Islamic State

Iran’s DAISH Policy: Pragmatic as ever

Dr Amir M Kamel

This post is the first of a three-part series based on a panel titled ‘Middle Eastern Pragmatism and the Islamic State’ which took place at the Tenth Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies 22-24 September 2016 at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s regime (IRI) response to DAISH (aka IS, ISIS, ISIL, among others) demonstrates the Iranian government’s continued pragmatic manner in which it operates in the international political system. Indeed, since the IRI came into being following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the regime has demonstrated its ability to espouse the revolutionary ethos established at the time, whilst pragmatically pursuing issues of national interests simultaneously. Specifically, this ethos has been evidenced by the following two elements of Iranian policy: Rejecting foreign influence and supporting freedom fighters across the world. The IRI’s dedication to these aspects of policy, in a pragmatic manner, have been evidenced in actions since 1979 and including the country’s reaction to DAISH.

Initially, the IRI demonstrated this approach following the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, when Tehran actively sought (and ascertained) support from foreign states in order to recover from the conflict. The Iranian regime did so whilst continuing to maintain its revolutionary mantra in international affairs (exemplified by the fatwa placed on the British-Indian citizen Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses book’s depiction of the Prophet Mohammed and Islam).

Then, following the 2002 revelation that the IRI was carrying out strictly legal, but the necessary measures for nuclear proliferation, Tehran sought to continue along this trajectory by maintaining economic and political ties with ‘friendly’ states in the international system. Ultimately, the sanctions placed on the IRI as a result of the nuclear program were followed by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), geared at alleviating the sanctions in return for the scaling back of said program.

The JCPOA presented a framework for the IRI to continue to act pragmatically to achieve its national interest orientated goals (that is to maintain its sovereign right to develop a peaceful nuclear program), whilst implicitly (and explicitly in some cases) engaging with former rivals to combat the DAISH threat.

Indeed, the JCPOA context provided a forum for dialogue with Saudi Arabia (e.g. on the sidelines of 2013 UN conference), whilst simultaneously backing opposing sides in the conflict in Yemen – demonstrating the dedication to rejecting foreign influence (DAISH in this instance) in a pragmatic manner. Further, despite decades of having sanctions levied against it by the US (and still does), the JCPOA demonstrated a first in the sense of the agreement being followed by an US-IRI dialogue. The support for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) forces in northern Iraq, the Shia-led government in Baghdad and support for Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad all demonstrated Iran’s goal of ridding the region of a foreign threat (DAISH) whilst juggling a pragmatic need to maintain influence in these various arenas.

This demonstrates the IRI’s practice of its policy and the significance of the JCPOA when the interests of the IRI are at risk of being negatively impacted upon. As a result, I contend that Iran’s decisions are rooted in its experiences, constitution and actions. This process therefore comes under the three tranches guiding Iranian policies in international affairs, namely: rejecting foreign influence, supporting what it terms as freedom fighters (i.e. those under the control of their respective ‘oppressors’) and the IRI does so in a pragmatic manner in order to ensure its own stability and security.

Image: Parliament (Majlis) Speaker Ali Larijani meets Syrian Defense Minister General Fahd Jassem al-Freij in Tehran, 9 April 2015. Courtesy of Tasnim News Agency via Wikimedia Commons.

Why Islamic State is wrong: Sykes-Picot is not responsible for controversial borders in the Middle East – but the British military is (Part 2)

This is Part Two of a two part series on the topic by Dr. Rod Thornton.

Dr Rod Thornton

Throughout Ottoman times and from probably much earlier, it was the agricultural produce of the Mosul vilayet that fed the people of the less fertile vilayets of Baghdad and Basra. Finished-goods trade went the other way. The three vilayets were thus an economic unit (hence they were referred to as the collective of Al Iraq). Therefore when Anglo-Indian troops seized Baghdad in March 1917 they had compounded a problem that had begun with their initial capture of Basra in 1914. If Mosul vilayet and its grain were still in Ottoman hands then how were these two cities and the rest of British-occupied Mesopotamia to be fed? Bringing in the necessary supplies through Basra port could only ever be a temporary expedient. This issue was adding to the general economic dislocation created already by the exigencies of war. There was the very real possibility of mass starvation and certainly of unrest caused by shortages. Lt.-Gen. William Marshall, commanding the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, and Arnold Wilson, the civil administrator there, realised that if they were ever to effectively control not just occupied Mesopotamia, but also any post-war Al Iraq that was designed to emerge from the war, then the ‘granary’ that was Mosul vilayet had to be seized from the Ottomans; and it had to be seized as quickly as possible.

Marshall and Wilson also wanted to have British troops occupying Mosul vilayet in order that its Christian minority stayed in place. If the vilayet was not occupied by British forces when the war ended then there would very likely be a mass exodus of these Christians south into those areas of Mesopotamia that the British had already occupied. Christian refugees had, throughout the war, been fleeing Ottoman excesses and moving down from Anatolia through neutral Persia and into British-held Mesopotamia. A vast refugee camp to house these refugees had been set up at Baquba. To keep these refugees fed even British troops had to go short of rations. Thus what Marshall and Wilson could not afford was another influx of Christians – fearing Turkish reprisals – as British forces closed in on Mosul. The whole vilayet had to be seized and, again, swiftly, in order to keep these Christians in situ.

Linking these two above rationales to occupy this vilayet was the important fact that it was predominantly the Christians who farmed the land of Mosul vilayet. Thus if they did flee, or if they had been massacred in Turkish reprisals, then who would grow the food that was vital in maintaining order in Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Kerbala, et al? If British troops were in occupation of the whole of the Mosul vilayet, and not just the city, then the Christians would not only stay there but they would also keep farming and the situation could be saved.

For these above reasons, Marshall, was desperate to push on Mosul in October 1918. He was not, however, ordered to take the city, let alone its whole vilayet. He was actually told by the War Office in London to go in two directions – towards Aleppo and also (and merely) ‘up the Tigris’ (on which river Mosul sits).

Marshall convinced higher authorities in London that transport difficulties prevented him from moving towards Aleppo, but he could advance on Mosul. This was accepted by the War Office. So the aim now was to take Mosul in order, as Marshall himself put it in a letter home, that ‘the great granary of the Turks, i.e. Erbil district, would come under our control’. But his forces were being stretched and Marshall was moving on a city that he had no specific orders to take. He was thus sticking his neck out on two fronts. As he wrote to his brother on 30 October 1918, ‘there must be supplies in Mosul and we must risk the venture’.

The ‘whistle blew’ the next day, at midday on 31 October 1918. The Turks had finally sued for peace and the Armistice of Mudros had been signed. The negotiations for this agreement had been left in the hands of Royal Navy officers. The terms they produced were confusing and open to interpretation. At that time, Marshall’s troops were still some 12 miles short of Mosul city. According to the Turks, these troops should have maintained their position as per the armistice agreement. However, after a series of discussions between British and Turkish commanders and the application of force majeure, British troops went on to move in and occupy the city on 8 November. This was galling enough for the Ottoman high command but then, during the first two weeks of November, British forces went on to take possession of the whole of the rest of Mosul vilayet as well. They went right up to the rough line that constituted the northern border of Mosul vilayet (i.e. where Turkish-majority areas began). This line is almost exactly the border today between Iraq and Turkey. Marshall and his men had thus created ‘facts on the ground’ which were in his and Wilson’s interests rather than being the result of direct orders from London.

The Turks felt that they had been cheated by the British out of the Mosul vilayet. In 1920, the Ottoman parliament declared the Misak-i-milli (National Pact). This was a statement about the nature of the post-war boundaries of the new Turkish state that was still then being formed from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. This Pact had originally been proposed by Kemal Ataturk, who was soon to lead his revolution and become president of Turkey. The first stipulation of the six-point Pact covered the controversy over Mosul’s seizure (although without mentioning the region). ‘The future of the territories’, it stated, ‘inhabited by an Arab majority at the time of the signing of the Armistice of Mudros will be determined by a referendum. On the other hand, the territories which were not occupied at that time and inhabited by a Turkish majority are the homeland of the Turkish nation’. The crucial phrase here is ‘at the time of the signing of the Armistice of Mudros’. At that point, of course, British troops were still 12 miles short of Mosul – a city with an ‘Arab majority’. A referendum to decide the city’s future never happened. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, this Pact appears to be claiming most of the Mosul vilayet as part of the ‘Turkish homeland’. This is because the Kurds – forming the majority of the vilayet’s population – were then known by the Turkish state merely as ‘Mountain Turks’, and not as a separate ethnic group. Again, by this logic the large measure of the vilayet not occupied by British forces at the time of Mudros should still therefore be part of Turkey given that it was populated by ‘Mountain Turks’.

According to many in today’s Turkish body politic – one now suffused, thanks to President Recep Erdogan, with neo-Ottomanist sentiment – there should be no border between Turkey and what amounts to today’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). It is the KRG which currently controls all of what may be seen as the old Mosul vilayet; bar, at the time of writing, Mosul city itself (in the hands of IS). In the future, there is always the danger that Ankara may, for a variety of reasons, feel that it has the right to ‘re-incorporate’ the KRG ‘back’ into the Turkish state with all the dangers that entails in terms of regional geo-politics.


Image: Wider strategic map showing the offensive in relation to the Northwestern offensive, as well as including the potential objectives of Kafriya and Al-Fu’ah. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Why Islamic State is wrong: Sykes-Picot is not responsible for controversial borders in the Middle East – but the British military is (Part 1)

This is Part One of a two part series on Sykes-Picot and the controversial borders of the Middle East.

Dr Rod Thornton

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, reached during the First World War by Britain and France, has recently been given renewed prominence. This has come about with the claim by Islamic State (IS) that this accord created the current borders of the Middle East – borders which are preventing IS from forming a region-wide Islamic Caliphate. IS, though, is wrong. Sykes-Picot is not to ‘blame’. It had actually been, quote, ‘rescinded’ by the British in October 1917, a year before the war ended. Sykes-Picot thus played no part in the setting up of any post-war borders in the Middle East.

These borders were, in fact, set primarily by the demands of the British military. It was ‘facts on the ground’ created by the advances, sometimes without orders, of British and Imperial troops during the war that ultimately shaped the map of the Middle East, not international agreements such as Sykes-Picot. These British advances (with intermittent retreats) were made northwards during the war from both Egypt and Basra (seized in November 1914) until the war in the Middle East ended in October 1918. They were made against an Ottoman opponent occupying, beyond Turkey itself, what is today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, Iraq and most of the Arabian peninsular.

The fundamental rationales behind the forward momentum of British troops, and thus behind the setting of today’s borders, were, in essence, and to borrow from Lord Ismay, to keep the French out; the Turks down, and the Christians in. My work concentrates specifically on the controversial establishing by British troops of one particular border as a ‘fact on the ground’. This border is that between today’s Turkey and Iraq. There are, currently, many in Turkey who claim that this border should not be there; that it was illegally set by British troops at the end of the war and that today’s Iraqi Kurdish region and the area around the city of Mosul are rightfully Turkish. Thus, according to this logic, and at the very least, Turkish troops today have the perfect right to cross over into Iraqi territory in pursuit of state interests or even to occupy northern Iraq.

Let’s deal with Sykes-Picot first. It was originally a Russian idea. It began to take shape when, in February 1915, Tsarist Foreign Minister Sergei Sazanov came to the British and French with a suggestion for how the three allies – confident of eventual victory over the forces of a decaying Ottoman empire – could carve up that defeated empire. The British MP, Mark Sykes, and a French diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot, negotiated on behalf of their governments. It was initially agreed that the Russians would occupy Constantinople, the Dardanelles and eastern Anatolia. Sykes and Georges-Picot then came to establish how their own countries would create their respective post-war ‘spheres of influence’ in the Levant, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia. It was accepted by Britain that the French, given their historical ties in terms of trade and as the self-proclaimed ‘protector’ of the Christian communities across the region, would be granted control of, or influence in, what is now Lebanon and Syria and a good deal of today’s Turkey. This was despite France having hardly any troops in the Middle East to help deliver any outcomes. The British, meanwhile, who would do all the fighting to gain the territories in question, would hold post-war sway in what is now Jordan, much of Palestine (bar an ‘international zone’ around Jerusalem) and the area around Baghdad and Basra. The remainder of most of the Arabian peninsular was to be left basically to its own devices. This was because of the need, in British Foreign Office-speak at the time, to avoid in that region ‘any entanglement with the Wahhabees’.

What was crucial in this whole Sykes-Picot project was that any putative British ‘sphere of influence’ did not abut against the area of Anatolia assigned to Russia – Britain’s traditional enemy in this part of the world. This would have occurred had the British taken control of the area around Mosul. Thus the French – long-term allies of the Russians – were, as part of Sykes-Picot, also to be allotted what was referred to as a ‘wedge’ or ‘lozenge’ of territory that ran from the Euphrates to the Persian border across what is today’s northern Iraq. This French area would act as a buffer between the Russians and British. It basically comprised the Ottoman vilayet (administrative region) of Mosul. The British were thus ‘claiming’ – of the three vilayets that together were even then known as Al Iraq – only those of Basra and Baghdad and not Mosul.

Sykes-Picot, ultimately signed in secret in May 1916, did not set any actual borders. The only forms of demarcation it had were some vague ‘partition lines’ drawn in thick lines on a very large-scale map. Boundary commissions, however, could sort out all the details later. These Sykes-Picot ‘lines’ were not totally arbitrary. In large part, they can be seen to be following the vilayet boundaries set by the Ottomans themselves. These boundaries thus must have been authorised by the Sultan himself – a man who was also the leader of the world’s Muslims; that is, he also acted as Caliph. Sykes-Picot can therefore be looked upon, and as a point of irony, as being at least in part based on boundary lines set by the Caliphate itself!

Sykes-Picot, however, was to run into trouble. In March 1917, a revolution in Russia brought to power Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government. Liberal in make-up, it felt no need to occupy anyone else’s territory. Petrograd thus told the British and French governments that Russia no longer had any post-war claims on any part of Turkish territory. (It was thus Kerensky’s government that pulled out of Sykes-Picot and not, as generally advertised, the later Bolshevik administration.) This meant, in particular, that if the Russians were reneging then there would no longer be any need for the British to have their buffer of the Mosul ‘wedge’. Thus if the British, later in the war, eventually come to occupy Mosul vilayet then they would not need to hand it over to the French. The Sykes-Picot plan needed to change. As a consequence, and according to a Foreign Office report of 22 October 1917, Sykes-Picot was now ‘no longer applicable’ and would have to be ‘rescinded’.

It actually took some time before the French were officially informed by the British that they would no longer be working towards implementing the agreement. It was only on 14 October 1918 that the British War Cabinet eventually approved the sending of a letter to the French Foreign Minister saying that Sykes-Picot was ‘out of date’. There was now, said the British, a need for ‘fresh conversations’ about the issue of the future of the Middle East.

Sykes-Picot as an agreement was thus to play no further part in the post-war shaping of the political make-up of the Middle East. Yes, French regional interests still had to be accommodated by the British – but not under the banner of Sykes-Picot.

While Sykes-Picot did very little to generate the current borders of the Middle East, another actor did considerably more. This was the British military. It was the demands of this military that ultimately created the facts on the ground which formed the basis for the majority of today’s borders. And while those created by British forces across other parts of the Middle East have their critics, the most controversial is undoubtedly the current border between Turkey and Iraq.

At the time of the Russian withdrawal from their part of the agreement, Anglo-Indian troops in Mesopotamia were still making their slow grind up from Basra and were just about to capture Baghdad (in April 1917). They were thus still some 400kms south of Mosul. But the eventual occupation of this city and its vilayet could, from this time, be treated as a distinctly British war aim and one no longer to be achieved merely in order to hand it over to the French.

But what were British war aims in Mesopotamia? The Anglo-Indian army there was given little in the way of firm direction as to what its goals should actually be. The primary role seemed to be to do nothing more than provide occasional victories against the Ottomans which would boost morale back in Britain. The public in Britain, however, picked up on this aimlessness and questions were being asked about why troops were being wasted in what seemed a pointless enterprise. Rudyard Kipling, indeed, was to write a suitably scathing poem in 1917 about this campaign called Mesopotamia.

By 1918, these troops in Mesopotamia were being diverted to provide support to the rather quixotic detachment of British forces – Dunsterforce – which was operating around Baku. Once this adventure had been concluded in September 1918, all that seemed to be demanded of British forces in Mesopotamia was that their advance northwards kept pace with that being conducted in the far more important campaign in Greater Syria. This was in case Ottoman forces took advantage of any possible flanking opportunities.

It has been suggested in a raft of literature both in the 1920s and also far more recently, that this movement north of British forces towards Mosul vilayet during the war was actually driven by the need to seize the region’s then supposed oil assets. There is, though, no evidence to support this contention. The movement towards Mosul was actually driven by a local need to gain another commodity far more important than oil – food.


Image: Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



This is the first of a two-part series on the topic. The second of which will be posted next week on the Defence-in-Depth blog.

Turkey’s very own Kurdish problem

Turkey’s AKP government’s attempts to seek a resolution to the country’s domestic Kurdish problem had by the second half of 2015 deteriorated into violent conflict throughout the predominantly Kurdish populated southeast, between the state’s security forces and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Turkey’s political leaders have declared their intention to militarily defeat the PKK – something the Turkish state has failed to achieve since the PKK first resorted to violence in1984 – rather than resume negotiations with it. The current round of violence, which is accompanied and partly explained by Ankara’s growing political authoritarianism, includes Turkish bombing raids against PKK bases in the Khandil Mountains of northern Iraq, the imposition of curfews lasting from weeks to months, and widely reported excesses on the part of the security forces. Urban districts have been flattened by government shelling, and tens of thousands have fled their homes. The government has stripped the MPs of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP) of their parliamentary immunity, which clears the way for their prosecution and imprisonment. Subsequently, the HDP leadership is contemplating setting up in exile.

Events such as these have occurred throughout the history of the Turkish Republic. Ankara’s treatment of its Kurdish citizens since 1923 has been littered with executions, curfews, decades of emergency rule throughout the southeast, forced evacuations, intense ‘Turkification’ campaigns, the exclusion of foreigners from Kurdish areas of the country, population flight, the destruction of towns and villages, imprisonment of activists, the banning of Kurdish political parties, all sorts of abuses of human rights and the law, and even the denial that Kurds exist as a distinct people. However, what has shocked some observers about this latest round of violence is that it immediately followed what many had thought was a serious attempt to address the country’s Kurdish problem.

But to what extent did the events leading up to the resumption of violence in July 2015 really constitute a ‘peace process’? At no point did President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicate his readiness to accept any item on the Kurdish side’s wish list. These included the release from prison of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the recognition of Kurdish as an official language of the Republic, state education in the Kurdish language, some kind of devolution – dubbed ‘democratic autonomy’ by the Kurdish movement – a disbandment of the government armed and funded Kurdish ‘village guard’ militias, a change to the ten percent electoral threshold, an amnesty for PKK fighters, and so on. Nor would the government countenance the Kurdish side’s suggestion that some third party mediation be introduced into the process.

Rather, Erdogan sought to impose his terms from above. He insisted that the PKK should disarm unconditionally, and dissociated himself from the so-called ‘Dolmabahce Accord’ that emerged from a meeting of government figures and HDP MPs in February 2015. His anti-HDP and nationalistic rhetoric became harsher once he recognized that the HDP stood to exceed the ten percent threshold and gain sufficient parliamentary seats in the June 2015 election to deny the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a majority. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas also declared his unwillingness to support Erdogan’s aspiration for a more presidential constitution. Erdogan’s belief that Turkey’s generally conservative Kurdish voters could be persuaded to forsake Kurdish nationalist candidates and support Islamist parties dates back to his Welfare Party days in the 1990s, and this is what he hoped to achieve.

Many in the PKK were skeptical of the government’s goodwill from the outset. Furthermore, both the PKK and the Turkish military treated the ceasefire that accompanied the ‘peace talks’ as an opportunity to prepare for the next round of violence. The military hardened existing fortifications and built new ones. Kurdish youth, many of them members of the PKK-affiliated Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) and no doubt soon to become the next generation of PKK fighters, dug trenches and threw up barricades, while elected Kurdish officials declared their support for the establishment of Kurdish autonomous zones. In any case, in the wake of the HDP’s electoral success in June 2015, the government used the excuse of the killing of two policemen in the aftermath of the bombing at Suruc near the Syrian border which killed over thirty Kurdish activists to launch its military campaign. Although the government simultaneously declared its opposition to Islamic State (IS) and permitted US access to the NATO base at Incirlik, most IS activists that were initially detained were subsequently released. Although IS terrorist attacks inside Turkey and the intensification of IS cross-border shelling into Turkey from Syria in recent months has undoubtedly alerted the Turkish authorities to the threat posed, Ankara’s pursuit and prosecution of IS activists still seems desultory when compared to its campaign against anyone associated with the Kurdish cause.

In its one hundred year history, the Turkish state has either denied the Kurds exist at all, sought to obstruct any Kurdish political voice, or offered them assimilation either on the basis of ‘Turkification’ or, under the AKP, on the basis of a shared Islamic faith and appreciation of the benefits of the AKP’s economic policies. In fact, many Kurds are assimilated, but the Turkish state has never embraced or even truly grasped the fact that Kurds are at least as different from Turks as, say, Poles are from Germans or, if preferred, the Irish and Scots are from the English. There will be no settlement of Turkey’s Kurdish question until and unless Turks accept the ethnic, linguistic, cultural and historical distinctiveness of the twenty percent or so of Turkey’s citizens that are ethnically Kurdish rather than Turkish. There are few serious signs that this recognition is imminent.


Image: Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of the Russia High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The UK Decision on Syria: Will air-strikes solve the problem?


On Wednesday 2 December, the British Parliament voted 397 to 223 in favour of extending the air bombing campaign, targeting DAISH (aka Islamic State, IS, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL) from Iraq to include Syrian territory, following a one-day debate in the House of Commons. The wrangling in parliament understandably played into lobbying for domestic support at times, particularly between the Conservative PM, David Cameron and the opposing Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, nevertheless the debate was concerned with eliminating the DAISH threat.

This perceived growing threat has been tied to the strength of DAISH. Indeed, since establishing itself as a Caliphate in June 2013, DAISH has seen an ebb and flow of the territory which it controls in Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, the success of the terrorist organisation’s operations overseas has followed an upward trajectory, with attacks related or conducted by the group, targeting civilians in Sinai on 31 October, Baghdad, Beirut and Paris all in November. These developments have prompted a heighted level of concern and alert, not just in the UK but also in the broader international community.

The reaction to this has varied and seen France double its airstrikes on DAISH territory whilst simultaneously leading the call for a ground offensive, the United Nations (UN) decreed that member states use all means necessary to combat DAISH, Egyptian authorities significantly increased their level of security in their airports, and Moscow called on its diaspora to return to Russia and stepped up its air offensive against the terrorist group. The vote in the UK Parliament was another step in line with this reaction. However, one must ask the question, can this solve the problem?

Whilst actors in the international system have identified that ‘you cannot bomb an ideology’, the task of combatting the terrorist organisation in the realms of the economy, society, media, education, among others, appears to be a far too arduous task – particularly with an eye on instant and measurable gains. Indeed, the UK government itself identified this tack back when DAISH established the Caliphate. However, with the up tick in the number of DAISH-supported attacks, a tendency to politicise the issue and an increase in the range and numbers of members of the anti-DAISH Coalition, it appears as though the decision has been made to focus on the air-bombing element in the war against the terrorist organisation.

The issue then becomes one of innocent Syrian (and Iraqi) civilians being killed, seeing their families and friends being killed and having their livelihoods destroyed – all of which play into the hands of the DAISH rhetoric of anti-Western/foreign intervention, and increases the pool from which the group can draw support. Therefore, the only way for the UK decision to have any chance of being successful in achieving its goal, it must exert an equal, if not more, amount of effort and resources on the non-military means of tackling DAISH. This must be done on a multi-dimensional and multi-national level, in order to not only remove the conventional capability of the terrorist organisation (by taking out its weapons infrastructure), but to also nullify its even more powerful and dangerous foundation. This being DAISH’s propensity to resonate with disenfranchised and potentially sympathetic individuals by simultaneously targeting the group through other means, i.e. sanctions, isolation, and providing a viable alternative to its potential audience, i.e. through political means, education, economic mobility, etc.

Image: A Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 at RAF Marham, courtesy of SAC ANDY MASSON/MOD via Wikimedia Commons.

Iran’s Response to DAISH: It’s all about the Revolution

This is the sixth and final post in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015.  An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


The radicalization and mobilization of the extremist militant group Dawlat al Islamiyah fy al Iraq we al Sham (DAISH) – aka Islamic State (IS), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, (ISIL) – has caused the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) regime to once again flex its Revolutionary mantra in response to the encroaching threat. A key point worth noting is that the Tehran’s focus and concern has been to secure the IRI regime against internal and external threats. This has come in the guise of appeasing domestic opposition (internal threats to the regime), and keeping increasingly powerful external militant groups (including DAISH) from becoming a real threat to the regime.

The IRI’s reaction to DAISH is rooted deep in the Iranian Constitution (implemented following the 1979 Revolution on 3 December of the same year, and amended just once in 1989 following the death of the first Ayatollah or Supreme Leader). It is therefore important to acknowledge the context and impact of the event. Significantly the 1979 Revolution brought an end to a almost 2,500 year ear of monarchical rule in Iran. A rule which ended under the final monarch of Iran, Shah Mohammed Reza. The departure of Mohammed Reza – a staunch Western ally in the region, dubbed ‘the policeman of the Middle East’ – was followed by the incumbency of Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini who was viewed (in the constitution) as the leader of the revolution, a post which was subsequently passed down to the incumbent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 1989 following Khomeini’s death. The role and constitution included goals to ensure:

The complete elimination of imperialism and the prevention of foreign influence [… and ensure that the] framing the foreign policy of the country [was done] on the basis of Islamic criteria, fraternal commitment to all Muslims, and unsparing support to the freedom fighters of the world.
Iranian Constitution, 1989, Article 3, Point 5 and 16

Significantly, DAISH has posed a more immediate threat to the IRI regime’s revolutionary mantra, and this has been reflected in Tehran’s response to the militant group. To begin with, the IRI expressed support for the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a leader who’s Shia status (like Iran) meant that he was of strategic importance an susceptible to influence from Tehran. However, following al-Maliki’s refusal to bow to internal and external pressure to increase the role and number of the Sunni contingent in Iraq’s political system, he was replaced by fellow Shia Haidar al-Abadi – a move supported by the IRI. In an attempt to further bolster Iraqi (central and otherwise) resistance to DAISH, Tehran provided political, military, economic and humanitarian aid to mainly Shia and Kurdish stakeholders in Iraq. A welcome move, which was made clear by the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani who noted that Iran was ‘the first country to provide [the Kurds] with weapons and ammunition’.

As a result of this apparent ‘softening’ of the IRI, there were rumblings of Tehran coordinating with external actors both within the region and without. Significantly, these included calls to improve Iranian-US ties, which had been weak if not non-existent since 1979, and Iranian-Saudi Arabian ties, which had historically been marred by Shia (Iran) and Sunni (Saudi Arabia) competition for influence in the Muslim world.

That being said, in spite of these suggestions, IRI-US and Saudi ties have only implicitly improved, for three reasons:

1. The IRI regime does not want to contradict, and subsequently lose support from the more conservative factions in Iran’s political structures, its constitutional ‘prevention of foreign influence’.

2. The United States does not want to lose pressure and momentum over the ongoing 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPA) initiative which is aimed at eliminating the nuclear threat of Iran.

3. Saudi Arabia wants to ensure that Iran does not increase its power and influence in the region and beyond, and therefore does not want to relieve the pressure of the JPA.

Indeed, IRI-US cooperation has remained outside (albeit on the sidelines) of the JPA negotiations, and IRI-Saudi Arabian ties have similarly been on the fringes of formal meetings (on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly annual conference in September 2014).

Further, these less than formal lines of cooperation between the IRI, United States, and Saudi Arabia have not been strong enough (formally and conceptually) to significantly improve ties between Iran and its two rivals. However, the fact that they have taken pace demonstrates a promise for building trust and cooperation.

That being said, these actions demonstrate how the IRI’s continued focus has been on securing the revolutionary regime of Iran. Therefore, its direct responses to DAISH (providing support for combatants in Iraq), and indirect response to the militant group (opening up informal cooperation with the United States and Saudi Arabia), will continue as long as the Iranian revolution is protected.

Image:  MajGen Qaseem Soleimani of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards reportedly pictured in Iraq in October 2014. Photo via Twitter.


This is the fifth in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015.  An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


Turkey remains isolated in its approach to the Islamic State (IS) threat. In contrast to its NATO partners and to most of its middle eastern neighbours, Ankara is steadfast in its refusal to actively engage with the US-led campaign against IS. Notably, this has involved denying use by US bombers of the NATO base at Incirlik. Turkey’s President Erdogan did not hold back on criticising US arms airdrops to the besieged Syrian Kurds of Kobane, as described in Rod Thornton’s recent post, fearing that they could end up in the hands of Turkey’s PKK, with which the Syrian Kurdish PYD is affiliated. He also alleged that some of the arms fell straight into IS-controlled territory. Allegations that Ankara has at minimum turned a blind eye to jihadists crossing into Syria from Turkey, and may have facilitated them in other ways, persist. Unsurprisingly, questions have been asked in the US about Turkey’s understanding of what it is to be an ally, and President Obama seems to be giving his Turkish counterpart the cold shoulder.

Turkey’s stance has set back its position in the region too. The KRG, with which Ankara had built a close economic and political relationship, openly expressed its disappointment at Turkey’s failure to come to its aid as IS turned on Erbil after the fall of Mosul. Tehran did step into the breach and has augmented its engagement, as a consequence of which Iranian influence with Iraq’s Kurds has risen as Ankara’s has fallen. Turkey had already fallen out with Baghdad’s Shia-dominated government and with the Assad regime in Damascus of course, and has since entered into wars of words with Cairo and what passes for the government in Libya over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in those two countries. Turkey now has few friends in its neighbourhood. Its failure to come to the aid of Kobane’s Kurds caused widespread demonstrations and rioting amongst its own Kurds and raised doubts about Turkey’s own domestic peace process.

Ankara’s logic is that the radicalisation of the Syrian opposition resulted from the drawn-out and ever more brutal struggle against the Assad regime. The west’s failure to come to the aid of Syrian moderates allowed this to happen, and caused much frustration in Turkey. Its demand is that the overthrow of Assad should be prioritised over the war against IS, and that a humanitarian corridor and no fly zones should be established in northern Syria. For this to happen, the US must take the lead, and Turkey would then follow. Syria’s Kurds feel that this is a ruse to allow a Turkish troop presence in the area, which could put an end to their experiment in self-government. Certainly Ankara opposes Kurdish self-rule in Syria, and suspects the PYD of collaboration with Damascus. Ankara has also called for a programme of training for moderate opposition elements. Washington has now agreed to lead such a programme, but whereas the US intends to deploy such forces as emerge against IS, Turkey believes they will be pitted against regime forces too. This apparent disagreement is likely to come to the fore in the not-too-distant future. In Iraq, Ankara argues that IS successes there are a consequence both of the initial 2002 US-led invasion, and of the subsequent marginalisation of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs by the US-supported Shia government of Nuri al-Maliki. There is more than a grain of truth in this assessment.

In fact, Ankara’s position is not without substance, at least in some respects. The anti-IS campaign has alienated many Sunni Arabs in Iraq, Syria and the wider region. It has meant a blind eye has been turned to the even greater death and destruction inflicted by Assad’s essentially Alawite government, which in effect is being strengthened in so far as IS, one of its more effective opponents, is being weakened. The same logic applies to Jubhat-al-Nusrah, the AQ affiliated force which had itself struggled against IS and which to a degree is being strengthened as IS is being weakened – if it is being weakened, that is. The anti-IS campaign also appears to have attracted a seemingly ever-increasing flow of jihadis from further afield. In Iraq the mostly Shia armed forces and government, who are barely trusted at all by the country’s Sunni Arabs, are receiving military and other assistance from the west. Worse still, Iranian-backed Shia militias, many of which have a reputation for taking reprisals against the Sunni population, are leading the fight in Iraq, often with western-supplied arms transferred to them by Iraq’s security forces. And assisting the Kurds in Iraq, Syria and, indirectly, in Turkey too, might in due course undermine the territorial integrity of each of those states. In other words, it is not only Ankara that may have got things wrong. But Turkey’s pro-Sunni and anti-Kurdish agendas might also be policy dead-ends.

Ankara has additional reasons for remaining aloof. It is home to up to two million Syrian refugees, many of them unregistered. Ankara fears there could be IS cells amongst this vast swarm of people, and which it would prefer not to provoke. A prolongation of the Syrian struggle could swell these numbers still further, which could lead to a native Turkish backlash and an expansion of the Syrian conflict into Turkey itself. Of course, some kind of accommodation with Damascus might hold out greater hope of bringing an end to the fighting in Syria and even of defeating IS, but recent hints from Washington that this option might be under consideration prompted a fierce reaction from Ankara. Turkey’s opposition to the Syrian regime has been so unrelenting that it can’t easily turn back now. It is holding out for a Sunni victory. Ankara is also aware of IS sympathisers amongst its own population, and has no wish to incur their wrath. And, as ever, Ankara does not wish to add impetus (and arms) to Kurdish demands inside Turkey by in effect siding with Syria’s Kurdish fighters.

In fact, Ankara has adjusted its behaviour a little in recent months. Under US pressure, Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters were eventually allowed to transit Turkish territory in order to come to the aid of Kobane. Border controls have been tightened up. Turkey will contribute to the training programme for Syrian moderates. Its troops are training a limited number of Kurdish peshmerga, as well as units of the Iraqi army. Ankara has also declared its readiness to aid any – preferably Sunni Arab-led – assault on IS-held Mosul, although not with ‘boots on the ground’. But its minimal interpretation of the obligations of alliance, its failure to share the more widespread assessment of the regional threat posed by IS, its cold-hearted stance towards Kobane’s defenders, and its pro-Sunni leanings, have lost it a great deal of trust. Furthermore, its failure to oppose with any determination the jihadi elements of the Syrian opposition, and the suggestion that it might even have supported them, has aroused suspicion that Ankara shares an ideological –although not behavioural –affinity with IS in its desire to see the emergence of a more unified Sunni community in the middle east, albeit one preferably overseen from Ankara.

President Erdogan’s foreign policy advisor, Ibrahim Kalin, has referred to Turkey’s ‘precious loneliness’. The implication is that Turkey is acting on principle, and is playing a long term game. In the meantime it is prepared to be patient, and diplomatically isolated if necessary, until it is proved right. This suggests a remarkable self-confidence. But the consequent isolation might be real, long-lasting, and ultimately very damaging to Turkey.

Image: “Erdogan gesturing Rabia” by Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Kurds as Proxies against the Islamic State

This is the fourth in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015. An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


There has much discussion recently about the role of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the current conflict with ISIL (IS/Da’esh) in Syria and Iraq. The Kurds appear to have become the regional proxies of choice that US and other Western forces can do business with in order to counter ISIL. But who are these Kurds and who are these ‘peshmerga’? These questions and others associated with this issue are actually not that easy to answer. It is important, however, as Western forces go forward in the conflict with ISIL, that some level of understanding is developed as to the nature of the various Kurdish forces operating in the region.

Western involvement in the conflict with ISIL first took shape in August 2014 on Mount Sinjar. A large number of Yazidis (a non-Muslim Kurdish group) were forced to flee there to escape the advance of ISIL forces across northern Iraq. Their plight drew in US special forces who landed on the mountain in order to assess the situation. They had expected these Yazidis to be guarded by peshmerga from the nearby semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq known as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). But they were no KRG peshmerga fighters there. The Yazidis were actually being looked after by fighters from the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist group that had operated for so long in Turkey. Realising that they could not talk to such ‘terrorists’, the US forces quickly withdrew.

Common sense did later prevail and it was recognized in Washington and in other Western capitals that if the Yazidis were to be rescued then political niceties had to be put to one side and the PKK personnel had to be dealt with.

But why were the PKK on Mount Sinjar? And what had happened to the KRG’s peshmerga forces? Well, those peshmerga forces had melted away before the ISIL advance and had left the Yazidis to the tender mercies of ISIL. These peshmerga were, after all, simply ill-armed and ill-trained militia who, for the most part, acted on behalf of individual tribal or political leaders. But desperate to save the Yazidis, the President of the KRG, Masoud Barzani, had asked for help from the Syrian Kurds across the border. In doing so, he was basically asking for help from his bitter enemies. The main Syrian Kurd political party – which is linked to the PKK – is known as the PYD. The PYD, like the PKK, is secular, left-wing and progressive in orientation. Such a standpoint stands in direct contrast to the politics of Barzani’s ruling party in the KRG – the KDP. This is, in nature, tribal and conservative.

The PYD did then send its best fighters to Mount Sinjar. These were from the armed wing (the HPG) of the PKK. But what were these PKK fighters from Turkey doing in northern Syria in the first place? Well, they had come across the border after the Turkish government and the PKK leadership had agreed a ceasefire in March of 2013. The PKK’s campaign in Turkey was thus supposedly over. But some renegade PKK members did not accept the ceasefire and left Turkey for Syria. There they joined up with the PYD, which itself had been formed from PKK members back in 2003.

And then the ISIL siege of Kobane began in September. The most effective fighters operating at Kobane were again from the PKK’s HPG. It was no wonder then that the Turks – despising the PKK and all its works – initially refused to allow any help to cross the border and assist the Kurdish resistance at Kobane. If they had helped, they would have been assisting their mortal enemy of the past 30 years. In many ways, the Turks preferred ISIL to take Kobane; at least they knew they could deal with ISIL. What Ankara ultimately fears, once the crisis in Syria is over, is the creation of a Kurdish entity in northern Syria that could act as a base for terrorist attacks against Turkey.

Ankara is, though, quite happy for a Kurdish entity to exist in the KRG under Barzani. It knows that, for various reasons, it can control what happens there and take advantage of Barzani’s antipathy towards the PKK. The Kurds in the KRG led by Barzani are Ankara’s ‘good Kurds’; their ‘bad Kurds’ are those of the PKK.

As Kobane burned, the world’s media watched on from nearby Turkish territory. A something-must-be-done call went up and Washington lost patience with Turkish intransigence. US aircraft made an airdrop of weapons onto Kobane in October. The irony is that the Americans were, more than likely, dropping Iranian weapons which had been provided by one of the political parties within the KRG – the PUK – which is opposed to Barzani’s KDP. This gave Washington the excuse (to Ankara) that it was not providing its own weapons to the Kurds at Kobane but rather those supplied by other Kurds. Wherever these weapons came from, Ankara was apoplectic. The view was that the Americans were delivering weapons to the PKK which could one day be used against Turkey. But this event did spark the Turks into life. They realised they needed to be seen to be doing something themselves to help Kobane in order to both quell domestic unrest among Kurds within Turkey and to prevent further U.S. airdrops – but they needed to be in control of that help. Thus we then had the movement, agreed by Ankara, of a convoy of peshmerga forces from the KRG crossing Turkish territory into Kobane. This took in ‘heavy’ weapons but only, on Turkish insistence, with the understanding that they would be taken out again once these KRG peshmerga pulled out. This reinforcement exercise actually only involved 150 peshmerga. The KRG wanted to send more, but the PYD/PKK fighters in Kobane did not want a larger number: their fear was that these KRG peshmerga, working for Turkish ends, might start to take over control of the situation in Kobane.

The issue now is that since the siege of Kobane has been lifted then the various groups of Kurds involved will no longer be unified by this common ‘Kurdish’ goal. They will go their separate ways. They will seek now their own goals within the situation of regional anarchy created by the collapse of central Syrian control and by the spread of ISIL in northern Iraq. A land grab involving different Kurdish elements now seems inevitable and in this land grab Kurd will be set against Kurd. We can see this already around Sinjar in Iraq. The PKK fighters who protected the Yazidis are still based around this town. Barzani’s KRG fears that the PKK will now try and set up its own ‘canton’ at Sinjar (and elsewhere inside Iraq) and represent a challenge to his own regional authority (and, indeed, Baghdad’s).

Such are the vagaries of taking on the Kurds as Western proxies. Without a common ‘Kurdish’ purpose they are just as likely to fight each other as they are to fight ISIL.

Image: “Peshmerga on a T-55-Tank outside Kirkuk in Iraq.” by Boris Niehaus – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Migrating to the Land of Jihad: Why European Muslims fight in Syria

This is the third in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015. Subsequent posts will come out on Wednesdays and will cover topics such as the responses by the Kurds, Turkey, and Iran to the rise of the Islamic States. An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 when protests erupted against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The immediate response of the Syrian authorities was to increase repression. However, the security crackdown proved counterproductive; by the summer of 2011, the confrontation between the Assad regime and the opposition had turned into a full-scale civil war. Since then, the two warring sides have increasingly drawn in different religious communities: the Syrian regime has been largely supported by the Alawite community and other minorities, while the opposition has been mostly Sunni-dominated. To make matters worse, Syria has become a battlefield on which great powers (the US and Russia), regional powers (Turkey and Iran) and non-state actors (Hezbollah and al Qaeda-affiliated groups) are fighting a proxy war.

According to news reports, a growing number of European Muslims are fighting alongside the insurgents. A study published by the King’s College International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation claims that between 400 and 2,000 European Muslims have gone to Syria since 2011 to fight the Assad regime, representing 18 percent of the foreign fighter total. It appears that most of them come from Great Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

British men of Arab and Asian origin, as well as converts, have joined the opposition forces. The British security agencies estimate that as many as 500 British nationals have travelled to Syria for the purpose of fighting there. The case of British fighters in Syria first drew media attention when a British and a Dutch journalist, who had been kidnapped by an unknown jihadi group, managed to escape from captivity and made it to Turkey in July 2012. It was later revealed that some of their captors were actually British-born Muslims of South Asian origin. Most recently a British national was identified as the infamous ‘Jihadi John‘ who was shown in videos of Western hostages’ beheadings.

Members of other nationalities have joined the Syrian opposition as well. In July 2013, Berlin estimated the number of Germans fighting in Syria at more than 70, predicting a further rise in their number in the future. Tens of Belgian Muslims have also joined the opposition forces in Syria. The cases of the Belgian teenagers, Brian De Mulder and Jejoen Bontinck, from Antwerp have received public attention because their families have launched a campaign to bring them home; the father of Jejoen Bontinck even travelled to Aleppo to find his son but in vain. In February 2013, a former Guantanamo prisoner, Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane became the first Danish fighter to be killed in Syria. In May 2013, an American woman convert was killed in northern Syria, although it is not exactly clear what her role there was. Additionally, Muslims from Ireland and Spain have travelled to Syria for the purpose of joining the opposition forces.

At the group level, there are three factors explaining the flow of European Muslims to this country. First, Syria is relatively close to European countries; jihadi fighters can easily reach the territories controlled by the insurgents through Turkey. Secondly, some of the European Muslims fighting in Syria are either native Arab speakers or have knowledge of Arabic which can facilitate their participation. Third, the suffering of the civilian population has received increasing media attention leading to mobilisation of support among Europe’s Muslim communities; while most concerned Muslim citizens wish to provide only humanitarian aid to the Syrian civilians, a small number of radicals view the conflict as an opportunity to join jihadi groups.

At the individual level, each jihadi fighter has followed his/her own radicalisation trajectory. Although the radicalisation process is not the same for all individuals, it is still possible to understand the circumstances under which some European Muslims turn to violence. There are indications that some mosques have been utilised by Islamist networks for jihadi activities; for example, the al Qibla Mosque in the Dutch city of Zoetermeer has allegedly played a role in the flow of fighters to Syria. Additionally, radical preachers have contributed to the radicalisation of European Muslims. Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a London-based cleric of Syrian origin, has been particularly active in mobilising support for the insurgents in Syria.

In many cases, however, European Muslims have been self-radicalised through the internet. In the post-9/11 period, numerous websites were created by jihadi groups, radical preachers and individual sympathisers. Frazer Egerton has noticed the importance of hypermedia and their impact on the transformation of some Muslims into jihadis. He rightly points to the inspiring role of images (e.g. massacres of Muslims). Through the use of hypermedia, Muslims are now more familiar with the Syrian civil war and thus more susceptible to jihadi messages. Many of them have mentioned the overwhelming influence of videos depicting atrocities against Muslim civilians. During an interview on Dutch television in March 2013, a Muslim convert of Dutch origin explained that he decided to join the Sunni resistance because he ‘could not sit and watch [on TV] his sisters in Syria being raped and his brothers being beheaded.’

For the new recruits, the jihad-trip is the equivalent of an internship through which they can prove themselves to their family and friends (who have usually criticised them for their conversion to Islam or their growing religiosity) and, more importantly, to the larger group – the world’s Muslim community, the ummah – which will give them recognition. Indeed, it can be argued that jihadi fighters have developed a hybrid identity that combines jihadism with Islamic universalism. They believe that they are involved in an open-ended religious conflict between the ummah and its enemies. Therefore, they consider it their own individual obligation (fardh al-ayn) to defend the ummah.

The involvement of European Muslims in the Syrian civil war could have important security implications for Europe. If the history of Arab Afghans is a guide, the return of European jihadi fighters to their home countries may contribute to the outbreak of jihadi campaigns. Since they have already gained valuable skills and experiences, they may later be tempted to target their own governments and societies. While investing more in intelligence-gathering is certainly an option, a successful strategy should promote the social inclusion of European Muslims. Therefore, European governments should promote inter-religious dialogue, enforce legislation on equality and non-discrimination, and take measures to combat Islamophobia. In this regard, working with Muslim communities and their leadership is a precondition for implementing any policies to tackle the radicalization of European Muslims.

Image: “Free Syrian Army soldier walking among rubble in Aleppo” by Voice of America News: Scott Bobb reports from Aleppo, Syria. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Political, Religious, and Everyday Allure of Islamic State’s Utopianism

This is the second in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015. Subsequent posts will come out on Wednesdays and will cover topics such as the motivations for joining IS and the responses by the Kurds, Turkey, and Iran to the rise of the Islamic States. An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


In late February 2015, in the face of the extreme violence of Islamic State, President Barack Obama declared that the group should not be referred to as Islamic, because doing so gives it legitimacy and reinforces its world view of a war against Islam. He along with many political leaders declared that the ‘West’ is not opposed to Islam but a perverted form of it. The Islamic State, Daeesh, or ISIS, however situates itself not only as a fighting force but as a Utopian religious and political project. As a Utopian project it offers a critique of the existing world, a solution, and action to make it all possible.

The project is predicated on a binary political world view in which Muslims’ suffering is ignored and deliberately inflicted upon them by non-Muslims. The solution Islamic State offers is a Caliphate -not only a safe haven but a realisation of God’s will. This ‘State’ is to be governed by God’s laws (Shari’a) . It declares that all Muslims have a duty to move to its territory and if they cannot, to offer their lives in sacrifice. Islamic State’s imitation of the modern state, while simultaneously upholding historical structures and practices, such as slavery and beheadings confirms that there is nothing theologically inevitable about the Caliphate. Specifically, Islamic State’s construct of statehood is not grounded in the Qu’ran despite their appeal to a Prophetic tradition. But, it is rooted in a tradition of revolutionary Islamic political thought, beginning with the medieval thinker Ibn Taymiyya and developing from Jamal al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Abul Ala Maududi, and Sayyid Qutb who debated the colonial condition. These writers compared the unfair and increasingly invasive political systems they lived under to a condition of jahiliya (ignorance of pre-Prophetic knowledge and life) and consequently justified a violent jihad to overthrow it. The current quest to overcome this state of ignorance, and to enter into a ‘world of peace’ (Islamic State) that is pure and perfect, not only requires fighting against the ‘camp of kufrs’ (the West), it also leads to the expulsion of deviant faiths (such as the Yazidi and other minorities, and the Shia), and removal of corrupt leaders. Islamic State draws on these complex traditions of Jihad and Caliphate and reduces them to a fundamentalist totalitarian quest for perfectionism and purity.

Islamic State combines this ideology with mundane and modern pragmatic concerns of local politics and welfare to generate legitimacy. Significantly, the dehumanising of opponents is also rooted in sectarian politics concerned with access to resources and security – Sunnis living in Iraq and Syria have not had security since the fall of Saddam Hussain nor under Assad’s regime. IS’s offer of everyday security, quick (albeit unforgiving) justice, social services and welfare for Sunni Muslims is a reasonable trade off against any disagreement over IS’s vision and Utopia – especially if they are further rewarded for their cooperation through access to the spoils of war. Unlike Al Qaeda, Islamic State embraces the trappings of a modern state: a monetary system, police, taxes, military and governing councils of populations. The group is not acting like a terrorist organisation, nor a military, but a totalitarian government.

The appeal of Islamic State is greater than their political critique and offered solution, but is also created by the journey to that solution. This path is presented as exciting and adventurous and simultaneously filled with righteous suffering, and may lead to martyrdom. Therefore if Islamic state or individual members don’t realise Utopia within this world, it will be achieved in the next. Violence is glorified as heroic, Muslim, and manly. This path offers a break from the mundane and seemingly dull and disengaged life offered to young recruits from the West living in an age of austerity. As Dr Emmanuel Karagiannis alongside me at the Rise of the Islamic State roundtable highlighted, this idea incorporates a jihadi macho masculinity and the possibility to assert an otherwise emasculated manhood through acquiring warrior status. In an allegedly post-heroic age these men can have God, gold, and glory. For young women of Europe and North America their agency is also realised by IS; they actively reject both local community values and orthodox interpretations of Islamic traditions, and those purportedly on offer by liberal democracies. Contra to presentations of these women as love stricken naive girls who have been duped by the evil Islamic state, as per the imagery of the ‘Jihadi bride‘ or ‘sex slave‘, their social media outputs show conscious decision-making based on both private and public-political concerns. This combination allows for the veneration of motherhood, giving them social power, and exalting the family as the political and religious structure of the state. The personal is political and the political is personal.

Situating Islamic State as Utopian demonstrates that any separation or expulsion of religion from politics and international relations of IS in our analysis is flawed. Furthermore gender analysis in religion and politics leads to a more holistic understanding of IS. The lure of Islamic State is threefold. First it offers a challenge to existing politics that resonates especially in the absence of alternative credible and accessible critiques. Second, this critique is combined with a solution – an Islamic State, open to all who they consider to be correctly believing Muslims. Third, this new project will create a Muslim ‘good life’ through a particular version of Shari’a, thereby providing meaning and purpose to everyday politics and activity. These three components are essential elements of Utopian social dreaming: critique, solution and action. The challenge to Islamic State must therefore address all three. The beginnings of such a challenge in the West can be seen in the open letter by ‘Sara’ for Inspire which questions the reality of Islamic State’s ‘good life’; the humour offered by the Italians in reply to IS’s threats that undermine its ability to strike fear; and the outing of ‘Jihadi John’ thereby demystifying both him and their violence.