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On the Origin of ISIS

Why has a terrorist state blossomed in Syria and Iraq?

Redacted from an article BY HUSSAIN ABDUL-HUSSAIN AND LEE SMITH

The Weekly Standard, Sep 8, 2014

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist army many thousand strong now rampaging through the Levant, embraces such an extreme, violent ideology that it makes even al Qaeda squeamish, argue many Western experts. On this reading, al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri was forced to distance himself from ISIS’s bloody practices. In reality, the notion that ISIS’s gory campaign turns the stomach even of an arch-terrorist, America’s public enemy number one, is colorful but inaccurate.

To be sure, ISIS—or the Islamic State, as it now calls itself—is an extremist movement, attracting militants from all over the world eager to help build the new caliphate. Given the thousands of foreigners—including Chechen snipers, Saudi car bombers, and Western misfits like American Douglas McAuthur McCain—who have signed on to fight alongside ISIS, security officials are right to fear that the United States will become an ISIS target. The group kidnaps and murders American journalists. It threatened the existence of the Yazidi community in Iraq, and it slaughtered at least 700 members of the Sheitat, a tribe in Syria, last month. It regularly employs the vicious hudud punishments to enforce sharia law in the areas it controls in Syria and Iraq.

None of this, however, is outside the norms of a region where governments regularly incite hatred of America and Israel, wage wars against their own populations, and kidnap, imprison, and kill foreign nationals. Cutting off the hands of criminals, as prescribed by sharia, is hardly out of the ordinary; the Islamic Republic of Iran hangs gay teenagers from construction cranes, and the legal authorities of Saudi Arabia—an American ally—regularly separate accused criminals from their heads in public executions in what is popularly known as Chop-Chop Square.

Nor are ISIS’s money-raising schemes especially novel in the Middle East. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, the organization’s key source of income is (stolen) oil, especially in the Syrian provinces of Deir al-Zour and Raqqa and the Iraqi province of Nineveh. “They sell it to opposition groups, to the tribes, back to the Syrian regime, or on the Iraqi black market,” says Faysal Itani, an ISIS expert at the Atlantic Council. The other main source of revenue is taxation, or rather, extortion. As one source in the city of Raqqa, ISIS’s so-called capital, explained to us, merchants pay 3,000 Syrian pounds (close to $20) every two months. The kidnapping of foreigners or wealthy Syrians for ransom also brings in millions.

And yet it’s true that ISIS is not exactly what we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the Middle East of late. “This is not a classic insurgency,” says Itani, “or a non-state actor.  Rather, it’s a state-building organization.” ISIS’s effort right now is to secure borders and lines of communication.

ISIS’s leader, Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri, is the self-proclaimed caliph, also known as Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, a 43-year-old jihadist from the Iraqi city of Samarra.  His strategy has been greatly facilitated by the Obama administration’s December 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and the anti-Sunni policies pursued by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. ISIS’s project was further aided by the Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011. Over the last three and half years, it has evolved into a civil war in which Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has slaughtered Sunnis. The White House and the rest of the international community have done nothing to stop him.

In other words, any policy addressing ISIS also has to address the root problem: What gave ISIS room to take hold and blossom is the Iranian-backed order of the Levant, consisting of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Nuri al-Maliki and his successor, Haidar al Abadi, in Iraq. All these are sustained by the Shiite Islamic revolutionary regime in Tehran. And the White House has virtually signed onto this regional security apparatus. It is the tacit agreement the Obama administration has made with Tehran that has not only galvanized ISIS but also made foes out of former allies. Sunni Arab tribes that sided with the United States during the surge to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq less than a decade ago are now joining the Sunni extremists of ISIS.

The other key players in the ISIS-led Sunni rebellion are the Arab tribes on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border. Indeed, the map of ISIS’s new caliphate, with its so-called capital in Raqqa and encompassing Deir al-Zour in Syria and Nineveh, Anbar, Salaheddine, and Diyala in Iraq, overlays a much older map of tribal lands forming a contiguous territory with a total area of around 168,000 square miles, bigger than Great Britain (143,000 square miles). To see how ISIS has succeeded, it is of paramount importance to understand the tribal politics behind its achievement.

Last week President Obama announced that the White House has no policy to deal with ISIS. The revelation came as no surprise since it was the administration’s handling of Iraq and Syria that gave ISIS room to grow.

… But the reality is that Obama doesn’t want to change the equation. As the president has explained in a series of interviews over the last year, he wants to build a new geopolitical equilibrium that would bring Iran back into the community of nations. And to do that, the White House has to respect Iranian regional interests—which amounts to signing off on Iranian hegemony across the Levant, at the expense of America’s traditional regional partners, the Sunnis. (And, by the way — the sacrifice of Israel allowing Iran to build nuclear bombs, which is virtually a fait accompli) jsk

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai.

(PS  Just today, Tuesday Sep 23, 2014, the US cobbled together some sort of bizarre coalition including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Anti-Assad Syrian forces, possibly some Turkish involvement as they are pushed into the conflict by thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing Iraq. This conglomerate is supposed to be attacking ISIS in both Syria and Iraq to degrade it only, with no discussion as to the only real solution —  wiping it off the map.  There are supposedly to be no  American boots on the ground except for advisors? (A necessary gross lie)

The only thing good about it seems to be that Russia does not like it.  Its staunch ally and client state Syria  is being invaded  and its relationship with Iran becomes conflicted.  Syrian President Assad has mixed emotions. It is OK with him so long as his internal enemies are killed and his dictatorship is preserved.  Ultimately  the centuries-old primal forces of tribal and religious enmity will not go away.

The strength of ISIS may be diminished for the moment but what else comes of this action and this bizarre bunch of supposed allies is very much in question. The thought of sacrificing more American lives here makes me sick. I would love the Arabs and the Turks to duke it out themselves.  There are only two US allies in the area in which I have any faith – Israel, of course and our long neglected legitimate friends, the Kurds.)  jsk 

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