Reply to Ralph Leonard: Why I still believe the West must take some responsibilty for the Refugee Crisis and the rise of ISIS

After I wrote my article entitled The West must hold themselves partially responsible for the refugee crisis, my fellow contributor at NOTA Ralph Leonard was quick to tell me there were certain points that he didn’t agree with. No one speaks for NOTA, we don’t all agree on everything, and we don’t have an agenda other than promoting political debate and interaction, particularly amongst young people of the country. With this in mind, Ralph wrote a response detailing why he disagreed with some of my points and how the West shouldn’t be held so accountable. However, I think he and I share more in common on this issue than he realises. Nevertheless, on the specific issues he touched on, he hasn’t changed my mind, and I’ll explain why.
Firstly, Leonard says “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.” He goes on to make the case that Saddam Hussein’s Islamization of the country and expulsion of all secular movements was far more influential in the rise of ISIS than the Iraq war. He explains that the invasion and “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”. While I don’t doubt that this is a factor, I don’t believe it’s the primary factor. Without the war, I don’t think we would have seen the same gun wielding fanatics rising to power we see now. Don’t get me wrong, fanatics might very well have tried to seize power, but they wouldn’t be the battle hardened veterans with the massive military capability (thanks to weapons seized from retreating Western armies) who are taking over Iraq today. Thus, they would have found it more difficult to take power than they actually did. The war gave the Jihadists the battle experience and the platform to fill the vacuum left by Saddam Hussein.
Moreover, the war massively helped ISIS and others with their recruitment drive. Leonard concedes that “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.” This decision would have caused a lot of resentment among the Sunni community in Iraq against Western powers and further championed the Sunni insurgency. Not only this, but a military trained, battle hardened Sunni insurgency. Ralph’s correct when he says “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”. Bremer’s decision thus plays right into the jihadist’s hands. Obviously though, what helps ISIS’s case even more is all the innocent Iraqi blood the West has on its hands. Between 2003 and 2005 alone, 25,000 civilians were killed as a direct consequence of our invasion, while 42,500 civilians were injured. Of those who died, allied forces killed the most (37%) while anti-occupation forces killed 9%, and post-invasion criminal violence killed 36%. More than half of those who died were killed in explosions, and 64% of these deaths were as a result of US-led airstrikes. This support’s the narrative that we (the crusaders) are a part of the conspiracy to destroy the Sunni’s. This is why I believe that our behaviour was more influential and beneficial for the jihadist’s recruitment drive than Saddam Hussein’s actions. Though of course, put it all together and one has the perfect recipe for an ISIS like group to emerge.
In regards to the West’s support of rebels since the Arab spring, Leonard believes “support is weak as they have not provided heavy weaponry to opposition fighters”, thus our support of the rebels cannot be a primary reason for the ongoing instability and violence in the region. I’d contend however that the five 4×4 vehicles with ballistic protection; 20 sets of body armour; four trucks (three 25 tonne, one 20 tonne); six 4×4 SUVs; five non-armoured pick-ups; one recovery vehicle; 130 solar powered batteries; around 400 radios; laptops; VSATs (small satellite systems for data communications) and other such things have helped hugely in the logistical effectiveness of the rebels, if not much in the actual fighting. All of this ‘non-lethal aid’, not to mention the CIA-run training camps in Jordan, is just as essential to the rebels as assault rifles.
Besides, there is evidence to suggest that the US has initiated the supply of heavy weaponry to the rebels. The al-Queada affiliated al-Nusra group posted videos of themselves using M79 and M60 anti-tank weapons. Weapons researcher Eliot Higgins claims that “Neither of these weapons are locally available, either from the black market or looted from the Syrian army because they don’t have them”. Now, The New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia were supplying Syrian rebels with arms bought from Croatia (part of the West). Furthermore the supplying of weapons was prompted by the US, and the CIA played an active role in getting the shipments to the rebels. So, it seems as though the US is using its allies in the Gulf States as a back door in supplying arms to the rebels. Publicly they can deny that they are supplying arms to the rebels, but privately they are simply using Saudi Arabia to do it for them.
Ralph’s criticism of my quotation of Cockburn is not that relevant. I used him to merely illustrate a point; it doesn’t mean I endorse everything he’s ever written. I didn’t use him as evidence for a point, in which case Leonard’s criticism could be justified. Much like if I quote Confucius, Malcom X or Justin Bieber to illustrate a point, it doesn’t mean I agree with everything else they’ve said. And so we move on.
Ralph does not think that “it is exactly true” that Assad kept the jihadists on a short leash when he was powerful. I understand where he’s coming from on this one but I stand by what I said. Assad did have a complex relationship with violent extremist and certainly didn’t go out of his way to destroy them. Indeed, they avoided each other as much as possible and only came into direct conflict when absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, ISIS et al weren’t running riot and doing as they pleased like today. When the Assad regime was strong, the Jihadist groups were careful not to do anything that would be seen as a direct threat to Assad’s monopoly on power. However, since the Arab Spring and the West’s interjection in Syria, we have seen Assad’s apparent imperviousness wilt. This, along with their newly acquired weapons and boosted recruitment campaign, has helped Jihadist groups realise their potential to seize power. As such, it seems quite clear to me that, relatively speaking, Assad did keep these extremists on a short leash.
“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”
This statement is fair enough, and I agree with Ralph. But here is the best illustration that he misunderstands the focus of my article. The point of the article was to show those in Europe who are feeling sorry for themselves that we contributed to the refugee crisis. I don’t deny that Assad and others have behaved disgracefully badly, but people must understand that we don’t come out of this smelling of roses either. Yes, thousands have suffered at the hands of Assad, and thousands have suffered at the hands of jihadists, they are solely responsible for their actions. Yet we have given the jihadists a helping hand with our actions, and Leonard recognises this. The article was not asking who is worse, merely asking that we are humble enough to recognise how our actions have affected lives over there.
Ultimately, I don’t believe Leonard and I are that much at odds in regards to the West’s responsibility in the refugee crisis. He accepts that we do have things to answer for, though focuses more on major players of the region. Regardless of how these players have behaved though, we should stop seeing ourselves as victims and understand how we have contributed to this mess.

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