By Shahid M Amin
March 14, 2017
THE rise of the so-called Islamic State
(Daesh) in Syria and Iraq has alarmed the world due to its ruthless policies of
violent extremism and intolerance towards Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
IS/Daesh came to world attention when it seized vast territory in Syria and
Iraq in 2014. Different explanations have been offered about its composition.
The hard core in IS mainly consists of disbanded soldiers of Iraqi army of
Saddam Hussein, who was ousted from power in 2003 after the US invasion. These
ex-soldiers are Sunnis who resent both their loss of political power and
ascendancy of Shias in post-Saddam Iraq. During the US occupation of Iraq,
these soldiers joined the Iraqi insurgency: one group pledged allegiance to
Al-Qaeda, but later it split from Al-Qaeda and declared a caliphate under Abu
Bakr al-Baghdadi. It has demanded allegiance of all Muslims. However, Muslim
governments and most Muslim religious scholars have rejected this claim of an
In ideological terms, IS is a Salafi
jihadist group that follows an extreme form of Wahhabism in Sunni Islam.
Salafism has links with Ikhwan ul-Muslimeen of Egypt, particularly its leader
Sayyid Qutb, who was hanged by Nasser in 1966. Salafism has literalist, strict
and puritanical views on Islam. The Takfiri group is its offshoot and promotes
religious violence. It regards Muslims who do not subscribe to its extremist
ideas as apostates, who could be killed with impunity. The IS is waging a
psychological war through fear and intimidation. It uses public beheading of
its victims and the slaughter of hostages to create fear on the Mongol model
under Chengiz Khan. The aim is to terrorize civilian populations and force them
to accept its rule without resistance. IS also seeks to subjugate the
population under its control by indoctrination and provision of services to
those who obey its writ. The size of fighters under IS could be as high as
200,000. It has some 30,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries, including
Muslims living in Europe and USA. Many recruits come from Chechnya and Saudi
Arabia. Growing Islamophobia has induced some Muslims in Western countries to
join the IS ranks. Extremism has also been fuelled by the widespread sense
among Muslims of injustice, as in Palestine.
The Sunni majority in Syria, constituting
70% of the population, began a bloody revolt in 2011 against the Bashar
al-Assad regime. He comes from the tiny (10%) Alawite community, which has
ruled Syria by force for the past sixty years. Since IS is a sworn enemy of
al-Assad regime, it finds many sympathizers among the Sunni opposition in
Syria. Moreover, the civil war has weakened the control of al-Assad regime.
This has helped IS to secure recruits and obtain control over some areas of
Syria. IS gets funding from many sources, including oil produced in areas under
its control. Financial contributions come from all over the world, particularly
from rich sympathizers in Gulf countries. Some arms in possession of IS are
from stockpiles of Saddam Hussein, which later fell in hands of Iraqi
insurgents during the resistance against US occupation. The UN has declared IS
as a terrorist organization. Many countries including the USA and Russia, apart
from regional countries, are engaged in military operations against IS. While
reports suggest that ISIS is on the retreat, an early demise of this group is
unlikely. There is lack of coordination among the countries fighting against
IS, and the local opposition fighting against the al-Assad regime is also
The Syrian civil war is now in the sixth
year with no end in sight. The al-Assad regime seemed doomed soon after the
popular uprising began, but later it has been propped up by Iran and Russia.
Iran has sent its soldiers to fight alongside the Syrian regime forces. Russia
has largely helped the regime through its air force, but has also provided
crucial military supplies and support, notably at UN and the international
level. But for this foreign intervention in support of al-Assad regime, it
would have collapsed long ago. Russia’s motives in Syria are geostrategic.
Russian navy has long enjoyed base facilities in a Syrian port on the
Mediterranean. Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad had seized power in the 1960s and
established close ties with Moscow during the Cold War. Syria figured as an
important state in the Soviet (presently Russian) foreign policy in the Middle
East. More recently, Moscow has established close ties with Iran as well, capitalizing
on its anti-US stance. Thus Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime are like allies.
Iran’s motives in Syria are mainly
sectarian. The Alawites are a branch of Shias. Iran would not like them
replaced by a Sunni regime. Moreover, Iran has a geostrategic dimension in
keeping Alawites in power in Syria. Iran is the senior state in the Shia
crescent of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia’s stance in Syria is
based on the opposite reasons. The Saudis see themselves as leader of Sunni
Islam and have extended material support to Sunni insurgents in Syria. The
sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is thus being played out in the
bloody streets of Syria. But this rivalry goes back to the traditional
Ajam-Arab divide. More recently, it was the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979
that triggered a cold war with Saudi Arabia, backed by other Gulf States.
Primarily, it was Iran’s revolutionary anti-monarchical rhetoric that alarmed
the conservative pro-West Gulf regimes.
During the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf States
supported Saddam, fearing that his defeat would threaten their own security.
Saudi-Iran rivalry became more intense when Shias acquired power in Iraq after
Saddam’s ouster and established close ties with Tehran. Iran’s instigation of
Shias in Bahrain and Yemen has alarmed the Saudis who see these countries as
their own preserve. Finally, the younger generation that has recently come to
power in Saudi Arabia has a more assertive foreign policy towards Iran.
Bloodshed in Syria can stop only if Iran and Saudi Arabia come to terms. Iran
must stop its military intervention in Syria and the Saudis should curb the
Salafi religious institutions in their country that provide inspiration and
recruits for IS and other religious extremists. Other powers like US should
adopt a hands-off Syria policy.
Shahid M Amin served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the
ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.