20.10.2014 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

ISIS: A Face of “Sunni-Arab” Aggrandizement or Destruction?

4534521The ISIS, as we know it today, has done much to demonstrate its “Sunni” character to the world. Since the start of the conflict, a common observation has been that the ISIS has particularly been attacking “Shia” neighbourhoods in Iraq as well as in Syria. The rise of “Sunni” militancy, which is deliberately projected by the Western media as “Islamic” militancy, has as such a lot to do with wider regional and historical problem that the entire Muslim world has been facing, that is, the notorious Sunni-Shia divide. Although division in the Muslim world is not confined just to these two sects, the character it has assumed over the last few decades places it at the heart of many of the problems this so-called Muslim ‘world’ is facing today.

That the “Sunni” world is bent upon eliminating the “Shia” world becomes quite evident when we take into account grand objectives of the leader of the “Sunni” world, Saudi Arabia. Some time before 9/11, the former head of the Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, told the then head of British intelligence chief that the Middle East would, in the near future, be completely cleared off the “Shia” factor. He was perhaps alluding to the havoc that was to be played, which now has been unleashed with full force. And, as a matter of fact, since the capture of Mosul by the ISIS on 10 June, “Shia” women and children have been killed in villages south of Kirkuk, and “Shia” air force cadets machine-gunned and buried in mass graves near Tikrit. Similarly, in Mosul, “Shia” shrines and mosques have been blown up, and in the nearby “Shia” Turkoman city of Tal Afar 4,000 houses are reported to have actually been taken over by ISIS fighters as “spoils of war”. The extent of atrocities being committed by the ISIS can be judged by the fact that to be identified as “Shia” in the “Sunni” held parts of Iraq and Syria today, means loss of either life or property or both, plus confiscation of the right to perform one’s religious obligations.

The fact that the “Sunni” world, led by Saudi Arabia, is at the helm of all devastation being caused was also emphasized by the Chief of British intelligence in his recent speech to Royal United Services Institute. He is reported to have said that substantial and sustained funding from both Saudi Arabia and its allies has played a key role in facilitating the emergence of the ISIS in the “Sunni” areas of Iraq. He also argued that emergence of such organizations can never be spontaneous. His observations sound realistic, especially given the fact that the tribal and communal leadership in the Sunni majority provinces is much beholden to Saudi and Gulf paymasters, and are highly unlikely to cooperate with the ISIS without their prior consent.

On the other hand, the “Shias” are getting vary of the way such developments have taken place. Unlike the West, for “Shias” the threat from the ISIS is not merely of an essentially military nature. Persecution in the name of religion as a result of the rapidly expanding influence of Wahabism is the greatest threat the “Shias” are facing today in the Middle East. It is, in this behalf, not just a coincidence that the ISIS also beholds Wahabbi religious tenants. This becomes evident when we take into account the ISIS’ deliberate and intentional use, in explaining its doctrines, of the language of Abd-al Wahhab, the 18th century founder, together with Ibn Saud, of Wahhabism and the Saudi project. Through its intentional adoption of this Wahhabist language, the ISIS is thus knowingly and deliberately lighting the fuse to a bigger regional explosion — one that has a very real possibility of being ignited. And, if it should succeed, it will change the face of the Middle East decisively and drastically.

However, this change, if it ever occurs, would not affect only the “Shia” world. The key political question, that is becoming increasingly important now, is the future of the “Sunni” world itslef, after the hypothetical success of the ISIS. Given the fact that the ISIS’ ultimate objective is to establish “Caliphate”, it is uncertain as well as paradoxical how the Saudi government would adjust to this system of the ISIS; for, it certainly involves a drastic re-configuration and fundamental re-structuring of the Saudi, as also of other Arab states’ political systems. There can be doubt in that the concept of Caliphate and Monarchy are diametrically opposed to each other—hence, the question: will the ISIS turn out to be a counter-productive force for its own chief architects? As a matter of fact, it is already becoming clear that Saudi Arabia has created a monster that is getting out of its control; and, in their bid to establish “Islamic Caliphate”, the ISIS has already started to make overtures to target the House of Saud itself after getting complete control of Iraq and Levant.

In other words, where the rise of the ISIS is a bad news for the “Shias” there it is also turning out to be worse news for the “Sunnis” whose leadership has been ceded to a pathologically bloodthirsty and intolerant movement, which has no aim but war without end. Already, the ISIS has been found engaged in persecuting the “Sunnis” in areas under their control. For example, according to certain reports, several million “Sunnis” in and around Baghdad are vulnerable to attack and 255 “Sunni” prisoners have already been massacred.

In simple words, the ISIS is increasingly becoming a force that could potentially turn out to be as catastrophic an event as the First World War that led to drastic territorial configurations, dismemberment of the Turkish Empire and eventually to the emergence of modern Middle East. However, this catastrophe would not merely cause territorial re-configurations; it would also acutely disturb the balance of power not only between the “Shias” and “Sunnis”, but also among the “Sunnis”, primarily between the two “Sunni” camps being led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The reason for this is that since the start of the crisis in Syria, both Qatar and Saudia have been supporting two different groups. Qatar has been the key financer of the Al-Nusra front; while Saudia have been supporting the ISIS. And now, the opposition between Al-Nusra and the ISIS in Syria is most likely to become opposition between Saudia and Qatar; and, if the ISIS gains more successes in the Middle East, it will cause further friction between these two “Sunni” states. This increasing opposition between these states became apparent when a senior Qatari official stated, “ISIS has been a Saudi project.” Given that, success of this project means a loss for Saudi’s strategic competitors.

On the other hand, the US’ policy is also sowing the seeds for such break up in the Middle East. The linchpin of the US policy, so far, has been to lead from the behind and let the “Sunni” states engage directly in the conflict. It is a kind of strategy that is not only implausible but also can lead to an internal implosion. Given the fact the West itself is not directly endangered by the ISIS, the US and its allies would not insert themselves into this war beyond a certain limit—that is, aerial bombing on highly selective areas. Here, we should also not disregard that the US and its Western allies are themselves aiding the ISIS in terms of integrated intelligence co-operation and provision of weaponry and necessary training to use it. This dual policy of the West is, as such, sowing the seeds of the destruction of the Middle East from within.

In simple words, the strategy of the West and its allies in the Middle East to eliminate the “Shia” crescent led by Iran has now started to show signs of blowback, especially at the Middle Eastern states. Like elements of the Taliban, which benefited from the US financial and military support during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and then later turned on the West, the ISIS also seems to have achieved scale and consequence through Saudi support, only to now pose a grave threat to the kingdom in particular and the region in general. The ISIS is thus turning out to be a recipe of destruction of the Muslim world, at least of that part, which we call the Middle East.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.