ISIS, Center Stage
The drama now playing in the Near East has a cast that is adding performers continuously. For an understanding of who is who, what their interests are, and why the ancient adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” no longer holds.
ISIS (or Islamic State, as they would have it) is headed by Abu Bakr Baghdadi, a fundamentalist Salafi Sunni, who would be Caliph.
Syria, which has a history going back least 5 millennia, is headed by Bashar al-Assad, an Alowite Muslim of twelver Shi’a persuasion.
Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki represents the majority Shi’a population, and is friendly to Iran.
Hathis in Yemen are separatists based in the North who fought the government there for decades, but lately decided to take over the whole country. Hathis are a Zaydi branch of fiver Shi’a Islam.
The Gulf States: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab (seven) Emirates, and Bahrain — are all headed by a king, emir, sultan, or other monarch. All, except Bahrain, are mostly Sunni, either Wahhabi or Salafi and fiercely fundamentalist.
The supporting players:
Iran is led by Ayatollah Khamenei. Persians are not Arab, but they are Muslims, variety Shi’a.
Kurds — a people without their own home — now live in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. An ancient culture, they mostly converted to Islam, but they remain culturally and linguistically distinct.
Turkey is led by President Erdogan. Although officially secular, the population is mostly Sunni Muslim.
Israel was carved out of historic Palestine by the Balfour Declaration (1917), the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), and the Palestine Mandate (1922/23). Israel is culturally Semitic and principally Jewish.
Several armed separatist and jihadist groups operate in Syria. Examples are: the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, Islamic State (ISIS), Jabhat al Nusra, and Ahrah al Sham.
In the wings coaching their respective proxies:
The US and Russia.
Let us start start at the end of the Playbill. Russia’s interest in The Near East is geopolitical. The Russian Black Sea Fleet needs Syria of al-Assad for a port facility on the Mediterranean. Currently Russia has a total off two floating piers at the port city of Tarsus, barely adequate for lesser craft of the Russian Navy smaller than frigates and destroyers.
American interest in Syria is quite conflicted. On one hand the US doesn’t want to aid ISIS in any way — ISIS is fundamentalist and has executed some American journalists after being unable to get any ransom for them. The executions were carried out in Saudi-style by beheading — Saudi Arabia, to this day, routinely executes serious criminals by beheading, though women caught driving cars are given much lighter sentences. The US goal is regime change in Syria to a government that would deny port facilities to Russia. The US would like to provide weapons to a moderate jihadist group fighting Syria, but but can’t find one. [Note, that ‘moderate jihadist’ is an oxymoron.]
In Yemen, the US is practicing its skills in drone warfare, the Saudis having convinced Washington that Yemen, not Saudi Arabia, is the source of terrorism. The Hathis of North Yemen are separatists, not jihadists, and will have nothing to do with al Qaeda or ISIS. Indeed, they are a branch of Shi’a Islam.
Here, the protagonist ISIS appears onstage. Its leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, at once a) stays in the shadows and b) wants to attract the attention of the world. He wishes to avoid assassination, yet wants to raise the profile of ISIS above all the other militias to draw Muslim adherents from the entire world. So, he calls ISIS a Caliphate, with himself as the Calif. His goal is not so much to inflict harm on the faraway US, as it is to conquer enough contiguous territory to establish a nation. That takes money and guns, both in plentiful supply in the Near East.
Fast forward to today: ISIS has attracted donations from the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Osama bin Laden, where oil money is in free supply and fundamentalist Islam is the law of the land. With money, fighters, and arms, Baghdadi has taken over some territory in Iraq Sunni areas, and in border areas in Syria by scavenging territory from other jihadist groups, not by fighting the Syrian military. More money then poured into ISIS coffers from a number of sources: from taxes on businesses in areas it controls, extortion, fees from traffic on smuggling routes it controls and occasional seizure of contraband, ransom of kidnapped westerners, and especially the export of crude oil from the oil fields in the territories it occupies. It all amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars. ISIS has plenty of money to train its military.
ISIS is also adept at modern computer technology and the use of social media. When ISIS fails in its ransom demands, it beheads some select journalists and disseminated details of the barbarity into cyberspace for all to see. It has used fear almost as skillfully as Dick Cheney did in the early days of the Cheney-Bush administration. ISIS has literally goaded the White House and the Republican leadership in Congress to respond in the usual way with missiles and bombs. Such response reminds all the players in the Near East, who the Great Satan is. Result: more recruits, more money, more weapons — what a strategy.
Baghdadi also has good translators and linguists. He actively invites professionals — medicine, law, engineering… — to join his Caliphate. ISIS performs all the local functions expected of a municipal government: it repairs roads, provides electricity, water and sewage, operates Sharia small claims courts, finds homes for orphans …
What’s a poor prisoner of the war culture, living in the White House, to do? How can he put limits on the export of Boeing F 15 jet fighters, Lockheed Martin F 16s, Boeing Apache helicopters, General Atomics Predator drones, and all the lasers, missiles, and bombs that go with them? All items of military hardware are the only kind of manufacturing still done in the US, and account for much of the economy. The Gadfly Revelry & Research team (GRR) has some answers.
First of all, we must refrain from fighting fire with hi-octane jet fuel — no bombs, missiles and drones. Then, use blogs and a social media blitz to show Baghdadi as an opportunist kid whom no one had heard of or from before he was released from prison. What are his credentials for his claim to be Caliph. Why does he not show his face? A Caliph should hold public audiences and address his people. Why are his conquests the acts of a scavenger, not of a warrior? Ask about his personal history — about his time in prison in Iraq between 2004 and 2009. Why does he allow no demonstrations or dissent in the Islamic State? And what about the complete lack of women’s rights under ISIS? We can instill a little fear in his heart with the option of sending in the Marines. Remind him that it was the US Marines who fought the Taliban to protect the rights of women in Afghanistan.
Finally, we can threaten to use our Trump card if Baghdadi doesn’t behave in a more civil way. We can name the Donald as US Ambassador to the Islamic State. As everyone knows, Donald Trump can out-rageous anyone.