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The Islamic State Is a Formidable Threat

The IS concept of a caliphate incorporating all Muslim regions appeals to many. Several Arab countries have joined the states that have declared a willingness to stand up against the IS. Therefore, the lineup of forces in the Arab world is far from simple or clear.

Differences must not be allowed to hamper the fight against international terrorism.

I believe the world’s biggest threat is coming from the growing Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

The Islamic State is a mixture of various movements, none of which was especially dangerous until recently. It is believed that Sunnite radicals from Iraq’s Sunni Triangle formed the core of the Islamic State. They were joined by the Baath officers, who created a number of secret organizations after the US invasion. This strengthened the combat ability of the Islamic State, although future relations with the former Baath members, whose world outlook does not always coincide with Islamic State ideology, are unclear.

Islamic State’s rabid militant groups moved into Syria under religious banners, becoming the leading force in opposition to the Alawite government of Bashar Assad. They recruited new members in Syria, growing stronger and launching an offensive in Iraq, unexpectedly for many, where they seized control of a third of the country’s territory in a matter of days.

The expansion and the victorious march of the Islamic State were largely a consequence of US policy, which included the intervention in Iraq, and the policy of the occupation authorities. The US intervention unleashed chaos, unbalanced Iraq and led to bloody clashes between two main Islamic branches, the Sunnis and Shias. Saddam Hussein’s government, which consisted mostly of the Sunni minority, was fighting the Shias long before the US intervention. But these clashes, sometimes very harsh, were never based on religious differences. At least there were no weekly explosions at mosques. The current bloody clashes between the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq have become especially bitter since the US initiated a policy of pushing Sunnis out of the Iraqi administration. This is when the center of gravity shifted toward religious differences, which even the advocates of US policy will be unable to deny.

Worse still, the short-sighted (to say the least) US policy included the supply of weapons to the radical terrorists, who later turned their guns against the United States. One would argue that there was nothing wrong with the US occupation authorities spending handsome sums to arm the Sunni tribal defense units in an effort to oust al-Qaeda from the Sunni Triangle. However, they deceived the Sunnis by defaulting on their promise of high posts in the regular Iraqi army. To maintain its pro-Shia policy, Washington sided with former Prime Minister al-Maliki, who said that it would be inexpedient to give Sunnis officer positions in the Iraqi army.

Actually, this dangerous situation calls for a cooperative response to the Islamic State from the international community, primarily the permanent UN Security Council members.

An even more negative element was Washington’s all-out support for the armed opposition groups fighting the Bashar Assad’s government in Syria. The argument that the United States and its allies were arming, not the Islamic State but a more moderate group, the Free Syrian Army, holds no water. While giving wide-ranging support to the Syrian opposition, the United States could not and did not want to create a buffer between the Islamic State and other groups. Essentially, US policy is aimed at attaining its goals even when they contradict the goals of other countries and disregarding the consequences. The fruits of this logic can be seen in Afghanistan, where the United States backed the al-Qaeda terrorists and their war against the Soviet army.

The destabilization in Iraq, which the IS has used to its advantage, was deepened by the removal from office and blacklisting of members of the Baath party, which was dissolved after Hussein’s death. The new Iraqi army and security services were created from scratch and proved totally ineffective, as evidenced by the panic and flight of the Iraqi army, which has ceded nearly all its positions to the IS militants, leaving behind military equipment, including armored personnel carriers, tanks, artillery guns and other systems, which had been supplied by the United States and its allies. IS militants gladly took possession of these weapons.

Exactly why is the Islamic State so dangerous?

First, the victorious IS advance is inspiring other extremist Islamic organizations, turning the IS into a global center for irreconcilable Islamic radicals.

Second, IS military strength is growing fast, especially with new Islamic jihadist recruits from the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, America and Australia. Many members of the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra, which is affiliated with al- Qaeda, have joined the IS as the winning team. This is changing the balance of the forces that are fighting the Syrian government. According to the CIA, three months after the IS went public by seizing Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and other areas, the number of IS militants has grown threefold to over 30,000.

Third, the IS has become financially self-sufficient by assuming control of Mosul oil producing and refining facilities. They sell oil to Turkish, Jordanian, Syrian and other black market operators who disregard Washington’s tough talk.

Fourth, the IS concept of a caliphate incorporating all Muslim regions appeals to many. On the other hand, several Arab countries have joined the states that have declared a willingness to stand up against the IS. Therefore, the lineup of forces in the Arab world is far from simple or clear.

The United States has started bombing IS positions in Iraq and then turned on Syria without agreement from Damascus. This is not only contrary to international law but is also breeding the fear that an attempt could be made to bomb the Syrian regime out without a UN Security Council mandate.

In short, the situation is alarming and requires a cooperative response from the international community, primarily permanent Security Council members. No differences, including the Ukraine issue, should hinder the fight against international terrorism. 

This article was originally published in Russian in Rossiyskaya Gazeta .

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