04 December 2015

Why ISIS Rose And What It Will Take To Defeat It

Vox offers a (very long) one sentence description of what drove the emergence of ISIS.  Broken down, it notes that:
* After the end of British, French, and Ottoman imperial rule in the early to mid-20th century, Arab leaders failed to establish anything like stable democratic societies. Instead, they imposed unpopular and brutal military dictatorships that prevented any real sense of national unity developing and squandered the region's economic potential.

* The Middle East's progressive and democratic parties failed, due to a combination of incompetence and interference, to put together a viable alternative to these regimes.

* This created a large population of people in the Middle East who were disenfranchised and looking for a new form of politics. During and after the Cold War, Islamism rose to fill that void: It appealed to an identity and a set of values that many in the Middle East shared and understood. This was part of a global revival of different forms of identity politics.

* Some governments — like Saudi Arabia's quasi-monarchy, quasi-theocracy — had an interest in helping spreading a fairly hard-line version of Islam, as it shored up domestic legitimacy. Radical Islamism also got a boost from foreign powers, as things like US support for Iran's brutal shah and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan created understandable resentment that radicals were well-positioned to support.

* More recently, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring threw the Middle East's normal geopolitical order into chaos, creating a vacuum in which sectarianism (encouraged by a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia) became a powerful force. ISIS flourished in this kind of religiously polarized chaos, bringing us to the point we're at today.
This is on the right track although I would differ in some particulars and in context and emphasis.

1.  The vast majority of post-colonial regimes in the world experienced coups and/or devolved into dictatorship or undemocratic one party regimes.  Many of these countries are still in that political state and those have have emerged from that state generally did so only after many decades of non-democratic governance.  The Middle East's experience in this regard was the norm and not the exception.  Post-colonial regimes with continuous democratic government for at least part of the former colonial territory following independence, such as India, were the exception and even many of those exceptions (such as India from which Pakistan seceded in a bloody event followed by a subsequent split of Pakistan itself) still experienced a great deal of trauma in their early days.

2.  An important part of the fundamentalist and Islamist revival seen in the Middle East in the late 20th century was related to rising literacy levels which allowed members of the general public who had previously had access to the Koran and other religious texts only mediated through formally trained religious officials and scholars who delivered this information subject to many traditional glosses and interpretations of "hard passages" now receiving those texts unbound by traditional readings of these passages.

3. The Iraq War, with the acquiescence and even encouragement of U.S. and allied occupying troops, led to the dramatic ethnic and religious segregation of a society whose previous regime had suppressed ethnic tensions and produced a multi-cultural melting pot especially in urban areas.  After the war, Sunni and Shiite populations were overwhelmingly segregated after being motivated to do so at gunpoint.  Exiled Sunnis from urban areas often ended up dispossessed, bitter, angry and hating other ethnicities and the West in what is now ISIS territory.

4. The Syrian civil war was encouraged by the West during the Arab Spring period, particularly after its intervention in Libya and condemnation of the regime's tactics, but fear of conflict from Russia prevented the West from following through by supporting rebels who were more deserving of our support.

Now What?

The really essential point of all of this analysis is pretty simple.  In order to defeat ISIS, the people who are ruled by it need to have a better alternative.  We haven't offered them that and until they have an alternative they are stuck with supporting ISIS even if they greatly dislike that regime.

Rump Iraq have become Shiite dominated and verges on hostile towards Sunni Arabs, so rejoining Iraq is not a viable alternative.

Rump Syria is governed by a dictator who has bombed his own people, used chemical weapons against them, and ruthlessly "barrel bombed" markets and other civilian targets in areas that he does not control and is also supported mostly by members of the politically favored (in Syria) Alawite sect which is heterodox and hostile in the eyes of Sunni Arabs.

Other Arab Spring secular or at least not radical Islamist movements have completely failed to be effective.

There is really no existing grass roots "resistance" of note in ISIS territory of which we are aware.

In my view, the best alternative that can be quickly organized and have credibility with the people now ruled by ISIS is to either annex that territory to the Kingdom of Jordan, or to make ISIS territory a Jordanian protectorate.  In principle, Lebanon, Turkey or Saudi Arabia could also fill that role, but none of them are as well suited to the job and as acceptable to the West as Jordan.

A self-governing republic, in theory, would be better.  But, in practice, the constitutional monarchy in Jordan has been more successful at creating a tolerable state for its citizens than any of the nations which tried to form self-governing republics in the region.

Iraq and Syria do not deserve to have territory that they were unable to hold returned to them.  Iraqi Kurdistan deserves independence.  There are some border areas that might best be returns to Syria or Iraq or a new independent Iraqi Kurdistan, but basically, the territory of ISIS now makes sense as a new political unit even though the regime that rules that territory is an abomination.

In the longer run, if the world community wants less developed countries to have more palatable political systems, it needs to develop models that are capable of functioning serviceably in those countries for prolonged periods of time with the human capital that is available in those countries. The initial effort to impose Western political institutions, courts and legal codes built up over many centuries and supported by a very different pool of government officials and politicians and lawyers and the like educated and trained to fill those roles within institutional cultures groomed over time failed.  Those institutions and arrangements didn't meet local needs with local people, and almost inevitably collapsed as a result.  The rare exceptions, like India, were countries where an indigenous middle class was already in place and filling a large share of all governmental posts at the time that independence was achieved.

In the area of political development, the best has been the enemy of the good and has produced widespread catastrophe.  In contrast, countries that postponed full independence and spent additional decades developing its self-governance capacity as a territory, protectorate or province of a developed country, have generally prospered greatly compared to comparable countries that gained independence right away.

No one is suggesting that any independent countries that are managing for better or worse should be restored to colonial status.  But, where independent republics have become failed states, as Syria and Iraq have in ISIS territory, there is no sovereign republican regime to respect.

If we do not take action to fill the political vacuum because we are "angels", fools will rush in and impose far inferior arrangements that local residents and the world will be stuck with indefinitely.

One cannot remove a regime without replacing it with another.  And, so, we urgently need to find a replacement regime for ISIS before we can hope to make any progress in our attacks upon it.  So long as the people ruled by ISIS are cornered and have no alternative, they will continue to support the ISIS regime no matter how much they dislike it, because they have no other choice.

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