How horror and pluralism, wisely combined, gave rise to ISIS’ Empire in Iraq and Syria
The little town of Shariya, in northern Iraq, used to be an obscure, distant community, yet another Ba’athist experiment in social engineering. As part of his pet “Arabization project”, former President Saddam Hussein forcibly evacuated members of the Kurdish-Yazidi minority from their mountain villages and “resettled” them in planned communities under regime supervision. Normally, international attention was far away from Shariya and its inhabitants, but last summer things had changed.
Visiting the town in August this year, University of Chicago scholar Matthew Barber witnessed endless rows of cars and pickup trucks with Yazidi refugees from the Sinjar Valley. The cruel army of ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and A-Sham), flooded the valley with its troops, black banners, and intense firepower. Using American weaponry secured from the collapsing Iraqi Army, ISIS soldiers surprisingly defeated the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Sinjar, formerly known as one of the most efficient armies in Iraq. The Peshmerga (Kurdish: those who confront death) did not lack bravery, but its men and women’s old Soviet arms were no match for ISIS firepower. Sinjar is located outside of the Kurdish autonomy in Northern Iraq, but only 40 kilometers out of the Kurdish capital of Irbil, ISIS advance had put the Kurdish embryonic state in severe danger. Only US military involvement, both in aerial strikes and parachuted supplies, was able to avert this catastrophe so far.
What is the secret behind ISIS power? The answer is essentially twofold: horror and pluralism. Sounds contradictory? In order to understand this apparent riddle it may be instructive to look 800 years to the past, into the rise of the Mongol Empire. In the Thirteenth Century, this hitherto unknown confederation of nomadic tribes, led by the notorious Genghis Khan, was sweeping over large swaths of the globe and smashing formidable empires into pieces. The heirs of Genghis conquered China, laid waste to Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, occupied Iran and reached the Western borders of Russia. The Mongols were able to rise so quickly partly as a result of their ethnic tolerance. The new conquerors were prudent enough to absorb warriors, scientists and intellectuals from a myriad of religions, colors and ethnic groups. Only through this relatively tolerant policy, they were able to amass talent internationally, thereby upgrading their mounted army into a global empire.
However, this ethnic pluralism was accompanied by a ruthless form of psychological warfare. The Mongol conquerors were able to convince so many talented subjects to join their ranks, only due to their ability to overcome countless kingdoms, city-states and other political entities without a serious fight. The reason they were able to proceed so smoothly was the horror they were spreading along the route of their advance. When Genghis Khan’s army fought in Khorasan (Eastern Iran), it imposed blood-chilling punishments on every city that failed to submit. The women and children were sold to slavery; some useful artisans were sent to the Empire, and the rest of the men were put to the sword. Sometimes the punishment was even more horrifying. After Genghis’ beloved son-in-law was killed in battle of Nishapur, the Great Khan and his men slaughtered all living souls in the city, including cats and dogs. Sometimes, the Mongols allowed refugees to escape and spread the word to cities and towns further down the road. Projecting the futility and the terrible price of resistance, many of these cities quickly surrendered to the advancing hordes. This paralyzing fear, further intensified by overblown rumors, was the Mongols’ most deadly weapon, even more than horses, swords, and bows.
Just like the Mongols eight centuries ago, the fighters of ISIS are using the twin strategy of horror and pluralism. The horror is evident for all to see. In his Sinjar report, Matthew Barber observed that many refugees were fleeing in circles, moving back and forth, from town to town, whenever they heard rumors (true or false) on ISIS military advance. And they had good reasons to flee, as mass media stories about slaughtered Yazidis, Christians, and Shiites, girls sold to slavery and mass massacres of prisoners had circulated far and wide. Many of these refugees fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, the only functioning quasi-state in the region and ISIS’ most formidable rival, thus burdening its economy to the breaking point. The waves of refugees are a highly useful weapon that ISIS utilizes against its rivals in Northern Iraq and elsewhere, and it begins to take effect even before real shots are fired.
However, and this is much less obvious, ISIS success cannot be understood without the other element in its strategy: ethnic pluralism. In Western imagination, ISIS and pluralism are far apart as night and day, but this is true only in regard to religious ideology. ISIS is highly intolerant to non-Muslims, Shiites and even Sunnis who do not share its hard-line ideology, but it is blind to class, color, nationality and ethnicity. In the new Caliphate, every radical Muslim can advance in the ranks, whether he is Iraqi, Chechen, British or American. Hence, ISIS can amass military talents from all over and beyond the Muslim world, fanatic volunteers able to build careers regardless of nationality, ethnicity, color or race. For Yazidis, Christians and rival Muslims, the name ISIS equals horror, but for numerous frustrated youngsters around the globe it signals opportunity and temptation. This sophisticated combination of seduction and horror is the true key to ISIS’ power.
Indeed, if the world lets this emerging empire gather strength, it will be increasingly difficult to stop it in the future. It is not enough to send supplies to besieged Yazidis; bomb sporadically or even commission military advisers. President Obama has to supply the Kurdish Peshmerga with cutting-edge weapons and support it with formidable detachments of US troops. Professional pacifists and isolationists should be ignored. Without American boots on the ground, no one else in Syria and Iraq will be able to stop the tide. And the massacres in Irbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Kobani, crowded with horror-stricken refugees, can only be imagined. Action must be prompt, and it must come from the US and its European allies, not from the slow, ineffective UN Security Council. Now is the time to stop mass massacres in the making. One minute of delay and it may already be too late.