The Islamic State and the global Great Game
By: Asad Zaidi
25 September 2014 /Open Democracy
The unravelling of Iraqi society set the context for the emergence of the Islamic State-led insurgency in Iraq. But the role played by IS is a byproduct of the flows of capital and ideology in a much wider theatre of power.
IS is the product of societal exclusion and economic deprivation. There are two major themes here. Firstly that Iraq’s decline derives partly from historic US domination: sanctions, intervention and proxy war. Secondly, that the Iraqi state post 2003 was built on a legacy of occupation which destroyed Iraq’s institutions and lead to an influx of personnel and foreign capital that had vast implications for subsequent state-society relations.
The perception of the state as an exclusive gateway to security, services and self-determination was nothing new, but this was hugely exacerbated by the policies following Occupation. In its place a new elite of former Iraqi exiles, led by former Prime Minister Maliki homogenized power, stoking rage amongst Iraq’s maligned communities. It is against this backdrop that the current Sunni insurgency led by IS, emerged. Iraq as an imagined community has been eroded over time. Following the US invasion, in the absence of dialogue, violence became the de facto language of power.
IS is portrayed as the new face of global Jihad. Born out of fighting the occupation and the subsequent sectarian war and given new life in the Syrian War, IS have returned to Iraq. In a few months, they have ripped up Sykes-Picot and extended their control from eastern Syria to north western Iraq, taking cities, borders, dams and pipelines in the process. Baghdadi and his lieutenants have left their visiting card, exposing the weak internal and external power of Arab states, and highlighting the absence of effective international coordination. Well-armed and funded by GCC backers, conquest and an intricate war economy, they have set about consolidating territory, enforcing sharia and massacring minorities.
Ideologically impoverished, IS represents a mutilated modernity; a homicidal puritanism, incapable of accepting difference. This, in Iraq, the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates where Mesopotamia and the Islamic Golden Age amazed the world, is a desperate turn of events in a country shattered by violence.
IS have ruthlessly executed plans for territorial expansion. Highly motivated and bloated with foreign fighters, they have proved themselves tactically astute in asymmetrical warfare, yet also aware of the need to appease locals through welfare. The ingenuity of the Baji oil refinery and Haditha dam attacks point to a movement willing to plan and think like a state. Before Baghdad retook the refinery, they found IS working to redirect and sell their oil abroad. An Iraqi official quoted in a recent Guardian piece puts IS’ wealth at more than $2 billion, highlighting how self-financing through racketeering and capturing army hardware has added to bloated funds already swollen thanks to foreign donors.IS flaunting US hardware, captured in Iraq, in northern Syria. Photograph: Facebook
IS flaunting US hardware, captured in Iraq, in northern Syria. Photograph: Facebook
IS’s ability to work with other factions points to a long-term insurgency plan. Although it is unlikely they can hold their allies together, they stand as testament to the failure of the state to establish a Pax Romana in Iraq. Shiraz Maher identifies IS’s success in their capacity as a force mobilizer; their ability to bring men, money and munitions to swell the insurgency. The security vacuum in Iraq allowed IS to dominate the Sunni insurgency. The weakness of effective governance prevented trust and engagement between the state and a Sunni community marginalized in the new Iraqi order.
IS are, “ just one faction in a larger popular rebellion against the government of Nouri al Maliki” as Baathist officers, tribal fighters and Awakening Councils fighters have all been active. Hence, IS represents something more systemic, something more insidious than themselves. They represent the enduring legacy of the US occupation and its aftermath.
IS have been successful insofar as they have positioned themselves as the new patrons for a community brutalized by the state. The Maliki regime’s policies excluded the Sunnis from power, continuing the dogged US prosecution of De-Baathification. Protest camps in Ramadi and Fallujah emerged in 2012 demanding an end to chronic unemployment, corruption and state brutality. This movement, initially supported by non–Sunnis, was non sectarian and peaceful in nature. Maliki’s bloody crackdown has since led to a full-blown insurrection. The state’s tendency to meet resistance with violence has had the consequence of ripping apart the fragile détente achieved post 2006. Maliki’s policies confirmed to many that the new contours of power in Iraq fulfilled an anti-Sunni agenda.
The government’s utter incapability to combat Iraq’s problems was highlighted by the loss of confidence Maliki suffered even with Kurdish and Shia blocs by 2014. As IS swept through Mosul in June, the Iraqi army left without a fight. It looked as though the Kurds would press for a referendum on the issue of Kurdish independence. Even Shia factions not aligned to Maliki were seething at his exclusionary agenda. Maliki remained defiant, armed with a jingoistic nationalism that was falling on deaf ears. Iraq teetered on the brink as Maliki’s patrons in Tehran and Washington looked for an acceptable replacement. It was only with Haider al-Abadi’s appointment to Prime Minister that new hope has emerged of the possibility of forming a unity government. So far, his non-sectarian discourse has emphasized national reconciliation and drawn support from Iraq’s fractured political class. And yet Iraq’s deep schisms reflect the difficulty of the task ahead. How did it come to this?
Western myths and western failures
The US, the Baathist and Maliki states have instilled violence, political and economic, into their respective attempts at controlling Iraq’s people and her resources. Only by understanding how different actors have used the same logic of violence can we begin to understand the fractionalization of Iraq that has taken place.
The failure of Iraqi leaders to reimagine an inclusive social contract is a political rather than an innately sectarian issue. The western myth of enduring sectarianism is historically inaccurate: it absolves the occupier, while ignoring the fact that sect has been only one of many identities Iraqis have chosen to adopt in history. The cooption of sectarian identity by Iraq’s political orders is the direct result of the division sewn during the US occupation 1) by the new Iraqi elite and 2) by their US patrons.
Current events are only the latest face of violently contentious politics in Iraq; a violence that begets its own resistance when it becomes the practising logic of political engagement and once channels of accountability and engagement are undermined. Hence through smashing the entire fabric of Iraq’s institutions post-occupation, the US created the political vacuum from which Iraq’s new rulers have so far failed to govern. Nowhere is this legacy better observed than in the policies that have sought to maintain a subservient Iraq, but in so doing, have created the conditions from which IS can so easily strike at the heart of a hollowed out state, armed to the teeth, yet bereft of legitimacy.
The founding of Iraq was forged in the experience of colonial occupation during the British conquest. The 1920 Iraqi revolt remains a foundational memory from which Iraqi Nationalism continues to draw. Factions of all hues have attested to the memory of 1920 as a transformative moment, what Fanon has called the process from which the colonized were able to reclaim their subjectivity from the inherent violence of colonialism.
The US ascent to superpower status following the Second World War allowed it a huge influence in the Gulf policies in the 70s. The Nixon Doctrine established the Shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia as its principle lieutenants in the Gulf as the US sought to contain the Arab Nationalism of Saddam Hussein. But this security order was upturned following the Iranian Revolution, after which the US focus turned to containing the Islamic Republic via arming Iraq. The result was a programme now aimed at strengthening Saddam’s hand in the Gulf. The Iran-Iraq war that followed, at a cost of over a million lives, left both states shattered. During the last days of the war, in the midst of Saddam’s notorious massacres, “US oil companies received a discount of $1 per barrel below prices charged to European companies”. This was made possible via Iraq’s diplomatic immunity in the UN. The US, European and Gulf states armed Saddam in an effort to neutralize a nascent Iranian Republic preaching a political model based on radical autonomy. The support of superpowers was matched with overwhelming regional collusion. Iraq was given virtual carte blanche in its war; as a bastion against Iranian Pan Islamism by both the west and neighbouring Arab states.
When Saddam sought to readdress Iraq’s clientelist arrangement, the US decisively intervened during the first Gulf War to neutralize the Iraqi army following Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. The Gulf and Iran-Iraq wars left the Ba’athist regime’s external ambitions compromised. Yet Saddam’s mastery over the state machinery was paradoxically strengthened. The paranoia of the Iranian ‘threat’ was internalized and reproduced so as to destroy resistance. When Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in Halabja against Iranian and Kurdish fighters and civilians, the US and its allies stood back, despite earlier promises to help Shia and Kurdish uprisings. Saddam’s retribution in the areas he controlled left two million displaced and a hundred thousand dead.
The Baathists had slaughtered their opposition, but the US-led sanctions regime had two more devastating legacies in store for the Iraq inherited by Maliki.
Firstly, sanctions devastated the country’s human and physical resources. It destroyed Iraq’s telecommunications, transport, electricity, agriculture and health, sanitation and education. A UN envoy described the situation in 1991 as “near apocalyptic.” Sanctions brought soaring child mortality, disease and poverty but also crime and the breakdown of society, serving to keep Iraq in a perpetually primitive state under the pretext of removing WMDs and preserving regional security. Far from weakening the regime, Sami Ramadani argues that the sanctions regime worked to strengthen Saddam’s regime as the primary patron of resources. Those excluded from Baathist patronage had to resort to primary solidarities where there was no access to the state. Hence sanctions amplified the practices of patronage that hollowed out the state, a policy that remained despite the transformation of its ideology and personnel, post-2003.
Sanctions also exacerbated sectarianism during the 90s. The US betrayal of the Kurds and Shia had left both communities to face the wrath of the Baathist State alone, both violently but also through the withdrawal of resources. Again, the regime itself was strengthened. The main route to provisions during the sanctions era was through links with a network of patrons emanating from Saddam’s inner core, nominally Arab, Sunni, Tikriti, in what Charles Tripp has called ‘shadow state’. Not only did this alienate non-Sunnis, but it also had the effect of delineating the contours of power through sectarian patronage.
Those outside the core organized around those in their communities who could guarantee provisions and security. Sect was hence a useful political tool to cement state power, yet it had the long-term effect of shattering Iraq’s diverse communities. Before 2003 Kurdish and Shia patrons were either in exile or kept a low profile. They were however in position to benefit themselves and their communities in the bloody transformation of power following the US trouncing of the Baathist Regime.
On the invasion in 2003, much has been written. Under the pretext that Saddam Hussein was funding terrorism and threatened the west with WMDs, the US and its allies marched to war, irrevocably reshaping Iraq’s power balance and instigating the societal violence that continues to this day.
The Lancet Report estimates that by 2006, violent deaths as a consequence of war totalled 654,965. The Iraqi Ministry of Health found white phosphorous, uranium and napalm had contributed massively to a rise in congenital birth defects. The UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq concluded, “There is definitive evidence of an alarming rise in birth defects, leukemia, cancer and other carcinogenic diseases in Iraq after the war.” Other indicators reveal a stark rise in corruption, unemployment, crime, mental illness, child labour, illiteracy, domestic, communal and sexual violence, following the occupation. The number of displaced persons is estimated at 5 million.
Following the occupation, the US instilled a raft of policies to entrench Iraq’s dependence on its patrons. The interim power, the Coalition Provisional Authority, opened the gates for unfettered penetration of neoliberal capital as “unrestricted, tax-free export of profits by corporations and granted them 40-years ownership licenses”. Multinationals like Blackwater and BP flooded into the scramble as Iraq’s resources were privatized.
A new elite emerged from those exiled Iraqis willing to present themselves as clients. Their subservience broke up the National Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of diverse blocs across class and sect that became disenfranchised by the power-sharing arrangements in Baghdad. Where Iraq had had a centrally planned economy, privatization and financial mismanagement followed under the pretext of rebuilding Iraq. The US command under Paul Bremer enshrined sectarian division within the new constitution, paving the way for a planned tripartite division of Iraq. Once again colonial violence brought about its own resistance. US policies massively disenfranchised Sunnis, sending “the message that De-Baathification was tantamount to De-Sunnifciation”, effectively providing the impetus for hundreds of thousands of men previously employed within the army and public services to be fired under the pretext of security. The consequence was a swelling of the armed groups fighting the state and each other.
Resistance to the occupation was initially cross-sect and nationalist in flavour. Dividing the opposition was orchestrated by the US: the quintessential divide and rule strategy of any imperial power in history. Al Qaida and IS-linked factions had few roots in Iraq prior to the US invasion. Increasingly, the fight against occupation fragmented and sectarianism flourished. New factions emerged in the absence of a strong central authority, each with their own ideology and language; either using violence as protest at their exclusion by the state power, or as an outright call to upturn the new order. The latter often carried an existential flavour, Islamist in character and uncompromising in tendency. Hardline Jihadist factions like Al Qaida in Iraq (precursor to ISIL, now IS) fought the US, Iraqi army and Shia militias.
As in current Syria, and previously in Algeria in the 1990s and Lebanon in the 80’s, state violence and exclusion provided ideological nourishment and legitimacy for struggles depicted in the language of a rabidly intolerant Islamism built upon sectarianism. The success of “sectarian entrepreneurs” like Zarqawi and Baghdadi came from their ability to expand their influence in the political vacuum left behind by a weak Iraqi state.
One can argue that, three years after the invasion, Maliki inherited a desolate state in paralysis for decades. Nevertheless, the Maliki state contributed to the wasting away of Iraq’s institutions, prioritizing the building of his Da’wa party power before national reconciliation. He undermined a popular cross-sectarian coalition led by Ayad Alawi by playing on Shia fears of Sunni dominion. The Sunni minister of finance, Rafi al-Issawi, was falsely accused of terrorism and the subsequent protests were met with the hammer of the state, convincing many that Maliki’s government represented a continuation of violence and exclusion in Iraq.
Maliki was unwilling to widen the social contract beyond his own core Da’wa party cadres, similar in many ways to the ties of privilege built up previously by Saddam Hussein. The elite close to the Maliki circle were those exiled Shia Iraqis who had aligned themselves with the Americans prior to the invasion and who were chosen to work on the draft of a new constitution.
At the top, Maliki placed his relatives in key positions in the establishment. With the core established, he extended his patronage, undermining Shia, Sunni and Kurdish rivals alike in cabinet, linking him to generals and senior functionaries over and above cabinet ministers. Patronage and nepotism hollowed out Iraq’s nascent new system, crushing the independence and accountability of institutions. The US-funded Iraqi military is an excellent case in point. Maliki linked individuals to himself and subverted the chain of command, ensuring his protection against potential rivals, yet dissolving trust and professionalism. The army’s recent performance in Mosul, where a few thousand IS fighters were able to scatter the army far too easily is evidence of this institutional erosion. Maliki had sectarianized the Iraqi army and hollowed out reconciliation through the discourse of security. Abadi and his new government have wisely toned down this rhetoric since.
Maliki made huge miscalculations, notably failing to reward Iraqi Arab Sunni tribal leaders who ejected al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2008. Instead of incorporating Sunni tribes into government, Maliki sent in his special forces, “engaging in sectarian killings, extortion, robberies, and kidnapping.” With Kurds, Sunnis and even Shia losing trust in the Maliki state, frustration emanated particualrly from the Sunni protest camps. The brutal state response now spawned a national Sunni insurgency. Maliki’s indiscriminate targeting of Sunnis, and the unwillingness to engage politically with the tribes and to coordinate with Mahmoud Barzani and the Kurds, reinforced insecurity for all Iraq’s communities and provided the basis for IS to prosper.
Through sectarianisation and violent exclusion, inherited from Saddam, fuelled by the occupation, and exacerbated by Maliki, the ability of Iraqi state power to penetrate the periphery has been shown to be fragile. Given the Kurd’s semi-independent status, the prominence of Shia factions outside the state, and the pre-eminence of the Sunni insurgency in Anbar, one can assess how conditions in state-society relations have allowed IS to prosper.
The worry is that the gulf may be too stark to reverse in a county where both political imagination and daily practice are deeply affected by notions of favour, reward and violence. Maliki did little to refashion the Iraqi state, and it is this political inertia within the political class that has characterized the disenfranchisement of working class Shia factions like the Sadrists, the Kurdish separatists and the Sunni ‘Sons of Iraq’ tribes.These are all groups that don’t share IS’s homicidal agenda, but who demand a bigger share in the Iraqi project. The problem now is the enduring perception of the moral bankruptcy of the government; its character inherited by Saddam’s war state, but its practices born out of the political, economic and social violence of the US Occupation.
And yet as the Jihadists engage in a war massacring all who don’t fit their image, hope emerges in the ability of other factions to recognize the threat IS poses to them all, and to build a collaborative security programme. What will also be needed is a deeper struggle to define the political center, to reconfigure power and the allocation of resources in Iraq. And this can only come through thick engagement and dialogue.
The global challenge: what can be done?
IS are a transitional phenomenon. Incapable of accepting difference, the backlash to their pogroms has belatedly galvanized the Iraqi Army, the Pershmerga and local militias to confront the group. Further US/NATO intervention however would prove calamitous. Past interference in the region provides ample evidence to suggest other motives lie behind the call for boots on the ground. Intervention would exacerbate Sunni grievances but also escalate regional tensions. Covert involvement through proxies, strikes and training is already in place. However Seamus Milne is right in arguing, “Selective humanitarian intervention without UN and regional authorisation is simply a tool of power politics, not solidarity“. The answer must come from within Iraq and supported by a regional response.
Despite IS efforts to build a constituency, their ideological deficit necessitates a logic of unsustainable violence that prevents them emerging as legitimate political actors. They operate within an international order that won’t tolerate their existence in the long term. Their transnational ideology has been the great tool of Jihadist groups since the ‘War on Terror’s’ inception. Yet, in establishing territorial ambitions, IS now operate in a region waking up to the shared threat IS poses.
One prediction is that ISIS shall be pacified in the long term, through a reimagined security architecture wherein regional states work to create a viable solution addressing the concerns of Sunni communities excluded from their share in Iraq and Syria. Both states are exclusionary and internally weak, unable to extend influence beyond narrow constituencies. The challenge is to empower local resistance, to provide anti-imperial, anti-jihadi impetus to establishing real reconciliation. This itself necessitates a change in the established order of these two countries whose intertwined histories have been overshadowed by Baathist ideology and foreign intervention. In Iraq, national reconciliation seems more achievable than in the complex armageddon unfolding in Syria. Yet a multifaceted strategy is needed to tackle an intractable regional problem.
This hypothesis in no way ignores the successes of IS. IS have displayed strategic acumen in their ability to attract foreign fighters and establishing footholds in the areas they have occupied. However, the mainstream narrative ignores the fact that for now they are backed by aggrieved Sunni tribes and Gulf backers. Their support must be eroded through initiatives highlighting the common threat IS poses to all. Ultimately, IS exists because of the vacuum created by the structural violence of the Syrian/Iraqi regimes and the enduring legacy of failed US policy in the Levant.
How then can we analyze IS in their geographical context? IS must be understood at national, regional and global levels. Understanding the new Great Game encompasses an understanding of the regional rivalries encompassing widening theatres of war. It has induced new dynamics; beyond the traditional confines of borders and across class, sect and ideology.
Nationally, the weakness of Arab states, more so than the appeal of radical Islam, has created the conditions from which the current alignments of power derive. Gregory Gause describes this as “the arc of state weakness and state failure running from Lebanon through Syria to Iraq that explains the current salience of sectarianism”. Militants exploit the inter and intra state power vacuum through positioning themselves at the front of the grievances of marginalized populations. Weak Iraqi and Syrian states are unable to extend security, justice and resources to the periphery, and suffer from a legitimacy deficit that provides fertile ground for insurgency.
On a global level, a lack of leadership and coordination derives from the stalemate between the west and Russia, not only in eastern Europe but further afield. This rivalry has been described as a contestation for “influence, power, hegemony and profits” in eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Caucuses and the Middle East. This much-heralded new cold war is driven by the need to consolidate rival hegemonies. The Bush and Obama doctrines have fuelled the prospect of growing multipolarity in a “post superpower capitalist order” where BRICS countries are now forging their own accumulations of capital, resisting the IMF, the World Bank and the dollar. What is needed here is a “new politics of transnational convergence” to close the gulf in institutional power, and to reflect the increasingly multipolar world. The current quagmire in Syria and Iraq is rooted in a divided international system, and the lack of will to forge a global security programme to address global insecurity.
With this in mind, the regional lens is ultimately essential to understanding IS and their instrumentalization within a wider build-up of conflict in the region. Iranian and Saudi-led factions are involved in a battle for regional supremacy. The two major camps are not themselves all united and affiliations stretch way beyond them. Nevertheless, this gulf is the major faultline in the balance of power in the region, born from ideological and material battles for power, resources and hegemony.
US-backed Sunni Saudi Arabia and its GCC and Egyptian allies form one bloc, whilst the ‘Resistance’ axis of Shia-led Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah form the other, with the Saudi bloc also involved in an intra-Sunni ideological dispute over what “the proper political role of Islam should be in the Sunni world”, between Jihadists, Conservative Arab monarchies such as the Saudi monarchy, as well as moderate Islamic states such as in Turkey, Tunisia and briefly, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Transnational ideologies in this cold war are as useful as military expertise, in explaining the pre-eminence of Iran and Saudi Arabia as effective patrons to state and non-state actors in the Arab states, and why countries like Israel and Turkey, though economically and militarily formidable, carry less influence as actors not privy to such ideological influence.
Within this power play, both Tehran and Riyadh vie for strategic dominance. Iran is the most important external actor in Iraq, having embedded its links within the Iraqi state following Saddam’s removal. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Suleimani has coordinated the counterinsurgency in Syria and Iraq where Hezbollah and Iranian Al Quds Special Forces have trained up militias to support the stretched Syria Army, and to provide logistical support to Iraq. The territorial ambition of IS poses a threat to Iran’s strategic objectives. Iraq and Syria are both considered crucial allies and form a conduit line stretching from Hezbollah to Iran, one that Iran considers a vital bridge of allies, a bridge of security interdependencies essential to their regional influence. As IS ramps up its presence in the region, Iran’s strategic imperative lies with containing the Jihadists.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have funded the rebels in Syria, working to bring down Bashar’s regime whilst also aiding the insurgency in Iraq. At the same time, the Saudis have given $1 billion to the Lebanese army in order to fight ‘terrorism’ overspilling into Lebanon. Is this a double play? The House of Saud has used Jihadist groups in the past to project power onto Iran and Hezbollah. Hezbollah and the Lebanese army have worked in tandem to repel IS and its allies in the key border town of Arsal, suggesting there is consensus to repel further expansion of the conflict into Lebanon.
However, perhaps this is also indicative of how the regional rivalry has been rudely interrupted with IS’s rapid ascent, that now poses a threat to all its neighbours. But who supports IS? And what are the implications for the region?
The new Great Game
Two schools of thoughts emerge. Neither holds the total truth, but through placing the two in dialogue, there is room for fruitful debate.
1) The first stresses the interdependent nature of the threat posed by IS. ISIS worries both regional blocs and as such, the argument goes, there is room for coordination to resolve conflict.
Iran and the US’s tentative détente has led to an easing of sanctions, and an opportunity both states are considering, that of coordination over IS. This has led commentators to predict a solution emerging from a viable Saudi-Iran security pact to contain regional instability. Adib Moghaddam accurately reasons that only through, “an inclusive discourse that is non-sectarian and subdues ultra-nationalistic narratives, within a globalized context that would require stressing security interdependencies — an understanding that insecurity is transnational” – could such a situation arise.
Security cannot be achieved through atomized attempts to combat IS, but only through a holistic programme that neutralizes the catalysts of fundamentalism. This can only emerge when foreign and private backers of insurgents are discouraged. Here the argument goes that although Jihadist groups have been funded indirectly through private donors, there is little to suggest a direct patron-client relationship between the Gulf states and IS. Rather, the argument goes, private donors have funded IS and helped train other Jihadist groups, but that the stepping down of Saudi Intelligence chief Bandar signalled the start of a rethinking of the Saudi strategy, the Monarchy now regarding IS’s rise as a threat to their own stability.
Saudi Arabia still views the leverage it gains from Sunni insurgents in Syria and Iraq as strategic tools against those regimes, and by de facto, its old adversary, Iran. However, given the wind of change in perceptions of the Sunni insurgencies with the rise of Al Nusra and IS amongst others, the international mood is not what it was in 2012 where Europe, Turkey and the Gulf worked to fund rebel groups in Syria. Syrian state resilience and the rise of IS within the Syrian opposition groups has given that policy short shrift.
Priorities are changing. Iran remains an enduring adversary, but the spread of IS is increasingly being viewed as a regional problem. Hence the argument goes that strategic necessity will see Saudi and Iran coordinate to target IS.
2) The second school of thought argues that Gulf sponsors have a direct link in creating IS. Patrick Cockburn points to comments made by MI6 Head Richard Dearlove, that the Saudis and Qatar “turned a blind eye” to “substantial and sustained funding from private donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar” in the emergence of IS. He argues that only through Gulf coordination would Sunni tribes agree to work with IS. The extent of direct funding between IS and these unidentified private backers are not known. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Gulf-propagated Wahhabism has been outsourced across the Middle East and beyond, a weapon allowing for tremendous ideational leverage in other states (the dissemination of Wahhabism into Pakistan is a case in point). Cockburn argues that the Saudi’s and their allies have created, “a Frankenstein’s monster over which it is rapidly losing control”.
To what extent one can frame IS within a regional cold war is also based on the extent to which IS are a byproduct of US involvement. Given the US’s penchant for using Jihadi proxies in the past within Cold War covert policies designed to neutralise Soviet and Arab Nationalist power, there are also allegations of a Reagan-style doctrine at work. Some reports have claimed operatives from IS received training from the US in Jordan. This has not been verified, yet it is widely acknowledged that the US and its Gulf allies have given arms to Jihadists in Syria.
What can be deduced from the string of often-changing US policies, is a doctrine of consolidating power-resource hegemonies at any cost. Nafeez Ahmed cites this as a policy to circumvent world oil shortages. He argues, the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and enacted a strategy that “fostered extremist Sunni groups affiliated to al-Qaida across the Middle East to counter Iranian influence.” Subsequently he goes on to state that proxy factions were designed to target “Iranian interests throughout the Middle East and Persian Gulf while simultaneously cutting back on anti-American and anti-Western operations.”
Ahmed cites a 2008 US Army-funded report that highlights how the US encouraged factionalism, funding both Shia militias and Sunni Jihadists during the worst years of sectarian infighting in Iraq, precisely because, “The geographic area of proven oil reserves coincides with the power base of much of the Salafi-jihadist network…. For the foreseeable future, world oil production growth and total output will be dominated by Persian Gulf resources”. The report goes on to state that this policy would divert Jihadi attention to Iran and it’s allies, providing the requisite excuses for covert operations to prevent a proposed natural gas pipeline from being built by 2016 from Iran’s giant South Pars field, traversing Iraq and Syria. Amaal Saad goes further, arguing that “Resistance versus Jihad is the new faultline in the region. She argues, “It has now become patently obvious that the US is manipulating and instrumentalizing takfiri jihadism to defeat the Resistance. The hope is that ISIS can achieve…by means of a policy of implosion, fragmentation and [strategically employed] terror, dealt by a heavily sectarianized Islamism which is devoid of any anti-imperialist content.”
Is the US considering détente with Iran after paying the price for shortsighted policies that don’t secure oil hegemony? Is this because of the price rises following IS’s capture of oil fields? This is hard to deduce without further revelations. Yet, once again, Afghanistan emerges as a historical reminder; the Reagan doctrine effectively contained the Soviet Union’s further penetration into the strategic, and resource-heavy Central Asian region. Here we get a glimpse into the shadowy network of pipeline politics and covert operations preying on state failure and regional instability.
Describing the contrast between Obama’s belated strikes in Iraq and his full backing of militants in Syria, as “calculated ambivalence”, Saad assesses the strategic objectives of this as the destruction of the resistance factions barring the way of US/Gulf oil hegemony; a policy to diminish the influence of those standing in the way of further US hegemony in the region, principally Iran. Which school of thought is correct?
What we do know is that IS has been formed through two major catalysts. Firstly, the blowback of US strategic interests in the region has created the conditions from which divide and rule strategies have sectarianized Iraqi politics, galvanizing a logic of violence that runs throughout the history of the state. Secondly, IS has its roots more immediately in what Rami Khouri has called “a momentous moment of reckoning for the weaknesses of modern Arab statehood and governance”. These twin factors have given root to the Sunni insurgency that IS spearheads.
These are actors seeking locally, regionally and globally, to shape and give meaning to their conception of community. For IS, it is a territorial goal of Caliphate expansion; the Sunnis of Iraq aim to have their demands met in an inclusive state fabric; for regional players, seeing this conflict now reaching Lebanon, it is an existential threat to themselves and their ability to project their own power, maintain hegemonies, protect allies and maintain resources. Such binaries as Takfiri: Resistance, Saudi: Iran, Nationalism: Islamism, can provide useful markers in understanding the new Great Game in the region. However these binaries, without their critical and historic overview, cannot offer useful analyses. As Dabashi and Ramadani have put it, the myth of continual sectarianism is punctured by the briefest glance at the US legacy of instigating divide and rule strategies at the heart of an already fractured state model.
The power vacuum from which IS emerged has been shaped through the weakness of state-society relations founded on weak states, unable to offer social inclusion and propelled by the need for regime survival at any cost. Where legitimate protest and pluralism have been extinguished, the logic of violence has ruptured society, and provided the conditions from which fanatics like the Islamic State have coalesced and hijacked protest.
Here history teaches us that the legacy of colonial violence is the reification of the logic of violence. Colonialism and regime violence both close off and criminalise all avenues of dissent. What eventually emerges is an armed movement that breeds from the violence that gave it birth, with its own logic and legitimacy, as the action of a force communicating through violence.