Is Islamic State symptom of the Assad problem?

Turkey's policymakers need to take seriously the Islamic State's growing power, instead of dismissing the group as a "symptom" of Bashar al-Assad's regime.

al-monitor Forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad erect the Syrian national flag after burning a flag of al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which they said was left behind by rebel fighters in Zor al-Mahruqa village, Oct. 6, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/George Ourfalian.
Mustafa Akyol

Mustafa Akyol


Topics covered

turkey, syria, kurds, kurdistan workers party, islamic state, bashar al-assad

Oct 9, 2014

One of the most-discussed topics in Western capitals these days is exactly where Turkey stands in relation to the Islamic State (IS), which has terrorized vast swaths of land in Iraq and Syria. Ankara has repeatedly declared that it considers IS a terrorist organization and a threat to Turkey and the whole region, but there are two additional problems it has in mind:

  • The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian extension, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have been defending Kobani against IS onslaught. Although many in the West might sympathize with these Kurdish militants who are heroically fighting the brutal jihadists, they still fall into the category of “terrorists” in Turkish eyes, despite the ongoing “peace process” between the Turkish government and the PKK. (In fact, precisely because of this Turkish hesitancy to help Kobani, the same peace process has become very fragile, as demonstrated by the recent Kurdish riots across Turkey that caused some 23 deaths.)
  • The Bashar al-Assad regime is another problem for Turkey, as Ankara still considers it the mother of all evils in Syria. An unnamed Turkish Foreign Ministry official expressed this view very clearly to the Turkish press: “For us to be in the international coalition [against IS], we should know the game plan and its end. And the end goal for us is the departure of Assad. … For us, IS is a symptom, whereas the root of the problem is Assad.” Clear enough. But is this really an accurate analysis of the trouble with IS?

We should all accept that the Assad regime is indeed a big part of the chaos and tragedy in Syria. The regime responded to nonviolent protests in March 2011 with violence, initiating a civil war, and has been despicably brutal against its own people, as documented by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and other international bodies. No one should give this regime any credibility merely by looking at the horrors committed by IS and other extremist factions within the Syrian opposition.

However, whether IS is a mere “symptom,” or — to use the same medical terminology — a disease in itself deserves a closer look.

IS has had very little conflict with the Assad regime since its rise in mid-2013. The regime controls western Syria, whereas IS grew in the northeastern part of the country, fighting with Free Syrian Army and “moderate” Islamist rebel factions. Moreover, it also expanded into Iraq, fighting the Kurds and the central Iraqi government.

IS, in other words, is not just a rebel group in Syria focusing solely on the Assad regime. Quite the contrary, the group apparently has bigger ambitions and will attack anyone who gets in its way.

The fact that IS declared a “caliphate” in June 2014 was an additional sign that it is a phenomenon that extends beyond being a reaction to the Assad regime. Most Muslims across the world, including most Turks, have not taken this caliphate seriously, but all the rhetoric coming from IS sources shows that the group is taking its own claims quite seriously. 

IS is driven not by mere anger — at the Assad regime or the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government — but by ideology. An expert defines it as “an apocalyptic, takfiri, sectarian and Salafist worldview.” (In other words, IS believes that the end is near, that Muslims who oppose them are apostates, that other sects of Islam must be targeted and that a very literal interpretation of Islamic law must be imposed.) No wonder similar groups that espouse the same extremist worldview take similar courses of action elsewhere. Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabab in Somalia are the most notable examples.

All these groups condemn democracy as “idolatry,” unlike mainstream Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood that accept and even advocate electoral democracy. Therefore, it would be naive to think that the toppling of authoritarian regimes and the initiation of the democratic process would be enough to accommodate them. In other words, even if the Assad regime falls one day, and a democratic Syria begins with free elections, the caliphate of IS is unlikely to join this process by abandoning its demand for the obedience of all Muslims and the subjugation of non-Muslims.

While the struggle for a post-Assad, democratic Syria is still crucial, the struggle against IS is a somewhat related yet separate matter. This struggle needs to be carried out on military, political and economic, ideological grounds. And Turkey’s policymakers and commentators should put more thought into this matter instead of explaining it away as a mere reaction to Assad or other non-Sunni actors.

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