Syria’s tragedy has created a world of opportunity for the Islamic State

SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association)- War spreads deadly viruses of the ideological as well as disease-bearing variety. Just as the First World War created the opportunity for Bolshevism to capture Russia, so today’s turmoil in the Middle East relentlessly promotes the spread of al-Qaida’s brand of Islamist zealotry.

But for Europe’s catastrophe, Lenin would have remained in obscure exile in Switzerland, instead of becoming a revolutionary leader who, in Churchill’s phrase, arrived like a “plague bacillus”. And without Syria’s civil war, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the “Islamic State”, would have been an unknown pillar of an al-Qaida franchise that was confined to tormenting a relatively small area of Iraq.

Instead, Syria’s tragedy has created a world of opportunity for Baghdadi. The war caused by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was the making of Osama bin Laden — and Bashar Assad’s pitiless struggle to subdue Syria has created Baghdadi’s moment, allowing him to seize territory spanning two countries and thousands of square miles.

Now, as the self-styled “Caliph” of a new “Islamic State”, Baghdadi is threatening the very existence of the Yazidi and Christian minorities in northern Iraq, who together serve as beleaguered reminders of the pre-Islamic Middle East. Meanwhile, Baghdadi’s virus has spread as far as Oxford Street in London, where leaflets urging Muslims to flock to his “Islamic State” were handed out this week.

All this delivers the salutary message that a long-running civil war in just about any country with a Sunni Muslim majority may eventually be infected with the jihadist plague. Anyone who thought that Syria’s bloodshed could safely be ignored, or that Assad and his enemies could be left to slug it out, should remember the prescient words of Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, who warned as long ago as June 2012 that Syria would not “implode” but “explode beyond its borders”.

With a battle-hardened commander like Baghdadi in possession of his own statelet, another theory will also be put to the test. Last month, Sir Richard Dearlove, the former chief of MI6, said that the terrorist threat had been exaggerated and the prime aim of men like Baghdadi was not to mount a “frontal assault” on us, but to dominate the Muslim world and, in particular, wage war on Shia Islam and any unfortunate minorities within their domain. Perhaps quite soon, we will know whether Sir Richard is right.

But first, let’s reflect on what Baghdadi has accomplished. He may go by various names — “Caliph Ibrahim” has become his official title; once he was simply Ibrahim al-Samarrai — yet there is no doubt that he is not merely a religious fanatic, but a strategic thinker and an accomplished commander.

So far as we know, he became leader of al-Qaida’s affiliate in Iraq in 2010, when his isolated cells had been confined to the area around Baghdad. Their theatre of operations was limited, but almost a decade of combat against American and British forces had allowed Baghdadi and his men to hone their skills to an extraordinary degree.

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