Fueled by atrocity and a blitzkrieg of gains in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has enjoyed a meteoric climb to notoriety. The beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff is the latest, savage step on that climb. Confronted with images of his murder, a war-weary America is once again asked to consider a major military operation. Despite President Obama’s no boots on the ground assurances, we are now left to wonder if this will all end in a Clintonian game of semantics. Define boots.
Having fought against the Islamic State’s precursor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, as a Marine, I feel deeply conflicted about its gains. Our strategic blunder in Iraq is a visceral, raw and personal memory for me, one I hope we don’t repeat. Living in the Middle East and watching the Syrian Civil War up close, its savagery and the idea of its continuation draws a similar raw and visceral reaction. Unable to make sense of the right course, and skeptical of anyone offering assured solutions, I often dip into my memories of the last decade, retracing my steps, looking for clarity like some lost set of keys.
I remember the first time I heard of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). It was a year ago, at the same place Steven Sotloff, the latest American journalist killed by ISIS, crossed into Syria. That September, I’d traveled to the Turkish border crossing near the town Kilis. I’d split a cab with my friends Matt and Dan who run a small research organization focused on the Syrian Civil War when not doing similar work in Kabul. They wanted to check out the crossing, and as our taxi approached we passed more than a mile of queued sixteen wheelers, all of them waiting. Upon arriving at the border, we found it was being closed indefinitely.
The crossing point resembled a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike, and that day it was unusually busy—families with suitcases strewn along the roadside, Turkish police speeding past in armored cars as they reinforced positions. The Syrian town of Azaz was within walking distance. It had come under attack the day before. This seemed odd. Azaz had long been a haven for the Free Syrian Army whose Northern Storm Brigade had liberated the town in July 2012. Being a novice Syrian War watcher, I assumed the regime had returned in force. It hadn’t. ISIS had arrived.
We debated whether we should ask our taxi to wait. Wisely, we did, and then made for a small café that served a clientele of recently stranded refugees. Sitting at the café, we were a conspicuous threesome—Matt a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, former-oarsman from Boston University, and Dan who in his spare time toiled on the first ever Nuristani dictionary, his spindly beard grown to his chest for trips to that rugged Afghan province. It wasn’t long before a small crowd of Syrians formed around us.
That August, the Assad regime had launched sarin-nerve gas into the Damascus neighborhood of Ghouta. Many Syrians believed the chemical attack would finally push America to intervene in the war. When we didn’t intervene, the frustration was palpable. Sitting there we got an earful, absorbing predicable invective about Obama, Western fecklessness, and the evils of Bashar al-Assad. As Matt, Dan, and I drank tea and shared cigarettes with our hosts, our response to their harangue mirrored our government’s response to their war: we smiled, we listened, we said very little.
Suddenly the crowd parted, making way for a man who walked toward us in a bent over shuffle. He seemed my age, around thirty. His skin had the sallow look of a corpse. Everyone stood, offering him a chair. He sat, breathing heavily through his mouth as someone handed him a bottle of water. He took a sip, and palmed a splash up to his stomach. He lifted his t-shirt and showed us a long scar, running from sternum to waistband. The holes of recently removed stiches traveled neat as rail ties along his stomach. He explained that a barrel bomb had done this in Aleppo. But I wasn’t fixated on the scar. I was fixated on his hands. The tips of his index fingers had been guillotined.
He must have noticed me looking because he held his fingers up, wiggling one as if he were showing off a ring. “The Da’ish,” he said.
A man who spoke some English explained Da’ish was the Arabic enunciation of the acronym ISIS, and that one of ISIS’s lesser punishments was to amputate index fingers. They believed that to pray to Mecca one needed fingers to point the way. If one’s soul deviated from the path of Islam they’d disfigure the body just as the soul was, removing the index fingers.
I didn’t ask the man how he’d offended the Da’ish.
Instead conversation turned to why the Da’ish would attack the Free Syrian Army. They were both rebel groups. They both wanted rid of Assad. A year ago it wasn’t obvious that eliminating Assad was a secondary objective for ISIS. In the months that followed, they would seize wide areas of north-eastern Syria and western-Iraq. Soon it became clear that establishing a Caliphate was their objective. Those who stood in the way—the Free Syrian Army, the Assad Regime, the Iraqi Army, the Peshmerga—proved incidental, regardless of ideology. The Da’ish had turned 2011’s democratic revolution into 2014’s Islamic conquest.
This conquest has brought instability to unexpected parts of the region. This past week, the youth wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) claimed to have assassinated the leader of an ISIS recruitment cell in Istanbul. If ISIS remains unchecked, there’s a plausible argument that such incidents could become increasingly regular outside Syria and Iraq, ensnaring more nations in this already complex war.
Watching Azaz burn from the safe side of the border last year, the shifting powers in Syria already appeared blurred. All that seemed clear was the injustice of a man carrying scars from two sides of an increasingly multi-sided war. As we spoke, he kept his hands in his pockets. He didn’t even use them as he smoked.
We sat for little longer, time enough to finish our tea. A doctor approached our group from a medical tent at the border crossing. He was as blonde-haired and blue-eyed as Matt. His complexion was ruddy, his fair skin burnt from time in the sun. He gave our threesome a cursory look, dismissing us as irrelevant. With an Eastern European accent he spoke Arabic, and I noticed his camouflage Army pants were a Russian pattern. Everyone stood for the doctor, so we did also. The man with the scars straightened up to embrace him and they touched temples, a sign of affection. Then the doctor took a look at the man’s stomach, seeming to examine his recent work.
The Syrians gathered around the doctor. Whatever answers they were looking for, he seemed to have them. Matt, Dan, and I got back into our taxi that had been waiting all along. That day, we didn’t know Steven Sotloff had disappeared just a few kilometers from us. We also didn’t know how prominently the Da’ish would figure in the war which raged just across the border in Syria. As we drove back to our hotel, we didn’t say much. All I knew was the doctor with the Russian Army pants had chosen to stay. We’d chosen to leave, and it all felt wrong.