The majority of the world’s governments ally with Saudi Arabia and Iran because these terror supporting strongmen maintain the status quo in the region. ISIS rose from the competition between Iran and the Salafist Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar).
But ISIS doesn’t maintain stability. It’s upending it. Which is bad news for fans of the status quo.
From Lee Smith and Hussain Abdul-Hussain’s “On the Origin of ISIS”
…ISIS is not exactly what we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the Middle East of late. “This is not a classic insurgency,” says Itani, “or a non-state actor. Rather, it’s a state-building organization.” ISIS’s effort right now is to secure borders and lines of communication. Comparing ISIS’s project with al Qaeda’s, Itani notes that bin Laden’s logic was to draw the United States into conflict with the Muslim world in the hope of making the people so disgusted with their regimes that al Qaeda could take over. ISIS is different: It aims to take territory, hold it, and build a state. That is, at a moment when much of the rest of the Middle East is moving toward chaos, the Islamic State is consolidating.
How did ISIS gain so much power in such a short time?
ISIS’s first success in tribal politics was in Raqqa, which it snatched from the hands of the Assad regime and turned into its capital. Until the middle of 2013, Raqqa remained loyal to Assad. Although few Syrian security forces were present in the city, and the capital, Damascus, is nearly 300 miles away, making it virtually impossible to maintain communications and supply lines, Raqqa remained in Assad’s control because the city was run by the Sharabeen tribe.
In the tribal world, the Sharabeen are not part of the elite. They are a cattle-raising tribe, considerably less prestigious than, say, the camel-raising Shammar, one of the biggest tribes in the Middle East, whose members are known for their valor. When the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, defeated the Shammar in 1910, the tribe pledged allegiance to him. Even as the British and French forced Ibn Saud to relinquish much of the Shammar territory he’d won, the Saudi king issued many Shammar Saudi passports.
Former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, well understood the significance of the ties between the Shammar and the Saudis. To counter Saudi influence in Raqqa, he propped up the Sharabeen, funding them, arming them, and giving them government jobs. All this came at the expense of the Shammar, many of whom picked up and moved to Saudi Arabia. When the anti-Assad rebellion erupted in 2011, Riyadh sent some Shammar tribal leaders back to Syria, like onetime head of the Syrian National Council Ahmed al-Jarba. The potential return of the powerful Shammar became a pressing concern not just for the Sharabeen, but for other tribal groups as well, which is what prompted 14 Raqqa clans to pledge allegiance to ISIS in November 2013. This is how Raqqa turned, quickly and peacefully, from an Assad stronghold into ISIS’s capital.
When the best efforts to maintain the status quo wind up destroying it, it’s time to change our foreign policy. Relying on semi-psychotic strongmen to maintain stability was a cornerstone of the British Empire.