From crisis to ISIS

Print edition : April 17, 2015

A member of ISIS in Raqqa, Syria, in June 2014. The ISIS has extended its influence from Raqqa to western Iraq, effectively erasing the border between the two countries. Photo: REUTERS

The veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn’s latest book traces the history of the Islamic State and identifies the reasons for the rise of this Sunni terrorist group.

IN the first two years of the Syrian civil war, Western and Arab leaders repeatedly asked President Bashar al-Assad to step down as they seemed to have believed that he would eventually be thrown out of power. In August 2011, United States President Barack Obama asked him “to get out of the way” of democracy. British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy had all joined Obama in demanding Assad’s resignation. In November 2011, King Abdullah of Jordan said the chances of Assad surviving were so slim that he had to step down. In December 2012, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Secretary General, said: “I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse.”

With the war entering its fifth year this March, Assad still controls Damascus, the seat of power in Syria, and much of the populated regions along the Mediterranean coast and around the capital city. A substantial chunk of the population remains loyal to him. But the Syrian crisis took a disastrous turn. While the backers of the anti-regime rebels believed (or pretended to believe) that destabilising the regime would expedite the political transformation in Syria, what actually happened was a transformation of parts of the country into a jehadi haven. It is in this haven that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reinvented his struggling group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, as the world’s deadliest terrorist outfit—the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS).

Before the Syrian civil war began, there was no ISIS in the region. The Islamists in Syria had never risen after their 1983 rebellion in Hama was brutally suppressed by former President Hafiz al-Assad (Bashar’s father). But the ISIS is now the principal opposition of President Assad in the Syrian conflict and controls territories as big as Great Britain straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border. How did it become so powerful in a matter of a couple of years? Where does it get support from? Can it be beaten? These are intriguing questions for anyone interested in the contemporary history of West Asia. The veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn’s latest book, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, seeks to answer most of these questions. Cockburn, who has been covering West Asian conflicts for his United Kingdom-based paper, The Independent, for years, traces the history of the ISIS and identifies the reasons that led to the rise of this Sunni terrorist group into notoriety.

The roots

The roots of the ISIS go back to the region’s violent Islamist activism of the 1980s. The U.S. then joined hands with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in training mujahideen against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. The jehad in Afghanistan drew a young Jordanian street thug known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi into the Central Asian country in 1989. The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in the same year. Zarqawi went back home, where he was briefly jailed. Upon his release, he travelled to Afghanistan again to found his own militant group, the Tawhid wal-Jihad.

Zarqawi became known to the world after he established himself as the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, thanks to George W. Bush’s 2003 Iraq war. The war destroyed the Iraqi state and ruptured the country’s social equilibrium. The vacuum created by the destruction of the state was partly filled by Islamist militants. Zarqawi’s group emerged as the deadliest in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and unleashed a violent sectarian campaign against Iraqis, especially the Shias in 2005-06. He was so brutal and sectarian that even Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al Qaeda central, had criticised him for targeting Shias. But with Zarqawi on the one side and a sectarian Shia government on the other, Iraq plunged into a civil war between Shias and Sunnis.

Zarqawi was killed in an American strike in 2006, and his group was contained, partly by the U.S. “surge” and partly by the “Sunni awakening” under which tribes took up arms against Al Qaeda under the guidance of Washington and Baghdad. But this lull in violence did not solve Iraq’s fundamental problems, which would come back to haunt it in a few years.

The civil war

Cockburn identifies the two major problems that plunged Iraq back into crisis: the sectarianism of the Iraqi leadership and the Syrian civil war. In Syria, the crisis started when peaceful demonstrations broke out against the Assad regime in March 2011 in the wake of similar protests in other Arab countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The Syrian government’s response to the protests was brutal and hundreds of people were killed. The stand-off between the regime and its opponents soon turned into an armed civil strife in which outside powers also started interfering through their proxies, mainly driven by geopolitical reasons.

Syria is Iran’s strongest ally in the region. It is a vital link between Tehran and Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia-cum-political movement. Besides, Syria also houses Russia’s only naval facility outside the former Soviet region —at Tartus. So taking Assad out of power would naturally weaken Iran and Russia, and the West and Saudi Arabia would obviously gain from this game. This was the broader geopolitical theme of the Syrian crisis. When the protests slipped into an armed conflict, the Saudis and their Gulf allies started pumping weapons and money into the hands of anti-Assad rebels. Jordan also joined the anti-Assad brigade by letting rebels operate a training camp from its territory. Turkey, which is repositioning itself as a dominant power in the Islamic world under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has kept its 800-kilometre-long border with Syria open to allow the rebels easy cross-border movement. The West also pitched in by imposing sanctions on the Assad regime and sending weapons to the “moderate” rebels.

On the other side, Iran and Russia stayed resolute in their support of the Assad regime. Russia continuously vetoed United Nations Security Council resolutions targeting Syria, while Iran sent money, men and weapons to Syria. Besides, Hizbollah was directly involved in the war, especially on the Syrian-Lebanese border, fighting alongside Assad’s army against the rebels. In effect, the Syrian civil war transformed into a regional war in which no one could claim total victory. Baghdadi found in this an opportunity and sent his men across the border to Syria to fight the government troops. They fought with Jabhat al Nusra, the official Al Qaeda wing in Syria, against the army and other rebels.

The Syrian opposition had hardly been united. The political face of the opposition in the early days of the crisis was the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. But when the civil war started, the Free Syrian Army, a military group comprising anti-government fighters and Syrian troops that had defected, assumed prominence. Mostly, it was getting support from the West. Then there were Islamist groups that were getting direct help from the Saudis. The ISIS-al-Nusra combine emerged as the strongest force out of the disunited opposition groups, and most of the weapons that countries shipped into Syria for their proxies ended up in their hands. But the ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra also fell out, probably because of Baghdadi’s refusal to accept the Al Qaeda leadership.

As later developments would show, Baghdadi is more ambitious than Al Qaeda. “Al Qaeda is an idea rather than an organisation... whose adherents are self-recruited and can spring up anywhere,” writes Cockburn. But Baghdadi wanted to build a state, which he himself calls the Islamic State. After capturing the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa in 2013, the ISIS started expanding its influence back to Iraq, where the Sunni population was angry at and frustrated by the sectarian Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki.

U.S.’ strategic blunders

“A blind spot for the U.S. … has been their failure to see that by supporting the armed uprising in Syria, they would inevitably destabilise Iraq and provoke a new round of sectarian civil war…. ISIS has been able to exploit the growing sense of alienation and persecution among the Sunni in Iraq,” writes Cockburn. The U.S. war on Iraq had already shaken up its social equilibrium. Saddam’s Sunni-dominated Baath party ruled the Shia majority country for decades under a tight fist. But the post-Saddam elections saw the rise of Shias into political power. The Shia government, which cultivated very strong ties with neighbouring Iran, with whom Saddam’s regime had fought an eight-year war, did nothing to address the concerns of the Sunni community. Worst, the Iraqi government’s sectarian policies had driven Sunnis further away from the socio-political mainstream of the country, opening up space for radicalisation. Baghdadi made good use of this situation.

One of the U.S.’ greatest strategic blunders was the disbanding of Saddam’s Baathist army. Tens of thousands of skilled fighters and a number of generals, who became jobless in the wake of the U.S. invasion, found insurgency a good option to continue doing what they were trained to do—fighting. Some of them joined Al Qaeda-type organisations, while others formed tribal militias or Baathist paramilitary groups. These Sunni paramilitary groups and tribesmen such as “the Baathist Naqshbandi, Ansar al-Islam, and the Mujahideen Army” joined the ISIS in its war in Iraq. Together they won some support of the Sunni populations which were already alienated by the Shia government in Baghdad. It is in this context that the ISIS captured the Iraqi city of Falluja in January 2014. With this, it extended its influence from Raqqa in Syria to western Iraq, effectively erasing the border between the two countries. Falluja became the launch pad for the further attacks of the ISIS in Iraq. In five months, ISIS fighters were in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The fall of Mosul marked the end of a “period starting in 2005 when the Shia tried to dominate Iraq, as the Sunni had done under Saddam Hussein and monarchy”.

Cockburn says the ISIS has established itself as a “terrifying state” which will “not easily disappear”. It has redrawn the map of West Asia and created a regional war theatre where multiple actors are involved. And still, the ISIS’ enemies are unable to find common ground. The divisions among those who fight the ISIS run deeper than those between the terrorist group and its enemies. For example, Saudi Arabia is part of the U.S.-led coalition against the ISIS. Iran is a major backer of the Iraqi government in its war on the ISIS. But the Saudis and the Iranians do not see eye to eye. The intricacies of the conflict are sometimes hard to comprehend not only for analysts but for the actors themselves. It is “a Middle Eastern version of the 30 years of war in Germany of the 17th century. All sides exaggerate their own strength and imagine that temporary success on the battlefield will open the way to total victory,” says Cockburn, putting the present crisis in a historical perspective.

He does not talk about any certain solutions to the crisis. Perhaps, there may not be any convincing solution. But he points out what went wrong, and all those responsible for today’s condition of the region. The interventionist policies of the Atlantic capitals, be it in the name of democracy, human rights or whatever, were disastrous for the region. The U.S.’ war on terror itself was problematic. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York, the U.S. did not target the countries that were mostly closely involved, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. While most of the hijackers were Saudis, Pakistan was the sponsor of the Taliban, which was protecting Al Qaeda. Both countries were American allies. The Bush administration sidestepped these facts and went for a “global war on terrorism”, which backfired miserably. The U.S. failed to stabilise post-war Afghanistan, but it still went ahead with its attack on Iraq and pushed the country into anarchy and civil war. But no lessons were learnt. It went to Libya along with European allies to topple the Muammar Qaddafi regime. And then they worked together to destabilise the Assad regime in Syria through their cohorts in that country. And now the Taliban is on the comeback in Afghanistan and the ISIS is spreading from Syria to Iraq to Libya.

“There was always something fantastical about the U.S. and its Western allies teaming up with the theocratic Sunni absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to spread democracy and enhance human rights in Syria, Iraq and Libya…. ISIS is the child of war…. It was the U.S., Europe, and their regional allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and UAE that created conditions for the rise of ISIS,” writes Cockburn. But does anybody listen? Will the interventionists ever admit their mistake, even after seeing the tragedies they have caused to a people? Will there be a pragmatic common strategy to take on forces such as the ISIS? The contemporary history of West Asia says it is unlikely, given the imperialist ambitions of the big powers in the region and the geopolitical power struggle among regional actors.

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