The Rise of ISIS
The rise of ISIS is probably one of the most significant ways that the war in Syria has shaped Western history. The group attracted little public attention outside of the Middle East while it was still confined to Syria. The group had its foundations in the 1990s, long before the Syrian war began, and began to attract followers on a much larger scale during the American invasion of Iraq as a means of fighting against what they believed was American imperialism. In fact, al-Baghdadi, who became the caliph during the Syrian war, was held by Americans; his time of internment helped shape his radical ideology.
As the group gained power and territory in Syria, its tactics became so extreme – frequent beheadings and strict adherence to sharia law forced on the population – that the terrorist group al-Qaeda disassociated itself from ISIS. In the summer of 2014, the group made international headlines when it swept into Iraq and put to death many civilians. Fears about the group’s increasing influence spread throughout both the Middle East and the Western world, and policymakers struggled to make plans of how to inhibit the group’s continued spread and impact.
Of particular concern was ensuring that Muslims in the West did not sympathize with the group. However, there were vast numbers of Muslims from countries like the United States, Belgium, and the United Kingdom that left their homes to join ISIS and fight in the way of God against the kufar, or unbelievers. Dealing with these defections presented new challenges for governments in the West. Should they be allowed to return home and repatriate? What about their wives, who may have been forced to travel with them? What about their children, who may have been inculcated with terrorist ideology? Many young people in the United Kingdom felt that children who had become ISIS fighters should be brought back and rehabilitated rather than sent to prison, but there were leaders in the government that denounced this possibility. Dealing with the sympathies that individuals in the West had towards ISIS is one way that the Syrian war has changed the West.
Ultimately, ISIS came to be regarded as a terrorist organization, and anyone associated with it is considered a terrorist. This notion raised additional questions for Western governments, particularly around the use of drone strikes and extrajudicial killings. Was it lawful for drones to be used to target these terrorists who were citizens of countries like the United States or the United Kingdom, especially if they had no trial? In some instances, these governments determined that whether it was lawful or not, they would proceed with drone strikes. What this means for Western policy is that governments, particularly the United States government, will circumvent the law in the interest of what it believes to be national security.
Moreover, still, the thought of ISIS ideology and influence spreading to the United States was rampant in the year 2016, particularly among conservative voters. Donald Trump boasted that if he were elected, he would defeat ISIS once and for all, and to this point, many of his supporters rallied around him. Even though he did not present any comprehensive plan of how he would deal with the ISIS threat and that the group was already in decline, Trump arguably attracted many votes because he promised a hardline stance. One might argue that fear of ISIS helped bring at least some people to vote for Trump.