The arrival of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) onto the global stage in the summer of 2014 with its invasion of northern Iraq, leading to the group’s declaration of an Islamic caliphate from eastern Syria and across a now non-existent Syrian-Iraqi border, induced panic not only in the region but throughout the world.
Parallels between ISIS and the Khmer Rouge
Their success and sudden growth was and continues to be the sort of crisis that forces us to confront the truth that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. In this regard, we cannot avoid comparisons and similarities between Syria/Iraq today and Cambodia in the 1970s, when similar conditions of chaos and carnage, inflicted on the people of Cambodia as a result of the extension of the war in Vietnam by the United States with a mass bombing campaign that many consider to have been an act of genocide, led to the country’s takeover by the Khmer Rouge.
In 1973 the US dropped more bombs on Cambodia in just a few weeks than it dropped on Japan in the Second World War. This small country across the Republic of Vietnam’s western border, with in 1973 a population of between 7-8 million people, found itself on the receiving end of the equivalent of five Hiroshimas. The number of people killed by the US bombing campaign has never been verified, but it’s thought to have been in the region of 500,000. It was a crime against humanity to rank with any since the Second World War.
The Khmer Rouge at the time was a marginal Maoist cult in Cambodia. Led by Pol Pot, a former Buddhist monk, they had no base of support to speak of and their influence was near non existent. The mass bombing of the country, the destruction and chaos it wrought, changed that.
By 1975 this death cult had managed to take over the country, whereupon they immediately embarked upon one of the most brutal and barbaric campaigns of genocidal violence the world has seen. With the objective of taking the country back to ‘year zero’, an agrarian pure communist society, they forcibly depopulated Cambodian cities and towns, sending people into the country to work on the land in communes. In the process thousands died from disease and starvation, others were worked to death, while thousands more were tortured and executed. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, people who’d been educated, Buddhist monks, non Cambodians, all were slaughtered in the Khmer Rouge’s campaign to purify the country of anything which did not conform to their twisted worldview. It gave rise to the creation of a network of slave labour camps and torture centres throughout the country, in which brutality knew no bounds. By the end of their reign a third of Cambodia’s population had perished. When considering it now it reminds us of Hannah Arendt’s timeless words, vis-à-vis the Holocaust, on the “banality of evil.”
The brutal rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge lasted until 1979, when the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam entered the country to liberate its people. Washington’s response to Cambodia’s liberation was the imposition of economic sanctions on its new government – an an act of nauseating cruelty against a beleaguered people whose only crime was that they’d been liberated by a country, Vietnam, that had refused to accept its colonial status and thrown off the yoke of US imperialism.
Growth of ISIS due to conditions created by the West
In 2015 the parallels between Cambodia and the Middle East are undeniable. The conditions, as mentioned, out of which ISIS has emerged and proliferated were created by the West’s destabilising presence in the region, with the objective of controlling the huge natural resources located there. The war in Iraq in 2003 devastated the country and opened up its sectarian fissures, while the exploitation of the Arab Spring in 2011 to topple Gaddafi led directly to the eruption of extremism and, along with it, Libya’s descent into lawlessness and fragmentation. After Libya came Syria, where currently ISIS constitutes the dominant faction within an opposition largely made up at this juncture of thousands of foreign extremists – people who hold to a similar barbaric and anti-human ideology that characterised the Khmer Rouge. They are people with no political programme that can be negotiated with, offering the region nothing apart from an abyss of sectarian violence and bloodletting, which is why their defeat and destruction must be treated as non negotiable.
But, alarmingly, the destruction of ISIS shows no evidence of taking place anytime soon. If anything, the group has increased its strength and scope in recent weeks, despite the US-led airstrikes that were introduced with the stated objective of degrading their power and stemming their advance.
Danger of lapsing into conspiracy theory on growth of ISIS
Here, however, we need to be careful. Some on the left are beginning to assert that the lack of vigour on the part of the US and its allies in resisting ISIS is exactly as intended – i.e. part of an imperialist plot to help establish a Sunni caliphate to destroy Assad, Hezbollah, and undermine and weaken Iran. In support of this passages from a recently publicised 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency document are being cited, specifically: “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.”
The document does not call for a “Salafist principality,” rather it predicts that one could emerge as a consequence of the rise of Salafist influence within the opposition forces fighting the Assad regime.
Weakened state of Washington after Iraq and Afghanistan
The key to understanding the phenomenon of ISIS has to start with the an appreciation of the weakened state of Washington when it comes to its ability to enforce its writ across the globe compared to 2003. The emergence of Russia as a counterweight to Western hegemony, along with China’s increasing global economic footprint, and with it the assertion of territorial claims in the South and East China Seas, has combined with the blowback from the failed occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq to leave the US less confident of its power and strength to act unilaterally.
Though undoubtedly a positive development, this has left a power vaccum in the Middle East that has been filled by Washington’s regional allies – Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) – who’ve demonstrated a growing willingness to flout Washington in pursuit of their own agendas. The ongoing attempt by Israel and the Saudis to undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to negotiate a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions is proof in this regard, as is the arming and funding and logistical support being given to a third force in Syria in the shape of Jaysh al-Islam by Turkey and the Saudis, whom it’s been reported have recently agreed a common strategy in their ongoing efforts to topple Assad.
Regional agendas of Saudis and Turkey
For the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies, this is part of a Sunni sectarian agenda against what they consider is growing Shia influence, while Erdogan in Ankara is known to have been committed to a robust foreign policy known as neo-Ottomanism, in which Turkey would assert itself not only as bridge between East and West, but as a major regional power, playing a key role in shaping the Middle East. This vision, however, has been contested internally, culminating in the recent electoral reverse suffered by Erdogan’s AKP.
The third force of choice in Washington has always been, of course, the Free Syrian Army, the so-called moderate rebels. But in the context of a conflict that, if it were to end in victory for the opposition, would inexorably see Syria turned into a graveyard for minorities, Muslim and non Muslim alike, support for the so-called moderates has only helped advance the cause of fanaticism and extremism, rather than stem it.
ISIS now a global problem
What is clear at this point is that ISIS is not just Syria’s or Iraq’s problem. It has morphed into a problem for the whole region, and by extension the world. Every success ISIS enjoys attracts more support from disaffected young Muslims in the West and elsehwere, and it is now viewed as a competitor with its former backers in Riyadh when it comes to who commands the most influence and moral authority over the Sunni umma. In other words Wahhabism, legitimised by the Washington and its allies in their close and reprehensible relationship with the Saudis, has given birth to a bastard child in the shape of the Middle East’s version of the Khmer Rouge.
Just as with Southeast Asia in the 1970s, in 2015 the world is suffering at the hands of men in expensive suits, sitting in Western capitals, who view the world as a chessboard – with countries and peoples reduced to chess pieces on that board to be moved around and removed at their whim and fancy.
John Wight is the author of a politically incorrect and irreverent Hollywood memoir – Dreams That Die – published by Zero Books. He’s also written five novels, which are available as Kindle eBooks. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnWight1