“ISIS means to frighten people in the Middle East, because effectively what it’s doing is saying goodbye to the the nation-state system over and above the ghastly murders and the wickedness of showing, let alone actually committing these executions on television. This is an institution of cult, I’ve called it, which is clearly intended to win, not just by suicide bombing but by fear.”
Robert Fisk is a volcano of words, sitting in a TVO studio in Canada. This interview is from a couple of months before the attack on Paris, and he seems to have a completely clear picture of what is going on with ISIS. He paints a bleak image. After 40 years as a correspondent in the Middle East, he thought that he had seen it all. And yet, he is in a hurry to talk – he thinks that time is short. He says he is missing something, he is still not clear what ISIS is. Why? Never in his long period of reporting from all over the Middle East has he seen a guerrilla force or a militia army totally without feeling, says Fisk.
There were many reports out of Paris mentioning this extreme cruelty and the cold, totally detached behavior of black-clad killers with suicide belts. Apparently they were shooting blindly, without showing the slightest expression of emotion – no fanaticism, no anger, no feelings at all. Who are they? What happened in the Middle East that brought this vicious, cruel and merciless executors to the surface?
“Early in 2014, Isis released one of its first videos. Largely unseen in Europe, it had neither the slick, cutting-edge professionalism of its later execution tapes nor the haunting ‘nasheed’ music that accompanies most of its propaganda. Instead, a hand-held camera showed a bulldozer pushing down a rampart of sand that had marked the border between Iraq and Syria. As the machine destroyed the dirt revetment, the camera panned down to a handwritten poster lying in the sand. ‘End of Sykes-Picot’, it said,” Fisk wrote in a piece a few days ago for the Independent. In his piece, he explains what triggered this flood of violence in the Middle East, which tends to destroy every existing nation-state, replacing them with a borderless caliphate, with uniquely huge, open and empty space, filled only with the words of God and his warriors. And yet, the Arab Spring in 2011 was more an awakening than a violent coup of power. This awakening only led to protests against kings and dictators installed by the West since the First World War.
“Like many hundreds of thousands of Arabs in the Middle East, for whom Sykes-Picot was an almost cancerous expression, I watched this early Isis video in Beirut,” Fisk writes. “The bloody repercussions of the borders that the British and French diplomats, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, drew in secret during the First World War – originally giving Syria, Mount Lebanon and northern Iraq to the French, and Palestine, Transjordan and the rest of Iraq to the British – are known to every Arab, Christian and Muslim and, indeed, every Jew in the region. They eviscerated the governorates of the old dying Ottoman Empire and created artificial nations in which borders, watchtowers and hills of sand separated tribes, families and peoples. They were an Anglo-French colonial production.”
So when Fisk says that Middle East is over and done with nation-states, he is referring to the countries that were brought into existence by the secret agreement between Sykes and Picot, two diplomats who, entirely on their own, divided what was left of the Ottoman Empire into separate states and put them under British and French command. This was in 1916, three years before the beginning of the peace negotiations in Paris. ISIS pretends that what they are doing with the caliphate is an extension of this popular rebellion against colonial divisions – erasing the borders and cancelling the geographical maps that were created in elegant salons in the rich western capitals of Paris and London almost a century ago. This sounds somehow similar to the words that Russian President Putin used a year ago, when he said that he was the only one protecting the world of Ukrainian fascism.
But let’s return for a moment to the interview Fisk gave to the Canadian TVO. It is especially important because he never put in writing what he said in front that camera.
“I do not think ISIS has anything to do with the caliphate. ISIS is the weapon, it is not ideology. It is a guerilla army, but it’s a weapon. The question is: who’s holding the weapon? Who does it belong to? I think what’s happening is after years and years of supporting the Sunni states, particularly the wealthy states, like Saudi Arabia, a Wahhabi state that supported the Taliban – Osama bin Laden was Saudi, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis – I think that Americans might have decided that the Shia Iranian state might become the policeman of the Gulf as it was under Shah. In that case, Saudi Arabia and all those frightened, vulnerable Gulf states are going to want to keep Shias at bay, and this ISIS organization is primarily aimed not against the West but against Shi’ism.”
Is there any evidence of what the veteran Middle East reporter is saying? Fisk claims that ISIS never criticized the Saudis and that there is some evidence that part of the money ISIS is receiving is coming from non-governmental Saudi sources and some other Gulf countries. If Americans are preparing a move against the Shias and Iran, then ISIS is definitely the weapon, says Fisk, who explains that, according to his understanding, a big part of the Geneva nuclear negotiations with Iran was dedicated to the question of Syria and ways to convince Saudi Arabia to switch off ISIS.
If you ask me, this would imply that Washington and Moscow have been negotiating all this time – that not only America and Russia, but also Iran, Europe and partly Syria will have to come together to stop the terror and force Saudi Arabia to unplug ISIS.
Not an easy task, but Friday’s security council unanimously called for a fight against ISIS – a sign that the possibility of joint action is on the table.
This is probably the most difficult issue they have to discuss. Because as Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times, there are many groups – Bashar al-Assad, Turkey, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, Palestinians, Shiites of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran – who do not want to eliminate ISIS. Roy concludes:
In short, no regional player is willing to send out its forces, bayonets at the ready, to reclaim land from ISIS. Then again, unlike after 9/11, neither are the Americans. The United States’ strategy today relies on waging a war from afar, based on aerial strikes; Washington does not have the political will to send ground troops. Containment will have to do, and so, too, will killing terrorists by way of bombs and drones. But war is not won without infantry.
France is perhaps alone in wanting and trying to annihilate ISIS. Only it doesn’t have the means to wage such a war on two fronts, in both the Sahel and the Middle East.
Yet if France lacks the means to live up to its ambitions, fortunately for its sake, so does ISIS. Much as with Al Qaeda earlier, the successes of ISIS increasingly amount to its grabbing headlines and the attention of social media. The ISIS system has already hit its limits.
If this is true, then many actors in this dirty Middle East game are weaponizing ISIS. This would support the theories of Robert Fisk. There is no doubt that many countries have separate interests, or are positioning themselves. That’s why the American plan, if it really exists, would be very hard to implement.
But there is more. In the crossfire of Middle East interests, there are equally cruel arms deals that even involve countries like France, now under attack by ISIS. If the Saudis are supplying ISIS and ISIS is attacking France, which is one of the big arms sellers for Saudi Arabia, then, where does it all end? Where did it all start?
Amidst the many interpretations of the attacks on Paris and its consequences, quite a few observers raised the opinion that ISIS’s strategy of fear had already won the war with France. Is this because of the extremely fierce French reaction to the carnage? While there is no doubt that the determined response by the French President Francois Hollande has no need for justification, the mobilization, special laws and extraordinary measures that he has taken raise no small concern about possible militarization of French society as happened after 9/11 in the U.S.
This was also my instinct right after the massacre, when deep in the night on Friday I heard President Hollande say that he decided to close the French borders. It took 400 years to create the France we know today. It has been only a little more than three decades since Europe opened its borders and created a community space of free movement that went beyond the notion of single nation-state. At the first sign of a challenge, when disarmed and desperate refugees appeared at the border of our unified European space, the individual countries locked and hid themselves in their own caverns, reeking of nationalist odor. And France, the proudest of them all, did the same. It closed its borders, hoping that the problem would resolve by itself. It was this same revival of national sentiments that caused Europe’s failure to coordinate, communicate and respond better in order to both prevent the carnage in Paris and resolve the refugee crisis in a less embarrassing fashion. Paris leaves many questions unanswered.
But since many think that the killers in the Paris attacks were not only misled, but insane, let me at least hope that this report on ISIS using massive quantities of drugs is correct. If for no other reason than the fact that it explains Fisk’s insightful observation, when he told us that he never saw a guerrilla force so completely void of emotions and feelings. Monsters.