NEW DELHI: At the time of writing, France has begun bombing Islamic State strongholds in Raqqa, Syria. In the two days since the brutal attacks in Paris that killed over 130 people, the talk has shifted from compassion to security. The United States-led coalition is currently deliberating on a shift in strategy in Syria and Iraq, one that may increase involvement in the form of boots on the ground.

As the events play out, an observer may find it hard to keep up with the multitude of dynamics at play. As long as Daesh’s targets were Beirut, Baghdad, Sanaa or Kabul, it was possible to keep arm's length from the crisis currently engulfing the world. Following Paris, an opinion is expected as drawing room conversations come to involve the Islamic State, Paris, and the fight back.

If you’re reading this and are still trying to make sense of the events and factors leading up to the attack on the French capital, you’re not alone. Here is a (biased, albeit inadvertently) guide that attempts to provide some context to Paris 2015, and with it … to the rise of the Islamic State, the role of religion specifically Islam, US foreign policy in West Asia, and the most pertinent question of all: what’s the solution?

Who are the Islamic State?

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL; Arabic: ?????? ????????? ?? ?????? ??????‎), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, /?a?s?s/), the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham, or simply Islamic State (IS), is a militant group based in Syria and Iraq that draws inspiration from a manipulated strain of Wahhabism/Salafism within the fold of Sunni Islam toward its objective of establishing an Islamic Caliphate.

Also known as Daesh (a term the group objects to), the militants burst into the international limelight in 2014, with the capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul. Since then, Daesh led by its leader Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has become notorious for its brutality in the form of mass killings, abductions and beheadings. The majority of its violence is rooted in Syria and Iraq, but in increasing frequency in recent months, the group has been making inroads into Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and as evinced by the recent attacks in Beirut, Lebanon.

The group’s rise has been the reason for a sustained military campaign led by the US and its allies, that has been bombing parts of Syria and Iraq (and recently even Libya) in a bid to defeat Daesh.

If you’re content with this surface answer, you can skip to the next question in bold. The rise of Daesh, however, provides an insight into the factors at play in West Asia.

The group’s conception can be traced back to the Iraqi invasion of 2003, when the toppling of Saddam Hussein created a power vacuum that the US then filled with ethno-religious Shia political figures. Institutions in post Hussein Iraq came to be organised on sectarian lines, with representation fixed for Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians. This encouraged the Shia politicians at the Centre, in power for the first time, to pursue distinctly divisive policies -- which, the US and its allies were quick to support such as the military crackdown on Anbar in December 2013 or the clampdown on protests in Fallujah -- the first city to fall to Daesh.

It is this emergence of a Sunni identity rooted in the notion of victimhood, that made the emergence of Daesh in Iraq possible. The other factors included the ineffectual campaign against Al Qaeda and the targeting of Saddam’s Ba’athist party members. Daesh first came into existence in 2004 under the name Jam??at al-Taw??d wa-al-Jih?d, or "The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad" (JTJ). It went through a number of names, including Tan??m Q??idat al-Jih?d f? Bil?d al-R?fidayn and the Dawlat al-?Iraq al-Isl?m?yah, before expanding into Syria some time in 2013.

The group’s success in Syria made its success in Iraq possible, with the group reorganising into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant", or the "Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” in 2013. In Syria, the group was initially supported by the US and its allies, who shared with Daesh the objective to topple Alawite leader Bashar al Assad, whom these countries continue to oppose. The US greenlighted Turkish and Saudi aid to anti-Assad rebels, supplied these groups with material and financial assistance, and used the CIA to train rebels at a secret base in Jordan. The aid began as non-lethal aid, but following a June 2013 White House statement that said there was reason to believe that Assad had been using chemical weapons against rebels, the US decided to extend lethal aid to anti-Assad militias. The total aid given by the US to rebels in Syria, according to USAID figures, amounts to over $1 billion, and Daesh was an initial benefactor of this aid, enabling it to consolidate territory and turn to Iraq from a position of strength.

What is their religion and what is the role of militant Islam in their fight?

As Daesh gained strength, they projected a particularly manipulated strain of Wahabi Islam to encourage recruits. This interpretation of Islam has been widely rejected by the Muslim world as a perversion of the teachings of the Prophet. Yet, analysis after analysis in the media attempts to link the ideological roots of Daesh to the teachings of Islam. Further, the fact that Daesh and their ideology is a fringe element and must be treated so is reflected in the fact that roughly 0.003 percent of the global Muslim population constitute Daesh, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and the like. For Daesh, a backlash to attacks like Paris and the equation with the Muslim world serve the group’s misguided purpose of projecting their efforts as a response to a “war against Islam” in a bid to increase their appeal and legitimacy.

It is imperative to note that the group’s activities are concentrated in the Muslim world, with an overwhelming majority of their targets being other Muslims. Daesh must not be understood in the flawed light of “West versus non West” or “Muslims versus non Muslims” as that is exactly what they are gunning for.

Further, militant Islam is a manipulation of the teachings of a peaceful religion to suit political ends. Militancy is not unique to Islam, with religion being used for violence by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka or Myanmar, or by Christian militias in South Sudan or the Central African Republic. The answer to the question of why militant Islam is more pervasive relates to demographics, the othering of the global Muslim, the lack of integration in societies, and the global response to militant Islam that perpetuates the cycle of violence.

Why can’t we beat them into submission?

For many, a coordinated military response is the only way to defeat Daesh. This line of reasoning is complicated by a number of factors. For one, history is not the side of this position. An example is Afghanistan, where the US trained, supported and funded the Mujahideen -- who eventually organised themselves into the Taliban, who are currently at ‘war’ with the US and the Afghan government. The US is repeating the same mistake in Syria, where in a bid to topple Assad, it is propping up anti-Assad militias. It has repeated that same mistake in Iraq and in Libya, to name two other examples.

History repeating itself is also evinced in the fact that US President Barack Obama, shortly after assuming office declared that the Al Qaeda was finished. Ironically, in 2015, the US is relying on an AUMF (2001) that was promulgated to fight Al Qaeda, to fight the Islamic State, despite the two groups having formally denounced each other.

Another reason why beating Daesh or Al Qaeda or Boko Haram or the Al Nusra Front (or name one of hundreds of militant groups active in West Asia) is going to be difficult is because of the absence of a localised ‘enemy.’

Here’s a graphic representation of the mess that is West Asia.


In fact, the US is pursuing such a confused strategy that has no clear idea of who its ‘enemies’ even are. In Yemen, for instance, the US is supporting Sunni militias against the Shia-backed Houthi rebels. Daesh is one of the Sunni militias active in Yemen, as is Al Qaeda. In Afghanistan, the US does not even consider the Taliban a ‘terrorist organisation’, preferring to call it an “armed insurgency” instead. Why? Because after 13 years of war in Afghanistan, the US has no choice but to push for dialogue with the Taliban, and as per policy, the US doesn’t “negotiate with terrorists” therefore making a hypocritical change in nomenclature the only possible move.

Another factor that makes military action the non-preferred response is the cycle of alienation and violence. Hundreds of civilians are killed in drone attacks and bombs, and a majority of these deaths go undocumented. One of the reasons for this is the vague term “militant.” The US administration assumes that military age males in strike zones are militants, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Further, the local population is considered “guilty by association” and will be defined as a “militant” if they are seen in the company or in the association of a terrorist operative.

“Signature strikes” are also another example of indiscriminate killings being ratified as official policy. Individuals are targeted without any knowledge of their identity, if they are seen in engaging in what is deemed as “suspicious activity.” Suspicious activity is itself very loosely defined, prompting a senior State Department official to note that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.

This perpetuates a cycle of alienation amongst targeted population -- who have lost loved ones to drone strikes and military operations. The US military justify their actions by the death toll of militants, but the local people feel that a lot of this tally is indiscriminate killings. It is this sense of alienation that makes radicalisation possible in the first place.

So what’s the solution?

The answer to this question is complicated given the number of factors at play, and given space constraints, it is perhaps best left in detail to another article. The complicated answer takes into account the US relationship with the Saudi monarchy, the Shia-Sunni history of conflict, the overlapping power structures and US meddling rooted perhaps in David Harvey’s theory of accumulation by dispossession, and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A solution that addresses all of the above, however, is unrealistic even for the idealist that is this writer.

A more practical solution lies in a reshaped strategy that does not accentuate short term gains for long term costs, but instead, focuses on addressing the root cause of militancy, i.e, alienation. This can be done through capacity building, local initiatives and grievance redressal measures, employment, integration, poverty alleviation… the list goes on.

The tragedy, however, is the realisation that this reshaped strategy is perhaps as unlikely as the ‘complicated’ solution that tries to make right centuries of factors that have made the world the mess that it is today.

(Follow @Gayeti on Twitter)

(Cartoon by Mika Aziz)