The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution
US: Feb 2015
One of the most unexpected, misunderstood, and terrifying political developments of 2014 was the rise of what is now known as Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in the Middle East. The group of militant extremists and its allies scored a series of sweeping military victories in Iraq and Syria, establishing what they describe as a caliphate covering an area larger than Great Britain and containing millions of people. Despite an onslaught of air strikes by Western countries, these groups continue to tenaciously expand their territory, adapting tactics and sowing terror both in the Middle East and abroad.
One of the factors behind the group’s success is that despite the vast amount of intelligence-gathering conducted by its opponents, including the US, political and military strategists simply don’t seem to have a remotely accurate grasp of what is happening on the ground. A combination of wishful thinking, ideological (mis)interpretation and sheer arrogance has left ISIS opponents scrambling to understand what lies behind the group’s rise and recent successes and how to respond to the rapidly changing situation in the region.
Patrick Cockburn, an award-winning veteran reporter with many years of experience as a Middle Eastern correspondent, has published one of the first in-depth analyses of ISIS and its rapid rise to power. The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution is a quick and engaging read, packed with first-class research and analysis, much of it gleaned first-hand. Although he analyzes how historical circumstances shaped the rise of ISIS and the conditions for its success, the book focuses primarily on the events of 2014 up through the siege of Kobani in October. Cockburn draws on his considerable journalistic prowess to render this incredibly complex and misunderstood conflict comprehensible. His experience forms a useful text for those at all levels of familiarity with the conflict. His analysis offers an exceptional window into what is without doubt the most vital conflict the world is currently facing.
The story it tells is one of incompetence, poor intelligence, wishful thinking, and sheer arrogance on the part of America and its allies, the combination of which have made the so-called “war on terror” an abject failure. At the time of 9/11, jihadi terrorists—notably Al-Qaeda—were in fact relatively small and poorly organized, despite the scale of the tragic events of that attack. Yet now, after more than a decade of western military prowess being thrown at them, jihadi militias have become well-organized and well-armed. They have essentially created a large new state for themselves through a series of victories over foes from without, coupled with seizure of political control from opposition inside the borders within which they operate.
Furthermore, as Cockburn points out, the price of the “war on terror” has been not only a series of failures and defeats that have greatly strengthened the very forces they were directed against, but also the “collateral damage” in the form of loss of civil and political rights by Americans and citizens of other Western democracies that collaborated with the US.
Several key factors contributed to this state of affairs. The reluctance of the US to confront Saudi Arabia and Pakistan after 9/11 meant that the two countries most heavily involved in supporting and arming the jihadi militias remained free to continue doing so, and they did. Even now, heavy financial support flows from these states, along with America’s other “allies” among the Gulf States, to the jihadi militias. Just as significantly, Saudi Arabia continues to support the militant proselytization of its fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam, an 18th century form of the Sunni faith which preaches an ultra-conservative, intolerant, and violent variant of the religion.
By funding the construction of Sunni mosques and promoting aggressive expansion of this fundamentalist version of the Sunni faith, Saudi Arabia continues to stoke sectarian divisions within Muslim communities around the world. These divisions are then primed to explode into violence the moment armed militants like ISIS (or others) appear on the scene, or the moment a state slips into a period of turmoil, such as the recent wave of Arab Spring uprisings. Saudi Arabia, like many states, plays two sides with skill; ostensibly participating in military campaigns against ISIS as an American ally (in order to ensure the movement does not grow powerful enough to threaten the Saudi regime at home) while continuing to fund those very groups in order to maintain a strong, fighting fundamentalist Sunni presence in the Middle East and beyond.
Yet American policy choices (both military and political) in response to the series of events that ensued after the invasion of Iraq are also a factor in the rise of ISIS. Having shattered Iraqi civil society, America tried to rebuild it as a paragon of the free market. The result was a massively corrupt state and army in which everybody tried to make themselves rich instead of rebuilding a functioning society. The election of a president who deliberately stoked sectarian divisions and persecuted Iraq’s large Sunni population drove populations into the arms of groups like ISIS. Meanwhile, corruption in the government and military meant that the seemingly powerful Iraqi army quickly collapsed in the face of actual large-scale combat. Insofar as the post-Saddam Iraqi government was a creation of the Americans, the US bears significant responsibility for its failure.
Similarly, western actions in Syria were pivotal in setting the stage for ISIS. When the Syrian uprising failed to dislodge President Assad, western countries, led by the US, refused to countenance any compromise and dedicated themselves to his ousting. This meant arming militant Sunni opposition groups, despite Iraqis’ warnings that armed Sunni militants next door would cause conflict to spill over and destabilize their own fragile and struggling country.
Sure enough, fundamentalist jihadi groups quickly came to dominate and control the opposition. As this gradually became apparent, Western countries dedicated themselves to fighting both Assad’s government in addition to the jihadi components of the opposition. (Here, again, Western intelligence failed to realize what was happening until much too late.) They clung to the fiction that there was a “third column” of moderate, pro-Western progressive democrats somewhere in the opposition they could support. Although there may have at one point been such a faction, any such movement was wiped out or diminished to marginal status by the jihadi groups’ domination of over internal opposition.
Finally, the Western military response hasn’t helped, either. War material— Humvees, armor, and armaments, among others—provided to Western “allies” (Iraqi troops, “moderate” Syrian rebels) have invariably wound up in the hands of ISIS and its allies, strengthening their military capacity. Air strikes and bombings, meanwhile, have so terribly devastated civilian infrastructure and quality of life that it has strengthened support for ISIS. This is not because civilians like ISIS—many of them fear and despise it—but rather because of the greater fear and anger directed toward the devastation wrought by Western powers. What’s more, the indiscriminate western air strikes tend to reduce the presence and influence of moderates within the movement, and have contributed to the consolidation of power by hard-line jihadi elements over the resistance forces.
The US and other western powers convey the impression to their own citizens that they lead a coalition of like-minded ISIS opponents. In fact, they do nothing of the sort. Their ostensible allies in the region have their own conflicting goals and priorities, and do not always share the determined Western desire to eradicate ISIS—at least not entirely, and at least not right this moment. Cockburn teases out these conflicting motivations with consummate skill, untangling the complicated web in which all countries involved in the conflict now find themselves.
In a chapter appropriately titled “If it bleeds it leads”, Cockburn also offers an excellent and unforgiving critique of media coverage of the war. He observes that too many reporters are too willing to believe what they’re told by both sides. Once upon a time, social media might have offered a glimpse at the truth beneath the public propaganda, but now videos, YouTube footage, blogs, and Tweets are so carefully manipulated by skilled propagandists on both sides that nothing is readily believable. Truth must be carefully investigated by skilled and qualified journalists, which is precisely why they have been unremittingly targeted and killed during these conflicts.
This hasn’t been limited to western reporters: local Middle Eastern news agencies, whose reporters were often the most educated and insightful about what was going on, have also been eviscerated by militants determined to maintain a fog of war around their activities. The lack of solid reporting exacerbates the poor understanding the West has of the struggle. Some reporters pursue action footage at the expense of analysis; others develop analysis that’s inadequately informed by on-the-ground observation. The lesson here is this: be careful what you believe, as there are far too few journalists providing credible coverage.
Cockburn also dwells briefly on what went wrong during the initial Syrian uprising, which echoes recent developments elsewhere in the region. Wishful Western countries and other foreign powers expressed superficial support toward what seemed popular democratic movements against despotic tyrants, but they failed to look beneath the surface or, in some cases, accept what they saw. The uprisings were the culmination of extreme economic hardship, caused in many ways by globalization, free trade, and the desire of those countries’ ruling elites to emulate the ways of the global upper class. By depicting the uprisings as a “social media revolution” led by well-educated, aspiring, and progressive middle-class activists, Western powers depicted what they wanted to see: movements that would not threaten their own interests through profound political or economic change. Indeed, that’s what happened: systemic change failed to occur, driving more and more of the desperate, starving and dispossessed millions toward extremist groups and fanatical sects.
Cockburn offers useful analogies to understand the conflict. It’s in some ways like a modern-day Islamic version of the 30 Years War in 1600s Europe, waged between Catholics and Protestants. “Too many players are fighting each other for different reasons for all of them to be satisfied by peace terms and to be willing to lay down their arms at the same time,” he writes. There will be no easy or quick solutions here. At the same time, in its genocidal dimensions the conflict also resembles a broad-scale version of the partition of India, with ethnic cleansing occurring across entire regions as populations are forcibly re-settled along ethnic and religious lines.
What does the future hold? The outlook, from a humanitarian as well as a political perspective, is certainly grim. Cockburn suggests that the map of the Middle East has indeed been re-drawn, though how it will finally look remains up in the air. It seems likely that Iraq as it once existed is gone forever, the most likely outcome being multiple states for the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds.
The outcome of the Syrian conflict is uncertain, too, and the growing conflict between the US (which ostensibly opposes Assad) and Russia (which implicitly supports him) means that the status quo is unlikely to change any time soon. Although western commentators seem to expect that ISIS is too brutal and extreme to successfully govern the territory it has conquered for long, Cockburn’s analysis suggests the chances of local populations turning against ISIS are slim. The populations under their control are exhausted with fighting, and for many a totalitarian law-and-order is almost preferable to the chaos of the factional warlords and bandits that preceded them.
Yet there are glimmers of possibility. Cockburn notes there are growing instances of informal localized truces—prisoner exchanges, agreements to allow delivery of food aid—by both sides, which he suggests demonstrate a growing sense of “war weariness”. Such efforts won’t provide the basis for a lasting peace, but they do offer chances to reduce the suffering of civilian populations somewhat.
The Rise of Islamic State concludes on a grim and uncertain note, and in that it reflects the conflict itself. As he observes, ISIS has so many enemies that they should be able to defeat it, and possibly will, given time. But at present the disunity, scheming, and conflicting priorities of ISIS’ opponents have prevented them from doing so. As time passes, the Islamic State becomes more permanently entrenched. Time is clearly a luxury that ISIS’ opponents and the civilian populations that suffer in the midst of this devastating conflict do not have.
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