In early 2014, ISIS — also called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Daesh, its name in Arabic — captured the Syrian city of Raqqa to establish a caliphate (a “political-religious state comprising the Muslim community and the lands and peoples under its dominion in the centuries following the death (632 CE) of the Prophet Muhammad”).
In his book Caliphate: The History of An Idea, professor of Arabic at the University of London Hugh Kennedy makes the concept a little easier to understand:
“You can choose what you want to take from this tradition, but the choice is yours. If you want a caliphate which is aggressive and fiercely controlling of the Muslim population, you can find precedents in the vast historical records.
If you want a caliphate which is generous and open to different ideas and customs while, of course, remaining true to its vision of God’s will and purpose, then you can find that in the historical tradition too.
The past bears many different messages. There are those who see caliphate as a vehicle for imposing their particular and often very narrow view of Islam on the umma (i.e. the whole community of Muslims bound together by ties of religion); there are others who see caliphate as a justification for aiming at world conquest; but there are equally those who see caliphate as simply providing a framework in which Muslims can strive to live a godly life and make up their own minds about the best way to this.”
Unfortunately, the aggressive, fiercely controlling type is what ISIS had in mind in Syria in 2014. Through the next few months, ISIS stampeded across eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq gaining territory — including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. ISIS finally declared its self-styled caliphate in June. At its peak, ISIS had engaged over 40,000 recruits from 100 countries.
Almost five years later, in March 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — the Syrian Kurdish militia led by the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) — declared victory over ISIS and their so-called caliphate.
Serving as America’s primary ground ally, the SDF liberated five million people from terrorism and 52,000 square kilometers of Syrian territory at the cost of 11,000 of their soldiers’ lives. Although ISIS was not entirely defeated, the collapse of the caliphate was a massive victory for the SDF and the United States.
Meanwhile, in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was on a tyrant roll, increasingly favoring more radical versions of Islam and becoming a growing threat to Israel; meeting with guys like Ismail Haniyeh and Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas leaders on pretty much every terrorist watch list, including ours; providing comfort, aid and support — and arming — the Muslim Brotherhood in Africa; and expanding Turkey’s military presence into thirteen countries, including Libya where he unilaterally claimed large natural gas deposits.
Erdoğan was also busy taunting important friends of America. He was fighting with Greece, a U.S. NATO ally, over gas reserves and maritime rights; he was taunting France, another U.S. NATO ally, by violating an arms embargo against Libya; and he was threating the United Arab Emirates because they normalized ties with Israel.
But the biggie was that, for years, Erdoğan had been threatening to invade northern Syria as tensions increased over 1) a “safe zone” between the Syrian Democratic Forces and southern Turkey, as well as the Syrian town of Manbij, and 2) Turkey’s acquisition of a $2.5 billion Russian-made missile system — the S-400 air defense system — that the West sees as a threat to NATO security. The main problem with the S-400 is that it’s not fully compatible with the broader NATO air defense system, which several member countries believe would weaken the entire NATO defense framework.
Erdoğan claimed he was forced to buy the missile system from Russia because the Obama administration would not sell him Patriot missiles, but that was a lie. Both the Obama and Trump administrations approved weapons sales to Turkey.
As a consequence of Erdoğan’s S-400 deal with Russia, the United States kicked Turkey out of our F-35 fighter jet program over safety concerns (the F-35 is an advanced aircraft that is going to be used in several NATO-member air forces). Essentially, American officials thought the new Russian system would compromise U.S. stealth technology — or more to the point, that the Russians implementing the new S-400 defense system on the ground in Turkey would steal our stealth technology, which was probably a good bet.
This move by the United States prompted Erdoğan and his people to tell anyone with a microphone that, if the U.S. showed aggression toward Turkey in any way, they would not hesitate to retaliate. This was not just talk. Erdoğan had been amassing troops along the borders of northern Syria and northern Iraq for over a year.
It was against this volatile backdrop that, reportedly bored in the White House on a random Sunday in October, Donald Trump decided to insert himself into the drama — which, as we all know, was always super helpful.