West Asia

Fuelled by chaos

Print edition : March 20, 2015

March 30, 2003: A young Iraqi girl flees Basra in southern Iraq as war rages on. The Gulf War of 2003 is one of the main reasons for the emergence of the Islamic State in the region. Photo: DAN CHUNG/AP

Abdel Hakim Belhaj, one of the key figures in the Tripoli government, addressing a gathering against the ousted Muammar Qaddafi on September 9, 2011. Photo: Francois Mori/AP

The Suleyman Shah mausoleum after it was relocated by Turkish forces in an operation carried out on February 22 in Syria. Photo: Ilyas Akengin/AFP

Yahya al-Houthi,  brother of the leader of the Houthis, Abdel Malik al-Houthi, at a rally in Sana’a on February 7. Photo: Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS

The deadly detritus of the illegal Iraq War can be seen in Libya, Syria and Yemen in the form of the Islamic State. Only an end to war and a regional entente can stop its growth.

THE United States government no longer has an embassy in Damascus (Syria), Tripoli (Libya) or Sana’a (Yemen). These three countries are in the front line of what the U.S. government sees as its War on Terror. Ten years ago, the War on Terror looked as if it had succeeded in the region. Both Libya and Syria actively collaborated with the West in the incarceration and torture of “enemy combatants”—Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison and Damascus’ Far’ Falastine prison became home to a number of these prisoners. Yemen, meanwhile, had been an area of concern since it was home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). By 2002, however, the AQAP had been largely wiped out by a combination of police work and military strikes.

In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq. Public pressure not to do so went unheeded in President George W. Bush’s White House. The United Nations warned several times that such an attack would only bring instability to the region. It fell on deaf ears. In 2002, Vice-President Dick Cheney promoted the erroneous view that Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party was linked to the forces of jehad. If the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein, Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars, “extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of jehad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart.” Precisely the opposite occurred in the region, with the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq providing the spur to revive largely dormant jehadi groups. All the dynamics of progressive change came under attack from the one-party regimes (who feared them as potential agents of regime change by the U.S.) and from the jehadis. Yemen’s prisons incubated the rebirth of Al Qaeda, while the battlefields of Iraq allowed these Yemenis the experience of warfare to bring back to their small country.

Libyan and Syrian radicals, who had previously fought in the archipelago of jehad, from Chechnya to Afghanistan, descended upon Iraq. A study by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, “Al Qaeda’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq” (2007), found that the majority of foreigners in the country came from Saudi Arabia, followed by Libya, Syria and Yemen. By 2011, these jehadis would be back in their home countries—leading figures in Al Qaeda of the Maghreb, the amorphous Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Just as the Afghan jehad had provided experience and a reputation for the generation before them, these new fighters created the basis for their politics and network in Iraq.

How the U.N. sees it

It is no wonder that in recent weeks, senior U.N. officials have pointed the finger at the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq as the reason for the emergence of the Islamic State (I.S.). Kofi Annan, not known for his criticism of the West when he was the U.N. Secretary-General, nonetheless pointed to the illegality of the Iraq War. It needs to be said that he did not publicly say this in 2003, in the lead-up to the war, but waited until September 2004. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, there was considerable discomfort in the U.N. about its close association with the war itself and then in the humanitarian work it began to conduct in its aftermath. The close association of the U.N. with the West worried U.N. officials across West Asia. Kofi Annan said little in public about the illegality of the war. Then, in August 2003, a massive truck bomb killed Annan’s Special Representative to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. That outrageous bombing was carried out by Al Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise, which was led by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It took a long while for the U.N. to recover from this blow. A year later, Annan told the BBC that the war “was not in conformity with the U.N. Charter. From our point of view and from the Charter point of view it was illegal.”

In early February this year, Annan expanded upon his criticism. “The folly of that fateful decision [to invade Iraq] was compounded by post-invasion decisions,” he said at the Munich Security Conference. “The wholesale disbandment of the security forces, among other measures, poured hundreds of thousands of trained and disgruntled soldiers and policemen onto the streets. The ensuing chaos has proved an ideal breeding ground for the Sunni radical groups that have now coalesced around the Islamic State label.”

The senior U.N. diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi recently spoke at the Fikra Conference in his native Algeria. Brahimi had been the U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, following in the post after Kofi Annan. He had earlier been involved in Afghanistan and Lebanon, where he worked to bring together warring parties against the centrifugal pressures of world powers. “There is no doubt that the original sin which led to the emergence of the Islamic State is the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. There was no justification for the war in Iraq, and we all suffer the consequences.”

More of the same

The consequences have been brutal.

Yemen is in a state of civil war. The government was overthrown in February when the Houthi rebels came into the capital from their northern redoubts. These rebels, members of a tribal confederacy, had a relatively peaceful relationship with the government until 2004, when President Ali Abdullah Saleh decided to use the fig leaf of the War on Terror to go after his opponents. The killing of the leader of the Houthis by the Saleh government opened up another front in northern Yemen, allowing Al Qaeda to grow in the eastern desert towns of Jaar and Al-Husn. The Houthis despise Al Qaeda, and yet it was against them that Saleh used his U.S.-granted equipment. Petty jealousies and geopolitical squabbles have thrown Yemen into deep disarray.

There are few signs of peace in Syria. As the U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, sought an armistice agreement for the beleaguered city of Aleppo, forces around him continued the bloody war. The U.S. and Turkey agreed to train 5,000 Syrian rebels this year either in Turkey or in the Persian Gulf to take on the I.S., with an indication that they would also be permitted to attack Syrian government forces. On February 21, Turkish troops crossed into Syria to move the mausoleum of Suleyman Shah, ancestor of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. Syrian government forces, meanwhile, continued their siege of Aleppo and carried out attacks to its north to close off supply lines to Turkey, killing civilians in a raid on Hraytan and Rityan, towns taken by the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra days earlier. The relation between Jabhat al-Nusra and its parent organisation, the I.S., is hard to define—in one town, they compete against each other and in another they are tightly allied.

Across the length of Libya, the I.S. has begun to assert itself. It has drawn from old Libyan jehadi networks —veterans of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq and most recently Syria—as well as foreign fighters, disgruntled Islamists who had joined Ansar al-Sharia, and experienced Muammar Qaddafi-era soldiers and policemen. Qaddafi’s home town Sirte is in its hands, as is the eastern town of Dernah, home to Libya’s Islamist currents for a long time. Arrayed against the I.S. are the contending governments of Libya—that in Tripoli, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the other in Tobruk, backed by the West. What is startling is that one of the key figures in the Tripoli government is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the former emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. He finds the I.S. too extreme.

What is the Western reaction to this detritus of the Iraq War? More of the same. Battles are ongoing in Iraq and Syria, with plans to increase their intensity. In Libya, Italian and French officials openly talk of another NATO intervention. The U.S. seems to be perfectly happy with Egyptian bombings and perhaps an Egyptian military deployment. In Yemen, drone strikes continue and threats against the Houthi-led government intensify. Will the language of war be able to break the back of the I.S. and the other jehadi currents in the region? Lakhdar Brahimi does not think so. “The ‘Islamic State’ will be defeated,” he said in Algeria, “not just through bombardment from the air, but through a political process in Iraq, Syria and Libya.”

Political process

What does Brahimi mean by a “political process”? He is not a naïve man. Brahimi helped broker the Taif Agreement, which suspended the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). In 2012, a member of Brahimi’s team told me that the envoy had hoped that the West and the Russians would allow sufficient space for the Syrian Contact Group to germinate. This group comprised regional adversaries: Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In West Asia, one of the main confrontations is between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their animosity has indeed fuelled the conflicts in Iraq and Syria as well as in Lebanon.

In northern Africa, the main regional confrontation lies within the Gulf, between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. If these regional animosities could be smoothed over, the space for a political process might open up. By 2012, it was clear to the Brahimi team that in Syria a stalemate had been reached: the Old Syria, fully dominated by the Bashar al-Assad regime, could not be recreated, nor could the Assad government be dislodged. Sober minds would have to prevail, and ambitions for regime and regional change by force would have to be held in check. The Syrian Contact Group bore within it the germ of hope. But it was not allowed to grow.

Over two years later, with tens of thousands more dead and with the I.S. emerging as a major player in the region, ideas such as the Syrian Contact Group would need to be revisited to form the basis for a political process.

The West has neither the influence it once had, nor ideas for the region. Its ideas seem counterproductive. To end chaos would mean to create a regional entente. This would require that the new Cold War in the Arab world be drawn down. A regional compact between the major states in the region would make it more difficult for groups like the I.S. to finance, arm and control vast amounts of territory. War is the fuel of the I.S.; the end of chaos in the region would be its antithesis.

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