How state interests stoked radicalism and abandoned the moderates in the opposition.
There is a striking symmetry between the foreign policy agendas of George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the Middle East: they produced similar results in opposite ways—military aggression in Bush’s case and denial of assistance in Obama’s. The symmetry does not stop at the devastation of both the countries affected, namely Iraq and Syria. It also concerns one of the dreadful consequences of this devastation: whereas the Bush-run US invasion of Iraq created the conditions that led to the emergence of the “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI) that al-Qaida proclaimed in 2006, as well as to the expansion of the parent organization across the Arab region, the Obama-adjudicated denial of crucial support to the Syrian opposition created the conditions that allowed the ISI to develop in Syria and mutate into ISIS in 2013. This was followed the year after by the announcement of the “Islamic State” tout court as a successful franchise, opening branches in its turn all over the Arab region and way beyond.
Moderate factions were swiftly eclipsed by more radical elements that were in turn aided, directly or indirectly, by other states.
Robert Ford, who resigned from his position as US ambassador to Syria in February 2014 due to his disagreement with Barack Obama’s Syrian policy, very clearly attributed responsibility for this disastrous course of events to the US president. In an interview on PBS Newshour a few months after his resignation, he even issued a premonitory warning against future attacks on US soil, as was to happen with the ISIS-inspired shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando. Ford maintained that the US was too reticent in lending assistance to the moderate forces in the Syrian opposition who have, he says, “been fighting constantly with arms tied behind their backs, because they don’t have the same resources that either Assad does or the al-Qaida groups in Syria do” and who in Ford’s estimation “frankly, we have much in common with.”
Those moderate factions were swiftly eclipsed by more radical elements that were in turn aided, directly or indirectly, by other states—states that include among their roster Assad’s own regime. Initially his government was confronted with a peaceful uprising led by Coordination Committees (tansiqiyyat) mostly composed of young people sharing the same aspirations for freedom, democracy and social justice that inspired all those who initiated what was called the “Arab Spring” in 2011.
The regime chose to face the peaceful protests of the first months of the uprising with increasing violence, trying at first to deter them from carrying on their struggle and then doing its best to turn it into an armed confrontation, so as to feel free to use the full range of its weapons. In order to push the insurgents to resort to arms in self-defense, and thus confirm its claims and justify a further escalation of its own ruthless violence, the Assad regime relied on the inevitable effect of the murderous escalation of its crackdown, combined with highly cynical measures such as surreptitiously providing weapons to dissidents.
It also did its best to bring about the “self-fulfilling prophecy” that it had intensively propagated from the very beginning of the movement in March 2011—namely, that the uprising was but a “Takfiri” Salafi-jihadist armed conspiracy. Muammar Gaddafi resorted to exactly the same type of lies at the beginning of the Libyan uprising, when he claimed that it was orchestrated by al-Qaida. The main purpose of the fabrication in both cases was to dissuade the West from lending any form of support to the uprising.
In order to promote the rise of Salafi-jihadists within the opposition, the regime went so far as to release from its jails prominent militants belonging to this category.
In order to promote the rise of Salafi-jihadists within the opposition, the regime went so far as to release from its jails prominent militants belonging to this category, several of whom were to become key leaders of various jihadist groups. This happened in the second half of 2011, at a time when the regime was arresting thousands upon thousands of democrats involved in the peaceful protests. Martin Chulov described this process in the Guardian, in one of the best investigative articles written about ISIS.
The story he tells is very revealing as to the metamorphosis of the Syrian uprising: convicted jihadis (some of whom serving lengthy terms for terrorism offenses) were moved from isolation cells in Syria’s infamous Political Security prison, Saydnaya, to Aleppo’s main prison, where they were detained with an influx of university students who had been arrested in the capital for protesting against the Assad regime. According to Chulov, Islamist detainees in Aleppo
soon formed the view that they had been moved to the Aleppo prison for a reason—to instill a harder ideological line into the university students, who back then were at the vanguard of the uprising in Syria’s largest city.
Many of the more than 70 jihadists released in 2011 had previously fought in Iraq (with the Syrian regime’s connivance—during the initial years of the US occupation of Iraq, the Assad regime, true to its Machiavellian character, had indeed allowed Syrian and foreign jihadists to infiltrate into Iraq across its long shared border with Syria. It had also allowed former loyalists of Saddam Hussein to take refuge in Syria and support the Sunni-sectarian insurgency across the border).
As was the case for Iraq, many actors and observers in Washington itself have been warning the White House all along of the calamitous consequences of its course of action—or rather inaction, in Syria’s case.
Washington’s responsibility in this post-2011 turn of events has been similarly confirmed by two key members of the Obama administration, even though they stood on opposite sides of the debate on Syria that split the administration. In the edifying interview she gave to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that
the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad . . . left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled. They were often armed in an indiscriminate way by other forces and we had no skin in the game that really enabled us to prevent this indiscriminate arming.
The second confirmation came from US vice president Joseph Biden who pointed out, during a gaffe-ridden performance at Harvard University, precisely who had endeavored to fill that vacuum. Though his statement was intended to serve as a rebuttal of Hillary Clinton’s criticism, it in fact confirmed her main argument:
[O]ur allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends . . . the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni–Shia war. What did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad—except that the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world. . . .
Biden’s statement was extensively quoted by jubilant supporters of the Assad regime as confirmation of what was hardly a secret: the fact that Turkey and the oil monarchies were backing Sunni fundamentalist forces among the Syrian insurgents. In doing so, those enthusiastic supporters overlooked the fact that the vice president’s statement was above all a refutation of what they themselves had been claiming since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, namely that it is essentially a US-backed insurgency against a Syrian regime deemed “patriotic” (watani) by its Arab fans, or “anti-imperialist” by its Western “left” supporters.
These Assad enthusiasts ignored the obvious truth that the situation on the ground would have been completely different had the US been seriously backing the opposition, as they claimed. The regime would not have been able to carry on slaughtering the population and destroying the country, as it managed to do owing to its monopoly of air power and heavy weaponry, supplied by Russia and Iran.
It is actually the lack of US support to the mainstream Syrian opposition from the early stage of the civil war that allowed the Syrian situation to end up being caught between the hammer of an increasingly murderous regime backed by increasingly sectarian Lebanese and Iraqi Shi‘i fundamentalist proxies of Iran, and the anvil of increasingly sectarian and fanatical Sunni-fundamentalist anti-Assad regime forces. Indeed, here lies the Obama administration’s primary responsibility in producing the worst of all possible outcomes—not only for the Syrian people, but even for US imperialism itself. Similarly, the Bush administration’s inept mishandling of Iraq led to what is undoubtedly the biggest strategic failure in US imperial history until now, one that is combined, alas, with an ongoing human tragedy among the worst since the end of the Cold War. Yet neither debacle is cause for celebration from a truly humanist anti-imperialist perspective: there can be no schadenfreude when disastrous failures of imperialism happen at the cost of terrible human tragedies.
This post was adapted from Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising by Gilbert Achcar.
Stanford University Press blog
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