By Shahid M Amin
March 14, 2017
THE rise of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) in Syria and Iraq has alarmed the world due to its ruthless policies of violent extremism and intolerance towards Muslims and non-Muslims alike. IS/Daesh came to world attention when it seized vast territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014. Different explanations have been offered about its composition. The hard core in IS mainly consists of disbanded soldiers of Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein, who was ousted from power in 2003 after the US invasion. These ex-soldiers are Sunnis who resent both their loss of political power and ascendancy of Shias in post-Saddam Iraq. During the US occupation of Iraq, these soldiers joined the Iraqi insurgency: one group pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, but later it split from Al-Qaeda and declared a caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It has demanded allegiance of all Muslims. However, Muslim governments and most Muslim religious scholars have rejected this claim of an Islamic caliphate.
In ideological terms, IS is a Salafi jihadist group that follows an extreme form of Wahhabism in Sunni Islam. Salafism has links with Ikhwan ul-Muslimeen of Egypt, particularly its leader Sayyid Qutb, who was hanged by Nasser in 1966. Salafism has literalist, strict and puritanical views on Islam. The Takfiri group is its offshoot and promotes religious violence. It regards Muslims who do not subscribe to its extremist ideas as apostates, who could be killed with impunity. The IS is waging a psychological war through fear and intimidation. It uses public beheading of its victims and the slaughter of hostages to create fear on the Mongol model under Chengiz Khan. The aim is to terrorize civilian populations and force them to accept its rule without resistance. IS also seeks to subjugate the population under its control by indoctrination and provision of services to those who obey its writ. The size of fighters under IS could be as high as 200,000. It has some 30,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries, including Muslims living in Europe and USA. Many recruits come from Chechnya and Saudi Arabia. Growing Islamophobia has induced some Muslims in Western countries to join the IS ranks. Extremism has also been fuelled by the widespread sense among Muslims of injustice, as in Palestine.
The Sunni majority in Syria, constituting 70% of the population, began a bloody revolt in 2011 against the Bashar al-Assad regime. He comes from the tiny (10%) Alawite community, which has ruled Syria by force for the past sixty years. Since IS is a sworn enemy of al-Assad regime, it finds many sympathizers among the Sunni opposition in Syria. Moreover, the civil war has weakened the control of al-Assad regime. This has helped IS to secure recruits and obtain control over some areas of Syria. IS gets funding from many sources, including oil produced in areas under its control. Financial contributions come from all over the world, particularly from rich sympathizers in Gulf countries. Some arms in possession of IS are from stockpiles of Saddam Hussein, which later fell in hands of Iraqi insurgents during the resistance against US occupation. The UN has declared IS as a terrorist organization. Many countries including the USA and Russia, apart from regional countries, are engaged in military operations against IS. While reports suggest that ISIS is on the retreat, an early demise of this group is unlikely. There is lack of coordination among the countries fighting against IS, and the local opposition fighting against the al-Assad regime is also divided.
The Syrian civil war is now in the sixth year with no end in sight. The al-Assad regime seemed doomed soon after the popular uprising began, but later it has been propped up by Iran and Russia. Iran has sent its soldiers to fight alongside the Syrian regime forces. Russia has largely helped the regime through its air force, but has also provided crucial military supplies and support, notably at UN and the international level. But for this foreign intervention in support of al-Assad regime, it would have collapsed long ago. Russia’s motives in Syria are geostrategic. Russian navy has long enjoyed base facilities in a Syrian port on the Mediterranean. Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad had seized power in the 1960s and established close ties with Moscow during the Cold War. Syria figured as an important state in the Soviet (presently Russian) foreign policy in the Middle East. More recently, Moscow has established close ties with Iran as well, capitalizing on its anti-US stance. Thus Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime are like allies.
Iran’s motives in Syria are mainly sectarian. The Alawites are a branch of Shias. Iran would not like them replaced by a Sunni regime. Moreover, Iran has a geostrategic dimension in keeping Alawites in power in Syria. Iran is the senior state in the Shia crescent of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia’s stance in Syria is based on the opposite reasons. The Saudis see themselves as leader of Sunni Islam and have extended material support to Sunni insurgents in Syria. The sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is thus being played out in the bloody streets of Syria. But this rivalry goes back to the traditional Ajam-Arab divide. More recently, it was the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 that triggered a cold war with Saudi Arabia, backed by other Gulf States. Primarily, it was Iran’s revolutionary anti-monarchical rhetoric that alarmed the conservative pro-West Gulf regimes.
During the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf States supported Saddam, fearing that his defeat would threaten their own security. Saudi-Iran rivalry became more intense when Shias acquired power in Iraq after Saddam’s ouster and established close ties with Tehran. Iran’s instigation of Shias in Bahrain and Yemen has alarmed the Saudis who see these countries as their own preserve. Finally, the younger generation that has recently come to power in Saudi Arabia has a more assertive foreign policy towards Iran. Bloodshed in Syria can stop only if Iran and Saudi Arabia come to terms. Iran must stop its military intervention in Syria and the Saudis should curb the Salafi religious institutions in their country that provide inspiration and recruits for IS and other religious extremists. Other powers like US should adopt a hands-off Syria policy.
Shahid M Amin served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.