ISIS is defeated but the jihadism the west has engendered is not
Syrian Kurdish fighters, supported by the US air force, will soon end the caliphate that, at its height only a few years ago, controlled a third of Syria and Iraq. Isis is about to lose Baghouz, its last enclave in the Euphrates valley, on Syria’s border with Iraq. The jihadist group’s survivors have melted away into the empty wastes, reverting to terror and suicide attacks, while some of their foreign fighters may bring the war back home.
The priority for the world’s security services will be to avert a new rash of terror attacks of the type that have scarred Paris and Nice, Brussels and Berlin, London and Manchester, Istanbul and Ankara.
But now that the territorial caliphate that menaced the region is at an end, there is urgent need for reflection on how to change the western foreign policy that has reliably engendered jihadism. It is only a matter of time before a more virulent strain emerges if the west keeps blundering about in the Middle East.
Modern jihadism got its first leg-up at the end of the cold war, as a western auxiliary force. It was the US-backed mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s that laid the path for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s unholy war, and the attacks of 9/11. But in this century, the record of western blundering has been prodigious — and without the excuse of the cold war.
The US-led invasion of Iraq, misbegotten and mendaciously sold in America and Britain, is the most staggeringly obtuse example. The devastation visited upon a country already made prostrate by wars, sanctions and tyranny did not so much shock and awe as offer a pitilessly public spectacle of the limits to US power.
The invasion and occupation upended the region, casually catapulting the Shia minority within Islam (a majority in Iraq) to power and leading to a sectarian bloodbath in Iraq that is still not over. While spreading messianic Sunni jihadism, it also strengthened the Shia theocrats and militiamen who run Iran, the main beneficiary of the war. The future of the region is hostage to proxy wars sponsored by Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, and to the stand-off between Israel and Iran that has been exacerbated by US president Donald Trump.
Much of this was predictable and predicted. The Iraq war was always a reckless roll of the regional dice. Shreds of honour were salvaged by the US-led military “surge” of 2007-2009, which, in alliance with Sunni tribal militia, suppressed the Iraqi chapter of al-Qaeda — the precursor to Isis.
Yet Isis would reincarnate, emerging from the ashes of neighbouring Syria and back into Iraq to create the cross-border caliphate in 2014. It is essential to remember that the jihadis achieved that with, at the outset, barely a tenth of the numbers they can still count on now after the group’s territorial defeat. They have already restarted attacks in Anbar and Nineveh in west and central Iraq, where they emerged in 2003 and regrouped in 2014.
This is not random or an inexpungible peculiarity of the region. It is a result of western policies — or the lack of them, in the case of Syria, whose pitiless war has now gone on for eight years.
William Burns, a distinguished US diplomat who helped former president Barack Obama reach the 2015 nuclear accord Iran signed with six world powers, remarked in his recent memoir that the Obama White House “regularly paired maximalist ends with minimalist means”. He was referring to Mr Obama’s fateful failure in 2013 to fulfil his pledge to punish Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime for using Sarin nerve gas against civilians in rebel enclaves. But there was a bigger gap between ends and means.
In a lethal cocktail of adventurism and hesitancy, the US and Europe cheered on Syria’s mainly Sunni rebels against the Assad regime, promising — though not giving them — the means to bring it down. Instead, they subcontracted the arming of the opposition to allies such as Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, tilting the rebel camp towards Islamist extremism. This too was predictable. It helped turn Syria into a magnet for jihadi extremists.
While Mr Obama fretted about Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria was turning into a copy of both. The prattle in Washington about the need to avoid “unintended consequences” in Syria was nerve-grating — not least for a once-mainstream Sunni rebellion that will forever feel betrayed.
Now, Mr Trump wants to declare victory against Isis and leave Syria. Reckless western interventions have not worked but nor have ill-considered withdrawals, including from Libya and Iraq. There are undeniably difficult choices here. Intervening without fully committing to rebuilding a state (as in Libya and Iraq) has not worked. But in Syria, the US and its allies dabbled dangerously and are now thinking about reconstruction, with the Assad tyranny still in place.
In Deraa, the southern city where the conflict began eight years ago, Mr Assad has marked the occasion by erecting a new bronze statue of his father, the late Hafez al-Assad, to replace the one toppled by the rebels at the start of the war. That probably reflects the regime’s view of reconstruction: full restoration of Assad hegemony — another gift to jihadism.
PUKmedia / David Gardner - FinancialTimes