The three key events in the rise of IS are the abandonment of power sharing in Iraq, the crushing of protests by Assad and the coup in Egypt

John Allen, the retired marine general charged by US President Barack Obama to coordinate the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) group, is a man confident of his facts. Fresh from Turkey, which had just agreed to enter the air campaign against the militants, he told the Aspen Security Forum that IS are losing.

“I do believe that Daesh’s momentum has been checked strategically, operationally, and, by in large, tactically. But it isn’t just a military campaign. There’s a counter-finance campaign, there’s a counter-messaging campaign, there’s a counter-foreign-fighters campaign, and then there’s a humanitarian piece… It’s very important that you have that larger strategic perspective when you consider whether we’ve had an effect.”

Precisely. The larger strategic perspective. Where is it?

No sooner had Allen created this hostage to fortune, than the al Qaeda affiliated group al-Nusra claimed to have created a few of their own – two leaders and six members of Division 30, graduates of a train and equip programme run by the Department of Defence. Al-Nusra called on Division 30 to “return to the right path” urging its fighters to fight the regime of Bashar Assad in defence of their families.

Finding the right path in Syria and Iraq is proving elusive, particularly for a US president who is joined at the hip to the notion that he has pulled out of Bush’s “dumb” war. The US may have left Iraq, but Iraq has yet to leave the US.

First, IS have endured their first year under bombardment. They have lost territory but “we’ve seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers,” said a US defense official keen to douse Allen’s optimism. The official put the group’s strength at between 20,000 and 30,000, the same as last August when airstrikes began.

Second, what does victory look like? An Iraq permanently divided into three, one of those portions in the firm grip of Iran? Assad in charge of a rump coastal Alawite statelet, with the rest of Syria in the hands of local militias? Does Washington even want Damascus to fall?

Without answers to these questions, bombs dropped from the coalition’s aircraft are about as precision-guided as the ones the RAF dropped over Germany in the Second World War. Without a clear-sighted analysis of where IS came from, and an appreciation of when its fortunes waxed and when they waned, its defeat will never be certain. Crushed in Iraq, it will transfer its attention to Egypt, where a brutal military dictator is busy, with the full support of the US and EU, creating exactly the right conditions for IS to grow.

To explain, but not to justify, IS has its own logic. Its theologians and leaders are all persuasive, and adept at tailoring the medium to the message and the message to the audience. The seeds of IS’ extreme sectarian theology germinated in a specific social incubator brought about by the collapse of Sunni leadership, Iran’s opportunistic expansionism, and serial American misjudgment.

Two academics, Hasan Abu Hanieh, and Dr Mohammed Abu Rumman have gone some way in describing the incubator that nurtured IS. In their small book, published by the Friedrich Ebert Shiftung in Germany, lie clues others have missed or downplayed. As the title suggests, The Islamic State Organisation, The Sunni Crisis and the Struggle of Global Jihadism charts the symbiotic relationship between the crisis of Sunni Arab politics and the mushrooming of a tiny Al Qaeda splinter group.

On one level it’s Hollywood: How a group of no more than 80 followers and their families at a camp in Herat, Afghanistan, established and run by a young Jordanian called Ahmad Fadhil al-Khalayleh who came from the city of Al- Zarqaa’, wound up 15 years later controlling an area the size of Britain. On another, it’s Chekhov – one misjudgment hides another.

Zarqawi, the Iraq-based jihadist, understood something Bin Laden, the internationalist, did not. Zarqawi got the true nature of identity politics in an Arab world undergoing a transformational regional revolution, where states were crumbling, and whose leaders no longer represented their people.

Zarqawi writes:

“Our fight with the Americans is a simple matter; the enemy is visible and its back is exposed, ignorant of the land and ignorant of the reality of the Mujahideen, because of the weakness of its intelligence information. And, we know with certainty that these Crusader forces will dissipate tomorrow or the day after.”

As for the Shia, Al-Zarqawi adds:

“Al-Rafidha (the rejecters referring to the Shia), (are) the challenging obstacle, the lurking snake, cunning scorpion, the malicious and creeping enemy and drenching poison.”

He considers their danger to be ongoing and their ambition extensive, and adds:

“With the passing of days, their hopes grow greater to establish the state of “Rafdha” (Shia), which would span from Iran, passing through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and extend into the cardboard-ish Gulf kingdoms.”

As a prediction dated February 2004 (in a letter to Bin Laden), that is not bad.

Zarqawi seized on the central political fact that while the Iraqi Shia had Iran, the Sunni felt they had no one. Their rulers were either venal oligarchs, or absolute rulers whose only loyalty was to their close kin.

The rise of IS was anything but linear. When a political alternative presented itself in the elections which followed the Arab Revolution, both al-Qaeda and IS were on their uppers. If they were mortally wounded by the rise of political Islam, IS was quick to see the recruitment potential of Egypt’s military coup. That coup was fully supported and funded by Sunni Arab dictatorships, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to defeat the Muslim Brotherhood. In contrast, Iran gave its full support to the Shia groups across the Arab world.

On 31 August, 2013 in a recording entitled “Al-Silmiyya Dinu Mann?” (The Peaceful Approach is the Religion of Whom?), IS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani issued a statement that resonated far and wide:

“You should know, O Sunnis revolting everywhere, that our plight is not the governing systems but rather the Shirki (idolatrous) laws that govern you. There will be no difference between one ruler and the next unless we change the law; there is no difference between [Husni] Mubarak, Mu’ammar [Gadafy], and [Zine El Abidine] bin Ali, and between [Mohammad] Morsi, [Mustafa] Abdul Jalil,and [Rachid] al-Ghanouchi; they are all tyrants who govern with the same laws.”

Adnani called the crushed Muslim Brotherhood “a secular party in an Islamic cloak”. The key part of the message which he addressed to the “People of the Sunna” was: “Renounce peaceful calls, bear arms, and wage Jihad for the sake of God; to ward off the aggressors of the Egyptian army and the Safavid (Iraqi) army.”

This was more than a religious injunction. It was a political response to a situation where politics – constitutions, elections, parliaments – had disappeared. Zarqawi by then was long dead, but two sectarian dictators, one backed by the US and Iran, the other by Iran and Russia, performed the invaluable service Zarqawi needed to rise from the dead: Nouri al-Maliki and Bashar al-Assad. Each should be given the Jihadi version of la Legion d’Honneur.

Both Maliki and Assad reinforced the message that politics is dead by responding with overwhelming force to political and peaceful challenge. In Iraq, the moment the Americans left, their policy of attempting to preserve a power sharing deal with the Iraqiya bloc, which won the elections, was in tatters.

Ali Khedery, the longest continuously serving US official in Iraq published an insider’s account of these events in the Washington Post last year. As one of those American Iraqi officials who introduced Maliki to the Americans, Khedery felt responsible for the man’s behaviour.

“Sunni Arabs – who had overcome internal divisions to form the secular Iraqiya coalition with like-minded Shiite Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians – were outraged at being asked to abdicate the premiership after pummeling al-Qaeda and winning the elections. Even Shia Islamist leaders privately expressed discomfort with Iraq’s trajectory under Maliki, with Sadr openly calling him a “tyrant.” Worst of all, perhaps, the United States was no longer seen as an honest broker.”

Maliki not only refused to honour the commitments he made to pay the Sahawat , the Sunni fighters responsible for al-Qaeda’s defeat. Within hours of the withdrawal of US forces in December 2011, Maliki sought the arrest of his longtime rival Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, sentencing him to death in absentia. The purge of Finance Minister Rafea al-Essawi followed a year later.

Khedery concluded:

“In short, Maliki’s one-man, one-Dawa-party Iraq looks a lot like Hussein’s one-man, one-Baath Party Iraq. But at least Hussein helped contain a strategic American enemy: Iran. And Washington didn’t spend $1 trillion propping him up. There is not much “democracy” left if one man and one party with close links to Iran control the judiciary, police, army, intelligence services, oil revenue, treasury and the central bank. Under these circumstances, renewed ethno-sectarian civil war in Iraq was not a possibility. It was a certainty.”

Not according to another Maliki sponsor Condoleezza Rice. A keen golfer, Bush’s former national security adviser and secretary of state, blew through the offices of The Guardian on her way to the links courses of Scotland. I asked her at the time about the death squads Maliki launched against Anbar province. She looked at me as if I were from another planet. She called Nouri al Maliki, “a great Iraqi patriot ” and her “personal friend”.

Of course there was another winner in Maliki’s soft coup – Iran. Khedery called General Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most powerful man in Iraq and the Middle East. He could have added Syria.

Assad was the perfect partner of IS in two respects. Before the Syrian uprising in 2011, Assad and his intelligence held the conviction that Jihad could be manipulated for the benefit of the regime. During this time, foreign fighters entered Syria and created the networks they use today. Then when the revolution started in Dera’a, Assad responded to peaceful protest with total force, prompting substantial numbers to defect from the Syrian army to form the Free Syrian Army to protect the demonstrators.

Assad encouraged the militarisation of the revolution by releasing detainees from Sidnaya Prison, one of the most notorious housing Islamist inmates. The three main figures there were Zahran Alloush (founder and commander of Liwaa’ al-Islam (The Islam Brigade) which later became Jaysh al- Islam; Hassan Abboud (known as Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, who emerged as the commander of Ahrar al-Sham), and Issa al-Sheikh (who became the commander of Liwaa’ Suqour al-Islam “The Hawks of Islam Brigade).

Hezbollah’s entry into the Syrian civil war acted as final proof, if proof were needed, of Iran’s role in it. It took some time before Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged the role his fighters were playing in Syria. In October 2012, he said they were fighting as individuals not under the party’s direction. His former Hezbollah Secretary General Sheikh Sobhi Tufayli has hinted more than once that Nasrallah nurtured misgivings about Hezbollah’s role in propping up Assad in Syria and says that Hezbollah has come under Iran’s total control.

He told Al Arabiya:

“Hezbollah’s project as a resistance party that works to unify the Islamic world has fallen. [Hezbollah] is no longer that party that defends the Umma [Islamic nation]; instead it plagues the Umma.” Tufayli noted that Hezbollah has “provoked the whole world” and started a sectarian war that “opened the door for a ferocious period of sedition.”

With the nuclear deal, Iran is no longer the strategic enemy of the US. However, millions of Sunnis throughout the Arab world now perceive it to be their strategic enemy as a result of Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Iran will never, as its more conservative elements boast, control “four Arab capitals”. It is only powerful enough to fight and spread the chaos. If and when the IRGC retreats from its foreign adventures, Iran could resume its traditional role as an honest broker, a neighbour and a partner. But it will have to abandon its role as a proxy warrior first. There is no evidence that Iran sees this, though.

These, then, are the three key events in the rise of IS – the abandonment of power sharing in Iraq, the crushing of protest by Assad and the military coup in Egypt. Taken together they constitute the core of the Sunni political crisis. This crisis has brought IS to the fore. It will continue to generate clusters of IS cells throughout the Arab and Western world, long after the central political vacuum is filled.

Hanieh and Abu Rumman wrote:

“IS’ weakest point, and perhaps its Achilles heel, remains its relationship with the Sunni community. If a large segment of this community turns against it, as they did before, whether for political reasons or in rejection of its religious and ideological dictates upon society, then the very factor behind its rise will turn into the factor behind its downfall. ”

The Sunni political crisis will only be solved when the vacuum of politics is filled by democratically elected leaders, who can truly represent the Sunni masses and when Iran recognises that there are geographical limits to its ambitions. A political alternative for Sunnis as well as Shia is the sine qua non of reconciliation in the region. No one in Iraq or Syria, however, is holding their breath.


This article is also published by the Middle East Eye