By Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
In the Cradle of Civilization, which most remember as the Fertile Crescent, the pantheon of the gods was filled with protectors of the living and the dead. One was the goddess ISIS, who emerged in the Nile Delta and was later found in Greco-Roman civilization. ISIS had many roles; for some the protector of the dead, for others the protector of the downtrodden and children. Today, these gods are long forgotten, sometimes resurrected in college classes on religion or the origins of civilization. However, ISIS is all over the news and it has nothing to do with her or images of her that can still be seen on Egyptian tomb paintings along the fabled Nile River.
ISIS is associated with terror in modern-day Syria and Iraq. It is a violent and extreme Fundamentalist Sunni Muslim military group, an off-shoot of al-Qaeda that not only wants to erase the borders of Syria and Iraq but also create a transnational caliphate (Islamic state) based on the most strident interpretation of Sunni Islam. In its full name and not the abbreviation, we can understand its intentions and grasp its ultimate goal: I (Islamic) S (State) of I (Iraq) and S (al-Sham-Syria). Its black-clad cadres carry black flags and conjure up images of the SS on the move. In a well-planned and well-coordinated blitzkrieg assault, ISIS seized much of central and eastern Syria and is now moving through Iraq, its aim to isolate Baghdad and seize the south. It now controls the border crossings with Jordan and Saudi Arabia and many fear these nations are its next targets in keeping with its dream of a Sunni caliphate. It has seized banks, oil facilities, and weapons left behind by the USA for use by the now nearly defunct Iraqi army, including six Blackhawk helicopters and missiles. Overnight, ISIS has replaced Iran as the most feared threat in a region not known for stability.
If ISIS takes Baghdad and manages to consolidate its control over Iraq, the Middle East, as the world has known it for decades, may become a thing of the past. ISIS will have realized bin Laden’s ultimate goal: a major nation of his own to export terrorism and stand at the heart of a revived Sunni caliphate.
However frightening and dismal the situation appears, ISIS may have overreached itself; taking territory is one thing, holding on to it quite another. The Kurds are strong enough to repel an invasion and the Shi’a militias are battle-hardened after years of fighting the Americans. If the militias, working with the rump Iraqi army, arrest the ISIS assault and push them back, Obama may arm the Shi’a militias, our old foe. As a force on the move, ISIS is far from its home base in northern Syria and must loot what it needs to continue.
But ISIS is a very tough opponent; one has to be struck by the speed of its Blitzkrieg assault, picking up countless recruits and armaments along the way. We should be prepared for years of continued chaos filled with extreme brutality in Iraq. The mass murder of 1,700 Iraqi soldiers by the ISIS is a harbinger of what both sides will do to each other.
The United States has no intention of getting involved in a Third Iraqi War. However, if ISIS moves into Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East will topple and the door will be opened to an assault on Israel, Lebanon, and perhaps Egypt. If our traditional friends and allies are placed in harm’s way, Washington will have to act using the full resources of the United States. A Sunni Muslim caliphate led by terrorist butchers is as unthinkable as the Germanization of Europe was in 1914 and 1939.