Living with the Islamic State

Living with the Islamic State

Even if the Islamic State’s current modus operandi revolts us, the political logic to its existence remains firm. The West and the regional powers alike would now do best to encourage fixture of this new country’s borders, promote its openness to the rest of the world, and facilitate the rapid development of what is presently emergent barbarism.

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By Matthew Parish

Seldom are the political boundaries of a region comprehensively redrawn, but it does happen. The last such instance before 2014 was perhaps the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, in which Yugoslavia disintegrated into a series of component states amidst civil conflict and comprehensive population displacement. Yet for the most part, these wars entailed the internal borders of a unified nation becoming external frontiers of fragmented ones. The ultimate boundaries emerging were more or less predictable. Current events in the Levant are more dramatic. The new countries emerging from civil wars in Iraq and Syria will have boundaries where none existed before. We may already identify the emergent nations: an Alawite and Christian-dominated Western Syria; a Sunni-dominated “Islamic State” carved from eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq; a Republic of Kurdistan, incorporating northeast Iraq, limited contiguous Syrian territory and one or two Syrian exclaves; and a Shia-dominated Republic of Southern Iraq.

The emergence of these nations appears the inevitable outcome of a confluence of military events which it is in nobody’s power now to reverse. One is the victory of the al-Assad government in Damascus in defeating Sunni forces in the Syrian Civil War, at least in the densely-populated west of the country. That outcome was achieved with overwhelming support from the two biggest regional powers, Russia and Iran. With their assistance the defeat of the Damascus government was never, with the benefit of hindsight, realistic. The second is the withdrawal of the US armed forces from Iraq after they installed a partisan Shia-majority government in Baghdad, which in turn alienated Kurds and Sunnis from the Iraqi state. After US departure, the Iraqi central government had no military resources to hold the country together by force. A third was the combination of the former Sunni-dominated Iraqi armed forces from the Saddam regime with Sunni forces from Syria, the latter generously financed by both the US and Gulf, who were able to coalesce the Islamic State into an effective government by drawing upon the expertise of pre-2003 Iraqi administrators. The last is the entrenchment of autonomous Kurdish government and military institutions over several decades.

The United States, the only military power with even the pretence of a capacity to reverse this course of events, has predictably abdicated the task. America extracted itself from a domestically unpopular and costly military occupation of Iraq fewer than three years ago. That occupation was itself precipitated by the 2003 invasion and overthrow of a Sunni-minority government. The US invasion was arguably the catalyst for all the current events in the Levant, overturning as it did the Anglo-French agreement for ethnic minority rule under European colonial suzerainty in the Levant at the end of World War One and after the demise of the Ottoman Empire. The US has no desire now to commit ground troops to the overthrow of either Damascus or Raqqa (the capital of the Islamic State, a city formerly in northeastern Syria). Without that commitment, it is impossible to prevent the prior states of Iraq and Syria from embracing their natural course of disintegration.

Much is said by politicians and military men about eroding the Islamic State, presumably with a view to eliminating it from the political geography of the region. But the military activities we observe undertaken by regional and western powers against the State belie that goal. Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers are engaged in operations on the periphery of the Islamic State, to achieve control of the Yazidi and Kurdish regions on the State’s frontiers. Air power is used only to prevent troop movements: any convoy of soldiers seen within the territory of the Islamic State is liable to an air strike. This prevents the State from achieving further territorial conquests, penning it within its current perimeter. The Syrian government periodically strikes Raqqa by air, but the goal is not recovery of the city to Damascene control. Rather it is elimination of the Islamic State’s capacity to fight for the western parts of Syria the Damascus government craves. Principal amongst Syria’s goals is full recovery of Aleppo, a Sunni-majority city in northwestern Syria that at the time of writing is mostly under the authority of the Syrian army. Its eastern fringes remain controlled by militants associated with the Islamic State but these outlying suburbs will surely soon fall.

Nor is the Iraqi central government attempting to recover the country’s third-largest city, Mosul, from Islamic State rule. The Kurdistan Regional Government, having seized the contested city of Kirkuk and its coveted neighbouring oilfields, has already achieved the bulk of its territorial ambitions. It is now focused upon securing its new borders as well as touting a referendum on independence. Sunni-majority Anbar province, adjoining Syria, has been abandoned entirely by Iraq’s Shia majority to the Islamic State. The Iranians seem likewise set upon supporting a rump but functional Shia-majority Iraqi government, rather than clinging to an aspiration that Iraq remain notionally unified under dysfunctional Shia-majority control. That was the reality for a decade from US invasion in 2003, and it was broadly recognised as a catastrophe not to be repeated. At the end of 2014, the civil wars in the Levant are mostly concluded or predictably close to their end, and the immediate political future of the region relatively clear to foresee.

The most morally offensive aspect of this new Levantine reality is arguably the grizzly governance habits of the Islamic State. The origins of the Islamic State are as a Sunni insurgency movement. But in the second half of 2014 IS developed political authority of its own within its territory and projected the trappings of a quasi-state. IS has an army, a government structure and now even a currency, the structures of which have been borrowed from the Saddam Hussein government model whose bureaucrats now work in its folds. IS has become associated with grave human rights abuses, including ruthless murders of opponents, ethnic minorities and foreigners, mistreatment of women and summary justice in the face of dissent. Yet gross mistreatment of one’s population is not necessarily fatal to a government’s longevity: the Taliban ran Afghanistan for a decade amidst singularly savage rule. The movement’s ultimate downfall derived not from the dissatisfaction of its subjects. Instead the Taliban regime collapsed because, through support for international terrorism, it was perceived as posing a serious threat to the security of the United States who ultimately invaded. For all its barbarity, the Islamic State seems keen at least for now to avoid that misstep. IS presently poses no danger to anyone except persons in its territory. The only Americans the regime has killed are the handful to have entered its territory voluntarily.

Let us imagine that the Islamic State’s leaders maintain the wisdom to preserve a non-confrontational, insular course in their relations with the outside world. In that event it seems likely that the United States will largely leave this anomalous entity alone, because the costs of eradicating it are too high and the benefits too modest. The contemporary cruelties of the Islamic State, now a means of instilling obedience into the new country’s citizens who might otherwise dream of resistance, may subsequently recede. In recent months stories have emerged of mandatory rules for prayer, the use of non-Sunni women and girls as sexual slaves, mass decapitations and crucifixions, and  a miscellany of other horrors. All these may be useful tools in the early revolutionary days of a self-created nation whose existence stands in mortal danger. They are likewise an extreme but apparently effective means of motivating soldiers and civilians alike through fear and reward.

The need for the new country’s political leaders to embrace extremism may therefore subside as the Islamic State ceases to perceive itself under an existential threat. The people behind the movement – Saddam-era secular Sunnis – are not inherently fanatical. This is not a fundamentalist religious network presiding over backward people, as was the Taliban. Rather the religious trappings of the Islamic State have been adopted principally as a tool of generating a nascent sense of social identity in a state without recent historical antecedent. Even the name Islamic State, harbouring back to the early Caliphate in the period immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, is guided towards creating a sense of identity out of religious affiliation. The people of the Levant are not very conservative or devout. This outpost of the Ottoman Empire was long a tolerant mixture of different peoples. Ba’athism, which found expression in twentieth-century Iraqi and Syrian politics after the demise of imperial rule in the region, was a  secular Arab nationalist movement. The region has little history of religious fundamentalism on the part of any of its myriad peoples.

Wide recognition of the Islamic State within established borders is not likely particularly soon. The next one to two years will likely involve skirmishes between the Islamic State and its neighbours, with a view to fixing the nascent nation’s geographical extent. Then gradual de facto recognition of the country will occur as it did with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The country may be renamed (perhaps “the Islamic Republic of the Levant” or “the Assyrian Republic”), as the political imperative to embrace symbols of Islamic medievalism abates and pretensions to universalism become a hindrance to neighbourly relations. Western diplomatic acknowledgment of this new state will take much longer, and will probably require some sea-change in its government structures such as ostensibly democratic elections. This is not unthinkable; after the death of the Prophet Muhammad his successor for the original Islamic State was chosen by democratic mandate (at least according to the Sunni view). Local Sunni powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar may opt to embrace the new nation more quickly than can the west. If Iran’s power continues to grow, the Realpolitik of the west forging relations with the Islamic State as a bastion of Sunni opposition to Russian and Shia influence in the region may develop its own rationale in accelerating rapprochement.

Difficult as it might be to imagine at the current juncture, early success for the Islamic State may usher in a new era of relative peace and order in the politics of the Levant. Shia rump Iraq will no longer share a border with Alawite and Shia-friendly rump Syria, potentially closing the route for supply of Iranian armaments to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Ethnic cleansing recently perpetuated by Sunnis, Shia and Alawites in both Syria and Iraq, while intolerably cruel, may dissolve many of the ethnic tensions in the region. Peaceful coexistence within the same domestic government structures, always an impossible task in the absence of democratic traditions, is no longer necessary. Ethnic cleansing is a concomitant of ethnic civil war, and there has almost never been a successful ethnic-political partition of a territory without it. People living in multi-ethnic empires have seldom harboured the foresight to divide themselves naturally along geographical boundaries in anticipation of subsequent civil wars. Post-imperial emergent democracy becomes impossible if groups harbouring historical animosity towards one-another are compelled to share power, and people must be forcibly displaced for democracy to work. Now this has taken place in both Iraq and Syria, the political corollary – of separating people into adjacent mono-ethnic independent states – becomes inescapable.

If it is thought unpalatable to live with the Islamic State, the international community has precious few alternatives. There is no political will to treat IS in the way international rhetoric pretends: as an insurgency to be repressed, as have been the various Al-Qaida movements. Moreover we now find tacit acceptance by the international community of the principal premise of the Islamic State’s emergence. The multi-ethnic fabric of the Levant could not be indefinitely sustained after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, and after a century of minority repression it is now being irretrievably unwound. The border between Iraq and Syria were originally artificially drawn by long-receded European colonial powers. Now ethnic civil war has unfolded, the emergence of a Sunni-majority state separate from Shia and Alawite factions cannot now be resisted.

Even if the Islamic State’s current modus operandi revolts us, the political logic to its existence remains firm. The West and the regional powers alike would now do best to encourage fixture of this new country’s borders, promote its openness to the rest of the world, and facilitate the rapid development of what is presently emergent barbarism. There is no value to anyone in the Islamic State remaining medieval in its outlook and indefinitely insular. Security in the Middle East depends upon political reconciliation with what has already occurred and cannot be reversed. We should develop this new Sunni state closer towards the sort of country we would like to see in the region. One advantage of the Islamic State will be that it is not burdened with the ethnic rivalries of the two now-defunct shadow nations from which it emerges. It might have a fair chance at success, if we afford it one.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and the Managing Partner of the Gentium Law Group ( He is the author of three books and over a hundred articles about international law and international relations, and was formerly an official in the international administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2013 he was named as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland.

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