Iraq is one of the most dangerous and hostile environments on Earth. There are as many as four million Iraqi refugees across the globe, the highest refugee crisis in the Middle East since large numbers of Palestinians were expelled from Israel when it was founded in 1948. For Iraqi citizens left behind, the threat of terror and danger is ever-present as successive governments, either Sunni or Shia, silence the voices of the other side.
Similarly, the situation in Syria for civilians is dire. President Bashar al-Assad has enacted a brutal crackdown on protesters, massacring his own people with chemical weapons. This has led to the Syrian Civil War and resulted in a refugee crisis that numbers as high as three million.
Along with these repressive regimes, ISIS have jumped into the mix, a group hoping to establish a caliphate in the region. They are seizing land and resources in the region composed Iraq and Syria, and currently control territory the size of the United Kingdom. This blogpost is an attempt to break down and explain the cause of the battle between establishment forces and ISIS insurgents. Because the group has countless different names that can lead to confusion, I will only use ISIS in this blogpost.
So where did they come from? What do they want? And what does this situation tell us? Find out below.
Where did they come from?
– After the World Trade Centre attacks on 9/11 and the London bombings, the U.S. government led a coalition of forces to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, with the stated purpose of bringing the perpetrators to justice and removing the threat of a nuclear weapon attack by Sunni Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was treating the Shia Muslims very badly. Beginning in 2003, the Iraqi invasion was met with much resistance, including by the militia group Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ), or Al-Qaeda in Iraq, who had some control over some Iraqi regions (JTJ will become important later).
– Once the invasion wound down, Hussein was removed, and the Western transitional government’s goals were complete, despite the fact that no nuclear weapons were ever uncovered. The Shia Muslims gained power with Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer at their lead, which led to bad treatment of Sunni Muslims. This led to a Sunni uprising and the flow of terrorist groups into Iraq, culminating in a civil war between the two factions in 2006 which lasted about a year, and which resulted in Sunni, Shia and Kurd segregation in Iraq. Around this time, JTJ continue to seize land with minor success.
– More recently in Syria, Bashar al-Assad enacted a brutal campaign of terror over his own people when they called for him to step down, creating a civil war in Syria as well, complete with a similar flow of terrorist groups into the country that was seen in Iraq. JTJ, after limited success in Iraq, join forces with various other militias and changed their name to ISIS, then turning their gaze to Syria with the stated goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria (hence their name). Crucially, ISIS is comprised of Sunnis, not Shiites.
– Meanwhile, Shia Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki, who resigned this year, cultivated power and discriminated against Sunnis, leading to further sectarian violence. In the fight against ISIS, the Iraqi Army (trained and supported using $25 billion from the U.S.) has largely fled or surrendered because it holds no loyalty to the government of al-Maliki.
(Altered graphic from Wikipedia. The territory in red shows either an ISIS presence or outright ISIS control, and pink shows the planned expansion)
– Back to Syria, not only are ISIS fighting against the Syrian Army of Assad, but also against pretty much all factions of the rebel armies who are trying to depose Assad. In other words, they hate both sides of the civil war because they want Syria to be under their control.
– Because the Iraqi army is not loyal to its government, and because the Syrian Army is preoccupied with fighting rebels, ISIS has managed to seize territory quite effectively. In other words, due to the pre-existing conditions in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has run through the open door to power. To top it off, there is evidence that some militants who worked for Saddam Hussein’s are now working alongside ISIS.
– Fearing that an ISIS caliphate will present a severe threat to the national security of Western nations, the U.S. and UK are conducting airstrikes against the group in Iraq, killing hundreds of militants but many civilians too, including children. Many Western citizens are also leaving their home countries to join ISIS, prompting their governments to consider revoking their passports and denying them entry if they should return. There is even talk of an alliance with Iran, one of the United States’ most hated enemies, in order to reverse the damage done by ISIS. Turkey also has a part to play where ISIS is concerned, given the proximity of the group to Turkey’s borders, and they recently authorized the use of force against ISIS.
In short: Because of the disastrous events in Iraq and Syria as far back as 2001, government control in both countries is very weak and has allowed ISIS to establish itself.
What do they want?
The immediate stated goal of ISIS is to establish a caliphate in the Levant (i.e. Iraq and Syria for our purposes) complete with medieval rule and presumably the suppression of minority groups including women, LGBTs, non-Muslims and even Shiite Muslims. Caliphates are a type of religious-political system where the nation is united under Islam and is ruled by a supreme religious leader, a caliph, the current one representing ISIS being Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This authoritarian form of government is not a necessary component of caliphates, and some of the first caliphates used democratic processes (a bit like how the UK has a monarch but is not under religious rule), although it is hard to imagine an ISIS caliphate being democratic.
ISIS have been responsible for massacring civilians such as Yazidis, raping women, kidnapping Western aid workers, enslaving civilians, ethnic cleansing, and executing prisoners without trial, things that no doubt they would continue to do, and even entrench in law, if they gained any kind of international recognition. This kind of recognition is extremely unlikely however, since pretty much the entire world is in agreement that ISIS must not be allowed to rule over the people of Iraq and Syria. U.S. President Barack Obama, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani all agree that ISIS has to be stopped.
ISIS are also in the unfortunate position of claiming control over an enormous amount of territory (see map below), that treads on the toes of many powerful governments. Spain, Iran, Turkey, India, Kazakhstan, Egypt, Portugal, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are some of the powerful state entities that ISIS wants to replace itself with, which just isn’t going to happen. An empire that size has not been around since the colonial era, and the current geo-political situation makes any future one banished to the realm of fantasy fiction.
(A map which details the incredibly unrealistic 5 year plan of ISIS)
ISIS is now one of the wealthiest and most successful terrorist organizations operating in the world today, with an estimated wealth of $2 billion (about the same as the GDP of Greenland). They have seized banks, weapon caches, and oil refineries (the produce of which they sell on the black market), and collect taxes from individuals and businesses, the money from which is further contributing to their cause. They rule over tens of thousands of people using the Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah as their de facto capital, and they even publish budgetary reports. Although their 5 year plan of aggressive expansionism is just completely unrealistic, their more immediate goal of gaining control of regions in the Levant is much closer in reach.
Where education is concerned, we have unusually high details about ISIS’s plans.
- All teachers under an ISIS caliphate would be required to take a course in Islamic law or be put on trial for non-belief (the punishment for which would be execution).
- There would be sex segregation in all educational institutions, and women would be required to wear a niqāb (presumably inside and outside of school).
- The subjects of social studies, history, art, sport, philosophy and psychology would all be outlawed.
- References to the State of Syria and Bashar al-Assad would not be allowed in educational materials.
- Teaching the theory of evolution would be outright illegal.
ISIS’s plans of aggressive expansionism are so radical that even Al-Qaeda and Saudi Arabian ultraconservatives have distanced themselves, but their goals have inspired Boko Haram in Nigeria to attempt to establish their own caliphate.
What does this situation tell us?
The Middle East has long been a hot-bed of terrorist activity, sectarian violence and civil unrest. While the origins of this arguably stem back to the exploitative settler colonial period, whereby Western powers arbitrarily drew up Middle Eastern borders, forcibly separating religious and political groups that had no say in the lines, the modern causes of this widespread dangerous political situation are more nuanced, for we have an age of information to examine cause and effect chains more thoroughly than we could at the time of the age of empires.
The most obvious cause-effect chain we can draw up refers to the U.S. led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the effects of the illegal occupation that followed. Nobody can deny that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who suppressed large numbers of people, and the relative stability that Iraq felt under him is no compensation for human rights abuses. But removing every dictator and every human rights abuser across the globe, without a structured and clear plan for reform, creates a situation which leads to further danger and unrest. Power vacuums are created when you remove heads of state, and are often filled with people more brutal and discriminatory than the ones you removed in the first place. According to Noam Chomsky, “the end of tyrannical rule and imperial rule quite typically – in fact without exception – leads to increase in suppressed conflicts, disarray and often worse”.
Equally, when you constantly intervene with military force, you directly create unrest among the civilian population. The bombing campaigns of Western powers have resulted in untold civilian casualties in Middle Eastern countries, and the list of war crimes perpetrated by U.S. forces during the wars are too long to recite. When you kill innocent people, you drive those still alive into the hands of extremism. Would ISIS be around if Iraq and Syria had national stability and an inclusive government which did not persecute its own people? No. Would ISIS be around if Western powers did not repeatedly commit extrajudicial killings, murdering civilians in the process? No. We, and the governing bodies in power in the Middle East, are both to blame.
Middle Eastern civilians deserve a government which represents their views and does not enact terror campaigns against them for speaking up, but it is a pure delusion to think that foreign Western powers have any capability of bringing this about. They have proven, time and time again, that their interventions in the Middle East only serve themselves, and ignore the civilians of these countries who are left behind to clean up the mess.
It is true that Western powers are somewhat damned if they do, damned if they don’t, for air-strikes may further legitimize ISIS’s cause but ignoring the threat allows them to continue unimpeded. But are these the only two options open to us? Aren’t there alternatives, such as not creating the conditions in which this radical extremism flourishes in the first place? Not perpetuating a culture of extremism is an option that hasn’t really been properly tested by Western coalition powers. Perhaps we should try it, and perhaps we should leave the fight against ISIS to the governments directly involved in the region. For too long, the West has tidally pushed its Orwellian reach across the globe, causing only chaos and destruction with each new wave.