What is ISIS?


The problem with the bomb-Syria-to-stop-ISIS-attacking-us argument is that is that the United States, the world’s greatest military superpower, has been bombing ISIS in Syria for over a year, and self-proclaimed ISIS-affiliates were still able to murder 130 people in Paris and 14 in San Bernardino.

Perhaps ISIS just needs to be bombed a bit more. But even if that is the case (which it isn’t), there’s nothing that says those bombs need to be dropped by British planes. America’s annual military budget is bigger than the ten next highest spenders combined. Britain getting involved is a bit like showing up to a party at Elton John’s house with a bottle of wine.

Much more importantly, though, Western interference is highly unlikely to solve a problem Western interference caused in the first place. It’s worth pausing briefly, to remind ourselves what ISIS is, and where it came from.

The West effectively created ISIS. Not in the direct, tin-foil-hat, Facebook conspiracy theory sort of way – but bungled Western intervention in the Middle East created the conditions that created ISIS.

ISIS is an armed Islamic extremist group. It’s mostly composed of Iraqi and Syrian Arabs from the Sunni denomination of Islam, and emerged out of Iraq in the aftermath of the US-led invasion.

As almost everyone now realises, the war had very little to with liberating Iraqis from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. It was really about the US, the unchallenged global superpower, securing Iraq’s colossal energy resources in a bare-faced attempt to ensure its dominance continued for decades to come.

But like every foreign power that’s ever turned up in someone else’s country to steal their resources, the Americans had a problem – namely millions of Iraqis quite keen to hang on to them. So they resorted to one of the oldest imperialist tricks in the book – divide and conquer.

Before the war, Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’ia (another branch of Islam) population got on quite well. Intermarriage was common, and it was widely considered rude to ask which one you were. Ruthless American divide-and-rule tactics changed that – creating awidespread sectarian conflict that ensured they were too busy fighting each other to gang up against the Westerners stealing their oil.

Militant extremist factions emerged on both sides. Sunni fanaticism was enthusiastically stoked from nearby Saudi Arabia, the West’s biggest, most morally dubious ally in the region – home to Wahabbism, a militantly ultra-conservative strain of Sunni Islam, and a lot of incredibly rich Saudis willing to support and fund groups fighting to impose that medieval values system.

Out of this geopolitical shit-storm emerged ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, but also variously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or just Islamic State. As the name suggests, ISIS wants to carve out its own Islamic state in the Middle East – a country run according to strict Sharia law, and the Sunni interpretation of Islam.

ISIS has hoovered up legions of angry, disillusioned, rudderless young Arabs who’d only ever known horrible dictatorship or bloody foreign intervention – and have now resolved to vent their grievances via the barrel of an AK-47.

There’s no question – it’s a hideous phenomenon, and one that deserves to be permanently stamped out. But bombing, thus far at least, has turned out to be a distinctly rubbish way of trying to contain ISIS in Iraq. And surely yet more violent intervention by overwhelmingly powerful foreigners is just going to accelerate the radicalisation of young Arabs – producing more innocent bystanders tipped over the edge into extremism when their father, mother, sister, brother, spouse or significant other gets chargrilled by a badly aimed Hellfire missile.

So how the hell do you go about trying to stop ISIS without blowing them to bits? The caveman mind-set that seems to prevail amongst the political elite (bad thing – smash bad thing) can’t compute it, but there are other courses of action.

Several were tweeted out by hippy communist pacifist David Davis, Tory MP for Haltemprice and Howden, on the day of the Syria debate: insisting Turkey shut borders with Syria, and cutting off the main sources of ISIS funding – the $1bn the organisation gets from selling oil, and the donations it receives from rich citizens of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states.

There are others. Very few, sadly, are likely to be tried by a Western political elite as determined to continue mollycoddling co-operative Arab despots as they are to respond to every Middle Eastern problem with bullets and bombs.