Understanding the Cauldron that Brewed ISIS

Religious communities in Iraq, especially religious minorities, have suffered enormously over the past year. Longstanding sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis deepen the crisis in Iraq, which is disrupting the entire Middle East. This week contributors are asked to evaluate this situation as a crisis of religious freedom. They address the following questions: What explains the success of ISIS in Iraq? Why do sectarian tensions exist? What can be done to resolve this conflict and prevent similar ones in the future? What role might US or international religious freedom diplomacy play?

By: M. Zuhdi Jasser

Part 1: Historical Context

The plight of religious minorities, particularly Christians and Yazidis, in Iraq has the world asking: How did a land where Christianity existed for millennia become the world’s most dangerous place for Christians and other minority faiths? The spread and growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Levant) (ISIS) has placed the existence of Christian and Yazidi faithful and other minorities at risk like never before. Yet, ISIS did not come out of thin air. It is the result of a perfect storm—the 50-year trajectory of historical, political, and sectarian religious forces in both Syria and Iraq meeting the wake of the ongoing Syrian Revolution. Understanding the evolution of ISIS as a byproduct of Syrian tyranny, the revolution, and Iranian imperialism in the region helps to explain ISIS’s success in Iraq and Syria and reveals possible long term solutions.
As the son of Syrian immigrants, political refugees from the prison Syria became in the early 1960s under the Ba’athist Party regime, my lens for the horrors of the Syrian conflict is particularly personal and palpable. Almost every day we communicate with family living in fear in Aleppo and Damascus.

The Syrian Ba’ath Party, an Arab nationalist socialist party, seized power by military coup in 1963. The Alawite (a Shi’a offshoot) faction of Ba’ath Party loyalists then took power in another bloody coup in February 1966. After the Alawite coup of 1966, the fascist Ba’ath Party transformed its predominantly supremacist political platform to incorporate Alawite religious sectarianism. Members of Sunni Muslim leadership were purged from the military. The entire leadership became comprised of Alawite Ba’athist faithful. Sunni, Christian, Druze, and Islamaili influence was all but eliminated. Non-Alawite officers who were ousted reported that in the late 1960s and early ‘70s Syria was on the verge of a sectarian civil war.

But, in 1970, Hafez al-Assad took the reins from his fellow Alawites in another coup. Assad, in line with the totalitarian doctrine of the Ba’athist Party, ruled Syria with an iron fist for 30 years. Al-Assad ended the Ba’ath Alawite in-fighting and the regime cleansed any non-Alawites in its midst, obliterating any Sunni protestations within or outside the party. To quell religious sectarian unrest, Assad placed a few party loyalists who were Sunni, Christian, and Druze in mid-level and a few higher levels of political, but not military, leadership, though most knew them to be window dressing and sympathizers.

The Syria of Hafez Assad was much like the Iraq of Ba’athist Saddam Hussein, described by a pseudonymous expatriate as “A Republic of Fear: “a regime of totalitarian rule, institutionalized violence, universal fear, and unchecked personal dictatorship.” Many of our Syrian families, after suffering for years in and out of prison, muzzled in every form of expression left for American freedom after realizing that a revolution to topple one of the world’s most ruthless military tyrannies would likely never materialize in their lifetimes.

The Assad regime paralyzed the humanity of 22 million Syrians for two generations using incalculably cruel methods. Brothers, sisters, families reported on one another to Syrian intelligence (Mukhabarat); many vanished, never to be seen again; and anyone who dared dissent from the ruling party was systematically tortured and made an example with frequent collective punishment. By the twenty-first century, there would come to be more Syrians living outside Syria than inside, and some analyses claim that one in nine expatriates living abroad provided steady information to the Assad regime on expatriate Syrian activities in order to spare family. The Syrian Human Rights Committee has chronicled many of the atrocities committed in the past 45 years by the Assad regime: the Hama Massacres of 1963, 1982, and again in 2011, Tadmur, and the countless prisoners of conscience systematically snuffed out by the regime.

Although the Assad regime tolerated some religious difference where it did not interfere with political objectives, that meager toleration began to deteriorate into the religious catastrophe that has characterized the Syrian Revolution as a result of two key factors. First, in the 1980s the secular Alawite Ba’athist party began a deep alliance with theocratic, Khomeinist Iran. The Assad regime came under the monolithic influence of a Shi’a crescent from Iran to Syria and Lebanon (vis-à-vis Hizballah). Syria helped Iran in the bloody Iraq-Iran war and, especially after Bashar al-Assad‘s 2000 ascent to power, began a major increase in economic, military and cultural cooperation with Iran. With Iran came it’s anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and anti-Sunni ideology. Iran’s Khomeinist regime is not only one of the world’s worst offenders of religious freedom but also sponsors Islamist terrorism, including progeny terror groups like Hizballah. Its own theocratic version of Shi’a Islam is a militant misogynistic supremacist version of Shi’a Islamism. The Alawites were all too willing to allow this intolerant influence to permeate Syrian culture. Assadist Ba’athists maintained military and governmental control, letting Khomeinists infiltrate the nation.

Second, the Assad regime’s brewing intolerance mirrored regional militant Sunni Islamist ideologies from Saudi Arabia (Wahhabism), Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar (Muslim Brotherhood (MB)). Due to Islamist media dominance, and the departure of liberal refugees the ideological trajectory of Syria’s Sunni population was also increasingly fundamentalist. Nothing illustrates this systemic radicalization campaign better than how Assad maintained close relations with the Iranian backed terror group Hizballah and its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah while also providing sanctuary for the exiled leadership of the Sunni terror group HAMAS (an MB offshoot) and its leader Khaled Mashal until almost a year after the revolution started.

When the Arab Awakening and revolution came to Syria in 2012, these two radicalizing currents, which affected both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, created fertile ground for sectarian violence and the growth of ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.

Part 2: Contemporary Problems and Solutions

In March 2011, the Arab Awakening came to Syria, bringing a long overdue opportunity for reform. But the vacuum it created skyrocketed the influence of both Shi’a and Sunni regional Islamist movements. Minorities like Christians were increasingly caught in the middle of the bloody crossfire between Shi’a and Sunni Islamists and secular Ba’athists, working hand in glove with the Shi’a Islamists. 

This cauldron of political repression and sectarian conflict was set afire with the revolution of 2011 in Syria. Yet, the revolution began in rural Syria in towns like Dar’aa as a predominantly secular, political pluralistic revolt united against Assadist, Ba’athist tyranny. Initially few religious freedom issues surfaced.   

But in 2012 the conflict collapsed into its sectarian roots as unarmed civilians were massacred in the streets, in their homes and at work by barrel bombs, chemical weapons, helicopter gunships and raiding gangs (shabiha) who savaged neighborhoods,  torturing, raping, murdering, and imprisoning, and leaving over 100,000 dead and 1 million displaced.     

The regime had adopted a strategy of divide and conquer,” exploiting sectarianism, and as the conflict developed in 2012, this strategy began to work. The government released thousands of militant Sunni Islamists from jails. Large numbers of radical foreign Sunni jihadists started to flow into Syria, and their Shi’a equivalent, Hizballah Shi’a jihadists, arrived to fight alongside the Syrian military.   

As a result, the Free Syria Army (FSA) found themselves no longer up against the regime alone, but fighting an emerging battle on many fronts against Assad’s military and factions of militant Islamists—a situation that smashed the fighting resolve of minority groups like Christians, Druze, and anti-Ba’athist Alawites.   

This process allowed the formation, growth, and militarization of ISIS in northeast Syria. The “moderate” (non-Islamist) wings of the FSA steered clear of the ISIS fanatics and focused on defeating the Syrian military. ISIS, conversely, left the Syrian military virtually alone as they viewed their initial existential enemy to be moderate Sunni Muslims who would reject their Islamist supremacism and authority. Similarly, the Assad military left ISIS virtually alone (the Wall Street Journal described it as an entente) as their continued existence gave the Syrian military a way to rally global sentiment against the revolution while they decimated the greatest existential threat to Assadist Ba’athism and its alliance with Iranian Khomenism: moderate democratic-minded Sunni Muslims. So, while ISIS grew, the genocide against Sunni Muslims continued. The conflict in Syria has now left over 250,000 dead and 5 million displaced, 90 percent of whom are Sunni Muslim.   

Systematic savagery by the Syrian regime against predominantly Sunni Muslims and selective Saudi and Qatari funding of radical Islamist wings of the FSA fueled an unprecedented Sunni radicalization. While the FSA and Syrian government were both shrinking in size and power, ISIS was the only growing entity in Syria. ISIS continued to grow faster and was able to spread to Iraq, dissolving “secular” borders and claiming a caliphate under Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Few predicted how significant the ability of radical Islamist movements like ISIS would be to fill the vacuum created in Syria.  

ISIS has created, in areas it controls, the world’s most horrific situation for religious minorities like Yazidis, Christians, Assyrians, Kaldeans, and Druze. These minorities, as well as dissenting Sunnis, are systematically tortured, raped, and murdered. Their sacred holy places and sacred texts, symbols, and history are destroyed and their worship practices prohibited.   

Solving the religious freedom catastrophe in Syria and Iraq must be viewed through the lens exactly how ISIS emerged. ISIS is an unhinged outgrowth of militant Islamism manifest directly from Wahhabism and various forms of Salafism throughout the Arab world but especially Saudi Arabia. The growth of ISIS is a result of a perfect storm of, first, a genocidal Syrian government, second the radicalization of Sunni Muslims in Syria and Iraq, and third an Iraqi government incapable of mounting strong resistance to ISIS.   

This analysis teaches that the only solution is a military one, which ends both ISIS and the Assad regime. They are two sides, Sunni and Shi’a, of the same radicalizing coin, feeding off of sectarian animus and divisions. The only option that may restore a nation that before the revolution had the most diverse population in the Middle East is a post-Ba’ath, post-ISIS Syria. ISIS cannot be defeated in Iraq without decisively destroying their command and control in Northeast Syria in and around Raqqa. And the decimation of ISIS alone will only delay the formation of another radical Islamist group if the Assad military remains intact and in place.   

Make no mistake: The fact that long before the Arab Awakening there were virtually no Jews remaining in Arab nations speaks volumes to the disastrous trajectory of religious freedom in the Middle East. The population of Christians in Iraq, too, has declined precipitously as so-called secular regimes became closely aligned with radical Islam. Saddam Hussein “relocated” Christian communities and oversaw an almost 50 percent decrease in the Iraqi Christian population from 1.4 million in 1987 to 800,000 in 2003. Since then, with Ba’athism and Islamism cornering minorities, the number of Christians in Iraq has decreased to 300,000. The population is plummeting again in Iraq and Syria as ISIS marks their homes for genocide with “N” for Nazarene.   

The only way for religious freedom, the first freedom, to find life in Iraq and Syria is for the revolution against the twin tyrannies of Assadist Ba’athism and ISIS’ Islamism to be realized. Things will get worse before getting better, but to deny the need for revolution against tyranny is to accept the return of a false quiet. In the last 50 years many perceived a period of quiet for religious sectarian animus. Really, a period of mass imprisonment, and sectarian monopoly was festering in a cauldron of religious divisions. The Assad regime used those divisions to justify its brutality in a cycle that must end if genuine religious freedom is to have any hope in Syria or Iraq. And countering the social media recruitment of ISIS jihadis around the planet is not enough. We need a program of positive messaging from Muslims for religious liberty in addition to that against religious extremism and supremacism. Urgency is essential: If the religious diversity of Syria is lost, so too will be its greatest hope of emerging from this horrific battle between the savagery of radical Sunni and Shi’a Islamists and the Assad Ba’athist killing machine. 

The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the views of his organization.

Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser is the founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, an organization dedicated to preserving American founding principles by directly countering the ideologies of political Islam.

This piece was originally authored as a two-part series on March 18 and 19, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/12/understanding-the-cauldron-that-brewed-isis