Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the “Caliph Ibrahim” of the so-called Islamic State, had an excellent week last week.Keep reading.
The fall of Aleppo to a consortium of Iranian-built militias backed by Russian airpower and special forces constitutes not only a loud victory for Damascus but also a quieter one for ISIS, or the Islamic State, which mounted a surprise attack that retook the ancient city of Palmyra.
The contrast could not have been starker or a more clear vindication of one of ISIS’s longest-running propaganda tropes: the “infidels” and “apostates” will do nothing to save Sunni Arabs from the pillage, rape, and barrel bombs of the Russians, Alawites, and Shia. But Aleppo’s fall also buttresses one of the lesser-scrutinized claims made by ISIS’s former spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, shortly before his demise.
In May, months before he was taken out by a U.S. airstrike, Adnani issued what would turn out to be a final communiqué refuting a common Sunni criticism of ISIS, namely that the group’s takeover of Sunni towns and cities invariably brought only devastation. See Fallujah and Ramadi. For Adnani, however, such devastation was never the fault of ISIS, as rival jihadist enterprises had discovered at their peril.
“If we knew that any of the righteous predecessors surrendered a span of land to the infidels, using the claim of popular support or to save buildings from being destroyed or to prevent bloodshed, or any other alleged interest,” he said, “we would have done the same as the Qa’idah of the Fool of the so-called Ummah.” Only steadfastness, even in the face of overwhelming odds, would restore Sunni dignity.
Thanks to Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—not to say Barack Obama—Adnani now gets to play the posthumous prophet. Rather than die fighting for Aleppo, the Free Syrian Army (and its Western backers), plus rival Islamist or jihadist groups such the Syrian al Qaeda franchise Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, negotiated the terms of their surrender through a series of failed and humiliating “ceasefires” and evacuations, which are in fact forced population transfers. And Aleppo was still pulverized.
The loss will be compounded by the sectarian context. Aleppo fell to what Der Spiegel correspondent Christoph Reuter once aptly called the “first international Shia jihad in recent history,” led by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and relying largely on a patchwork of guerrilla fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iraq. This is precisely what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian founding father of ISIS, wanted. He once described the Shia as “the insurmountable obstacle, the prowling serpent, the crafty, evil scorpion, the enemy lying in wait, and biting poison… Whoever takes the time to look carefully at the situation will realize that Shiism is the greater danger threatening us and the real challenge we must confront.” And the only way to confront this enemy in Iraq was to render Sunnis hopeless that anyone else would, by attacking the Shia so that the Shia took revenge by attacking the outnumbered Sunnis.
In Syria, the Zarqawi thesis is even more relevant, as the country is a Sunni majority one and is now subject to occupation by a minority. And as bad as the physical collapse of the symbolic citadel of Syria’s revolution is, worse still is the chauvinist triumphalism attending it, which plays directly into the Zarqawi strategy.
Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, one of the Iraqi militias which the United Nations accused of murdering 85 civilians, including women and children, broadcast a song on an affiliated Iraqi TV channel. “Aleppo is Shia,” it ran. In his Friday sermon, delivered in Tehran, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani declared the “liberation” of the city from “infidels”—using more or less the same language of sectarian incitement that ISIS reserves for the Kashani’s coreligionists. In this case, the cleric was declaring all 150,000 Sunnis who’d been besieged for months in East Aleppo, and now driven from their homes, godless. Even he must be aware of the lasting repercussions of such imprecations.
Rhetorical provocation has also been met by the visual kind. Images circulating on social media to show Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s spymaster and head of the expeditionary Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, treading the rubble in Aleppo in an unmistakable show of who was really responsible for the siege and recapture. (Bashar al-Assad, the nominal sovereign of “all of Syria,” is nowhere to be seen on this hollowed-out and Iranian-occupied battlefield.) Any of these photographs could easily grace the forthcoming issue of Rumiyah, ISIS’s propaganda magazine...
The idea is that the Sunnis will be so heavily wiped out that they'll rise up and join arms with the most murderous thugs of Islamic State. That's why the fall of Aleppo's a gift to ISIS.