ISIS, having achieved significant military advances throughout Iraq and Syria, have quickly gained traction in becoming a current safe house for breeding Islamic extremism (the likes of which haven’t been seen since Taliban-dominated Afghanistan). The beheadings, the abductions of women, the destruction of antiquities; just a few atrocities the group has laid claim to and with a staggering momentum. So when it comes to ISIS and its origins, who is ultimately at fault for the rise of such a callous and hyper-sectarian organization?
In dealing with the nature of proxy wars, the truth is never simplified but rather a complicated and intertwined web of entities working together. Not only did the governments of Iraq and Syria play a role, but the United States, Iran and the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia all share links in systematically creating conditions of conflict conducive for widespread, organized terrorism. These scenarios certainly help to illustrate and bring to light some serious problems. Why are proxy wars so unpredictable? And can we, in the near future, begin to imagine the gravity of these wars? How long it will take to eliminate all things factoring in to the continuance of ISIS?
Nouri al-Maliki and the Shias
The authoritarian Nouri al-Maliki and the Shia majority appear to be obvious choices when identifying worthy culprits. Since 2006, al-Maliki has run the Shia government, repeatedly excluding the Sunnis from power and imprisoning them on the basis of counterterrorism laws.
Among other active Iraqi policies is the barring of former Saddam-era officials from participating in office. These, along with active deadly force against nonviolent Sunni protests, and al-Maliki’s overall favoring of non-governmental Shia militias, certainly have created a backdrop of desperation which has given ISIS motivation enough to garner the attention and participation of Sunni Iraqis.
Aside from al-Maliki’s reign, there are plenty of other politicians involved who constantly work to suppress Sunni inclusion. Although, the Shias are fearful of taking steps to incorporate the Sunnis more, singling them all out as the main catalyst for ISIS would blur us from seeing the broader picture of all those involved.
Since the days of Al-Qaeda, through its inception and downfall, we’ve learned that dismantling a terrorist organization does not guarantee that another won’t rise without popular support. ISIS’s viability relies on critical backing from Iraqi Sunnis. When it comes to Sunni popularity, it is very important to think of it in degrees. There is a degree of popular support for ISIS. The vast majority of Sunni Muslims in Iraq do not agree with ISIS extremism. A number of Sunnis have fled to avoid ISIS’s advance.
The most noteworthy of Iraq’s problems is the incapability of Sunni Arabs and its Sunni neighbors to accept the Shia majority. In retrospect, during the Saddam-era government, the Sunni minority controlled everything, and they hold dear the belief that they still have a right to.
Seeing political leadership and governance as an inherent birthright, resentment runs high amongst Sunni Arabs who see the Shia majority as unfit to govern Iraq. For as long as Sunnis remain hostile towards Shias, alternative options will continue to rise. As for now, our current contortion of extremist support lies in the hands of ISIS.
This situation is much the same in Syria, where the Sunni majority has long been ignored by Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship. While taking stance against Islamic extremism in the beginning, as the war waged on, Jihadist militias formed. This eventually enveloped ISIS.
The United States
The most evident way in which the US holds responsibility for ISIS’s forthcoming is the War on Terror and, in particular, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The United States, of course, seized to secure Iraq and, in doing so, caused a separatist civil war, and predominantly produced the environment for the then al-Qaeda to proliferate. If it weren’t for American involvement in Iraq, al-Qaeda would have never become so strong, and ISIS could not have branched off from it.
Many think that America’s lack of action since its withdrawal from Iraq has been pivotal in aiding ISIS. Although, this means little compared to the consequences caused by the invasion itself. A residual occupation of Iraq may have been able to offset the ISIS Iraqi Offensive in June 2014. And further bombings might have enfeebled targets in Syria as well. But the main contributors to ISIS’s ascension such as Iraqi internal politics and the advent of the Syrian civil war could not be resolved by extended US occupancy.
Running a Shia dictatorship would have you believe that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is one of ISIS’ mortal enemies. Assad has had an arduous time venturing to reclaim his grasp on all of Syria’s territories. His main stake in things is as another opponent who knows that ISIS still clenches on to a substantial part of the country.
It is known that Assad has intentionally played part in fostering or at least implicitly allotting the rise of ISIS, as a mode of alienating moderate rebels whom exterior powers such as the US may have supported against him. ISIS and Assad appear to have tacitly weaved an unspoken deal. We see ISIS non permanently receiving part of Syria while the Syrian dictator gets to enervate his opposers. This gives Assad plenty of time to fraction and sunder rebel groups, and presents a simple siding option for the people of Syria: It’s either choose Assad or the continued reign of ISIS?
Assad has repeatedly left ISIS unhinged due to its stronghold in intervening as a filler for his own genocidal aspirations. If not for Assad’s withdrawal from the situation, ISIS would not have prospered and would have been shown more fervorous attention, same as the other Syrian rebels.
Although Iran is most in alliance with Assad more than anyone, the Iranian government is much more concerned over combating ISIS. Iran continues to provide military support to Iraq’s campaign against the terrorist group, even incorporating battlefield instruction from one of the most powerful leading commanders (Qassem Suleimani) of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds force.
Iran, much like the US, has played an inadvertent role in ISIS’s rise in Iraq and Syria. Being Maliki’s strongest backer after the American intervention, Iran has determinedly thrusted Iraqi alliance negotiations in Maliki’s approval ever since the 2010 election. Iran has supported some of the most uncompromising Shia militias in Iraq (Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization). With the help of the militias, Maliki and his support aided in pushing Sunnis out of the Iraqi government.
Assad’s reinforced Iran has intervened through means of Iranian forces and client militia (the Lebanese Hezbollah). In 2012, when an Assad surrender seemed imminent, thousands of Iranian troops, Hezbollah fighters, and Iraqi Shia militias were sent to aid Assad. They also provided a large amount of arms and an enormous loan to further support the Syrian war effort.
Iran, in many ways, may have saved Assad. They greatly supported his efforts against the moderate rebels in turn creating an environment for ISIS to form and emerge as a threatening anti-government force of Syria.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait
ISIS gets a lot of its money off of oil and organized crime. However, back in 2011 and 2012, ISIS lacked the proper resources needed to develop a source of sophisticated fundraising. In the past, most of their funding came from the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar.
This does not mean these governments have shared extremist views with ISIS. They possess a hatred for the Assad regime and all of its allies, to the point of funding Assad’s opponents. These wealthy Gulf States are incidentally involved in helping ISIS wage war against Iran and Assad.
The sad fact is that the majority of money which backed and grew ISIS came from classified citizens in Gulf States. Up until just recently, as the real threat of ISIS took full form, these countries already had poorly structured laws preventing suspicious activities such as money laundering. This allowed private sponsors to send copious amounts of money to Syrian rebel groups such as ISIS.
Today, these countries deny support to ISIS. The Qataris, for instance, only have admitted their involvement in funding Jabhat al-Nursa, the al’Qaeda branch of Syria. What’s obvious here is that funding and shipment of arms are mutually interchangeable. We can deduce that during ISIS’s time of capital need, there was a steady flow of cash coming from Saudi, Qatari and Kuwaiti donors. A covert practice with little concern as to who ultimately ends up with the goods.
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