Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham

Article excerpt

This article examines the rise of the zX-Qa '/¿to-aligned group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) since its announcement in April 2013 until September 2013. It focuses in particular on its military operations and its relations with other rebel groups. The article concludes by examining what the fixture holds for ISIS on the whole.

INTRODUCTION: THE IDEOLOGY

The group under consideration in this paper-like al-Qa'ida central under Usama bin Ladin and subsequently Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Tehrik-e-Taliban of Waziristan, and others-is part of what one might term the "global jihad" movement. This movement is not a coherent whole organized by a strict central hierarchy, but rather one defined by a shared ideology. This ideology aims firstly to reestablish a system of governance known as the Caliphate-an Islamic form of government that first came into being after Muhammad's death under Abu Bakr and saw its last manifestation in the Ottoman Empire-across the entire Muslim world. From there, the intention is to spread the Caliphate across the entire world.1

This worldview is one of many answers formulated to answer a question posed in the wider Muslim world: Namely, what has been the cause of decline of the Muslim world-and the Arab world in particular-in contrast to the apparent success of the West since the nineteenth century? The answer formulated by ideologues of the global jihad movement is that the cause of this decline is rooted in the Muslim world's deviation from the path of Islam by not applying Islamic law to governance in its totality. This is to be contrasted with the "Islamic Golden Age" in Islam's first five centuries or so-idealized in different ways by others not of this orientation-when the Muslim world was supposedly uncontaminated by foreign influences. Of course, given that era's exploitation of the classical Greek heritage through the translation movement under the Abbasidsthe global jihad movement's portrayal of this era is blatantly unhistorical. Nonetheless, the perception is what matters.

In light of the ISIS' ambitious goals, it is imperative to consider the group's fortunes in Syria, which in tum will allow policymakers to assess what threat, if any, the group poses to the wider international order in the long-term.

BACKGROUND: QUARRELS AT THE LEADERSHIP LEVEL

Prior to the announcement of ISIS by the leader of Iraq's al-Qa'ida affiliate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the main al-Qa'ida-aligned group operating in Syria was Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) under the leadership of Abu Muhammad alJawlani. JN, which had initially been established in January 2012 with financial and manpower support from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI),2 had enjoyed a fair degree of success throughout Syria in conducting operations and establishing a foothold in areas freed from regime control.

The success was partly rooted in the manner in which JN has portrayed its efforts in Syria-namely, as a defensive jihad to protect the Muslim population in the face of oppression.3 Thus, outreach to locals became and still remains an important part of JN's strategy. For example, media reports widely noted JN's running of bakery services for locals in places such as Aleppo,4 and one jihadi news outlet-the Himam News Agencyregularly puts out videos of JN's provision of public services in towns such as Binnish in Idlib, where JN fighters run garbage collection and disposal.5

In terms of JN's overall position in Syria, while it was clear that the group had a presence in operations throughout the country from Dar'a in the far southwest to Hasakah in the far northeast, the evidence suggested that the group was best established in the Aleppo and Deir al-Zor govemorates. However, it by no means follows from this assessment that JN somehow controlled a substantial amount of territory in either of these provinces. Moreover, JN had faced a degree of resentment and backlash from locals, as occurred in the town of Mayadin in the Deir al-Zor govemorate-though such demonstrations of opposition could easily be met with counter-rallies by JN supporters. …

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