Thinking Aloud: Year in Review Countdown … #1

Dec. 30, 2014 by Darius

[As 2014 draws to a close, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look back at what I consider to be the three biggest international affairs events to occur in 2014 and why I consider them to be important.  Two days ago, I discussed my #3, Russia’s semi-invasion of Ukraine.  Yesterday, I discussed my #2, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.]

The most important event of 2014: ISIS’s rampage across northern Syria and Iraq.  (Okay, who didn’t predict that?)

ISIS has its roots in al-Qaeda’s former Iraqi affiliate, known (catchily) as al-Qaeda in Iraq.  When the Syrian civil war began in 2011, many former AQI militants travelled to Syria to fight.  Successful on the battlefield and attractive to donors, the leader of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (a nom de guerre, of course), declared the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in April 2013.  At this point, ISIS was still formally under the command of al-Qaeda’s leadership.  However, in a leadership dispute, al-Baghdadi refused to abide by the rulings of al-Qaeda’s leader and, eight months after it was formed, ISIS formally broke from al-Qaeda.  ISIS ultimately took control of much of northeastern Syria, ruling from the Syrian city of Raqqah.

In December 2013, ISIS began escalating its activities in Anbar Province in Iraq.  In January 2014, ISIS heralded the start of a new era in the Middle East when its fighters took control of the major cities in Anbar Province, Fallujah and Ramadi.  Taking advantage of sectarian tensions in Iraq, ISIS consolidated its hold on the area despite several local tribal uprisings, which were brutally crushed.

In June, ISIS launched another major offensive, this time across northern Iraq.  On June 3, ISIS fighters captured the city of Samarra, and on June 6, ISIS took its biggest prize yet: Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.  The Iraqi Army failed to put up major resistance and retreated south, abandoning countless tons of equipment and weapons.  By June 13, ISIS fighters had run into Kurdish militias in northeastern Iraq.  On June 29, ISIS’s leader al-Baghdadi did something not even Osama bin Laden had dared to do: he proclaimed ISIS to be a caliphate, with himself as caliph (naturally), asserting his right to rule all Muslims worldwide.

ISIS continued to push east into Kurdish-occupied areas, including threatening the traditional lands of the Yazidis, an ancient minority religion of Iraq.  Fearing genocide at the hands of ISIS, which views them as heretics, tens of thousands of Yazidis fled into the mountains, prompting an international humanitarian response.  Soon after, when ISIS beheaded several captured Americans, the United States announced it would begin conducting airstrikes against ISIS.  These airstrikes continue to the present.

Today, ISIS is in possession of thousands of square miles of territory containing an estimated eight million people in Syria and Iraq.  Thanks to oil sales, extortion, and pillaging, it is also the richest terrorist group in history, controlling hundreds of millions of dollars in cash flows.

ISIS’s spectacular rise is important for a number of reasons.  (1) ISIS heralds something new in modern history: a terrorist group holding territory, proclaiming itself a state, and even governing.  ISIS has out-radicalized even jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and has come out the clear winner of an ideological war within takfiri Islam.  (2) ISIS and its ideologically motivated foreign fighters may have made a negotiated peace in Syria impossible.  (3) ISIS is an existential threat to Shi’ite Muslims anywhere in their neighborhood, be they in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, or elsewhere, and Israel.  (4) ISIS has drawn the United States and other Western powers back into combat in the Middle East, likely for years to come.  (5) Wealthy funders in the Gulf countries and Sunni preachers in populous countries like Egypt have been forced to reconsider their support of jihad now that it has begun to look less like an avocation and more like a threat to their own countries. Western countries have also had to pay attention to marginalized or disaffected Muslim populations in their own countries, which is easier said than done. (6) ISIS has the potential to allow the US and Iran to finally again find common ground and perhaps even the US and Russia to find common cause.  (Interestingly, many of ISIS’s imams are reportedly from the Caucasus region of Russia, an area radicalized over the last decade by recordings of Saudi-style preachers.)  (7) ISIS represents not only an existential threat to two long-standing nation-states, Iraq and Syria, a caliphate threatens the very idea of a nation-state in the Middle East and perhaps beyond.  This applies to nation-states with monarchs, such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco, nation-states with authoritarian rulers, such as Egypt or Algeria, nation-states with democracies, such as Tunisia and Lebanon, nation-states with no discernible government, such as Libya and Yemen, and Muslim-majority nation-states from Senegal to Indonesia.  A caliphate rejects the entire Western notion of a nation-state, let alone democracy.  It puts to the sword everything the US has fought for in Iraq for the last decade.

Suffice it to say, ISIS is powerful and entrenched, but a lot of people, including very powerful people with very powerful tools at their disposal, are very pissed off.  This story will not be ending in 2014 and perhaps not in 2015.  In many ways, in the Middle East at least, 2014 was the year of ISIS.

For more on this story, see:

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