A look at the rise of IS and terrorism

This is a republished version of a blog post I did, for some reason a lot of people could not access my blog, so I put this together.

For people who prefer video, I have linked to a collection of interesting videos on Youtube throughout the article. These have been compiled by my friend and Alien Space Candy bandmate, Adam Waters. I couldn’t figure out how to embed the videos, so they are just links marked as such.

With the horrific terror attacks on Paris, it is important to understand the political background to the conflicts in the Middle East and to Islamic fundamentalism. Overly simplistic assertions from those who want to blame ‘Islam’ as some sort of monolithic entity are both fanciful and what IS militants hope for. Blaming US and western imperialism whilst closer to the mark, still provides a vastly over-simplified analysis. The goal of this post is to illuminate the modern history of the region to show the complexity of the current situation.

Most of the info is contained in the links. This post is by no means comprehensive and mostly relies on mainstream and conservative sources. I was aiming to put something together where the broad facts could not be challenged. If there is anything glaringly wrong, please contact me on social media @AKFRU on Twitter.

In the Gulf, the United States has ironically broken with its former dictum that we would oppose the domination of the Gulf region by a single power. We have become that power and now have to accept the consequences of that fact.Ambassador Richard Murphy, Washington DC 1993.

World War 1 and its Aftermath

Many of the lasting conflicts in the Middle East have their roots in the carve up of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, during and after World War 1. The Sykes-Picot Agreement made between Britain and France divided the region into French and British spheres on influence despite Britain promising independence to the Arabs for helping bring down the Ottoman Empire (this is where the real-life tale of Lawrence of Arabia comes from).

The French took control of Syria, dividing their colonial territory along ethnic and sectarian lines to prevent the local populations from uniting to throw out the Europeans. The divide and rule strategy of both France and Britain embedded much of today’s conflicts into the social fabric of the region.

Video: Blood and Oil: The Middle East in World War One

The End of Colonialism

The intellectual development of the world following World War 1 was heavily influenced by the Russian Revolution and the rise of (Soviet) Communism. In the Middle East this primarily took the form of anti-colonialism. The Soviet Union and the Communist Parties controlled by the Third International acted as an empire, rather than a force for liberation and offered no solution to overthrow the colonial powers.

This led to the development of Arab Nationalist movements that in both Syria and Iraq led to the creation of Baathism (the article written as an obituary to Baathism is wrong in that fact, but generally right in the rest of the information). Military backed uprisings against the colonial powers during and after World War 2 saw supporters of this ideology rise to prominence.

Separately, a coup against King Farouk 1 of Egypt by the Egyptian Free Military in 1952 saw the rise to power of General Nasser in 1954. Nasser claimed the Suez Canal as the Nationalised property of Egypt, casting out the British and French who both had stakes in the Canal. The regime was a single Party dictatorship that controlled the media and suppressed dissenting views.

In 1958 Syria and Egypt attempted to put into practice the idea of a pan-Arabic state, the United Arab Republic. The first attempt lasted for two years, with Syria withdrawing. A second attempt was made in 1962 between Egypt, Syria and Iraq which never quite united.

Both Syria and Iraq embraced Baathism as the basis of their regimes. A near bloodless coup in 1970 saw Hafez al-Assad (the Father of Bashar) come to power and start the process to modernise Syria.

Saudi Arabia and the US

The ideology of IS stems from the Wahhabist interpretation of Islam that is pushed globally by Saudi Arabia through funding religious schools around the Muslim world. Dr Yousaf Butt published this article explaining it’s history and how it inspires IS today.

Saudi Arabia is a long term ally of the United States. It seems that the primary benefit for the US is oil, consequently massive human rights abuses are overlooked in favour of profits.

The Saudi regime are in a precarious position, the similarities between the ideology of IS and the Wahhabism spread by Saudi Arabia make it fertile recruiting ground for the IS militants.

Video: Adam Curtis: Bitter Lake (part 1)

Iran and the US

In 1951 Premier Mohammed Mosaddeq became the leader of the Iranian government. At the time Iran was a Constitutional monarchy ruled by the Shah. Mosaddeq attacked the power of British and other Western oil interests, working to nationalise the oil fields and undermined the power of Iranian elites. Due to Cold War power politics and the thirst for oil profits, Britain and the US worked to remove Mosaddeq and in 1952 he was dismissed by the Shah and in the subsequent riots a CIA backed coup was staged installing the Shah as an autocratic ruler.

The CIA’s role in the coup was not lost on the next generation of revolutionaries and as part of the 1979 revolution, the US embassy was occupied and its residents were taken hostage. From the revolutionaries perspective, seizing the embassy stopped the CIA from being able to organise a counter-revolution, from the US perspective it was a deep humiliation that colours the relationship even today. Iran is an implacable foe of ISIS for the simple reason that Iran is dominated by the Shia sect of Islam and ISIS is fundamentalist Sunni.

Israel and Palestine

This is one of the most intractable conflicts in the world today. It is impossible to understand the political situation in the Middle East without understanding the conflict. A good source for an overview is the Council for Foreign Relations Crisis Guide, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

Iraq War

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was planned a full year before the invasion took place. George W Bush and Tony Blair conspired to create the conditions for war, with their claims of Iraq harbouring weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam Hussain led a Sunni dominated secular dictatorship over a majority Shia population. Elections following the invasion installed a Shia majority conservative government which has increased divisions within the country. The Sunni insurgency worked with Al Quaeda and its remnants have been one of the foundations of Islamic State.

The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring, a series of uprisings around North Africa and the Middle East represented a push for democracy against the old dictatorships that ruled throughout the second half of the 20th Century. Starting in Tunisia in December 2010, the uprisings spread across the region. Early successes, including the toppling of Mubarak in Egypt forced the US to pick sides. Propping up Dictators creates intractable foes should the opposition come into power, as they learned supporting the Shah in Iran.

At this point in time the only successful uprising was in Tunisia, because Islamic forces were prepared to work with secular forces to form a workable government. Egypt serves as a prime example of what went wrong in other areas. The Muslim Brotherhood won the first democratic election and began to enact their conservative, religious platform to the horror of many of the participants in the revolution. This was due to the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood were the most prominent anti-dictatorship forces in the country throughout the decades of dictatorship and were the most organised faction participating in the elections.

The subsequent coup has undermined the revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood were outlawed, many activists both within the Muslim Brotherhood and wider circles have been jailed. With elections coming soon, there is widespread apathy that anything will change for the better.

What is Islamic State and What Do They Want?

ISIS. ISIL, Daesh etc, I wish everyone would settle on a name for these guys. They started out as an alliance of foreign fighters and Iraqi ex-Military officials who joined forces to fight the US and it’s allies in the last Iraq war. IS have links to the government in Turkey, and thanks to near-identical ideologies, comparatively large sections of the population in Saudi Arabia.

The Carnegie Middle East Centre put together a very detailed explanation of IS, its methods and strategies (warning: It is very long). There is also this article based on interviews with captured ISIS fighters being held in Iraq.

Video: Vice News: The Spread of the Caliphate (part 1)