Serkan Şeker
Oct 06 2019

Defeat of the ISIS caliphate changed the Middle East forever

"The first time I saw ISIS crimes, I thought they were fake, some kind of awful movie. The photos showed men being machine-gunned as they lay on the ground,” Jerusalem-based author and analyst Seth J. Frantzman said in his new book, “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever”.

“Others showed men being marched from a truck, heads down, begging for their lives, fear of what would come next in their eyes. But people assured me these were real images, and soon the videos emerged. That was in June 2014," he said.

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Frantzman, an experienced Middle East reporter, set out to trace the devastating and transformative impact the extremist jihadist group had in the field.

The Middle East has witnessed many conflicts after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.

Some blame this on the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which colonial Britain and France divided up the regions formerly governed by the empire with borders that had a profound influence on the shape taken by new Middle Eastern states. Extremist interpretations of Islam have also played a major role in the constant and bitter disputes in the region.

These two factors combined when ISIS swept across Syria and Iraq in 2014, declaring a caliphate in their captured territories and vowing to dismantle the Sykes-Picot borders. As it did so, it committed brutal crimes against humanity, slaughtering religious minorities and destroying some of the countries’ most ancient heritage sites.

Attaching particular emphasis and sympathy to the personal tragedies ISIS has caused, Frantzman’s book masterfully analyses modern and post-modern components of the ISIS phenomenon, backing his analysis with comprehensive fieldwork.

The author takes a holistic approach to Middle East politics, which he analyses both on micro and macro levels.

Frantzman introduces his book as the first comprehensive study focusing on the defeat of ISIS and how this will affect the future shape of the region. It presents detailed analyses on current and prospective positions of the states that have a say in the region.

This provides the reader with extensive insights into the pre and post-ISIS positions of the United States, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and other regional powers.

Frantzman sees the events beginning when the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011 and the “tragic crescendo” of ISIS’s precipitous rise in 2014 as the beginning of a new phase in the region’s history, and he views the group’s defeat as “a kind of bookend to one great chapter. It is a chapter that has many beginnings".

Turkey has played a significant role in the formation of this new chapter in the region, with Ankara accused by international media outlets of wilful blindness to the ISIS threat and playing a double game with this and other jihadist groups.

Many of these allegations related to an incident in 2014, when aid trucks driven by agents from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation were discovered carrying arms and munitions destined for rebels in Syria.

Yet the country has also participated in the operations leading to ISIS’s defeat, and suffered a string of major bombing and shooting attacks attributed to the group between 2013 and 2016.

Frantzman dedicates two separate chapters to Turkey's story regarding ISIS, carefully examining the interactions of internal and external political dynamics that shape the foreign policy of Turkey's Islamist government.

The author pays special attention to Istanbul, since its airports have been used as a transit hub by jihadists, many of whom went on to join ISIS. So, he says, “it is from Istanbul that we must begin to understand the post-ISIS Middle East”.

Turkey's Islamist government has found a fertile area to realise its “neo-Ottomanist” dreams thanks to the turmoil triggered by ISIS expansion.

While Erdoğan’s government became increasingly authoritarian at home over national security concerns in the wake of a coup attempt in 2016, it set off on a quest to make new alliances in the region because of the new Middle East policy of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The book presents a clear account of Turkey's foreign policy shift from its traditional pacifism to the "neo-Ottomanist" expansionism of the last decade, and presents possible scenarios regarding the future of the Middle East.

Turkey’s “safe zone project for the refugees” inside Syria, which Erdoğan explained in his UN speech in New York on Sept. 24, is one of the author’s accurate predictions pertaining to Turkish expansionism in the ISIS and civil-war-torn Syria.

Frantzman's timely written work possesses a powerful narrative that will be a reference guide for policymakers, experts, and average readers of Middle East politics.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.