Mideast Iraq

From al-Zarqawi to Mosul: Who the hell is ISIS?

Listen up, haters!  The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is a bad-ass organization of super terrorists who will totally ruin your weekend – if they could afford the plane ticket and could somehow get on a plane too.  

And they just captured Iraq’s second largest city.  Ruh-roh, Raggy!  Perhaps it’s time to break out an airstrike or two?

Let’s make this swallowable

There are tons of great articles appearing about the dismal history that’s now led to this.  The job of Geopolitics Made Super is to distill that stuff in a way that you, your mom, and your best friend who is still a bit hungover can understand.  So the most essential tale is the simplest.

To the way-back machine!  And lo, we are in the year 2000

What a time!  We were all supposed to die in Y2K, and when that didn’t happen, we were a bit overwhelmed by how boring life had suddenly gotten.  The 90s roared; Bush was elected controversially, but not many, including myself, cared who won that year; and in Iraq, Saddam reigned supreme.

But one man was quite angry about all this complacency and meant to shake shit up.  His name was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Colin Powell sacrifices his reputation, career, and perhaps conscience selling the case for war in Iraq, highlighting a non-existent connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam.

Meet my MySpace profile

In 2006, a friend insisted on signing me up for MySpace.  It was a shitty website then and it’s a shitty website now, and to really drive that point home I changed my profile into that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, detailing his intimate thoughts as he waged a reign of terror across Iraq.

But Zarqawi was not always so.  Born in Jordan in the town of Zarqa (hence his adopted tribal name), he’d traveled to Afghanistan to wage jihad against the godless Soviets.  Alas, he showed up just in time for them to leave in 1989.  Deprived of a Great Satan, Zarqawi spent much of the 90s as many of us did: milling about, trying to find a sense of purpose in all that prosperity-driven materialism.

Unlike many of us, Zarqawi decided he was going to kill as many people as he could.  For six years, he languished in a Jordanian prison, until release in 1999 allowed him a chance to bring his murderous rage to the world.  Zarqawi was angry: the world wasn’t ruled by his kind of Islam, which was the brutal kind that found an excuse to kill people at least a few times a week.  He set about finding a way to bring his vision into the light.

And Mr. Bush’s invasion of Iraq created opportunity

Jordan’s security services and military were too cohesive for Zarqawi to get away with much more than a bombing here or a shooting there.  Even these were high risk.  But the invasion of Iraq churned up chaos as the U.S. dismantled Iraq’s once formidable security apparatus and failed to replace it.  Zarqawi slipped into Iraq to set up shop.

Bush had claimed that Saddam and al-Qaeda were in cahoots; that was patently false.  What became ironically true is that following the U.S. invasion, al-Qaeda very much did appear in Iraq – under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Forming the group Tawhid and Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War), al-Zarqawi had little plan beyond killing everyone who didn’t believe like him.  Their first major attack was on the UN in Baghdad in August 2003 during a press conference, killing the special UN envoy and making it pretty clear they were out for as much chaos as possible.

In 2004, al-Zarqawi sought a propaganda boost by pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden and declaring himself the emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq.  It didn’t amount to much cooperation between the two; as far as evidence can be shown, bin Laden did not care for al-Zarqawi’s tactics.  With bin Laden hemmed in by U.S. forces, not much could be done anyway.  al-Zarqawi had a free hand, and his hand turned to bleeding Iraq as much as possible.

al-Zarqawi relaxes between beheadings. Do not video search this man. You won’t like what you find.

al-Zarqawi’s tactics were indiscriminate, targeting anyone who even remotely appeared to be an apostate, or dude who left Islam.  Having not killed enough policemen could be reason enough for Zarqawi’s people to kill you and torture your whole family.  Of the many insurgent groups in Iraq during the U.S. occupation, al-Qaeda in Iraq was without a doubt the most ruthless.

But it wasn’t totally without reason.  al-Zarqawi understood that only sustained, murderous chaos could destroy Iraq’s social fabric enough to allow truly crazy ideologies like al-Qaeda to take root.  Much like burning down a field before planting new crops, al-Zarqawi knew what fuel could create such a fire – a full-blown Shi’a-Sunni civil war.  He was taking a page from the Manual of the Urban Guerilla, hoping to inspire a tough enough response from both the Americans, their Iraqi allies, and the Shi’a to force the Sunnis to unite under his rule.

In February 2006, his agents bombed the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq, killing absolutely no one.  Failure?  Hardly!  Because this particular mosque was one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest sites.  Much as blowing up the site of Christ’s crucifixion might upset a few Catholics, the Shi’a went on a rampage.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi must have been sitting pretty for much of 2006.  Iraq sank into a morass of sectarian killings, with thousands of bodies turning up left and right, as American forces failed to stem the chaos.  But the dude had made too many enemies; somebody betrayed him, and the U.S. fucked his day right up with an airstrike in November 2006.

But his ghost lingered.

And with the American surge in 2007, the civil war simmered rather than burned

By early 2007, the Sunni community of Iraq understood they were decisively losing the civil war.  The Americans were going to do jack shit for them so long as they harbored al-Qaeda cells who kept provoking the Shi’a.  Key Sunni tribes decided it was time to switch sides; in what was called the Sunni Awakening, they turned with gusto upon al-Qaeda.  It was as if the sea of Sunnis that al-Qaeda had been swimming it had suddenly turned to acid.

With extra U.S. troops, a new military strategy, and the widespread killing of al-Qaeda men, Iraq ended its open civil war and returned to the tit-for-tat bombings and shootings that had characterized the first years of occupation.  Nobody had any illusions that the sectarian war had been settled by anything but necessity.  Grudges were held; hatreds stoked; but with the Sunni community on the back foot, and the obvious favouritism of the Shi’a democratic rulers by the mighty American military, everyone held their tongues as much as they could.

Back to burning things. Especially government things.

And what remained of al-Qaeda went deep underground

Deprived of al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda in Iraq learned to adapt to the new security environment.  They could not hope to hold territory while the Americans kept the Sunni tribes in their pockets, and so they returned to their tactics of killing collaborators and trying to stir up a second civil war.  But they toned down the murderousness quite a bit, understanding they’d gone too far and alienated the key tribes they needed to survive.

When one door closes, another opens.  From 2007 until 2011, al-Qaeda in Iraq occasionally reminded people they still existed by massacring whoever they could, but were no great threat to the American military or the growing power of Iraq’s prime minster Nouri al-Maliki.  Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011 was another blow; the Arab Spring that erupted in Tunisia seemed to prove that the Arab world was ready to embrace the liberal ideals Bush had invaded Iraq to instill.

Of course, we all know that was bullshit.  The Arab Spring proved the Arab world was prepared to confront some, but not all, of its demons that the dictatorships had kept under wraps.  All of the Arab Spring countries were doomed to a bumpy ride, but some were bumpier than others.  And in Syria was the worst road of all.

And into that maelstrom they rode

When Syria descended into sectarian civil war, the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq saw opportunity.  The Free Syrian Army has always been riven with factionalism, tribalism, and incompetence.  Some of their brigades were effective and others were little more than looters taking a shot at getting rich off the fires of war.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq, murderous though it was, was combat proven and far more disciplined.  When they slipped over the border to join the war, their behavior was more predictable.  Many towns initially welcomed the help.

Renamed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), they won territory and garnered a reputation for being assholes.

Currently territory of ISIS. Mostly along the rivers.

Which drove a wedge between ISIS and al-Qaeda Central, which had learned the hard way mass killings didn’t always work

al-Qaeda Central has, since 2001, been forced to accept that it doesn’t really run much of the global show in the world of terrorism.  That being said, al-Qaeda Central likes to cheer on groups that grab headlines.  But al-Qaeda in Iraq was a different monster entirely, making new enemies out of the Iraqi Shi’a and spilling blood among those in the Sunni community who didn’t think that was a great idea.  By the time they’d become ISIS, bin Laden was dead and al-Qaeda had fallen under the helm of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who presided over a shriveled al-Qaeda Central and who saw that they were losing the long game.

So Zawahiri expelled ISIS from the al-Qaeda brand.  Not that that mattered much to the leaders of ISIS.  Unlike Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda, ISIS was winning territory and killing plenty of people who stood in the way of their caliphate.

Meanwhile, as Syria created a base for ISIS, Iraq too had its own mini-Arab Spring

But unlike other places where protesters tried to take down dictators, in Iraq the Arab Spring became a sectarian rebellion against the Shi’a leadership in Baghdad.  Fallujah, always a pot ready to burst, fell first in January 2014 to Sunni tribes.  Most of Ramadi, scene of many battles between insurgents and Americans, went next.

In Syria, the FSA finally got a hold of itself and declared war on ISIS.  ISIS’s main advantage had been its discipline; once FSA units finally saw the danger of ISIS rule, they rapidly outnumbered the jihadists, who were often forced to withdraw.  On the back foot in Syria, ISIS leadership decided to shift focus back to Iraq.  Organizing only a few hundred (perhaps around 600) foot soldiers, last week ISIS launched its assault.  The Iraqi police and army units melted away under their coordinated attack, no doubt demoralized by ISIS’s effective rumor-mongering and terror propaganda.  Maliki’s army was nearly 15 times larger than the ISIS attackers; they gave up anyway.

The road to Baghdad is open, but ISIS probably won’t be able to drive down it very far

ISIS has momentum, temporarily, and has historically had a problem knowing when it’s bitten off more than it can chew.  But ISIS cannot invade Shi’a Iraq and expect victory; within Shi’a Iraq lie the remnants of the mighty Shi’a militias which went toe-to-toe with American forces for years.  Moreover, it seems unlikely Sunni Iraq will like living under ISIS rule any more than they did in 2006-07; a backlash from that community is no doubt on its way.  ISIS can kill, and kill fast, but at the end of the day they lack the ability to recruit enough people to build a real state.

A historical example of the same level of strategic insanity can be found in the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, of Sierra Leone, who showed the same level of violence and aimlessness.  They once butchered their way to power in the course of their brutal war, but could not rule the place they’d won.  Invariably they were ousted, hunted, and put down.  ISIS shows no evidence it won’t end up the same way.  So long as there’s fuel in Iraq and Syria, ISIS will burn them.  But no fire can go on forever.


Sectarianism Made Super (Or: How To Tell Your Shi’a From Your Sunni)

Comments sections of various websites are filled with people who have dim, insulting, or downright horrific views on Islam, largely because the religion itself is riven with just enough differences to make it super hard to generalize it.  But what’s going on with Sunnis and Shi’a and what in the hell is an Alawite?  Let’s make this Super.

Categorize religion correctly before you go any further

The word “religion” comes from the Latin “religio,” which is a later comer than the idea of gods, spirits, and other things we typically associate with religion.  Ancient peoples prior to Christianity did not give religion the same kind of utter reverence demanded from religion today.  Sure, cults were important, and people were plenty superstitious, but there’s a fine line between the old cults and what we would consider a religion.

Julius Caesar openly manipulated the Roman state cults to make himself more politically powerful. Alexander the Great made himself a god and apparently actually believed it.  History’s had its fair-share of meglomaniacs, so in and of itself leaders making themselves gods isn’t so shocking.  What is shocking, from a modern person’s perspective, is that they got away with it.  (“If Alexander wants to be a god, let him be a god,” said a Spartan Damis when Sparta debated that motion, a position that didn’t get him exiled, crucified, or murdered one bit).

That our ancient forebears gave little more than two shits about their gods is obvious from how often they changed it to suit their tastes and perspectives and how little that bothered the common man.  Religious wars were nonsense; racist wars, sure, absolutely, but to fight to convince other people your god was the only god?  Pure idiocy.

Even Judaism fell into this category.  There might be only one God, but he was for the Jewish tribe alone.  No need to fight any wars beyond pure survival there.

Drunk, naked baby. Ancient religions had fewer qualms with that kind of stuff.

Until Christianity came along, grabbed hold of the Roman Empire, and changed the rules

The Roman government despised Christianity for a while there, but not for particularly holy reasons.  Since the Roman emperor was a god on Earth, any religion claiming otherwise undermined state authority.  Had Christianity done what so many other cults did and make room for Caesar, they’d have been less often fed to the lions.

But Christianity introduced a new concept, one directly influenced by the Roman state itself – absolutism.  Caesar was a god on Earth who could do as he liked.  Christianity posited that there was an authority higher than that – God Himself who’d sent Jesus to redeem mankind.  No pagan religion had ever claimed to be a catch-all for the species.

Thus a new rule was born: God might be in Heaven, but He’s appointed a church to deal with things on Earth.  Everything that said church did was right; anything done to it was wrong.  Crystal clear morality for the common illiterate.

The Roman state struggled against Christianity for the longest time, but eventually realized that within the religion was a powerful tool for its survival.  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em – and the Roman state under Constantine grabbed Christianity and turned it into just another arm of the government, complete with publicly paid priests and legally-sanctioned holy songs.

Nearby geopolitical rival Persia, hosting a different cult, the Zoroastrians, experienced a similar change of outlook.  States that could combine the holier-than-thou attitude of a single absolutist religion could wield incredible powers.  Everything one did for the government was not just good for the state but good for the soul.

Soldiers would fight harder, taxes would be paid more regularly, and fewer would think of killing the God-appointed leader, than ever before.   Damned skippy it was a fine idea, and Persia and Rome both rushed to grab control of their suddenly uber-important religions.  Key to that was ensuring that the state religion was the only one with any real power, with anyone breaking the party line being hunted down and wiped out in whatever methods were fashionable.

And Islam was not born in a vacuum

Do remember this is not a religious website, and so religions get treated as historical entities as opposed to The Truth.  From that perspective, Islam owes a lot to the codifying and standardizing practices of nearby Persia and Rome.  Early Muslim rulers, including Mohammed himself, borrowed an awful lot of practices from these two powers.  (A fantastic book on this process is In the Shadow of the Sword, which details what influences played into the formation of early Islam).

When Muslim armies swamped the decaying Roman and Persian empires, they wisely understood they were outnumbered by the locals, and the best way to ensure compliance was to simply be less horrible than the previous governments.  The practice of standardizing a religion might sound scientific, but in reality in means stabbing people, putting out their eyes, setting both books and heretics on fire, and other nasty things you’re tempted to do when you come across people who just can’t see why your God is an awesome God.  The early Muslims merely had to back off taxes and executions to make themselves far more palatable to their conquered peoples, who were allowed to keep their religions.

These early rules were set hard and fast and remain unchallenged to this day.  Christians and Jews are special peoples when it comes to Islamic law and are treated just the same as they were in the Golden Age of Islamic rule. (Zoroastrians, however, weren’t so well treated).

As the demographic balance switched from a Muslim minority to a majority, Muslim leaders began to adopt the aggressive religious standardizing practices of the dead Roman and Persian empires.  Since the early rules had been set saying to leave the Christians and Jews alone, the victims were either pagans left out of the Qu’ran, or anyone dumb enough to think religion likes innovation.

How you might convince someone to sing the right goddamn songs. Early Muslim rulers avoided this to keep from having their subjects overthrow them.

How do you get a Shi’a from a Sunni?  Well, it begins with a pointless argument amongst the elites

The barest bones tale of Islams two biggest sects, Shi’ism and Sunnism, boils down to an argument amongst early Muslim elites, the newly powerful leaders of the briefly united Muslim empire, over who should lead.  Sunnism was markedly more democratic than Shi’ism, favoring elites chosen because of their leadership qualities and expertise in the religion.  Shi’ism favored choosing someone from Mohammed’s family, as one did in those days when choosing new rulers.

In the Sunni case, elites argued they should continue to pass on power as they did under the tribes – from one strong, wise man to another.  In the Shi’a case, it was about passing on power like the Romans and Persians did, from father to son, in order to ensure everyone understood very clearly and early on how power was transferred and who was eligible.

You then had the first fitna, or time of conflict, where the two parties went their separate ways.  Over time, elites in both groups did what was natural and started competing viewpoints about the world.  Underpinning both was the assumption that they were absolutely, utterly right – a notion they’d inherited from the Romans and Persians.

And therein lies the kernal of religious conflict

Absolutism as once embodied by Caesar has been resurrected by various Islamist parties.  They would never admit it, but they owe a lot to the those empires their forebearers conquered.  Islamist parties of all stripes favor absolutism, believing they have the Truth, and seek to spread that Truth as much as possible.  In doing so, they’re behaving in the exact same fashion as the Eastern Romans and Persians did as they struggled against one another just on the eve of the coming of Islam.

Modern Middle Eastern sectarianism has its roots in the wars fought by the Ottoman Turks and Savafid Persians and how those two governments were able to rule their people

This is where the Geopolitics of Sectarianism kicks in and gets super-duper.  Both empires competed for supremacy in the Muslim world from around 1500 until about 1750, when the Ottomans and Persians became more threatened by other neighbors than by one another and the wars cooled down.

The Safavid dynasty had an advantage the Ottomans did not – they ruled over a natural nation-state, Persia, and so could exercise authority on a deeper level than the Ottomans as they did what all states of that time did: attempted to standardize religion as a tool to be used by the government.  Thus today’s Iran is overwhelmingly Shi’a, the chosen voice of the Safavids, as are territories closest to the former Safavid military frontiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Ottomans had a more complicated and delicate task.  Like the original Muslim conquerors, they couldn’t afford to antagonize too many minorities within their empire, and so embarked on measured tolerance in places that allowed sects to survive and thrive.  Thus the Ottomans sheltered the Druze, Shi’a, Sarmatians, Christians of various stripes, and others as they tried to slowly and carefully make Sunni Islam standard amongst their Turkish peoples.  Arabs and Europeans were more left alone for fear of revolt; hence why Ottoman Europe today is not Sunni the way Safavid Iran is Shi’a.

As a result, Turkish territories – like Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon – are far more diverse.  It’s not because the Turks were happy about that.  It’s because if the Turks pushed too hard, they suffered revolts.  From 1700 onwards, the Turks were increasingly unable to balance both the forces they’d conquered with the neighbors advancing on their borders.

The three great Muslim empires of the 18th century. Ottoman territories tended towards diversity or Sunnism while Persia went Shi’a.

So that’s how the where of the Shi’a/Sunni divide got started, but why then are they going at one another now?

Within modern Abrahamic religions, thanks to Persian and Roman influence, there exists a strand of absolutism that demands obedience and complete control.  This strand gets stronger or weaker depending on the strength of the local government.  When the government of an area can’t solve social, political, or economic problems using secular and scientific methods, people naturally turn to the one other thing claiming to have All The Answers.  This strengthens the absolutists, who use their power to try to grab as much power as they can while they can.

Most of the governments set up in the Middle East were, with few exceptions, incredibly weak when Europeans left.  Within them was the legacy of Ottoman rule; diverse communities with little to unite them except their supposed shared Arabness.  Ottoman rule did not attempt to unite these places into nations, but rather to divide them against one another by tolerating and encouraging differences.

Briefly, Arab nationalism sought to be the panacea to solve the region’s ills, but repeated defeats at the hands of Israel, the United States, and one another have buried that notion under heaps of bodies.  Already weak governments have wobbled more and more, and some, as we’ve seen, have finally fallen.

Iran’s been a special case; having never been formally colonized, it’s not suffered the same cultural hangover.  Nevertheless, it’s borrowed heavily from the imperial playbook of powers long gone.

While leaders have used the sectarian card to save themselves

As the Romans and Persians learned eons ago, a state with a single religion has higher morale, greater loyalty, and can be counted to do the horrible things necessary to save a leader in crisis.  Most modern Middle Eastern rulers know this and have acted accordingly.  Doubling-down on a sectarian identity is the difference between victory and defeat.  It’s also a clean litmus test of loyalty; what’s yer name there, boy?  Omar?  Sounds like a filthy Sunni ta me.  Betta change that ta Ali.

King Khalifa of Bahrain has made it clear he’s a Sunni and his enemies Shi’a; Assad is fighting a dirty war as a Shi’a Alawite, his enemies jihadi Sunnis.  Iraq’s ongoing election is sectarian fighting by other means; few secular, pan-Iraqi parties will emerge with much.  Iran’s meddling in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria is strictly sectarian; they break the rule for Sunni Hamas in Gaza, but only because the only thing that can still sort of unite Shi’a and Sunni elites is attacking Israel.  Even that card has worn thin; Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are prepared to do a deal with an Israel that withdraws from the West Bank.

Damn fine map. As you can see, former Turkish territories enjoy more colors.

The long story short (too late!): to stick around, elites will use all the cultural leverage they have left

Demands for democracy were inevitable once enough people were born in the Middle East.  Monarchies and dictatorships are too personality-focused to respond to the demands of tens of millions of people.  Old empires got away with their rule partially because of lower populations, which made problems easier to solve.  But a 90+ million state like Egypt needs power devolved in many places to run well.  Yet dictators, by their nature, don’t share.

And that goes for all elites, from tribal sheikhs to old clerics, whose roles are threatened by modernization and democracy.  To survive, they will throw every switch they have left.  Tribalism and its many sins accelerates the damage; sectarianism becomes another aspect of tribal elites jockeying for scraps as their country burns itself hollow.

Invariably, this energy will exhaust itself and the Middle East’s elites will have used up all the religious capital they have.  They will then be discarded and replaced by elites who can offer better futures.  But so long as they are around, they will play by old Constantinople’s rules, and the region will bleed accordingly.