ISIS: How to Defeat a Phony “Caliphate”

By John Esposito via Huffington Post

Containing and ultimately defeating ISIS will require both short and long-term response. ISIS expansion has been made possible by political conditions in Syria and Iraq, ethnic-religious/sectarian divisions and violence and terror in the region, and the failures of the US and international community.

Bashar al-Assad’s unprincipled and disproportionate military response to the “threat” of the democratization wave, the Arab Spring, with the slaughter of Syrian opposition groups both radicalized the situation and heightened sectarian (Sunni-Shia or Alawi) divisions. The inability or reluctance of the US and EU to respond early on with significant assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition’s and the opposition’s failure to unite or work effectively together enhanced the ability of foreign jihadists.

In Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki’s installing of a Shia-dominated government, political marginalization of Sunnis increased an already polarized situation and sectarian violence that would result in alienated Sunnis welcoming ISIS.

ISIS’s expansion so far has been mostly in areas of Iraq that are either primarily Sunni or have important Sunni populations in them. The situation was compounded by Gulf funding of militant Salafi jihadists, including ISIS, to fight a proxy war in Syria against Assad. At the same time, the failure early on in Syria of the US and EU, to become significantly engaged and work closely with regional allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support moderate anti-Assad forces had a ripple effect. The U.S. and EU underestimated the threat from Syria in 2011, so too it did so in Iraq more recently.

What about ISIS “Islamic pedigree & vision?”

Like Al-Qaeda and other militants, ISIS offers a militant warped and distorted Salafi ideology/religious rationale or rationalization to justify, recruit, legitimate and motivate many of its fighters. Much of what they do violates Islamic law, its unabashed acts of terrorism: slaughter of civilians, savage use of beheadings, killing of innocent Muslims and Christians. While there are similarities between ISIS and other terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in their ideological worldview and tactics, there is also distinctive difference. ISIS seeks to create a state, to occupy and control areas, to govern, not just to dream of or speak of but to create and impose their version of a transnational caliphate, with its harsh version of law and order. At the same time, they are far more ruthless in driving out, suppressing and executing Shiah and Kurds, Sunni imams/religious leaders and others who disagree, as well as minorities such as Christians and Yazidis, demanding conversion to their warped and extraordinarily violent brand of Islam. Having populations forced to publicly pledge their allegiance (baya) to the caliphate in exchange for which they are offered security, a mafia like version of “protection” and social services.

But is religion (Islam) the primary driver of this so-called Islamic caliphate?

While religion/Islam, a particularly harsh and distorted version, does play a role to legitimate, recruit, and motivate, studies of most jihadists and movements, like ISIS, show that the primary drivers are to be found elsewhere. As in the recent past, so too today, this has remained true for Europeans and Americans who have joined ISIS.

Studies by the EC’s European Network of Experts on Violent Radicalization (of which I was a member) on radicalization in Europe as well as those by terrorism experts like Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA officer and the University of Chicago’s Robert Pape) on global terrorism and suicide bombing have found that in most cases religion is not the primary source of most extremist behavior. In many cases terrorists are neither particularly religiously literate nor observant. Drivers of radicalization include moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, the search for a new identity, and for a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging. For many it is the experience or perception of living in a ‘hostile’ society, disenfranchisement and heightened political consciousness, anti- imperialism and social justice, emancipation and the personal search to be a good Muslim or the headscarf as liberation, bringing together a constellation of narratives. The vast majority of the Muslim populations of Europe are also members of a visible ethnic minority. Their experiences are therefore likely to be shaped by experiences such as xenophobia, lower employment and educational levels and, more recently, Islamophobia.

Mehdi Hassan in a recent (Aug 21, 2014) Huffington Post blog post cited a MI5 briefing report on radicalization (2008), which noted, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could… be regarded as religious novices.” Analysts concluded that, “a well-established religious i∂dentity actually protects against violent radicalization.”

In July, 2014 Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, two jihadi wannabes, both pled guilty to terrorism offenses in July. Before they set out from Birmingham to fight in Syria last May, they ordered two books online from Amazon, Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. This anecdote underscores a very important point, many jihadists have very little knowledge of Islam and the primary drivers of modern jihadist movements are grievances rather than religious fervor.

ISIS & Beheadings

Historically, beheading has been an all too common form of punishment and instrument to “set an example” and to terrorize in Europe and Asia, and more recently used by Mexican cartels. It has been a primary tool to terrorize both populations in areas they have captured and to gain international coverage, attention and ransom.

Execution videos released (October 2006-April 2013 via its Al-Furqan Media Foundation) when ISIS called itself the Islamic State of Iraq show that political grievances outweigh religious justifications for executions: foreign military invasion and occupation, and killing of tens of thousands of civilians as well the “crimes” committed by individuals/groups (Iraqi soldiers, police, and government workers). Moreover, ISIS’s use of Islamic texts as well as its savage and disproportionate slaughter of military and civilians, among its many other policies, fly in the face of the prescriptions of Islamic law.

ISIS will continue for some years to be a threat. Its capabilities will be enhanced by its alliance with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It will also be very difficult for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to recapture most of the lost territory from ISIS, especially in areas where Iraqi Shiah-dominated government and the Kurds are viewed as enemies rather than allies. Thus, it is critical that the new Iraqi government form a significantly more inclusive representative government and policy.

Given the current momentum of ISIS and stated intentions to expand its caliphate, it may well attempt to increase its activity in northwest Syria and southern Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and southern Turkey.

However, at the same time, ISIS will be tested on its ability to hold the areas now under its control while attempting to expand its territory.

At the end of the day, the peoples of the region (Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Gulf states) will have to deal with their problems. However, a substantial international commitment and involvement by the US in consort with its European and Middle East allies (especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and the UAE) is also needed. As Mr. Obama considers new strikes, the White House began its diplomatic campaign to enlist allies and neighbors in the region to increase their support for Syria’s moderate opposition and, in some cases, to provide support for military operations.

But, in the long run if we wish to brake the cycle of global terrorism and its movements that have existed in recent decades, as Graham Fuller, notes in “Avenging James Foley,” the conditions and basic and enduring grievances in Muslim countries that jihadist terrorist movements have exploited in recent decades must also be addressed:

foreign boots on the ground, dictators supported by the US out of convenience, a failure to end a half century of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the treatment of Palestinians as a paradigm for treatment of other Muslims, the US employment of the region as an eternal cockpit for proxy wars — all of this is still ongoing.

Mirrored with author’s permission from Huffington Post


Related video added by Juan Cole

CNN: “ISIS executes 250 Syrian soldiers”

9 Responses

  1. Well, hey! There’s starting to be some discourse and awareness to the effect that “we,” whomever that is, cannot bond and kill “our” way to a ” solution.” One wonders, given the institutions here (the military, its industrial base, “conservative” politicians and punditry, CIA snd its habits, tc.) all lined up and invested in ” launching strikes” and “surgical operations” and infighting over what “doctrine” and devices will prevail in the insulated Imperial bubble, if “we” have the smarts or even many incentive to just wait a bit for the paint to dry and then step carefully out of the corner “we” have let our list for consumption let our Rulers and the actions of Corporatocracy paint us into…

  2. We need to stop saying “If we had only done this” then things would have worked out to our liking. We need to recognize that events in the Middle East are out of our control. If we wanted a better outcome today we would have had to stop supporting despots, monarchs and the racist state decades ago. We missed our chance when it would have made a difference; it is way too late now.

    We can certainly change things, stir the pot, by supplying arms and money. But we can only sit back and hope for our desired results. Of course such stirring of the pot makes enemies. Not stirring the pot may cause contempt, “why aren’t you helping us”, but it does not make decade’s long enemies.

    Of course this is the way it had to be. Powerful countries always play the game for their own gain. Short term gains show up on this quarter’s balance sheet, long term? Who knows! Long term is where we find ourselves now.

    Ps: Let’s stop quoting “Islamic Law” to condemn what people we don’t like until we are ready to conform to “Christian Law”. The hypocrisy gets a little too thick. They see it, we should too.

  3. Maybe Assad just saw the chaos that followed “democratization” in Iraq, Libya, and Egypt, and just “Yeah! Right!” I might be on board for ousting Assad if someone can guarantee the ethnic and religious minorities in Syria will be protected the way they are now.

    • The oil sheikhs could have guaranteed that protection from their proxies at any moment. They didn’t feel like it. Either they accept ethnic cleansing as part of their plan to roll back the Shia, or worse, the right to commit atrocities as a recruitment tool is part of the well-known use of such movements by those sheikhs to make their own disaffected young men go someplace else and die. The US lacks the guts to confront those autocrats, which blew the deal on Syria.

  4. I think there’s a high likelihood that ISIS will be weakened by its success — reports are that thousands of young people are streaming to the region to join up. While it’s a ghastly prospect that they would be drawn to join such barbarism — there’s the rub — these “hoards” are going to need food and looking after (all the more so if they are “tenderfeet”) and they expect weapons training and !!!ACTION!!!.

    At least some of the atrocities may be ISIS indulging the blood thirsty and the adrenalin junkies. I fear for Syrian civilians, certainly, but — as with captives who need to looked after and guarded — this mob may also deplete resources.

    As Fred Kaplan also pointed out, agreeing with the above, ISIS’s victories have been the direct result of dysfunctional local order — meaning they have very shallow roots that may wither when bare-bones expectations of leadership fails to materialize, life becomes even harder and more brutal, at which point, at least in Iraq, there may be a mutiny.

    In Syria the population has been suffering so much for so long — that any ceasefire is a blessing — I think we have to see if Assad is able to effectively use his army and air force to put ISIS on the run.

    All this I think will become clearer within a few weeks. Iraq’s military capability needs to be reassessed (now that they’ve lived with the results of their failures for more than a month) and prospects for future performance assessed.

    There seems to be an almost complete news black-out and stories not followed up — ISIS was reportedly exploitng a tunnel network north of Baghdad — believed to be digging in for a conventional terrorist campaign of bombings in the capitol before swooping in for the kill — then crickets. I’ll hold off judgment on what appears to be continued inertia and inability to mobilize because there is so little news.

  5. Quoting from above:
    “…the conditions and…grievances in Muslim countries must…be addressed:
    foreign boots on the ground, dictators supported by the US out of convenience, a failure to end a half century of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the treatment of Palestinians as a paradigm for treatment of other Muslims, the US employment of the region as an eternal cockpit for proxy wars — all of this is still ongoing.”
    link to
    LOL. Play “The Beat Goes on” for your amusement.
    The aforementioned conditions are “not, never” going to change—never in the foreseeable future.
    …and the beat goes on.

  6. The immediate problem is the de-escalation of a Saudi/GCC vs Iran cold war that the US did much to create. Since most commenters on this site assume any US action at all is evil, it’s hardly worth the effort to suggest that the US will have to be involved in that de-escalation. However, someone will have to use some kind of power to establish a boundary between the two sides and then punish anyone who sends their proxies on the warpath like ISIS. Now, this may mean drawing a line that will trap many people on the wrong side. But we did that in Europe in 1945 and it kept the Cold War stable for 40 years.

    Russia and China understand this; they will take Iran’s side and demand protected enclaves in Syria and Iraq for their own naval and investment ambitions. Once those big boys enter the scene, the Sunni autocrats will be shaking in their Guccis and looking to the US. I’m afraid what will happen then because the GOP, the corporate Democrats and the Israel Lobby will want blood. In fact that is the perfect time for the US, Russia and China to exploit this situation to force the Sunni monarchs to stop using terrorist recruitment as a pressure valve for their own screwed-up societies. Which is in the interests of all countries victimized by terror groups.

    It’s what Bismarck would have done in the old days of Great Power deals.

  7. Victory is heady, any morality, religion, cause can be created to back it, no matter how absurd and irrational as seen from the outside. Genghis Khan was unstoppable and set a standard for creating fear with wanton destruction and killing (unlimited slaughter, piles of skulls as monuments, etc.). War is the food that keeps the killing machine going, victory the fuel of morale. It’s when a large area is taken and the limits are reached that internal difficulties bring disintegration of what seemed like an unstoppable force. The fighters flock to IS, the people do not. IS shouts to the world “bring it on!” Let’s not.

  8. Some clerics in Egypt have issued a fatwa renaming ISIS/Daish as QSIS-al Qaeda Separatists in in Iraq and Syria. Should this term be adopted for them in the media?

Comments are closed.