Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

The rise of Islamic State

Two new books in French and English explain the rise of Islamic State, writes David Tresilian

The rise of   Islamic State
The rise of Islamic State
Al-Ahram Weekly

It has been six months or so since the Islamic State (IS) group first came to public attention as a result of its takeover of northern Iraq and particularly of Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul. The Iraqi army fled in the face of IS fighters almost without a fight, leaving the group, hitherto largely unknown, to extend its rule to most of the north of the country and from there into neighbouring Syria.

Today, Islamic State controls about a quarter of Iraq and perhaps a third of Syria, and it has declared the establishment of a new state, what it terms an Islamic caliphate, on Iraqi and Syrian territory. An international coalition set up under US leadership to “degrade and destroy” IS forces, in the words of US president Barack Obama, is carrying out air-strikes on the group’s positions, but for the time being it continues to hold the territory it has seized and to release videos of the atrocities it has been carrying out on the Internet.

Six months is long enough for the first books to appear in European and other languages on the phenomenon of Islamic State, and two of these, one in French and one in English, are directed at general audiences. According to French academic Pierre-Jean Luizard, a specialist on Iraq, western countries as much as Middle Eastern states are in danger of falling into a trap because they may be carrying out a campaign against the group that has been lost in advance. For UK journalist Patrick Cockburn, the author of several previous books on Iraq, Islamic State is “fast becoming an established geographical and political fact.”

A little over a decade after the US-led invasion of Iraq and four years after the beginning of the uprising intended to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from power, “Al-Qaeda-type movements,” pre-eminently Islamic State, “rule a vast area in northern and western Iraq and eastern and northern Syria, several hundred times larger than any territory ever controlled by Osama bin Laden,” Cockburn says. Whereas Al-Qaeda did not seek to control territory directly, being content to operate within the framework of existing states, Islamic State has gone one step further by rejecting existing boundaries and setting up new institutions.

Luizard’s book Le piège Daech (The Daech Trap), a reference to the group’s Arabic acronym, begins by describing the events that first brought IS, previously simply one of the many jihadist-Salafist groups operating in northern Iraq, to international attention. The first sign that something new was afoot came in January 2014 with the group’s occupation of Fallujah, a city in Iraq’s Anbar Province, and its strategy of working with the local Sunni Arab population to establish new institutions. When the group subsequently took over most of northern Iraq including, most spectacularly, the major city of Mosul, this strategy was continued with IS emerging not as yet another army of occupation but instead as one of liberation, chasing out corrupt local officials and setting up what it claimed was more equitable rule.

In order to understand the appeal of IS forces to the mostly Sunni Arab population of northern Iraq, it is necessary to understand what those forces were fighting against, Luizard says. “Throughout the whole of 2013, the deep dissatisfaction [of Iraq’s Sunni Arab population] was expressed through peaceful demonstrations that took up the slogans of the Arab Spring” and were directed against what was perceived to be the corrupt and exclusionary rule of the Shia-led government in the capital Baghdad. It was only when those demonstrations were “crushed with the same brutality as the peaceful demonstrations against the al-Assad regime in Syria” that Iraq’s Sunni population began to support IS, such that “in Fallujah, Tikrit, Mosul and elsewhere a large proportion of the local population saw it as an army of liberation.”

To demonstrate what they said was the venality and corruption of the Shia-led regime, after IS forces had entered Mosul they uploaded videos onto the Internet of the palaces of government officials, including that of president of the Iraqi parliament Osama al-Nujaifi, a local politician who had fled to Baghdad, that showed these to be stocked with tons of gold. “It was like the discovery by the Tunisian people of the palaces of [ousted former president Zein al-Abidine] Ben Ali” during the Arab Spring, Luizard says.

“When Islamic State entered Fallujah in January 2014 and then the rest of Anbar Province in the months that followed, one of the first things it did was to act against corruption… [and to] re-establish public services. In Mosul, products that had disappeared from the marketplace as a result of speculation reappeared, their prices cut in half. The executions of those responsible for the shortages and various forms of corruption were staged and then broadcast through the media by Islamic State, the beheadings and crucifixions being intended to intimidate and to mark the contrast between the new rulers and the government of [then Iraqi prime minister] Nuri al-Maliki.”

Part of the blame for the rise of Islamic State would therefore seem to lie with the Shia-led government in Baghdad which had not only excluded or marginalised the Sunni Arab population that then went on to identify the group as its saviour, but had also encouraged the growth of “a spectacular level of corruption among a national army behaving in the Sunni-majority regions like an army of occupation.” According to Luizard, part of the blame also lies with the disruptions caused by the US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003 and before that with the arrangements bestowed by the British when they established the modern Iraqi state in the 1920s.

The US occupation overthrew the previously established system of the domination of the Sunnis over the Shias and the Arabs over the Kurds by setting up a Shia-led government in Baghdad and an autonomous Kurdish enclave in the north of the country that called into question the Sunnis’ position in a now radically transformed Iraqi state. The British establishment of the modern state, which had welded together areas that had no natural reason to be brought together as a single nation-state, had bequeathed possibly insoluble problems of stable state formation on subsequent Iraqi governments because the structurally fragile system was always ready to break apart should too much stress be put upon it.

Such stress came in the wake of the collapse of the regime led by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, Luizard says, “last representative of the political system founded by the British in 1920.” Although it may not have been apparent at the time, the collapse of the Saddam regime also marked the collapse of the Iraqi state, with US efforts to re-establish that state on a power-sharing basis, introducing a “Lebanese-style” system in which “the president would be Kurdish, the prime minister Shia, and the speaker of the parliament a Sunni Arab,” foundering on “the emergence of Shia factions characterised by corruption and nepotism without limit.”

Islamic State, originally voicing Sunni protest at this system, decided to “declare that the king had no clothes,” Luizard says. The Iraqi state that had been set up by the British in the 1920s was already dead. The group was simply setting up a new one, an “Islamic state,” on what had formerly been Iraqi territory.

“It is difficult to argue that the Iraqi state still exists,” Luizard concludes, and it may now be replaced, after a period of negotiation, by what already exists on the ground: a Shia state in the south and Sunni and Kurdish states in the north. Were this to happen, it would be possibly the most important revision to the existing state system in the Middle East since it was set up in the 1920s, he adds, and it would have important consequences, some of them already apparent, for neighbouring countries.

Islamic State has already attempted to abolish the existing borders between Iraq and Syria, drawn up after the First World War, and its attacks on the Shia, tantamount to a policy of confessional cleansing, have drawn Iran and Lebanon into the conflict. Turkey has been drawn in since its policy of supporting Sunni groups against the al-Assad in Syria regime has now backfired, putting it under increasing pressure to give meaningful help to the international coalition set up to take action against the most powerful of these groups, “while fearing that this will only benefit the Kurds.” The latter have been seeking greater independence in Turkey as well as in Iraq.

In his Rise of Islamic State, Cockburn shares much of Luizard’s analysis, writing that Iraq’s Sunni population, targeted by Shia militias in “mixed provinces” such as Diyala and even in Baghdad “have no alternative but to stick with IS or flee if they want to survive.” This does not bode well for a negotiated solution or to the success of the supposedly more inclusive government formed by current Iraqi prime minister Haidar al-Abadi after last year’s national elections. Cockburn, one of the few western journalists to have worked consistently in Iraq since the US-led invasion, is as blunt as Luizard in assessing the current situation in Iraq and Syria, though his book, developing out of newspaper reports, does not seek to give Luizard’s kind of historical explanation.

Yet, the upshot is much the same, and Cockburn writes that the experiment of rebuilding the Iraq state on a power-sharing basis after the US-led invasion of 2003 has now “failed disastrously… because the battle lines among the Kurds, Sunni, and Shia are now too stark and too embittered.” He adds that “the deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria,” of which the rise of IS is a symptom but hardly the cause, “may now have gone too far to re-create genuinely unitary states.”

In Iraq, the US is unlikely to want to throw its weight fully behind the Shia-led government even if it has committed itself to defeating IS, when that government “is as sectarian, corrupt and dysfunctional as Saddam’s ever was.” In Syria, where IS has established its capital in the city of Raqqa, “too many conflicts and too many players have become involved” for determined action to be taken against IS, particularly when this could mean coming to strategic agreements with the al-Assad regime, Hezbollah and Iran.

Cockburn talks of Islamic State being a “Frankenstein’s monster” created by powerful forces at least some of them acting from abroad, while Luizard talks of a “sorcerer’s apprentice” creating a force he is then unable to control. Both write of the seismic shifts currently taking place in the Middle East. “Today’s resurgent jihadism,” Cockburn says, “having shifted the political terrain in Iraq and Syria, is already having far-reaching effects on global politics, with dire consequences for us all.”

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