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Is the advent of ISIS inevitable or reactionary?

Executive summary of a speech given in a seminar at the House of Commons, London

20 November 2014.

*Emirhan Yorulmazlar

Whether the advent of ISIS is inevitable or reactionary is a question preoccupying policy elites in major political capitals. Despite an inherent determinism, this question does rightly reflect the need to sort out the root causes of the current chaos in the Middle East.


It also alludes to the inappropriate choices that have been made by the international community and have contributed to the current gloomy picture. In order to set the right course against ISIS, the international coalition should weigh the potential approaches to success in view of both eliminating the root causes and seeking ways to repair the adverse effects of wrong choices already made.

In its early stages, the Arab Spring witnessed a rivalry between largely three groups, i.e. pro-Westernists, moderate Islamists and radicals. Authoritarian state elites favored the former, unless they voiced support for liberalization. “Rulers for life” also did not differentiate between moderates and the radicals, who could otherwise have opened the door for alternatives to their increasingly anachronistic rule.

A distinctive element of the Arab Spring was its bottom-up trait and the potential for

hitherto repressed popular voices to be heard— in stark contrast to earlier top-down modernist Arab revolutions. But it also disrupted the state building projects ongoing throughout the region. At a time when the region’s modernizing state structures still lacked a national or transnational consciousness, they were caught unprepared to defend their very existence or respond to large-scale popular demands for political representation.

Today we are confronted with a picture where authorities in the region’s failing states are able to appeal only to “loyal” segments of the population, ignoring or even ostracizing the rest of their people. The disenfranchised groups are ready targets for cooptation by non-state actors, whether it is the moderate opposition, ISIS and other Al-Qaeda offshoots, or the Shiite militias. The end result of such political exclusion is a centrifugal fight to capture the political center. Even worse, in all likelihood, whichever group assumes power in the end would repudiate the demands and concerns of its rivals, starting anew the vicious circle of political conflict and alienation. Along with this domestic political upheaval, mistrust among all state actors in the Middle East has risen, making common regional cause all the more elusive. As regional rivalries intensify, this has only aggravated domestic political turmoil across the region and fueled a sectarian backlash. Regional rivalries have played out in Syria, where the regime has unleashed all possible forces in its fight against the Syrian people and radicalized the whole country. This created ample ground for the entrenchment of the jihadist, sectarian and ethnonationalist groups, which also benefited from the political wrangling in Iraq.

Elsewhere, the US-Iran talks have raised eyebrows in pro-Western regional capitals, while the Iran-Saudi confrontation has undermined moves towards peaceful transition from Yemen to Iraq and Syria. The coup in Egypt weakened the democratic cause. Israel’s assertive stance derailed plans for peace. Amid this regional fractiousness, non-state actors have gained unprecedented ground toward invalidating territorial borders.

The international community’s response has been inadequate to say the least. The UN Security Council’s failure to maintain peace and stability, particularly in Syria, has undermined its credibility as a vehicle for resolving international conflicts. American indecisiveness accompanied by European aloofness and Russian resistance, rather than contributing to cooling down the conflict over time, only contributed to its devolution into an all-threatening chaos.

The emergence of ISIS as a transnational threat fits into this picture. When Assad declared war on civilians, his allies supported him politically and militarily. With the international community leaving scant hope towards a negotiated resolution, moderation ceased to be a viable option. Now all concerns are overshadowed by the depressing need to fight back ISIS.

The question then is: can we focus merely on ISIS and other Al-Qaeda offshoots and come out with a semblance of order in the region? The simple answer is no. We need to handle the issue in its complexity and develop a comprehensive formula to address its multifaceted character.

To that end, first, we need a clear game plan against the current chaos in Syria and Iraq.

Some may savor discussion about the unraveling of the Sykes-Picot order in the Middle East. However, any territorial redesign of the political map of the region would only open a Pandora’s box of new security dilemmas. To hold Syria and Iraq together, we need to press for legitimate and representative rule, which entails an end to the Assad regime similar to the end of Maliki’s rule in Iraq.

Keeping options open for Assad will only lead to further weakening of moderates and empowerment of extremists. This has unfortunately been the case since the aerial bombings relieved the pressure on Damascus and alienated the Syrian opposition.

Without a safe haven, millions of refugees are currently squeezed between Assad’s barrel bombs and ISIS’s threat of ethnic and sectarian cleansing.

The dynamics in Iraq have played a considerable role in the burgeoning sectarian and geostrategic rivalry. Maliki’s dysfunctional rule combined with the American haste for withdrawal dashed hopes for Shia-Sunni reconciliation in Iraq. U.S. policymakers had believed that Maliki was the single choice for holding the country together, which was soon disproven by the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and its diffusion into Syria.

Second, the end of destructive regional rivalry is a prerequisite to overhaul the widening Sunni-Shia schism. In that sense, the potential for U.S.-Iran reconciliation should be employed as an opportunity to build a cooperative atmosphere in the region. In addition, the Gulf monarchies’ and Iran’s interventionist policies both in the Arabian Peninsula and beyond must come to an end.

Third, there is an urgent need to rethink majority-minority relations in Islamic countries. While majoritarian regimes fail to respect the minorities, minority regimes employ repression to preempt a majoritarian claim to govern. Two potential solutions to this challenge are a new definition of equal citizenship and decentralization, which can ameliorate the excesses of the contemporary political structures. Fourth, the West-Islam relationship needs a conceptual paradigm shift. The prevalent cultural view of associating Islam with terror adds only to the pool of radicals. Moreover, the Arab Spring has been a missed opportunity to institute a coexistential order, whereby universal values would have been used to establish an organic nexus between the Islamic world and the West. In order to overcome the growing psychological barriers, there is an urgent need for a platform that brings moderates on both sides together. Finally, refugees and internally displaced people are a growing concern for countries in the region. According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 13 million people have been displaced by the conflict in the Syria and Iraq. The region needs urgent support from the international community, but calls to that effect have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Any game plan that does not address the complexities of the current chaos will repeat the past failures in the Middle East. The international community must begin to address the ISIS threat from a perspective that sees the problem in its totality.

*Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) Fellow at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University

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