While Islamic State (IS) and the Islamic Republic of Iran – the powers that rival each other in seeking religious and political domination in the Middle East and beyond – have been forging ahead, intent on imposing their own versions of extremist Islam on a reluctant world, moderate Arab and other Muslim states have equivocated. Other considerations have been given priority over confronting them.
For instance Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, procrastinated for a long time before attacking IS in Syria, fearing to boost Kurdish forces which were successfully combatting the extremist organization. It was only when IS itself mounted terrorist attacks within Turkey that Erdogan took action – although, even now, he seems to be striking IS and Kurdish forces indiscriminately, in a morally ambiguous strategy dictated by the imperatives of the forthcoming elections in Turkey.
In Yemen it took an Iranian-backed takeover of the capital, Sana’a, and the imminent likelihood of a takeover of the government itself, to move Saudi Arabia to take action. The growing involvement of IS-affiliated Yemeni extremists, and a power struggle between them and the terrorist group “al-Qaeda in Yemen” combined to produce a state in meltdown. A contributory factor leading to Saudi action was perhaps the bombs that exploded outside two mosques in Sana’a after Friday prayers on March 20. Nearly 140 people were killed and 350 wounded, while shortly afterwards responsibility for the outrage was claimed by the group “Islamic State in Yemen”.
Six days later, on March 26, taking the world by surprise, Saudi Arabia began airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Houthis, with the intention of restoring the legitimate government in Yemen. Within only a few days Saudi had welded together a coalition of Arab states in support of the assault, including Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.
By the last days of March the Houthi advance had been halted. During the summer Saudi and coalition forces drove the rebels out of Aden, enabling the Yemeni prime minister, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, to return from exile on September 16. And now the Houthis – together with Yemen’s previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been supporting them – have agreed to a seven-point plan, brokered by the UN, which includes a ceasefire and the return of the government to Sana’a. Saleh told the Lebanon-based al-Mayadeen TV station on October 12 that he was ready to quit his position as head of the country's largest party, the General People's Congress (GPC), to facilitate an end to the fighting that has killed more than 5,000 people.
Saudi Arabia’s resolute action is a template for how moderate Muslim nations can, and should, face up to Islamist extremists elsewhere in the Middle East – IS in particular, but Iran too, should its overweening ambition, especially if eventually backed by nuclear weaponry, ever get out of hand. Iran has been supporting terrorist attempts to undermine Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states for decades. Armed with nuclear weapons, Iranian-supported jihadists would constitute a threat that could not be ignored. A nuclear arms race is the last thing the Middle East needs, but nuclear deterrence may eventually be the best road to security for moderate Islam, and an effective counter also if Russia were tempted to support Iranian adventurism.
Just like Iran, IS has an inherent strategic need to keep expanding its influence. The only way to defeat it is to halt it in its tracks, crush it militarily, and chase it out of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, where it has overrun, and now controls, vast swathes of territory. The task is no mean one, and requires exactly the kind of united front that has challenged, and is overcoming, the Iranian-backed rebellion in Yemen. Russia’s pro-Iranian involvement in Syria is a hazard, but not insurmountable.
Declaring himself the caliph of the entire Muslim world, the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, demands the allegiance of all Muslims in his self-appointed task of overturning existing states and substituting the rule of IS. To perpetuate its image of invincibility, IS’s influence simply has to continue growing. To stand still is to decline.
At first glance, al-Baghdadi has succeeded beyond all measure. By the middle of 2015 no less than 35 jihadist groups in some 14 countries, including Pakistan and Nigeria, had pledged allegiance to IS. As a symbol of its alleged authority, it also announced the establishment of wilayat (governorates) in a number of these countries.
Barak Mendelsohn, Professor of Political Science at Haverford College and a Research Fellow at Harvard, has analysed IS’s apparent growth and believes that, notwithstanding the fanfare surrounding these announcements, in reality IS's presence and power outside Iraq and Syria is very limited. The stronger groups who joined IS, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Sinai and Boko Haram in Nigeria, are in decline, and where Boko Haram is concerned, it is unclear to what extent it accepts al-Baghdadi's authority.
Mendelsohn maintains that IS’s early victories, astonishing as they were, reflected the poor state and morale of its opponents in the Iraqi army, and the lack of advanced armament by the Syrian rebels, more than the prowess of its own forces. Moreover, when it pursued the genocide of the Yazidis, threatened Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, and beheaded American hostages, it forced the United States to intervene.
By doing so, it may have initiated the start of its own decline, for ineffective as the US airstrike policy may have been, it opened the way for Russia’s intervention on behalf of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s military might may be mainly focused on Assad’s domestic Syrian opponents, but IS is also in its sights.
The question remains – why has the moderate Muslim world left so much of the running to non-Muslims? Russia indeed faces the risk of homeland terrorism from IS, and the West from both IS and Iran, but the Muslim states of the Middle East and beyond face even more direct religious and political threats, namely their own subversion and overthrow.
Terrorism, extremism, and power-crazed ambitions to conquer the world must be confronted. It is time for the moderate Muslim world to commit wholeheartedly to the battle.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 October 2015:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 October 2015:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 October 2015: