Islamic State’ in a Zone of Conflicts within Conflicts

Professor Amin Saikal, Director of the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, recently briefed parliament on the state of play in the Middle East.
28 October 2015

IS is disowned by a great majority of Muslims and rejected as a qualified Islamic entity by most Islamic authorities.

The Middle East, its Gulf component in particular, is in the grip of multiple ideological, geopolitical and humanitarian crises. The region is going through major balance of power shifts, perhaps not seen since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the British-French colonial orchestrations nearly a century ago. The old constellation of forces in support of maintaining the status quo, especially following the Iranian revolution of more than 36 years ago, is altering. A set of new alignments and realignments along multiple overlapping and contested regional and international fault-lines, including sectarian divisions and geopolitical rivalries at different levels, has generated favourable conditions for the rise of violent extremist groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). The region is redefined in ways that have affected its traditional political and territorial contours. Russia's latest expansion of its military intervention in Syria, with backing from Tehran, Baghdad and Lebanese Hezbollah, has introduced a further unsettling dimension to the regional crisis. Unless there is an interlocking regional and international consensus to resolve some of the fundamental problems that have made the Middle East so volatile, extremist political Islamism and geopolitical tensions and conflicts are set to feature in the regional landscape for the foreseeable future.

'Islamic State'

The sudden rise of the extremist Sunni ISIL, its conquest of vast swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territories, and its declaration in June 2014 of khilafat or borderless 'Islamic State' (IS) under the leadership of Abubakr al-Baghdadi as Khalifa or 'deputy to the Prophet of Islam' and amir al-mu'minin or 'the commander of the faithful' have fatally fractured an already politically and territorially fragmented Iraq and Syria. IS's Wahhabi/Salafist rooted interpretation and application of Islam within an extremist narrative, with utopian goals, and its declaration of violent jihad against all those who oppose or disagree with its stance have caused a tsunami of reaction from within and outside of the multifaceted Muslim world.

IS is disowned by a great majority of Muslims and rejected as a qualified Islamic entity by most Islamic authorities. Al-Baghdadi and his cohorts, including many experienced but aggrieved Ba'athist supporters of the Saddam Hussein era, have nonetheless been able to skillfully manipulate a number of variables to justify and enforce their khilafat, as temporary or durable as it may turn out to be, and to make their jihad, against what IS has called 'crusaders' and 'usurpers', actionable within a favourably resourceful geographical zone.

Those variables consist of the war-torn conditions and presence of a power vacuum in Syria and Iraq, the symbolism of khilafat and other historical Islamic signs, the disenchantment of the Sunni segments of the Syrian and Iraqi populations, the Saudi-Iranian geopolitically driven Sunni-Shia sectarian rivalry, the socio-economic disparities and injustices and the prevalence of largely Western backed authoritarian and corrupt regimes across the Muslim Middle East. Highlighting the list are also Israel's repressive colonial settler occupation of the Palestinian lands, including the third holiest site of Islam, East Jerusalem, and a general sense of disempowerment and humiliation amongst Muslims in the face of repeated major power, most importantly US, interventions to shape and reshape the Middle East and the wider Muslim world according to their ideological and geopolitical preferences. All this has helped al-Baghdadi's leadership to consolidate IS, to entice some Muslims to fall for IS's extremist narrative, and to support its institution of khilafat - a phenomenon that has had precedence in Islamic history and nostalgically resonates with many Muslims since its abolition in 1924.

Notwithstanding its violent and repressive theocratic nature, IS now functions as a relatively consolidated political and territorial entity. It has developed an identifiable system of governance, under the command of a Governing Council, presided over by al-Baghdadi, although it is not known how often and in what manner the Council meets. Whilst the office of khalifa stands supreme and its edicts are absolute, a chain of intertwined civilian and security command features in its operations. IS has mastered sufficient resource capability to be able to combat, defend and expand its territory from Ramadi in Iraq to Raqqa in Syria - a territory about the size of France. Moreover, it has harnessed a capacity to provide some basic municipal services to many of the 6 to 8 million people under its control and to enforce elaborate processes of indoctrination and recruitment.   

In addition to its $2 billion dollars worth of assets, resulting largely from its initial conquests, IS has boosted its revenue sources through a number of other coercive and illegal measures. They include taxes and cross-border trade through both Turkey and Lebanon, involving the selling not only of oil from the fields under its control, but also the peddling of invaluable relics and artifacts from the historical sites that it has destroyed and vandalised in both Iraq and Syria. It has even put one Roman coin up on eBay for $100. The more IS has become shaped as a quasi-state, the more it has become vulgar and strident.

Of those who have opted to actively participate in IS's declared jihad, most are from within the zone of the conflicts and the Arab world; but a good number have also come from across the globe. Some have joined IS out of deep religious convictions. Others include many fringe and misguided elements from Muslim communities, who have had no more than a mundane understanding of Islam, have suffered from a void or purpose in life, and are grieved by a sense of dispossession and alienation for different reasons and are therefore vulnerable to IS's slick social media propaganda. IS's male foreign fighters are now estimated to number around 30,000.

Despite its patriarchic, misogynic, discriminatory and brutal treatment of women, particularly those from non-Sunni Muslim minorities, a sizeable number of Muslim girls and women have also been lured to IS. They have become participants in its jihad - either in an active or supporting role. Reportedly, there are some 3,000 women from the Arab and Muslim domain as well as the West in the service of IS. Most are tasked as morality activists and police, and rule enforcers, with some also wearing the mantle of 'Jihadi brides'. They include a number of Malaysians and Indonesians. There are also non-Muslim, especially Yazidi, women who have been coerced to serve as comfort providers and slaves.

IS Strategy

In this context, IS has evidently pursued an integrative strategy of action on three fronts.

First, it has drawn on an extremist version of Islam to invent an ideological narrative that has focused primarily on two objectives. One is to legitimise the application of brutal theocratic measures to enforce its rule. Another is to invoke those causes that could resonate with not only the Sunni segments of the Iraqi and Syrian populations, but also a good number of Sunni Arabs and fellow Muslims around the world. When it comes to the use of the politics of brutality, IS is not too far ahead of some other extremist groups, such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram, some of whose elements have declared allegiance to IS.  

Second, it has deployed the concept of khilafat to endear itself with those Muslims who either naively or nostalgically believe that a return to the unity of all Muslim countries under a single supreme religious and political leader is the answer to the deep-seated problems that have come to beset the Muslim world. Its anti-Shia and anti-Kurdish stance has aimed at fuelling sectarian and ethnic divisions within the region and beyond. Whereas some Arab states have taken solace in IS's opposition to Shia Islam and therefore to Iran and its allies, IS's anti-Kurdish posture has led Turkey to view it as a deterrent to the Iraqi Kurds' aspirations for an independent state that could have overflow effects on the large Turkish Kurdish minority. Consequently, the Arab countries and Turkey have had reasons to be somewhat lenient towards IS, as long as the entity is contained and does not pose a real threat to them.

Third, IS's opposition to the US-led West and Israel as 'the exploiters and occupiers' allegedly causing Muslims' humiliation and disempowerment through either direct or indirect means, has had its own twisted logic. It has focused on persuading all those Muslims that have grievances more specifically against the US and its allies for various reasons - some personal and others political and social in nature - either to view and in some cases support the new khilafat as a force of salvation.

As such, IS has generated three concentric ideological, political and military circles of operation at the national, regional and international levels within a religious narrative that enables it to exploit the weaknesses and loopholes at each of those levels. In the age of digital communications, it has managed to secure effective recruiters to disseminate its propaganda widely to those who are vulnerable to its messages. No wonder so many young Muslim men and women have fallen prey to IS's propaganda.

The US-led Western approach

In contrast, the US and its allies have not been able to come up with an effective counter-narrative and a military campaign which would be part of a comprehensive political strategy to deal with those IS causes that defy military solutions. Their emphasis on the primacy of the use of brute force, mostly through an air campaign, and on de-radicalisation and harsher anti-terrorism measures at home and abroad have fallen terribly short of countering IS's strategy. Western governments' desire to extract political mileage for domestic purposes and listen to those instant experts on combating terrorism and radicalization who lack a clear understanding of the complexities of what IS and its arena of operations are all about, have left them bare vis-à-vis an entity that has surprisingly managed to be one step ahead of them. Intensified bombardment of the IS positions and provision of substantial aid to the Iraqi forces and the Kurdish sub-national militia, Peshmerga, to do the ground fighting, have so far produced no tangible results. The United States has lately found it necessary to ditch an important plank of its policy of combating IS: that is raising a sizable fighting force from the ranks of the moderate Syrian opposition.   

Apart from the lack of a coherent and viable strategy, it is important to mention three other factors that have impeded the US-led efforts to the delight of IS and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its supporters.

The first factor relates to the fact that the US-led Western backed Iraqi government has proved to be persistently incompetent, corrupt and dysfunctional. Whereas Prime Minister Nur al-Maliki catered primarily to his base of power amongst Iraq's Shia majority and in close cooperation with Tehran at the cost of marginalizing the Iraqi Sunnis, his successor Haider al-Abadi, who took the reins of power in July 2014 following IS's routing of what was the best American trained and equipped Iraqi military, has not done much better. Al-Abadi comes from the same Shia group, Da'wa, as al-Maliki. He cannot afford to make more than cosmetic concessions to the Iraqi Sunnis, given his concerns about not antagonising his Shia compatriots and Tehran. Also, like al-Maliki, he has been unable to prevent Iraq's other substantial minority, the Kurds, from consolidating an extensively autonomous state of their own in northern Iraq. The position of this state is reinforced by the US and its allies providing military assistance to Peshmerga as an anti-IS force, despite its repercussions for Iraq's national unity.

The second factor was the inability or unwillingness of the United States and its allies to intervene in Syria early enough to accelerate the fall of Assad's regime, which has committed as much, if not more, brutalities as IS against the Syrian people. President Obama's 2013 back down from intervening even when the regime had crossed the 'redline' by using chemical weapons, in return for a Russian proposal to get rid of Syria's WMD, was a survival victory for Assad and a diplomatic and strategic triumph for Russia, as well as for Iran and Hezbollah.

The third is the resilience of the Assad regime and its shrunken military and security forces to stay in the fight, although with important support from its external supporters, and to maintain its non-negotiating position vis-à-vis the Western and Arab backed moderate opposition forces. Assad's staying power has ultimately prompted the US and its allies to make an about-face and drop their demand for Assad's removal as part of a solution to the Syrian crisis. They have lately offered to negotiate with Assad for a transitional phase.

It is important to note that the popular uprisings of Syria's Sunni majority against Assad's Alawite minority-dominated rule in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring nearly five years ago were all very peaceful. Assad had ample opportunity to reach a negotiated settlement with the opposition. However, he chose to crush it by force. He did so in the tradition of the authoritarian political culture that has historically dominated the Muslim Middle East; and also in the context of the counter-Arab Spring's efforts launched by the Arab conservative forces, led by Saudi Arabia, and acquiesced to by the United States and many of its allies. This was exemplified vividly in the case of Egypt.

Russian Intervention

It is not surprising that the calculated and unpredictable Russian President Vladimir Putin recently found a unique opportunity to make a daring show of force in a direct military intervention in support of the Assad regime against not just IS but all opposition forces, including those backed by the West and the Arab world. For Putin, it is not only the issue of saving the regime that could enable Russia to maintain and expand a strategic foothold in a vital region of the world. It is also about reasserting Russia's position and strengthening its bargaining power on the world stage. Predictably, the Russian intervention, whilst emboldening the Assad regime and its supporters, can only alarm the US and its Western allies and Arab partners as well as Turkey, which has historically viewed Russia as a source of security concerns. They have condemned the Russian intervention as dangerously one-sided, fuelling and widening rather than solving the Syrian conflict and assisting IS.

The Russian intervention is indeed risky. This is the first time that Russia has engaged in a direct military action outside the perimeters of the former Soviet Union. It carries the potential not only for accidental clashes in the air with the US and allied planes, but also for landing Moscow in a very costly quagmire, similar to that confronted by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan following its invasion of the country three and a half decades ago. The Syrian intervention is admittedly not on the same scale as that of the Soviet invasion, and Putin has vowed to confine Russia's involvement to air operations. It has, nonetheless, been launched for the purpose of primarily saving an allied regime and projecting Russian power. This also underpinned the Soviet motives in relation to its Afghan adventure. Yet, the Soviet invasion offered the US and its allies a unique opportunity to inflict a fatal blow to the Soviet Union by assisting their Afghan proxy forces, the Mujahideen or Islamic freedom fighters. The defeat of the Soviet Union after a decade of fighting in Afghanistan substantially contributed to the country's disintegration in late 1991.

The same scenario could be repeated in Syria, should the US and its allies decide to act in the way that they did in Afghanistan. In the medium to long run, Russia's weakening economy, caused partly by Western sanctions over Moscow's annexation of Crimea, its meddling in eastern Ukraine, the decline of income from its oil exports due to a spectacular drop in oil prices, and its second rate military, may not be able to cope with such a development, a factor that also affected the Soviet Afghan adventure. The Russian intervention has certainly bolstered Assad's position and that of its other main backer, Iran. However, the apparent Moscow-Tehran-Baghdad, Damascus-Hezbollah axis draws a formidable line between what may be regarded as the northern and southern Middle East. This can potentially complicate further Iran's regional position, and its process of the possible normalization of ties with the West. It can invite a united Sunni Arab-Turkish front, with the US not only backing this front, but also becoming more incremental in its approach to the implementation of the historic nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, which was signed on 14 July 2015.

As the situation stands, there are now two international coalitions - one led by the United States and another by Russia - against a common enemy, IS, but concurrently in competition with one another by supporting opposite sides in at least the Syrian conflict. This can only augur well for IS's survivability and provide a recipe for a perfect Middle Eastern storm, with serious regional and global implications.

An interlocking regional and international consensus is now needed amongst the key players - Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey - as well as the US and Russia to deal collectively not only with IS, but also with a host of issues that have aided IS and fragmented Iraq and Syria. If accompanied by such national reforms that could lift the blanket of authoritarianism or concealed authoritarianism from the region, along with a US-Iranian rapprochement, one could hope for a more stable and less volatile Middle East in the medium to long run. Otherwise, for the time being, while there is no effective counter-strategy to roll it back, IS has a strategy to survive.

Amin Saikal is  Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at The Australian National University, and author of Iran at the Crossroads (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015); Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014)