By Luke Andrews
ISIS war aims are uncannily familiar
When the Islamic terrorist group erupted in Iraq, it was immediately labelled as a threat to international security akin to Al-Qaeda, a sudden, volatile manifestation wreaking havoc and political unrest. Other groups, like Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) had similarly been given this international exposure. Like JN, it was assumed that ISIS would not grow at a fast rate. Even today JN still represents only some isolated pockets in Syria’s Idlib and Aleppo governates. Nonetheless unlike JN, ISIS managed to capitalise on general unrest brewing in the Middle East and engulf much of Iraq and Syria’s Sunni population. It soon encompassed a region larger than the United Kingdom.
In its rise it has been at the forefront of atrocities on an unprecedented scale. However, the territorial claims that it is exerting are uncannily familiar and have an easily-traceable historical precedent.
Although seemingly what ISIS seeks to bring is jihad, a war against Kafir (non-muslims), the actual aims of ISIS are betrayed by its name. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (a region including Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan), or Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham in Arabic, is aiming to reunite these former British and French colonies. New cells are also erupting in Libya and Egypt, but these groups only wave ISIS banners, and do not represent the main territorial aims of the group.
Orchestrated by Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, the “invisible Sheikh” as fellow ISIS members refer to him, the aims of ISIS at their core are fuelled by Pan-Islamism.
These ideals which seek to unify countries usually referred to as part of the ‘Arab world’ are far from an unusual development in the region’s history. The extremists are exploiting this belief to connect with everyday Syrians and Iraqis.
Iraq and countries in the Levant were united under the Ottoman Empire for over 500 years. As a result, following its collapse Pan-Arabist ideals continue to reverberate throughout its populations.
The ba’athist party, from which Syria’s current ruling elite heralds, in this same Pan-Islamist spirit, wanted to unite all Arabs under a single banner. Its main slogan decries its nationalist and socialist policies, “Unity, Freedom, Socialism”. Although succeeding in implementing a union with Egypt under the ‘United Arab Republic’, the country collapsed when Syria ceded in a coup d’état. Neither Saddam Hussein, nor Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar, the incumbent Syrian President) could reconcile the cultural differences which pervaded the union. Subsequently it only lasted three years, from 1958 until 1961.
Furthermore, although primarily the creation of this ‘Unity’ was the result of Pan-Islamist ideals, after the collapse it became clear that the rulers had developed a taste for power which overcame loyalty to the initial cause. The countries originating from imperialism had become political arenas for a ruling elite unwilling to relinquish its newfound power.
Why is Pan-Islamism a recurrent theme?
To understand why Pan-Islamism wields such regional power, something which ISIS feeds off, we must consider how Iraq and Syria were forged. Unlike European nations, they are not hereditary and have not existed for centuries. Owing to previous Ottoman domination, there were few nations embedded in living memory at the carve-up in 1919.
Their borders were drawn into the sand initially by the Sykes-Picot agreement, with no regard for local politics or cultural affinity. It was decided by the English Academic, Sykes, who fooled the British cabinet into thinking that he could speak both Turkish and Arabic, and Georges-Picot, an aggressive French imperialist.
A key part of the agreement is that a line was drawn from the A in Acre to the K in Kirkuk. It was applied to separate the French and British mandates.
The line was shifted in the Mosul region. The British PM Lloyd-George requested control in the area as Britain had detected chances for petroleum exploitation. Unaware of the petroleum benefits, the French PM, Clemenceau said, “You can have it”.
Hence, the nations of Syria and Iraq were born as the product of imperialist strivings, with absolutely no regard for local politics and cultural identity.
Unsurprisingly Pan-Islamism rapidly became popular. The Sykes-Picot line snips the Sunni Muslim area in half, ignoring the fact that it divided whole communities.
The new nations tottered precariously on the edge of sectarian strife, as with independence it was debated which group would have what powers. Saudi Arabia further fuelled this by encouraging the depreciation of inter-group relations. This has assisted ISIS supporters in their mission to destabilise the political landscape to the group’s advantage.
In both of the ‘imperially articulated’ nations, Sunnis were largely kept out of government. This is especially true of Syria, where the population is 70% Sunni. In Iraq, after US military intervention in 2003 the country became Shia dominated. The Baghdad government in particular has a history of discrimination against its Sunni population.
The disenfranchised Sunnis have found an outlet for their anger through ISIS. Owing to the blatant disregard for their religious sect, they are increasingly moving to follow the Pan-Islamism espoused by ISIS.
ISIS therefore represents so much more than a sudden uprising of extremists running rampant. Their popularity and rapid spread fundamentally symbolises self-determination of the Arab populations in the region, and the most successful attempt ever at dismantling these imperialist boundaries.
Photograph: ‘Isis-iraq45458c’ via Wikimedia Commons