ISIS: the mad, bloody residue of the war on terror
Patrick Cockburn’s study of ISIS indicts both Saudi Arabia and the West.
It is April 2010 and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, an extremist Sunni rebel group-cum-terror-franchise responsible for assorted bombings and assaults over the previous half-decade, is at a low ebb.
Its two top leaders, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, have just been killed by a joint US and Iraq airstrike outside Tikrit, and their replacement Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a thirtysomething poetry graduate from the University of Baghdad, is something of an unknown quantity. More importantly, it looks as if the Iraqi state has finally consolidated its fragile hold on a divided nation. Iraq’s minority Sunni population might resent the hold of the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, especially given its often violent discrimination towards Sunnis. But they are willing to accept it, grudgingly. It looks as if the seven-year-long post-US invasion instability, in which Al-Qaeda in Iraq played its own bloody part, might finally be at an end.
Four years later, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq is resurgent. It’s not known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq any more, of course; it’s known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Syria). Either way, 2014 marks a shockingly successful year for ISIS. In January, it takes Fallujah; then, a few months later, Tikrit and Mosul. By the end of the summer, ISIS controls a territory larger in size than Great Britain, spreading from Iraq’s border with Iran to Iraqi Kurdistan and, thanks to its role in the Syrian civil war, the outskirts of Aleppo, the largest city in Syria.
What ISIS has achieved since 2010 can no longer be downplayed. Its conquests, notes one observer, mark the most significant territorial change in the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot agreement after the end of First World War.
How did this happen? How did this barbaric offshoot of a terror network many thought was becoming obsolete gain what looks like such a sudden ascendency? The Rise of Islamic State, a seering piece of extended journalism from the Independent’s foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn, attempts an answer. And it does so with a great deal of success. This is because Cockburn doesn’t go looking for answers in the nihilism-dressed-up-as-Islam of ISIS itself. No, he looks instead at the context in which ISIS has been able to flourish, a context in which a sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict, festering since the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein and drawing force from the Syrian Civil War, has been internationalised by regional power plays from the likes of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and exacerbated by the head-bashingly clueless interventions of the US and Europe. As Cockburn himself puts it: ‘It was the US, Europe, and their regional allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates that created the conditions for the rise of ISIS.’
Key to the emergence of ISIS, in Cockburn’s telling, has been the civil war in Syria, a conflict that was rapidly transformed from a popular uprising against the brutal, economically struggling dictatorship of Bashar al Assad into a vicious, intractable jihadi-led war against Assad the Alawite. The intervention of the US, Britain and other Western powers played a crucial role in this transformation. As Cockburn argues, and as we at spiked have also argued, the West has effectively fuelled and prolonged the war despite the fact that, from very early on, it was clear Assad, with control of 13 out of 14 provincial capitals and backed by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, was not going to fall any time soon. Yet throughout, the US, Britain and the EU have fallen over themselves to declare Assad’s rule illegitimate, telling him that no settlement could be reached unless he stepped down. In doing so, they sided with, and encouraged, the opposition, while simultaneously backing Assad into a corner. What else could the Assad regime do but continue to fight?
But the US and other Western states didn’t simply damn Assad; they also anointed his potential successors – then known as the Free Syrian Army – and, through regional intermediaries, gave them funding and arms. As Cockburn is at pains to point out, the West justified this low-level, almost-behind-the-scenes intervention on the grounds that they were fostering a moderate opposition to Assad, the type of people you could do business with. The only problem with this scheme is that this moderate lot, as opposed to the black-flag-waving Salafi-inspired extremist opposition, never really existed. What did exist, certainly by 2012, was a Sunni/Salafist-rebel opposition movement dominated by ISIS, the group it set up to fight Assad’s force, Jabhat al-Nusra, and assorted other jihadist groups. The US and its friends could convince themselves that they were backing moderate opposition only by failing to classify those groups it supported as extremist, a triumph of nominative categories over gun-toting, Sharia-dreaming reality. Cockburn gives the example of the so-called Yarmouk Brigade, part of an anti-Assad southern front based in Jordan. The only fly in the ointment being that the Yarmouk Brigade fights alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, one-time ISIS affiliate, and full-time jihadists.
The practical effect of the West’s tacit, often covert support, reports Cockburn, was that, as one ISIS member boasted, no matter who arms were given to, they would always end up in the hands of ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra. Little wonder that last year, the Iraq government reported that sophisticated weapons used by ISIS in Iraq were originally meant for the so-called moderate opposition in Syria. As US vice-president Joe Biden admitted in October last year, there is no moderate middle, because the ‘moderate middle are made up of shopkeepers, not soldiers’.
The effect of the West’s wilful stirring of the Syrian pot, exacerbating, deepening and ultimately transforming a civil conflict into a holy war, has not been confined to Syria. It also served to destabilise Iraq, something Cockburn wryly calls the West’s ‘blind spot’. Up to 2011, Iraq’s post-Saddam Sunni minority were increasingly resigned to the Shia-Kurdish-dominated status quo. And, as a result, the Sunni jihadists of what was to become known as ISIS were on the wane. But the Syrian uprising, and its gradual transformation into a sectarian conflict, with the Syrian Sunnis arrayed against Assad’s non-Sunni regime, provided, to quote Cockburn, ‘encouragement and an example’. ISIS fed off the Syrian conflict, drawing weapons and monies from assorted foreign sources investing in the anti-Assad opposition, and it simultaneously fed into the conflict, sending, from 2012 onwards, fighters and funds to its affiliates in Syria.
It was not just Western involvement in Syria that was to fuel the rise of ISIS, of course. Turkey tacitly allowed ISIS to use its 510-mile border with Syria, largely because of their mutual dislike of the Kurds, while Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and above all Saudi Arabia, pursued their own agendas in Syria, providing millions of dollars-worth of funding and weaponry to the Sunni anti-Assad opposition. Saudi Arabia’s role was hardly a surprise. As a 2009 cable from Hillary Clinton revealed, many in the US knew that Saudi Arabia, and its Sunni monarchical rulers, were the most significant funders of terrorist groups worldwide. Pumping money and military hardware into an opposition movement dominated by hardline Salafi jihadists was almost to be expected. But Saudi Arabia has not just been handing over cash and guns. For several decades, it has been the most prominent funder and propagator of Wahhabism, an eighteenth-century return-to-the-texts reinterpretation of Islam, which calls for Sharia law, the relegation and submission of women, and, most importantly the active persecution of kuffirs – in other words, non-believers. That the bastard Salafist sons of Wahhabism, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, now dominate the Sunni opposition in Syria and Iraq would not be possible without the involvement of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. As Cockburn makes clear throughout, they have funded and inspired these jihadist movements.
The Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia and their near allies, explains Cockburn, have long been concerned with the threat of Shia militancy, especially from the Shia minorities within their own borders. As they see it, supporting the Sunni opposition in Syria and Iraq is in their interests, or at least it was until the black-clad beast the Saudis spawned down through the Euphrates valley started posing a threat to Saudi Arabia itself. The House of Saud’s recent decision to refuse to allow Saudi jihadists back into Saudi Arabia is too late to reverse its impact on Iraq and Syria. ‘[Saudi Arabia’s involvement] has de-emphasised secular democratic change as the ideology of the [Syrian] uprising, which then turned into a Sunni bid for power using Salafi jihadist brigades as the cutting edge of the revolt’, says Cockburn. And now the whole region is reaping the Wahhabist-cum-Salafist whirlwind.
Of course, ISIS might not have been able to redraw the Middle Eastern map if the Iraqi state had been stronger. At the beginning of 2014, it certainly looked capable of resisting an ISIS-style insurgence. After all, the Iraqi army numbered some 350,000 and had been invested in to the tune of $40 billion since 2011. Yet, by July of last year, the army had simply melted away. With ISIS at the gates of Baghdad, the state’s incapacity was writ large. ‘It was a measure of the collapse of the state security force and the national army’, writes Cockburn, ‘that the government was relying on a sectarian militia to defend the capital’.
Cockburn’s portrait of Iraq’s government and state institutions is damning. Self-interest and corruption are rife, with the army reduced to little more than a gravy train people pay to join in return for a hefty salary and a chance to make money from checkpoint kickbacks. No wonder it provided as much resistance to ISIS as smoke. In fact, just about the only thing sustaining the Iraqi political elite’s rule last year was denial. Cockburn tells of going for dinner at the Alwiyah Club in central Baghdad, with ISIS’s latest victories meaning it was just an hour’s drive away. But, such was the Baghdad’s elite’s bonhomie, Cockburn could barely find a table. A former Iraqi minister tells him: ‘It is truly surreal. When you speak to any political leader in Baghdad, they talk as if they had not just lost half the country.’ Cockburn writes: ‘Iraq’s Shia leaders had not grasped that their domination over the Iraqi state, brought about by the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, was finished, and only a Shia rump was left.’
Why was Iraq officialdom so corrupt? Why were those governing the country only interested in what they could get out of it? Cockburn’s response is pithy: ‘The simple answer that Iraqis give is that “UN sanctions destroyed Iraqi society in the 1990s and the Americans destroyed the Iraqi state in 2003.”‘ Quite.
By the end of The Rise of Islamic State, you’re left in little doubt that ISIS stands as the result of ceaseless intervention in the affairs of Iraqis and Syrians, inhibiting at every turn their ability to determine their own futures. ISIS’s emergence also, therefore, represents an indictment of the conflicting agendas of foreign powers, be it the shallow ethical posing of the West or the cynical sectarian manoeuvring of the Middle East’s autocracies. It is a grisly coda to the US-led ‘war on terror’. In Cockburn’s words: ’Whatever [Western powers] intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to unseat Assad in Syria in 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria, and run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden.’
Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.
The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, by Patrick Cockburn, is published by Verso. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)