The Six Words You Need to Know to Be a Successful Jihadi and Establish Your Own Caliphate

by Mohammad D for Syria Comment

 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the newly minted caliph of the “Islamic State,” chose the first Friday of Ramadan to make his first public appearance—ever. Until now he has worked outside the limelight, and the almost complete absence of his image in public media had generated a sense of mystique around his persona. Now, he has given a public sermon and led prayers at an impressive mosque in Mosul, available in the below video:

Shortly prior, the Islamic State (formerly ISIS, now simply IS), had declared through its spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-’Adnani that it was establishing a khilafa (“caliphate”) in the land it controls in Syrian and Iraqi territory, over which the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was to be the khalifa (خليفة الله في الأرض, “caliph”). Muslims have now been asked to swear allegiance to this new khilafa.

This comes at the chagrin of many other jihadis who had hoped to beat him to it, who had previously tried and failed, or who had a more “right” approach to doing so. No matter: now that we all know it’s doable, perhaps you’d also like to try your hand at the caliphate game? Here’s a handy manual of the primary words to keep ever upon your tongue as you move through the stages of establishing your own caliphate…

Every jihadi speech contains key words that sum up their purpose and express their objectives.  The concepts behind these terms constitute the building blocks for the establishment of khilafa and can help explain the recent rise of ISIS/IS and al-Baghdadi.

The following 6 terms correspond to consecutive stages integral to actualizing the jihadi goal and reveal much about the beliefs that motivate jihadis.

 

1 al-Taqwa التقوى

Al-taqwa simply means performing what Allah has ordered of you.  It is to obey Allah’s wishes as well as to fear him.  “Ittaqi Allah,” a widely used phrase, means fear Allah and obey his wishes.  This readiness to follow Allah’s will is an important stage of being that you must reach before embarking on your mission.  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in almost all of his speeches, asks the Muslims to be muttaqiin and to yattaqu Allah, both of which mean to do what Allah has set forth in the Qur’an.

In his speech, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first quoted from the Qur’an’s sura “‘Umran,” verse 102:

يَاأَيُّهَاالَّذِينَآمَنُوااتَّقُوااللَّهَحَقَّتُقَاتِهِوَلَاتَمُوتُنَّإِلَّاوَأَنْتُمْمُسْلِمُونَ

“O you who have believed, fear Allah as He should be feared and do not die except as Muslims [in submission to Him].”

Al-Baghdadi then quotes the sura “al-Ahzab” verses 70-71:

يَاأَيُّهَاالَّذِينَآَمَنُوااتَّقُوااللَّهَوَقُولُواقَوْلًاسَدِيدًايُصْلِحْلَكُمْأَعْمَالَكُمْوَيَغْفِرْلَكُمْذُنُوبَكُمْوَمَنْيُطِعِاللَّهَوَرَسُولَهُفَقَدْفَازَفَوْزًاعَظِيمًا

“O you who have believed, fear Allah and speak words of appropriate justice. He will [then] amend for you your deeds and forgive you your sins. And whoever obeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly attained a great attainment.”

In the second part of his speech, al-Baghdadi told his audience that to yataqqu Allah and begin jihad for his sake is necessary whether they want security, work, or an honorable living.

 

2 al-Nafeer  النفير

Al-nafeer means, in the jihadi context, mobilization to join the battle.  It is the initial step: the switch from life as a civilian citizen of a certain nation-state to the role of a mujahid who obeys a new set of specific rules.  The term is drawn from many Qur’anic verses that mention al-nafeer.  Anytime a jihadi wants to recruit someone, he invokes al-nafeer and, of course, the related verses in the Qur’an.  Also, it is used anytime someone wants to collect money for Jihad.

Al-Nafeer connotes having left everything, making the decision to join the fight, ready to die.  The derived verb is nafara نفر(past tense) or yanfuru ينفر(present tense).  When someone Yanfur ila Sahat al-Ma’raka (ينفرإلى ساحة المعركة), it means he is ready to die, and is expecting to die with a “guarantee” for a better existence in the afterlife. When a person decides to yanfur (join the fight), jihadists say that he is allowed to disobey his parents and the authorities and is no longer beholden to any laws but those of Islam (and, of course, his sect’s interpretation of Islam).  The governments that are fighting the mobilization of their kids for jihad raise this issue frequently, featuring the arguments of religious scholars who oppose the jihadist interpretation.

Of Qur’anic verses mentioning al-nafeer, three are most significant. These verses are loaded with interpretive meaning, and much has been written about them. It is common to hear them referred to in speeches, tweets, sermons, and so forth.

a) إنفِرُواْ خِفَافًا وَثِقَالاً وَجَاهِدُواْ بِأَمْوَالِكُمْ وَأَنفُسِكُمْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ ذَلِكُمْ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ إِن كُنتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ

Translation: “Go forth, whether light or heavy, and perform jihad with your wealth and your lives in the cause of Allah. That is better for you, if you only knew” (Qur’an 9:41).

In this verse Allah is ordering the Muslims to conduct al-nafeer, light or heavy.  “Light” means you leave your home with nothing.  “Heavy” means you leave your country for the land of jihad with money, equipment, etc.  The verse then issues the command to join al-jihad with your money and yourself.  Here, in common interpretations, those who cannot go make jihad physically are charged to fundraise on behalf of those who can.  The belief is that if you prepare a person for jihad (i.e. finance his preparedness for battle), you will be considered as though you have gone to wage jihad yourself.

b) يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ مَا لَكُمْ إِذَا قِيلَ لَكُمُ انفِرُواْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ اثَّاقَلْتُمْ إِلَى الأَرْضِ أَرَضِيتُم بِالْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا مِنَ الآخِرَةِ فَمَا مَتَاعُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا فِي الآخِرَةِ إِلاَّ قَلِيلٌ

Translation: “O you who have believed, what is [the matter] with you that, when you are told to go forth [derived imperative of nafeer] in the cause of Allah, you adhere heavily to the earth? Are you satisfied with the life of this world rather than the hereafter? But what is the enjoyment of worldly life compared to the hereafter except a [very] little” (Qur’an 9:38).

This verse is used to admonish those considered lazy, who prefer the contentment of their normal lives over making jihad, neglecting to appreciate the magnitude of the afterlife.  (Of course, the afterlife of he who joins jihad is Paradise.)

c) إِلاَّ تَنفِرُواْ يُعَذِّبْكُمْ عَذَابًا أَلِيمًا وَيَسْتَبْدِلْ قَوْمًا غَيْرَكُمْ وَلاَ تَضُرُّوهُ شَيْئًا وَاللَّهُ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ

Translation:  “If you do not go forth, He will punish you with a painful punishment and will replace you with another people, and you will not harm Him at all. And Allah is over all things competent” (Qur’an 9:39).

In this verse Allah says that if you do not do mobilize (derived verbal form from nafeer) you are going to be tortured severely, and you and your people are going to be substituted by others by Allah, the one able to do anything.

In his speech, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi underscored the importance of joining Jihad, because, according to him, Allah had ordered it so that Islam could be established.

Here is a link to a video in which a Tunisian fighter explains the importance of nafeer and calls people to do nafeer “light” or “heavy:”

 

3 – al-Ribaat الرباط

For jihadis, al-Ribaat refers to the time spent at the battlefront.  Ard al-Ribaat أرض الرباط means the land where the battle occurs or is about to take place, against the enemy.  The verb raabata رابط (past tense) or yuraabitu يرابط (present tense) means to spend time in the trenches.  The concept is highly revered among Muslims, especially by jihadis.  The frontlines are also sometimes referred to as al-thughur الثغور.  Keep in mind that all of these words are rarely used in everyday language and have vastly different meanings when used in the modern era.

Al-Ribaat is mentioned in the Qur’an:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اصْبِرُوا وَصَابِرُوا وَرَابِطُوا وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ

Translation: “O you who have believed, persevere and endure and remain stationed and fear Allah that you may be successful” (Qur’an 3:200).

And in the hadith we find emphasis on rewards for those who observe ribaat:

a) رباط يوم في سبيل الله خير من الدنيا وما عليها

Translation: “Observing ribaat for a single day is far better than the world and all that it contains.”

b) رباط يوم وليلة خير من صيام شهر وقيامه، وإن مات فيه جرى عليه عمله الذي كان يعمل وأجري عليه رزقه وأمن من الفتان

Translation:  “Observing ribaat in the way of Allah is far better than fasting in the month of Ramadan and all the nighttime worship activities that are associated with that month.  And, if one dies while observing ribaat he will go on receiving his reward for his meritorious deeds perpetually and he will be saved from calamities.”

c) رباطيوم في سبيل الله خير من ألف يوم فيما سواه من المنازل

Translation: “Observing a day of ribaat for the sake of Allah is better than a thousand days in any other place.”

d)كل ميت يختم على عمله إلا المرابط في سبيل الله فإنه ينمي له عمله إلى يوم القيامة، ويؤمن من فتنة القبر

In this Hadith we see that whoever does ribaat for the sake of Allah is exempted from the calamities that happen between death and judgment day (special “tortures of the grave” exacted by Allah on the sinful while still in their graves, prior to the judgment).

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi regularly speaks of ribaat, though in his speech he only alluded to it without using the word. In the following video, a missionary of jihad mentions more hadith about al-Ribaat:

 

4 – al-Thabaat  الثبات

Al-thabaat means steadfastness, or to be able to hold your lines in the fight.  It also means to stick to your beliefs, and in this case, your decision to fight.  It is the ability to stay put in the face of adversity in the “arenas of jihad.”  In their speeches, many jihadis call for the strength to stay true to the goal.  Many historical references are made in conjunction with this term, most importantly to events from the days of the Prophet Mohammad, such as the battle of Uhud.  Frequent references to Qur’anic verses mentioning the term are made.

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِذَا لَقِيتُمْ فِئَةً فَاثْبُتُوا وَاذْكُرُوا اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ

Translation: “O you who have believed, when you encounter a company [from the enemy forces], stand firm and remember Allah much that you may be successful” (Qur’an 8:45).

This above verse is used by jihadis on a regular basis.  It asks the believers to hold their position and pray to Allah when faced with adversaries in battle.  It is therefore very important to every jihadi to read the Qur’an and hadith and to mention Allah whenever he is in battle.  The word “Allah” and the adjectives normally attached to it are abundant in jihadi rhetoric, sprinkled within almost every sentence any jihadi utters.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdai mentioned al-thabaat in the second part of his speech.  He beseeched Allah to “yuthabet” (hold firm) the feet of the mujahideen. The Qur’anic references for al-Baghdadi are these verses:

ولمابرزوالجالوتوجنودهقالواربناأفرغعليناصبراوثبتأقدامناوانصرناعلىالقومالكافرين

Translation: “And when they went forth to [face] Goliath and his soldiers, they said, ‘Our Lord, pour upon us patience and plant firmly our feet and give us victory over the disbelieving people’” (Qur’an 2:250)

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِنْ تَنْصُرُوا اللَّهَ يَنْصُرْكُمْ وَيُثَبِّتْ أَقْدَامَكُمْ

Translation: “O you who have believed, if you support Allah, He will support you and plant firmly your feet” (Qur’an 47:7).

Al-thabaat also has a lot to do with courage.  It is very common to hear every jihadi and suicide bomber include the word thabaat in their speeches—even Chechens and other non-Arabic-speakers use this word prolifically.  A very common phrase is to ask Allah for al-thabaat: “…نسأل من الله الثبات”

 

5 – al-Tamkeen التمكين

Al-tamkeen means simply to be able to control what you have taken and establish yourself within it.  The Qur’an provides the basis for the concept of tamkeen as something done over a piece of land.  At this stage the group must create the infrastructure of a state. Islamic scholars have, of course, written volumes about it, but the basic idea is conveyed by the following Qur’anic verse:

وَنُرِيدُ أَنْ نَمُنَّ عَلَى الَّذِينَ اسْتُضْعِفُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَنَجْعَلَهُمْ أَئِمَّةً وَنَجْعَلَهُمُ الْوَارِثِينَ   وَنُمَكِّنَ لَهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ وَنُرِيَ فِرْعَوْنَ وَهَامَانَ وَجُنُودَهُمَا مِنْهُمْ مَا كَانُوا يَحْذَرُونَ

Translation: “And We wanted to confer favor upon those who were oppressed in the land and make them leaders and make them inheritors, and establish them in the land” (Qur’an 28:5-6).

الَّذِينَ إِنْ مَكَّنَّاهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ أَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتَوُا الزَّكَاةَ وَأَمَرُوا بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَنَهَوْا عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ ۗ وَلِلَّهِ عَاقِبَةُ الْأُمُور

Translation: “Those who, if We give them authority in the land, establish prayer and give zakah and enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. And to Allah belongs the outcome of [all] matters” (Qur’an 22:41).

وَعَدَ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مِنْكُمْ وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ لَيَسْتَخْلِفَنَّهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ كَمَا اسْتَخْلَفَ الَّذِينَ مِنْ قَبْلِهِمْ وَلَيُمَكِّنَنَّ لَهُمْ دِينَهُمُ الَّذِي ارْتَضَىٰ لَهُمْ وَلَيُبَدِّلَنَّهُمْ مِنْ بَعْدِ خَوْفِهِمْ أَمْنًا ۚ يَعْبُدُونَنِي لَا يُشْرِكُونَ بِي شَيْئًا ۚ وَمَنْ كَفَرَ بَعْدَ ذَٰلِكَ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْفَاسِقُونَ

وَأَقِيمُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتُوا الزَّكَاةَ وَأَطِيعُوا الرَّسُولَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُرْحَمُونَ

Translation: “Allah has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth just as He granted it to those before them and that He will surely establish for them [therein] their religion which He has preferred for them and that He will surely substitute for them, after their fear, security, [for] they worship Me, not associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that – then those are the defiantly disobedient.  And establish prayer and give zakah and obey the Messenger – that you may receive mercy” (Qur’an 24:55-56).

In his speech, al-Baghdadi stressed this concept.  He said that having the might to do tamkeen is part of observing Islam correctly (being able to force others to do what you believe is right), and quoted this verse:

لَقَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا رُسُلَنَا بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ وَأَنْزَلْنَا مَعَهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْمِيزَانَ لِيَقُومَ النَّاسُ بِالْقِسْطِ ۖ وَأَنْزَلْنَا الْحَدِيدَ فِيهِ بَأْسٌ شَدِيدٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ وَلِيَعْلَمَ اللَّهُ مَنْ يَنْصُرُهُ وَرُسُلَهُ بِالْغَيْبِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ قَوِيٌّ عَزِيزٌ

“We have already sent Our messengers with clear evidences and sent down with them the Scripture and the balance that the people may maintain [their affairs] in justice. And We sent down iron, wherein is great military might and benefits for the people, and so that Allah may make evident those who support Him and His messengers unseen. Indeed, Allah is Powerful and Exalted in Might” (Qur’an 57:25).

After using this Qur’anic text, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi shouted a slogan of ISIS (the “foundation of religion” phrase from Ibn Taymiyah which is very important for jihadis), which is as follows: “The foundation of the religion is a book that leads and a sword that supports it” (قوام الدين كتاب يهدي وسيف ينصر).

The concept of tamkeen can explain why jihadis make the call for prayer every time they overrun a post.  In their creed, the power to raise your voice in the call to prayer is a sign of tamkeen—that you have control over the place.  The verbal form of this word is also used when ISIS soldiers are leading prisoners of war or after they behead someone, in such phrases as: “We thank Allah who made us control their necks” (نشكر الله الذي مكننا من أعناقهم).

 

6 – al-Istikhlaf   الإستخلاف

Al-istikhlaf is derived from the same root as the word khilafa (caliphate). This is when you, as a jihadi, get to kick it into the net: now that you’ve followed the rules, carried out Allah’s will, fought for the land, implemented control after being granted the land by Allah, it is now time for the final step—the establishment of a khilafa, i.e. a state that follows shari’at Allah, the laws of Allah.  Just remember that for your caliphate to be a legitimate one—not just a crazed delusion proclaimed by some fanatical wanabees—you must follow all the right steps, as outlined here, leading up to this one.

Al-Baghdadi spoke extensively on the concept of istikhlaaf in his speech, saying that after his group was able to exercise control it became their Islamic duty to declare a khilafa—the duty that Muslims had “lost for centuries.”  He stressed that “Muslims should always try to establish it [khilafa].”

Al-istikhlaf is based on several Qur’anic verses and hadiths:

قَالَ عَسَى رَبُّكُمْ أَنْ يُهْلِكَ عَدُوَّكُمْ وَيَسْتَخْلِفَكُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ

Translation: “He said ‘Perhaps your Lord will destroy your enemy and grant you succession in the land and see how you will do” (Qur’an 7:129).

وَعَدَ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مِنكُمْ وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ لَيَسْتَخْلِفَنَّهُم فِي الْأَرْضِ كَمَا اسْتَخْلَفَ الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِهِم

Translation: “Allah has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth just as He granted it to those before them…” (Qur’an 24:55).

The Qur’an mentions in many verses that the believers will inherit the earth.  It also states that Allah owns the land and that he will give it to his favorite followers.

 

Conclusion – Ready to Establish Your Own Caliphate, Baghdadi Style

If you’ve taken notes on the necessary stages of the jihadi project, you’re better prepared to follow al-Baghdadi’s example and pursue the establishment of your own caliphate (provided you purify your heart and all that). If you’re lucky, the loyal men you’ve surrounded yourself with (who don’t dare express dissent since they know death will be the penalty) will ‘elect’ you as the caliph!

In his first-ever public appearance, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wanted to demonstrate his control and prove that the time to remain hidden has passed.  As khalifa, he can now choose his whereabouts and act as a public figure.  Far from featuring Ramadan as the spiritual journey it is understood to be by most Muslims, al-Baghdadi turned it into a jihad-fest.  In the first sermon of Ramadan, he called Muslims to join the jihad and build khilafa.  He came dressed in black and walked with a limp, conveying that he had been wounded in the jihad.

Al-Baghdadi performed the duties of a khalifa: giving a sermon and leading the people in prayer.  He brandished his linguistic skills and some admirers praised him for having improvised his speech.  But don’t let this intimidate you regarding your own aspirations: if you really follow the speech of jihadis, you’ll find that they repeat a very finite number of limited concepts, encapsulated within the same few-dozen cookie-cutter sentences.

Muhajireen Battalions in Syria (Part 3)

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

I have previously documented muhajireen battalions here and here. Below are two more groupings.

Saraya ash-Sham
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Logo of Saraya ash-Sham, whose main emblem resembles the flag of Iraqi insurgent group Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (pro-Caliphate and with deployment in Syria). The motto reads: “We shed tears and spill blood.”

Translating to “brigades/squadrons of ash-Sham” and operationally advertising itself since at least the autumn of last year, this group- in origin a merger of several small brigades- has been primarily active in the Homs area (including from within Homs city), and like the Lebanese-founded Jamaat Jund ash-Sham, it contains a mixture of native Syrians and foreign fighters: though according to a media activist for this group whom I interviewed, the “majority” of the group’s fighters are Syrians. To the extent that there are foreign fighters in this grouping, they are most likely Lebanese and other Levantines. To date, no muhajireen martyrdom notices have been publicly announced.

Ideologically, like most muhajireen and part-muhajireen battalions, Saraya ash-Sham espouses the establishment of a Caliphate, and officially took an anti-fitna stance on the al-Qa’ida-Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) dispute (as the media activist put it to me, “We are all brothers”), declaring support for Sheikh Muheisseni’s “Ummah Initiative” back in January. Indicative of the official anti-fitna stance as well is the fact that when Sheikh Abu Khalid al-Suri of Ahrar ash-Sham was killed in February, Saraya ash-Sham did not blame anyone in particular for the killing, but simply eulogised him. The group also coordinated with ISIS, Ahfad al-Rasul and other groups in fending off an attempted regime advance on the village of Aydun in Hama countryside, near an Alawite village called Khanifis.

With the regime’s clearance of the city of Homs and other key localities in the vicinity, it should be noted that Saraya ash-Sham, like Jamaat Jund ash-Sham (which was driven out of Krak des Chevaliers by the Syrian army and National Defence Forces) has largely ceased to be a meaningful entity in terms of operations.

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Saraya ash-Sham fighters training in the Homs countryside.

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Saraya ash-Sham fighters prepare to hit a regime forces base in Homs area.

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Saraya ash-Sham fighters with special arm patches and headbands.

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Despite the official anti-fitna stance of Saraya ash-Sham’s position on other groups, in practice Saraya ash-Sham, like Harakat Sham al-Islam, is closer to Jabhat al-Nusra than ISIS. This is a media graphic released in February of this year dedicated to fallen Saraya ash-Sham commander Abu Zubayr al-Homsi. Note the Jabhat al-Nusra logo on the top-right corner. In an accompanying message, Abu Mujahid ash-Shami- an official in Saraya ash-Sham- said the martyrdom notification was dedicated to “Jabhat al-Nusra in particular.” It appears there may be some personnel overlap between Saraya ash-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.

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Saraya ash-Sham graphic dedicated to slain field commander Sayyid Suleiman, who established his own brigade as part of Saraya ash-Sham in al-Khalidiya, Homs.

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A Saraya ash-Sham graphic echoing the ISIS messaging motif of the looming conquest of Jerusalem. The text accompanying this graphic read as follows: “We fight in Homs al-Adiya and our eyes are on al-Quds al-Abiya.”

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As above: “We fight in Homs and our eyes are on al-Quds.”

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Saraya ash-Sham fighters in a training camp. From October 2013.

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125 mm al-Quds artillery cannon operated by Saraya ash-Sham. From October 2013.

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Saraya ash-Sham fighters praying. October 2013.

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In November 2013, two more battalions joined Saraya ash-Sham: the Junud Allah brigade in Hama countryside, and the Usud ash-Sham brigade in Homs.

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Saraya ash-Sham statement in January of this year supporting the Ummah Initiative.

ISIS- Gaza contingent

Just as ISIS has a special contingent for Libyan fighters- namely, the Katiba al-Bittar al-Libi, which previously played a pivotal role in the defence of ISIS’ southern Hasakah stronghold of al-Markadah from the attacks of Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebels and is now pushing deep into Deir az-Zor province, losing a number of fighters in the process- so ISIS also has a special contingent dedicated to fighters from Gaza.

This should come as no surprise. After all, images of support from Gaza for ISIS have been in evidence for nearly a year now, and when it came to the infighting between ISIS and other groups in Syria that broke out this year, the two main Gaza-Sinai jihadi groups- Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen- came down firmly on the side of ISIS. The Gazan contingent in turn reflects the division among the Palestinians outside Syria regarding the Syrian civil war: namely, that while there is no evidence Hamas has an organized presence in Syria to support the rebels and its insistence on neutrality is to be believed (much to the chagrin of the Islamic Front), Palestinian Salafi circles have been active in assisting the rebels.

 

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A supporter of ISIS inscribes the group’s name on the beach in Gaza. Photo from September last year.

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The Gazan religious instructor in this study circle was killed fighting for ISIS in Syria in September last year.

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Gazan children show their support for ISIS. Photo from January 2014.

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“From Gaza of glory to the mujahideen of the Islamic State: verily we love you in God. The Salafi Jihadi Movement- Gaza”- photo in support of ISIS from December 2013.

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Wissam al-Atal: a doctor from Gaza who became a suicide bomber for ISIS in Syria last year.

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“From Gaza of glory, our allegiance is to our amir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”- a Gazan fighter shows his support for ISIS. Photo from February 2014.

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Banner on the beach of Gaza hoisted in support of ISIS this month.

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“Joy of the people of Gaza at the conquests of the Islamic State”- purported photo from the demonstrations held by Salafis in support of ISIS following news of the advances in Iraq. The rallies were subsequently broken up by Hamas police.

In Syria, the Gazan contingent of fighters that has emerged takes the name of the “Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi Brigade,” named after the founder and leader of the Salafi Jund Ansar Allah group in Gaza- Abdel Latif Moussa- who was killed in clashes with Hamas in 2009.

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Training for the Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi brigade (photo released in April 2014): “Mujahideen of Gaza in the Islamic State’s Camps in ash-Sham.” Accompanying slogans on Twitter include “Coming, oh Jews,” reflecting the ambitions for the conquest of the whole Israel-Palestine area as part of ash-Sham.

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As above.

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As above.

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Abu Khattab of Gaza, who died fighting for the Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi brigade in Syria.

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The Gazan contingent burning cigarettes in Syria.

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Gazan fighter shows children how to destroy cigarettes.

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Gazan contingent handling raw meat. As with the Katiba al-Bittar al-Libi, standard ‘daily life of a mujahid’ messaging.

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The Gazan contingent handles a gazelle for slaughter.

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A photo that gives an idea of where the Gazan contingent has been deployed. Photo from outside ISIS’ Islamic police station in Manbij, Aleppo province.

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“From the mujahideen of Gaza in the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: the Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi Brigade.”

It should be noted that undoubtedly with influence from Gaza, this pro-ISIS trend is catching on somewhat in the West Bank, which recently saw three teenagers kidnapped near Hebron by a group taking its name after ISIS, though the Israeli government is officially blaming Hamas as part of a propaganda line whereby there is a reluctance to acknowledge there is a more radical trend than Hamas emerging within the Palestinian population. Perhaps the emergence of this trend should not be surprising when one considers the widespread Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein as champion of their cause. Now, with the rise of ISIS and its extensive conquests and promises to liberate Jerusalem, it seems many Palestinians will be inclined to see ISIS as their new Saddam-style saviour figure.

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ISIS graphic on social media to remind Palestinians and the Ummah that ISIS has not forgotten al-Quds (Jerusalem).

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A young Palestinian girl shows her support for ISIS, which will supposedly open the path up to al-Quds.

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ISIS billboard in Hasakah province from March 2014: “We fight in Iraq and ash-Sham and our eyes are on the Holy House [Bayt al-Maqdis].”

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“Oh Quds, don’t cry…” Palestinian graphic in support of ISIS.

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“Baqiya [ISIS slogan], Palestinian support, together in support of ISIS.” Palestinian graphic in support of ISIS using Iwo Jima imagery.

The main area to watch in terms of Palestinian support for ISIS is the Gaza-Sinai area, where pro-ISIS jihadis have been building their networks for some time. While the Hamas security apparatus is still resilient, as Jonathan Spyer, I would not be surprised if active pro-ISIS jihadis, assuming ISIS’ overall status and holdings are not diminished, attempt to take over Gaza within the next 5-10 years and proclaim an emirate of Gaza aligned with ISIS. 

“Bilal” – by Stephen Boeshaar

Steve BoeshaarStephen Boeshaar worked throughout the Arab World for many years and is fluent in Syrian Arabic. After serving with the Peace Corps in Morocco in the 1960s, he ran English language instruction programs in Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, and Syria, and worked with Fulbright in Egypt developing university curriculum. Later, Steve directed the American Language Center in Damascus for 20 years, until the Syrian uprising finally compelled him to leave with his family in 2012. He currently lives in Florida and is working on a collection of “Syrian Profiles,” stories of the many lives he encountered along his path. The following is an excerpt. Steve hopes to complete the book later this year. He can be contacted at stephenboeshaar@gmail.com

 

Bilal

 

Bilal is now in his mid fifties and, like many aging men in Syria, his waistline has gradually expanded with maturity and prosperity. I had known him for more than 30 years and I watched this ballooning in his weight over time with some degree of alarm. He really needed to take better care of himself; that was my personal (and unspoken) opinion. On one of my visits to his home, he eagerly motioned me over as he lovingly unwrapped some old, wrinkled snapshots taken in his younger days, back in the 1970s. Most people in the West have no inkling how slavishly well-to-do classes of the third world have tended to adopt and mirror our own goofy fashions and fads. When we grew our hair long, hippie-style… well, so did the rest of the world. Thus, modern day Syria, for example, is currently awash in hip-hop music and tattoos.

Anyway, it was funny to see the brownish photos of Bilal sporting a Beatles-style mop top and dressed in garish disco attire; but what was the most striking was how amazingly fit and svelte he looked in those bell bottoms. He had been as skinny as a rail. He used to go to the gym too, and there were photos of him flexing like a young Schwarzenegger. What a contrast with his current well-fed portliness.

Bilal was the son of a prosperous shop owner and his family had always lived in a pretty nice fourth-floor apartment in an upscale neighborhood in central Damascus. However, it would be an error to imagine that he had had an easy life, by any means. Bilal spent two years in a technical institute after finishing high school but finding work in 1970s-era Damascus was a tall order. For one thing, the Syrian economy was overwhelmingly socialist in those times. Syria maintained its long love affair with the USSR during its Communist era and that special relationship has continued on to this day with contemporary Russia. In those quaint times of total central planning, Syria was probably the closest thing to a truly Communist system—outside of the Soviet bloc itself. Any Syrian who actually had a job worked for the state. For years, Bilal struggled to negotiate an opening into that vast, monolithic bureaucracy but it was no easy task. What you really needed was not education or job skills but “wasta,” which meant a connection to some big shot with influence who could find you a niche in the anthill.

For a long while, Bilal’s quest was futile. For a couple of years in the early 80s, he was reduced to driving a taxi in an effort to make some cash—certainly one of the most difficult and frustrating means of making a living imaginable. Most taxi drivers in Damascus do not own the cars they drive; instead, they must pay rent to the proprietor, buy gas and cover repairs on the vehicle. After shelling out for all the expenses, they struggle to eke out a meager living from whatever daily pittance they can grind out over a lengthy work day—10 to 12 hours or more. Foreigners in Damascus will find a cab ride to be one of the world’s best bargains. You can travel all the way across town for a couple of bucks. It is dirt cheap, even now in these days of high inflation. Great for the passenger but the flip side is, of course, how can any working stiff in Syria conceivably make a living from these fares, which are ferociously controlled at rock-bottom rates by the municipality? Bilal learned those lessons the hard way, back in the days when a taxi ride might cost you no more than 10 cents. The poor guy spent two hard years killing himself for peanuts.

Like most young Syrian men, Bilal had been drafted into the nation’s gargantuan military when he turned 18. It had been one of the largest armed forces in the Middle East for 40 years. Ironically, it hadn’t fought a real war since 1973, when it was severely beaten by the Israelis. Some claimed it was not a real army at all, but merely a device for maintaining the regime’s control over the country and for furthering its regional interests—as when it was used to occupy Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s. Syrian military service was brutal and demeaning. The army did not even provide food or clothing—which had to be paid for by the recruits’ families. Bilal’s father was relatively well off and was able to pay enough to ensure him an easy posting in Latakia, up on the Syrian coast.

It was a direct consequence of his army service that Bilal finally hit pay dirt in his quest to find a post within the mysteriously opaque civil service. During his stint in the north, he managed to develop a useful contact, an Alawite military officer who seemed to look upon him favorably. According to Bilal, he spent more than 10 years cultivating the favors of this powerful warlord, through a long and persistent campaign of services, gifts, cajolery and flattery. It was like raising an exotic plant, one that you had to fertilize and water with utmost care. In the end, the suck-up efforts paid off and Bilal was duly rewarded with a position in the Syrian Customs Authority. This appointment was a genuine stroke of fortune, even if a customs officer was only a poorly-paid cog in the machine in Damascus. Sooner or later, however, the employee might well be permitted the golden opportunity to work on one of the Syrian borders. A border posting was the Holy Grail in the customs universe. Bilal endured an achingly long penance at the desk job in the central office; he had no choice but to watch, uncomplaining, as less qualified but more favored men moved ahead of him. After two or three years of agonizing patience, Bilal was at long last granted a six-month stint on the Syrian-Lebanese border. His ship had come in.

Syria has busy borders with Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Consider the fact that tens of thousands of vehicles pass through those border posts every day—including large numbers of trucks and commercial carriers—and each one of these is a potential gold mine. Many of the truckers are carrying illegal or quasi-legal goods, making them ideal targets for shakedowns. The fact is, legal or illegal, the merchants and drivers who pass through these check points are expected to pay a bribe to be allowed to proceed. These payoffs are by no means an anomaly in the trade system; they ARE the system. It is the everyday grease that allows commerce to function all over the Middle East (and most of the rest of the third world as well). The customs agents are the lucky stiffs in the middle who regulate this seamy traffic. Regular travelers, whether ordinary Syrians or foreign tourists, are unlikely to even notice anything afoot—unless they get caught actually attempting to conceal items such as major appliances or weapons, for example.

Taxi men and bus drivers typically engage in petty smuggling of items like cigarettes or booze. They may have to cough up a nominal sum (or a couple of packs of smokes) but it is the big trucks where the real money is to be made. According to Bilal, the art of the trade is to hit up the drivers for a reasonable amount, without getting greedy. Everyone knows the going rates, more or less, and a timely payment will guarantee a cursory inspection of your vehicle, followed by a friendly wave through. The startling truth is that the system ensures that hardly a single solitary shipment ever gets opened and inspected. You can run just about anything through those borders, up to and including WMDs, if you play your cards right.

Bilal had struck pay-dirt. His fortunes (and his income) soared dramatically in those heady days when he was out at one of the border posts. Periodically, he got assigned to the crossings with Iraq and Jordan. But, sadly, he pouted, never the Turkish border, which was reputed to be the busiest and most lucrative. After years of desperate penury, Bilal and his family were suddenly living high on the hog. Another man might have saved some of this largess for a rainy day, another might have invested; but Bilal would always spend it freely—mostly on the stuff of the good life. He and his wife promptly bought themselves an expensive apartment and a new car. Later on, he got additional cars and small apartments for his two grown sons. Suddenly nouveax-riche, Bilal’s family saturated the house with costly, overstuffed furnishings and took to wearing expensive designer clothes and jewelry.

When we would meet, they would eagerly show us their latest purchases, apprising us in great detail how much they had paid. On those occasions when we stopped by Bilal’s house or went out for a meal with his family, we were struck by the degree to which the conversations invariably focused on material goods. The talk was always about cars, the price of real estate and the latest acquisitions for the home. Despite this slavish devotion to consumerism and material things, we never really felt irritated or offended by the litany of fiscal details. We understood, finally, that he and his family were not simply boasting or being smug, these material things constituted their only true passion in life. Without the cars, the clothes and the jewelry, what on earth would they have had to talk about?

Bilal’s overweight and the general state of his health became more of an issue after he hit 50. Despite its financial rewards, the customs job was pure murder. He had to put in crazy shifts, with long travel times to distant border crossings; sometimes he would not sleep for 24 hours. He often worked long nights. The job at the borders was highly stressful; shaking people down was profitable—but it was hard work. Moreover, the periods spent on the borders were short and unpredictable, mainly because of the intense pressures from within the bureaucratic corps. After all, every single officer in the customs service was busy jockeying for one of those plum assignments. When he was forced to return to Damascus for desk duty, Bilal’s income would plummet to near zero and he would again have to plot and spend his time and treasure maneuvering and cajoling, kissing up to the powerful functionaries who controlled the assignment rosters. He could never relax—and it showed.

Bilal, that young man who had once been so fit and athletic, had taken to smoking heavily early on in his customs career. He never exercised or watched what he ate. Frankly, he did not look well and his face showed an unhealthy pallor. It was just the way he was: working like a dog, living for the moment, buying stuff he didn’t really need, spending what he made while he had it. I guess he never thought about the future much.

As the first signs of the coming unrest appeared in Syria in 2011, we received some awful news. Bilal was in the hospital. Apparently, he had suffered a stroke and he had severe bleeding in his cerebral cortex. When we went to see him, he was still in a coma and he looked absolutely terrible. I think everyone assumed it was the end game, but, unexpectedly, Bilal rallied to recover… to some extent. The problem was that he had clearly lost some essential brain functions. He was now no longer able to care for himself; his long-suffering wife, who had struggled so long to raise their two boys, now had a new child to attend to, one who would never grow up. Bilal had killed himself at that job. He had never failed to protect and support his family, but now, work was out of the question. No more distant borders for him—no more windfalls; he had reached the end of his long and exhausting road.

We still sometimes visit Bilal; he does not talk but he smiles and follows our conversations with alertness. He is only a shadow of himself now but at least he is much thinner and the long years of strain and pallor have been erased from his face. Syria may now be at war, but Bilal has found his peace.

Joshua Landis & Robert Ford discuss Syria at Wilson Center event

Joshua Landis, Robert Ford (former US Ambassador to Syria), and Hadi Al Bahra (Syrian opposition) each gave unique perspectives on Syria policy in a recent event with the Wilson Center, moderated by Aaron David Miller.

Dr. Landis outlined three possible policy options for Syria (in the absence of putting troops on the ground of a foreign interventionist force), none of which offer much optimism for restored stability or comprehensive peace: 1) Supporting a rebel win in Syria that would entail the need for rebels to conquer almost all of Syria’s major cities in street-by-street battles (since rebel-held cities are currently very few), resulting in tremendous instability, added destruction, and greater refugee crises; 2) Allowing security and counter-terrorism concerns to influence the choice to sit back and allow Assad to retake most of the country, which may limit jihadist gains but will allow the regime’s policies of torture, mass killings, and human rights abuses to continue unabated; 3) De facto partition that would involve shoring up support for the opposition—enough support to take certain key areas and enforce partition by pressuring the regime into a ceasefire & territorial concessions, but not enough to conquer the entire country—followed by a major project to introduce a moderate oppositional government in the rebel partition that could combat jihadism.

At present, the international players are not satisfied with allowing either side to win, which is why the conflict will remain at a “low boil” in which the opposition is kept on life support but will remain largely ineffective, while the Syrian people are sacrificed on the altar of great power politics.

The audio of the event can be accessed on the Wilson Center’s website, here:

What’s To Become of Syria? U.S. Policy, the Opposition and the Regime

Ford begins speaking at 11:35, Landis begins at 17:30

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Take a look at this interesting infographic underscoring the complexity of alliances and competitions within the Syria conflict (thanks to Pieter Van Ostaeyen for circulating it, from an article by Think Progress):

Why The Middle East Is Now A Giant Warzone, In One Terrifying Chart, from Think Progress

Why The Middle East Is Now A Giant Warzone, In One Terrifying Chart

What started as a crackdown against democratic protests three years ago, has become a region-wide conflict that now has Iraq descending back into chaos. The countries of the region — along with the United States and various non-state actors — all have a hand in creating this moment, as money, fighters, weapons, and a desire to control the Middle East have come together to produce an extremely volatile and terrifying situation.

What has made the Syrian conflict so difficult to respond to has been the fact that the situation has refused to be tied down as just a civil war. In addition to the top-line fighting between the Syrian government and rebels who’d like to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, there’s also a proxy war ongoing between Sunni-majority states in the Gulf and Shiite-majority Iran and its allies. There’s also struggles for dominance among the rebels, who fight each other almost as frequently as the Assad government these days. Add in disagreements between the countries united against Assad over just which of the Syrian rebels to finance, and the reason a simple solution for the conflict hasn’t been developed becomes more understandable.

And standing out among all of this now is the attempts of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — to establish its own state within the region. ISIS managed to takeover the city of Fallujah in January, hold it against Iraqi army efforts to dislodge it, and in the last few days take over both the major cities of Mosul and Tikrit. …

See also an updated map on the current situation in Syria from Thomas van Linge, also posted by Pieter:

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…As well as another detailed map by Thomas on ISIS in Iraq:

Thomas Van Linge

The Future of ISIS and the Sectarian Response: ISIS has Picked a Fight it Cannot Win

The Future of ISIS in Iraq and the Sectarian Response – by Joshua Landis

 

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ISIS purportedly conducting a mass execution of captured Shiite Iraqi army soldiers

ISIS mass killing Shiites in Iraq

A Washington policy analyst asked me what chances I gave to the possibility that Prime Minister Maliki will try to divide Sunnis and isolate ISIS by teaming up with moderate Sunnis. He raised the possibility of Maliki creating a government of national unity with greater power sharing.

My answer:

1. I doubt ISIS will get a foothold in Baghdad. Already, Shiite mobilization in the face of the ISIS advances are fierce and panicky.  I think Shiite religious mobilization now taking place in Iraq will mean very bad things for Sunnis in general. ISIS has picked a fight it can’t win and unleashed the inner Shi’a in their adversary. And it’s not as though Maliki, like Assad, lacks powerful friends with a serious stake in the outcome of the battle.

Rather than Maliki teaming up with “moderate” Sunnis, such as the US did in arming the tribes and cultivating the Sahwa, Iraq’s Prime Minister is likely to respond by using religion as his prime mobilizer. Of course, he will not abandon “Iraq” or nationalism, just as Assad has not.  But just as Sistani has used the sanctity of Shiite shrines as his primary “national” motivator, Maliki is likely to follow suit. He will largely define the nation in sectarian terms. That is what ISIS has done, as well. Sunnis have scared the pants off of Shiites. The photos of mass shootings of Shiite young men dooms a non-sectarian response, I would imagine. What is more, the gathering storm of sectarian mobilization has already reached furious levels in the entire region. The demonization of Shiites as “rejectors” and “Majous” or pagans who are considered both non-Muslim and non-Arab, has spread to such an extent that it has taken on a life of its own. The counter demonization of Sunnis, within the Shiite world, as terrorists, takfiris, and Wahhabi inspired agents is well entrenched.

2. I would not be shocked to see significant ethnic cleansing of Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad should ISIS attack and give the Iraqi Army a run for its money. After all, the Iraqi army is large, has helicopters, sophisticated intelligence capabilities, tanks, artillery and all the rest. They were caught napping and without esprit de corps, much as the Syrian army was. But capable officers will emerge who will strip down the “power-sharing” fat that the US built and rebuild it based on loyalty to Maliki and Shiism, if most of that has not been done already. This is what happened in Syria, when we saw the Syrian Army unravel at the base during the first year of the Sunni uprising. The Syrian military was quickly rebuilt along sectarian and regional lines to make it much stronger and more loyal, with locally recruited Iranian style National Defense Forces modeled on the Islamic Guard. If Sunnis choose to form such local militias and ally with the Shiite regime, so much the better. If they do not and choose to lay low until they figure out whether ISIS can win in their regions, the Shiites will go it alone and assume all Sunnis are a fifth column. That is how the Turks dealt with the Christians during WWI and the war with the Greeks. The 20% Christians in Anatolia of 1914 were cleansed. Jews in Palestine dealt with Muslims in a manner not altogether dissimilar. It didn’t turn out well for Christians in Anatolia or Muslims in Palestine.

3. We are not witnessing power-sharing or the emergence of a particularly destructive brand of religious nationalism in the region. We are witnessing the breakdown of the territorial nationalism that was implied by the borders drawn by Europeans at the end of WWI. The new nationalism, largely defined by religious affiliation, is apparent in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Palestine is a bit of an exception with the new coalition government, but not much of one.

My advice to Obama would be to lay low. This sectarian-nationalist process has been boiling up for a more than a century. It should be seen as part of the breakdown of the Ottoman order and emergence of nationalism. I compare what is going on in the Levant today to Central Europe during WWII. In Central Europe, the great powers drew national borders after WWI, carving up the lands of the defeated empires without rearranging the peoples to fit them. Thus Poland was only 64% Polish before WWII. Czechoslovakia was made up of close to 25% minorities. WWII was the “great sorting out.” (Read: http://qifanabki.com/2013/12/18/landis-ethnicity/ ) Over the war years, the peoples of central Europe were rearranged according to the WWI borders. By the end of WWII, Poland and Czechoslovakia had been reduced to their core Polish and Czechoslovak peoples. They got rid of their unwanted (Jews) or guilty (think the 12 million Germans of central Europe) minorities, along with many others. It was a nasty and brutal nation-building process.

Of course, in the Middle East, the emergence of national identities is bedeviled by competing religious identities, which seem to be stronger than both “Arabism” or “Iraqism.”

I doubt we will see high degrees of Shiite-Sunni cooperation in the coming months. If the U.S. sticks its long oar into this mess, the U.S. will end up with a broken oar. It seems possible that within the next two years, ISIS will largely be destroyed by the concerted action of both Iraqi and Syrian forces with help from Iran and possibly the U.S.  Sunni Arabs will not be pacified so long as they receive scant justice and minimal political representation in both Syria and Iraq, but ISIS cannot represent their needs. It is an expression of sectarianism run amok.