Combating turmoil in the Arab world

The key to fighting the scourge of sectarianism is promoting secularism and nationalism.

Jihadi turmoil in Iraq and Syria is a blow-back from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and ongoing US support for the fragmented political and armed opposition in Syria. While ruled by president Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator, Iraq was a bulwark against both Shia fundamentalists and Sunni jihadis. They emerged when he was brought down. Today, formerly secular nationalist Iraq is ruled by a Shia fundamentalist regime under serious challenge from Sunni jihadis who seek to establish an ‘Islamic state’ or  ‘Caliphate’ in the whole of West Asia and North Africa.

Over the past three years secular nationalist Syria has been forced to shoulder the responsibility for battling Sunni jihadis belonging to a range of groups, some armed by Saudi Arabia, the font of Sunni radicalism, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Under the pretext of providing ‘non-lethal’ support for alleged ‘moderates’ the US and Europe have also aided jihadis, who share arms and funds with marginalised ‘moderates.’ 

The most dedicated and determined jihadi factions have been Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Jabhat, al-Qaeda’s official Syrian franchise, began operations with bombings in Damascus in December 2011 while ISIS deployed to the battlefields in northern Syria in 2012. Today the Jabhat, the Saudi-sponsored Islamic Front, and several other Syrian factions are trying to drive ISIS out of Syria while its fighters are making spectacular gains in Iraq with the aim of creating a cross-border ‘Islamic state,’ uniting western Iraq with north-eastern Syria as a first step in realising ISIS’s dream.

Brutal faction

Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of al-Qaeda central based in the mountains the Afghan-Pakistan border, has denounced and cut ties with ISIS, a particularly cruel and brutal faction which has eclipsed him and marginalised al-Qaeda to become the most dangerous jihadi movement on both regional and international levels. ISIS emerged from ‘Tawhid wal Jihad,’ (unity and holy war) a Sunni fundamentalist movement established in Iraq by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian veteran of the Afghan campaign against the Soviet occupation. The faction mounted attacks on US occupation forces and staged suicide bombings. After he was killed in 2006 and succeeded by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the group was rebranded as the Islamic State in Iraq. In 2007-08, it was largely contained by US forces supported by Sunni tribal recruits in ‘ahwa’ or ‘Awakening’ units. Abu Omar was slain in 2010 by US forces and succeeded by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its most successful and ambitious commander to date.

Instead of maintaining the Sahwa, Iraq’s sectarian Shia prime minister Nuri al-Maliki disbanded the force and failed to pay pensions and recruit Sahwa members into the army, security forces, or civil service, as he had vowed to do. When he launched operations into Syria, al-Baghdadi changed the group's name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and attempted to force a merger with the Jabhat which not only rejected his advances but also took the lead in the offensive against the ISIS in Syria. In spite of this campaign, ISIS remains the most powerful of the groups fighting Damascus, attracting 80 per cent of the 12,000 foreign fighters taking part in the Syrian conflict. ISIS is also encouraging European, Arab, Chechen and Pakistani recruits to mount operations in their home countries. Last month, a French ISIS veteran Mehdi Nemmouche, allegedly carried out a deadly shooting on a Jewish museum in Brussels.

In Syria, ISIS rules the northern city of Raqqa, the only provincial capital under insurgent control, and the oil fields in eastern Deir al-Zor province.  ISIS has exported crude oil to Turkey, becoming self-financing and independent. Most civilians living in ISIS-held areas flee its puritanical impositions, brutality, and beheadings. In Iraq, five months ago tribesmen in cooperation with ISIS seized the strategic cities of Ramadi and Falluja in Anbar province. ISIS' latest triumph is the capture of Nineva province and capital and the city of Takrit, the capital of Salaheddin province. ISIS is menacing the city of Kirkuk and nearby oil fields as well as at Iraq’s largest oil refinery at Beiji south of Mosul.

Unlike Syria, ISIS has no jihadi antagonists in Iraq. Furthermore, the Iraqi army is weak and sectarian and the Sunni community is estranged due to Maliki’s policies. US-trained mainly Shia Iraqi troops are loyal to their commanders, sect, and Maliki, not to the state of Iraq. By contrast, the mainly Sunni but secular Syrian army is motivated by nationalism in the war against sectarian Sunni fundamentalists. The key to combating the scourge of sectarianism is promoting secularism and nationalism, sentiments which the West has sought to eliminate over the past half century in the Arab world by sponsoring fundamentalism.

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