By Itihaas Singh || Contributing Writer

Long, dreadful winters make for good writers but bad politicians. Take the Irish and the Russians, for example. Some of the best writers of the past 300 years – Joyce, Beckett, Gogol, Tolstoy, Pushkin– were all the offspring of repressive regimes and a never-ending cycle of civil unrest. Their subversion inspired many and some of them paid for it with their lives. But even now, long after they’re gone, the Irish are not completely out of the water and Russia is far from a tolerant utopia. Nonetheless, their insights about those long winters give them relevance to this day and there has been another region brewing similar trouble from quite a while now. Protracted conflicts, sane heads marginalized, repressive regimes, oppressed civilians – yes, I’m talking about the Middle East.

The troubling rise of ISIS since last summer and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris have ensured that the media is flooded with experts trying to understand ISIS and prescribe solutions for the problem. The rhetoric, quite predictably, ranges from nuanced understanding to rash simplicity, say Trump’s statement to MSNBC: “I would knock the hell out of them, but I’d put a ring around it, and I’d take the oil for our country.” But in this crowded field of opinions, one factor is hard to find: history. I don’t lament the absence of ancient history, although that can be useful too, but the history of the past few centuries, even the past 50 years has been widely ignored in tackling the Middle East. And so when the media, managing to look more surprised each time, reports that thousand of westerners are pouring into Syria-Iraq to fight, or that refugees and their intentions are not clear, it is hard not to point them to one of these writers who have been here before.

Eugene O’Neill wrote that “there is no present or future– only the past, happening over and over again– now.” The words of these pessimistic prophets have valid implications for an effective Middle East policy. There are multiple valid hypotheses to explain the complexities of the region but there are many overlooked historical factors that must be part of the calculus. Three things in particular show that the current Syria-Iraq crisis is a repeat of past events.  

The Saddam Hussein factor

While a lot of media attention has been given to foreign recruits – 30,000 fighters from more than 100 countries and at least 4,000 Westerners have gone to fight in the area since 2011 – a far more important source of fighters has been ignored. That source is Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party whose ranks filled much of pre-2003 Iraqi military and government institutions. Baathism started in Syria during the 1940s and from the time Hussein rose to power in 1979, the party was his chief instrument to control and tyrannize Iraq. As L. Paul Bremer, the provisional ruler of Iraq after the 2003 invasion, put it, “Saddam Hussein himself openly acknowledged that he modeled the Baath Party on the Nazi Party because he admired the way in which Hitler was able to use the Nazi Party to control the German people.”  

A key choice that confronted policymakers after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was what to do with it. As a result, the Baathist army was disbanded and 400,000 soldiers suddenly found themselves on the street – defeated, unemployed but allowed to keep their guns. Most policy wonks point out that a large unemployed youth population is a recipe for unrest in vulnerable countries. An unintended, but predictable, consequence of the de-Baathification was the insurgency that followed and the eventual rise of ISIS. The US tried to rectify this problem in the years that followed, most notably by ‘rehabilitating’ and including some of these officers in the ‘Awakening counter-insurgency movement’ in 2007 but the Iraqi government went about executing de-Baathification Round 2 after the US withdrawal in 2011.

Today the former Baathist army officers constitute much of the leadership of ISIS. The Washington Post reports that some of these officers were already fighting alongside Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups but the current ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi instituted an aggressive strategy to recruit them after 2010.

These ex-officers brought “the Baathist mind-set of secrecy as well as its skills,” according to Hassan Hassan, author of the book ‘ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.’ They are perhaps the primary reason that ISIS, unlike other terrorist organizations, has emerged as an effective infantry with large swathes of territory under its control. And to answer Trump’s concerns about their oil, Baathists also bring with them oil smuggling networks used by Iraq to evade sanctions in the 1990s that now help ISIS make around $500 million a year.

The Baathists certainly needed to be dealt with in the political engineering of post-2003 Iraq but this raises the question of whether there was a better way to do so. The myopic policy has ensured that the U.S. military is now back to fight the same people it has fought over and over again before, three times to be precise.

The Jihadi John Factor

One of the propaganda tools of ISIS is continually releasing videos of executions of foreigners and minorities. The first one that caught the attention of the West was the disgraceful murder of the American journalist James Foley by a British ISIS member called Mohammed Emwazi, also known as ‘Jihadi John.’ The incident led to the media scrambling to understand why some Westerners were traveling to join extremist groups in the region and the stories only added to the confusion. Take the New Yorker piece on an 18-year-old Belgian national Jejoen Bontick who was brought up Catholic and competed in a reality TV show called ‘Move Like Michael Jackson’ when he was 14, but then converted to Islam and slowly got radicalized enough to flee to Syria and join ISIS.

These attempts to explain the problem are engaging non-fiction at best and the tone of surprise in the media reports is puzzling if you’ve read a few history books. More than 70 insurgencies have gone transnational in the last two centuries, and although the cause and the intentions may be different, there are a few things to learn from them. Examples of these transnational insurgencies include the London Philhellenic Committee that helped the Greek struggles against the Ottoman Empire in early nineteenth-century, Jewish volunteers in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, Albanian-Americans that went to fight with the Kosovo Liberation Army in the 1990s, and the Mujahedeen, and its offspring Al-Qaeda, fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  

David Malet, a career political scientist, reports in Foreign Affairs that these transnational insurgencies share similar pitches for recruitment, they “use despair rather than optimism to recruit members…tell recruits that they are losing a war of survival…that he or she is part of an endangered community and is obliged to defend it.” Technological advancements like social media have surely made it easier to recruit, but the message hasn’t changed much. Malet continues that historically recruiters also attract fighters who have “weak affiliations with their own country, and national identity, especially in the case of unassimilated immigrants or the politically repressed or economically marginalized” and prefer to put these fighters in the front “rather than risk their own regular members on the battlefield.” This historical analysis fits perfectly to the practices of Al Qaeda and now ISIS. Their messaging, such as in the videos, is disproportionately focused on foreign fighters because they are attempting to frame it as an existential fight, a clash of civilizations, between the Muslim world and the West. Hence the rise of ‘Jihadi John,’ not because he is an important commander, those are the Baathist officers who pull the strings from behind the curtain, but because his story grabs the headlines and spreads their narrative.

The difference, however, lies in what happened after the Mujahedeen-Soviet conflict when the home governments of these foreign fighters realized that they were threats that could not be let back in. Historically the foreign fighters returned to their countries, disillusioned or victorious, but the Islamic extremists of Afghanistan became stateless and continued to move around conflict zones and building an insurgent diaspora for themselves. Osama bin Laden himself moved from Afghanistan to Sudan and back to Afghanistan and then Pakistan and continued to sell every conflict involving Muslims from North Africa to Eastern Europe to the Middle East as part of the larger global clash of civilizations. It is no surprise then that ISIS propaganda is based around forming a caliphate where all these transnational fighters convene to fight an existential, apocalyptic battle to the end.

Wars are often as much about the narratives as the men fighting in the mud, and history points to a policy lesson for Western governments to counter this message that Muslims are under threat. The baseless claims of the 2016 presidential contenders such as Trump’s allegations that certain Muslims in New Jersey were cheering on 9/11 or backlash against defenseless refugees fleeing Syria certainly do not help in promoting a more tolerant atmosphere.

Ottomans vs. Wahhabism

The Ottoman Empire is often remembered nowadays for the wrong reasons. It committed mass atrocities against the Armenians and other minorities and sided with Germany against the Allies in World War I. But what is often overlooked is that it was once a great multinational, multi-faith, multicultural empire that significantly moved the needle of civilizational progress. The founders of the empire came from humble origins as tribal horsemen in the Turkish countryside and took Constantinople (now Istanbul), a historically Christian city, and gradually established it as the new center of gravity for Islam. Over the next six hundred years, they expanded their rule to modern day Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Today, this list of their provinces reads like a national security advisor’s things-to-worry-about memo, so how did the Ottomans manage to keep the peace?

The Ottomans usually wore their religion lightly but they knew that to rule the Muslim world from a Christian city, some symbolism was called for. The Sultans gave themselves the titles of ‘Caliph of Islam’ and ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ and established a distinct cultural footprint by commissioning grand mosques, redoing the Dome of Rock and displaying sacred treasures seized from Mecca. Rageh Omaar, a journalist who has covered the region extensively writes, “as the Christian world had its pope, the Muslim world, from the time of the Prophet had a similar position, Caliph,” and by giving themselves these titles, the Sultans “made themselves not just the political leaders of the Muslim world but the spiritual leaders too.” ‘Caliph’ literally means successor (after Prophet) and hence these were not just empty words. Furthermore, the legislations introduced by Suleiman the Magnificent, their most successful Sultan, deftly balanced the power of state and the power of religion, an issue that now divides most of the Middle East. The laws were central to their success, so much so that he earned another nickname from his subjects, Suleiman ‘Kanooni,’ the lawgiver.

As the empire’s gradual decline started from the 18th century onwards, another competing current of thought emerged from the deserts of Arabia. Its founder demanded conformity, and claimed authority to deem anyone who doubts him as an infidel. Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, wrote, “those who would not conform to this view should be killed, their wives and daughters violated and their possessions confiscated.” Wahhab forged an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud, founder of the Saud Dyansty, the current rulers of Saudi Arabia, in 1741 and reintroduced a puritanical and violent interpretation of Islam. It was a politically expedient way of dividing the population and seizing power. And by the time they got to power, their contributions to religious and political thought – aspiring for a return to the ways of the time directly after the Prophet, martyrdom in the name of Jihad, ‘Ikhwan’ Wahhabist moralists patrolling the streets, massacre of Shiites, use of fear and submission on the newly conquered territories – set off the wheels in motion for the eventual rise of extremism in the region as we see today.

Where Suleiman the Magnificent was a deft legislator and a religiously tolerant ruler, at least by the standards of his day, Wahhabism called for submission to its doctrine of ‘One ruler, One Mosque, One Authority.’ The Ottomans and Wahhabists sparred over the next couple of centuries but the end of World War I brought a quick end to the Ottomans, and after over six centuries, Islam found itself without its Rome.

The political void left behind was quickly filled by dividing up the spoils of war, the Ottoman territory, between the colonial powers of Britain and France, but the religio-cultural void was not paid much thought. The House of Saud, married to Wahhabism since 1741, hence emerged as the new ‘Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques’ and the center of gravity returned more radicalized from its adopted home in Istanbul.

This also became the start of the much-decried ‘Western intervention.’

The division of the Ottoman Empire under the Sykes-Picot agreement led to the creation of Syria and Iraq under divisions that didn’t make much political or cultural sense. They were arbitrarily divided despite their striking similarities, and mismanaged for the sake of colonial ambitions – Rageh Omaar reports that the borders were often changed during the negotiations such as when oil was found in Mosul (Iraq) and the British suddenly wanted the city. But Western intervention was just another ingredient in an already dangerous mix; the conflict had started way before modern day contexts exacerbated them.

The Ottomans rose to power on the backs of the weakened Byzantine Empire, the Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, in turn, emerged from within the weakening Ottoman Empire, each fighting not just for territory but also for symbolic spiritual authority. “Coup d’états always start in the courtyard of the palace,” a Cambodian politician observed to the writer Amitav Ghosh, and ISIS is attempting that coup from within the Muslim world. Symbolism mattered to the Ottomans when they displayed, in one of their museums, a cloak they claimed belonged to the Prophet. Symbolism mattered to Mullah Omar, the leader of Taliban, who was attempting the same takeover upon invading Afghanistan as he brandished a cloak he claimed also belonged to the Prophet. In 2014, the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself ‘Caliph’ and his newly taken territory a Caliphate and O’Neill’s past happened all over again.

That is why the conventional approach of some Republicans – ‘we will come marching into your country, we will find you, we will kill you and then we’ll leave’ – needs revision. Congressman Charlie Wilson, instrumental in propping up the Mujahedeen against the Soviets, wanted to rebuild the war torn country after 1989. He didn’t find much support on the Hill because the Soviets had withdrawn and Afghanistan could now be ignored. “These things happened, they were glorious and they changed the world…and then we fucked up the end game,” he said, and Afghanistan came back to haunt us in 2001.  

“History,” wrote James Joyce, another Irish, “is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” You may fight in a land forever, but if you want to leave it for civilization, if you want to awake from the nightmare, you first need to address the past residing in the present.

Itihaas Singh is a contributing writer. His email is