How ISIS and Syria drove a stake through the Arab Spring

The reform dreams of young Arabs in places like Tahrir Square couldn't be more different than what is playing out now in Syria and Iraq, Nahlah Ayed writes. The rise of ISIS has set the reformist cause back decades in a region that is crying out for it.

The rise of ISIS is a setback for reform in a region that is crying out for it

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter holds a a rocket-propelled grenade launcher as he takes up position in an area overlooking Baretle village (near Mosul in north-central Iraq), which is controlled by ISIS. (Reuters)

It's been a thousand years since the Arab Spring.

Whole generations separate the young men and women who peacefully clamoured for change in their countries, and the young men (mostly) and women who claim to have founded an entirely new one in the so-called Islamic State.

Continents stand between the countries the former had hoped for, and what the latter promises to deliver.

Watching, bewildered, is the rest of the Arab world.

There should have been no surprise that the upheaval that spread across the region three years ago would at first yield an Islamist political experiment.

Islamists were the unofficial opposition in several countries. The demise of the autocrats would be their dawn.

But few would have imagined the radical experiment that is ISIS. Nor what a setback its sudden infamy and its leaders' atavistic desires for the Arab world would mean for the region.

Long before the rest of the world heard of them, the Arabic nickname for ISIS — Da'esh — came to symbolize aberration.

Even in the context of Syria's murderous civil war, the widely shared videos of ISIS beheadings and crucifixions (of "apostates" and of Syrian regime loyalists among others) shocked the region.

The images of ISIS fighters burning mountains of cigarettes alone would have sent nervous shivers throughout the Arab world.

And as livid and concerned as so many in the region were about the wholesale slaughter of tens of thousands of Syrians, they were especially alarmed as its fighters threatened to expand. Particularly, when they bulldozed their way across the Syrian-Iraq border.

Syrian Kurds escaping ISIS fighters wait behind border fences to cross into Turkey near the southeastern town of Suruc late last month. The unrest has created a huge refugee problem that will also likely take a long time to sort out. (Reuters)

Meanwhile, those young Arabs who had agitated for change across the region were already demoralized by the gradual but certain end of their uprisings, by the fierce comeback of the old regimes or their facsimiles.

But the ascendance of ISIS is undisputed proof of the failure of their project, at least for the foreseeable future.

The Arab version of the Taliban

That's because ISIS sets the reformist cause back by decades. The war against it ensures not an inch of forward movement.

The reform minded must again stand aside as another "existential" battle between their respective states and Islamists once again trumps the desire for change.

This is a battle that is not only led by the U.S., but widely supported by governments from Israel to Damascus to Riyadh.

In fact rarely in the recent history of the fractious Middle East have so many nations lined up behind a single cause.

Many reformists might well agree with this fight, too, now that ISIS has morphed into the threat it is today. But they stand aside knowing there was a way to prevent all this.

For years, in a variety of studies, Arab states were reminded time and again of how far behind they had fallen. How dissatisfied their youth had become. How desperately their nations needed political and economic reform.

How even extremist Islamists derived more legitimacy with every injustice dealt by the state.

But instead of change, they delivered harsher crackdowns. Instead of providing hope they sowed anger and distrust.

Unsanctioned opposition groups, Islamist or otherwise, were consistently marginalized and discredited, their members often imprisoned and tortured into silence.

Economic development — the very idea of creating jobs for millions of idle youth — was made secondary to providing "stability."

The resulting uprisings proved just how obstinate those regimes could be. The chaos that resulted when those regimes fought back also made it possible for radicals to coalesce and grow.

So resistant to reform, the Syrian leadership chose civil war, gambling that even from the ashes of the nation it would emerge victorious.

Instead, from those ashes has emerged a new threat — the Arab version of the Taliban.

Here comes the U.S.

Sure, ISIS had its roots in the chaos of the post-U.S. invasion of Iraq. But it could not have flourished again without the chaos of Syria.

Like the authoritarian regimes that long provided the conditions for ISIS to emerge, the state it claims to run is also authoritarian: disinterested in freedom of opinion, or freedom of association. Never mind freedom of religion.

All can be — and are — punished with death.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (right), shown here meeting Ali Shamkhani, Iran's Supreme National Security Council Director, earlier this week in Damascus. Assad is no doubt happy that the U.S. is waging air strikes on his enemies. (SANA / REUTERS)

That extremism is the stated rationale for the U.S.-led effort to excise them, an effort President Barack Obama has said will take years. Arab reformists watch in despair.

The young men and women of the Arab uprisings and those of ISIS couldn't be more different. And yet somehow their fates have become conflated.

The advancement that reformers seek cannot proceed while ISIS thrives.

Those who want change watch as the old arguments against it prevail yet again.

In Syria's case, ISIS's surge has bolstered Bashar al-Assad's claim that Damascus has been fighting foreign Islamists extremists all along, not Syrians on a quest for freedom.

Damascus is quite pleased it has its own Sunni Muslim enemies in the region and that the U.S. is now doing the fighting for it.

So once again, change is delayed. Postponed for the greater good.

And scholars wonder why the Arab region is so stunted. Why there is so much discontent. Why thousands keep risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats.

And why reformists never seem to be able to win.

Once again in the Mideast, war is on the agenda. Reform is not. Much of the world doesn't seem to have a problem with that.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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