Iraq is back on the mainstream media’s map, after having fallen off it for years. The oppressive government of Nouri al-Maliki interested few, and a survey last year finding that some 460 800 Iraqis died because of the 2003 invasion sunk without much attention. But last week, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (now known as ISIS, formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq) captured Mosul, and the resurgence of al Qaeda has alarmed many.
The US is publicly considering its ‘options’ – the polite language the media uses when the US threatens to invade and bomb other countries – and our Prime Minister seems to be contemplating joining in a re-invasion of Iraq. This will be a disaster. More precisely, the resurgence and present triumph of ISIS can properly be considered part of the broader disasters facing Western foreign policy in the Middle East, though it is typically not Westerners who suffer from our crimes, blunders, ignorance and arrogance.
When Osama Bin Laden was killed by the US in May 2011, it seemed that, if al Qaeda wasn’t quite as dead, it was not much healthier. Nir Rosen, whose journalism on Iraq has been particularly excellent, responded to the assassination with an article stressing the insignificance of al Qaeda. It was a ‘fringe organisation without roots in the Arab world’. The ‘major source of support’ for al Qaeda was not anti-Americanism, but sectarian tension between Sunnis and Shiites:
Al Qaeda is now not an anti-imperialist force, it is a Sunni group fighting Shiites in a sectarian war throughout the region. This is bin Laden’s most important legacy.
The group was ‘largely destroyed’ when America invaded Afghanistan, and thus became a ‘tactic for smaller groups to emulate’. Furthermore, he noted that ‘among the masses, there is no support for al Qaeda’. The most ‘serious blow’ to them came from the Arab uprisings, overthrowing dictators and showing that its claimed need for a ‘vanguard’ was wrong.
Back in 2006, al Qaeda in Iraq bombed the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, provoking massive retaliation and slaughter of Sunnis by Shiites. Ultimately, as Juan Cole says, the Shiites won the civil war. Cole argues that the victory of the Shiites explains the subsiding of the sectarian warfare, which is usually instead attributes to the American ‘surge‘.
However, another part of the story lies in the US arming and funding splinters from al Qaeda called the Sunni Awakening. This seemed like a short sighted policy at the time – and we may soon find out just how short sighted. Cole wrote in January that, while there used to be 100 000 fighters as part of the Awakening Councils, only 17,000 may have received government jobs after the US withdrew from the country. The sectarian al-Maliki government was presumably worried about a well-funded and armed group of Sunni militias in his country, which was not an altogether unreasonable concern. Nevertheless, those left in the lurch felt abandoned. From late 2012, Sunnis had been protesting in Anbar against the al Maliki government. The Awakening supported the protests, and as Patrick Cockburn wrote, ‘the government’s intransigence has led a peaceful protest movement to mutate into armed resistance led by al-Qaida in Iraq.’ The government’s intransigence, significantly, also created popular sympathy for such armed resistance.
Given that al Qaeda was defeated in Iraq by Iraqis, and was basically written off by knowledgeable observers like Nir Rosen by 2011, what happened? Cockburn has long argued that its resurgence should be attributed to the conflict in Syria. Cockburn wrote: ‘Al-Qa’ida in Iraq, which was seen as largely defeated three years ago, has staged a dramatic resurgence thanks to ISIS, seizing significant parts of northern and eastern Syria. Some of the fighters now holding central Fallujah are reported to be Syrians who have come across the 373-mile long border. The wars in Syria and Iraq are increasingly turning into a single conflict.’
After the old Al Qaeda in Iraq leadership was killed by US and Iraqis in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the new, and far more effective leader of the group – another demonstration, like the rise of Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, that murder and force are not always the best means for addressing one’s adversaries. As Cockburn notes, the group was ‘revived by the revolt of the Sunni in Syria in 2011 and, over the next three years by a series of carefully planned campaigns in both Iraq and Syria.’ ISIS has also benefited from the strategic advice of former intelligence officers from the Saddam era.
Cockburn observed that ‘a blind spot for the US and the Western powers 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 its sectarian civil war.’ Al Maliki has also placed particular blame on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been key supporters of jihadi insurgents in Syria.
This is a point worth stressing. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was an oppressive state, but it was mostly secular. When President George W Bush claimed there were ties between Saddam and al Qaeda, knowledgeable observers responded with ridicule. Eleven years after our invasion, with half a million dead Iraqis and a devastated country under a new tyranny, al Qaeda in its new Iraqi form is in a stronger position now than it has ever been. This is not just because of Western intervention in Iraq. Western intervention elsewhere has also played a key role.
In May 2012, I first warned of the dangers of supporting the Free Syria Army, noting its abysmal human rights record, the sectarian hatred, and signs of extremist jihadi ideology. Whilst the support for the FSA primarily came from Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab states, these governments are client states of the West. I strongly argued against further support for such groups, let alone bombing Syria (which some were already advocating). Calls for war ramped up quickly, and the media quickly fell into line with reports of Assad atrocities, regardless of the credibility of such claims (although I should stress that there are plenty of credible reports showing at length the many atrocities and human rights violations of the Assad regime). Observer bodies documenting human rights violations by Assad were not paid much attention when they documented human rights violations by the FSA. Nevertheless, as time went on, it became impossible to ignore the bin Ladenite factions of the Syrian rebels. This resulted in a spurious distinction between competing jihadi extremists in Syria – the good terrorists and the bad terrorists. As As’ad AbuKhalil noted, this has led to the strange fact that ‘the US supports and arms the Iraqi regime in its war on ISSI while the US supports and arms the foes of the Syrian regime in its war on ISSI.’
It is remarkable that after invading Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and bombing Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia to fight al Qaeda, the US would ally with extremist jihadis in Syria. But the story has largely gone unnoticed. In April last year, the Washington Post reported that the US and Jordan were stepping up their training of Syrian rebels. Nevertheless, ‘it may be too late to separate moderates from radicals among those fighting in southern Syria.’ Meanwhile, the US prepared $130m in aid to Syrian rebels, which was supposedly ‘non-lethal military aid … The supplies possibly could include body armor, armored vehicles, night vision goggles and advanced communications equipment.’ The Guardian reported that Obama had already provided $117m of such ‘non-lethal’ aid.
In December last year, Foreign Policy remarked that as the supposedly ‘moderate’ faction of Syrian rebels imploded, ‘the United States is increasingly looking to hardline Islamists in its efforts to gain leverage in Syria’s civil war. The development has alarmed U.S. observers concerned that the radical Salafists do not share U.S. values’. The group that Washington was interested in opening discussions with was the Islamic Front. As Cockburn noted, the insurgency against Assad was ‘dominated by al-Qa’ida umbrella organisation the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL); the other al-Qa’ida franchisee, the al-Nusra Front; and the Islamic Front, consisting of six or seven large rebel military formations numbering an estimated 50,000 fighters, whose uniting factor is Saudi money and an extreme Sunni ideology similar to Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam.’ Qatar had previously been the key backer of the rebels, but Saudi Arabia gradually took over. The ‘FSA was a complete pawn to foreign intelligence agencies’, which explains Western sympathy to it. However, ‘the armed opposition is dominated by Saudi-sponsored Islamist brigades on the one hand and by al-Qa’ida affiliates on the other’. Cockburn concluded that ‘US, British and French miscalculations have produced in Syria … a re-run of Afghanistan in the 1980s, creating a situation the ruinous consequences of which have yet to appear.’ Meanwhile, the ‘West’s last hope’among Syrian rebels, Jamal Maarouf, has happily admitted that, not only will he not fight against al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra in Syria, but that his fighters fight with them against Assad and ISIS. Naturally, he’s described as a ‘moderate’ rebel.
This is not all.
Two years ago, I noted with astonishment that the West, in its ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Libya, had backed open bin Ladenites – or perhaps, to adopt the now typical jargon, ‘moderate’ bin Ladenites. One result was that the ‘liberation’ of Libya looked disastrous. More recently, Seymour Hersh reported in April this year that the Obama administration created a ‘rat line’: ‘a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida.’
The mind spins as one contemplated the extent to which the US and its allies sow and reap disasters and catastrophes. The US and its allies funded extremist jihadis in Afghanistan from the late ‘70s, and extremist madrassas in Pakistan, leading to the birth of al Qaeda and the Taliban, and then, eventually, 9/11. After that, the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. The US purportedly offered its help in liberating Libya and Syria, and in so doing, gave a massive boost to jihadi extremists in Syria, who now pose a threat, and possibly a pretext for a new incursion in Iraq. If the war in Afghanistan in the 80s brought us al Qaeda, September 11, the Bali Bombings and more, I shudder to think what the Syrian war will bring in the future.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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