This coming December will mark the fourth anniversary of the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi. This event ignited the revolution in Tunisia, and then sparked similar uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. While Bouazizi’s desperate act was the event which sparked the uprisings, the underlying cause was smoldering resentment against oppressive, illegitimate Arab governments and economic privation. What was stunning about these demonstrations was that in most countries, they were conducted in the spirit of nonviolence, secularism, justice and unity of purpose. What is seldom commented on, but no less profound, was that at some level, the viral spread of these revolts across the Arab world spoke to a shared political identity that cut across state boundaries. While it would be a stretch to interpret this as a sign of an Arab nationalist revival, it should be viewed as an indication that at least at the subliminal level, a shared Arab identity was part of the political consciousness of the region.
Four years later, the spirit of the Arab Spring has been lost, hijacked by Islamists like former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi who initially masqueraded as a pragmatic leader, but proved to be an Islamic ideologue, and radical groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which claims to be reversing the injustice done by the colonial powers at the end of the First World War, while imposing its own injustices on religious minorities, women and secular Muslims amidst the civil wars raging in Syria and Iraq. ISIS has clearly been the most flagrant in breaching the spirit of the Arab Spring by using brutal tactics that make even Al Qaeda wince, and exploiting the civil wars to impose a Sunni based Caliphate that further threatens Iraq, Syria and the broader region.
The question being asked in Washington, in the capitals of Europe and across the Middle East, is what will it take to vanquish or at least seriously hobble this organization? The answer coming from the Obama administration is that a combination of surgical airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq, military support for the Kurds, and political reform in Baghdad is what is needed. The hope is that the incoming Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will be less blatantly sectarian and more inclusive of the Sunnis than outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who, it has been argued, bears primary responsibility for driving many Sunni leaders into the arms of ISIS.
These military and political steps are in fact necessary to staunch the advance of ISIS, but they are likely to be inadequate. While under Prime Minister designate al-Abadi some Sunni tribal leaders have expressed a willingness to shift support away from ISIS, the window for wholesale co-optation and reconciliation has likely closed. Despite some setbacks, such as the loss of the Mosul Dam to Iraqi and Kurdish forces made possible by U.S. airstrikes, ISIS still continues to show momentum. It is expanding its ranks of jihadist fighters through impressively sophisticated and successful recruitment campaigns in Syria, Iraq, the broader Middle East, the Caucasus, Europe and even the United States. Moreover, it is trumping the once formidable Al Qaeda in terms of attracting resources and recruits to its cause.
Furthermore, ISIS’ main base of operations is in Syria, rendering an Iraq-only solution ineffective. This puts Washington in a bind. While the United States has entered the fray in Iraq to help battle ISIS, it has been unwilling so far to extend that mission to Syria, partially because of its stated policy that the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad lacks legitimacy and must go. The conundrum for policy makers is how can the United States actively oppose ISIS in Syria when it too is committing forces to the fight against the Syrian government?
So given this, how can ISIS be defeated and further destabilization prevented? In addition to the much-needed military and political measures already taking place, the most effective way to defeat ISIS and prevent the further disintegration of Iraq is to tap into a latent Arab identity that admittedly has been drowned out by narrower, more sectarian layers of identity in Iraq and Syria, but remains the best hope for breaking the spell of the extremist ideas propagated by ISIS. While Nasser-style Arab nationalism as a political movement is a relic of the 1950s and 1960s and a nonstarter today, Arab identity as a part of the political consciousness can still be a powerful unifying force that can combat ISIS in the future and perhaps pave a positive way forward for Iraq and even Syria.
Let’s unpack how tapping into Arab identity can be a potent force against ISIS, and under what possible scenarios this might be plausible, by first looking at both the strengths and vulnerabilities of ISIS’ ideas. The idea that is so compelling to some is that out of the ashes of the civil wars in Syria and Iraq has risen a new Islamic Caliphate that collapses the artificial and illegitimate boundaries between these countries, and promises the grandeur of even further expansion. The appeal of these ideas is heightened by the slick use of the social media for recruiting efforts, which support its goal of expanding its capacity to deal with current and future challengers.
But these same ideas potentially contain the seeds of destruction for ISIS. While they are compelling for attracting foreign jihadist fighters, these ideas are likely to ring hollow for Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis under ISIS control who seek a positive political and economic outlook. In other words, secular and even many religiously minded Sunnis are unlikely to remain committed to an extremist, oppressive, Salafist jihadist variant of Sunni Islam over the long run. It is not that Islamic ideals per se are alienating. As the case of Saudi Arabia demonstrates, a viable political community can form around a Sunni Islamic identity. But ISIS’ notion of political community completely disregards, and even tries to suppress other important layers of political identity, such as family, tribe and ethnicity. Moreover, it is unlikely to be able to deliver on basic needs, such as economic opportunity, human dignity and a vision for how its community connects to the outside world.
So what makes Arab identity such a potent idea and something of which ISIS should be frightened? Arabism actually embodies some of what makes ISIS appealing to many, which is the notion of an identity that is authentic, transcendent and erases boundaries. But the expression of Arab identity that we briefly witnessed in 2011 wasn’t about destroying state boundaries, which is what ISIS has already started to do, but rather about erasing ethnic, religious and sectarian boundaries that have limited economic and political development, and perpetuated autocratic rulers who relied on a divided society to govern. The appeal of Arab identity is that it can create a sounder basis for political community, based on a shared language, culture and history. A powerful message could be that while ISIS may be challenging the existing order by erasing what some see as artificial, illegitimate state boundaries, a shared Arab identity can transcend boundaries too, but by creating rather than destroying a positive foundation of political community.
There are plenty of reasons why a revival of Arab identity could be thought of as merely wishful thinking and extremely naïve. But sometimes the scenario that appears to be the least plausible becomes possible due to a lack of viable alternatives. There are few good alternatives to Arab identity being at least one of the pillars upon which political community gets rebuilt in war-torn Iraq and Syria, although such an outcome unless carefully finessed with economic benefits that are not yet defined, could increase the possibility that the Kurdish areas of Iraq will be completely autonomous from Baghdad or break away altogether. Moreover, the notion proposed by some that an agreement that gives the Shia and Sunnis semi-autonomy within Iraq is a formula for a viable country is problematic. Most importantly, neither the Sunni, nor Shia communities are unified within their own ranks. Each of these groups is made up of contending parties and is further divided between secular and religious elements. The only hope for bridging these divides is to tap into an all-encompassing basis for political community, bound by a common Iraqi or Arab identity. The other alternative, the one ISIS already has acted upon, is a complete disintegration of the states of Iraq and Syria and the perpetuation of a terrorist-run Sunni extremist state. If this becomes permanent, and the Kurds do become independent, what is left of Iraq is a Shia rump state that is weak and likely to be fully dependent on Iran for its own security. Without tapping into a broader Arab identity, we face the specter of a fanatic Islamic polity flourishing in the Arab heartland, and either the complete collapse of Syria and Iraq, or the continuation of the civil wars in these countries for years.
Given that Arab identity, while latent, has been buried by narrower, more sectarian identities within Iraq and Syria, how can this come about? It certainly won’t be easy, but as alluded to above, there are strong incentives working in its favor. To work it has to occur at two different levels. First, it requires a leadership in Iraq that not only tries to reintegrate the Sunnis into the ruling structures of the country, but also has the vision to rebuild the nation under a common, shared vision. Doing that will require that Prime Minister designate Abadi not just acknowledge the differences between Sunni and Shia, but also appeal to what they have in common in terms of their shared Arab and Iraqi identity.
In a perverse sort of way, the possibility that the ultranationalist Kurds could break away might be a catalyst for the emergence of Arab nationalism in Iraq. The specter of an Iraq without Kurdistan could be a powerful incentive for the leadership in Iraq to try to unify the Sunni and Shia under one identity banner in order to ensure regional political strength and economically viability.
The argument for keeping Kurdistan within a unified Iraq includes avoiding the inevitable regional conflict over Kurdistan that would involve the much more powerful Turkey and Iran, both of which would see an independent Iraqi Kurdistan as a threat to their own national integrity. Thus, any solution would need to involve first the reconciliation of the Arab communities of Iraq, followed by the recognition that the Kurds and other minorities would need clear benefits and respect for their own cultural identities and customs.
Second, to accomplish such a difficult reconciliation would require that the leadership of the more-stable Arab countries would have to be supportive of these efforts. The impetus to this would be the very real fear that ISIS may advance into Lebanon and Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even across North Africa, leading to further regional destabilization. The most likely candidates for this would be Egypt’s President al-Sisi, whose brand among many of his secular supporters has been burnished by his suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Saudis who are already bankrolling Egypt’s efforts and have a direct interest in weakening ISIS. In effect, Egypt would provide the political heft and the Saudis the financial means. While neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia are likely to directly enter the Syrian or Iraqi quagmires, they could be inclined to work with secular Sunni and Shia leaders in these countries who are willing to challenge ISIS in an effort to keep part or all of Iraq and Syria intact by creating a positive foundation for political community and economic growth.
What Egypt’s al-Sisi gains is that he gets to create the narrative that he hasn’t hijacked the Arab Spring, as much of the Western media and many of his own countrymen argue, but rather by quashing the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and helping to oppose the formation of an Islamic terror state in Syria and Iraq, he is setting the stage for delivering on the earlier aspirations of the Arab Spring, as he has often claimed is his long-term goal. One symbolic glimpse into al-Sisi’s possible ambitions to play a larger regional role and fight Islamic extremism is the building of a Nasser Museum to be opened in Cairo in 2015. Another concrete example is the de facto regional coalition Egypt has formed with Saudi Arabia and other GCC states on behalf of regional issues. While this scenario of al-Sisi returning to the spirit of the Arab Spring may seem absurd to many, given his recent crackdown on the press and any form of opposition in Egypt, over the long term, in order to maintain his personal popularity in Egypt, he will need to build a deeper legitimacy by demonstrating that Egypt will advance politically and economically, not just return to a Mubarak-style autocracy.
Without cooperation and some intervention by the more stable regional Arab powers, and possibly even Iran and Turkey, there is a potentially more troubling scenario under which Arab nationalism might emerge. This is a scenario in which an extremist and fanatic strain of Arab nationalism emerges to defeat ISIS from within. As ISIS transitions from marauding to governing mode, there could emerge a split between the religious fanatics running ISIS and the more secular Sunnis who joined forces for political expediency. Either ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proves nimble and pragmatic, recognizing that his fanatic religious ideology and brutal tactics are alienating both religious and secular mainstream Sunnis, and fuses Islamic and Arab symbols together to broaden the appeal, or the more secularly inclined commanders within ISIS, like Saddam Hussein’s former right-hand man, Izzat Ibrahim al-Dhouri, launch a coup. Not tapping into a strictly religious identity, and not playing on Iraqi or Syrian nationalist identity, they tap into a latent, more unifying Arab identity to challenge the legitimacy of both the Syrian and Iraqi governments. This is the most dangerous scenario because it could consolidate the territorial holdings of ISIS, perhaps enlarging on it by further challenging the Syrian and Iraqi governments using a broad Arab identity, and then governing the new state in a Saddam Hussein-style fashion.
What is the role for the United State in this identity-based game? The role would be to do what it can behind the scenes to help support the first scenario, and with the help of regional partners and local stakeholders prevent the second scenario. On the regional level, the United States should try to play to the best intentions of the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while not being shy about playing to their worst fears of a cancerous Islamic militancy that could possibly spread to Saudi Arabia, Egypt or any number of more vulnerable states in the region. The United States should also work with the Saudis and others on the financial end of things to try to help reconstruct Syria and Iraq, or what is left of these countries. These efforts on the part of the United State don’t presuppose benevolent motives on the part of either Egypt or Saudi Arabia; rather, they depend on a realpolitik calculation on the part of their leaders. The alternative to a galvanized Arab world that taps into a common identity is that ISIS continues to weaken Syria and Iraq, and that it and possibly other similarly radical groups shape the future of the region. The specter of that could be the impetus to a regional, Arab-based solution that taps into the best, not worst, spirit of the Arab Spring. In addition to its military and political efforts, the United States should incorporate this into its longer-term strategy and avoid further drift into regional anarchy inspired by the likes of ISIS.
Ross Harrison is on the faculty of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he teaches strategy. He also teaches Middle East politics at the University of Pittsburgh, and is a frequent contributor of articles on strategic issues facing the Middle East. He is the author of Strategic Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign policy and Business Professionals (Potomac Books: 2013)
Michael W. S. Ryan, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, studied Arabic in Egypt and received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He served as a senior executive in the U.S. Departments of State and Defense and as vice president of the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Middle East Institute. He is the author of Decoding al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (Columbia University Press: 2013)