Thursday, November 26, 2015

Islamic State is a bit player in a much bigger fight-Force will not wipe out Islamic State because it is a by-product of a much bigger conflict that needs to be resolved first

Islamic State exists because it gets lost amid the much bigger fights going on around it – you know, between armies that actually have planes to shoot down. 

Amid the relentless focus of this past fortnight, it was possible to believe in a global consensus on the fundamental importance of destroying Islamic State. Putin and Obama reconciled enough to confer earnestly, while France simply khakied up and pounded Raqqa. But then Turkey shot a Russian plane out of the sky and reminded us of the complexities of this mess.

The Middle East has now become the political equivalent of an Escher drawing; a canvas on which irreconcilable perspectives gather, and where everything is more important than everything else.

The perhaps shocking fact is that IS exists only by indulgence. The indulgence, in the first place, of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who responded to IS's arrival in Syria with acquiescence. It's easy to forget that back in 2011, as the Arab uprisings rounded on Assad, he dismissed his protesters as terrorists and foreign agents as a way of justifying his brutal response, and convincing the world to leave him in power.

At the time this was bollocks – little more than a page spoken verbatim from the dictator's playbook. But over time IS became a prize gift. Much of its violence was directed not at Assad, but at the Syrian opposition who had taken control of Raqqa. In fear, many of them ended up joining IS, and IS eventually took hold of the city Assad had lost anyway. Until 2013 IS and Assad were content to play wide of each other in what David Kilcullen recently described as "a de facto truce". In short, IS made Assad's lie come true.

The indulgence, too, of Iraq. This is not to deny the rude shock last year when IS screamed onto the world stage by taking Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. But Iraq as we knew it no longer exists. The north, which IS controls, is a different country now. The Sunnis living there have little desire to be part of what they consider to be a repressively Shiite state governed from Baghdad, and the southern Shiites seem equally content to cut the Sunnis loose.

We don't talk much about Baghdad any more, partly because life is more normal and mundane there than it has been in years. Investment is up, and suicide bombing is down. Television airs sitcoms ridiculing IS and pop songs do the same. As Nicolas Pelham recently wrote in The New York Review of Books, southern Iraqis talk about IS in the past tense. Even if the Iraqi state could launch some military assault on the north, you get the distinct impression it couldn't be bothered.

Then there's the indulgence of Turkey, which was happy to let Sunni terrorists pour over its border into Syria for years when IS was just a lad. Here, Turkey had two interests. First, to facilitate any opposition to Assad that it could. And second, to ensure its Kurdish population couldn't use the chaos to establish their own proto-state. Turkey is now a mirror image of Russia: a proud, once-imperial nation led by a macho aggressor determined to entrench its interests, subdue its separatists and act on behalf of its ethnic brethren.

So, as Russia nicked Crimea off Ukraine in the name of protecting the Russian-speaking population, so too is Turkey enraged at Russia's air strikes on Syria which drop bombs on ethnic Turkmen. Russia, meanwhile, cheerfully bombs anyone opposed to Assad as a way to preserve him and maintain its own regional power. So for Putin, IS is simply convenient rhetorical cover that allows him to bomb whoever stands in Assad's way.

No one likes IS, but everyone ultimately has greater, conflicting concerns. Partly that's because most nations recognise IS has no air force, no history of military victories against capable enemies and controls a largely empty swath of land, which it has recently commenced losing. Western nations might be keen to see that process complete itself, but the truth is they have little appetite for making it happen.

Western populations have tired of war – a fact reflected in an Essential poll this week revealing that even so soon after Paris, fewer than a third of Australians want to see us step up our military involvement. But even more seriously, there's the stench of futility here. That same poll has only 17 per cent of us believing it would even make us safer if we did, and 45 per cent believing the opposite.

That's why it's hard to see us rushing into a full-scale war. Sure, we could crush IS, but what then? Would we end up delivering land to the Kurds, and enraging Turkey? Or back to Assad, which would bolster Russia's power and entrench a dictator whose own body count simply dwarfs IS's? And what of the far likelier result that the land ends up contested by scores of warring groups engaged in an encore performance of the carnage in Iraq that gave birth to IS in the first place?

In the visceral urge to smash things after Paris, you can overlook the fact that whenever we've tried to use our armies to smash terrorism we've generally scattered it all over the world. Remember when US president George W. Bush said we were fighting terrorists in Baghdad so we wouldn't have to fight them in Boston? And remember how, not so long ago, bombs went off in Boston? The idea that we can gather terrorism in one place and then destroy it is now surely one of the most demonstrably wrongheaded of our age.

It takes a special kind of ideologically induced amnesia to ignore all this. It's an amnesia that takes centre stage in the American Republican party and the lunatic fringe of our own Coalition. But if Malcolm Turnbull is to be believed, this amnesia is not taking hold of Western leaders more generally. That's because they understand IS isn't a player. It's the Middle East's illegitimate child: a byproduct of the power vacuums of a broken region. It exists because it gets lost amid the much bigger fights going on around it – you know, between armies that actually have planes to shoot down. And you can do what you will to IS. Until those bigger fights are somehow resolved, there will always be a byproduct.

Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist and winner of the 2014 Walkley award for best columnist. He also lectures in politics at Monash University. Illustrations: John Spooner and Simon Letch



  1. Sex and drugs on the road to jihad

    There is a paradox to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. As it claimed responsibility for them, Islamic State said they were meant as a strike against European depravity. Yet the perpetrators of the attack were apparently no puritans.
    The IS message called Paris "the capital of prostitution and obscenity" and the rock concert at the Bataclan, where most of the victims died, a "profligate prostitution party" for "hundreds of apostates". That's standard rhetoric for the group, which has been known to execute people for smoking, drinking or homosexuality. It's supposed to have a low tolerance of vice, though slavery and rape are tolerated, encouraged, if the victim is an infidel.
    Yet after the Paris attacks, witnesses reported seeing one of the top suspects – Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was later killed by French police – sitting outside his apartment drinking and smoking pot with his friends. He was apparently known on his street as someone who liked to hang out.
    Even if these reports carried by tabloids are false, it is an established fact that Salah Abdeslam, the subject of a Belgian manhunt that has paralysed Brussels since the weekend, and his brother, Brahim, who blew himself up outside a Paris restaurant, owned a gritty bar in Molenbeek, Brussels, until two months before the attacks. The bar, Les Beguines, sold alcohol (it even had a sign for Jupiler beer above the entrance). Neighbours complained of frequent fights and loud music, and in August, police raided the establishment to find half-smoked joints in ashtrays and drugs in customers' pockets. Les Beguines wasn't a paragon of Islamic purity, and neither, by all accounts, were its owners.

  2. After the August raid, police threatened to close the place down. The Abdeslams missed their chance to object, and on November 5, Les Beguines was closed for five months; but by then, the brothers had sold the bar – and apparently immersed themselves in attack plans.
    Islamic by name
    Much is often made of the fundamentalist puritanism of IS and other terror groups, such as al-Qaeda. War photographer Teun Voeten, who had long lived in Molenbeek, wrote in a recent piece for Politico: "Over nine years, I witnessed the neighbourhood become increasingly intolerant. Alcohol became unavailable in most shops and supermarkets; I heard stories of fanatics at the Comte des Flandres metro station who pressured women to wear the veil; Islamic bookshops proliferated, and it became impossible to buy a decent newspaper."
    Yet the brothers Abdeslam were not the kind of guys who pressured merchants to stop selling alcohol. They sold it – and perhaps other substances – themselves.
    The terrorist organisations may call themselves Islamic – and right-wingers both in the US and in Europe may pressure political leaders to use the denomination less sparingly – but the fighters they recruit in the Muslim communities and on the internet are, by their own supposedly strict standards, apostates. They are petty criminals, drug experimenters, prostitutes.

  3. In a study of Belgian and Dutch converts joining IS, published earlier this year, Marion van San, of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, noted: "The converts introduced in this research note were all under the age of 30, came from lower or lower-middle-class socioeconomic backgrounds and had a low or medium level of education. Many of them, especially the girls, had a problematic childhood and adolescence. A common theme throughout their lives is that almost all of them were, in one way or another, abandoned by their fathers at a young age. Most of them used alcohol and drugs as teenagers and frequented nightclubs, while some of them were involved in prostitution or petty crime. Their conversion was often a means to escape their former lifestyles. Some girls left for Syria because they thought their sins would be forgiven."
    The young men and women interviewed by van San were not even from Muslim families, and all they knew about Islam initially came from the social networks, but they all ended up in Syria. The radicalisation of young people from Muslim families often follows the same pattern – first a lifestyle inconsistent with any fundamentalist values, then a supposed conversion. Young women who used to smoke, drink and go out with men suddenly start wearing a niqab. Kids involved in petty crime turn serious and saintly.
    Dreary lives
    The phenomenon is by no means new. In a 2008 paper on al-Qaeda as a youth movement, Islam expert Olivier Roy wrote:
    "The Europeans in al-Qaeda tend to take one of two routes to conversion: there are those who have pursued a personal path and joined AQ after having converted in a mosque, and those who followed their Muslim "buddies", when, often after a story of petty crimes, they decide to "go for action", usually under the influence of a group leader, seen as a guru."

  4. Many are radicalised in prison after being put behind bars for non-terrorist crimes, as was Amedy Coulibaly, who held hostages in a Paris kosher supermarket in January. He became an "Islamist" after meeting an al-Qaeda recruiter while serving a six-year sentence for armed robbery.
    A desire to leave dreary lives, bad habits and disapproving families behind, wipe the slate clean and perhaps go out in a blaze of glory has little to do with any religious teaching: It's only human. These street-toughened young people may, of course, be naive enough to buy the promise of heaven for martyrs wearing suicide belts; more likely, they're just looking for the baddest gang around or just comradeship for the sake of some remote goal.
    Mob parallels
    With or without Islam, these young people would probably find a cause to fight and die for. IS certainly competes for them with crime syndicates. In a recent interview with NBC News, Giovanni Gambino, son of a prominent US mafioso, said this:
    "The world is dangerous today, but people living in New York neighbourhoods with Sicilian connections should feel safe. We make sure our friends and families are protected from extremists and terrorists, especially the brutal, psychopathic organisation that calls itself the Islamic State."

  5. IS and other Middle Eastern terror groups also equip neighbourhoods with "connections" for their "protection". They are crime syndicates masquerading as religious organisations; it enables them to sugar-coat their stark offerings to young people in a kind of idealism.
    Jobs and education programs for neighbourhoods such as Molenbeek, where half of young people are unemployed, and perhaps a higher tolerance for relatively harmless offences, such as selling marijuana, would do more to put IS out of business in Europe than a focus on Islam as a supposedly dangerous religion or curbs on immigration.
    Sure, some young people would still be drawn to violent adventures and charismatic radical preachers, regardless of their creed. Yet it's hard to imagine the Abdeslam brothers as true believers in any religion. Had it not been for the police raid, they might still be hanging out at their rough bar with joints in their hands.