My colleague at NOTA Network Olly Tozer wrote a piece in which he argues that the West should take some responsibility in helping to create the current refugee crisis that is engulfing Europe. My response is borne out of our discussion on Facebook on this topic and it will be based more on technicalities and nuances rather than a direct rebuttal because I do feel also that the west has some responsibility for the current mess in Syria though we arrive at this conclusion from different angles.
First of all without getting into a debate on The Iraq War (which I realise it is a side point), I think he and others really overestimate the effect of the invasion of Iraq in relation to the rise of ISIS and the Syrian civil war. Certain things related to the invasion did help ISIS rise such as the decision by Paul Bremer to sack the entire Iraqi army (mainly Sunni Arab based). This helped create the basis for the Sunni insurgency which would mutate into ISIS later. However, people often miss out bigger factors such as how during the 90s Saddam Hussein effectively turned Iraq into an Islamist state. For example he initiated The Faith Campaign which was meant to increase the role of Islam in the public and political life of Iraq. It gave more freedom and funding to Islamist groups and it introduced certain Sharia ordinances and punishments such as beheadings for prostitution. He funded Jihadist groups like Islamic Jihad in West Bank and Ansar al-Islam in Kurdistan. He created a paramilitary group called the Fedayeen Saddam to enforce this new ideology and if you look at the propaganda videos they look very similar to ISIS. This is one reason why many of ISIS commanders have links back to Saddam’s regime and were “Islamized” during the 90s. The broader the point is that once Saddam’s regime went (which was inevitable invasion or no invasion), I’m pretty sure at least something similar to ISIS would’ve been created to protect Sunni Arab power vs the aspirations of the Shia majority.
In our discussion on Facebook Sam (my other colleague) says there is a case to say that the west’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 created the opportunity for extremism and sectarianism to become more prominent. I don’t necessarily disagree that Saddam’s overthrow did obviously create a political vacuum that had to filled but my argument is this would’ve happened whenever Saddam’s regime ended with an invasion or without an invasion from the West. Saddam Hussein’s regime at the time was quite weak and slowly disintegrating and perhaps was one uprising away from being toppled. When you have had over 100 years of constant foreign interference in your internal affairs and 40 years of divide and rule by the Sunni Baa’th party with Saddam utterly guttering the political culture of Iraq by wiping a lot of secular opposition thereby making Islamist parties like the pro-Iran Dawah party the most “credible” opposition in addition to Saddam himself “Salafizing” the Sunnis in the 90s, then don’t be surprised if there is some after effects after the regime is gone. I am willing to bet money that if Saddam’s regime had survived until the Arab spring it is likely that we would’ve seen what we now see in Syria but much more intense because the repression, extremism and sectarianism was on another scale to that of Syria. That’s Iraq done with.
Secondly, he says “the west’s reaction to the Arab Spring has massively contributed to the refugee crisis, particularly in regards to Syria. Our support of the Syrian rebels has done nothing but prolong the violence and instability, thus developing an environment in which ISIS can flourish. Initially, the US, UK and others supported the “Free Syria Army” (FSA), which also involved supporting splinter groups looking to topple the Assad regime.”
So the argument we have here is the west has contributed to the violence that created the refugees by supporting the rebels which include the “Free Syrian Army”. I love how Olly puts Free Syrian Army in quotes as though he was being ironic about them. I feel Olly is implying since he later quotes Patrick Cockburn (don’t worry I’ll get to him) that there is little distinction between the secular nationalist rebels and the Islamist rebels. I would contend that the reason why there may seem to be little distinction between these groups is the secular & moderate rebel groups like FSA + YPG/YPJ have been out gunned and out supported by the Islamist groups which means the Islamists would dominate the public face of the opposition to Assad.
In addition, Olly claims the US + UK has “supported” the FSA but the evidence he gives is the setting up of training camps in Jordan and giving them £8 million in non-lethal aid. However this shows the support is weak as they have not provided heavy weaponry to opposition fighters nor established a no-fly zone in Syria, let alone attacked Assad directly. If the west really was truly serious about overthrowing Assad then more pro-active actions would’ve been taken such as the examples I provide.
I would also be careful of quoting Patrick Cockburn who has been exposed as a distorter of the truth , and is practically a shill for the Assad regime under the pretence of “realism” (see here where does his upmost best to endorse Assad, while seeming not to.). He’s also written articles slandering the Kurds accusing them of ethnic cleansing of Arabs and Turkemen refugees with virtually no evidence at all.
His argument is also basically based on the idea that all Syrian rebels are essentially Salafi jihadists little better than ISIS and that Sunni sectarianism is their key driver and therefore all non-Sunnis like Alawis and Christians rally around Assad for protection. This is just flat out not true.
Cockburn also ignores the existence of non-jihadist rebel groups, who do gain ground on some fronts but as I said before are under supported and are losing their influence. He erases the support of sizable numbers of Alawites and other minorities for rebel groups and for the Kurds. Additionally, his narrative ignores the existence of resilient Kurdish resistance to both Assad and jihadism such as YPG/YPJ, as well strengthening co-operation between the Kurds and Sunni rebel groups. See here for example.
I feel that Assad supported by Putin and Iran have done more to escalate the violence which creates refugees than the rebels especially since Assad started the war by massacring the protestors calling for democracy and has continued his indiscriminate slaughter by barrel bombing civilians which has created more refugees than anything ISIS or other non-state actors has done in Syria. One of the reasons why ISIS and other jihadis may seem popular is because their narrative is more attractive. They portray themselves as the vanguard of Sunni Islam and propagate this weird idea that there is a Crusader (USA)-Zionist (Jews)-Rafidah (Shia) conspiracy to destroy Sunni Islam. So when you have Assad barrel bombing civillians and Sabiha death squads killing Sunni children and raping Sunni women and nothing is done about it, it gives validation to the ISIS narrative amongst some Syrians where they would reluctantly ally with them for “protection”.
Next up Olly claims “at least Assad kept the Jihadists on a short leash”. I do not think this is exactly true, Assad has had a very complex relationship with Jihadists. For example he allowed Jihadists to travel through Syria into Iraq to fight American troops and sabotage a potential Iraqi democracy. We know at the start of the Syrian revolution Assad released jihadists from its prisons as part of his “amnesty” while it was killing off secular and peaceful activists and protestors. This was a deliberate tactic done by Assad in order to divide and discredit the opposition by increasing the likelihood it would be more associated with Islamism/Jihadism and confessional dividion rather than secular nationalism and a united front against dictatorship.There’s also been reports of Assad doing secret oil deals with Al-Qaeda and ISIS often out of neccessity.
In fact Assad has done more to build up ISIS than to defeat it. Terrorism expert Peter Neumann pretty much lays out the story in detail of how and why this was done here. There is additional data obtained by NBC News which supports the argument that ISIS and Assad deliberately dance around each other and would rather fight off smaller opposition groups before a final showdown. For instance:
“Around 64 percent of verifiable ISIS attacks in Syria this year targeted other non-state groups, an analysis of the IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center’s (JTIC) database showed. Just 13 percent of the militants’ attacks during the same period — the year through Nov. 21 — targeted Syrian security forces. That’s a stark contrast to the Sunni extremist group’s operations in Iraq, where more than half of ISIS attacks (54 percent) were aimed at security forces.”
It also says:
“JTIC’s data shows that his counterterrorism operations — more than two-thirds of which were airstrikes — skew heavily towards groups whose names aren’t ISIS. Of 982 counterterrorism operations for the year up through Nov. 21, just 6 percent directly targeted ISIS“.
This clearly shows Assad is very selective about when he fights ISIS, he only fights them when it is unavoidable.
There is a mutual benefit for both parties engaging in this temporary tacit alliance. For ISIS it allows them to kill off moderate competition amongst the opposition such as the FSA and even dominate the other Islamist rebel groups. While for Assad ISIS is a valuable asset as they can devalue and paralyse the opposition so that he can achieve his strategic goal of forcing the world to choose between Damascus and the Salafi Jihadists based in Raqqa.
I’m not saying Assad and ISIS are best buddies of course they are hostile and they would fight each other for power if it really had to come to it. However it is wrong to say that ISIS and Assad are arch enemies or that’s Assad always suppressed Jihadists. What is true is sometimes Assad will ally with Jihadists when it suits his strategic interests and will fight them when it threatens his power or when he is unable to control them to his advantage.
Don’t get me wrong I am not uncritical of the west but more for having a non-policy rather than doing too much. They have not publicly opposed Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states active support for reactionary theocratic rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahar Al-Sham and The Islamic Front. They have also not opposed Turkey’s very lax approach in terms of making sure ISIS recruits don’t have easy access to Syria through the Turkish border. The West has also been pretty mute on Turkey’s recent bombings on Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan & Syrian Kurdistan thereby weakening groups like YPG/YPJ who are very effective in fighting ISIS and controlled the large liberated zone of Rojova in Northern Syria.
Then we have the Obama administration’s position on Syria which has been one of reluctance. Although publicly Obama has said Assad should go but this hard rhetoric has not been translated into actions. The best instance of this would be the infamous “red line” debacle where Obama failed to act after the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta on 21 August 2013. Part of the reason for this is understandable scepticism from Congress and the American electorate for the United States to get involved in another Middle Eastern adventure which has made Obama weary of directly intervening in Syria against Assad.
I would also argue that there could’ve some sensible defensive measures taken that could’ve reduced the damage done to civilians such as creating an international buffer/safe/no fly zone and possibly giving the FSA some heavy weaponry so that innocent civilians wouldn’t fear being barrel bombed by Assad’s air force and the FSA would at least have a chance of getting closer to victory against Assad.
Ultimately we don’t disagree that the west does have responsibility in allowing Syria to decay into this Hobbesian state (if you can even call it a state anymore) but we come from this in different angles. Olly sees western responsibility in terms of them getting too involved in the war by backing and arming the rebels which to him allowed ISIS to rise to prominence and wreak havoc in Syria and Iraq. For me it’s more about the west not taking sensible actions that could’ve empowered moderate opposition to Assad and reducing the violence to civillians. I’m saying these solutions would’ve been perfect or that they would even solve the problem of Assad and ISIS or even reduce the amount of refugees to zero but they would’ve saved civillian lives reduced destruction and therefore reduce refugees. That’s a topic for another day.