Rise of the IS

The emer­gence of the IS could be be­gin­ning of a new desta­bi­liz­ing force in the Mid­dle East.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - The writer is a re­tired Vice Ad­mi­ral of the Pak­istan Navy.

The ISIS is vi­ciously en­gaged in ab­duc­tions, mur­ders and ex­pul­sions of those who dif­fer with its be­liefs.

It is said that the North Amer­i­can ci­cada nymphs live un­der­ground for years be­fore emerg­ing as adults. In much the same man­ner, the world first took no­tice of the ISIL fight­ers about a year ago as they swarmed through large swaths of ter­ri­tory in Iraq and Syria (nam­ing it as the Is­lamic State of Iraq and the Le­vant) although seeds of Sunni ex­trem­ism were sown soon after the down­fall of Sad­dam Hus­sein when the Sun­nis sud­denly felt dis­en­fran­chised of all po­lit­i­cal power after decades of mi­nor­ity rule over the majority in Iraq. The world’s at­ten­tion was once again fo­cused on the ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion when it re­cently killed two Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists both of whom were ab­ducted from Syria dur­ing the last two years.

The re­li­gious ex­trem­ism and vi­o­lence be­ing prac­ticed by the ISIL is metas­ta­siz­ing at an alarm­ing speed. The two key el­e­ments of its strat­egy for rapid as­cen­dency are the use of ter­ror as the weapon of choice against the vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion and to tar­get those ar­eas for con­trol where the writ of the Iraqi and Syr­ian gov­ern­ments has weak­ened due to in­ter­nal strife.

The ISIL has now re­named it­self as Is­lamic State (IS), cho­sen Abu Bakr alBagh­dadi as its caliph and de­clared an Is­lamic caliphate in an area be­tween Marea and Al-Bab in north­west­ern

By Taj M. Khat­tak Syria to around 100 kilo­me­ters out­side of Bagh­dad. It has fur­ther stated that alBagh­dadi is the ‘caliph and leader of Mus­lims ev­ery­where’. This is clearly an ap­peal to Mus­lims across the world and a chal­lenge to Al-Qaeda lead­er­ship. It also strikes a chord with many Mus­lim coun­tries where the Sun­nis are in a majority and where gen­er­a­tions of young peo­ple have been raised on a daily diet of hos­tile pro­jec­tion of other sects on the elec­tronic me­dia. For his­tor­i­cal rea­sons, the dec­la­ra­tion of a caliphate by a Sunni ex­trem­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion will fur­ther deepen the Shia-Sunni chasm.

Symp­toms of a new desta­bi­liz­ing force emerg­ing in the Mid­dle East were un­mis­tak­able when re­ports first sur­faced about the pres­ence of Al-Qaeda el­e­ments in the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion with fi­nan­cial back­ing from Saudi Ara­bia – a U.S. ally which has be­come es­tranged after the U.S. balked at driv­ing Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad out of power. But th­ese signs were ig­nored. Much to ev­ery­one’s sur­prise, the west sup­plied it the where­withal to bat­tle As­sad’s forces for short term ob­jec­tives, in­di­rectly al­low­ing the IS em­bryo cells to grow.

The is­sue with al­low­ing a dan­ger­ous phe­nom­e­non like the IS to foster as a pol­icy op­tion in the short term is that in the long term it even­tu­ally be­comes too big to con­tain. It is, there­fore, no sur­prise that to­day the IS is locked in a bit­ter ri­valry with Ha­mas for a dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive in Sunni ex­trem­ism in the Ara­bian Penin­sula stretch­ing from the banks of the Euphrates and Ti­gris in the east to the shores of the Mediter­ranean in the west.

The leader and self-pro­claimed caliph of the IS as well as his or­ga­ni­za­tion have been widely con­demned by nu­mer­ous Mus­lim schol­ars but that is not likely to pro­tect the av­er­age young Mus­lims from be­ing in­flu­enced by his rhetoric. In his state­ment made after tak­ing con­trol over Mo­sul, he clev­erly re­it­er­ated the state­ment made by the first caliph of Is­lam after the

demise of Prophet Muham­mad (PBUH) as he urged Mus­lims to join what he called a ji­had. But the IS’ per­cep­tion of ji­had is misplaced. Like Al-Qaeda, it is also smear­ing the good name of Is­lam in the guise of ji­had against in­fi­dels, whereas in re­al­ity it is vi­ciously en­gaged in ab­duc­tions, mur­ders and ex­pul­sions of those who dif­fer with its be­liefs.

The Qu­ran clearly states in Su­rah Al-Hajj, ayat 39-40: “Per­mis­sion to fight (against dis­be­liev­ers) is given to those (be­liev­ers) who are fought against, be­cause they have been wronged; and surely, Al­lah is able to give them (be­liev­ers) vic­tory – Those who have been ex­pelled from their homes, un­justly only be­cause they said: “Our Lord is Al­lah.” For had it not been that Al­lah checks one set of peo­ple by means of another, monas­ter­ies, churches, syn­a­gogues, and mosques, wherein the Name of Al­lah is men­tioned much, would surely have been pulled down.”

Most Mus­lim schol­ars ac­knowl­edge that this verse holds the prin­ci­pal rea­son for armed ji­had in Is­lam – which is to re­sist un­jus­ti­fied ag­gres­sion against one­self or oth­ers due to a dif­fer­ence in be­liefs. An im­por­tant in­fer­ence from this in­junc­tion is that non-Mus­lims liv­ing in Mus­lim lands must be pro­tected and it is im­per­mis­si­ble to un­justly ex­pel them or de­stroy their houses of wor­ship. Con­trary to the fun­da­men­tal Is­lamic teach­ings which are of pro­found sig­nif­i­cance, the IS com­mits the very acts against those not ad­her­ing to the ex­trem­ist Sunni views which are ab­horred in all teach­ings of Is­lam.

As to how the fu­ture will pan out for the or­ga­ni­za­tion, it is very dif­fi­cult to tell at this stage since the re­gion is en­gulfed in a four-pronged war. First, there is the in­tense fight­ing be­tween the IS and the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces. Iron­i­cally, it was As­sad who had fa­cil­i­tated the rise of the IS by re­leas­ing ji­hadists from prisons and suc­cess­fully con­vey­ing a mes­sage to the west that if he was re­moved, the al­ter­na­tive would be Al-Qaeda rule in Syria. As it hap­pens all too fre­quently in such cloak and dag­ger games, the IS turned against its bene­fac­tor by at­tack­ing the Syr­ian mil­i­tary forces in Homs, Raqqa and Has­sakeh.

Then there is the war be­tween the IS and the main­stream rebels in Syria. The IS has lately pushed back Jub­hat al-Nusra from Dei res-Zur. Jub­hat is an Al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ated group made up largely of Sunni Is­lamic mu­ja­hedeen. It is openly sup­ported by Ay­men alZawahiri and its goal is also to cre­ate a Pan-Is­lamic state. The IS is com­pet­ing with Jub­hat to win the hearts and minds of the peo­ple in the ar­eas un­der its con­trol so as to present it­self as the best op­tion to over­throw As­sad.

The third facet of the con­flict is the in­ternecine fight­ing be­tween var­i­ous mili­tia groups on the one side and As­sad’s forces on the other. The di­vi­sions among rebel groups have em­bold­ened As­sad to ig­nore the IS for the time be­ing and fo­cus on re­claim­ing Aleppo, em­ploy­ing the same bru­tal tac­tics as in Homs. This is im­por­tant for As­sad be­cause if suc­cess­ful, he could de­clare vic­tory. This sce­nario of As­sad re­tain­ing power in Syria and the IS emerg­ing as the new phe­nom­e­non stronger than Al-Qaeda is giv­ing sleep­less nights in western cap­i­tals and hence the re­peat mantra of arm­ing the main­stream rebels.

The fourth and the last prong of this tur­moil is the war be­tween the IS and the Syr­ian Kur­dish mili­tia, the Pesh­marga. Turkey is caught be­tween a rock and a hard place. If it does not support the Demo­cratic Union Party, the Syr­ian wing of the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers Party in Turkey, which is locked in a bit­ter fight with the IS, the lat­ter will emerge stronger. If it does, the Syr­ian Kur­dish re­gion be­comes a re­al­ity and a Turk­ish Kur­dish re­gion be­com­ing a re­al­ity sub­se­quently can’t be a prospect far be­hind. The emer­gence of a mil­i­tary al­liance be­tween the PYD and the PKK is a new fac­tor wor­ry­ing Turkey th­ese days. As for now, it seems to turn a blind eye to­wards the PYD but keeps a sharp one on the IS, the big­ger threat.

Of late, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has au­tho­rized airstrikes on IS po­si­tions to tem­po­rar­ily check its ad­vances which has brought back the U.S. over Iraqi skies three years after it had left the coun­try in a sham­bles. Obama has ad­mit­ted that the re­newed aerial war in Iraq is un­likely to be over any time soon. A long-term so­lu­tion to pre­vent the IS from per­ma­nently al­ter­ing nearly a cen­tury old bor­der be­tween Syria and Iraq, how­ever, lies in ad­dress­ing the very cause which helped its cre­ation – end­ing the war in Syria and bring­ing greater sta­bil­ity in Iraq.

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