In the third week of May, ISIS took the city of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, in two, big, high-profile victories. Though ISIS has constantly been in the news for years now, these two cities seem to return the sense of an unstoppable march of Islamist forces across the Middle East. As the beheadings began almost immediately in Ramadi, ISIS also bombed a mosque in Qatif, a Shia-majority city in Saudi Arabia during Friday prayers. Qatif, incidentally, is a place where Saudi armed forces and police have violated human rights with their usual impunity for years, detaining and even opening fire on protesters from the Shia community. From all of these reports, the sense given to readers is one of unstoppable momentum.
But as Ahmed Ali, in the NYT Opinion section on May 21 clarified, the situation is otherwise: “…the Islamic State is not on an unstoppable march. In Iraq, and to some extent Syria, it remains on the defensive. In April, the Islamic State’s defenses in large swaths of Salahuddin Province and the provincial capital, Tikrit, collapsed.”
So, ISIS has not had unstoppable momentum. After spending many months and many lives trying to take the Kurdish city of Kobani, Syria, they have been repeatedly repulsed since the beginning of 2015. Kurdish forces in Iraq have counterattacked them in Mosul and are keeping them under pressure there. And, although each time there is a battle in an Iraqi city, the Western media discuss the close proximity of that city to Baghdad, that does not mean that Baghdad is likely to fall to ISIS any time soon.
Syria, though, is another story. The stage in both countries is set not for ISIS victory, but for perpetual conflict.
Analyzing ISIS requires remembering some of the history and geography of Iraq and Syria, especially about the relationship between Kurds, Sunni, and Shia communities in the region. Both countries have always had large Kurdish populations, a language group that is divided by the national borders between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. There are debates within the Kurdish communities of each country about how to pursue autonomy and self-determination. In Iraq, this has entailed an autonomous Kurdish region currently ruled by Masoud Barzani. In Syria, it involves revolutionary experiments with local democracy and local self-defense – these are the forces that defended Kobani against ISIS. In Turkey, one of the most respected leaders, Abdullah Ocalan, is in prison, and not alone. The revolutionary Kurds in Syria have shown that they will not surrender easily to ISIS and that ISIS can be successfully fought. The Kurds in Iraq, after initial setbacks, are beginning to have some success as well.
Readers no doubt know that one of the many divisions within Islam is between Sunni and Shia, and that one of ISIS’s main obsessions is punishing those who don’t belong to its particular type of Sunni Islam (a type of Islam shared, non-coincidentally, with Saudi Arabia, the unshakeable Western ally, currently bombing civilians in Yemen with Western-supplied weaponry). In the areas where ISIS holds sway, Shia Muslims have suffered, as have Yazidis and others who don’t share ISIS’s beliefs. But the Shia are not defenceless either. There are well-armed, well-organized Shia militias in Baghdad (who have committed atrocities against Sunni civilians in the decade since the US invasion, just as Sunni armed groups have done against Shia civilians). The mainly Shia Lebanese group, Hizbollah, joined the Syrian government, entering Syria, to fight ISIS several years ago. These forces, too, have not been and will not be any kind of easy prey for ISIS.
Historically, the pattern has been that ISIS scores major victories when there is a local collapse of either the Iraqi or the Syrian regular army. The Iraqi army is a creation of the post-2003 US invasion. Such armies rarely perform well and always have serious morale problems. But the presence of these other (Shia and Kurdish) forces on the field limits what ISIS can do in Iraq.
The Syrian army was focused primarily on domestic repression for decades before the civil war started in that country in 2011, and has managed to kill mostly civilians in the civil war as well. If the Syrian army collapses like the Iraqi army has collapsed, the whole situation in the region will change a lot, and in unpredictable ways. The likely analogue is the Afghanistan of the 1990s, after the USSR left. The Afghan government held on against the mujahaddeen for three years (1989-1992) before collapsing. Then the mujahaddeen fell out amongst themselves and spent four years (1992-1996) destroying whatever had not been destroyed and dividing the country into regions ruled by warlords. The next five years (1996-2001) were spent with the warlords fighting one another and the Taliban. The Taliban, sponsored by Pakistan, controlled most of the Pashtun part of Afghanistan, and tried unsuccessfully to complete the conquest of the country. An alliance of warlords unsuccessfully tried to roll them back. Al Qaeda developed in this period, working alongside the Taliban between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Then NATO invaded, put the warlords in charge, and stayed for 13 years. The Taliban are still there, and still backed by Pakistan.
The Syrian analogy goes like this: the Syrian army collapses, Hizbollah withdraws to Lebanon, ISIS holds a large part of Syria, other rebel groups hold other parts. A reconstituted regime holds on to part of the country with foreign support, and eventually, some multilateral Western force occupies Syria. In the chaos and the occupation are the seeds of the next ISIS, just like the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war provided the basis for this one, and the Afghan wars of the 1980s and civil wars of the 1990s provided the basis for al Qaeda.
But what explains the shocking, video-recorded horrors of ISIS? The right-wing New Atheists look for passages in scriptures that are used to justify the crimes; the criminals themselves claim to be acting in the name of religion. But people who genuinely want to understand would do better to look to other parts of the world where long-running conflicts have led to social collapse.
The war in Colombia, which is sometimes dated to have begun in 1948 and other times in 1964, has sometimes featured very grisly and demonstrative assassinations and massacres. The West African civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s also included ultra-violent behavior by various forces. In Central and East Africa, we have the famous Lord’s Resistance Army (remember #Kony2012?), as well as various Rwandan and Burundian forces operating in the Congo, alongside local militias and regular armies. Some of these forces have used rape and systematic mutilation as weapons. Dr. Denis Mukwege of the DR Congo has likened the use of rape in that war to a kind of weapon of mass destruction. Others have theorized along these lines – that irregular armies use atrocities to achieve the same psychological effect (inducing hopelessness and terror among those they wish to control) as Western armies can with their high-tech weaponry. This helps explain the amount of effort ISIS puts into hype.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many leftist guerrilla groups operated in different parts of the world. Some have held on, and a few have started up, but these are very rare in the world today. Some of these forces committed war crimes and crimes against civilians, but mostly they operated according to theories of guerrilla warfare (developed by Giap, Mao, Guevara, Castro and other communists) in which the relationship between fighters and the people was meant to be a close one, one of service, that precluded many of the tactics that are used by groups like ISIS.
Meanwhile the West, exporting weapons, running airstrikes, preparing troops for the next counterinsurgency effort, does not try to resolve conflicts, just manage them. The US started attacking Iraq in 1990 and is still doing bombing runs 25 years later. The US sponsored the mujahaddeen in Afghanistan in the 1970s and is still present 36 years later. Libya’s dictator was overthrown in 2011 and that country has been in managed conflict since. The list goes on and on, and will likely soon include Syria as a Western-managed conflict. Once a country is on the list, it can take decades to get off it again. In the chaos of these collapsed states, the next ISIS are being created.
First published at TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Islamic-State-Is-the-Child-of-Chaos-Not-Religion-20150528-0055.html