Mistakes must not be repeated
"Inhuman, horrifying, worse than al-Qaida". In their assessment of the Islamic State terrorist group (IS), for once, everyone – from Washington to Teheran – is in agreement. There is also general agreement that the world must do something to stop this murderous gang. But as ever, the devil is in the detail. Air raids or airlifts? Assault weapons or radios? Who should supply what to whom to protect hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and possibly also Syrians from the brutal tyranny of these self-appointed caliphs and emirs?
To avoid any misunderstandings: Islamic State is not a political force that has developed at regional level with an armed wing and the support of local populations, as is the case with Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon or the PKK in Turkey. IS is terror in its purest form and welcome nowhere. Locals are fleeing its fighters in the hundreds of thousands, because the combination of subjectivity, ignorance and arrogance with which IS is interpreting Islam to further its own interests cannot be surpassed.
The group is a melting pot for professional jihadists from all over the world, for frustrated, angry and disorientated individuals, for desperate local fighters in search of pay and for opportunists with different ideological and political goals in temporary allegiance with IS.
Anyone setting out to vanquish IS terror in the long term must first understand where the movement comes from and how it has been able to spread so rapidly. In this respect, the West, and in particular the US, bears considerable responsibility. A decade of failed US foreign policy lies behind us: interventionism guided by the imperialist interests of George W. Bush was followed by the determined non-intervention of Barack Obama – both with devastating results.
Consequences of the West's foreign policy failures
What we are now seeing in Iraq and Syria – the disintegration of two states, the dissolution of national borders, a state of lawlessness and chaos and the rise of a militia that puts even al-Qaida in the shade as far its dehumanising brutality is concerned – is related to the ignorance and disorientation of the West's Middle East policies.
Let us begin in Iraq. The Americans brought war into the country in 2003. They toppled Saddam Hussein, dissolved the Iraqi army and the Ba'ath Party and tried to establish peace and order with their own soldiers. It was a fatal course of action because in doing so, they made themselves occupiers and, at the same time, created their own enemy. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis – soldiers, former leaders and officials – suddenly had nothing and found a new cause in resisting US troops.
"Al-Qaida in Iraq" (AQI) emerged under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. AQI is a brutal offshoot of the terrorist group that primarily targeted Iraqi Shias as well as US soldiers. The politically exploited denominational hatred between Sunnis and Shias – previously alien to the Iraqis – grew and was further stoked by rival regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia. After Afghanistan, Iraq became the new magnet for jihadists from all over the world.
In late 2006, "al-Qaida in Iraq" changed its name to "Islamic State in Iraq" (ISI). The Americans realised that they could only fight the terror with the help of local Sunnis and found its "revivalist movement" to be a key partner in efforts to drive the ISI underground in the year 2008.
When the uprising against the Assad regime began in Syria in early 2011 and the nation gradually descended into chaos, the terrorists sensed their opportunity. In early 2013, ISI expanded into Syria and henceforth called itself the "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria" (ISIS or ISIL, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). In this endeavour, the jihadists were not, however, fighting against Assad's army. They were instead fighting for supremacy over territory previously liberated by the Syrian rebels. In doing so, they further weakened the anti-Assad movement. This suited the Syrian regime, which initially tolerated and sometimes even encouraged this state of affairs.
Since then, the rebels of the "Free Syrian Army" (FSA) and its residual elements as well as the fighters of the "Islamic Front" (Syria's local Islamist associations) have had two enemies. But without support from the West, they are equally powerless against Assad's bombing terror from the air and the decapitation terror of ISIS on the ground.
The West and its values
By looking on, for the most part idly, as the Syrian regime bombs, tortures, gases and starves civilians to death, without undertaking anything to protect them, Europe and the US are denying their own values. Instead of moving quickly to build up the Free Syrian Army – itself founded by deserters – into an alternative Syrian army or at least consistently arming the moderate rebels (in other words those who speak out in favour of the co-existence of all denominations and ethnic groups), the West left the support and therefore the influence of the armed opposition to others: Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and ultimately also al-Qaida.
Al-Qaida's official offshoot in Syria, the "Nusra Front", broke with ISIS when the latter's head, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced plans to declare himself the sole representative of the terror network in Iraq and Syria in 2013 and was subsequently called to heel by al-Qaida leader Aiman al-Zawahiri. Baghdadi left al-Qaida and has since been working under his own steam to establish a caliphate in the historic "Bilad Al-Sham", or in other words in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Since the start of the offensive in northern Iraq in early June, ISIS has referred to itself simply as IS (Islamic State), with Baghdadi as caliph.
So the US and its allies have contributed to the rise of the Islamic State on two levels at once. In Iraq, they created the basis for the terrorists; in Syria, they left the power vacuum to them. By starting one war (Iraq) and not helping to end an other (the war of extermination waged by the Assad regime against the Syrians), they bear huge responsibility for the suffering of the people in the region. And this is precisely why the West must act now.
Nevertheles, caution is needed. The situation is complex, and mistakes must not be repeated. In the search for a happy medium between imperialism and ignorance, five lessons learned from the developments of recent years might be of assistance.
The West's duty to protect
Firstly, the battle against IS must not be about attaining political targets and protecting economic interests. It must not even be about "our values". Instead, it must solely be about about protection, about saving civilians, about their sheer survival. The "responsibility to protect" principle enshrined in international law is the only justification for military intervention. Are there not already enough weapons in the region? Yes, it is true that Assad and IS have everything they need. Only the Peshmerga and the FSA occasionally run out of munitions, which is unfortunate for all those who depend on them for protection.
Secondly, the West should limit its military activity to the absolute minimum. That means no ground troops, no occupation; instead, help for people to help themselves. All non-governmental armed groups opposing IS must be supported – regardless of whether they are in Iraq or Syria. Because IS is establishing its caliphate across borders, we must stop thinking in terms of nation states. Or do we want to save the Yazidis in Iraq by bringing them "to safety" in Syria, only to leave them to the terrorists there? In northern Iraq it is the Peshmerga, in north-eastern Syria the Kurdish PYD fighters, in the region around Damascus it is the Islamic Army (a member of the Islamic Front) and in southern Syria the Free Syrian Army who are fighting IS. It is they who are protecting civilians on the ground, so they are our allies. We must work together with them in a flexible and unbureaucratic manner, even though they are not states.
Thirdly, only the region's Sunnis can vanquish IS in the long term because only they are in a position to ideologically undermine the terrorists by winning moderate Islamists and respected religious scholars for the battle against IS and thereby all those who have sealed an alliance with the terrorist organisation for temporary power-political reasons. The Sunnis should be politically bolstered, afforded greater responsibility and not regarded with general suspicion.
Fourthly, support must not be limited to the Kurds and must not be focused solely on religious minorities. The primary victims of the violence in the region are not Christians, but Muslims. Arms shipments to the Peshmerga in northern Iraq are right and important, but the West must not add further fuel to the dispute between Kurds and Arabs. Levels of mistrust and hatred between the two communities are already on the rise, with the threat of ethnic disintegration present in both Iraq and Syria. Even though an independent Kurdish state would be a natural and desirable development in the long term, in the conflict with IS, everyone must act in concert: Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Yazidis, Alawites, Druze and Ishmaelites must form a united front against the terror.
Fifthly, the West must be wary of false allies. Both the Assad regime and the Maliki government paved the way for Islamic State, the former with its unbridled violence and propaganda, the latter with its policies of exclusion. They are the cause of the jihadist advance, not part of the solution. Therefore, neither can become allies in the war against the terror.
Western leaders have already realised this in the case of Maliki and are hoping for the formation of a consensus government led by Iraqi Prime Minister designate Haider al-Abadi. In the case of Assad, on the other hand, some politicians appear to believe his fable that he is the "guarantor of stability and patron saint of minorities".
Let us not forget that Assad describes anyone who defies him as a terrorist: school children, peaceful demonstrators, Christian filmmakers, Alawite deserters, women smuggling medication, journalists and doctors. And what Assad's henchmen are doing to Syrian civilians is no better than the terror perpetrated by IS. Not only that, their crimes against humanity – small children stabbed to death, mass rape, prisoners tortured to death, the enforced starvation of entire neighbourhoods, barrel bombs dropped on residential areas as well as targeted attacks on clinics and bakeries – are also systematic. The only difference is that while the jihadists stage a media presentation of their gruesome acts, the rulers in Damascus cover them up. IS brags about what it is doing; Assad denies it.
Assuming responsibility, changing strategy
For years, the West's foreign policy approach to the Middle East has been short sighted, counterproductive and dishonest. What we need now is a shrewd blend of engagement and restraint. Where there is a threat of genocide, or if this is already taking place, we must shoulder the responsibility and protect civilians – against both a murderous regime, such as the one in Syria, and a gang of terrorists, such as IS – with all the means at our disposal.
As soon as the threat has been averted, we should limit ourselves to humanitarian aid and support in the reconstruction process. Establishing a new political order and setting societal developments in motion are the job of the Iraqis and the Syrians. They must find their own way to co-determination and power distribution; they must act alone to tackle corruption, patriarchal structures and authoritarianism. We can foster local civil-society forces working to address these issues, but that is all.
By not simply proclaiming human rights but actually committing ourselves to their implementation, we make the people of the region our allies. If we do this, we will regain something crucial in the Middle East – our credibility.
© Qantara.de 2014
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de
Journalist Kristin Helberg lived and worked in Damascus as a freelance correspondent from 2001 until 2009. An updated edition of her book "Brennpunkt Syrien. Einblick in ein verschlossenes Land" (Flashpoint Syria. Perspectives on a Secretive Nation) was published in February 2014 by Herder.