The second and final day of the ACRPCS conference on the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant came to a close on Sunday, October 19 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Doha, Qatar. Participants at this event, entitled “From Peoples' Revolutions to an Arena of Regional and International Conflict: The Rise of ISIL and Renewed American Involvement” came from a diverse set of countries and academic arenas but nonetheless reached broad consensus on a number of key points. The most significant point of consensus was perhaps that reached on the futility of attempts to find purely military solutions to the whole spectrum of problems brought into sharp focus by the existence of ISIL.
The most explicit expression of this sentiment was made by Andreas Krieg, a war studies lecturer from King’s College London who is also on the staff of Qatar’s Joaan Bin Jassim Joint Command and Staff College. He emphasized that the coalition presently assembled to combat the group “cannot defeat” ISIL, echoing the view also presented earlier by Qatari academic Mohammed Al Misfer that there could be no military solution to ISIL’s expansion across the Fertile Crescent. Indeed, most of the participants who had convened in Doha focused on the critically important set of factors related to the poor governance of the Middle East, and particularly the lack of accountability on the part of governments which violently repressed protest movements.
Krieg also discussed the sectarian divide in the Middle East noting that before the consolidation of ISIL around a series of grievances held by the majority-Sunni population in the plains between Iraq and Syria, Iran had—as many pointed out during the proceedings—leveraged its influence amongst the Shi’ite Muslim communities of the Arabian Peninsula and Bahrain, Iraq and in particular Lebanon. As Krieg pointed out citing the example of Bahrain, however, Iran was only able to exploit sectarian sentiments amongst Shi’ite Muslims because of genuine discrimination faced by the Shi’ite minorities in countries dominated by other sects. Today, this situation has come full circle with Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria suffering at the hands of Iranian-sponsored regimes that rule over their countries, and therefore resorting to the creation of Sunni militias to counter Iran’s proxy forces that had become combatants in domestic conflicts. It was unclear how this new threat of ISIL which, in the words of ACRPS Researcher Marwan Kabalan, “poses an existential threat to all countries in the region” was going to be neutralized by the newly formed, US-led military coalition, but Krieg considered, based on his experience, that the chances of success of an approach based on a traditional military operation were minimal, due to the limited present defense capacities of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. This lack of capacity was despite the massive expenditures on armaments for which GCC states have become well known. He cited the example of the US$ 23.5 billion which Qatar had recently spent on weapons during the 2014 Dimdex exhibition (held in Qatar during March of this year).
ACRPS Researcher Marwan Kabalan emphasized this irony with his analogy at the outset of the roundtable discussion: while Israel possessed a nuclear weapons advantage over its Arab neighbors, and Iran possessed enough of a conventional weapons arsenal “to destroy the Gulf states, several times over”, the weapons that ISIL used were “the brain-washed young men” who were clamoring to volunteer for the organization. Anas Azraq, a Syrian journalist with extensive knowledge of extremist groups who was in attendance throughout the meeting, described the threat posed by such brainwashed young men to countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia as “clear and present”, citing the large numbers of volunteers from many different Arab countries who had joined ISIL’s ranks. Beyond the geopolitical and military struggle, other participants focused on the moral and social convulsions witnessed by the Arab region as a result of (or alongside of ) the emergence of ISIL. Haidar Said, an Iraqi academic, described the situation which gave rise to ISIL as nothing less than “the collapse of the Arab Levant”, a region which he described as unique for the complexity of identities to be found within its native populations, in contrast to the Gulf region and the Arab Maghreb. Said pointed out that Al Baghdadi, the proclaimed Prince of the Faithful and Caliph of Muslims who leads ISIL, was, like him, born in the early 1970s: a generation which, he said, had “lived through Iraq’s experiment with socialism” and had known a more inclusive Iraq. The capture of Mosul by the millenarian, zealous group led by Al Baghdadi in June of this year was, according to Said, the “clearest possible evidence of the failure of modernity in the Levant”. Said’s somber, pessimistic assessment was difficult to escape, with nobody at the conference offering any clear “road map” for a return to pluralism.
Closing the roundtable discussion, ACRPS Director Azmi Bishara reminded the attendees of the importance of examining the phenomenon of ISIL from across the variety of disciplines represented at the meeting. In this vein, and from a perspective of political science, Bishara pointed out two of specific designators that made ISIL different from other well-known groups to which it was often compared. Firstly, ISIL had wanted to create a state institution—unlike Al Qaeda—but also one which was divorced from any kind of national reality—unlike the Taliban. Yet one other distinguishing characteristic of the group, said Bishara, was its ability to highlight the moral selectivity and double standards of which the Arab Middle East has long been a victim. “The same people who are now having nightmares about the rise of ISIL stood idly by as the Syrian regime’s Shabiha militia cut the throats of Syrian civilians”, Bishara added. Finally, what ISIL was able to demonstrate, said Bishara, was an uncanny understanding of the “power of the image” to Western public opinion: by broadcasting videos of the atrocities it carried out, ISIL were able to reverse the Obama administration’s policy on the Middle East and drag a coalition into a military conflict in Iraq and Syria. This also brought us face to face, said the ACRPS Director, with the reality that the US had no clear strategy on how to confront the radical group, with Obama offering instead “a form of crisis management”: the crisis to be managed in this instance, however, was Obama’s domestic political crisis, rather than the Arab region’s existential peril.