The Magazine

On the Origin of ISIS

Why has a terrorist state blossomed in Syria and Iraq?

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By HUSSAIN ABDUL-HUSSAIN and LEE SMITH
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ISIS’s first success in tribal politics was in Raqqa, which it snatched from the hands of the Assad regime and turned into its capital. Until the middle of 2013, Raqqa remained loyal to Assad. Although few Syrian security forces were present in the city, and the capital, Damascus, is nearly 300 miles away, making it virtually impossible to maintain communications and supply lines, Raqqa remained in Assad’s control because the city was run by the Sharabeen tribe.

In the tribal world, the Sharabeen are not part of the elite. They are a cattle-raising tribe, considerably less prestigious than, say, the camel-raising Shammar, one of the biggest tribes in the Middle East, whose members are known for their valor. When the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, defeated the Shammar in 1910, the tribe pledged allegiance to him. Even as the British and French forced Ibn Saud to relinquish much of the Shammar territory he’d won, the Saudi king issued many Shammar Saudi passports. 

Former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, well understood the significance of the ties between the Shammar and the Saudis. To counter Saudi influence in Raqqa, he propped up the Sharabeen, funding them, arming them, and giving them government jobs. All this came at the expense of the Shammar, many of whom picked up and moved to Saudi Arabia. When the anti-Assad rebellion erupted in 2011, Riyadh sent some Shammar tribal leaders back to Syria, like onetime head of the Syrian National Council Ahmed al-Jarba. The potential return of the powerful Shammar became a pressing concern not just for the Sharabeen, but for other tribal groups as well, which is what prompted 14 Raqqa clans to pledge allegiance to ISIS in November 2013. This is how Raqqa turned, quickly and peacefully, from an Assad stronghold into ISIS’s capital.

Baghdadi repeated the same exercise in Syrian border towns like Al-Qaim and Bou Kamal, as well as Al-Omar, which is Syria’s largest oil field, in Deir al-Zour Province. The Iraqi native had an even easier time with tribal politics on the Iraqi side of the border. 

When British diplomat Gertrude Bell assembled modern Iraq, it was with an eye to securing a pipeline that linked the oil fields of Basra, in southern Iraq, to the Port of Haifa, in northern Palestine. This required integrating the Dulaim, an enormous tribe of around three million people today, and its territory, Dulaim Province, into Iraq. The Dulaimis would produce two Iraqi presidents, the last of whom was deposed by the Baathists, who changed the name of Dulaim Province to Anbar. Between 1993 and 1996, the CIA reportedly encouraged the Dulaimis to revolt against Saddam, which they did, and, losing, paid dearly. Nonetheless, one of the leading clans of the Dulaim, the Abu Risha, came to ally itself with the United States during the occupation, and without them, the coalition forces almost certainly would not have won the surge. 

Maliki alienated the tribes that the surge had won over. He refused to share power with them. After the Obama administration’s December 2011 withdrawal, the tribes—including the Dulaim—defied Maliki by holding anti-government rallies inspired by the Arab Spring. When Maliki cracked down on protesters and his forces ejected Sunni leaders from the government, the tribes went into open revolt. 

To be sure, not all the Iraqi tribes have pledged allegiance to the new caliph, though they are fighting government forces alongside ISIS. Even as Baghdadi tried to woo some clans from the Dulaim, the tribe’s leader, Sheikh Ali al-Hatem, a former Awakening Council member and a staunch opponent of the Iraqi government, stood up to Baghdadi and kept him out of most of Anbar’s towns, including the biggest, Ramadi. 

Perhaps eventually, the various components of the Sunni rebellion—the Dulaim, the Shammar, JRTN, ISIS, and the rest—will turn on each other. Already clashes have erupted between them, over booty or territory. But it is still too early for them to fall into open conflict. With ISIS spearheading the effort, the Sunni rebellion will likely continue to grow. 

Last week President Obama announced that the White House has no policy to deal with ISIS. The revelation came as no surprise since it was the administration’s handling of Iraq and Syria that gave ISIS room to grow. Before tackling the problem of Sunni extremism, the administration needs to address the pro-Shiite, pro-Iranian extremism that led to it. Even if the administration wanted to address the root causes of the Sunni rebellion, it has little power to affect facts on the ground: It took its troops and went home in 2011. The Iranians, by contrast, through their allies and through the military assets they are willing to use, from Hezbollah to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, have lots of leverage. Iraq’s new prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi—named to the post by Quds Force commander Suleimani—is every bit as much an Iranian asset as Maliki was.

But the reality is that Obama doesn’t want to change the equation. As the president has explained in a series of interviews over the last year, he wants to build a new geopolitical equilibrium that would bring Iran back into the community of nations. And to do that, the White House has to respect Iranian regional interests—which amounts to signing off on Iranian hegemony across the Levant, at the expense of America’s traditional regional partners, the Sunnis. 

What’s most extraordinary about the Middle East at present isn’t ISIS and the rest of the Sunni rebellion. Rather, it’s the Obama administration’s inability to formulate a policy that would protect American interests by pushing back against Iran’s project for the region. Instead, the White House is squared off against traditional American allies in a way we’ve never seen before—with the Sunnis now galvanized by a 4,000-year-old tribal code and led by a caliph. 

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai.

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