The Rise of ISIS has Complex Roots Inside and Outside the Middle East

This in the English original of an editorial about the geopolitics of ISIS I wrote for a Swedish newspaper, Sydsvenskan. The Swedish piece can be found here.

The seizure of Mosul by ISIS in June 2014 truly announced their presence to the world. The root causes of ISIS’ emergence were multifaceted and complex. Many of these causal factors were less than 10 years old, coming out of the prolonged power vacuum created by the failed US invasion of Iraq. Others have much older roots in phenomena present in various Middle Eastern societies over the last 40 years. These include the defeat of Arab Nationalism and the rise of political Islam. Not all of these roots of ISIS stretch back into the Middle East, however. The bloody conflict in Chechnya certainly plays a role, as does the structural and societal racism in various European countries that made it so hard for many immigrants from Arab and Muslim societies to integrate. These geographically disparate regions have all contributed to the flow of jihadis fighting for the Islamic State.

The geopolitics prolonging the conflict with ISIS likewise have deep roots. The current reality is best described as a world in the twilight of a failed American attempt at being the world sovereign, at least in terms of international relations. The USA initiated the War on Terror in a flawed response to the events of 9/11. The most proximate cause for ISIS’ emergence comes from the American decision to carry out de-Baathification and disband the Iraqi army. This led to a period of prolonged instability and put many individuals from the former regime out of work, without which we would not have the Islamic State as it exists now. Iran has been very active on a regional level since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and took the opportunity to become much more influential in Iraq after the US overthrew Saddam. Many of the dynamics that follow are known: Iran supports Assad’s regime while Saudi Arabia and other Sunni monarchies support rebel groups trying to overthrow him. These Sunni monarchies and regimes, like Saudi, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, etc. have staunch US backing. This represents the USA’s long-term bet on Sunni monarchies as a control against Iranian expansion post 1979, as well as being allies of oil-producing nations.

Other geopolitical realities helped ISIS grow. Iran’s support of Maliki’s government in Iraq and its sectarian excesses has been pushing various Sunni groups to find a response. Turkey has proven itself willing to host the rebel groups fighting Bashar al-Assad as well as allowing them to move fighters and materiel through the border between Turkey and Syria. While Turkey could certainly take steps to exert more control over what passes through its borders into the war zone, especially fighters traveling to join the Islamic State, it can’t completely control such a long and geographically complex border. The porosity of this border has fueled not only the war in Syria, the fighters joining ISIS, but also the Islamic State’s ability to export oil for profit.

More broadly, the nature of the global system of movement is important. In its present state, the global system does everything it can to allow goods and capital to move freely but to control the movement of people. One need only look at the recent TPP and TTIP to see how powerful countries want goods and capital to move as freely as possible, while the refugee crisis in Europe and Turkey has highlighted just how much many countries want to stem the movements of people. This is embodied in the system known as ‘Fortress Europe’. It focuses on keeping people from reaching Europe, but it is very permissive in allowing anyone with a EU or US passport to move as they please away from the protected core. This has allowed many individuals already known to intelligence agencies in the USA and EU to leave to join the Islamic State. If the global system were not as such, these Western nationals would have a much harder time traveling to fight with ISIS.

The potential endgame remains complex and without clear solutions. If Assad is defeated before ISIS, there exists a strong possibility that ISIS will be able to expand into areas vacated by the regime, as they’re trying to do in Hama right now. That collapse of Assad’s government would likely produce an exodus of civilians living in regime-controlled areas. Or, if ISIS is defeated and Assad remains, the toxic legacy of the war will ruin his ability to govern his country or let Syria return to normal in any short to medium term. If the rebel groups combined with Western forces to defeat both Assad and ISIS, it would open a massive power vacuum that would be as difficult to stabilize as Iraq and Libya have already proven to be, a mistake Western forces cannot make again. Russia’s willingness to enter the fight is not as complex- yes they risk making a complex war worse, but they are also not pushing the regime towards collapse. They’re explicitly trying to stabilize the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad, and have no means of dealing with the toxic legacy the Syrian people will live with if it survives and stabilizes.

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