The so-called Islamic State (IS) — the jihadist movement also known as ISIL or ISIS and by the derogatory acronym Da’ish in Arabic — now controls much of northeast Syria and northwest Iraq (1). In a region beset with so much confusion, it appears uniquely determined and self-assured. Despite its name, it is in no sense a new state, since it rejects the concept of borders and largely does without institutions. Yet IS tells us much about the Middle East — and especially about its genuine states — as well as about western foreign policy.
IS is an aggressive movement with a surprisingly clear identity, given its origins and the fact that it is made up of volunteers from many different places. It began in Iraq where, following the 2003 US invasion, a handful of former mujahideen from the Afghan war established a local Al-Qaida franchise. Very quickly their ideology parted company from that of Al-Qaida central: they focused on enemies close at hand rather than less accessible ones, such as the United States or Israel. Increasingly ignoring the US occupier, they instigated a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia, and then descended into fratricidal conflict, using extreme violence against supposed traitors and apostates in their own Sunni camp. The ensuing self-destruction, between 2007 and 2008, reduced the movement to a few diehards entrenched in the Iraqi desert.
That the movement is back in business — in spectacular fashion — is due only in small part to IS itself. The way has been paved for it by its enemies, who make an impressive roll-call of major players in the region: first there are Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which have used every means possible and imaginable — and unimaginable in the case of Syria’s chemical weapons — to fight a Sunni opposition they first sought to radicalise, in the name of a so-called “war on terror”. Then there are Iraq and Syria’s ad hoc partners, the US and Russia respectively, which have encouraged them in this. Maliki and Assad’s loyal ally, Iran, has done more than offer unconditional support; it has pursued a foreign policy in the Arab world that has increasingly focused on supporting pockets of Shia militias, which contribute to sectarian polarisation.
Also on the list are the Gulf monarchies whose petrodollars, redistributed recklessly, finance a semi-clandestine Islamist economy. Turkey for a time left its border to Syria wide open, allowing free passage to jihadists from much of Europe, and as far as Australia. The US also deserves to be judged in absentia for its failure to act: after a decade of senseless activism under George Bush, Barack Obama has gone to the other extreme — impassive, remote and laissez-faire — even as failing states in Syria and Iraq have clearly evolved into breeding grounds for jihadists. It should be no surprise, then, that in the course of the past two years, IS has not only thrived but made striking advances, taking over cities such as Raqqa, Fallujah and Mosul. IS is thus the first movement in the Arab world to bring jihadism from the margins to the centre.
Part of its success stems from its consolidation strategy. Its aim is not so much to conquer the world, despite the claims of propagandists and critics alike, but to root itself firmly in the territory it occupies. This inclines it to greater pragmatism than is generally acknowledged. Until recently at least, its fighters would hold western captives to ransom, where previous generations of jihadists would have killed them for shock value. The filmed decapitation of journalist James Foley is thus a significant departure from recent practice. IS fighters expend great effort fighting for oil wells, which give them a high degree of financial autonomy. They are happy to attack weak Sunni rivals in selected areas, but have little appetite for confronting more serious adversaries: they mostly shun the fight with the Syrian regime, steer clear of taking Iraq’s Shia militias head-on, and when needed have moderated their antagonism towards Kurdish factions, who also defend their turf fiercely.
What political programme?
All the same, IS has little to offer to those it purports to represent. The disastrous situation in Mosul provides ample evidence of this: their considerable resources stop short of funding any sort of redistribution programme. Its vision of governance is anachronistic, amounting to a revival of practices dating back to the Prophet, which would be scarcely practical even if they were properly understood. Paradoxically, beyond this rudimentary utopia, they advance no theory of the Islamic state — the Sunni world in general having failed to develop one, by contrast with Iran’s brand of political Islam. At best, they apply a more structured code of war, which gives them an advantage over armed groups engaged in straightforward criminality. Their attempt at systematisation reinforces their cohesion through actions and language that are undoubtedly violent, but relatively elaborate.
At root, IS simply fills a void. It occupies northeast Syria because the Syrian regime has by and large abandoned it, and the opposition that might have replaced it has failed to secure a genuine sponsor, in particular the US. And, in Iraq, IS has surged into cities such as Fallujah and Mosul because the central power in Baghdad has largely neglected them: the Iraqi state maintained a presence there that was simultaneously corrupt, repressive and flimsy. IS’s rapid expansion into zones in northern Iraq controlled by Kurdish forces, but inhabited by Christian and Yezidi minorities, is unsurprising, given the lack of real interest shown in the victims by their ostensible protectors, the Kurds, who were quick to withdraw to their own territory.
IS also fills a void on a more abstract level. Simply put, the Sunni world has trouble coming to terms with its past and imagining its future. A fragmented 20th-century history, following a long period of Ottoman occupation which was seen as a period of decline, ended with a succession of failures: anti-imperialism, pan-Arabism, nationalist movements, socialism, various forms of Islamism, capitalism — all led only to bitter or ambiguous experiences. Thus far, with the exception of Tunisia, the hopes born of the 2011 uprisings have turned to ashes. So where can Sunnis turn to find inspiration, self-confidence and pride? The reactionaries in the Gulf and Egypt? The Muslim Brothers, who are on the ropes? Palestinian Hamas, locked in a perpetual impasse in its resistance to Israel?
During the same period, the Shia world has scored notable, if qualified, successes: Iran has established itself as a country the West cannot avoid dealing with and has ambitions to play an ever greater role in the Arab world; Hizbullah is calling the shots in Lebanon and there is an ever-stronger Shia axis linking Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran. This has created a new and troubling phenomenon: a Sunni majority with a minority complex — a powerful though confused feeling of marginalisation, dispossession and humiliation. More and more Sunnis throughout the region experience and express the feeling that they have been deprived of their fundamental rights and are suffering persecution.
With some honourable exceptions, minorities (Shia, Christian, Alawite, Kurdish, etc), all of which cultivate their own narrative of victimhood, are at best indifferent to the fate of the Sunni majority, and at worst complicit. The West too plays a part. The fate of the Yezidis, dying of hunger as they fled into the Sinjar mountains, has caused concern at the highest level of western governments, yet that of the inhabitants of Damascus’s besieged districts, where a greater number of Sunnis are being starved by the regime, doesn’t raise an eyebrow.
Concealing the vacuum
What is most worrying perhaps is that IS has become a means of concealing a seemingly universal political vacuum. Everyone who hated Bush’s “war on terror” — seeing it either as inadvertently pouring oil on the flames, or as an aberrant throwback to the logic of imperialism — is now happily singing from that very hymn sheet, because it saves them having to think about the real challenges the region poses.
IS provides legitimation for all the excesses of Iran’s increasing resort to Shia sectarianism in response to its Sunni equivalent; a default policy saving the West from its ambivalence, in a region where it no longer knows which way to turn; a justification for the orgy of counter-revolutionary violence condoned by elites in the Arab world; and a distraction from the growing alienation of minorities from their environment — a dynamic in which they are agents as well as victims, since they seek salvation in forms of repression that make the problem worse.
From this, there follows a sequence of statements each more absurd than the last. Iran to the West: embrace us because of the IS threat. Arab regimes to their people: we won’t give an inch because of the IS threat. The Syrian opposition: save us from ourselves because of the IS threat. Hizbullah to the Lebanese people: everything is permissible because of the IS threat. The US: we aren’t going to intervene in Syria because of the IS threat, but we will strike Iraq… because of the IS threat.
Regression is everywhere. In international relations, not only has the “war on terror” been hauled back out of the dustbin of history, but the “protection of minorities” has also been exhumed, on the colonial model, which means bombing a turbulent majority. The small number of targets hit by US planes and drones in Iraq are an act of liberation not for the Yezidis, whose future depends on many other factors, but for the conscience of the Obama administration, which has shrugged and looked away when faced with all sorts of other acts of violence in the past three years.
The US has finally intervened in Iraq because it was able to do so at little cost: there was no danger of an escalating conflict with IS, which has no means of immediate retaliation; little chance of an outcry from US or global public opinion, which broadly backs the cause; nor of diplomatic complications, since views on IS are unanimous in the Iraqi government, the Kurdish leadership and in neighbouring Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Clear message to the region
These bombing campaigns are not neutral, however. Seen from the region, they have meaning. In the grim litany of Middle Eastern slaughter, they happen to come after a month of determined indifference from the US administration over the fate of Gazan civilians under bombardment. They send a very clear message to the region: the right mix of “war on terror” and “protection of minorities” can capture and mobilise US power. Massoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan’s regional government, knows this, as his sensationalist appeal for help in the Washington Post made clear (2). Other politicians in the region understand it too: what they remain deaf to are calls for positive change.
It took the appearance of IS in Lebanon to shake that fragile country out of its state of paralysis. But a step forward can also mean a leap back: the political class and its foreign backers think solely of military solutions, though the army is united mainly in the hunt for Sunni Islamists, while studiously ignoring the sensitive question of Hizbullah, which is left free to fight alongside the reviled regimes in Syria and Iraq. In fact, all destabilising structural factors are, as elsewhere in the region, deemed secondary compared to dealing with IS militarily. In Sunni communities, feelings of victimisation can only grow.
The future looks bright for IS if the main actors continue to exploit its presence to avoid responsibility for their own failings. Shia Islamists, secular elites and western governments are redefining their relations on the basis of a sort of holy war that is becoming an end in itself. In this context, Gaza, Yemen, Sinai, Libya and even Tunisia are fertile grounds for IS expansion. This is a part of the world which has a high degree of regional integration, both across and within borders: as a result of rural migration, outlying regions are well connected to informal neighbourhoods that often sit close to the heart of the big cities.
Close ties also exist with western societies, which have been reshaped by the flow of immigrants and new information technologies. These are producing a new generation of potential jihadists who can easily travel to Syria or Iraq, from where they can talk up their experiences through a hail of tweets that they fire just as easily as bullets.
Though it stands for little in itself, IS is being fed by a system. It can provide a default form of redemption, an ad hoc ally, a means of social advancement, or a ready-made identity for Sunnis experiencing a profound crisis. It serves as a foil or useful distraction for its most cynical critics, and a bogeyman concentrating the fears — rational and otherwise — of actors faced with their own failures. This multiplicity of meanings, against a background of chaotic change, is what has brought it success.
Peter Harling is project director with the Middle East programme of the International Crisis Group; he lived in Baghdad from 1998 to 2004.
(1) See Peter Harling, “Taking Iraq apart”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, July 2014.
(2) Massoud Barzani, “Kurds need more U.S. help to defeat Islamic State”, The Washington Post, 10 August 2014.