Have we Won yet? Was ISIL a flash in the Pan?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

With the Iraqi campaign against ISIL having wrested from it Mosul and Talafar, and with Hawija and Qaim really the last two areas where it actually controls a town, you have to wonder if ISIL was ever all that formidable. Three years after it announced its caliphate in Mosul, it is now dealing with the greatest losses of territory, men and materiel since the fall of the Taliban in 2001-2002.

In some ways ISIL goes back to 2003, when as a result of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Jordanian terrorist who had infiltrated Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, swallowed his pride and asked to join al-Qaeda. Zarqawi had been in Afghanistan in 1989 but had not gotten along with Bin Laden or the al-Qaeda leadership at that time. Faced with the US occupation, he asked to be let in, and Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri allowed it. Thus was born al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (“between the two rivers).

Zarqawi just wanted to engage in ordinary terrorism. But the US only had between 100,000 and 160,000 troops in Iraq, a country of some 26 million, and the Bush administration had dissolved the Iraqi army. The local police could not deal with a building guerrilla insurgency. So the US troops were extremely light on the ground. Moreover, they did not know Arabic or local culture and most often never held more than the ground they stood on.

Zarqawi recruited a lot of Iraqi Sunni nationalists who were deeply upset about the way the US had turned Iraq over to pro-Iran Shiites and to Kurds, and who thought they saw in American weakness an opportunity to take and hold territory and build a new Sunni-based state that could eventually take over all of Iraq. When the US, with Jordanian help, killed Zarqawi in 2006, his successors turned the organization into the Islamic State of Iraq and his first vicar was Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a nom de guerre.

They gradually did come to hold villages and neighborhoods throughout northern and Western Iraq, i.e. in Sunni-majority territory. In 2011 when the Syrian revolution turned to civil war, some of them went off to fight in that country, so the organization became the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (i.e. greater Syria). In 2013 the organization split into Syrian al-Qaeda (now the Syrian Conquest Front, but for a long time the Nusra Front) and ISIL, because ISIL kept acting opportunistically and stabbing the other Sunni extremists in the back. Al-Zawahiri concurred in kicking ISIL out of al-Qaeda.

In 2014 ISIL took over 40% of Iraq’s territory, gaining the backing of Sunni Arab elites in Mosul, Falluja, Ramadi and so forth. It wasn’t that the relatively secular-minded people of Mosul, who had been brought up socialist Baathists and non-religious Arab nationalists, suddenly got religion. They just wanted anything besides Shiite rule.

Since 2014, the Iraqi government counter-terrorism brigades, with US and coalition air support and help from Shiite militias, has rolled up ISIL throughout Iraq. Only two small pockets of territory still belong to it, though it haunts a number of other neighborhood sort of the way a covert organized crime mob might.

Likewise, ISIL in Eastern Syria is on the verge of being annihilated, with US backed Kurds holding half of Raqqa city, the ISIL HQ, and Syrian government troops, commanded largely by an Alawite Shiite officer corps, closing in on Deir al-Zor, the other major remaining ISIL-held territory in Syria.

So the answer is yes, ISIL was a flash in the pan. All that talk about redrawing the Sykes Picot borders that cut Syria and Iraq off from one another has fallen by the wayside. Iraq and Syria are not far from restoring the status quo ante that has prevailed for a century.

What is not a flash in the pan is Sunni Arab grievance in the Fertile Crescent, which is dominated by governments that lean toward the Shiites.

Sunni Arab militancy may have been tempered by the horrible experience most people had living under ISIL. Others may seek some other way for Sunni Arabs to assert themselves. In Europe, a sullen and defeated ISIL may attempt to recruit malcontents and put them up to revenge terrorism, or even plot the radicalization of Western Muslims through promoting Trump-style persecution of them.

As ISIL is defeated over time, some people may turn to extremism to avenge it. The threat of a new wave of terrorism, especially in Europe, cannot be ruled out as Raqqa falls.

Sunni Arab nationalism in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is not going away any time soon, and their powerful sense of grievance will drive further tragedies in the region, and abroad.


Related video:

. EuroNews: “Syrian forces advance on ISIL-besieged Deir al Zor”

14 Responses

  1. ISIS or whatever name they go by these days is essentially an ‘idea’ as much as its a movement. Movements come and go, but the ‘idea’ remains for ever. whether its religion, communism, capitalism or any other ism the idea is always there waiting for a movement to come along.

  2. In 2003, a Middle East specialist Professor As’ad AbuKhalil wrote: “The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan gave us the Taliban. The American occupation of Saudi Arabia gave us bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The Israeli occupation of Lebanon gave us Hezbollah. Let us see what the American occupation of Iraq is going to give us.” Now we know.

    If the Iranians and the Sunni Arabs do not patch up their differences and continue with their sectarian policies, the future will see a major confrontation between the Sunnis and the Shi’is worse than we have seen already. The conflicts in the Middle East had mainly geopolitical, rather than sectarian, motivations to begin with, but now they have become intensely sectarian.

    It is reported that a Saudi delegation will visit Tehran shortly after the end of Hajj ceremonies with the aim of restoring diplomatic ties. If that report is correct, it is the best news for both sides and may save the region unimaginable hardship and bloodshed in the future.

  3. Are not Sunni grievances in the Fertile Crescent matched or exceeded by Shia grievances in the rest of the Arab world?

    • There are no Shiites to speak of west of the Suez or in Palestine or Jordan. Shiites in Kuwait and UAE are relatively well integrated. So the only Sunni-majority Arab states outside the Fertile Crescent I can think of with Shiite grievances are Saudia and Bahrain. You’d be talking small numbers.

      • Bahrain is majority Shia. Not that such things should matter.

        Within the Fertile Crescent, one has Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait with large Shia populations. Outside, the Fertile Crescent, there is also Yemen. Ten percent of the population of Saudi Arabia is not a small number… It’s 2-3+ million people.

        None of this should matter–and to many ordinary middle easterners it largely doesn’t… Unfortunately, the ruling elite in Saudi Arabia do not appear to share the same opinions as ordinary middle easterners. Part of the reason why the insurgency in Syria and Iraq is dying down is that Saudi elite and MbS have come to realize they are gaining no return for their investment in financing extremist groups in Syria and Iraq; consequently, it appears they are stopping their financing of these extremist groups. It’s about time–6+ years of strife in Iraq and Syria, a quarter of the Syrian population turned into IDPs, another quarter turned into refugees, countless dead or orphaned, and Saudi Arabia has achieved nothing.

      • There’s been a lot of expat Pakistani Shiites, some of whom been around for decades, being systematically phased out and deported, particularly from Abu Dhabi (but I know a lot from Dubai and Sharjah as well) though there are exceptions. It’s a sort of silent sectarian weeding out program that’s run by the security agencies, though they did also target very conservative Pakistani Sunnis in their anti-extremist crackdown. However, there have been many non-active, non-religious Shia expats who’ve been removed simply because of their background. Some folks, who are lucky not to have overtly sectarian names, don’t declare their true religious background, which you have to fill out in some employment forms and security clearances, because of these fears. I cannot speak of the other Shia expat communities with Iraqi, Lebanese or Iranian backgrounds (or other passport backgrounds), though I wouldn’t be surprised if their numbers were reduced as well.

        Even with the numbers (like being half or more of the population in Bahrain) Shia grievances, generally did not give rise to ISIL/Al Qaeda/TTP/Al Shabab,etc level types of very extreme fundamentalists (as compared to Iranian theocrats and Hezbollah) that popped up among Sunni populations.

  4. This seems an odd statement: “you have to wonder if ISIL was ever all that formidable”. They sent the much touted US trained Iraqi army running. ISIL required the combined force of the US, Russia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Hezbollah to defeat it over a period of 3 years. And the job is not yet done.

    They were extremely effective. The problem was that they were too extreme even for their own people. This movement is probably not dead even if the name must be changed.

    • Maybe the Iraqi army ran away not because ISIL was formidable but because there was something wrong with its morale, chain of command, etc.

      • To the Iraqi soldier on the front line against ISIL, the enemy looked very formidable and they ran away. That is all that matters in war!

        The reasons for this are of course not wanting to fight for (in essence) Washington. A corrupt officer corps in the employ of (in essence) Washington. Who would want to die for a foreign occupier.

  5. “Sunni Arab nationalism in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is not going away any time soon, and their powerful sense of grievance will drive further tragedies in the region, and abroad.”

    It’s not just a Sunni Arab thing. There’s the non-Arabs that flocked to Daesh, as well as the non-Arab Sunni extremists in other parts of the world, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan or parts of Africa. A good number of the Western radicals aren’t of Arab origin themselves either.

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