Monday, 6 April 2015


In my article The Uses and Abuses of Arab Nationalism I said:
“ISIS is a bastardized expression of the nationalist identity and interests of Sunni Arabs. In all its deformity, the movement is simply filling a gap that should more correctly be filled by a healthy form of Arab nationalism.”
This view is now being confirmed by the evidence coming out of Syria and Iraq. A recent article in The Independent, "How Saddam Hussein's former military officers and spies are controlling Isis," presents evidence from a number of Syrian sources, including Abu Hamza, a former Syrian rebel, and makes the case that ISIS is little more than the old Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein hiding in a Muslim hijab:

"[Abu Hamza’s] account, and those of others who have lived with or fought against the Islamic State over the past two years, underscore the pervasive role played by members of Iraq’s former Baathist army in an organisation more typically associated with flamboyant foreign jihadists and the gruesome videos in which they star.

Even with the influx of thousands of foreign fighters, almost all of the leaders of the Islamic State are former Iraqi officers, including the members of its shadowy military and security committees, and the majority of its emirs and princes, according to Iraqis, Syrians and analysts who study the group. They have brought to the organisation the military expertise and some of the agendas of the former Baathists, as well as the smuggling networks developed to avoid sanctions in the 1990s and which now facilitate the Islamic State’s illicit oil trading."
Of course, we should not be surprised that nationalism is the political colour shining through the confusion in the Sunni Arab heartlands, because, unlike more superficial political manifestations, nationalism is a primal political element underlying everything else. This is likely to be revealed by any sustained crisis, especially one in which preexisting statist architecture has been destroyed.

What is remarkable about the present case is not the survival and intensification of Arab Sunni Nationalism. This is entirely predictable in the same way that the return of the Soviet Union to Russian nationalism during the crisis of WWII was predicable. What is truly remarkable is the fact that the Iraqi Baathist "elite strategy" has also survived and is now reasserting itself.

As a regime mainly rooted in Iraq's Arab Sunni minority, the Iraqi Baathists could only control the country by co-opting elements from other communities. Saddam's security forces always included Shiites, Kurds, and Assyrian Christians under the standard of Iraqi statist nationalism, although that state was always entirely Sunni dominated. We now see something similar replicated in the Islamic State, with "foreign fighters" and "Syrians" being used as cannon fodder the same way that Shiites and Kurds were used in the Iran-Iraq war. The same article from The Independent reveals the following:
"In Syria, local 'emirs' are typically shadowed by a deputy who is Iraqi and makes the real decisions, said Abu Hamza, who fled to Turkey last summer after growing disillusioned with the group... 'All the decision makers are Iraqi, and most of them are former Iraqi officers. The Iraqi officers are in command, and they make the tactics and the battle plans,' he said. 'But the Iraqis themselves don’t fight. They put the foreign fighters on the front lines."

A spectre is haunting the Middle East — the spectre of nationalism.

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