About a year ago the the world’s press threw out and then buried possibly the most important if relatively uninteresting indicators of the nature of the so called Islamic State; the destruction of the Borders between Syria and Iraq. Whilst this event did cause some commentators to bring up the 100 year old Sykes-Picot agreement that established the framework for what became the Arab States, almost all of these news organisations failed to take these facts to the next level and point out that abolishing the Syria-Iraq border, along with many other goals of the Islamic State, was and is one of the major goals of the Ba’athism; A school of Arab Nationalist thought that is the Ideology of the Assad regime in Syria as well as the pre-2003 Iraqi regime. The reference point that most news organisations have used to place I.S.I.L. is as a successor to Al Queda – emphasizing the need to label state as the next logical step in radical Islamic development. Whilst it’s true that the flavor of is certainly that of a specific interpretation of Sharia, the driving substance of the caliphate is, far from a cosmic battle between the forces good and evil, an extremely temporal restoration project on behalf of those who prospered under Saddam Hussein.
The history of Iraq and Syria (something it’s necessary to have a working knowledge of before talking about I.S.I.L.) is long and complex, for the sake of brevity I will try and condense what I understand as the essentials into five paragraphs. I would recommend you don’t take my biased perspective at face value and do your own research when you have the time, for the time being:
The Collapse of the Ottoman Empire (something western empires had been worried about since the end of the Napoleonic war, as the collapse of Turkey would pave the way for Russian Domination of the region) was preempted by an Anglo-French agreement, carving up the oil-rich, northern part of the empire into spheres of influence, these spheres would, under the treaty of Versailles, evolve into protectorates governed by these empires on behalf of the League of Nations.
These territories were Nominally independent but under the control of their mother country, breaking what had been previously an alleged united peoples back into the various tribal and then national identities that had existed during the Ottoman occupation. The end result of this process put Iraq under British control and Syria under French control. During this period the British put the hero of the Arab revolt: King Faisal on the throne whilst the French administered Syria in a much more direct manner, modeling the country on the French republic. The result of this was that Iraqi and Syrian political culture developed apart from each other finding orientating separately around Baghdad and Damascus. This all despite the large pan-Arabist contingent within both countries seeking an eventual union.
With this in the background the Ba’ath party was founded in Damascus in 1947. An Arab Nationalist, Socialist party, the Ba’athists aimed to unite all Arabs under one government, seeing itself as akin to movements like the African National Congress, as an fundamentally anti-colonial party, however because the Arabic world has so many cultural and political centers (Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Mecca, Tripoli, Tunis, etc etc) there is no obvious center of the Arab world. This made it much easier for political tensions once the Ba’athists had taken over in both Iraq and Syria, to take on regional overtones. Despite a near successful attempt to unify the two states, an eventual split in 1966 left the Iraqi party (and state) as a much more Soviet orientated organisation and the Syrian Ba’athist government orientated much more toward Egypt and Nassarism, as shown by Syria’s Brief stint as part of the United Arab Republic.
As these two Ba’ath parties grew apart they began – inevitably – to portray each other as the immediate ideological problem within Arab nationalism, using each other as a convenient foil whilst never describing each other as enemies but not giving up on their stated goals of annexing each other either, in much the same way the Irish republic used to claim Northern Ireland without overtly stating it was the enemy of the British government. Because of it’s secular nature, Both Ba’ath parties have been dominated by religious minorities; Sunnis in Iraq and Alawites in Syria. This meant that by the 2003 Invasion of Iraq and the abolition of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, which under Saddam Hussein had cultivated Iraqi Ba’athism as the only thing holding back the Shi’a from killing the Sunni, leading to the conflict between those two religious groups that colored the Iraq war for the better part of a decade. Saddam’s disfranchisement of large parts Iraqi population was made worse by the fact that the Iraqi people have been subjected to war, crippling sanctions and isolation from the international community for the better part of the last three decades, beginning with Operation Desert Storm and continuing to time of writing.
The 2003 invasion also re-enforced the already prevalent notion within a large section of the party faithful as well as Arabs generally, that unity in the region is a necessity for independence. Something that has gained strength through mixing the cause of Arab Nationalism with that of international political Islam; thus tapping into the kind of liberation politics that managed to connect the likes of Hussein with a range of oppressed peoples from African Americans to Bosniaks.
All this history is necessary to emphasize that the mysticism I.S.I.L. is attempting to cultivate along with it’s self image as a a brand new form of government, completely detached from all past endeavors aside the time of the prophet, is the result of a cynical marriage between Saddam Hussein’s former lieutenants (who make up the bulk of I.S.I.L.’s leadership) and Al Queda rejects attempting to create a a new Saddamist government straddling the two states their wing of the Ba’athist party claims rights over.
Well after the Arab Nationalism that had brought him to power in the 1970s had faded from relevance Hussein was using Islam as his legitimacy crutch. it isn’t a stretch to then see his subordinates taking a large contingent of former Saddam regime soldiers into the desert to set up a haven for themselves, that is also the embodiment of the kind of adversarial nihilism, that draws the ire of western governments which then gives them credibility and support with the kind of adversarial nihilists from around the world who would come to the Syrian-Iraqi border to fight thus giving I.S.I.L. a ready made army of thousands without having to do much work in the way of recruitment.
This is why it is important to reject the notion that I.S.I.L. has any more to with Islam than say, the dude they’re fighting who claims descent from the Prophet, or the Party of God. I don’t mean this in a clickbatey, all-brothers-under-the-skin, way. It’s important part of the ‘degrading‘ process that Obama keeps talking about, too point out that far from a cabal of true believers, I.S.I.L. is a grubby little project to put Saddam Hussein’s successors back in power in Mesopotamia. That they are preying on a population that has been battered and broken by nearly three decades of war, utilizing religious sentiment of their region of choice like every other political charlatan before them. Whilst it’s easy to match the seeming endless violence and chaos in the region by simply shrugging and saying “oh dear” to it all, it is important to remember that I.S.I.L. are being checked by movements that are not just rational but down right progressive, and that those organisations need the support of the wider world. Whilst it’s fashionable among a certain kind of western secular thinker to shrug off I.S.I.L. as just another outpouring of just what those brown savages do, it’s important to remember that this attitude isn’t just racist, it’s stupid and will probably be remembered in history in the same vein as the governments who blocked aid to the Spanish republic allowing forty years of fascist violence to dominate the Iberian peninsular.