Ethnic and sectarian pressure applied on minority communities in Syria and Iraq was the principle spark that caused al-Qaida and later Daesh to breed and spread. Reports suggesting that forces controlled by Russia or the U.S. are aiming to ‘liberate' Idlib demonstrates that many are willing to repeat past mistakes to the entire region's detriment
When Iraq was invaded in 2003 there was not much resistance in Fallujah, the Iraqi city in Anbar province, located around 65 kilometers west of Baghdad. There were just a few protests, and many people in Fallujah hoped that their relatively calm city would stay out of the chaos.
Their hopes were destroyed in April 2003 when U.S. soldiers fired on a small crowd that had gathered to protest the U.S. military presence inside a local school. Seventeen protesters were killed and more than 70 were wounded. U.S. forces alleged that they were fired on first, but human right groups firmly stated that they did not find evidence that supported claims that the U.S. soldiers had come under attack. This was the first incident starting the chain of events that would eventually cause widespread destruction and a huge humanitarian crisis in Fallujah.
It was the resentment and fear of the Sunni population in Fallujah, or more broadly, in Anbar, that helped al-Qaida's insurgency start. Sunni Arabs who were removed from the Iraqi military, the Baath Party, from their jobs and their old lives found a place in Anbar where in return they swore to protect the people from Shiite militias that sought revenge and U.S. soldiers who came to take their country. That was how Sunni Arabs in Iraq were driven into the arms of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). In 2006, the AQI mostly occupied Anbar province.
It took time, but the U.S. realized it needed to adopt a new approach to stop alienating Sunnis and bring them back to be a part of Iraq. That small move was actually the biggest step that would severely reduce the AQI's presence in western Iraq. The Sunni tribes that dubbed their movement the "Sunni awakening" in exchange for promises of assuming a presence in Iraqi political life joined forces with U.S. troops and regained control of Fallujah and Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, where much of the AQI's stronghold was.
However, the Iraqi government of then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki started to marginalize Sunnis and deliberately pushed them away from political life when the last U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of 2011. Adopting overtly sectarian policies, he prosecuted Sunni politicians, put thousands of Sunnis in jail once again and ordered the killing of hundreds of local forces. It was surprising that Washington did not stop him until it was too late, even though they knew what was happening and what was coming next. When Maliki was no longer backed by Washington, the AQI was already gaining strength in Syria due to the bloody violence of Bashar Assad's regime and began referring to itself as the Islamic State, reconstituting itself in Iraq, seizing many cities, including Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. Daesh was born from the ashes of the AQI with the help of the Baghdad and Damascus governments' sectarian policies and Washington's ignorance.
When the U.S.-led anti-Daesh coalition decided to retake territories controlled by Daesh in Iraq and Syria, it was obvious that without the broad support of the Sunni Arab community in Syria and Iraq, it would be either a failure or a massacre based on the experiences of the past and the reality on the ground. But instead, Washington chose to push the region into a more toxic sectarian environment by alienating all Sunni groups that have fought against the Assad regime in Syria or stood up to the Iraqi government's never-ending sectarian policies. In a region where trust has been completely lost, looking for secular fighters but overlooking the bloodbath of Shiite militias in Iraq, and more importantly cooperating with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the outlawed PKK has been the roadmap for the U.S. so far.
Ankara has not tired of expressing its stance on the ongoing crises in Iraq and Syria for years. Ankara reiterates what kind of future the sectarian approach of the Maliki regime in Baghdad would drag Iraq into and what sort of a state the bloody suppressive Assad regime in Damascus would transform the country into.
Ankara has turned out to be right, but the statements it made were ignored. It was not only that, it was turned it into a scapegoat. When the Daesh terrorist organization began perishing in the arid lands of eastern Iraq, it dispersed the opposition in Syria and gathered power by seizing their territories and returning to Iraq. It was even able to seize Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul. In the midst of a sectarian war, one would expect an al-Qaeda-affiliated group that emerged with claims of jihad, state creation and bringing back the caliphate, to turn to the regions and cities held by Alawite and Shiite administrations after seizing mainly Sunni-populated cities like Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Mosul. It did not happen. When Daesh turned north to mostly Kurdish-populated areas, a new chapter was opened in the region. It was time for the PKK to take the stage. The Democratic Union Party's (PYD) People's Protection Units (YPG) militia became bolder with the support that it has received from Western countries under the pretext of the fight against Daesh, and the PKK resumed its war against the Turkish state.
Today, confessions from Iraqi soldiers are spreading from Mosul, which is supposedly freed from Daesh: "We killed everybody," they say, "Daesh, women and children." People are thrown from roofs and tied to stakes and burned in Mosul. The U.S. does not even need embedded journalists to control news reports because nobody cares.
There is a scene in Raqqa that is no different from Mosul, hundreds of civilians are dying in airstrikes while waiting to be rescued from Daesh. They have not made the news either. Ankara had to revise its red lines when instability and terrorist threats came to the country's southern border from the YPG and other terrorist groups a while ago. Ankara clearly stated that it would allow neither a PKK state nor another terrorist structure on its border. Operation Euphrates Shield was a result of this.
Meanwhile, Aleppo fell and a new phase began in Syria. Ankara still argues that changes in Syria must be in line with the demands of the Syrian people, but the international community treats Syrians as if they are plague stricken. How can we expect them to treat Syrians as citizens of Syria? Disappointed by its allies, Turkey sat down with Russia to find a solution to the Syrian crisis last year. The meetings first led to a cease-fire, then to the Astana talks and, ultimately, to the agreement of no-conflict zones.
Recently, the Idlib city center was seized by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) as a result of conflicts between the al-Nusra-dominated HTS and Ahrar al-Sham. As is well known, al-Nusra had withdrawn its allegiance from al-Qaida, but is still a terrorist organization in the eyes of many countries, including Turkey. It is obvious that those who destroyed the opposition-held parts of Aleppo on the pretext of driving out al-Nusra will not allow an HTS presence in Idlib. Even though Ankara's priority is now northern Syria under the control of PYD, a foreign intervention into Idlib would open the gates of new chaos for Turkey. There would be many consequences, including a new refugee influx to the border, and either the U.S.-supported YPG or the Russian-backed regime would walk into Idlib. That is why Ankara has to focus on this strategic zone and solve the problem before it is too late. Otherwise, the next fight will be in al-Bab, a territory liberated by Turkish forces during Operation Euphrates Shield.