Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Writeup and Thoughts on ISIS' Resurgence

Iraqi regime forces in ISIS-controlled Ramadi, December 2015 (Reuters)
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has shaken the world in 2015; it seemed to have come out of nowhere and took over larger and larger areas in the conflict-ridden Middle East.  In late 2015 they also claimed several attacks in foreign soils, including in Lebanon, Russia, and France.

It's important to understand what they seek to gain and what the world is doing to fight them.

1.  Origins


What's ISIS? What's the difference between ISIS, ISIL, or Daish?

ISIS = Islamic State of Iraq and Syria;
ISIL = Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (the Levant is an historical region that encompasses Syria).
Daish = "Dawlatul Islamiyah fi Iraq wa Sham", which translates to (duh) Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

They're all synonymous.  Some people think calling them "Islamic State" awards them legitimacy (as if they are the only Islamic state in the entire world), and that they take offense to the name Daesh.  Frankly I bet a bunch of bloodthirsty extremists probably don't care what you call them.


Did they come out of nowhere? How did they grow so big so fast?


ISIS came into being as an Iraqi insurgency group -- it was founded as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), an local Al-Qaeda branch led by Jordanian petty criminal Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi; it was promptly defeated and neutralized (Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006).  However, the feeble government in Iraq allowed the group to reanimate and prosper, under the leadership of Abu Bakr el-Baghdadi -- a prominent Iraqi scholar with a doctorate in Quranic studies.    Baghdadi's strategy, where he distances himself from Al-Qaeda Central, is to quickly seize a sovereign territory ("Caliphate") and elevate the fight from a military, tactical and localized conflict to that of a religious and global jihad for all Muslims.

ISIS rapidly grew due to the chaotic conditions in Iraq and Syria, and it exploited the fear within the large Sunni communities of both countries' Shi'a-led governments.   In 2003 after the US invaded Iraq and toppled longtime dictator Saddam Hussein, it installed Shi'a PM Nouri al-Maliki to create an inclusive coalition government … who then promptly fired his Sunni vice president, fired the many Saddam loyalists from his armed forces, cracked down on protesters with violence, alienated the nation's other minority groups, and made Iraqis terrified of their own government.  AQI (since renamed Islamic State in Iraq) recruited Saddam's former troops en masse, and started to make major gains early 2014, when it swept through areas including Fallujah and Mosul with little resistance.  Syria, engulfed in a bloody civil war raging since 2011, provided even greener pastures.  Baghdadi sent his troops marching across the porous borders and quickly took over Raqqa and Palmyra, declaring his Caliphate and himself as the legitimate khalifa of the Muslim world.


ISIS distribution of aid, February 2015
In addition to fighting wars, ISIS also worked on nation building. They collect taxes, promote immigration into the state, and distribute aid to poor citizens -- giving them even greater appeal for the people when compared to the repressive, corrupt governments.

The group has an estimated annual revenue of anywhere between US$1.2-2bn from oil sales, smuggling of antiquities, agriculture, and extortion/taxes -- not a whole lot of money for an actual state, but quite a bit for an insurgency group. The money allows them to buy favours and recruit new jihadists using modern weapons of internet and social media.

ISIS' recruiting drive is motored by their prolific propaganda efforts. They publish a regular newsletter Dabiq (named after a small Iraqi town, currently under ISIS control, which in ancient tradition is supposed to be the site of the final battle between Islam and the infidels), 700-pages of propaganda published in multiple languages. These efforts have been hugely successful, with ~1,500 foreign recruits per month coming to join them in the battlefield.

It's quite complicated

They also have foreign affiliate groups outside Iraq and Syria, spread across 15+ countries (according to ISIS' propaganda).  Needless to say, these affiliates are likely just independent groups, each with its own secular goals, hoping to gain legitimacy (i.e. funding) by aligning with ISIS.


Is ISIS really that powerful/unique?

Despite their rapid rise to power, the media has been exaggerating how powerful they are.
Surely ISIS has been a master of propaganda, broadcasting gruesome videos of beheadings and mass executions, and touting international terror attacks as evidence of divine intervention for their success.  But fact is, ISIS isn't even the most violent active terror group right now -- that award goes to Nigeria's Boko Haram, which claims allegiance to ISIS despite only loose affiliation.  Furthermore, beyond Iraqis and Syrians, their new recruits probably aren't military-trained.  One soldier in the front line even reports that ISIS is really a bunch of ragtag, disorganized poseurs who "run away at the first sight of resistance".

In the Western world, people mostly looked the other way in the face of ISIS' resurgence, until:
  1. The attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino (both of which are widely suspected to be perpetrated by ISIS loyalists, despite only circumstantial evidence)
  2. The election season in the US, with presidential hopefuls capitalizing on fear and anxiety.


Is it true that US started/funded/is still bankrolling ISIS?


There's a lot of conspiracy theories out there conflating the CIA with ISIS. What we know quite well, is that the US invasion of Iraq created an entire generation with deep antipathy towards the West. Furthermore, Baghdadi and many other ISIS fighters were prisoners at the US military detention facility Camp Bucca ca. 2004, making it the single most successful radicalization camp, funded by American taxpayers.  Finally, the predictable shortcomings of US-backed Iraqi PM Maliki created fertile grounds for extremism.

Until now, many Iraqis still believe the US is in cahoots with ISIS.



What does it all have to do with the Sykes-Picot? (or "is this a conflict that's been going on for millenia?")

This is going back into history by a bit. The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement is the infamous Post-WWI secret deal between war victors Britain and France on how to divide the Arab world.  Not only has the name become synonymous with betrayal (as Sharif Hussain of Arabia was promised independence by the British if he revolted against the ruling Ottoman Empire, which he did), but it also divided the Middle East and North Africa into ungovernable territories (e.g. many tribal communities suddenly chopped up by national borders, and warring factions forced to live under one rule). The aftermath of Sykes-Picot led to a Middle East rife with sectarian violence and ruled by militaristic strongmen such as Saddam Hussain of Iraq, Muamar Gaddafi of North Africa, and Hafez al Assad of Syria.  The recent collapse of Iraq and Libya, along with the impending collapse of Syria, led to a vacuum that was quickly capitalized by extremists, including ISIS.



2.  The War 


Who is ISIS fighting against?



Similar to Bush Jr., ISIS goes by the doctrine of "if you're not with us, you're a military target".  So they're fighting everybody.  They're fighting Iraqi regime forces, which is still unproven but is backed by both the US and Iran.  They're fighting the Kurdish militia, who wants to retake territories seized by ISIS in the past two years.  They're killing Shi'ites and demolishing their mosques in conquered areas.  They execute captured rebels from other groups, including those from the Jabhat al-Nusra, local affiliate of Al-Qaida Central.  They murder Sunni soldiers and civilians, both locals and foreigners from the Gulf states, calling them apostates.  They execute journalists and aid workers originating from all over the world.  They enslave and rape Yazidi women.  They're even angering drug lords in Mexico.

It's actually easier to identify who ISIS is not fighting against.  In Syria, they are not directly fighting President Bashar al Assad's regime forces, who is backed by Russia and Iran.  They're also not fighting Turkey, for reasons I will explore.


Where does ISIS get its recruits? How do normal people become radicalized? 

Insiders tell stories of many Tunisian, Egyptian, Saudi, Dagestani and Chechen recruits -- countries with a lot of anger and antipathy towards tyranny and oppressors.

There is no single identifiable pattern for radicalization, as the path to jihad can go through many different routes.  Many jihadists are not even religious.  Some may be motivated by pain and suffering, others by a fascination of the afterlife, others by money (jihadist salaries dwarf minimum wages in many Muslim countries).  Once radicalized, drugs help jihadists feel superhuman


Is Turkey sponsoring ISIS? 

The short answer is: most likely yes. Turkey is letting ISIS prosper through loose border control (i.e. allowing jihadi recruits to enter Syria through Turkey), oil trades, and sale of weapons and equipment. The reason they are doing this, is primarily to hammer the Kurds.

The Kurds are native to the region but ethnically distinct from Arabs; very proud people with a rich history  – the famed Salahuddin el Ayyubi, who in the 1100s led the Muslim opposition in many battles against European Crusaders, had Kurdish origins.  Nowadays they are 32 million strong spread across Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey  – they are perhaps the largest "nation without a state" in the world (note: Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region within the country's borders).  In Turkey, the government has spent decades trying to cleanse the Kurdish identity and culture, including by funding extremists to kill off the Kurdish "threat" to Turkish sovereignty.  This puts them at odds with Western interests, which is a huge problem as Turkey is an active member of NATO.  There has been renewed international calls to throw Turkey out of the defense treaty.

In November 2015 a Russian fighter jet was downed by Turkish forces; Putin's government cried foul and went to press with damning evidence of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's collusion with ISIS.  Erdogan disputed the account, saying he would resign if the allegations are proven, but nobody is buying it.  Even the citizens of Istanbul believe their government is propping extremists across the border.


Where does Saudi Arabia stand in the war against ISIS?

It's complicated, to say the least, as ISIS and the Saudi kingdom share similar ideologies with fundamental and existential importance to each.  

Right now, the Saudis are more preoccupied with preventing Iranian rise to prominence by fighting a bizarre war against the Houthis in Yemen, weaponizing the Free Syrian Army rebel group against Syria's Assad, propping military dictator Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in Egypt, and repressing Arab Spring movements elsewhere.  The fact that Western nations have "warmed" to embracing Iran, as evidenced by Obama's nuclear treaty and the war against a common enemy in ISIS, must be terrifying to the Saudis.



3. Extremism and the Muslim world


How do Muslims see war?  Is Islam a peaceful/violent religion?

Islamic scripture consists of not just the Quran (which is believed as the divine words of God), but also Prophet Muhammad's teachings and traditions as told by his wives and closest mates and spread by word of mouth through many generations.  It's a vast array of lessons that -- naturally and unfortunately -- may seem to contain many contradictions.  Muhammad in his lifetime was a religious leader, civilian administrator, and military leader during wartime.  Scholars spend their lifetime studying and interpreting scripture, for which -- just like many other religious texts -- context is just as important as the substance.  

Moreover, unlike the Catholic Church, there is no central authority in Islam -- so each group can appoint a just leader among them.  Naturally some people will use and abuse these traditions to forward their own interests; Baghdadi, with his expert knowledge of scripture, can readily cite parts of Quran that justifies the group's brutality even towards fellow Muslims. 

During his lifetime, Muhammad advocated mercy in many cases.  He protected Christians living under his rule and vowed that his followers would continue protecting them until the end of time.  He also fought in many wars.  However, he made many prohibitions against attacking civilians in wartime.  Muhammad’s successor, caliph Abu Bakr Siddiq, even established a code of conduct that would preclude anything like the terrorism of today; of enemies, he said, “Do not kill their children, old people and women. Do not even go close to their date palms.”

So calling Islam either peaceful or violent, that's just overly simplistic.  Islam is an ideological code and way of life for its adherents, in both peacetime and wartime.


Does Islam need a reform?


You've been reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Which is fine, because everybody needs to read different viewpoints.  But she is widely criticized as demanding Islam (which itself is an abstract as the Islamic world is vast and diverse) to change in a way that's unrealistic and impossible, and she seems to ignore that her reformist ideals also caused unprecedented bloodshed -- something the Muslim world doesn't need any more of.


4. Western strategy and the future of ISIS


Why has it been so hard to defeat ISIS?

Although ISIS is fighting wars in many fronts, but for many of their opponents, defeating ISIS is not their primary goal.  For instance, Syria wants to re-establish its government -- or just suck the country dry before Assad flees to Moscow; other rebel groups in Syria is busy fighting regime forces and leaving ISIS alone.  Iran wants to expand its influence with the fledgling Iraqi government. Saudi wants to undermine Iran's influence in the region.  Israel is taking a wait-and-see approach, perhaps hoping the chaos would benefit them somehow.  Elsewhere, nations are taking the stance of "as long as they're not killing [insert your own country] people, I don't care".  

So all of these nations in the "global alliance against ISIS", they would only lift a finger as long as it aligns with their "other" more important goals, and therein lies the problem.


How is the West fighting ISIS? What lies in the future for ISIS?

There was a time when direct intervention with ground troops would have made a difference in Syria, but that time has long passed.  There was also a time when the US toyed with training and equipping locals to fight ISIS, but that experiment failed laughably.  So Obama of today is very calculated in his moves, despite calls for more decisive actions against terrorism.  For ISIS, he believes in containment: supporting legitimate Iraqi/Kurdish forces in the front lines, assisting them by bombing key military assets and oil facilities controlled by ISIS, and basically letting ISIS self-destruct due to its multitude of shortcomings.  He sees no need to launch ground troops (which is a tall order given American voters' sentiment of the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), increasing the frequency of bombings (which would surely cause civilian casualties and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis) -- both of which would risk validating ISIS' cause and struggle.


In terms of ISIS' future, it doesn't look bright.  They've lost some 14% of their annexed territories to the Kurdish militia and Iraqi regime forces.  They're losing revenue due to airstrikes on ISIS-controlled oil fields, and they're losing inhabitants who flee as the group's nation-building efforts crumble.  Plus you can only smuggle so much antiquities until it runs out.  The attacks against Paris, Russia, Lebanon, and others – assuming these were really perpetrated by ISIS  seem quite irrational and are actually signs of weakness; effectively Baghdadi is giving up on his Caliphate and reverting to guerrilla warfare, insurgency, and terror attacks.  Recently ISIS has also shifted their focus outwards, building presence in Libya and in Somalia – two other countries with inept and dysfunctional governments – but only time would tell how these ventures would fare.

Deadly suicide attacks in Beirut, Lebanon, November 2015 (AP)

Coalition forces should be able to defeat ISIS rather quickly, likely with some diplomacy led by current Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi; I personally believe they wouldn't make it past 2016 [Ed note: ok, past 2017].   Unfortunately, however, the fall of ISIS won't mean the death of extremism -- the idea has lasted generations and will remain as long as there are grievances, marginalization and discontent against tyranny and intervening forces in the Middle East.  


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