What lies behind the “Islamic State” threat
What lies behind the “Islamic State” threat
Is the Middle East’s Makeover a Mirage?
Is the Middle East’s Makeover a Mirage?
Interview / Middle East & North Africa 6 minutes

What lies behind the “Islamic State” threat

This interview with Crisis Group’s Project Director for Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria and Senior Middle East and North Africa Adviser, Peter Harling, is translated and republished here with permission from Le Point.

Going beyond the clichés, Peter Harling shares some disturbing truths on the origins and the rise of the Islamic State. The horrific murder of hostage Hervé Gourdel in the name of the Islamic State organisation has focused France’s attention on the jihadi group and reinforced President François Hollande’s determination to strike the group’s positions in Iraq.

But what really is this ultra-radical group? Who contributed to its ascension? Why does it continue to attract disciples around the world? And how can it be stopped? International Crisis Group’s project director for Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and senior Middle East and North Africa adviser, Peter Harling, who lived and worked in Iraq for seven years, reveals to Le Point some disturbing truths on the war against the Islamic State.

Le Point: Is François Hollande’s determination to strike IS in Iraq a good strategy?

Peter Harling: The question is not one of François Hollande’s determination, but of the nature of the enemy and the relevance of the means used to combat it. To announce that we will avenge in Iraq or elsewhere a murder that took place in Algeria falls into the category of political agitation and public relations. It doesn’t reflect strategic thinking.

However, this group has called for the killing of the “bad and dirty French”.

In the West, Daesh (Peter Harling uses this acronym, also employed by the French government, to designate the IS organisation) evokes the image of terrorists genetically programed to be evil. This allows us to close our eyes to politics, as if there was some particular type of person that had to be destroyed in order to solve the problem. Thus the predominance of military solutions. However, Daesh attracts people who cannot be defined with a strict typology, and the West’s response with airstrikes only increased Daesh’s ability to mobilise.

What do you mean by that?

Some disoriented Europeans, tempted by ultra-violence, find in the organisation’s crimes and the way they are staged a sort of ideal of radicalism and virility. In Syria or Iraq, by contrast, Daesh can be perceived simply as an ally of necessity, essential for responding to the aggressions of a sectarian government perceived as an Iranian- backed occupation force. Daesh also expresses diverse and profound frustrations regarding the existing order, at a point when there is no existing alternative: secular elites are impotent, “mainstream” Islamic trends have failed and fragile government structures have been ripped apart by predatory behaviors serving individual or nepotistic interests.

How do Sunni populations perceive this organisation: as a terrorist group or a liberator from the Shiite yoke?

Both! The Sunni Arab world is in an existential crisis. So far, the region has, so to speak, failed to exit from an era of decline that began under the domination of the Ottoman Empire and continued through colonialism, multiple Western intrusions and the trauma of the creation of Israel. The great independence movements, which started as powerful sources of inspiration, quickly degenerated into autocratic kleptomaniac clans. Their Islamist alternatives, offering attractive visions of the future, were utopian and failed miserably when put into practice.

The Arab uprisings – a flashing, beautiful moment – were meant to offer redemption and a new beginning to the region but for now have turned into a nightmare. Imagine the mixed feelings of confusion, failure, bitterness, injustice and humiliation that followed. Add the unthinkable violence applied by the Syrian regime, without any serious reaction from the West; the depth and breadth of the humanitarian crisis that ensued; the upsetting rise of reactionary trends in Egypt, in the Gulf and elsewhere. Finally, add to all of this the constant provocations coming from the Shiite world, which is enough in the ascendant to be experiencing a form of hubris. In sum, very few people like Daesh, but there is nothing else.

How did the organisation manage to take possession of large parts of territory?

Daesh is filling a void. It imposed itself in the north east of Syria essentially because the Syrian regime had withdrawn from this largely barren region. It was able to take control of Mosul, in Iraq, simply because the authorities were present only through local elites sold-out to Baghdad and a sectarian, cynical and incompetent security apparatus. Daesh recently penetrated into the north of Lebanon, in a particularly neglected fringe of the country.

However, Daesh does not use its limited resources to try to expand its territory in zones where its occupation is doomed to fail, that is, zones where there can be an active resistance. That is why it has always been absurd to think that the organisation would march to Baghdad, which is well defended by Shiite militias, or take over Erbil, a fiefdom of Kurdish factions. In the same way, Daesh does not seriously attack the Syrian regime. On the contrary, it focuses on imposing its hegemony in those zones it is capable of dominating, decimating any potential Sunni Arab competitor.

Who is to blame for the rise of IS?

Everyone participated in it: the Iranians, by supporting the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, whose explicit aim was to radicalise Sunnis in order to discredit and to combat any opposition in the name of a so-called “war against terrorism”, and then by bankrolling a Shiite jihad which could only reinforce its Sunni counterpart. The West, by encouraging a Syrian revolt to which we offered solidarity and support, but which we mostly left on its own to face extreme forms and levels of violence. Turkey, which until recently had its borders wide open to anyone claiming to be going to fight Bashar al-Assad. The Gulf monarchies, which financed the Syrian opposition in an indecisive, confused and reckless way, which indirectly benefited the jihadis.

Did the massacre of the Christian and Yazidi minorities in Iraq motivate the American decision to intervene?

Daesh kills people at every turn. Its fighters also proceeded to mass executions among Sunni tribes, and the world did not protest. They beheaded Alawite fighters. And we should mention the many horrors committed by other actors who do not pay for their crimes: the Syrian regime caused the death by malnutrition of many civilians, including children, in neighbourhoods surrounded and besieged to achieve that very end. I don’t really see how air campaigns against Daesh, independent of policies to deal with the other terrible sufferings endured by people across the region, are going to help secure the future of, specifically, Christians or Yazidis.

How then can we put an end to the Islamic State?

The first thing to do would be to break with the time frame imposed by the media. As it is, we strike abruptly and in a rush against a threat that we have watched grow – and have otherwise ignored – for over two years. What precipitated the intervention was media attention to some striking themes: the martyrdom of Eastern Christians; extreme barbarism as exemplified by the beheading of Westerners; and the “war against terrorism”. This is what triggered a military counter-attack. It therefore falls, in my opinion, under the rubric of “ritualisation” of the conflict: just as Daesh is making a spectacle of itself, aided by a formidable and perverse talent for publicity, so we are putting on a performance of our own, presenting our actions as part of an eschatological struggle against evil.

Yet Daesh is an enemy at once limited in size, deeply in synch with the regional psyche and interconnected with the many profound issues at stake in conflicts in the region. Time, skillfulness, considerable means and real strategic reflexion are all going to be needed in order to fight this organisation. Why rush and multiply mistakes that will simply aggravate the situation? To take only one example: at the very moment that we allegedly fly to the rescue of Christians in Iraq, using some very expensive weaponry, the UN announces it will reduce the food aid provided to Syrian refugees. How do we expect this tormented population, already robbed of all they own, to interpret such a decision?

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