The latest phase of the multifaceted conflict in Syria bears every sign of escalating further. The fall of Aleppo was meant to signal the beginning of the end for the rebels, but new offensives in Raqqa and the country’s capital Damascus again changed the balance.
At the same time – and in a clear show of force – the US dropped its largest non-atomic bomb in Afghanistan to target forces from the so-called Islamic State (IS), who, though pressed in Iraq, are still fighting hard, and spreading to wider fronts.
Only peace in Syria will allow IS to be defeated. But when peace efforts are put into geopolitical and historical context, commentators often dismiss the possibility. Instead, they tend to see the rise of the Islamic State as another example of a so-called clash of civilisations that has ostensibly been a relentless force since the bloody history of Jihadis, Crusaders and inter-sect violence that began in the Middle Ages.
The response to such rhetoric has often been to differentiate both mainstream modern Islam and the West from such parallels, suggesting that the Islamic State is a “medieval” throwback and the rest of us have moved on.
But there is a less well-rehearsed – and perhaps more historically pertinent – argument: that our medieval forebears were not just mindless fanatics. More specifically, that medieval Christians and Muslims were also merely seeking stability in a troubled world.
Indeed, the idea that we are doomed to be haunted by sectarian differences is remarkably similar to the wholly discredited “ancient hatreds” explanation that was used to explain the break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
A case study from the height of the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries illustrates that even the most brutal leaders can choose to compromise for stability. And that perhaps we should accept that such stability is worth compromising for today, as Syria’s unproductive peace talks allow the war to rage on.
A 12th-century role model for IS?
Zengi is known to have been a major influence on the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one-time al-Qaeda number three and head of operations in Iraq. Zarqawi’s actions provoked the decisive split between al-Qaeda and the group we now know as Islamic State.
Even a cursory biography of Zengi reveals why he would become al-Zarqawi’s personal hero.
Zengi began as the atabeg (governor) of Mosul, Islamic State’s current besieged “capital”. He went on to seize Aleppo and Hama in modern Syria, contending with the rival Islamic power of Damascus, before turning on the Crusaders at Edessa, one of the four Crusader states.
Similarly, just as Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda had always viewed the US as the primary enemy of Islam, al-Zarqawi’s organisation (at that point known as al-Qaeda in Iraq) focused on the establishment of a Caliphate. This emphasis led him not only into conflict with the West, but also – and fatally in terms of the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda – with those Middle Eastern states ruled by leaders he believed were more interested in promoting idolatry than Islam.
As Zengi conquered the Middle East before turning to the Crusaders, so al-Zarqawi planned to conquer the region before turning on the infidels of the West. Indeed, Zengi’s territories bear an eerie similarity to Islamic State’s own territories last year.
But his career as a model for the group goes further.
First, his conquests compelled the emir of Damascus to ally with the Crusaders against him, neatly mirroring how Islamic State sees Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
And just like Islamic State, Zengi was renowned for his brutal rule. When he took the city of Baalbek, just north of Damascus, for instance, he swore on the Koran and all his wives that he would treat the defenders well if they surrendered. He flayed the governor and hanged the rest.
Zengi vs John
So far, so “medieval” – and it would seem that both the Islamic State and its analysts are correct in likening the Caliphate as a return to the barbarous horrors of the Middle Ages. Except that this story of Islamic Jihadis against Christian Crusaders was never as clear-cut as historians – Christian and Islamic, medieval and modern – recorded.
A major player is often left out of this story: the surviving Roman Empire, labeled “Byzantium” during the Enlightenment.
Returning the Byzantine Empire to the narrative reveals that it was in fact Emperor Alexios I Komnenos who called on Pope Urban II for mercenaries to aid his fight against the Turks, an appeal that took on a life of its own as western knights carved out their own principalities in the east rather than yield their conquests to the emperor. Thus, the founding of the Crusader states.
Disputes continued until Alexios’ son, John II Komnenos, launched a major eastern campaign in 1137 with the aim of forcing at least the Crusader states of Antioch and Edessa to submit to his rule. But, as both a Christian and a politician who had no desire to ruin relations with the Pope and the west by attacking the Crusaders, John II Komnenos instead made a deal.
He and Prince Raymond of Antioch would conquer Aleppo and other Muslim-ruled towns together. Raymond would then hand over Antioch to John II Komnenos in exchange for these new conquests. This strategy would provide a useful buffer state for the Empire, give rich lands to Raymond and halt Zengi’s rise.
It also set the stage for the ultimate clash of civilisations, as the Christian Roman Emperor John II Komnenos, squared off against the great Jihadi Zengi. His campaign includes sieges and battles with names strikingly familiar to anyone following today’s news broadcasts: Manbij, Al-Bab, Aleppo, Damascus.
As arguably the most powerful Christian statesman of the period, John’s intervention can also be seen as the regional superpower intervening, in another clear parallel for us.
As John marshalled his forces against Aleppo and the cities of northern Syria, Zengi was in the field, laying siege to Damascus-ruled Hama and then Baalbek, only a few days away. Though some cities were ruled by independent emirs, many, and particularly Aleppo itself, had been conquered by Zengi in the previous few years. But he did not turn his army to confront John.
Medieval authors, just as modern commentators, used the rhetoric of the clash of civilisations, and both Christian and Muslim accounts were always setting up champions against each other. So the question is why was there no Zengi versus John showdown outside Aleppo. And how did medieval historians and commentators, which modern day Jihadis use for inspiration, explain it?
The other side of the story
The two major sources on Zengi are Ibn al-Athir and Ibn Asakir, both of whom were commissioned to write histories of the Zengid dynasty and, as such, were unsurprisingly quite flattering in their portrayal.
In their view, this was the moment when Zengi united Islam against Christianity. His first duty was to seize Hama and Baalbek, so that he could later bring forth the united armies of Islam against the Crusaders.
This message was preached to contemporary readers, as they argued for all Muslims to unite to finish what Zengi had started. The same argument was used by Archbishop William of Tyre, a prominent western chronicler of the Crusades, when attempting to convince his contemporaries to launch another Crusade.
Only Christians united could defeat the Muslims, and vice versa.
The argument was necessary because John’s campaign failed and he was obliged to return west. Though he returned a few years later to try and finish the task, John died in a hunting accident in 1143.
Zengi meanwhile seized Edessa from the Crusaders and renewed his designs on Damascus. But in 1146, he was assassinated by a Christian slave, making him a martyr for the cause.
He left his son Nur ad-Din to confront the armies of the Second Crusade. And from here, the cycle of Crusade and Jihad continued, such that it seems that it was always meant to be that way.
But this interpretation of history, related by later medieval authors and parroted by modern commentators, is not the full story. There is another explanation for Zengi’s reluctance to attack found in less well-known sources.
Other Muslim voices come from Ibn Munquidh, a poet, scholar and diplomat who served many Islamic dynasties, and famously talked of both friends and enemies among the Christians. And Ibn al-Qalanisi, a scholar of Damascus and thus a supporter of the major Islamic power opposed to Zengi.
Both these authors, and lesser-known eastern Christian writers, mention that John and Zengi exchanged numerous ambassadors and gifts, even including hunting birds for their shared hobby. These embassies are said to have continued even after John returned to Antioch for the winter.
Seeking stability and order
Thus we have the picture of the respective champions of Christianity and Islam – the progenitors of the “clash of civilisations” that still echoes today – negotiating and exchanging gifts with one another, even as their armies were barely a few days apart.
Exactly what they talked about is not recorded. But by examining the situation before the chaos of the First Crusade an explanation presents itself.
The map above shows the rough borders of the region in the late 8th and mid-11th centuries, the latter being before internal crises and Turkish incursions weakened both the Roman Empire in the north, and the Fatimid Caliphate in the south.
The political order of the Christian Romans in the north, and Islam in the south and east, had been relatively stable for the previous few hundred years despite occasional border wars. We have accounts of well-treated Muslim prisoners in Constantinople having a mosque built for their use, while the Caliph allowed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to be under the protection of the Roman Emperor. What’s more, Christians often served in the Fatimid civil service.
Many women were captured and then married by a member of the other religion, so that Christians had Muslim mothers and vice versa. The most famous example of this is the legendary tale of Digenes Akrites, a Robin Hood figure of the eastern frontier. His very name symbolises his origins, with Di-genes referring to his dual ancestry, and Akrites referring to his role as a border warrior.
The Digenes Akrites story, and others, were however written in the 12th century. That’s after civil wars, and Turkish and Crusader invasions had swept away this political order forever – or perhaps not. In the summer of 1138, it appears that John and Zengi were negotiating a return to the Roman north and Islamic south in the Middle East, bringing stability back to the war-torn region.
Now, Zengi was hardly a humanitarian or a figure to be admired by modern standards. Though better by comparison – and renowned in his own day for supposedly never putting anyone to death – neither was Emperor John.
Ibn Munquidh uses the expression “sacking a city like the Romans” whenever a general of any religion let his soldiers loose on a civilian population. But these medieval figures used as role models by Islamic State and others were not fanatics.
They were happy to divide the Levant between them for the sake of stability and order, if for no other reason than that was best for their own personal glory and regimes.
Peace in Syria
If we look closely at the group’s infamous propaganda machine, the most striking narratives in the West are ones of brutality. But the vast majority revolve around constructing an image of a brotherhood with the aim of an inclusive and stable Caliphate at its centre.
The reason Western commentators so often overlook this is that the latter is aimed specifically at Muslims. Whereas those pieces of propaganda with a narrative of brutality at their heart are focused on the West. And they are used as a method to warn Western leaders against interfering with the group’s objectives.
The Islamic State then, may indeed be a “medieval throwback”, but not in the sense that many western commentators suggest. And the parallels between the 12th and 21st centuries are not only due to the wanton brutality of those involved.
Rather, it’s because they share an ambition for stability in the Middle East, starting with the unification of the region under the flag of Islam. Unlike many, IS do have a clear plan for an ordered region - but that plan consists of total authoritarian brutality in every aspect of everyday life, with the slightest infractions of any of their prohibitions punished with the lash, amputation, crucifixion and worse.
Zengi’s own inhumane methods may have added to al-Zarqawi’s glorification of him as an individual. But the root of al-Zarqawi’s and Islamic State’s adoration come from Zengi’s geopolitical aims. Indeed, the so-called Caliphate was originally proclaimed from the mosque built by Zengi in Mosul.
The bottom line is that those fighting in the Middle East – however brutal or seemingly blinded by religion they may appear – are in fact seeking a return to a vision of political order. Until this is found, they will continue fighting.
Thus, even as Zengi and John considered civil compromise, so we can hope that Russia and the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and all other powers involved can do the same, so that the instability that allows IS to exist can be eliminated, and with it, IS itself.
The alternative is to let the Islamic State and those like them impose their own vision of order, which will likely follow Tacitus in “making a desert and calling it peace”.