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The Rise of ISIL: Threats and Opportunities


How Did We Get Here?

On September 10th, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his much-anticipated address on the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and vaguely outlined an American strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” this frightening jihadist organization, which had recently beheaded two American journalists.

Notwithstanding Obama’s reputation as a brilliant orator, this is surely the one speech that he never wanted to make, and that his dovish core constituency never wanted to hear. Scarcely five years after he swept into the White House on the heels of his predecessor’s disastrous War in Iraq, the President seemed poised to re-commit American armed forces to that troubled Middle Eastern country, and its even more volatile Syrian neighbour.

Although originating as an obscure Sunni Muslim terrorist group that fought American forces and Iraqi Shi’a during that nation’s bloody civil war of 2006-07, ISIL first seized worldwide attention when its fighters swept across northern Iraq in early 2014, capturing predominantly Sunni Arab cities such as Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit, along with much of the rural countryside. With international scrutiny focused largely on Syria’s continued bloodletting, the rapid collapse of the Iraqi military stunned viewers, who had largely bought into the misconceived notion that post-American Iraq was relatively stable.

In those early days, ISIL did not operate alone. Rather, its blitzkrieg offensive across northern Iraq rode on the coattails of widespread Sunni discontent with the Nuri al-Maliki government, which they perceived as a stooge of Shi’i Iran, Iraq’s long-time foe. Indeed, much of the early anti-government fighting was carried out by other Islamist outfits such as the confusingly named “Hamas in Iraq”, or ostensibly secularist forces such as Ba’ath Party loyalists. The anti-government offensive initially seemed to rely on strong support from local Sunni Arabs, especially the influential al-Duri clan.

Within months, however, ISIL had turned the copious American-supplied military hardware that it had captured on its erstwhile allies, chasing them underground and establishing an iron grip on northern Iraq. From there, its forces surged into eastern Syria, creating a firm supply link with its de facto capital in al-Raqqah, surrounding Syrian military forces in the city of Deir al-Zor, and chasing more moderate opposition groups from much of Aleppo province.

On June 29th, a date that ISIL and its supporters hope and believe will be etched into the annals of human history, the group’s shadowy leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, publicly proclaimed himself caliph, or worldwide spiritual and political ruler of all Muslims. Simultaneously, and supposedly in a sign of its growing confidence, the group dropped all territorial qualifications from its name, referring to itself as merely “The Islamic State”.

Frustrated by stiffening Iraqi state resistance to its drive on Baghdad, the renamed organization abruptly pivoted eastward, toward the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq, once again surprising its opponents. This offensive initially met with success, which was accompanied by massacres of Shi’i and Yazidi religious minorities that horrified global opinion, including most Muslim governments. Western nations belatedly re-supplied the Peshmerga,  Kurdistan’s semi-professional military, and the United States launched airstrikes on IS positions that allowed the Peshmerga to reclaim almost all of its recently lost territory.

Nevertheless, ISIL maintains its grip on the Iraqi-Syrian border region, and Western nerves were jangled by reports that hundreds of American, European and Canadian Muslims were undergoing radicalization at home and then traveling to the Levant to answer the self-declared caliph’s call for jihad. In mid-September, it emerged that Muhammad Merah, who in March 2012 murdered a French Muslim paratrooper and four people outside a Jewish school before perishing in a firefight with police, had in fact served a tour of duty with ISIL in Syria. Given ISIL’s virulent rhetoric against Jews, Westerners and non-Sunni Muslims, it is considered only a matter of time before more of its young recruits return to their home countries to engage in terrorism.


What is the Historical Context?

While ISIL’s sudden ascendancy came as a surprise to most regional and global actors, and perhaps even to the Islamist group itself, the Near East actually has a long and honoured history of rag-tag armies emerging from the geo-political margins to suddenly conquer vast swathes of more cosmopolitan territory. In part, this is due to the region’s largely flat geography, which enables armies to advance quickly without encountering obstacles such as mountain ranges or forests that have historically given headaches to would-be conquerors in Europe, East Asia and beyond. In recent decades, however, this trend has been exacerbated by the weak regimes and often counter-intuitive borders designed by the European powers  during and following the First World War, most infamously via the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.

As early as 2115 BCE, the great Akkadian Empire of modern-day Iraq was destroyed by the Gutians, who descended from the Zagros Mountains to ravish the Mesopotamian heartland. A few centuries later, in a military campaign with eery similarities to ISIL’s ascendancy, the Amorites invaded Mesopotamia from the arid tracts of eastern Syria, establishing petty kingdoms and giving the world Hammurabi’s Code.

With the rise of monotheism, religious grievances came to play an important role in these recurrent invasions. The Khawarij, an early Muslim sectarian group who rejected both Sunni and Shi’i doctrines, ravaged Mesopotamia and Syria throughout the ninth century, exploiting many of the same rural-urban conflicts that added to anti-government resentment by Sunni Arabs in modern Syria and Iraq. It is no mere coincidence that ISIL’s rivals, including Jabhat al-Nusra, a rival claimant to its jihadist mantle, have condemned ISIL as latter-day Khawarij. The same dismissive moniker was similarly applied to the Wahhabi uprisings against the Ottoman Empire, which led to the foundation of what would become Saudi Arabia in 1902. Although Saudi Arabia has publicly opposed ISIL and pledged to aid in efforts to defeat it, there is undoubtedly an ideological link between the fundamentalist Sunni Salafi doctrines that propelled the House of Sa’ud to power and the ideological underpinnings of al-Baghdadi’s fledgeling caliphate.

By the same token, ISIL’s swift ascendancy is but the latest chapter in another Middle Eastern geo-political trend, one that has recurrently shaken the region since the Second World War: a veritable revolving door of formerly marginalized ethno-religious groups which suddenly gain the upper hand over long-time oppressors, thereby sowing the seeds for another upheaval in a few decades’ time.

One can see this trend developing as early as 1948, when the State of Israel was created on the backs of Eastern European and Near Eastern Jews, who had long suffered persecution or been reduced to second-class citizenship throughout the Muslim World. Israeli victories in 1948 and 1967 in turn created the Palestinian Question, which provoked instability in Jordan and Lebanon before the two Palestinian Intifadas spurred the creation of the autonomous Palestinian Authority in West Bank and sowed the seeds for the armed Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran galvanized Shi’ites throughout the region and gave them a powerful state backer, presaging the rise of Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and the al-Maliki government in Iraq. Now, thirty-five years later, it is Sunni Arabs, who have largely dominated the Middle East since the rise of Islam, who find themselves downtrodden and marginalized, especially in states such as Syria and Iraq, which are both relatively poor and dominated by non-Sunni political classes. Having grown disenchanted with the corruption and ineptness of more moderate outfits such as the Free Syrian Army and Sons of Iraq, many poor and rural Sunni Arabs of a more conservative bent have turned to ISIL, dramatically strengthening the once insignificant jihadist group.

Unlike the Jews, Palestinians and Shi’a, whose respective ascents to power were localized and could be fairly easily contained, Sunni Arabs are a majority population in Syria, northern Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and beyond, potentially rendering all of those states vulnerable to the depredations of ISIL.


Best-Case Scenario

On the face of it, the anti-ISIL policy unveiled by President Obama on September 10th has much to recommend it. By Obama’s estimate, no more than a few hundred American servicemen will be (re)deployed to Iraq; instead, the United States will concentrate on providing accurate intelligence and supplies to its local allies, who, judging by the “Burn the ISIL Flag Challenge” that has gone viral throughout the Arab World, are eager join the fray. Indeed, given ISIL’s exceptionally wide range of foes, the potential exists for an “enemy of my enemy” effect whereby a joint effort against the jihadists allows the US and Iran to make progress on negotiations over the latter nation’s nuclear program, for example.

By the same token, Obama’s pledge to expand airstrikes on ISIL into Syrian territory is well-founded. Had these strikes been slavishly confined to Iraq, ISIL could simply have redeployed its considerable arsenal to Syria, winning more successes there before pivoting back to Iraq after the United States had lost interest. In any case, the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad is in no position to resist American attacks on jihadists that ultimately give Damascus hope of one day reasserting control over the deeply fragmented country.

And what of the hundreds of young Muslims, many recent converts to the faith, who have left their homes in the West to answer the self-proclaimed caliphate’s call? Given that these young people are flocking to the colours largely to fight their fellow Muslims, the wave of revulsion spreading across Western Muslim communities is not unexpected. Rather than inflaming xenophobic passions in the United States, Great Britain, France and elsewhere, a firm and visible commitment by Muslim community leaders to combating radicalization may act as a building block to religious harmony in the developed world.

Thus, a best-case scenario sees Iraqi and Kurdish troops, with American assistance, pushing ISIL back to its heartland along the Iraqi-Syrian border, far from major Iraqi cities. Meanwhile, a combination of heightened security and honest cooperation with Muslim community leaders stymies attempted attacks by ISIL jihadists returning to the West, and halts the stream of ISIL recruits flowing in the other direction. While the “Islamic State” is still known to observers within a few years, it never acquires the notoriety or infamy of al-Qa’ida, having never staged a terrorist attack of comparable size.


Worst-Case Scenario

Of course, for everything that could go right in the fight against ISIL, there are ten things that could go horribly awry. President Obama’s strategy of waging the conflict largely through local partners is already under scrutiny; NATO member Turkey has already snubbed its nose at the US by failing to cooperate, and Secretary of State John Kerry was compelled to distance his administration from any notion that they were aligning with the Islamic Republic, notwithstanding that American and Iranian interests converge in this case. Even many Arabs and Muslims who (at least publicly) oppose ISIL, such as Ra’id Salah, the firebrand leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, have denounced the American-led response as an even worse form of blasphemy.

Most of all, the spectre of widespread Sunni Arab defections from the Iraqi and even Lebanese armies to ISIL looms large. This hazard creates an unsolvable catch-22; sending Sunni brigades against ISIL risks defections and intelligence leaks, but dispatching only non-Sunnis does nothing to win the hearts and minds of Sunni Arabs currently under ISIL rule, especially when some Shi’i militias in Iraq have allegedly engaged in counter-atrocities against Sunni civilians. If Arab armies and militias prove incapable of stamping out the jihadists while keeping the local population happy, or at least subdued, the United States and its allies might feel forced to send in their own ground forces to clean up the mess.

By the same token, while American airstrikes have so far proven effective in targeting ISIL’s more advanced equipment and regional commanders, a simple switch of tactics by the jihadists could render these successes moot. Rather than engaging its foes openly as it has largely done so far, ISIL might choose to simply barricade its fighters within captured towns and cities, effectively using the residents as hostages. The conflict would then take on a character more akin to the urban bloodbath of the Iraqi Civil War, with suicide bombers and booby-trapped buildings replacing pick-up trucks and machine guns as the weapons of choice. This would leave anti-ISIL forces with few effective responses that could minimize civilian casualties, stoking anger and resentment across the Muslim World and beyond. . While human shield tactics would likely prove less effective across the plains of Iraq and Syria than in  the dense urban sprawl of the Gaza Strip, they  would at the very least force the anti-ISIL coalition to advance painfully slowly and methodically, dragging the conflict out for years.

Obama’s promise to aid the more moderate Syrian rebel battalions in their struggle against both ISIL and the Assad government also sounds dubious. Such a step should arguable have been taken years ago, when the Assad regime was hanging on for dear life and ISIL had not yet reared its ugly head. Now, with Assad firmly in control of Damascus, Hama, Homs and Latakia, and with the Free Syrian Army in tatters and on the run from ISIL and its Jabhat al-Nusra cousin, it is hard to believe that Western aid for moderate rebels will do any good. Aside from failing to achieve its stated objectives, such assistance might even provoke Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers to undermine the anti-ISIL coalition from within, a goal which could easily be achieved by manipulating Iraqi Shi’i politicians and militias loyal to the Islamic Republic.

Finally, despite the best efforts of moderate Muslim leaders and Western law enforcement, the spectre of further terrorist attacks by ISIL graduates looms large. If jihadists, G-d forbid, manage to carry out a large-scale outrage against a poorly guarded Western target (the TTC comes to mind), the direct human cost would be compounded by potential Islamophobic backlash that would alienate the West’s Muslim allies, along with a political impetus to deepen Western involvement in the struggle, quite possibly by deploying ground troops in force. This would be seen by future generations as merely the second stage of the War on Terror, a point of transition from “Bush’s War” to “Obama’s War”.


Aidan’s Take

While isolationists and foreign policy doves alike will be quick to point out the similarities between Obama’s military commitment to Iraq and that of his ill-fated predecessor, the key difference lies in the vastly more modest goals and expectations. Unlike George W. Bush, Obama is not aiming to transform Iraq or Syria into a beacon of utopian American-style democracy in the heart of the Middle East – in fact, the President likely privately concedes that, regardless of this operation’s outcome, Iraq will remain a deeply flawed democracy at best, while Syria will be ungovernable for years, perhaps decades. So long as objectives are kept reasonable, there is no reason to assume that the anti-ISIL coalition can not succeed.
It must be internalized by the members of this latest “coalition of the willing” that anti-ISIL operations will remain an exercise in crisis management, not problem-solving. The regional ascendancy of jihadist groups is merely the symptom of a host of more existential issues, including structural economic woes brought about by resource dependency, monopolization of state infrastructure by non-governmental armed groups, a dearth of non-sectarian civil nationalism, and deep-seated religious and ethnic hatreds, to name but a few. The United States and its allies can not “fix” the Near East. At best, they can do their utmost to secure vital Western interests such as access to energy resources and nuclear non-proliferation, while ensuring that Middle Eastern problems do not spill onto the streets of London, Madrid or New York ever again.

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