20 December 2015

ISIS the Peacemaker

By Joshua Keating

The world may be a long way off from defeating ISIS, which Thursday showed its resilience by launching its first major offensive in Northern Iraq in months, but the chaos sown by the group is also putting pressure on longtime foes to resolve some seemingly intractable conflicts so as to be more united against the ISIS threat.

Libya’s rival politicians signed a deal at U.N.-brokered talks in Morocco on Thursday to form a unity government. Disagreements remain and the deal itself won’t resolve the country’s ongoing violence—for one thing, none of the armed groups participating in the fighting were represented at the talks—but it could bring to an end a chaotic period in which Libya has had two rival governments. Talks to resolve the situation have been going on for months, but diplomats have been applying more pressure lately thanks in part to the threat of the Islamic State, which has gained a foothold in the country, particularly around the central city of Sirte. As long as the country has two governments each backed by a patchwork of rival militias, ISIS is going to continue to take advantage.

Also Thursday, Turkey and Israel announced that they had reached a preliminary deal on restoring diplomatic relations. The onetime allies have been at odds since the 2010 Mavi Marmara raid when Israeli commandos killed nine activists on a Turkish flotilla attempting to breach the naval blockade of Gaza. The deal hasn’t been finalized but will likely involve Israel paying some amount of compensation to the families of the activists killed in the raid. Turkey will drop criminal charges against Israeli officers and take steps to prevent Hamas from operating on its territory. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week that the “normalization process has a lot to offer to us, to Israel, to Palestine and also to the region.” This is quite a shift from a leader who said only last year that Israel “surpasses Hitler in barbarism.”

In this case, it’s not ISIS itself that prompted the shift but the escalating tensions between Turkey and Russia caused by the fighting in Syria. Russia is a major supplier of natural gas to Turkey, which is looking to diversify its sources, particularly since the two countries have been slapping sanctions on each other following the shootdown of a Russian jet by Turkey last month. Under the new deal, talks may begin over construction of a pipeline to bring Israeli natural gas to Turkey.

A lot of priorities are being reordered in the Middle East and North Africa now, thanks to the new threats that have emerged over the past year. This could, unexpectedly, lead to some ongoing problems being resolved. Unfortunately, given the scene in New York on Friday, where major powers are struggling to reach agreement on a plan to resolve the conflict in Syria, progress on the problem that most directly applies to fighting ISIS is still frustratingly elusive.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs.

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