The sign upon entry to Azaz, Syria now bears the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) logo. Demotix/Yasmin Al Tellaway. All rights reserved.
The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) suffered great losses from 2008 onward, especially by the hand of some of its old Sunni tribal allies from the Sunni Awaking Councils in the western parts of Iraq. With aid from US military, they fought an Islamic State that was increasingly developing a brutal colonial-style state. Many experts believed that ISI had been crippled. By the time the US withdrew its forces in November of 2011, ISI had been turned into small, isolated cells. Although some expressed fear of a surge of new terror, ISI was believed to be “certainly weaker” and unlikely to regain its “prior strength”.
The Arab Spring, especially its Syrian autumn season, supplied the ISI with new strength, recovery tools and territories. The Syrian uprising in March 2011, which took a violent turn into a bloody sectarian war only a few months later, rescued a dying group that was losing territories in Anbar and Fallujah, and had just lost its leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, along with his high ranking deputy, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, in an American raid in 2010.
In August of 2011 the new amir of ISI, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi, sent his Syrian deputy Abu Muhamad al-Golani–who were both detained sometime after 2005 in Camp Bucca, unbeknownst to each other–to Syria to establish what would later be known as Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahal-asham (the Support Front for the People of Sham). And Sham here does not mean Syria, as has been often wrongly translated. Rather it refers to the Levant, which formed a large part of Ottoman Empire. Its territory consisted of what is known today as the southern Turkish province of Hatay, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel.
In the next few months al-Golani would succeed not only in attracting hard-core jihadists from all over the world, but also in turning his Jabhat al-Nusra into the most organized and aggressive force within the Free Syrian Army (FSA), its black al-Qaeda flag flown in many liberated areas. Al-Golani did his homework and knew his mission very well; besides fighting Assad’s regime, he was repairing al-Qaeda’s long-damaged and shaky reputation. On 11 December 2012, when the US State Department designated the entity as a ‘terrorist’ group, the Syrian opposition protested Washington’s decision. Many opposition groups, including civilians and secularists, condemned the decision and called for mass demonstration. Only three days later, a special Friday protest proclaimed that “we are all Jabhat al-Nusra”, and thousands of Syrians took to the streets condemning and denouncing the designation, chanting, “there is no terrorist in Syria but Assad”.
On 9 April 2013, a highly symbolic day for the Baathists as it coincided with the tenth anniversary of the end of four decades of Baath rule in Iraq, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi expanded his Islamic State, appropriating Syria and all other Levant countries. Declaring in an audiotape that Jabhat al-Nusra is “extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and part of it”, al-Baghdadi deputized al-Golani as “one of our soldiers, and with him a group of our sons, and we pushed them from Iraq to the Levant so as to meet our cells in the Levant.” In the end of his speech al-Baghdadi declared the merger between both groups and changed the name to al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa-Sham–Da’aish, or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now more commonly known as ISIS. By adding the Levant, al-Baghdadi took the first step towards demolishing the officially recognized colonial borders of Sykes-Picot and achieving what pan-Arab nationalists, including Baathists, have dreamt of and brawled for in their loud, vicious discourses throughout the twentieth century, from Syria’s Michel Aflaq and Egypt’s Jamal Abdul Nasir to Iraq’s Saddam Hussain. al-Baghdadi’s speech played straight into the classic rhetoric of pan-Arabism and anti-imperialism that regards evil hands dividing the ummah (nation) by drawing artificial borders, and was a direct incitement of the Arab political imagination
The next day al-Golani publicly rejected the merger and the new name, pledging his elegance instead to Ayman al-Zawahri, the amir of al-Qaeda. It took some time for al-Zawahari to interfere and respond to the feud. While al-Baghdadi was in the process of paving the way to establish his caliphate, planning to demolish colonial borders, al-Zawahri sent a letter dated 23 May (and later a released audiotape) to both leaders, ruling against the merger, dissolving ISIL and asking both leaders to confine their operations to their own country: “the [seat] of the Islamic State in Iraq is Iraq” and “the [seat] of the Support Front for the People of al-Sham is in Syria.” al-Baghdadi responded saying that ISIL was here to stay and would continue removing borders set by “malignant hands between Islamic countries to restrict our movements” until it hammered “the last nail in the coffin of Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”
al-Baghdadi’s speech played straight into the classic rhetoric of pan-Arabism and anti-imperialism that regards evil hands dividing the ummah (nation) by drawing artificial borders, and was a direct incitement of the Arab political imagination, which has long dreamt and chanted of one Arab nation from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea. One year later in a stunning, well-produced and highly professional video released after capturing of Mosul and some other western Sunni Iraqi cities, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the official spokesperson of ISIL surmounts a bulldozer and, in a extremely symbolic move, demolishes the borders between Iraq and Syria on the ground, taking pride in removing “the borders of humiliations” and breaking the “idol of nationalism.”
The feud soon turned into a bloody war between jihadist brothers in Syria and resulted in a devastating blow to Jabhat al-Nusra. Many fighters, especially foreign jihadists, defected from al-Nusra to join ISIL. By early 2014 ISIL was fighting more than one front in Syria: fighting al-Nusra, other Islamist brigades such as the Islamic Army, the Kurds, the FSA and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, plus its continued fight against the Shia-led government in Iraq.
ISIL waged a brutal war, crushing anyone who attempted to stand against it and committing horrific atrocities. One of the deadliest weapons ISIL has used since its early stages is its huge array of horrendous visual material recording its barbaric acts, with which its fighters flood social media. al-Zarqawi first pioneered the visual horror in Iraq, filming the beheading of American Nick Berg in 2004. Less than a decade later, the real visual horror–unlike imaginative post-apocalyptic Hollywood films–has been taken to the extreme by the next generation. These materials have shaped the popular public image of ISIL, and made its notorious parent, al-Qaeda, look much more moderate.
In February 2014 al-Zawahri implemented Adam Gadahn’s 2011 recommendations by disowning ISIL and declaring that it “is not a branch of al-Qaeda, has no connections to it, and al-Qaeda is not responsible for its actions”.
The powerful resurgence: declaration of dawlat al-caliphate
What happened on 10 June in Mosul and why Iraq’s second-largest city fell without fighting, as if the city was handed over to ISIL, remains uncertain. However, there was one clear element in the whole puzzled scene of ISIL’s blitzkrieg southern advance without any military resistance–the formation of alliances between ISIL, Sunni tribesmen and the Iraqi Baathists.
Abandoned Iraqi vehicles and personal belongings near Bartella, Iraqi Kurdistan, 20 km from Mosul. Demotix/Romina Peñate. All rights reserved.
The Arab Baath, especially the Sunni Iraqi branch, and the Islamic State certainly have many things in common; toppling the Shia-led government in Iraq is only one of them. They are both highly nostalgic towards the past, looking back at it with admiration and ideological attempts to revive it–Baath, or resurrection, tries to resurrect the glorious past of the Arabs. They both resent what represents modernity, especially in regard to language and terminology. They are both fascists using terror as a central political tool to control societies. And most importantly, they both use a totalitarian media in which there is a high level of demagogy and dramatization in representing the self and the ‘other’ or the ‘enemy’, where the self is always righteous and the other is aberrant and wrong, who will eventually find their way back from aberration to what is right and true.
The political and religious rejection of Shia rule, fueled by Sunni grievances of political marginalization and unjust treatment alongside the failed, sectarian government in Baghdad, was more than enough to build a strong coalition between ISIL and armed groups of former Baath party members, former Iraqi army officers and Sunni tribe leaders. Lack of a pragmatic, powerful Shia politician in Baghdad lent public strength to ISIL. The powerful rise of ISIL in both Syria and Iraq symbolizes not only the failure of two post-colonial national states but also represents a clear manifestation of fragmented social groups...which have failed to co-exist and transcend their confinement in these narrow identities
The relationship between Baathists and ISIL goes back to the early stages of insurgency. The former regime’s loyalists, especially high ranked military officers and Baathists civilians who were subject to the de-Baathification law, started joining the insurgency and later al-Qaeda in Iraq soon after the US invasion. Between 2004 and 2006 al-Qaeda managed to build an extensive network within Sunni-dominant territories. What ISIL did in June 2014 was to re-evoke and revive the early warm relationship between al-Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency that lasted passionately between early 2004 and the end of 2007. ISIL differentiates between Baathists in Syria and in Iraq; it always considered Baathists in Iraq as Sunnis who share the same religious traditions, beliefs and practices, unlike the Baath in Syria who are controlled by Alwaites, a minority Shia sect.
These relations were never fully eliminated even when the major Sunni tribes, former allies, turned against ISI in 2007. Although there were cooling-off periods on both sides at different times, there were always shifting, temporary, and partial revivals of these networks. These relations were revived in 2014 amongst increasing anger and protests within Sunni populations, especially in Anbar province on the Syrian border, against the Iraqi government who “squandered an opportunity” when they failed to demonstrate the required pragmatism. That is, when the Sunnis came together and waged a war against ISI, cleansing most of their areas of ISI and foreign-fighter jihadists–with no help from the government. With their acute sense of exclusion in the post-Saddam Iraq, Sunnis felt they had been betrayed by Nouri al-Maliki.
ISIL stormed Mosul with the cooperation of at least seven Sunni groups: the Military Council, the Army of Men of Naqshbandi Order–known as JRTN, led by former Iraqi vice president Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri–, the Mujahedeen Army, the Council of the Tribal Revolutionaries, and other groups which had fought intermittently since 2003 alongside al-Zarqawi and then al-Qaeda, and later the umbrella of ISI. The Sunnis saw what happened as a liberation operation from a repressive sectarian Shia regime, while the Shia looked at it as a massive conspiracy against their existence.
On 29 June al-Baghdadi declared the Caliphate State and the name changed to the Islamic State (IS). Calls were issued by the amir ul-mu’minin for ummah of Islam in the world to migrate to the dawlat al-Islam after the world had been divided into two camps: the camp of Islam and the camp of kufr (disbelievers.)
With the declaration of a Sunni Caliphate Islamic State over a great stretch of territories in Syria and Iraq, the religious and sectarian cleansing campaigns reached their highest degree of cruelty in order to purify the state from all non-Sunni citizens. Yazidis, Shia and other minorities were subjected to slaughter and mass executions, with their women being taken as sabaya (slaves)–‘spoils’ of war–and sold in Mosul. After seizing Mosul, an ultimatum was issued to Christians: pay jizya (tribute), or leave or be killed. What IS committed against all non-Sunnis was full-scale genocide. A few days after IS seized control of Speicher base in Tikrit, they released photos and videos of mass execution of Shia soldiers. Sunni soldiers were let go after declaring their repentance.
The powerful rise of this group in both Syria and Iraq symbolizes not only the failure of two post-colonial national states but also represents a clear manifestation of fragmented social groups with a strong sense of belonging to tribes, sects, religions and ethnicity, which have failed to co-exist and transcend their confinement in these narrow identities to structure a society in its modern context and form. The cancerous expansion of ISIL’s phenomena is a pure product of failed societies, of groups refusing to learn how to structure a dialogue using language, and in their terrible failure exchanging nothing but death.
International déjà vu
11 September 2014 was somehow reminiscent of 11 September 2001. After a presidential speech by Barack Obama on IS presenting his strategy of degrading and ultimately destroying it, reminiscent of former president George W. Bush’s vow of destroying al-Qaeda, the world was once again concerned by a jihadist group’s powerful comeback. And once again America busily recruited an international coalition to combat yet another jihadist-terrorist organization, this time a self-declared Islamic State.
But despite the wide coalition of more than 40 of the most powerful countries in the world, and the heavenly war waged from the skies, the caliph and his devoted soldiers seem to be determined to demolish borders, destroy colonially-made countries and expand their Islamic State.
Now the state of the Sunni caliphate controls most of northern Syria and large parts of western Iraq, and is moving towards the gates of Baghdad. Its radical army is estimated to be more than 30,000, led by well-trained generals from Saddam’s army, and is heavily engaged in its territories in Syria and Iraq with governance programs, such as implementing Shari’a law, collecting tax, distribution of aid and salaries, hudud enforcement and many other administrative and legal programs. It has an estimated USD $3m daily revenue from its own resources such as oil and gas, and it has approved its 2015 annual budget of $USD 2 billion.
The world has been introduced to one of the most violent states that operates based on a one-dimensional interpretation of debatable texts and controversial Quranic verses, and states clearly that its aim is to convert the entire world into a Sunni religion of 1400 years ago.
A bizarre new Middle East is taking shape, and we are now witnessing the disintegration of two countries. Syria and Iraq are both nearing their slow bloody end, the death of two societies which long bragged of historical co-existence and cohesion. In their places and on their ruins, one powerful Sunni caliphate is rising, like the founding father of the group, Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, dreamt of during his journey from Afghanistan to Iraq more than a decade ago.