My central point is that the Syrian opposition’s sponsors – the Western powers, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – queered the pitch early on with their insistence that Assad must go, a point that Slocock does not contest. Given the degree of dependence of the Syrian opposition on its external sponsors and the clearly stated position of these sponsors, it has been unrealistic to expect the regime to make concessions to its Syrian opponents for as long as their foreign sponsors’ position remains unchanged and the armed insurgency continues with external support. Hence my conclusion that Western policy should be changed, a conclusion Slocock does not address.
Islamic State came out of Iraq, as Patrick Cockburn explains: the movement initially called the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), then the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) or in Iraq and the Levant (Isil), had roots in al-Qaida in Iraq, which, under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, waged sectarian war on the US-sponsored regime in Baghdad and the Shia in general until Zarqawi’s death in 2006. Al-Qaida in Iraq were jihadis; Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria are jihadist; the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria were jihadist. But Islamic State is something else. Cockburn provides an invaluable history of IS along with a powerful critique of Western policy in Iraq and Syria and an unsparing analysis of Shia politics in Baghdad. In their book Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan lean much further towards Filiu’s thesis, that the rise of IS can be blamed in large part on the Assad regime, and they devote a chapter to the dealings between the Syrian intelligence services and Sunni jihadi groups in Iraq. I don’t doubt that such dealings occurred. Syria opposed the Anglo-American war on Iraq in 2003 and the destruction of the Iraqi state created a zone of insecurity the length of Syria’s eastern border. Syria was bound to make it its business to get a handle on what was going on in western and northern Iraq by establishing contacts with and infiltrating whatever armed movements emerged there. But I think Cockburn is right when he dismisses as a conspiracy theory the idea that Assad helped create IS, not because I refuse to consider conspiracy theories (conspiracies occur), but because the theory ignores the fact that IS and the Assad regime are fighting each other. Besides, Assad has had sound military reasons to concentrate on other fronts and leave IS in the north-east for later. The regime might also, as Lakhdar Brahimi told Der Spiegel, be trying to say to Syrians: ‘“This is the future you will have if we are not there anymore.”’
When the Afghan jihadist – backed, like their Syrian successors today, by the Gulf states and Anglo-America – finally overthrew the secular-modernist Najibullah regime, they immediately fell out among themselves and Afghanistan collapsed into violent warlordism.
But, unlike Somalia, Afghanistan was rescued by a dynamic movement that suddenly appeared on its southern marches and swept all before it, crushing the warlords and finally establishing a new state. In the aftermath of the jihad our governments had sponsored and our media had enthusiastically reported, secular modernism was no longer on offer: militantly retrograde Islamism was the only political discourse around and it was inevitably the most fundamentalist brand that won. The victors called their state an emirate, the realm of an amir (‘commander’, ‘prince’). IS calls its state a caliphate – khilāfa – and this matters.
No doubt strictly local factors have facilitated IS’s project. Their capital, Raqqa, a large town in a strategic location on the Euphrates in the center of northern Syria, has long had ties with Iraq. To the west of Raqqa, near the Turkish frontier, is the town of Dabiq, where, in 1516, the Ottomans’ victory over the Mamluk sultanate in the battle of Marj Dabiq opened the way for their conquest of the Arab lands. In Islamic eschatology, Dabiq is one of the two possible locations of a battle between Muslims and an invading Christian army which the Muslims will win, their victory marking the beginning of the end of days. Dabiq is the title of Islamic State’s official online magazine.
Since the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 its restoration has been proposed at intervals by various Sunni Islamists: it has long been a declared aim of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Liberation party, and in 1994 the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria went so far as to name the members of a restored caliphate’s new government. These rhetorical gestures led nowhere. But IS has done what others talked of. It has an army comprising highly equipped regular forces as well as guerrilla forces, it controls a large territory, it has an oil industry, it has a tax system, it has a system of local government and a system of justice. It fights like a state, it sees like a state and it punishes like a state. It carries conviction and meets with belief. It doesn’t care that it horrifies us; it knows that millions of Muslims have been horrified by what our governments have been doing to them.
The Taliban chose not to call their state a caliphate because they had no wider ambitions: their emirate was simply a new and better form of the Afghan state. IS, on the other hand, is reconnecting northern Iraq and northern Syria – reverting to what the Sykes-Picot agreement envisaged before Lloyd George amended it – and it isn’t a simple emanation of jihadi Islamism. The former members of Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, whom IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took with him into the new project, haven’t been building IS by themselves.
When the Taliban began their drive across Afghanistan, they had the backing of Pakistan. The movement had matured in the madrasas of Pakistan’s north-west and there is no doubt that the Pakistani intelligence services were supporting it: Pakistan had every reason to be weary of the vacuum to the north, and what better way to fill it? IS, remarkably, appears to have grown and spread without the backing of any other state. Except that isn’t quite right: it has had the backing of an ex-state – the Baathist state overthrown in 2003.
As Hassan and Weiss explain, after the 1990-91 war, Saddam acted to shore up his regime by enhancing its religious legitimacy: he wanted to combine the ‘pan-Arabism in one country’ that he, like Assad next door, had long been pursuing with a resurgent Islamism. Iraqi Baathists developed ties with Sunni religious figures and the gulf between formerly divergent outlooks was bridged. Al-Baghdadi, born in 1971, comes from a tribe with a noble ancestry that goes back to the Prophet’s tribe, the Quraysh. But his birthplace, Samarra, was a Baathist stronghold and his family undoubtedly had Baathist connections. He was always going to be open to the idea of collaborating with former Baathists if the terms were right.
The ‘Islamic faith campaign’ that Saddam set in motion was orchestrated by his loyal lieutenant Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a member of an important Sufi order, the Naqshbandiyya. When Baghdad fell to US troops, al-Douri went on the run and was never tracked down. Reported at intervals to have died, he was busy building an insurgent network of his own, Jaish Rijāl al-Tarīqa al-Naqshbandiyya, ‘the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order’. The JRTN is rumored to have played a considerable part in the ‘Sunni insurgency’ between 2003 and 2006. The relationship between al-Douri’s organization and IS is unclear; it may be an alliance rather than a merger. But there is no doubt that numerous senior figures in the IS are former Baathists, including some former officers of the Iraqi army who had nowhere else to go after Paul Bremer’s fateful decision in May 2003 to dissolve the army and dismiss all members of the top echelons of the Baath Party from the state administration. The presence in its upper ranks of ex-Baathist officers largely explains the military prowess that IS has demonstrated. But there may be more to the Baathist connection than that.
In a lecture at Harvard’s Kennedy School last March, the Palestinian scholar Yezid Sayigh argued that the Iraqi Baath supplied the organizational template for Islamic State and that this has shaped its geopolitical perspectives and strategy. Unlike the Syrian Baath, which limited its strategic ambitions to its ‘near-abroad’, the Iraqi Baath in its heyday had ambitions far afield. No doubt Baghdad’s eternal rivalry with Cairo had a lot to do with this. The Iraqi Baath recruited members and established branches across the Arab world, in Jordan and Lebanon but also in Libya and Mauritania; Sayigh suggested that the reason IS has been following the same script is that Baathist savoir-faire has been available to it. And this in part explains the logic of the decision to call the state a caliphate. Pan-Arabism is a concept that has had its day but pan-Islamism has become contemporary again, and the architects of a caliphate, if they continue to succeed, have a chance of outflanking all their rivals within Sunni Islamism and attracting allegiance across the Middle East and North Africa and even beyond (IS may already be making headway in the Caucasus). So we may be seeing the resurrection of a form of Arab nationalism in the medium of fundamentalist pan-Islamism.
Cockburn argues that ‘for America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of Isis and the caliphate is the ultimate disaster.’ There are certainly grounds for thinking he is right. But there are also grounds for wondering. His book went to press before he could take account of the extraordinary revelation that US intelligence had anticipated the rise of Islamic State nearly two years before it happened. On 18 May, a document from the US Defense Intelligence Agency dated 12 August 2012 was published by a conservative watchdog organization called Judicial Watch, which had managed to obtain this and other formerly classified documents through a federal lawsuit. The document not only anticipates the rise of IS but seems to suggest it would be a desirable development from the point of view of the international ‘coalition’ seeking regime change in Damascus. Here are the key passages:
7b. Development of the current events into proxy war … Opposition forces are trying to control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor), adjacent to the western Iraqi provinces (Mosul and Anbar), in addition to neighboring Turkish borders. Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey are supporting these efforts. This hypothesis is most likely in accordance with the data from recent events, which will help prepare safe havens under international sheltering, similar to what transpired in Libya when Benghazi was chosen as the command center of the temporary government …
8c. If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.
So American intelligence saw IS coming and was not only relaxed about the prospect but, it appears, positively interested in it. The precise formula used in paragraph 8c is intriguing. It doesn’t talk of ‘the possibility that Isis might establish a Salafist principality’ but of ‘the possibility of establishing’ a Salafist principality. So who was to be the prime mover in this process? Did IS have a state backing it after all?
A second piece of evidence is a map prepared by Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Peters of the US War Academy and published in the Armed Forces Journal in June 2006. It shows a ‘New Middle East’ that, as imagined by Colonel Peters, would annoy most of the region’s current governments. What is striking is that, in place of Iraq and Syria, it suggests there could be three states, an ‘Arab Shia’ state extending up to Baghdad, a ‘Sunni Iraq’ and then ‘Syria’, with the last two shorn of their Kurdish districts, now included in a new state of ‘Free Kurdistan’. On its own the map proves nothing beyond one man’s imagination and the fact that a journal found it interesting enough to print. But it suggests that the partition of Iraq has been envisaged in senior US circles as a possibility for the last nine years. With the advances IS has made over the last year, talk of partition, both of Iraq and of Syria, has been increasing.
What we can make of this is, of course, unclear. At one extreme, conspiracy theorists will argue that it supports their claim that the Western powers have been deliberately creating chaos for unavow able reasons of their own. At the other end of the spectrum, one could hypothesize that the DIA document may have been read by four unimportant people in Washington and ignored by everyone else. In the middle, showing more respect for the DIA, we could imagine something else: the possibility that, in 2012, American and other Western intelligence services saw Isis much as they saw Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadi groups, as useful auxiliaries in the anti-Assad drive, and could envisage its takeover of north-eastern Syria as a helpful development with no worrying implications. If Islamic State escaped whatever influence Western intelligence services may initially have sought to have on it and went its own way, this means that people have been playing with fire.
I don’t pretend to know what the truth is. But there is no need to prove malign intent on the part of the Western powers. The most charitable theory available, ‘the eternally recurring colossal cock-up’ theory of history, will do well enough. If a more sophisticated theory is required, I suggest we recall the assessment of C. Wright Mills when he spoke of US policy being made by ‘crackpot realists’, people who were entirely realistic about how to promote their careers inside the Beltway, and incorrigible crackpots when it came to formulating foreign policy. Since it is not only American folly and incompetence that is in the dock, I would also recall the assessment of Ernest Bevin, who remarked that ‘superiority is claimed by the middle class in the realms of government, when as a matter of fact their work is a monument of incompetence.’
Western policy has been a disgrace and Britain’s contribution to it should be a matter of national shame. Whatever has motivated it, it has been a disaster for Iraq, Libya and now Syria, and the fallout is killing Americans, French people and now British tourists, in addition to its uncounted victims in the Middle East. The case for changing this policy, at least where Syria is concerned, is overwhelming. Can Washington, London and Paris be persuaded of this? Cockburn quotes a former Syrian minister’s pessimistic assessment that ‘they climbed too far up the tree claiming Assad has to be replaced to reverse their policy now.’ But at least one significant American voice has been arguing for the last five months that this is indeed what they should do.
No one was a more zealous advocate of the ‘support the revolution/regime change’ policy than the US ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, Robert Ford. He believed in the policy of backing the ‘moderate’ elements fighting the regime and unhesitatingly called for them to be armed. But he drew the line at the more extreme jihadist, and notably at Jabhat al-Nusra, unable to accept that the US could support an affiliate of al-Qaida. This wasn’t a problem for Paris, apparently. In early May, on a visit to Qatar, to which France had just sold 24 Rafale jets, François Hollande declared that it was French policy to aim for a transition in Syria ‘that excludes President Bashar al-Assad, but comprises all opposition groups as well as some individual components of the regime’. All opposition groups. And this wasn’t a departure: in December 2012, his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, declared, with reference to Jabhat al-Nusra, that ‘sur le terrain, ils font du bon boulot’ (‘on the ground, they are doing a good job’). Ford couldn’t stomach this, and had the courage to accept that the policy he had championed had failed.
What can be done about Islamic State? As things stand, very little. As Cockburn was among the first to point out, air power will not stop it and nor will the corruption-ridden and demoralized Iraqi army; meanwhile, the much more combative but ferociously sectarian Shia militias are driving Sunni Iraqis into Islamic State’s arms. Sending in Western troops would be folly, a gift to the enemy. Training a few hundred Iraqis here or a few hundred Syrians there is obviously not a serious policy but a fatuous surrogate for one. What does this leave? The answer is that unless the Syrian army takes on Islamic State, IS will stay in business indefinitely.
On 10 June the Telegraph’s defense correspondent reported that Western officials were working to persuade Moscow and Tehran to abandon Assad. The argument they apparently put forward was that, since he is losing the war, the strategic priority for Russia and Iran must be to prevent IS capturing Damascus. Even if you accept the first part of the premise, there are gaping holes in the idea as reported by the Telegraph. If Assad is dropped, what next? If the regime holds together and carries on regardless, the jihadi movements and IS will continue to fight it. Why should the Syrian army do better in those circumstances than it is doing now? If the regime implodes, as it could well do, its army can hardly be expected to keep fighting and hold the IS at bay. And if it implodes but ‘moderate’ Sunnis are somehow eased with magical promptness into the saddle, the state won’t maintain its strong relationship to Iran; it will reverse course in deference to its Gulf sponsors, and Tehran will have suffered a strategic defeat that will greatly weaken its alliance with Hezbollah. Why should the ayatollahs agree to this? And in such circumstances Moscow would be bound to lose most of its purchase on Damascus as well. The notion that getting rid of Assad will facilitate the defeat of Islamic State is wishful thinking, a crackpot’s daydream. If the Western powers genuinely want an end to Islamic State, they must will the necessary means to this end.
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