It’s hard to believe that this adventure called Islamic State caused the chaos in the Middle East and the world only three and a half years ago. It’s even harder to believe that this organization is gradually disintegrating. It has lost most of its areas of conquest in Iraq and Syria, it is still waging rearguard battles in eastern Syria and in southern Iraq, but most of its fighters have gone home, its leaders are in hiding and its power struggles with its mother organization, Al-Qaida, which is resurgent after a long period of losing its followers to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Apparently the departure from Islamic State is so hard that some are giving it the status of an “idea” or an ideology, as though it invented a lifestyle that captivated Muslim believers all over the world. This is an efficient organization, which cleverly identified and exploited opportunities thanks to the prolonged internal crises in Arab states resulting from the failure of citizens to bring down the regimes in some of these countries.
Islamic State wanted to implement an old worldview in new ways, restoring the political structure it claims was in place during the time of Mohammed, continued into the Ummayad and Abassid dynasties and came to an end with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. A structure based on one supreme leader for the Muslim world and on the dream of uniting the Muslim peoples into one nation with one country.
The idea wasn’t invented by Islamic State. Muslim philosophers throughout history wrote about and advocated it, and it’s the axis around which millions of believers gathered in modern times. They were convinced that the only way to stop the destructive influence of the West, to reverse backwardness and develop the power to fight the colonial conquests was to return to the “true religion.”
“Islam is the solution,” goes the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood, which needs a united political framework to overcome the destructive force of nationalism.
This desire characterizes not only devout Muslims or radical movements, but is shared by Arab thinkers who believe in the idea. Under the Islamic State, whose goal is to erase the arbitrary lines of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which were the basis for establishing independent Arab states, the organization found support even among Muslims who opposed its brutal tactics.
But it wasn’t the idea alone that helped Islamic State to recruit thousands of volunteers. Internal conflicts, like the violent clash between the Iraqi government and the Sunni minority, the all-out war by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s government against the popular Muslim Brotherhood, the chaos in Libya after the fall of Muammar Gadhafi, filled the ranks of Islamic State .
That’s how a force of about 25,000 to 30,000 militants was able to capture enormous areas from regular armies — one of which, in Syria, was busy fighting for survival against nationalist and Islamic militias, and the other, in Iraq, which fought against internal enemies while relying on an army that Sunnis considered an occupying army of an internal enemy. Islamic State also benefited for a long time from international indifference: the West assumed that it was just another rebel organization, which didn’t threaten the West, and Islamic State had yet to define the West as an enemy.
When Islamic State became established in Iraq and Syria, and developed branches in Libya and Egypt by acquiring the loyalty of local organizations, and especially after it began terror attacks in the West, it started to attract international interest and foreign military involvement. Unintentionally, it brought about some tectonic changes, such as the alliance between Russia and the United States against Islamic State. Turkey began military activity in Syria only after Islamic State fired shells on its territory and carried out terror attacks in its cities.
Paradoxically, Islamic State also brought Iran, unofficially, into the coalition against it. Under U.S. President Barack Obama, who delayed responding militarily to Islamic State for fear of endangering the nuclear agreement with Iran, Tehran was seen as “positive” in terms of the war against radical Sunni terror. Even in Yemen, the United States saw the Houthis as a Shi’ite movement that could check the spread of Al-Qaida. U.S. President Donald Trump, who continued with massive combat against Islamic State, preferred to rely on the more effective Syrian Kurds, but created a deep rift with Turkey.
Islamic State’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria proved the impotence of the Arab and Islamic Sunni forces, which condemned Islamic State with little military involvement, except for attacks by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates on Islamic State bases in Libya. No significant Arab force consolidated to prevent the threat of Islamic State. The disparity between the dimensions of the threat, which was intensified by media manipulations and scenes of horror, and the reaction in Arab countries, requires an explanation.
There are three main reasons for the Arab and Muslim shoulder-shrugging. One is apparently related to the idea that Islamic State affected only Syria and Iraq, which are unpopular in the Arab space. The second reason is the belief that strong and homogeneous nation-states are not in danger of being dominated by Islamic State. The third and perhaps most important reason is that Islamic State isn’t a state but an organization which after exhausting its takeover capabilities becomes another limited terror organization that doesn’t require Arab intervention, and certainly doesn’t compare with the threat of Iran, against which the Arab countries are willing to unite.
The “Islamic State” contributed another important insight, particularly to those who believed that Arab nationalism is coming to an end and the all-Islamic dream is coming true. Because even before ISIS’ defeats in Iraq and Syria, the recruitment of forces in Iraq, including the Kurds, and the fighting by some of the rebel militias against ISIS, proved that the threat of the “integrity of the homeland” is more critical than ethnic and sectoral struggles. The liberation of Anbar and Mosul in Iraq from ISIS was celebrated as a national victory. The victory over ISIS in Raqqa, Syria, led to a battle between the regime and the Kurdish rebels over ownership of the occupied area. But even here the Kurds, like the other militias, are seeking their legitimacy from the government.
The presence of ISIS in these countries and others in the Middle East strengthened the sense of nationalism against those seen as foreign enemies, despite the violent conflicts between the militias themselves and between them and the regime.
The appearance of ISIS in the Middle East isn’t a marginal and passing episode. The process of settling accounts with those who cooperated with it is only beginning. Terror attacks won’t end with the retreat of ISIS and the return of its activists to their countries. Al-Qaida is now expected to become stronger, as it aspires to be a leader in the field of terror. But the idea of the Islamic State, without quotation marks, has suffered a historic blow that will leave a long-term trauma for those who believe in the dream of the Islamic nation.