For those of us partaking in political organizing revolving around Middle Eastern issues, the conventional EU-US media coverage is arguably our primary nuisance. With some exceptions, the major Western news media have concocted an image of the region which rarely improves the audience’s understanding on what is unfolding there, quite the contrary.
Phrases such as “violence”, “calm”, “radical”, “moderate”, “peace process”, “right to exist”, “extremist”, “peace”, “war”, “compromise”, “both sides”, “human shield”, “terrorism” and a number of other expressions are invoked constantly, yet these concepts have long since become devoid of substantive content. Hackneyed terminology has been consolidated and an incompetent, racist, bizarre and uninformative framework created.
When it’s business-as-usual in the Middle East, the coverage and framing are uninstructive. But when drastic developments and changes take place in the Middle East, the mainstream media renders itself even more useless as a source for analysis.
We are presently witnessing the latter. The coverage of Israel’s latest destruction of Gaza, for example, has been below mediocre. Having said that, the coverage on the background for the rise of ISIS, i.e. Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or Islamic State, has been abysmal to the extreme.
Entering Iraq after the US invasion and occupation of the country, what is now known as Islamic State first gained experience and expertise in armed insurgency in Iraq by attacking the post-invasion Iraqi government and US troops. Years later, in 2013, these Sunni militant structures crossed the border to Syria and ultimately began warring against all other parties to the Syrian civil war.
The emergence of Islamic State can be considered, in the words of journalist Patrick Cockburn, “the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement”. Indeed, in terms of accumulating economic resources, recruiting fighters and acquiring territory, Islamic State is arguably the most efficacious movement in the history of the modern Middle East.
More than any other militant organization in the world, Islamic State has developed its aura through carefully planned form of psychological warfare and intimidation. Its members and supporters are active in social media and the organization regularly disseminates video footage containing crucifixions, beheadings and mass executions of civilian and combatant prisoners.
UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has announced that Islamic State has more than 50,000 fighters in Syria. Combined with their military know-how, it has become the most influential of all anti-Assad fractions in Syria.
It has been reported that more than one thousand fighters have recently joined Islamic State ranks from Chechnya, China, Europe and Arab states. Out of the 50,000 Islamic State forces in Syria, some 20,000 are estimated to be non-Syrian.
Islamic State source has told Al Jazeera that the group has 30,000 additional troops in Iraq. In total, Islamic State exercises control over territory larger than Syria. The population size in the areas controlled by the group is the same as that of Nicaragua.
“[Y]ou will conquer Rome and own the world”
The leader of Islamic State is nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In 2010, he assumed the leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq and soon gained prominence due to the attempted merger between al-Qaeda in Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.
The merger never took place and ultimately the two fractions engaged in a series of violent clashes. After many phases, al-Baghdadi’s organization gained the upper hand. al-Baghdadi is often considered to hold higher status among Sunni militants than Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda.
Rarely appearing face-to-face even with his commanders, as of July, 2014, there were only two authenticated photos of al-Baghdadi. In July, however, al-Baghdadi delivered a sermon in Mosul. The organization decided to publicize the sermon as the caliphs first video appearance.
A closer look at the content of his sermon offers some insight into the world view harbored by the leadership of Islamic State. In the sermon, al-Baghdadi defines the outlines of what he deems the “two camps” the world has been divided into:
“O ummah of Islam, indeed the world today has been divided into two camps and two trenches, with no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy – the camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin everywhere, and the camp of the jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the jews.”
A curious portrayal of the dynamics of international affairs, indeed. al-Baghdadi goes on to say that
“the Muslims were defeated after the fall of their khilāfah (caliphate). Then their state ceased to exist, so the disbelievers were able to weaken and humiliate the Muslims, dominate them in every region, plunder their wealth and resources, and rob them of their rights. They accomplished this by attacking and occupying their lands, placing their treacherous agents in power to rule the Muslims with an iron fist, and spreading dazzling and deceptive slogans such as: civilization, peace, co-existence, freedom, democracy, secularism, baathism, nationalism, and patriotism, among other false slogans.”
That al-Baghdadi had decided to specifically mention Ba’athism is testament to what appears to be Islamic State’s modus operandi towards its allies and potential allies. Islamic State is working in collusion with influential Ba’athist figures in Iraq, a partnership which has enabled the rapid pace in which Islamic State has descended upon, and advanced in, Iraq. Nonetheless, al-Baghdadi lists Ba’athism as a “dazzling”, “false” and “deceptive slogan”. al-Baghdadi then elaborates on the virtues of what he calls “terrorism”:
Those rulers continue striving to enslave the Muslims, pulling them away from their religion with those slogans. So either the Muslim pulls away from his religion, disbelieves in Allah, and disgracefully submits to the manmade shirk (polytheistic) laws of the east and west, living despicably and disgracefully as a follower, by repeating those slogans without will and honor, or he lives persecuted, targeted, and expelled, to end up being killed, imprisoned, or terribly tortured, on the accusation of terrorism. Because terrorism is to disbelieve in those slogans and to believe in Allah. Terrorism is to refer to Allah’s law for judgment. Terrorism is to worship Allah as He ordered you. Terrorism is to refuse humiliation, subjugation, and subordination [to the kuffār – infidels]. Terrorism is for the Muslim to live as a Muslim, honorably with might and freedom. Terrorism is to insist upon your rights and not give them up.
As is to be expected, the end of the speech lacks no grandiosity:
“Persevere, endure, and remain stationed. Know that today you are the defenders of the religion and the guards of the land of Islam. You will face tribulation and malāhim (fierce battles). Verily, the best place for your blood to be spilled is on the path to liberate the Muslim prisoners imprisoned behind the walls of the tawāghīt. So prepare your arms, and supply yourselves with piety. Persevere in reciting the Quran with comprehension of its meanings and practice of its teachings.
This is my advice to you. If you hold to it, you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills.”
Kurdish coalition the most credible force in the war against Islamic State
What lies down the road for the self-declared caliphate is impossible to foresee. Islamic State forces have won most of their battles. The only military bloc that has been successful in the fight against the caliphate is the Iraqi Kurdistan Peshmerga, strengthened by PKK, YPG and Komalah military personnel.
PKK is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, comprised of Turkey’s Kurds. YPG, or People’s Protection Units, is the armed wing of the Syria-based Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Komalah is the Iranian Kurdish leftist party and the Kurdish branch of the Communist Party of Iran.
The combined forces of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, PKK, YPG and Komalah form the most credible counterforce to Islamic State, prevailing over the caliphate fighters recently in the Mosul dam and its surroundings. Moreover, the leftist Kurdish factions – especially PKK, YPG and Komalah – are a rare beacon of hope for a more democratic and egalitarian Middle East.
Limited US air strikes offer short-term tactical edge to Kurdish ground forces, but aerial bombings cannot, under any circumstances, dissolve Islamic State and it is indeed possible that air strikes cannot even contain them. If Islamic State can be dismantled, it will probably be done first and foremost by the ground forces of the above Kurdish groups, with regional and international assistance.