ICG’s Peter Harling interviewed on ISIS

Le Point: How do Sunni populations perceive this organisation: as a terrorist group or a liberator from the Shiite yoke?

Peter Harling: Both! The Sunni Arab world is in an existential crisis. So far, the region has, so to speak, failed to exit from an era of decline that began under the domination of the Ottoman Empire and continued through colonialism, multiple Western intrusions and the trauma of the creation of Israel. The great independence movements, which started as powerful sources of inspiration, quickly degenerated into autocratic kleptomaniac clans. Their Islamist alternatives, offering attractive visions of the future, were utopian and failed miserably when put into practice.

The Arab uprisings – a flashing, beautiful moment – were meant to offer redemption and a new beginning to the region but for now have turned into a nightmare. Imagine the mixed feelings of confusion, failure, bitterness, injustice and humiliation that followed. Add the unthinkable violence applied by the Syrian regime, without any serious reaction from the West; the depth and breadth of the humanitarian crisis that ensued; the upsetting rise of reactionary trends in Egypt, in the Gulf and elsewhere. Finally, add to all of this the constant provocations coming from the Shiite world, which is enough in the ascendant to be experiencing a form of hubris. In sum, very few people like Daesh, but there is nothing else.

How did the organisation manage to take possession of large parts of territory?

Daesh is filling a void. It imposed itself in the north east of Syria essentially because the Syrian regime had withdrawn from this largely barren region. It was able to take control of Mosul, in Iraq, simply because the authorities were present only through local elites sold-out to Baghdad and a sectarian, cynical and incompetent security apparatus. Daesh recently penetrated into the north of Lebanon, in a particularly neglected fringe of the country.

However, Daesh does not use its limited resources to try to expand its territory in zones where its occupation is doomed to fail, that is, zones where there can be an active resistance. That is why it has always been absurd to think that the organisation would march to Baghdad, which is well defended by Shiite militias, or take over Erbil, a fiefdom of Kurdish factions. In the same way, Daesh does not seriously attack the Syrian regime. On the contrary, it focuses on imposing its hegemony in those zones it is capable of dominating, decimating any potential Sunni Arab competitor.

Who is to blame for the rise of IS?

Everyone participated in it: the Iranians, by supporting the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, whose explicit aim was to radicalise Sunnis in order to discredit and to combat any opposition in the name of a so-called “war against terrorism”, and then by bankrolling a Shiite jihad which could only reinforce its Sunni counterpart. The West, by encouraging a Syrian revolt to which we offered solidarity and support, but which we mostly left on its own to face extreme forms and levels of violence. Turkey, which until recently had its borders wide open to anyone claiming to be going to fight Bashar al-Assad. The Gulf monarchies, which financed the Syrian opposition in an indecisive, confused and reckless way, which indirectly benefited the jihadis. [Continue reading…]

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