On June 10, a band of heavily armed jihadists, their heads wrapped in cloth, stormed into Mosul, Iraq’s 3rd largest city, riding in convoys of pickup trucks and waving their black flag inscribed with their familiar motto, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” The Iraqi army crumbled before them. Stashes of American-lent military equipment and $400 million were looted. Thousands of prisoners were freed to swell the jihadists’ ranks. Other cities in Anbar, a province of Iraq Americans had fought hard to secure last decade, had already fallen to the rebel army: Fallujah, Ramadi. For a while it almost seemed like Baghdad was next.
Who are these guys, and how did they get to be so powerful?
The Islamic State has its roots in two neighboring Arab countries, Syria and Iraq, with intertwining and similar (if subtly different) stories. Both of them are very troubled, and nothing breeds insurgency and violence like a social collapse.
Iraq was famously the target of an American-led invasion in 2003. A full-on assault, it tore up Iraq’s government, economy and society. George Bush was determined to replace a noxious dictatorship that had been in the world’s backside for decades with a democracy, something still unusual in the Arab world. Paul Bremer, the head of the American occupation, decided to achieve this by yanking out any Ba’athists (members of the ruling party) from high-level government and economic posts and breaking up the state-owned firms that dominated Iraqi society. Suddenly, a bunch of longtime civil servants and managers were out of work in a country being reworked by foreigners to suit their whims.
Adding fuel to this nasty situation was Iraq’s sectarian split. Islam is divided into two main sects, the Sunni and the Shi’a. Detailing their differences is outside the realm of this blog post, but suffice it to say that they’ve been split since the 600s, almost since the birth of Islam itself. Sunni is far and away the majority sect (far more than Catholicism is in Christianity, for instance), but in Iraq Shi’a is dominant. This was not reflected under Saddam Hussein’s regime, however — Iraq has been under Sunni rule since colonial times, since the British calculated that sponsoring a minority would make the land easier to control. Therefore, the people who had been fired were disproportionately Sunni. Those who gained most from the switch to democracy, where raw numbers count more, were Shi’ite.
Thus the nasty insurgency against the foreign occupiers gradually morphed into an even nastier, more brutal civil war between the sects. Al-Qaeda, the leader of international Islamic terrorism, moved in on the Sunni side. The government sponsored the Shi’ite side through grim “death squads” that roamed the streets of Baghdad looking for Sunnis to annihilate. The Americans, caught in the middle, tried to put a stop to the fighting, and ended up getting shot at by everyone.
The “Sunni Awakening” in 2007-2008 finally put an end to this destructive madness. Al-Qaeda’s extreme tactics terrorized innocent civilians and lost it a lot of support among ordinary Sunnis. David Petraeus, an American general, stepped in to drive a wedge between them with the help of lots of cash. It worked, and the war died down. America moved on, but over time the sectarian split festered. Shi’ites remained in charge of the government, most companies and the army. Nuri al-Maliki, the new leader, relied on the Americans to fight off his foes while doing nothing to win them over. After America withdrew, sectarian resentment seethed, waiting for a chance to strike back.
Meanwhile, next door in Syria, a Sunni majority is governed by a regime dominated by Alawites, a secretive sect along Syria’s coast that’s considered a branch of Shi’a. (The reason why is much the same as in Iraq: France sponsored them to maintain control.) It exploded as part of the “Arab Spring” in 2011: a protest movement aimed at democratic reforms morphed into an uprising against the regime when it became clear Bashar al-Assad, the local dictator, had no intention of listening. Syria inexorably slid into a horrific civil war, stained by poison gas attacks, barrel bombing, indiscriminate machine-gunning of civilians, cannibalism, and massive refugee numbers. It’s a subject for another blog post on its own.
And unfortunately, Syria’s religious divide meant a sectarian split in the war was also inevitable. Assad purged Sunnis in his army and police early on out of mistrust. Sunni areas in the Alawite zone were “cleansed.” Iraq lent Assad support. Iraq’s Sunnis, disillusioned with their own government, sympathized with the rebels, and soon enough people were drifting over the borders to help fight the infidels.
Al-Qaeda was one of these. Rebranded the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (or ISIS; al-Sham is a word for the Levant, the region along the Mediterranean coast), it was revived after its setback in the Iraq War and gained prominence among the hodgepodge of rebel groups fighting the government. Assad actually helped with this, since he reasoned that the one thing foreigners hated more than cruel dictatorships was terrorists; he focused on hammering moderate rebel groups and allowed ISIS to gain ground.
And gain ground it did. It took over the Euphrates Valley in eastern Syria, far away from the government’s strongholds, the mainstream of Syrian civilization and pesky minority groups. It fought ferociously, its fighters determined to die for Islam and God while taking a few infidels with them. It advertised itself for foreign Muslims as the new jihadist outfit in town, battling a reviled regime and instituting sharia (Muslim law) in its domains. Even though it adheres to a medieval brand of justice and worldview, it recognizes the potential of social media, flooding Twitter with its news updates and propaganda. It has an ambitious agenda, eyeing not just the neighborhood but the entire Muslim world as its rightful territory.
This year, the deteriorating situation in Iraq (which was described as a war even before the ISIS onslaught) presented a tempting opportunity. The government had no interest in reconciliation and fought back against Sunni protests. Another round of suicide and car bombings unsettled the atmosphere on the streets. The army became heavily Shi’ite. As a result, when the relatively small ISIS army drove into Mosul (it’s been estimated at around 1,500), the two army divisions that guarded the city ran after 4 days of fighting. The battle-hardened warriors fired by Muslim fervor were way too much to handle for soldiers who weren’t even from there (Shi’ites are concentrated in southern Iraq).
The war against the Islamic State evolves quickly. At first the jihadists seemed poised to take Baghdad, but the mostly Shi’ite residents there weren’t going to let the capital fall that easily. Instead, the Islamic State turned against the Kurds, an ethnic group in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria who mostly want to be left alone and have kept out of Iraq’s Arabs’ squabbles. At first, it targeted Iraqi Kurdistan, but American air strikes and determined Kurdish resistance drove it back. Now it’s attacking an easier target: Kobani, a Kurdish town on the Turkish-Syrian border. On the sides, it’s also been fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, a Syrian branch of al-Qaeda (al-Qaeda has disowned the Islamic State, but the Islamic State’s dazzling success has put al-Qaeda into eclipse).
In its captured territories, the Islamic State has ruled mercilessly. It machine-guns collaborators and resisters. It initially levied a tax on the non-Islamic minorities sprinkled across northern Iraq (Yazidis and ancient Christian denominations), then changed its mind and purged and slaughtered them. This sparked a humanitarian crisis as the minorities surged out of their homes to a small mountain range on the Syrian border, where they were hastily airlifted out with Kurdish, American, British and Australian support. Women and girls are subjected to rape, sex slavery and wanton violence. Harsh punishments are carried out by sadistic thugs. On a more prosaic level, fun stuff like soccer, music, dancing and alcohol are strictly banned.
In the meantime, the Islamic State’s ambitions have only grown. Partly this is reflected in its name change: on June 29, it dropped the “Iraq and al-Sham” part, signifying its claim to represent the entire ummah (Muslim community), and declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a caliph. Caliphs were the leaders of the empire Muhammad’s successors created in the aftermath of his death; there hasn’t been one since 1922, something that’s caused devout Muslims much heartache ever since. Partly their appeal has grown, with passionate and/or deadbeat young men flocking to Syria to join the latest jihadist fad. But mostly it’s backfired, with other Muslim authorities rejecting Baghdadi’s claim and laughing at the Islamic State’s egomania.
Of course, all this Islamic fundamentalism has attracted the attention of the West. The West has been worried about the Islamic State for a long time — it was one of the reasons Barack Obama was so reluctant to intervene in Syria for so long. America tops the long list of Things the Islamic State Hates. The Islamic State’s boasts of attacking Americans, combined with its experience in battle, have turned it into a potent threat and a future potential source of terrorists. For now it’s mostly focused on killing locals, but its rapid expansion and monetary windfall freaked out Washington. In the space of a few months, Obama has thrown together a coalition of nervous Europeans and shocked Sunni countries to launch an air campaign against the Islamic State and aid the Kurds that are fighting it. Naturally, this all plays into the Islamic State’s hands — fighting off Americans and Britons looks way cooler than fighting fellow Muslims.
The future of the campaign against the Islamic State looks murky. Per usual in international conflicts, no one really wants to get involved. America, as the superpower and as the one who invaded Iraq in the first place, is the natural leader, but as I made clear in “The Iraq Hangover,” it doesn’t really want to fight either. Turkey is the local country most relevant to the war (aside from Iraq and Syria), but it has a long-standing issue with, even hatred of, the Kurds, who dominate southeastern Turkey. The collapse of Iraq and Syria hasmade a separate Kurdistan more likely, but Turkey doesn’t want that, no sir! That would mean its Kurds would want to join, too. Religious politics play a dreary role, too — in the highly sectarian state of mind in West Asia today, Sunnis don’t want to blow up fellow Sunnis or bail out Syria and Iraq. (Fighting the Islamic State in Syria basically means siding with Assad.)
I must admit, the Islamic State’s rise from a determined but beaten remnant of al-Qaeda to master of a small country stretching from Aleppo in western Syria to Baghdad in central Iraq in a few years is an impressive feat. Its soldiers are brave and show no fear of dying, and even welcome it. Its propaganda is cunning and slick by terrorist standards. Its revival of the caliphate is admirable, given that that era was by far the Arabs’ highlight and given that the rulers who govern West Asia now are uninspiring in comparison.
It should go without saying, though, that I have no sympathy for the Islamic State’s ideology. It feeds on the collapse of state structures in Syria and Sunni Iraq and on the area’s surplus of restless, unemployed young men. It is fired by religious frenzy, a dangerous state of mind that can only lead to dark places. It has absolutely no regard for human rights, making it hardly a better option than Syria (once sectarianism is factored out, of course). It seems driven mostly by bloodlust and vengeance, considering how merciless it is to innocent civilians. It is a caliphate of hate, focusing mostly on terrorizing its populace and oppressing the already beleaguered Iraqis and Syrians.
But in its hate lies the seeds of its future demise. It looks like the war against the Islamic State is going to be a long one, given the track record of Syria and Iraq in dealing with insurgents. But the anti-IS coalition was so easy to form because it has so many enemies. Kurds, religious minorities, Shi’ites, even moderate Sunni Arabs — all hate and fear the Islamic State’s black flag, not just the Christian countries who are usually threatened by Muslim extremists. The majority of the Islamic State’s people don’t support it, either, but are cowed by its brutality. Religious fervor may lead to some short-term fireworks, but in the long term, it’s no match for military discipline and sheer numbers.
And in the long term, the world needs to face up to some unpleasant truths. Syria and Iraq are failed states. The Islamic State has erased the border between them (literally). They are linked in their border regions (where the Islamic State is) by the Euphrates River. The Alawites feel no linkage with the Sunnis in Syria; the Shi’ites feel no linkage with Iraq’s Sunnis. Kurds never really wanted to be part of Turkish or Arab countries. The speed with which the Islamic State overran northern Iraq, and the fact that its advance halted at Baghdad, shows something I’ve suspected for a long time — that Iraq and Syria are artificial states lacking any sort of legitimacy and cohesion, other than a hazy focus on their respective capitals, both of which are very old cities with rich historical legacies. The world needs to face up to a long-term solution to this problem: redrawing the borders of Syria and Iraq.