University of Swansea Lecture 19 March 2015
The barbarism of the group Islamic State or ISIL risks engulfing the Middle East in a catastrophe of terror, sending shockwaves of instability raging through the region with incalculable political and humanitarian consequences.
Last year they executed 700 members of the Syrian Al-Sheitaat tribe and 1,700 Iraqis in Tikrit. Women and children have been sold into sex slavery, boys crucified and a captured Jordanian airman videoed while he was burnt alive trapped in a cage. Victims have been forced on camera to kiss the heads of the recently decapitated moments before their own deaths. Eyes have been gouged out of defeated enemies and minority groups are reportedly hunted for sport according to eye-witnesses reporting to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Family members have reportedly been forced to eat the corpses of their loved ones.
Acts of unspeakable brutality like these are quite deliberate: helping ISIL create the myth that it is omnipotent, spreading terror and total incomprehension that any human being could ever behave in this way – even more so when normal British boys become such monsters in adulthood.
ISIL’s philistine destruction of ancient artefacts demonstrates not just a disrespect for other cultures but an ignorance of their own as the Islamic world loses its history to their sledge-hammers and crowbars, in territory unusually rich in rare traces of civilisations gone by, such as the Assyrians and Babylonians, with the origins of Islam, Christianity and Judaism to be found among the deserts and mountains of the region.
Acts of ISIL vandalism such as the destruction of an Assyrian church built in 700 AD, or the destruction of the tomb of biblical prophet Jonah in Mosul are both attention-seeking and in-line with their extreme Wahhabi ideology which forbids the worship of any idols, and is in line with the ‘purification’ of their territory.
In February 2015 ancient statues were destroyed in their hundreds by ISIL fighters in Iraq in a deliberate display of totalitarian ideology. The ancient city of Nimrud is no more, joining Hatra, a UN world heritage city, on the list bulldozed.
ISIL’s relentless advance
By late summer 2014, ISIL was relentlessly advancing beyond Syria and deep into Iraq, with genocidal attacks launched on everyone who did not conform to its fundamentalist theology – including fellow Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and minority groups such as Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and Turkmen.
At one point it seemed that nothing could stop ISIL’s onslaught. But then, in September 2014, after a parliamentary motion authorising military strikes on ISIL in Iraq (for which I voted) – and, crucially, requested by the Iraqi Government and by the Kurdish authorities – Britain, joined by other European nations and America, delivered both this and other assistance to those resisting ISIL’s advance. Minorities were saved from extinction, and Kurdish Iraq was bolstered in its fight back.
Since then military action against ISIL has been ongoing, very significantly with the participation of countries in the Middle East: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Turkey. Western logistical and other military support has also helped bolster an Iraqi army in danger of being completely overrun, and gradually ISIL has been either held or pushed back. Nevertheless it remains a ruthlessly potent threat, with the capacity to spring back or strike at new targets.
Voices arguing that it is none of our business to intervene in a faraway conflict are growing quieter. The shocking massacre of Coptic Christians by ISIL in Libya in February 2015 has triggered greater involvement by Egypt, crucially furthering the region’s sense of ownership of the fight against ISIL and ensuring that, despite Western involvement, this is not merely another intervention by foreign powers.
The legacy of 2003’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq has irreparably damaged the very notion of western intervention. I was a British Cabinet Minister then and I backed Tony Blair’s decision to invade because I honestly believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I was wrong: he didn’t – we went to war on a lie, and the aftermath was disastrous.
The ensuing decade has made me deeply allergic to any form of British armed intervention in the region. Since 9/11, the West has had a pretty poor success rate for its interventions in Muslim countries, even though every single one was undertaken by the Governments in power for what were believed to be the most honourable of reasons. Not even Libya – a supposedly surgical operation consented to by Parliament in 2011 – has been a good advertisement, for it has since become ungovernable, engulfed in conflict between warring fiefdoms, with ISIL now menacingly active there too, just to the south of Italy, right on Europe’s Mediterranean doorstep.
Yet indulging in the fictitious luxury of isolationism, never intervening abroad, turning our back on our international obligations, doing nothing in the face of genocide as the West shamefully did over Rwanda in 1994, is indefensible.
Tony Blair’s Labour government, in which I was at different times Africa and Middle East Minister, was right to intervene and save Sierra Leone from savagery in 2000 and also to prevent the genocide of Muslims in Kosovo in 1999.
Now, Britain is helping defend, with unusually Iran on the same side, a fledgling Iraqi government that has the potential to unite and create a lasting peace. The current Prime Minister of Iraq Haider Al-Abadi promises inclusive Shia-Sunni rule quite different from the Shia sectarianism of his predecessor Al-Maliki, who had been wrongly backed by the West. As a House of Commons Defence Committee Report in February 2015 put it: ‘the Sunni communities became increasingly alienated from the al-Maliki Government (which they perceived as an alien, Iranian-backed conspiracy), and, therefore, increasingly fertile ground for the insurgents’.
It is significant that Iran’s Republican Guard in March 2015 began taking the lead in the defence of the Iraqi city of Tikrit with the blessing of the Iraqi government.
Nevertheless there is a real danger that by stepping in at all western powers risk freeing Middle East governments and their militia proxies to pursue other sectarian agendas to the detriment of the anti-ISIL campaign. The West must be very determined and careful to ensure there is regional ownership of, and responsibility for, tackling the ISIL problem, rather than allowing them to pass the buck.
The Commons Defence Committee argued that Britain must ramp up its involvement in the conflict, to match the contribution of the US, Germany, Italy, Spain and Australia. But the danger is that this will turn the conflict into the very one ISIL craves: with the ‘infidels’ of the west.
But what is ISIL?
The Commons Defence Committee persuasively argue that a central problem with Britain’s involvement in the fight against ISIL is the lack of understanding, even at highest levels.
Although its cadres were active in Iraq for about a decade, first under the guise of Al-Qaeda and later as ISIL, this attracted little attention from British intelligence. In 2014 therefore ISIL seemed to have sprung out of nowhere. In fact ISIL’s development from Al-Qaeda in Iraq to its current form came from the horrific situation playing out in Syria since 2011 when President Assad repressed, then unleashed a campaign of butchery against protestors peacefully demanding the democratic values of the Arab Spring for Syria.
ISIL contains many foreign fighters from across the Arab and Islamic world, but its leadership includes several senior ex-Saddam Hussein army and intelligence officers of legendary cruelty: a powerful mix of extremist ideology and professional military experience expertise making it so formidable.
Within Iraq the goals of the ex-Sadaam Sunni Baathist leadership and ISIL are very different, offering the opportunity to divide them. ISIL wants an Islamic State stretching from Iraq to Syria and opposes preserving the borders of Iraq. By contrast its current Sunni Iraqi allies either want to overthrow what is a Shia dominated government to regain the supremacy they lost when Sadaam was removed in 2003, or favour a semi-autonomous region, like the Kurds do.
ISIL is medieval both in its barbarism and in its fanatical religious zeal. But, at the same time, it is a product of a deep seated sense of Sunni disenfranchisement from the Sunni autocracies in the region. Unless that political malaise is addressed, ISIL – and groups like it – will continue to feed off popular resentment.
ISIL’s members possess a devout belief that the teachings of the conservative Wahhabi sect – which dates from the 18th century within the Sunni strand of Islam – possesses the sole truth.
ISIL labels non-Wahhabi Muslims (even fellow Sunnis) as apostates – providing justification for exterminating both them and any other religious group blocking the way to establishing its objective: a caliphate, that is to say an Islamic state, encompassing all Muslims and led by a caliph, successor to Mohammed. Consequently ISIL has a chilling certainty of its righteousness and fundamentalism.
According to US intelligence estimates back in September 2014, ISIL commanded between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters. No-one seems to be willing to put a figure on the current numbers, though they may have doubled. ISIL commands a huge area of land straddling Syria and Iraq, accounting for 40 per cent of Iraqi wheat production, with around 6 million people living under its rule.
Although the rise of such a new caliphate has long been the stated aim of global Jihadi terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, the rigidly extreme Wahhabism specific to ISIL makes them an even more potent threat than Al-Qaeda, the bogey-men of the last two decades.
Global Jihadis see the world as a confrontation between their way of life and that of the West, a dichotomy re-enforced by President George W Bush’s invocation of a similar binary world view. The Arab Spring, confounding hopes that it could be a harbinger of democracy and secularism in the region, has resulted instead in the collapse of several states that were led by allies of the West, leaving a power vacuum and the opportunity for Jihadis with long-held anti-Western aims to take that space and establish some authoritarian control.
In Syria and Iraq, ISIL has fed on the power vacuum created by bitter conflict and decades of division, and they aim to exploit geo-political frailties to advance even to Afghanistan – creating a 2,000 mile long so-called Islamic State with ready-made supporters among the Taliban.
ISIL’s leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi Sunni. He is not an ordained Imam or preacher though he did sometimes lead the prayers in his local mosque. He has a doctorate in Sharia law, a wife and a son, and it is suspected he was radicalised by a stint in an American-run jail in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War.
It’s unclear why he was elected by Al-Qaeda to lead the insurrection against Al-Maliki’s Iraqi government, but he soon began arguing that the struggles against the regimes in Syria and Iraq were ideologically the same which lead to a split with the leaders of Al-Qaeda who wanted Abu-Bakr and his men to concentrate on Iraq and not Syria. Furthermore, he disavows the existence of a border between Iraq and Syria, countries created from the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 – an agreement deemed by ISIL and Al-Qaeda to have been imposed on the Arab tribes by imperialist ‘crusaders’.
Unlike moderate Sunnis, and most adherents to other branches of Islam, Christians and Jews are not considered by ISIL as ‘people of the book’ to be protected, but as infidels, justifying forced conversions on pain of death.
For ISIL, fighting to establish the caliphate is mandated by divine law. Whether the caliphate is a real state or an imagined community, whether that fight is physical or ideological, are arguments that have been prominent among Muslim scholars for centuries but that really took hold over the last three decades among the Middle Eastern diaspora in the West. ISIL comes from the tradition that states the caliphate is a physical goal to be achieved through physical, largely violent, means.
ISIL adherents are nationalists in their belief and dedication to the concept of umma, a vague but powerful expression of pan-Arab Islamic nationalism, the exact substance of which is hotly debated, but also the driving force of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda amongst others.
What makes ISIL’s ideology so dangerous?
Umma that attracts followers and leads some Sunnis to turn a blind eye to the very real evil perpetrated by these extremist followers of their faith. The interpretation of their sacred duty to the caliphate may appear to be primarily anti-Western, but the real purpose is to conquer the Islamic region and defeat infidel Muslims.
Sunni support for ISIL has been encouraged not just by the disastrously anti-Sunni sectarianism of the previous Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, a Shia, but by the butchery of Syrian President Assad, also Shia-aligned.
The resulting chaos in both Iraq and Syria means that ISIL can even be quite popular in Sunni areas it controls because it has brought stability and security out of chaos.
Authoritative commentators on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even worry that Israel’s failure to negotiate a settlement could allow ISIL to gain a foothold amongst Palestinians totally frustrated at the inability of their leaders to win recognition for their own state.
There are other groups who would also look favourably upon an ISIL-led caliphate spreading their way; groups that already inspire fear by practicing terror: Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Somalia for example. The possibility of Jihadist groups with existing support bases merging with ISIL is a very real danger, for example the Egyptian group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis.
Because ISIL was motivated by revenge against the Shia-friendly Al-Maliki regime which openly persecuted Sunnis, one of the first things that ISIL did when capturing new territory was to round up government workers and execute them. Under Al-Maliki most government appointments even at a lowly level were perceived as going to Shias.
ISIL’s sectarianism is evident in everything that they do and in their carefully calibrated symbolism. Their leader Abu Bakr has taken the name of the first Sunni Caliph rejected by the Shias after the death of Muhammad. His name represents a Sunni call to arms.
Because Maliki’s government was so unpopular with the Sunnis, that call to arms resonated with those who normally wouldn’t support extremism – especially taken to the brutal lengths that ISIL go to – a state of affairs reminiscent of the Northern Ireland Troubles where many otherwise peaceful Irish Catholics tacitly supported the IRA: even though they might have abhorred IRA violence, they had faced generations of persecution and discrimination.
This is one of the reasons why the Iraqi army initially folded so easily at the sight of the oncoming ISIL hordes in 2014 – the army included Sunnis who were disinclined to fight a group which states its aim is to destroy a government that those Sunni soldiers resented or even hated. This is also the danger inherent in relying on the Iraqi army alone to take the lead in destroying ISIL.
Adding to the toxic mix in Iraq is the presence of up to one million fighters belonging to disparate Shia militias, some directly funded by Iran, of which local Sunnis are deeply suspicious – not least because of sectarian violence by those militiamen against Iraqi Sunnis, according to Amnesty International among others.
ISIL’s deadly purpose
The Global Terrorism Database states ISIL are the most deadly terrorists in pure numbers of fatalities ever recorded. Yet for an avowedly Sunni group, so far the main fatalities of their bloodlust have been other Sunnis. Indeed across the world, Sunni Muslim extremists of all types have killed more Sunni Muslims than westerners or Shia Muslims or any other group. This bolsters the case for regional powers, many of them Sunni countries, to take ownership of this conflict because it primarily threatens their populations not ours.
Reports of ISIL’s barbarity usually come from or are corroborated by their own quasi-press office. They publish an English language magazine called Dabiq which has detailed ISIL’s justification for the capture, enslavement, and sale of Yazidi women and children.
Consequently any claims that the worst atrocities are perpetrated by rogue members are quite false. The degradation of women and children as a primary tool for creating terror both defines ISIL and is a policy imposed from the very top. Human Rights Watch in August 2014 reported: ‘We heard shocking stories of forced religious conversions, forced marriage, and even sexual assault and slavery – and some of the victims were children.’
Worryingly for Britain, ISIL’s specific concept of umma is proving more attractive to some young British men and women than our own concept of a secular nation state. Although it is fanciful to suggest that ISIL represents an existential threat to us all, if its appeal ever led to the erosion of a worldwide consensus that democracy and liberal values are the way of the future, then that would indeed be the case.
ISIL would turn the clock back to slavery, having already sold even 14-year old girls into sexual slavery. Their social media posts project a category of ‘lesser humans’. For example: ‘Enslaving the families of the [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of Sharia that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Quran and the narrations of the Prophet.’ Moreover ISIL has a genocidal strategy murder or enslavement of around two thirds of all Iraqis. In an era where capital punishment has been widely banned across the world, ISIL shamelessly uses it for all manner of perceived crimes – in direct contravention of civilised advances towards implementing values of non-violence, equality and tolerance.
The unmasking of ISIL’s ‘Jihadi John’ – the fighter prominent in videoed hostage beheadings – as North West Londoner, and the flight of the three bright and apparently normal teenage girls from London’s East End, all second generation Muslim immigrants, poses an uncomfortable question as to why British values are less attractive than the almost certain death for the men, and quasi or actual slavery for the women and girls, who go out to join ISIL.
However, unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIL are running the necessary trappings of a state in the areas that they have captured – courts, schools, a degree of welfare support for the elderly and infirm – which can bring local people used to an unregulated, chaotic and often violent power vacuum on side. This sets them apart in a more tangible way than the suggestion that ISIL is more ‘extreme’ than Al-Qaeda. Although ISIL have killed more in a shorter space of time, for most of their existence they were called ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’. The two groups share the same long-term goal: the return of the borderless Islamic caliphate based upon Wahhabi fundamentalism: an ideology overwhelmingly rejected by Muslims the world over.
Unlike Al-Qaeda which is a secretive, cell-based and fragmented movement, ISIL is highly centralised and highly vocal. ISIL adherents have successfully built up a brand, to use marketing jargon. The ISIL brand is strong, recognisable, clear and direct – which makes it ideal for recruiting, especially among disaffected young people.
This is partly because ISIL runs an expert and highly effective propaganda campaign, waged through the use of social media. ISIL fighters use both twitter and Facebook among other platforms to circulate images and videos of sectarian massacres – creating hysteria which precedes ISIL’s arrival in new towns and provinces.
Many of the fighters have their own social media accounts also used for recruitment, where the message is coloured and brought to life through personal testimony. To young, disaffected Muslims in the UK, this is a unique chance to see into the life of a British ISIL recruit before committing, and it makes minor ‘celebrities’ of those fighters with the most active social media presence.
Another ISIL innovation is an Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, or Dawn, which is an ‘official’ ISIL ‘product’ and is advertised as a way of keeping up to date on ISIL-related news.
This enables ISIL to tweet through hundreds of other twitter accounts the same ISIL sanctioned tweet in a short time frame. By February 2015 ISIL controlled 46,000 Twitter accounts according to an analyst from the Brookings Institution. Their tweets include links, hashtags, and images and influence what topics are trending, particularly in the Arabic world.
Organising hashtag campaigns is a trick used by western political parties and charities to get an issue trending. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of users will repeatedly tweet a hashtag in order to get it trending. According to the Arab Twitter account @Active Hashtags which tweets the day’s top trending tags, ISIL hashtags receive on average 72 retweets, before those retweets are then retweeted reaching a large audience – amplifying ISIL’s online support to make it look bigger, thereby legitimising support and drawing in more. UK corporations hire social-media-marketing gurus to produce this scale of impact.
In just one month between 17 September and 17 October 2014 there were more than four million mentions of the English acronym ISIL or ISIS on Twitter; the Arabic acronym was mentioned 1.9m times over the same period.
However, in November 2014 an authoritative report into ISIL by Richard Barrett, the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, argued that the social media platforms the group has exploited so successfully to disseminate propaganda will also play a key role in its demise by rapidly spreading discord among the six million people under its rule.
Barrett stated: ‘The thirst for change that Islamic State has managed to exploit will not be slaked by its totalitarian approach towards its subjects. In today’s world, no state, however remote, can hope to control its population by limiting its access to information or suppressing its ability to think. It will be no more able to harness the social, economic, and political forces around it than were the states that, through their failure, allowed the space for Islamic State to grow.’
Aside from being the bloodiest, ISIL is also, allegedly, the world’s richest terrorist organisation. By 2014 it had reserves of over $2 billion according to British Intelligence. The money is a combination of illegal oil exports from refineries they control in Syria and Iraq, extorting non-Muslim Iraqis and Syrians of protection money, and the requisitioning of goods along the way. Obviously oil is the biggest source of revenue but it is also a liability because not many countries want to buy it and it is hard to smuggle out. It is therefore heavily discounted to entice buyers, most of whom are in Turkey, Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan (the latter two ironically ISIL’s targets).
ISIL’s fighters are paid, another factor which has featured prominently in recruitment material. The payment is a flat rate for themselves, for each wife and for each child, and those payments are supposed to carry on being made to the family if the fighter dies – an example of how ISIL is emulating the functions of a state. All of these transactions are made in cash via couriers, relying on the cooperation of border guards.
ISIL survival and success does therefore depend on a carefully calibrated if unorthodox economy. One reason why Turkey is under no immediate territorial threat from ISIL, is that it relies too much on smuggling routes through Turkish territory both to purchase vital goods and to sell discounted oil. Then there is a steady stream of donations, especially from sources in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although the amounts are small compared to oil revenues.
Ambivalence in the Arab World
When in August 2013 the British Parliament – rightly in my view – decided not to agree on military strikes against the Assad regime or arming the moderate Free Syria Army, many of those opposing the Prime Minister’s recommendation to do so were concerned that arms were likely to fall into the hands of Jihadis, as happened in late October 2014 in Idlib. Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL were already looking like the more successful partners in the coalition of rebels fighting Assad. Arms from the UK to moderate rebels would not have helped to prevent this state of affairs, because it would not have matched the international funds reaching ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, particularly from funders in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.
Several Sunni Arabic states are generally assumed to be playing a double game, denouncing ISIL at state level but turning a blind eye to private citizens (especially the really wealthy and powerful ones) making donations.
As a Shia country in a Sunni dominated region Iran has been very vocal in expressing frustration that Sunni countries which are nominal allies of the US have been funding Sunni extremism, including ISIL, for years and are only now seeing the consequences of how this might threaten their own existence. Given the opportunity, ISIL would be unlikely to baulk at expanding its activities onto the territory of erstwhile bank-rollers. Indeed ISIL considers the governing Saudi Monarchy as ‘corrupt betrayers’ of their common Wahhabism.
Emiratis have carved out a distinct role, perhaps the most coherently strategic of all the Gulf states. The UAE is highly critical of Qatar’s role, and instrumental in opposing it in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Whereas Qataris and Saudis have openly and generously funded radical Syrian Islamist groups, including indirectly and perhaps inadvertently ISIL, Abu Dhabi has been much more cautious: keen on a transition from Assad but concerned that this does not open the door to Jihadist fundamentalism and even greater chaos. They have also been by far the leading Gulf nation participant alongside the US in air strikes against ISIL.
Kurdish protesters in the West have pointed the finger in particular at Turkey and Saudi-Arabia, accusing the British Government amongst others of hypocrisy for supporting those countries whilst trying to get rid of ISIL. Qatar is never far from these criticisms either.
Yet the dilemma for Britain is first, can we really afford to support Qatar and Saudi Arabia, knowing that they harbour nationals who would, or do already, fund groups keen to mount terrorist activities against Britain? And second, can Britain afford to take a stand whilst relying on Qatari gas and Saudi oil, as well as lucrative sales of military equipment to those countries?
What can be done about ISIL?
In proudly publicising its own atrocities ISIL seeks to goad the West into reacting emotionally, not strategically, on the basis of a hypothetical threat to the West when the real threat is in the region.
Yet for all their bloodlust, capabilities and wealth, ISIL is no match for the military, surveillance and intelligence capacities of NATO, especially the US and Britain. US air power has already provided the Iraqi government with the help needed to come to the support of the Kurds and other minorities facing genocide by ISIL, but air power will always be insufficient, which is why regional powers must coordinate on the ground, preferably Sunni regional powers. The significant contribution of half a dozen Arab countries has slowed ISIL’s remorseless advance and some territory has been retaken.
Iran’s de facto, if covert, blessing for Western military strikes is of seismic importance, opening up an opportunity for future engagement and collaboration which could be transformative for the whole region, Israel-Palestine included.
Although Britain has made the right choice helping local Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIL with air strikes, drones, military equipment and other support, British troops on the ground would be entirely counterproductive.
Countries in the region must take ownership of this battle because ISIL threatens each of them. And none more so than Saudi Arabia, whose king enjoys the position of being the spiritual as well as political figurehead of Sunni Wahhabism according to the traditional three pillars of Wahhabism. Abu Bakr’s ISIL rejects those three pillars which state that “One Ruler, One Authority, One Mosque” falls to Saudi Arabia. Instead Abu Bakr considers himself to be thus anointed in a direct challenge to the supremacy of Saudi King Abdullah.
Many commentators have drawn a parallel with US funding of the Afghan muhajideen fighting against Soviet invaders. For these fighters later turned their attention and their US funded guns on the West. Saudi nationals funding of ISIL risks encouraging a similar subsequent attack against their own government.
The Muslim divide and the Christian divide
However, rather than being patronising about Sunni/Shia sectarianism in the region, the West should show some humility and acknowledge that the relative peace we take for granted today in our own countries has developed out of centuries of our own bloody history of internecine Christian conflict, some of it, as in Northern Ireland, very recent.
There were ferocious religious wars in Europe between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Protestant reformation’s stated aim was to purify Christianity after centuries of perceived degradation by the Catholic Church who in turned chose violence to repress these ‘heretics’, resulting in carnage and terror. Although there is no direct theological comparison with today’s Shia-Sunni conflicts, each side of this Muslim divide believes that to make concessions to the other is to risk total elimination, and each side’s religious aims have been co-opted by regional governments in order to gain control for themselves.
There is a striking parallel between repression by medieval Catholics and ISIL’s approach to the Yazidis. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, so-called heretics were annihilated by the Catholic Church – Cathars in particular were accused of devil-worship and perversion, much as Yazidis have been demonised by ISIL. Catholics succeeded for a long time in wiping out religious differences and silencing all dissent in Western Europe. If ISIL succeeds the same fate awaits the Middle East.
After the wars of religion in Europe came the Enlightenment, and secular nationalism eventually developed into the predominant model of government, with religion relegated to a more private position in society and religious tolerance implemented. A similar secular consensus should be the objective of all in the Middle East. But this is unlikely to be fostered by any existing players, including the so-called moderate fighters in Syria favoured by the West. Although they are open to democratic elections deciding the future of the country, their agenda also discriminates against women, and opposes secularism and non-Sunnis.
What hope for the future of the region?
As long as the Sunni-Shia fault line divides and poisons the politics of the Middle East, the region will be never be stable.
Defeating ISIL will be impossible without substantive progress in Iraq towards a democratic, secular and unified government encompassing Sunnis, Shias and Kurds – perhaps based upon a federal structure. This could provide the stability not experienced in living memory but which Iraqis crave and deserve.
We are also seeing the beginnings of enhanced regional cooperation through the coalition of Arab States currently engaging in air strikes and military attacks against ISIL. They evidently do not want a return to a medieval caliphate but look forward to building modern nations.
The last few months have seen an indirect alignment between the US and Iran, because of threats to Iranian interests. ISIL represents the end of Shia rights in Iraq which is not only home to a large Shia population but also to sacred locations in the Shia tradition. To the overwhelmingly Shia population and leadership of Iran this is incredibly important – even to the point of discreetly backing their old enemy, the US, in the bombing of ISIL strongholds. There is, however no prospect of Iran, which has consistently opposed US involvement, especially military, in the region, turning cheerleader. A thawing of relations with the West is the most that can be expected for now, and depends upon the outcome of current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear intentions: civil or military.
The flow of young men from states in the Middle East and North Africa to ISIL, is in part due to the failure of the Arab Spring to secure genuine change for that generation of worldly, connected young people. Many young Arab men and women were switched onto politics by the events of 2011, and have not been satisfied by either changes in regime or the small reforms granted by those regimes that survived. To them ISIL is a cause, an exciting, successful rejection of a life which has left them with skills but without jobs or a stake in their own societies. Poverty and disparity in education are also factors. As Chatham House analyst Jane Kinnimont has written, ISIL are ‘not deeply rooted in Iraqi or Syrian society’, instead they are ‘an indication of how desperate people are for an alternative to the status quo.’
Limits to Western intervention
The King of Saudi Arabia has often expressed the need for Arab ownership of security issues in the region, a position that has sometimes lead to tension with the US which considers itself to be the key player. But unless the US and Europe are prepared to embrace Arab ownership of the region’s conflicts and to put the onus on Arab states to find a solution, there is no prospect of establishing peace and stability in the Middle East. Despite the benefits of getting rid of Saddam, Iraq is a salutary case study of how Western intervention can go disastrously wrong.
Today Western mission creep should be firmly resisted but we can and should offer our assistance more creatively as the Commons Defence Select Committee recommends. The US and its allies cannot defeat ISIL. All we can help to do is contain them. We can, however, provide more planes and we should do so when requested by the Iraqi security forces and the Kurds. We can also offer to help with structural reform of the Kurdish Peshmerga and the training of troops. But this strategy must be based upon insuring that the states in the region take responsibility for defeating ISIL militarily and also politically by resolving the grievances and state failures upon which they thrive.
Otherwise Western states run the risk of minimising the threat of ISIL against Arabic states, thus minimising those states’ responsibility to act. That path leads to a never-ending cycle of intervention and withdrawal that has weakened and radicalised the entire region.
Currently the West and its regional allies have no clear plan or political and military strategy for defeating ISIL. Having initially and successfully fought like a proper army out in the open, ISIL suffered heavy casualties from air strikes and subsequently resorted to guerrilla tactics not so easily targeted.
Furthermore, containing ISIL in Iraq is not enough. It has to be done in Syria too because ISIL controls a chunk of land across the border which to it is invisible. If it is pushed back from Iraq it will retreat into Syria and regroup.
Syria’s Russian supplied air defences have been hit by the fighting, yet they remain quite sophisticated. Even the US has had to pre-inform and liaise with Assad’s forces about the timing and location of its air strikes.
Although without either UN or Syrian government authorisation, air strikes in Syria may be illegal, there could well be justification under international law without UN agreement, for instance under the UN’s Responsibility To Protect doctrine. And UN authority for air strikes in Syria won’t be granted without agreement of Russian President Putin – maybe Iranian President Rouhani too. That’s very difficult, to many utterly distasteful, yet what is the alternative?
Of course Assad’s forces have unleashed horrifying waves of violence on sections of his people, though his Jihadist opponents too have committed terrible atrocities. Instead of trying – and humiliatingly failing – to bounce Parliament into backing a military strike in Syria in late August 2013, the Prime Minister should have promoted a negotiated solution from the very beginning. That was always going to be the only way to get Assad – and more important his backers – to shift towards compromise. Continuing to insist, as a pre-condition, on Assad’s removal was never going to work, indeed has helped prolong a conflict taking about 100 lives a day.
For Syria never was some simplistic battle between evil and good, between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people.
It is a civil war: a quagmire into which Britain should tread at dire peril. At its heart is an incendiary political struggle feeding upon Sunni versus Shia, and their chief protagonists and sponsors Saudi Arabia versus Iran. And also a cold-war hangover: the US with all its considerable military and intelligence assets in the region versus Russia with its only Mediterranean port and an intelligence capability in Syria.
Even more crucially, Assad is backed by around 40 per cent of the population, his ruling Shia-aligned Alawites fearful of being oppressed by the Sunni majority along with Kurds, Christians and other minorities. Although few like his repressive Baathist rule, they always feared even more the alternative – becoming victims of genocide, Jihadism or Sharia extremism: and with very good cause as we now see in ISIL.
Assad, backed by such a large proportion of his people and by the power of Russia and Iran, was never going to be defeated. If western military intervention had somehow toppled him without a settlement in place, violent chaos in the Syrian quicksand would still have ensued. Some analysts believe it would have been even worse than the appalling cruel, brutality Assad unleashed as he drove his people into carnage and chaos instead of responding positively to non-violent protests when the Arab Spring reached Syria in March 2011.
As the UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi set out several years ago, a political solution was always the imperative. That means negotiating with Assad’s regime, and with the Russians and Iranians standing behind him – something US Secretary of State John Kerry belatedly conceded March 2015. Despite Assad’s prompt rejection of Kerry’s offer (seen as a signal of his own strength), the failure to attempt that from the outset is a major reason why the civil war has been so prolonged and why ISIL has been allowed to flourish.
The continuation of US air strikes in concert with Arab boots on the ground in Iraq should be accompanied by an international effort to foster a local, ceasefire-led approach in Syria.
Yet engaging doesn’t mean befriending Assad or his regime. Rather, akin to Churchill in 1941: ‘If Hitler invaded hell,’ he told his private secretary as Germany readied to invade Stalin’s Russia, ‘I would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.’
Handled sensitively this could be an opportunity both to kickstart a proper Syrian peace process and to defuse longstanding, deep and inflammatory divisions amongst Muslims in the Middle East.
Iranians as Shiites sponsor Hezbollah and other militias. Saudis and Qataris as Sunnis sponsor Al Qaeda and other Jihadists – including ISIL where they have helped unleashed a monster now threatening to devour them all.
By acting carefully not bombastically, and by making common cause with both Saudi Arabia and Iran to confront a common ISIL enemy, Britain could possibly even help realign Middle East politics to overcome the bitter and violently corrosive Sunni/Shia fault line. That would be a huge prize for peace and stability and a fresh start in the region.