The recruitment of foreign fighters into the “international legion” in Ukraine has stirred widespread concern that it could create a disaster along the lines of what happened 40 years ago when jihadists were mobilised to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
The Ukrainian crisis will have a profound impact on political, economic and security conditions not just in Europe but also in Asia and the Middle East. Geopolitical complexities related to the conflict will be instrumental to shaping new frameworks for strategic rivalries and vital interests which, in turn, will be reflected in security arrangements in different parts of the world, including the Middle East. To a considerable extent, the course, depth and duration of the crisis will determine the nature of developments in this part of the the world, a locus of the confrontation between Russia and the West. The latter is now keen to reset relations with countries in the Middle East in order to secure alternative sources for Russian oil and natural gas. This is the immediate aim of understandings between the US and its strategic partners in the region now that Western countries are united in their resolve to end their dependency on Russian energy resources.
The legitimisation given to foreign recruits (or mercenaries) after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced they could enlist at his country’s embassies abroad, in response to which Russia hinted that it would accept 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East, is another indication that the consequences of that conflict will not be confined to Ukraine’s borders. Henceforth, every country will be able to cite Ukrainian precedent. Yet, in Ukraine’s case, Western governments have decided to encourage the “international legion” and look the other way when their citizens go off to fight even though enlisting in foreign forces is a punishable criminal offence in many of those countries. Under international law, IS and Al-Qaeda are international terrorist groups. Travelling abroad to join their ranks has also been criminalised by many governments. That Western governments are making exceptions to their own laws when it comes to Ukraine has fuelled a heated debate over the question of the recruitment of foreign fighters.
With IS and its affiliates still present in many parts of the Middle East and Africa, proxy wars in these regions deploying foreign fighters and mercenaries in escalating hostilities are hardly a remote possibility. Despite the recent death of IS leader Abu Ibrahim Al-Qarashi in what was the most important operation against that organisation in years, there is considerable evidence that IS still has the ability to regroup and intensify its operations. This is why the international jihadist movement has sparked renewed concern and why it will remain the foremost threat in the Middle East for years to come. IS is much less centralised and more fragmented than it was when it first emerged. Paradoxically, this is a reason for its sustainability.
As diplomacy fails to produce a political solution to Ukraine crisis and hostilities there continue, the humanitarian disaster will worsen and the global economic crisis will grow more acute due to the mounting costs of raw materials and food. Such grim trends are certain to increase the levels of tension in many countries in the Middle East which are unable to cope with the fallout from the crisis. Extremist and terrorist groups will leap at the chance, capitalising on any unrest that erupts as a consequence of economic straits, especially in those countries that are already gripped by armed conflict. We must not underestimate this danger and the likelihood that terrorist groups and extremists will take advantage of the Western powers’ preoccupation with Ukraine to stage devastating attacks in certain parts of this region as a means to regain lost influence. The international community should demand a halt to proxy wars now and in the future in order to prevent a repetition of the tragedies they cause.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.