It’s not IS we should fight against – it’s obscurantism

After having published a post yesterday (No more bombs) arguing that the West won’t win peace by dropping more bombs and should instead fight against inequality and injustice, Chris, a follower of Making Sense of Things on Facebook asked if we had “any advice for what people should do to counter [the Islamic State]? Or should it just be allowed to continue? They won’t allow a diplomatic solution, as they believe any negotiation is sacrilegious, let alone voting?” This question is very relevant indeed. How can we negotiate with IS if we can’t even talk with them?

A picture I took in Al-Anbar province, Iraq, on my way to Baghdad from Jordan, May 2003.

I understand that throwing 20 bombs at the Islamic State, like the French warplanes reportedly did two days after the Paris attacks, sounds the right thing to do. It feels good, we get our revenge, we show we are strong – and, the cherry on the cake is that specialists say no civilians were harmed in the process. Let me then cast doubts about the relevancy of these bombings. Sure, a few buildings and sites used by IS foot soldiers might have been destroyed, and maybe a few insurgents killed, but we underestimate IS if we think that they didn’t see it coming. First, they’ve been targeted for months now, and have adopted strategies and tactics to reduce the impacts of the bombings. Second, if the French airplanes succeeded to not hurt a single civilian in a city that is said to gather half a million inhabitants, I wonder what exactly they targeted, knowing that IS is reported to frequently use civilians as, precisely, human shields. 

Beyond these latest stream of bombs dropped over Syria, we need to look at the war against IS from a wider perspective.

A picture of destroyed mosque that I took in northern Afghanistan in 2007

The so-called Islamic State, also know as Daech ([Da-esh] the acronym of IS in Arabic) and formerly known as Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) or Islamic State in the Sham (Arabic for Levant – ISIS), is the product of the 2003 Iraq war. For one, IS was created and is led by a mix of former Al-Qaeda-In-Iraq Jihadists and former Baathist military officers (ex-Saddam supporters) who were both ‘losers’ of the 2003 war. Additionally, IS is also the result of the subsequent sectarian divide that grew in Iraq since 2003, with Shia taking power after the fall of Saddam and blatantly ignoring Sunni’s grievances. Through a mixture of coercion, ideology and agreements with local tribal leaders, these Sunnis now constitute IS’s base. To add to this, while IS was at some point, just one of many armed groups fighting against Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, IS was allowed to grow by Assad himself. Why would Assad do such a thing? He reportedly released extremists jihadists from his jails at the onset of the Syrian civil war, in order both, to discredit the revolutionary movements by accusing them of nurturing extremism and to provoke inter-brotherhood fighting within the rebellion, notably by ordering his troops to abstain to actively fight against IS. For a long time, IS didn’t conquer territories against Assad, but rather forcefully took over the territories that other insurgent groups had so painfully ‘liberated’ from Assad. In other words, IS played a key role in weakening the Syrian resistance both on the ground and from a legitimacy perspective. Assad in turn, didn’t bomb IS, but let it grow instead. Who would arm the rebels if these arms could end up being controlled by jihadists? Now, Assad made the same mistake that the United States did during the Soviet Afghan war. The US thought at the time that they could control the rebel fighters they had armed to fight the Soviets, but the rebels instead eventually turned against their patrons as they gradually became known as Al-Qaeda. There is little doubt that, should Syria be left alone, IS would ultimately take over Assad, but this is another story.

To make things more complicated, IS has been and is being directly and indirectly supported by Turkey as well as by wealthy/powerful Saudi Arabian and Qatari individuals. Why would Turkey do so? Well IS controls a number of oil fields in the region, which they export through the black market. See, IS tries hard to operate like a real state – it has an administration, budgets, executive and judicial systems, it manages hospitals, schools, rehabilitates roads and water channels and even promotes charities. So, as part of its ‘state’ income, it sells oils to whoever wants to buy it – including the Assad regime, I’ve been told. Turkey on its side, reportedly buys IS’s oil at a cheaper rate than international prices. It also let IS uses Turkey as a rear operations base so as to weaken the Kurds – whom they see as their archenemy.  

An old man resting on the ruins of Palmyre, Syria. I took this picture in 2004 and wonder what is left of it?…

What about the wealthy/powerful Saudi Arabian and Qatari individuals I mentioned earlier? Well, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, themselves in competition for the leadership of the Arab Sunni world, cannot blatantly support IS, but they do support other groups, who, frankly speaking are pretty much as ideologically oriented as IS, and whose foot soldiers sometimes decide to join IS’s ranks – with the weapons initially paid by Saudi Arabi and other Arab Gulf countries. Additionally, these governments reportedly allow wealthy and powerful citizens of theirs to, on their own basis, support IS. Why so? For both ideological and geopolitical reasons. First they want to support fellow Sunni who embrace their radical wahhabi ideology and fight against Syrian president Bashir Al Assad. Second, these actions are to be seen as only small parts of a larger cold war between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. Indeed, after Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Lebanon and other countries, Syria is today the hottest battlefield of the global fight between Sunni supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, etc and Shia, supported primarily by Iran and now Iraq.


I know, I understand this is complex, and admittedly, this is only a simplistic picture of what’s really going on.

Why recall all this? Because instead of sending more bombs that will largely help IS’s propaganda in recruiting new followers among the victims of the bombings, the West should put strong pressure on their allies to stop them supporting IS and let it crumble from within. The West has to answer for not pressuring Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar etc. Likewise, Russia carries a similar responsibility towards Iran and Syria. The problem is that both the West and Russia’s own economic and geopolitical interests are such that pressuring their allies, would, ultimately go against their own interests. Indeed, by doing so, they’d lose access to natural resources (think oil and gas) and financial backers as well as the possibility to set-up their own military bases in the Gulf or the Mediterranean Sea. So in fear of these changes, they prefer the short term losses that are the flow of refugees and of course, the terrorist attacks – lately in Paris and Belgium but also within our allies in Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, etc. notwithstanding the bomb that destroyed a Russian plane in Egypt two weeks ago, killing all 224 people aboard.

Instead, if the West and Russia agreed to let go of their desire for hegemony, they could decide to tackle the respective fears of both Sunni and Shia, as well as the (legitimate) grievances of other Muslim populations, including the Palestinians, Yemenis and Libyans. This would help restoring a sense of justice across the Middle-East, hence reducing the attraction for extremism by de facto disenfranchised Muslims or by simply lost souls, as a way of resolving these grievances.

Sure, it’s complex, but not giving peace a chance will only contribute to the continuation of the conflict. IS will not be destroyed by bombs. It can be weakened – it certainly will be – but it will reorganise elsewhere, as another form of obscurantism. IS is just the third generation of jihadists after Al-Qaeda’s second generation. There will be more to come if we apply the same recipes. Instead, the West ought to take out the roots of these extremists’ perceived legitimacy by resolving its long standing issues with the Muslim world. Let’s admit that we did mess up their region. From drawing ill-informed state boundaries on the outset of the colonial period, to supporting dictators for decades and invading their countries. Facing our demons will contribute to appease their long-standing grievances. Resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict is a necessary condition to ensure peace in the wider Middle-East. It will also contribute to reducing the legitimacy and therefore appeal of extremist groups, and subsequently reduce the flow of refugees that the West is so afraid of. So instead of bombing the Middle-East, let’s ensure that populations have reasons to live happy lives in their own country. Hence the need to effectively promoting justice and reducing inequalities. And this starts here, in our home countries, by reducing obscurantism within our own societies too.


So, what do you think?

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