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Introduction to the ISIS Group and Its Rise

Most people will have seen at least one documentary on ISIS. Therefore, they will know that going back four years, the Islamic State (known as ISIS) did not exist. Yet, at the present time, it is in control of vast swathes of territory in two countries – Iraq and Syria. Its existence and handiwork is in daily evidence on Social Media, mostly Twitter and/or YouTube. This is an organization that has shown repeatedly it is much more than a group of transnational terrorists. Experts describe its structure and command as complex as are its capacity for control and propaganda, and it has significant capability in the logistical sense. Its potential to take over key territory in the heart of the Middle East and administer the same is well proven. Still, while leaders all over the world struggle to decide how to handle the menace of ISIS, it is first important to understand the causes of its existence and subsequent rise. This essay seeks to analyze the national, international, and individual factors that have led to the establishment and rise of Islamic State.  

Analysis of What Caused the Rise of ISIS: International Factors

The formation of ISIS is often blamed on the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. This led to the outbreak of a sectarian-style civil war and, along with it, conditions that were favorable to allow the then-named Al Qaeda to flourish.

Al-Qaeda would not have been able to strengthen its position in Iraq if the USA invasion had not occurred, and it would not have facilitated the emergence of ISIS.

A lot of experts, including military personnel, have given their opinion on the situation and many argue that the USA’s inaction since it withdrew has aided the growth of ISIS. Indeed, many insist that this latter period is often given too little attention compared to the contribution the actual invasion itself made to the formation and progress of ISIS. Had the US maintained even a scaled-down military presence after the invasion, it may have hindered the offensive that ISIS launched there in 2014. Following that, the US bombed a number of ISIS-held positions in Syria, a campaign that is likely to have weakened the group to some extent.

Another force that has been active against and in the history of ISIS is Iran, but it would be a mistake to ignore the part it played in the terrorist group’s rise. There is no doubt that Iran was a staunch supporter of Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Indeed, Iran was very forthright in speaking in favor of Maliki after Iraq’s 2010 general elections. Yet, others argue that the real driver for putting Maliki in power was the USA. It is also believed that Iran sponsored some of Iraq’s Shia Militia e.g. Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization. Both these sectarian militias played a significant part in isolating Sunni communities from the Iraqi government.

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Additionally, Iran has made considerable investment on behalf of Syria’s President Assad. The use of Iran’s forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah are examples of direct and indirect intervention respectively. In 2012, Assad came close to falling but this was prevented when Iran supported him by sending thousands of its own troops, Hezbollah troops, and Shia militias from Iraq. As well as that, Iran supported Assad’s government in their war effort with a considerable amount of arms, and loans of around $7 billion. In fighting Syria’s moderate rebels, Iran may have saved Assad but their intervention created sufficient space for ISIS to emerge as the most potent and influential force against the Syrian government.

The influential role of Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia cannot be overlooked. ISIS is mostly financed through oil and organized crime. The group did not have significant funding channels in its initial stages i.e. in 2011 and in 2012. They were, however, funded to a large extent by the Gulf state monarchies mentioned above. Though it can hardly be said they share the same extreme ideology as ISIS, they did not like Assad’s regime and allies, and funded their foes. The USA funded far right governments and militias against what was the Soviet Union when the cold war was in progress. Likewise, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia helped ISIS rise to prominence by providing them with funds to fight Assad. 

Similarly, a significant proportion ISIS funding came from private persons living in these Gulf nations. When the real threat posed by ISIS became apparent about a year or so ago, it was only then these countries implemented strict laws to curb the laundering of money. Many believe that weaker laws allowed private supporters to send vast amounts of money to different Syrian rebel groups, particularly to ISIS. A Beauchamp article argues that the advent of ISIS was a Saudi-initiated project even though all Gulf States reject claims they were involved.

National Factors

So, how did ISIS come to power in Iraq? Analysis leads experts to suggest that Nouri AL Maliki carries most responsibility for ISIS in Iraq. Often described as a lame leader, his party recently ousted him, but his Shia-leaning government seemed to publicly favor a country dominated by Shia and succeeded in denying Sunnis power. Excluding Sunnis gave ISIS the opportunity to thrive and grow under its very eyes. 

The authoritarian policies of Maliki played a decisive role in allowing ISIS to rise. Counter-terrorism legislation was used to imprison Sunni rebels or dissenters. He additionally prevented anyone from Saddam Hussein’s regime from taking office. Additionally, Maliki removed Sunnis from prominent positions in government and the military. It is also said he took deadly measures against peaceful demonstrations by Sunnis against his own government, which he aligned to the Shia militias responsible for slaughtering Sunnis in the war that followed the 2003 US invasion. 

Furthermore, the policies introduced by Maliki convinced Sunnis in Iraq that they could never expect to be treated fairly by Iraq’s government. It caused them to see ISIS and Sunni militias as better options. It is for this reason primarily that ISIS enjoyed considerable support in Iraq for a while. As well as Maliki’s hostility towards Sunnis, many leading Shia politicians in Iraq showed possibly a little more hostility than even Maliki. Therefore, some considered that the internal politics of the Shia hindered Maliki’s reconciliatory initiatives. Shia militia groups were skeptical about allowing Sunnis into government.

More than one ISIS documentary has suggested that Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria and leader of Syria’s Shia dictatorship, also bears responsibility for ISIS. Assad would seem to have intentionally nurtured the rise of ISIS as a way of marginalizing moderate rebel groups who were being supported by some Western countries. Some believe there had been an agreement between the Syrian government and ISIS that the latter would be allowed free access to some parts of Syria while the president fought the rebels. The ruse allowed Assad to create divisions within the rebel groups and forced the rest of the world to choose between the lesser of two extremes, his regime or ISIS.

ISIS then took over Raqqa, the first Syrian province to fall completely under their control. The reaction of the Syrian regime was amazingly different to what it had been in other areas. If, for example, other rebel organizations seized any territory, these territories would be bombarded on a daily basis. Yet, Assad allowed ISIS group to flourish in his country because their being there meant it was less likely the international community would intervene to end his mass killing of Syrians. Had Assad chosen to bombard ISIS-held territories in the same manner as he did in the case of other rebel groups, then ISIS may not have flourished to the extent it has.  

Individual Factors

The rise of ISIS and its appeals for so many Muslim or Arab-born youths has been a fundamental factor in the group’s progress. Many analysts think that religion and/or social media is the primary reason for the increasing number of militants. Yet, one can find around five other reasons why people align themselves with ISIS.  

Once cause is the education in Arab countries and the failure of these systems. The education is focused on unquestioningly accepting authority and not on the encouragement of civic principles or essential analytical abilities. The history and religious education has put a lot of focus on an ideology of “Muslims versus the rest” and on ethnic and sectarian principles, which has caused individuals to be vulnerable to the influence of ISIS.    

Next, citizens have been forced to look for alternative opportunities owing to inadequate welfare and economic options. It seems that many Arab states have focused on economic-type liberation with an undermining of welfare systems and no alternatives. Investments were more focused on the capital rather than the labor variety; hence, there were less employment opportunities. Indeed, there are a great many degree-educated people unemployed.  

In the face of this reality and for reasons of survival, a lot of Arab-born people turned to ISIS. Some governments are even believed to have encouraged certain ultra-conservative groups to establish facilities for the provision of social assistance. Some have accused these groups of recruiting Muslim youths with a view to them joining the terrorist group.

In terms of the origin of ISIS, poor governance has additionally caused a lot of individuals to develop deep feelings of injustice. Respective governments have systematically maltreated a lot of the citizens of Arab countries, thereby fuelling these feelings of injustice. For decades past, many Arab nationals have been subjected to considerable brutality by their country’s governments on the grounds they represented a threat to the country’s security. It has been suggested that over 50% of Arab citizens mistrust the governments and political hierarchy in their countries. Additionally, over 90% think administrative and financial corruption is rife with only just over 20% feeling that every citizen is treated equally. 

The final reason can be traced to the brutality that accompanied the Arab awakening. This curb led to many individuals developing ideological or sectarian leanings, which in turn brought about social discord. The majority suffered polarization of the religious and ethnic variety. It is believed that state-sponsored violence against innocent inhabitants has ignited feelings of bitterness against different governments. Moreover, judicial proceedings have often been prejudiced, which when combined with non-judicious killings, have created strife in Arab countries, leading to Muslim youths feeling disenfranchised. Thus, these youths join ISIS in order to find a purpose or identity.

A mistrust of Western countries has also driven some to align themselves to ISIS. A lot of Arab people would argue that international justice has been administered in an ad-hoc way, not least where Palestine is concerned.  On-going aggression on the part of Israel against the Arab populations in Palestine has continued to fester. It is estimated that over 75% of Muslim people feel it is a course for Arabs and not a Palestinian one. Many Western countries have not been sincere in their treatment of injustices meted out by the Iraq and Syrian regimes, leaving people feeling helpless and thus joining ISIS as a way of aiding their own people.

What is ISIS? Other Important Elements in the ISIS Issue

How ISIS has strictly interpreted and implemented Sharia law in the lands it controls is noteworthy. It is currently at war with rebel groups in Syria, the government of Syria, Kurdish armies, and the ‘infidel’ West. Countless new recruits have joined and it threatens to gain more power and increase the territory under its control. 

In addition, when considering, “where did ISIS start,” it is essential to note the ethno-religious nature of Syria and Iraq as a result of European-style colonialism, which trapped various ethnic and religious groups in both countries. ISIS emerged from the conflicts in these diverse groups. When the Sunnis were removed from power in the US invasion, the Iraqi army was disbanded and a new Shia-controlled one established. The self-appointed leader of IS (or Caliph) is Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the group’s mission is to take control of all Muslim nations to reinvent the Ottoman Empire.

Where is ISIS Now and Is There Any Solution to the Current Conflict?

Irrespective of the question of “where was ISIS formed,” the possibility of a Sunni reconciliation with a Shia-strong government that has been subjecting them to mistreatment via its links to Iran will be very difficult. The majority of Sunnis are interested only in being treated fairly by their country’s government. Some Sunnis have suggested the establishment of their own regional-run government with powers similar to those of the Kurdish regional government. The aim would be to ensure the minority of Sunnis are protected from the aggression of Shia militia. All the religious and ethnic groups in Iraq and in Syria will need to be treated fairly in order to reach a viable solution.

A lot of people in Iraq and Syria are of the opinion that ISIS is an issue for the Sunnis and must be solved exclusively by Sunnis. The on-going involvement of extreme Shia militias in combatting ISIS has fuelled tensions at a sectarian level and these will only cease with militia control. It is said that the majority of Sunnis have felt marginalized by the different governments. Continuing to use Shia militias in this particular conflict serves only to strengthen the view that there is little interest on the part of the international community. If it were the case, the governments of Iraq and Syria could establish an effective Sunni fighting force, tackling ISIS would be made easier.

A further way to control the menace of ISIS would be to stop the current airstrikes. It is reported that this bombardment is causing many casualties among the civilian population. A lot of the people living in ISIS-held territory are not supporters of the group. On-going airstrikes are destroying the local infrastructure and giving rise to the idea that those responsible for them are providing protection to the Shia-dominated governments that are oppressing Sunni populations.  

Another thing that is essential is that the governments in the region do not use foreign troops in either Iraq or Syria. Many civilians have been left feeling alienated by the on-going presence of Western-led forces in both countries. It is clear that the appalling abuse of human rights in this region is being ignored at international level.

Additionally, it is clear that a standoff by the military would only serve to destroy both countries. While this option might not be the most favorable one, it is important to consider developing a diplomatic approach to ISIS since the group has numerous issues at its core.

Some people would argue that if some of these issues could be resolved or negotiated, ISIS might cease the atrocities it is currently perpetrating. This might mean redrawing the borders of both countries, but it could lead to peace for the disparate groups.

To Conclude

In terms of “why was ISIS formed,” it can be said it emerged from the abuses that occurred when Iraq was invaded, and it has become a huge menace throughout the Middle East. National governments and the international community contributed to the group’s rise. To find a real and lasting solution to the conflict it is crucial that the issues raised by the Sunnis are addressed.

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