The Origins of ISIS: A historical responsibility?

Disregarding the burning news and the current challenges faced by the European Union and its neighbourhood, this article offers a reflexion on the historical grounds of terrorism in the region, and a possible responsibility from the West.

The end of an Empire

In the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire was at the peak of its power, and it controlled most of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean and the Black sea. It was deeply entrenched in Europe, including the south-eastern part of today’s European Union. But in the following 300 years, this great empire lost many of its territories over Russia around the Black Sea, over France in Algeria, Britain in Egypt, and Italy in Libya. This threw the Ottoman Empire in the arms of the Axis during the First World War, which resulted in its defeat and partition.

In 1916, the religious leader of Mecca, Hussein, started exchanging letters with the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Henry McMahon. The two agreed on the future Arab independence, and Hussein sent his son Faisal to conquer part of the Ottoman Empire. Backed by the Triple Entente and especially the British forces led by T.E Lawrence, the revolt was successful and led to the capitulation of the Ottoman Empire in 1919.

At the same time in 1916, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France concluded a secret agreement, with the assent of Russia, to share control over the Arab territories. At this time, it became clear that the UK and Hussein did not have the same interpretation of their agreement, and it is true that the words used in the Arabic version and in the English translation vary sometimes significantly. Whereas Hussein was picturing an independent Arab State closely cooperating with the West, the British were more in favour of replacing part of the Ottoman Empire under a protectorate.

The split destiny of Iraq and Syria

Faisal’s troops successfully conquered large parts of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, and Faisal was crowned constitutional king of the Arab Kingdom of Syria in 1920. This new country encompassed the actual Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Transjordan, but it only lasted four months. In April 1920, the San Remo Conference split the Ottoman cake into pieces for the victors of the war. The brand new League of Nations declared a “sacred trust of civilisation” for colonisers to administer territories “which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world”, and awarded Syria and Lebanon to France whereas the UK received Syria and Palestine. In July 1920, French troops invaded Syria and beat the Arabs. The Arab Kingdom fell, but the nationalist claims survived. The fight for independence started immediately both in Syria and in Iraq.

In 1921, the new political map is drawn, and the European major powers exercise their control over their own spheres of influence. In Iraq, the costs of the military occupation are expensive, and without real advantage for the United Kingdom. At the Cairo conference in April 1921, Faisal is crowned King of the British mandate of Iraq, and it is then decided that the country would reach independence soon after all British interests are preserved by treaty. Despite Faisal’s attempt to reach out to the country’s Shia majority, he was considered as a foreign and a Sunni Arab leader. Many ethnic and religious groups showed dissatisfaction as regard to Iraq’s new territorial limits, and the Assyrians or the Kurds’ fight for independence increased the destabilization of the country. A long period of coups and uprisings started in 1936.

Syria’s birth was no less troubled. The Syrian Sunni majority was opposed to the French mandate and the administrative division of the country it had established. Bastions of resistance turned into a global revolt in 1925, to which the French responded with great violence, using methods prefiguring those used in Europe during the Second World War: undifferentiated bombardment in cities, population transfer and executions, etc. The resistance was crushed in 1927. Nevertheless, it affected France’s attitude towards Syria, which was renamed the Republic of Syria and was granted a new Constitution. The country finally reached independence when it became a founding member of the United Nations.

The rise of ISIL from the ashes of western interventions

Iraq and Syria’s chronic failure to efficiently combat ISIS has led commentators to qualify them as “failed States”. The expression reveals their inability to exert the monopoly of violence within their borders, as well as to retain control over their territory and population. Yet one tends to forget how the very process of nation-building has been impeded in that region. To charge the western nations for these countries misery would be simplistic, and it would constitute insult as regard to these independent and sovereign nations. However, it must be acknowledged that they bear some kind of responsibility.

In October 2015, the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted that the Iraq War could be partly to blame for the rise of Islamic State. In fact, it can be argued that the necessary conditions for the prosperity of terrorist movements in this country – the weakness of a nation-state and the collapse of its institutions – have been met long before. It was the case in 1991, when 28 nations decided to forcefully apply the 13 United Nations Security Council’s resolutions and to defend Kuwait’s sovereignty against the Iraqi invasion, at the cost of about 30 000 deaths (mostly Iraqis) and the destruction of countless vital civilian infrastructures. The end of the war did not put an end to the economic sanctions on nearly all trade and financial resources put on Iraq, which are known to have had a disastrous effect on civilian populations. Finally, the following 2003 legally-debated war based on the wrong assumption that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destructions has achieved the destruction of the state’s command structure and the killing of more than a hundred thousand civilians.

The origins of ISIS cannot be identified in a single date but rather in consideration of the whole and very troubled history of the region, which has created a very fertile ground for the rise of that terrorist group that is now in control of a territory and a population. The taking of the first Iraqi city in January 2014, Falloujah, was made possible by a strong army which was equipped with American heavy artillery; against a very weak Shia army, scorned by the new Sunni Iraqi majority. But ISIS’s true strength lies in its political project. The self-declared caliphate has started a war against the western civilization which it holds responsible for all the region’s misfortunes. The de facto abolition of the border between Iraq and Syria was advertised as “The End of Sykes-Picot” in a discourse that has naturally united regional fighters under a common banner. These recruits’ first objective is to get rid of the Shia governing minority that has been oppressing the many. Furthermore, President Bashar al-Assad’s tactic to nourish the instability of his own country in order to appear irreplaceable (e.g in releasing hundreds of extremist prisoners in 2011) has been integral in making ISIS political ideology so strong. In such context, it is clear that religion is just one of the many tools this terrorist movement uses to convince the world that it leads a modern “clash of civilisations”.

In the previous months, ISIS has piled up the military defeats and it has lost a significant part of its territory. Nevertheless, Iraq and Syria need no more foreign “victory” against a designated opponent. These countries need to hope in a future that they only will shape. The recent ceasefire which has been negotiated in Syria by the UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura is a step forward in the termination of the conflict. But what has to be targeted in order to secure an effective resolution is the causes of ISIS’s previous success. In that regard, former mandatory powers must assume their colonial past and their responsibility, as well as to get over their self-interested position on both Bashar al-Assad fate and the fragmentation of Syria. What they cannot deny is the irreversible nature of their actions in Middle East for the past hundred year.