Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Islamic State Inc.

Many Syrians now view the Islamic State as a company whose shareholders include the Syrian regime, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Much has been written in Arabic and other languages about the Islamic State (IS) group, but even so no one can say with confidence what IS is, how it started, how it is structured, who supports it, what its sources of funds are, or what its real goals are.

Since the group’s link to the international terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda is ideological not organisational, it is easy for many to view IS as a spin-off of the mother group.

Some analysts believe Al-Qaeda lies behind IS and other trans-border extremist groups, while others believe it is linked to the defunct ruling Baath Party in Iraq. Still others think that IS is connected to Syrian intelligence and the Iranian mullahs.

Several of Iran’s supporters believe IS thrives on funds from extremist Arab businessmen and clerics, and some have even made a link between the group and Israel, or the US, or Russia.

There is no theory that has not been voiced about the true identity of the IS group.

The general view is that it is an armed terrorist group that has adopted jihadist Salafist ideology and aims to restore the Islamic caliphate and apply Sharia Law.

It is mostly active in Syria and Iraq, but it also has branches in Libya, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. It practises brutal methods, viciously destroying its enemies and attracting combatants and supporters from all corners of the world.

However, a general definition of this sort raises many questions that are difficult to answer, especially when it comes to the birth, funds, strategy, quick rise and resilience of the group.

It is difficult to know with any certainty the secrets of the group’s birth or its composition and strategies. It would also be a mistake to link it to only one party or approach, or even describe it as a single cohesive organisation. Contradictions within the group and inconsistent outcomes in various regions of Syria and Iraq tell another story.

However, it is easy to differentiate between the methods used by IS in Iraq and its approach in Syria. It is also relatively straightforward to find out who benefits from its actions and identify the primary victims of its ideological and military offensives.

 If the guilty party can be identified by looking at who benefits from the crime, it can be concluded that IS is a company with many stakeholders holding shares in it. The responsibility of each shareholder depends on the value of its share in the group’s assets.

The shareholders in this case are mostly states, not individuals. They are countries that have benefitted from parts of IS’s strategy and support one part or another of it to achieve their goals. They have also reaped rewards from their investment in the group that they would never have gained through trade or foreign policy.

The shareholders in IS can be categorised into three groups, depending on the size of their investments, large, medium and small.

The Syrian regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad is the largest investor, followed by Iran. IS has not carried out any significant attacks against the regime throughout the years of the Syrian Revolution, or, in other words, since its birth.

It has been a major factor in distracting the world’s attention from the Syrian Revolution, acting as a scapegoat to justify regime mistakes, an excuse for Iranian intervention in the region, and a reason why the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has failed and the revolutionary forces are weak.

It has also acted as a bogeyman to frighten the West about what is happening in Syria, as the eraser of regime crimes from short-term memory, as an excuse for sectarian militias to enter the fray, and as a magnet to attract international extremists to Syria, exactly as the regime has wanted.

The Syrian opposition and revolutionaries have not benefited from the group’s activities, and they see it as a parallel actor to the regime.

Further evidence that the regime is a major investor in IS is provided by the fact that relations between the group and the Syrian opposition groups are hostile. The same is true of the group’s relations with its surroundings, since it aims its forces against areas known for this activism in efforts to take control of them.

It arrests and kills political activists, media personalities, and aid workers. It attacks the FSA, and spreads mayhem in areas not under regime control. It destroys the revolution’s goal of democracy and reproduces the tactics of the repressive Syrian Baath Party.

Syrian opposition figure Fawaz Tallu emphasises the ties between the regime and IS.

“There were regime militias in northern Syria in 2012 that after they had been defeated by the revolutionaries formed the Dawoud Brigade linked to the FSA. This brigade then began engaging in banditry and guerrilla activities, soon turning into an Islamist militia supposedly enforcing ‘the laws of God’,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

 “Its fighters grew beards, and when Islamic State gained ground in the area they pledged allegiance to it and began beheadings, starting with the revolutionaries who had risen up against the regime. This story shows IS in its true colours. It is the regime that is skilled in terrorising and killing the people. There will be no victory without ridding the country of both IS and the regime because they are two faces of the same coin,” he said.

Basic economics says that the withdrawal of major shareholders can cause a company to collapse, and if the Syrian regime and Iran ended their involvement in IS it would similarly quickly collapse.

Fayez Sara, a leading member of the Revolutionary Forces Coalition, said that “the war against IS cannot be differentiated from the war against the Al-Assad regime, not because there are covert relations between the two – the evidence cannot be documented at the moment – but because the Al-Assad regime has been the reason why extremism and terrorism have swept through the country, killing, destroying and displacing the population.”

“All this has strengthened and solidified the parallel violence produced by Islamic State.”

However, not all IS operations serve the interests of the regime, including those in Iraq. Other shareholders have interests in the activities of the group, among them Iran which sometimes works in coordination with the Syrian regime but at other times works by itself.

“We must never forget the Tehran-backed Iraqi role in releasing hundreds of Al-Qaeda operatives from Iraqi jails and facilitating their entry into Syria,” Saeed Moqbel, a Syrian opposition figure, told the Weekly.

“Weapons and ammunition were smuggled across the Iraqi-Syrian border. Russian intelligence also played a role in the passage of Chechen extremists into Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime released hundreds of extremists from jail after the start of the revolution and they immediately began to form militias.”

“The strategy of the Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian axis relies on stirring up religious, sectarian and racist conflict in the region, especially in Syria and Iraq, and creating terrorist groups in the name of Islam to draw the major powers into rescuing the Syrian regime and recognising the Iranian role in the Gulf, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,” Moqbel said.

Leading Syrian opposition figure Michel Kilo denied IS had any part to play in the Syrian Revolution. “The regime’s greatest success has been in manufacturing fundamentalist-terrorist groups, which at the start of the revolution it claimed it was fighting against to protect the people,” he said.

“But these groups never existed in Syria before the revolution, so the regime had to create them itself. It has been most successful with IS, as this group has fought against the FSA and taken over liberated areas and installed sectarian tyranny in them to the extent that some people would rather return to the repression of the Al-Assad regime.”

“IS has worked to eliminate the people and organisations that sparked the revolution, something that the regime has been unable to do. It has attacked civil forces and institutions that champion democracy in Syria. The regime has never once attacked IS since it has nothing to gain by weakening a group that fights against its enemies,” Kilo said.

 “IS has no part to play in the opposition. It has nothing whatsoever to do with forces that are fighting for freedom, co-existence, democracy, human rights and justice. This is a group that rejects these ideals and fights against those who are battling the regime.”

The fate of IS today is in the hands of the international community, not the people of Syria or Iraq.

If the international community does not take action to eliminate the real forces that lie behind the group, being content instead to act against the group alone, another group will surely emerge to take its place and continue to threaten the world’s peace and security and not just that of the Middle East region.

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