The dreaded extremist movement called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is gasping for breath. In October, it lost its political capital Raqqa (Syria) to the international coalition forces fighting to eliminate the demonic outfit. A few months earlier, in July this year, the extremists’ economic capital, Mosul, had fallen to the US-supported Iraqi forces, causing demoralisation in their ranks. The whereabouts of their supreme leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (his real name is Ibrahim Awwad), are not known.
Some time back Russian forces, part of the anti-ISIS 68-nation coalition force, had announced that he was killed in the process of recapturing Mosul from the extremists, but the development was received with skepticism. Later, the top commander of the US forces in the region declared that there was no credible proof of Al-Baghdadi’s death and he might be hiding somewhere in Iraq or Syria or even outside West Asia.
Even if he is no more, the global community must remain focused on the need to deprive the ISIS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Daesh, of any territory that remains under its control. The ISIS still has in its grip areas on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border where its writ runs. These territories, too, should be liberated so that there are little chances of it regrouping again.
According to reports, around 10,000 trained ISIS fighters are still alive. They can cause havoc by quietly moving to other countries and resorting to lone-wolf tactics. Nothing should be left to chance to ensure that the days of the ISIS are over.
There is need to learn lessons from how it emerged as a major force, exploiting the name of Islam, in the wake of the chaos that followed with the birth of insurgency in Iraq after its administration was handed over by the Americans to the Iraqis and the beginning of the civil war in Syria owing to the anti-people policies of the Bashar Al-Assad regime.
Born between 2007 and 2010 as an offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaida after the formation of a US-backed government in Iraq, in a few years the ISIS grew to become a powerful force to be reckoned with, controlling vast territories in Iraq and Syria.
When 46-year-old Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared in June 2014 establishment of the so-called Islamic caliphate while addressing a huge gathering at the 950-year-old main mosque in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city after Baghdad, the ISIS had spread its presence to a large number of villages, towns and cities in Iraq and Syria with its black flag fluttering all over there. The territory under its control then was as large as the area of Portugal with the ISIS controlling the lives of around 80 lakh people, which meant a population bigger than that of many countries in the world.
Many oilfields and refineries, vast grain stores, huge stockpiles of arms and ammunition, lucrative smuggling routes and major bridges and dams were there in what came to be known as the “Daesh country” by mid-2014. No extremist outfit had ever succeeded in establishing its sway over such a vast territory having geo-political ramifications. The Al-Baghdadi-led terrorist movement, which refused to honour any international convention, had left the 1988-born Al-Qaida far behind in conquests as well as ruthlessness shown in dealing with its opponents. Bin Laden appeared to be a pygmy in front of his Iraqi ‘chela’, Al-Baghdadi.
The ISIS’s unending hunger for expanding its territorial sway led to area after area being invaded by its fighters with alarming success. Their conquests caused havoc in Iraq, Syria and Libya. They were accused of indulging in cold-blooded murder, torture and rape with a vengeance, but the world community remained a silent spectator at the initial stage. Global attention got drawn to their atrocious activities when lakhs of uprooted men, women and children managed to move out of the region and began gathering at the borders of European countries with a request for shelter. By that time the people in Iraq and Syria had undergone a terrible experience that’s beyond description.
Yet the ideological appeal of the ISIS — its misleading idea of bringing back the days of the caliphate that existed in the region hundreds of years ago — was so strong among youngsters in Asia and Europe that many of them left their homes to join the extremists, wrongly believed to be fighting for a ‘pious cause’. According to one estimate, over 40, 000 young and not-so-young men and women from foreign countries joined the ranks of the ISIS, swelling the number of their fighters to around 60,000 at one time. Of the 5,000 such youngsters who came from European countries to fight alongside the others in Iraq and Syria, 15,000 are believed to have gone back home.
Some of them, who have still not understood Al-Baghdadi’s game for power can resort to guerrilla-war tactics if the right-wing forces in Europe continue to create an atmosphere of hatred against migrants.
In the midst of all that was going on in the volatile West Asian region, 39 Indians who had landed there were reported missing in Iraq in 2014. The liberation of Mosul from the ISIS raised hopes of their being found but in vain. What happened to them remains a mystery. Many visits to the two countries by Indian delegations have drawn a blank.
The ISIS has been virtually immobilised, but the factors that helped its founding are still there. Al-Baghdadi captured large parts of Iraq and Syria by exploiting the sentiments of Sunni Muslims, who felt marginalised, particularly in these two countries having regimes not bothered about their interests. Since Shia Muslims constitute the majority in Iraq, the elected government is bound to reflect this reality. But the trouble is that it has not succeeded in instilling confidence in the 20 per cent Sunni population of the country. The Iraqi Sunnis must be made to feel that their interests are as safe today as these were when Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. In fact, these people have been complaining of the tyrannical behaviour of the present rulers and others when it comes to taking care of the Sunnis’ sentiments.
In Syria, the humiliated dictator, Bashar Al-Assad, is an Alawite, a Shia sect, but the majority population in the country is composed of Sunnis, who have been feeling neglected with their economic condition getting worse day by day. They had very few grievances when Bashar’s father, Hafiz Al-Assad, ruled the country for a long time. It was this Shia-Sunni factor that played a major role in causing a civil war, resulting in a large number of areas being captured by the ISIS.
The sectarian and economic factors need to be handled as top priority in the interest of stability in the two countries as also in the rest of the region. India can play a major role along with other countries having interests in West Asia by offering different kinds of assistance to the governments there. These countries look up to India as an emerging Asian power to play a stabilising role in the region.
After all, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries have over five lakh Indians working there, though their number has come down from nearly eight lakh in 2014