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