The New Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL)

I haven’t been paying much attention to the latest crisis in the Middle East. That’s the one involving the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Levant, by the way, includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus and part of southern Turkey.

As of now, the Islamic State is more of a military force than a nation. They’re fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, mainly funded by sympathizers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Their apparent goal is to create a new Muslim empire or “caliphate”. So far, they control significant portions of Iraq and Syria. Lately, they’ve been putting extreme pressure on the Yezidis or Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking ethnic group in northern Iraq. The Yezidis aren’t Muslims. They practice an ancient religion related to Zoroastrianism. To protect the Yezidis, the United States is now carrying out airlifts and airstrikes. President Obama doesn’t see a quick end to this latest conflict or American involvement.

Here are excerpts from an article by Patrick Cockburn in the London Review of Books:

As the attention of the world focused on Ukraine and Gaza, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured a third of Syria in addition to the quarter of Iraq it had seized in June. The frontiers of the new Caliphate declared by ISIS on 29 June are expanding by the day and now cover an area larger than Great Britain and inhabited by at least six million people… In a few weeks of fighting in Syria, ISIS has established itself as the dominant force in the Syrian opposition….The Caliphate may be poor and isolated but its oil wells and control of crucial roads provide a steady income in addition to the plunder of war.

The birth of the new state is the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented in the aftermath of the First World War. Yet this explosive transformation has created surprisingly little alarm internationally or even among those in Iraq and Syria not yet under the rule of Isis. Politicians and diplomats tend to treat Isis as if it is a Bedouin raiding party that appears dramatically from the desert, wins spectacular victories and then retreats to its strongholds leaving the status quo little changed. Such a scenario is conceivable but is getting less and less likely as Isis consolidates its hold on its new conquests in an area that may soon stretch from Iran to the Mediterranean.

The very speed and unexpectedness of its rise make it easy for Western and regional leaders to hope that the fall of ISIS and the implosion of the Caliphate might be equally sudden and swift. But all the evidence is that this is wishful thinking and the trend is in the other direction, with the opponents of ISIS becoming weaker and less capable of resistance…

With weapons taken from the Iraqi army and the seizure of Syrian oil and gasfields, ISIS no longer needs so much outside help. For America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of ISIS and the Caliphate is the ultimate disaster. Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to get rid of Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden.

Calling the rise of ISIS or ISIL “the ultimate disaster” for the United States and Europe sounds more like overstatement than British understatement, but the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state that aims to forge a new Muslim empire intolerant of religious minorities certainly isn’t good news. The vacuum we created by getting rid of Saddam Hussein seems to be filling up.