The first day of a two-day conference on the rise of the group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and hosted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies opened to the public in Doha, Qatar on Saturday, 18 October. Titled, “From Peoples' Revolutions to an Arena of Regional and International Conflict: The Rise of ISIL and Renewed American Involvement”, the conference began with a keynote address by ACRPS Director Dr. Azmi Bishara. Introducing Bishara’s keynote address, the ACRPS’ Marwan Kabalan pointed out the irony that, in 2014, an extremist Islamist group based in the Fertile Crescent had used emblematic American made military technology, including the Humvee armored jeep and Abrams tanks. Azmi Bishara’s address went on to spell out the significance to the Arab Spring of the rise of ISIL and the renewed, direct US military intervention it brought in its wake.
The popular uprisings which swept through the Arab region during 2011 had been the antithesis, according to Bishara, of two trends that had long imposed themselves on the Arab countries, these being foreign intervention, and terrorism. It was as if, said Bishara, that the terrorist groups who had remain silent for over a year had “in their turn been shocked by the peaceful uprising of the Arab peoples”. At the same time, Bishara noted, there was no agreement on the way in which the post-revolutionary period would be governed, something which marks a significant difference between the Arab Spring and both the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and Iran’s 1979 revolution. In those cases, oppressive regimes came to be replaced by totalitarian governments. The Arab Revolutions meanwhile, despite having produced democratic elections at a very early stage “and possibly prematurely”, failed to bring about truly democratic systems of rule. While, according to Bishara, it would be difficult to demarcate all of the factors that ultimately led to the foiling of “the most noble Arab political movement of the last 100 years”, it was clear, he said, that the deep state’s bureaucracy and business classes were able to unleash unbridled violence to lead the counter-revolution, exploiting the public’s sense of confusion surrounding the internal squabbling of the forces behind the January 25, 2011 revolution in Egypt.
Here, Bishara pointed out, Egypt’s counter-revolutionary junta owed a debt of gratitude to the regimes of both Syria and pre-revolutionary Libya for their use of excessive violence in the suppression of popular uprisings. This use of force frightened the populations of other Arab countries with an awareness of the price they would have to pay in the event of a revolution within their countries. Anticipating points that were raised later on during the first session of the conference about the event’s title, Bishara pointed out that, in fact, foreign intervention in the Arab region never really ceased, citing the example of Russia and Iran, both of which had been unyielding in their support for Syria’s regime. In the case of Iran, this meant also a willingness to use the force of arms, in the shape of sectarian militia, to bolster the Al Assad regime.
In the face of this, said Bishara, the Western countries that were now seemingly unified in a military coalition against ISIL had been reluctant and incapable to act in concord on these issues. Instead, they were “concerned primarily on the impact of ISIL propaganda on their domestic public opinion, secondly with their geostrategic interests as states, and only finally with the impact of ISIL and the fate of the [Arab] region’s peoples and states”, and were incapable of shaking off the bad habit of dealing with Middle Eastern issues in a piecemeal fashion. Instead of addressing the grievances of ethnic and religious minorities as part of a broader underlying issue of social justice and representation within the state, those Western countries were instead intent on framing the debate around ISIL as one around geostrategic considerations. In this light, said Bishara, the siege of Kobane—the Kurdish town presently under attack by ISIL—could be depicted as different from the sieges which ISIL inflicted on other Syrian towns such as Deraa, Aleppo and Homs, towns which ISIL was tacitly allowed by the Western powers to occupy.
Bishara’s introductory remarks were then followed by a panel chaired by the ACRPS’ Elnour Hamad, and in which Syrian exile and opposition leader Burhan Ghaliyoun spoke alongside London-based Iraqi academic Faleh A. Jabar and Marwan Kabalan. Jabar used his address to the audience to point out how the fragmented and weak state formed following the US invasion of Iraq made it possible for a single individual like Nuri Al Maliki to wield excessive power over state policy. Without a system of checks and balances to bring him in line, the parochial and rural upbringing of somebody like former Prime Minister Maliki could be allowed to wreak havoc in Iraq. Importantly, as pointed out by Jabar, Maliki began his power at a time when there were no homogeneous sectors of Sunni or Shia Muslims, nor was there a single, unified Kurdish bloc: instead, many groups were consolidated in opposition to Maliki’s policies, which saw him alienate even members of his own Shia sect.
Ghaliyoun then followed Jabar to provide a Syrian perspective on the rise of ISIL, linking it to the repressive measures of the Assad regime, coupled with the strategic and political paralysis which afflicted all countries in the Middle East. This paralysis, said Ghaliyoun, made it necessary for the powers that behaved as “the Arab states’ overseers” to act in times of crisis, such as the one represented now by the rapid rise of ISIL. Yet the willingness of the ostensible “Great Powers” to act in this way was called into question by Marwan Kabalan, the final speaker on the first panel. Kabalan contrasted the present state of affairs to the one which reigned between the rise of the Arab Nationalist Movement and the 1967 war, and the situation at the present moment. In the earlier case, Syria had been a geopolitically pivotal state in the “Arab Cold War” between Nasser’s Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. While an Arab country had been the site of a conflict during that earlier “Arab Cold War”, all of the actors in that earlier conflict had been Arab states, while non-Arab actors such as Turkey and Iran had been marginal. Today, Arab countries like Egypt, Syria and Iraq had been reduced to subjects, and were the scene of a conflict between non-Arab regional actors such as Turkey and Iran, as well as an unresolved conflict between Russia and the United States. The choice facing Obama, said Kabalan, was whether to act “as a leader, or as a bureaucrat”, and his insistence to enlist and rely on regional powers into the battle against ISIL, he said, was an indication of the limited nature of the US’ aims in the current conflict.
From Peoples' Revolutions to an Arena of Regional and International Conflict: The Rise of ISIL and the Renewed American Involvement will continue on Sunday, 19 October. Read more detailed information on the conference’s event page.