By Rami G. Khouri
February 15, 2014
Several months ago when I wrote about the looming danger of the growing strength of Salafist-Takfiri groups in Iraq and Syria, I focused on the threats that thousands of their fighters, bombers and terrorists posed to those countries and also to other lands where they would travel in due course.
Both the scale and threat of the Salafist-Takfiri enterprise in the Middle East are now much more significant, because they control more territory, they can assault many foes across Syria, Lebanon and Iraq as a single operational theater; they have expanded to comprise tens of thousands of adherents; the conditions that brought them to prominence persist; and they have yet to face an enemy that is willing or able to eradicate them.
I wondered months ago whether we would soon see some coordinated action by regional and foreign powers to redress the danger posed by such groups as the Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), Ahrar al-Sham and many others that were both locally anchored and also pan-Islamic like Al-Qaeda. Some focus on fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime, Hezbollah and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq, while others are content to carve out territory that they can transform into their imagined pure Islamic society. This is an ever-changing universe of identities and allegiances among Salafist-takfiri groups that evolve over time, as some merge into larger umbrella coalitions. More recently, some such organizations have also fought each other, especially as some Syria-based groups have pushed back the aggressive expansion of ISIS.
The frightening thing about the growth of these groups is what they tell us about the condition of societies in the Levant and other Arab countries. Beyond the immediate and real security threat these groups pose to everyone in the region, we should also see them as a frightening symptom of erratic modern Arab statehood. These groups did not just suddenly appear over the past three years as war raged in Syria; rather, they have been incubating for much longer because of the slow deterioration of conditions in Middle Eastern countries over the past quarter century or so.
The gradual fraying of state authority in the region has created zones of non-governability or even chaos, which provide the ideal environment for such groups, whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Syria or northern Sinai. As the state retreats from parts of society, the gap is filled either by strong non-state actors such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Sadrists in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen, or by Salafist-Takfiris who exploit the chaos and impose their own brand of security and order.
The combination of these two phenomena leads to the third development of recent decades, which is the steady deterioration in significance of official borders between countries. In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Iran, people, money, goods, arms, refugees and ideologies cross frontiers with almost total abandon. Artillery fire across borders, by state armies and non-state armed groups, is now routine. The slow erasure of the reality of state lines reflects a wider problem of the dilution of state sovereignty.
In some countries, non-state groups are stronger than the state itself, such as Hezbollah’s military capabilities in Lebanon. This weakness of central state authority in means that other governments and foreign non-state organizations both can interfere in the country at will, as we see happening across the Levant. Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah and Salafists in northern Lebanon are all actively engaging in the war in Syria, either directly by supplying fighters and arms or indirectly by supporting those who are fighting.
Many of these actors also try to use soft power to shape the culture, identity and political ideology of countries in the Levant, as is happening in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq. Global powers similarly penetrate these countries, and the result is the kind of protracted tensions we have witnessed in Lebanon since the 1970s or in Syria and Iraq in recent years. This sort of thing does not happen in strong states with credible governments.
The Salafist-Takfiri groups are only the most recent players in this sad game of weak and contested statehood. They are also among the most dangerous because they perform beyond the usual realm of state-to-state or state-to-insurgency relations, where conflicts can be mitigated and cease-fires negotiated.
You would think that the tens of thousands of battle-hardened Salafist-Takfiri militants, extremists and terrorists who are steadily expanding their reign across Syria, Lebanon and Iraq would prompt some kind of serious coordinated response by local and foreign governments, all targets of these groups. The absence of any such coordinated response is a further cause for concern. We should genuinely worry about the Salafist-Takfiris – not only for what they do, but also for what they tell us about ourselves.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.