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No Spring in The Arab World: The Rise of ISIS

Published On October 27, 2015 | Central Asia & Middle East

The Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium’s new study suggested that ISIS has evolved into and “organized and structured extremist organization in order to consolidate its power as a government” within the territory of the Islamic Caliphate. The organization cannot be compared to the al Quaeda, since it is more structured, with more tactical, financial and human resources. Therefore, we all have to take into consideration the possibility that the ISIS will not lose this war: they could consolidate their power on the territories they occupied in which case the world powers would need to switch strategies and try to domesticate the newly founded state.

From 1798 when Napoleon reached Egypt, until the 2003 invasion of Iraq, changes have always been brought to the Arab world by foreign powers. The aftermath of the II. World War, brought a wave of modernization to the Arab world, but it brought changes mostly for the political elite and the military, not that much for the population. Also, the newly founded countries lacked a national identity, a real social legitimacy, the population didn’t feel loyalty towards the nation state, but they did, and still do feel it when it comes to religion, tribes or clans. The aftermath of the war caused some improvements in health care, access to clean water, food, etc. This caused a demographic boom, which was not followed by a growth in the number of jobs or a better economy.

The 2011 Arab spring ended the postcolonial era and the protests marked the beginning of an unstoppable process, a rift, which had different effects on each country it reached. So different: Tunisia ( even though terrorist attack happened there as well) held its first parliamentary elections since the revolution and experienced a positive regime change; Egypt returned to dictatorship; Libya is still in civil war, since there are too many rival parties who want to seek power. The Arab spring surely did not mean a transition, but rather a clash in Syria as well.

As mentioned before, the country was not capable of creating and ensuring a national identity. Thus they are in a serious legitimacy crisis. It is easier to understand why didn’t the democratization process worked: it had no tradition. The statehood, therefore, was in constant danger; for a state to work, so many things have to be fulfilled: one so-called government is not enough; institutions are not enough. The state needs its people and its legitimacy: since that was not the case, the illegitimate “authorities” and institutions took over. While the state could not rise up to the expectations of its people, there were more and more other powers who claimed to be authorities and slowly took more and more responsibilities, thus more and more money: they made a business out of the war. And while Syria and its authorities could not give anything to its people, these new actors, new powers found what the people needed: identity, solidarity, independence and legitimacy.

“Terrorists realized they could exploit the confusion and vacuum in power created by the uprisings”- as a secret U.S. intelligence officer mentioned. The thought was right, but few people actually took into consideration that this exploitation could go even beyond the al-Quaeda.

” Given the globalized nature of terrorism and the ability of transnational terrorist, militant and criminal groups to collaborate and morph, we are now at risk of failing to imagine how the terrorist threat may be changing — well beyond the exclusive al-Qaeda prism.”– according to Juan Zarate, in his article, The shifting face of terrorism.

It is clear now, that even though at first they represented a rebel group in the war, their most important objective wasn’t the overthrow of Assad. They occupied cities which were the rebels’ for years. Their war was not a rebel movement, but a conquest.

The events in Iraq and Syria escalated gradually, for two years, in interconnection from the perspective of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  Damascus has already been in a depressing situation, while the disintegration of the Iraqi state was at the beginning. The ISIS understood the similarities between the two countries and exploited the weaknesses of both, with perfect timing. The first branch of the ISIS( back then ISI) in Iraq appeared after the fall of Saddam Hussein, putting more pressure on the American forces. Some consider a huge mistake the fight, capturing and killing of Saddam Hussein. Of course, the Arab spring couldn’t have been avoided, but the iron ruling of Hussein could have at least moderated the power gain of terrorist groups in the region. However, it was hard to distinguish acts of terrorism, from local militia actions and civilian acts at that point in the chaos. From 2011 the ISIS used the vacuum which has appeared since the beginning of the civil war and the lack of nation states. When Iraq experienced this vacuum, the ISIS returned from Syria and meanwhile practically eliminated the state borders, forming one giant battlefield. On the 15th of August, 2011, the Islamic State carried out 22 bomb attacks. From 2011 on the ISIS “conquered” vast territories in Iraq and Syria.

“The aftermath of the “Arab Spring”, saw a kind of combustible situation emerge that allowed rival ethnicities, tribes and religions begin to fight for their rights with dictators now absent from the scene”.

The 4th of July in 2014 represented one of the key events in the history of ISIS, by the first public appearance of al-Baghdadi. That day he gave a speech insisting on the plan of the Caliphate. He tried all the time not to show his face to the cameras. Al- Baghdadi took al-Zarqawi’s place as leader of al-Qaeda in 2010 and was named caliph (Caliph Ibrahim) in 2014. Right after being named, al-Baghdadi consolidated some centers of resistance in Syria and attracted foreign fighters by a new-type campaign. By this campaign, it was way easier to join ISIS than it has ever been to join al-Qaeda.

The world has switched from being bipolar to multipolarity: the Islamic State managed to consolidate the caliphate on a huge territory being funded by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but it faces multiple enemies as well: Syrian army, Iraqi army, Syrian rebels, etc.  Nevertheless, the current strategies of conflict management in Syria might be insufficient since this organization is transforming itself into a state. The nature of the Islamic State and the conflict in the area is different from those of other destabilized states.

Therefore, the response of the world powers should be different. However, there are problems with the current involvement of the world powers: in October, 2015 we can talk about a new dynamic of the conflict right now with three main parties: USA and Russia ( different methods and strategies, constantly in dispute) vs. ISIS. They theoretically fight against the same enemy, but have very different visions of the Syrian conflict as it is.

Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015, but blocked action in the U.N Security Council with regard to increasing pressure on Assad and his regime. Vladimir Putin is in constant discussion with Assad, who, according to Putin “was ready for dialogue with opposition forces”, and they try to help reaching these agreements.  Russia, during the airstrikes caused numerous civilian casualties and they showed a failure to distinguish between ISIS fighters and civilians/rebel groups fighting against Assad. From the nature of the attacks, one could draw the conclusion that Russia supports the government forces (together with Iran). Meanwhile the US (together with France, Britain and others) supports the Syrian rebels.

Therefore, while both are fighting against ISIS, they created a competition of visions between themselves as well. Again.


Rainer H. (2015). The Islamic State. Akademia

Napoleoni L. (2015), ISIS: Califatul terorii. Corint

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