The unwanted child of terror: ‘ISIL’

The unwanted child of terror: ‘ISIL’

Brutal images of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) publicly executing the prolonged desire for sustainable peace in the Middle East are absolutely not stomach friendly. As searching continues to find the reason that has erupted and marginalized ISIL over the last years, the light at the end of the tunnel for people in the region is fading away. Even though ISIL is mostly being perceived as a thematic figure in Iraq and Syria, what its tsunami causes is beyond borders. 

There is no easy answer to whether ISIL’s birth was a result of political demobilization of Sunnis in Iraq, or a reflection of what has been going on in the region for decades. Though, there is one simple fact: Military interventions will not score a touchdown unless there is a robust social reconstruction plan that aims to create an impact on the socio-political level. In the post-Saddam Iraq, for instance, Sunnis were left alone both politically and economically, whereas Shia parties were supported heavily by the United States. It is, to a degree, a lucid and comprehensible decision that the United States chose not to favor Sunnis in Iraq after Saddam Hussein, a Sunni himself, was overthrown. However, as it is seen today, empowering Shias over Sunnis has prompted a socially unbalanced Iraq and has not put out the fire, but the flames rose higher in the pre-existed disputes.

Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies toward creating a Shia sectarian state, which attenuated Sunni participation in the political process, did not help the case either. Over the last years, before he was asked to step down, protests against al-Maliki’s government were returned with excessive violence by the police. There have been various clashes between Sunnis and pro-Maliki counter-protesters causing casualties on both sides, escalating the hatred to a feud-hunt.

For terrorist groups like ISIL, there is no better environment. Newly divorced with al-Qaeda over conflicts of interest in Syria, ISIL rebooted itself using the Shia/Sunni dispute as a recruiting opportunity. Jessica Lewis, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, described ISIL as “an army on the move in Iraq and Syria, and they are taking terrain. They have shadow governments in and around Baghdad, and they have an aspirational goal to govern. I don’t know whether they want to control Baghdad, or if they want to destroy the functions of the Iraqi State, but either way the outcome will be disastrous for Iraq.” She is remarkably right that ISIL is ambitious to rule and is seizing power to govern using Islam as a cover. However, she is missing out on one little detail. The outcome will not only be disastrous for Iraq, but everyone remotely interested in the peace process in the Middle East.

Tony Blair stated “three-four years ago, al-Qaida in Iraq was a beaten force. The country had massive challenges, but had a prospect, at least, of overcoming them. It did not pose a threat to its neighbors. Indeed, since the removal of Saddam, and despite the bloodshed, Iraq had contained its own instability mostly within its own borders.” Today ISIL is indeed a threat to its neighbors and beyond. Thus, what defines country premises in the Middle East is more complex than declared borders. Inter-country relationships through ethnicity or religious denomination have historically been more important than just borders. For instance, ISIL’s ethnic cleansing toward Iraqi Kurds will have a direct impact on Turkish realpolitik through the Kurdish political elites in Turkey. In fact, a recent turn of wind may change the dynamics of the Turkish-Kurdish prolonged recovery process forever. The Turkish government gave permission to the Kurdish Peshmerga of Iraq to pass through its borders to help the town of Kobane in the fight against ISIL. Many scholars, including Serhun Al, a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, underline that defeating ISIL in Kobane, which has become a symbol of the fight against ISIL, will be the starting point to build peace across the region. It would rather be too optimistic to assume that ISIL will be the last battle against terrorism, however, it seems like a post hoc ISIL trauma might lead to a desire for regional peace. That is, of course, if every party, ethnicity or sub-cultural entity in the region is equally treated without favoring one to another. Otherwise, favoring Kurds over Arabs, Shia over Sunni and vice versa may trigger a political arbitrage across the region in which all parties would eventually face a definite lose-lose situation. Perhaps an unchecked and unbalanced “Middle East” is not on anyone’s Christmas list.             

*Talha Paksoy, Peace and Conflict Studies: swisspeace Academy, University of Basel