The sudden appearance of ISIS as a major force in the Middle East has taken many people, including me, by surprise. I had initially thought that this was just one more group to seize the headlines, the latest to claim the mantle of the leader of those forces whose aim is to rid the area of foreign military presence, like al Qaeda in the past, to be replaced by a new group in a year or so.
But two things have persuaded me that what we are seeing may be something more permanent. One was an excellent talk by Tufts University professor of history Hugh Roberts (whose specialty is Algeria but whose interests span the whole region) a couple of weeks ago on the origins of ISIS. The other is an article by James Harkin in the latest (November 2014) issue of Harper’s magazine (behind a paywall) titled How The Islamic State Was Won where the author reports on what he has learned from conversations that he has had in the region with fighters, enemies, and potential recruits.
One thing has particularly puzzled me, and that is the appeal of ISIS to people across the globe who are going to the region to join up. ISIS has demonstrated a shocking level of deliberate brutality. I am not just talking about the westerners whose deaths garnered a great deal of publicity but of hundreds, even thousands, of Iraqis and Syrians and others who have been executed in order to make some statement or other, and whose deaths have been publicized in slick videos. One would think that this would alienate many people. And yet, every day brings reports of young people in the west and around the world leaving their homes and heading to that region to join them. What could be their appeal?
Roberts said that it is a mistake to think of ISIS as a bunch of deranged religious fanatics. He says that they are doing a rational calculus that is using violent means as part of a deliberate strategy in the service of their goal of redrawing the national borders in that region, essentially nullifying the boundaries that were drawn by the British and French in 1916 in anticipation of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The secret Sykes-Picot agreement carved up the region into areas that served British and French interests and formed the basis for the current maps.
He says the roots of ISIS’s appeal lies in the increasing realization in the region that the western powers, especially the US, UK, and France, want the states in that region to be client states and will not brook any sign of independence. Show such signs and they will destroy your country. He points as evidence to this the fact that the countries that the US has destroyed (Iraq, Libya, Syria, with Iran and Algeria likely on the list) were those that were actually the most modern. It is true that they had autocratic systems and even tyrannical leaders but that was not the problem, since many other countries in that region fit that bill and the west is fine with them. Their problem was that they were not client states, had independent ideas, and thus had to be destroyed.
As a result we now have failed states in Iraq, Libya, and Syria and such states are fertile grounds for militant non-state forces and serve as excellent incubators for the Islamic militant groups that are now seizing control of large amounts of land. None of those countries were hospitable to these groups before their collapse, so the wars of aggression launched by the US, UK, and France can be seen as laying the groundwork for the emergence of these militant groups, and ISIS has been the biggest beneficiary.
What is remarkable is that in the regions it has taken control, ISIS has set up civil structures that mirror those of a real government and created orderly societies. It runs schools and hospitals and orphanages, collects taxes, cracks down on crime, provides charity and other welfare measures to the needy, down to even creating a consumer office to prevent price-gouging and measuring the price and quality of everything sold. In return, it brooks no dissent whatsoever and insists on the most rigid interpretation of Islam, including strict segregation of the sexes and other extreme puritanical steps. One can see how a people weary of constant war and destruction and death and desperate for safety and stability and the basic necessities of life might find this bargain appealing, at least in the short term. Harkin spoke to many people who used to fight with other groups that were fighting against ISIS who are now slowly shifting their alliance to it, seeing it as the group that has the most appealing long-term vision, combined with the resources to actually have the prospect of realizing it. This explains why there are now estimated to be about 15,000 foreign fighters in Syria alone, many of them battle-hardened veterans, from Chechnya, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Brazil, Sweden, China, Mexico, Algeria, Europe, and the USA.
Given that the goal of ISIS is to take and hold large portions of land with the idea of creating a new Islamic state that transcends old boundaries and would be the home of the Sunnis, the deliberate public brutal murders of westerners by ISIS can be puzzling, since it seems to be deliberately designed to infuriate public opinion in the west and draw those countries into the conflict. Since the US and its allies could, if they used their full military resources, undoubtedly sweep though the region and drive out ISIS, the way it overcame Iraqi forces in 2003, why would ISIS seek to goad the west into greater involvement in the region?
Roberts says that the executions can be seen as a cold-blooded calculation by ISIS that the US will not send in ground forces again, the only thing that can reclaim the territory now controlled by ISIS. Instead the three western powers and their allies will feel forced to do something and their only option is to increase their bombing in the region, further cementing the view in the greater Islamic diaspora that the west seeks only to kill and destroy them. The US will not support Assad in Syria, who has the ground forces that could pose a threat to ISIS if it were not fighting the US-backed rebels in his country.
So the west will bomb and the more the west bombs, the more the appeal for ISIS’s message that what the west seeks is submission and destruction of the Islamic world and that what needs to be done is to create a new state. And it seems that this message has great resonance with a lot of young Muslims around the world who are flocking to join what they see as this great adventure in redrawing national boundary lines that will result in the creation of a powerful new Sunni Islamic state that will be able to resist the dominance of the west and make the Islamic world proud once again.
What we are seeing is a re-fighting of a version of the colonial wars from a previous century and we are headed for a long and terrible period in the region.