Why ISIS? That 50,000 people from all over the world joined ISIS, some of them converts and many of them raised in relatively moderate families, shows that the world is searching for a new extremism akin to Nazism. This is probably inevitable as the values that underpin Western societies decline. People feel rootless and don’t see answers to their dilemmas, such as rising inequalities or insular governing classes that appear out of touch with average people.
You start and end the book with a focus on Turkey—what’s its role in a post-ISIS world? Turkey is one of the Middle East’s most important countries, and under Recep Tayyip Erdogan it has been fundamentally transformed. Turkey might have chosen a different path, including integration into the European Union and becoming a more progressive society, a bridge between the Islamic world and the West. Instead it has become more extreme and nationalist, more militarist and conspiracy-ridden, seeking to expel enemies and purge all critics from society.
Although some U.S. policymakers think Turkey could be an ally against Iran, they don’t understand that Turkey works closely with Iran. In Syria, Turkey feigns being a U.S. ally while working to undermine the U.S. role—empowering extremist elements among the Syrian rebels.
Is there any way out of war in Syria? The Syrian conflict was largely finished in March of 2019 with the U.S. defeat of the last major ISIS remnants in Syria. But the U.S.-led coalition never had a long-term plan for eastern Syria or to handle 10,000 ISIS detainees. The United States and its allies have not done enough to help victims of ISIS, leaving open wounds in the region.
The U.S. decision to leave parts of Syria on Oct. 6 led to a predictable Turkish invasion, the deaths of hundreds, and displacement of 300,000 people. This is not a good legacy for U.S. involvement in Syria. Washington should have found a way to display strength and work with Russia, Iran, and Turkey to stop the need for a new round of fighting.
You write sympathetically about the region’s Christians. Do Christians have a sustainable presence in the Middle East, anywhere? As recently as 120 years ago Christians had major communities throughout the Middle East. Yet the period from 1914 to 2014 has been an unmitigated, genocidal disaster. From the massacre of Armenians in 1915, Assyrians in the 1930s, or deaths in the Lebanese Civil War, and abuses of Copts in Egypt, Christians have faced one attack after another. Like Jewish minorities historically, Christians have survived under the generosity of various authoritarian regimes or monarchies that agree to “protect” them. But protection is not tolerance.
What now? Most Christians have fled to the Kurdish region of Iraq now. In Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt, the future of Christians appears more secure but still some of their communities feel under siege. It is a massive failure of Western governments that leaders only pay lip service to the rights of Christians in the region. These are often indigenous communities that have been in the same place for thousands of years, yet find themselves unable to choose their destiny, awaiting the next iteration of ISIS or whatever hateful extremism will emerge next.
After reporting on some of the worst violence of our times, do you sleep at night? And do you have any bit of hope to share at the end of it all? The trauma of reporting some of the tragedies I saw, such as mass graves of Yazidis in northern Iraq, or interviewing refugees leaves permanent scars. I see the sights of the ISIS genocide every day in my mind. Many of the people who suffered greatly also give a sense of hope because they do not give up. If they have hope, how can a privileged person like me not also have hope?