Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS, Gilbert Achcar discusses the Arab Uprising and the rise of the Islamic State (Daesh)
“There is nothing mysterious about the so-called Islamic State…It is presently, perhaps, the most studied and researched phenomenon across the world,” says Gilbert Achcar.
Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Gilbert Achcar was born in Lebanon. Before joining SOAS, he taught at the University of Paris VIII and is a leading commentator on the Middle East. He has authored and edited several books including Perilous Power, a conversation with Noam Chomsky on the Middle East and US foreign policy, the critically-acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust and The People Want on the Arab uprising. In an interview with The News on Sunday (TNS), he discusses the Arab Uprising and the rise of the Islamic State (Daesh). Excerpts follow:
The News on Sunday: A lot of myths surround the Islamic State or Daesh. Conspiracy theorists present it as an imperialist Trojan Horse. Others view it as a Saudi instrument. All serious analysts, however, point out the links with the Iraq War. Some of them emphasise Assad regime’s role in facilitating the emergence of Daesh. What is your opinion on the mystery surrounding the Islamic State and its dubious links to so different forces?
Gilbert Achcar: The so-called Islamic State is, first of all, a continuation of al-Qaeda in Iraq. One can easily trace al-Qaeda’s origins to the Saudi kingdom, of course. You remember that fifteen of the nineteen suicide attackers of 9/11 2001 were Saudi citizens. However, this does not mean that the Saudi kingdom masterminded and executed 9/11, to be sure. The story is well known: when participating in the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, bin Laden — the scion of a wealthy Saudi family — was backed by the Saudi kingdom, as well as by the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI. He turned against the Kingdom in 1990 on the issue of US military intervention against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He opposed the Saudi kingdom’s decision to welcome US troops on its soil, and became ever since a sworn enemy of the Saudi royal family, while al-Qaeda shifted from being an anti-Soviet outfit to becoming an anti-US organisation.
When the US occupied Iraq in 2003 and empowered pro-Iran Shia forces such as the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq and the Dawa party, which were Washington’s allies, this led to a strong resentment among Sunni Arabs. Resentment against the US occupation was compounded by the fact that Iran was taking advantage of it in order to spread its influence. This prepared the ground for the growth of al-Qaeda in Sunni Arab regions.
A concomitant development was the intensification of al-Qaeda’s anti-Shia ideology. Anti-Shia sectarianism is a core component of Wahhabism, the official ideology of the Saudi kingdom. In fact, al-Qaeda’s doctrine is nothing but an extreme version of Wahhabism turned against the official version used by the ruling Saudi dynasty. Thus, al-Qaeda organised actions against both the US occupation and the Shia population in Iraq.
The growing presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq represented a major challenge to the US occupation since Iraq had been invaded on the pretext, among others, of dealing a blow to al-Qaeda. The Bush administration had been claiming that it was backed by the Saddam regime. The truth, however, is that there was hardly any activity of al-Qaeda in Iraq at the time of the US invasion.
Under the US occupation, not merely did al-Qaeda emerge as a force in Iraq, but it managed to control large swathes of the country. It was helped in that by the expertise of many former members of Saddam Hussein’s security and military apparatus. Common hatred of the US occupation and sectarian anti-Shia animosity led a large number of former Saddam Hussein loyalists to join al-Qaeda.
The organisation rebranded itself in 2006 as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). After that year, the US changed strategy and started empowering Sunni Arab tribes, providing them with money and arms. With these tribes switching to the US side, the occupation managed to marginalise the ISI, if not defeat it completely.
TNS: How did it re-emerge if it had been almost defeated?
GA: Two notable developments in 2011 explain this re-emergence. On the one hand, by the end of that year, the US troops pulled out of Iraq in total failure, leaving behind them a tattered country ever more dominated by Tehran, Washington’s regional arch-rival. Free from the US tutelage, the Iran-backed Maliki government indulged in its own Shia sectarian policies, which antagonised the Sunni Arabs yet again. Maliki managed to unravel very quickly what the US had managed to achieve in the years preceding its withdrawal. In 2012, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs staged peaceful mass actions of an impressive scale. However, the Maliki government refused to concede any ground to their demands. This created the ground for ISI’s re-emergence in Iraq.
On the other hand, by the end of 2011, the uprising in Syria had started turning into an armed resistance, when increasing defections from the Syrian army provided a possibility to resist the Assad regime’s escalating repression. By 2012, Syria had plunged into a civil war. Seizing this opportunity, the remnants of ISI entered Syria and created a Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front, breaking it later on to create the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or Daish in Arabic), which later became the “Islamic State”. An important factor in this process is the fact that the Syrian regime facilitated al-Qaeda’s settlement into Syria after having facilitated the infiltration of al-Qaeda’s militants into Iraq during the initial years of the US occupation.
TNS: How come al-Qaeda was lent a helping hand by a “secular” regime, allied to Iran?
GA: The Assad regime had a stake in the failure of the US occupation. It felt threatened by “regime change” in Iraq all the more as both Iraq and Syria are ruled by the Baath Party, albeit by mutually hostile wings. The Assad regime also needed to show that the only alternative to dictatorship was jihadism and chaos. This is why it contributed to enabling al-Qaeda in Iraq. However, it had to forego this policy under pressure from Baghdad and Tehran from 2007 on. The Syrian intelligence services maintained a presence within al-Qaeda though. It let al-Qaeda enter Syria to serve its effort to militarise what started in March 2011 as a peaceful uprising.
The same logic was at work: to show that the only alternative to dictatorship is jihadism. For this purpose, the Assad regime did not merely allow al-Qaeda to enter Syria, but it also released from jail a number of jihadi militants in the autumn of 2011. In the summer of 2014, ISIS or Daish launched a sweeping offensive from Syria back into Iraq, exploiting the resentment that had built up among Sunni Arab tribes.
TNS: But how does the Islamic State fund its military and administrative needs? Who funds them?
GA: They are mostly self-funded. They have managed to control oilfields from the beginning, selling oil to the Assad regime and to Turkish traffickers. They also seized vast amounts of money in the banks of captured towns. They are also supported by private donors, mostly in the Gulf states. However, they don’t rely on any foreign support.
In fact, there is nothing mysterious about the so-called Islamic State. How it did emerge, how it is financed, and how it functions, are all very well documented. It is presently, perhaps, the most studied and researched phenomenon across the world. Intelligence agencies from Moscow to Washington, researchers, scholars and a host of other actors are studying the “Islamic State”.
This phenomenon fits totally into what I described as “Clash of Barbarisms” in my book of the same title, written in the aftermath of 9/11. I argued that imperialist barbarism is the primary cause that leads to the emergence of counter-barbarism of the al-Qaeda type on the opposite side. In Syria, the Assad regime’s barbarism — backed by Russia and Iran — led to the expansion of the counter-barbarism of the so-called Islamic State. What generates such fanatical violence is the degree of hatred created by the violence against which it is reacting.
TNS: While you do not blame, in your writings and interviews, the West alone for the violence in the Middle East, there is a tendency, however, to blame everything wrong in the Middle East on the West. In The Clash of Barbarisms, primary responsibility is again assigned to the West. What about the ideology that drives jihadists to violence? Aren’t there other factors that have contributed to the growth of religious violence emanating from the Middle East and to the radicalisation of Muslim youth in the West?
GA: There are many other factors, of course. One major factor is the failure of the Left. The conditions that radicalised young Muslims whether in the Middle East or in the West could have radicalised them to the Left. Had the radical Left in Europe managed to build bridges with the youth of Muslim migrant background and lead their social struggle, much less of this youth would have been seduced by reactionary fundamentalist ways of venting their social frustration.
But it is not a matter of ideology. Fanatical reactionary ideologies have always existed. Why do we witness their expansion nowadays in the opposite forms of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Muslim racism among other forms? In fact, these expressions of deep social frustrations cannot be separated from the dismantling of the welfare state, the rise of unemployment, and the increasing precariousness of life wrought by neoliberal policies.
The governments in France and the UK are calling on Imams to fight radical Islamic fundamentalism. But you cannot defeat such currents by ideological struggle alone. You need above all to end the conditions that constitute a breeding ground for their ideologies, and these are social, economic and political conditions.
TNS: What is the future of the Islamic State?
GA: All world powers are pitched in against the so-called Islamic State. While Turkey and Syria have had an ambiguous relationship with it, the Saudi kingdom as well as Iran, Russia as well as the United States, are hostile to Daesh despite supporting opposite sides in Syria.
However, Western powers are not ready to commit boots on the grounds against it. In order to defeat Daesh, they need therefore local Sunni forces. Fighting a Sunni sectarian force like Daesh with Shia sectarian forces or with the Assad regime will only enhance its ability to recruit. The US is aware of that. This is why Washington is striving to build Sunni Arab forces to counter the Islamic State, like its effort to sustain Arab Sunni partners entering the alliance with the Kurdish forces. In Syria, Washington wishes to unify the whole opposition with the exception of the Nusra Front and the “Islamic State”.
The Obama administration also knows that an indispensable condition in order to stop the war in Syria is the departure of Assad. Washington is hoping that Russia would contribute to such an outcome, but Russia has not shown yet any willingness to help in that regard.
So, as long as these problems are not solved, the so-called Islamic State is there to stay. It will not be defeated and marginalised anew by bombing alone.
TNS: In the summer of 2014, after its sudden incursion across the border back into Iraq, the Islamic State proclaimed “the end of Sykes-Picot”. Is Syria’s partition on the agenda?
GA: There are two different issues here. One is the Kurdish issue. Autonomous states of the Kurds are most likely to be irreversible. The autonomy of Kurdish regions in Iraq and Syria corresponds to the Kurdish people’s aspirations to have a sovereign territory of their own. Benefitting from a US-imposed no-fly zone since 1991, the Iraqi part of Kurdistan has become, for all intents and purposes, an independent state. This de facto state has its own flag and its own military. Iraq has become a loose confederation. In my view, Iraq can only survive as a confederation between sovereign entities — not even as a federation. In Syria, the situation is different, however.
Rojava, or Western Kurdistan, has emerged in the form of autonomous Kurdish cantons. From the point of view of the balance of forces, the Kurds are not as strong in Syria as in Iraq. However, both regions are connected in many ways. Syria’s Kurds are not demanding separation even though the situation’s dynamics is oriented in that direction presently as long as the country is in turmoil.
On the other hand, the partition of Syria is on no one’s agenda. The Assad regime cannot advocate partition as the regime has a constituency among Sunnis as well. And the opposition is adamantly against partition.
TNS: You have said that Assad’s departure is key to progress in Syria. But the alternative doesn’t look like progress, does it?
GA: The fact is that you cannot have any progress out of the Syrian tragedy without Assad’s removal. After such a carnage, you cannot stop a war when the main culprit is at the helm. There is no way the opposition would lay down its arms as long as Assad is in power.
In the beginning of the Syrian uprising, progressive alternatives to the regime could be envisaged. However, the militarisation of the uprising, on the one hand, and the Saudi and Qatari support given to Islamic fundamentalist groups, on the other hand, have indeed made a progressive alternative quite unlikely. This is what the Assad regime was pretending from the beginning, and it did all that is in its power to help this self-fulfilling prophecy come true.
Given this, there is no realistic outcome that is inspiring in the least from a progressive perspective. A full collapse of the Syrian state would be quite dangerous indeed. The priority, however, is to stop the bleeding and destruction. This is why any outcome that could stop the war, such as a transitional agreement between the opposition and the regime, would be a progress. And this cannot happen without Assad’s departure. Had he stepped down from the beginning of the uprising, Syria could have been spared all this bloody mayhem.
As for those in the West who believe that al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State are the main problem, it should be clear that this problem will not be solved as long as Assad is in place. That is why it is utter nonsense to advocate an alliance with Assad in the name of fighting Daish, let alone the fact that Assad is much more concerned with fighting the rest of the opposition than with fighting Daish.
TNS: Beyond Syria, the Arab Spring has turned into, I dare say, an Arab nightmare. While Libya and Yemen have plunged into civil war, the military is back in Egypt. In Tunisia, the situation is unstable. However, you remain optimistic. In your book on the Arab uprising, The People Want, you have described it as a long-term revolutionary process. What is the source of your optimistic perspective?
GA: I was never “optimistic”. On the contrary, I was initially accused of being pessimistic precisely because I was stressing the fact that it will be long and difficult. At the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring, most people were hoping for a peaceful and quick democratic transition. I emphasised that the Arab uprising was a long-term process bound to pass through an alternation of revolution and counter-revolution, upsurge and reactionary restoration, defeats and victories, like all major historical revolutionary processes.
With what is happening now, the dominant euphoria of 2011 had turned into overwhelming gloom. So when I stress now that the Arab Spring is a long-term process, I sound optimistic. However, I am not “optimistic”: I am just insisting that it is far from over and that the revolutionary potential is far from being exhausted.
I believe that the Arab uprising is still at its initial stages. There is much more to come. Historical revolutionary processes take decades before they are completed: the English, French and Chinese revolutions unfolded for several decades. Just very recently, in Iraq and Lebanon, two countries where sectarianism is a major characteristic of the state, mass peaceful mobilisations on social issues occurred across the sectarian divides. They point to the fact that the potential of progressive social struggle is still alive and kicking.
The Arab uprising is originally a revolt against repressive social, economic and political conditions, which are general to the region. Unless these conditions are ended, the region will remain in turmoil.