The war in Iraq and Syria, being fought between Sunnis and the Shia backed governments there, is at risk for spilling over into the broader region. Americans fear that it’s going to come home to US soil, in the form of either terrorist attacks or the war itself coming to American soil.
OK, let’s talk about this.
Back in 2006, My friend Rich challenged me to explain Al Qaeda’s fight in two pages – I did that, . I wrote about AQ in terms of Iraq as a battleground. i think it’s worth starting by reading that.
The Near Enemies are those Muslims who have strayed from the true tenets of the faith. Al Qaeda, under the tutelage of the Salafists, says that true Islam is the Islam from the time of the Prophet Mohammed, without updating, without new rules, without consideration for modern society. The Near Enemy is, therefore, any secular Muslim country; any Muslim who is Shi’a; and any Sunni who does not live their live in accordance with the teachings of the faith. The Far Enemy is every other non-believer. At the top of this list are the Jews and the Americans.
But that was 2006, and that was Iraq, right? A lot has changed since then, right? I know what you’re thinking – there’s nooooo way he’s suggesting this is anything like that.
Well, it kind of is. I spent 2009 living in Tikrit, in the Sunni heartland of Iraq. And I spent 2011 living in Baghdad, traveling all over in what was clearly a Shi’a dominated capital of Iraq. I would like to tell you that, in hindsight, I was in such ignorant bliss. But I wasn’t, we weren’t. We knew the chaos we were descending into there in Iraq, the shitstorm that was brewing. In 2003, Iraq’s senior Sunni leaders fled to Syria to take refuge, with their millions. The Shia had risen to power, in a a democratic power hailed by Westerners as a sign of great things to come, and the Sunnis – the Sunnis were eased out of the good lives they had enjoyed since the time of the Ottoman empire, when they had first enjoyed the perks of being the technocrats keeping the bureaucracy humming along. The Sunni were adrift – losing money, power, prestige – all the things necessary for a nepotism-based, tribal hierarchy society to function and survive – especially one tied to government-controlled oil, now Shia-government controlled oil.
But that was Iraq. The fighting in Syria started as an uprising against al-Assad and his oppressive regime. The Arab Spring never really had a chance to come to Syria, thanks to the heavy hand of al-Assad and the backing he gets from Iran. The Syrian opposition started as a general (and secular) uprising, in keeping with a lot of the other Arab Spring movements, but quickly took a first Sunni flavor, then a more organized, more al-Qaeda, more extreme turn.
This fight festered in Syria for a while; Americans will remember the great political debate in the Obama administration over trying to back a side in the fight, to find someone or some group to support in over throwing al-Assad and not finding anyone (or, at least anyone credible or with an actual chance). American efforts to develop a secular movements, free from the secular conflict, failed miserably, probably in large part because many of the other groups and nations getting involved in doing the same things, are other Middle Eastern countries that do have a secular agenda, either pro-this or anti-that. Outsiders – from Saudi Arabia to foreign fighters to Al Qaeda itself – helped to turn this into a fight being organized and fought along religious lines, and soon along their accompanying religious issues as well.
Al-Assad and his family are from the Alawite tribe and group, which are a sect within Islam that fork from the Twelvers in Shi’a. For a lot of Shi’a, the Alawite aren’t true Shi’a. For Sunni, who don’t view Shi’a as true Muslims, many view the Alawite as being even more offensive to the faith. And the Alawite, within Syria, represent but about 10% of the population – kept in power through strong arm tactics, a brutal intelligence regime, and the backing of the Iranian government.
And the Iran backing remained strong. From the earliest hints of a rebellion, Iran was all-in with the Syrian regime – which only fanned the fires of turning this into a Sunni-Shi’a conflict, right there on the ground in the Levant. I see this as being very important to understand, when people in the US or Europe look at or talk about how or when this conflict could spread. Islam was founded in What is today Saudi Arabia, but some of its earliest roots also are anchored in southern Iraq, with key Shi’a holy cities there and in northern Iraq, too. For every pissed off, angry, rebellious Sunni is Syria, Iran is willing to bring in 100 rifles, 100,000 rounds, and probably 40 Shi’a from across the region just to counter that one Sunni Syrian.
That is a level of commitment, and a level of both involvement and understand that US, NATO, and the West have not been able to understand, especially with regard to the early days of the uprising against al-Assad and his regime. Islam is a rich and complex religion that encompasses all aspects of a persons life; there’s no separating Islam from politics, or economics, or conflict like this, when in the West, there’s no way to include religion in these types of things. Which is why others in Middle East were also then free to continue to stir the pot. Other groups, other countries, other interests. And the US, NATO, etc. couldn’t find their place, their role, in trying to do something. One need only look at the brinkmanship over destroying the Syrian chemical weapons materials, to see a great example of this.
And then boom, ISIL exploded into Iraq. Iraq had been dealing with a lot of tit-for-tat terrorist attacks, with car bombs, attacks in Fallujah, suicide bombers – things that sadly have become a near daily occurrence in Iraq and almost accepted as a way of life there. All of these things had been going on since the Government of Iraq had asked US and other forces to leave at the end of 2011, and conditions just kept sliding more and more downhill. Al Qaeda had take control of some parts of Anbar, west of Baghdad, early in 2014, but no one thought it was that serious. Nothing like ISIL exploding onto the scene when it did in May.
The timing was important: ISIL burst onto the scene in Iraq just ahead of Ramadan, when things slow down. The summer heat was just getting crazy, too, and people were just starting to wind down and go into what can only be described as a partial summer hibernation when avoiding the real summer heat becomes a serious effort.
But there was no mistaking that Iraq’s Sunni have been long disenfranchised and marginalized, and ISIL capitalized on that. When Maliki and the Shia came to power after the fall of Saddam, under the careful eye of the US and this crazy idea that Iraq could be something like a democracy, the Sunni for boned. They lost out. All the graft, gone. All the skimming from the government coffers, gone. No more being able to put everyone from your tribe onto the government payroll – which is a huge deal in Iraq, where people don’t consider themselves employed if they don’t have a government job (which was how it worked under Saddam). Something had to give. The Sunni had been at wit’s end. In their eyes, Prime Minister Maliki was out to destroy the Sunni, he was a puppet of Iran, and he was soon going to string up Sunni babies from lamp posts. Iraqi Sunnis rose up against the Shi’a Iraqi government more than anything else; not for some caliphate, not to oppose al-Assad, not to strike a blow against the West, but to bring balance back for the Iraqi Sunni, with help from the ISIL. They made a deal with the devil, and they know it.
And others supported backing ISIL in pushing into Iraq, because Iran is a huge backer of the Iraqi government. Just as backing ISIL in its fight against Syria works to bleed Iran (which other Sunni regimes in the Middle East like to see happen), the same can be said about Iraq. If it can be done on the cheap, I think other Sunni regimes in the Middle East would probably also be happy to support ISIL in making things expensive for Iran in Iraq, to bleed Iran out some more there, too. Iran wants to be the single dominant power player in the Middle East – it sees itself as that, historically, anyway – and the Persians have a bad reputation for having a sense of superiority over their Arab neighbors. I think their Arab neighbors are willing to fuel the ISIL fires to a certain extent, so long as ISIL is oriented at the Persians.
So, where does it stand today? Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, the ME region as a whole is caught up in this ISIL shitstorm. Everyone has an opinion and a side. There’s no neutral position, no standing around waiting. Everyone, every country is involved in one way or another. The hottest parts of the fire are still in Syria, for a couple of reasons – that regime is still most important to Iran, the regime is still most at risk to fall, and ISIL there is getting most support there it seems, in it’s effort to over throw al-Assad. Iraq is the side stage, like at Lollapalooza. Iraq could go quiet again, and the fire would keep burning in Syria for a good long while longer.
So, what’s with the beheadings, then?
Ugh. OK, let’s take a quick detour.
In Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, kidnapping is done for money. Often. That’s a good business model. Did those use to include beheadings? Uh, no. Those kidnappings got people shot.
Ask yourself what it would take for you to use a knife to take someone’s head all the way off. Because when you do answer that question, you’re going to find that the answer is some variant of “A lot.” It’s not an easy feat. So, there’s two things about beheading someone. One, it’s warrior pride, and two, it’s reminiscent of the 7th century, of a time before firearms. And this second part – fighting as they did in the 7th century, at the time of the prophet Mohammed, is a big part of the Salafist movement, which advocates returning to and living like the believers did at that time. So, beheading someone with a knife is very appropriate. Bloody, hard to do, demanding, but the kind of brutal warfare that happening in the 7th century and the time of the prophet Mohammed.
These kidnappings haven’t just been Westerners, too. They’ve been everyone. All is fair, in this kidnapping and beheading game. Kidnap someone, hold them, maybe trade them, maybe get a ransom, maybe behead them. It’s business, it’s politics. But for the victims, while they are being held, they are chips to be played, in whatever way best suits their captors. It really is that simple.
Right now, with the US getting into bed with the Iraqis by providing bombing and reconnaissance support against ISIL targets in Northern Iraq, ISIL is turning to play those chips in very specific ways. ISIL doesn’t want the West or even the US involved in this fight. ISIL doesn’t want this fight turning into a Western or European Crusade. For ISIL, this doesn’t involve the West, Europe, or the US, and could or should involve those actors only if they want to give to the ISIL the tools of war needed to fight al-Assad and the Persians. For ISIL, the US and the West needs to clearly stay off the field and out of the game. These beheadings are very clearly about that.
One last thing that people ask about. Why would ISIL take the fight out of Iraq/Levant and to Europe or America, and what would that look like? If the US / NATO / Europeans / others decide to, or by now, continue to play a role in one side or another in this fight, ISIL will take this fight home to these countries. It’s that simple. ISIL doesn’t want them involved, and knows that through terror and some bloodied noses, these countries will likely pull back and out – especially the European ones. These beheadings we’re seeing now would increase, but would transition to attacks back in the countries themselves. Likely personal ones – small arms, grenades, kidnappings, and I sure hope not, but I wouldn’t rule out, beheadings there, too. The small arms and grenades, I should add, would be oriented at causing a lot of blood and a lot of wounded and dead. Messy.
I say this, because I don’t see ISIL putting 50 shooters in 50 cities in America on the same day, to unleash bullets in sync. That reads well in fiction, but that’s way more than is needed to have the impact actually needed on the US / Western people, media, and politicians. But a couple of attacks, some savvy social media campaigning, and typical mainstream media over-blowing of everything, and ISIL could get what they wanted.
There’s no want for or need for ISIL to try and take over America. There are no Sunni in America, percentage wise. It’s not going to happen. Could there be some terrorist attacks? Yep. But ISIL isn’t going to try to come to America and make everyone convert. Don’t go running out and start buying up guns, just because of this.
FOOTNOTES and other odds and ends.
1. I use ISIL, for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, instead of ISIS for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Levant is a region, and includes other lands, other countries, other people involved in this fight – I think it’s far more accurate to use that term. And really, if there was a better term to use than Iraq, I would. I’m not ready to throw down and use the term Caliphate, as I don’t think they’re functioning as one. Thus, ISIL it is.
2. Under Mohammed, non-Muslims were afforded protection if the lived under sharia (basically, all of the laws of Islam) and a few extra things, like paying the jizya (a special tax). if they did all of these things, they were considered under the special protection of the tribe and not to be fucked with. The hard part was in doing all of those things – obeying sharia and then paying a special tax, just for not being Muslim. This is still a part of the faith today. Does this seem wildly unfair? I’ll let you decide. But the base idea – that you don’t have to be a Muslim to live in a Muslim society – is one that a lot of non-Muslims, and even a lot of Muslims – struggle to accept as being a part of the official teachings of the faith today. “Convert or either leave/die” is too often cited.