Two years of covering ISIS, and I got it right

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

For more than two years I’ve been following the development of Islamic State.  Here is a look back at the central arguments, interviews, reports and predictions, many of which proved to be prescient.

In September of 2013 I argued it was time to “define Islamist terror as a crime against humanity”.  The article references sectarian massacres in Syria.  Now the world is waking up again and again to the threats of Islamic State, but despite the massacres of Yezidis and others, the powers refuse to call this genocide or war crimes or a crime against humanity.

In December of 2013 I wrote (‘Syria’s Rattlesnakes commit suicide’) that it was the “natural tendency of radical movements to be outflanked by radicalism.” The article references Islamic State (ISIL at the time) in comparison to its then still seemingly more potent competitors, Al-Qaida’s Nusra Front and and the “Islamic Front.”  The article noted that “This fracturing of the opposition has resulted in western governments withdrawing aid from the FSA….When we look at the Syrian rebel experience what is clear is that the increasing Islamisization has put the focus on Islamic purity as opposed to actually fighting the government.”

The article was correct, the “rattlesnakes were committing suicide,” as Syrian rebel groups were outflanked by more extreme groups, eventually ISIS would emerge as a major force, the Syrian rebels would be harmed by this distraction, the West would withdraw aid, and the most radical group would win out.

In August 2014 two articles examined the predicament of Qatar and Hezbollah.  As the Syrian Civil War became a playground for external actors, Hezbollah launched a major offensive and Qatar was accused of funding the rise of ISIS.  Hezbollah’s actions (Nasrallah’s Dangerous Gamble) were ostensibly in response to an ISIS “invasion” of the town of Arsal.  The local Sunni Jihadists “swore allegiance to ISIS and this prompted a crackdown by the Lebanese Army, which arrested and sought to detain 43 other members of his organization.”  A companion article looking at Qatar’s increasing power (‘Filling Nasser’s Shoes’) play in the region argued it had “overplayed its hand.”  Indeed, it hard, those it supported have mostly failed, while ISIS has morphed into a threat and Qatar has had to forswear ever having had any contact with it.

In February, as ISIS continued its trade in sex-slaves and mass murder in Syria and Iraq, I compared it to a new form of Nazism (From Auschwitz to ISIS). “As Islamic State (IS, ISIS or ISIL) continues its campaign of mass murder, begging the world to take notice through broadcasting its crimes, we are left with a clear conclusion: Even if IS opened a death camp and showed people being massacred live on the Internet, no one would do anything.”

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A Christian village in Iraq in the Nineveh plains, captured by ISIS in 2014, it was re-captured by Kurdish peshmerga (Seth J. Frantzman)

In late June with Laura Kelly I travelled to Kurdistan to see for myself what was happening with ISIS.  What we learned was the Kurds has checked ISIS advanced and pushed them back, in fact ISIS had run out of steam. The Kurds were fighting ISIS but were not getting the support from the Western states they deserved.  Several articles covered this experience, one about the need for weapons (‘Just send us weapons’), a radio interview, an article at The Forward about Jewish history and the evils of ISIS and a long-form article at Mida about the war between the Kurds and ISIS.

Returning from the frontlines opposite the Nineveh plain, in July I profiled the foreign fighters who had gone to join the YPG and fight ISIS in Syria.  More than a dozen had died, and the world didn’t even know some of their names.  “The heroes of our generation,” I termed them, a kind of modern day International Brigade, standing the line when the world had turned its back on the Middle East.

In August another issue raised its head.  There are many complex theories about the rise of ISIS.  Some claim it is part of a conspiracy (“the US  and Israel created ISIS”), others claim it works with Assad to “undermine” the Syrian rebellion.  Others seek to understand its “grievances” and its “Islamic theology”, or deny it is even Islamic, claiming it is just a bunch of men who “hijacked” Islamism. One theory claims that its rise is due to America’s role in dismantling Iraq and the West undermining Syria, if only Saddam was still alive it wouldn’t exist.  A more persistent theory is that it is part of the “former regime elements” of Ba’athist Iraq.

In an August article I examined the dialectic that posits “Saddam era officers” are behind ISIS.  “The ‘Saddam-era officers’ story is compelling because it provides a simple answer to and viable excuse for the failure of the Iraqi army; Saddam Hussein bogeyman are the ‘hidden hand’ behind the rise of IS. What could be more palatable to excuse the brutal crackdown of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias that America is now collaborating with in Iraq than to pretend everyone is on the same side against the evil ‘regime remnants.'”  The fact is that Saddam era officers are not responsible for the rise of ISIS, European volunteers are probably far more responsible, or just ordinary Sunnis.

Recently I found a new source of the “Saddam officers” story.  Jeff White, a former intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency claimed in June, 2014 that “Were hearing a lot about former Ba’athists coming out of the woodwork and working with [ISIS], and that could give them a lot more capability.”  More capability, sure, but they are not a hidden hand.

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Kurdish men pose with a foreign fighter from ISIS who was killed assaulting their lines in June, 2014 (Seth J. Frantzman)

In September I concluded that we are witnessing the “End of Syria” as the country is totally destroyed, it’s cities lie in ruins, some 10 million of its people are displaced, many millions in refugee camps and hundreds of thousands have now sought to re-settle in Europe (research which resulted in a short documentary). “The destruction wrought on Syria is unprecedented and in its scope it is fair to conclude, we have seen the end of Syria.”

In October my column focused on the story that 65 countries claimed to the “fighting” ISIS, but in fact were not really serious about defeating it.  I concluded “everyone is fighting Islamic state, and they’re all lying.”  Never had so many countries with such a high level of technology allied against a common enemy, an enemy that consists of an “army” of 30,000 men with only light armored vehicles and a thirst for killing.  ISIS used a tank in one video to murder a man, which lead to the question, how had the coalition missed that tank?

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A Humvee that Peshmerga captured from ISIS, which ISIS had captured from the Iraqi army in the summer of 2014, and which the US had provided Iraq. (Seth J. Frantzman)

After the Paris attacks, the veracity of this critique became clear.  Now suddenly there was bombing of Raqqa, the ISIS capital.  How about before? The fact is that ISIS in Raqqa was not the major problem, but the inability of EU countries to police homegrown terrorists who join ISIS, which I revealed in a column on November 12. ISIS was not sneaking into Europe with refugees, it was already in Europe. The attacks in Paris were part of a new strategy for the group, transforming into a traditional style terror group as it suffered reverses on the battlefield, an argument I was one of the first to publish.  The Peshmerga advance in Shingal proved what has happened to ISIS (see the cover story in the Jerusalem Post Magazine Friday, November 20).  It is digging in at Raqqa for a siege.  It’s time may be fading as a geographical force, but its legacy will be great.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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