When the Allied forces landed in North Africa in 1942, Winston Churchill was asked if this was the beginning of the end of the Axis. He replied to the effect that it was perhaps not the beginning of the end but it was certainly the end of the beginning of the Second World War. The same can be said of the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham; Daech in Arabic). Currently, Kurdish ground forces, aided by air strikes from a coalition of states led by the U.S., France and Britain, are moving to take Tikrit, an oilrich area of Iraq. Tikrit also has symbolic meaning, being near the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and is an important post on the road to Mosul, the second-largest city of Iraq and perhaps the next major objective of the Kurdish troops.
March 2015 is also the anniversary of the start of what has become the civil war in Syria, which began in March 2011, with youth-led demonstrations in Syria appealing for a Syrian republic based on equality in citizenship, democratic rule of law, respect for human rights and respect for religious and political pluralism. The ISIS has unified the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, making the possibilities of good-faith negotiations and compromises more difficult. The fast-changing scene merits close attention as the outcome will impact the wider Middle East.
…ISIS resembles the Taliban when it administered Afghanistan. The difference is that the it is constantly at war, gaining and losing territory.
The forces of the ISIS have broken down a wall on the frontier between Iraq and Syria as a symbol of abolishing national frontiers to be replaced by a community of the Islamic faithful “ the umma. In some ways, we are back to the early days of the post–World War I period, when France and England tried to restructure that part of the Ottoman Empire that is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Jordan, Turkey and an ill-defined Kurdistan.
During 1915, Sir Mark Sykes, a Tory member of parliament and a specialist on Turkish affairs, and Francois Georges-Picot, a French political figure with strong links to colonial factions in the French Senate, negotiated how to restructure the Ottoman Empire to the benefit of England and France. Although these were considered ‘secret negotiations’, Sykes reported to Lord Kitchener, the war minister, and Picot had joined the French Foreign Ministry as war service. However, both operated largely as ‘free agents’. Today, Sykes and Picot are recalled for no other achievement than their talent in dividing. The agreement between them was signed in January 1916 but kept in a draw until the war was over. In April 1920 at San Remo, France and England made the divisions official.
The Kurds had expected that a Kurdistan would be recognised after World War I. The issue was raised at a conference to set Middle East frontiers held in June 1923 in Lausanne. The failure of the Kurds to achieve their goal for independence and the forced inclusion of their mountainous homeland within the then newly created Iraq, Syria and Turkey, as well as part of Iran, caused resentment and unrest. All the Kurds received in 1923 was a pledge to respect minority rights. By 1924, the Turkish government had banned all Kurdish schools, organisations, publications and religious Sufi brotherhoods. In 1925, there was the first of the Kurdish revolts in Turkey, which, on and off, continue to today.
…the modern communications environment provides the ISIS with the chance to gain unprecedented international public attention for its cause.
History has moved on, but dividing and restructuring remain the order of the day. The political structures of Israel-Palestine as one state, two states or one state and occupied territories have confronted the best of mediators “ and less talented mediators as well. With the war in Syria continuing, there have been suggestions to divide “ or federate “ the state into three parts: an Alawite-Shi’ite area, a Sunni area and a Kurdish area. The same divisions had been suggested for Iraq earlier and are again being discussed in the light of the ISIS advances: a Shi’ite area in the south, Kurds in the north “ already largely independent “ and Sunnis in the middle. Lebanon, although not a federal state, is largely structured on sectarian-geographic divisions.
Constitution making under duress is not the best way of doing things. Forced federalism presents even more difficulties than creating a federal state when people are not fighting each other “ some seeing federalism as a prelude to the disintegration of the state. Maps are deceptive, and what is drawn as Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish areas in Iraq and Syria have, in fact, mixed populations. Nor are religious-sectarian divisions the only lines of fracture.
The ISIS is a rather new ‘political creature’ “ an organisation that uses terror as a major political tool but that also administers a large area, including the major cities Mosul, Raqqa and Falluja, in which it administers its concepts of law and justice, education and other civil services. In this respect, it resembles the Taliban when it administered Afghanistan. The difference is that the ISIS is constantly at war, gaining and losing territory.
In part because it controls and administers territory about the size of Jordan, it can pretend to the reality of its name: Islamic State. Moreover, the modern communications environment provides the ISIS with the chance to gain unprecedented international public attention for its cause. The ISIS posts well-made Internet videos of beheadings of prisoners; the fiery execution of the Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasearbeh; the burning of books and manuscripts from the Mosul Library and the Mosul University Library and the destruction of ancient artworks in the Mosul Museum.
For the moment, it is Kurdish troops which have provided most of the ground forces against the ISIS. There has been some aid from Iranian and Lebanese militias.
These two factors – of administrating territory and ensuring wide publicity of its acts – have led existing armed groups, like Boko Haram (in northern Nigeria), armed factions in Libya and at least two factions active in Egypt, to ‘pledge allegiance’ (bayat), a spiritually binding oath. What it means administratively is not clear. In addition, the ISIS has attracted a floating population of jihadists from Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya in the Russian Federation who have had fighting experience. There is also a flow of young people from Western Europe, usually with no military training but who can be used to show external sympathy for the ISIS cause. Western European security administrations and police are concerned about possible violent actions from these Western Europeans when they return home.
For the moment, it is Kurdish troops which have provided most of the ground forces against the ISIS. There has been some aid from Iranian and Lebanese militias. There has been some talk in Arab states of creating an ‘Arab Legion’ to fight the ISIS, perhaps under the control of the League of Arab States.
At this stage, both the military and the political consequences are lost ‘in the fog of war’. What is sure is that the status quo ante will not be restored, but both Iraq and Syria lack the sort of political leadership with vision and energy to overcome the political divisions and socioeconomic stagnation that gave rise to the ISIS.