the Philippines, where the activities of the Islamists are linked ethnically. ”

Maria Khodynskaya-Golenischeva, Senior Advisor of the Foreign Policy Planning Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, did not agree with the opinion expressed by previous experts that ISIS had been defeated, because in addition to making inroads in Idlib, the organisation is now gathering forces in southern Afghanistan, and the issue of the militants' withdrawal from Syria and Iraq is also far from being resolved. The speaker stressed that along with Russia, the United States had made an important contribution to the fight against the ISIS: “Our views on politics do not coincide, but antiterrorism cooperation was successful. Realising the global nature of terrorism, the two great powers overcame their contradictions and mutual hostility. ”

When it comes to cooperation with non-government armed groups, Russia has two options for solving problems: the first is to use force, while the second is negotiation. “It was about the militants leaving the territory which had immediately come under the control of the Syrian government. Thus, four de-escalation zones were created, three of which without bloodshed. At the same time, the military and diplomats offered some conditions to the militants. If they were willing to surrender, they were offered guarantees of amnesty and non-prosecution. If they wanted to continue fighting, they were asked to be transported to Idlib. This tactic worked, thanks in large part to the support of external forces, primarily the regional ones - for example, Yemen and Qatar. ”

According to the expert, in order to achieve stability in the Middle East, it is necessary first of all to restore statehood in Libya, Iraq and Syria. Much will depend on the steps of the Syrian government and measures taken in favour of the Syrian opposition and the timely implementation of reforms that will be needed even if the war is won. “As for the return of the militants, there is no common understanding yet,” said Khodynska-Golenishcheva. - There are attempts to create certain tribunals and there is an independent mechanism within the UN. In general, the current areas for Russia to work on have been reduced to four points: implementation of the Astana format decisions, cooperation with the United States on antiterrorism, continued interaction with forces in the region and interaction with the Syrian government. ” 

Most of the issues raised during the discussion still remain at the stage of consideration and coordination, but time is running out and the future of many countries depends on the decisions that are being made today - both in the Middle East, in Europe and in Asia.