What the United States and its Middle Eastern Allies don’t want you to know about ISIS
Just over a year ago, a Salafi jihadi extremist group called the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) self-proclaimed itself to be a caliphate; today, the same terrorist organisation controls about fifty percent of territory in Syria and a third in Iraq.
How did this come to be? How did a group governed by intolerant and fundamentalist Wahhabite beliefs come to dominate large swathes of the Middle East?
The answer is simple, and one that neither the United States nor its allies in the region want people to know: that there are so many people involved — all with differing (and sometimes opposing) agendas, at one time fighting against each other, and the next time fighting together against a common enemy — that there is unbelievable chaos.
Patrick Cockburn, in his recent book ‘The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution’ mentions how the first “partners” that Obama turned to when fighting ISIS were “Jordan and Lebanon; Turkey and Iraq” — it was a given that Saudi Arabia and Qatar would aid too, as they have been long time allies. Cockburn alludes to a speech the President gave at West Point, where he mentioned he would support these countries so that they could “confront terrorists working across Syrian borders.” However, it’s ironical that the very jihadis Obama seems to be against can only get to Syria and Iraq because of the almost unrestricted passage they have via the 510-mile-long Turkish-Syrian border thanks to the Turkish authorities.
The Saudis and Qataris, on the other hand, have been sponsoring Sunni preachers and funding the construction of mosques in countries far and wide with an aim to educate mainstream Sunni adherents about Wahhabite ideas (Wahhabism is the fundamentalist strand of Islam that imposes Sharia law and regards anyone of a denomination other than Sunni Islam as non-Muslim — may that be a jew or a Shia). This has led to the insurrection of religious strife between Sunnis and Shias and, as Cockburn claims, to the “poisoning [of] relations between the two sects in every Islamic grouping.”
It’s almost comical if we consider that the United States is currently teaming up with some of the most theocratic absolute monarchies of the Middle East in order to impose democracy and civil rights and bring down the autocratic and sectarian rule of the so-called Islamic State. Also, the very same jihadi rebels that the United States and the Gulf states were funding a couple of years ago to overthrow Assad, have now gone on to become (or merge with) the so-called Caliphate. Even more ironical is the fact that most, if not all, of these monarchies condone and believe in many of the same things that the ISIS is fighting for.
ISIS has already consolidated its hold on the Syrian opposition, and if Assad does go down, the group would very likely be in power. This has created a conundrum for the United States and its allies: the political rhetoric against Assad was built up so much that now it would be disaster to pull back and support him against ISIS. The United States and Gulf countries have, thus, moved to supporting a faction of moderate jihadis against Assad (such as the Free Syrian Army), but these have proven to be either too small, too weak, or have already deserted or defected to ISIS over the course of recent skirmishes. Furthermore, there isn’t any solid ideological difference between ISIS and any of the anti-Assad fundamentalist groups the United States and its allies are cultivating and supporting: they all want a theocratic Sunni state where Sharia law reigns supreme. The only way for the West to save face is to keep the war going in the hope that a point will come when all sides would suffer equally and give up. And that brings us to the next important point: the United States needs to realise that ISIS has sprouted as a result of both the Iraqi and Syrian war — and the longer the Syrian war goes on, the stronger ISIS will get. After Saddam Hussain was overthrown, the Iraqi government was predominantly Shiites, with the Sunni minority excluded and mistreated by the Shia majority. Despite this treatment, the Sunni uprisings in Iraq were low — until the United States and its allies started funding Sunni extremists in Syria. This drove the sectarian tension in favour of the Iraqi Sunnis, who profited from financial sponsorship and ammunition thanks to porous borders. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which profited from the Syrian war, later went on to be known as ISIS. Thus, Assad might not be an ideal option, but the opposition seems even worse — and stopping the war could save more lives than letting it go on. After all, saving lives is more important than saving face, right?
What we need to realise is that ISIS — and for that matter — Al-Qaeda, is an idea, not just an organisation. The West might have celebrated after the death of Osama Bin Laden, but jihadi groups have since become even more powerful than they were during his lifetime. Treating such groups as normal organisations, with a top-down structure might be in the interest of the United States — as Cockburn explains: “organised groups, however demonic, can be tracked down and eliminated through imprisonment or death. More alarming is the reality of a movement whose adherents are self-recruited and can spring up anywhere.” But being in denial and misrepresenting the facts on the grounds will not help in the international arena, though it might be able to ease domestic tensions and paranoia. Al-Qaeda isn’t just an organisation and killing, for example, the leader won’t stop its offshoots from doing harm. Even if they stop doing harm, someone else will take their place, just like ISIS has right now. If anything the recent attack at a beach resort in Tunisia and the blast in a Shia mosque in Kuwait has taught us — it’s that ISIS is far from gone, and its sectarian idealogy needs to be stopped soon: To beat them completely, we need to beat the idea and their financiers and backers, not just blow up the fighters with airstrikes. After all, why would supporters and members of a cult that has marketed itself as a route to God via suicide and martyrdom worry about a few dead jihadis?