A German Perspective on ISIS

9th October, 2014

Washington, D.C. — The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, ISIL or IS) has grown into prominence in the second half of 2014. It has captured large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria (and is enforcing stately powers over its territories), claims to be the representative of the entire world’s Sunni muslim population, and has conducted, in the eyes of the Western world, a new kind of terrorism — better planned (one of the first terrorist outfits to behave like a State), better marketed (effective use of social media in recruitment and propaganda), and high on leverage (be-headings of 5 Western prisoners of war that created Sun Tzu-esque sensationalism and fear.)

While President Barack Obama’s administration strategizes and implements a response to this radical outfit, Dr. Volker Perthes, Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), and advisor to the German government, presented the following German point of view on ISIS at the Wilson Center on a chilly Fall day in the District of Columbia.

Stately Actions and Totalitarian Interpretation of Islamic Scripture

  • There is an inherent difficulty in understanding ISIS. President Obama, for instance, believes that ISIS is not Islamic and is not a State. This point of view is not entirely correct.
  • It is perhaps more appropriate to call ISIS a “State building” project as it exercises State powers — taxation, policing, defense, prevalence of law and order — over 8 million people.
  • ISIS has captured more than 1/3rd of the land of Syria and 1/3rd of the land of Iraq.
  • Further, its fundamental tenet is a totalitarian interpretation of Islam and the “Sharia.”
  • ISIS is clearly an expansionist organization. The fact that it has changed its name from “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” to, simply, the “Islamic State” reflects its desire of continuous expansion.
  • Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the supposed caliph of the caliphate of ISIS, claims jurisdiction over muslims all over the world (most muslims, however, do not heed to Baghdadi’s claims.)

Danger to Kurdistan and Saudi Arabia’s Position

  • ISIS’s expansionary ambitions mean immediate danger for the Kurdish people (who live in the Northern parts of Iraq and Syria) and their regional governments. The pressure on and likely fall of regional Kurdish governments will most definitely result in the increased regional presence of ISIS and continued genocidal disregard for humanity.
  • Perthes made a controversial statement here by saying that ISIS continues to enjoy “support” inside Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally. The outfit shares common ideologies with influential Saudis (I presume these ideologies relate to shared beliefs in Sunni Islam, although they were not elaborated.)
  • Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia does not offer any appealing alternatives to repressed Sunni muslims in the region in comparison to Al Baghdadi. Therefore, there is an implicit Saudi interest in the continued propagation of Al Baghdadi’s aggressive movement that aims to rebalance the Shia-biased Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East.
  • On one hand, Saudi Arabia has shared interests with the Islamic State; on the other, it is an important partner, and the leader of the Arab component, in the global U.S. sponsored coalition against ISIS. According to Perthes, the Saudi involvement in the overall equation represents unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable in the status quo) questions.

The Ideal Western Strategy should be…

  • Perthes claimed that President Obama’s strategy in dealing with ISIS — creating a coalition of forces for an air-based military campaign with no “American boots on the ground” — could be wrong. The American-organized coalition may be fractured as it does not address the root cause of problems in the region and consists of half-hearted partners like Saudi Arabia.
  • To deal effectively with ISIS, a movement that sprung on the premise to fill the political vacuum for repressed Sunni muslims, a platform to address the political tensions between Sunni and Shia muslims must be created.
  • This must include policy change in Baghdad, where Shias will have to become more “inclusive” and share power with the Sunnis. Policy change in Damascus was not discussed; I assume influencing the politics of Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria is beyond Western influence in present times.
  • Effective sharing of power must include plans to “decentralize” power — in other words, provide political freedom and some degree of autonomy to Sunni-led regional governments in Sunni dominated areas of Iraq and Syria in a Federalized governing structure.
  • Both Saudi Arabia and Iran must be coerced to reduce aspirations for Middle Eastern hegemony. ISIS is a by-product of the proxy war fought between Saudi (Sunnis) and Iran (Shias) in the Middle East. Western diplomats must successfully de escalate this rivalry.
  • The political process to create a consensus on power-sharing in Iraq and Syria, between Sunnis and Shias in each of the two countries, must be started. This can be successfully reached by a series of cease fires in the region.
  • Until these fundamental fault-lines are healed, ISIS, or elements worse than it, will continue to sprout in what has become the Middle Eastern hotbed for terrorism.

Notes from Q/A session

  • Role of Turkey: As ISIS expands northward, it has launched an offensive to capture the Kurdish city of Kobane on the Syrian-Turkey border. As of the day when this presentation was made, Turkey did not provide any military assistance to the city of Kobane in fending off ISIS. This is because Turkey does not have warm relations with the Kurds. Perthes felt that Turkey should help Kobane militarily for a number of reasons:
    • Could lead to warming up of strained Turkish-Kurdish relations.
    • Keeping a menace like ISIS away from its own borders.


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