Commentary by Tamer Mallat– 14 June 2014
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL, Da’esh in Arabic) lightning invasion of Iraq is a serious cause for alarm. The speed by which it has taken over major Iraqi cities is revealing of the extent of the training its members have received, the numbers it commands and the resources at its disposal. The blitz also demonstrates just how powerful ISIL really is, and how it has asserted itself as a kingmaker in the Syrian civil war. Facing little or no resistance, the success of its operation appears imminent. And yet, this precipitated invasion may offer the first glimmer of hope for the Syrian conflict – the first of its kind in years since the revolution was hijacked by radicals.
For over a year, ISIL has asserted its control over most of eastern Syria, while maintaining a strong presence in the north. With steady supplies of resources and arms – mostly emanating from Iraq, where the group was established – ISIL has been able to consolidate its positions. Other, more moderate groups, which lacked support and sophisticated weapons, were quickly eliminated from the equation. Moreover, the moderate elements of the Syrian revolution found themselves fighting two fronts. On the one hand, and in a bid to force the West to accept a fait accompli situation where it would have to choose between the Syrian regime or radical Islamists, Bashar al-Assad waged a war against moderate positions while sparing ISIL and other similar groups. On the other hand, Da’esh sought to establish its rule over conquered regions, formerly controlled by rebels. It battered moderate groups, imposed its perverse and violent interpretation of Islamic norms, and repressed all those that opposed it.
Until recently, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant remained entrenched in the regions of Syria under its direct control. While its operations have covered Iraq, its focus, for the past two years, has been Syria. Ideologically, the Revolution against Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime gave the group legitimacy amongst its radical Sunni sympathizers. With the image of radical groups tarnished in Iraq following the killings of thousands of innocent Shiite civilians, ISIL’s intervention in Syria could not have been better chosen. The Syrian Revolution constituted a veritable jus ad bellum, and ISIL saw in Bashar al-Assad the incarnation of the perfect enemy. By maintaining an illusionary front in Syria against al-Assad, it has been able to attract more and more sympathizers. In reality, ISIL only sought to consolidate its rule over the regions it already controlled or those seized from Syrian revolutionary groups.
Today, the element of surprise and the sheer speed of Da’esh’s military operation has allowed the group to gain considerable territory over a matter of hours and days. Notwithstanding the seemingly formidable allure of its accomplishments, ISIL is scattered. Its troops are spread across territories spanning thousands of kilometers. The cities it has taken over have been abandoned by those who run them. With administrators, policemen and public servants all fleeing for fear of reprisals, ISIL is now forced to administer the cities it controls, or face possible rebellions. Such a predicament constrains its capabilities considerably.
The context of uncertainty concerning ISIL’s effective and prolonged control over vast territories offers hope for the Syrian quagmire. With most of its operatives spread across Iraq, ISIL is vulnerable in Syria. This window of opportunity should not be ignored. Moderate groups, with the help of their Western allies, could take advantage of this situation to retake lost territory and repel extremists. This could allow moderate rebels the chance to regroup and regain strategic routes and cities, tipping the balance of power in the ravaged country.
Some argue that such a configuration could effectively transform moderate rebels into Western proxies to fight off the terrorist threat, instead of focusing on the primary objective – that of removing Bashar al-Assad from power. Notwithstanding these risks, which are real, the fall of Bashar al-Assad remains unrealistic within the current configuration. The shadow of ISIL is prevalent, and the revolution cannot exist so long as the extremist threat is maintained. Only with the elimination of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant can the revolution be salvaged. Until then, it is unlikely for moderate rebels to find a way to regain their former strength and legitimacy: The situation does not present a lesser of two evils, but getting rid of one of the two first may very well simplify the task of eliminating the second.
This piece was published in The Daily Star’s opinion page.
Tamer Mallat is the co-founder of ArabsThink.com, a Middle-East and North Africa political, legal and economic analysis website.