When I visited Syria in 2013 for a report for the U.S. Army War College on the Resurgence of al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq, ISIS was one of the new insignificant groups. My main focus was on Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s official group in Syria. I was therefore surprised that within a year ISIS had emerged with such power, ferocity and organisational prowess.
If you could say nothing else about ISIS, you’d have to concede that the group has managed to surprise us, and continues to do so. It may be on the back-foot in the Levant now, a fact that has coincided with renewed terror attacks in other countries (in Egypt and France to name just the two we hear most about in the media), but that it should have risen to the power and status it has, and that it manages to hold on to it when it looks like the entire world is at war with it, could seem like a rather impressive achievement. Especially in the eyes of young Muslim alienated from modern society, for example.
In the caliphate, all Muslims are equal before their God, it’s just that some are more equal than others.Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
But ISIS is benefiting from a rather peculiar confluence of circumstances that is keeping it afloat: the fact that no Western power wants to put boots on the ground. The fact that the Assad regime would rather fight the Free Syrian Army, or indeed any other moderate rebel group, than fight ISIS. And Russia is doing the exact same thing. The fact that Turkey would rather fight the Kurds, so the Kurds now have to fight on two fronts.
But probably what helps the most is the fact that ISIS is not what we in the West think it is. It is not a rag-tag army of beardy preachers and deluded Western teenagers. The entire ISIS top leadership is made up of former Baathist army and intelligence officers and senior administrators from Saddam Hussain’s regime. These people have largely replicated the organisation and the operation of Saddam’s state. After the Bush’s disastrous de-Baathification policy many former Saddamites realised that the only way they can have any hope of returning to power is through militant Islam which will also give them an air of legitimacy. There was after all little appetitive for a return to Baathism. They know how to govern and know how to terrorise a population into submission when necessary. Indeed, an Israeli General I recently met told me he was convinced that Baghdadi, the ‘Caliph’, was selected by the Baathists rather than the other way around.
Our enterprising aspiring mujahedeen, the young Jihadists that leave the West to join the “glorious Revolution”, on the other hand, have been described as nothing more than ‘useful idiots’ to do their bidding. They have very little value outside the propaganda value. They are not military trained, usually unfit and out of shape, and can’t speak the language. Which is why they spend all day doing social media and propaganda videos, or are sent by the ISIS leadership on suicide missions – primarily missions against other Muslim groups in the region, with whom as outsiders they could have no prior affiliation or sympathy. Their propaganda role is also the reason why they live in relatively plush conditions compared with the local Arab fighters. In the caliphate, all Muslims are equal before their God, it’s just that some are more equal than others.
The perverse aspect of all of this is that this rather extraordinary set of circumstances should be a rather unstable state of affairs. If any one of the major power players in the conflict shifted strategy to actually focus on ISIS and engage with it properly, the situation would shift dramatically. Or indeed, if the Western recruits or the seasoned Arab fighters just got fed up with the other group and some kind of open conflict emerged, the propaganda machine of ISIS would be completely decimated, and it would fall soon after. But nobody seems that intent on actually tackling ISIS head on. And nobody seems capable of driving a wedge between the really rather disparate groups that make the ISIS alliance. In this, our leaders in the West have demonstrated a failure of imagination and of competence on the scale of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And now, all they can come up with is more aerial bombardment of areas with large civilian populations. Because clearly that will make the 10 million or so Sunni Muslims who live in ISIS territory see things our way. What should surprise us is not that ISIS has gotten to where it is today. It is that the rest of us, the West, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Gulf states and everyone else involved have been so seemingly incompetent at engaging with the conflict.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim
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