What is the biggest myth about ISIS

dis: orient

Aleppo shows once again how brutally the Syrian regime and its allies are waging war against their own people. In the West, Assad is still widely regarded as worthy of support - in the alleged fight against the “Islamic State”. Populism has long been dominating the debate, the consequences are catastrophic - also realpolitically.

There were the attacks in Brussels, Paris, Istanbul, Baghdad, Nice: They killed hundreds of people. Whether the so-called "Islamic State" (Daesh/ ISIS) is committed to these attacks and whether he is identified as the originator is of secondary importance: As Achim Rohde writes, the terrorist militia has become the "regular enemy of humanity". [1]

And there is Aleppo. Thousands have died here in recent years and the number is increasing every day. Furthermore, 100,000 to 200,000 people are trapped in the eastern part of what was once the largest Syrian city, without any means of escape, without protection and with increasingly poor supplies. The Syrian and Russian air forces have meanwhile also destroyed the last hospital in the eastern part of the city, food supplies have become scarce due to the siege, and air strikes are increasing.

Unless something dramatically changes soon, the world will witness an unimaginable mass extinction in the next few weeks. Nevertheless, the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is seen in large parts of the western world as the “lesser evil”, as the “nicer devil” that one has to support first because ISIS is even more threatening. In view of what is not just happening in Aleppo, but in view of all the terrible events of more than five years of conflict, the question remains: why?

When assessing the danger that Western societies suspect from ISIS and from their predecessor al-Qaida, several factors come together: the basic fear of violence that is difficult to calculate and that is becoming part of everyday life and not only approving of arbitrary, civilian victims Buying, but even consciously aiming at it; plus Islamophobia and racism. This mixture contributes to the fact that the public debate about the fight against terrorism often contains pronounced populist elements. As a result, political decisions take a back seat, which might be pragmatic and good to counter the danger, but which are less easy to market.

In this perception of permanent danger, it falls on particularly fertile ground when right-wing forces mobilize outright against “the other” - which, in their opinion, is not and cannot be part of one's own society. The stranger and more violent the "other" is portrayed, the easier it is to distance oneself and to construct one's own moral superiority by demonizing the "other".

The claim of moral superiority

That works at Daesh especially good because, unlike most other violent actors on the world stage, this group does not care to cover up their atrocities. On the contrary: the organization lives from the fear and horror it spreads, at least as much as from its actual clout. The terrorist militia appears all the more intimidating towards the local population, the more it is known for its “barbaric” behavior. Daesh therefore does not try to hide her atrocities, on the contrary: she stages them. Independent reporting is undesirable - what many Syrian, Iraqi and foreign journalists have already paid with their lives.

The terrorist organization only wants to spread its own images and its own message. Journalists should at best pass them on, but under no circumstances do their own research. Only those who are willing not to question the organization and their own role in its propaganda apparatus are welcome. With technically perfectly staged execution videos and photos of the same kind, it penetrates Daesh on making one's own self-image a generally recognized one - and is successful. The shaky images of independent reporters, which activists like those of “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” endanger their lives, find their way into the Western media far less often.

Daeshs Staging hits a nerve because it corresponds to what one expects in the West: as anti-Western as possible, as brutal as possible and as exotic as possible. Flecktarn meets Pirates of the Caribbean, including the black and white flag. That makes the fight against Daesh - rhetorically - to a much larger undertaking: A more or less concrete threat from a terrorist militia turns into an attack on civilization par excellence by the “barbarians”, as Asef Bayat, sociologist at the University of Illinois, explained in his remarks on “Neo- Orientalism "explains:

“In the current neo-orientalist conception, the Muslim Orientals are not only trapped in archaic traditions, a halted history and irrational behavior; they are far from being just exotic or benign, but a threat to cultural values, civilizational integrity and the physical integrity of the West. "

In that the West, understood here as Europe and the USA, allows ISIS to present itself and disseminates its images and statements without checking them, it promotes the “ISIS myth” and thus contributes to jihad tourism.

Anyone who takes up the ISIS propaganda without reflection and allows or protects the resentment against Muslims as a whole will stumble into the planning scheme of the Daesh-Strategists. They want nothing more fervently for Europe than conditions such as Donald Trump and his xenophobic party friends, such as Newt Gingrich, are already demanding for the USA today: entry bans and opinion controls for all Muslims who are under the general suspicion of sympathy for terrorism. That would encourage mutual distrust in societies so much that it could tear the inner peace in Central Europe apart.

It may sound strange to adopt the Berlin political scientist Herfried Münkler's demand for “grumpy indifference” to terrorist attacks - but ultimately not all attacks can be prevented, especially not those of crazy individual perpetrators. We will most likely be able to stop the spiral of terror, fear, resentment, alienation and further terror by not placing all Muslims under general suspicion.

myth Daesh, Myth dictators

How Daesh is shown, however, has even more far-reaching, foreign policy consequences. Parallel to the view of ISIS as the ultimate evil, the political scientist Maged Mandour sees at the same time “continued attempts to absolve Arab dictators who participate in the anti-ISIS coalition of all guilt by portraying them as diametrically opposed to ISIS and them so gives the appearance of behaving in a modern and civilized manner. "

Saudi Arabia may come to mind as the most striking example. Although Saudi Arabia and ISIS hardly differ in their jurisprudence and practice, and although Riyadh is currently waging a neglected war in Yemen that disregards any international conventions, the country is considered a partner. But the Egyptian Sisi regime and Syria's Bashar al-Assad also benefit from the wave of “washing clean”, fed by European fear of terrorism.

Although the Syrian regime stages its murders less professionally than ISIS, Assad's fighters also pose with the severed heads of their enemies; Regime journalists take selfies with the dead, and the more than 55,000 photos of people tortured to death in custody, which the military photographer "Caesar" smuggled out of Syria, show that the regime can easily outstrip ISIS in terms of barbarism. Stephen O’Brien, UN Emergency Aid Commissioner, described the sieges of Syrian cities, which have already starved hundreds of people, as "medieval". The Syrian regime was involved in 99 percent of the sieges with a total of almost one million victims, and 86 percent were besieging it alone, reported The Syria Campaign in June 2016. Since then, an additional 200,000 people have been trapped in Aleppo.

Temporary stability

The understandable interest in stability combined with the search for quick solutions leads to a kind of nostalgia in the West, which longs for the authoritarian dictators of the Middle East. Anyone who raves about it deliberately ignores the fact that it is in the nature of authoritarian regimes that the respective elite purposefully eliminate alternatives to their own rule - by suppressing and persecuting the opposition, but also by not allowing anyone in their own ranks to become too powerful. Dictatorships are therefore a very temporary guarantee of stability, while in the long term they prevent it. The Moroccan-French professor Abubakr Jamai recently summed up the kind of stability a dictatorship brings about at an event in Berlin: "Tunisia was stable until the minute Mohammad Bouazizi struck his match". [2]

The discussion about Syria is also an example of the ineradicable myth of stable autocracies. When peaceful demonstrations were still taking place in large parts of the country, the regime made the announcement: “Assad forever or we will burn the country down,” a motto to which the regime and its allies have remained true. With the help of the air force, entire areas were depopulated and reduced to rubble. When opposition members - mostly from outside - are asked: “Was it worth it?”, This amounts to confusing the victim and the perpetrator.

In his article "In Syria, the enemy of America's enemy is still a lousy friend", Idrees Ahmad, lecturer at the University of Stirling and meticulous observer of the Syrian conflict, analyzes the connection between the upheaval in the Arab world, violence and the Western world Role:

"The return to 'stability' may sound attractive in the light of a decade of chaos in the region caused by neoconservatism, but its proponents forget that ISIS was ultimately a result of the US's support for despotic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. [...] When ISIS is treated in this way as a causeless symptom that needs an antidote quickly, cynical alliances to destroy it may seem interesting. But ISIS actually emerged out of a failed policy and the original sin of having let the revolution down should actually be reversed. "

Partner in the fight against terrorism?

However, stability in the region is only an indirect interest. Its purpose is to prevent people from fleeing the region to Europe, even if it is by helping authoritarian regimes to prevent people from fleeing using violence. Equally important for the discussion in Europe and the USA is the concern that unstable states in the region will attract extremists from Europe who, through their stay, could become radicalized and then carry out attacks in Western countries. Anyone who speaks out in favor of cooperation with Assad, according to Idrees Ahmad, "paints the wrong picture of a choice between either Assad or ISIS - a comparison that benefits the regime."

This is because the authoritarian dictatorships of the Middle East are not only automatically viewed as the antithesis of Islamism, but are also assumed irresponsibly that they pose no threat to the West. As Gregor Gysi put it on Deutschlandfunk after the attack in Nice: “I understand the opposition to Assad. But Assad does not drop bombs in France, nor does he drive a truck into people. So now we have to focus on eliminating Islamic State and not eliminating Assad at the same time. "

In view of the war of annihilation that Bashar al-Assad wages against his own population with barrel, cluster, incendiary bombs and chemical weapons; Given that the Syrian regime, and not ISIS, is responsible for over 90 percent of civilians killed in Syria, this weighing is cynical and discriminatory.

But even beyond that, this quote shows how short the political memory can be: In 1982 a car bomb by the Syrian regime killed one person in the heart of Paris and injured over 40 others - the background: a dispute between the rival regimes of Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Husseins (Tanner 1982). When in 1983 terrorists carried out the largest bomb attack in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany on the French consulate in Berlin, the explosives came from the Syrian embassy in East Berlin. The three dead and over 200 injured in the attack on the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin in 1986 were attributable to Muammar al-Gaddhafi.

The list of terrorist attacks on Western targets supported by authoritarian, non-Islamist dictators in the Middle East is long. Even if Europe has not had such experiences on its own soil recently: Syria's relationship with terrorist groups in particular has always been a critical point in its relations with the West. The regime hosted the full range of Palestinian armed groups. It supported the Kurdish PKK until 1998, when Turkey threatened direct military intervention. It maintains very close ties with Hezbollah, which is classified as a "terrorist organization" by Europe and the USA. When it comes to rehabilitating the Assad regime, the West is apparently forgetting that the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon continues to investigate Syria's role in the murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005 - and that In the years following this attack, dozens of Lebanese critics of the Syrian regime and witnesses of the tribunal fell victim to targeted bomb attacks in Beirut or died in unknown circumstances.

The Syrian regime has always supported armed groups without much fuss - including Islamist groups, as Bashar al-Assad's well-documented recruitment of jihadists for Iraq from 2003 to 2006 shows. The main thing is that it serves its own interests. This is exactly the role ISIS now fulfills: only a terrorist militia that spreads horror so prominently can make Assad appear the lesser evil in the public eye. It so happens that the Assad regime and its allies, even now that ISIS has taken control of significant parts of Syrian territory, are not fighting ISIS as their main enemy. On the contrary: the majority of Syrian and Russian air strikes continue to target rebels and the civilian population, not ISIS.

Assad uses the existence of ISIS as a bargain - as long as the West is not ready to bless its political survival, fighting ISIS is not a priority for him. If the West gave in, it would not be the end of by a long way Daesh in Syria. Instead, the terrorist militia would serve the regime as a means of pressure that could be activated at will whenever its rule was called into question.

Nonetheless, in 2015 White House adviser Phil Gordon suggested that Assad's resignation should stand back in light of uncertainty as to who should rule Syria. In Germany, too, it is not uncommon for Western states to take the best possible course of action against ISIS. As the political scientist Witold Mucha writes: "The diplomatic imperative is closely linked to the question of the extent to which ethnic-moral principles in dealing with the Assad regime (must) be sacrificed for realpolitical considerations in dealing with IS." [3]

In view of the length of the facts, however, the question arises: Why cooperate with Assad when realpolitical reasons clearly speak against it? The Syrian regime has never had more military support than right now from Russia and Iran; personally, financially, even through daily massive bombings by the Russian Air Force. But although this power is mainly used against the rebels, exhausted after five years of conflict (who in turn are also fighting against ISIS), the regime is making slow progress with high losses. Because the army itself is so weakened, it depends on the support of tens of thousands of foreign fighters.

An alliance against Daesh with a dictator who accounts for the majority of the hundreds of thousands dead and the eleven million displaced persons, would be unsustainable for many local actors who suffer equally from both groups. The Syrian intellectual Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, whose family was persecuted by ISIS in Raqqa and whose wife was allegedly kidnapped by Islamist extremists in 2013 and from whom there has been no trace since then, says in an interview: “How can anyone expect me Daesh fight while he works behind my back with a clientelist regime that has 300,000 of my compatriots on its conscience? "

In the discussion about whether Assad is acceptable as a partner of the West in the fight against terrorism, practical considerations are also missing. A partnership with Assad would mean not only accepting his regime and its widespread human rights violations, but also actively supporting it (and thus also Hezbollah, which the EU itself lists as terrorist). In August 2016, Syria expert Tobias Schneider submitted meticulous research into how the security forces of the Syrian regime were undermined by mafia-like militia structures and thus completely evaded control in central areas - a phenomenon that the Syrian state has tolerated and implemented since 2011 has promoted the abandonment of its monopoly on the use of force. Even for negotiations, this raises the question of the extent to which the results can be enforced. Not only is there a lack of coherence and a common vision on the part of the opposition, but in a similar way the regime structures have also been largely undetected in recent years.

The Russian Colonel Mikhail Khodarenok formulates his doubts about the suitability of the regime's armed forces even more explicitly. The army lacks equipment and troops, but worse: fighting spirit and discipline. He therefore advises the Russian government to abandon support for the regime as soon as possible:

On the one hand, it seems simple to demobilize the Syrian army (in other words: to disband it completely) and to recruit it again. In other words, start building a new Syrian army. On the other hand, however, the main problem is that current Syria is short of new men. Any newly created army will inevitably inherit all of the weaknesses of the old Syrian Arab Army. There is also no answer to the question: who will pay for it? "

Former American special mediator in the Middle East Dennis Ross and Syria expert Andrew Tabler have formulated the prospects of such a fight even more soberly:

“The Assad regime lacks the personnel to hold the Sunni areas and so it will fall back on Hezbollah and other Shiite militias. This in turn pushes the Nusra Front and other Sunni rebels into the arms of Turkey and thus closer to the West - including the threat of militant violence. The US should not help to strengthen the Syrian regime. "


For a successful fight against terrorism, three things are important: First, the statements and self-portrayal of ISIS should be questioned and their actual actions should be compared with them. The clearer ISIS ’approach, the more targeted a strategy against the organization can be.

Second, a more sober, less populist approach to this threat would help the fight against ISIS. As Witold Mucha writes, “the demonization makes an adequate analysis and thus political recommendations for action more difficult”. The influx of European fighters has all but stalled since Turkey closed its border with Syria. Especially when it comes to Europe's threat from ISIS, ideological proximity or networking with ISIS may be more important than actually being physically there. If ISIS ‘attractiveness for European youth arises from the fact that the terrorist militia seems to be the epitome of horror in Western societies, a media and political overestimation of ISIS’ potential risk is counterproductive.

Third, terrorism must be understood not just as a security issue, but at least as much as a political issue. It is important to question who you are fighting against Daesh can successfully ally. Numerical superiority and a supposedly coherent institution like Assad's army are militarily questionable and politically problematic as partners because they may not have any interest in fighting ISIS, but only use it as a political trump card.

In Syria, the fight against ISIS cannot be won against, but only with the predominantly Sunni population. The first groups in Syria to successfully defend themselves against ISIS were Sunni rebels in northern Syria in early 2014. This was hardly recognized and earned them significantly less support than the Kurds in the following year. At the same time, they were still under fire from the Syrian regime. No matter how nicely you talk about the dwindling military clout of the Syrian regime and the militias allied with it: in the fight against ISIS they are the worst possible partner.

Especially when the political survival of a political force - in this case the Syrian regime - depends on the fact that it can point to a terrorist threat that is also dangerous to the West, it can be assumed that this force has no interest in eliminating the threat.

Political decision-makers in Europe and the USA would therefore be well advised to develop a strategy that not only counteracts the supposed main threat, ISIS, but also frees the Syrian civilian population from the double stranglehold of the regime and ISIS - for example, and most acutely, the people in Aleppo.


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[1] Achim Rohde 2016: War against the "Islamic State" in Iraq and Syria. Destruction of a regional order, in: Journal for Peace and Conflict Research 5: 1, 79-84, p. 79.

[2] Abubakr Jamai, Dean of the International Business School and International Relations, IAU, Aix en-Provence / Rabat at a panel event of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, May 26, 2016.

[3] -Witold Mucha 2016: The “Islamic State” is not al-Qaida: Why the answers from the West fail, in: Journal for Peace and Conflict Research 5: 1, 104-116, p. 109.