John E. Andrus Professor of History Bruce Masters presented the historical events leading up to the development of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in a History Matters lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 28. The lecture, entitled “Understanding ISIS,” focused on the ways in which key events in the Middle East over the last three decades contributed to the rise of the extremist group in Iraq. Masters focused on three events in particular: the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq, and the 2012 outbreak of Civil War in Syria.
ISIS is an English acronym for the group currently aiming to establish a Sunni Islamic state, or caliphate, in the region extending across Iraq and Syria. In Arabic, the group is referred to by the acronym Da’ash. Masters used the term Da’ash when he referred to them rather than ISIS or ISIL, another acronym used almost exclusively by the United States and European governments.
Masters also emphasized the United States’ role in Middle Eastern political, economic, and military affairs.
“The one thing that most people can agree on is that the United States created ISIS,” Masters said at the start of his lecture.
According to Masters, the events and effects of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan marked, in many ways, the beginning of the setting of the stage for Da’ash’s development. One of its major lasting effects is the concept of jihadi tourism. Young, wealthy men from Persian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, would travel to Afghanistan, fight for a few months against the Soviets, and then return to their home countries and live out the rest of their lives. One major exception to this definition is Osama bin Laden, originally from Saudi Arabia.
Parallel situations of jihadi tourism were seen in Bosnia in the 1990s and are now evident in the recruitment of Da’ash members throughout the region.
According to Masters, the United States’ involvement in Iraq beginning in 2003 created a political vacuum on which Da’ash capitalized. According to experts, the U.S. presence in Iraq could have been effective with half a million soldiers, yet fewer were deployed.
Masters spoke to the consequences of the small deployment of U.S. soldiers.
“What I will say is that we botched it really badly,” Masters said. “We did not send enough troops into the country. The U.S. took the conscious decision not to send enough troops to Iraq. The effect of that was that Iraq began a civil war.”
Sectarian conflict occurred between the Shia majority and Sunni minority following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime and subsequent election of a Shia-dominated government.
“We, in [the Sunni’s] view, turned Iraq over to the Shia,” Masters said. “We made Iraq a Shia country.”
In doing so, Shia leaders were brought back from exile in Iran, which served to benefit Iran’s position in the region. Sunni opposition took up arms, training guerilla fighters, or mujahideen, to resist U.S. intervention and the Shia government that they facilitated.
With the 2013 withdrawal of troops from Iraq, many have blamed President Barack Obama for the further sectarian conflict that has developed. Masters, however, offers a different explanation of the situation.
“[Obama’s] been blamed for that, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame him entirely,” Masters said. “On one hand, he wanted to get out of Iraq, but on the other hand, he didn’t have a choice because the elected president [of Iraq] would not sign a treaty to keep the Americans in Iraq. I don’t know what he could have done, except for fighting a war with the al-Maliki government, which we could not have done.”
The most recent major contributing factor, the Syrian Civil War, began in 2012 and still persists today. Many Sunni militant groups that had been based in Iraq capitalized on the opportunity to move to and operate out of Syria, where funds were raised for individual Jihadi groups. In time, many decided to join the one group that seemed to be the most influential: Da’ash.
In order to attract followers, Da’ash claims to represent the only true Islamic state and to practice the purest form of Islam. The group hopes to capitalize on the anger and persecution felt by Sunni Iraqis during the years of Shia rule.
Masters emphasized that the claiming of the caliphate lends Da’ash significant credibility for Sunnis.
“This is why, in some ways [Da’ash] is a very tough nut to crack,” Masters said. “They have declared themselves to be the Islamic state, which means the exclusion of all others. They are the only authentic Islamic state.”
Masters also discussed a conspiracy theory that has developed regarding Da’ash’s success so far in Syria: that the Syrian government supported the rise of Da’ash.
“If you think about it, the Syrian government never moved against them until the last three months,” Masters said.
Additionally, the removal of the international media from Syria caused by the threat of capture has limited the release of status reports, which is something the Syrian government may have wanted, according to Masters.
To conclude, Masters gave a brief overview of the geopolitics of the current situation, namely how Iran will serve to benefit from keeping Iraq under Shia control and Turkey’s support for an Islamic (Sunni) democracy in countries undergoing internal conflict, such as Syria and Egypt.
Christina Sickinger ’18, who attended the talk, spoke about how she appreciated the depth Masters went into about ISIS.
“It definitely informed me,” Sickinger said. “Beforehand, I was really interested in ISIS, but really didn’t know a lot about it, so I was really glad I went.”
Another attendee of the event, Talia Kaplan ’18, said the talk helped her understand how past events have led to the current conflict with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
“The history that Professor Masters provided helped me contextualize the current issue,” Kaplan said.
Masters finished the talk by stating that ISIS must not continue unabated.
“My ending to you is that something must be done,” Masters said.