December Issue 2015

Cover Story

By | News & Politics | Published 2 years ago

During the course of this year, the conflict zone in and around Syria has emerged as the likeliest flashpoint for a global conflagration. There is, of course, still a reasonable chance that a third world war can be averted. But were the various, often seemingly uncoordinated shows of force somehow to spiral out of control, chances are one of the biggest regional beneficiaries would be  the Islamic State (IS), which is ostensibly the primary target of most of the other belligerents.

Turkey’s downing late last month of a Russian warplane close to its border with Syria offered a stark illustration of the huge risks involved in conducting a convoluted military campaign in which there are wide-ranging differences between the participants’ priorities.

Last month’s attacks in the French capital prompted President Francois Hollande to declare that his nation was now at war with IS – which was an unexpected revelation, given that France has been involved since last year in the bombing campaign against the jihadist outfit in Syria and Iraq. It evidently did not expect the war to come home, despite several precedents in Europe, not least the Charlie Hebdo massacre at the start of the year, combined with murders at a Jewish supermarket.

This time, though, it was seemingly different: more random, and therefore much more scary. Echoing the pattern of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the gunmen-cum-suicide-bombers targeted a stadium, a concert hall and more than one restaurant, killing people at random and thereafter seeking to justify the unspeakable violence as an attack on a culture of “vice and prostitution.”

France, inevitably, has vowed to stand by its values, and the words “we are not afraid” have echoed widely, but Parisians have been jittery in recent weeks, and many of Hollande’s utterances and actions have predictably fed into IS’s illusions about its potency. Emergency laws, restrictions on rights and bombing raids on Raqqa are just what the jihadists bargained for.

They are also likely to have been thrilled by the backlash against Muslims in general, not just in France and Belgium but pretty much across Europe, as well as in the United States. The fact that one of the Paris bombers was evidently carrying a Syrian passport (not his own) that he appears to have used to seek asylum in Europe – and which he conveniently deposited in a spot where it was likely to be found after he blew himself up outside a stadium – has, much to the delight of IS, enabled anti-refugee seeds to be sown in hitherto infertile soil.

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who unexpectedly cast herself as the primary angel of mercy in the context of asylum-seekers, is now keen to reduce asylum-seeker numbers, while more than two dozen US governors have declared that their states are off-limits to Syrian refugees, whereas others insist on restricting the refugee inflow to non-Muslims – evoking memories of the fact that ships laden with European Jews were turned back from one western county after another in the run-up to World War II and the Nazi Judeocide of the 1940s.

IS is miffed by the scale of the Syrian exodus; it was keen to host those sufficiently disenchanted with Bashar al-Assad’s broken state, but many of them have decided instead to risk their lives in rickety boats travelling to Europe. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group is inclined to judge them effectively as apostates, given that they either fled IS or chose not to seek shelter in the vast zone it controls.

Police forces prepare in St. Denis, a northern suburb of Paris, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. Authorities in the Paris suburb of St. Denis are telling residents to stay inside during a large police operation near France's national stadium that two officials say is linked to last week's deadly attacks. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

IS is particularly hostile to Shias and other non-Sunni sects – for instance, the Yazidis in Iraq and the Alawites in Syria – as well as non-Muslims more broadly, but even Sunnis who do not accept the tenets of Salafist faith are likely to find themselves at the receiving end of its well-documented wrath. It is nonetheless believed that substantial numbers of Sunnis in Iraq’s Anbar province and its environs would rather suffer the slings and arrows of IS outrages than submit to the overlordship of Shia militias loyal to the government in Baghdad, many of which are controlled by Iran.

Meanwhile, across the Sykes-Picot border that IS claims to have abolished, it is frequently pointed out that the Assad regime has claimed considerably more Syrian lives than IS without inviting foreign intervention, while the latter attracts attention, ire and firepower by posting videos of its more horrendous exploits, often involving the execution of foreigners by means that are generally considered barbaric.

Western discourse, meanwhile, invariably tends to ignore yet another complaint: namely, that the innocent victims of western intervention also die horrible deaths, but this toll seldom attracts international attention, partly because the Pentagon and its European counterparts do not publicly post videos of their exploits in “kill zones.” In the aftermath of last year’s profoundly painful massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar, the Taliban’s acknowledgment of responsibility included an explanation to the effect that “we came after your children because you keep killing ours.”

That cannot possibly serve as a justification for the monumental crime committed at the school, but it does provide fodder for contemplation.

There are both certain similarities and striking differences between the Taliban and IS. Whereas the former emerged from the cauldron of the Afghan jihad, with Saudi funding and Pakistani guidance under ISI auspices, the organisation that now calls itself Islamic State (and is also referred to as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) initially manifested itself as Al Qaeda in Iraq, shortly after the US-led invasion of that country in 2003, under the exceptionally brutal leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Zarqawi’s propensity towards violence, notably against Shias, was so extreme that even Al Qaeda’s then second-in-command, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, felt obliged to issue a reprimand. Zarqawi was successfully targeted by the Americans in Baghdad shortly before the tide began to turn, chiefly on the basis of cash handouts to tribal elders in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, who were persuaded through bribes to take up arms against anti-US insurgents.

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Although Zarqawi was succeeded as leader by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri, the Al Qaeda branch they led was considered more or less irrelevant by the time both of them were killed in 2010. Control of it passed soon afterwards to a bunch of extremists nurtured – one would like to think inadvertently – by the US in a prison called Camp Bucca. Early on in the occupation, the inmates included a charismatic, and learned man on whom the American jailers often relied to resolve petty disputes. Known even then by his adopted name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he was freed in 2004 because he was deemed to no longer pose a risk.

By then a number of prisoners at Bucca had fallen under his spell. “He was respected very much by the US Army,” a former fellow inmate told The Guardian’s Martin Chulov last year. “If he wanted to visit people in another camp, he could, but we couldn’t. And all the while, a new strategy, which he was leading, was being chalked out under their noses, and that was to build Islamic State. If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no IS now. Bucca was a factory. It made us all. It built our ideology.”

The man, who was involved with Baghdadi (albeit reluctantly, he claimed) at the time of the interview, added: “For us [Camp Bucca] was an academy. But for [the senior leaders] it was a management school. I underestimated Baghdadi. And America underestimated the role it played in making him what he is.”

Beyond the Camp Bucca environment, it was the invasion and occupation of Iraq in general that obviously created the space for the emergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq and its offshoots. By the time the bulk of American forces left Iraq, the group had begun collaborating with remnants of Saddam Hussein’s army, and the hostility of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government towards Iraq’s Sunnis enabled what had by then been rebranded as the Islamic State in Iraq to re-establish a toehold among alienated segments of the population.

It is believed to have benefited in the interim from the support and encouragement of none other than the Assad regime, which is said to have had an interest in keeping its US-occupied neighbour destabilised. The monster returned to bite the Syrian government on the backside in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, after Assad reacted repressively in the face of popular protests.

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It is still widely held that had the West intervened immediately to effect regime change, a liberal-democratic Syria would somehow miraculously have emerged from the rubble. Accepting that argument entails completely ignoring what happened in Libya, which has turned into an ungovernable jihadist redoubt since the Nato-aided lynching of Muammar Gaddafi, or for that matter the consequences of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there was at all a window of opportunity for positive change in Syria, it was extremely narrow, and only a completely different mindset among the Baathist hierarchy could possibly have produced palatable results.

As it turned out, a variety of jihadist groups – from the Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra to IS, which expanded its nomenclature to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shaam – rapidly outstripped their supposedly moderate, western-backed counterparts in terms of combat roles, with the backing of Qatar and, in due course, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The “Assad must go” mantra that began echoing from Riyadh and Ankara to Washington pointedly refused to acknowledge what would likely take his place.

Assad had Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah force and the Russians in his corner from the get-go, with both the Iranians and Hezbollah chipping in to prevent his regime from crumbling. The more recent Russian intervention has substantially bolstered Damascus further, and Vladimir Putin has had some success in persuading his western counterparts – notably Hollande in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks – that Assad’s ouster ought not to be the chief priority. Although Moscow has been accused of directing at least some of its formidable firepower at Assad’s foes other than IS, it has also embarked on a diplomatic drive aimed at bringing all non-IS forces to the negotiating table.

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This may be a worthy endeavour, but it seems unlikely for the time being to bear much fruit. Whereas much of the West appears willing to resign itself to an interim role for Assad, the Turks and Saudis and other Gulf potentates remain irreconcilably opposed to any such prospect. Despite IS terrorist attacks in Turkey, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemingly remains far more concerned about the Kurds – who have played a crucial role in combating IS in both Syria and Iraq. Conversations between Moscow and Riyadh, meanwhile, appear to have had little effect in persuading the Saudis that IS poses the biggest threat to regional as well as global security.

The Saudi approach is broadly consistent with the role it has played in similar circumstances through the decades. It matched CIA funding for the Afghan jihad during the Soviet occupation and contributed Osama bin Laden to the cause, besides providing the wherewithal for the Pakistani madrassahs that groomed the Taliban. Its domestic ideology is more or less compatible with that of IS, and its war against the Houthis in Yemen, in alliance with the UAE, is believed to have bolstered Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the outfit behind last January’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

One could be excused for assuming that in the Middle East, the Saudi attitude is as much a part of the problem as IS, with the UAE playing a significant secondary role. Neither faces any repercussions from the West, notwithstanding evidence of private funding from both sources for IS, whose dogged antipathy towards Tehran is shared by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. In fact, when either of them shows the slightest interest in expanding their bristling arsenals of military hardware, salesmen from Britain, France and the US, among others, line up straightaway to compete for favours.

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As long as countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE not only remain complacent about the scale of the IS threat but contribute to sustaining it, defeating the jihadist force that currently occupies territory from Mosul in Iraq to Raqqa in Syria – that rivals Great Britain in terms of size – will remain a tricky prospect. It seems reasonably clear that aerial bombardment alone is unlikely to dislodge Baghdadi’s troops from his “caliphate,” which continues to attract recruits not only from neighbouring countries, but also from the Muslim diaspora in the West. What’s more, having demonstrated its capacity for inflicting harm on a European capital, IS is likely to encourage repeat performances elsewhere.

It is tempting to see Islamic State as a medieval throwback that derives much of its inspiration from early Islamic history, but it is at the same time a thoroughly modern force, more than willing to exploit the latest technology for propaganda purposes as well as more dire ends. It’s very much a 21st-century phenomenon, and its savagery in a way reflects the temper of these times. The new millennium dawned with the terrorist atrocities of September 11, 2001. It was the incredibly stupid response to those attacks, though, that established the template for long-term confrontations.

Ultimately, it’ll take boots on the ground to meaningfully tackle IS. But they must be Arab, rather than western or Russian, boots. That seems to be a distant prospect. For the moment, containment alone would be quite an achievement; combined with diplomatic efforts to resolve the bloody impasse affecting the rest of Syria, it could possibly point to a way forward. As things stand, there’s precious little scope for optimism; meanwhile, every Islamophobic deed or utterance on the western front is a victory of sorts for IS. It could be a long while before the tide turns.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2015 issue.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.