Our 2014 State of the Middle East Forum

Disclaimer: The statements below do not necessarily reflect the opinions, positions, and/or affiliations of the Niagara Foundation. As a facilitator and apolitical convener of academics, public officials, and community leaders, Niagara aims for the highest level of integrity and fairness.

By: Kathleen Ferraro, Writing and Reporting Intern

Edited by: Mignon Senuta, Director of Communications

On October 28, Niagara was pleased to host the annual State of the Middle East Forum, discussing the challenges and strategies of responding to ISIS.

You were unable to attend? Do not fear…we have included a succinct, yet detailed, summary for your reading pleasure!

Our first panel, moderated by Dr. Laith Saud of DePaul University, featured the distinguished Hon. Roey Gilad, the Consul General of Israel, and Hon. Maged Refaat, the Consul General of Egypt. The second panel included panelists Dr. Wendy Pearlman of Northwestern University and Dr. Scott Hibbard of DePaul University and was moderated by Professor David Faris of Roosevelt University. Our panelists spoke to the general state of affairs in the Middle East from diplomatic and academic perspectives, while also providing greater insight into the role ISIS plays in the region.

The first panel began with Hon. Maged Refaat stating his central tenet concerning ISIS, “It is the un-Islamic State . . . don’t trouble yourself with the name; the ideology is there.” The core reason for the rise of radical movements in the Middle East is independent of quippy acronyms (IS, ISIS, ISIL) or threatening group titles (al Qaeda, Hezbollah, etc.). Instead, it is about ideology: the idea that the West has put down Islamic countries for so long that it is now the time to respond with the destruction of borders and creation of a super-Islamic state, an ideology which unfortunately does not hesitate to incorporate violence. So how do we fight ISIS? We fight their ideology, he suggested.

An Egyptian diplomat, Refaat broke down this undertaking from an Egyptian-state perspective. Egypt sees their mission in combatting ISIS as three-fold: tackling movement of money, movement of people, and movement of ideology. Here, movement of money and people are made tangible by institutionalized forms of tracking: banks, known sources of funding for ISIS, visas and travel arrangements, keeping an eye on money and people on the move is traceable to a certain degree. Accordingly, Egypt can monitor these resources at their origins.

However, movement of ideology proves to be significantly more abstract, and herein lies a fundamental problem in combatting ISIS. Refaat contended that identifying, exposing, and eradicating this ideology is the responsibility of Muslims, stating, “the Muslim community can expose this ideology to Muslims, fix it, and undermine it. And we have all the intention in Egypt to do so.”

Hon. Roey Gilad expanded on the development of ISIS in the Middle East, asserting that ISIS is a consequence of the Arab Spring. With the decline of Arab states, we see a rise of non-state actors–in this case, ISIS and other terrorist groups. Gilad delineated historical undertones in radical ideology, wherein Islamic radicals’ ideologies are not concerned with the 21st century, but are instead more rooted in 11th century thought and its historical association with caliphs and creating a super-Islamic state.

So where does Israel factor into ISIS? Here, Israel faces a choice between two “miserable opportunities”: they can have unhappy Arab cities living within stable frameworks or states under tyrants like Assad (or, historically, Saddam Hussein) or they can abolish these tyrants to promote state-building and consequently allow chaos to ensue. Gilad went on to comment that “the Islamic State is a challenge for the Arab/Muslim states. Israel is not in the front because a) we are not members of the coalition because its a challenge to the Arab world, and b) politically, if we were part of the coalition, there wouldn’t be a coalition.” In other words, the choice between allowing radical tyrants to rule people with an iron fist and maintain relative stability, or getting rid of the tyrants and letting all hell break lose is not Israel’s question to answer.

But “the lion is not more than a mouse,” explains Gilad. ISIS undoubtedly casts a long and threatening shadow, employing the media to express their agenda of terror by broadcasting horrific images of beheadings, weapons, and turmoil to the rest of the world. However, this is just a shadow that, in reality, is cast by a small concentration of power.

With this overview in mind, what strategies can the U.S. develop in order to combat ISIS most effectively? Refaat advised the United States to look hard at where their interest lies, especially considering the fact that the United States has been acting as a war-like force in the Middle East. Overall, the U.S. must take a cautious position because Middle Easterners are largely disenchanted with American intentions. In sum, the United States can still play a role, but this role must be developed carefully and tactfully.

Throughout the second panel, Dr. Wendy Pearlman and Dr. Scott Hibbard spoke about the conflict with ISIS from a Syrian and Iraqi perspective, expanding upon Hon. Roey Gilad and Hon. Maged Refaat’s background regarding the current state of the Middle East.

Dr. Pearlman began, speaking directly about Syria and its experience with ISIS. She succinctly shared her thoughts on the history of ISIS and its place in Syria, saying, “In order to destroy ISIS, we first need to understand what it is . . . What it is is not a crazy militant cult, but primarily a political outcome of political circumstances, and those are circumstances that in many ways the U.S. watched evolve and take place and worsen over years. Secondly, in order to degrade ISIS, we first need to understand what are its sources of strength? Here again I would contend that its main sources of strength are not its ideological appeal, but its ability to feed and take advantage of a sense of despair and desperation in the region, one of the main sources of which is the ongoing bloodshed in Syria. Without a resolution to the conflict in Syria, I see no end to the phenomena of ISIS.”

Dr. Pearlman also illustrated Syrians’ dual struggle with ISIS and President Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive regime. For many years, Syrians have faced unthinkable atrocities at the hands of Assad, all the while looking to the West as a possible source of support for civilian protection. Unfortunately, in her view, the United States disregarded this potential intervention until ISIS emerged in a Syria fraught with subjugation.

“Why [a global campaign] against ISIS and not against Assad? He’s been the main source of the suffering and destruction in this country,” summarizes Dr. Pearlman, echoing the intense feeling of abandonment that many Syrian civilians have expressed. With this sentiment in mind, most Syrians find that the United States’ bombing campaign against ISIS is “too little, too late”: it neglects the Assad regime, the underlying problem in Syria. Dr. Pearlman posited that ISIS is a symptom, while Assad is the root.

Dr. Hibbard expanded upon Dr. Pearlman’s comments, this time focusing on the Iraqi perspective. “A lot of the language we use around ISIS is unhelpful . . . it’s more helpful to think about it as one Sunni militia fighting in a larger region-wide war, fighting amidst other Sunni militias and Sunni powers. And all these militias are backed by different outside powers, so sometimes you can’t look at the situation in Iraq and Syria without looking at the larger context,” Hibbard opened.

What is the larger context? Hibbard explained that ISIS didn’t occur in a vacuum. Instead, he argued that it rose due to the collapse of the Iraqi state and the subsequent U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003. When the U.S. military intervened, the state apparatus and political leadership dissolved. Doctrines associated with the old regime had no place in the new order, thus impeding state development and prompting insurgency and militia movements. Furthermore, when American troops left Iraq, ISIS arrived, seemingly a group of liberators. After all, the United States had left Iraq in a destructive state and their presence was replaced by ISIS – a group that at least had ties to the region.

Consequently, ISIS garnered control of a whole chunk of Western Iraq, essentially creating an anarchical safe-haven for the group. For ISIS, this region serves as a base of operations and pathway to expanding other places. Hibbard outlined how this territory and the potential power it holds posed a problem that the Obama administration chose not to ignore, thus carrying out air strikes to degrade ISIS resources on the ground.

Dr. Hibbard outlined other tactics used to eradicate ISIS in Iraq, emphasizing the importance of cutting off their funding, a strategy that could effectively cut the flow of weapons and financial resources to the group. He also explored the idea of cutting off humanitarian aid, concluding that doing so would only weaken domestic armies that are already far too weak to counter ISIS on their own.

These two perspectives added yet another dimension to the ISIS conflict and our understanding of the state of the Middle East. We would like to thank our audience, moderators, and panelists, as well as our implementing partner, Roosevelt University. We look forward to the 2015 State of the Middle East Forum – stay tuned for next year’s topic!


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