Poison Pills: the Allure and the Risks

Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment, 9-16 January 2015

ISIS was ever thus: a saucer of poison placed down in the midst of Syrian society, with another spoonful dropped into Iraq (its qualities having first been trialled in Chechnya). It was never expected that Iran or President Assad would be directly poisoned, but that the atmosphere around them would become highly noxious.  It would touch on something deep within Sunnis: a sense of victimisation and of usurpation – and a burning animosity towards those whom they perceived to be demeaning their status and their ‘particular mission’. It would ignite the sectarian passions: a wind of ‘fire’ surrounding Shia Iran.

These are not new tools – Ibn Saud in the 18th century precisely saw the political and military benefit to using combustible collective psychology, which was presented to him – together with a doctrine – by Mohammad abd-al Wahhab.  Ibn Saud, however, used the notion of jihad and the fervour to eradicate apostasy offensively: they enabled him to sweep the Nejd – and seize Mecca and Medina.

Old tools perhaps, but still highly potent today. Today there is a struggle between those who believe they can use these tools for their own ends: Saudi Arabia and Turkey who initially joined forces to spoon the ‘poison’ into Syria have for some time vied for the rights to ‘oversee’ it.  But aggressive mass psychosis, once launched, has never been easy to control. It blows with the wind, and can settle far and wide – and both patrons now face blowback as the psycho-physical evanescence of resurgent Wahhabism drifts back into their own societies.

Now used ‘defensively’ (to contain Iran), the tool of psychologically-inflamed Wahhabism is, in essence, offensive. Ibn Saud saw in its seething, volcanic power the means to seize Arabia (which he did).  Abd-al Aziz and his successors, for reasons of polity, tried to curb this perfervid quality to militant Wahhabism, but could never fully bind its vehemence. Rather, they channelled its ardour into ‘controlled’ releases outside the Saudi kingdom which could further Saudi and western interests.  These various ‘unleashings’ have been the prime tool of western policy for the last fifty years – setting up a ‘wind of fire’ against whomsoever fell foul of western interests.

For the US, the ability to instrumentalise radical Islam in the western interest, together with the overflowing oil spigot, enabled Saudi Arabia to become the leader of the Arab world, and the go-to ally for any ‘contrariness’ that occurred there.  But with the rise of (firstly PM and now President) Erdogan, Turkey began to recall its own past, as the leader of the Muslim world, long before Saudi Arabia existed.  Erdogan well understood the fiery potential of psychologically-inflamed Wahhabism, but Turkey lay within a rather different orientation of Sunni Islam, and in any event, the tool of neo-Wahhabism – until a number of years ago – was tightly held in the grip of Saudi Arabia.

Nonetheless, Erdogan tried to forge a rival psycho-physical tool, of matching potential, that would return to Turkey some of its influence lost when it dissolved the Caliphate.  Erdogan’s notion was that if he espoused the soft-power version in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, which espoused elections, and might be made yet more western-friendly, by espousing liberal economics (which it did at his behest), then America and Europe would beat a path to Erdogan’s door (which they did, for a time).  Erdogan would be the man who could ‘modernise’ the Middle East in the secular, liberal market mould of Turkey. Turkey, with Washington’s backing, would then displace Saudi as the West’s ‘go-to’ ally, and Turkey again would be the regional ‘king-maker’.

Initially it worked well.  It seemed that the Middle East – and even perhaps the Gulf – would simply gracefully fall to the Muslim Brotherhood, in the warmth of an Arab ‘Spring’.  Erdogan too, had hoped that President Assad could be bamboozled and browbeaten (recall the cosy Assad-Erdogan ‘family gatherings’) into a docile acquiescence to a MB take-over of Syria. But when President Assad, from early on, perceived Erdogan’s intent, and pushed back forcefully, Erdogan was enraged.  And in Egypt, Erdogan, within a very inch of achieving ultimate success for his project, had to witness the project being dealt a fateful blow by the coupsponsored by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The latter could not tolerate their ‘troops’ (takfiri salafists) – their ‘instruments’ – being displaced by Turkey and Qatar’s ‘subversive’ Brotherhood, or the loss of Egypt from their sphere of interest.

Erdogan was now mortally at odds with Saudi Arabia, and effectively stripped of the MB as an instrument of Turkish power.  The competition for Saudi Arabia’s potent tool (inflamed radicalism) then began in earnest.

Paradoxically, it was Prince Bandar, at an earlier time of warmth between the two states, who introduced ISIS and some of the former Iraqi Ba’athists and army officers to Turkey, with a view to inserting them into the project to oust President Assad. This Bandar initiative gave Turkey a second option: act as patron and facilitator to this Wahabbist nascent Islamic state, and if Syria and Iraq disintegrated (a not unreasonable prospect from this perspective) then the whole arc of bedrock Sunnism stretching from north Lebanon, through Homs and Hamma, and down the Euphrates valley into Iraq would fall under IS and therefore Turkish influence – thus displacing Saudi Arabia (sweet revenge).

But playing with fire always has its risks: Just as General Zia al-Haq of Pakistan sought to use these radical Sunni jihadists in Afghanistan, so radical Islam, in its turn, used him, penetrating into the very arteries and veins of Pakistani society.  Turkey stands in this place today.  It continues to make use of ISIS and has intimate relations with its leaders (it has negotiated state-to-state with ISIS for the release of Turkish hostages and continues to arm and facilitate ISIS fighters). But now it has little choice or ability simply to walk the relationship back:  ISIS has penetrated in to Turkey’s veins, and has directly threatened to disrupt Turkey, as surely as Pakistan was disrupted, were Turkey to turn against ISIS, at any point.  Turkey is somehow now hostage to the very ‘being’ it has sought to use for its own ends.

Neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia can afford to see ISIS fail completely (nor succeed completely).  This instrument, ISIS, and its forbearers (the Ikhwan of Abd-al Aziz and the jihadists of Ibn Saud) still represents the most potent (and prime) tool in the Sunni armoury: were ISIS to be defeated in Syria, and were ISIS to be defeated in Iraq (where Iran is quietly assuming control of the Iraqi army and the militias), Sunni Islam would be entirely discombobulated.

This needs to be understood: ISIS was mid-wifed into life in order to balance Iran (blood for blood), and to depose Assad. With ISIS’ complete military defeat, Saudi would see itself (and Sunni Islam) completely defeated by Iran and the Shi’i.  It cannot allow this: for ISIS, whatever its threat to Saudi Arabia itself (and it does threaten al-Saud family rule), ISIS nonetheless does, in its way, stand as symbol of the very essence which inspired the Kingdom at its outset. As a former Qatari ambassador to the US cautioned prior to US-led military intervention against ISIS: it would be seen as an act of “war” on the entire community of Sunni Arabs.

This fired-up Sunnism has been the ‘go-to’ tool of America’s ‘go-to’ ally for the last fifty years – from the Nasserist era, to Afghanistan in the 80s, to Syria today.  Turning with acquired habitude to Saudi, with its knack of wielding inflamed Sunni Islam against ‘our’ enemies, is so ingrained in western intelligence services for the habit to be abandoned easily (though perhaps the Charlie Hebdo incident may impact here).

Saudi Arabia may, however, try to use its influence to have ISIS ‘go to sleep’; tranquilised for a while (until a time when it is needed again).  Turkey, however, is not yet ready to push the ‘sleep’ button — it still has uses for it. But would anaesthetisation in any event, now prove possible for either state?  ISIS has acquired real autonomy, placing it beyond any past Saudi experience, and it has a hold over Turkey. Paradoxically, Saudi Arabia, like Israel, now feels compelled to build a ‘wall’ around itself on its frontiers, to keep the ‘psychosis’ and its foot-soldiers out.  It will be, at most, only partially effective – for the ‘gene’ of ISIS runs inside the kingdom, and has done so since the days of Ibn Saud.

So, ISIS is likely to be around for a while. It may have lost some of its momentum (the Pentagon said this week that ISIS has lost 700 square kilometres of its territory since June), but it would be unwise to write it off: It remains useful to many states, in many ways, even as those same states may claim to fear it.

And Iran and Syria? If it were within their capabilities to defeat ISIS completely in both Syria and Iraq, would it be to their interest to inflict such a humiliation and defeat on the Sunni world?  Unlikely — as the saying goes, beware of trying to ‘win’ too completely: the corollary of hubris has always been nemesis.

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