The emergence of the group as a non-state actor caused general confusion for foreign policymakers of countries in the region and abroad. The US has been forced to engage militarily in the area once more, in opposition to Obama’s goal to refrain from military intervention in the Middle East. Turkey refuses to join the military alliance against Daesh so long as it is not also opposing the Assad regime in Syria. Similarly, the Gulf States were reluctant to support operations against IS because they do not serve the goal of overthrowing Assad. Meanwhile, Iran uses its influence in Iraq and Syria in a manner that Washington views as political blackmail. The emergence of IS represents a setback to the Syrian Revolution in particular, and an expression of great disappointment for the Arab Spring in general.
The outbreak of the Arab revolutions,(1) beginning with Tunisia at the end of 2010, incited widespread optimism. Some may term the aftermath the disappearance of the “Arab Spring”(2) because more than three years later, there is little optimism left. Events have taken an undesirable turn, with the exception of Tunisia, and even it is struggling to keep the revolution on track.(3)
The conditions of the other revolutions are not healthy: In Egypt the counter-revolution has prevailed due to the July 2013 military coup that ousted the first democratically elected president in the history of modern Egypt. The 25 January revolution has become just a memory of the past.(4) As for Libya, after the death of Gaddafi the country plunged into a political and military conflict which shows no sign of abatement.(5) In Yemen, things are no less complex: the capital Sanaa has fallen into the hands of the Houthis at an amazing speed.(6) Consequently, al-Qaeda is flourishing,(7) and occasionally even the southern movement calling for secession becomes active, causing the Yemeni revolution’s loss amid this dark atmosphere. The Syrian revolution has been completely obscured by the dust of a multi-front war, a war in which IS has emerged(8) as a significant and complex political and military force.
This report seeks to present the Islamic State (ISIS) as a paradox. The nature of this paradox is reflected on several levels: in the context of its emergence, in its political essence, and in its impact on the foreign policies of states and inter-governmental relations. The report argues that these paradoxes can be viewed as the result of political disillusionment.
ISIS: Is it the Black Swan of the Arab Spring?
According to Nassim Taleb,(9) a specific event can be regarded as a black swan if the following three conditions are met: it is unexpected, the impact of its consequences is great and it is understood and interpreted after the fact.(10) Thus, the question presents itself: can IS’ emergence in the context of the Arab Spring be called a black swan? There was consensus that the Arab Spring (which itself can be seen as another black swan) represented a severe blow to the ideology of al-Qaeda. According to this ideology, fighting the US and its allies (the far enemy) or authoritarian Arab regimes (the near enemy) is the only path to achieving the Islamic world’s independence. The Arab revolutions have clearly demonstrated that this conviction is wrong and the Arab peoples were able to oust authoritarian regimes through peaceful protest. Moreover, political Islam movements were able to reach the apex of power or at least to participate in government through democratic means. It can be said the Arab Spring has caused great embarrassment to al-Qaeda. The rebellious peoples paid little attention to al-Qaeda’s leaders who, ever since, have been trying to catch up with the events of the Arab Spring. It was thought that the Arab Spring was the beginning of the end of al-Qaeda. But instead, breaking the Syrian revolution, IS emerged as the most extreme version of al-Qaeda.
This was outside the scope of expectations, and has had enormous geopolitical and humanitarian consequences. Now that IS has become a tangible reality, it is possible to interpret and analyse the reasons for its emergence, and to study the various consequences that resulted from this emergence. In other words, IS meets the criteria of a black swan if examined in the Arab Spring’s context.
Daesh’s paradoxical birth can be interpreted as a disappointment in the Arab Spring. Though the primary goal of this spring was to remove the authoritarian regimes through civil and peaceful means, all the Arab Spring cases share the reality of not accomplishing their full mission.(11) They differ in the degree of their failure and in the causes underlying this failure, so can IS’ emergence be considered a realistic consequence of this failure? The reality is that disappointment at this failure has rekindled the idea on which al-Qaeda was established: there is no way to bring about radical change, except by fighting. It allowed the proponents of this idea to proudly say: “We've repeatedly confirmed to you that you will never succeed through democracy”.
Al-Qaeda never believed in the Arab Spring. Only when the situation in Syria morphed into general war did al-Qaeda begin to treat it as a real spring, and then only to its advantage. The moment the Syrian revolution was forced into war is the moment of the Arab Spring’s failure and the moment IS was allowed to emerge. This is the paradox of Daesh’s emergence in the context of the Arab Spring: it represents a crude expression of disappointment.
Daesh: state against a state
It is clear that that Daesh considers the modern nation-state as its enemy. It seeks, according to an imperial perception of Islam, to remove the regional state formed after the colonial era, and replace it with an Islamic Caliphate state. This leaves the question of the IS’ reality and whether it is regarded as the latest revolutionary movement in the face of Western imperialism, or as a social Islamic fundamentalist movement. Perhaps the best approach to understand Daesh is to view it as a modern state. Surprisingly enough, it has all the structure needed for the rise of the modern state, or at least the Hobbes’ Leviathan state.(12) In that state, everyone is subject to the Mortal God and He monopolises the right to use violence in absolute terms. So this is the paradox: the Islamic State, which presents itself as an enemy of the modern state, is essentially a modern state. In reality, it represents the modern state in its ugliest form, the totalitarian state. In her analysis of the phenomenon of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt asserts that the architecture of the totalitarian system consists of the following: charisma, historical ideology, a suppression machine and a propaganda system, summarising facism, Nazism and Stalinism as the three totalitarian models in her study.(13)
Even a limited study of Daesh and its practices reveals that it has all the components of this architecture: It adopts an ideology that encapsulates a vision for the course of history. It works to achieve this vision (the ideology of the Caliphate), and sees the Islamic Caliphate as its destiny for history’s course and will take all necessary measures to rapidly achieve this end in this world. It seems clear that Daesh rushed its announcement of the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate after it gained control over parts of Iraq and Syria. Also, Daesh, as strange as it may be, possesses a level of charisma represented in the caliph, as an heir to the prophet who has the responsibility of directing both religious and secular policy. In terms of the system of repression, IS has turned everyone who belongs to it into a killing machine, claiming that this is the concept of jihad. As for the propaganda, there is no doubt that Daesh has a strong propaganda system through which it promotes itself, a system that has actively exploited all products of modernity (which IS claims to be against), such as social media and cinematography.(14) Thus, it can be deduced that Daesh is Fascist, but based on a religious ideology, which makes it all the more dangerous, because religious ideology provides its adherents with some metaphysical reassurance. This renders them ever more daring in implementing their mission, because they believe they are executing the will of God rather than the will of mankind. Again this is a serious IS paradox: it advocates active hostility towards the modern state, yet it represents the essence of this state in its awful forms of violence and brutality.
The disappointment reflected in this paradox is the expression of the fragility of the bloated Arab state, as expressed by Nazih Nassif al-Ayoubi.(15) It is a fragile state although it manifests in the image of Hobbes’ monstrous Leviathin. To comprehend this we must return to Carl Schmitt’s notion that “the essence of politics is the ability to launch the exceptional moment, i.e. the moment of war”.(16) The true politician is he who owns the decision at this exceptional moment; thus, the history of politics, according to Schmitt, is the history of war, with periods of peace that intermittently permeate the state of war and serve the war in one way or another.(17)
Accordingly, the state (or the politician) who does not control the decision of war, is politically a “premature” state that has lost much of its legitimacy as a political entity. The Arab nation-state created by colonialism does not conform to Schmitt’s notion of a state, as it does not have the ability to launch the moment of its own war. The Arab state makes no clear distinction between friend and foe, which Schmitt sees as a fundamental aspect of the politician. Who is the enemy of the Arab state against whom it can launch the moment of war? In the absence of an external enemy, this state automatically directs its violence inward and the relationship of the state with society becomes a relationship of war in one aspect or the other. Al-Qaeda emerged to fill the vacuum left by a state unable to launch war. It clearly redrew the map of political hostilities. In fact, all of al-Qaeda’s activities are directed towards launching a permanent moment of war. Yassin Haj Saleh coined a tragi-comic phrase when he called it a “black market for the war”,(18) after the Arab states failed to provide it lawfully. The absence of this “obligatory missed duty” (in jihadi lexicon) to launch war partially explains why al-Qaeda’s supporters take it seriously.
In this context, Daesh added a widened scope of hostilities so that anyone who becomes affiliated with it is a friend and everyone else an enemy. In this obdurate distinction between friend and foe, IS has adopted metaphysical parameters such as takfir (“infidelity”), utilised to exclude the apostate from Islam’s framework, and then spill his blood and spend his wealth on behalf of the divine. This is the paradox of IS’ essence as a state against the state, and an expression of disappointment in the Arab state’s failure to achieve its political essence.
The challenge: Daesh and foreign policy confusion
According to political science literature, the Islamic State organisation is a so-called non-state actor (NSA), an entity that disputes the state’s monopoly of the political arena. NSAs are structured entities with a command structure. They enjoy independence from the state to which they belong geographically and usually represent a specific ethnic, sectarian or ideological group that has definite political goals. Since they have the power to potentially achieve these goals, they can influence the state’s policy. Accordingly, NSAs can be classified according to two criteria: whether their scope of work is local or international, and whether they are armed or unarmed.(19)
Daesh, according to this classification, is an armed and international NSA.(20) It has a clear leadership structure (Caliph and governors) and is completely independent from the two countries to which it geographically belongs (Iraq and Syria). It represents a particular ideological group (a spectrum of jihadis), and it has in mind a clear political goal (the expansion of domination and achieving a Caliphate). It has sufficient military and economic capacity to make it the richest and most powerful non-state actor of all. This leaves the question of the threat Daesh poses to various countries' foreign policies as an NSA, at both the international and regional levels, and how this challenge is embodied in the form of a paradox that expresses a political disappointment.
Washington: the curse of the Middle East
Obama’s 2008 arrival at the White House ushered in radical changes to the American strategy that was adopted during the Bush Junior era from 2000 through 2008, which aimed to consolidate US pre-eminence in a unipolar world. To that end, Bush adopted the principle of pre-emptive or preventive war, and allowed Washington to send troops wherever it desired, a strategy that reaped a bitter harvest in Afghanistan and Iraq. Subsequently, Obama attempted to re-establish a plurality of polarity and allow other countries to share in the management of the international regime. American foreign policy became more modest and less militarised, with Obama seeking to redress what Bush and his inner circle of neoconservatives had destroyed. He aimed to avoid entering into any war, and sought to focus less on the Arab world, giving the Pacific greater foreign policy prominence while adopting a policy of “leadership from behind” to manage the Middle East. Indeed, this was the applied policy in dealing with the Arab Spring events (which surprised the US as well as everyone else), and was clearly manifested in the Obama administration's cautious attitude towards the revolutions.(21)
However, following three years of “leadership from behind”, there are numerous questions regarding what Washington achieved in Syria. One of the answers is the Islamic State’s rapid ascension! Indeed, many criticisms have been directed at Washington's foreign policy toward the Syrian revolution. Critics argue that Washington’s reluctance to intervene and topple Assad paved the way for Syria to become a destination for jihadis from all around the world, culminating in Daesh. This emergence forced Washington to return to the Arab world under a broad coalition to fight IS, a return which Obama had struggled to avoid.
This is the irony, then: Washington’s reluctance to seriously support the Syrian revolution, in order to avoid repeating the Iraq fiasco, and its desire to stay away from the Arab world, is actually responsible (at least partially) for the emergence of IS, which forced the US to return to the region.(22) This paradox expresses disappointment in Washington’s inability to distance itself from the Middle East, which appears to be a “curse” that haunts the US, one from which it cannot escape.
Turkey: the Kurdish challenge
When Washington began to rally allies for its war against ISIS, Turkey was notably reluctant to participate in coalition operations. Since Ankara is an irreplaceable ally in this context, because of its military potential and its geopolitical position that facilitates targeting IS in both Syria and Iraq, US diplomats tirelessly urged Turkey to enter the coalition.(23) Ankara is clearly not Daesh’s ally, yet it refused to fight what ultimately represents an ideological and military threat to Turkey. This section addresses the factors what preventing Turkey from conducting military operations against Daesh.
Although Ankara believes that IS is a threat, it sees no real point in engaging in a war against IS in both Syria and Iraq. Rather, Ankara wants to make fighting IS only part of a comprehensive strategy aimed at toppling the Assad regime. Ankara believes that the US-led coalition has completely dropped from its agenda the goal of overthrowing Assad, engaging instead in a questionable and likely protracted war against ISIS. What complicates matters for Ankara is that Daesh has captured nearly 100 Turkish soldiers in an area behind the Syrian border called the Tomb of Suleiman Shah, which houses the tomb of Osman Shah, founder of the Ottoman Empire.(24) Daesh was also previously holding a number of Turkish diplomats in the city of Mosul, but Ankara managed to liberate them through negotiations. All of this is another reason Turkey does not want to become involved in direct combat with the Islamic State group.
This was evident during the Kobani crisis, a border city encircled by IS. Daesh is obdurately determined to control it despite all the airstrikes launched by the coalition thus far. Ankara’s reluctance is not due solely to its strategy to not engage in a war against IS, but also because Kobani happens to be controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union, an arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria, which Turkey regards as a terrorist organisation that it has fought for three decades. Turkey wants any intervention to defend the city to be part of negotiation strategies with the Labour Party, which is a significant internal Turkish policy issue.(25)
Turkey then, wanted the US to intervene more deeply in Syrian affairs. It wanted a regional and international coalition in which it would play a key role in order to overthrow Assad. It is reluctant to join exactly the existing alliance which paradoxically targets IS and not Assad. The Turkish position towards IS is akin to hidden hostility or cold war. Turkey’s attitude expresses disappointment at policy towards Syria, particularly because it has been unable to achieve the overthrow of Assad since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution and does not want to engage in a war against Daesh which does not also serve this goal.
Gulf States: with or against IS?
The Gulf States’ policy toward ISIS can be inferred from their position towards the Syrian revolution. Their primary concern was to bring down the Assad regime, particularly in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In this context, they initially supported various Syrian opposition factions, but the Islamic State’s emergence upset their calculations. IS engaged in a fight with the rest of the opposition factions and achieved significant victories. All the support provided by Gulf countries to overthrow Assad has thus been in vain, and instead of fighting Assad, their allies had to defend themselves against IS.
Washington was annoyed because Syria had become attractive to Jihadis and was increasingly controlled by Daesh, and the US blamed the Gulf States for turning Syria into a Jihadi haven.(26) When Washington gathered its allies to carry out operations against IS in both Iraq and Syria, various Gulf States joined this coalition. However, there is a question of whether the Gulf States really want to eliminate IS. In actual fact, their position is strikingly similar in goal (albeit with different starting points) to that of Turkey. Yes, IS represents a potential ideological and military threat to the Gulf States, but as long as the IS threat is confined to Iraq and Syria, the other more important goal is to overthrow Assad. Since this goal is not prioritised by the coalition, there is no real enthusiasm in Riyadh or Doha for coalition operations.(27)
Thus, it can be said that the Gulf States’ position here is the same as that of Turkey: since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, both have actively sought to create an international-regional alliance to overthrow Assad, but to no avail. This situation reflects the disappointment of the Gulf States' policies in Syria. They have been unable to topple Assad, and consequently unable to weaken Tehran's influence in the region. Instead, the reverse has happened. There is no sign the Assad regime will collapse soon, and Iran’s sphere of influence and power in the region is steadily increasing.
Iran: When the Enemy Becomes Useful
At the ideological level, IS is undoubtedly an enemy of Iran,(28) but this may not be the case at the political level. Iran's major goal in Syria is to keep Bashar al-Assad’s regime intact and to prevent the fall of Damascus into the hands of an Islamic or pro-Riyadh regime. Its goal in Iraq is to support a regime that maintains the influence Tehran achieved after the US invasion in 2003. This section of the report addresses IS’ impact Tehran’s goals before and after the intervention of Washington and its allies.
In Iraq, IS has posed a real threat to Tehran’s interests. It has dominated large areas of Iraq (Mosul and Anbar), forcing Tehran to abandon its man Nouri al-Maliki and instead support Haider al-Abadi as a more consensual alternative. Militarily, Tehran was compelled to send Iranian leaders to Iraq to support the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces in their fight against IS, and it also brought its affiliated militias in Iraq (as well as some brought in from Syria) to fight IS.(29) But ultimately, Tehran's losses in Iraq cannot be regarded as heavy: al-Abadi is still Shia and his relationship with Tehran is not noticeably bad enough to say that Tehran has lost its influence over the Iraqi government. The new government, which was supposedly aimed at reducing Sunni marginalisation, is still in the hands of Shia factions.(30)
In Syria, IS expansion and influence is considerably less than it is in Iraq, since there are several other Jihadi entities (such as al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham) as well as the opposition forces that defected from the Syrian army, all engaged in fighting Assad. Among all these, IS does not represent the most significant danger to the Assad regime. It was busy establishing itself in territories not controlled by Assad, and it also engaged in a bitter war with its “fellow mujahideen” (fighters). Ironically, before the US-led coalition began operations, IS did not constitute the main danger to Assad, thus it was not the main danger to Iranian interests in Syria.
Iran is undoubtedly not happy about Daesh’s emergence, because the group ultimately falls squarely into the category of Tehran’s real opponents. Thus, coalition attacks on IS actually favour Tehran’s interests in Iraq and in Syria. How then, can Iran’s virtual discontent with the coalition be explained?(31) Tehran is aware of the extent of its influence in both Iraq and Syria, an influence that can be harnessed in the fight against IS. It is also aware that Washington recognises this influence and its importance. Thus, Tehran would like to invest its influence in order to change the direction of its relationship with Washington. Tehran was looking to be annexed even semi-formally to the alliance led by Washington against ISIS, as this would mean it gained recognition as a regional power. In return for exerting its influence in support of the coalition, Tehran hoped to gain some concessions in its protracted nuclear negotiations with the P5 +1 group.
In fact, Washington exhibits great confusion in response to this implicit offer from Tehran. There are reports about a private political message from Obama to the Supreme Leader of Iran that speaks of US-Iranian coordination to fight IS,(32) but there are also public and ongoing assurances from Washington that it rejects Iran's offer,(33) and that there is no coordination between Washington and Tehran in the context of the war against IS.(34) Thus, Washington stands between the hammer and the anvil: it knows what assistance Iran can offer in the (tense) battle against IS, but it is not ready to recognise Iran as a regional power, nor is it ready to make real concessions on the issue of the Iranian nuclear powers.
Ultimately, the outcome of IS’ emergence in Iraq and Syria, and the US-led intervention to fight it, appear to be a political gain for Iran. Its influence in Iraq has not been affected negatively; on the contrary, it has been increased significantly by Iranian military presence and Shia militia support to defend Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan against IS. Iran is playing the role of the saviour in Iraq, and in Syria the coalition strikes are spectacularly well-aligned with Iranian interests as they contribute directly to strengthening the Assad regime.
In yet another dimension of this paradox, the Islamic State, the ideological enemy of Iran, is actually useful to it in one way or another. Though this paradox expresses disappointment, it does not express disappointment at Iranian policies in the region. On the contrary, it represents US and Gulf State disappointment, because it seems that Washington's policies since its 2003 invasion of Iraq contribute to the interests of Iran, which is ironic, given Washington’s seeming eagerness to do the opposite.
IS’ aforementioned paradoxes relate to its emergence in the context of the Arab Spring, the nature of its political essence, and the confusion it brings to the foreign policies of regional countries and the US. As a non-state actor, Daesh has represented a real challenge for the two countries in which it geographically operates: Iraq and Syria. In Iraq it caused the overthrow of al-Maliki’s government and the advent of a new government. It also facilitated external intervention in Iraq. In Syria, IS negatively impacted the path of the Syrian revolution, and actually gave credence to Assad’s insistent portrayal of the Syrian revolution as a disruption led by “terrorists” and “extremists”.
Daesh has also wrought confusion in the foreign policies of states that are active in the region. The US ultimately found itself leading military operations against IS which further strengthen the Assad regime in Syria, as well as increasing Iran's influence in the region in one way or another. The US may even find itself obliged to make political deals with Iran, making Washington appear to stand in same trench as Tehran and Assad. Washington’s relationship with Ankara is already prone to tension due to Turkey’s hesitance to join the alliance against IS. Ankara does not see any point in the alliance’s operations against Daesh alone without a comprehensive strategy that includes Assad’s overthrow.
Daesh’s paradoxes embody several general disappointments. For the Gulf States, after three years of investment in the Syrian opposition, IS emerged to annihilate their aspirations. Turkey does not see any progression towards its goal of achieving Assad’s ouster. The US was again dragged into a military intervention in the region, even after it had vowed not to get involved in the Arab world anymore. Perhaps the most severe disappointment expressed by the emergence of IS, is the political disillusionment that arose after the Arab Spring, because it was seen as a liberation movement that had the potential to change the face of the Arab region forever.
Dr. Tareq Osman is a researcher specialising in Islamic thought.
1. It is not incorrect to use the term revolution to characterise these events, regardless of the academic debate about its suitability to describe the revolution. Some argue that the more accurate description is uprising or revolt, because it did not accomplish a radical change in the current socio-political status, which is a condition in the definition of revolution. However, each of these terms: revolution, awakening, uprising, and revolt are used as synonyms in describing this event. About the concept of revolution, see: Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 1965, translated by Atallah Abdel-Wahab, (Arab Organization for Translation, 2008).
2. The term Arab Spring is borrowed from the European context, where the wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 and 1849 was described by the term “the European Spring”. The first use of the term “Arab Spring” was in Lebanon in 2005 after Rafik Hariri was killed and Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon. There was hope for a new era of greater independence. It was also used