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Islamic State: The Origins and Composition of a Sectarian Frankenstein

By Nauman Sadiq

January 10, 2016 "
Information Clearing House" - For the whole of the last five years of the Syrian civil war the focal point of the Western policy has been that “Assad must go!” But what difference would it make to the lives of the ordinary Syrians even if the regime is replaced now when the civil war has claimed more than 250,000 lives, displaced half of the population and reduced the whole country of 22 million people to rubble? I do concede that Libya and Syria were not democratic states under Gaddafi and Assad, respectively; however, both of those countries were at least functioning states.

Gaddafi was ousted from power in September 2011; four years later, Tripoli is ruled by the Misrata militia, Benghazi is under the control of Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by the Zintan militia, and Sirte is under the effective suzerainty of the Islamic State’s affiliate in Libya. It will now take decades, not years, to restore even a semblance of stability in Libya and Syria; remember that the proxy war in Afghanistan was originally fought in the ‘80s and today, 35 years later, Afghanistan is still in the midst of perpetual anarchy, lawlessness and an unrelenting Taliban insurgency.

It’s a plausible fact that the US does not directly supports the Syrian militants, it only sets the broad policy framework and lets its client states in the region like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey do the actual financing, training and arming of the insurgents. For instance, the US strictly forbade the aforementioned clients from providing anti-aircraft weapons (MANPADS) to the militants, because Israel frequently flies surveillance aircrafts and drones and occasionally carries out airstrikes in Syria and Lebanon and had such weapons fallen into the wrong hands, it could have become a long term threat to the Israeli Air Force. Lately, some anti-aircraft weapons from Gaddafi’s looted arsenal in Libya have made their way into the hands of the Syrian militants but for the initial years of the civil war there was an absolute prohibition on providing such weapons to the insurgents.

Moreover, the declassified Defense Intelligence Agency’s report [1] of 2012 that presaged the imminent rise of a Salafist principality in north-eastern Syria was not overlooked it was deliberately suppressed, not just the report but that view in general that a civil war in Syria will give birth to the radical Islamists, was forcefully stifled in the Western policy making circles under pressure from the Zionist lobbies. The Western powers were fully aware of the consequences of their actions in Syria but they kept pursuing the policy of financing, training, arming and internationally legitimizing the so-called “Syrian opposition” to weaken the Syrian regime and to neutralize the threat that its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, had posed to Israel’s regional security; a fact which the Israeli defense community realized for the first time during the 2006 Lebanon war during the course of which Hezbollah fired hundreds of rockets into northern Israel. Those were only unguided rockets but it was a wakeup call for the Israeli military strategists that what will happen if Iran passed the guided missile technology to Hezbollah whose area of operations lies very close to the northern borders of Israel? The Western interest in the Syrian civil war is primarily about ensuring Israel’s regional security.

Sectarianism and the rise of Islamic State:

Unlike al Qaeda which is an anti-West terrorist organization, Islamic State is basically an anti-Shi’a sectarian outfit. By the designation “terrorism” it is generally implied understood that an organization which has the intentions and capability of committing terrorist acts on the Western soil. Though, Islamic State has committed a few acts of terrorism against the West, such as the high profile November 2015 Paris attacks, but if we look at the pattern of its sabotage activities, especially in the Middle East, it generally targets the Shi’a Muslims in Syria and Iraq. A few acts of terrorism that it has committed in the Gulf Arab states were also directed against the Shi’as in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia and Shi’a mosques in Yemen and Kuwait. Moreover, al Qaeda Central is only a small band of Arab individuals whose strength is numbered in a few hundreds, while Islamic State is a mass insurgency whose strength is numbered in tens of thousands, especially in Syria and Iraq.

More to the point, Syria's pro-Assad militias are comprised of local militiamen as well as Shi’a foreign fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and even the Hazara Shi’as from Afghanistan. And Sunni Jihadists from all over the region have also been flocking to the Syrian battlefield of jihad for the past five years. A full-scale Sunni-Shi’a war has been going on in Syria, Iraq and Yemen which will obviously have its repercussions all over the Middle East region where Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have coexisted in relative peace for centuries. But the neocolonial powers will conveniently deny all responsibility by simply asserting that: “It isn’t our fault, the Muslims are killing each other,” an absurd claim made by the Bush Administration during the occupation years in Iraq. However, had the US not invaded Iraq in 2003 for its 140 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, would things have reached such a point of crisis? And the victim-blaming neoliberals will point fingers at Islam as a religion and some of its decontextualized Jihadist verses for all the violence and bloodshed without understanding anything about the underlying politics behind the Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the region.

Notwithstanding, after the Russian involvement in Syria, when Russia claims that it will fight the Islamic State, the assertion at least makes sense. But how can US claim to fight a force that is an obvious by-product [2] of its own policy in the region in the first place? Let’s settle on one issue first: there were two parties to the Syrian civil war initially, the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition; which party did the US support since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011 to June 2014? Obviously, it supported the Syrian opposition, and what was the composition of that so-called “Syrian opposition?” A small fraction of it was comprised of defected Syrian soldiers who go by the name of Free Syria Army, but the vast majority had been Islamic jihadists who were generously funded, trained, armed and internationally legitimized by the NATO-GCC alliance.

Islamic State is nothing more than one of the numerous Syrian jihadist outfits, others being: al Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, al-Tawhid brigade, Jaysh al Islam etc. The reason why the US has turned against Islamic State is that all other jihadist outfits only have local ambitions that are limited to fighting the Assad regime in Syria, even al Nusra’s Emir, Abu Mohammad al Julani, has taken a public pledge [3] on al Jazeera on the behest of his Gulf-based patrons that his organization does not intends to strike targets in the Western countries, after which the Western mainstream media has become cozy to it and included al Qaeda Central’s official franchise in Syria in its list of so-called “moderate Islamists.”

All the Sunni jihadist groups that are operating in Syria are just as brutal as ISIS, only thing that differentiates ISIS from the rest is that it is more ideological and independent-minded, and it also includes hundreds of Western citizens in its ranks who can later become a national security risk to the Western countries, this fact explains the ambivalent policy of the US towards a monster that it had nurtured in Syria from August 2011 to June 2014 until it threatened the US’ strategic interests in the oil-rich, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) controlled Northern Iraq. Thus the US-led “war against Islamic State” since August 2014 has less to do with finding an expeditious solution to the Syrian crisis or the threat that ISIS poses to Iraq and Syria and it is more about the threat that ISIS poses to the Western countries in the long run, a fact that has now become obvious after the November 2015 Paris attacks.

According to this NY Times report [4], there are more than 30,000 foreign fighters in Syria from over 100 countries that are fighting alongside the Sunni jihadist groups to topple the Syrian regime; 4500 of those foreign jihadists are from the Western countries and France is the single largest European contributor of foreign jihadists with 1800 fighters, Britain is a distant second with 750, and the number of American jihadists fighting in Syria is relatively small, approximately 250. Although the report claims that most foreign jihadists fight for the Islamic State but corporate media, being a mouthpiece of the Western political establishments, has a vested interest in selectively singling out the Islamic State and giving a carte blanche to all the other Sunni jihadist groups, in line with the stated Western policy and objective of toppling the Assad regime in Syria.

The reason why Syria and Iran have been more willing to form an alliance with Russia against the Sunni jihadists is that the US-led “war against Islamic State” is limited only to ISIS while all other Sunni jihadist groups are enjoying complete impunity, and the coalition against ISIS also includes the main patrons of Sunni jihadists like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan. But the Russian-led offensive in coalition with the aforementioned Shi’a regimes has been more comprehensive against all the Sunni jihadist outfits which are just as much of a threat to the Shi’a regimes as ISIS.

Moreover, the Western corporate media is trumpeting these days that the Assad regime has been unwilling to fight ISIS. I don’t know what kind of spin-doctors come up with preposterous and counterfactual theories such as these, but it’s a fact that the military resources of the Assad regime were stretched thin, therefore, its first priority has been to defend itself around the densely-populated urban areas from Damascus and Homs to Hamah, Idlib and Aleppo and around the coastal Latakia. However, does anyone remembers the Hasakah Offensive of August 2015 in which the Syrian military successfully defended Hasakah and then routed ISIS in alliance with the Syrian Kurds? The corporate media will never tell you about the previous alliance that existed between the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian regime against the Syrian opposition.

Kurdish factor in the Syrian civil war:

In order to understand the Kurdish factor in the Syria-Iraq equation, we should bear in mind that there are four distinct types of Kurds: 1) the KDP Kurds of Iraq that are led by Masoud Barzani; 2) the PUK Kurds of Iraq led by Jalal Talabani; 3) the PKK Kurds of Turkey; and 4) the PYD/YPG Kurds of Syria. The first of these, i.e. the Barzani-led KDP Kurds of Iraq have traditionally been imperialist collaborators who have formed a strategic alliance with the US and Israel since the ‘90s, i.e. the first Gulf war. All other Kurds, however, have traditionally been in the anticolonial socialist camp and that’s the reason why PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by NATO because Turkey has the second largest army in the NATO and the separatist PKK Kurds are the traditional foes of the Turkish establishment.

Unlike the Barzani-led Kurds of Iraq, however, the PYD/YPG Kurds of Syria, who are ideologically akin to the socialist PKK Kurds of Turkey, had initially formed an alliance with the pro-Russia Assad regime against the Sunni jihadists in return for limited autonomy – the aforementioned alliance, however, was not just against the Islamic State but against all the Sunni jihadist groups that are operating in Syria some of which have been supported by NATO and Gulf Arab countries. It was only last year, after the US' declaration of war against ISIS, that the Syrian Kurds switched sides and now they are the centerpiece of the US policy for defeating ISIS in the region.

One can’t really blame the Kurds for this perfidy because they are fighting for their right of self-determination, but once again the Western powers have executed their tried-and-tested divide-and-rule policy to perfection in Syria and Iraq to gain leverage and to turn the tide despite the dismal failure of their stated policy for the initial three years of the Syrian civil war, i.e. from August 2011 to August 2014.

Until August 2014 when the declared US policy in Syria was regime change and the Syrian Kurds had formed a defensive alliance with the Assad regime against the Sunni jihadists to defend the semi-autonomous Kurdish majority areas in Syrian Rojava; that equation changed, however, when ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014 and also threatened the US’ most steadfast ally in the region – Masoud Barzani and his capital Erbil in the Iraqi Kurdistan, which is also the hub of Big Oil’s Northern Iraq operations.

After that development, the US took a U-turn on its Syria policy and now the declared objective became “the war against Islamic State.” That policy change in turn led to a reconfiguration of alliances among the regional actors and the Syrian Kurds broke off their previous arrangement with Assad regime and formed a new alliance with NATO against the Islamic State. Unlike their previous defensive alliance with the Syrian regime, however, whose objective was to protect and defend the Kurdish majority areas in Syria from the onslaught of the Sunni jihadists, this new Kurdish alliance with NATO is more aggressive and expansionist, and its outcome is obvious from this Amnesty International report [5] on the forced displacement of the Arabs and the demographic change by the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds.

Composition of Islamic State:

The only difference between the Afghan Jihad back in the ‘80s, that had spawned the Islamic jihadists like the Taliban and al Qaeda for the first time in history, and the Libyan and Syrian Jihads 2011-onward, is that the Afghan Jihad was an overt Jihad – back then the Western political establishments and their mouthpiece, the mainstream media, used to openly brag that CIA provides all those AK-47s, RPGs and stingers to the Pakistani ISI which then forwards such weapons to the Afghan Mujahideen (freedom fighters) to combat the erstwhile Soviet Union. After the 9/11 tragedy, however, the Western political establishments and corporate media have become a lot more circumspect, therefore, this time around they have waged covert jihads against the hostile Gaddafi regime in Libya and the anti-Zionist Assad regime in Syria, in which the Islamic jihadists (aka terrorists) have been sold as “moderate rebels” with secular and nationalist ambitions to the Western audience.

Since the regime change objective in those hapless countries went against the established mainstream narrative of “the war on terror,” therefore, the Western political establishments and the mainstream media now try to muddle the reality by offering color-coded schemes to identify myriads of militant and terrorist outfits that are operating in those countries – like the red militants of Islamic State which the Western powers want to eliminate, the yellow militants of Jaysh al-Fateh (the Army of Conquest) that includes al-Qaeda allied al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham with whom NATO can collaborate under desperate circumstances, and the green militants of Free Syria Army (FSA) and a few other inconsequential outfits which together comprise the so-called “moderate Syrian opposition.”

It’s an incontrovertible fact that more than 90% of militants that are operating in Syria are either the Islamic jihadists or the armed tribesmen, and less than 10% are those who have defected from the Syrian army or otherwise have secular and nationalist goals. As far as the infinitesimally small secular and liberal elite of the developing countries is concerned, such privileged classes can’t even cook breakfasts for themselves if their servants are on a holiday and the corporate media had us believing that the majority of the Syrian militants are “moderate rebels” who constitute the vanguard of the Syrian opposition against the Syrian regime in a brutal civil war and who believe in the principles of democracy, rule of law and liberal values as their cherished goals.

It is a fact that morale and ideology plays an important role in the battle; moreover, we also know that the Takfiri brand of most jihadists these days has been directly inspired by the Wahhabi-Salafi ideology of Saudi Arabia, but ideology alone is never sufficient to succeed in the battle. Looking at the Islamic State’s spectacular gains in Syria and Iraq in the last year and a half, one wonders that where does its recruits get all the training and sophisticated weapons that are imperative not only for the hit-and-run guerrilla warfare but also for capturing and holding vast swathes of territory? Even the Afghan National Army, that has been trained and armed by NATO’s military instructors, is finding itself in trouble these days to hold territory in Afghanistan in the face of the unrelenting Taliban insurgency.

Apart from the training and arms that are provided to the Islamic jihadists in the training camps located on the Turkish and Jordanian border regions adjacent to Syria by the CIA in collaboration with the Turkish, Jordanian and Saudi intelligence agencies, another factor that has contributed to the spectacular success of Islamic State is that its top cadres are comprised of the former Baathist military and intelligence officers of the Saddam regime. According to this informative Associated Press report by Dawn [6], between 100 to 160 ex-Baathists constitute the top and mid-tier command structure of the Islamic State who plan all the operations and direct its military strategy.

Moreover, these days the US State department seems to be quite worried that where does Islamic State’s jihadists get all the sophisticated weapons and especially those fancy, white Toyota pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns at the back, colloquially known as “the technicals” among the jihadists? I think that I have found the answer to this riddle in this news story [7] from a website affiliated with the UAE government which is highly biased in favor of the Syrian opposition: it is clearly mentioned that along with AK-47s, RPGs and other military gear the Saudi government also provides machine gun-mounted Toyota pick-up trucks to every batch of five jihadists who have completed their training either in the border regions of Jordan or Saudi Arabia. Once such jihadists cross over to Daraa and Quneitra in Syria from the Jordan-Syria border then those Toyota pick-up trucks can easily travel all the way to Raqaa and Deir Ezzor and thence to Mosul and Anbar in Iraq.

The only thing that differentiates Islamic State from all other insurgent groups is its command structure that is comprised of professional ex-Baathists and its state of the art armory that has been provided to all the Sunni jihadist outfits that are fighting in Syria by the NATO-GCC alliance. However, a number of Islamic State affiliates have recently been springing up all over the Middle East and North Africa region that have no organizational and operational link, whatsoever, with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, such as, the Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, Sinai, Libya and even the Boko Haram in Nigeria now falls under the umbrella of the Islamic State. It’s understandable for the laymen to mistake such ragtag militant outfits for ISIS but how come the policy analysts of the think tanks and the corporate media’s spin-doctors, who are fully in the know, have fallen for such a ruse? Can we categorize any ragtag militant outfit as Islamic State merely on the basis of ideological affinity and “a letter of accreditation” from Abu Bakr al Baghdadi without the Islamic State’s Baathist command structure and superior weaponry that has been bankrolled by the Gulf’s petro-dollars?

The Western political establishments and their mouthpiece, the mainstream media, deliberately and knowingly fall for such ruses because it serves their agenda of creating bogeymen after bogeymen to keep the enterprise of the Fear Inc. running. Before acknowledging the Islamic State’s affiliates in the region, the Western political establishments had also similarly and “naively” acknowledged the al Qaeda affiliates in the region, too, merely on the basis of ideological affinity without any organizational and operational link, such as, al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb.

While we are on the subject of Islamic State’s weaponry, it is generally claimed in the mainstream media that the Islamic State came in possession of those state of the art weapons when it overran Mosul in June 2014 and seized huge caches of sophisticated weapons that were provided to the Iraqi armed forces by the Americans. Is it not a bit paradoxical, however, that the Islamic State conquered huge swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq before it overran Mosul when it supposedly did not had those sophisticated weapons and after allegedly coming into possession of those weapons it is continuously losing ground? The only conclusion that can be drawn from this fact is that Islamic State had those weapons, or equally deadly weapons, before it overran Mosul and that those weapons were provided to all the Sunni jihadist groups in Syria, including the Islamic State, by the intelligence agencies of the Western power, Turkey and the Gulf Arab states.

Maintaining credibility through charades:

In order to create a semblance of objectivity and fairness, the American policy-makers and analysts are always willing to accept the blame for the mistakes of the distant past that have no bearing on the present and the future, however, any fact that impinges on their present policy is conveniently brushed aside. In the case of the rise of Islamic State, for instance, the US’ policy analysts are willing to concede that invading Iraq back in 2003 was a mistake that radicalized the Iraqi society, exacerbated the sectarian divisions and gave birth to a Sunni insurgency against the heavy handed and discriminatory policies of the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government; similarly, the “war on terror” era political commentators also “generously” accept that the Cold War era policy of nurturing the al Qaeda, Taliban and myriads of other Afghan so-called “freedom fighters” against the erstwhile Soviet Union was a mistake because all those fait accompli have no bearing on their present policy.

The corporate media’s spin-doctors conveniently forget, however, that the rise of Islamic State and myriads of other Sunni jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq has as much to do with the unilateral invasion of Iraq back in 2003 under the previous Bush Administration as it has to do with the present policy of Obama Administration in Syria of funding, arming, training and internationally legitimizing the Sunni militants against the Syrian regime since 2011-onward in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa region, in fact, the proximate cause behind the rise of Islamic State, al Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and numerous other Sunni jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq has been Obama Administration’s policy of intervention through proxies in Syria.

If the Obama Administration decides today to stop providing arms and training to the so-called “moderate rebels” and declares them terrorists (Islamic jihadists,) the insurgency in Syria will fizzle out within months, at least, in the densely-populated urban Syria from Damascus and Homs to Hamah, Idlib and Aleppo and the coastal Latakia. The northern Syria under the control of Kurds and the central and eastern Syria from Raqqa to Deir Ezzor which is dominated by the Islamic State, however, is a whole different ball game now and it will take years to subdue the insurgency in those rural-tribal areas of Syria, if at all.

On the subject of the supposed “powerlessness” of the US in the global affairs, the Western think tanks and the corporate media’s spin-doctors generally claim that Pakistan deceived the US in Afghanistan by not “doing more” to rein in the Taliban; Turkey hoodwinked the US in Syria by using the war against Islamic State as a pretext for cracking down on Kurds; Saudi Arabia and UAE betrayed the US in Yemen by mounting airstrikes against the Houthis and Saleh’s loyalists; and once again Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt went against the “ostensible” policy of the US in Libya by carrying out airstrikes against the Tripoli-based government, even though Khalifa Haftar, the military commander of the so-called “internationally recognized” Tobruk-based government’s armed forces, lived next door to CIA’s headquarter in Langley, Virginia, for more than two decades.

If the US’ policy-makers are so naïve then how come they still control the Persian Gulf and its 800 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, i.e. more than half of the world’s proven crude oil reserves? This perennial whining attitude of the Western corporate media, that such and such regional actors betrayed them, otherwise they were on the top of their game, is actually a clever stratagem that has been deliberately designed by the spin-doctors to cast the Western powers in the positive light and to demonize the adversaries, even if the latter are their tactical allies in some of the regional conflicts.

Fighting wars through proxies allows the international power brokers the luxury of taking the plea of “plausible deniability” in their defense and at the same time they can shift all the blame for the wrongdoing on the minor regional players like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Syrian regime, Turkey, Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia et al. The Western powers’ culpability lies in the fact that because of them we cannot build a system of international justice and conflict resolution based on sound principles of morality, justice and fair play in which the violators can be punished for the wrongdoing and the victims of injustice, tyranny and violence can be protected.

Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, blogger and geopolitical analyst who has a particular interest in the politics of Af-Pak and MENA regions, energy wars and Petro-imperialism.


[1] US’ Defense intelligence agency’s report of 2012:

[2] How Syrian Jihad spawned the Islamic State?

[3] al-Nusra leader: Our mission is to defeat Syrian regime:

[4] Thousands enter Syria to join Islamic State despite global efforts:

[5] Syrian Kurds razing villages seized from Islamic State, Amnesty International report:

[6] Islamic State’s top command dominated by ex-officers in Saddam’s army:

[7] Syrian rebels get arms and advice through secret command center in Amman:

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