"We are fighting an ideology, not a regime." - U.S. Secretary Of State John Kerry
"Now let's make two things clear: ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al-Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria's civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way." - U.S. President Barack Obama
Let us be plain: President Obama's (and Kerry's) basic premise that America and its allies are fighting a deviant, un-Islamic ideology, which must, and can be delegitimized by gathering together the Sunni Arab world to pronounce it "un-Islamic," simply underlines how little they "know" about ISIS -- with which they are about to go to war.
There is no "true Islam" in Islam. There has never been any central "authority" in Islam that could define such a thing. For better or worse (mostly for the better), Islam wears many faces. But paradoxically, there is one contemporary orientation that does make the big claim of being "true Islam": Wahhabism.As Professor As'ad AbuKhalil notes:
"What Mohammed Ibn 'Abdul-Wahab insisted upon -- and what is followers today insist upon -- is that men with the sword judge on behalf of God here on earth, and on all matters, small and big. This is where the Saudi Kingdom and ISIS fit. They are outside the boundaries of mainstream Islam, in that they refuse to even concede that they speak as representatives of a sect. Wahhabis (of all stripes) protest to even the name of Wahhabis: we are only Muslims, they assert; i.e. they alone are Muslim and everyone else is a kafir [unbeliever] who should be fought as ancient pagans at the time of Mohammad. Wahhabis claim that they represent the 'true Islam' when the strength of Islam throughout the ages is that there is no such thing as 'the true Islam.'"
So the only claim to being "true Islam" is that proclaimed by Saudi Arabia -- and asserted by ISIS, too. Just to be clear, this joint claim derives from them both sharing the same doctrinal foundation: ʿAbd al-Wahhab's key text, The Book of Monotheism.
ISIS, in short, is as Wahhabist -- or more so -- as the Saudi King, Abdullah. There is here, surely, a delicious irony in Obama and Kerry taking upon their shoulders the task of seeking the "delegitimization" of the very doctrine from which the Saudi kingdom is derived.
So, the only upholder of "true Islam" and custodian of Mecca happens to share the "same" Islam as ISIS. How can King Abdullah then denounce it? And how could any Muslim, familiar with the issues, take any such denunciation -- were it to be made -- seriously?
AND IT IS A STATE
John Kerry would be right if he said al Qaeda is an ideology and not a regime. But he is wrong about ISIS. Unlike al Qaeda which only had an "idea," ISIS has a clear purpose: to establish God's "principality" here and now. It has a doctrine for how to bring such a state into existence (drawn from the wars launched to establish the original Islamic State); it holds a territory greater in size than that of Great Britain; it has large financial resources; it has a handsomely equipped army (courtesy of the U.S., the U.K. and others), one that is led by competent commanders; and it has a leader who, many find, spoke well (on the one occasion that he has appeared publicly).
In brief, this development (the "Islamic State") may be much more serious, be more grounded, and have much wider appeal than western bluster about "thugs" and "mindless killers" would imply.
THE REAL TARGET OF AMERICA'S ARAB ALLIES IS ASSAD
A number of Gulf and Arab states have signed up with Washington to fight ISIS, but only because they plan to insert a Trojan Horse into the "war" agenda.
Their troops hidden in the belly of the wooden "horse" are gathered -- not to fight ISIS -- but to fight a quite different war. They want to turn it into a renewed offensive against President Assad and Syria. Indeed, at their preliminary summit in Jeddah, the Arab States agreed to a new Arab security architecture that would subvert the "war on ISIS" into war not just on ISIS, but also on President Assad and all Islamists (plainly they hope to pull the West into a larger war with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc.). Leading Saudi commentator, Jamal Khashoggi made the Saudi plan clear in a recent op-ed:
"We can thus say that eliminating ISIS also calls for the elimination of Assad ... The operation must target Moscow's ally in Damascus and topple him or pave the way to toppling him. Perhaps this is the logical explanation as to why Saudi Arabia approved training camps for the moderate Syrian opposition. It's tantamount to declaring an indirect war on the Syrian regime ... The Jeddah alliance is everyone's opportunity for a new beginning. It is not limited to its immediate task of eliminating ISIS but also includes the possibility of expanding towards reforming the situation in Iraq and Syria."
America's position is the nuanced one that it will not "coordinate" with Damascus, but, it will "deconflict" (Kerry's words) with it.
Syria's armed forces demonstrably have militarily effectiveness, and America knows it -- and the only other game in town (as its expression goes), is ISIS. So, America, it seems, has conceded -- as a sop in order to keep the Gulf engaged -- to some Saudi diversion of the "war against ISIS" into a war, retargeted, to unseat President Assad.
This reorientation sits comfortably with the Gulf exculpatory narrative that ISIS is no armed neo-Wahhabist vanguard movement, but merely a natural Sunni "reaction" that arose out of Assad's and former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's sectarian policies.
Saudi Arabia will -- as its contribution to defeating ISIS -- then train and arm 5,000 "moderate" Syrian oppositionists to return to Syria. The U.S. understands full well that its (and its Saudi sponsor's) objective will be to bring down Assad -- and not to fight ISIS (with whom the Syrian "moderates" reportedly coordinate in battle and have a non-aggression pact).
Syria's army is 130,000 strong, plus a further 100,000 auxiliaries. It is not likely that Saudi's Syrian brigades -- which have had a dismal record so far -- will bring down President Assad, but they will make U.S. policy incoherent and Syria more bloodstained.
If there are two main protagonists in Syria -- the Syrian Army and ISIS -- then America has no choice: It must prefer Assad, but it cannot be seen to be doing so, without offending Saudi Arabia. So America enters the conflict with one arm tied behind its back (by its own Gulf allies).
In ISIS' strategically important Syrian backyard, America has no visible and direct partner -- indeed, as former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Syria Ryan Crocker commented: "We need to do everything we can to figure out who the non-ISIS [Syrian] opposition is. Frankly, we don't have a clue" -- but can only work with Assad in a deniable and indirect way (which it is doing).
But the U.S. cannot really hope to prevail against ISIS in such a convoluted manner -- and with its Gulf allies (and many American think tank allies, too -- see here, here and here) trying to muddy the waters by inserting their own Saudi-trained "moderate" army in order to weaken Assad at the same time that America is "deconflicting" with him.
U.S. AIR ATTACKS SEEN AS ANTI-SUNNI, NOT ANTI-ISIS
Even in Iraq, the anti-ISIS coalition limitations will become more clear. Air attacks will become perceived not as attacks on ISIS but as attacks on the very Sunni communities into which it has merged and melted away. (The Iraqi government already has had to halt such strikes for this reason).
The Iraqi Shiite will defend their territories with utmost vigor, but may well choose to stay aloof from entering the Euphrates Valley with its long history as a militant Sunni heartland. Baghdad will not wish to pursue the war into a full-court sectarian conflict, and the Peshmerga will have neither the capability nor the will to do more than protect their own communities. In sum, ISIS may find that there is actually a notable lack of regional will to repair the fracture of Iraq -- but instead a will that seeks to contain it as is.
ISIS NOT A THREAT TO AMERICA
Is the Islamic State a threat then? It is worth recalling that -- unlike al Qaeda -- ISIS' primary aim is not so much to provoke America into an overreaction and self-implosion (as Bin Laden thought the Afghan war had done to the Soviet Union).
ISIS is not, of course, indifferent towards America, but it's primordial focus rather, is on founding God's Principality on earth, and instituting God's Law. It is not surprising then, that U.S. officials say that there is no present threat to the U.S. homeland.
ISIS is about seizing territory militarily, securing its frontiers, eliminating idolatry and heresy and physically establishing a Caliphate.