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An alternative project for Muslim youth could finish ISIS off

When "Operation Decisive Storm" began a few months ago, the supporters of ISIS launched a campaign to question its credibility. They were joined in this by their traditional enemies, the Houthis, those loyal to Yemen's deposed President Saleh and whoever is allied with them, such as the Iranians and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

A couple of days ago, the "Storm of the South" was launched in order to liberate the city of Daraa, wherefrom the spark of the Syrian revolution emerged. Once again, the supporters of ISIS led those who questioned its credibility and sought to suppress it. No one rivalled them in this apart from the supporters of the regime. It is natural for the Houthis or for the supporters of the Syrian regime to be upset but why are ISIS and its electronic brigades upset about such victories?

This question is answered by Hassan Hassan (that's what he calls himself anyway), who is an independent researcher collaborating with London's Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House. He entered Syria several times and met with revolutionaries and supporters of ISIS before co-writing a book called "ISIS: inside the army of terror".

In an article published in the UAE's National newspaper in April, he said that "two significant developments have been going on in the region that have damaged ISIS popularity more than has been caused by nine months of aerial bombardment and battles waged against it in both Syria and Iraq."

The first were the successive victories achieved by the Syrian revolutions in the north of Syria and their seizure of the city of Idlib and then Jisr Al-Shughour. These successes were soon followed by others in the central area as well as in the south of Syria. According to Hassan, the outcome has been "stealing the impetus from ISIS". The group consequently lost some of its attractiveness and therefore some of its recruiting appeal. "Many people inside Syria," he continued, "have told me that ISIS lost some of their own sympathisers after the revolutionaries exhibited their capabilities and conquered towns and fortified military positions belonging to the regime during the past few months."

The explanation given by Hassan is accurate. Not all ISIS supporters, and particularly those who are local, are ideological believers in the organisation. Or at least they weren't until they joined and were subjected to intensive training and brainwashing procedures. Victory begets victory and might attracts the oppressed who detest the regime. As such, they found hope in ISIS, especially during a time when the Syrian revolution was in retreat. They hoped that ISIS would avenge them and fulfil their desire to exact revenge against an oppressive and tyrannical regime that persecuted them and their loved ones. Consequently, the emergence of an alternative that combines might with capability and moderation is sufficient to pull the rug from underneath the feet of ISIS, if not by drawing away the majority of its supporters then at least by rescuing some of those among them who are still on the periphery and by frustrating its recruitment campaigns.

The second development that has cost ISIS some of its appeal and ability to recruit and keep supporters, according to Hassan, is the reaction of the public in the region regarding "Decisive Storm" that was launched in March by Saudi Arabia as part of an Arab and international coalition against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. "There has been a marked decline in the positive remarks made toward the group amongst its own sympathisers," said Hassan. "They have, instead, been attracted by Operation Decisive Storm, which they see as a war against the followers of Iran in the region."

He added that this has been accompanied by the spreading conviction that Saudi Arabia no longer sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat. "Consequently, there has been a boost in optimism and a growth in positive feelings in favour of the campaign against the Houthis."

In other words, the angry have seen in Decisive Storm an alternative project as a result of which they no longer feel the need to support an extremist organisation.

The theory advanced by Hassan Hassan seems logical. Not all of the followers of ISIS happen to be takfiris (those who declare other Muslims to be disbelievers), or let us say that not all of them were when they first knocked on the group's door. The sense of defeat, frustration and the lack of "an alternative project" that is capable of standing in the face of oppression, despotism and tyranny is what gave ISIS its appeal among young men and women who were overwhelmed with anger and with the desire to do something in support of Islam. Such young people are found in Riyadh, Tunis and places as far away as Copenhagen and Brussels. They believe that the Sunnis in Iraq and the Levant are being subjected to the most brutal campaign of persecution and murder while the world does nothing to help them. Of course they are right, and that is why they pack and hit the road to travel far from home where life is safe and opulent. They leave for what they believe to be the "land of jihad, glory and dignity". Such an incentive for their migration turns, once they arrive in the ISIS lands, into violence, blind hatred, takfirism and terrorism.

The theory advanced by Hassan is lent credence by the opinion of Saudi preacher Salman Al-Awdah, which he threw in for discussion a few days ago on "To the Point", the most popular Saudi TV talk show during the month of Ramadan. He believes that one of the tools to confront violence could be an alternative Arab-Islamic renaissance project that caters for the needs of young Muslims and harnesses their considerable energy. "Man has kinetic energy within him," said Al-Awdah. "You cannot just tell him to sit down and keep quiet. You need to preoccupy him with something. You need to fulfil for him some of his dreams in order to ensure that that energy is channelled in the right direction."

Regrettably, the "energy" of young Muslims is now suspect. Normally, it is a moderate energy. Yet, the absence of the right project has driven them into the embrace of the wrong one. The experience of "Decisive Storm" and the victories achieved by the Syrian revolutionaries point to the right direction into which this energy can be channelled and even employed in the service of its strategic goals of rebuilding the region and liberating it from sectarianism and despotism altogether.

It is unfair that it is apparently acceptable for an Irishman or a Frenchman to join the ranks of the Kurdish protection forces, which have recently achieved noticeable victories in the north of Syria (although they have been accused of the "ethnic cleansing" of Arabs and the Turkoman from the territories under their control, a clear war crime). Yet, we see such mercenaries posing with Kurdish fighters for a picture to post on Facebook. When they return home they give press interviews boosting their claims to be heroes. In contrast, any Arab young man who does the same is an immediate suspect as a terrorist. It is a huge moral paradox. Resolving this problem might just help to finish ISIS off.

Translated from Al Hayat newspaper, 27 June, 2015

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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