Year in review 2014: Fighting ISIL, an army without borders

How the Arab Spring brought about the rise of ISIL – and why the extremist group will reshape the Middle East, even after they are gone.
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter launching mortar shells towards Zummar, controlled by ISIL, near Mosul on September 15. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter launching mortar shells towards Zummar, controlled by ISIL, near Mosul on September 15. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters

Two hours west of Iraq’s second city Mosul is the Syrian border; another two hours north is Turkey and three hours east is Iran. Baghdad, Iraq’s contested capital, lies to the south, an eight-hour drive even on today’s roads and in centuries past, a world away.

The borders of Iraq, twisting across the mountains of south-east Turkey before running straight as a cartographer’s ruler across Syria’s deserts, lay claim to Mosul but its architecture and culture tell a different story.

Mosul is a mixed city, a place where Muslims and Christians built their holy places and Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Kurds and Armenians gathered to trade and create music and art. Every culture that has influenced Iraq has left its mark on Mosul - and, at points in history, each has coveted the city.

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After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, both Turkey and Syria wanted Mosul as part of their territory. But the British, who wanted the city planted firmly in their sphere of influence in Iraq, got their way.

And yet, even as the new passports said Iraq, the links of trade and family across the mountains to Turkey and across the deserts to Syria continued.

Those links have long provided conquerors and contenders with a way into the city. It was the same this year when, in early June, militants of ISIL swept across the border from their Syrian stronghold of Raqqa and bore down on Mosul. Within days, the group had pushed out the Iraqi army and taken control.

Over the weeks that followed, as Iraq came to terms with the occupation of parts of their territory, ISIL consolidated its grip on the city, culminating in the moment, a month later at the beginning of Ramadan, when an unknown soldier climbed the minbar of the Great Mosque of Mosul and declared himself caliph.

The appearance of the previously hidden Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi was a symbolic but highly significant moment.

He did so at the beginning of Ramadan, leading his militants in prayer; he spoke from the mosque of Nuri Ad Din, another soldier who, a thousand years previously, had led his troops down the same roads as Al Baghdadi, west to east from Aleppo to Mosul. And he declared that a new caliphate now existed, with him at the head of it, in the country that had once given birth to perhaps the greatest of the Arab caliphates. There could be no greater symbol of the complete collapse of two Arab countries.

The Middle East has had a tumultuous year, but the story of the summer and the story of the year has been the rise of ISIL – a sudden, dramatic imposition of this previously minor militant group on the landscape of the Middle East and the consciousness of the world.

The rise of ISIL will change the Middle East, not because of the group’s actions but because of the reactions of the region. ISIL’s appearance has fundamentally altered the political consensus that held sway in the region for decades.

The fires the militant group has lit have burnt away the doctrine of containment that held the fractious countries of the Levant together – and forged alliances among the Arabs that will endure beyond this year and this decade. Even after ISIL is defeated, it will have changed the Middle East.

The beginnings of ISIL

The story of ISIL is really the story of borders, and how different life in a place can look from the lines on a map. In its rise, ISIL exploited what already existed. Not bound by borders or lines, it worked with what was already there – the extensive links of families and friendship, business and political allegiances, often collectively referred to as tribal links, stretch east to west across the vast desert between Syria and Iraq, less frequently south to Baghdad. It was along those lines that ISIL travelled to Mosul. But the journey began with an accident.

The beginnings of ISIL go back much farther than the summer. They go back, in some way, to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and beyond it, into the half century of stagnation and control that preceded it.

The leader of ISIL, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, is Iraqi and was bloodied by the years after the invasion of Iraq, when he was part of the shifting alliances of militant groups that fought the Americans.

The impact of the Iraq war is often overlooked in the creation of ISIL, but it was essential: the crucible of Iraq forged many hardened militants, simply because the extreme chaos of the time meant that many others were killed. Those who survived, like Al Baghdadi, had to be cunning, clever and lucky; those who thrived had to be in the wrong place at the right time.

And Al Baghdadi was. As Iraqis gradually took control of their country, militants such as Al Baghdadi were being squeezed, but they still existed in the spaces where state control ended. Had the new governments in Baghdad been inclusive they might have been destroyed. But, as the sectarianism of Nouri Al Maliki increased, they found themselves able to gain support among the disenfranchised. It was only when Syria’s uprising exploded into a civil war that Al Baghdadi really found his moment. He went to Syria to help create the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra. Already experienced in operating in a landscape of shifting alliances, Jabhat Al Nusra became a formidable fighting force.

In 2013, Al Baghdadi split from Jabhat Al Nusra and created a new organisation, ISIL, which took with it several brigades. Crucially, in one of those small accidents of politics that have wide repercussions, among the brigades that came to ISIL were those inside and around Aleppo and Raqqa, two cities in Syria on roughly the same longitude. That gave the group access to the links of families and tribes that crossed east to west, and as ISIL grew, it was quickly able to consolidate its control over the region east and west and on the tribal and trade routes beyond it.

By the time ISIL swept into Mosul and Al Baghdadi declared himself “caliph”, ISIL was a formidable fighting and organised force, an army without borders.

The end of the Arab Spring

Behind the ascent of Al Baghdadi at Mosul’s Great Mosque lies a hinterland of historical trends. ISIL in 2014 was the beneficiary of two political trends that had existed for some time, in the region and beyond it.

One was the changing nature of jihad and the other was the failure of the state in the Middle East. Both had been occurring for some time, both below the surface. Until the Arab Spring, few were aware of how severe the internal failures of states across the Levant were. Even fewer are now aware of jihad’s shifting nature.

Just like the rise of ISIL, the Arab Spring had many fathers, but a significant part was the collapse of the ability of many Arab states to function. Piece by piece, corruption, unemployment, police brutality and the excesses of the security services hollowed out the Arab state in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. And when the shock of the Arab Spring rippled through these countries, the fragility of the states that seemed so strong was exposed.

In 2014 these two things came together, with a mutating jihad wanting to supplant the institutions of the Arab states – and not merely undermine them, as Al Qaeda had sought to do – coming up against broken states in Syria and Iraq. In that sense, ISIL are not the cause but the symptom. But it was also innovative in its conception of how to fight jihad, seeking to hold territory and build a state, instead of simply seeking to terrorise an existing one.

The failure of the Syrian state allowed a civil war to rage across the country, offering ungoverned spaces to jihadists to gather, train and organise. The failure of the Iraqi state did the same, allowing a transnational terrorist organisation the possibility of establishing a state in the Middle East.

To some degree, the rise of ISIL represents the end of the Arab Spring, the end of the belief that existing state structures could be changed to meet the challenges.

The status quo was revealed as unsustainable.

ISIL may have come about because of the failure of the state – because of the failure of states in Iraq and Syria – but the end result of the extremist threat will be to re-entrench the power of states. New alliances within the region – the Saudis are now talking to the Iranians – and new alliances beyond it are taking shape.

The single most important event of 2014, then, is not the action of ISIL, but the reaction of Arab states to that threat.

New understandings, new alliances

For the Middle East, three important changes in understanding have come out of the threat of ISIL – understandings that are already shaping policy in the region and, in time, will fundamentally reshape the alliances of the region.

The first is an understanding that the threats to the region are too big to have been caused by any one person, and also too big to be solved by any one person or any one state – and that includes even the United States. The US security umbrella is failing – because of new threats, a lack of funds and a lack of political attention – and Middle Eastern states, especially in the Gulf, now understand that they will need to involve themselves more in the affairs of their neighbours.

The second, related, understanding is that the security of the region can no longer rely on what happens in foreign capitals.

For too long the security of the region – and in some cases the policy of the region – were formed in foreign capitals, in particular in Washington, London and Paris. What the ISIL crisis of 2014 showed is that having policy priorities decided from abroad was no longer sustainable. The idea of foreign powers having influence in the region, either in state capitals or through proxies like Israel, had continued for so long that it was thought of as the status quo. But if the Arab Spring destroyed the idea that the status quo was tenable, the rise of ISIL forced the region into a new political reality.

The combination of these two ideas is already having an effect and, in time, will overturn some of the longest-held political certainties. The idea, promoted by the moribund Arab League, of non-interference in the affairs of other Arab countries is unravelling: Saudi Arabia went into Bahrain at the latter’s invitation; the UAE sent its fighter jets into the skies over Syria. Under Egypt’s new president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the Arab world’s largest country is being drawn into an alliance with the richest, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The lines are being redrawn, but they are only clear at the moment in outline. But the direction of travel is clear. These new understandings and alliances will change the Middle East, and that will be the legacy of ISIL.

The doctrine of containment

But there is one more essential understanding that has come out of the ISIL crisis, and that is the end of the doctrine of containment.

In time, ISIL as a group – if not as an ideology – will fade. But its contribution to the modern Middle East is assured, because the ISIL crisis of 2014 marked the end of the decades-old doctrine of containment in the region.

ISIL grew out of the failure of two states, Iraq and Syria. But it also grew out of a belief that became a doctrine, a belief that the problems of the region could be contained within countries, within the lines of the map.

The reaction of the outside world, in particular the West, to both the gradual sectarian implosion of Iraq and the civil war in Syria followed what might be called the Palestinian model.

After 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes as the Israeli army sought to carve out a state. These refugees ended up in camps in neighbouring Arab countries.

The “Palestinian model” was to contain each crisis within national borders; to treat each instance of the Palestinian refugee crisis as discrete, unconnected to the others.

So the refugee crisis in Jordan was seen as different to the refugee crisis in Lebanon and different again to the refugee crisis in Syria. All of these crises – although they were clearly linked – were seen as separate, and the policy was that you could tame the problems in these countries and they would not spill over borders. This could clearly be seen in the different approaches taken by the Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian governments towards the Palestinian refugees.

Over the years, the doctrine of containment – what Kissinger once called administering rather than resolving conflict – became the default policy setting for a range of issues: best known in Iraq after 1991, when the West believed it could set up no-fly zones, police them and sanction Saddam Hussein’s government into submission. It was a doctrine that was followed over Libya and over Iran.

Such thinking had roots in the postcolonial era, imported from Europe’s experiences of its 20th century wars. Twice in one half-century, tensions and conflicts in one part of Europe had spilt over into other parts, rapidly developing a life of their own. The experience of those wars heavily influenced both the perspectives of the Arab leaders now in charge of their own newly minted states, as well as the policy of the western countries that still held considerable influence in the Middle East. Containment started as a belief and ended up as a doctrine.

But containment in a Middle Eastern context relied on strong states functioning and on limited internal and external pressure on those states. The ISIL threat, coming as it did while Syria was in civil war and Iraq riven by sectarian tensions, could not be contained within one country. Within a matter of weeks over the summer, both Syria and Iraq had become one battlefield, a war in practice of ISIL’s belief in theory.

This will be ISIL’s legacy, whether they wish it or not. Just as America’s reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001 made the clash of civilisation that Al Qaeda envisaged more, not less, likely, so the reaction of the Middle East to ISIL has been, paradoxically, to confirm what ISIL wanted: the end of Sykes-Picot.

The power of states has not gone away – the prevailing attitude in the region is still to fix the existing lines of the map, not to redraw them.

But the departure of the doctrine of containment and the new alliances that grow out of that will radically shift some of the political questions that have plagued the Middle East – Iran’s role in the region, the creation of Kurdistan, the stability of Yemen, the leadership of Egypt. All will be affected by what happened in Mosul last summer.

Seeking to redraw the map of the Middle East, the militants of ISIL exploded across the region and appeared as an impossible threat. But their legacy will be to reshape the art of the possible in the Arab world.

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Faisal Al Yafai is chief columnist for The National.

Published: December 25, 2014 04:00 AM


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