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ISIS: Then and Now

Origins and Future of ISIS

 Note: Prof. Elaine Hagopian’s talk on Dec. 10 at a UJP sponsored program covered the historical origins of the conflicts in the Middle East, and also much information on ISIS, which is presented here in summary.

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 ISIS developed out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and is therefore one consequence of the US invasion and occupation starting in 2003.  Local Sunni tribes cooperated with the US during the “surge” or “Arab awakening” in 2007 fighting Al-Qaeda.   They expected to be rewarded by being part of the Iraqi government.  However, the Shia regime under Maliki pursued sectarian policies and imprisoned and killed Sunni leaders.   Al-Qaeda in Iraq was able to regroup and recruit Sunni support, and rebranded as  ISIS.  It grew into a decentralized but well organized group, with money from Saudis and captured US weapons including tanks.   

 Rapid ISIS advances in 2014 were at the expense of a corrupt and incompetent Maliki regime in Baghdad, caught by surprise.  ISIS moved into Syria to expand its population base, which today is about 6 million people; the ISIS capital is at  Raqqa.  ISIS support lies among the Sunni population and today has reached a limit to its expansion and has failed so far in its attack on Kobani.  If the US and others do not intervene and leave local and regional forces to deal with the situation, it is likely that ISIS’ power would slowly decline.   Its harsh Sharia law generates resistance among the population. Al-Qaeda has far greater scope geographically and is the greater danger in the long term.

 Syrian society has been devastated, both socially and economically.  ISIS does have financial resources, partly through selling oil, and is able to offer jobs to young men in particular (paying $600/month with healthcare).  It provides a certain degree of administration and stability amidst a chaotic situation where survival is an increasing challenge for many.  Those who do not question ISIS politically or its extreme version of Sharia law may thus find themselves in a better personal situation working for ISIS than unemployed with little hope for betterment.  This helps explain a certain degree of support for ISIS among some Sunnis.  Foreign fighters have volunteered for ISIS, but being poorly trained (except the Chechens), are mostly used as cannon fodder.

 State Department planners realize that the US is in a difficult or untenable situation.   US initially backed the Syrian National Council and Free Syrian Army, but this has proved ineffective.  One proposed way out is to break up Syria into parts; create a little Syria in the Southwest around Damascus, which would still have a large portion of the population.   The northeast provinces could be incorporated into a new state, the ISIS caliphate, which the State Department hopes Saudi Arabia could influence and control.  This would have the benefit of breaking up the territory and power of the Arab states, a goal of Israel since the 1980s. Prof. Hagopian felt that this plan won’t be agreed to by the people in the region.

 US policy should cease military intervention and work with Iran and Syria; these two countries have the greatest capacity to influence the situation.   Peace/antiwar activists pointed to the increasing pressure on Obama to escalate.  Suggestions for actions include working with academics opposed to US involvement, expanding the peace voice inside the Washington beltway, and building protests and mass actions.

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