James Gelvin on ISIS and the Middle East

ISIS, the Islamic extremist fighters in Syria and Iraq who have become notorious for their brutality in beheading prisoners - including two American journalists - as well as for crucifying and stoning people to death, are like a mix of “Mad Max” and “The Sopranos” according to James Gelvin. “They are a bunch of gangsters, basically, like the Bloods or the Crips,” Gelvin said in a Global Cafe Breakfast discussion with LAWAC members on Tuesday. Their brutality is a deliberate strategy: “they want to show themselves as a badass group, the meanest guys on the block,” said Gelvin, a Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at UCLA. But ISIS have not yet faced a real army, and when they do Gelvin predicts they will rapidly fall apart: “These are not the most stable characters - they think of it as an incredible adventure with super-violent groups.” And he warns the US against overreacting to ISIS - “they are like Ebola - a danger to West Africa, but not an existential threat to the US... Let’s not be Chicken Littles - the sky is not falling down.”

The videos of the two Americans being beheaded caused a “gut reaction” amongst Americans, and now a majority of the public supports the US airstrikes against ISIS. But Gelvin says that it is Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who are genuinely threatened by ISIS, who should be providing the “boots on the ground” that will be needed to displace the extremists from the territory they now control.

ISIS came from the al Qaeda in Iraq movement - an extremist group led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi that co-existed uneasily with “al Qaeda Central”, led by Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri out of Pakistan. Unlike the main al Qaeda group, their Iraqi offshoot focused on attacking and killing so-called “takfiri” or Muslim apostates - people whom they judged not to be real Muslims, including all Shiites - this led to the brutal sectarian killings in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, and the failed attempt by bin Laden and Zawahiri to stop them killing fellow Muslims. Zarqawi was killed by the US in 2006, and the leadership of the group was eventually taken over by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi - “even his name is a fiction,” said Gelvin, “since it suggests he is from Baghdad. But in fact he was born in Samarra - that is like someone from New Jersey claiming to be from New York.”

ISIS have made a mistake by declaring a caliphate, because by claiming to control a fixed territory, “they have painted a huge bullseye on their back.” And to make things worse, they have ignored Mao’s guerrilla strategy of “swimming like a fish in the water - instead they have swum like a shark, so everyone under them hates them.”

Gelvin predicts that once the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga fighters are rearmed and reorganized, they will be able to push back ISIS in Iraq relatively quickly. With US airpower now in the equation, ISIS cannot concentrate their fighters on any given battlefield or they will be destroyed from the air. But the situation in Syria will be a lot more messy, since there is no obvious counterforce to ISIS on the ground. Quoting the former UN Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gelvin predicts the “Somalization of Syria - it will have a government, and a seat at the UN, but it won’t be in full control of its territory.” ISIS will become one of a number of gangs that will hold onto a chunk of Syrian territory, earning money from smuggling oil to Turkey.

Asked whether US bombing of ISIS was being coordinated with the Syrian government of Bashar al Assad, Gelvin said “You bet! We have been flying multiple missions into Syria and not a single missile has been shot at our planes,” despite the much-vaunted anti-aircraft system that Syria obtained from the Russians.

And when the question was posed about whether the US should have armed the non-extremist rebels in Syria when the war started in 2011-12, Gelvin said “that was not our strategy, because at that time we wanted Assad to crush the opposition forces. Syria had kept peace with Israel since 1973...Our strategy at the beginning was to stay out of it and watch what happened.” The problem with that strategy was that the longer we watched, the worse things got, until the administration was forced to act. But Gelvin says he thinks it highly unlikely that the US will put boots on the ground. In the light of the projected total costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that could reach $6 trillion, Gelvin made reference to former Defense Secretary Gates, who was in turn quoting General MacArthur, who said that “any Secretary of Defense advising the US to put boots on the ground should have his head examined.”