Critique
Journal of Socialist Theory

The Failure of Indirect Orientalism: Islamic State

In this article, it is argued that the emergence and growth of Islamic State reveals the failure of US indirect orientalist policy towards the Middle East. The effectiveness of this policy, which is based on local actors to pursue orientalist dogma by promoting a Sunni based, anti-Iranian and Israel biased vision has become questionable following changes that occurred in the post-Arab uprisings period. Within this framework, the factors driving the appearance of Islamic State are discussed and it is explored how Islamic State has affected regional dynamics and politics.

Keywords: Islamic State; US Policy; Indirect Orientalism; Post-Arab Uprisings Period; Middle East; Islamist Movements

The US has followed a policy based on indirect orientalism in the Middle East since the early 2000s. As I have already noted in Critique,1orientalist dogma based on an assumed western superiority over the East began to be pursued by oriental actors. Within this framework, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel became prominent as actors that could help the US follow Sunni-based, Israel biased and anti-Iranian policies. By encouraging the ambitions of these states wanting to become dominant powers in the Middle East, the US contributed to their becoming more active in regional politics. More specifically, Turkey was promoted as a role model for regional states transforming themselves following the Arab uprisings, while Israel was protected as the regional representative of Western values. As for Saudi Arabia, along with Turkey, it became a prominent actor in the US’s Sunni-based policy that emphasized the Sunni-Shiite duality in the region. However, changes that have occurred following the Arab uprisings have constituted a real challenge to the US’s indirect orientalist policy.

In particular, I argue that the militant and violent group, Islamic State (IS), which is a serious threat to ethnic, Islamic and Christian minorities in the region, exemplifies the failure of US indirect orientalist policy towards the Middle East. W

ithin this framework, I discuss the factors contributing to the emergence and growth of IS and how it has changed regional dynamics and politics.

IS and the Factors Driving its Appearance and Growth

IS, a radical Islamist group, also widely known by its former name of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), can trace its roots back to the late Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, who formed al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) was formed by AQI as an umbrella organization following Zarqawi’s death in 2006. Previously, its power had been weakened because Sunni Arabs had rejected its brutal tactics. However, after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became its leader, its capabilities were rebuilt. This allowed ISI to start attacking non-Sunni targets, and it joined the insurgency against Syria’s Assad regime by supporting the al-Nusra Front, which can be considered the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, formed in January 2012. In April 2013, Baghdadi declared the creation of ISIS by announcing the union of their forces in Syria and Iraq. Although the leaders of Al-Qaeda central and al-Nusra did not recognize its formation, enough fighters from these organizations pledged their allegiance to Baghdadi for it to grow.2Since then, IS, which bases its ideology on an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam, has become one of the largest jihadist organizations in the world. Despite the lack of precise information regarding its size, it claims to have thousands of fighters across the world.

Various factors can explain the dramatic progress of the organization. First, there are the repercussions of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. After the overthrow of the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and his regime, repressed parts of Iraqi society, particularly Shiites and Kurds, became dominant in the new administration. Thus, a Kurdistan Regional Government was declared in the north, a Kurd, Jalal Talabani, became President of Iraq, while a Shiite became the prime minister. This led to Sunni sections of society being largely excluded from state institutions, and increasingly marginalized. Therefore, they have largely supported, directly or indirectly, armed attacks on Shiite and Kurdish targets.

Within this sectarian framework, based on feelings of insecurity across all of Iraqi society, members of the Sunni minority began to participate in the most extremist organizations and to support their violent policies. Of these groups, IS has been considered the most ambitious and promising jihadist organization, not because of its ideological uniqueness but rather because of its activism based on brutal, fear- inducing tactics, such as mass killings, beheadings and abductions of members of other ethnic and religious minorities. The organization is so attractive for jihadist fighters that it is estimated that 80 per cent of all jihadist fighters in Syria have joined IS. IS also reported to have jihadist members from the US to Caucasia. IS’s strategy to win hearts and minds, by using the media, and providing economic support and social services, is also noteworthy.3IS regarded as one of the jihadist organizations that employs social media opportunities with remarkable effectiveness, broadcasting its ideological propaganda through videos and websites. There are many video recordings circulating on the internet, either showing brutal beheadings or declaring IS’s promises to members. Likewise, the da’wah (which refers to a missionary outreach to non-Muslims) meetings organized by jihadist members help increase the organization’s membership. These meetings are reported to target children in particular, and are organized to increase local support by outlining IS’s ideology. The organization seems also to have avoided repeating the mistakes of Al- Qaeda in that it does not exclude former Baathists and cooperates with local Sunni tribes. Rather, it promotes itself as representative and a defender of Sunni Islam. Its organization of a prison breakout in Iraq in July 2013 also contributed to its popularity. Indeed, IS’s leader, al-Baghdadi, had announced that sacking prisons was his group’s most important mission. In July 2012, he released an audio statement entitled, ‘Destroying the Gates’ in which he said, ‘We remind you of your top priority, which is to release the Muslim prisoners everywhere, and making the pursuit, chase, and killing of their butchers from amongst the judges, detectives, and guards to be on top of the list.’4

Institutionalization is another factor contributing to IS’s expansion. It not only conducts education in the schools in the places where it is dominant but is also active in the judicial domain by trying to implement Sharia rules in every domain of life.5

Besides these supportive factors, IS has recently announced the creation of a caliphate, which can be assessed as an important tactical step to increase its support as the only, and holiest, reference point among Sunni people. This step is linked to the fact that IS, like Al-Qaeda, has global aims. Moreover, being more successful than Al-Qaida allows it to declare an Islamic state by seizing territory in the region.6However, what most drew the attention of Western states was its capture of Mosul in June 2013 and the massacre of Yazidis in Sinjar, since these events revealed the seriousness of its threat to the region.

Despite IS’s ongoing disagreements with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al- Qaeda Central, IS seems to have adopted Osama bin Laden’s vision that there are only three choices in Islam: conversion, subjugation or death.7 Consequently, violence has become an important instrument. To terrorise its enemies, IS commits many atrocities, including beheadings, crucifixions, torture, rape, abduction and mass killings, which it then shows to the world. Besides violence against local people, it has fuelled terror by circulating videos on the internet documenting its murders of various westerners, such as the beheading of American journalist James Foley.

IS’s employment of these instruments is so effective that it is now regarded as a very serious threat by the US. Thus, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has strikingly referred to IS members as being ‘beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess, they are tremendously well- funded. This is beyond anything that we have seen.’ Likewise, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey, considers IS to be ‘an organisation that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated.’8

Other representatives of Sunni people have been slow to react to IS’s successful tactics and policies. This has increased the speed of the propagation of its sphere of influence so much that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia needed to warn the ulema, the body of clerics and scholars, by criticizing them for their silence in responding to atrocities committed by IS. Moreover, a number of prominent sheikhs, who in the past have supported jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, and Abu Muhammad al- Maqdisi, who was once spiritual mentor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have criticized IS by accusing them of dividing Muslims.

IS, however, has chosen to avoid getting involved in ideological debates with other representative of Sunni Islam, seeming only to prefer revealing its activism. Unlike most jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda’s leaders, it has avoided theological discussions and spread its activism by employing social media opportunities.9Another difference is that, unlike al-Qaeda, IS gives importance to territorial control rather than suicide attacks. With its military advances in large sections of Syria and Iraq, IS has achieved control over large areas, and has been the first jihadist group to seize control of economic resources such as oil fields and refineries. It is reported that IS currently controls seven oil fields and two smaller refineries in the north of Iraq. In addition, it has gained revenue from extortion and kidnapping, and from funding from individuals and charities in the region.

Beyond all these factors, however, we can say that the principal factor that has allowed IS to grow is the failure of US policy towards Syria, which is predicated on its indirect orientalist policy. The uprisings in Syria started in March 2011 in a search for dignity, liberty and welfare. The uprising’s aim to overthrow the authoritarian Assad regime turned out to be unsuccessful, and a complex civil war continues in which various ethnic, religious, regional and external actors have become involved. Besides the Free Syrian Army (FSA), several Islamist groups, such as al-Nusra, which is linked to Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic Front, have joined in the civil war in order to benefit from the complex situation. Meanwhile, the US and two components of its indirect orientalist policy, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, began to support opponent groups fighting the Assad regime, but without making any distinctions among them since any method that could overthrow the regime seemed to be legitimate. As a result, jihadist fighters (particularly IS members) have become more dominant and influential than the FSA within Syria. It has been reported that Turkey has even provided logistical support to IS members and the Turkish government has let jihadists use Turkey as a transit point on their way to Syria and Iraq. Events that occurred in January 2014 are striking in this regard. Some Turkish trucks, which were stopped by security forces near the Turkey-Syria border, were alleged to be carrying weapons to IS. Yet, upon the orders of the Interior Minister, local governors blocked a police search of the trucks. Then Interior Minister, Efkan Ala, stated that the trucks were carrying aid to Turkmens in Syria.10 In addition, it was reported that wounded IS members in Syria are being treated in Turkish hospitals, which provide all kinds of convenience for them. It is also widely believed that Turkey has accelerated its activities to impede Kurdish autonomy in the north of Syria, an area called Rojava. Turkish government’s attitude towards the conflict in Kobane supports this approach. Calling PYD members ‘terrorists’, Turkish security forces intervened to stop aid groups and people approaching the fence to render assistance.11These allegations are also supported by Kurdish peshmergas, who have been fighting against IS, arguing that IS members have been using weapons marked as coming from the state-owned Turkish Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation (MKE).12

It is worth noting that the other pillar of US policy, Saudi Arabia, has long supported Syrian rebel forces, including radical Islamist groups, although it rejects Iranian accusations that it has directly supported IS. Nevertheless, it is reported that, while wealthy Saudis have supported the organization financially, thousands of Saudi citizens have gone to Syria in order to fight against the Assad regime.13

Overall, it can be seen that US and allied support for Syrian rebels, but without making any distinction among them in Syria, has paved the way for the growth ofIS. This was recently confirmed by Hillary Clinton, the former US Secretary of State, who admitted that ‘the failure to help Syrian rebels led to the rise of IS’.14Another supportive explanation has been made recently by US Vice President, Joe Biden, blaming US allies for the rise of IS.15 IS, which emerged through the factors discussed here, has, to a great extent, affected and transformed the regional dynamics and policies of both regional and Western states in the Middle East.

Regional Dynamics Changed by IS

The rise of IS has made US indirect orientalist policies questionable. First, IS constitutes a challenge to the US’s Sunni-based policy. As already noted, the US was already pursuing a Sunni-based policy practised locally through support for Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Through these states, the US attempted to preserve the Sunni- Shiite duality in order to pursue its own interests in the region. However, the rise of IS presents a serious ideological threat to Saudi Arabia which has been one of the pillars of US Sunni-based policy. Saudi Arabia’s ideology is based on Wahhabism, the philosophy of the 18th-century warrior-jurist Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, which constitutes a reference point for Salafists. IS has challenged the Saudi administration by creating its own state that tries to implement the very principles that Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi authorities claim to follow. IS also constitutes a security threat against Saudi Arabia because the Saudi authorities are anxious that IS might provoke Saudi fighters to challenge them and overthrow the monarchy. This is why Saudi Arabia has become a key actor in US efforts to form an anti-IS coalition force. In July 2014, Saudi Arabia deployed 30,000 troops to provide security along its border with Iraq and hosted Iran’s deputy foreign minister, which led to these two regional rivals agreeing to cooperate against the IS threat.16

While the King of Saudi Arabia is clearly discomforted by IS’s rise, IS’s ideological challenge has stimulated debates among the kingdom’s political and religious elite. On the one hand, there are those who support IS by pointing to its confrontation of Shiites, who are viewed as heretics by Wahhabis and Salafists. Such people are pleased that IS’s ideology stems from Salafist roots and that it views existing regimes as apostate. On the other hand, two other groups criticize IS. First, there are those who want to keep quiet for fear of encouraging a militant challenge to the Al-Saud family’s control of the kingdom. According to them, ‘IS’s threat to reverse the Al Saud’s co­optation of Wahhabism reveals political Islam’s inability to come to grips with modernity and the concept of a modern state’. As a result, they claim that it is necessary to establish another authoritarian regime that has already demonstrated its rejection of any notion of liberal rights. Second, there are reformists who reject IS’s totalitarianism as contradicting a Salafist tradition that promotes freedom of expression and endorses opposition to authority.17

IS’s rise has also changed regional dynamics by making US policy based on an alliance with Turkey, which is one of the pillars of US indirect orientalist policy, controversial. Turkey’s alleged support for IS and reluctant position, at least at first, to participating in the planned US-led anti-IS coalition have come into prominence in this regard. Turkey’s attitude was largely criticized by some parts. Turkey was declared as a non-ally of US, and Turkey was criticized for not authorizing the use of the US air base at Incirlik territory in Turkey, and for impeding US air strikes against IS. Within this framework, it was also reminded of the statements of the former US Ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, who declared that the Turkish government ‘frankly worked’ with the al-Nusra Front along with other terrorist groups.18

As for the Turkish authorities, they cite security concerns to explain Turkey’s reluctant attitude regarding the fight against IS as IS constitutes a security threat against Turkey too. Thus, until now, unlike in Saudi Arabia, IS has become prominent in debates in Turkey as a security rather than ideological threat. The recent hostage crisis has supported their arguments. IS kidnapped 49 Turkish diplomats in Mosul in June 2014, which seemed to prevent the Turkish government from showing an anti-IS discourse. It was only after their release in late September that the Turkish government could say that ‘IS is a bloody terrorist organisation’ and could commit the country to taking a role in the coalition.19However, despite giving more explicit support, Turkey still seems to have some concerns in this regard. It is anxious that weapons sent by Western countries to the Kurdish Peshmerga will pass into the hands of the PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan—Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which has joined the fight against IS in northern Iraq. Moreover, it fears that the PYD will become powerful in the north of Syria, which is perceived a threat since Turkey has been unable to resolve its own Kurdish question. Nevertheless, following US pressure, Turkey recently had to allow Iraqi Kurdish forces to cross its territory to support PYD fighters in Kobane, which constitutes a striking reversal for a country that had declared those fighters as ‘terrorists’. This policy shift came after the US revealed its intention to help Kurdish fighters without Turkey’s assent and to provide weapons, using US aircraft to supply them in Kobane, for the first time.20

One indication of how much the rise of IS has upset the US’s Sunni-based policy is that the US has been trying to form an anti-IS coalition that pleases its ‘enemies’, Iran and Syria. Although there has been no declaration of an explicit cooperation with Iran and Syria, and US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has declared that the US is not cooperating with either country, nevertheless, the new policy has brought the sides together to fight against IS. About Iran, Kerry said, ‘We have had brief conversations on the side of our nuclear negotiations. ... We’re prepared to see whether or not Iran can contribute in a constructive way, but that would [require] things changing on the ground in Syria [such as their support for Assad and Hezbollah].’ As for Syria, Mohammad al-Momani, a government spokesman stated, ‘The Syrian Arab Republic says it stands with any international effort to fight terrorism, no matter what a group is called - whether Daesh or Nusra Front or something else.’ He continued, ‘We will not hesitate to take further actions to target and kill terrorists who are trying to attack our country.’

Yet, despite their common stance against IS, Iran’s President Hassan Rohani warned that the US-led coalition’s airstrikes in Syria are illegal since they have not been approved by or coordinated with the Syrian government. After re-emphasizing Iran’s own anti-IS policy, Rohani also said that, ‘US policy is confused because it simultaneously opposes the militants while also trying to undermine the government of Syria’s President Bashar Assad’.21

Nevertheless, although Iran opposes the US over Syria, it has called on the ‘international community’ for cooperation against IS. Iran has reportedly also communicated with its rival Saudi Arabia and has not impeded US actions in Iraq. Moreover, the Iranians themselves have tried to counter IS in that its Revolutionary Guards have supported Iraqi security forces and Shiite militants. Finally, it is reported that Iran has been sending logistic aid to the Kurdistan Regional Government. In parallel with US policy, Iran withdrew its support from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Maliki in August 2014.

Despite these actions, US Secretary of State, John Kerry still opposed Iran’s participation at an international conference regarding the struggle against IS held in Paris in September. However, he also stressed that he was still prepared to discuss Iraq and Syria with the Iranians. Iranian officials meanwhile insisted that they had rejected multiple invitations by the US to join the coalition.22

Whatever the explanations made by opposite sides, a US general, Martin Dempsey, has argued that: ‘IS cannot be beaten without attacking its strongholds in Syria’, which has paved the way for debates about whether to cooperate with the Syrian government in the fight against IS. It is noteworthy that since the start of the uprising against his rule in March 2011, President Bashar al-Assad has underlined the threat of Islamist extremists to Syria and to the region. Whereas the US, and other Western powers previously ignored his portrayal of his opponents as ‘terrorists’, they are on the same side as Syria now. The recent explanation made by Syrian officials indicating that the Assad regime is pleased with US air strikes against IS in Syria is striking in this regard.23

Nevertheless, continued anti-Assad tendencies appear to be preventing open cooperation with the Syrian government. In September, US President Obama announced the authorization of air strikes in Syria, despite concerns over their legality and the fact that they might benefit the Assad regime. Obama argued that the US effort will focus on ‘moderate’ rebels in their fight against IS. Yet, who are these moderate opponents in Syria? Are they the FSA members who have turned out to be ineffective compared with radical jihadist fighters in Syria? It is widely accepted that the FSA has moderate views in comparison with jihadist groups. However, they see no problem in fighting alongside IS against the Assad regime, and their fighters reportedly move from one group to another according to the state of the war.24Furthermore, the statement made by the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Walid Muallim, following the US air strikes in Syria, claiming that FSA does not exist anymore, is striking in this regard.25 The US administration has been unable to clarify these points.

In addition, although this is not voiced loudly by US authorities, it is obvious that regional developments and IS’s rise have made Kurds prominent actors. Syrian Kurds, who declared autonomy in Rojava last year, are regarded as the most powerful and motivated group fighting against IS since they consider the survival of Rojava as an existential struggle because they were deprived of basic human rights under the Assad regime. Following the declaration of autonomy in Rojava, they have had the opportunity for the first time to be free and to establish basic individual and collective rights. Thus, one of the consequences of IS’s rise in the region is that Kurds have become one of the most appropriate allies for US policy towards Syria and Iraq.

In such a moment, for the first time, the US has started to directly provide weapons to the Kurds. Furthermore, Kurds have started to be regarded as rising actors in the US media. It is stated that conditions and changes that occurred in the Middle East reveal that the US should find a better regional ally than its traditional allies, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. These allies are now considered ineffective in the fight against IS, while the Kurds are assessed as more suitable.26The latest conflicts in Rojava have brought the YPG (Yekineyen Parastina Gel-People’s Protection Units) to international attention with their fight against IS forces.

Despite all these developments challenging current US Middle East policy, the US’s Israel-biased policy seems to have retained its stability. Thus, the US has continued to promote Israel as the representative of Western values in the region, with Israeli interests being considered as of primary concern in any issues in the region. The US, thus, perpetuates a duality between Israel and the Arab states.27Paul Hirschson, spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, revealed Israel’s position: ‘Iran and Islamic State are important issues, but two separate issues. That is the way we see it. We think that Iran is a major long-term strategic threat and shouldn’t be confused with a very real threat which is posed by Islamic State. But it is a separate issue.’ That is, IS is regarded by Israel as a containable rather than strategic threat because IS cannot challenge Israel’s own organized military forces. Hence, Israel does not approve of US cooperation with Iran or Syria.28Until now, the US seems to have followed the same line as Israel in this regard. Nevertheless, IS also constitutes a security threat against Israel in the long run, since the Israeli occupied Palestinian territories constitute part of IS’s imaginary picture of a Greater Islamic State.

Concluding Remarks

The dramatic rise of IS, which has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq, has had many repercussions around the region and beyond, leaving allies and rivals undecided about how to go about dealing with the threat. This has made existing alliances or hostilities among various actors, whether states, ethnic/religious groups or Islamist organizations, largely invalid, insufficient or questionable. Consequently, both regional and Western states had to revise their Middle East policies.

The US and its allies, including five Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Jordan) have recently started air strikes against IS targets in Syria. Despite US calls for a global coalition to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ IS, ongoing and long lasting enmities and the complex situation in the Middle East will probably make it difficult to completely defeat IS. In particular, the current US strategy based on simultaneously strengthening opposition to the Assad regime may delay a victory against IS fighters. The only way to weaken IS in the short term seems to be one in which the opposite and rival sides in the Middle East, who have a common attitude to IS, ignore their enmities and take some steps in order to cooperate.

Notes