Whose Enemy Is ISIS, and Whose Friend?
The war on ISIS continues to escalate, yet for many Americans it is no clearer exactly why we are there or what we are doing.
ISIS is a frightening phenomenon. As Secretary of State John Kerry commented this week, “ISIL doesn’t hide its crimes. ISIL is defined by its crimes because the terrorists have nothing positive to offer anyone. Their strategy is based entirely on fear, and many of their captives are executed, some beheaded, some buried alive, some crucified. Others are given a choice to pledge allegiance or die. Children are tortured, killed, or forced to take up arms. Cultural and religious shrines have been desecrated, including the graves of prophets honored by all the children of Abraham.” While we may not be intimidated by the beheadings, as John Kerry suggested, they struck a deep cord in our belief in right and wrong, and have galvanized the urge to find an American response.
But if one is not inclined to heed Kerry’s perspective, reading the ISIS English language online magazine, Dabiq, is eye-opening. It reports on the life and conquests of the Islamic State, with articles ranging from the Koranic justification for the re-institution of slavery, to details of military actions, prophecies of the conquests of the west to come, and screeds against Obama and Bush and apostate Persia and Russia. It combines the hyperbolic language of a LaRouche publication, with a messianic evangelical intensity, backed up by, as is illustrated in glossy detail, an army with modern weaponry. It is disturbing reading, to say the least.
Yet many of the front line states in the region that we are calling upon to be our partners in the war against ISIS have distinctly ambivalent attitudes towards ISIS, and that ambivalence only heightens our questions about our own role. Today, ISIS occupies a large swath of Syria and Iraq, with every intention to expand its footprint within the region, and beyond. To the north is Turkey, to the east is Iran and to the south are Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Many of those countries, notably Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, actively funded the creation of ISIS as a Sunni fighting force against Syria’s Bashir al-Assad, when the civil war in Syria quickly morphed into a regional Sunni-Shi’a conflict. Now, they are being asked to participate in its destruction.
Turkey, for its part, has been notably cool toward joining the anti-ISIS ranks, as its highest priority for years has been to undermine Kurdish aspirations in the region. Turkey has hosted training facilities for ISIS fighters—at a site close to the U.S. Incirlik Air Base that Turkey refused to let the U.S. use for operations against ISIS. It has provided a transit route for international volunteers recruited to join the ISIS ranks, while blocking transit for Kurdish forces participating in the anti-ISIS fight. And it has allowed ISIS to sell its oil on the black market to support its efforts. Most recently, Turkey was quite content to sit by and watch ISIS destroy the Kurdish town of Kobani right across its border. If Turkey has joined the American coalition, it has apparently done so reluctantly, and certainly not out of any fundamental disdain for ISIS methods or objectives.
As the singular Shi’a power in the region, Iran’s opposition to ISIS is absolute. While the Iranians have become our tacit partners in our efforts to sustain a viable Iraqi state, we are on opposite sides in Syria, where Iran is the primary sponsor, along with Russia, of the Assad regime. Accordingly, although we may be on the same side in the war against ISIS, we are barely on speaking terms. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has openly mocked the alliance that the United States has been struggling to assemble against ISIS, from which Iran is excluded, as a “coalition of repenters,” comprising the very states that were instrumental in the creation of the group it now seeks to bring down.
Out of all the front line states, the Saudi’s are in a particular bind. This week, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called upon sympathizers in the Kingdom to attack and “dismember” the Saudi royal family. ISIS forces are arrayed across Iraq, and only—in one of many ironies in the situation—the Shi’ite Arabs of southern Iraq, stand between ISIS and the Saudi border. Earlier this year, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia and the head of its Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas, pronounced that “ISIS is enemy No. 1 of Islam.” But Sheikh al-Sheikh’s words belie the deeper Saudi dilemma. The Islam of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not new, and no one knows this better than the Grand Mufti himself. The Islam of ISIS is the Islam of the fundamentalist Wahhabi tradition—of which the Sheikh is the senior religious and legal authority—born in the desert of Saudi Arabia and inextricably linked to the al-Saud family. So it should come as no surprise that, Sheikh al-Sheikh’s injunction notwithstanding, public opinion polling suggests that over 90% of Saudis believe that “Islamic State conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.”
For decades, in exchange for Saudi commitments to stability in oil markets, the United States Central Command has served as the Praetorian Guard of the Kingdom. Under our protection, the Saudis financed the global expansion of the Wahhabi network of Islamic religious schools that spread the fundamentalist faith and sowed hostility toward the west. We partnered with them to push the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, a war that spawned the creation of the Taliban and al Qaeda. While we mock the Iranians over their conspiracy theories that the United States created ISIS, the history suggests that we have greater culpability than we care to admit.
Americans continue to be baffled by ISIS, but we talk about it as if it just appeared out of the blue. This is not true. It is the product of the long and deliberate cultivation of radical jihadism by the nation that we present to the world as our close ally. As surprising as it might be that more than 90% of Saudis admire the values that ISIS represents, it is perhaps more revealing that that 69% of French Muslims support ISIS in similar polling. And what are we to think of Turkey, our NATO ally, which has seen few citizens joining jihadist groups over the years, but from which volunteers are now flowing across the border to join the ISIS cause from all walks of Turkish life.
In his words this week, John Kerry suggested that success in ending the ISIS threat “depends on the ability of respected figures from every branch of Islam to help potential recruits understand that ISIL is against everything that faith teaches and in favor of everything that it abhors.” But the evidence suggests this is not true. As one Muslim scholar observed: “It is true that the teachings of the sheikhs in Saudi-funded schools in Pakistan gave rise to the radicalism of the Taliban [and all that has followed], but it is equally true that Wahhabi sheikhs in Saudi Arabia have unequivocally stated that suicide bombings are un-Islamic.” Suicide bombings, perhaps, but not other ISIS practices, such as the beheadings to have shocked Americans. Saudi Arabia practices public beheadings as a matter of course, including 59 executions for crimes including political dissent this year alone.
Wahhabism has been and remains, oil aside, Saudi Arabia’s seminal contribution to the world, but with the rise of first of al Qaeda and now of ISIS, they have learned that they cannot control the forces they have unleashed. What is unclear is whether now, faced with the barbarians at the gates, the Saudis have turned to us for protection, or whether we have turned to them to play a leadership role in building a coalition to oppose ISIS. It is curious why we have to work so hard convince those who lie in ISIS’s path to come to their own defense. Why, if the front line nations most under threat are reluctant to rise to their own defense, should we be struggling to do it for them.
But if the front line states are ambivalent, the intention of ISIS leaders is clear, they would like to draw America into a millennial struggle within Islam, and between Islam and the west. Perhaps before we move forward, we should at least consider how we got to where we are, and if we have any idea where we are headed, and why.