Dr Sidney Jones: Southeast Asians and the Syrian Conflict

The Syrian conflict was the first to capture the imagination of the Southeast Asian Muslim community, said Sidney Jones, George Soros Visiting Practitioner Chair of the School of Public Policy at Central European University, in her talk on Southeast Asians and the Syrian Conflict, which was our kick-off event on February 9, 2017.

Focusing on Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, Jones gave a presentation on the history and nature of violent extremism in the context of the Syrian conflict.

After 2001, the US invasion of Afghanistan, a series of bestsellers were published in Southeast Asia about indicators that the great battle at the end of time and Islam’s victory was coming. The outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011 seemed to fulfill these prophesies, Jones explained the impact the conflict had on Southeast Asia. Humanitarian concerns were also a great motivation, especially in the early days of the conflict, sparked by reports about the atrocities against Sunnis by Shi’a, she added. In Indonesia, the aid effort even produced a short-lived unity between otherwise mutually hostile extremist groups.

However, even before ISIS emerged, a bitter debate soon arose within the extremist community over whether to support Assad or to help the Sunnis against him. The emergence of ISIS and the split with al-Nusra in mid-2013 had an immediate impact in the region. It divided the jihadi groups even further, with many of them swearing an allegiance to ISIS, Jones explained.

The first pro-ISIS rally took place in Jakarta in March 2014, months before the Islamic State was established in June 2014. Soon there were ceremonies of swearing oaths to ISIS across Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

ISIS also captured the imagination of women, Jones said, who declared their support on social media, posting pictures of women with guns and children with the ISIS flag.

In Indonesia, the lines between violent extremists, non-violent extremists and other groups are extremely blurred. There was never a unified pro-ISIS movement, only fragmented personal networks exist. The only place in the region where ISIS supporters control territory is in southern Philippines in Mindanao. What counts is what they do in the name of IS at home, Jones warned, that they have a territorial base with trained combatants; and that they can provide training and/or safe haven for fighters from elsewhere.

The Syrian conflict and the existence of ISIS has transformed extremism in Southeast Asia but without significantly increasing the capacity of local groups to do damage. This may be a story without an ending, Jones concluded.

Sidney Jones

Sidney Jones

Sidney Jones is director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta. She previously worked for the International Crisis Group in Jakarta as senior adviser (2007-13) and Southeast Asia project director (2002-07). Between 1989 and 2002, Jones was executive director, Asia Division at Human Rights Watch in New York. An expert on conflict and extremism in South-East Asia, particularly Indonesia, Jones received an honorary doctorate from the New School in New York in 2006. She was awarded an MA (1976) in international relations and a BA (1974) in Oriental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.