The brutal rise of Isis - a radical Islamist army
Isis, a radical, ruthless Islamist army, is brutally extending its hold in the Middle East, further destabilising an already restless region. Can it be stopped?
Atrocity: a scene from the video apparently showing Isis executing Iraqi soldiers
Over just 10 days the ruthless and brutal jihadi army that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – aka Isis – seized the Iraqi towns of Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah, Tal Afar and Rawa. The militants partially hold the towns of Baiji – home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery – Ramadi, Saadiyah, Jalawla, Al-Qa’im and Haditha. Isis has fought Iraqi government forces at Baquba, Taji and Samarra, where Sunni extremists severely damaged the al-Askari Mosque, a major Shia shrine, in 2006 and again in 2007.
Those two years were round one of the Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq. Round two has commenced, with the dangerous injection of thousands of Sunni Muslim fundamentalists from as far away as Europe, North America and Central Asia.
Isis follows the gruesome extremist protocal of using the internet to publicise its atrocities, posting grisly videos of beheadings and other violence. A video this week purported to show the massacre of 1,700 Iraqi soldiers. The men were shot lying face down in a ditch, their hands bound behind their backs, their bodies left soaking in pools of blood.
Isis has created the embryo of a Sunni Muslim caliphate straddling northern Iraq and Syria. With only 15,000 men, it may find it difficult to hold on to its conquests. Its base in northern Syria is like a new Afghanistan, a training ground and launching pad for violent extremism, just a stone’s throw from Nato’s southern border.
The Syrian civil war has engulfed Lebanon and Iraq in a single battlefield. The frontier traced by Mark Sykes, for Britain, and François Georges-Picot, for France, in 1916 has gone. The wave of chaos that started far to the east, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, now stretches to the Mediterranean.
Much of the violence is Sunni versus Shia, a schism rooted in a seventh-century dispute about the succession to the prophet Muhammad. The Shia followed Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali, the Sunnis his companion Abu Bakr. With the instability of once-strong nations such as Iraq, Egypt and Syria, this ancient quarrel has resurfaced.
Isis is believed to have a $2 billion war chest, mostly financed by rich Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms. In a report it published in 2013 to attract donations, Isis claimed to have carried out 1,000 assassinations and 4,000 bombings in Iraq last year, while fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria.
Although Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, claims to have halted Isis’s advance on Baghdad, it is within 90km of the capital, and Maliki has asked Washington for air strikes. Only three years ago he refused to let the US maintain troops in Iraq.
Isis encountered little or no resistance in the Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninevah, but it has been repelled where it has entered Shia areas. Its offensive may herald the break-up of Iraq into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish statelets.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, the main power broker in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, insists that Iraq must be kept intact. Washington and Tehran entertain the idea of co-operating to save Iraq from Isis, but Tehran remains deeply suspicious of US motives.
“Some western powers have been claiming for years that there is a war between Sunni and Shia,” says Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. “By strengthening sectarian and ethnic divisions they’re pursuing the dismemberment and fragmentation of the region.”
Does he mean the US is fomenting sectarian war? “The intelligence service of the US, in order to advance their interests, are doing this,” says Amir-Abdollahian.
The “dumb war” that President Barack Obama inherited from the Bush administration has come back to haunt him. The US lost more than 5,000 soldiers and saw tens of thousands of its servicemen and women wounded in the 2003-11 Iraq War, which has cost the country at least $1 trillion.
Iran opposed the 2003 invasion, saying it was immoral and illegal. But it brought Tehran’s proteges to power and gave Iran more influence than Washington in Baghdad.
“The US fulfilled our goals for us,” says Hossein Sheikholeslam, a veteran Iranian diplomat and foreign-policy adviser to the Iranian parliamentary speaker. “No idiot ever helped as us much as George W Bush.”
Obama has made support for the Maliki government conditional on greater political participation for Iraq’s Sunnis. This is also a demand of Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the protector of its coreligionists.
The rise of Isis has scuppered timid moves towards a rapprochement between revolutionary Iran and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the main rivals for power in the region.
Maliki’s Iranian supporters say there’s no reason he should share power with Sunnis. “Nouri al-Maliki is a hard man,” says Sheikholeslam. “But he won more votes than anyone else. Iraq has a culture of violence.” In other words, sharing power does not come naturally to Iraqi politicians.
Iran’s revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan both occurred 35 years ago. With the exception of the creation of the state of Israel, no other events have so determined the face of today’s Middle East.
With Saudi money, the US and its allies armed and trained Sunni fundamentalists in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.
“Arabs flocked to Afghanistan to learn Saudi-style Islam,” says Sheikholeslam. “That means no role for the people, no vote, no parliament. Whatever the emir says is Islam. That is the ideology of Isis, of [al-Qaeda-backed] al-Nusra [also fighting in Syria]. It’s a Sunni theory of an Islamic state.”
That ideology was on display in the Afghan presidential election on June 14th, when the Taliban cut off the ink-stained fingers of Afghans who voted.
The jihadism born in Afghanistan and propagated by Osama bin Laden and his followers in Sunni communities around the world is, along with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the repression of the uprising against him by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a leading cause of the present chaos in the Middle East.
Ten years ago the Bush administration coined the term Greater Middle East to describe the Muslim world from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Newly liberated Iraq was to be a beacon of democracy, human rights and free-market economics. Seen through the lens of the past two weeks, Bush’s attempt at reshaping the region was disastrously naive.
Iranians and Arabs often underestimate the extent to which US policy is simply the result of ineptitude and confusion. Washington, like its ally Turkey, wanted Assad’s overthrow, and supported both political and armed opposition when the civil war started. But last September Obama backed away from the “red line” he had set: a promise to attack Syria when Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.
Eventually, the US and Turkey, which has given access to jihadis flocking to Syria, became alarmed at the predominance of jihadi groups in the rebellion. Turkey may also fear that the more radical members of its ruling AKP party will be susceptible to the influence of Isis and al-Nusra.
Sheikholeslam jokes grimly about Washington’s inconsistency in dealing with the jihadi threat. “Terrorism is a tactical, not a strategic, issue for the west,” he says. “In Somalia and Mali you fight them. In Afghanistan you talk to the Taliban. In Syria you help them.”
George W Bush’s Greater Middle East is today a sorry vista of troubled states. The governments of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Libya no longer control all of their own territory. Tunisia is the only “Arab spring” country to have come relatively well out of the upheaval.
Egypt, the most populous Arab country and seat of the Arab League, has been neutralised by internal strife between the Muslim Brotherhood, which won democratic elections, and the military, which overthrew the Brotherhood in July last year.
Palestine too has become a sideshow. The recent abduction of two Jewish settlers on the West Bank, and Israel’s subsequent arrest of dozens of Hamas members, would have been a major story at one time.
The war in Syria and Iraq “is weakening Palestinians”, says Sheikholelsam, “because the Muslim countries who support the Palestinians are becoming weaker and weaker every day. Syria can no longer help them. Even Iran cannot do as much for the Palestinians, because we are involved in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.”
In a region of ruined states Iran is an exception. Its influence is strong in Afghanistan, where the Tajik minority speaks Dari, a dialect of Persian, and where a close ally, the former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, may well be the next president.
Iran’s alliance with Syria began under the late president Hafez al-Assad. Although Assad was a secular Baathist, the Alawite sect his family hails from is an offshoot of Shiism. Tehran and Damascus were united in their opposition to Israel, which has occupied the Syrian Golan Heights since 1967.
Assad stood by Iran during the 1980-88 war with Iraq and gave it access to Lebanon, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps set up the Hezbollah militia after the 1982 Israeli invasion. Iran has returned the favour by dispatching Hezbollah to save Assad’s son Bashar in Syria.
More than 20 years ago the Iranian ayatollah Ali Akbar Mohtashemi told me that Hezbollah was “a lung through which Iran breathes”. Sheikholeslam, a former ambassador to Syria, calls it “the sharp teeth of the Islamic Republic” next to Israel. “If we didn’t have the set-up we have in Lebanon,” he says, “Israel would have bombed [the Iranian nuclear sites at] Natanz, Fordo and Bushehr many times. They know that if they bomb us we can retaliate.”
“The region and the world are shifting in such a way that Iran is in a much stronger position,” says Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a political-science professor who is close to the government. “Ukraine, the South China Sea . . . the US has many other problems, and Iran is a rock in the region. The US has less power to impose its will on countries like Iran. The sensible thing is for the US to accept the Islamic Republic and move on.”
That seems to be the view of the British government, which this week announced it will reopen its embassy in Tehran.
Isis “is a danger to everyone”, Sheikholeslam says. Official pronouncements in Tehran sometimes give the impression the regime is spoiling for a fight with Isis. “We’re not eager,” he corrects me, calling the jihadis “Daish,” a pejorative Arabic name.
“We want the Daish fighters to go back where they came from, to Europe, America, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya . . . This is a very big problem, and it will cost us a lot. But we will not allow them to succeed in Iraq, any more than we allowed them to succeed in Syria.”