“Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Well, that’s at least how the saying goes and particularly how the reality unfolded for the Al Anbar Governorate when roughly the entire province abruptly morphed into an ISIL base. While there are no precise numbers, Al Anbar holds a population roughly the size of Ottawa, Winnipeg and Halifax combined. Its overwhelmingly Sunni population has been for years marginalized, neglected and targeted by the Iraqi Shi’a led government. ISIL for Al Anbar represents not an ideal ideology, but a heavy weight player in the region – one that fills a void in a landscape that offers no other options.
In my earlier article, I discussed the notion that in order to curtail ISIL, countries leading the coalition against ISIL such as Jordan should arm the jilted Sunni population in the Al Anbar Governorate. This is because they represent a neglected group, desperate for protection and sustainability. With virtually no state support, ISIL’s advance into their province proved to force an ill-fated hand. Many of the tribes took the decisive decision to join ISIL as a survival tactic as opposed to true allegiance to the cause.
However, due to the current state of affairs arming the tribes in Al Anbar is being done too late. Providing arms now, after an “allegiance” has been pledged to ISIL, is counterproductive and dangerous. Not only can the equipment flow right into the hands of ISIL, but it can be used against those who have supplied it.
Frankly, the situation is something to be expected as Al Anbar was abandoned. Why we take notice now is because it is impeding on our own interests, ISIL is gaining momentum and a larger base. Ultimately however, the situation offers stark evidence that bombing an ideology does not work. Bombs cannot stop the philosophy, thought, belief and creed ISIL has created. The ideology of ISIL has become too widely cast across countries.
Yes, bombs can kill ISIL fighters and supporters, but they can do nothing to eliminate the ideology that is swelling across the region.
The Governorate, with its population of roughly 1.9 million people has the potential to change the entire political landscape in the Middle East. Al Anbar and its newly pledged “allegiance” has the potential to attract other marginalized Sunni communities in Iraq and could rapidly spread over Syria as the group grows. ISIL now represents a defence line for Sunni Muslims in Iraq and creates a forum where angry Sunnis can seek revenge against the Shi’a Iraqi government that continues to carry out a bitter feud. Not only is ISIL expanding rapidly, they also may gain economic benefits given Al Anbar reigns over a large share of oil and gas reserves. This obviously represents an enormous threat to the surrounding region, but it also threatens global stability.
What should Canada’s role be?
Should Canada be interested in staying in the region to fight ISIL for the next half century, the country should continue its current actions. As mentioned, ISIL is unlike the Taliban. It is a transnational ideology that literally has no boundaries and to many people represents a group that is unseating despots. Any direct mission against ISIL is fraught with danger and high expense, not to mention the outcome falling within ultimate control of the region. The fight against ISIL is a Middle Eastern fight rather than a Western one. The formation of ISIL was facilitated by a troubled history and intricacies the West may never even come to know. ISIL needs to be defeated from the region it inhibits, from its roots, and by those who understand their troubles. This is not to suggest that Canada should abandon the fight against ISIL. Canada would be well suited to provide financial, technical and social support to allies in the region who are keeping ISIL away from their doorsteps.
Ultimately, there should be no Canadian boots on the ground and no Canadian jets in the sky.
Canada, with only a shoestring budget, can render expertise aimed at reforming the education systems that currently disperse ISIL ideology within the region. Western nations and their intelligence agencies are ignorant to the curriculum in the Arab states. With the turn of a page of any schoolbook in the Arab states, one would be able to extract pieces of text that extol ISIL deeds. An urgent need is present to implement change in the education systems that make children susceptible to radicalization.
However, delving into this falls far beyond the scope of this article. A rigorous article will be devoted to explain the reality behind ISIL’s ideology and how this deviant creed has existed for decades inadvertently in the school curriculum. The article also will explain why Arab regimes have produced such a generation and culture with inherent tendencies towards violence.
“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” It is difficult to blame the individuals in Al Anbar Governorate for joining ISIL. Finding themselves in a situation of survival or death, they chose what most individuals in this world arguably would – to live. Perhaps the original conflict, between Sunni and Shi’a in Iraq, could have been resolved by dividing Iraq into two provinces representing each side. This may have been possible had ISIL not entered the picture.
Now the impeding reality currently rests on the possibility of ISIL defeating the Iraqi government. This may place Iraq under the ISIL flag; representing a country not only with a population base but also with defined borders.
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Sohaib Gabsis is an M.A. candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and currently sits on the G78 Board of Directors. He holds a B.A. in Human Right and a B.A. Honours in French and English literature. Previously, Sohaib worked with the UN – International Labour Organization on the Syrian refugees crisis in Amman, and later worked on the ILO-IPEC programme.
Featured Photo by Sohaib Gabsis