FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Rise of ISIS and the Ironies of US Foreign Policy

by

At the start of classes one year ago, I had to explain to my students why the United States appeared to be on the verge of going to war against the Syrian government. At the beginning of this semester, exactly one year later, I’m having to explain to my students why the United States may be on the verge of going to war against Syrian rebels.

Already, U.S. planes and missiles have been attacking the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) forces in northern Iraq. Given the threat of a genocidal campaign against Yazidis and other minorities and the risks of ISIS control expanding into the Kurdish region, even some of those normally averse to unilateral U.S. military intervention abroad have considered it the lesser of two evils.

Within days, however, there were already indications of “mission creep,” as what had been officially declared an exclusively defensive mission turned offensive when the United States provided air support for Kurdish and Iraqi forces, which seized the Mosul Dam from ISIS forces.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there is skepticism regarding this use of military force. Even if one can make a convincing strategic case for such a military operation, the failure of President Obama to go before Congress for authorization of this renewed military intervention in Iraq is extremely disturbing.

Ironically, President Obama has been getting high-profile criticism from those wishing he had been more aggressive with projecting American military power. For example, in a well-publicized interview in The Atlantic, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blamed the rise of ISIS on Obama’s failure to sufficiently arm and support the so-called moderate rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Such a charge defies logic, however. The FSA consists of literally hundreds of separate militia without a central command, largely composed of relatively inexperienced fighters, who would have been no match for the well-armed, experienced, disciplined fighters of ISIS, regardless of the amount of weapons the U.S. might have provided. In fact, it was an awareness of ISIS’s potential dominance of the Syrian rebel movement that served as an important reason why the Obama administration didn’t go beyond the relatively limited arming and training of a few small groups affiliated with the FSA.

Indeed, part of ISIS’s military prowess comes from weapons they captured from overrunning FSA positions and from their ranks supplemented by FSA fighters who, in the course of the three-year battle with Assad’s forces, became radicalized and switched sides.

In any case, ISIS has found an even stronger foothold in Iraq than Syria, a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation. In a profile of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a one-time moderate Sufi turned Salafist extremist, the New York Times observed, “At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq — most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action.”

Almost immediately after the 2003 invasion, U.S. occupation forces systematically dismantled the country’s secular national institutions, which were quickly filled by both Sunni and Shia extremists (actions which Hillary Clinton, as a U.S. Senator, strongly supported).

The biggest division among Iraq’s Arabs, however, is not between Sunnis and Shias but between nationalist and sectarian tendencies within both communities. Under the corrupt and autocratic U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Shia sectarians dominated. This resulted in an initially nonviolent Sunni backlash, which was met by severe government repression. This backlash was eventually hijacked by ISIS, which rid the major Sunni-dominated cities of government control.

Whether the new Iraqi leadership will actually be willing, or able given pervasive U.S. influence, to rid the government of Shia hardliners and become more inclusive, pluralistic, and democratic remains to be seen.

Ironically, the eventual demise of ISIS will more likely stem from the group’s own fanaticism than from any action by Baghdad or the U.S. ISIS—which even the Al-Qaeda network believes is too extreme—sees not just those who aren’t Sunni Muslims as “infidels,” but anyone who doesn’t subscribe to its extremist ideology. Since almost everyone under its rule is therefore at risk, the prospects of the Iraqi and Syrian people eventually rising up against ISIS is high. In fact, Syrian nonviolent activists have already been openly defiant of ISIS.  Had the active nonviolent coalition groups in Syria received material or diplomatic support from the beginning, instead of Clinton’s “moderate” rebels, they may have been able to prevent or mitigate the rise of ISIS altogether.

Massive Western military intervention will likely create a backlash that could strengthen political support for the extremists. The United States has been bombing Iraq on and off for nearly a quarter century and things have only gotten worse, for the people of Iraq, the security interests of Iraq’s neighbors and, ultimately, for the United States. Just as Sunni tribal leaders were more effective than either U.S. forces or the Iraqi government in driving out Al-Qaeda from northwestern Iraq in 2007-2008, they may also be the key, along with nonviolent civil society, in ridding their region of ISIS and any other actual or potential threats.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as program director for Middle Eastern Studies.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Progressive.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
April 21, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Diana Johnstone
The Main Issue in the French Presidential Election: National Sovereignty
Paul Street
Donald Trump: Ruling Class President
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Dude, Where’s My War?
Andrew Levine
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em
Paul Atwood
Why Does North Korea Want Nukes?
Robert Hunziker
Trump and Global Warming Destroy Rivers
Vijay Prashad
Turkey, After the Referendum
Binoy Kampmark
Trump, the DOJ and Julian Assange
CJ Hopkins
The President Formerly Known as Hitler
Steve Reyna
Replacing Lady Liberty: Trump and the American Way
Lucy Steigerwald
Stop Suggesting Mandatory National Service as a Fix for America’s Problems
Robert Fisk
It is Not Just Assad Who is “Responsible” for the Rise of ISIS
John Laforge
“Strike Two” Against Canadian Radioactive Waste Dumpsite Proposal
Norman Solomon
The Democratic Party’s Anti-Bernie Elites Have a Huge Stake in Blaming Russia
Andrew Stewart
Can We Finally Get Over Bernie Sanders?
Susan Babbitt
Don’t Raise Liberalism From the Dead (If It is Dead, Which It’s Not)
Uri Avnery
Palestine’s Nelson Mandela
Fred Nagel
It’s “Deep State” Time Again
John Feffer
The Hunger President
Stephen Cooper
Nothing is Fair About Alabama’s “Fair Justice Act”
Jack Swallow
Why Science Should Be Political
Chuck Collins
Congrats, Graduates! Here’s Your Diploma and Debt
Aidan O'Brien
While God Blesses America, Prometheus Protects Syria, Russia and North Korea 
Patrick Hiller
Get Real About Preventing War
David Rosen
Fiction, Fake News and Trump’s Sexual Politics
Evan Jones
Macron of France: Chauncey Gardiner for President!
David Macaray
Adventures in Labor Contract Language
Ron Jacobs
The Music Never Stopped
Kim Scipes
Black Subjugation in America
Sean Stinson
MOAB: More Obama and Bush
Miguel A. Cruz-Díaz
Minute Musings: On Why the United States Should Launch a Tomahawk Strike on Puerto Rico
Tom Clifford
The Return of “Mein Kampf” … in Japan
Todd Larsen
Concerned About Climate Change? Change Where You Bank!
Thomas Hon Wing Polin
Brexit: Britain’s Opening to China?
John Hutchison
Everything Old is New Again: a Brief Retrospectus on Korea and the Cold War
Michael Brenner
The Ghost in the Dream Machine
Yves Engler
The Military Occupation of Haiti
Christopher Brauchli
Guardians of Lies
James Preece
How Labour Can Win the Snap Elections
Cesar Chelala
Preventing Disabilities in the Elderly
Sam Gordon
From We Shall Overcome to Where Have all the Flowers Gone?
Charles Thomson
It’s Still Not Too Late to Deserve Your CBE, Chris Ofili
Louis Proyect
Documentaries That Punch
Charles R. Larson
Review: Vivek Shanbhag’s “Ghachar Ghochar”
David Yearsley
Raiding the Tomb of Lubitsch
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail