I’ve been receiving a lot of inquiries from friends after the bombing that took place here in Beirut last week. I was actually in Istanbul at the time, although I’m back in Lebanon now.
I’ve seen many people comparing Beirut’s attacks with those that followed in Paris. Both situations are tragic and sobering, but there are a few key differences. In Paris, the ISIS bombers targeted the population at large as a way to incite an overall fear and continue to prove that they are willing to do anything and everything to further their cause.
Here in Lebanon, the bombs went off in an area where similar attacks have already occurred on a smaller scale. They were targeted at a specific population; aimed to send a message to the Shi’a muslims and their leaders living in that particular suburb of Beirut. Although the attacks were just as brutal and devastating, they were not random.
The origins of ISIS, called ‘Daesh’ here, are complicated. The group began as an offshoot of Al-Qaeida, and although it originated in Iraq, it grew in and through the vacuum created as Syria fell into its on-going civil war. Because they offered something that was lacking, they were able to grow quickly and amass many members despite their barbaric tactics. They promise identity, a sense of purpose and belonging, and financial security for those who join them, as they are self-funded through oil money and by selling basic services back to the Syrian government. They also promise territory in the form of a ‘Caliphate,’ which is not a new idea in Islamic thought, although it has not been used in such a literal way for hundreds of years. ISIS’ version of the Caliphate is an extremist Sunni Islamic state, which, needless to say, the majority of both Sunni and Shi’a muslims are adamantly opposed to.
It’s difficult to give a brief summary of Syria’s complicated recent history, but it all began when Bashar Al-Assad’s regime cracked down on opposition protesters in 2011. The opposition formed into a rebel militia, calling themselves the Free Syrian Army. They were never a strong cohesive force, but did manage to severely threaten the Assad regime and provoke violent responses from the government against both the rebel factions as well as the civilian population. At first the US attempted to covertly support and train the rebels through a CIA program, but this plan quickly went south. Al-Qaeida had a presence amongst the rebels, and ISIS began as an offshoot of Al-Qaeida. Right now, the Assad regime, the non-ISIS rebels (mostly the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra Front, which happens to be another Al-Qaeida affiliate), and the Kurdish militia all have different outside supporters.
When Daesh first emerged as an international threat, the Assad regime–backed by Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and now Russia–seemed willing to let Daesh fight it out with the Kurdish militia and with the rebel groups supported by Turkey and by Sunni Arabic countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In turn, Daesh didn’t threaten to directly oppose the Syrian regime. Now, the regime, along with Russia, is letting the world believe that they are at war with Daesh, but in reality both still seem to mostly be targeting rebel groups. However, this is changing and Russia is taking a stronger stance against ISIS in the aftermath of the Russian plane crash in Egypt, the foiled terrorist attempts in Moscow, and the Paris attacks.
Daesh has recently been losing territorial battles in Iraq and has suffered losses in Syria as well. They’ve shifted tactics and are now withdrawing whenever they do not have a clear advantage. Although they control a substantial amount of land within Syria, their losses may well be provoking a sense of uneasiness. This is why they chose to react by stirring up fear through the series of suicide bombings. ISIS wants a strong reaction; they want to feed off of opposition. In light of that, it is important for the world not to fall into their trap by responding rashly. This will only spur them on and help them grow. The following quote is a good starting point:
“The only long-term remedy to this danger — and remember the solution will never be total — is the restoration of more legitimate and effective state institutions in these regions. But as we have now seen repeatedly, creating the necessary institutions is not something an invading army can do, especially not one as tainted by history as the forces of the West. It can be done only by the people who live in these areas, and not by us. And that is why the main effort to deal with the Islamic State must be carried out by local actors, with the United States (and France) remaining as far in the background as possible. If our post-9/11 track record is any indication, however, we’ll probably do the exact opposite.” –Stephen Walt, Foreign Policy
For more information, I usually find that the following sites offer good political analyses:
–Stephen Walt’s blog on Foreign Policy
–Vox news blog gives a better overall/in-depth picture than most news sites.
–Vice news produces interesting short documentaries on current issues
-Here’s an in depth look at ISIS from The Atlantic
–This NY Times article illustrates the severity of the Syrian war