The Islamic State: A Problem Far from Resolution

Nobody today questions the need to confront the Islamic State (ISIL). The expansion of ISIL calls into question the immutability of borders in the Middle East, the preservation of the countries there, and the demographic structure of its population.

By expanding its structure, it has evolved from the Islamic State of Iraq into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, eventually proclaiming itself a “caliphate”. Moreover, the quasi-formation of the Islamic State has been all the while acquiring the necessary features of a political entity: a flag, territory, administrative management, and currency. The expansion of ISIL calls into question the immutability of borders in the Middle East, the preservation of the countries there, and the demographic structure of its population. The emerging regional situation is exerting influence upon the world; ISIL is not only a magnet for attracting supporters of Salafi jihadism, it is also a source of the dissemination of radicalism in Muslim communities scattered around the world, regardless of whether they are migrants or of autochthonic origin. Its ability to serve as an umbrella for an ever-increasing range of affiliated groups consolidates their capabilities (including militarily) and enhances their ability to influence the public.

The emergence of ISIL (and other Salafi jihadist groups) is a result of the continuous erosion of the ideological concepts that prevailed in the Middle East and assigned legitimacy to its countries. External interference (regardless of whether it was the introduction of Soviet troops into Afghanistan in 1979 or the US invasion of Iraq in 2003) precipitated this process while the Arab Spring revolutions made it irretrievable. The collapse of the previous ideological doctrines has elevated the radical interpretations of a marginalized Islam to the forefront of regional politics.

This interpretation gave nationalist discourse a new lease of life, calling into question the legitimacy of the states created as a result of European expansion and the division of spheres of influence by the world’s leading powers in the early 20th century. To what extent did these countries become self-sufficient after gaining political independence? Were the ruling regimes of these states able to become champions of this independence by implementing the fundamental slogans of the doctrines guiding them? The issue of Israel — the most “glaring” example of “the violation of the rights” of the Arab Muslim majority — has always been the focus of the region’s public opinion, being regarded as a successful example for other types of ethnic and religious separatism in the region, that is, for Kurds, Shias, Copts or other Christian minorities. Logically completing these speculations and relying on a legacy of “noble ancestors” (a tool more important than the “positivist” doctrines of the nationalists), ISIL is destroying the existing governments by confronting the regimes that represent this system. Moreover, it is eliminating or ousting potential supporters of ethnic and religious isolation by insisting on the liquidation of parties, groups, and trends within the Muslim community, which is called upon to be “united.”

Foreign invasions and revolutionary changes have engendered chaos (or facilitated the emergence of its major prerequisites) in fragile Middle Eastern states (both republics and monarchies) where the domination of various modifications of authoritarian dictatorships never managed to achieve genuine national unity. Salafi Jihadist structures (ISIL is just the brightest example) emerged in response to the inability of numerous competing elites (regional, religious, or ethnic) to achieve the consensus required for ruling these states in which a common national identity never appeared after a foreign invasion or the beginning of an anti-government revolutionary storm. Initially these structures were a “small force” playing on interstate and regional contradictions (Saudi Arabia was most frequently called an ISIL sponsor), but having scored military and political successes, they have also directed their attacks at those who in the past had deemed it necessary to support them.

Is it possible to counter ISIL effectively? The answer to this question is neither easy nor unequivocal, despite countries both inside and outside the region having already formed a coalition against this quasi-state and there being no open opponents to this confrontation in the Middle East. The problem lies in the major and sometimes irreconcilable contradictions held between those who can and should participate in this confrontation.

The already established international coalition of states confronting ISIL cannot inflict much damage because its actions are limited to air strikes. They will become effective only if they are accompanied by the land operations required to destroy the enemy. For non-regional countries — the United States and Britain — it seems impossible to use ground forces for such operations due to political considerations. Russia, for its part, does not consider air strikes a possibility because the UN Security Council has not sanctioned them. Therefore, it is the army of the Middle Eastern counties that should be carrying out these operations.

However, the goal remains difficult to achieve even in this particular case. Believing that ISIL’s “Sunni extremism” should be opposed by a “moderate” Sunni approach, the Gulf monarchies (primarily, Saudi Arabia) have excluded Shia Iran from the struggle against the enemy. They insist that the Iraqi army — which is far from being combat-ready — should not accept Iranian-trained and equipped Iraqi Shia paramilitary units. Denying the Bashar al-Asad regime the right to become part of the anti-ISIL alliance, and proclaiming it their enemy, the Gulf monarchies even further narrow the range of potential partners in this alliance. Riyadh did not reach an understanding on the initiative to create a coalition between Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey that was put forth by President Vladimir Putin at the meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in late June. The persistent desire of the Saudis to rely on the military wing of “the moderate opposition” in Syria – the Free Syrian Army – demands, at the very least, its restoration, training and arming. But the problem is not limited to the military factor.

ISIL has already become a player in the regional political game, to the point where local actors find its existence necessary for resolving their own tasks. This is deterring Syrian Kurds from gaining autonomy, which Turkey believes to be not in its interest. Saudi Arabia views the opposition, from Iraqi Sunni tribes (whose territory is largely controlled by ISIL) to the government in Baghdad, as a major factor in eliminating “Iran’s hegemony” in the region. Equally so, Riyadh needs ISIL for reducing Iranian influence in Syria.

Taking all of these circumstances into consideration, is it realistic to hope for any successful opposition to ISIL even though countries in both the region and the rest of the world recognize the dangers of letting it go unchecked?

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.